Born Afraid

This week I began a new chapter in my life. After 23 years I am officially unemployed. Before I jump back into the world of employment, I am going to take a couple of months to catch-up on sleep, read books slowly, and start the process of unpacking the past two decades. Yesterday I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehishi Coates. The book is written as a letter to the author’s son, a young African American boy. It is a work filled with advice, deep reflection, and personal revelation. It is Coates’ attempt to unpack the world and culture that his son was born into. To recommend it as a must read would be an understatement. Coates’ style of writing draws the reader in in and allows us to see, feel, and begin to experience the word through his eyes, an African American man.

Part way through Coates shares the story of a friend who was gunned down by a police officer. Coates reflects that “I knew Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.”

This statement shook me to the core. Not because it was a new thought, but because it was dragged off the back-burner of my life again.

One of my best friends came to Denver in 1965. He ended up on the Westside at the Denver Inner City Parish. His goal was to fix poverty in 2-3 years and then move on to some other city and fix poverty there. Three years turned into 50 years. There were changes, but it was also clear that after 50 years poverty was still a reality.

In my first week at DOOR I was confronted directly about being another white man coming to the city to save it. For 23 years I worked to overcome my stereotypes and those of staff and participants. Yet here I am in 2017 and persons of color, particularly my African American brother and sisters, still live in a world where their skin color is the primary thing that defines who they are and not the content of their character.

I am not aware of any simple or easy way to wrap this up. Part of the answer has something to do with confronting the racism in our individual souls. Change also has to happen at a system-wide level. This kind of change will not come easily. It means recognizing and confronting systems of power that value white lives more than black lives. It means moving beyond “All Lives Matter” to the real issue – “Black Lives Matter.”

Hopes and Dreams

During a recent conversation I was asked to share my thoughts about the future of the church. In a moment of personal clarity I suggested the issue was no longer about me or my preferences, rather I wanted a church that my children would attend, invest in, and support. I suspect that this kind of church will be very different from what we have now. Last week I finished reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, an American Slave. I have a bad habit of skipping the appendix when I read. On this occasion I was on a plane and still had an hour of flight time left, so I continued past the official end of the book to the appendix where Douglass reflected on the expressions of Christianity he witnessed.

On April 28, 1845, Douglass wrote:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slave holding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. (Appendix)

Although these words were written well over 150 years ago, they still ring true today. There are still significant segments of the church that have chosen the Christianity of this land over the Christianity of Christ. It is at this juncture where I find hope. There are many young adults (my children included) who choose not to participate in church because of its close relationship with “this land.”

The church of this land gets to choose who participates and who has access. It gets to choose country first and God second.

The church of Christ must by definition take seriously the words of Christ. More often than not these words will put people of faith in conflict with government, popular culture, and comfortable Christianity. The church of Christ must choose our common humanity over national, cultural, and class divisions. Welcoming the neighbor trumps walls of separation.

In Douglass’s day the church of power went to great lengths to justify slavery. Today there are too many who claim faith and yet find reasons to exclude. The church of Christ is motivated by the idea that all of us share one unifying trait – we are created in the very image and likeness of God.

Hypocrisy

This past week I have been reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. His story is a gripping and powerful indictment of slavery in America. What has struck me over and over was the deep collusion between Christianity and slavery. Douglass relates a story about the conversion of his master:

“In August 1832, my Master attended a Methodist Camp meeting… and there experienced religion. I indulged in the faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves…If it had any effect on his character, it made more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believed him to be a much worse man after his conversion than before.” (Chapter 9)

Douglass also describes two pastors who prayed, held revivals, and felt it their duty to occasionally whip a slave to remind him of his master’s authority. One minister went so far as to whip slaves in advance of deserving it. These were people of faith, Christians, the same label I claim for myself. What was it that allowed people of faith, Christians, to participate in and justify slavery?

During slavery Christians became very good at molding scripture to fit their particular world view. They specialized in using passages like Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22, and 1 Peter 2:18-20. All of these passages say something about salves obeying their masters. These scriptures, when taken out of context, allowed white Christian slave owners to justify and maintain a system that denied the humanity and dignity of black people.

In my more optimistic moments I would like to think that we have grown beyond the narrow interpretations of the Bible that create spaces to deny the humanity of others. It is true that the vast majority of people who claim the label “Christian” would agree that slavery in all its forms is simply wrong and unbiblical.

I work with young adults and am constantly encouraging them to connect to a local church. By far the number one pushback I hear is that “the church is full of hypocrites.” They are tired of the Americanized versions of Christianity that seem to reduce everything to abortion and homosexuality. Once again, people of faith are molding the Bible into their particular worldview.

What about Jesus’ words to love our neighbor, including our gay and Muslim brothers and sisters? Or Jesus’ thoughts about welcoming the stranger, including those who have come to our country and do not have the correct paperwork? Or Jesus’ words about serving two masters? Is it even possible to serve both God and country?

Taking the words of Jesus seriously is never simple. We do not all see, interpret, or understand in the same way. Our family, cultural, and national backgrounds shape our view of God. It is not possible to understand God apart from what we all bring to the table.

A number of years ago a friend suggested to me that the only way to get past hypocrisy was to hold on to the possibility that I might be wrong and to hold tight to the idea that everyone is created in the very image and likeness of God.

BMWs, Whiteness, and my Christian Faith

As a young seminary student in the late 1980’s I interned at the amazing United Methodist Church in Clovis, California. For three years this church made space for me, treated both my wife and me like family, and allowed me to grow as a leader. One of my first assignments was to lead the young married bible study. We met every Thursday in one couple’s home. One of our fist decisions was to choose a book or theme. After much discussion we all agreed that we would work through Tony Campolo’s book 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch. The study was going along well until week seven when we explored the chapter “You Cannot be a Christian and Own a BMW.” At least one of the couples in our group owned a BMW. It would be fair to say that the evening did not go well for me. I have reflected on that evening often over the years. If I were to lead that study again, I wouldn’t focus on BMWs. For Campolo, the BMW was a metaphor for a much larger concern. As Christians, how and where we spend our money has both moral and ethical implications. The neighborhood you choose to live in, the size of house you purchase, where you invest your retirement money, and, yes, the car you choose to purchase are not morally neutral choices.

Last Sunday I experienced another BMW type of moment. During the adult Sunday school hour our speaker asserted that “you cannot be white and a Christian.” At this point it is important to let you know that 90% of the folks in the room were white. After the initial shock wore off he went on to say, “If all you are doing is focusing on the color of your skin then you are missing my point.” Just like Campolo’s BMWs this speaker, was using “white” in a metaphorical way.

White Christianity is a faith that allows a person to talk about making things great again. It is a lens that provides a rose colored perspective of our shared history. It is choosing not to see how white Christian faith and slavery, Jim Crow, sexism, homophobia, and segregation are all part of “great again.”

White Christianity allows Christian politicians to advocate for carpet bombing the enemy while claiming to be pro-life.

White Christianity has the power to marginalize and dilute movements, by responding to Black Lives Matter with slogans like All Lives Matter.

White Christianity creates a space to claim the authority and inerrancy of scripture until it becomes inconvenient. Turning the other cheek and welcoming the stranger don’t apply when the stranger is Muslim, gay, a Democrat, or a Republican.

White Christianity is not so much about the color of my skin as it is about the power I choose to access and weld because of my skin color. The hard work that those of us with access to white Christianity are tasked with is to unburden ourselves from the need to reshape Christianity into a faith that only serves our needs. One of the more powerful ideas within Christianity is surrender. As we do the hard work of surrendering white Christianity and leaving it at the foot of the cross, something Christ-like will take its place.

Questions and Answers

One of the great privileges of my job is walking with young adults as they process their faith, discern their vocation, and explore what it means to live a life of integrity. As you might expect, this journey is filled with questions. What do I do with the Christian faith that was given to me by my family? Is there a church or faith community that will accept me as I am? Is it possible for the Christian faith connect with my politics and social convictions? What do I do with politicians who came to be pro-life and then advocate for carpet bombing anyone who is declared an enemy? Aren’t issues like climate change, food-justice, police brutality, the school to prison pipeline, immigration reform, and race deeply Christian issues? If so, why don’t we hear about this from the pulpit? This is just a small sampling of the questions my staff and I face on a regular basis. There is never an easy or simple response. I worry that too many church leaders have spent too much time trying to simplify Christianity. As a church leader I understand this temptation. I am not sure if Christianity was ever meant to be simple.

As humans we are complex. We have the capacity to be brilliant and foolish in the same moment. We know how to sacrifice and how to be selfish simultaneously. We can open our pocketbooks for starving children around the world and callously watch the evening news as children died while trying to escape terror and war. We know how to forgive and hold grudges in the same moment.

When young adults come to me complaining about the church, people of faith, and the hypocrisy, I don’t move into defensive mode. When I am confronted by hypocrisy in my life it can either make me angry and resentful or become space of growth.

If the church is going to survive and play an important role for the emerging generation of adults it will have to confront its own hypocrisy. If done well the church will survive and remain a critical voice in a culture looking for moral leadership.

Gun Violence, Part 2

Last week I wrote a blog about the violence that seems to be erupting in my Denver neighborhood. This past Sunday, the Chicago neighborhood where my eldest son lives exploded in gunfire. Of the six people who were shot, two died and four were taken to the hospital.  

I have spent much of the past two weeks thinking about violence, safety, the DOOR Network, and my Christian faith. DOOR is an urban program. We are committed to showing the face of God in the city. Most of the time we do a good job of helping visitors see and experience the amazing things that God is doing in the city.

These past two weeks have tested (and continue to test) my commitment to God’s presence in the city. Giving witness to the violence, hate, and frustration that seems to explode on the streets of our urban neighborhoods leads to some deep soul searching. Where is God? Or, better yet, where are the people of God? What does it mean to be people of faith in the midst of violence? What did Jesus mean when he talked about people of faith being salt and light?

This past weekend I had the privilege of participating in the ordination service of our Atlanta City Director. Part of the service included a reading from Matthew 28:16-20:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The call of people of faith is to go and be present in all places and all conditions. This presence includes the call to be agents of transformation, or, to use the biblical language, to make disciples. The Christian faith has never been about passive observation. It has always been a faith that calls us to direct involvement.

So to hear my son and his roommates talk about staying, learning from, and walking alongside their neighbors was a conflicted moment for me. I felt both pride and terror.

The Mixing

Polite people don’t mix faith and politics, or so we have been told. I understand why so many people feel this way. Both of these subjects are deeply personal. For the most part we like to believe what we believe and have no interest in changing our positions. That said, we also believe that everyone who doesn’t agree with us is wrong, and that eventually they will see the light. My job for the past two decades has been about asking people to think about both their faith and their politics. DOOR invites folks to come and spend anywhere from a day to a year with us. During their stay we ask people to reflect on their deeply held faith and ask if it can extend beyond a conviction to a practical response. As soon as we start talking about how to live out faith, political perspectives begin to surface.

It is not possible to move towards a public faith- the kind of faith that is committed to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner; all the stuff that Jesus talked about in Matthew 25- without talking about politics.

For example, take feeding the hungry. We have DOOR participants work in soup kitchens. If you spend enough time at a soup kitchen, eventually it becomes apparent that these ministries serve an interesting cross-section of people, not just the homeless or folks who are looking for a free ride. There are families, the working poor, children, and young adults. Eventually you have to ask why people need a soup kitchen. In time this leads to conversations about affordable housing, fair wages, education, and access to health care. All political topics.

I am no longer sure that it is even appropriate to separate our faith and politics. As Christians we hold to this unique concept that all human beings are created in the very image and likeness of God. For this reason alone everyone has worth. There is also a sense in which people of faith, are call to care for all humans.

Maybe we need to flip the language a bit. Instead of dividing the conversation between faith and politics, we should start thinking about our interactions with other people as a human issue. Any faith or political perspective that actively dehumanizes the other should be considered wrong.

This alone will not solve everything. Disagreement is part of what it means to be human. However, starting discussions with the assumption that we all have worth has potential to create a space for vigorous, yet civil, discussions.

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I'm found, Was blind, but now I see.

I am not the biggest fan of Christian music, but this song always manages to stir my soul at a deep level. I like the idea of Amazing Grace. Or to put it more honestly, I need Amazing Grace in my life. I half-jokingly shared with a co-worker that I start and end every day with, “I sorry, please forgive me.” If there was ever an award for offending people I think it would go to me. What really gets me is that I am not terribly intentional or pre-meditated about offending others, this ability just seems to come naturally. I wish I could describe how many evenings I go to bed desiring a do-over for the day or week. That is not how life works. So I find myself in constant need of forgiveness and grace.

Lately I have been challenged to think about Amazing Grace as it applies to others, particularly when someone has hurt me. I know that I am a wretch and I need a God who finds me and heals me from my blindness. So why is it that I have such a tough time dealing with the wretchedness, lostness, and blindness of others?

There is a strange hypocrisy that allows for grace in my life and demands perfection in the lives of others. The honest truth is that I do not like being hurt or disappointed by others.

According to the church calendar we are in the season of Lent, a time of repentance, fasting, and preparation for Easter. It is not uncommon for people to give up something during Lent. This year I want to give up my need to judge and condemn others. I want to find ways to make Amazing Grace accessible even to those who have hurt me.

Maybe this is the point of Easter and of the Christian faith – forgiving and loving those who have hurt us deeply.

My Son’s Faith

As a parent one of my greatest desires is for my children to become thoughtful adults. I want them to have a strong faith, a faith they can own for themselves, and a faith that will help them navigate life’s obstacles. Last week my youngest son called me. He had a theological question. For those of you who do not know me well I am a self-described theological nerd. So being asked to help my son process a theological question sent my heart aflutter!

He was writing a response to someone’s statement about Ephesians 5:22 where Paul says, “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” According to his fellow classmate this verse was clear proof that the church should reject the temptation to allow women to be leaders in the church or family.

We talked for about 30 minutes. Then he said, “Dad, give me some time to think a write.” Here is his response:

I think the relationship between Christ and the church is a relationship about mutuality. Christ is always inviting people to himself. The choice to follow is always on the individual. To assume “authority” means dictatorship is a misunderstanding of both Paul and Jesus. Jesus is not the churches dictator not is the man ever called to be a dictator.

If we are serious about reflecting Christ in marriage than it should be a relationship where both parties have an equal say in what goes on. Christian relationships whether in the church, the context of marriage, or peers should always be mutual and invitational.

If a person is going to read Paul than read all of Paul! It doesn’t take long to discover that there are contradictions all over the place. In Ephesians Paul talks about women submitting to husbands but in Galatians Paul claims that there is no male or female in Christ and that we're all equal so how then does that fit in?

As people studying theology we can't just look at one verse and assume that we know what its saying. Look at everything, where was Paul and why did he write those things? Paul was not writing to CBC students for intro to Christian theology, 2017. Christ certainly should have authority over our lives and influence the way we do things and decisions we make, but that's just it, Jesus was about love and caring fellow humans not having dominant authority.

Christ invites us into relationship of choice and mutuality and that ought to be how the marriages we enter in reflect.

When it comes to the topic of women in leadership I believe we have been living in a society where the male bias has dominated for far too long. God is not just father but also mother. Her love extends to everyone and I believe She is changing the world to a place where women need to hold just as many leadership positions as men do and the idea that there needs to be a "man" of the house is passing way. Some of the most brilliant pastors I know are women and I wish for a world where there's more of that.

As have reflected on this conversation, it began to dawn on me how significant his DOOR experiences had been, particularly his Dwell year in Miami. For Quinten his time as a Dweller gave him a space to work out his faith for himself.

If you are a parent, grandparent, or mentor to a young adult reading this- know that a gap-year away from college and home may be the greatest gift you can give to your young adult.

Beautifully Complicated

Last week my wife and I drove from Denver, CO to Hesston, KS. The majority of this drive took place on I-70. We left at 5 AM and the first few hours of the Colorado portion of the trip were in the dark. As the sun rose I began to notice billboards, both the homemade and professional versions. Many of these signs proclaimed something about the Christian faith:

Abortion stops a beating heart

You will die, then meet Jesus

Where will you go when you die?

Jesus is real

Smile, your mom chose life

Then there was the coffee break moment. As we approached the one Starbucks between Denver and Hesston, there was a “White Jesus” floating in a wheat field.

Rita and I went to Kansas to attend a funeral. A friend had lost his battle with cancer. He had just turned 40 and left behind a wife and two children. A few years earlier his sister, a mutual friend, and I drove our motorcycles from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas and back. It was an adventure that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Now I was driving I-70 reading one liners about a Christian faith I claim, and wondering why my friend was dead.

If we were traveling to Kansas for any other reason I doubt I would have even paid attention to the billboards. These signs and their attempts at reducing the Christian faith to a one liner that could be read as cars passed by at 75 miles per hour began to feel offensive.

Christianity at its best is a deeply complicated experience. On this particular day my feelings towards God were not at their healthiest. Children need their parents; why would God allow a father to die before his job was done? Grandparents and parents should not have to attend the funerals of their grandchildren and children.

We arrived in Hesston and made our way to the church. Hundreds of people came. As I silently watched the family come in my internal questioning of God only intensified. About halfway through the service my friend’s wife and siblings came to the front and shared the story of his life. In the retelling of my friend’s life story, a story of God’s faithfulness, mercy, and radical love also emerged.

Later on as more stories were told over a meal, I began to reflect on this Christian faith I cling to. The truth is I have moments where God and I are on the same page, followed by moments where I wonder if God is even present. There are times when I think I have my Christian ethics figured out only to be confronted with people of faith who don’t see the world like I do.

The Christian life, when lived honesty and without one-liners, is complicated. At its worst it is frustratingly complicated and at its best it is beautifully complicated, but always complicated. As much as I want to make it simple, God keeps complicating everything.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

My favorite line in the Lord’s Prayer is “on earth as it is in heaven.” The idea that Jesus wanted this life on planet earth to be a reflection of heaven has been a source of hope for me. I might go so far as to say it is the basis of my conviction that humanity is moving towards an ethic of kindness, inclusion, and generosity. Then November 8, 2016 happened. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, this past election cycle uncovered and exposed some of the darker sides of humanity. I have friends and co-workers who are legitimately afraid of what might happen to them. Over the period of a few hours on that Tuesday judgment, hate, and fear was normalized. In my city of Denver a swastika was recently spray painted on the door of a local elementary school. The news regularly reports about re-empowered hate groups.

Have we taken a giant step backwards? My initial reaction was a resounding yes. I am beginning to wonder if that is really the case. Is it possible that the only thing that changed on November 8 was the shattering of my insulated world?

Hate, misogyny, judgment, and distrust didn’t just suddenly emerge on November 8. On that night my privileged political perspective was given a reality check. In a sense I had a 2 Kings 6:17 moment, where Elisha prays that the eyes of his servant would be opened. In that particular case the servant saw the armies of God. In my case I have been reminded that the world is larger than my particular echo chamber.

Can I, can we, still take seriously Jesus’ words – on earth as it is in heaven? Yes, now more than ever. It is time for people of all faiths to demonstrate to the world that we can respect each other, that we can live together without resorting to violence. It time for the church to be about inclusion, not just the politically correct type of inclusion but a radical inclusion that takes seriously the humanity of everyone.

My youngest son is in Bible College. I have enjoyed reading his papers and watching him struggle with his own faith. Recently he was asked to write a reflection on a passage in Galatians. He chose Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer salve or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In his reflections he wondered what Paul might have written if he were around in 2016. My son thought it would go something like this:

There is no longer Christian, Jew or Muslim,

There is no longer straight, gay, queer or transgender,

There is no longer liberal or conservative; Republican or Democrat; American or foreigner,

For we are all humans created in the very image and likeness of God.

This election exposed some scary things. It is now time for people of faith to start being the hands and feet of Jesus. Just maybe we will all be around to witness heaven right here on earth!

Revisiting Finding Nemo

The election is over and progressive Americans are in shock. This wasn’t their expected outcome. Now what? As a white, straight male I want people to know that I am not a racist, hater, Islamophobic, or misogynist. If you were to look at my social media feed there are lots of ways that people who look like me are trying to say, “I not who you think I am.”

This week my mind drifted back to one of my favorite Pixar movies, Finding Nemo. It tells the story of a father’s love for his ever maturing and adventurous child. One day in a fit of frustration with his father’s overprotective nature, Nemo ventures away from the reef to touch the bottom of a fishing boat. He is captured by a scuba diver and taken away. The rest of the movie tells the story of Marlin, Nemo’s father, and Dory, an unexpected friend, as they search for Nemo.

One of the first characters they meet is Bruce the shark. Marlin and Dory are immediately brought to an AA-type meeting for sharks. The gathering begins with a pledge “fish are friends not food.”

As I have been replaying this scene in my mind, one question keeps surfacing. When a great white shark tells a small fish that he has become a vegetarian (read – I didn’t vote for him), who has to have the faith that the relationship will work out? Bruce can change his convictions at any time and without any warning. What assurances do Marlin and Dory have that Bruce will stick to his new diet?

Since last Tuesday those of us who are white have been exposed. How do we demonstrate that we aren’t racist? I can no more quit being white than some of my staff can quit being people of color, women, or gay. I never asked to be born with the power and privilege that comes to me simply because of the color of my skin. But I still have it.  Is it possible that under all my best intentions there are still whiffs of unconscious racism and privilege?

Should I wear a safety pin? Maybe. Will that make you safe? Maybe.

In many ways to be white is much like being Bruce, a great white shark. When we reach out to others asking for forgiveness, seeking reconciliation, and honestly desiring relationship, it is critical to never forget who we are – sharks, people with access to power and privilege.

Just because I reach out to a person of color, a woman, or a GLBTQI person with an honest desire to be friends does not immediately mean that I have quit being scary. It is important to never forget that it takes a tremendous amount of faith to look past the teeth of a great white shark and see a potential friend.

Hangover

“When they go low, we go high.” Nice words, but this morning they seem a little too optimistic. Here in the United States of America, going low won the day and the next four years.

We just elected a president who started his campaign by describing an entire people group as rapists, thieves, and drug dealers. Over the course of his candidacy he made it OK to objectify women thereby creating moral space for misogyny. Now he is calling us to unite, to come together as one. How does this even happen? I don’t even know how to approach my fellow believers who justified their vote by saying, “well he’s a baby Christian.”

I work for organization that has hired Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, immigrants, and people from the GLBTQI community. They are terrified and not figuratively. The fear is real; it is based on actions and statements made by the candidate. Their very humanity and lives have been brought into question.

I don’t know how to come together. How do you hold hands and sing Kumbaya with someone who denies your very right to exist?

Where are the people of God in all of this? Where is the church?

Too many church leaders, who tend to look like me, white and male, have sacrificed the gospel of Jesus for a shot at power and dominance. The best way to do this was to rewrite Scripture so that the only things that mattered were prayer in school, abortion, and homosexuality. Loving God and loving people have become side issues. As long as we have someone in our camp who hates who we hate, then we can look past the misogyny, the racism, the sexism, and the fear mongering. All of this has brought us to today, November 9, 2016.

I do not know what the future holds; today I am pretty pessimistic. But maybe it is time to remember that people of faith have always been most effective and prophetic when they find themselves judged, misunderstood and in the minority.

23 years of being pushed, challenged, and prodded

November is an important month for me. It is my New Year. In August of 1994 I joined the ranks of the unemployed. Three months earlier I had submitted a resignation letter to the church where I was working. As I look back on that time it seems clear now I wasn’t being very strategic. My wife was pregnant with our first child, due in September. She was employed, so we would find a way to figure things out. Finances would be tight but we would make it. That plan made sense until September when Rita received notice that she was going to be laid off. By October we were new parents of a baby boy and unemployed. It was a stressful time. On November 1, 1994 the local DOOR board hired me as the new DOOR Denver director. I never imagined staying at DOOR for more than 5-7 years. Here I am 23 years later, still at DOOR. Both our boys have only known me as a dad who works for DOOR.

For me November is a month of reflection and evaluation. When I look back over the two plus decades I have been at DOOR there are a number of reasons why I have stuck around.

I get to work with a group of people who are always challenging me to reexamine my stereotypes and religious prejudices. DOOR’s staff and board leadership come from all kinds of backgrounds. We have the “decent and in order” Presbyterians, the peaceful Mennonites, a Quaker or two, a few Pentecostals, some inspired Lutherans, and more than a few folks just trying to figure out where or if they fit into the denominational landscape. That is only one way to describe DOOR. We are women and men; Americans and immigrants; theologians and artists; gay and straight. We also hold many racial identities- African American, White, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Caribbean, and Asian.

One of the major benefits of working in a diverse environment is the inherent permission to examine, reevaluate, and question my faith perspective. Prior to DOOR, I was a pastor. As a pastor one of the unwritten requirements is to have a solid unshakable faith. While other people could question God, it was my job to be the steady reassuring voice. Over time this began to destroy me. My primary reason for resigning in 1994 was a complete loss of faith in God.

I came to DOOR because I needed a job and the bills needed to be paid. What I have received has been so much more than a source of income for my bills. DOOR became a place where God became real. There is a freedom in pursuing a faith and a God who has no respect for my stereotypes. Working alongside people who do church differently (read: anyone who is not Mennonite) has been enlightening. Praying, laughing, and crying with people of different sexual orientations, cultural backgrounds, and theological perspectives is a contestant reminder that at best I see through a glass dimly.

For too long people of faith have confused “one way” with “everyone better go the same way.” What I have begun to uncover after 23 years is that each of us is a unique individual made in the very image and likeness of God. And God, in God’s grace and mercy, has helped me to walk my path, my one way.

A Civil Rights Tour and lesson in Leadership

My job requires me to spend a lot of time thinking about leadership. I oversee a ministry with programs, staff, and board members in five states. Keeping everyone one the same page while providing the space to be unique and creative is a constant challenge. Last week I was afforded an opportunity to join with a group of collogues on a Civil Rights tour through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. I have spent the better part of the past two decades reading, reflecting on, and educating myself about diversity, race, and civil rights. This was my first time going to the locations where history was made in the 1950’s and 60’s.

We visited Kelly Ingram Park (formerly West Park) the staging ground for many demonstrations and catty corner from 16th Street Baptist Church the site of September 15, 1963 bombing where four young children were murdered. I walked through the Freedom Ride Museum and heard the stories of the riders, who prior to joining the ride, filled out their wills. They were riding for change and knew that the price might be their lives. In Montgomery I heard the story of Rosa Parks, a strong yet humble women whose single act of defiance, refusing to give up her seat to a white man, set in motion a set of events that would change the south (and north) forever.

In Selma we visited Brown Chapel and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Later we heard firsthand accounts of the Bloody Sunday, the turnaround Tuesday, and the Selma to Montgomery marches.

In Mississippi Roscoe Jones sat with us and shared his story. In 1964 he was friends with James Chaney, one of three civil rights leaders who were murdered. Their story was retold in the movie Mississippi Burning. Roscoe was supposed to be the fourth person in the car. Events conspired in such a way that he was unable to join them. As a result Roscoe lived and his friends were brutally murdered by the KKK.

This tour shook my soul at many levels. Two things continue to stand out for me. The first was the age of the leaders and many of the protestors. They were young. Somewhere along my journey I began to assume that mature, wise, and prophetic leadership was something that only came with time. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and a host of other peers (foot-soldiers) were all in their 20’s and 30’s. They stepped up and led. They were not limited by their youth.

Second, these leaders were not part of the legitimized and elected power structures of the day. They had no access to these structures. Their legitimacy came from the grassroots. They prophetically spoke truth to power and in the end the official powers of the day began to make space for these young, brave, grassroots empowered leaders.

The work and mission of the Civil Rights leaders is far from over. This “ism’s” of prejudice and judgment are still alive and well.

There are lesson that need to be remembered. First, it is the youth who will lead the way. Those of us who are older need to find the humility to make way for leaders who are young and reckless. Second, change, real change, will always emerge from the bottom. Those of us who are in legitimized leadership positions would do well to remember this.

Making a difference

This summer was my 22nd working for DOOR. I have had the opportunity to witness many amazing things. DOOR has grown from a Denver-only program to a national network. Over the years we have hosted more than 41,000 participants, representing most states and many Canadian provinces. I remember when purchasing a pager so that people could get ahold of me quickly was the height of technology. I felt so important with a pager hanging from my belt! Today the cell phones our staff have can do almost everything and connect to people in so many different ways, from a traditional phone call to Snap Chatting.

Through all of these years, one thing has remained the same. People come to DOOR to serve because they want to make a difference. This is one of the primary reasons why I have stuck around for over two decades; I want to make a difference.

In recent years a fundamental shift in my perspective has caused me to ask a new set of questions. For decades, and probably longer, a common assumption about mission and service was that communities need people to come to serve and do mission. Without their service, needs would go unmet.

Groups come to DOOR’s cities to make a difference. They serve at soup counters, help with summer day camps, sort food for distribution, and fix-up the homes of the needy. This is all important work. It isn’t unusual to have group leaders want their groups to do more or work harder. In their minds doing more and working harder is what makes a difference.

What I have begun to observe, I am sure this was true 22 years ago, is that people want to serve food to the hungry, but they don’t really want to know why people are food insecure in the first place. When the question does get raised, it is raised in a strangely rhetorical way that says I know the answer. The answer is quite often tied to popular stereotypes. The poor are poor because really they are lazy.

When our city directors suggest that soup counters, poor quality housing, and the need for tutoring programs have their roots in systems and structures designed to keep the poor needy, the responses are interesting.

Talking about why seems too political. People want to come and serve, but they don’t want to confront all the ways they may be participating in a system that keeps the privileged in their position of power and ensures a permanent underclass. Folks choose to serve in programs like DOOR because they want to do some good in the world. They don’t come to find out they may be the problem.

The hard work of making difference isn’t taking a week off and going somewhere to serve. The real work is looking in the mirror, owning how we participate in a system that ensures and reinforces poverty, racism, classism, and sexism and then choosing to work for change so that all people are treated as if they are made in the image and likeness of God.

Service or Social Justice?

There is nothing quite as inspiring as morning coffee, toast with honey and peanut butter, and conversation with a good friend. This past week, all of this fell into place during a trip to Chicago. The conversation started innocently enough. I asked about a conference my friend had attended. It was clear that he was not impressed. According to him the theme was justice but all they could focus on was service. I must admit that initially I did not understand his point. In my mind service and justice might not be exactly the same thing, but they are closely related. To put it mildly, I got schooled.

For him service, although important and needed, is only a Band-Aid. For example we need people to help out and serve at after school programs, foodbanks, drug rehabilitation programs, day cares, drop-in centers, and homeless shelters. This list is only a start. It is the opportunity to serve at various helping agencies and social service programs that has been at the heart and soul of what DOOR programing offers.

In my mind service was a pretty important priority for Jesus as well. So I wasn’t understanding the frustration.

Then he made the transition. Service is what we do to help folks who have been left behind by a system that doesn’t care. There is a sense in which service makes me, the service provider, feel better about myself, my life, and my privilege. And it provides some temporary relief for those who have been abused and treated unfairly by the system.

The work of justice asks us to challenge, change, deconstruct, and rebuild the system. Justice work asks questions about fair wages, access to health care, and housing costs. It is concerned about affordable childcare and quality education for all. It examines how people in power wield their power and demands that no one be judged or treated differently because of where they live, the color of their skin, or their religion or orientation. Working towards justice requires that we embrace the complexity of the world we live in.

There is a tendency among people of faith to keep things simple. It is relatively easy to feed people or offer after school tutoring. It is quite another thing to make changes to assure quality education for all children.

This summer our Denver program eliminated one of its service days and replaced it with a gentrification tour. During this tour our groups are exposed to the realities of gentrification on the Westside of Denver. Many of our participants appreciate being asked to think about the injustices that come with gentrification. There is also a growing segment of folks who are horrified that we would expose good people who came to do service to issues of justice.

I am grateful for a breakfast and conversation that satisfied my stomach and challenged my soul. Could it be possible that service without justice is just self-serving?

Empathy

In a normal year I like to watch the news and I especially like the political round tables. Lately I have found myself switching channels. Debates seem to be less about ideas and more about bullying. A few weeks ago I watched a debate between some Republican and Democratic pundits. I was intrigued by the Republican who attended a United Church of Christ congregation known for being very progressive. Before long I was both disappointed and sucked in. This man was railing against his church. The Sunday before his pastor had said something about white people being racist, simply because they are white. This is not an unusual claim and from my perspective is also correct. Whenever I am in conversations where this is brought up the room either gets deftly silent or a slow defensive anger begins to grow. Either way the white men and women in the room do not react well to be called “racist.” Their responses to this take a number of approaches. There is the, “I judge people by how they treat me, not their skin color.” Or the, “I have never said a racist thing in my life.” There is also the friend approach, “I have friends of color, they have never called be racist.” My personal favorite, “I voted for Obama.” If you have been in one of these discussions chances are you could add many more responses. The point to all these responses has something to do with never having joined a hate group or used racist language. From a certain perspective they have move to a place beyond racism.

As I have thought about that pundit and reflected about conversations I have been part of, I wonder if what many white people are lacking is empathy. According to Google, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  More often than not privilege and power becomes a barrier to empathy.

White privilege affords me the freedom to only understand my world, my context, my feelings, my Christian values, and my responses. And all of these “my’s” get to be considered the standard of how everyone else should respond.

So when a person, particularly a person in power, says “I don’t judge people until I know their character,” that says something about privilege. It assumes that the other person will treat me with enough respect so that I don’t have to run in fear. My brothers and sisters of color do not have this privilege. All too often they are judged simply because of the color of their skin.

As a white person I get all the privileges of being white. My world view is the standard. My Christian faith is correct. My freedoms are the first to be preserved. Living in this world means that I benefit from structures designed to make my life better at the cost of making things more difficult for people of color. This is racist.

Changing this system, working towards a world where people are judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin will take a whole lot of work. A good first step is recognizing that “Black Lives Matter.”

Where will I stand?

It seems to me that a new line was crossed last week. First, two public encounters with police were caught on video resulting in two dead African American men. Then in Dallas, five police officers were gunned down. If your social media feed is anything like mine, it blew up. Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter. For each hashtag there are leaders of faith who claim their perspective is the right perspective, the Christian perspective.

As a person of faith myself, I want to know where we go from here. Standing on the sidelines and just hoping this will blow over does not seem live a viable or moral option. People are dying, and this needs to stop.

I wanted to write something last week. All I could do was stare at a blank screen.

When I read John 3:16, I discover a God who cares about all people. Jesus was sent for the world. In Philippians 2 there is a song about Jesus emptying himself of all his divinity, taking on the very nature of a servant, and dying on the cross. When asked to describe pure religion, James said it had something to do with how we care for the powerless. When Jesus was spoke to his followers about violence he talked about turning the other cheek as a creative non-violent way of resisting the power structures. This was a cornerstone strategy of the civil rights movement as led by Martin Luther King, Jr. When Jesus stood before Pilate and the religious leaders facing and receiving violence, he never lost his cool, never returned violence for violence. On the cross Jesus offered forgiveness to his executioners and an invitation to a fellow cross-mate.

I look at Jesus and try to imagine how he would respond. I see a person who loved without exception. This same Jesus knew that the only way to measure our commitment to all lives had something to do with how we treated the powerless and disenfranchised among us. Quite simply this is the heart’s cry of Black Lives Matter and all the movements that proceeded it.

This I why I choose, as I believe all people of faith and good conscious should, to stand with Black Lives Matter. It not about valuing one person over the other. Rather standing with Black Lives Matter is the most radical and Christ-like way we can demonstrate a commitment to the intrinsic value of all lives.

Safety – 2016

If you are a regular follower of my blog, you already know that one of our Discern staff was involved in a shooting last week. One of my first responses was to send out a prayer request and write a blog to tell the story and update everyone. None of this is unusual in the life of DOOR. When we need prayer, we ask. The support has been incredible. There is nothing like knowing people from around North America are praying. There is another side to being so public about dramatic events in the life of DOOR. People who are getting ready to participate in our Chicago program are also reading these updates. This results in phone calls. Although the question comes in different forms, they all boil down to this – is your program safe for our youth?

I spent 15 years as a youth worker. So I am familiar with the questions parents and concerned leaders ask. My regular response is, “DOOR has been around for 30 years and we have yet to send someone to the hospital because of an interaction with the local community.” It is not uncommon for participants to visit the hospital because of altitude sickness (a Denver issue) or because someone slipped and fell. At DOOR we take the safety of our participants very seriously and do everything in our power to avoid a crisis.

The more theological side of me always wonders about the safety questions. I am not sure that Jesus ever said that Christianity offered a life of safety. Jesus did, however, talk about cross bearing.

This time the safety question has taken on a new emotion. You see, my oldest son, Kyle, is serving as a Dweller in Chicago. So when I was asked about safety it wasn’t a theoretical question. My wife and I literally have our flesh and blood on the ground and in the middle of the question. So, is it safe? I can say without hesitation that I unequivocally trust our staff with the well-being of my children (the other son is serving in Miami) and all the DOOR participants across all of our programing.

At its best a DOOR experience will change your life. Mikey and the rest of our Discerners are real people who are faced with challenges from racism to violence at a much higher rate than most of us. Participating in DOOR provides a space to give witness to these realities and then a challenge to go home and work for real change.

An update on Mikey: Anthony is healing and possibly going home this week. Mikey and the rest of the Discerners are doing well but it was evident from some art therapy that they are feeling heavy around this issue of gun violence and how it impacts them every day. One of DOOR’s unplanned costs is in the area of mental health. We would like to provide Discerners like Mikey with the opportunity to see a therapist. As we all know mental and emotional healing is part of the journey towards wholeness. If you would like to contribute and support the mental health needs of our staff would have faced violence please donate:

Make checks payable to DOOR and write “Health and Healing Fund” in the memo line. Mail to 430 W 9th Ave, Denver CO 80204.

Donate online at www.doornetwork.org/donate. Indicate the donation is for the “Health and Healing Fund” in the donation designation field.