Lines of Division

One of the fun things we do at DOOR is take board meetings on the road. The other week in Atlanta we met at Mercy Church. Before the meeting officially started Chad, the pastor, shared his vision for ministry. Near the end of his talk he pointed over to the lunch counter, a counter from which many DOOR participants have helped to serve meals. Chad made a statement that has stuck with me, “too often that counter has acted as a line of segregation.” He was right. Every week people with means and privilege come to serve a meal and everyone’s status is determined by which side of the counter they are standing on. Chad went on to say that his goal is to remove the counter.

Removing the counter may not be an easy thing to do.

Many of us who come from privilege live with interesting tensions. We want to serve and we want to maintain our status. We affirm statements which call us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross but we want to do it in a safe atmosphere. We want to follow Christ’s call to be servants but we don’t want to get too dirty in the process. We want our children to follow Christ and we want them to live safe secure lives. We want to take the gospel seriously and we want to maintain our privilege. In other words we want the counter.

Removing the counter, especially for Christians, has a terrifying quality to it. The counter and other lines of division create distance and distance allows us to do two things: serve and maintain our stereotypes. Removing the counter reduces distance and challenges stereotypes. When we find the courage to move past the counter all kinds of new possibilities emerge. Those who we hold at a distance become people, friends and co-workers.

Be warned, removing the counter changes everything.

Safety revisited

A few weeks ago I wrote about safety.  It was written from the perspective of people who go on short-term mission trips.  This week I want to think about safety from the perspective of our Discern staff.  These are the people who give leadership to and host the incoming participants. It is important to note that about 60% of our Discern staff come from the neighborhoods in which we serve.   As a result they are local and they are people of color.  As a program DOOR is asking our Discern staff to give leadership to visiting groups.  It I also important to note that our Discover visitors are majority people of privilege and majority Anglo.  For a whole host of reasons placing local young adults in leadership roles over visiting groups is a very good thing.  It provides a level of authenticity that imported staff alone could never achieve.  To be honest I cannot imagine our summer program operating without local young adults.

This week I was reminded that there is a cost associated with asking locals to serve as staff.  After 18 years and literally thousands of participants, I can say that it is very rare for visiting groups to experience the chaos and dysfunction sometimes associated with the city directly.  They hear stories from speakers, see things in agencies and sometimes get hassled by the police.  For the most part their DOOR experience is educational, faith stretching, eye opening, and safe.  This is good.

Our staff of color encounter a whole series of other issues and concerns.  For the most part visiting groups remain unaware of and protected from these stresses.  At the more benign level there are the “sell-out” anxieties.  When their friends and acquaintances see someone from the neighborhood leading groups of white people they risk being thought of a sell-outs or trying to escape by becoming white.  It is interesting to think of this as “more benign;” in comparison it is.  At the other end of the spectrum are the encounters with authority.   In spite of the fact that we live in a country with an African American President, authority (and culture) still assumes that a person of color hanging around white people is up to no good.  I know what it is like to find out that one of my staff has been thrown down, beat and hand-cuffed in front of the church where the DOOR group is staying simply because he was black.

The next time you pray the safety prayer for you mission trip, please include the staff who will be hosting you.  In many ways they are the ones who are risking everything.

The DOOR-Cloud

Apple has the I-Cloud, but my place of employment has an even more impressive cloud! This past week the DOOR summer kicked off.  The 10-12 weeks following the Memorial Day holiday, DOOR hosts approximately 2,500 Discover participants in 6 cities.

After almost 18 years it is tempting to fall into a “look what I have accomplished” mentality.  More than 30,000 people have participated; many have made significant faith commitments as a result of a week with us; leaders have been empowered.   Claiming all of this as my own not only leads to arrogance, but is dangerously wrong.

Hebrews 12 talks about a cloud of witnesses.   These are people who have gone before us and walk with us, offering wisdom, correction and encouragement.  Without this cloud of witnesses effective authentic ministry is not possible.  If I am going to brag about anything, it is the “DOOR-Cloud.”  This cloud includes the visionaries who first began thinking about structured service trips in 1985, years before youth mission trips were on anyone’s radar screens.  Then there are the gatherings of 2005 and 2006 when we brought together all our local board members of color and asked them to help DOOR be less racist.  These were not easy meetings.  It is never fun to confront individual and institutional racism, but the courageous work of these men and women helped us to better understand the radical inclusiveness of the gospel.

This cloud also includes former and current staff.  There are the women of DOOR who have fearlessly and compassionately lead even when men have questioned the legitimacy of their call.  We have immigrants who have endured insults and unwelcoming attitudes, yet they have loved and cared for participants in ways that mirror Jesus’ love for us.  We have gay staff members that have been told that they are somehow outside the reach of God’s grace yet in spite of this they have loved and cared for the very people who are condemning them.  We have staff of color who have endured both subtle and blatant racism and still they have not let this ignorance and mean-spiritedness stop them from reaching across racial barriers and seeking places of understanding and friendship.

For 18 years I have been surrounded by the DOOR-Cloud.  If you count yourself as part of this group, thank you!

Filter

As a 2nd grader I remember being the last person picked for the spelling bee.  The teacher divided the class into two teams.  The best two spellers were named team captains.  They took turns picking who would be on each team.  I still remember sitting at my desk as everyone else was chosen. I was not going to be chosen; I was simply the last person left.  I had to be picked. In many ways this was a good life lesson – sometimes you don’t get picked first.

A number of weeks ago someone sent me an article, I can’t remember who wrote it or who sent it, but the theme has stuck with me.  The article asks a question – does the church function like an institution or a city?  According to the author, institutions exist to screen people out - an individual must qualify for a job or a program.  Cities always expand to include everyone – there is space for the homeless, the renter, the homeowner, the uneducated, the educated, the poor, the rich.

It doesn’t take years of theological studies to figure out that Jesus was interested in making space for everyone.   That’s the essential message of John 3:16.  It also does not take many years of study to figure that the historical trajectory of the church has been one of finding ways to screen people out.

What would it mean for the church to renounce the path of exclusion and to become a place of inclusion?  How do we become less white and less male?  What does it mean to invite others into our community?  Inclusion also includes folks who don’t get it – the racist and sexist. What does this look like?

And just how far do we take this diversity thing?  It is one thing to talk about cultural and theological diversity, but quite another thing to talk about sexual orientation.

It is my hope that our future can be one of figuring out how to filter people in.  This will not be easy or without controversy, but it does seem to be the Jesus thing to do.

Class

“As long as people think they have a chance of getting to the top, they just don’t care how rich the rich are.” I cannot help but wonder how true this statement is.  The fairytale we most want to believe is that it is possible to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  It is the universal myth we hold most dearly.  And there are just enough compelling stories to keep the myth alive.

I am a Canadian, so I got up at 4 AM to watch to royal wedding.  Kate Middleton, the great granddaughter of coal miners, grew up to become a princess.  If it could happen to her, then it must be possible.

The truth isn’t nearly as fun or compelling.  You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to move beyond the status you were born into.

The correspondents of the New York Times wrote a book, Class Matters, on this very topic.  Their conclusion: people who are born into poverty are destined to remain there.  When access to education, healthcare and healthy food is not equal then bettering your living conditions becomes almost impossible.

When people of faith start talking about these issues then something uncomfortable begins to happen - faith and politics start to intermingle.

It doesn’t take a New Testament scholar to figure out that Jesus was concerned about the poor, the widow and the orphan.  These were the people at the bottom.  When we ignore those whom society defines as the least, we choose to be less Christian.

Why do I say all this? Because things like taxation are Christian issues.  Giving tax breaks to the rich probably isn’t what Jesus would recommend.  Trickledown economics doesn’t work.  Cutting social welfare programs may save federal money, but it isn’t Christian.  Reducing spending on education will only ensure that those with wealth improve and the poor will stay poor.

What would it look like to apply the biblical idea of jubilee to our tax policy?  Do the rich really need to keep getting richer?  What is so wrong with the upper class becoming middle every once in a while?  Could the government play a missional role in helping everyone get through the “eye of the needle?”