Individual or Community

There are moments in my life that I remember with amazing clarity. One of these happened in 10th grade. An evangelist from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had come to town. This was such a big event in our small town that the local churches had to rent the high school gymnasium. Wednesday was “youth night,” which meant no hymns. A night of contemporary Christian music followed by a sermon for young people. I still remember Mrs. Davis approaching David and me before the service began. Apparently God had spoken to her and we were supposed to go forward at the end of the service. She then proceeded to lead David and me to the second row. To this day I cannot recall anything about the service other than when the preacher asked the congregation to sing “Just as I am.” For three verses Mrs. Davis stared at us; by the fourth I went forward. Eventually the preacher called the spiritual counselors forward. Soon there was a hand on my back and we were lead into a special room just off the gymnasium. The walk was excruciatingly long. I wasn’t quite sure why I went forward, other than to avoid the wrath of Mrs. Davis.

Once we were in the room I sat across from my counselor. He asked why I came forward; again, I cannot recall what I said. The end result was that I heard about four spiritual laws and prayed for Jesus to forgive my sins.

That night shaped my understanding of faith and Jesus. Christianity had something to do with my sin life. If I accepted Jesus, then I would be made clean and could spend eternity in heaven. This idea was and still is comforting. To know that God desires to forgive my sins is life-giving and freeing. To this day I find hope in this message.

As I grew beyond 10th grade this understanding of sin and salvation began to feel incomplete and small. There is a significant element to sin that is structural. And the “I just need to confess my sin to Jesus” approach doesn’t adequately address this.

Racism doesn’t just come forward at church, pray a prayer, and go away. Corporate greed that has decimated family farms, emptied retirement accounts, charged outrageous interest rates, and chosen profits over health care doesn’t disappear after a prayer.

More often than not it seems like the church has turned its back on structural sin. It is easier to have a gospel that is only me and Jesus. Focusing on structures is hard work. It will disrupt our lives, interfere with our comfort, and push our faith out of the church and on to the street.

Jesus came for humanity, not just the individual. Our Holy Scriptures are about the people of God. Justice isn’t just for me, it is for all. The church needs to be about revival for all and prophetically confronting sin at every level.

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.

Another version

Yesterday I woke up to the news of another shooting.  According to the reporter a deranged man had stabbed his mother and then was shot and killed by the police.  Since these stories have become commonplace, I quickly forgot, went out from my run, had breakfast, and hurried to the office for a meeting.  During the meeting I left my phone on the desk.  By the time the meeting was finished there was an urgent message.  “Glenn, did you listen to the news this morning?  It was Paul Castaway; he was the man who was shot.”  Officially the victim’s name had still not been confirmed, but unofficially his friends had confirmed everything.  By early afternoon the news media had caught up and officially confirmed that Paul was dead.  Within hours, the official version of the shooting and what others are saying are not the same. Even with conflicting versions of the story I worry that what people are going to remember is that Paul was a deranged person of no real consequence.  Ultimately his death would not be a great loss.

Paul does not deserve to be defined by a single story or event.

I first came to know Paul during the summer of 1995.  He was a member of the West-Side Drug Free Youth Team.  Anyone who participated in DOOR in the mid 1990’s would have heard Paul’s story.  He grew up in a home where alcohol and drug abuse was common.  As a member of the youth team, Paul was determined to break the cycle.  Every Friday Paul came and spoke to groups about his desire to end this particular cycle of abuse.

During Paul’s senior year in high school he and nine other classmates when on a trip to California.  It was one of the ways La Academia, an alternative school and ministry of the Denver Inner City Parish, celebrated high school graduation.   I was asked to be a chaperon.  For 10 days Paul and I roomed together.  During that trip I got to know other versions of Paul.  He was someone who liked to have fun; teasing and pranks where common, never from a spirit of meanness.  It was Paul’s way of saying he liked someone. One of the highlights of this trip was our day at Disneyland.  It was the year that the Indiana Jones ride opened.  We stood in line for over an hour, 10 high school seniors and me. The other chaperon had no interest in upsetting his stomach!  During the seating process the person in charge of the ride tried to direct me to the next car.  It was Paul who said, “Oh that white guy, he’s with us.”  It was Paul, an 18 year-old, Native American Westsider, who reached across all kinds of cultural and social divides and chose to include me in his world.

By the early 2000’s Paul and I began to lose touch.  Graduation took Paul out of my day-to-day world and my job began to shift from a Denver to a more National focus. Occasionally I would hear something.  The news wasn’t always good; breaking the cycle of alcohol abuse became overwhelming.  Paul started drinking and eventually ended up living on the street.  I remember seeing him at a Denver Inner City Parish event in the mid 2000’s.  His youthful mischievous eyes had been replaced with a hollow defeated eyes.  He still knew how to be a friend and still wanted to break the cycle.

More recently Paul became a father.  He loved his son, but his fight with alcohol meant that he didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with him.  I can’t help but wonder, what is it going to be like knowing you father was killed by the police?  Will the police reach out to him?  How will this boy overcome his demons?

I wasn’t there Monday morning when the chain of events that led to Paul’s death occurred.  I do know that Paul was much more than a person with a knife.  He was someone who knew his demons and tried hard to get past them.  Like most of us his story is one filled with both success and failure.  I suspect that there are many former DOOR participants who are better people for having heard Paul’s story.

Paul was also a person who knew how to reach across racial and cultural divides.  Yes, he made fun of me for being white and Canadian, but he also sat with me on the Indiana Jones ride.

Paul was also a dad who loved his child.

This week I have been reminded in a very personal way that this epidemic of devaluing, particularly of men of color, needs to stop.  Choosing to take a life, whether you are standing your ground or as a peace officer, needs to be eliminated from the list of options.  All of us are more than a bad moment and none of us deserve to be sentenced to death, especially when there are other options.

Is it possible for us to get to a place where the cost of taking lives is simply too high?

The Line

When are we allowed to start hating someone? This was the question raised by our speaker. A couple of weeks ago DOOR’s Beloved Community Council met in Chicago. This is an annual gathering that brings together DOOR staff, board members, and participants to talk about diversity. This year we invited Jeff Chu to be one of our presenters. Jeff’s book Does Jesus Really Love me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was certain to stir up some controversy and uncomfortableness among this group. One of the things that I have learned during my time at DOOR is that all of us have a breaking point, where diversity shifts from something to be admired and sought after to sin. This is especially true among people of faith. Currently sexual orientation is that hot button issue.

I did expect some in the circle to be uncomfortable. What I did not expect was for me to be uncomfortable. Part way through Jeff’s presentation he started talking about Westboro Baptist Church, a church known for its extreme ideologies. While researching for his book, Jeff spent a few days with the church and its leader, Fred Phelps, conducting interviews and trying to understand how they came to believe what they believe. In many ways this is a congregation that unites both the liberal and conservative sides of the church. Everyone is uncomfortable with their tactics and hate messages.

Quite frankly I expected Jeff to join the chorus of people who have condemned this fringe group. Instead Jeff showed a picture of a 6 year old holding a sign that stated God hates gay people. Then he went on to describe this boy, during his time with the church he got to know the boy. This boy was just starting to read; he really didn’t know what he was holding. He only knew the adults in his life approved, like any 6-year-old he obeyed his parents and held the sign.

This is when Jeff asked the question. When is it OK for me to start hating this boy? When he can read? Once he reaches the age of accountability? When he is 20? Is there ever a time when people of faith get a pass on extending grace even to those who would do us harm?

When does someone else’s “diversity” or “difference” give me permission to hate or exclude? Usually at this point someone will respond with “the Bible clearly states,” this in turn becomes a reason to exclude. This quickly becomes an unwinnable argument, not because we are right, but rather because we are stubborn. History tells us that every time people of faith come up with reasons to exclude, eventually they end up seeking forgiveness for their hate. I suggest that Scripture is abundantly clear about our need to love the other, even when they are different. I have yet to hear about people who ask forgiveness for loving too much.

History

The other week I was at a conference. One of the speakers challenged us as church leaders to “be on the right side of history.” He then went on to reference women, race, immigration, and sexual orientation. I have been thinking about his challenge ever since. On one hand I like the idea of the church being prophetic, creating spaces for those who have been excluded from the table. From a distance it seems heroic. There is also that other hand. I am part of a church tradition that was once referred to as the “radical reformation,” the Anabaptists. Five hundred years ago one of the few things that the Catholic and Lutheran church leaders could agree on was that the Anabaptists should be burned at the stake. Looking back on that period, it is now easy to say that the Anabaptists were on the right side of history. Their emphasis on community, non-violence, and the priesthood of all believers are ideas that have gone mainstream and as a result have been accepted in the church at large.

The result of this is that we have become less radical and more normalized. And normalization has led to institutionalism. This in turn has led to maintaining the status quo (the institution). Although it is true that institutions create stability and help to maintain order, the downside is they do this by resisting change. This resistance can and does lead to being on the wrong side of history.

Even my radical tradition was, and still is among some groups, resistant to inclusion of women at all levels of church leadership. Racism continues to rear its ugly head. Our acculturation has occasionally led to an unwelcoming attitude towards the immigrant. Currently we are either ignoring the sexual orientation debate or threatening to let it tear the church apart.

You see, there is a cost for being on the right side of history, especially in the church. Confronting injustice more often than not leads to misunderstanding and sometimes goes all the way to charges of heresy. Being thrown out of the church for “not holding the correct beliefs” is not fun.

I realize that it is not easy to go to church with people whose beliefs are radically different than the traditional way. If the church is going to be the church, then it needs to figure out how to embrace and include that which is different. It is the only way we can find our way back to the right side of history.

Thursday Night

In the parable of the Great Dinner (Luke 14) Jesus tells the story of a banquet where no one shows up. Finally out of frustration the host orders the servants out into the roads and lanes to invite anyone without plans for a meal. I am not completely sure who hung out on the streets in Jesus’ day, but I suspect they were people with nowhere better to go. Today we might describe them as poor, homeless, vagrants, and even strangers to avoid. For the past decade I have been attending a church that lives this parable regularly, especially on Thursday evenings. Prior to attending His Love Fellowship Luke was just telling an interesting story; I never connected it to reality. After all who in their right mind opens their doors to just anyone? The very meaning of the word stranger suggests the idea of unknown or even dangerous. Everything about American culture tells us to avoid anything that could be dangerous. We tell our children to run from strangers. Strangers are not to be trusted.

Every Thursday night my church opens its doors to everyone, even the stranger. They have been doing this for the better part of 20 years. If you were come and visit on Thursday you would be offered a meal, probably smothered in green chili. No questions asked. After supper you would be invited to a bible study where new friends and family would share the good news of the gospel and pray with you. To top everything off, before you left you would be offered an opportunity to visit the food pantry. All of this happens because this is a group of people who take church seriously. They are just naïve enough to act on what Scripture says – to feed the hungry, offer a cup of water to the thirsty, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner. All of this is simply offered regardless of the person’s social standing, appearance, ability to pay, or past.

Isn’t this what church is supposed to be? A gathering a people who ignore the fears of culture and simply act on the words of Jesus. There are those who might describe this kind of person as a “Red Letter Christian.

Memorial Day

Yesterday my pastor spoke from Psalm 77, specifically focusing on verse 11 where the writer declares, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” Today is Memorial Day. More often than not I think of this as the first day of summer, not as a day to remember. It may have something to do with my Mennonite upbringing. As a pacifist I have struggled with the “war” holidays while admiring anyone who is willing to sacrifice their life for something greater than themselves. So, regardless of my personal beliefs these acts of courage and sacrifice need to be remembered.

As my pastor reminded the congregation heroic acts are not limited to times of war. There are civil rights heroes; just last week we lost Dr. Vincent Harding, probably best known for drafting Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. I am also reminded that we have ordinary heroes who don’t always make the headlines, but do make a difference. Something is lost when we forget to remember those who help us to live in a better and more just world. In my work life I am surrounded by these every day heroes. It seems appropriate to remember and recognize them on this day.

Staff 2013 Chicago Cropped medium size file

It has become increasing clear to me that I benefit from the past and current (and future) cloud of witnesses that has cleared the road before me and continues to walk beside me. This group of women and men has helped me to experience a Christian faith that is much more than male, white, conservative, and privileged. It is has been their constant nudging, pushing, and prophetic vision that has pushed the ministry I lead beyond “Anglo.”

Today, in 2014, our staff and boards are made up of young and old; men and women; Anglos and persons of color; single and married; straight and gay; Americans and immigrants; the theologically conservative and liberal. Without this cloud of witnesses, transformation could not have happened.

It was Dr. Cornel West who said, “If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders – who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated to tell the truth.”

It has been the gentle and not-so-gentle questions, proddings, and pleas that have prevented DOOR, the organization I lead, from entering into a well-adjusted indifference. Prophetic presence comes with a high personal cost and sacrifice, which I have not always acknowledged. To my board and staff I apologize for the times DOOR has failed to live up to its calling as the Beloved Community.

Please accept my sincere thanks and gratitude for the work you continue to do to help me live in a world where inclusion, justice and equality are in simple terms “normal.”

 

Baseball & Reporters

2014-04-08 17.13.40Last Friday I cut out of work early to catch the first of my son’s double header. It was one of the last baseball games of the season. My travel schedule is such that I miss too many of his games. When I am in town and he is scheduled to play, I go. Before the first inning was finished, I was approached by a young man in a suit. All by itself this was a bit strange, after all who wears a suit to a high school baseball game? He initiated the conversation, asking if I’m a parent and if my son is in right field? This went on for about 10 minutes; eventually he got around to explaining his presence. He was a reporter for the local Fox news station. They were doing a follow-up story to the “gun incident” that occurred two days prior and wanted get some “parent” reactions.

According to his source a student had brought a loaded gun to school. He was caught before anyone was harmed. Stories like this are hard to hear and understand. What is it that drives a teen to the point of wanting to commit this kind of violence? Why are guns so accessible?

After I worked through all the philosophical and theological questions, it began to dawn on me. My son goes to that school. If the situation had escalated, my son could have been in the line of fire. This is not a pleasant thought. This kind of reflecting quickly leads to a strange kind of personal questioning. What are the decisions I made that ended up with my son being in that school?

Almost 20 years ago our family moved from the suburbs of Denver to the city; according to some it was the inner city. Then we choose enroll our boys in the local elementary school, one that would eventually “three strike out” under no child left behind. This decision influenced where our boys would attend middle and high school – local and public.

All along the way well-meaning people have asked us questions. How can you send you boys to those schools? Are you being a responsible parent? Then there were the strangely judgmental comments. As a parents you are responsible for the safety and well-being of your children. These comments and questions seemed to be lodged in the assumption that the “inner city” was dangerous and the “suburbs” were safe.

All of this was weighing on my mind last Friday. This story does not end on Friday, and thankfully neither does the Christian story, Sunday eventually comes around. On Sunday DOOR Denver held its third annual Cinco de Mayo celebration. This is an event where a number of local churches get together and share food, worship, and fellowship. There are Mennonites, Hispanic Pentecostals, Folklorico Dancers, and rap artists who spend an afternoon together celebrating each other’s culture. My favorite part is eating Mennonite pies with rice, beans, and carnitas tacos in one sitting – a Mennonite Mexican fusion meal!

As always I was left with a choice. Would I let the violence in my neighborhood be the defining result of my family’s move from the suburbs to the city? Or would the multi-cultural celebrations of faith, food, music, and friendships be the defining factor?

Please don’t get me wrong, I want to do everything in my power and sphere of influence to reduce and deescalate the “need” to act violently. Honestly, once you move past the stereotypes of where violence occurs, my neighborhood isn’t that much different than any other neighborhood. Learning to see the world through the eyes of other cultures, classes, and religions is a gift that my boys will carry with them for a lifetime.

Making Friends

Book reviews are not a normal part of my blogging life, but last week I received a book entitled, “Making Friends among the Taliban.”   It is written by Jonathan Larson, an amazing story-teller and former chair of our DOOR-Atlanta program.  In it he tells the story of Dan Berry who on August 5, 2010, was murdered along with nine other members of a medical team in a remote region of northern Afghanistan. This is not a story of a senseless death, but rather of a life lived to its fullest.  Dan spent 30 plus years becoming a part of the Afghan landscape.  He was someone who seemed to have figured out how to be fully Christian in a place where Christianity, especially the western version of Christianity, is viewed with suspicion and apprehension.

From a certain perspective Dan was the wrong person to represent the Christian faith.  He lived without deadlines, communicated poorly, was easily distracted, liked to stop and smell the roses, viewed dangerous situations as simply obstacles to overcome and enemies as potential friends and allies, and thought the best places to visit were always sketchy and somewhat seedy.  You could say that Dan lived on the edge and therefore the manner in which he died was not all that surprising.

There is another perspective from which to hear this story.  Here was a person who knew the power of friendship.  Dan was willing to go to extraordinary measures to be a friend.  The title of the book hints at this, the Taliban was never his foe.   Like Jesus, relationship always took precedence over rules, policies and regulations.  For Dan everything was negotiable.  Being able to respect and understand all sides of any issue allowed Dan to be a peacemaker where peacemaking seemed impossible.  I cannot help but wonder how different our world would be if Christians choose to value relationship over conversion - not because I am against conversion.  So often the desire to convert becomes the barrier to seeing the other as a child of God.  For too many people, especially Christians, conversion is code language for you need to become like me.

One of the lasting legacies that Dan Berry has left for the church is new possibilities for being authentically Christian in a world where religious violence, mistrust and intolerance seem to be increasing.

Why DOOR?

If you are a leader of a group or the person charge of finding a service/learning opportunity for 2013, then this blog is for you! Here are my top 10 reasons for considering DOOR:

  1. We are an “asset based” organization.  We believe that God is alive and well and working our cities.  Yes there are needs, issues and problems in the city, but the hope, resourcefulness and life in the city far outweigh the negatives.  Another way to think about this is that the biblical story starts in a garden, but ends in a city.  If you want to know what heaven is going to be like, come to the city!
  1. There are 6 great locations to come and witness what God is doing - Atlanta, Chicago, Denver,      Hollywood, Miami, and San Antonio.
  1. The $305.00 per person cost covers meals, staffing, lodging and reflection.  This frees leaders to spend time getting to know the members of their group – doing the pastoral stuff without      having to sweat the logistics.
  1. 2013 marks our 26th year, we began in 1986.  We have the experience and knowhow.
  1. We hire local City Directors; these are folks who know the city and who call it their home.  If you break down, it’s their mechanic you’re calling.  When you leave, the relationships with agencies, speakers and neighborhoods remain and grow  year to year.
  1. Our relationship to local      helping agencies, ministries and churches is grounded in authentic      relationships.  On average each of      our cities we work with 30-50 agencies, ministries and churches.  That’s a potential national network of      300.
  1. The fee you pay helps DOOR hire local staff and purchases food and materials at local businesses.  You are not only getting a good value for your money, but it is spent in such a way as to benefit the local community.
  1. Our commitment to “partnership.”  We partner with other organizations and institutions because we believe that we have much to learn from others and the combination of DOOR with our partners creates a better experience for participants.  We believe that service minded learning is best accomplished collaboratively.  Listening and learning from various voices serves to enhance one’s understanding of God and God’s call.  We believe in hearing God's call within community at both the individual level as well as our organizational level. This commitment to partnership extends to all levels of DOOR’s programming.  Nationally, we are a network of cities and denominations partnering with each other to provide learning. Locally we work with various faith based and non-faith based service agencies. We are committed to connecting participants to local urban congregations representing various denominational and cultural traditions.
  1. Our commitments to reconciliation peace, non-violence and justice.  From race to nationality and from denomination to local church our programming, our training and our philosophies challenge us to reconcile the sins and hurts of the past and to move forward together with God.
  1. Finally, take home new energy, focus, and ideas for ministry in your home congregation and neighborhood. Interacting with urban service agencies, local congregations, and DOOR staff can help your group consider how to live out the Gospel in new ways at home.

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.

Un-Documentable

In the last three weeks I have been drawn into at least five separate conversations regarding immigration.  The general tone of these encounters has been critical of current USA policy.  At the more benign level people argue that Christianity and hospitality are connected.  This call to hospitality demands that Christians advocate for an open immigration policy.  On the more radical end there are those who say that the USA made its wealth by taking much of the American Southwest from Mexico and continues to reap benefits from unfair trade practices and sweat shops.  For these folks immigration isn’t so much about hospitality but rather it is about reparations.  People are coming here because they want their “stuff” back. As you can well imagine, these discussions are filled with a whole lot of emotion.

The exchange that I keep coming back to occurred this week.  It was with my friend Anton Flores.  He runs a small not-for-profit in La Grange Georgia called Alterna.  Alterna is a group of people that offers community, fellowship and hospitality to the “un-documentable.”  It is important to note that “un-documentable” does not equal criminal or terrorist.  These are people who have come because providing for their family in their home country has become all but impossible.  More often than not the conditions that have driven them to the USA are tied to foreign policies and actions of the past and present.

I empathize with those who wish for stricter immigration laws and regulations.  The desire to feel safe and secure is powerful.  What I do not understand is why the church so often supports these laws uncritically.   Hospitality and making things right are cornerstones of the Christian faith.  As believers our first loyalty is to each other and humanity.  When this loyalty comes into conflict with the laws of the land, our faith commitment must always come first.

Ministry 101

I have a friend who likes to talk about his decision to come to Denver’s Westside.  It was 1965; his thought was that he would stick around 3-5 years, because that was the commitment needed to fix poverty, violence, and poor education.  It is 2012 and he is still there. There is a popular idea among church and ministry leaders that goes something like this: “I will stay around just long enough to work myself out of a job.”  On the surface this sounds noble, empowering, and a little romantic.  However, the more I think about this notion the more I dislike it.

Authentic ministry always includes things like presence, community, mutuality, and walking alongside the other.  When leaders stand behind statements like “I am going to work myself out of a job,” it often becomes permission to stand apart from those we have been called to work with.  Standing apart is not terribly Christian.

A number of years ago John Perkins wrote about ministry in and among at-risk communities. For Perkins ministry needed to be done together and it needed to be done right. Perkins proposed three “R’s” for ministry – reconciliation, redistribution and relocation.  Anyone who has taken these ideas seriously knows that it isn’t about working yourself out of a job. It is about becoming a part of a community.  When you join a community their issues become your issues.  People cease to be ministry projects that require fixing or guidance and instead become family and friends who need a hand to hold.  When we become family, walking away becomes unimaginable.

Why?

I am writing this entry from my front porch.  Across the street a family is gathering,  mostly to support each other.  Earlier this week Hector (not his real name) was rushed to Denver Health Medical Center.  He had slipped into unconsciousness. His liver is failing and unless he gets a new one he is going to die.  Hector is a father of four; the youngest just started kindergarten at the school down the street. I met him the day I moved into this neighborhood, 14 years ago.  He likes to talk – a lot!  He is a good neighbor, father, worker and husband.  It is obvious that he adores his family.

On its own this is one of those situations that raise all kinds of “God” questions - Why would you allow this to happen?  Is this really just?

But there are other complicating factors as well.  You see Hector does not have “documentation” that allows him to “legally” live in this country.  The direct implication is that he is not “qualified” to be on a transplant list.  I realize that immigration is an extremely contentious political issue.  But watching this scene play out across the street and in front of my eyes moves the discussion from a disconnected political debate to a deeply personal reality.

Hector is going to die and leave behind a family that needs him, simply because of where he was born.  Somehow this makes him less worthy – less human.  Can this be moral, right or just?  Especially in a country that regularly claims to own the moral high ground.

The more I study Scripture the more the theme of “inclusion” emerges.  How we treat the stranger and alien says something about the quality of our faith.

I am not a politician.  I still believe that this is one of the most amazing places to live.  But we can be better and we can do better.  One of the first steps is choosing to welcome, include and allow access to all levels of services to the strangers and aliens among us.

Community

One of the values my wife and I are attempting to pass on to our boys is the importance and primacy of community.  This is not always easy in a culture that appears to value the rights of the individual over and against the good of the community. Barbara Kingsolver has become one of my favorite authors.  Her books are not only entertaining but also thought provoking.  In her book “Pigs in Heaven,” two of the characters discuss the importance of belonging to a “tribe.”  One is a musician and the other a painter.  The musician is questioning why the painter must always sign her paintings; the musician goes so far as to suggest that this “need” to be noticed is a rejection of community:

“But how can you belong to a tribe, and be your own person, at the same time?  You can’t.  If you’re verifiably one, you’re not the other.”

“Can’t you alternate?  Be an individual most of the time and merge with other once in a while?”

“That’s how I see it,” Jax says.  “I’m a white boy, with no tribal aptitudes.  My natural state is solitary, and for recreation I turn to church or drugs or biting the heads off chickens or wherever one goes to experience sublime communion.”

“The only people I know who experience sublime communion all the time are yogis and heroin addicts.”  Gundi tests the water with the ball of one foot.  “Do you think it’s possible to live without wanting to put your name on your paintings?  To belong to a group so securely you don’t need to rise above it?”

As I have reflected on this conversation, it struck me that community does not happen because we say that it is a priority, rather, community happens in that place of absolute security.  No matter what someone has done or said, his or her place in the community is never in question.   

In many ways individualism is easier – I only have to worry about myself.  When we buy into the idea that the rights of the individual are primary, the end result is isolation and fear.  Building community is hard work.  Setting aside individual rights for the welfare of the community is scary and almost un-American, but I suspect that it is pro-Christian.

Christian Self-help

Have you ever heard someone say, “God helps those who help themselves?” Why do so many assume this to be a true statement?  And why do we want it to be true?

What in all of scripture would lead anyone to this conclusion?

The Old Testament law is full of special provisions for the stranger and the widow, in other words, those who are least able to help themselves.  I suspect that it might be more accurate to say that God helps those who cannot do anything for themselves.

The Jesus story is all about God sending a Savior because humanity was completely without means to save itself.  There was no self-help path option.

Maybe the key to wholeness is recognizing our inability to pull ourselves up by our own boot straps.

I love the body metaphor that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12, describing the church as a body made up of many parts.  It is together that we become the people of God.  Our faith makes sense within the context of a community.  It is not about me (you) and God against the world.  If it was, Christian self-help would make sense.

The Christian faith is something we live out together.  We are called to help each other, walk alongside each other, cry with each other, laugh with each other and mourn with each other.  It is a faith and lifestyle that calls us to help each other.

This is the good news of the gospel – you are not in it alone.  There is a community of people who are in it with you. So, forget self-help and embrace community-help, it’s the Jesus way.

Bearing Witness

As a young adult I attend a college that had a daily mandatory chapel requirement.  For four years, I heard six sermons every week.  I quickly became an expert at evaluating the quality of a preacher within the first half-minute.  If the preacher didn’t pass the 30-second test I could be asleep within the next 30 seconds. In many ways, chapel became a place of rest for me.

After four years of six sermons per week, one in particular has stuck.  It was delivered by a professor not known for his public speaking skills.  I can no longer recall his name, but I remember the sermon as if it were yesterday.

His text was the book of Job.

He spoke shortly after the death of his wife.

She died after a long struggle with cancer, leaving behind her husband and two children.

I remember him talking about Job’s friends.  These were the guys who came to comfort Job after he lost everything: his children, his wealth and his reputation.  Initially, they came and just sat with him - listening and bearing witness.

After a while they started to talk. They tried to explain the “what” and the “why” of Job’s loss.

This is where they went wrong.

Like Job’s friends, we live in a culture that needs to understand why bad things happen to good people.  Simply bearing witness to pain and loss seems inadequate.  So we try to explain and justify: “All things work together for good,” or, “She is in a better place.”

The only thing that Job’s friends did right was sit with him for seven days and bear witness to his pain.  It was when they opened their mouths that everything when wrong.

Why is it so hard to simply bear witness to someone’s pain?

Jesus was a communist

Last week, I attended a gathering of urban church leaders. The afternoon session began with sharing.

The first pastor to share started with these words, “Jesus was a communist.”

It certainly got my attention. I do not normally think of Jesus in quite that way.

When I hear the word “communism,” I first think of Stalin. Some historians claim that this guy is responsible for killing more people than Hitler. Placing Jesus in this camp seems wrong.

But as the pastor started unpacking this idea, I began to wonder about Jesus’ political leanings.

Would Jesus have voted for the Democrat or Republican candidate? (This question by itself assumes a lot: Would Jesus have come to earth as an American? Probably not.)

Would Jesus have supported the Western ideas of capitalism and individuality?

As this pastor continued sharing, he reminded us that scripture has a bias toward the poor, the immigrant and the widow. He then went on to suggest that capitalism and individuality do not easily make space for the poor, the immigrant and the widow.

If we define communism as a system that puts the needs of the community ahead of the desires of the individual, then it becomes possible to define Jesus as a communist.

Jesus was known for putting the needs of others ahead of his own.

Jesus was known for including the outsiders and outcasts.

If being a Christian means being Christ-like, maybe we all have to become a little less capitalist and a little more communist.

Just thinking…