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.

Progress – yes and no

For me October is always a month of reflection; by the end of this month I will have completed 20 years at DOOR. My conference minister regularly reminds me that people and institutions become what they pay attention to. It was December 2004 when I began paying attention to something different. In many ways this something different was and is tied to the words in Jesus’ prayer “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The journey began in 2003. When recruiting for a new Denver City Director there were no applications from people of color; the scenario repeated in the search for a new Chicago City Director a year later. In both cases extremely well qualified individuals were hired. But what did it say about DOOR and our commitments to diversity that we were unable to attract even a single candidate of color for these positions?

If DOOR was going to become a “multi” ministry, we were going to have to begin paying attention to different things. With a great deal of naiveté I wrote the following reflection/vision statement:

 As we think about DOOR in 10 years, part of that dream includes a transformation of the ethnic make-up of our City Directors. We are not saying it is wrong to hire Anglos, nor do we want to fire any of our current staff. Our current City Directors are some of the finest and brightest people with whom one could ever hope to work. We do, however, want to think about how and with whom we replace outgoing City Directors.

As DOOR looks down the road 10 years, it is our desire to develop a plan that would enable us to identify, train and hire City Directors who are from the urban minority community. It is important to recognize that for a plan like this to be successful our current set of City Directors will have to own this vision.

The goal was that by 2014, 51% of full-time DOOR staff would come from the urban minority community.

Well, its 2014, how did we do? Today, ten years later, 50% of our full-time staff and 72% of our summer Discerners are persons of color, and our local boards are no longer dominated by white men. The changes at DOOR are real; however we still have much to learn.

You see, in 2004 we were primarily thinking about diversity through the lens of race. The other forms of diversity - theology, class, age, orientation, and gender- were always important, but there was a sense in which these secondary diversity issues. In the last few years it has become increasingly clear that to limit “diversity” to one particular aspect, in DOOR’s case “color,” leads to an incomplete and potentially twisted understanding of the kingdom of God.

DOOR is both a tolerant and intolerant organization. On one hand we are open to participants who “don’t get it,” but on the other we do not have a whole lot of tolerance for people who are content to live out their racial prejudice or stereotypes. What happens when we expand this tolerance-intolerance tension to issues of religion and orientation?

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.

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.

Service versus the Servant

In John 13 there is an interesting story about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.   I can only imagine the odd feeling in the room as Jesus, the top dog, pushes back from that table and begins to wash everyone’s feet.  And then after he is finished Jesus makes an interesting statement, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.   I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” For almost 20 years I have given witness to thousands of youth and young adults who have come to the city to “do” service.  They come to metaphorically wash the feet of those who don’t have as much.

Lately I have begun to wonder, does this passage call followers of Jesus to service or is there something more going on?  Doing is certainly important.  Giving a cup of water, visiting the prisoner, or feeding the hungry are things that Christians are called to do.

It seems to me that Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was more than a “yearly” act of service.   His actions that evening were simply an extension of who he was – a servant.   In Philippians 2 the apostle Paul talks about Jesus emptying himself and taking on the very nature of a servant.

The dirty little secret about “doing” service is that the temptation to retreat back into privilege is intoxicating and overwhelming.  There is an entire Christian industry that has grown up around servicing this cycle.  It goes something like this: go on the annual mission trip, have your heart broken by the need, have your faith stretched, commit to making changes, go back home, begin the process of allowing the service experience to slowly fade into a distant memory, reengage your privilege – from how money is spent to only worrying about me, myself and I- then get ready for the next service trip and repeat.  The danger of this cycle is that it leads to a Christian faith without substance.

When Jesus called his disciples to wash each other’s feet, it was much more than a call to do.  It was also a call be.  Who we are is much more than what we do for a week.  The call of Jesus is to become a servant to all.  In some circles this is referred to as the upside-down kingdom, a kingdom where power comes from being a servant.  While it is possible to do service and retain privilege it is not so easy to be a person of privilege and a servant at the same time.  Even Jesus had to empty himself.

Why DOOR?

This is that time of year when youth pastors and ministry leaders start to plan their spring or summer mission trip and college seniors start to wonder about life after graduation.  The program I oversee offers options for both of these groups.  Our Discover program provides opportunities for groups of folks to serve and learn in the city for anywhere from a day to a week.  Dwell, our year- long program, is geared towards young adults who want to spend a year living in community, serving in a local helping agency, and exploring what the call of God on their life might be. We are not the only people who offer these kinds of programs.  One of the questions I get asked on a regular basis is simply, why DOOR?  This is always an interesting question to try to respond to.  I have friends that run similar programs and in the for-profit world they would be considered competitors.  But in the ministry world we are “co-laborers.”   Trash talking is not appropriate!

With this in mind, why DOOR?  Here is my list:

  1. When you come to DOOR you support local jobs and benefits.  We prioritize hiring local staff; we tend to shy away from “importing” leaders into our cities, believing that each of our locations already has the leadership necessary to run a successful program.
  2. When you choose DOOR you are intentionally favoring uniqueness in an increasingly generic “mission and service” market place.  Each DOOR city is watched over by a local board comprised of folks who love their cities and want participants to have an honest, healthy, and safe experience.
  3. DOOR works to create safe spaces where everyone can share their faith journey and together we can come to a new and more enriched understanding of the kingdom of God.  This is not always comfortable or easy, but the Christian faith is so much more than the boxes we try to fit it into.
  4. DOOR is a place where local pastors, ministry leaders, and artists are asked to speak into your experience while participating.  Local voices add authenticity and realism to your time with us.
  5. The programmatic fees you pay are reinvested into the local community.  We actively prioritize local suppliers, restaurants, and staff.  All of this helps to keep your fees and fundraising dollars circulating in the local community longer thus helping to strengthen the financial stability of everyone.
  6. DOOR starts with the assumption that God is already in the city.  This is an asset-based approach.  When one approaches ministry and mission from an asset-based perspective the inherent dignity of everyone is preserved.

If you are considering or know someone who is leading a service/mission trip or wanting to spend a year living in an intentional Christian community please consider DOOR.

An Eternal Moment

Every once in a while I find myself participating in an important moment. These moments rarely arise because of planning. They just happen. Last evening I was part of one of these moments. It took place after the DOOR Atlanta board meeting at Manuel’s Tavern. I like going there because they have two prime parking spots reserved for clergy. There were eight of us around the table. Two board members, our Atlanta City Director, my friend Anton, me and three Discern staff representing three of our DOOR cities. These2013-08-12 22.48.07 Discerners were in Atlanta for a Fund for Theological (FTE) event. Chris is from the west side of Chicago and has worked for DOOR every summer for the past 10 years. Today he is a confident 20 something about to complete his Master of Communication Studies, but I remember the high school freshman who was so skinny the wind could blow him over. Manny just completed his third summer in Denver. He likes to claim Los Angeles as his home town, but he spent most of his teen years in Denver and is a member of the church our family attends. Kelli spent one summer in both Denver and Hollywood. She came to DOOR through a more “traditional path;” she came as a Discover participant, liked the program and applied for a summer staff position. Here were these three young adults – a Hispanic, an African American and an Anglo.

For two hours we sat at that table. The waiter could hardly get a word in to take our order. The conversation was animated, passionate and emotional. We began with the “simplest” of topics, how should we think about sexual orientation? This went on for about 45 minutes. Once we had come to a general consensus we moved on to talking about how working for DOOR has impacted each of their lives. For each of them working with a diverse staff had helped them to better understand who they were and the radical breadth of the kingdom of God. The concept of “For God so loved the world” had taken on new meaning.

One of our hiring commitments is to find people who are different from one another and ask them to work together in unity. Our staff comes to us from urban, rural and suburban settings. Some have been raised in the church while others are new to the Sunday thing. They are young adults of color and they are Anglo. Some are progressive while others hold a more conservative theology. All of this diversity could be viewed as a prescription for disaster. I am constantly surprised that this doesn’t blow up in our face. Every year these young adults choose to define themselves first by what they hold in common. When this happens everyone is given a glimpse of what the church can be.

PC or Mac?

Disclaimer:  I am not a technological expert.  If you are looking for the opinion of someone who knows all the “ins” and “outs” of computers then you are reading the wrong blog. A week ago I purchased a brand new 11-inch MacBook Air.  I have been a PC guy since college, but for the past two years I have been thinking about switching.  Quite often I write these blogs in coffee shops.  There is one particular coffee shop in Denver where all the” cool urban” pastors come to work.  They write blogs, prepare sermons and network.  All of them use the computer with the half-eaten apple.  On June 24, 2013 I made the first step towards ministry coolness.  I not only bought an Air, I purchased the upgraded version - a 512 hard drive with and 4th generation I7 Haswell chip.  I must admit this was the most elegant computer I have ever owned.  It looked good and worked even better.  I am a car guy and compared to my old computer this MacBook was like upgrading from a 20 year old rusted Ford Bronco to a brand new 5 Series BMW.

So what was I thinking when on Thursday, June 27 I returned the MacBook Air to the Apple store for a full refund?  It turns out I don’t need a BMW.  What I really need is an off-road capable computer.  For these purposes a PC just works better.

I cannot help but wonder if this is also true for ministry folks, especially those who feel the call to urban work.  I want ministry to be elegant and cool.  This isn’t a realistic expectation.  Urban work requires leaders to be open to the unexpected and the different, which is rarely elegant.  It demands that I admit when I am wrong, which happens on a regular basis.  Working with different cultural, gender and orientation expectations can be frustrating and confusing.  Urban work needs people with more of a blue collar mentality.  In this context BMW’s and Macs just can’t cut it.

Remembering

One of the habphotoits I have picked up over the last few years is running. Initially it was a way to lose weight and get in shape. In this sense running has been good for me; I have lost weight and my physical stamina is much improved. Running has become so much more than a way to stay physically active. There is something spiritual about running along Hollywood Boulevard at 7 AM before the tourists emerge or being stopped by the police in West Garfield Park, a neighborhood in Chicago, to find out if I really intended to be out and about in that particular part of town. Running in my particular neighborhood, East Denver, helps me notice things that go unnoticed when I am rushing about in my car. Roadside memorials are one such thing. The memorials along my running routes are remembrances of people, mostly teens and young adults who were shot and killed as a result of gang activity.

This coming Saturday Edward Armijo, also known as East Side Eddie, is hosting “A Day to Remember Lost Lives Slain to Violence.” This event will take place at Sunken Gardens Park; this park is right across the street from my office. It is also a place where 1,000’s of DOOR participants have played soccer, ultimate Frisbee or escaped to for a few moments of silence.photo4

On Saturday over 1,000 names of young people who have died unnecessarily on the streets in Denver will be read. In some cases parents will share stories of lost loved ones. Tears will flow.

Since the late 90’s our family has lived in a community affected by violence. We know the difference between a fire cracker and a gun shot. By the way these are skills that were never taught in seminary. I know of no easy or quick fixes for urban violence. Serious solutions will demand that parents, schools, churches, the police and politicians work together.

10 years

Have you ever experienced a moment when your perspective changes forever? The birth of my children and death of my mother fit into this category. Another similar moment happened on my first day at this job. We were at one of the helping agencies DOOR partners with, almost 20 years ago, and I was being introduced as the new DOOR city director. It was a time when I was full of all kinds of "creative" ideas for making DOOR a more effective urban program. Then one of the ladies, we will call her Christine, to whom I was being introduced stood up, walked around her desk, came right up to me, looked me up and down and said, "so you are the new DOOR director (long pause), don't tell us anything until you have been here 10 years." After which she turned around, walked back to her desk and went back to the work. Later on we became good friends, but that first day and the advice she gave have haunted me ever since. In one sentence Christine put me in my place and began a process that reshaped my understanding of mission, service and the role of people who come to participate in these acts. I can best explain it this way. On my first days of work I believed that I had been called to urban Denver to make a difference. Children were going to be tutored, the hungry were going to be fed, houses would be repaired, the homeless would be loved and everyone would be grateful for the changes I was engineering. Until I met Christine those dreams and visions seemed God ordained. What I had forgotten is that Christianity is about relationship. Relationship, in its purest form, is always mutual. My “day one” vision wasn’t mutual; it was paternalistic. At best paternalism stinks; at its worst it destroys communities.

What Christine was trying to tell me on that first day in her own special way was that mission, service and ministry don’t make much sense apart from relationship. In her mind it would take at least 10 years for me to understand the community and at least 10 years for the community to learn to trust me.

I realize that we live in a world where everything happens quickly from overnight shipping of goods across the world to fast food. Telling people that patience and time are needed to accomplish anything almost sounds antiquated. So I will risk it and sound antiquated – if you want to serve then hang out a bit, get to know us, earn the right to speak into our lives and together we will make a difference.

The Sanitized Mission trip

DOOR began hosting short-term mission/service groups in 1986. We were one of the first programs in the country to do so. Since that time the annual mission trip has become part of the life cycle of many if not most churches. Programs have sprung up all over the USA and around the world dedicated to filling this growing desire to participate in the annual short-term trip. When I think back to the early days of this movement I am sometimes embarrassed by all the things we did wrong. More often than not we came into communities of need “knowing” how to fix all the problems. The good that was accomplished was often overshadowed by the paternalistic, racist and arrogant attitudes people came with.

I am glad to report that DOOR has learned from its past. We understand that God is already in the city. Before we can talk about bringing God into a community we first must understand where God already is. When it comes to differences we have learned that different is just different. People worship differently, eat differently, look different, come to faith differently, and express themselves differently. All of this is OK and a demonstration of the breadth and depth of the kingdom of God. When it comes to service, mission, and ministry, if it isn’t mutual then it probably isn’t something God is calling us to. This journey has been mind-blowing and faith-expanding.

There is a new trend that has me worried. I call it the sanitized mission trip. The desire to serve is alive and well. There is a recognition that ministry must be mutual. This is good. The problem is that we want mission and service to happen in a Disneyland type of atmosphere. We want an experience as long as it is safe and sanitized. Here is the rub. Experiencing different neighborhoods, cultures and people can be intimidating and even unpredictable. This does not always feel safe.

In 1992 I took a youth group to South Central Los Angeles 45 days after the riots. Just before we left on that trip I met with the parents. All of them were nervous. Many thought we should cancel the trip; some even pulled their children out of the trip. In spite of this a smaller group of us still went on the trip. Was it safe? Certainly not by “Disneyland” standards, but it was transformational. During this trip we discovered that the news media got some things right, for example a riot occurred. At the same time it got many things wrong. We discovered a South Central LA that was full of parents who wanted a good life for their children, street venders who could produce meals that five star restaurants would have trouble competing with, homeless people who wanted to talk, and merchants who wanted customers.

Was our trip safe? In one sense the answer is yes. No one had to go to the hospital. In another sense it was a very dangerous trip. We all walked away from South Central with a new pessimism for how the media reports the news, especially in urban communities. In addition our understanding of the kingdom of God was forever changed. At a personal level I came back to Denver and joined the board of a program called “DOOR.” A few years later I became the City Director for Denver and a few years after that our family moved from the suburbs to the city. Because of that trip, everything changed for me and my family.

If we ask safety questions to avoid silly and irresponsible behavior then I am all for asking the questions. Otherwise I am not sure that “safety” and “mission/service trip” belong in the same sentence. The call to deny ourselves and pick up the cross simply doesn’t create space for a sanitized mission trip.

The Interview

The other day I was interviewed for a research project. These requests come my way every so often. I enjoy talking about DOOR and my philosophy of ministry. Many times these interviews have a therapeutic quality. Talking about what DOOR does and how we see the world actually helps to clarify why I do what I do. The interview was moving along smoothly. We began by talking about board structure, hiring practices, and programmatic priorities then moved on to questions of diversity. Over the past decade DOOR has gone through a significant transformation. We, are no longer a white, mostly male, Mennonite program. Our boards are made up of people from many different denominational traditions, men and women hold leadership positions, and people of color out number Anglos. This past summer our Discern program was over 70% persons of color from the neighborhoods and communities in which we serve. It was these kinds of changes that the interviewer was most fascinated by. Responding to her questions helped me to recall the journey that DOOR has been on for the past decade.

Just before we finished she asked if I had anything else to say. In a moment of unguarded clarity I choose to respond. When I came to DOOR the power structures were comfortable and known. My board looked like me, thought like me, and made decisions the way I would have made decisions. I hired summer staff that came from the same culture and theological perspective I came from. We hosted groups that came from churches similar to churches that I grew up in. All of this took place in a community that was different in almost every respect – culturally, ethnically, theologically, and economically. The “saving” grace was that my board, staff, and program participants could all agree on the “solution.”

Today our boards are made up of local pastors and leaders representing the colorful and interesting diversity that is the Kingdom of God. We are Anglo, Hispanic, Asian, African American and Mixed. Women make up the majority (just barely) of our board members. Liberal and conservative believers sit at the same table and choose to define themselves by what they have in common rather than by what separates. There are hipsters, hip-hop pastors/artists, Mennonites, Presbyterians, non-denominational, Methodists, Four-Square, emerging leaders, and retired saints all giving input and helping to guide DOOR into the future.

If I am honest, leading this kind of organization is a little like trying to herd cats. That said I cannot imagine going back to what we once were. I thank God every day for the opportunity to be part of something that is counter-cultural, innovative, and a small reflection of what heaven will be like.

A New Racism…maybe

For a number of years now I have been encountering on a new kind of racism; it is subtle and politically correct.  During the last election cycle our country witnessed this as some in the evangelical community quietly removed Mormonism from the cult category.  Why? Could it be that it is more palatable to redefine cult than to have a black man in charge?  I doubt we will ever know for sure, but the question is thought provoking. This same set of issues has emerged at DOOR.  Last year a youth group came and left DOOR on the same day.  The “official” answer was because the neighborhood was unsafe.  Based on the leader’s interaction with our City Director, having a black woman in charge was a bigger issue.  I cannot help but wonder what the response would have been if the City Director had been a white male.

For our staff of color communicating with Anglo participants can often be frustrating.  When staff of color confronts participants about internal or external community issues the information seems to be received differently, in a very subtle way.  There have even been reports that these staff do not fully understand what DOOR participants are dealing with.  The exact opposite response also occurs.  In an effort to build bridges participants accept everything uncritically.  Both extremes tend towards an unhealthy paternalism.

These concerns become more pronounced and complex among our summer staff of color.  Many of our Discover participants come to the city to help the poor and oppressed.  More often than not “poor and oppressed” equals people of color.  When we put youth and young adults from the community in leadership positions the door is opened for all kinds of misunderstandings, assumptions, and hurt.

This past summer one of our summer staff of color (and personal friend of mine for the past 10 years) was accused by another summer staff person, who happened to be white and not from the neighborhood, of coming to work high.  Apparently showing up to work singing, with a baseball cap off to the side, and being overly energetic is “proof” of drug abuse.  Is it possible that he was just in a good mood?

I am not sure what the response to all of this should be.  The subtle nature of these encounters makes it difficult to determine intentionality and motivation.  I do know that these encounters are discouraging and frustrating for the victims.  Moving beyond stereotyping is not always simple, but it is necessary.

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.

Seeing and not seeing

Next Sunday I get to preach at my home church.  For the past number of months I have been working through Luke 18.  I only speak every 6-8 weeks, so takes a while to complete a series.  I am finally ready to wrap up the chapter.  Luke 18 ends with two stories; the first is a conversation with the disciples.  It must have been a frustrating discussion because the disciples didn’t understand a thing Jesus was saying.  The second story is about a blind man who receives his sight because he understands who Jesus is. In short, the sighted don’t see and the blind see.

I have always thought of myself as an “aware” person.  Observing the world around me and understanding what is going on.  Lately I have come to discover that I am quite blind.  This has not been easy to admit.  Somewhere in the process of owing my blindness I have begun to see.  This hasn’t been easy either.

Two weeks ago while presenting a seminar on White Privilege I referred to the birth certificate questions that have been raised about our current President.  I suggested that one of the driving factors in questioning his citizenship was his skin color.  One of our city directors was in the room and overheard a teenaged boy comment under his breath, “the President needs to go back to where he came from.”

Last week we had a DOOR group arrive in Chicago.  Within hours of their arrival some in the group decided that the neighborhood was too dangerous.  It was irresponsible on our part to even suggest that they “live” in the neighborhood for one week and serve.  Our Chicago program is located in an African American neighborhood.  When the group left they presented many reasons, while carefully avoiding the real reason.  They were in a neighborhood full of folks who looked different and those differences scared them.

This week I attended a seminar that was led by an African American man.  He told the story of his wife getting pregnant with their first child.  Sometime during the second trimester they went to the doctor to find out if they were having a boy or a girl.  The news came back that they were having a boy.  Both mom and dad were excited for the first week.  By the second week his wife became severely depressed.  In a moment of brutal honesty she expressed her desire to not carry the baby to term.  Not because she didn’t want the baby, but because she feared how society would treat an African American male.

I have been involved in urban ministry for 17 years.  For all the right reasons I wanted to believe that the church has moved beyond race and racism.  Having to see a different reality is not easy -I get why the disciples chose not to understand what Jesus was saying.  Who wants to talk about pain and suffering?

In Psalm 23 we learn that the path to a new reality includes walking through the very valley of the shadow of death.  Confronting racism is not easy or comfortable, but racism is dehumanizing and dehumanization has no place in the kingdom of God.

Wednesday

Wednesday has become one of my favorite days of the week.  A little over a year ago, I was invited to start attending the weekly pastoral staff meeting at the church my family attends.  Pastor Phil felt that I had a unique “urban perspective,” given the amount of travelling I do.  It is true that my job provides me with the opportunity to visit with many different urban pastors and church leaders every year. To be perfectly honest I went to that first meeting thinking that I had something to contribute.  Within 10 minutes those thoughts disappeared.

(Before I go further, I need to tell you about the church our family attends - His Love Fellowship.   It is a Hispanic congregation of about 450 attendees with multi-cultural tendencies.  It is located on Denver’s West Side and by every definition is an urban church.  So it should come as no surprise that my Anglo family is in the minority.) 

Before arriving at the first staff meeting I was feeling confident.  After all I wasn’t new to the West Side.  15 years of working with DOOR had taught me a thing or two about the urban reality.  My experience wasn’t just in Denver; I was (am) the National Director of an urban education program. In addition to Denver, DOOR also works in Hollywood, San Antonio, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami.

It was the 11 minute mark of my first staff meeting when it began to dawn on me.  I wasn’t the one who was going to offer perspective but rather it was my pastors who were going to offer me perspective.

One of my most significant realizations in the past year has to do with a trap Anglos easily fall into - thinking we understand urban reality.  In my case I thought that 15 years of urban ministry had transformed me into a “real” urban person.  In some ways this is true.  But in many other ways it isn’t.  I will never know the pain of being looked down upon because of my skin color.  I have never had to live with other folks thinking that I am needy, poor or uneducated simply because I am not white.

My reflections could go for quite a while. However, today I want to talk to other Anglos who have felt a call to urban ministry.  One of the biggest temptations you will face is to start your own thing.  We couch these temptations in all kinds of spiritual language.

“God has called me to plant an inner city church.”

“I have been lead to work among the urban poor.” 

It is not my purpose to challenge that call.  However, I want to offer some advice.  I wish I could claim to have learned this the easy way.  Before you can bring Jesus to the city, you first need to figure out where Jesus is working.  One of the best ways that you can do this is to resist the temptation to start your own thing.  Spend time getting to know the pastors and leaders who are already on the ground working and ministering.  My guess is that they will not be doing things your way, but that is OK.  Don’t even consider planting a new church until you have spent at least five years in a church that is already in the neighborhood.

Blame

November tends to be a time of introspection for me.  I started my current job in November of 1994. This week I start my 17th year at DOOR. One of the people who sparked my interest in coming to DOOR was John Perkins.  I doubt he knows who I am, but I heard him speak at a CCDA event in Denver.  He spoke passionately of “Three R’s” for successful urban ministry – Relocation, Reconciliation and Redistribution.  For John, when the people of God embodied and lived these values the poor and the oppressed would be set free.

I heard this sermon at a very dark time in my life.  I had recently resigned from a pastoral position.  My prayer to God at that time was rather simple; “get real or get out.”  I was tired of pretending that my faith meant something to me.

Hearing about the “Three R’s” was the breath of fresh air I needed.  I had never really thought that where I lived was also a moral issue.  Hearing that reconciliation was more than a God and me concern was transformative.  Reconciliation also included my relationship with humanity, in all its forms.  I grew up believing in the tithe, but I had never really considered that how and where I spent the rest of the money was also an important concern.

This sermon started our family on what has become a 16-year journey.  Sixteen years ago, my faith was mostly a Sunday morning event; today my faith is a 24 hour, 7 day a week celebration.  As a family, we have relocated, have struggled with issues of reconciliation and think about where we spend our money.

I blame you John Perkins for speaking from your heart and sending our family on a crazy, wild, exciting, enriching and life-giving journey.

Living in a Multi World

Have you ever found yourself longing for a simpler time? The other day I was at our local grocery store looking for cereal.  Do you have any idea how many different kinds of cereals there are?  I panicked, texted my wife explaining that it was not possible for me to make a decision and she could find me in the magazine aisle when it was time to go.

I only remember three cereal options from my childhood – Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies and Fruit Loops.

This past Sunday we attended our youngest son’s end of season tennis banquet.  As soon as we entered the room, my wife and I were sent to the “parents” table.  Before long we were sucked into a typical parent conversation about college.

One parent mentioned that their son had applied to over 30 schools.  They were now in the process of visiting all of the schools.  Prior to this incident I assumed I was being progressive by just hoping each boy would apply to three or four colleges.

I only remember filling out one college application.  My discernment process was simple; it needed to be at least 1000 miles from home.

 I am not sure if the good-old-days ever existed, but it is nice to think that they did.

We live in a world that can be described as “multi.” 

I travel a lot.  I get to visit multiple cities.  I meet with church leaders from multiple denominational and non-denominational back grounds.  I have the privilege of attending multi-ethnic gatherings.  I have been at meetings where multiple theological perspectives have a voice.

It is always fascinating to sit around a table discussing an important theological issue with a diversity of people.  Finding unity can be extremely illusive when things like language, ethnic background, gender, denominational tradition, what region of the country or world you come from, and theology are varied.

Sometimes I wonder what God was thinking by making us all so different.

When wildly different people are brought together to discuss anything clear communication and understanding quickly become difficult.  Just because I think that I am being crystal clear has nothing to do with how the message is received.  In these situations just agreeing on where to go for lunch should be viewed as a victory.

I communicate in English from a white male North American perspective.  If the person listening to me is a female for who English is a second or third language and she has recently moved to the USA, my clarity in communicating may only be clarity in my mind.

Living in a multi world requires grace, lots of grace.  It needs to be a grace that flows from every direction.  Just because you feel offended and misunderstood does not immediately imply that the person who committed the offense intended to offend.

Living Well

This summer I had an 11-week vacation.  Eleven weeks of no planes, conference calls or meetings.  The alarm clock also took a break.  I stayed up late, watched movies, read books or just goofed around with my boys. We spent four of those weeks on a 6,000 mile road trip.  We went to Saskatchewan to celebrate my in-laws 60th wedding anniversary.  The boys learned to drive farm trucks, tractors, a combine or two and jet skis.  We had close encounters with really big bears and swam in cold northern lakes.  Stories were shared around the campfire; we hung out with friends and got reacquainted as a family.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I began to relax.

But eventually, the 11 week vacation came to an end. August 15th to be exact.  And I am glad to be back at work.  What I do has meaning and makes a real difference.

In spite of all this, I still managed to figure out a way to get stressed.  To be honest, I wasn’t even aware how stressed I was until about three weeks into the vacation.  I remember the day I figured it out.  It was a Wednesday morning. I woke up refreshed and without a headache.  It was amazing.

Living with stress and low grade headaches is not fun.  It makes a person (me) grumpy and irritable.

As I have stepped back into the working world, one question in particular keeps haunting me – is it possible to live better and healthier?  I have come to believe that the answer has to be yes.  After all, it was Jesus who talked about the abundant life in John 10:10.

There I was, the director of a national ministry, and somehow, over a period of 16 years, my life had become less about living well and more about doing the job and being political.  I spent less time thinking about ministry and more thinking about management.  None of these changes where bad or wrong individually, but the cumulative effect was devastating.  The slide from abundance to stress happened slowly, almost seductively.

Now, on the other side of an 11-week break, I want to live better; be a better father, friend, husband and boss.

To be honest, I am still trying to figure out what all this means. I am convinced that following Jesus needs to much less about stress and more about living abundantly.  I need to focus less on management and more on caring.

Relationship or meeting?

It is almost funny how my comfortable world can be shaken at the most unexpected times. Last week, while visiting with a pastor in Washington, D.C., he made the following observation:

“You Mennonites are good at getting together and having meetings and you tend to think that having a meeting equals building a relationship. Simply put, this isn’t true.  As a black pastor, I have been part of the Mennonite church for over 20 years.  I am tired of going to meetings.  Don’t get me wrong, you people run good meetings,” he said, then continued.

“I wish folks would take the time to get to know me.”

Here I was, visiting with him, asking questions—so I could be better prepared for a meeting.

This pastor, elder and bishop had lovingly and gently rebuked me.

Is it possible that we use meetings and consultations as substitutes for building healthy, trusting relationships?

Meetings allow us to be professional.   They provide a stage to strut our stuff.  Meetings allow us to connect without getting too personal.  If the church was a business, this would be appropriate.

The church isn’t a business.

The church is that place where a new family is being birthed – the family of God.   Families are not defined by well-ordered professional relationships.  Families, when they work well, are messy and wonderful, intimate and accepting.  They are safe places where warts and bad habits are tolerated, and sometimes even celebrated.  Once you’re a part of a family you’re in, no matter what.

Maybe it is time to have fewer meetings and more family reunions – family of God reunions.  We might not get much business accomplished, but we might start looking and acting like a family.