Monthly Archives: February 2017

Faith is…

 

Jim Wallis, longtime leader of the progressive evangelical organization Sojourners, is fond of saying that faith is always personal, but never private.  Faith ought to deeply impact us on the personal level, but, as Wallis’ saying goes, personal doesn’t mean private.  Faith, by its nature, affects the kinds of relationships we form and with whom we form them.  Wallis has persistently encouraged folks in the evangelical world to move beyond a “Me and God” mentality, finding ways to live out faith convictions for the common good.

I’ve recently been pondering whether an additional saying is needed.  It might go something like this: faith is political but not partisan.  The Torah repeatedly speaks of fair treatment of workers, along with caring for the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant.  The Hebrew prophets decry the concentration of wealth and defend the cause of the poor.  Jesus continues in this tradition.  Faith is not merely political, but living out our faith has political implications.  Giving primary allegiance to kin-dom values can put us in conflict with cultural norms and policies.

So here’s part of the trick these days: How do we as a congregation live out a prophetic witness without falling into the deeply worn cultural rut of partisan politics?  How do we name present injustices while seeing the deeper historical patterns that preceded this current administration?  How might our collective worship raise our spirits and consciousness toward the one Source of Life without assuming we all think and pray the same way?  And how do we not let righteous anger blind us to our own hypocrisies and failures?

This requires deep soul work, and we don’t have a lot of models right now for how to do it well.  I’m thinking that part of our calling as a congregation is living out a faith that is…

prayerful and personal…but not private,

prophetic and p0litical…but not partisan.

Yours in alliteration,

Joel

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Telling our story

 

Toward the end of last year The Mennonite magazine put out an invitation to submit articles on the theme of race and faith.  I wrote about our congregation’s journey last year.  It has just been posted on The Mennonite website, and I’m copying the text below as well.

By way of brief follow up, I’m pleased that the organization Faith in Public Life has been convening Columbus faith leaders once a month to address matters disproportionally impacting communities of color.  Our breakfast this morning had 40+ folks around the table.  Specifically, the group will be promoting Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for all Columbus police officers, to teach de-escalation techniques, and greater awareness of mental and psychiatric disorders.  The goal of the program is to create a clean link between law enforcement and emergency mental health services (rather than the county jail being the primary mental health institution).

“Trouble the Waters: One congregation’s year-long focus on racial justice”

In the fall of 2015, a group of leaders in our congregation sat down to discuss a question: What do we need to be talking about and might this serve as a theme throughout the coming year?

After naming our context and sharing from our own lives, we reached a clear consensus: We need to be talking about race. We need to be talking about racism and the work of anti-racism.

This answer immediately raised other questions. How does a congregation do this well? Can a predominantly white congregation have a sustained focus on race without making non-white members overly visible or invisible? Will people get tired of focusing on racial justice for an entire year? Is this already an example of privilege that we can opt in or out of confronting racism? When the year is up, will we integrate anti-racism principles into how we do church or will we simply move on to another topic? Am I, as a pastoral leader, ready to engage in what one of my seminary professors referred to as “doing theology by the seat of your pants?” Where do we even begin?

Lent came early in 2016, a season of confession. It was a place to start.

One tradition of our congregation is to have different members write a meditation each day of the Lenten season, sent out through email. Rather than general reflections, we invited people to tell a story about their own experience of race. What were you taught about race growing up? When did you first realize you were white or brown? When did you give or receive your first racial slur? People’s willingness to address these questions opened up a conversation that is still going.

Our Worship Commission settled on “Trouble the waters” as a Lenten worship theme. Along with referencing the words of the African-American spiritual, which we sang in different styles throughout the season, the phrase was intended to name that we were intentionally opting in to the troubled waters of racial consciousness.

I invited members to sign up to reflect with me on the lectionary texts over meals at our house. We discussed the passages for the coming Sunday through a racial and personal lens. An example: The temptations of Jesus in the wilderness took on new depth as we viewed them through the filter of white privilege, as temptations to live out a distorted kind of power. One person around the table noted that he had done plenty of foolish things in his life akin to Jesus hurling himself off the pinnacle of the temple. He wondered if it was his whiteness that had been his ‘angel’ protecting him from social injury, giving him second and third chances. To paraphrase Psalm 91: “He will command his lawyers concerning you, to protect you.” I included comments and insights like this in Lenten sermons.

An early sign that this theme was troubling the water in a constructive way came when several parents reported that their young children were starting to ask questions at home about racism.

During the winter and spring, a group of us studied the first 20 chapters of Exodus, with attention to how the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery was paralleled by the African-American experience, and how Black Christianity has weaved the Exodus story into its own identity. We pondered the civil disobedience of the Hebrew midwives, the bi-cultural consciousness of Moses, the interpretive history associating the Egyptians giving their gold and silver to the fleeing Hebrews with the concept of reparations, just payment for stolen labor.

We noted that the Egyptian word “Pharaoh” means “The big house,” a remarkable connection to the residence of elite American slave masters. Every time the word “Pharaoh” appeared in the text, we read “the big house” instead.

During the summer and fall, we invited several leaders working at racial justice in our community to speak with us during and after worship and invite us into their work.

On Labor Day weekend, we canceled the worship service in our own building and encouraged members to worship with predominantly African-American congregations throughout the city. We created an annotated list of these congregations we already had a relational connection with and encouraged people to sign up for limited slots so a bunch of white people wouldn’t overwhelm any single church. We heard positive testimonies of these visits during later sharing times.

In September, a 13 year old black boy named Tyre King was shot and killed by a Columbus police officer a few miles from our church. Had this happened in a previous year, I’m not sure our congregation would have felt connected to the incident. But because we had already been speaking the names of black folks who have died at the hands of police, it felt natural and vital that our worship include a lament for the King family. Along with this, a member spoke up challenging us to build better ties with local police officers.

In the fall our worship theme was: “From colorblindness to racial consciousness to anti-racism and racial justice.” One Sunday, our bulletin cover had a 1930’s map of redlined neighborhoods in Columbus. During that era, these neighborhoods of mostly black folks were considered too risky to receive home and business loans. We noted that our church building is located in a historic ‘green’ area, receiving preferential treatment for such loans, and that today this area remains a financially flourishing neighborhood.

We told the story of the 1969 Black Manifesto, and its demands for reparations from white congregations. We listened to older members who had memory of how the Black Manifesto was received in various Mennonite settings.

Throughout the fall, into December, we had two Sunday school classes addressing racism, including a book study of Drew Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen which speaks directly to the church. The final session included a comment from a participant saying that black lives must matter for our congregation in 2017 as well. Another participant requested a follow up class in the new year to go deeper into the social construction of whiteness.

Along with Drew Hart’s writing, some other books I found helpful throughout the year were Dear White Christians, by Jennifer Harvey; Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and Racial Formation in the United States by Michael Omi and Howard Winant.

It was a very important year for our congregation, but it hasn’t been easy. We are all at different places, and the way we approached the year did not resonate with everyone.

Personally, the year succeeded in troubling my own waters in ways I didn’t anticipate. I often felt off balance, behind the learning curve, and angered at what my blinded eyes were finally starting to see. I feel the need to listen more to people of color, even as I recognize that my own work will mostly be with fellow white people.

I have been encouraged by a number of testimonies of transformation from congregational members, some of them prefaced with how hesitant they were initially to have such a theme throughout a whole year. I’m amazed by the informal conversations, and concrete actions, that this year produced. It has given us permission to talk about race and confess our blindness, and anger, to each other.

I’m grateful at the ways different people responded in ways that helped others of us along, like the church member who decided to buy 50 “Black Lives Matter” yard signs and make them available at the church. When I asked her what she was charging, she said there was no charge, that everyone can do something, and this was one thing she was doing. We ran out of signs, partly because some neighbors around the church started asking for them.

The further this year went along, the more it seemed unconscionable to ‘move on’ from a struggle in which people of color do not have the privilege of opting out.

As I write this at the end of 2016, there are two sweet images in my mind. One occurred last evening, as 50 or so people from our congregation hosted a community “Carol Sing for Justice” on the corner of a busy intersection by our church. We sang familiar Christmas carols in the cold, and held up signs made by our youth Sunday school class reading, “Jesus was a refugee,” “No peace without justice,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Christmas to do list: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.” Cars at the stop light rolled down their windows to listen and look, many giving a thumbs up or honk.

The second image is sitting right in front of me on my desk. A pastor friend has been relating with Tyre King’s family. He invited the young people of our congregation to write Christmas cards to Tyre’s mother and sisters, experiencing their first Christmas without Tyre. I’m looking at the stack of cards filled with signatures, notes and drawings from young Mennonites. I am both sorrowful for the loss of a young black boy whose life mattered just as much as any teenager in our congregation, and honored that we can be a small part of the story of healing in our community.

Informed compassion

 

Here’s another sign of the strange times we live in:  Today, while driving back and forth to Lima Mennonite Church for a CDC pastor peer meeting, listening to the recent five part series by On the Media called Busted: America’s Poverty Myths, I found myself being encouraged by these difficult stories of crushing poverty.

“Encouraged” maybe isn’t the right word.  “Heartened?”  Not quite.  “Fortified?”  Yes, something like that.  Fortified.

The series was released several months ago. In five episodes it confronts myths around poverty in the US such as poverty being the result of a poor work ethic, America being a land of equal opportunity for all, and public cash assistance, welfare, causing most people who receive it to become lazy and dependent.

One of the best parts about the series is that it gives extended time to hearing the stories of people in poverty, through their own voice.  There is narration with excellent investigative journalism, but a good percentage of time is given to hearing stories of people struggling, and regularly failing, to escape the treadmill of poverty.

On the Media is a project of WNYC in New York, but an added bonus of this series for us is that the stories are based in Ohio.  Apparently we are the heart of it all.  We hear from a welfare advocate in Athens County, and learn about the poverty of nearby Vinton County.  We are taken into the homes of people in Cleveland and Cincinnati.  Most surprising and personal for me, were stories from an impoverished couple dying by suicide in my hometown of Bellefontaine, and a substantive conversation with a recently homeless woman at the YWCA Family Center in Columbus, where our congregation serves a monthly meal.  Both of those stories are in episode 4 titled “When the Safety Net Doesn’t Catch You.”

I think the reason I find it encouraging, or fortifying, despite the difficult content, is that it gives depth and humanity to a persistent problem too easily reduced to p0larizing slogans.  We are certainly in the era of polarizing slogans, and I can almost literally feel by heart rate increase every time I log on to the New York Times to peruse the headlines these days.

A series like this provides depth and teaches us how to see in new ways.  While listening, I found my heart beating to the rhythm of informed compassion rather than kneejerk anxiety.  I’m highlighting that sentence because, as I wrote it, it helped me realize how hungry I am for informed compassion, and how easy it is to slip into kneejerk anxiety.

You can download the podcasts from On the Media or listen online HERE.

Joel