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Saint Oscar

“Each one of you has to be God’s microphone. Each one of you has to be a messenger, a prophet. The church will always exist as long as there is someone who has been baptized…Where is your baptism? You are baptized in your professions, in the fields of workers, in the market. Wherever there is someone who has been baptized, that is where the church is. There is a prophet there. Let us not hide the talent that God gave us on the day of our baptism and let us truly live the beauty and responsibility of being a prophetic people.”

“I don’t want to be an anti, against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and who wants to save us.”

“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”

These are the words of Oscar Romero.  He was a Roman Catholic pastor in El Salvador, promoted to the country’s Archbishop in 1977.  With a reputation as non-political, he was considered a safe choice for keeping the church from entering the fray of growing unrest toward an increasingly violent and repressive military regime.  Less than a month after his appointment, a dear friend of his who worked closely with poor communities was assassinated.  This became a turning point for Romero who began speaking out against violence and torture directed at the poor of his country.  During his Sunday sermons, broadcast nationwide, he would name those who had disappeared or been murdered.  He preached passionately about God’s love for the poor, calling on the state to stop the repression, and the United States to stop supplying the regime with weapons.  A listener survey determined that his radio sermons were regularly heard by 73% of the rural population and 37% of those in urban areas.  On March 23, 1980, he called on Salvadoran soldiers, themselves Christians, to obey God’s law rather than the government’s orders.  Romero was assassinated the day after while leading Mass at a hospital chapel.

Three days ago Pope Francis canonized Romero as a saint.

Romero pic of picOfficial Roman Catholic sainthood might not mean a lot to us Protestants.  We emphasize the priesthood of all believers.  But it is a gift to us to have Oscar Romero named as a leader and companion along this difficult path of the Jesus way.  It elevates a courageous and compassionate voice and spirit we need to hear.  Romero spoke out of deep conviction, in the spirit of Christ, and was met with the same fate as Jesus.  As he once said: “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”

This icon of Oscar Romero is one of the images I have hanging over my office desk.




One year in: A Sanctuary reflection

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of Edith in Sanctuary in our church building.  The press continues to tell her story sympathetically, like THIS article in The Guardian, and THIS one in The Dispatch.  Edith actually first entered Sanctuary last Labor Day, but was able to briefly return home before entering long term on October 2.

Over this past year I have thought many times about that Wednesday evening last August when we completed our accelerated discernment process to become a Sanctuary church.  It was the second congregational meeting in four days, all the time we had, due to Edith’s impending deportation order.

One of my favorite anecdotes from that evening is that Mateo Leahy was there, sitting near the back with his mom Elisa.  He had insisted on attending, so he could vote for Edith to live in our church and not have to leave her family.  He was entering second grade, and earlier in the month had been diagnosed with a soft tissue cancer in the back of his mouth.  He had already undergone a round of chemo.  But when he heard that Edith might have to leave her family he insisted on attending a mid-week evening church meeting.

After meeting Edith, discussing the legal ramifications, and raising other questions and concerns, all in attendance received slips of paper.  They were asked to write a number, 1 (cannot support) through 5 (fully support).  Later that evening, Leadership Team considered the discussion and tallied the numbers from that and the previous meeting.  Mateo’s 5 was joined by many others, and there were no 1’s.  We knew we didn’t know what all we were signing up for, but we knew enough, and had enough affirmation from the congregation, to say Yes.  Ever since, we’ve been on this journey with Edith and the community of support that has formed around her.

After nearly a year of difficult treatments, this summer Mateo and his family celebrated the beginning of a cancer-free era.  Edith, of course, remains in Sanctuary in our church building.

Although rarely named as such, some voices in our current national immigration debate approach migrants as if they were a cancer or some other kind of disease within our national body.  The solution, the treatment, is to target those here for removal, and put up as many physical and legal barriers for those seeking entrance.  Franklin County is in the top national tier for the percentage of people being deported who have no criminal record.  At the border we have gone so far as using family separation as a deterrent for those considering entry.  Maybe word will get around south of the border that the cruelty with which you’re treated in the US far surpasses the violence or economic desperation you’re trying to flee.  In this way, the US body politic will be protected.  We will be well again.  America will be great again.  Our white blood cells are working overtime these days to battle the infection.  Emphasis on white.

This year of Sanctuary has highlighted for us that there is indeed a great illness we are facing.  But we have a different diagnosis.  The illness is not caused by those who have been living in our country for many years without a secure status.  It’s not caused by migrants crossing the border, or refugees from around the world waiting for a nation that will take them in.

The illness is the dire poverty that causes desperate people to seek a stable life elsewhere.  The illness is the violence of war that causes people to flee for their lives.  The illness is human-induced climate change that creates whole populations of refugees seeking a livable environment.  The illness is our fear of the other, and our belief that higher walls keep us safe from these fears.

The problems are so entrenched there is no cure in sight.

But with a different diagnosis comes a different treatment.  Anything and everything we do to address these root causes of suffering is part of the solution.  As the saying goes, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Sanctuary is part of the work we have been given in this moment.  Edith’s singular story is a window into what ails us, and the ever-widening community of support around her is a doorway into what heals us.  Her legal case remains unresolved, but we have a growing resolve to be counted among those who choose neighborliness over isolation, love over fear, bridges over walls.

In other words, when it comes to addressing our deepest illnesses, I’m with Mateo.  Which means I’m with Edith.  Which means this holy work continues into another year.  Which makes our congregational Sanctuary prayer as pertinent as ever:

God our Sanctuary, grant us and our neighbors, near and far, courage in our hearts, peace in our homes, and justice in our streets.  Amen.

Dios nuestro Santuario, concédenos y nuestros vecinos, cercana y lejana, coraje en nuestros corazones, paz en nuestros hogares, y justicia en nuestras calles. Amen.

Jewish prayers

Our Jewish friends are fasting today.  They are praying for themselves and the world, for us.  They are confessing shortcomings, and remembering the Mercy that holds us all.

Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a high point of the Jewish calendar.  As they have in past years, the Little Minyan congregation, under the leadership of Rabbi Jessica Shimberg, is worshiping in our building.

They are chanting Hebrew in a Mennonite sanctuary.  The Torah scroll, held in the Ark, is elevated in front of the congregation.  Behind it hangs the World banner that has focused our recent summer worship.  The Torah has a white cloth cover.  On the cloth is a tree with the Hebrew words Etz Chayim, The Tree of Life.  In Sunday’s sermon I mentioned that the Tree of Life shows up in Genesis, and doesn’t reappear until Revelation.  But that’s only one angle.  The Tree of Life lives in our time.  Without it we would wither.

Rabbi JessLittle Minyan Torah (2)ica shared with me that her congregation feels that this space is doubly blessed with Edith living here.  They are praying for her and others in similar circumstances.

As I write, a small group from the congregation is preparing the fellowship hall for the meal they will share together this evening as they break the fast at sunset.

Today I’m grateful for Jewish prayers and Jewish neighbors.  May they be for a blessing.

This picture was taken and shared with their permission.






Other languages


This past Sunday was Pentecost.  It marks the transition of the liturgical year into Ordinary Time, which lasts all the way up to Advent.

Pentecost marks the birth of the church, with the key story found in Acts 2.  It’s the one where they were all together in one room “and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”  What sounded like wind looked like tongues of fire, with each person getting a piece of the flame.  Then a different sound: they all started to speak in other languages.

From its origins, the church is multi-lingual.  Rather than having an official language, love, justice, and mercy get translated into every imaginable expression.  This is the work of the Spirit.  This is the gift of Pentecost.

What happened “suddenly” at the first Pentecost is regularly pretty slow work.  Two weeks from today our family will fly out to Guatemala.  We’ll be there for three weeks.  On weekdays we’ll each have private tutoring in Spanish.  We’re not going to get fluent, but we’re going to try to learn the basics of another language.

This too is the work of the Spirit.  Putting our minds to work to enter other worlds, bridge cultural barriers, and relate to another person on their terms rather than our own.

I see each of you translating love, justice, and mercy into whatever language the people around you speak each day, whether it be the language of children, the language of academia, the language of business or social work.  This too is the work of the Spirit.


Sunday’s baptism sermon, “Do you?” “I do.” is posted HERE.


Justice Menno-style


Monday was a great BREAD Nehemiah Action, with green-shirt-clad CMCers joining 2,500+ folks from 40+ congregations around Franklin County, mixing some critical yeast with critical mass.  There are many good things in motion, including the newest issue: safe, affordable housing for the 54,000 households in Franklin County who currently pay over 50% of their income toward rent or mortgage.  The city of Columbus is beginning to outline a 10 year plan to address the problem, and BREAD will be at the table.

At the Action I was asked to speak about justice from a Mennonite perspective, and to give an interfaith prayer.  Several people have asked for the manuscript of those words.  Here they are:


When Mennonites talk about justice we often combine it with another word – peace.  Peace and Justice.  We say it enough that it sounds like one long compound word: PeaceNJustice.

The peace part is something Mennonites have emphasized since our beginnings almost 500 years ago.  This is modeled on the teachings of Jesus who said things like “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  Jesus drew his vision from the Hebrew prophets, like Isaiah and Micah, who envisioned a world in which instruments of destruction would be refashioned into instruments of creativity.  “They shall beat their swords in ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”

For Mennonites, doing justice is always informed by our commitment to peaceful relationships between people and toward creation.

But here’s the catch.  Injustice thrives under the disguise of “keeping the peace.”  I think you might know what I’m talking about.  “Keeping the peace” too often means maintaining the current distribution of power and allotment of resources.  This anemic and false view of peace is often accompanied with an equally weak practice of justice.  Justice as punishment.  Justice as giving people what they deserve for breaking the peace.

Justice that leads to true peace sometimes needs to disturb the peace of the status quo.  Mennonites believe that a fruitful understanding of justice isn’t merely that people get what they deserve, but they get what they need – which could include a shuffling of resources and power.  Justice means we’ve got to lower our sword budget, and increase our ploughshares budget.

Justice is served when people get what they need.

People need safe, affordable housing.  That’s justice.

People need a living wage to care for themselves and their families.  That’s justice.

People need robust and compassionate mental health care.  That’s justice.

Columbus Mennonite Church is a part of BREAD because this is community that moves us all toward justice.

When people get what they need, we will reap a harvest of peace.






God of many names, UnNameable, UnTameable.  Wisdom, constantly unfolding.  We, sisters and brothers of the same family, have been led to this place through the commands of Torah, the cry of the Prophets, the call of the Gospel, the moral compass of human reason and compassion.  We gather here united in our hunger and thirst for justice.  We confess our failure as individuals and as institutions to live up to our best selves.  We pray for the courage and the imagination to find another way – a better way.

May our time this evening serve our intention of creating a more just and equitable society here in Franklin County.

We pray this in the name of Love.  Which pray this in the name of Justice.  We pray this in the many Names of the Source of Love and Justice, in whom we live and move and have our being.  Amen.

— Joel


Conflict and curiosity


The church subscribes to a quarterly publication called Leader.  We distribute copies to various folks in leadership positions.  The theme of the most recent edition is Conflict.

One of the essays is by Richard Blackburn, long time director of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.  He notes that conflict is inherently emotionally charged.  A healthy response includes recognizing those emotions and, rather than distancing oneself from their source, to remain relationally connected with the other and approach them with curiosity.  His phrase for this is “moving toward the other with interest.”

He writes: “Staying connected in the midst of disagreement requires one to move toward the other with interest.  It involves being respectfully curious about the other’s perspective while communicating a genuine desire to listen and understand.”

This approach is most appropriate when conflicted parties have a similar amount of power.

These are challenging days to be a peacemaker, especially when so many people are wrong : )

Hopefully we have not lost the capacity for curiosity about why another feels/thinks the way they do.  On good days we might still be able to move toward the other with interest.


Adult selves


Recently I’ve been reading from a book by Cynthia Lindner titled Varieties of Gifts: Multiplicity and the Well-Lived Pastoral Life.  She teaches at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  It’s a book about pastoral ministry, but much of it applies to anyone attempting adulthood.

One of the ideas I’ve found helpful is this: “Lively, functioning adult selves are always emerging from whatever sense of identity we’ve achieved” (p. 96).  Rather than a solid and continuous form of identity as the crowning achievement of adulthood – I’m a business person, I’m a mother, I’m a home owner, I’m a Christian – Lindner suggests that we are always “moving back and forth between who we know ourselves to be and who we might yet become, between received tradition and new insight, between traditional practices and adaptive ones.”

This is healthy adulthood, and comes with risks.  It can be easier to cling to a solid sense of who we are and what the world is.  But it doesn’t work.  Reality bumps up against whatever shelters we’ve built and not-so-gently demands we “emerge from whatever sense of identity we’ve achieved.”  It’s an emergence into the unknown, toward God.

I was reminded of this at lunch on Sunday, eating with people considering membership at CMC.  We were talking about the Membership Commitment – what we can affirm in it, and what questions it raises.  Although they didn’t word it quite this way, a number of people were wondering if we’re asking them to commit to a solid (and narrow) sense of Christian identity, or if this is a congregation where they will be welcomed to keep emerging, to keep asking questions, and discovering Love’s reach, within the context of Christian community.

My sense of CMC is that we aspire toward the latter.