Sanctuary so far…

Two weeks ago today three of us from CMC sat around a table at which Edith Espinal made the decision to go into sanctuary in a local congregation to avoid imminent deportation.  After one location quickly fell through, we found ourselves being asked whether the Mennonites would be able to step forward.  That Saturday morning Leadership Team met to get oriented to the situation and discuss how we might process this as a congregation.  After a congregational meeting the following day and another one that Wednesday evening we felt we had enough information and enough congregational support to offer our building as sanctuary to Edith.

Many CMCers stepped forward right away to donate time, money, ideas, and material resources to prepare space for her.  This included a major bathroom remodel to install a shower, clearing out the crib room and furnishing it as an apartment, installing security cameras, and developing a strategy for a new kind of normal.  All of this after sitting down with Edith to hear about her needs.  Meanwhile other supporting organizations planned for her transition into sanctuary.  A petition was created, as was a fundraising mechanism.  A media strategy was put in place in order to tell her story and gather public support.

On Monday evening of this week we welcomed Edith into our building with hand-made signs and the song “Caminamos en la luz de Dios, We are marching in the light of God.”

On Tuesday the major local media outlets showed up for a well-attended press conference.  Edith and her daughter talked about why she was entering sanctuary, and several other faith leaders and I talked about the moral and spiritual dimensions of offering sanctuary.

That day, Tuesday, was to be Edith’s last check in with ICE.  She had been ordered to appear with a plane ticket to Mexico, deportation at her own expense.  Instead her attorney went in her place.

Tuesday evening we learned that ICE, in conversation with her attorneys, had requested Edith to check in with them on Wednesday, yesterday.  Her attorneys felt this presented the best possibility for Edith to apply for and receive a stay of deportation.  There would be risk in doing this, as Edith could be detained and held until deported.  It also differed from the plan to remain in sanctuary while the application for a stay of deportation was made.

This was ultimately Edith’s decision, and it was unclear until the last minute what it would be.

Yesterday, Wednesday, morning around 11am, a number of us gathered downtown planning to report to ICE that she would be remaining in sanctuary and not be checking in.  While there, we learned she had decided to check in after all, leaving the relative safety of the church.  We accompanied her up to the floor of the ICE offices.  We were immediately asked to leave, although after several requests I was allowed to stay and wait with her, her attorneys, her son Brandow, and her social worker, Maria, from Avanza.

While waiting I learned from Maria that ICE gets around the right of people to have an attorney with them during some of the check ins by contracting with a third party which has in their contract that no attorney can be present for the check in.  After Brandow went in and came out quickly for his regular check in it was eventually Edith’s turn.  It was a good sign when they allowed her attorneys to join her, meaning that an actual ICE agent would be meeting with them rather than the contracted company.  I waited outside with Maria and Brandow in the long, narrow, nondescript hallway lined with chairs.

Over a half hour later Edith came out with a smile.  Her attorneys explained that, while she still has an order for removal (deportation), she had been granted two weeks to file for a stay of deportation and will undergo regular check ins until she hears through the mail whether her stay has been granted.  In total, this could take months.

Because of this arrangement, the need for sanctuary in a church is no longer as urgent.  She can be, and understandably prefers to be, home with her family.  It is my and other’s view that the option of sanctuary and the outpouring of support for Edith made the difference in making this possible.  That is something to be celebrated – a weeping mother was given a smile yesterday.  But it is a rare thing to be granted a stay of removal and this may have simply bought more time until Edith has to decide again whether to accept deportation or go the route most likely to protect her from being separated from her family – take sanctuary in a church building.

So where does this leave us as a congregation?  We made a quick yet informed decision to become a sanctuary congregation.  We have taken tangible and organizational steps toward having sanctuary space and being sanctuary people.  We have escalated love.  And we have begun a relationship with the Espinal family in which their story became connected to ours.

More broadly, other clergy and community members have expressed their solidarity with our move toward sanctuary, advancing a vital conversation in the Columbus faith community that will continue to grow.

What we have now is in at least one way similar to what Edith has.  We’ve been given more time in which the urgency of the moment is less intense.

We have more time to consider how these last two weeks inform how we move ahead, to continue to prepare ourselves and our space.

Edith, and many others like her, are subject to the whims of a cruel system.  Even though we are not currently hosting her in our building, this is by no means the end of the story.  Let’s proceed prayerfully and powerfully.






I’m getting caught up on On Being podcasts, and just listened to Krista Tippet’s conversation with Mary Catherine Bateson.  She’s the author of the book Composing a Life, and daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.

One of the things she touches on is the value of being a participant-observer in life.  It’s something she learned from her parents, who, as good anthropologists, learned to both carefully observe and actively participate in the cultures they were studying.  Bateson notes that the observing part includes self-observation, being aware of how what one is doing and seeing is affecting oneself.

Bateson says: “There’s a huge benefit in being a participant-observer.  There are people who just observe and don’t engage with others.  There are people who just engage and don’t think about what’s happening.  And to learn to be simultaneously observing and learning, but at the same time to be fully present, was a marvelous thing to learn.  And it’s a marvelous way to live, actually.

She doesn’t use the word, but it’s another way of talking about mindfulness.

I wonder if this approach to life as a participant-observer is one of the keys to healthy living in a polarized culture.  It might free us up to be more curious and empathic for why people do what they do, think what they think, and why we respond the way we respond.  It doesn’t exempt us from actively participating in promoting our vision of a just and merciful society, but by mindfully observing our environment and ourselves, it keeps us from becoming a mere function of the system in which we participate.

Easier said than done.  Likely essential for sane and wise living.



The past and the present

In November of 1957 a group of students in Columbus started meeting together.  They were all from other places.  What they shared in common was an upbringing in a Mennonite congregation, and a desire to fellowship with each other.  As the group grew, they went from informal gatherings to establishing a new congregation, with charter membership established in September, 1962.  Over the next three years the young congregation would hire their first pastor, purchase the Neil Avenue Presbyterian Church at West 6th and Neil, and grow to a regular Sunday attendance of around 100, with a quarter being preschool age.

In those early years the fellowship was active on the OSU campus.  Members joined a rotation of WOSU radio’s “Morning Devotions,” sharing 15 minute reflections.  On Armed Forces Day, the group sponsored a viewing of the film “Alternatives,” which displayed ways other than the military of serving one’s country and community.  They also wrote a letter against racial discrimination in student housing.  As they grew into a congregation they became engaged in work in the American Addition, a predominantly African American neighborhood on the near east side that had been largely neglected by city services.  And they cared for each other as life happened to all of them.

If you’re reading this, you have in some way been impacted by the life of that fellowship which we now call Columbus Mennonite Church.  Because the 50 year anniversary (counting from 1962) occurred during a pastoral transition, we’re making a big deal of the 55 year mark, celebrating it this weekend.  A program Saturday evening will involve food and story-telling, and we’ll be joined in worship Sunday by former members coming from out of town.  It will be a time not just to look back, but to consider who we are in the present moment.

Speaking of the present moment, I’m grateful that Mark created space as worship leader on Sunday to lament, ponder, and speak about reactions to the pro white supremacy demonstrations in Charlottesville over the weekend.  As we continue to commit ourselves to the difficult and ongoing work of being an anti-racism congregation, I commend to you an essay written Monday by Tobin Miller Shearer titled “Seven roadblocks that get in the way of dismantling racism in the church and society (and strategies to overcome them).”  It is addressed especially to white people.



Thoughts on a run after returning from a week of late summer vacation

August 9, 2017


An early morning run

along a familiar trail.

The air is cool for August.

The Olentangy crawls along

beside me.

There’s a fog over the water,

the river in another state,

hovering over itself,

contemplating its own possibility

to float,


vacate the predictable flow,

disappear and appear



The planet turns slowly and already

the sun is claiming the air.

The river remains,

in itself,

and follows its course.

My breath becomes mist in front of me

and I move through it,

along this path

that leads toward home.





State killing, Christian witnessing


In 1993 Ron Phillips committed a horrendous crime.  He beat, raped, and murdered a three year old child.  Her name was Sheila Marie Evans.  Phillips confessed his guilt and was given the death penalty.  He is scheduled to be executed by the state of Ohio – that’s you and me – tomorrow at 10am.  It will be the first state execution in three and half years.  More details can be read HERE.

There are many reasons to be opposed to the death penalty: It disproportionately targets people of color, with the courts and appeals processes it is more expensive than lifetime imprisonment, it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, sometimes innocent people are killed.

From our beginnings, Mennonites have also taken a moral and spiritual approach to opposing state killing.  Way back in 1556, our namesake Menno Simons wrote this in the context of European Christendom:

“It would hardly become a true Christian ruler to shed blood. For this reason, if the transgressor should truly repent before his God and be reborn of Him, he would then also be a chosen saint and child of God, a fellow partaker of grace, a spiritual member of the Lord’s body…and for such a one to be hanged on the gallows, put on the wheel, placed on the stake or in any manner be hurt in body or good by another Christian who is of one heart, spirit, and soul with him, would look somewhat strange and unbecoming in the light of the compassionate, merciful, example He has commanded all His chosen children to follow. Again, if he remain impenitent and his life be taken, one would unmercifully rob him of the time of repentance of which, in case his life were spared, he might yet avail himself.”

In 1965 the General Conference Mennonite Church passed a resolution called “A Christian Declaration on Capital Punishment.”  That resolution names the Christian vocation as one of following in the “ministry of reconciliation” which Paul names is 2 Corinthians.  It acknowledges the state’s task of maintaining peace and order, but challenges the idea that the death penalty serves this purpose.

Christian opposition to the death penalty is ultimately rooted in the scriptures and Jesus’ life and ministry, extending mercy to outcasts.  There’s also that bit about Jesus himself receiving the death penalty at the hands of the Roman state, and overcoming the power of death in being raised up in resurrection.

We are resurrection people.

The hour is late to speak opposition to tomorrow’s scheduled execution, but Ohioans to Stop Executions is still encouraging people to call Governor Kasich’s office at 614/466-3555 and sign this petition.

Here’s something else we can do as a congregation:

Upon reading this, set your phone alarm for 10am tomorrow, Wednesday, the scheduled time of the execution.  During that hour let’s join together, wherever we are, in prayer for victims of violence like Sheila Marie Evans, and for the family that continues to mourn for her.  Let’s join in prayer for Ron Phillips who will be executed in our name.  Let’s pray that our society shift from a mindset of punitive justice to a mindset of restorative justice.  Let’s pray for an end to the death penalty, and a reform of our criminal justice system.  Let’s pray that we, the church universal and all people of goodwill, can witness to a better way.




Holy Indifference


It’s church conference/convention season.  Last weekend was the Central District Conference annual meeting in Bluffton, Ohio.  Next week is the biennial Mennonite Church USA convention, held this year in Orlando, Florida….conveniently close to Harry Potter World, which will be a Christmas in July for our girls.

I was so disheartened by the last convention in Kansas City that I have largely disengaged from denominational discussions.  My main involvement has been through conversations around “Seeking Peace in Israel and Palestine,” the only resolution we’ll be voting on this year.  Yesterday I had two separate conversations with Columbus rabbis, leaders of BREAD congregations, as a way of being accountable to local relationships for what we’re saying in this resolution.

A key part of the Orlando Convention will be the Future Church Summit.  The national level of the denominational structure is recalibrating its role and seeking input from delegates and stakeholders.  There is talk of movement away from policing the borders (my words, not theirs), moving toward a focus on resourcing conferences and congregations which will be given more autonomy.  The Future Church Summit will be an attempt to reimagine what we can do together.

The best phrase that comes to mind for my own attitude entering this is “Holy Indifference.”  It’s taken from Ignatian spirituality, and can be a bit misleading.  Indifference doesn’t mean apathy, or not caring.  It means openness to the Good, whatever that may be.  Loosening one’s grip on the form that the Good will take.

I am much more optimistic about local church than national church, but am trying to have something resembling “Holy Indifference” in my mind entering next week.  I will try to blog with a couple updates during the week on how it’s going.  Prayers welcome for all gathered.


“ …to work amongst…”


“Try not to think in terms of superimposing our own tastes and objectives on the lives of others but rather to make our energies and talents available to those who would want us to work amongst them.”

— Judith Tokel, meeting notes from the American Addition Neighborhood Council, December 9, 1968


I’ve been doing some poking around in the CMC archives.  They’re in the back of the Upper Room, the last stop of the elevator.  The celebration of CMC’s 55 year anniversary this August, combined with the more casual pace of summer, makes it a good time to poke.

The very first file in the first drawer is labeled “American Addition.”  It was, and still is, a small predominantly African American neighborhood on the near east side.  In the late sixties and early seventies, this congregation, then called Neil Avenue Mennonite Church, became heavily involved in working alongside that community to form the Amercrest Improvement Corporation to make substantive improvements to the neighborhood.  This included volunteer labor on houses, and petitioning City Council to remove dilapidated housing and extend bus, gas, and sewer services to the neighborhood (sewer lines had been previously installed, but many of the houses hadn’t been hooked up).

It was a major work, one of the key ways this congregation engaged African American neighbors during the Civil Rights era.

Which is why I find those words from Judith Tokel so compelling, recorded in the meeting notes, preserved in our archives.  They appear hidden in the middle of a paragraph, but serve as a fine definition of mission, conscious of power dynamics: “To make our energies and talents available to those who would want us to work amongst them.”

Mission work of churches can so frequently perpetuate uneven power dynamics rather than transform them.  The attitude of which Judith Tokel writes is a good foundation for the important work of being in active solidarity with others.

And the work continues.