The Church Needs Braids 

braidsThis past spring I had an epiphany that Christians tend to divide ourselves primarily because of our emphasis on one of three things:

  • Word of God/solid doctrine (some might call “fundamentalist”)
  • Movement and gifts of the Holy Spirit (some might call “charismatic”)
  • Social action (some might call “social gospel”)

However, when all three of these elements come together, powerful change starts to occur! For example, soon after having this epiphany I realized that the first group of Christians manifested all three of these components, as described in Acts 2.

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching (v.42) means they were emphasizing sound doctrine. The apostles were performing signs and wonders (v.43), manifestations of God’s Spirit. And they sold their possessions to care for those who had need (v.45) describes taking care of practical needs, or social action.

It seems pretty rare to find all three of these present in one place. Yet this summer I encountered a few examples of what combining these three elements can look like in real life today. First, I read stories from the most recent decade of God providing healing to blind people, raising the dead and feeding hundreds of hungry orphans with a single pot of pasta in Heidi Baker’s Compelled by Love, a book based on the Beatitudes from Matthew 5. Following that I read Unlikely, the story of evangelical churches in Portland uniting to show love to their city in practical, ongoing ways. I finished reading Unlikely while in Los Angeles, attending the national Christian Community Development Association Conference. If CCDA doesn’t bring together all three of these elements, I don’t know what does! Each day began with an hour-long Bible study by the founder and the final day our plenary speaker was Enid Almanzar from the American Bible society who spoke on the importance of the Word of God in our lives. Of course, those of us involved in Christian community development have been challenging ourselves and our churches to live out our faith in social-action sort of ways.

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View from our hike while camping in the Cascades

Then this past weekend while camping in the Cascade mountains, I began reading A New Christian Manifesto: Pledging Allegiance to the Kingdom of God by Bob Ekblad. Bob and his wife Gracie have lived and worked in a variety of places, yet mostly Honduras and the Skagit Valley of Northwestern Washington where he began a ministry among inmates and migrant workers called Tierra Nueva. In reading his book, I was delighted to learn that his faith journey has followed a course similar to my own-albeit starting a couple decades earlier-and he too has come to recognize the value of these various elements of Christianity. In Bob’s own words:

It is God’s pleasure to see the sanctuary and the street, the monastery and the academy, the charismatic renewal movement and the progressive social activists, environmentalists and evangelists, traditional liturgists and contemporary worshipers come together. I am sure that as people respond to Jesus’ invitation to join him in preaching good news to the poor, we will all come to recognize our need for all the riches of our inheritance, which are currently scattered among God’s people in different denominations and countries. As people see the urgent need for the kingdom of God to come in force on behalf of those who suffer, they will be increasingly willing to give up national, ethnic, partisan, and denominational allegiances in favor of ‘on earth as in heaven.’ (p.31)

Tierra Nueva

Tierra Nueva

Shoving the idea into my backpack while preparing to leave the campground, I felt a shot of inspiration.

“I have a spontaneous idea,” I told my friend.

“What’s that?”

“Tierra Nueva is on our way back to Seattle. Today is Sunday. We could stop there tonight for the worship service.”

I had visited the farm and small fellowship there twice before. This time I really wanted to see Bob in-person and tell him how much I appreciated his faith journey. My friend agreed to stop so we made our way to a small town’s corner storefront that shows years of wear with minimal repairs. A few Latino men and one family hung in the doorway. Inside people were beginning to set out the faded chairs for worship.

“What brings you here?” an acquaintance asked me. I described how I’d been reading A New Christian Manifesto and realized stopping was on the way back from where we were camping.

“Bob will be here tonight.” He said and told us that Bob and his wife Gracie were just returning from the UK and Canada.

The service began with Mike, who had prayed for my neck’s healing when I visited this past spring, strumming his guitar and leading us in the song “Beautiful Things“. It continued with Gracie preaching the Word, followed by healing prayer, communion and sharing soup and bread together at one long table. Afterwards, I introduced myself to Bob and told him how I was impacted by his writing. He invited me and my friend to join in a prayer training upstairs afterwards. I slipped outside to grab my hoodie from my car since the evening was becoming chilly and a strung out woman approached me. She motioned towards a boy across the street and said he was hungry and asked if we had any food. I invited her in for bread and soup and once inside she ate the soup and asked for a Bible which another of my acquaintances rounded up for her.

Upstairs, we gathered with 10 others for the prayer training. Bob and a man with tattoos covering his face immediately began talking about catching people when they fall down, filled with the Holy Spirit. They also shared stories of healing and “treasure hunting” in which God had lead them to pray for people by giving specific words and images. A delightful story was when God prompted them to approach a group of police officers, one of whom had arrested this guy several years ago, and pray a blessing over them.

Places like Tierra Nueva demonstrate that the Word of God and Spirit of God can come together in practical faith that meets people with power. When that happens, the Church becomes a strong spiritual braid!

Just a Cupcake Between Us: Homeboy Industries Tour

Often we strike the high moral distance that separates ‘us’ from ‘them,’ and yet it is God’s dream come true when we recognize that there exists no daylight between us.
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Miguel and Jose share their stories. “Prayer needs to be followed by action,” Jose says.

Father Gregory Boyle wrote these words in Tattoos on the Heart, a book filled with down-to-earth descriptions of life among a community stricken by gangs and gang activity. Father Boyle’s several decades of ministering in this community have resulted in Homeboy Industries, a combination of services and social enterprises that employ men and women straight out of incarceration and anyone wanting to leave street life.

Tattoos on the Heart  was one of my favorite reads last year was so I was excited to see Homeboy Industries firsthand when I visited a few weeks ago. The absence of an “us” and “them” mentality was apparent as soon as I stepped off the bus. The first person who met us wasn’t Father Boyle or a seminary graduate. Nope, our tour guide was Jose who shared how he had arrived at Homeboy Industries eight years ago as a seasoned gang leader. In fact, from the salesmen in the gift shop to clerks in the bakery, everyone we met were people who shared similar stories. Jose introduced us to one of his colleagues who had arrived just three months earlier. Sweat poured down this young man’s face as talked with us, no doubt one of the first tours ever to hear his story.
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Tour with my CCDA buddy Albert; Father Gregory is in the office behind us

Father Boyle was present as well but he only joined us momentarily for a group photo. The rest of our time and interaction was left in the capable hands of trainees, men and women who have or are currently going through Homeboy Industry programs.

Our guide shared with us how Homeboy Industries was established in 1988 in gang-neutral territory in the middle of LA. When they first arrived at the current location in 2007, the surrounding businesses didn’t want them. Business owners protested and police harassed them but eventually they came to see Homeboy Industries as a positive presence in their community.
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Homeboy Industries likes to give recognition: from birthdays to sober birthdays and a plaque on the wall for passing your GED

I found it hard to keep track of all the positive aspects as I made notes in my phone while our guide lead us past the homework center, computer center and legal department. He also pointed out one of their most popular services: tattoo removal that’s free to the public. He told us that they currently have a waiting list of 1200, unless a tattoo is gang-related and visible, then those requests get bumped to the front of the line.

On the second floor, our guide directed us into the group therapy room.
“Therapy is mandatory for those going through Homeboy Industry programs,” he explained and shared how many professional therapists volunteer at the center. Plus they have several full time therapists. At the back of the group therapy room was a big window that overlooked the bakery which is one of several social enterprises that Homeboy Industries has started. These provide work experience for Homeboy trainees and include:
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View of bakery from back of group therapy room.

Camaraderie at the Cafe

Right before we departed, homeboy Miguel shared his story describing how he had sat outside for two hours the first time he came to Homeboy Industries, working up courage to enter the office. When he finally did, he felt the brotherhood in the place instantly. Similarly, earlier our guide told us how during an economic downturn they had to let 300 guys go, but they all showed up to work the next day saying “we have nowhere else to go.”

However, no one gets fired at Homeboy Industries; instead they are just told to come back when they are ready. Additionally, Homeboy Industries is a place of innovation where wishful thinking become reality. They are currently creating a volunteer fire department simply because it is a dream of a lot of the guys to be firefighters.
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Hillary Swank buying pastries at Homeboy Cafe.

At Homeboy Industries, former rivals bake bread side-by-side. Former enemies work together to print t-shirts with messages of hope.

“We work hand in hand with rivals and that’s just a common courtesy,” our guide told us.

Before we left, I purchased sweets for my roommate’s birthday from Homegirl Cafe. The customer in front of me was Hillary Swank. The space between her and the trainee behind the counter was about the size of a pink-frosted cupcake.

Clean-Cut Jesus? 

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Transformation. Our guest speaker, a cross-culture worker in Asia, opened his message yesterday at Rainier Avenue Church by illustrating this theme in the form of photos from Hong Kong. He told us that years ago, the Walled City was the densest place on earth and averaged over 100,000 people per square kilometer; he contrasted that to Manhattan’s 27,000 people per square kilometer density today. The Walled City’s cramped, unsanitary quarters attracted people who were involved in crime, prostitution and drug dealing.

“Now however,” the speaker proudly declared, “that area has been transformed into a beautiful park.”

He pointed to a photo of a lush green space featuring structures replicating historic architecture.

“This is an example of how Christ can transform our lives,” the speaker concluded.

As much as I’m a fan of urban parks, my biggest question was, “Where did all the people go?”

I kept waiting for the speaker to explain this, or to provide examples of how individuals who lived in this walled community had experienced personal transformation that lead to outward changes-they started fighting crime and stopped using opium. But he shared no stories about the residents.

Afterwards, I found the speaker in the lobby and asked him my lingering question.

“I don’t know where they all went,” he admitted.

“I’m wondering if the city just pushed them out,” I said. “But Jesus calls us to people in places like that. Replacing people with a nice park is a terrible example of transformation.”

“It was just an example of what God can do in our hearts,” he replied.

Although I understood his analogy, the reality of removing thousands of residents and calling that “transformation” continued to disturb me. Later, the topic came up with a few other people who attend my church and said they were wondering the same thing: where did all the people go? We began researching and found that the city evicted them, offering various token amounts of compensation to the residents and businesses located there.

The conversation reminded me of when I was in the Midwest last year, in a town where scripture verses are plastered in public and 90% of the population attends church on Sunday mornings. My parents and I had just gone out for a nice dinner and were carrying our leftovers back to the hotel.

“We could give these leftovers to someone who’s homeless,” I suggested.

“This town doesn’t really have homeless people,” my dad explained. “The mayor has kept it clean-cut and family-friendly so they got rid of all the homeless population.”

That made me sick to my gut. I was reading the book of Amos, and as I did words poured forth in prose form that I titled “Ode to a Midwest Town.” img_5056

“I hate your religious feast”
God spoke through Amos
“I won’t regard your offerings
“Away with the noise of your songs!”
Words to a religious people
Devout
Why was God angry?
“You trample on the poor
And force him to give you grain
You deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”
Bible belt
Clean cut
Manicured lawns
Martha Stewart-like decor
Southern Living feasts
Have we not done the same?
Pushed away the poor
Excluded all who look different, talk different, worship different from you?
Bar the homeless from your streets
Tell them it’s too bad they have nothing to eat!
They should have worked harder
Though your system denies
The right to function equally
Ability to live and work and thrive!
No gays allowed here
No Muslims, blacks or Hispanics
You want to round up Latinos
Send them back to Mexico
The Klu Klux Klan
Not so long ago
Lynched every black man
Who dared to show his brow
And people who worship Allah
Well they should stay away
In countries where your boys can bomb them
When they go to mosque to pray
Yet you call yourselves Christian
Most devout in the nation
With a church on every corner
Southern Gospel in your parks
Bible verses line your gardens and your walls
“In God we trust” can be spotted
At every turn in town
Your lives look perfect
Your roads and houses clean
You think you are good and humble
Living in your homogeneous bubble
Where is the Christ
Who went to the margins
Embraced sinners
Tax collectors and harlots?
Where is God
Who opens a temple for all
Welcomes the poor, disabled and foreigner
Gives the prophet this call
“Let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never failing stream!”

Clean Streets, Missing Christ 

Whether in Hong Kong or Seattle, a Midwest town or metropolis city, in our attempts to rid ourselves of “rift-raft”, are we eliminating the people Jesus would have intentionally spent time with? We may have clean streets-and that can be great-but are they missing Christ? Transformation can also have an ugly side; it’s called displacement. Before we celebrate our clean look, we need to ask what it is that the pretty parks replaced?

Privileged Callings vs. Poor People’s Careers 

Can the poor, marginalized and incarcerated have the same right to fulfill the Great Commission as you and I- or are they only the subject of our donor letters?
Efrem Smith shook his audience of Christian activists, church and nonprofit workers with this question. It was the last night of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference and those in attendance were tired from the long 12+ hour days of workshops, tours and listening to speakers. Yet Efrem rallied the crowd with his message from the book of Philemon titled “The Missional Call of the Poor, Marginalized and Incarcerated.”
What about the call of the poor? 
As I mulled on the topic, I realized that we could rephrase the question as calling vs. career. Yes, sometimes we consider a career to be a calling, but usually such a career comes in the form of serving others, whether that’s as a refugee-employment specialist, homeless shelter cook or Mother Teresa-type saint. Yet how often do we consider the callings of the people in our shelters, our hospitals, our refugee camps? Usually we just want to help them find and keep paid work so they won’t be dependent on our services anymore. We view recipients of our services as people in need of a career rather than those who can seek God for a calling on their lives too.
Like Efram, I want to see people our organizations serve living to their fullest, starting by determining God’s calling on their lives. I think of women who have risen to leadership positions at Sari Bari, a social enterprise that employs women who were trafficked into Kolkota’s red light district. The same women worked the line themselves only a few years ago. Yet they are finding their calling along with their career and freedom.
I think of my friend who is incarcerated and prays for me daily and how he’s studying Latin and sharing my pastor’s book I sent him with other inmates. I want to see him live into God’s calling-both NOW and should he again (hopefully!) experience freedom.Unfortunately, as Efrem pointed out, many people of faith would prefer to commentate on those who are incarcerated, rather than advocate for them! But the book of Philemon deals differently with the subject: Paul wanted the former slave Onesimus to live out his calling as a brother in faith.
Efrem continued by saying that encouraging others to determine their calling does not mean we are simply encouraging them towards good, peaceful lives. No! In Efrem’s words:
We have to be careful in our call to the marginalized we’re not just creating timid, insecure saints. I want them to be just as passionate for the kingdoms of God as they were for pimping.
 Many of my coworkers come from backgrounds where they were accustomed to life on the streets. They have thick skin and as Efrem said, “You gotta have thick skin to empower the poor.” Now they are replicating themselves in every strata of society, as bold for Jesus as they had been dealing dope. I feel honored to work alongside such passionate individuals.
Finally, to truly see the success of people on the margins, of neighbors who are homeless or brothers and sisters who are incarcerated, we must keep asking ourselves hard questions, such as:
Is the end purpose mine or their benefit?
How much is my ego driving my ministry?
“You gotta be in a deeply-rooted place to know when it’s time to leave” Efrem said.
Unfortunately, instead of raising people up and letting them replace us and live into their callings, we often stay longer than we should. But knowing when to leave is just as important part of knowing our calling as when we first stepped into it.