Give Jesus More Than a Toy 

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“Prison card” drawn by a jail mate of my childhood friend and prayer partner. Inside he wrote, “I pray for you EVERY day.”

One of my fondest Christmas memories from growing up was wrapping piles of presents. The gifts weren’t for me, nor for my family. The boxes of clothes and stacks of toys were for children of prisoners: men and women who were unable to share their presence or presents with their sons and daughters. Mrs. B, a woman at the church I grew up in, organized this gift-giving effort through Angel Tree, a program of Prison Fellowship. At Christmastime, church members would select angel-shaped ornaments which listed on the back a name, age and wish list of a child whose parents were incarcerated. I LOVED wrapping gifts, so every year I volunteered to help with this part of the process. Yesterday I heard an ad on the radio for Angel Tree and my mind flashed back to curling ribbon and tucking the corners of snowflake-printed paper all afternoon in the basement of the church my family attended when I was growing up. Reflecting on our outreach efforts, I recognized that although Angel Tree has its merits, buying a toy for a child can be an easy cop-out in addressing the larger complexities of a system that has robbed the children of spending the holidays with their parents in the first place. Over the past few years, I’ve become aware of this system and the implications it has on our nation.

On the ideological side, I’ve become aware of mass incarceration and restorative justice, that the United States locks up more people than any other nation. On the practical side, developing close friendships with people most impacted by this system has caused me see up-close what it’s like to have family members locked up during the holidays. Participating in Angel Tree gift-giving is a good starting point for those with privilege to think beyond ourselves at Christmas, but what about the other 364 days of the year? It’s easy to wrap a toy and put a bow on it and feel good about ourselves, but what about being in long-term relationship with families and children who are incarcerated? What about working to change system so fewer moms and dads are away from their children next December 25th? What about reconnecting with a cousin, uncle, “black sheep” of your family or high school classmate who’s currently impacted by our system? Rather than ostracizing that person for poor choices, consider establishing a mutually respectful friendship  with them–and their family–throughout the year? After all, according to the One we celebrate at Christmas, doing so is the same as forming a friendship with Him.

I was in prison and you came to visit me…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. ~Jesus, (Matthew 25:36 & 40)

If we genuinely care about the children in our communities whose parents are locked up, we won’t simply buy them a toy. I was delightfully encouraged to find that Prison Fellowship, the larger organization which Angel Tree is an outreach of, works in a variety of capacities throughout the year to support prisoners and work towards justice reform. If you’re looking for ways to get involved year-round beyond establishing personal connections with those you already know, organizing a small group to go through their Outrageous Justice study could be a good place to start.

 

 

Prisons = Modern Day Plantations

National Civil Rights Museum

National Civil Rights Museum

Isaac Franklin was one of richest men in the southern United States a century and a half ago. When he died in 1846, he owned over 700 slaves who worked his six plantations in Louisiana.

I learned about Isaac Franklin while visiting the National Civil Rights Museum a couple weeks ago via their special exhibit on slavery. In addition to reading about this wealthy slave owner, what struck me the most in this exhibit was a plaque in the back corner; had I been in a hurry, I could have easily overlooked it.

The plaque noted the widespread economic impact slavery had on society at the time. Not only did rich plantation owners like Isaac Franklin who benefit from owning other humans. Numerous industries prospered financially from the slave trade and included:

  • Banks that offered loans to slave traders
  • Insurers who underwrote policies to cover slave shipments by land, rail, river and sea
  • Food suppliers who sold supplies to coffee drivers and slave-pen owners
  • Lawyers and bureaucrats who collected fees for each piece of paper involved in slave transfer and sale
  • Brooks Brothers and other clothing companies that supplied plantation clothing
  • Steamboat companies and ship captains who got paid to transport slaves as cargo
  • Medical providers, such as doctors, hospitals and private clinics, who got paid to revitalize slaves to get them ready to sell because they frequently became sick during transportation
  • Tax collectors who received revenue from slave sales and annual personal property tax

These weren’t petty transactions either. For example, William Kenner took out $14,000 in an insurance policy to ship 22 slaves on November 29, 1821, via the New Orleans Insurance Company. This was at a time when an average income ranged from $300 to $1,000 annually. Imagine the cost of clothing 700 slaves for Isaac Franklin, and in an era when goods weren’t mass-produced for cheap by “developing nations.”

Paper Produced by Abolitionist

Paper Produced by Abolitionist

Reading that plaque caused me to realize that abolitionist of the time weren’t just up against wealthy slave owners. They met widespread resistance because slavery had widespread economic impact. I marveled that the system had ever collapsed…then I realized it took a war before change occurred.

Then I asked myself, “Did the system ever really collapse?”

I thought of Michelle Alexander’s work The New Jim Crow book and The House I Live In documentary followed by Ava DuVernay’s 13th documentary that expose mass incarceration as modern day slavery in the United States, particularly for many men of color. Those with a felony charge experience lack of access to education, jobs, housing and even voting. And as these documentaries and book trace, the impact disproportionately impacts communities of color.

Right now, we now have more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in 1850s. ~New Jersey Senator Cory Booker

Prisons were one of the few growing industries in 1980’s and 90’s when Clinton passed a $30 billion bill to expand. Michelle Alexander brings us specific numbers:

The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000.

Prisons have been required to keep those facilities filled. And much like slavery 150 years ago, all sorts of industries benefit from our mass incarceration:

  • Taser gun manufacturers
  • Health care providers
  • Phone companies
  • Construction companies
  • ALEC-an organization that writes bills for politicians that usually benefit a corporation.

To take on such comprehensive structures, we must address the economic systems of our day, as Shaun King is doing through the Injustice Boycott launched yesterday. Lasting structural change cannot otherwise occur; it will only take on a new name.

Isaac Franklin’s property is a tangible example of how slavery switched names. Ever wonder what happened to his six plantations where those 700 people were enslaved? Well, four of of the six became what is today Louisiana’s State Penitentiary.

Right-Wing Liberals

img_9352-1“I’ve been shocked by a huge divide I’ve observed between people in the United States living in completely separate realities” I wrote in my last blog post and proceeded to describe those differences in a seventeen stanza poem. I spent the following week in the middle of our country where I saw firsthand this separate reality. Although my experience affirmed the contents of the poem I had penned, I also witnessed deep love and sacrificial giving of my right-wing conservative brothers and sisters:

  • My parents who live on next to nothing but share generously everything they do have–their time, talents, home and money
  • A church that’s been converted into a home for women recovering from addictions where 13 participants stood up on Sunday and called out gratitude to each other plus those in the community of their congregation who have helped to meet concrete needs. Yes, this tiny center is reaching the poor, white community of the rural South
  • A white, middle-class businessman who in the middle of sharing his political views with me on the streets of downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, generously shared his time and resources with those some  might label a “bum”

I found the last exchange to be the most memorable. My friend, the businessman whom I’ll call Phil, had just been telling me his reasons for voting for Trump. Phil said it would take him more than 75 words to explain his position, which is what I had requested per my video project. Phil travels regularly to the East Coast and occasionally to Europe for business. I consider him a genius who could hold a intelligent debate on quantum physics, or any topic really. He also bikes nearly everywhere in a state without bike lanes, a stark contrast to the majority of residents in the South who drive 4 x4 pickup trucks.

“I couldn’t vote for Hillary because of her corruption,” he told me, explaining he did not like the character of Trump, but did agree with a few of his positions.

“But I don’t like that now I’m labeled a racist,” he continued. “Obviously we could talk about white privilege and that would be a different conversation.”

About that time is when the bum approached, an older, African American gentleman. My friend greeted him like he would an old friend and the man seemed delighted, greeting him back with an attempted fist bump, which I noticed Phil didn’t complete. His twenty-something son who rents an apartment in LA where he spends half his time was standing with us and greeted the man as well.

“You shouldn’t be out in the cold like this,” Phil said. “You know there’s a shelter up the street.”

“It’s only for women and children,” the man replied.

“Well I don’t have any cash,” Phil said showing the man his empty wallet. “But if we can find an ATM I’ll get you some money.”

“There’s an ATM just down the street,” the man said.

We strolled to the ATM and Phil took out  a wad of $20 bills (at least $100 worth) and handed them to the man.

“I’m a follower of Jesus and that’s why I’m sharing with you,” Phil said. “Take care of yourself tonight.”

“God is looking after me. Let’s all pray,” the man said. He put one arm around my friend and the other arm around my friend’s son and there on the sidewalk we prayed together. Then he strolled off.

“About six years ago I read Tim Keller’s book on justice and after that decided I would offer a ride to every bum I met,” Phil said. “I only did that for about a year and then felt like I had learned what I needed to learn, but every single one I picked up began talking about God before I did.”

A police car rolled up with two white police officers inside. The driver rolled down his window.

“Did that man ask you for money?”

“Nope, he did not,” Phil replied.

“OK. He’s been pan handling down here.”

“No, he didn’t ask us for anything.”

Phil wasn’t lying. The man hadn’t made a monetary request from us.

“I realize he’ll probably by booze with that money,” Phil said after the police left. “But  if I’m going to give someone a gift, it should show them they are valuable. A small handout is almost worse than nothing at all. I’ve been asking how much it costs in our hometown for someone to enter the Kingdom of God? And I’ve calculated it to be about $150,000. The churches are doing a good job of making people comfortable and entertained.”

“I noticed when I attended my niece’s play on Saturday that the company held their performance in a church,” I commented. “That’s a contrast to Seattle where Christians are a minority and churches often rent a space to meet from the theaters. I’m concerned to see wealth and religion so intertwined.”

“Wealth and religion and politics,” Phil said.

“Yes!” I agreed.

“But the church on the Left is actually just as political if not more so. My concern is that although they don’t care what I do morally-I can have sex with my pet and no one cares-but they want to control the way I think. If I deviate from what’s politically correct, I get labeled as ignorant or, worse, lose everything I own in a lawsuit.”

For over an hour Phil continued his exposition while standing on the streets of downtown Little Rock. We were getting cold and the hour was late when a young man approached us.

“My wallet is empty,” Phil said. “I’ve already given my quota tonight.”

“What about you?” the man looked at me.

“I can buy you some pizza,” I replied.

We began heading to the pizza shop where Phil and his family and I had eaten dinner.

“I’m not sure if the place is still open,” I said.

“There’s a place down that way,” the man told us, pointing the opposite direction. We headed there and found ourselves entering a pub.

“We gotta leave before we go broke,” Phil’s son mused to me as we entered. A bubbly waitress escorted the four of us to a table.

“We just want to order a couple slices of pizza,” Phil said as she handed us all menus.

“We don’t sell pizza slices,” the waitress replied. “But you can order a 12″ pan pizza.”

“OK, I’ll get that and a Sprite,” the young man said. “And what kind of desserts do you have?”

“We have chocolate cake and ice cream.”

“You don’t have pecan pie?”

“We don’t.”

“Thanksgiving is this week and there should be pecan pie then,” I quipped.

“Oh yes!” his eyes lit up. “I’ll make the rounds then!”

When a waitress passed by, he snagged her hand, kissed it and said, “God’s gonna bless you.”

“Be careful,” Phil said half jokingly. “We don’t want to all get kicked out of here.”

Phil insisted on getting the tab and quietly capped the order off.

“I’ll need to leave as soon as the food comes,” he told me.

Our fourth member at the table spoke openly about how he was getting his life back on track, singing in the choir at his church, playing basketball, recording his freestyle rap and finally having an apartment to live in again. We said goodbye when the waitress brought his pizza.

“I’m sorry to cut out, man,” Phil said. “But my wife’s been at home waiting for me for a couple hours now and I gotta leave.”

“You don’t think you can spare a couple bucks?” the man asked.

“No, I can’t.”

“Well, thanks for the meal.”

“I don’t think he’ll cause any disruption,” Phil said as he and his son and I left the pub. “And the waitress will be OK with him staying to finish–I tipped her well.”

“I’m glad to have this experience tonight,” I said. “You guys have given me stories for my blog.”

“I suppose,” Phil chuckled. “About two ‘racist’ white guys in the South.”

However, I thought to myself how my right-wing friends were demonstrating the original definition of “liberal,” of generously distributing wealth. The words of Proverbs 11:25 came to mind:

The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself.

I may not have recorded a 75-word video of Phil’s position on the election or immigration, but our time together had shown another view of someone who opted to vote for Donald Trump, an image vastly different from those of rioting Rednecks circulating my Facebook feed. And that story told more than a 75-word–or 7500-word–speech ever could!

If Trump Had Been a Democrat

img_8437After last week’s US election, I turned into a bit of a political junkie, listening to NPR while driving, watching politician’s speeches while exercising and binging on social media late at night, reading articles shared on Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs. I’ve been shocked by a huge divide I’ve observed between people in the United States living in completely separate realities. Conservative Christians accuse the media of making this election about race. Meanwhile, many immigrants feel like they are utterly unwanted by those who voted for Trump. Friends of color have voiced to me that when they see red states and counties, they fear for their lives. Fear has struck even legal immigrants and some are afraid of step outside their house.

Hearing the sentiments of my family and the community where I grew up, however, I try to explain that people I know did not vote for Trump out of bigotry. Most of my family voted for Trump because they hated Hillary Clinton and Trump offered them more hope that he would select Supreme Court judges less leftist than would Hillary. The topic of immigration was barely on their radar to influence their decision to vote the way they did*. By voting for Trump, in my family’s minds they were in no way voting against communities of color.

Yet I am not only shocked; I am also baffled. Baffled that evangelicals could so easily swipe past the morals (or lack thereof) to vote for a billionaire celebrity. Baffled that white liberals are shrugging their shoulders to embrace the status-quo. Baffled that the caller at a square dance I attended referenced the election and said “Let’s just skip it out.” To fully process my thoughts and emotions, I would have had to write a 3,000 word essay. Instead, I’ve channeled them into a poem:

If Trump Had Been a Democrat

To progressive people
Who would you choose
If Trump had been a Democrat
And ran against Ted Cruz

To white liberals
Who want to avoid reality
Simply legalize weed
Flip the channel on TV

To elitist on the left
Who don’t anticipate personal impact
“Let’s see what he does”
Remain a status-quo Democrat

To white evangelicals
Who prayed Trump to power
Voted eighty-one percent
Claimed, “He’s God’s man for this hour.”

If Trump had been a Democrat
You would have fought him as a winner
You would have raised your finger of judgement
Called him a pro-choice sinner

But America has proved

You can call a lady “fat” and “ugly”
You can be a racist bigot
You can grab a woman’s pussy
We’ll still make you President!

You can make up false reports
You can lie all day long
Doesn’t seem to matter
Now the Right’s OK with wrong

The Right are in denial
Refusing to admit mistake
While the Left swallowed complacency
With an impact that’s hard to negate

Social media lusts for attention
Feeds lies to both sides
To harness more clicks
Only furthering our divide

People of color hear
“White evangelicals hate your existence
Say you want to stay here
You’ll be met with resistance”

“Enter a red border
Expect to face a .22
Cross that county line
And it’ll be aimed at you!”

Warm and loving people
Describe many white Christians
Concern for future decades
Drove their decisions

Rural-dwelling ranchers
Hear the need to escape
Cities harboring violence
Riots lead by hate

“Enter an urban setting
Expect to face a gun
Cross six lanes of traffic
Get ready to run!”

Warm and loving people
Come in every hue
Concern for future decades
Drove their decisions too

By listening to each other’s stories
Hearing others’ views
We’ll get a better understanding
Of what’s actually true.

We must hold Trump accountable
Both the left and the right
And in order to do that
We must unite!

Your Story in a Minute

If you’re willing to share your perspective on 1) why you voted for Trump and 2) your personal message to immigrants, let me know.

If you’re willing to share your sentiments on 1) why you fear Trump supporters and 2) your fears about what may personally happen to you once he’s in power, let me know.

I would like to compile a two-part video series of regular people speaking candidly to one another our hopes and our fears. If you would like to participate in this project, you can contact me here.

*I acknowledge that such is the case of white privilege. Living in a community where I’m not the ethnic majority, my friends have taught me about “white privilege”, one trait of which is denial and the inability to see our privilege. To take for granted that people who look differently from us often suffer from our inability to see past ourselves, to acknowledge their plight within our nation.

Let the People Dance! Reflections on Haitian Roots 

Poverty. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Orphans. These are words much of the world associates with Haiti. As I contemplated writing this reflection, I scrolled through my Instagram feed to see another natural disaster in the form of Hurricane Matthew swirl towards this country.

In response to such national devastation, Lakou Mizik, a Haitian roots band, narrates their nation’s story differently: through song and dance. As The Guardian put it, Lakou Mizik is “a joyous antidote to Haiti’s hard times.” The group of multi-generational musicians travel throughout the United States and Haiti sharing their songs and in their own words “using Haiti’s deep well of creative strength to shine a positive light on this tragically misrepresented country.”

Haitian Roots

Haitian Roots Band plays at the Nectar Lounge in Seattle

I attended one of their performances at the Nectar Lounge in Seattle this past July where I got glimpses of people and a country to which I have never visited. Yet as I swayed on the periphery of the lounge to their upbeat tunes, I reflected on my own journey of awareness of cultures and how I and my white dominant culture engage with diversity in the form of “ethnic” entertainment.

Ten years ago…

My thought would have been: What are people here thinking of me?

My motivation for attending: to experience another culture’s song and dance.

Five years ago…

My thought would have been: Who cares what people think? Let’s all dance and bring the crowd along too!

My motivation for attending: same as ten years ago although I would have been more relaxed. Also, to have fun and maybe flirt with some cute guys.

In the summer of 2016…

My thoughts were: Why are so many white people here consuming Haitian song and dance, taking up the center space directly in front of the stage, while people of color in attendance are hanging back on the outskirts of forum? Does this scene represent what my African American friends have been complaining about online recently: white liberals who embrace the trend of protesting, tweet #BlackLivesMatter and consume other cultures as entertainment but do little to actually change systems and structures? This feels like acculturation.

My motivation for attending: to reconcile after a fallout with a business partner and get paid for a contract gig I did in February.

I have by no means “arrived” in my awareness, or what some may call my awakening, towards diversity. I’m sure in a few years or even a few months I’ll look back at naive notions I hold today. I’m glad that people countries such as the United States have opportunities to experience the song, dance and culture of live musicians, to expand our view of the nation-even if ever so slightly-beyond scenes of flooded homes and starving children as portrayed by news and international aid organizations. But if we want to move beyond pity to partnership with people of other cultures, we must first show appreciation. And true appreciation begins with listening. It starts by taking a back seat, and leaving room in the center for people to dance to their own music until we on the outside are invited to join.

Bringing Heaven to Earth: CCDA-Style Worship

 

One moment your thrusting your fist in the air shouting “They say ‘stay down’ and we stand up!” and the next moment swaying to Enkaya Naisipa. The following day when Paris unexpectedly gets struck by a terrorist attack, you’re lamenting in Hebrew and Arabic for the loss of lives…in France as well as Palestine. This all with an assembly of several thousand others who have gathered from across the United States, lead by a multi-ethnic team of musicians.

This describes one of my favorite aspects at the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) annual conferences: worship. Because I savor the music so much, last year at the conference in Memphis I attended a workshop titled “CCDA-Style Worship” expecting to experience a couple hours of song and prayer. Instead, I got the behind-the-scenes insights into what goes into these worship sessions, beginning with a history lesson on how the worship has evolved through the years:

2005 conference 
The first CCDA conference drew 800 attendees, about half were white and half African American. The worship was historical black gospel, reflecting older, long-term practitioners.
2008 conference 
The group leading worship was more multi-ethnic which brought in an element of racial; however, they were not necessarily practitioners of Christian Community Development.
2010 conference 
CCD practitioners lead worship.
2011 conference
CCD practitioners with reconciliation bent lead worship. This is what I experienced in 2013 at my first CCDA conference in New Orleans and again last year in Memphis.
2016 conference 
Worship leader Sandra Maria Van Opstal described this year’s upcoming conference:
CCDA worship in L.A. is going to look different than in years past. As a team, we have selected songs that represent our communities (Latino, African American, Korean American, and Syrian). Sharing our songs allow us to tell our story. Sharing our stories helps us to honor and acknowledge that we each have a distinct experience of God. Each community has a history that has shaped us deeply. Sharing our songs with one another and inviting one another into worship also helps us to enter into solidarity with one another. I sing songs that tell your story and invite you to sing songs that tell mine. It’s not simply about a drum rhythm or the language being sung, it’s deeper than that.
As usual, the conference’s worship will reflect the communities of the city that is hosting us: Los Angeles. Van Opstal explained this also in her post:

Los Angeles is a city of nations. Aside from the fact that the white community is not the majority and Latinos make up almost half of the population, did you know that global communities of Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Armenians, and Syrians, among others, significantly influence the culture of LA?

Can you imagine a global-local community coming across differences to praise God? What does the church look like in this context? What happens when this diverse group of people gather to glorify God for his person and actions? Multiethnic worship happens!

Sandra described how the three R’s of Christian Community Development integrate into CCDA-style worship in her blog post blog post on the topic. Additionally, I learned at the workshop that four CCD principles most relevant to incorporating into worship include the following:
1. Reconciliation
2. Leadership development and empowerment
3. Church-based
4. Formational and holistic
#1 Reconciliation 
In order for reconciliation to happen through worship, we must ask ourselves what we can do to make people from various backgrounds and communities feel welcome in our churches. Incorporating varied worship styles into our services is really a profound gesture of hospitality. One way we can ensure that we do this is by visiting churches in our neighborhoods where people of different ethnicities gather who are lacking in our congregation and incorporating elements that are missing in our current worship in order to be more welcoming to that group of people. We don’t do this to steal people from our neighborhood churches, but rather to provide a space for newcomers who have not yet connected to a church to settle. For example, my multi-ethnic congregation has attracted few Latino members, yet at the gym where I work one mile down the street, I constantly meet people who have just moved to our neighborhood and speak primarily Spanish. Members from my church could easily visit La Iglesia De Cristo a few blocks away and take notes on how worship is done; we could also ask the Latino to give our worship leaders some pointers.The most segregated hours in the United States are on Sunday morning when Koreans attend Korean-American churches, African Americans attend African-American churches, Caucasians attend predominantly white churches and so on.
However, as the facilitators of this workshop emphasized, in order to truly foster reconciliation, we must move beyond hospitality and dive into lament. We need to recognize that the issues such as #BlackLivesMatter and Syrian refugees and immigrants affects us, even if our congregation is primarily homogeneous. Worship leaders must ask, “How do we help our congregation form solidarity with people who are suffering even if they are NOT in our community?” The principle is one of mutuality: how do we communicate I NEED you to those on the margins.
Reconciliation is never easy though. Even the leaders of this workshop admitted that they had experienced conflict in planning for the CCDA national conference.
#2 Leadership Development and Empowerment 
Practically, this means allowing someone to lead in ways we wouldn’t necessarily do things. Discipleship can be described as modeling our life after someone we admire.Leadership development, however, goes a step further and says, “I have gifts you can model but you have gifts that I do not and can supersede mine!” Practically, this means allowing others to take part in choosing which songs we sing.
#3 Church-based
A core value of Christian Community Development is to be church-based and worship can integrate as well as even amplify this component.
One presenter described being told to choose between becoming a pastor or an artist, not realizing that musicians are pastors. People often remember songs better than sermons too!
In an effort to integrate worship with community needs, leaders often feel conflict between production and process. One workshop presenter expressed feeling a tension between performing on stage and providing music therapy for disabled children. A suggestion for inclusion was to invite people with disabilities to help lead worship.
#4 Formational and Holistic 
The church can be incarnational by responding to what’s happening in their congregation and community through worship. Fully experiencing the place where our church is located guides our worship. For example, during worship we could both celebrate our high school graduation and lament our sister Mary’s death in her family. Doing so, bonds us together as a community, as a family. As one presenter said, “If I just wanted to worship God, I would stay home.”
The presenter gave the analogy of how worship leaders are like tour guides who both take people where they want to go but also where they need to go but didn’t even know existed. This happens well when worship comes out of prepared place. However, in taking into consideration various styles of worship, even with an ethnic community, leaders may blend planning with spontaneity. One of the workshop presenters noted how Latinos tend to be from two camps-Catholic and Pentecostal. So she juggle planned versus spirit-lead, more spontaneous worship. In order to do this at her church, they go through liturgy but re-name it.

Why is the city of Flint allowed to waste away? 

This week’s guest blog post comes to us from writer, poet, educator, artist and social activist Katelyn Durst. Katelyn is a close friend of mine, writing companion and former colleague at Urban Impact. Her piece opens with the current lead-crisis in Flint, Michigan and spins out to larger unresolved historical crisis this situation represents. Finally, her words ricochet back to our modern crisis of unnecessary deaths  that could also have been avoided. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this piece is that within a month Katelyn will be relocating to Flint, Michigan. Thanks, Katelyn, for sharing your poetry with us and may you continue to use your art to challenge injustices in your new hometown! 

It’s February in Flint, Michigan

And children will make paper heart Valentines

Red, pink and purple paper

With “Be Mine” written in marker

They will hold in their lead-filled tears for now

Save them for a squeaky swing set on a Sunday

For a hospital bed in fifty years

When brain damage has made them a raisin

“This all could have been avoided,”

Said Dan Wyant, former quality of department of environmental quality

This like all forms of hate could have been completely avoidable

Just like the 3,346 lynchings of Blacks in Mississippi

Just like the 10,000 Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Meskie, Chickasaw, Chakta

Who were forced from their ancestral homeland

Just like the man in blue

With a gun who is gray with lightning

And the yellow thunder that follows

Only seconds behind.

13920662_10154147708395020_1796666940873281490_nKatelyn Durst is a poet and community artist who has been working with visionary youth all over the country for the past 6 years.She has just began a master’s program in urban studies and community arts which employs arts-based community development to transform at-risk communities. Most recently, Katelyn worked with the Children’s Defense Freedom Schools program at Rainier Beach High School, a program that implements a reading curriculum that celebrates diverse cultures and civil rights activism and is written by authors of color, where she worked alongside 9th and 10th graders in community activism and positive identity building. She currently teaches therapeutic poetry with Pongo Teen Writing. Her poetry has appeared in The LightKeeper, The Offbeat, Teen Inc,New Poetry Magazine and is upcoming in Tayo Literary Magazine and The Primal School. In Katelyn’s spare time, she can be found dreaming about starting her own urban farm, baking gluten free cakes and biking her neighborhood.

What If He Was My Brother?

IMG_2986

White privilege. 

It took two days before I heard

For others it was a passing news blurb

Meanwhile neighbors of color are scared to walk out their door

Afraid of violence more than ever before

 

White privilege. 

We gather and talk of the weather

While our brothers and sisters get slaughtered

We can avoid taking sides with the government

But for people of color, this ain’t simply an argument!

 

More shots ring out in retaliation

In response to a system we’ve taken for granted

Built in our favor, we called it good

Until police lay dead on the ground where they’d stood

 

Then we ask…

“What if that was my brother

Shot and killed by a sniper

Blood oozing in the streets

From his head to his feet?”

 

Yet what if he was my brother

Only son of my mother

Reached for a wallet

Then the cops shot it?

 

The contrast in outlooks is black and white

As stark as it was during the Civil Rights

White privileged people—we live in our bubbles

Can’t even see how our brothers and sisters suffer.

 

We can be silent when we don’t feel the pain

During outrages of expression, we quietly refrain

When we don’t question one another

With, “What if he was my brother?”

 

Prayers From Prison

Prayer-in-PrisonAn older, obviously intoxicated man carrying an open beer can blocked our path on the sidewalk. I was strolling back to Rainier Avenue Church with members from my community development team, having just enjoyed dinner at the new Poke’ restaurant in our neighborhood. I avoided eye contact and was about to skirt my way around this “drunk” when my friend Carlotta greeted him.

“Why hello! I’ve missed you!”

His eyes lit up, recognizing his friend.

“I’m gonna come back and pray for you all,” he said.

“Ok. We’ll look forward to seeing you.”

After their cheerful exchange she remarked, “He’s such a sweet man. He comes every Sunday before church and prays with us and for our congregation.”

Wow. I don’t come arrive Sunday mornings to pray for my church. I barely make it on time for the second service most weeks!

Too often we disregard people before we even give them a chance to speak, as I did the “drunk” I passed on the sidewalk. Yet if we paused to listen, we might not only have an opportunity to bless someone but to receive a blessing ourselves. I have found this to be true from the most surprising sources.

IMG_3002For example, last year I began writing letters to a friend I’ve known since childhood but hadn’t seen in over a decade. This friend is incarcerated. Controversy surrounds why he’s where he is. Perhaps he was guilty. Perhaps innocent.[1] The fact remains that he’s a human made in the image of God with a thirst for connection to people, to friends, to his Creator.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus spoke of how one defining quality of the sheep—those who make the right choice and inherit eternal life—was that “I was in prison and you came to visit me” and then explained that when we do it “for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”[2]

My friend lives several states away from me so visiting isn’t realistic. But I can visit in the form of a letter. So every month or two, I send him quotes from books I’ve been reading, verses of encouragement, stories from coworkers who serve in our judicial system and general life updates. He replies when he’s able to since he doesn’t always have money for postage stamps. Our correspondence isn’t romantic; my friend has a fiancé. No, he’s starving for spiritual companions. In fact, he has told me aside from parents and a grandmother, no one writes him now that he’s been locked up for a couple years. Ironically, many who support prison ministry to complete strangers have dismissed him as a “hopeless case” and finally getting what he deserves. Perhaps if he was a stranger to them, they would offer more empathy, more hope, more encouragement.

But the encouragement isn’t a one-way street. In spite of his struggles, depression and constant relocation, my friend always asks how he can pray for me and I’ve experienced acute answers to those prayers. In my most recent letter from this friend, he closed saying, “I pray for you every day.”

Wow. Few people say this to me. Fewer yet do it. Other than my parents and perhaps a couple grandmas, I suspect no one prays for me every single day. Honestly I don’t pray for anyone on an ongoing daily basis like that.

I am continually amazed not only that prayer often comes from the most unexpected sources but that those very sources put me to shame by the regularity of their prayers. I guess that’s because desperation drives us to God. Or as Jesus put it, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.”[3]

~

[1] The fact that he’s a person of color in a slanted justice system makes me speculate that even if guilty he’s facing harsher treatment than he would were he white. But that’s another topic for another blog post. For those interested in a comprehensive, well-researched work on race and the US justice system, please read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

[2] Matthew 25:36 & 40

[3] Mark 2:17, Good News Translation

If My Hosts Were Refugees

footwashing

Receiving a phone call from my director while my Bengali sister was washing my feet.

“When tragedy happens we look for someone to blame,” my pastor said this past Sunday, reflecting on Orlando’s mass shooting that occurred the night before and imploring us to pause to grieve the lives taken. Yet blame is the easiest thing to do. It’s what the religious leaders during Jesus’ time on earth were all about: catch a woman in adultery and blame her. Find a man born blind and blame him or his parents for sinning. The list goes on.

One community that’s receiving blame after this incident is Muslim immigrants and refugees.

We blame our fears and we fear what’s unfamiliar. Among communities of faith, some might discourage encounters with people holding worldviews different from their own because such interactions could result in questioning or even rejecting their beliefs. For me, however, engaging on a deep level with people holding beliefs varied from my own has actually expanded and deepened my faith. Living several years in Bangladesh gave me insights on stories from the Bible that I would have never recognized had I stayed in the United States. Furthermore, my Muslim friends taught me about reverencing God, showing hospitality to strangers and praying in a disciplined fashion. To this day I still pray with my palms facing up, a position that indicates receptiveness to receiving God’s blessing.

A couple stories from the book I’ve been writing offer additional glimpses into the spiritual insights I gained from my experience of living with a Muslim family in a country far from my own:

Daisy*, the younger of the two daughters, was an energetic artist with a zest for life. Her older, more docile sister Nadine* would tease us and say that Daisy and I were “dushtu bons” (naughty sisters). She sometimes accompanied me to the English service at the Assembly of God church and after one service asked me to explain the meaning of the word “fellowship.”

“It’s like when you’re worshipping and you feel connected to God,” I tried to explain. She looked at me confused. As I was reflecting on our conversation later in the week, Revelation 3:20 came to mind:

“Look! I have been standing at the door, and I am constantly knocking. If anyone hears me calling him and opens the door, I will come in and fellowship with him and he with me.”

I thought of how Daisy and her family demonstrated hospitality to me, a trait prominent in Muslim cultures. My western mind was blown as I realized my understanding of “fellowship” had been limited and shaped by my religious experiences and had deviated from the original Biblical context. I excitedly shared the verse with Daisy and my insight into the meaning of this word that she had been so wonderfully displaying to me.

Another evening I shared the Last Supper story about how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

“You all have been doing so much for me,” I said. “But Jesus taught that we should serve others. And in his day, people wore sandals and had very dirty feet, much like here. So I would like to wash your feet.”

“Oh no! You can’t possibly wash our feet!” they exclaimed.

I was their honored guest and a foreigner at that! They insisted on washing mine and I eventually agreed on the terms that I would get to wash theirs in exchange. It was a beautiful, sacred moment and gave me insight into the depth of shock Jesus’ disciples must have felt when their leader washed their feet.

~

Yet should friends like Daisy and Nadine find themselves in the United States, I cannot promise they would receive the same level of hospitality. Should they with their brothers and mother come to my country, the United States of America, would anyone invite them to their home? For many refugees and immigrants, they never get offered a drink of water, let alone someone giving up their own bed and washing their dirty feet! Fear causes us to suspect, rather than welcome. Biases presume that newcomers arrive only to take with little to offer. And simple busyness prevents many of us in the United States from engaging deeply with anyone, especially our newest neighbors in town!

Although I haven’t blamed these communities, I’ve still found myself making stereotypical assumptions. For instance, two weeks ago my pastor showed a video of a brief interview with a refugee family whom we at Rainier Avenue Church are welcoming into our neighborhood. As the father told his story, the mother sat in silence, hushing their children. I assumed she knew little to no English and had no formal education. Imagine my surprise when the interviewer turned to her and in English more fluent than her husbands, she told of how she had a degree in computer science and had worked at a university in Baghdad. Assumptions busted! She and her husband have so many talents to offer—from education to experience. Yet how well will we welcome them? When they apply for jobs, will we turn them away? When they ask for a place to sleep, will we tell them to get out of our already-crowded city? I am grateful to organizations like World Relief that are helping families like this one get connected to housing, jobs and most importantly people. And perhaps in welcoming new friends the way they would to us in their country, we will experience deeper understanding of each other and of God. For in the words of a twentieth-century prophet:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that.
Hate multiplies hate,
violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness
in a descending spiral of destruction….
The chain reaction of evil —
hate begetting hate,
wars producing more wars —
must be broken,
or we shall be plunged
into the dark abyss of annihilation.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Strength To Love, 1963

*Names changed to protect privacy