Coping and Confessions

 

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Road rage had struck me. When I’d pulled into an ARCO gas station about ten minutes prior, I had noticed an orange cone in front of my pump. I’d considered relocating to a different stand in case it was out of order, but figured ARCO’s attendants would have put an “Out of Order” sign on the pump if it wasn’t working. I parked and strolled inside to pay with cash so I could get a cheaper rate. I waited for several other customers to pay; when it was my turn at the front desk the attendant informed me that my pump was in fact out of order.

Walking back to my car I noticed that the pump directly in front of my car was now vacant, so I could simply roll forward to fill from it; as I inched my car forward, another vehicle began backing into that same space. I knew the driver assumed that I had just filled my tank and was leaving. However, I honked profusely until he pulled forward. Then I parked and got out.

“What was that all about?” an older, middle-aged man asked, emerging from the car in front of me.

“That pump is out of order so I was pulling forward,” I explained, pointing towards the tank my car had previously been parked in front of.

“Well you could have just told me that the pump was out of order and you were pulling forward,” the man replied. “I always defer to ladies. Ladies first.”

He’d called me out.

I reentered the station and pre-paid for my gas. When I returned outside, I saw a vehicle parked at the pump with the orange cone, directly behind my car. I was going to inform the driver that the pump was out of order, but then saw it was the man I had just honked at. He got out and came towards my car.

“Let me pump your gas for you.”

Now I was getting served an extra large slice of humble pie with a scrumptious dollop of conviction. I popped open the door for the gas compartment for him.

“They need an out-of-order sign on that pump,” I said.

“Yeah, this place is just falling apart,” the man replied. The thermometer on my car read 27 degrees and patches of snow had not yet melted on the ground around us, but the man was wearing shorts and a light jacket which was unzipped just enough to appear that he had no shirt on underneath.

“I tried to break up a fight two weeks ago but that just landed me with a messed up hand,” the man waved his left hand from his jacket’s pocket and showed off a swollen hand with stitches across it.

“Then my girlfriend of 15 months cheated on me and so we split. I’ve been living out of my car with nothing but the clothes on my back for the last two weeks.”

I wanted to offer to pray for him, but considering that our interaction began due to my road-rage I thought that might just make Christians look bad. Here this man who would likely be shunned in many churches was acting like Jesus towards me and right after I’d treated him like a total jerk!  And this in the same town just about a mile from where I’d experienced God work in a miraculous way at a gas station last summer.

So my confession number one is that I was a total jerk to a homeless guy with a bummed hand. My second confession is that after an intense few months leading up to and following the election, my coping mechanism during December mirrored many others:

I turned off Facebook.

Well, I didn’t get completely off the most-widely-used social media platform. But I logged on a LOT less. I also quit listening to NPR, watching news and scrolling Facebook and Twitter looking for juicy political pieces. Instead, I tromped around in snow-capped mountains, decorated a tree for wildlife, hosted a friend visiting from Los Angeles, bunny-sat for two adorable creatures and gave some attention to my personal life which lead to cupid striking hard in the form of a romantic relationship.

The experience at the ARCO station, however, reminded me of the project I had launched on this blog last November: attempting to build bridges among people who tend to dehumanize one another. It’s just as easy to forget that real people with unique stories are driving the vehicles that form annoying traffic as it is to forget the same of Republicans and Democrats, Socialists and Libertarians, immigrants and police. Whether it’s drivers of vehicles that create annoying traffic or the traffic on our social media, we would do well to pause and listen to the stories of individuals caught in traffic just as we are. And so my project of building bridges by listening and sharing stories continues into 2017.

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.

Politics That Began in Heaven

Cross at a hogar (children's home) I visited in Honduras earlier this year

Cross at a hogar (children’s home) I visited in Honduras earlier this year

At several points in the United State’s Presidential election this year I half jokingly suggested that every Christian simply write in “Jesus” as our leader of choice. Considering our options, if the campaign #JesusForPresident had gained momentum, I wouldn’t have been surprised if even delusional atheists had would have cast their vote that direction. However, one of my housemates informed me that in Washington State, writing in a name for anyone who has not declared they are officially running automatically nullifies the entire ballot. So much for writing in my idealistic candidate.

So if I can’t write in “Jesus” for President (at least, not and still expect my vote to count), how does a Christian synthesize God with politics? This has been a divisive topic for many Christians, particularly this election. Some abstain from voting altogether. Others “vote their conscious” by selecting third-party candidates. Still others opted for Trump or Clinton, warning one another their faith was in jeopardy for supporting the opposing candidate. In such a climate it was easy to wonder: does God even care or should we categorize faith and politics separately?

For the past month every morning I’ve prayed out loud the most well-known prayer in the Bible, the one Jesus taught his followers in Matthew 6:9-13:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from the evil one.

As I daily prayed these words, the meaning of “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth like it is in heaven” began to deepen.

I realized that “kingdom” translated into modern English would essentially be nation-state or political system.

“No wonders Jesus was considered so revolutionary in his day!” I thought.

Jesus was always talking about a system completely counter to the one his people were living in. Many of his followers thought he was talking about a literal kingdom, a new political system he was about to bring in and become ruler over.

“No wonders their dreams were shattered when he died!”

During his time on earth, Jesus challenged systems of oppression and the rulers who held them in place. These included both religious and political powers which were interconnected in the cultures that he lived among. Yet his form of challenge often looked less like confrontation and more like elevation of the marginalized, healing the blind who were forced to beg, lepers who were prohibited from worship, women who were shunned from society. Similarly, when we pray that God’s kingdom–or rather, heaven-based politics–will be implemented here on earth, we may be surprised by where God is most at work.

“If we are to see God’s kingdom come and will be done, on earth as in heaven, we must first recognize that what we mostly experience here on earth is not heaven, and may actually feel closer to hell for some,” Bob Ekblad wrote in A New Christian Manifesto: Pledging Allegiance to the Kingdom of God. (p.52).

Bob continues saying: “This recognition is more difficult for those vested with the benefits of this world: credit, capital, economic and social success, acceptance, family support, racial profile, and citizenship that offer special entitlements or any sort of privileged status.”

Bob then points out how Jesus emphasized that’s it’s hard for a rich person to enter this new system, that it’s actually easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter (Matthew 19:23-24).

While Jesus goes on to say that ‘with God all things are possible’ (19:26), his words here show the difficulty of entry into God’s kingdom unless people have first left the kingdom or systems of this world. Ministry among inmates, immigrants, and homeless people has helped me see how systems that work or are at least tolerable for people of relative privilege like myself are completely unlivable for people on the margins. They have already left ‘the world’ in a sense and are a big step closer to reentry into the kingdom of God than many mainstreamers (Eckblad, pp.52-53).

Jesus talked constantly about this kingdom, this other world, this “new system” as we might call it in our decade. The system looked entirely different from what people expected, completely counter to what they expected a leader to do. Jesus shattered divisions and created new ones. He broke down structures and created bridges, across languages, cultures, ethnicities and worldviews. Perhaps most mind-blowing of all was when after he came back to life, he left earth almost immediately with the instructions that the new system he had taught his followers wasn’t just for them and their ethnic group, but for everybody.

No wonders they were shocked when God’s Spirit began to include people from other language and ethnic communities! 

One of these followers, Peter, became a leader of the movement and would later write a letter to those scattered around Asia and the Middle East calling them “a holy nation.” (1 Peter 2:9). God’s “kingdom” or “nation” does not follow country borders. Instead it’s like a wild weed—like mustard—popping up wherever we least expect it. This is why as I write this piece on the eve of Election Day, I have hope. Not in the US political system, not in a presidential candidate, not in a new Initiative, but in God’s nation that’s global and resilient with a just leader who will continue year after year after year. Perhaps it is fitting that election season is on the cusp of Christmas when we celebrate this leader first coming to earth:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this. ~Isaiah 9:6-7

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.

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.

Cascade Mountains

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?