Clean-Cut Jesus? 


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

Clean Streets, Missing Christ 

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

Privileged Callings vs. Poor People’s Careers 

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

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?


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?”


To Buy Can be Better Than to Give

IMG_7900My uncle booked a group table at the event I had invited him and my aunt to attend. When I offered to pay for my seat, but he said, “I’ve got you covered. Give whatever you want as a donation to the organization.”

We were at a Nepali fundraiser dinner for Friends of WPC Nepal, an organization dedicated to helping end and prevent human trafficking along the Nepal border. The founder is from a border town herself and growing up watched many of her childhood playmates leave for “opportunities”beyond their small town, only to never return.

At the back of the room was a display table where the founder and her daughter were selling beautiful, high-quality jewelry made by women in Nepal. The jewelry enables Nepali women to have employment in a solid community and prevents them from being trafficked into the sex trade. I thought about how much money I had allocated for this night and toiled between writing a check or purchasing a piece of jewelry.

A little personal background: I don’t enjoy shopping and rarely spend money on clothing, let alone jewelry. I’ve largely adopted my parents’ and grandparents’ model of thrifty living and generous giving. However, as I’ve become more aware of systems of commerce and the people impacted by those systems, I’ve realized that buying cheap clothing in order to write a larger check to a charity working against human trafficking is counter-intuitive when the cheap clothing was made by slave (or underpaid) labor. Or pinching pennies to purchase inexpensive chocolate so that you can have more pennies to donate towards an orphanage is hypocritical when you consider that the cocoa was sourced by child labor and conditions that harmed both people and planet leading to the need for an orphanage!

Furthermore, earning something causes people to value it more and feel greater self-worth than receiving a handout. Earning money can give people the ability to make choices previously unavailable to them, fosters self-esteem and provides opportunities that would not otherwise exist. As the founder of Sari Bari, an enterprise in Kolkata, India, which enables women to leave the sex trade by providing seamstress work, wrote after the first distribution of pay checks to the women, “a job does what a hand out can not…it gives hope and belief in self” (Power of a Paycheck). Case in point: before starting the Sari Bari business, the ministry team had worked for several years in the red light district, but during that time only one woman had left the sex trade. Yet since they began the Sari Bari business in 2006, 117 women have left the trade to find freedom and new lives!

In With Justice for All argued, John Perkins wrote, “Far more than they need our money, the poor need us—people. People with skills who will work with them and teach them how to become self-sufficient” (p.13). I strongly believe that providing people with dignified work is one of the best ways to end poverty and prevent human trafficking. Because of this, I chose to purchase a necklace rather than make a strict donation. Also, I chose it for myself in order to wear it as a conversational starter and promotional piece. When people ask about my necklace, I can tell them about Hetauda House, a place of safety for at-risk girls in Nepal.

I am not against gifts or donations, but sometimes it can be healthy to weigh all options. In this scenario, I felt like buying was a better investment in a cause I believe in than straight up giving.

Note: a few of my other favorite social enterprises that do similar work include the following:

If you know of others you’d recommend, leave a comment.


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


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

My Beggar Challenge

“If you’re not going to change your mind, then just agree to one thing: don’t spend $10 on alcohol this week,” the homeless man said.

“OK,” I agreed.

“Or on anything.”

The man had called to me from his perch on a rock wall on the edge of Capitol Hill’s sport field, also known as Cal Anderson Park. When I’d passed the field earlier in the afternoon, a team had been practicing baseball. In previous years I played a few co-ed soccer games on that field. Now a group haphazard group of young people milled about wearing Seahawk jerseys.

“Don’t take this wrong,” he said. I assumed he was going to give me some pickup line or flirtatious remark. He was good-looking and appeared close to my age.

“My name is Sam.”

“I’m Emily.”

“You are very beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

“Could you spare me a few dollars?”

“I don’t give out money,” I replied.

“I don’t do drugs or spend money on women.”

“He does appear sober,” I thought.

“I’ll buy you some food but I don’t give out cash,” I replied.

“Well, you see, there’s a problem with that. All the stores around here know me and don’t like having a homeless guy come in there all the time. I’m 6’ 10” so I stand out, you see, and they look down on a guy like me coming in there.”

“Or look up,” I joked.

He laughed.

“Yeah. I’m a bit OCD about my eating. Every evening I go to the 7-11 and buy a package of Ramen, Doritos and a Gatorade. Then after I eat I have nothing to do but sleep.”

“Well now that you’ve given me your shopping list, I can get that for you.” I knew my do-gooder side was showing. Some might consider this trait generous, others foolish and still others a case of white privilege.

“But it’s not that simple. You see, I’d also like to take a shower and do laundry. I only know of one shelter here and it’s full of smelly old men. I don’t like going there. I don’t like people seeing me as ‘homeless.’ I just want to get my life back. I have only two friends in this city and they let me use their shower sometimes and their address for getting my ID mailed but I don’t want always bother them. Anyway, if you don’t want to change your policy, I understand. Thank you for taking time to talk with me. Many people just walk by. But I think everyone deserves the dignity of being noticed, even if they’re addicted to drugs and laying on the curbside.”

“I agree.”  Though I had to admit I’d contemplated leaving as soon as he asked for money. But the sermon I’d heard that morning had emphasized how God can speak through unexpected sources, and it seemed this man might be such a source.

“Someone gave me one of those tickets and I told my homeboy if I won, we’d get rid of it as quickly as possible. After paying taxes, we’d just give it all away to homeless people. We’d give it away in-person. We wouldn’t go through an organization. The worst is that Union Gospel Mission.”

“The shelter you mentioned going to earlier?”

“Yes. They get so much money. I calculated after paying all their employees and costs, that still leaves $50 million! So where does that money go? To the property owners who do nothing. Shoot, if I won $1.3 billion, I told my homeboy we could buy Seattle!”

“A single house costs about $1 million now,” I said.

“For real? Excuse my language but I just like to say f**k California. Two million dollar flats?!”

“It’s ridiculous.”

“So I prayed to God that if I won I would give it all away. But I couldn’t trust myself with it. And then this morning when I woke up, the ticket was gone. I checked three times today and no one won last night. Well if you haven’t changed your mind, that’s fine.”

“Yeah, sorry, that’s my policy.”

“That’s fine, but then I challenge you not to spend any money this week. I see guys pass by all the time and refuse to give me $10 then spend $200 to get drunk and hail an Uber to drive them and a bunch of girls home. I had to help them in the car, they were so drunk!”

About that time one of the Seahawks  jersey-wearing guys in the park stumbled barefoot down the steps next to us and collapsed on the ground.

“You ok?” Sam asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said as the guy’s girlfriend helped him up.

“Remember this name—Emerald City, like Seattle is the Emerald City,” I said.

“Yeah, like the Wizard of Oz.”

“Yes, ‘Emerald City Bible Fellowship.’  It’s a church and a community where my office is. You said you want to get your life back. It’s really all aspects—spiritual, social, material…”

“It’s not that I want to get my life back. I have a life here, but what’s the difference between a rich man and a poor man?” he looked me straight in the eye as he posed this question. “Most people would say money. But really it’s lying. I can sit here all day and ask people for $10, $20, $100 and guarantee that 15% will talk to me and give me something. At least I tell them ‘thank you.’ And just like me, many wealthy people spend their days sitting and talking to people. They get their money through lying and corruption. That’s why I understand when Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to go through an eye of a camel than for a rich man to be saved. And I know you are a child of God. And Jesus also said if you feed the hungry and clothe the naked, you have done it to me.”

“You have a lot of wisdom,” I said. “If you come down to Emerald City Bible Fellowship, you can meet other smart people like you. They also give gift cards to people who need it for grocery stores like Safeway and QFC. And there’s a fitness center next door where I work and you can volunteer in exchange for a membership.”

“Now the fitness center is the only part of what you mentioned that I’d be interested in. I need to get my body back in shape. It’s part of getting my life back. Where did you say it’s located?”

“On Rainier Avenue.”

“Where’s that?”

“South of here. See if you go to the end of this street and turn left on Broadway, then follow that to Boren, Boren will turn into Rainier Avenue.”

“So you haven’t changed you mind?”

“No, I’m sorry.”

“Ok. Thanks for listening.”

As I drove home, I thought about our conversation. For other homeless people I have often purchased a smoothie, coffee or even a sandwich. But with Sam I left not giving him anything save a few minutes of my time. He, however, had given me a challenge.

“Could I really go a week without spending $10? Or any money?” I asked myself.

I had just spent over $20 on two hours of entertainment singing karaoke with my friends. Could I go an entire week without spending any more?

“I have a few groceries left. Perhaps I can fudge and use my gift cards from Christmas to buy fresh produce and a few essential items. I’ll have to forego online purchases too. And perhaps cancel plans with friends that involve spending money.”

I decided to accept his challenge…

A Week Without Spending

Monday. I had planned to stay late after work and participate in a class or two at our fitness center. My friend and co-worker (who hosted me at her home for Thanksgiving) spotted me at the front desk and asked how long I’d be there.

“Well, I want to go to these classes but need to round up some grub first,” I said.

“You can have some of this rice.” She handed me a container of leftover carry-out.

“And get some hummus out of the fridge upstairs.” The rice held me over until my workout and the hummus paired with some Rye crackers made a perfect post-workout snack. She didn’t know how grateful I was for the food!

Tuesday. I met up for lunch with a friend who works at the Seattle Urban Academy. She texted me that morning that lunch would be served at 11 AM so I decided to skip breakfast, but my blood sugar was dropping by the time I arrived.

“Lunch isn’t actually until 11:50,” she told me when I arrived. “So let’s go get coffee first.” I ordered a fruit smoothie and offered to help pay with my gift card but she insisted on treating me. I thanked her and afterwards told her about the challenge which inspired a conversation on money and stewardship.

Adding another level of difficulty to the challenge, I recently gave up white flour and sugar. Throughout the week I was astounded by how much free food is created using one or both of these two ingredients. Leftover lasagna in the break room. Cookies before a community meeting. Brownies and hamburger buns at the school where I joined my friend for lunch. I skipped the brownie and decided since within reason I try to eat whatever is served me when I’m the guest (no matter what dietary restrictions I hold to for health). I watched in relief, however, when the man sitting next to me at our table removed his hamburger bun and began cutting his meat with a fork and knife. I decided to follow suit.

Tuesday evening I had plans to boulder with a friend. I used over half of my gift card to pay for the entrance fee, hoping I wouldn’t have to buy too many groceries or anything else before the week was out.

Wednesday. I’d arranged to meet with friends who’ve I’ve literally been trying to see for a couple years. They had invited me over and I had asked what I could bring. Now most people will tell you either “Nothing, just bring yourself,” or make a generic request like a salad, bread or dessert. This friend, however, is the queen of specifics. She asked for Ghostfish Grapefruit IPA, saying I could purchase it at PCC.

“There goes the rest of my gift card,” I thought, “and I’ll be spending it on alcohol!”

Arriving home from bouldering I found a message from her asking to postpone our time together until the next week. I was disappointed to yet again not see my friends but thankful I wouldn’t be blowing more than $10 on alcohol this week! So instead on Wednesday I pulled out the leftover turkey and carcass that I had frozen Christmas Eve and made a simple stew with celery, one carrot, broth and seasonings. I ate two bowls for dinner and drank a cup of tea.

Thursday. I had oatmeal for breakfast and ate leftover soup for both lunch and dinner. I’d heard a rumor that we might be treating our director for lunch instead of having a weekly meeting, but everything rolled as business-as-usual. That evening a friend joined me for a ZUMBA class at the gym.

Friday. Breakfast and lunch mirrored Thursday but I was out of anything to accompany the soup. By 3:00 PM I was hungry again. I asked one of my co-workers if she wanted to grab sushi from the grocery store nearby and she suggested going to a sushi restaurant farther away. I knew that would cost more than I had on my gift card and take much longer. So I held off on grabbing anything but by 5:00 PM I was hangry and unable to think clearly. I realized I had another gift card for Shell gas station which was just a minute away. I checked the card’s description and found I could use it inside as well as at the pump. I dashed to the station and bought a small package of cashews for $2. As soon as I sat back in my car, I ripped the package open and it exploded all over my car. I collected them and found altogether they only made a handful. I realized that people like Sam often only have access to convenience stores where healthy options are limited and expensive. I wondered what he would have purchased if I had given him my gift card?12511308_994419173939742_2069857518_o

Back at the office I was still feeling ravenous so decided to down a fruit-flavored beverage that our water delivery guy had left for our staff. Even though the label claimed 0 grams of sugar, I knew it would make my stomach feel bloated, but needed a burst of energy for my final hour of work. The beverage had the expected results: helped me focus AND gave me a bloated stomach.

I arrived home close to 7 PM and ate another bowl of turkey soup plus toasted my last piece of whole wheat bread. Then I showered and headed up to a close friend’s house in North Seattle where I’d planned to stay the night. She and I decided to go listen to a musician I had met on an airplane perform at a coffee shop. The show was free but out of courtesy to the shopkeepers, I thought I’d buy at least one item using my gift card. But my friend offered to get mine so I accepted. We ordered a large plate of nachos to share. As we dug into them, I told her about the challenge.

“Well it’s a good thing I bought your nachos!” she said.

“I could have used my gift card,” I replied and realized how much I dislike depending on others, accepting them paying for my food even when it’s a good friend who offered. I think I got a sliver of the feeling Sam must experience when strangers like myself offer to buy him food. I also ate way more nachos than necessary because I was tired of being hungry and I didn’t know if I would have options without white flour and sugar at the retreat we were attending the next day.

Saturday. My friend served me a scrumptious bowl of steal-cut oats with lots of toppings. I mixed in peanut butter so I wouldn’t become hungry within an hour plus topped it with berries and coconut shavings. The remainder of our day was spent at a retreat which I had pre-paid for weeks ago. Our registration covered all meals and snacks and I was excited to see they served us healthy options. I again found myself overeating so thankful to have access to plenty of nutritious food. They even sent us home with Ziploc bags of leftovers!

Sunday. I made it through the week spending only money to buy a bouldering day pass and a bag of cashews, both with gift cards (< $20 total). I wondered if I should find Sam and tell him I had taken him up on his challenge. But in the end the challenge w
as more for me than him. Yet it’s a challenge that millions on our planet face every week not by choice but my limitations, whether born into a caste system that keeps them in a day laborer position earning less than $1 per day or living in a city where the cost of housing and transportation leaves little left for necessities like food. Sam shook my comfortable life a little with this challenge. Yet like other times in my life when I’ve been in financial crisis (due to health and school loans), I had a safety net of friends and family–community who came around and lovingly offered enough to get by. And I wonder if our world was more interconnected, could we eradicate hunger and extreme poverty? On this weekend that we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., I’m inspired to dream of what could be.

Talking Blood: Black Lives Matter Protest

Black Lives Matter

The organizers called me an “ally” because I am white. As an ally, I was instructed to line up behind the people of color. I was at a Black Lives Matter protest for police accountability that gathered around noon on this rainy, cold Saturday in January at MLK Memorial Park. Organized by women of color for systemic change, they lead the march to our Seattle detention center where the city plans to spend $210 million rebuilding and expanding so they can lock up more of our youth. Statistically, this will mostly hold youth of color; currently, for example, black youth comprise 8% of the state’s youth but 42% of our detention center. And recent events have shown us that the school to prison pipeline is becoming a school to graveyard pipeline. Black lives that have become a hashtag should have received justice (and many more deaths go completely unnoticed).

Police escorts in front of the Seattle detention center.

About 20 police escorts line in front of the Seattle detention center.

Caring about this injustice is something that my community of faith, and primarily my friends of color, have made me aware of in recent years. So I was surprised when a group of non-religious white friends (whom I affectionately refer to as my “hippie circle”) invited me to the event. I was even more surprised to see that the majority of the 200-300 participants who showed up to protest were white. The organizers expressed appreciation for us allies who were showing solidarity, but emphasized that the movement should be lead by people of color.

Earlier in the day I had tried to imagine what our world would look like had the people of Africa risen to prominence, conquered North America, and enslaved my ancestors from Germany and England…then hauled them here against their will to work their farms and businesses without pay. What would it have looked like to grow up in a country where for 200 years black men were the prominent figures in media, newspapers and history books? Where the justice system was created by black men to the disadvantage of a white minority and where I was always considered “the other,” or not even considered at all. Where I had trouble finding hair products that were not designed for curly hair and the food I liked to eat was considered “ethnic” and the music white people produced was considered part of a subculture. But to be honest, even with my vivid imagination, I couldn’t fully imagine that as a reality. So when the organizers of our protest asked that we “allies” line up in the back, I personally was not offended. I was getting only a tiny taste of the way we white people have for centuries treated our brothers and sisters of color.

hands up don't shoot

Bi-standers joined us when they heard our slogan “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

“Hands up, don’t shoot!” we shouted as we marched. The response of most African Americans we passed was an instantaneous motion of flinging their hands in the air as well. Drivers gave short honks of support or punched their fists in the air in agreement. Meanwhile, most white people we passed simply stared back or looked annoyed that we were disrupting the roads. At intersections, the organizers ordered us to block off traffic.

“We intend to inconvenience people!” they shouted. I could tell the vehicles’ drivers were perturbed to be stopped in the middle of their journeys and I couldn’t blame them–I would be too! But I understood what the organizers were emphasizing: privilege and comfort must be inconvenienced in order for people to stop and think and consider that black lives matter just as much as the busy lives of us who still live do.

Blocking the traffic circle.

Blocking the traffic circle.

At the second intersection, we blocked off an extra exit from the interstate. This was the busiest intersection we blockaded during the protest and lasted for probably 10 minutes. A couple minutes in, cars began honking and a few illegally drove through a nearby business parking lot.

“Let’s block them off!” someone said. I headed over, thinking others would join me. A car loaded with young white guys rolled down their windows and hollered profanities at us as they rolled past. Another car was about to follow but I stepped in the way, yelling “Wait! Stop!” A righteous anger overcame me and I yelled at impatient people in their cars, “Black lives matter! Stop and think about that for a minute. We all need to stop and think about this!” Some people cautioned me that I was outside of the main road but a guy who was videoing the scene from his phone said not to worry because he was capturing it all. A couple minutes later a young guy sauntered over; I thought he was coming to join me but he just cautioned me not to get hurt standing there by myself and I told him “Well, then stand here with me!” He said he needed to be back in the circle for something but that we would be there for awhile longer, for 4 minutes for a die in (I later realized he was a First Aid medic).

die in

Organizers lead the die in, 4 minutes of silence.

About that time an older man joined me and got to his knees, along with most of the crowd. As I did I prayed that Jesus would give me strength. My legs were wobbly but I remembered our prayer time from yesterday and thought of Abel and Martin Luther King Jr and innocent black youth who have died. I knew if I was hit or injured, it would be for this struggle all have shared for justice for humanity. The courage to stand there alone could only come from God and I began to pray that God’s kingdom would come and will would be done here on earth as it is in heaven.

Praying during die in

Standing, praying

I thought of how yesterday we were praying at my office for racial reconciliation after a staff-wide conversation the day before on reflections from Ferguson. Someone had mentioned during that conversation that we would always have conflict on earth–conflict that started with the first two brothers, Cain and Abel, one of whom killed the other one! Someone else spoke about how the death of youth like Michael Brown is especially angering because it was the result of the color of his skin. In similar situations of conflict between police and young white guys, less violent methods have been employed, whereas many of our youth of color have simply been killed, unjustly, on the spot. These young men can no longer speak at all!

Martin Luther King Jr. Quote

During our prayer time I meditated on the story of Abel. God spoke to me from Hebrews 11:4 which says:

“By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”

And in Genesis 4:10:

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

This young man continues to shout to God and to humanity, his blood screaming to God from the dirt, his story teaching us today that injustices do not go unnoticed.

After the march, I concluded the day watching Selma. The stone-cold expressions depicted on the faces of the police in the movie, preventing Black people from voting in the 1960’s, were almost a mirror reflection of the nearly two dozen police I saw lining in front of the detention center earlier. The hatred remarks of the young white guys who drove by our traffic circle could have just as easily come from the mouths of the white people of Alabama over 50 years ago. Most disheartening was the fact that the only online news coverage I could find from the event was a piece about how traffic was disrupted with comments like:

“so just use a few fire hoses from fire trucks and hose them all down black white or what ever . just get the road ways clear”


“Just run ‘em down…..Black Lives Splatter.”

Even here in a city that prides itself in being progressive, I am appalled by how much racism continues to choke us. May the blood not splatter but speak!

Note: photos for this piece along with additional images of the day can be found here.