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.

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!

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

Love Starts With a Name

Many would say it would be ‘nice’ to know the neighbors better. But as a life priority, that ranks somewhere near the desirability of adding heated seats to their automobile. You can get where you’re going without it, but it can add a little enjoyment to the drive. (The Abundant Community, p. 16)

Many people are familiar with the story in the Bible of the religious leader who asked Jesus what the greatest command was.

who-is-my-neighbor“Love God and love your neighbor,” was the short version of Jesus’ reply.

“Who is my neighbor?” the leader asked, wanting to justify himself.

Jesus replied by telling a story about an outcast (think illegal allien) who came across a guy beat up on the side of the road, helped him out and even paid for his medical bills! This was after two other religious leaders walked right past the wounded man.

“Which one was the neighbor?” Jesus asked.

“The guy who showed pity.”

“Go and follow his example.”

Just like the questioning leader, many of us still try to justify ourselves by redefining “neighbor.” We say, “Neighbor can be my co-workers, my friends, really anyone in the world.”

“When we insist we’re neighbors with everybody, often we end up being neighbors with nobody.” ~Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, The Art of Neighboring (p.35).

These authors emphasize that we need to demonstrate love to our literal neighbors, and to start by simply learning the names of those who live around us. As they explain:

What do you think about when you hear the word love? Theologians write about it, poets muse about it, singers sing about it. We want to be really clear: we are none of those. We are relatively normal guys. We’re not deep thinkers, nor do we have any musical skills whatsoever-we’d embarrass ourselves on a karaoke stage. And, if we happened to rhyme, it’s not on purpose. But we do know this about love: to love someone, it helps to actually know their name. (p.40)

The authors then challenge readers to complete a simple exercise: write down the names of the people who live immediately around you. If you can, write both the first and last name. I have to admit, even though I’ve lived in my current neighborhood for over a year (and just around the corner from my current house for three years prior to that), hosted a neighborhood BBQ, participated in block parties and cleanups and am involved in community development full-time and volunteer in my free-time on a community development team at my church, I struggled with this first step. The exercise highlights how most of us could grow in loving our neighbors, and an easy way to get started: by learning their names!

Once you’ve jotted down names, the next step is to write any other relevant information you’ve learned through conversation with the person. In other words, things you can’t know just by observation such as the color of their car or landscape in their yard. Finally, you write down in-depth knowledge you’ve gained from meaningful conversations such as your neighbors’ dreams, desires, beliefs and motivations (p.37). It may take years to completely fill in the squares with this sort of in-depth information. Yet as we do, genuine love will form between us and our neighbors, replacing suspicion and criticism that has become a marker of our industrialized planet. As I wrote in a poem for a neighborhood block party last year:

“Which is the greatest command?”
A man asked the Teacher
“Love God and love your neighbors
Treat them like your brothers and sisters.”

Yet how can we love them
When we don’t even know?
The people around us
Are just houses in a row!

What we don’t know
We often suspect
Hurl insults
Treat like an object

Upset when their dog
Poops in our yard
We call the police
As we get in our car

Why not walk across the street
Offer to lend a hand
Get to know that neighbor
Turn into a friend

As we know our neighbors
We reduce our fear
Look out for each other
When danger is near

We represent a range
From wealth to poverty
Yet each brings a gift
That strengthens our community

So neighbors, let’s unite
Set aside our worries
Let’s raise our voices
Tell our communities’ stories

Let’s work for change
Safety on our avenue
Decrease the crime
As we reclaim and renew

Our neighborhood as our own
Where we work and connect
Worship and play
Without fear or regret

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?

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.

How I Met My Housemate

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Me, Gracie & Annalise

God has continually provided housing, and housemates, for me in astounding ways. This particular story began on the continent of Asia and resulted in my most long-term housemate in Seattle. I dedicate this post to her, a woman of great strength and character, who has survived living with me for five years in three different homes of South Seattle. So grateful for the chapters of life we have shared and looking forward to the ones ahead as she marries and relocates to begin a new chapter in a new place. 

Our story actually started in 2010 when I did fieldwork for my graduate program in Kolkota, India. While there, I stayed with a local host family who were leaders in the social enterprise where I was interning. An American guy, David, had also just moved to Kolkota to do community development. He was staying with this host family at that same time while determining which slum to relocate to long-term. David mentioned he had a sister in Seattle, but didn’t put us in touch.

Fast forward to the following year when I began looking for a church in Seattle involved in community development. One of the churches I visited during my search was located in a gymnasium that served a Boys & Girls Club during the week. The first person I met in the hallway was a woman who asked me a typical get-to-know you question: “Where did you move to Seattle from?”

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Me and Annalise after a slime run 5k

“Bangladesh” I replied.

“Oh really? My brother’s there right now. He lives in India.”

I eyed her more closely. Her smile combined with blond hair looked familiar.

“Is your brother David?”

“How did you know?”

“We lived together with a local family in Kolkota last summer.”

“I feel like I’m gonna pass out. You saw my brother last summer?”

We decided to grab coffee and get to know each other more so exchanged numbers and friended each other on Facebook.

But then we got busy with life and work and grad school and never did get coffee. In 2011, I had finished grad school and was asking God “what next?” I sensed the Holy Spirit telling me to relocate to the Rainier Valley of South Seattle, so began visiting Rainier Avenue Church. Towards the end of June, Annalise messaged me for the first time since we had met saying her lease would be up the end of July and she was looking for people to live in intentional community with her in the Rainier Valley who wanted to reach out to their neighborhood. I replied:

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Annalise in our gutted kitchen after I accidentally flooded it (another story!)

Oh my word, Annalise. I have been praying about moving to the Rainier Valley and praying specifically that God would connect me with people who share a similar passion for living in community among the marginalized/Christian community development. Yes, we definitely need to meet up for coffee. I leave for San Francisco on Friday but will be back to Seattle on Tuesday night, July 5th. Would love to meet up with you soon after that.

Emily

My lease was also up August 1st, so we agreed to meet up to discuss this possibility on the Thursday after the 4th of July weekend when I would return from a trip to California. As I was about to board my plane back to Seattle, I found a voice message from Gracie, a woman I had “randomly” sat next to one of those Sundays when I’d visited Rainier Avenue Church.

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David and his bride at their Seattle wedding reception in our beautiful backyard

“I don’t know if you remember me, but we had talked about you possibly moving to the Rainier Valley and looking for housemates. Well I’m moving the end of this month and wondered if you’d be interested in living together?”

I called her back as soon as I was in Seattle.

“There’s actually another woman interested in living with us,” I told her.

“Is her name Annalise?”

“How did you know?”

“My boyfriend taught a class she was in and she emailed me about looking for housemates here too.”

Gracie already had houses lined up to look at—on Thursday! So instead of meeting up to talk about possibly living together in the Rainier Valley, we literally went to look at houses. By the end of the month had found a place that met our criteria and the three of us moved into it together.