An Anthem

I’ve been withering. It’s been a forlorn withering, one where I feel myself deflating. Deflating but also swelling. I’m very close to ejecting an enormous mass of jaded exasperation.

This mass sits in the pit of my stomach and stretches to just behind my eyelids. Sometimes, I have difficulty thinking of nice words and sometimes my eyelids sag to hold in the temper that my eyes cannot hide. Nobody wants to witness the obscene! Keep it in, dear. Mind your manners. You know how a healthy, productive citizen behaves.

Well, fuck it. I’m tired of not saying fuck. I need to say fuck more.  Fuck those fucking haters.

When you’re a dreamer who stops hoping, what does that mean? That means the status quo has won, the bureaucrats have conquered, the institution has stood and the fear-mongers have shouted their harrowing cry of victory.

No. I will not wither to a passionless point of despair. I will write. I will dance, dammit. I will tell you when I cannot read the news about Ferguson or the United Methodist Church or the stalwarts of privilege without getting so fucking angry that I want to punch all of the crusaders of oppression in the face. But I wont punch anyone in the face. I’m in to non-violence. Really, I promise.

I will dream dreams about tiny house villages for the homeless and giveBack Friday (instead of Black Friday, get it?) and small pockets of rogue Jesus followers who subvert the expansive and twisted pillars of the nationalized, white-washed, politicized empire that we call Christianity.

I will get married to the woman I love and you will not stop us from oozing joy. You haters with your silly rules about who can thrive and who is sentenced to death.

And I will cry, sometimes. Because the world can be pretty sad.

So excuse me, dear friends, as I breathe deeply and shout fuck as often as I want. You see, justice and transformation aren’t always pretty. Passion cannot be sanitized.

Let it be so and let us keep it real.

Sometimes helping helps. Sometimes helping doesn’t help. Sometimes helping hurts.

My seminary experience and particularly my cross-cultural course have made me extra-aware of the ways we do mission and the consequences our mission has on those we attempt to serve. As far as how to figure out my impact during this trip, I’ve come back to this question many times as I attempt to discern the effects that my presence has had on the AfterHours community.

I believe this topic is difficult for several reasons. One reason is that I’m doing work that has already been set in motion by the community here at AfterHours, so, as a short-term intern, there isn’t much wiggle room when it comes to actual programming and procedure. A person performing short-term mission or service usually doesn’t have the opportunity to change the mission. I appreciate the mission at AfterHours and would not look to change it, but I realize I would have a difficult time enacting change if I wished to do so.

Since I’m joining others in a continued mission, it’s easy to assume that my presence and my actions aren’t greatly affecting anyone. However, I was reminded today that every interaction can have a significant impact.

Today at the park we handed out lunches to the entire line and had some left over, so we waited a bit since some days we will have friends show up a bit later and ask for lunch. We were down to the last lunch and a man approached and asked if we had anything left. I gave him a lunch and a water and he thanked me with deep gratitude. It seemed as though he was having a rough day but he continued to express his appreciation for our presence in the park. I engaged in typical conversation and without any prompting he told me that he had turned away from God and he began to cry. I learned about his struggles with alcohol and the difficulties within his marriage and his hopes for his wife and daughter. He asked me to pray with him and I held his arm and asked God for good things such as courage and hope and reconciliation. I had a difficult time holding back tears as I experienced this stranger’s sorrow and vulnerability. As he left I reminded him that he’s not alone and I hope to God that I wasn’t lying.

I appreciated the connection I had today but upon reflection I realize that in that simple moment, I held an abundance of undeserved power. In that conversation I represented AfterHours, but I also represented God. A stranger handed me his heartache and I could do with it as I pleased. I could have done so much harm. And I pray that I did more good than not.

We all do the best we can with what we have and what we know. However, I hope that we, the people who try to help others and attempt to follow Jesus, realize the infinite consequences of every helping action and every helping word. I pray that we realize our own customs and ideas and behaviors and morals and truths are not one-size-fits-all. And most of all I pray that God shows up to help a sister out, because damn, helping is heavy and I can’t handle that on my own.

Sometimes helping helps. Sometimes helping doesn’t help. Sometimes helping hurts. I believe the best way for us to figure out the difference is through our presence, our presence without agenda. We can’t assume need, and we cannot know need unless we honestly listen. As ministers, missionaries, followers of Jesus or people who simply want to do good, we must recognize our positions of power and work toward relationships that level the playing field and put us in the place of listener, learner, disciple. Because oh girl(!) do we have a lot to learn from those whom we think we can help!

What have I learned?

Three weeks is a very short time to build relationships and understand a particular context. However, I feel like I have been able to glean quite a bit from the AfterHours communities (those who meet on Monday evenings and those who I’ve met at the park).

First, being in a new place helped to reinforce some things I already understood but had a difficult time enacting in the comfort of my home community:

  • Every person has a story and sometimes the best thing I can do is listen.
  • I must push myself to engage; watching from the sidelines or from a pedestal is easy.
  • Most of the time, simple is better. Ministry isn’t (or shouldn’t be) Walmart.

Also, being in a new situation has allowed me to learn a lot about myself. I’ve realized more about how I function, what my strengths are, what I dislike and my dreams for the future. Thankfully, I’ve also gleaned ideas for ministry at home and hopefully have gained more insight into respectfully interacting with those who don’t have a permanent residence.

I’m hesitant to claim that I’ve learned a lot about the homeless community, since each new friend represents a different story and I’m sure my homeless friends in Denver are different than my homeless friends in Staunton. However, there are some common threads that I’ve noticed during my time here:

  • Many of my friends have mental or emotional illness. It’s hard to delineate the cause and effect; did homelessness cause mental illness or did mental illness contribute to homelessness? But it’s obvious that many of them have not received the support they need and aren’t capable of stability without a lot more support.
  • While some decline communion, a lot of my friends will receive communion in the park. Many of them are quite religious, while others run from the idea of God. Faith seems to take on extremes when basic neccesities are stripped away. I believe I have more appreciation for a theology that claims spiritual deliverance after death; when your life is hell, what else can you believe?
  • I’ve found that most of my friends will never beg for anything, and are really grateful for peanut butter and jelly.
  • Some people are really confused that we give them lunch with no strings attached. Many of the church groups that hand out lunches in the park make people pray or listen to a sermon before receiving food. For heaven’s sake, stop trying to spread the good news and BE the good news.

I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been required to process my experiences and I have a hunch that if I’m more aware and intentional at home, I’ll learn a lot there too.

Releasing Presuppositions

There have been times in my life when I’ve done a better job of releasing stereotypes and presuppositions. One such time was when I first began with RISE and started to understand the importance of story. I realized that each person has a unique, tragic, wonderful story and that we all are part of God’s grand story. During that period in life I could walk down the street and see someone and my first thought was always, “What’s that person’s story?”

Since that time I’ve become a bit more cynical and busy and self-focused and have l greatly lost that skill. Thankfully, I believe this experience in Denver has helped to reshape me toward a stance of wonder, grace and embrace. I’ve encountered so many people here who challenge the status quo and look really different from what most people consider “normal.”

I’ve had the opportunity to hear a lot of stories and thus wonder about the stories of those who receive lunches, those who show up to the bar, those who walk through town in their suits and those who won’t ever look me in the eye.

I believe I can reduce the presuppositions and incorrect/negative attitudes I have toward others by attempting to remember their divine imprints, their God-breathed goodness. I need to remind myself that the person I see has hopes and dreams and short-comings and an intricate story that has caused her/him to be right here, right now.

I don’t need to find commonality with each person right from the beginning, but I must realize our common humanity and common God-ness and common need to be heard, loved, and respected. With such a stance, I believe I can release presuppositions and stereotypes and be better prepared to listen and love and care.

Lessons from the Inappropriate Homeless

While in Denver I’m doing some writing for my cross-cultural experiences course. I plan to post some of my ideas here as well. Here is a response to a question about interpersonal differences..

I’m finding these questions difficult as I attempt to compare my culture and the culture I’m visiting. I keep wanting to ask… which culture that I’m visiting? The people in Denver or the homeless or the church or those I see in the park each day who battle mental illness?

Today, some folks from the General Board of Discipleship (fancy Methodists) came to visit in the park. I’ve learned about the term, church tourism. That’s pretty much why they came. So we had a line of about 75 homeless friends who wanted lunch and a line of about 40 fancy Methodists handing stuff out. We had to go out and get extra stuff so all of the people could participate.

I had many cross-cultural experiences in that short time at the park today. Some of them were with powerful church people, and some of them were with people who don’t have a permanent residence. The conversation I liked the best was with a young woman who is serving on the GBOD board and going to college in Boston. She’s interested in mission and thinks outside of the box. Since her and I are similarly educated and have similar interests and views, our conversation was easy and fun. We both engaged equally.

Otherwise, I found that I was more comfortable with the homeless than with the older, powerful folks from GBOD. I’ve had many conversations with my new homeless friends, and they’ve gone in many directions. I’ve been told entire life stories without being able to get a word in myself and I’ve also received one word answers to my questions. I’ve also been told some pretty strange shit. Many of these friends have what we would consider “poor conversational skills.” However, I appreciate all of these conversations because they hold no judgement and aren’t laced with specific expectations. I tell them I’ve from Virginia and I’m hanging out with them for several weeks and they thank me for being there.

When I said the same things to the church folks I got questions like, “Why only for three weeks?” and “What do you do in Virginia?” and “Where are you going to church while you’re here?” Perhaps appropriate interpersonal dialogue isn’t really appropriate at all.

I’m trying to behave less like the church people and more like my inappropriate homeless friends.

A Note from Denver

Greetings from Denver! I’m a week into my internship with AfterHours and want to give an update on what I’ve been up to.

However, I want to first remind everyone in good ol’ Virginia that the house church is still going strong while I am away. This upcoming Sunday they will be taking a group hike and having dinner, communion and good times in the great outdoors! Meet at the house at 5:30. I’m sad to miss this because it’s sure to be a great time. You should go and tell me all about it! On Aug 11th and 18th they will continue the stories series, sharing personal stories and learning about how our stories are inter-connected with God’s story. And don’t forget EMBARK the Park on Saturday, August 24th! 

 

So…. Denver. It’s been an incredible experience thus far. I’ve been downtown in the park everyday handing out lunches, I attended my first AfterHours gathering at the Irish Snug, and I’ve had the opportunity to check out several other churches and organizations. In between these adventures I’ve had time to explore the city and bit of the mountains as well.

Here are a few experience that have struck me and made me ponder…

My first day at the park I was excited and a little unsure of what to expect. I travelled there with AJ, the previous intern, and we got there a bit early. A line had already formed for the lunches and I was able to chat with a few people. I met Tyrone, who used to be homeless and now comes to the park to help out. He told me all about his poetry and how much of a blessing it is to have interns like me helping people who are hungry. Tyrone gave me an incredible first interaction at the park.

That same day I met a woman named Mary Jane who drives over 45 minutes to bring lunches that she makes herself. She heard about AfterHours and really wanted to help out, so she started showing up once a week with a bunch of stuff. She is completely awesome and the moment I loved best was when she started talking to a man named Hill-Billy. She told him her name and he replied with a laugh, “Your name is Mary Jane! I smoke Mary Jane!” He thought it was hilarious, and obviously, I thought it was too. It was a beautiful, awkward moment where two of God’s children connected in an authentic way. That’s the stuff God’s dream is made of.

One afternoon after serving lunch, I was walking down the 16th street mall, which is a fairly popular destination and nice part of town. A man in a wheelchair asked if I had any money. And, I lied. I said that I didn’t have anything for him. Every day that I’ve been here I’ve been asked for money. Sometimes I give a dollar or 25 cents, but that time, I straight-up lied. And it’s been eating at me because I so often don’t know what to do or how to respond. There are so many “Please help” signs and so many stories about losing jobs and feeding children and needing bus fare or medical treatment. And I don’t know what to do. Perhaps I should just stay in that space and listen.

Serving communion to a line of 50-75 homeless people is an incredible, rewarding, holy, slightly terrifying experience. The first day I served I had a man refuse communion and tell me that he himself was communion. After that, a very loud, boisterous, and theatrical man came up to the (folding) table, kneeled, grasped the table, and started shouting about the messiah. We picked up the cup so he wouldn’t spill it. Then, he opened his mouth wide. Yes, I will a little confused and a little hesitant. But I placed the bread on his tongue and reminded him how much God loves him.

One of my first adventures in Denver was to the Inner City Parish, which is an organization that focuses on eradicating hunger and supplying an education for those who need it. I went to a worship service there. It was in an interesting neighborhood that seems to be moving toward gentrification. That’s happening a lot here in Denver. And while I love cute coffee shops, trendy bars and upscale apartments, the poor are being pushed out or crammed together. But back to the Parish. The service was awesome. I loved it because it contained a traditional liturgical design, welcoming and grace-filled theology, Spanish songs of peace, communal sharing of joys and struggles, a laid back worship space and, best of all, banana splits! The people there had lots to mourn and lots to celebrate, but it was obvious that they enjoy being a part of a community that loves them.

I’ve had many other adventures and witnessed a lot of heartache, celebration, courage and hope. Most of all, I think I’m learning that sometimes, less is more. Perhaps God’s dream doesn’t require more meetings, or steering committees, or buildings, or well-designed plans, or even people talking about God. Perhaps it’s about showing up with a smile and a sandwich and saying, “Hey, I’m glad you’re here.”

Strength to Love

Today I find myself wondering if Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. ever desired a simpler, more naive, Christianity. I wonder if he ever daydreamed of a life on the sidelines, one where he could safely wish for progress and attempt to pray away the evils of the world. I wonder what the Civil Rights movement would have looked like if King focused on heavenly, personal salvation instead of practically loving his enemies and risking his life to give a voice to the voiceless. What would our world look if King had preached justice, but stayed snug inside of his church, simply inviting others to come inside of those walls and be cured of all worldly evils?

How hard did King have to suppress the urge to fight fire with fire? Did he ever come close to abandoning his views of peacefulness and love in the face of such sickening hate and violence? I wonder if he ever dreamt of cold, mean retaliation.

How did he refuse the seductive pull of a Christianity that encouraged secure, clean, exclusive piety over dangerous, dirty, inclusive justice? How did he look into the very face of fear and hatred and say, “We will not be kicked down forever but we also will not kick you as we rise. We will stand, and we will love you”?

What did he really want to say to all of those Christians who claimed that people with black skin were created with the animals, and did not come from Adam and Eve as white people had? Did he want to scream at those who insisted that God is white? What about those Christians who desired to save the souls of black people as long as they stayed in separate schools, restaurants and social structures? Did King ever desire to punch those religious people square in the mouth? Or perhaps he felt the urge to just give up in the face of such ridiculous, fear-filled, destructive beliefs.

I stand in awe of this man, who, after being thrown in prison, after watching his sisters and brothers being dragged through the mud and set on fire, after being called sub-human, and after being denied the basic respect deserved by every human being, still possessed the courage, the strength, the compassion and the faith to stand up and demand respect in the most loving, respectful, grace-filled way imaginable.

I don’t think I can do that. In response to the fear-mongers that often dominate mainstream Christianity, I want to fist-fight, I want to scream obscenities, I want to make immature comments on Facebook and I most certainly DO NOT want to accept these people as children of God. I want to prove my superior theology with witty comments and I want to belittle them with statements of shame. I want to fight fire with fire. Or, when I’m feeling tired and hopeless and powerless, I want to give up. I want to forget about the millions of my sisters and brothers who are driven into the ground by systems that are perpetuated by power, greed and status. Systems that are political and very often religious. I want to take the easy road, I want to conform, I want to say “God bless this system that rewards me for being born into Protestant white America!” I want to pray for my own salvation, be as moral as possible, and spend my days resting in the lovely assurance of eternity. I want to chase my own vocational dreams of accumulation, success and stability, giving a little money and one Saturday every three months to my charity of choice. Perhaps if I put on a shiny cloak of piety and convince others to do the same, the world will become a better place.

I want to fight with malicious intent, or give in to a conformity that I know is easy, but is opposite to the truth spelled out by Jesus. Did Reverend King stand in this same place, seduced by two opposite yet well-travelled roads? Did he waver, or cry, or shout to God with the heaviest of laments?

Whatever the case, he got it right. He managed tough-mindedness with soft-heartedness. He was a transformed non-conformist. He succeeded in displaying a Christianity founded in love, while the country around him displayed one founded in fear. He held on to the hope that creation would be mended, and he set his life in action, following that vision.

It is my prayer, my hope, my dream, that I, too, can possess the strength to love.