What It Means

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I continue to cry on and off throughout the day. Tears of sadness. Tears of betrayal. Tears of confusion at the kind of community it seems we live in now – or apparently, have always lived in since we stepped foot in this country as immigrants.

I keep staring out the window wondering, Now what? 

We lost something on November 9th. More than an election. Something – call it humanity, compassion, hope – faltered and perished, and something in me, too.

A friend came over last night. To be in a safe space, somewhere she didn’t need to worry about how people read her – Is she Latina? Is she Arab? Is she a citizen? Is she undocumented? Is she a student? Is she a worker? Somewhere she could lash out and vent, rage and despair over what this election means now. What this election means in terms of the people around her, yes, but also what it means in terms of how the country views her as a woman, a woman of color, a young woman of color. Perhaps, that she will never be good enough, smart enough, capable enough, or that she will be all those things, and that she certainly is all that, but that in the end it won’t matter because they will still choose a man, a white man, even if in comparison he’s completely incompetent, morally devoid, and psychologically unstable.

I despair with her, for myself.

I despair with her for all the ways I have felt this defeat, and probably will in the future. For all the ways I’ve been told I’m not good enough, I do not belong, I should go back to my own country. And then, for the possibility of our little Anna, only five years old, what does this mean for her? Not only the question of women’s reproductive rights, the right to choose, Roe vs. Wade, but for what we believe about women? What they can do? What they are called to do?

What this election means right now is that hate, misogyny, and bigotry have won out. What it means is that racism and xenophobia are given free reign to fully and totally express themselves. What it means is that the utterly superficial platitudes of unity and reconciliation are just tools of white supremacy to get everyone in line. What it means is that this country has said very clearly who belongs here, who is safe, who is one of “us.” What it means is that I’m afraid. I’m afraid for myself. Afraid for my family. Afraid for loved ones and neighbors who have been targeted by Trump’s campaign these last two years. I’m not afraid to say anymore that I am afraid of whiteness, and white supremacy and for all the blatant and explicit, all the insidious and hidden ways it exists and perpetuates itself.

But, what it doesn’t mean is that I will roll over or that we will go running for Canada (maybe, Pittsburgh, though). For now, I will keep on doing the everyday, and feign some semblance of normalcy for the children, and continue to be hopeful and optimistic about our lives. Driving them to school. Going to the store. Attending church every week. Sports practices, music lessons, hikes, and somehow, making what we do together as a family mean something, for it to matter. We’ll keep trying to teach and model love, acceptance, dignity, consent as much as possible. We’ll keep doing work that matters – loving and leading our communities, and showing them that it does mean something.

God help us, we’re up against a lot. 

But. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I’m not alone. That we’re not alone. And that I can help others feel that they’re not alone either. I can be supportive of local groups and actions, and be an active part of these collectives and coalitions, and reach out to those groups in our community that need to know that we’re here for them and with them. I can work, to make this election mean something else, mean something good and real. And the little ways I can with what little I have at my fingertips – telling stories, lifting up those stories of those in the struggle, those who are fighting for what is right, for humanity, for the dignity of those who are considered the least of these. I’ll set that table wide, and fill it overflowing with good things to eat and share, and cram as many people around it as possible. I’ll look people in the eye as I pass them on the street and expect to see the imago dei, the image of the Divine, and all the beauty and courage possible.

What it means, is that I’ll keep trying, keep believing, keep hoping. 

“Today I believe in the possibility of love;
that is why I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions.”
― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Tiny Revolution: Crossing Over 

Road

It’s a busy street. Walnut Street.

Where I have to cross to get to the Shalom Community Center. I pause, waiting for the crowd of cars to dissipate a little so I can quickly scootch across, hands in my jacket pockets. Looking across the way I see many of the struggling and displaced clients are milling around outside. Some are laughing raucously at some joke while playfully shoving each other. Some are standing and staring off into the distance. The weather is frigid so I can see their breath making wisps of clouds around them. It’s cigarette smoke, too. Some are walking into the building hunched over carrying huge packs and old grocery bags on their backs and in their arms.

I take a deep breath and cross. Squeak out a “Good Morning” at some people outside and walk to the door. When I enter the building my glasses steam up. Some folks look up at me, curious and inquisitive. One of them says, “Hey, sweetheart,” with a tone of voice that makes me think I’m in college again. I quickly shuffle to the kitchen and sign in where the kitchen supervisor, Ron, greets me with a huge grin and welcomes me with an apron. After I wash my hands I begin chopping lettuce and strawberries. People start to line up long before lunch will be served at 12 noon. They ask what’s on the menu and make jokes with one of the regular workers, Chief. Ron tells me about his new puppy and how she stands on her hind legs and is already house-trained. While making small talk with the other volunteers I smile at the clients as I hand them their food trays. Usually it’s met with a thank-you “honey” or “princess.”

Other mornings I head to the desk to help field all manner of requests.

“I need to put something in daytime storage.”
“I need to sign up for a shower.”
“I need to make a long distance phone call.”
“I need to check my mail.”
“I need a cup of laundry detergent.”
“I need to talk to a caseworker.”

Anything and everything from needing diapers to dog food to winter coats to jobs to bus passes. I’m piled-on by this lack, and if there is an abundance of anything it is urgency and stress.

One morning I watch an older Black woman holding a five month old baby in one arm and in the other hand she clasps the hand of a little girl the age of the twins, maybe a little younger, maybe 3 or 4. They’re sitting in chairs half falling asleep. The woman nudges the little girl and hands her the baby. The little girl scoots back in the chair to make room for the baby to sit between her legs clutching him around the middle. They both stare quietly at the floor while the grandmother dozes off. I want so much to scoop up the baby in my arms and bounce him around. A few minutes later they approach the desk and I coo at the 5 month old with his big brown eyes and tufts of black hair, and compliment the little girl’s winter hat – it’s Minnie Mouse. She beams at me twirling her two braids. I tell her she is a great big sister, and her grandmother agrees. She beams some more. I’m overcome because I want to do something. But I don’t know their story. 

It’s only been a month. Three times a week in this community – at the Shalom Community Center and at the Interfaith Winter Shelter. Such a short time, and yet I have seen and felt so much.

But each time I’ve gone there’s a moment where I seize up a little. Every single time. When someone screams something obscene and it sounds like a fight is about break out. Or when someone walks up in the lunch line and is clearly drunk or high, and a little more than belligerent. Or even the small things – the bad teeth, the matted hair, the mismatched and dirty clothes.

I think, Do I really want to do community with these people?Click To Tweet

I catch myself – my feet pointed to the door and my hand on my jacket. Something in me wants to bolt and forget this whole thing. Because these needs – they’re so unfamiliar to me. And not just unfamiliar in the “unknown” sense but in the foreign sense. Not only do I not understand but I don’t see it so clearly. I see their problems, yes. Their issues, and even potential “solutions,” to their lives. I see what I’ve been conditioned to see and this means I see people who are homeless and jobless. Maybe this translates to faithless, too – untrustworthy or lazy or weak. In other words, I see people I normally would ignore and avoid on a regular basis. I have trouble seeing beyond the borders of their clothing and the fringes of their unraveling shirts or Salvation Army and Goodwill sweatshirts.

So, why am I here?

As the lunch shift closes up one day a mother and a young boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, comes in at the last minute. We fill up two plates heaping over with tamales, rice and cheese, and extra fruit for them. I watch her try to figure out where to go – there are tables nearby where a group of people lounge and digest their food – a coma setting in. So, she sets down her bags but she looks uncertain. She tells the boy to use two hands to carry his plate much in the same I do with my kids when they have a glass full of milk that’s swishing around in there threatening to spill out. As I make a move to run around to the other side to help her another woman I’ve often seen at the shelter named Heather walks up to her and asks if she needs help and wants any more food. Heather says there’s a family room in the back, where it’s a little quieter, and she picks up her things and leads the mother and boy back.

I watch this thinking about all the ways it is difficult for me to cross over in so many scenarios. How it’s hard for me to enter into this space and community even though I’ve served in soup kitchens and shelters in various places before. Why does this feel so significant? Why am I making it such a big deal? There’s something more for me to see here, and it’s just starting to shimmer on the surface. 

For me to be in community with the people in front of me means taking in all of who they are - even as I expect people to take in all of who I am, too. The good and the bad. The ideals and judgments. The hopes and flaws.Click To Tweet

But, it’s not just about me. I see how hard it is for these people around me to cross over, too. And maybe not because it is hard for them but because of all the ways we – I mean, I put up blocks – mentally, socially, physically – that prevent anyone of them from crossing over and shattering all our presuming and conditioning. It’s those like Heather that have crossed over easily in my mind – I’ve watched her take care of people like this in so many ways, but I know, like any of us, she’s not perfect. That’s not ultimately the point, though, right? Isn’t this redeemed life about love and grace not in spite of but through our imperfections?

What keeps happening now is not just an affirmation of their humanity but my humanity. For now, this is why I keep showing up. I need to be regularly and blatantly impressed with the miracle of humanity all around me. To realize the people in front of me are my people and not those people. Because I’m choosing it and showing up. Imperfectly, with all my judgmental thoughts that I have to squish down out of my brain. To see the possibility that I am not human because of what I wear or how I smell or what I think or see but because of the imago dei as I experience it always in radical connection to those around me. To cross over again and again to that reality always just beyond my peripheral vision where the incarnate God is present even in the people and places I least expect, and least of all in me. 

Tiny Revolution: Dreaming of a ChurchBaby

Winter Sample Gates

Starting churches is in the blood of many immigrants in this country.

I grew up in a Presbyterian church that was young when we arrived in the late 70s because it was full of mostly newly-arrived Koreans chasing dreams of success, education, and making life really count. But the day in and day out of realizing the streets aren’t paved with gold and that bootstraps made little sense meant that church every Sunday was a chance to sort it all out and breathe in deeply. Sometimes it was also Wednesday and Friday, and maybe the occasional Saturdays. The Koreans can get fanatical. But each time in those gatherings, in the rented out basements, I watched my parents, all our parents, breathe easily, which meant they could also speak, and be heard, and listen, and sing, and laugh like they were shedding layers of that thick skin necessary to protect them and survive each day in this strange, hard country.

Church every week was a protest, it was resistance, it was a gathering in the darkness, and a way to be given life and light.

I know there’s hardly a tweet or post that goes by that I don’t invoke the words “vigil” or “demonstration” or “protest” or “resistance,” but that’s because these words articulate the kind of defense mechanism church is and was to my family, and to so many like my family. Church is a tiny revolution, says my dear friend and sister the Rev. Jodi Houge, and I feel this in my bones and marrow. Despite the many churches in my little college town, and that I am friends and colleagues with many of the pastors, and love and respect them and their work, I believe we need more tiny revolutions.

So I’m dreaming of a churchbaby.

It’s been swimming around in my soul for a while, this little zygote of a dream, ever since my first Executive Presbyter (Presbyterian-speak for bishop/superintendent/pastor to pastors), Jean Johnston, planted the possibility back in 2006. I had just started in my first call as an associate pastor and it was over a lunch in Flanders, NJ. She was scattering all manner of seeds: solo pastor, head of staff, church planter. And I was a hungry soil at the time – fascinated and wondering what would take root. Would I be able to handle it? Would I be smart enough, wise enough, saavy enough to do this kind of work? 

It’s 2016, and I’m still asking if I’m enough. For sure, one thing has not changed: I’m hungry. But I’m beginning to realize that perhaps this is enough for now. At least, it’s a beginning. I’m hungry for community, hungry for change, hungry for transformation, hungry for revolution.

I know in some ways I’ve already recently been a part of a kind of church plant with UKIRK at IU, which is a Presbyterian campus ministry, but I want to expand it so that it’s not only focused on a specific demographic but positioned more broadly. In doing so I hope to create more spaces for overlap between those connected to the university and those who have always held the deepest places of my heart – the people on the margins. In Bloomington, I see that being the homeless, transient, and working poor.

So, friends, this is what I’m thinking, doing, dreaming these days. And I’ll be writing out the process – as honestly, openly, and genuinely as possible – my reflections, my questions, my hopes. I am intentionally putting myself in those spaces and will begin: volunteering at the Shalom Community Center, working with Dan and the Interfaith Winter Shelter, and listening and learning from with those in the community who have committed their lives to these people. I’m talking with people who have business and startup experience about the possibilities of making this tiny revolution financially sustainable with pay-it-forward options. I’m dreaming about dinner church, story telling and peace making gatherings, interreligious vigils and protests, and a space for people to breathe, to listen, to speak, to laugh.

This may not turn into anything at all – I’m totally aware of that possibility. But, I believe in the meaning of process and journey, too, and am holding onto the hope that when you give yourself over to a God who loves fiercely and recklessly, then something amazing comes of it. It just may look different from the original blueprints. But I can’t deny the desire anymore, after all, it’s in my DNA. My father started a church, too. I do know one thing for sure though: Revolution will happen, at the very least, with me. And, that will never be an insignificant thing.

Journey with me, dear ones?

I change myself, I change the world. -Gloria AnzalduaClick To Tweet

 

Thank you to my sisters – who are also my inspiration and coaches in this endeavor: Kerlin Richter, Emily Scott, Jodi Houge, and Nadia Bolz-Weber.

The Parable of the 1% Church

Steeple

And Peter came to Jesus asking: Who is my neighbor? Jesus told them another parable:

There was a church that sought a pastor to be its head of staff.

It was a beautifully immaculate church with gorgeous windows that let in a particularly divine light on Sunday mornings and gleaming floors so spotless that the reflection from the lights overhead made you feel as though you walked on heights. The walls were pure and bright unstained by even the stickiest of children’s hands. The carpet was lush and the dimmers were extravagant. It had an abundance of resources at its fingertips, and it professed to be ready to do a new thing.

Over the span of some months it looked to three potential ministers. One was young and charismatic. Another level-headed and reasonable. Still another with impressive academic credentials and experience. All three entered into these conversations with uncertainty, but equally faithful and trusting in God’s call with an openness to the movement of God’s spirit.

The church interviewed one candidate but then they immediately dropped all communications. The church interviewed the second candidate and expressed enthusiasm but the older members of the committee doubted whether the candidate would be able to perform weekly. The church interviewed the third candidate but faltered and splintered into two camps when asked what they hoped for in their head of staff.

After some time, none of the candidates were chosen, or perhaps they were at one point, no one seemed able to get a straight story from anyone on the committee.

Now, to which candidate was the church a neighbor?

Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

And he said:

Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get back. Money and resources can only get you so far, and privilege will cloud your judgment. For it is the church that deals with its earnest and faithful pastors in truth that will ultimately carry out the will of God’s kingdom, and experience the joy of mutual ministry. For all who exalt themselves will receive their just reward. 

Dreaming Dreams and Performing Hope

Dreaming Dreams and Performing Hope

They come running at us clapping and shout-singing like my 4 year olds but enunciating a lot more clearly: G-O-O-D M-O-R-N-I-N-G GOOD MORNING (WOOT WOOT) GOOD MORNING (WOOT WOOT) and lead us into a bright space with flying leaps and cartwheels. Stained glass windows line one side of the wall near the ceiling and there are the dark wood beams of early 18th century churches overhead. We walk in and like good Presbyterians sit in the back row but immediately get reprimanded for that by a lovely woman named Eileen. But, she lets us stay there as we watch sixty children stomp the floor not only with their feet but their bodies and voices and we can feel it in our feet.

And then they sing a song about “being strong and finding that what’s inside helps them to resist the wrong” and I just weep quietly. I cry any time kids are playing and singing hard – sometimes out of weariness and sometimes from being filled up.

***

Savannah is a rail in pink and short and bright kicks. Short hair that falls to her shoulders making her look a little older than her 9 years. I am taken with her green eyes and freckles. She is quiet and shy but smiles so huge as she explains the art on the wall that is hers. I wonder if she is someone that normally needs to be coaxed to talk aloud. I can almost see her buzzing with pride and excitement. I look behind her to see the influence of Matisse and Monet in these tissue-paper and crayon pieces.

Above us there are light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling like huge raindrops suspended in time. It’s a lovely effect these tiny angels that stay a little above our heads, and remind me that even when the sun is bright in the room the light from within is just as necessary.

***

I keep thinking about all these ways to perform hope. We embody it in our flesh and blood as we chant and step across the room. We express it in our art as we play with colors and mediums. We share stories, we explore with our songs – ones that we know and ones that we make up, we trample the darkness beneath our feet clutching each others’ hands with shouts of WOOTWOOT.

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy.

Watching and listening I feel like I’m entering into their dreams a little but they’re dreams that feel so real and alive. And this is church – walking, singing these dreams.

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