Sunday, March 30, 2008
Eliminate poverty in community with the poor
As someone who has worked fairly extensively both through church structures and with community-based organizations with people who are poor in Indiana, I can only say "Amen, sisters and brothers! Preach it!" when I see these words and hear them spoken.
And then I want to go around and shake people and say, "Are you even listening to what you just said?"
(I'm not referring to bishops here. I'm pretty consistently hearing them get this right... especially our bishops from the Global South.)
Eliminating poverty in COMMUNITY with the poor implies some very concrete changes in how "we" usually think about people who are poor.
Starting with that very phrase-- "WE thinking ABOUT people who are poor." There is a social distance implied in the very formulation, a social distance that is very real in the US, and perhaps less real in other contexts. Most United Methodists in the US are "middle class" and up. "We" are not poor by US standards, and by world standards "we" are extravagantly wealthy. "We" continue to live in our congregations with the reality that in many, many cases, the poor are NOT among "us."
(Of course there are exceptions! Many exceptions! I'm talking about what our statistics in the US reveal to be the norm, however).
This reality is what gave rise to the social gospel movement in the early 20th century in the US. Folks like Walter Rauschenbusch, an American Baptist pastor serving in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City, looked at his congregation, then looked at the people actually living in the area, and noticed that the people living there weren't in his church. He investigated further, and discovered they weren't in nearly any Protestant churches. And he investigated a little further yet and found they weren't all that often to be found in many Roman Catholic congregations, either-- though the rate of participation there was substantially higher than in Protestant settings. (In those days, however, one might conclude that this was because many of the poor were immigrants who came from predominantly Roman Catholic cultures in Europe).
If we refocus what we preach inside the church, Rauschenbusch and these leaders said, and work at addressing social policy so that we improve the lives of these people-- or he would put it more bluntly in A Theology for the Social Gospel, if we would actually reclaim biblical and Christian theology focusing on the here and now rather than the pie in the sky by and by pabulum we had passed off onto so many of our congregations, we'd be more faithful to Jesus AND we might just see more of "them" in "church" with "us."
I don't entirely disagree with Rauschenbusch on any of those points. But what happened as a response to his work and that of many others in the larger social gospel movement was, to a large degree, a continuation and even a deepening to some degree of the distance between "us" and the "poor." Yes, "we" were doing more FOR them. And we could congratulate ourselves for advocating for them to change policies to improve "their" lives. (And don't get me wrong-- those were good and faithful responses!). But the basic" us-them" distance still was not being effectively addressed. We were still caught in our classist assumptions-- including especially that "they" were basically deficient and "we" were basically sufficient. We were not really in community WITH the poor. We were in community FOR them, at times-- but often, quite frankly, "AT" them.
John Wesley showed us a more excellent way. He consistently asked Methodist individuals seeking his spiritual counsel and the society meetings he visited how they were doing at getting to know and serve WITH poor people-- people in prisons, people who were sick, people who lacked food, safe shelter, or healthy living conditions. At the root of how Rule 2 was lived out was this basic expectation that it wasn't just the "poor" who needed "us" to "help" "them"-- we needed each other, and we ALL had gifts to offer.
That's a reality that most of us don't learn in the abstract-- or at least don't learn well. Wesley didn't consider it enough for Methodist class meetings or societies to create and administer a charitable fund so that they could deputize a few people to "take care of" the poor. No. He insisted that every Methodist get to know poor people, personally. Practical, face to face community.
That wasn't likely to have much opportunity to occur in weekly worship in the Church of England in the 18th century. Nor in Protestant worship in the early 20th. Nor in worship settings per se nearly anywhere.
There are good reasons for this. Perhaps most basic among these is time. Worship is a short period of time in a whole week. And the time that's there is pretty well programmed to accomplish things other than face to face community per se. And that's fine, really. Worship is a concrete act with its own purposes. At its best, it presupposes that there already IS some sort of community occurring among those who gather at some level. So it's not structured so much to create that community (though it also does to a degree) as to reflect it and direct its energy toward God.
And that's fine, too-- IF that community actually exists in real, tangible, face to face ways.
And there's the problem. It often doesn't. And the congregational format can do relatively little and often DOES do little to help it to do so.
Why? The congregational format, while it is public and inclusive, because of its very public nature can also become easily captive to the classist assumptions of its surrounding public. What is "appropriate" for worship often gets defined by the values of the dominant culture within it or around it. That's not entirely bad-- it can allow for every culture to have some genuine opportunity to express itself in community and in worship in its particular way-- looking across all kinds of congregations. But it's less than the fullness of our calling-- which is indeed to BE one body in Christ, not just to THINK we are.
Early Methodism was providing a venue where some of the rich, the poor, and those in between were not left to their default classist assumptions, but were expected to meet each other, to serve each other, to speak with and for each other-- in short, to be that concrete trans-class community God has birthed us to be in baptism, leads us to be in Jesus, and continually urges and empowers us to be in the Spirit.
Nat Nkosi was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary while I was there in the late 1980s. He was an African from South Africa. And he was a prophet. He found Louisville to be a very challenging place to live. At the time, the demographics were incredibly clear. White people and wealthier non-white people all lived pretty much east of downtown, and non-white people and poor people all lived pretty much west of downtown. He had a simple solution that he offered regularly in all sorts of class and extra-curricular settings. White people need to move into non-white neighborhoods-- not to take them over, not even to fix them per se, but to form community with the people there. Then, together, in community, when real community existed this way, all sorts of power for improvement would emerge.
He was not talking about gentrification. He was not talking about white people moving en mass and dislocating non-white people and poor people. (We've all seen that happen, again and again!). He was talking about a process for helping people eliminate poverty by forming real, everyday, face to face community WITH the poor.
Get to know folks, really know them. Learn to see what they have to offer, not just what they need. Learn to respect the dignity of every person-- poor and non-poor. Don't let this be abstract. Dont forget about doing things FOR and ADVOCATING FOR the poor, too. But don't stop there. Be in community with the poor-- wherever you are. And if you need to move somewhere else to do that, well...
Mr. Wesley did not hesitate to tell lots of those who wrote to him about their spiritual condition that the first thing they needed to do may not be to pray more or study scripture more-- it would be to get themselves into the jails and prisons and hospitals, and get to know folks there-- not just the guards, but the people being held there. See Christ at work there. Help others see Christ at work there. Love them. Let them love them back. Show them Christ.
Early Methodism was doing this, alongside existing congregations of many denominations. A new, emerging, missional Methodism today, alongside existing congregations, would have the opportunity to offer the same.
Eliminate poverty... yes. But we won't do that well-- and here I mean ALL of us, not just the "usual suspects" (middle class and up)-- WE won't eliminate poverty well unless and until our "we" includes (not just makes clients out of ) and honors (not sentimentalizes) the poor-- the real poor, actual people we know or get to know.
And when our "we" begins moving in that direction-- just watch all the good news the Spirit begins to unleash!
Peace in Christ,
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Well as I have been in conversation with many of you, you know that I have been working for about two years to be appointed to a new church start that would fall into an "emerging" setting. Well I received word that that appointment wont happen this year but that there is an intentional effort to cultivate "mother" congregations this year to not only give birth to the dream of a congregation God has given me, but give birth to others as well in our conf.
I am dissapointed that I will be waiting another year (this journey has been long for me) and am not excited about serving a middle sized middle class traditional church for another year. But I am excited that there seems to be a culture shift in the PNW conf. around being missional and viewing ourselves as "sent" people. I am also excited that there is a very intentional program developed and moving to create new congregations. So I'll keep serving God where I am and preaching and living "Love God, and love everybody else"
I'd appreciate your prayers as I keep holding this banner up of new church starts and emerging communities within the conference, and my own sanity :-)
Have a wonderful Easter friends!
PS: the picture has nothing to do with my post - it is just my favorite Easter cartoon :-)
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
"End racism as we authentically expand racial/ethnic ministries..."
Today is a good day to write about this vision pathway. With race very much in the news, and with a significant speech today from one of the candidates for US President on this very topic, the US may be primed for this conversation just now. We are fully aware of the "elephant in the room." It has been named. And the challenge has been put before all of us to find a way through it together-- a way that neither keeps us stuck in past behaviors and resentments, nor allows us to act as if there is nothing more to talk about. There is still much more to talk about-- and we need to talk about it together as a nation.
And for United Methodists, even more as a church.
I am grateful for the work of several bishops, endorsed by the Council as a whole, to ensure that any final articulation of the vision pathways would not act as if some kind of head-on and consistent address of institutional forms of racism were not at the heart of a vision for a more faithful future for our church. We can't not talk about this.
The question is how not only to talk about it, but actually to act in ways that end the power of institutional racism (in the US-- some of our African bishops helpfully remind that this would be understood perhaps more as tribalism in their contexts) and its sapping of the mission of the people called Christians.
One more thing about the statement. It appears to me that the bishops do NOT intend to limit the work around ending institutional racism ONLY to cases relating to the expansion of "racial/ethnic" ministries. They really do understand (and want us to understand) that ending racism is something we will continue to work at in and through all the vision pathways, including perhaps especially this one as a hallmark.
Racism is prejudice with power. It's more than feelings of discomfort with people of a different ethnic or cultural background. It's more than acts of discrimination. It's the whole system of relationships that allows and indeed privileges such feelings and enables such acts of discrimination to continue without serious challenge and perhaps without consequence for those who perpetrate them. Racism as such will not be dismantled only by individual actions. It will take a sea of such individual actions, plus deliberate, intentional efforts at the policy level to ensure that wherever racism continues to function, its capacity to do so is challenged and eventually (sooner rather than later, as we work and pray) terminated.
There is no room for racism in the body of Christ.
Well-- of course, in fact, we give it "plenty good room." We need to stop doing this in every way we can.
Several fairly random thoughts along that path...
1) The example of Koinonia in South Africa. As Apartheid was beginning to be challenged not only within South Africa, but outside it as well, a number of Christians, African and Afrikaans, decided they needed to start acting to end Apartheid in the hearts of people even before it was ended as policy. I had the privilege to meet one of these folks, a man named Ivor Jenkins. Their strategy was simple, but somewhat risky. They would make it a point to gather together for a meal in each other's homes on the opposite sides of Johannesburg one night a month.
That probably doesn't sound so radical to most of us. But it was huge. It was illegal, you see. There were strict curfews. Black South Africans were not supposed to be found in white areas of the towns and cities after a certain hour of the evening. To do so was to risk arrest and possibly worse. And few white persons would want to be found on the black sides of the towns after that hour, either.
Except for these people-- Christians determined to end the Apartheid in their hearts and the hearts of those around them. Eating together, and taking the time and sharing the stories of their lives around that simple act was their way. They called this movement, which spread widely among Christians in South Africa, "Koinonia"-- which they pronounced Kee-NO-nya-- the Greek word for fellowship-- common humanity shared with one another.
The nation in which they lived made them two people. It would soon-- they were all convinced it was only a matter of time-- make them legally one people. They wanted to incarnate that oneness that the law would later require-- so that when the law did require it, they could teach others how they could share the same goodness they had come to know in this simple practice.
Koinonia is a reminder to me that incarnation matters, perhaps even more than policy, when all is said and done. We don't need to wait for policies of the United States or the United Methodist Church to change before we live out the unity that is already ours in Christ, who is making of the broken humanity one new humanity in him. We can practice, or rather live into, that new humanity with our neighbors of many cultures and races here and now-- if we will, and if they are willing to allow us to serve them and our larger communities in this way.
2) Early Methodism knew this. The class meetings were not segregated by ethnicity-- at least not at first. Neither were the societies. And even, early on after we were made a church, neither were the congregations. Segregation was a practice white Methodists grew into, not one they initially inherited. Most of us know the sad story of Old St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadephia-- which is still around to this day-- the congregation where African Methodists found themselves more and more pushed off to the sides and then to the balconies for worship and even for prayer, so that Absalom Jones (who left to become an Episcopal priest) and Richard Allen (who left to found Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church) and other Methodists of African descent found no home there after long.
3) The AME, AME-Zion, and CME churches, among others who split off or launched away from these in the 19th century holiness movement and the early 20th century Pentecostal movement are the living sign of institutional racism at the heart of white Methodism in the US. AME and AMEZ have now even left the table of the ecumenical effort called Churches Uniting in Christ for this very reason-- that issues they bring from their heritage and their perspective are viewed as inferior or not worthy of equal notice by the majority white/Euro traditions who also gather at that table. Their witness calls to the rest of us that there is still not enough room for their understandings and practiced to be heard, respected, and shared.
4) I have to ask this. Why are we still in the same breath we call for the ending of institutional racism calling ministry with non-Euro descended populations "racial/ethnic"? Doesn't doing so implicitly presume that THOSE people fit into that category, but WE, who are "normal" (or at least majority culture) do not? Does continuing this labelling-- and the fairly separatist ways we actually fund these ministries as a denomination-- help or hinder the cause of ending institutional racism?
5) Expanding racial/ethnic ministries--- or as I might suggest we retranslate it, expanding ministries with people of all nations, cultures and heritages wherever we encounter them-- is very much on the right track, though. That is, so long as our effort here isn't a kind of colonization of THEM into US (so WE can count THEM in OUR stats), but rather an instantiation, an incarnation of the gospel among us all (them AND us, if we have to use the possibly oppositional terms).
The UMC IS a global church-- including here in the United States, where all the nations come. Expanding ministries that help us realize this may have the salutary effect of helping all of us also realize the many missional contexts in which we all find ourselves all the time (see http://www.membermission.org), and may also help us all think much more clearly about the basic calling of Jesus that all of us who follow him act as missionaries in his name wherever we are-- sent as signs of his mission happening, sent to live this out in community, the real communities in which we find ourselves, and the real communities to which we may also be called to go beyond our "natural" networks.
If we approach this pathway, this missional work, compassionately-- practicing deep hospitality with and among all whom we encounter-- rather than "industrially"-- practicing consumerist, marketing principles, for example, which in the end are often forms of colonialism and racism in more friendly guises-- we may find God ending the racism in our hearts and lives, and not only in our policies and personnel practices. We will need some of the latter, too-- though I would hope in a far more effective form than the ones we have now which can seem to be just as outrageously focused on race and ethnicity rather than God-breathed passion and giftedness as the ones we're hoping these help us escape. It's always both-and.
But let's lead with our hands and our hearts. And let's start leading, now.
Peace in Christ,
Friday, March 14, 2008
Monday, March 10, 2008
Part 15 of 21...
In a number of regards, this vision pathway is an extension of the Bishops' Initiative on Children and Poverty. There appear to me to be at least two important differences between the existing Initiative and what this Pathway envisions.
1) The focus of the Initiative was particularly on children living in poverty in every place where the United Methodist Church is in ministry.
The focus of this Vision Pathway is less specific-- focusing on children more broadly rather than on children in poverty.
2) The hope of the Initiative was to reshape the nature of the United Methodist Church so that it would become a clearer sign and manifestation of the "Beloved Community" with children in poverty at the center.
The transformation that appears to be intended in Path 5 is more about congregations reaching out to include children and to change the lives of children.
What might some of the implications of this Vision Pathway and perhaps the fading of the Initiative be for a UM Missional Future?
Let me suggest a few. I hope you may critique these and add others.
1) Focusing on children in general COULD help us do either of two things:
a) Reach more children "like us"-- If we're focusing on "new generations," the default tendency will be to focus on folks like us. These are the people we know and the people we have most of our mutual relationships with. We may be tempted to try to evaluate our efforts to achieve this vision pathway by how many children we can claim to have added to the rolls or ministry programs of our congregations, and call that progress. What we know about the demographics of the UMC in the US is that the majority of our constituencies (those who attend out churches) are not among the poor.
Reaching more children "like us," if we're genuinely reaching them, is not an entirely bad thing. It is substantially less, however, than Jesus calls us to do.
b) Maybe move into more of a partnership relationship with children and communities rather than a "meeting needs" or "expert-client" kind of relationship. We may be more ready to acknowledge and embrace the giftedness of those like us than of those with whom we do not yet have real relationships. Perhaps, over time, this may help us see the value of relationships with all children, including children living in poverty, and to approach them as gifted people in their own right, and not merely as those "at risk" or with "special needs."
2) Defocus on trying to fix the denomination first, while focusing instead on two other things:
a) Sending people out from congregations and communities to be in ministry with children-- and then aligning institutional structures to support what emerges from these efforts (This appears to be what the Initiative had hoped might happen)
b) Engaging children in ministry-- becoming aware of the gifts and passion of children, not as simply the objects of ministry by adults, but as missionaries in their own right in the contexts where they can be in mission
3) Recognize that children are ALWAYS with us, that the generations in our missional contexts are always multiple wherever we are. This is at least an angle I would hope we would find a way to get into the conversation.
Simply "reaching and transforming the lives of a new generation of children" can sound more like a focus on institutional preservation (we need more youth and kids around here if we're not going to die out in 30 years) than an awareness of our missional reality (that children are all around us). Putting this in terms of "a new generation" can sound a lot like "generational theory" assumptions-- which are terribly problematic as a basis for generalizing to children generally, much less to children in a given place, culture, and social location in that place. I would trust that we're not trying to reach children just to preserve "ourselves" (which already would assume that "we" do not include "them"). And I'd like to presume that we're not making the sort of specious claims to know what children of any given "generational cohort" across the US or across the world are like to come up with the tool and strategies to "target" them.
These are just three possibilities I see. What are you seeing?
Peace in Christ,