Building an Inclusive Church

The raw fear can be overwhelming. Last week we saw images of a big truck ramming through the crowds in Nice as people ran for their lives. There have been so many mass shootings in our own country creating a fear of others. Then there are all those video clips of black men being killed by policemen and now of police being targeted by lone shooters.

Matthew Boulton, the president of Christian Theological Seminary, expresses our angst, “As the sound of gunfire continues to echo in our neighborhoods — from Baton Rouge to St. Paul, Dallas to Charleston, Newtown to Orlando — so many of us are angry, exhausted, heartbroken, devastated, lost. Violence like this strikes at the heart of who we are, and threatens again and again to divide us, segregate us, polarize us, turn us against our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, ourselves.”

We need to confess that our country was born in violence as we destroyed native American populations, enslaved Africans to work our fields, and fought a revolutionary war against Great Britain. Later there was racial and religious violence against Jews, Catholics, and Asian immigrants. Still, we have been inspired and energized by greater ideals that are enshrined in our constitution: equality under the law, justice for all, religious freedom, a free press, and the right of assembly.

We have always lived with the tension between these two realities. Racism and the oppression of minorities are the original sins of our country. At the same time, many of our ancestors migrated here because they were fleeing persecution and poverty in the lands they came from. They brought with them the hope of religious freedom, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

Recent events have brought our racial and economic divides to the surface. They emerged at a recent Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting as they deliberated about creating an outside civilian review panel for police abuse investigations. Some activists attended to meeting to bring attention to the recent report showing that more than 40 percent of use-of-force cases in Fairfax County last year involved African Americans, who account for about 8 percent of Fairfax’s population.

A related incident people have been protesting is the death of Natasha, a mentally ill black woman who died in detention. She was in shackles and handcuffs and was still Tasered four times with a stun gun while surrounded by six deputies. An internal investigation concluded that they had followed protocol and no charges were filed.

We dare not focus our blame exclusively on the police. Many serve with integrity and devote their lives to keeping our community safe. I commend progressive policing initiatives here in Fairfax such as instituting restorative justice processes and a Diversion First program where mentally ill people who create a disturbance are taken to a medical facility rather than to the county jail. Prejudice permeates our society and none are immune. Too often our churches participate in this racism. It has often been noted that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America.

That’s why I’m so thankful for the diversity we have in our small church. We’re learning how to worship and serve together across our differences including ethnic and racial divides. My dream is that we will slowly, laboriously keep building an inclusive church one brick at a time here in the City of Fairfax. It can be hard work. It’s much easier to tear down than to build up. But we have a good start and my prayer is that by God’s grace we will grow more and more into the kind of faith fellowship that crosses the divides in our community.

Welcoming Refugees

Last evening I attended a lively interfaith forum on “Welcoming the Stranger: Refugees and Immigrants in Our Midst” sponsored by the American Turkish Friendship Association and the Rumi Foundation. Moderator Sandy Chisholm, director of the Fairfax County Community Interfaith Coordination Program, reminded us that according to US Census Bureau statistics about one in four households in the DC area are recent immigrants, which is much higher than the national average.

The three panelists represented the Abrahamic faith traditions. Representing the Jewish faith, Rabbi Gerry Serotta, Executive Director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, began by stressing how central welcoming the stranger is to Judaism and all three Abrahamic religions. This is rooted in Abraham and Sara’s experience of living as sojourners and strangers in the land of Canaan as well as the experience of the Israelites of being slaves in the land of Egypt. We can never forget that our religious ancestors were refugees.

Patricia Maloof, Program Director of Migration and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, representing the Christian tradition, built on this by emphasizing that the child Jesus and his parents Mary and Joseph were refugees. Furthermore, there is the clear teaching that we see Jesus and serve him when we welcome and serve the stranger in our midst. Representing Islam, Naseem Rizvi, from the Open Society Foundation, added the experience of the early Muslim community living as refugees in Medina.

The current situation of millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and other conflict areas in the Middle East animated the forum and the discussion following the panel presentations. Given that welcoming strangers is so central to all our religious traditions, why are we refusing to allow Syrian refugees to enter our country? We will want to advocate for greater openness and to match our words with action by showing that our faith communities are prepared to collaborate in sponsoring and helping to resettle refugee families.

Those of us who want to put our faith into action will want to attend the Community and Interfaith session “Refugee Settlement in Northern Virginia – How Faith Communities Can Help” on Wednesday, March 9, 1:30 – 3:30 pm at the Fairfax County Government Center, 12000 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax, VA 22035. You can register at: www.fairfaxcounty.gov/hscode/ereg/registration.aspx?groupid=26

Diversion First

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A huge civil rights issue in our country is the number of people who are in jail for nonviolent crime, many of whom are suffering from mental illness. The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population. Many of these people enter our criminal justice system through the criminalization of substance abuse and mental illness. Prisons have become our de-facto place to house such people and prisons have few resources to adequately care for them or to help with rehabilitation.

Tina Garnett, a fifty-four-year-old woman serving a mandatory life sentence in Pennsylvania, is one such person that Bryan Stevenson writes about in his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Trina showed signs of intellectual disabilities and other troubles at a young age.  She and her sisters experienced homelessness and sexual abuse after their mother died when she was nine years old.

Trina was convicted of second degree murder when, as a fourteen-year-old girl, she sneaked into the home of a boy she had a crush on. She accidentally set the house on fire killing two people from smoke asphyxiation when she tried to find her way around in the dark with the aid of matches. She was tried as an adult and, under Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentencing guidelines, the judge had no choice other than to give her a life sentence. The state is still refusing to grant her the right to be resentenced in compliance with a recent Supreme Court ruling that children cannot be tried as adults.

The human cost of our broken criminal justice system is a huge tragedy for individuals, families, and our communities. President Obama and various leaders from both political parties are determined that we need to fix our broken criminal justice system. This week I saw an encouraging sign of progress when I participated in a Faith Communities in Action meeting at the Fairfax County 911 Call Center. We learned about the newly created Diversion First program that began this month in our county.

The police, along with other agencies, have created a Crisis Intervention Team where officers are given special training in handling crises when they are called to the scene of a minor crime or disturbance. They have the prerogative to redirect people who have created a disturbance into the health care system rather than taking them to jail.  We’ve recently created a therapeutic Crisis Response Center in our county for that purpose.

It’s not just the emotional toll on individuals and families; it includes the financial burden that incarceration imposes on a whole community. Nearly half of all Fairfax County jail inmate at any given time have mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders.  It costs about 104 dollars a day or almost $40,000 a year to keep a prisoner in jail in our county.  Still, moving people from jail to the health care system is only part of the solution because programs for treating such people in the health care system are severely underfunded.

Our church participates in a hypothermia program each winter and my interaction with these homeless guests leads me to believe that many suffer from mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Relegating them to the streets and their own resources cannot be the answer. Still, I’m encouraged by these positive steps in recognizing them as our neighbors and seeking to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper. I thankful for the privilege of serving as a pastor in a progressive community that’s working proactively at these seemingly implacable human problems.

 

The Human Connection (part 2)

Finding the human connection was so important for Bryan Stevenson as a first year law student. I wrote about this is my previous blog post and said that I have the same struggle with theological language that can feel just as esoteric and detached from the lives of people I serve in our church and our community.

What does it mean to say that Jesus in both fully human and fully divine? How do we understand abstract Trinitarian language about the relationship with God the Father, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit? Our common theological takeaway is a doctrine of redemption where our salvation is made possible by the incarnation, the sinless life, and the atoning death of Jesus. It’s a transaction that takes place in the spiritual realm and assures us that we will go to heaven when we die.

In theological language it’s called the doctrine of plenary atonement. It’s awfully thin soup, rather detached from the everyday lives of ordinary people. John’s Gospel can help us. It doesn’t have a nativity story, and begins instead by soaring into the farthest reaches of deity. Thinking, however, that it’s about life in the heavens would be a bad mistake.

The first three words “In the beginning” parallel the first three words in the book of Genesis. It’s about the origins of our world, including the human race. The Gospel story, as John tells it, is about a fresh beginning and a new human race. John’s Word or Light from heaven becomes flesh and is the life of humanity. Another way I’ve heard this said is that “God becomes everything we are—to make us everything God is.”

John is writing to a Gentile Christian community outside Palestine. They live in a different culture from the one in which Jesus was born. John is explaining to them that the life and teaching of Jesus comes from God and, at the same time, relates to their ordinary lives. He is placing Jesus both above and within their cultural world. John’s community believes that the spiritual world is good and the material world is evil. He counters this by saying that the eternal Word became human in the life of Jesus. It’s an affirmation that the earth and our physical lives are part of God’s good creation.

We have worth because we’re valued by God who entered our world in the human life of Jesus. In Jesus God shared our experiences including our love, joy and intimate companionship as well as our anger, our tears, and our suffering. God is not a detached deity in a world far away. Our God is an intimate, suffering God who shares both our joys and our wounds.

Jesus turns our world upside-down. In a world where social status is everything, he associates with common people and outcasts. In an anxious and fearful world, he reminds us that God cares even for the sparrows. In a world addicted to the power of violence, he demonstrates that nonviolent, suffering love is a force more powerful. This connects powerfully to the kind of world Bryan Stevenson relates to in his legal practice representing poor people and those trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system.

 

The Human Connection

My daughter gave me the book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson for Christmas. It’s his personal story of working as a defender for poor people trapped in our criminal justice system, especially those on death row. In the introduction he tells how he became a lawyer doing this kind of work.

Near the end of his first year of studies at Harvard Law School, Bryan was disillusioned because the courses seemed esoteric and far removed from the race and poverty issues that had motivated him to study law in the first place. The next fall he took a course on race and poverty that included an internship with a nonprofit law group in Atlanta handling the appeals process for prisoners on death row.

Bryan was scared and insecure during his first visit to a death row inmate in a maximum security prison.  His task was to tell the prisoner that they still didn’t have a lawyer assigned to his case but, never-the-less, to assure him that he wouldn’t be executed in the next year. Bryan was astonished when the prisoner, whose name was Henry, was relieved to hear this news.

They immediately connected, started talking about everything including their families, and went way beyond the allotted one-hour time limit for the visit. When the guard came back he was very upset, roughly shackled Henry, and started pushing him out the door. Both the guard and Bryan were startled when Henry shut his eyes, tilted his head back and began to sing the old spiritual, Lord Plant My Feet on Higher Ground. 

That was the human contact and inspiration Bryan needed. He returned to law school with an intense desire to learn everything he could about the laws that sanctioned the death penalty and extreme punishments including constitutional law, litigation, and appellate procedure.

I can identify with Bryan in the sense that I’ve wrestled for a long time with theological language about Jesus, which can feel just as abstract and esoteric as those law school courses he was taking. Where do we as theologians find the human contact that Bryan found during his visit with Henry in that maximum security prison? I’ll write more about this on my next post.

Lockdown America

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our rate is 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents, or about 1.6 million prisoners according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That compares to around 100 prisoners per 100, 000 residents in comparable countries. We’re five times more likely to lock people up, often for nonviolence crimes, hence the epitaph “Lockdown America.”

It’s not just the numbers. Another huge part of the problem is the racial disparity between those who are incarcerated. In our white population, there are 380 prisoners for every 100,000 people. Among Hispanics, its 966 prisoners for every 100,000 people, and among blacks its 2,207 prisoners for every 100,000 people. That’s why our prison labor system is sometime referred to as the new Jim Crow.

I used to take groups of students to participate in a three-day, inmate-led training program called Alternatives to Violence at the Graterford maximum security prison near Philadelphia. The program included role plays and discussions designed to help us understand the causes of violence, to learn how to communicate better, how to respond nonviolently to potentially violent situations, and how to build community. It was always hard to say goodbye at the end of the training. Inmates hung around talking until the guards became adamant that we need to break it up.

No one was diabolical enough to design our prison system. It’s the culmination of broken neighborhoods, broken homes, broken school systems, drugs, tough-on-crime politicians, and our collective fears. Our modern prison system actually grew out of efforts to reform ancient justice practices based on revenge and corporal punishment. This was carried out in the ancient world through gruesome public torture and executions.

Such reforms have only pushed the whole nasty business into the shadows of our social conscience. We now lock bodies away, sometimes forever. Inmates have told me that “you don’t do time—time does you.” Your human dignity is continually assaulted and you slowly shrivel up and die. More than one inmate has told me, “I just don’t want to die in prison.” That’s the ultimate indignity!

Jesus experienced such torture when he was flogged and then crucified, the cruelest form of torture the Romans could devise. Surely, his ability to absorb all that abuse without seeking retaliation is our model for overcoming hatred and cruelty with self-sacrificing love. What does this mean for those of us who profess to follow Jesus, our tortured and executed savior?

Surely, it calls for repentance because many professing Christians have been part of creating Lockdown America while others of us looked the other way.  It also means getting as personally involved as possible. The powerful thing about spending time at Graterford prison is that we engaged each other as fellow humans. The inmates could hardly believe they were sitting there talking with college students. And we no longer saw the inmates as faceless criminals. All our stereotypes and social barriers began to fall away.

Memorial to Victims of Gun Violence

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Our church is displaying a T-shirt memorial on our church lawn remembering the 155 people killed by gun violence in the greater Washington DC area in 2014. There is a T-shirt with the name of each who died written on it. The memorial feels like cemetery, but unlike a cemetery, it’s displayed beside a public street in front of our church rather than behind a fence and gate.

I make it part of my daily routine to walk between the rows of T-shirts and breathe prayers for the victims and their families. A few are 2 and 3-year-old children. Some are senior citizens and many are young men and teenagers killed in the prime of life. One T-shirt remembers James Brady, former President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, who sustained a gunshot wound in his head in an attempt on the life of the president. Brady later became a public advocate of handgun control. He succumbed to his wounds last year at the age of 73.

Sometime when we advocate for common sense gun laws, we get so wrapped up in the political struggle that we forget its spiritual dimension. A small sign beside our memorial invites us to stop, pray, and remember. People often walk by on the sidewalk when I’m there. Some ask questions and many express appreciation. I can tell that it touches a deep cord inside them. We can do better as a people and a nation.

The Dignity of Work

A young couple that occasionally visits our church told me that one of them works at a fast food chain and the other works at a major retail store. Even though they work here in the DC area, they live 20 miles away in an apartment they can afford to rent. They’d like to come to church more often but they need to work on weekends and can only come if they take a day off.

Work is one of the most central parts of our lives yet little is written about it in standard theological resources. It is addressed in Introduction to Catholic Social Thought by Milburn Thompson and The Way of the Cross in Human Relations by Guy Hershberger, a Mennonite writing in the 1950s. Both link work with creation and the Genesis story of God creating the earth and then resting from all that labor. This story grounds the dignity of our labor. We share in the creative activity of God and realize our human potential through work. The creative process of work is hardwired into us. Children do it with abandon with no thought of status or being paid. Playing is children’s work.

Work is good for us. It provides the necessary resources for our lives. Much of our waking hours are given to our work; through it we contribute to the community, participate in society, and help establish the common good. Milburn Thompson says that “work is essential for a meaningful life; it is a human obligation and a human right” (84). Guy Hershberger makes a similar claim and ties meaningful work with the ability to own property and draw our living from the earth. “There can be no liberty without property. Slavery and the absence of property go together. Property and the human welfare which it represents are thus not merely the concern of the individual, but of the entire community” (214).

Let’s hold this vision of dignified, meaningful work because work as we know it is often oppressive and unjust. Workers should never be reduced to cogs in a machine because the whole purpose of an organized economy is the flourishing of all workers and their families. Milburn Thompson writes, “The dignity of human work and the priority of the personhood of the worker challenge the morality of the modern economy” (84).

The Politics of Compassion

I recently had a dinner meeting with a friend who is the mother of Rachel, a severely autistic eleven year-old child. A child with severe mental disabilities can completely drain a family’s energy and resources. Yet there are rewards in loving and caring for Rachel. It can certainly make us more appreciative of the inherent dignity and grace in all people.

My friend told me about the especially difficult time Rachael has had at school last year. As she gets bigger and stronger, it’s harder for teachers and case workers to control her when she acts out. She sometimes hits and even bites. So they put a vest on her with handles on the back that they can use to constrain her. They even began using mitts and shields. This further isolated Rachel and only made her act out more.

Being Rachel’s advocate with the school was really hard. My friend told me about the stigma, shame, and guilt associated with being the parent of a mentally disabled child. People relate to you and your child differently than they relate to people with physical disabilities. Physical disabilities more easily evoke compassion whereas severe mental disabilities evoke revulsion. As the mother of such a child, one often feels blamed, as if you are doing something wrong.

The biblical word translated as “mercy” can also be translated as “compassion.” The word compassion literally means “to suffer together” and it includes going out of our way to help others. Such compassion has its source in the heart of God who reaches out even to those who are evil and hateful. Jesus tells us to therefore be compassionate just as God is compassionate (Luke 6: 35-36). This is the heart of the gospel.

The Hebrew word translated as mercy or compassion is a cognate of the word for womb. Catholic ethicist Milburn Thompson writes, “For Jesus, then, God is like a mother who feels for and loves the children of her womb. . . For Jesus, compassion was neither sentimental nor an individual virtue; rather, compassion was political. When compassion led Jesus to touch a leper, heal a woman with constant menstruation, feed the hungry, forgive sinners, or share a meal with tax collectors and prostitutes, it was moving him to challenge the dominant sociopolitical paradigm of his social world. Thus Jesus was engaged in what might be called the ‘politics of compassion,’ in contrast to the ‘politics of purity’ of his social world” (Justice and Peace, 188).

Much of the Jewish social world during the time of Jesus was structured around avoiding contact with anything that would make them religiously unclean. We may not be far removed from a “politics of purity” ourselves. Consider all the church schisms in our history. They generally involve things that violate our sense of purity. Jesus’ politics of compassion, instead, compels us to reach out to and to be advocates for those less fortunate than ourselves and those on the margins of society.

Here Comes Everybody

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The social and ethnic diversity in the metro DC area is strikingly different from the rural Pennsylvania community, where I grew up. We were all white. There was only one black family in our high school and the only Hispanics we met were occasional seasonal workers who came to pick tomatoes on a nearby farm. We were all from different Protestant denominations. The biggest religious differences were Catholics and a small Jewish community in a nearby city.

There was a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” We hardly knew these other people but had lots of stereotypes. I still remember the prejudiced things we said about them. A significant part of my life story and my faith journey is my transition from that world to being the pastor of our church in one of the most diverse regions of our world.

Our diversity in metro DC is similar to the diversity in the first-century Mediterranean cities and churches to which the Apostle Paul wrote his letters. Especially instructive is his teaching about how we bridge such differences to create an inclusive community. Like those churches we need to figure out what it means to confess that there’s no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, that we’re all part of one body (Galatians 3:28).

Asian feminist theologian Yong Ting Jin writes “Each person has a unique and creative role to play as inspired and sustained by the Spirit. Everyone is charismatic, no one is useless. As such, each member has a decisive place in the community, but all serving one another, all having and enjoying equal dignity” (In Boyung Lee, Transforming Congregations through Community, 38).

Different cultures can rub each other the wrong way. Laid on top of this is the cruel history of how our country treated Native Americans and African slaves. This is our original sin and those hurts still run deep. A different but related matter has been our recent church fight over sexual orientation and same-sex relationships that has consumed so much of our energy in the past several decades. This has been our test of finding unity in diversity and to discern together what it means to be a fellowship where all who proclaim faith in Jesus are welcomed and nurtured.

My alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, recently announced that it will not “discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or any legally protected status.” Their hiring practices and benefits will now expand to include employees in same-sex marriages. It’s a change I welcome. This should not be a church dividing issue and I look forward to the day when it no longer absorbs so much of our energy. It’s one among other issues of inclusion and there are many other things that cry out for our attention.

One verse in the song of our heart is to be a diverse church that welcomes everybody no matter who you are or what your background may be. I want our neighbors to know that about us. Perhaps we now have a unique opportunity to be welcoming in this broader sense. As the apostle Paul insisted, there is no distinction between people on any basis in the church. All are valued, all are gifted, and all are needed.