Speaking Up Against Church Trials

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A pre-ordination Reconciling vigil that I helped lead at Annual Conference with three other young adults. Photo credit Sabrina Daluisio and Eastern PA Conference United Methodist Church. 

The Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church took place in mid-June, and I was a delegate of my church. I took a point of personal privilege to speak at the very end of the conference, and the video was recently posted. This was not necessarily the thing that most needed to be said, but it is something that I feel strongly about, and I thought I might as well say it because I had prepared to say it during the debate on legislation that would have called for a moratorium on church trials, but didn’t get a chance because the resolution was tabled (which I was kinda pissed about). (Thank you, Darlene, for suggesting I share it as a point of personal privilege.)

For more context, please see the links in the transcript below.

I saw that Robin and Darlene came to stand beside me, but I didn’t realize until I finished and turned around that many other Reconciling delegates, some of whom I didn’t even know, were gathering behind me. It filled my heart so much to see that powerful, loving little crowd, and I imagine it was a powerful message for those who were watching to see such support coalesce behind a call to end church trials. There were also several elders who afterward came up to me, looked me in the eye, and thanked me with such sincerity and intention. This also filled my heart.

Also. Speaking on a mic to hundreds of people (many of whom probably have some degree of antagonistic feelings toward you and your message) is scary, but the most disorienting and disturbing thing is hearing your voice super amplified a split second after you hear it coming out of your own mouth. So confusing.

Transcript:
My name is Rachel Ternes, and I’m a delegate from Arch Street United Methodist Church. My point of personal privilege is just something to consider in the wake of having tabled the resolution on ending church trials. 

I am a commissioned missionary of the United Methodist Church, serving through the Global Mission Fellows program of the General Board of Global Ministries. 

A  few weeks ago, all the current US-based young adult missionaries of the UMC were gathered together for a week from our sites of service all over the country. On our last day together, we received news of the judicial decision that Bishop Karen Oliveto’s consecration was ruled against church law. We have diverse theologies and positions and politics, but in that moment, 30 young adults who have committed two years of our lives to serving “the least of these” circled up and prayed and cried with each other, and grieved at how the legalistic decisions of our church seemed determined to send a message of judgement louder than the message of love that we missionaries strive to share with the world every day. As a young person and a missionary serving as the connection between the church and the world, trust me when I say that church trials break the hearts of young people in our church who want to participate in a community that exemplifies the unconditional, nonjudgemental love of Jesus Christ. And church trials dangerously harm our witness in the world. Recently, whenever the UMC has made it into secular, mainstream news sites, and the attention of people outside the church, it’s been because we are putting one of our own members on trial. What kind of witness is that? 

The harm to LGBTQIA individuals is real, and the harm to our witness is real. We cannot wait for the [Commision on a] Way Forward before we do all in our power to prevent church trials. To put it off, and prevent us from considering such efforts is to violently silence the voices of members who are already violently marginalized. 

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Pride Problems

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I’m pretty proud of my church after Pride weekend.

There’s been a tension and a conversation for a long time about the purpose of Pride parades and celebrations in particular, and LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual) activism/advocacy/culture in general. I don’t know a ton about the history of the LGBTQIA rights movement (I should know more), but I think there’s probably always been tensions between different variations of the pull to be political/challenging/risk-taking/intersectional and the temptation to simplify/pacify/commercialize/comply/assimilate. Pride is a lightning rod for this. Over the past couple decade, folks have been increasingly critiquing Pride for how

  • it’s become all celebration and sex, and no protest or politics;
  • it caters to cis gay men (and straight cis people), and often marginalizes queer women, bi people, asexual people, trans and nonbinary people, people of color, and disabled people, people who can’t afford $15 tickets (and probably other groups as well) (all linked Tweets are from Philly community members);
  • it seems to have been bought by figures and corporations that at best have nothing to do with LGBTQIA liberation and at worst contribute to the oppression of marginalized people, including LGBTQIA people, and especially people of color;
  • similarly, how it has encouraged the participation of police and other institutions that endanger and contribute to the oppression of marginalized people, including LGBTQIA people, and especially people of color;
  • it in general doesn’t get intersectionality or collective liberation.

This year, the tension has grown. In the US, thanks to the current administration and social climate, there’s a growing awareness that LGBTQIA “equality” has not been achieved, and that the legal progress that has been made is not necessarily safe. There’s also growing awareness of white supremacy and dangerous capitalism and how they both interact with homophobia. In Philly, there’s been growing awareness of how race and racism exist in LGBTQIA spaces (I referred to that when I preached last October).

To be honest, most churches are not super advanced in how they engage with Pride and LGBTQIA stuff in general. For churches and Christian groups, declaring and practicing inclusion of all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity is an accomplishment, and can made that church feel like they have ~arrived~. As much as it shouldn’t be, it’s still pretty significant for a church to get to the point of marching in a Pride parade or tabling at OutFest.

So, about a month ago, when I started thinking about how and whether I would participate in Pride, considering all the issues and even calls to boycott, I didn’t give much thought to how the participation of my church, Arch Street UMC, might be affected. Arch Street loves LGBTQIA people, Arch Street loves marching in Pride, we march every year with the other Reconciling UMCs in the area, and that’s that. Why would we ever question marching? It felt unfortunate but unavoidable that even Arch Street, a politically active community committed to acting for racial and economic justice, was not necessarily ready to think critically about its participation in Pride. I assumed that if there was any alternative or counter-march, I would be participating by myself. But Rev. Robin, the pastor and my supervisor, was wrestling with the same tensions, and was a little more optimistic or convicted than I was. He strives to integrate an awareness of racial justice struggles into every aspect of Arch Street’s ministry, and he thought our participation in the Pride march should be no different. So he invited me into a conversation about how our congregation could at least start the process toward thinking more intentionally and critically about how we participate in Pride. The first step was a slightly broader conversation with a few other members of our community whose experiences and identities made their voices crucial to the process. During that conversation, we read an article that used the example of a Trump-supporting Philly Pride organizer to examine how politics and economics interact with Pride (strangely, the article we read is no longer online). We reflected on these questions:

  • What did you hear in that opinion piece?
  • What rings true for you?
  • What questions does it raise for you?
  • Where is Arch Street UMC in this conversation?
  • Where is God in this conversation?
  • In this complexity, how will we let our light shine?

In that process, an important realization for me was the fact that, just as participating in Pride feels like a bigger deal for churches that it might for other groups, not participating in Pride would mean a different thing for us than it would for other groups. We hear about how sincerely meaningful it is to many Pride spectators to witness a Christian church marching in Pride. Our participation is a message of unconditional love and acceptance refuting the messages of judgement and exclusion that too many LGBTQIA folks have heard from the Christians in their lives. Marching in pride is a ministry of presence, and that’s a significant sacrifice to weigh against the call to divest from a very flawed parade. But the truth is that, even while for some people, seeing Arch Street marching may be healing and encouraging, for others it could be interpreted to mean that we don’t care enough about racial or environmental justice to think critically about our allyship.

The next step was was figuring out how to shape the experience of Arch Street’s marchers and the message we conveyed to spectators to reflect the complexity of Pride and LGBTQIA liberation. Rev. Robin suggested that we do this through the design of the already-scheduled special pre-Pride worship service, and through the signs provided for our marchers to carry.

Rev. Robin, Anana (another Arch Street young adult), and I sat down to create the worship service and design messaging for the signs. Our signs reflected the intersections between LGBTQIA justice and other areas of justice that are ignored by Pride. They declared that LGBTQIA Black lives matter, that environmental justice equals LGBTQIA justice, that immigration saves LGBTQIA lives. Anana and I painted all the signs later.

When Sunday came, here’s what the service consisted of:

We sang three songs. The first, “We Are Called,” is a hymn based on God’s call in Micah 6:8 for Christians to make our mission one of love and justice. The second was “Draw the Circle Wide,” a hymn by composer Mark Miller calling for communities of wide welcome, where no person is excluded and no concern relevant to their experience is ignored. Our last song was “Sent Out in Jesus’ Name,” reminding us that God’s justice requires our action, and sending us out to march.

Remone Mundle, one of our incredible worship leaders, wrote and presented this powerful opening prayer:

Lord, today we are celebrating diversity here in Center City, Philadelphia. But we cannot overlook the anger, frustration and despair in Minneapolis/St. Paul as there are so many unanswered questions from citizens of this country who think that justice is hardly ever meted out fairly to people of color.

On this day, that we are here at Arch Street, safe in a beautiful, air-conditioned chapel, people from the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina are facing renewed pain and horror on the 2nd anniversary of a racially inspired massacre. Talking about anniversaries, how can we forget last year’s carnage at Pulse Night Cub that claimed the lives of 49 people. People who identified as LGBT but who were also predominantly people of color.

Kids are gearing up for a long summer vacation, perhaps making plans for Six Flags, Disney World or Hershey Park adventures but some, right here in Philadelphia are worried sick that their parents may be deported and their families torn apart in this hostile and unwelcoming political climate.

The disparities, Lord, are blatant, and shameful in a nation founded on freedom and the sanctity of human rights.

Help us to realize Lord that we even when we are lucky to feel insulated from society’s disabling strikes because of the privileges of race, money and status, we are still less free when our society holds one standard of justice for some and another set for others.

We are all less free when institutions of power seek to ignore the rights and basic dignities of queer and transgender people.

We are all less free when we turn a blind eye to the daily abuses of power that are now rampant and disproportionately affecting the most marginalized people across our social and legal systems.

We are indeed less free when our neighbors’ existence is a daily struggle for survival and their families live in constant fear.

But we are here Lord, we are here. We put on good walking shoes to march in the Pride parade, now let us put your armor on, so that we can rise up to take a stand for righteousness and justice. In your name we pray. Amen.

To connect with the march in a unique way, we invited the congregation to join in a visual litany, reading the declarations on our signs as they were projected on the screen.

Later in the service, Rev. Robin used the following words to explain why we were addressing diverse issues on a day usually focused on issues that are more obviously LGBTQIA-related:

Today we will participate in an action that centers the liberation of LGBTQIA+ persons and those who love them. So, we march and show our solidarity but we also march to witness to the struggles of those within the LGBTQIA+ community who are marginalized, to those external forces that seek to exploit the LGBTQIA+ community and to remind each other to connect economic justice, racial justice, immigration justice, healthcare as a human right, disability rights and environmental justice to today’s parade. In that way, we will model what Fannie Lou Hamer meant when she said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

The paragraphs that follow, adapted from a statement issued by the organization, United Students Against Sweatshops, describe the concept of Collective Liberation – a way of engaging with the world that provides insight and inspiration for our action today.

“Collective liberation means recognizing that our struggles are intimately connected, and that we must work together to create the kind of world we know is possible. We believe that every person is worthy of dignity and respect, and that within systems of oppression everyone suffers.

Collective Liberation is not just a value, but an action. When we work together across the barriers kept in place to divide us, we strengthen our organizing. When combined, our diverse identities and experiences give us the tools to dismantle systems of economic and social oppression, and to create a world in which all people are fully human.”

This was followed by sacred conversations within small groups of congregation members about why we march.

By the end of the service, I sensed a new level of connection, thoughfulness, and purpose among the members of the congregation. We had been challenged to do better, to love and care and act more broadly and intentionally. And we had been provided with tools and a gentle and spiritual environment from which to take the first step in to that challenge. Before filing out of the building, folks went to claim the signs that were displayed around the walls of the chapel.

We assembled on the sidewalk with signs and banners, then walked over to the Gayborhood to join the rest of the Eastern PA Reconciling United Methodist contingent.

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As educational as the worship service may have been for some participants, I think that the real-life experience of marching with the intersectional signs was just as much of a teacher. There was no mistaking the excitement of many of the rainbowed spectators lining the streets when they saw messages that broke through Pride’s overwhelming silence on justice for immigrants, the environment, and people of color. There was emotion on people’s faces as they pointed at “immigration saves LGBTQIA lives,” snapped photos of “all Black LGBTQIA lives matter,” and got selfies with the person carrying “God is genderqueer.”

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The person near the middle, pointing, liked my “environmental justice = LGBTQIA justice” sign.

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This sign holder really connected with us. Lots of screams of mutual appreciation.

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Rev. Robin told everyone he interacted with: “God loves you, just the way you are. You don’t have to change a thing.”

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Black trans lives matter!

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The Wells Fargo wagon was right in front of our contingent, pooping all the way. Wells Fargo is one of the main investors in the Dakota Access Pipeline. They also recently took advantage of customers by opening  over a million fake accounts without authorization, and have engaged in racist lending practices.

Some members of our contingent started out skeptical of the political and theological statements that some of the signs made. But after carrying them through the throngs, they understood how meaningful it was for Pride celebrators to see Christians who were not only expressing unconditional love and welcome to LGBTQIA folks, but also recognizing and naming that race, economic justice, etc. are just as significant in the lives and experiences of many LGBTQIA people as are sexual orientation and gender identity. To see Christians reaching the kind of expansive love that fully includes LGBTQIA people, and instead of patting ourselves on the back and taking Pride as a reward for our progress, asking how we can take the next step and expand even more. To see Christians thinking and acting critically, politically, and intersectionally.

Now, Arch Street UMC hasn’t solved LGBTQIA inequity or the lack of intersectionality in Pride. We haven’t even solved these things within our own congregation and community! There will be a lot more learning, a lot more challenging, a lot more prayer, discomfort, and taking action before we are even close. Progress will be made through the collective journeys of congregation members, and not through a top-down decision by church leadership.

And progress will be made through giving attention and value to the concerns and voices of the people in our community who are most affected– LGBTQIA people, people of color, women & nonbinary people, young people, immigrants, poor people, disabled people.

One of the most significant aspects, for me personally, of this journey so far has been experiencing my concerns to be valued. The initial conversation between Rev. Robin and I happened after he saw that I had posted on Facebook asking friends about alternatives or challenges to Philly Pride. After writing off any possibility of Arch Street making progress toward an intersectional, critical approach to Pride, I was invited and supported to help guide the congregation through the first steps of that progress. Anana and I got to design the worship service and parade messaging. I suspect that my initial pessimism about the church’s approach to Pride was less thinking that the church wouldn’t budge, and more that my voice wasn’t strong enough to cause any of the budging. I was proven wrong, and I’m really grateful for that.

Throughout this process, I also collected some resources for problematizing Pride! I learned a lot from them. Here’s my collection. Suggestions for additions are welcome.

Corrections and critiques to any part of this post are also welcome! Just like my church, I am still learning.

Saying Sorry from the Belly of the Big Fish

Last Sunday, I shared the following sermon with the wonderful congregation of Ardmore United Methodist Church, at the invitation of their pastor, Rev. Tim Thomson-Hohl. They were in the middle of a Lenten exploration of the Book of Jonah. 


 

I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight;
how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.
As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!
Then God spoke to the fish, and it vomited up Jonah on the seashore. (Jonah 2:1-10)

 

To be honest, for a long time after Pastor Tim invited me to preach on the story of Jonah praying in the belly of the great big fish, I was not at all sure what I was going to say. We all know Jonah’s story. Those of us who grew up going to Sunday school heard it, read it, and colored in pictures of it countless times. What more can be said about it? But, determined to find something, I sat down to re-read the story, paying careful attention. I was actually really surprised by how many curious details I saw that I had never noticed before. Like, how Jonah is even less of an admirable character than I remembered him! He’s sluggish, lazy, stupid, and unconcerned. His refusal to heed God’s call is not only foolish and unfaithful, but it shows a lack of concern and compassion for God’s people of Nineveh, in stark contrast to the sailors who do everything they can to avoid abandoning Jonah to the sea, even though they don’t know him, and even after they realize that he’s responsible for the dangerous storm. Some prophet, huh?

But the weirdest thing that I noticed was in Jonah’s prayer. Actually, it was something missing from Jonah’s prayer.

Let me read it again:

I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight;
how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.
As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!

Did you notice something missing? Here’s what I felt was missing: Jonah never actually acknowledges that he did something wrong. He never actually repents or asks God’s forgiveness for running away from God’s task! His prayer sounds to me kind of like “Dear God, I am in a terrible situation, it sucks, and goodness knows how I got here. It couldn’t possibly have been something I did! Anyway, you’re awesome, and I know you’ll get me out of this mess, and I’ll for sure praise you when you do! Thanks!”

I was blown away when I noticed this, because I could have sworn that Jonah’s repentance was a part of the stories I had been told in Sunday school.

Out of curiosity, I googled “Jonah and the whale for kids” and found a few summaries of the story written for children. One said “While Jonah was trapped inside the fish he did a lot of praying to God. He asked God to forgive him for running away.” (No, he didn’t.) Another said “He prayed and asked God to forgive him for disobeying him. He probably felt ashamed for not listening to God.” (Mmm I did not get that impression.) So I didn’t imagine it. It seems that, as difficult as it is to admit when we’re wrong and repent, we understand its importance well enough that we subconsciously insert it into Jonah’s prayer.

But Jonah didn’t repent. Not only that, but he ironically condemns the actions of some other unknown people who “worship vain idols,” while commending himself for his piety.

I want to tell you a story.

As was mentioned when I was introduced, I’m serving in a two-year mission and service program of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries, the board that oversees and supports all our church’s missionaries, as well as UMCOR, shorter mission trips, and many initiatives for global health, agriculture, and education. My program is called Global Mission Fellows, and I’m on the domestic track, called US2, for two years in the US. I was assigned to serve at Arch Street United Methodist church, where I have been helping with Grace Cafe (many in your congregation are familiar with Grace Cafe because you’ve volunteered with us) and other social justice projects, as well as at Serenity House, our little North Philadelphia community center and ministry, where I also live. Some of the most beautiful and the challenging experiences that I’ve had in my past year and a half of serving in Philadelphia have centered around The People’s Garden, which is a community garden in the Serenity House neighborhood formed from collaboration between Serenity House, our neighbors, college students, and other community members. The People’s Garden has been a place to grow fresh vegetables to be available to our food desert neighborhood, but it’s also been so much more than that. It’s been the catalyst for rare and rich and real relationships between many African American leaders and elders in our community, and young, mostly white, students who, like myself, are clearly outsiders, but who have come to be loved and welcomed by the community. The garden has been a form of resistance against gentrification– a means of literally putting down roots in an area where my neighbors frequently talk about their fears of being priced out of a neighborhood where their family has lived for generations, because Temple University and developers are buying up properties, without any intention to invest in North Philly’s current residents. The garden has been a source of neighborhood pride and self-determination. Our neighborhood, like much of North Philly, is experiencing poverty aggravated by disinvestment by the city and other institutions. Through our work in the garden, we’ve transformed a dangerous, empty lot where people used to dump trash, into a beautiful, blossoming community space, full of potential. An aspect dear to my heart, the garden has been a learning experience for neighborhood children, who became some of the most enthusiastic and devoted gardeners, and realized their own power and creative potential as they watched the seeds they planted grow into delicious tomatoes and bright sunflowers.

I could go on about the People’s Garden for hours. I have truly seen and felt God present in the growth of the garden and the love of the neighbors and other team members who made it possible.

But I’m going to rein myself in a bit so I can explain what the garden has to do with Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish. Y’all can ask me more about the garden later, during fellowship.

I wanted to introduce you to the garden, because, while musing about Jonah’s— in my opinion— insufficient prayer to God, I suddenly remembered a time when I witnessed a stay in the belly of the great fish that was well-spent.

A crucial part of the dynamic of the garden team has been a commitment to follow the lead of the community members. During my training to become a missionary, the other young adults in my cohort and I learned about the philosophy of ministry with. Not ministry to or for, but ministry with the poor and marginalized and all those whom God has called us to be in solidarity with. When we follow an ethic of ministry with, we understand that mission is not a one-way transaction, with privileged Christians riding in on a white stallion to give something to or do something for the less fortunate. It’s a collaborative process, where all people involved are recognized as bearers of God’s image, and agents of transformation, with something valuable to offer. Even though they might use different words for it, every member of the garden team values this philosophy, and you can see it in the priority that the students and others not from the neighborhood place on listening to our neighbors and making sure our direction is shaped by their concerns and hopes and dreams, and not by what an outsider thinks would be good for the neighborhood.

We’ve all tried to keep this in mind especially with our most recent project, which is the future construction of a semi-permanent open structure that will be an educational and gathering space, and will support solar-powered flood lights to make the garden more safe after dark. But a few months ago we slipped up. The college students and I, distracted by funding deadlines and logistics, made some decisions hastily and without consulting with our neighbors. When they heard, some of our neighbors reached out to us and were clear with us that they were hurt and disappointed that we had left them out of the decision process. There is a long history in communities like North Philadelphia of privileged outsiders taking away agency from locals while claiming to help and respect them, and our neighbors lovingly but firmly pointed out that we had put ourselves dangerously close to following in that pattern.

It was hard to hear, but we knew they were right. The easiest thing to do would have been to smooth it over, deny it, ignore it, pretend like nothing had happened and try to move on with our planning process. A more involved, but still insufficient response would have been to respond like Jonah did in the belly of the fish: To lament the pain and frustration that our team was experiencing, talk up how great it is that we have strong relationships that will allow us to continue forward with our work, and never actually take responsibility for our failure. To be honest, I have a personality type that naturally avoids conflict at all costs, and this Jonah-like response would have been my first instinct. It would have been enough to get off the hook. Enough to get out of the fish.

But instead, I watched at our next full team meeting as the students set aside the agenda to acknowledge the concerns of our neighbors, admit unreservedly that we had done the wrong thing, ask forgiveness, and wholeheartedly recommit to not only including our neighbors in decisions, but having them be the guiding force. In that meeting, our relationships were deepened, and all of our hearts were reignited for the work ahead of us, as we were reminded of the true purpose of the work.

What would Jonah’s prayer have sounded like if he had chosen wholehearted repentance? His prayer was made of pieces of different psalms that he wove together. Imagine if he had included psalm pieces like:

O Lord, be gracious to me;
save me, for I have sinned against you. (Psalm 41:4)

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment. (Psalm 51:3-4)

Lent is a good time to think about how important true repentance is. When we have sinned against one another or against God, fully recognizing our failing, taking responsibility, and committing to do better in the future, are necessary steps for preparing to enter back into right relationship with one another. Healing can’t happen until the wound has been identified and cleaned. This is so important to remember in a world and at a time where well-meaning white Americans are tempted to gloss over the terrible realities of our country’s racist past and present and claim that everything will be fine if we just be nice to each other and move on— rather than own up to the oppression and inequality that Black people face to this day, and repent, and commit to do whatever it takes to have restitution. It’s an important lesson in a land where, having never truly repented for the sins of colonists and the government against Native people, those sins are continuing to oppress, most recently and dramatically with the construction of a dangerous pipeline through Lakota land in Standing Rock, and the brutalization of the Native water protectors risking everything to stop the pipeline. It’s an important lesson in a world where powerful people abuse those who have less power, and then are permitted to by society to move on with their lives without repenting, and continue to trample and abuse.

Jonah’s prayer was good enough to get him spat out on dry land and offered another opportunity to follow God’s instruction. But having never really understood or admitted what he did wrong, he’s not really the changed man that the Sunday school stories make him out to be. In chapter 4, he actually fails again, getting self-righteous, and bitter about God’s mercy for Nineveh, and God has to teach him another lesson. It looks from your schedule like your Jonah sermon series will end right before that part, but I encourage you to read it yourself. It’s very interesting.

In Sunday school as a child, I was told to take Jonah’s story as a lesson about how we should obey God, and how God can find you anywhere and everywhere, so there’s no use running. These are important lessons, but it seems that Jonah still needs to learn a lesson of his own, and I hope that we can learn it along with him. As long as we fail to truly repent of harm that we do to other children of God, we can expect to keep messing up in our relationships with one another and with God. Whenever we find ourselves in the belly of the great big fish, may we let go of our pride and our comfort, and sincerely own our wrongdoing, so that we can truly repent and heal.

Environmental Racism, Repentance, and Youth

Below is an article that I wrote a few months ago about the 2016 Arch Street United Methodist Church youth mission trip to Pembroke, North Carolina. It was published in the Voice of the Spire, Arch Street’s newsletter.

But first, some notes on context:

About a month after our trip, Pembroke and the nearby Lumberton were devastated by hurricane Matthew. The Lumbee River flooded its banks, putting entire towns under water for several days, and leaving many homes unlivable. The Robeson County Church and Community Center, where we worked, was flooded and heavily damaged. Here is a video describing the impact on the community and the work being done by the United Methodist Church.

While looking for a news article to link to about the hurricane damage, I learned that the Pembroke community is also standing up to another environmental disaster: The planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline intends to pipe oil to Prospect, the community just north of Pembroke. Hundreds of members of the Pembroke community have organized marches in protest of the pipeline, recognizing the danger of continued reliance on oil, and the evil in the oil industry’s comfort with saddling the poorest communities (and majority Indigenous communities) with the deadly risks of burst pipelines.

Sound familiar? The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota is also currently desperately trying to protect their land and water from a pipeline— theirs the Dakota Access Pipeline. This pipeline is also being forced upon poor and Indigenous people, and the environmental racism in this decision is made so blatant by the fact that the original route of the DAPL near Bismarck, ND was rejected because of the danger it posed to the people and environment of the richer, whiter Bismarck.

Environmental racism means that the kinds of industries that have the most risks to health and safety tend to exploit communities of color. Philadelphia is home to a majority people of color population, a huge oil refinery, and some of the worst asthma rates in the US (not a coincidence). Pembroke, NC and Standing Rock, ND are poor, Indigenous, and some of the latest victims of our greed for oil money at any cost (not a coincidence). In Flint, MI, environmental racism means criminal neglect and water that is still not safe for Flint’s majority Black residents to drink, long after the national outrage has died down. Environmental racism means that, if the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline overpower the Water Protectors in North Dakota and North Carolina, the emissions that they create will contribute to fueling the climate change that is disproportionately impacting people of color, including through natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew in Pembroke, NC.

As I explain in the article below, the United Methodist Church is in the process of repentance for sins committed against Native Americans. The same United Methodist Church that currently has $2 million invested in the fossil fuel industry. We can join the Water Protectors in solidarity, we can publish messages in support of their struggle, we can rally to rebuild the flooded Pembroke, and we can hold powerful “services of repentance” in our churches and annual conferences, but we cannot yet truly repent. Because repentance requires turning away from sin, and we as a Church have not yet turned away from the sin of exploiting our siblings for the profits that can be extracted from their land. What’s happening in Standing Rock and Pembroke is a continuation of the violence that has been committed against Native Americans since Europeans first set foot on this continent, and our Church is complicit.

(Confession: I as an individual am also invested in the fossil fuel industry’s environmental racism. I currently bank with Wells Fargo, one of the big backers of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and I reap the benefits of my father’s employment at an oil company. I also have a long way to go towards true repentance.)

Now, on to the Spire article:


 

On Sunday, August 7th, the Arch Street youth and several adults set off on the annual Youth Mission Trip to Pembroke, North Carolina. Arch Street has developed a special relationship with this community by returning almost every summer for the past eight years to put in some hard work on a local project. But it’s not just physical work that gets done—the experience also presents a lot of work for the head and the heart as the youth explore the meaning of mission and ministry with, while learning about a very different culture and environment from that of Philadelphia.

This year, the theme of the trip was repentance. For the past four years, the United Methodist Church has been on a journey of repentance for the Church’s involvement in historical and continuing violence against Native Americans. The church has realized that the healing of relationships can only happen after the much more painful work of repentance. Part of this repentance process is reckoning with the aspects of Christian mission that have done violence to Native peoples—physically, mentally, emotionally, and culturally. Because of this, it was very poignant for the youth to focus on repentance while on a mission trip to a largely Native community (the majority of residents are members of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina).

We were welcomed by Gary Locklear, a United Methodist Home Missioner and a member of the Lumbee tribe, who arranged our work projects. On our first work day, we headed over to the Robeson County Church and Community Center, which offers a food pantry, an affordable thrift shop, and other services and assistance to the community. There, we sorted clothing donations and started constructing a huge wooden cover to replace a garage-type door in the thrift shop. Pastor Kelly Hunt was our master carpenter, and with his skilled guidance we finished the cover on the first day and moved on to our main project: constructing a wheelchair ramp for a family with a member who has limited mobility. For the rest of that day and the next three, the whole team worked in the hot sun, moving wood, measuring, sawing, hammering, and drilling.

In the face of long, hot days and difficult, often frustrating work, the youth remained dedicated. They approached the work with cheerfulness, courage, and a sense of camaraderie. They never complained or got lazy—at least never more than was warranted! (It was really hot.) The perseverance, teamwork, and good nature of the six young people were truly inspiring.

But the week wasn’t all work! Together we hung out, went bowling, cooked, ate, played games (Pembroke First United Methodist Church, where we stayed, was great for hide-and-seek), had meaningful conversations, sang, laughed, watched a meteor shower, went thrift shopping, visited the Museum of the Southeast American Indian, and had nightly devotions.

Through it all, I believe each one of us grew closer to God by growing closer to one another and to the people of Pembroke. As Callie Chen, one of the youth, puts it, “It was a liberating experience. I felt that we were able to connect more with each other spiritually through the process of our nightly devotions and working together to help the community.”

To make next year’s mission trip an experience just as special and unforgettable, you can donate (by cash, check, or online at archstreetumc.org/give/) and designate your gift for the Youth Mission Trip.

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Our sweaty, happy group with Gary Locklear (back in the green), Pastor Kelly (front in the brown), and the ramp we constructed.

Common Good, Collective Liberation

 

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On Sunday, I preached at Arch Street United Methodist Church. You can read the sermon on the blog of the Methodist Federation for Social Action!

I was grateful to have been invited to preach, and really warmed by all the encouragement and positive feedback I received. Preaching (both the composition and the delivery) are challenging for me, but as I was meditating on and writing the message, I felt the importance and timeliness of the subject impressed on me.

Black Women’s Lives Matter #SayHerName

(Content warning for descriptions of racist violence, police violence, transphobia.)

“Although Black women are routinely killed, raped, and beaten by the police, their experiences are rarely foregrounded in popular understandings of police brutality. Yet, inclusion of Black women’s experiences in social movements, media narratives, and policy demands around policing and police brutality is critical to effectively combatting racialized state violence for Black communities and other communities of color.” –Kimberle Crenshaw, AAPF Executive Director

On the one year anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland, I want to share some paintings I made of Black women whose lives mattered, but were cut short by violence (most by police violence). This series was the brainchild of Ms. Wilhelmina Young, one of the two Black women who dreamed up Serenity House (the community center where I live and serve), and a friend and mentor and mover and shaker at Arch Street United Methodist Church. For African Heritage Month (which Arch Street celebrates in February in place of Black History Month, because of our international congregation), Wilhelmina wanted us to have a display remembering and honoring the Black women killed by police violence and other kinds of racist violence, and recognizing that, while men of color bear the brunt of police violence, women of color are by no means spared. The paintings were displayed in the front of our sanctuary in February and March.

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Erica Mines, an organizer with the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice, preaching at Arch Street UMC as part of our Black Voices for Justice series.

 

I was honored to be asked to create tributes to these women. Painting them was very heavy. Please, let us speak up, stand up, march, chant, sing, organize, vote, resist, educate, advocate, preach, pray— intentionally, strategically, urgently, hopefully— until people of color in the US have no need to live in fear of racialized violence.

 

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Aiyana Mo’Nay Stanley Jones was 7 years old when she was killed by police in 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. She was sleeping on the couch when police burst into her family’s home, firing a shot that killed her. She is one of many children killed by racist policing in the US.

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Renisha McBride was 19 years old when she was killed in Dearborn Heights, Michigan in 2013. She had crashed her car and went to a nearby house to knock on the door and ask for help. The homeowner fired a shot through the screen door, killing her. She is one of many Black people who are hurt or killed by those who should have helped them.

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Tanisha Anderson was 37 when she died while being taken into custody by police in Cleveland, Ohio in 2015. She was bipolar, and one day when she was disoriented and trying to leave the house not dressed for the cold, her family called the 911 for medics to help restrain her for her safety. Instead, police came and violently arrested her, causing her to go into cardiac arrest. She is one of many who are killed by the combination of racism and ignorance about people living with mental illness.

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Sandra Bland was 28 years old when she was found hanged to death in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas in 2015. Three days before she had been violently arrested for a minor traffic violation. She is one of many Black people in the US who face extreme results for minor or invented violations.

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Keisha Jenkins, a trans woman, was 22 years old when she was killed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 2015. She was beaten and shot to death by a group of men. She is one of many who are killed by the combination of racism and transphobia.

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Bettie Jones was a grandmother who was killed by police in Chicago, Illinois in 2015. Police came for a domestic disturbance call for another resident of her building, and shot her when she opened the door to let them in. She is one of many innocent elders killed by racist policing in the US.

 

 

Eastern PA Annual Conference 2016 Resolution Results

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A delegate from my church speaking in favor of Resolution #2016 – 17

Last weekend, I attended the Annual Conference of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church as a voting delegate. Every year around this time, each conference convenes with lay and clergy delegates from every church in the conference to share reports, learn stuff, worship together, and debate and vote on legislation. Below is a summary of the results of that debate (punctuated by my thoughts and opinions on several resolutions), based on my sparse notes, my memory, and the memories of other folks I asked. I made this partly as a reference (because these results are not available publicly until they are published in the conference journal, which takes several months) and partly to share some of my own thoughts.

The resolutions are only a part of what was significant and memorable about this conference, so hopefully I will post more later about other aspects.

Note: Resolutions from the Reconciling United Methodists of Eastern Pennsylvania are titled in purple. Other resolutions that my church was involved in presenting are titled in blue.

Also note: The full text of the resolutions is here.

 

Resolutions

Resolution #2016 – 01
Resolution For a Rule Change Relating to Episcopal Candidate Endorsement Presented by the EPC 2016 Jurisdictional Conference Delegation
This set forth a potential process for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference to endorse one or more nominees for episcopal candidate, as we have not had an established process. It was referred back to the Jurisdictional Conference Delegation for more work around concerns that the high 2/3 requirement and the inability to nominate people from the floor from the beginning could disenfranchise nominees of color. Of the two nominees (both men of color) who had come forward beforehand and been interviewed by the members of the Jurisdictional Conference delegation, neither had been endorsed by the delegation. We instead went through a process of taking nominations from the floor and voting “yes” or “no” on each one by paper ballot. None of the three nominees received the required 2/3 to constitute an endorsement. After that result was presented, it was requested that we take nominations and vote again. More people were nominated, but only the same three accepted and were voted upon, and again none of them received the required 2/3.

Resolution #2016 – 02
Advance Specials
Resolution #2016 – 03
Relating to Rental/Housing for Retured or Disabled Clergypersons
Resolution #2016 – 04
Pertaining to the Adoption Agreement to the Clergy Retirement Security Program (CRSP) for the year 2016
Resolution #2016 – 13
Equitable Compensation Recommendation for 2017
These four were on the consent calendar, which passed.

Resolution #2016 – 05
Resolution Concerning a Comprehensive Funding Plan for the Benefit Obligations
This was referred somewhere…

Resolution #2016 – 06, 11, 12, 21
Discontinuance of churches. Each church voted that it was time to discontinue. Each one passed.

Resolution #2016 – 07
Resolution Supporting Access to Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Pennsylvanians
A demonstration of support for HB 1450 (currently before the PA House of Representatives), which allows access to driver’s licenses for undocumented Pennsylvanians, making it easier for them to drive to work, school, healthcare appointments, and stores, and thus to care for their families and make a significant contribution to the local economy. This passed with strong support.

Resolution #2016 – 08
Resolution Relating to Endorsing Health Care Coverage for ALL Kids in Pennsylvania
An agreement to be listed as an endorser of the Dream Care Campaign to Cover ALL Kids, which calls for every Pennsylvanian child to qualify for public health insurance. This passed with strong support.

Resolution #2016 – 09
Resolution Relating to Safe Sanctuaries Policy
An updated policy for the protection and well-being of children and youth in the conference that aligns with updated Pennsylvania laws. Discussion revealed that the resolution inadequately addressed the situations of churches that run or host daycare centers or preschools, and we ran out of time to resolve this on the floor, so we voted for the Safe Sanctuaries Committee to reconvene to make the necessary changes.

Resolution #2016 – 10
Computer Network and Internet Access Policy
This laid out policy for the use of church-owned technology and church internet access with the intention of preventing wasteful, illegal, or embarassing activities. It was not addressed— I think we ran out of time. This was well intentioned, but things often get weird when churches try to censor people/material on what they see as moral grounds, and this resolution was no exception. For example, the “material that is… embarrassing, sexually explicit, profane, obscene…” which employees “may not use the computer network to display, store, or send…”  includes a whooole bunch of stuff in the Bible. It’s easy to overlook this irony in a Christian culture that thinks of Christianity as primarily safe, clean, nice, and legal.

Resolution #2016 – 14
Full Inclusion of LGBTQ Persons in The United Methodist Church: Marriage Equality
A statement supporting the right of LGBTQ persons to marry a life partner in civil and religious ceremonies, regardless of that partner’s gender. This was tabled pending the results of the General Conference Commission. EPA is a conservative conference with an ugly history of discriminating against LGBTQ people and punishing those who support equality. The debate on this and the other LGBTQ-related resolutions reflected that, with opponents to equality doing all they could to shove conversation and the possibility of change aside through bundling/referring/tabling/committing the resolutions, and whenever that failed, bringing up the homophobic arguments.

Resolution #2016 – 15
Full Inclusion of LGBTQ Persons in The United Methodist Church: Ordination Equality
Statement of support for all candidates who present themselves for consideration for ordination, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. This was tabled pending the results of the General Conference Commission.

Resolution #2016 – 16
Resolution Supporting HB1510/SB974 in the Pennsylvania Legislature
Statement supporting bills for freedom from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. This passed! It was stalled for a while by a discussion of whether “public accommodation” includes bathrooms, spurred by delegates who seemed to oppose the right of trans folks to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity.

Resolution #2016 – 17
Resolution on Radical Welcome
A statement encouraging all churches to hold a Coming Out Day event on Sunday, October 9, 2016, and to have a welcoming presence at Philadelphia OutFest 2016. This was presented as a measure that all Methodist churches and individuals who profess to love and welcome LGBTQ people, regardless of their stances on marriage and ordination, could participate in. This passed after some work on the wording, and after opponents were assured that it was an encouragement, not a mandate. I am excited that this passed, but in some ways it feels like a hollow victory. Instead of representing a movement of the EPA Conference toward justice and welcome, it seems like a way for “love the sinner” types to pat themselves on the back. I also fear that encouraging churches to be halfway welcoming but not fully just and inclusive (“You can sit in our pews, listen to our sermons, volunteer, cook, clean, tithe, even sing in the choir — but you are not welcome to preach, teach, marry, advocate, or fully celebrate your God-given sexuality.”) may be dangerous. I fear that it may be safer for queer people to be in no church at all than to be in a church that advertises tolerance to get people in the doors but still lives a harmful theology.

Resolution #2016 – 18
Resolution on Religious Freedom
A statement denouncing legislation that allows discrimination against LGBTQ people under the guise of “religious freedom.” A special committee was commissioned to be created to study this and report back in fall of 2017.

Resolution #2016 – 19
Policy Regarding Sexual Misconduct Involving Adults
Defines and denounces sexual misconduct (includes sexual harassment and abuse) and lays out policy for dealing with it in churches. There was much discussion and disagreement about the definition of sexual abuse when it was pointed out that “when a person in a ministerial role of leadership… engages in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with a congregant…” includes married couples in which one partner is a pastor and one is a member of that pastor’s congregation. (This raises the question, which was not discussed on the floor, of whether situations with a pastor/congregant couple, are in fact inappropriate because they pose a conflict of interest, all issues of sexual ethics aside.) There was an attempt to “fix” this by adding to the end of the sentence the caveat “except consensual sexual relations within the bounds of marriage.” This suggested amendment was complicated by the fact that the sentence defining sexual abuse is a quote from the Book of Resolutions, and some were concerned that the amendment would be an attempt to change the Book of Resolutions, even though the presenter of the amendment insisted that adding the amendment after the end quotes and the citation would not be changing or misquoting the BoR. There was also a concern that the original definition could be used to target queer pastor/congregant couples, a possibility that even the proposed amendment would not fully prevent, as queer couples may be less likely to marry because of the policies of the church, and their marriages may not be recognized by the church. In the end, we voted for the amendment by a very narrow margin, but also voted to send the amendment to Judicial Council to rule whether it interacted unconstitutionally with the Book of Resolutions (not sure how those two decisions work together). We also passed the resolution in general.

Resolution #2016 – 20
Resolution Establishing and Ad-Hoc Study Committee to Evaluate Alternative Fair Voting Methods for Electing Members to Committees and Delegations
Proposed a committee to study the use of ranked choice voting or other alternative voting methods for electing nominees. I think this passed.

 

 

Don’t Hurt Yourself: Rambling Thoughts on LEMONADE and General Conference

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As many people have written much better than I ever could, Beyoncé didn’t write her amazing new album LEMONADE for or about me. She wrote it for Black women. And for herself. And for the victims of racist police violence and their families, and the movement to end racist police violence.

She didn’t write it for me. I think of how the authors of the Hebrew Bible didn’t write it (the Hebrew Bible, not LEMONADE) for Christians, either, and how we Christians still read and appreciate it and (sometimes awkwardly) project Jesus into it. The Bible is a work of art and each person who reads it does so through a lens colored by their experience and their tradition and what they’ve been taught and what they want to see. Isaiah 7:14 wasn’t written to refer to Jesus, but sometimes we read it that way because it’s meaningful, it’s a good story, it makes us happy. Ruth and Naomi probably weren’t really a couple, but sometimes I read it that way because it’s meaningful, it’s a good story, it makes me happy. Beyoncé probably didn’t write LEMONADE in response to this podcast host‘s wish to remember her own birth, but she can sure feel that way because it’s meaningful, it’s a good story, and it makes her happy. It’s great to find meaning in stories but it’s important to be aware and to be able to admit that we interpret through a lens, our perceptions are not reality, and we don’t have a monopoly on the truth of any story (though some people have a better claim on the truth, like how Beyoncé has a much better claim on the truth of LEMONADE than I do). Caveat: when the meaning you find in the Bible or LEMONADE or other great stories hurts other people, that’s not great.

LEMONADE is like the Bible. I hear it through the lens of my experience and I read particular messages into it.

The most striking message that I draw from LEMONADE is from a line in the middle of the third song, “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” After a first song that describes coming to the painful understanding that a partner has been unfaithful, and a second song of accusation and assertion, this is the song of subsequent rage. Beyoncé sings:

When you hurt me, you hurt yourself
Try not to hurt yourself
When you play me, you play yourself
Don’t play yourself
When you lie to me, you lie to yourself
You only lying to yourself
When you love me, you love yourself—

Love God Herself

I think of two things. I think of this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.

And I think of one of my favorite scriptures, Matthew 25:34-40:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.’

The lyrics of Don’t Hurt Yourself tell a cheating husband how foolish he is for his actions, how his infidelity in the big picture hurts him just as much as it hurts his wife. All three of these quotes get at the idea of the connectedness between human beings and the connectedness of human beings to God. From the point of view of “the least of these,” Jesus’ lesson is “When you love me, you love yourself— love God Herself.” And if you read past verse 40 in the scripture, you see that it’s also true that when you hurt me, you hurt yourself— hurt God Herself.

My lens is colored by anticipation of General Conference, the quadrennial global meeting (this time in Portland, OR) of the United Methodist Church, where I will be volunteering for the next two weeks with the Love Your Neighbor Coalition. When I hear “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” I think about the Church policies and cultures that blatantly hurt LGBTQ people and more perniciously hurt women, people of color, poor people, and other marginalized groups, as well as creation itself. I wonder if the Methodists promoting those policies and perpetuating those cultures realize that they are hurting themselves, hurting God Herself. I think about how many in the church have turned from seeking God’s justice and love in favor of idolizing individualism, security, purity culture, nationalism, white supremacy… Like Beyoncé’s cheating husband and scripture’s unfaithful Israel, does our Church not realize that its infidelity rots away at the souls of the oppressors as well as the oppressed? That the UMC is cheating on God Herself?

Over the course of the album, Beyoncé’s lyrics describe the painful but ultimately rewarding process of a relationship shattering and then being healed. In scriptures about unfaithful Israel, God never stops calling Her people back to faithfulness. At General Conference, the work of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition will be to attempt to call the Church back to right relationship with God and Her people, free of abuse, oppression, and discrimination.

How I long for the day that our message to the Church can move from “What are you doing, my love?” to “How I missed you, my love.”

 

P.S. Beyoncé is a good United Methodist so maybe she released LEMONADE when she did to share this message and give us strength for General Conference. Thank you, Beyoncé.

Maundy Thursday

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Yesterday, in the Maundy Thursday service, 14 different readers (including me) read in sections the Bible verses John 18:1 through John 19:30. That’s what was read, but what I heard was different. Probably because, when the pastor broke the communion bread at the beginning of the service, he reminded us that, even though Jesus was crucified for us, people are still being crucified all over the world.

This is what I heard:

 

John 18: 1-8, 12, 13, 16, 17, 19-27

After that, Jesus and his friends went across Lehigh Ave. to a nearby vacant lot. Now Judas, who was tempted to be an informant by the cops’ promise of a reduced sentence, also knew about the lot, because Jesus often met there with all his friends. So Judas led the cops, and they came there with bright flashlights and guns and tasers. Then Jesus, knowing what almost always happened when people like him had to interact with police, walked up to the cops and asked them, “Who are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of North Philly.” Jesus replied, “That’s me.” Judas, who was pressured into betraying him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “That’s me,” they stepped back and tripped and fell on the ground. Again he asked them, “Who are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of North Philly.” Jesus answered, “I told y’all, that’s me. So if you’re looking for me, let my friends go.”

So the cops arrested Jesus, handcuffed him, and roughly threw him into the cop car. Instead of taking him straight to Pilate, they took him for a rough ride around North Philly: first they took him to Annas, who was lieutenant at the 25th district police headquarters, under Caiaphas, the chief of police.

Peter was hanging out nearby the 25th district police headquarters. A cop came out to smoke and asked, “Aren’t you one of Jesus’ friends?” He said, “No, ma’am.”

The chief of police asked Jesus about his friends and his organizing. Jesus answered, “Everything I’ve said and written is public; I’ve organized teach-ins in churches and community centers, where all different Philadelphians come together. I don’t have any secrets. Why’re you asking me? Ask the folks that I’ve spoken to; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the chief of police, smart-ass?” Jesus answered, “If I said something wrong, let me know. But if everything I said is true, what’s the problem?” Then they put him back in the cop car and sent him to Caiaphas, the chief of police.

Meanwhile, Peter was still outside, smoking. Someone asked him, “Aren’t you one of Jesus’ friends?” He denied it and said, “Nope, not me.” Another person asked him, “Aren’t you a part of this society? Don’t you bear some responsibility for the ways things are in this city? Isn’t it your duty as a member of this human family to seek justice for your siblings? Do you not hurt for your brother who is right now in the violent hands of a corrupt police force? How can you just stand here in you comfortable privilege, smoking, knowing what’s going on?” Peter replied, “That has nothing to do with me!” and at that moment a siren wailed.

 

A Lesson from Mary and Cherokee

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At the Center for Cherokee Plants, 2015

 

Last week, a group from the United Methodist Campus Ministry at my alma mater spent spring break in Cherokee, NC for a service/learning trip. It’s a trip that I went on three times during my four years at American University, and it’s very special to me for many reasons, including for the lessons it taught me about the concept of ministry with— lessons that helped lead me to serving in Philadelphia.

I’m going to share a message (my first sermon ever! scary! [Edit: I just remembered that I actually wrote and shared an earlier sermon in college last year]) that I shared with the wonderful congregation of Mid-Town Parish in Philadelphia a few months ago about the trip:


 

 

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 NIV)

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25: 34-40 NRSV)

 

My name is Rachel, and I’m pretty new to the city of Philadelphia. I moved here about three and a half months ago to work as a community organizer at Arch Street United Methodist Church, and Serenity House, which is Arch Street’s community center and outreach ministry in North Philadelphia. I was assigned to work with Arch Street for the next two years by a wonderful United Methodist young adult mission program that I am in called Global Mission Fellows. Through the Global Mission Fellows program, I have been trained and commissioned as a missionary of the United Methodist Church.

What is mission? What does it mean to be a missionary? These are questions that I’ve learned and thought a lot about recently. These aren’t questions that should be pondered just by commissioned missionaries though—these questions are important for all Christians, because every single one of us called to participate in God’s mission. So I want to tell you the story of an experience that I had that deeply inspired my idea of mission.

Last May, I graduated from American University in Washington, D.C. All four of my years there, I was heavily involved in the United Methodist campus ministry, where I found a welcoming community of faith, opportunities to learn more about God, a chance to explore my spiritual gifts and learn about leadership. The campus ministry also gave me my first taste of being in mission with people.

For three out of my four spring breaks, I joined a week-long service trip to Cherokee, NC that was organized by my campus ministry. Every spring for the past 10 years, the United Methodist chaplain at American University has brought a group of students to the ancestral land of the Cherokee people. We would stay in a United Methodist church which connected us with a light service project in the community and opportunities to engage with members of the congregation and broader community. All three years that I went, our projects were small—a re-floored living room, a firewood crib for the church, some plant beds, and a freshly painted living room aren’t exactly dramatic improvements in the grand scheme of things, for a community dealing with many issues. No group of college students from out of town can offer a solution to the conflict of the giant casino on one hand offering tons of jobs to an otherwise nearly jobless community, but on the other hand mistreating employees just because they have the power to, and at the same time seducing vulnerable community members into gambling away all their money. No week-long service trip can revitalize a local economy and end patterns of poverty and alcoholism and drug addiction. No campus ministry group, even after a decade of spring breaks, can reverse the damage caused by invasion and displacement and genocide, or heal the pain and loss passed down generation to generation.

So why did we even go? What was the point of even trying to help? Because we learned that the relationship we developed with the community is what made our work matter. We grew to love Pat, the soul of the church’s mission organizing, who inspired me with her dedication to the church and its work. We cried together with Amy as she led us in a healing circle that is central to her indigenous faith. We sat for hours in the kitchen of Mama Jo, just listening to her and Pat talk about their friends and family and congregation members and the struggles they were facing. When we finished helping Kevin at the Center for Cherokee Plants, he explained to us the history of culturally significant Cherokee plants and his program to ensure that they continue to be cultivated and to bless the Cherokee people. He taught us about the concept of gadugi, meaning giving without expecting anything in return. We sat with Jerry as he told us traditional Cherokee stories, and stories from his youth attending an Indian boarding school, and taught us to shoot a blow gun. We weren’t solving the concrete issues that the community faced, but we were building relationships. We were expressing solidarity. We were connecting with a group of people who so often feel invisible to their fellow citizens and abandoned by their government, and we were saying, we’re listening, and we care what you have to say.

After two trips to Cherokee to work with the people there, I thought I understood pretty well what it meant to be in ministry with people, not just in ministry to them or for them. I learned from our chaplain and through experience that ministry must happen through relationships. It’s not just about Christians who have the resources going somewhere to help people who are poor, with one group only giving and one group only receiving. It’s about all of God’s people working together to bless one another and grow stronger together, because that way recognizes the value of every person, and it recognizes that all people are called to God’s mission. So I understood that. I thought I had it all figured out. But a profound experience that I had during my last spring break in Cherokee brought even more meaning to it.

It was a bittersweet trip because I knew that I would be graduating in a few months and might never have another opportunity to see the friends that I had made in Cherokee. As a third-timer, I was helping to lead the trip and take on more responsibilities. Our work project for the week was cleaning and painting most of the interior walls of the house of a woman who couldn’t afford to hire painters and was not able to do it herself. On the second day of work, we painted all morning, then went back to the church to eat lunch and get more supplies, intending to get back to work after lunch. While we were eating, a young Cherokee man about our age wandered in and sat down with us and began to chat. We found out that his name was Stevie, and he was the grandson of Pat, who I earlier referred to as the soul of the church’s mission organizing. As we all talked, he realized that one of the students in our group, Teddy, was also Native American, but from a tribe on the West coast, and the two of them started swapping stories and learning about each other. Gradually, the conversation throughout the tables shifted to silence as the rest of us just sat and listened to the back-and-forth between Stevie and Teddy. The two men were excited and little bit stunned to find so many of their experiences and feelings to be so similar. Neither one had ever met someone who could understand his story on such a deep level, especially having just met. They talked and talked. The rest of us would occasionally ask a question or affirm their experiences or observe how freaking awesome it was that Stevie and Teddy were connecting like this, but mostly, we just listened. To our benefit, we were learning things about our friend Teddy that hadn’t come up until he had Stevie to share them with. And on their end, Stevie and Teddy were getting a rare chance to bond with someone who shared their experiences, and to have the full attention and respect of everyone else. The atmosphere in the room was holy as the spirits of these two young men connected.

At one point I dragged my attention away from the conversation and looked at the clock. I was surprised to see that we had been sitting there for three hours and I internally freaked out a little bit when I realized how much time we had wasted. We would have to start preparing supper in a couple hours, and it was almost too late to drive all the way back to the project house to paint more, and we would have to leave now if we wanted to get anything done and if we didn’t leave now then that would mean that we had wasted a whole afternoon that could have been spent productively painting!!! How had I let this happen?! But as I was looking anxiously at the clock and trying to decide how to handle the situation, I suddenly remembered the story of Jesus visiting the house of Martha and Mary. In the story, which we read earlier, Mary sits and listens to Jesus talk, while Martha busies herself with cooking and cleaning and doing other hostess things to make sure Jesus is comfortable. When Martha gets frustrated and complains to Jesus that Mary isn’t doing any work, Jesus says that Martha should calm down, because Mary has chosen the right way.

I realized that, in that moment of looking anxiously at the clock, I was tempted to be Martha. I was tempted to cut short a holy and healing conversation so that a house could get painted a little sooner. I was tempted by a culture that cares much more for action and results than it does for relationships.

In the story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha, the main lesson is that, in order to be a good disciple, Jesus invites us to slow down and listen to his teachings. But this story also contains a lesson on how to be a good missionary. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Jesus tells us that when we interact with the people who are treated by society as less important and less worthy— the stranger, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned— the way we treat those people is the way we are treating Jesus. Which brings a new significance to the Mary and Martha story. Through the combination of these two lessons, Jesus is telling us, first of all, that when we are in ministry with people, we need to remember to slow down. Painting a house or doing work in a kitchen can be good, important work, but if we aren’t connecting and building relationships while we’re doing it, we’re missing something. And second of all, Jesus is telling us that, just as much as feeding the hungry is an act of serving Jesus, sitting and really listening to someone who has been hurt or oppressed or silenced or forgotten means sitting at the feet of Jesus Christ.

When I was on that last spring break in Cherokee, I was in the process of preparing my heart for the mission program that I am now in. God used that experience to teach me an important lesson about mission that I have already put into practice many times in my few months of work with Arch Street UMC. Many times I have felt God nudging me to tear myself away from the busyness to slow down and just connect and listen to someone and experience the same holy stillness that emerged as we sat and listened to Stevie and Teddy.

By the way, despite living states apart, Teddy and Stevie are still close, and they call one another “brother.” When I asked their permission to use their story in this sermon, Stevie, the young Cherokee man, was happy for the story to be shared, and even asked when I would be preaching, because he would like to come if he could.

So when you respond to God’s call to mission, by teaching, by healing, by building, by feeding—whatever way God has gifted you to serve—remember that just as important as Martha’s work in the kitchen is Mary’s work of listening and connecting.