Service

Taking It to the Streets

AS I ATTENDED seminary in my native Chicago, I heard about one senseless death after another. A six-month-old baby shot multiple times with an assault weapon; a young black girl, with promise and a future, caught in the crossfire—all casualties of gang violence.

This violence is further evidence to me that our theology is needed on the streets. A theology that can impact the crisis facing the black community must be relevant to the black community. Theology can never be disengaged from the history of black people, the “isms” that have oppressed us, and the struggles that have birthed our progress. “Relevancy,” for theology, means moving beyond the academy and the church and into the streets, where it becomes our thinking faith in action.

Does our theology have anything to say to African-American gang girls? The formation of girl gangs is rooted in the numerous social ills affecting many urban African-American communities. By taking our theology to the streets, we can offer African-American gang girls an alternative hope and future. Four theological frameworks can aid in that task.

First, a practical theology—thinking faith in action—that models Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized can reach these girls with the message of God’s compassion, peace, and hope by offering a positive relational sisterhood that can replace gang life.

Second, a public theology that calls for common-sense gun laws and a ban on assault weapons is a Christian ethical imperative that empowers change in public policy and can save the lives of our youth.

Third, our liberation theology is now also a struggle to free the black community from the oppression of violence, and our faith leads us to the liberating task of acting as “interrupters” to the cycles of violence in our communities.

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A Place in the Commons

Ralf Maassen (DTEurope)/Shutterstock
Can we build something new every day? Ralf Maassen (DTEurope)/Shutterstock

Abba Moses asked abba Sylvanus, “Can a person lay a new foundation every day?” The old man said, “If they work hard, they can lay a new foundation at every moment.”

What then of skill? Virtuosity?

(I’m thinking a lot about skill, virtuosity, and the problems it presents. What good is it?)

I often wonder what it would be like to take pride in something rather than simply being prideful. It’s a trick, to say the least, to sort out the difference. To recognize skill, to possess the intention to do something well for the sake of doing something well treads that line. I wonder about the virtue of being good at something — of recognizing one’s skill and then situating that skill in some way that serves not one’s own agenda, one’s own ego, but that benefits the common good.

How do we know our own place in the commons? Is this even possible?

Why I Cry in Church

Image via /Shutterstock

Skeptics might say that as a perimenopausal woman with a teenage daughter, I’m apt to cry at the slightest provocation, which may be true. But I believe something different happens when we expose our vulnerabilities in a community of faith.

A close friend told me her theory that we are being “seasoned” in church each week, preparing to be broken open in ways we cannot anticipate. So we pray the liturgy, sing the hymns, go through the motions. Yet this seasoning of our spirits prepares us to be tender-hearted, open to prayer working on us.

This makes sense to me. There are so few places where we can bring our raw emotions without a self-conscious need to explain or escape to the nearest bathroom, which happens when we get teary-eyed at work or in line at Home Depot. Perhaps church is one of those last safe havens, where we can cry in public for no reason.

The Pope We've Been Waiting For?

I WAS 15 when Pope Paul VI died in 1978. He’d been pope my whole life. Elated at the election of John Paul, I followed his papacy with all the obsessive focus of a teenager. When he died 33 days later, I simply didn’t know what to think. (His book Illustrissimi, a collection of letters written to saints, novelists, and artists, is one I return to for insight on Catholic imagination.)

During John Paul II’s 27 years as pope (the second longest reign in papal history), a dangerous nostalgia for a pre-Vatican II church was encouraged to flourish.

Under Pope Benedict XVI, that nostalgia came to fruition. The Latin Mass was re-established in many parishes. Amid a worldwide sex abuse scandal, liturgical correctness and “fancy dress” were too often elevated over children’s protection, victims’ needs, and institutional transparency. Women and girls were pushed further off the altar. To be gay, female, divorced, or a single mother—all these pushed one further from the table of the Lord, rather than drawing one nearer.

And now we have Pope Francis. When Jorge Mario Bergoglio announced he would take the name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, I wept. To have the Poverello (the “poor one”) at the center of our Catholic faith is right and just—whether that poor one is a 13th century itinerant preacher or a child in the villas miseria around Buenos Aires.

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A Testimony of God's Grace and Love

MARRIAGE IS A wonderful thing. Yet it seems to be taking a hit in our society, and I must say it is taking a hit in my community at rates I am very uncomfortable with as an African American.

My wife, Donna, and I have been working in ministry and missions for a long time, and we see our marriage as a key to our work. We live and work in the city in a mostly black neighborhood, and the percentage of married black couples is extremely low. Modeling a great marriage is something we take seriously and make very public. If we didn’t make our marriage and relationship public, some of the young people we know and work with would not know personally any happily married African-American couples.

It is our intent to live out our lives as a couple and family so others can see its beauty and challenge. Our community has upwards of 90 percent single-parent homes, with few dads present and even fewer marriages. Marriage is one of our greatest “testimonies” of God’s grace and love in our lives. How we love each other and our children is a important part of our work, so we are very intentional about the health of our marriage. This has given us the opportunity to love each other well.

A public manifestation of our marriage means we celebrate one another with friends as much as possible. We announce our date nights and trips we take together, and we publicize special days and anniversaries. We let people know how much we enjoy it being just the two of us, and we even disagree publicly so people know we are individuals and have our own opinions. It is our opinion that black children need to see and interact with healthy black couples.

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We Don't Need Your Cookies

Platter of cookies, robcocquyt / Shutterstock.com
Platter of cookies, robcocquyt / Shutterstock.com

Back in 2005, I attended a “church growth” seminar in Dallas, Texas. The keynote speaker was Rev. Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg United Methodist in Ohio, one of the larger and faster growing UM churches in the country. He shared an experience that sticks with me.

That church had a “Cookie Patrol” that takes cookies to first time visitors. So, every Sunday afternoon, a group of people would meet down at the church to bake fresh cookies to be delivered to potential members.

One day, a member of the church came to Rev. Slaughter and told him, “I just love to bake, and I want to help with the Cookie Patrol. I’ve got a great kitchen at home, so let me tell you what I’ll do. I’ll make several dozen cookies each Sunday and bring them to the church. I just don’t have time to spend at church on Sunday afternoons.”

Pastor Mike responded, “You don’t understand. We don’t need your cookies. We need you.”

An Unhindered Hope

IN EARLY AUGUST 2010, 10 aid workers were murdered, execution-style, in the province of Badakhshan, in northeastern Afghanistan. Among them were six Americans, two Afghans, a Briton, and a German, all part of a medical mission. It was the deadliest attack on aid workers the country had seen.

Dan Terry, 63, an American humanitarian who, with his family, had called Afghanistan home for more than 30 years, was among the dead.

What compels a person to risk his or her life in a foreign land so riddled with conflict? For Terry it was simple—he was called to a life of peacemaking and service.

A friend of Terry's since childhood, writer Jonathan Larson draws us into Terry's passionate character and the vision he shared with friends in Afghanistan: reconciliation and dialogue. "In the end, we're all knotted into the same carpet," Terry was fond of saying. From a swath of interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, both Western and Afghan, Larson has assembled "oral narratives," sharing with us the exhilarating life of a generous and gentle man, heroic but humble.

The best advice I received as a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan was from a leader cut from the same cloth as Terry: "Make no assumptions" and "listen first." We too often accept media caricatures of the other, labels that shut down discourse and clamp off possibility and hope. Challenging this, Terry insisted on the unwavering potential of each person he met. "Categorical 'enemies' have rescued me ... again and again," he once wrote to friends.

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A Pledge of Nonviolence

A Pledge of Nonviolence

1. As you prepare to march, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus.

2. Remember the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.

3. Walk and talk in the manner of love; for God is love.

4. Pray daily to be used by God that all men and women might be free.

5. Sacrifice personal wishes that all might be free.

6. Observe with friend and foes the ordinary rules of courtesy.

7. Perform regular service for others and the world.

8. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue, and heart.

9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

10. Follow the directions of the movement leaders and of the captains on demonstrations.

Image: Hands clasped, skydie / Shutterstock.com

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Deportations are Not the Way to Show Respect for Veterans

Photo: Dogtags on the Constitution, Sergey Kamshylin / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Dogtags on the Constitution, Sergey Kamshylin / Shutterstock.com

When I go out with my Dad, he often wears a cap identifying him as a Korean War veteran.  Over and over again, people tell him, “Thank you for serving.” Over and over again.

I’m always struck by the contrast between that appreciation and the sad, hidden truth about our country’s treatment of some other veterans. I’m speaking of the government’s detention and deportation of many immigrants who served in our armed forces but who are not yet citizens. 

The first time I heard about this was 1998. My friend’s husband, a Canadian who grew up in Texas and chose to serve in Vietnam had recently gotten a deportation order based on some old drug charges, the kind of thing many vets experienced. What horrified me then, and still does today, is that immigration judges could not grant an exception. Nothing could stop the deportation except a change in U.S. immigration laws.

Serving Joyfully

Serving hands, AjFile/ Shutterstock.com
Serving hands, AjFile/ Shutterstock.com

Washing dishes. This is how I remember Momadu.

Washing dishes is a chore, you know. In the pre-dishwasher days in America, my mom put "wash the dishes" on my list of things to do every day. I washed them, obediently though begrudgingly.

In the pre-dishwasher days in Mali, though, we asked Momadu to wash the dishes, and he washed them with joy.

How could he do something as mundane as washing dishes and do it with joy?

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