welcome

Why Speaking 'On Behalf' of Others Can Hurt The People You're Trying to Help

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I was at a retreat recently with a facilitator who is known for pushing the envelope a bit regarding Roman Catholic Church teaching. The question posited throughout the weekend: Whom should we accept as brothers and sisters in faith?

During the retreat someone asked the facilitator how we should approach ministry in our churches in regard to the gay and lesbian community. A fellow retreatant replied, “Invite us to speak for ourselves.”

Who better to speak on challenging topics than those who are living inside the issue?

Five Problems With Christian Evangelism (and What to Do Instead)

Image via Bevan Goldswain/shutterstock.com
Image via Bevan Goldswain/shutterstock.com

I got to thinking about evangelism this month in particular as part of My Jesus Project, a year-long practice I’m engaged in to more deeply understand what it really means to follow Jesus. This month I’m studying what I call “Jesus the Evangelist,” with Alan Chambers as my mentor. Chambers is best known as the founder and longtime head of Exodus International, an organization that emphasized conversion therapy, or helping people who were gay become — for lack of a better term — un-gay.

But it didn’t work. Chambers said so himself, as he is gay too, and he knows firsthand that he is still very much the same sexual being he was before. Further, the organization’s form of evangelism did a lot of damage, which he now seeks to repair.

Here are some all-too-common examples of how we misstep when trying in one way or another to share our faith with others.

Jesus and the Top Secret Empire

WATCHING THE PBS Frontline documentary “Top Secret America” in April reminded me of why I read the gospels. They help me get my head screwed on right—upside-down, that is.

In that show, Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter Dana Priest investigates the secret history of anti-terrorism in America since 9/11. “Secret” is the key word, since the public has little idea of the injustice, torture, black sites, civilian-killing drone strikes, data-mining, over-surveillance, and general terrorizing that have been done in our name and with our tax money for the past 12 years. The Boston Marathon bombings will only up the ante.

“Empire,” I think as I watch. Our American empire has secret tentacles in every part of our inhabited world. Cofer Black, then head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, announced after we were attacked on 9/11, “The gloves come off!” In other words, we will do whatever it takes to obliterate al Qaeda. “We went in [to Afghanistan] to kick ass. And we did!”

Restraining gloves have apparently stayed off, since little has changed in the Obama administration. No current national security big shot would speak to Frontline. It’s “top secret,” of course, since in public we are supposed to be a democracy and not an empire.

I THINK OF texts from the gospel of Matthew—radical texts penned under the thumb of the Roman Empire. A couple of years ago, I was asked to write “insight essays” for a teacher’s guide in the “Gather ’Round” series of Sunday school lessons for children and youth published by the Brethren Press and MennoMedia. The first seven lessons leading up to Easter were centered on texts from Matthew 18-28. I struggled to find a common thread running through these stories and sayings leading up to the final events in Jesus’ life.

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Radical Welcome

ONE OF THE most well-known and revered icons today is Andrei Rublev’s reflection on the Holy Trinity, painted between 1422 and 1425 in Russia. It depicts three angels seated around a table that bears a chalice. The female figures form a circle evoking deep mutuality, interconnectedness, and love between one another. But the circle is open, inviting the world into this profound experience of community. As Christine Challiot, an Eastern Orthodox laywoman, wrote, “Rublev painted the three angels with a circular motion to signify their unity and equality, ‘thus creating a unity to represent the Holy Trinity in its movement of love.’”

This profound reflection is set in the biblical context of giving hospitality to the stranger. The icon depicts the story of the hospitality offered by Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18:1-15 to three strangers. Abraham rushed to offer them hospitality—water and food.

The three migrating strangers are messengers of God. The text says simply that they were the Lord; interpreters see the three as the presence of the Trinity. And they, in turn, bring an announcement that Sarah, in her old age, will bear a son, fulfilling God’s promises. Sarah and Abraham suddenly find the tables reversed, and they are the guests at God’s table, being invited into this community of love. Thus, Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains, “This is a depiction of a trinitarian God capable of immense hospitality who calls the world to join the feast.”

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The Man in Row 26

In the weeks and months to come, thousands of refugees will walk quietly down jetways into worlds they've never imagined.

OUR PLANE SITS at the gate in Brussels well past our departure time. Slowly, the empty seats fill with Somali refugees whose flight a day earlier had been cancelled. After a night in the airport, they slide wearily into scattered seats.

Ten years together in a refugee camp in Uganda has melded the group into a close-knit family. What do they feel now, I wonder, knowing that on the other end of this flight they will scatter, not to empty seats but to unknown cities throughout the U.S.? From Syracuse to San Francisco, they will look upon a world they have never imagined. “When will I see my friend?” one little girl asks, not realizing she and her friend will live half a continent apart.

I watch a man a few rows ahead of me. I learn from his friend that he suffers from headaches. I know enough about refugees to realize headaches will likely be the least of his challenges. He and his family will face a confusing culture, strange language, unfamiliar religious practices, unknown yet required skills, and new technology—from flush toilets to garage door openers, from light switches to iPads. Then they’ll have to sort out schools and jobs and health care. They’ll be starting over, basically, with nothing.

Almost nothing. One suitcase per person contains the bit of their past they carry into their future. These slim and elegant humans are traveling very light. Unless, of course, you count the weighty baggage of war and displacement.

I talk with the striking Parisian who facilitates their travel. “They are so grateful the plane waited for them,” she says quietly. Grateful. After fleeing their homeland in desperation. After 10 years in a “temporary” camp. After hunger and disease. After leaving everything that’s familiar. After cancelled flights and cots in airport corridors. Grateful.

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The Blessings That We Refuse

Statue of Liberty, Joshua Haviv / Shutterstock.com
Statue of Liberty, Joshua Haviv / Shutterstock.com

Immigrants are a blessing, not a curse. They are assets, not deficits. I have learned this the hard way after seven years working with the New York City New Sanctuary Movement. We have accompanied 67 people on the verge of detention or deportation, and we have lost only three of them.

These people are restaurant owners — employers. Some run small high tech start-ups; others raise children on their own, grouping with other parents to take care of them. They live under the constant fear of disruption to their lives and constant trepidation about whether their children will be separated from them. Many have been picked up for small offenses, like traffic violations and gone to jail only to luckily be released. But they have still have shown resilient courage, that miracle of guts that keeps them going inside the constant fear and the constant harassment. Immigrants are spiritual and economic blessings, not curses. They are assets, not deficits.

A Church Sanctuary for the Occupy Movement

It’s time to invite the Occupy Movement to church!

And Thanksgiving is the perfect occasion. Have some of the young protesters — the “99ers” as they’re becoming known — from this rapidly growing movement over for a big holiday dinner!

Our faith communities and organizations should swing their doors wide and greet the Occupiers with open arms, offering them a feast to say “thank you” for having the courage to raise the very religious and biblical issue of growing inequality in our society.

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