You don’t have to go to Pharoah to design a course on freedom, so says Professor Michael Eric Dyson, of Vanderbilt University. Per usual, Dyson puts the pith into pithy. We need his clarity as we enter Black History Month 2023. Right on time, Michael Eric Dyson nails the ugliness, the meanness and inappropriateness of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ efforts to block the content of AP African American Studies curriculum.
This is but a contemporary example of a governor standing in the schoolhouse door. It is like George Wallace in 1963 who sought to block African American students Vivian Malone Jones, Dave McGlathery, and James Hood from enrolling in the University of Alabama. This time it is a governor seeking to block the free exchange of ideas and a shared knowledge of a painful history. It is an attempt to keep us from acting like respectful adults, as people open to the free expression of differing ideas.
But, what about us? Easy to pick on a demagogue stirring up racial animosity as he prepares to run for the presidency. How might churches faithfully respond in this time? Let me speak for my group, the United Methodists. We, who are heirs to John Wesley’s legacy, have a ready response built into our theological DNA.
Sadly, many of our congregations and denominational institutions have forgotten and others often don’t display it. Early Methodists, in cities like London and Newcastle, formed a Strangers Friend Society. Wesley taught Christians “should meet strangers in their own habitation.” These societies designed “to visit and relieve the sick and distressed” were expressions of acceptance and inclusion. One such society still meets, weekly, in John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol near a clock identified as the Strangers’ Friend clock.
In the United States, the distressing chronic illness of racism continues – sometimes it seems to overwhelm. The tragic death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis in recent days is an expression of our dilemma. Let me suggest it is time for United Methodists to turn STRANGERS INTO FRIENDS. What if United Methodist congregations across the nation and world offered classes in Critical Race Theory or on Being “Woke” to Racial Injustice? Okay, not realistic, you say. Well, what if… oh, let’s say 50%, or 25%, or even 10% of United Methodist congregations offered such courses? What if pastors and lay leaders in these places taught complementary classes based on Biblical sources and drawing on curriculum already developed by fine faculty in our seminaries?
In a time when all Christians, especially United Methodists, are too focused on much less relevant matters like institutional survival, or on how to handle our divisions, what if we called for healing of the disease of racism in our nation. What if we acted like we believed in a conversion (a wokeness). What if we called for the need of repentance and conversion from our chronic racism?
I can imagine certain politicians’ discomfort when they passed the church with the sign “Critical Race Theory Taught Here, Monday Evening at 7:00 PM, Register NOW.” It’s about time!
A familiar folk axiom is as follows, “institutions are designed to serve the needs of people, but before long those people serve the needs of the institution.” In my experience, this truism is evident in a variety of settings and across every organizational type.
Let me affectionately pick on a category of institutions I value and have come to know rather well – theological schools. Seminaries are established by religious denominations to teach, prepare leaders, develop resources, and do research. A midwestern seminary, with which I am very familiar, recently invited me to join a “video conversation” scheduled for the evening of February 22, 2023. A “select group” of us were asked to learn about exciting initiatives of the field education program. I opened my calendar to add the date, stopped, double checked, and laughed out loud.
The event was scheduled for Ash Wednesday evening, when most congregations I know will be holding a worship service. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent leading up to Easter. In many Christian traditions it is among the more significant days in the liturgical calendar. The scheduling of this event was an unforced error; more, it was a sign of disconnection. Since then, the date of this seminary’s video conference was rescheduled. To repeat, seminaries were begun to serve congregations and denominations, but… well, the seasons and gifts of congregational ministry, are sometimes missed in the planning. This was a failure in awareness as to who was serving whom.
At another seminary where I was in leadership, I visited a gathering of interfaith congregations in Tucson Arizona. It included a wide range of faith traditions who engaged in regular, innovative joint gatherings. A young faculty member was with me on this visit. A few days later, back on campus, a faculty committee shared their plans to “teach congregations how to do interfaith work.” Sadly, this committee had failed to explore what was already taking place among congregations in places like Tucson. I waited before speaking, expecting my young professor friend to share her experience. Later she confessed she didn’t want to challenge the plans of more senior professors. Instead of discovering the gifts already evident in the ecology of existing congregations like those in Tucson these well-meaning faculty folks had seen their role as being the producers of knowledge, the source of innovation. Sadly, the connective tissue, the patterns of reciprocity and mutuality were missing.
I could write of dozens of other examples where institutional expectations and design missed the mark. Denominations often exhibit this blindness as to gifts already present at their own seminaries or their own congregations. I think of denominational efforts to establish in house “leadership training” or “research programs” when the very schools they started and support, offer some of the best resources in the nation. To be fair, we shouldn’t miss the reality that congregations themselves are too often quick to start projects without knowing the gifts in the neighborhoods or cities where they are located.
A very different example is evident as a “new denomination” is being formed among dissidents from the United Methodist Church. Who is serving whom? Are some seminaries and powerful caucus groups misrepresenting the denomination’s institutional practices for their own purposes? Have congregations been being encouraged to disaffiliate based on the needs of institutions who have little or no awareness of the context and neighborhoods where the congregations are in ministry?
At the outset I suggested our world is full of similar examples of this disconnection. In government, health care, education, law, agriculture, economics and on and on we see it. The Dilbert comic strip by Scott Adams was built around such institutional blind spots. I have no sympathy for anarchy; I do not suggest all institutions inevitably fail and should be abandoned. To the contrary we have seen the tragic results of the “deep state” myth and conspiracy nonsense in our local, state, and national governmental institutions. I am arguing that sometimes basic linkages and necessary relationships are lost. Not all institutions should be saved. Slavery is an example. Institutions designed to exclude other humans of basic rights should be ended.
I am suggesting that the connective tissue allowing for mutuality and dialogue needs to be exercised, like the muscles of a human body. Our human institutions need to be continually, evaluated, strengthened, and open to democratic reform. In the process, a complex web of reciprocal teaching and learning is essential. All healthy institutions will seek democratic renewal and will be attentive to what can be learned from the gifts and assets of those at the grass roots of society.
Do you recall looking at your image in one of those fun house mirrors, concave and convex and otherwise bent, in an amusement park? It can illustrate the way we might miss-image ourselves based on an out-of-whack, taken-for-granted, reality. It is a distortion, a skewed reflection of what is real. What if our spiritual quests and faith understandings are vulnerable to the concave and convex bends in our worlds taken-for-granted.
In contemporary North American society, frames of reference are constrained by the dominant role individualism plays. It distorts. Societal understandings, economics, politics, culture, even language are limited. Cormac Russell and John McKnight compare this with the African notion of Ubuntu and write: “Individualism is a superhighway to a sick, depressed, and dissatisfied life and a fragmented society. Ubuntu, by contrast, says we are not self-reliant, we are other reliant: that life is not about self-fulfillment and leaning into work and money. Instead, a satisfying life is largely about leaning into our relationships and investing in our communities; it is about interdependence, not independence, (The Connected Community, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2022, p. xiv).
I would suggest our views of prayer have been focused too narrowly as an individualistic practice, to be personal prayer or meditation, primarily. There is Corporate Prayer, typically in a worship service or as the Invocation or Benediction in religious or civic gatherings.
Recently I wrote that the focus on Centering Prayer has gained much acceptance in religious life. While of value; still, I ask if it might be balanced by what I would call Othering Prayer.
To my mind, Othering Prayer is rooted in the prayer Jesus taught the disciples (Luke 11 and Matthew 6). What we refer to as The Lord’s Prayer draws on elements from multiple earlier Hebrew prayers. In English translations the opening word “Our” says a great deal. It begins with an awareness that we are part of a community.
I do not write this to suggest Centering Prayer, or deep personal religious experience is not of equal or often greater value. Rather, it is to suggest that there is reflection to be done on how Othering Prayer might carry benefits in acting toward God’s purposes in our world.
It was Trappist Abbot Thomas Keating, St. Joseph’s Abbey Trappist Monastery who played a significant role in opening awareness to the value of Centering Prayer more than fifty years ago. For Keating, Christian Centering Prayer was in continuity with the practices of other religious traditions.
I am assisted by the insights of Richard Rohr and the good folks at the Center for Action and Contemplation. Since 1987 this Center has sought to integrate contemplation and action with Rohr arguing they are inseparable. In fact, Rohr emphasizes this when he says the most important word in the Center’s name is neither Action or Contemplation but the small word “and.”
Recently a friend commented that her experience is that when she practices quiet, contemplative, centering prayer, it seems richer when done as part of a community. Hmmn.
They asked to pray. Out of the blue it came. Now? Right here in the middle of an otherwise “perfectly normal” conversation? Twice, in as many days. Two friends, very different in backgrounds and experience, who had no other connection asked if we could pray together. After not seeing each other for months, years, we were able to easily speak, share, laugh, confess, and delight in the goodness of friendship. Then, prayer.
Not in church, or in a “spiritual” conversation. The request stopped me… cold. On both occasions, then and there, we shared concerns and prayed. While I didn’t have a mystical experience, when we departed that day, there was a deeper sense of connection. It was, I believe what Brother Lawrence spoke of as God’s presence arising amid the routine activities of life — a deeper sense of joy and mutual love. (Brother Lawrence was a 17th century lay Carmelite monk whose small book “The Practice of the Presence of God” has been treasured by believers across the centuries as a call to seek God’s presence everywhere from the chapel to the kitchen.)
Yes, prayer has been misused by charlatans and abused by spiritual pretenders. Prayer has also been reduced to a magical formula, a one-time “believer’s prayer” for example sold as a one-way ticket to heaven, separate from any daily life of faith.
A day or so before these two serendipitous prayers, another friend wrote mentioning he was reading The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience by Professor Andrew Newberg. I ordered the book, part of The Great Courses lecture series. Again, was this a coincidence? Newberg’s research looks at the way prayer, especially what might be called “Centering Prayer,” contemplative prayer, or mystical experience can shape human perception. There are measurable changes in perceptions of reality and often a sense of joy, unity with the universe and purposefulness. My look at Newberg’s rich research linking individual prayer with brain research, however, left me with a whole other set of questions.
I am not particularly well-schooled in a wide range of spiritual practices. I know some basics but can’t distinguish, say, among types of contemplative prayer. In fact, over recent years much of my praying has occurred on “prayer walks.” I am not very practiced at what is referred to and valued as “Centering Prayer.” Most of my praying is better described as “Othering Prayer.” Not exclusively, I do prayer that my personal intentions and understandings align with God’s purposes. I also seek the heart of God on the behalf of others in the world beyond my own interests. As I walk the streets of my city, I pray for those in prison as I walk by the jail, or the judges who are passing sentences, or families of those being incarcerated. I pray for the bakers passing the bagel shop; the bankers as I pass an ATM machine; those without shelter who spread their blankets in front of the library and churches.
So much of our culture’s understanding of prayer is individualistic in focus. It is decanted into a magical thinking drink… a negotiation with God… or a shaking of the begger’s cup in the face of the Almighty. What if contemplative prayer were seen as always caught up in the prayers of a community — prayers that were joined with, and for, others. This Advent we will think further about the potential of Othering Prayer.
Thanksgiving arrives! I realize my gratitude for many things. Family, friends, home, nation, church, education, even the Chicago Cubs! There were surprisingly lessons of gratitude learned during the COVID Pandemic. One for example was leaning to bake chocolate chip cookies. Had the pandemic not occurred, I would not have become so accomplished. My memory was that these attempts at baking cookies were awesome, (he said in a modest voice).
So, early Thanksgiving Morning 2022, I decided to strut my baking skills. Wanting to offer my excellent cookies to friends, Betty and Tony, when we shared dinner together later today, I began with confidence. What could go wrong?
It had been nearly a year since I baked my last batch. In the meantime, we had moved to a new condo, a new oven. I had my secret recipe. This should be a “cake walk” – or should I say, “cookie walk.” Alas, it must have been the new oven, or something missed in my recipe, or that we only had mini chocolate chips in the house. Taking the first batch from the oven, they looked unusually “toasted and flat.” At first bite I thought “well, this is better than eating shoe leather.” No prize-winning cookies these.
It set me to thinking about my gratitude even for imperfections. Some of life’s best lessons are learned here. What other times was there an occasion to learn? Or did I too quickly turn a disappointment into a source of disgruntlement, a blaming of others, or a grievance, or complaint?
Anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote of the dangers of dividing the world into the binary categories of the “pure” and the “polluted.” She traces the meaning of “dirt” and what is considered “filth,” through history and multiple cultures. Douglas identifies rituals used to cleanse or purify defilement, persons or groups seen to be “dirty” or considered an “abomination.” Douglas noted that this effort to identify others as “filthy” often was the precursor, a contributor, to racism and fascism. What lessons can be drawn from the Jewish holocaust? What lessons might there be from the mass murders of LGBTQ persons? What of the hatred and division that is spread across social media in our time?
Having grown up in Methodism’s Holiness movement, where part of my education was centered in Wilmore, Kentucky at Asbury College and Seminary, I know well the efforts made to exclude and isolate the “in group” from those things that are seen as impure. These schools have been significant institutions advancing “spiritual holiness,” I sat through scores of college chapel services where the words “Holiness unto the Lord” were boldly inscribed above the chancel.
Often preachers would call for purity. In what theologians speak of as sanctification, the desire was to encourage a life of perfection. At base a good thing – but a dangerous instrument as well. (No one mentioned perfect cookies as I recall, but in many other aspects of life and faith there was the assumption of purity and filth.) Some believed purity was found in avoiding certain activities (e.g., dancing, going to movies, drinking alcohol, etc.). Others suggested there was a doctrine of “perfection” and a need to reject any theological perspectives that differed.
It is my sense this search for holiness as an end point has done much harm, even caused the splintering of families, marriages, congregations, and denominations. It leads to divisions over who is pure and who is polluted. I do not doubt that some folks lived a “sanctified” way of life.
Usually, it was not the teachers or preachers who claimed to be “sanctified” who demonstrated this best. Instead, I think of folks like Ms. Warner, the history teacher, a quite Quaker woman, who practiced her holiness in the loving ways she lived toward others and care for her students.
In my reading of Christian scripture, the holiness sketched across those pages and any evidence of holiness discovered in human history is always best seen as a process, a verb, and not an end point. It is an ever-maturing love for God and neighbor, an openness to imperfection – especially one’s own.
Good reader, don’t take to much comfort from growing up in other traditions, not burdened with the language or theology of “holiness.” The human story is one where there is a dividing the world up into what is pure and polluted takes many forms — and seems to be a universal trait.
This past week former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, as “the most dangerous person in the world.” Really? Not even a thought of Kim Jong-un or Vladimir Putin? Pompeo went on to say that our nation’s schoolteachers are teaching “filth” in their classrooms. Careful there, Mike. Methinks your presidential ambitions have fallen into a toxic hole where a need to divide and harm others clouds the language you use. Is there any acknowledgement of your own failings? You might check out Matthew 7:5 (“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” — NRSV)
Our nation, our communities, our institutions are amid an entangled and dangerous struggle. It is often manifest as a desire for purity. The irony, of course, it that speeches against “filth” come from the mouths of persons who have supported bigotry, deceit and even insurrection – or have looked the other way when it took place. This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for imperfections – but chose to seek to move past them. This is how one learns – and the second batch of cookies today were better. I look forward to quality of my future chocolate chip cookies! And I am even grateful for the gift of imperfections.
“Preaching leads to changed lives,” I recall one of my seminary homiletics professor’s assertation. Another professor, a diminutive Scot, with a marvelous Scottish brogue (involving the trilling of ‘r’s in his speech), offered instead that “Ser-r-mons are r-r-eminder-rs of where God is al-r-r-eady active in the lives of the people.”
In my experience, sermons typically aren’t life-changing events for the hearer — or the preacher. Like workshops they can be helpful, but not often transformative. Now, after more than five decades, I have much appreciation for my Scottish professor’s understandings. A sermon may assist others in taking a step along faith’s journey. I don’t recall anyone greeting me after worship and saying, “that sermon was transformative.” On the other hand, years later a few have said, “You didn’t know it but that word came at a time in my life when I was ready to hear.” Amazingly, years or decades later, some have said, “I remember that sermon back in 19??. It came at a time when I was seeking another path, another vocation, or a new partner. Thanks.”
Recently, I wrote about well-intentioned but ineffectual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion workshops. Like sermons, such events rarely lead to substantial change in racialism and discrimination. But this is not written as a screed against workshops or sermons. Instead, it is the proposition that when these activities are accompanied by a clear invitation to join with others in witnessing and addressing racial discrimination, remarkable transformation is possible.
So, why this focus on preaching and racism? Well, put simply, addressing racism is about more than words or ideas. Racism is often distilled into the belief that it is only about personal attitudes or prejudice. For Whites — for all people – sermons are effective as they are joined to changes in the ways we live. Parker Palmer suggests “Changed thinking doesn’t lead to changed actions so much as changed actions lead to changes in the ways one thinks.” Sermons and workshops are insufficient, helpful perhaps, but in isolation they may serve as an inoculation avoiding fundamental change.
Several Open Housing campaigns in the 1960s carried the slogan: Your heart may be in the right place, but are you? As hundreds of thousands were moving to the suburbs avoiding racially integrated schools and neighborhoods, the church was… well, preaching a lot about racial justice. Meanwhile in only a few cities were churches at the center of racial justice and integration efforts. In 1961 Gibson Winter, theologian and social scientist, documented this in the book “The Suburban Captivity of the Churches.”
A cherished friend of mine, Professor William Pannell of Fuller Seminary, is now in his nineties. We met in the late 1960s when as a young seminarian his book “My Friend, the Enemy” spoke powerfully about racism being more than personal prejudice. As friends, he taught me that it was not enough to have a “changed heart.” I needed to acknowledge the enemy we both faced of white privilege, culture and discrimination.
Sermons, workshops, and conferences can be mechanisms of avoidance. Bill speaks of the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism. The theme for the 1966 gathering was One Race, One Gospel, One Task. Evangelical leaders invited more than 1,200 delegates from 100 countries to Berlin for this World Congress on Evangelism (an important precursor to the historic 1974 Lausanne Congress). Pannell speaks of a small group of African American Christians who discover that even though the theme was One Race, One Gospel, One Task, there was a silence about racial injustice. Imagine this in the middle of the Civil Rights struggles of those years. As Pannell tells it, (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkpYIg8tpOI) those concerned about this omission confronted the conference leadership and, as is often the case, they were asked to write a document on racism to be approved by the Congress. Pannell then reports, these more than fifty years later, that document must be “sitting on a shelf somewhere.” You see, the passing of a nicely worded document, was not connected to concrete institutional and cultural change. Or as Pannell would have it, “Vital and Biblical evangelization.”
All around we have the opportunity to join in activities to address racial injustice and do more than attend workshop or preach sermons. However, those of us who are now, or have been, a part of Mainline Christian leadership need to learn to listen to and support others. There are some remarkable young persons ready to teach and lead us. Persons who come from different racial experiences. I will share more in future chapters. Urgently now, look for places where persons are addressing the evil of White Christian Nationalism. Check out the upcoming event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/how-white-christian-nationalism-threatens-our-democracy-tickets-439763242697#search. Then do more. A true addressing of racism involves deep change in the ways our institutions understand, and act differently based on the structural, financial and cultural options pursued.
One of my other heroes was Thomas Broden on the faculty of Notre Dame Law School. Tom joined a team working on an initiative called Project Understanding, back in the early 1970s. It focused on city congregations across the country (Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, Indianapolis, Bay Area, South Bend). My work was to carry out research on ways racial attitudes might be changed and how racism in many forms might be addressed.
I recall the day we recommended to Broden that lay persons from many denominations be gathered to study and consider ways to address racial injustice. Tom’s response was “That’s okay as far as it goes.” He had my attention! He went on, “We will want to get them involved in some activity with persons who differ racially and in situations where discrimination can be clearly seen.” In South Bend, one of the activities he suggested was to have lay people sit in welfare offices and observe the cheating going on there. I was appalled – Tom laughed – “Oh, he said, cheaters will be found, but few of them will be those seeking assistance!” He was right, so very right. Today, in Indiana every welfare office must post “the rights of those who seek assistance.” That came directly from the work of lay people in Project Understanding. In Chicago and Dallas, change came from teams who sought to rent an apartment (some teams were White only, some Black only, some mixed racially). After visiting the same apartment and seeking to rent it, the teams would gather and learn about the ways discrimination was seen in the prospect of renting the same apartment. In California, there were engagements with persons seeking immigration or work documents. Sermons helped, workshops were okay, but the research showed that true and lasting changes in racial attitudes were rooted in real and concrete efforts to address discrimination and unjust institutions.
Or, as my seminary preaching professor would put It, “Serr-r-mons are r-r-eminder-rs of where God is al-r-r-eady active in the lives of the people.”
Avoiding Deep Change: Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 1
A year ago, October 1, 2021, I made a calendar note, “Write about this next year!” A year ago today, I had just read of another “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” workshop planned by a denominational group. My heart sank. One could find dozens of such events planned — and, no doubt, there were consultants who were happy to have the work!
Please understand. I am not against “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” commitments. A good thing this. I’m not as enthusiastic about workshops, training events, webinars, etc. that are unhinged from engagement in the communities nearby where undiscovered neighbors, real people, live and work. Workshops can become tools of avoidance, especially as stand alone, one-off, efforts. Without a deeper look at institutional and cultural strata shaped by racism over decades there are well intentioned but shallow responses. Tragically, they sometimes result in representational leadership (a minority person promoted to a leadership role) without addressing the deeply embedded patterns upon which institutions function.
Let me confess that I delayed a year in writing this because I didn’t want to be reactive. Perhaps, if I waited, something would emerge to assuage my doubts. Or, I could give a more measured response than simply concluding most church leaders would prefer to avoid, delay and placate all the while appearing to make progress by offering training sessions. Perhaps I would see real, deep and sustainable change. As of a year — I still wait for something substantial to address the racial injustice in which we are mired. Even worse, in this year it appears white nationalism sentiments have grown, sadly often within congregations.
A year ago, following the murders of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor I had been involved in several conversations, web seminars, zoom meetings and the like, where I attempted to share research that showed education and sermons were not sufficient to bring enduring change. I attempted to argue that DEI workshops would not be enough — they would be ineffectual. I even warned pastors “Don’t preach that sermon” until you have in place a way to work with neighbors on antiracism measures in your setting. This advice was not based on a hunch, but on research on addressing racism that had been done decades earlier as part of a program called Project Understanding. That research made it clear that real and enduring change to address racism at a root level involved action with others who brought their differences, as well as education.
A true addressing of racism involves deep change in the ways our institutions understand, and act differently based on their financial and cultural options. There are instruments designed to address institutional racism. These were not requested. There was work to be done beyond training sessions — work to support minority owned banks, address racial discrimination in housing, business, and real estate. Any true addressing of racism in the church would take more than sermons, minority clergy serving as pastors in predominantly white settings or pulpit exchanges once a year with a racial ethnic congregation down the street. There were concrete, measurable ways congregants could be deeply involved, spiritually alive and committed to take common action with persons of different racial and religious groups — action for fundamental change.
The year has past… Surely some good has resulted. Please share this in the comments section. Even so, I don’t hear much being reported that is substantial and sustainable. I write a year later of my concern and will in the next few postings offer again insights regarding other approaches. I will share insights from saints who are nearing the end of life or have now passed on — persons like William Pannell at Fuller Seminary, Thomas Broden at Notre Dame, Joseph Taylor and LaVerta Terry at Indiana University, Gilbert James at Asbury Seminary and Jicelyn Thomas who was a gifted preacher and theologian taken from our earthly fellowship too soon, too soon.
Matthew was gone. I was heading back from my morning walk. He had been there an hour earlier, just pulling back his bedroll and stretching from his “outdoor shelter” on the porch of the old train station downtown.
Earlier, when I passed him, I spoke “Good morning.” He smiled and said “morning.” I saw his lovely blue eyes and his gaunt frame. “What’s your name?” I opened. “Matthew” he answered. “I’m Philip.” He laughed and said “Two disciples.” I replied, “Yep, two followers of Jesus.” “Right, right” he affirmed, “You or I wouldn’t be here without Jesus,” he said. He paused and chuckling went on “Or, our mom and dad!” We did a fist bump as I headed on to meet my walking partner for the morning. Looking back I said, “I’ll see you later.” “You bet, Philip, nice to meet you.”
When I returned to the place, an hour later, Matthew was gone.
Like cities all across the nation our streets and wooded edges of neighborhoods or shopping areas are filling with unsheltered folks. Oh…Bloomington has plans… lots of pie-in-the-sky plans. Meanwhile the unsheltered sleep on the streets and in doorways of our public buildings. (See photo of one early morning this summer in the doorway of our public library.)
Maybe there will be more support for our existing shelters, and residences, maybe. These PLANS talk of “housing first.” But, where is the housing? We build great high-rise plans but little low-income housing. Thanks to the Chamber, Mayor and Community Foundation we have PLANS, Plans, plans… but not shelters. Dozens and dozens of new higher-income housing developments spouting up all over town. The university expands its enrollment dramatically but has done NOTHING to address the residential challenges it has helped create for low income persons.
Could we consider looking at models like Community Solutions that use abandoned spaces to make an immediate difference. We have lot’s of empty buildings, that, well, sit empty — with bathrooms in each (some former retirement centers, former medical facilities) that will “someday be razed” as the old hospital site is being “redeveloped.” Buildings are sitting empty during these years. We have empty buildings and PLANS but no facilities for my new friend Matthew. (https://community.solutions/)
Here is my challenge, my question for today. Where will Matthew sleep come December? I think we know. So, let me challenge the Mayor and City Council, County Council and Chamber and Community Foudation and Police Chief and leaders of our hospitals and health care centers. Will you make a commitment to spend a night or two sleeping on the street come December 16 and 17th? It’s the weekend before Christmas — good time to meet some other persons who are “disciples” and experience what they experience each evening. OR, perhaps some of your PLANS might include finding shelter (old or new, re-purposed or not) NOW! Can you include doing something NOW for the unsheltered in our city. Matthew, the disciple is asking.
A North American Adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer – for too many Christians
A “Distortion” of The Lord’s Prayer as understood by too many North American Christians
(With interpretive notes)
Pray then in this way: Our* MY Father in heaven, hallowed be MY UNDERSTANDING OF your name. Your SPIRITUALIZED kingdom come, Your SPIRITUALIZED will be done, On earth** AMONG MY TRIBE as it is in heaven. Give us ME this day ourdaily MORE EXCESS bread, And forgive us our ME MY debts, as we I also have forgiven our MY debtor FRIENDs WHO DESERVE IT. And do not bring us ME to the time of trial, but rescue us ME from the evil ones WHO DISAGREE WITH ME. For if you forgive*** CONDEMN others of their trespasses,
your heavenly Father will also ESPECIALLY forgive you;
but if you do not forgive others,
neither will your Father WILL forgive your trespasses ANYWAY. –Matthew 6:9-15
*This prayer is distorted to fit “modern” North American individualistic sensibilities held by many Christians. Toby Keith’s song “I Want to Talk About Me” can be sung after the prayer. It is based on the message preached and believed that all the followeres of Jesus are to focus on is individual salvation. This view forgets any mention of love of neighbor, the Year of Jubilee, Gospel stories about welcoming the outsider and stranger, Paul’s mention of each having gifts needed to be a part of whole community, historic practices of social-justice or ideas of covenant and commonweal.
** Faith in this view is all about heaven and the hereafter. It has little reference to daily life on earth. My current life is to get me ready for the “sweet by-and-by.” God’s will is meant only for those who think like me and believe the same theology and creeds that I hold. In other words, “on earth” is about how I treat those who are part of my tribe. This means, climate change is a myth, any government aid the poor is “evil socialism,” the earth’s resources are to be dominated and used up for my benefit and those who are like me. The earth is not our “Common Home” as Pope Francis proclaims. The United Methodist bishops calling for “environmental holiness” was wrong.
*** Forgiveness in this view is a sign of weakness… unless it is asking for a pardon for crimes. The individual praying the prayer doesn’t need forgiveness because he or she has the right answer on two or three critical issues (e.g., against homosexuality and all abortions) and all else is “up to God.” I don’t really need to ask for forgiveness as my way is the only way to salvation. The story about the prodigal returning home is always about “them” and never about “me.”
Bloomington, Indiana is a lovely college town; I’m an unabashed booster. The name “Bloomington” is no accident. Tree-lined streets, parks and flower gardens are in abundance. Playgrounds and walking trails dot the city. At the community’s heart is the lovely campus of Indiana University. There is abundant and diverse fine music performed. Museums, libraries and theaters, research centers and multiple dining options are sprinkled in the mix. Surrounded by forests, lakes, farms, vineyards and orchards it is where natural beauty finds a home.
Natural beauty resides comfortably in Bloomington – Beauty resides here more easily than some of our people. People without shelter, who due to heath or economic realities, are left with no option other than life on the street. Perhaps the ugliest addition to our community is the 8-10 foot fence that has been placed around the downtown post office. The fence is festooned with threatening signs. Gates are locked tightly every evening. “No trespasing” is posted and one can’t even find a place to drop a letter in the mail. Forget it if you wish to walk up to a drop box or pass a drive-through box after hours. Why the ugly high fencing and all the horrible signs?
You see, this post office is now “off limits” in the evenings because it is next to Seminary Square Park. Seminary Square is registered as a national historic site. It is the location of the first campus for what would became Indiana Univeristy. In recent years Seminary Square is where many unsheltered persons chose to gather; many camped there until city officials began to disperse them. The result? Folks are now scattered, sleeping on sidewalks and being rousted from one doorway or storefront to another. Where are efforts to bring ALL the stake holders together — including the unsheltered — to find new ways forward? I am told “there are plans”. If so they are not well known in the city. How many millions of dollars have been spent on street improvements so that streets can now be closed off for dining, or for new bikeways to encourage such travel? And, why has such little thought been given to developing more places for the unsheltered? There are wonderful nonprofit programs designed to assist unhoused persons (Beacon Inc. – Shalom Center and New Hope for Families, for example) but these folks have limited palliative options and must focus on the most dramatic examples of this challenge.
A first-rate new IU Health Bloomington Hospital facility recently opened on the east side of the city; the hospital having completely abandoned its downtown location. Now that old facility is… you guessed it… FENCED off. Plans for re-use or redevelopment are slow to unfold and little has thus far been announced. Yes, redevelopment is complicated, and to do it well takes time, but what of those who could benefit from a dry and safer space to sleep in the meantime? And what of any new outreach initiatives from the fancy new I.U. Health facility? Any annoucement of outreach to address mental health and addiction issues faced by many of the unsheltered sleeping on the street? What of outreach to those no longer at the hospital’s doorway? If the past is prologue, in ten years, the old hospital site will become commercial property or another upscale housing site — and we will still have the unsheltered fenced out.
WE CAN AND MUST DO BETTER. Bloomington claims to be a civically engaged and imaginative place where democracy is valued. Let’s prove it by the way we live together. Ugly fences do us no pride. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been, and will be spent, on building new apartment/condo complexes. The university is spending millions to provide shelter for students. Where are plans to include alternative housing options for the unsheltered now and in future? Other cities face similiar dilemmas and are offering creative alternatives. I have never thought of our Bloomington as a laggard… until recently.
Now, please understand, as an pastor for more than fifty years, one who has lived and worked in impoverished areas, and with many persons without shelter much of my adult life, I get it. I have no doubts that the troubling reality of insufficient shelter and healhy options FOR ALL is extraordinarily demanding work. And I know there were incidents near the downtown post office (perhaps dangerous ones) that lead to the fence being errected and the park being cleared each evening. Even so, let’s be clear, this is the message being sent: “If you are an unsheltered person, you are unwelcome — you are locked out.” Bloomington is a beautiful city, mostly. It’s time to do better.