Restoring Broken Connections 

Restoring Broken Connections

Citizenship depends on connection.   Constructive membership in any group is rooted in the belief that there is space in the institutional ecology for a person’s engagement and contribution.  Novelist, poet, farmer and cultural critic Wendell Berry put it succinctly “Connection is health.”

quote-only-by-restoring-the-broken-connections-can-we-be-healed-connection-is-health-wendell-berry-87-40-31-1.jpgBerry says that it is “only by restoring the broken connections in our society that we will be healed.”  It is not just the edges of institutions that are frayed and fractured today; there is a disconnection at the very center.  Nor, is it only a brokenness between individuals.  Linkages between institutions and their members, and linkages among institutions are also broken.

  • Yesterday, thirteen United States Senators emerged from secret meetings to propose a heath care reform package.  Amazingly the proposal is opposed by the hospitals and/or university health research institutions in their home states. 
  • Polling shows that fewer than one-fourth of the citizens in these states support the proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act, still this proposal is moved forward.
  • A majority of American Roman Catholics in the United States do not support the church’s views on birth control, remarriage, having married priests or women priests (Pew Research on American Catholics) and yet change seems unlikely in the short-term.
  • There is growing evidence that human caused Climate Change is a dangerous emerging phenomenon. (This research has been done not only by independent university or industry based scientists but also by researchers at government-funded institutions like NASA or the U.S. military); yet, recent government policy actions move us away from healthy responses regarding environmental degradation.
  • The opioid epidemic, with increasing death and higher HIV-AIDS rates, is at crises levels.  Local police and healthcare providers now find their own health threatened by the powerful fentanyl powders being used and potentially inhaled by the persons providing care.  These service providers make specific recommendations to address this fentanyl problem; however, our political leaders respond by doubling down on the failed policies from the 1980s.  This disconnect is about life and death for our healthcare and law officers, our neighbors and the communities in which they reside.

The list could go on and on: there is a disconnect between many trade union leaders and their “members,” between the governor of Illinois and the legislative leaders, between the gentrifying neighborhoods in our cities and the people who are losing their residences and communities.

I have long been disheartened by the brokenness in my own denomination, the United Methodist Church.  Not just the divide between those with theological differences, or the young and older members, or the urban and rural ones, but also the divide among our institutions and between institutions and the people.  My work has led me for example to see the brokenness between our seminaries and the local churches they were designed to serve.

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I recall the day when serving as a seminary president I spoke with a talented young woman, encouraging her to seek ordination as a pastor.  She paused a moment and said, “I don’t think I can trust the denomination with my vocation.” 

I mention this young woman because she represents, in my experience, a growing number of our younger folks.  Still we seem slow to reconnect with them.  The “disconnects” in the church among institutions, and between our institutions and individuals, some days seems insurmountable to me.  Having been both a pastor and seminary administrator, I understand.  And, I believe there is productive work to be done in healing such broken connections.

More recently, I joined a group of persons seeking to encourage the church to take seriously its commitments of care for God’s creation.  We proposed legislation to the annual meeting of my regional body, known as an annual conference.  There were persons eager to see the church begin to make a difference regarding our environmental actions.  To my sadness, this genuine enthusiasm was met by denominational leaders who sought to avoid any conflict by moving to table the proposals.  It was both astonishing and sad for the group, many of them younger folks, who saw these proposals as a way to seek healing in the divisions between our words and actions, between our local churches and the need for better care for creation.

When all of these signals are flashing danger, how might we respond? 

Well, this is for you to decide, dear reader.  It is also an opportunity to join with others, in existing institutions, and the creation of new ones, to offer places of citizenship and membership. 

For me, I will continue to challenge, and build new relationships, with the leaders of my regional body who seem so opposed to proposals regarding how our congregations might respond to climate change.  I will speak out on issues related to the opioid epidemic and get to know the persons on all sides of this challenge so that I might help make new connections.   I will challenge the efforts of my congressman and senator to strip medical coverage from more that twenty million persons in our nation, while giving large tax cuts to the rich.  I will challenge these congressmen to listen to hospital administrators and university researchers who may provide creative, alternative approaches to providing health care.

We are not alone.  Others are seeking to build connections as well.  Let me tell you about my friend.  A young pastor, serving in a small and conservative town in my state.  What is remarkable is that this young man would be considered by many to be too liberal, too concerned about the poor, too invested in environmental justice to fit in this small town parish.  So, when I asked how he was doing, I was prepared to hear about his difficulties, his disappointments.  Instead, I saw a broad smile and heard him say, “It’s great!  This is just where I am supposed to be!”  He acknowledged that he had his differences with some folks, but that he was enjoying learning from them and they from him. 

I have known this young man for many years now and seen him mature.  He completed his undergraduate and seminary work as an honors student — top of the class.  He becomes for me a sign of hope.  He understands Wendell Berry’s call to restore broken connections. 

How can I not strive to do the same?

 

 

 

 

 

For Learning, Loving or Loathing?

For Learning, Loving or Loathing?

There she was in the alley.  Pushing a shopping cart.  She might have been mistaken as a homeless woman, except the cart was transporting a box of strawberries and a thermos of coffee.  Beside her along the route of sidewalk and alleyway, we walked.  She was recognized, and sometimes greeted, along the crowded path.  I looked on and saw scenes replaying over and again, as if she came from central casting.

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Ann Livingston, Al Etmanski, John McKnight and Michael Mather (Photo by Travis Lupick, The Georgian Straight Magazine)

I was unprepared to meet Ann Livingston, founder of a group known as VANDU.  We were in the east end of Vancouver, B.C., Canada.  VANDU has been around for almost twenty-five years as an organization of drug users and former users.  They organize as peers, seeking action to better their neighborhood, their personal situation and that of others.  Ann is what I call a “divine irritant.”  She challenges the taken-for-granted worlds of Vancouver. 

Ann disrupts the “normal” activities of police officers, operators of cheap single room occupancy hotels, health professionals, social workers and drug dealers.  She is a convener of alternative visions, a truth-teller, a fierce organizer.  Her work — joined with dozens of others, especially drug users — rattles the tectonic plates of political, economic power.  She challenges the assumptions, programs and professional expectations of many on the east side of Vancouver. 

When I say Ann comes out of central casting, perhaps it is better to say she seems to emerge from the story of other women, women I never met, but have long regarded as saintly disturbers of the peace.  As I watched and listened, I thought of Francis Willard, Jane Addams or Lucy Ryder Meyer, from the 19th Century.  

With the arrival of fentanyl, deaths from drug overdoses in the neighborhood soared.  In the last six years over 1,800 persons died from overdoses. When public officials were slow to act, Ann and others decided to set up unsanctioned injection sites.  This strategy, along with clean needle exchanges, is based on the successful Four Pillars approach in Europe.  The four pillars are: Harm Reduction, Prevention, Treatment, and Enforcement.  To learn more see: Straight News, December 2016.

LEARNING

Now at the front end of my eighth decade, I am discovering how little I know and how much more there is to learn.  (And, I am learning of the many places I have been wrong in assessment or assumption.)  I am helped by new learning occasions.  Yes, these new insights can come from books and films — but I am advocating for putting ones self in new and uncomfortable places.  Places that challenge easy assumptions about life and how things really work.

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photo by Travis Lupick

Visiting an unsanctioned safe injection site with Ann, I appreciated that we are not limited to the official, and agreed upon, responses to the social and institutional challenges we face.  When there was a need for a response to drug overdoses from fentanyl use, and the system failed, Ann pitched a tent and began to offer a place for safe injections.  There were safe needle exchanges and a responding to overdoses by offering naloxone,  Naloxone can counter the probable death from a fentanyl overdose.  When asked about the consequences of breaking the law, Ann simply replies, “I am pretty sure it is not against the law to save a person’s life.”

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Ann Livingston and John McKnight, photo by Travis Lupick

My “learning journey” was with colleagues Mike Mather and DeAmon Harges of Indianapolis.  It was a gift to accompany friend and mentor, John McKnight.  John has advocated an Asset Based Community Development approach to community organizing.  It is about encouraging the recognizing of abundance within all communities.  This approach focuses on identifying the assets of people, rather than collecting up their deficits.  This approach, that focuses on gifts rather than needs, is widely known around the world, as ABCD community organizing.  Ann Livingston is a most remarkable practitioner of this approach, seeking out the abundance in her community, encouraging drug uses to be their own researchers, advocates and providers — and not being afraid to disrupt that which focuses only on neediness.

LOATHING

As I traveled I couldn’t help but think of our situation in the United States.  Our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is determined to return our nation to the expensive and failed “war on drugs” that focuses only on ENFORCEMENT and PUNISHMENT.  It simple doesn’t work.  Or, better said, it provides results that are exactly the opposite of what is believed. 

This effort misses all of the lessons that have been learned from around the world and across the years.  It comes from lousy morality constructs and even worse theology.   Incarceration only turns prisons into schools for future soldiers in the drug cartels and neighborhood pushers.  The time has long since passed for us to establish ways for the addicted to have access to methadone and medical heroin.  Only by ending the demand and offering a Four Pillars approach to drug use and addiction (harm reduction, prevention, treatment, enforcement) can we find a way forward that is not just a revolving door to continuing our past mistakes.  Mistakes that destroy lives, families and communities.

Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan has wisely said that much of the mean-spirited, anti-democratic and fear-based political efforts in the recent years is what he calls a “loathing of the present.”  It is a hunger to return to a world that never was — except in the minds of those who out of fear seek to divide, exclude and punish.  In this world those who suffer, who are different, are to be loathed because they represent a reality that cannot be accepted.

LOVING

Can there be a turn from loathing to loving?  Any faithful Christian expression would say “yes, of course.”  No need to cite chapter and verse — it is evident in the entire sweep of scripture — to move toward health, abundance and renewal… and to do so out of love and not exclusion.

By now, good reader, you have probably wondered, “Strawberries?  Why was Ann carrying strawberries?”  It seemed incongruous in the midst of all of the suffering and tragedy to bring strawberries to the unsanctioned safe injection site.  When asked why strawberries? Ann’s answer was simple, “Who doesn’t love a strawberry?”