James Cone, Gaye Hudson and Other Difference Makers
I have come to understand that there is a rather simple human choice each of us can make. It is this, will the generosity of a loving God be reflected in our lives?
In the past week two such difference makers for me, died. Their names, James Cone – renown theologian, faculty member at Union Seminary in NYC and author of ground-breaking work on Black and Liberation theologies, and Gaye Hudson – elementary school teacher, musician and supporter/surrogate parent of students at Indiana University both passed away.
Gaye and James were in many ways different, and yet, in essential ways they were similar. It is this — though both of them had reasons to live otherwise — they turned toward hope and healing as they lived their lives.
I remember the joy it was for me when James Cone would visit during my time in the administration at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary or when we were attending various academic meetings together. I would argue that more than any other writer in the last century, James Cone named the racism that constrained and corrupted the church in the United States. James understood the way all of our institutions, including his own alma mater, Garrett-Evangelical, were diminished by the toxins of racial bigotry and discrimination.
Still I knew him as a man of hope and… wait for it… JOY. I can see that smile and loved the ease with which he shared a small laugh, a riddle, a pun, that betrayed an underlying sense of hope. On more than one occasion, he expanded my ability to see past the fear-filled static and toxins of our society. Even when his words began in anger, they found their way to the gift of transformation. John Robert McFarland writes meaningfully and beautifully of memories with his seminary classmate James Cone — the difference maker (see: http://christinwinter.blogspot.com/).
Gaye Hudson was a member of First United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana. This is a church I served as pastor for almost a decade. It was, and is, a congregation filled with remarkable folks — few more remarkable than Gaye. For over thirty years she sang in the choir and for all of this time she was a friend to many. Hundreds of students knew of Gaye’s care while in school. She fed them, provided transportation, encouraged them, attended their recitals and on occasion slipped a little extra cash their way. Some went on to teach; some became opera or recording stars; many were choral conductors, some wrote music and published books — ALL of them were in debt to their “dear friend Gaye.”
Gaye was the choir-mother — caring, challenging, sometimes lovingly disagreeing, anticipating the needs of others, and, yes, difference making. At her funeral service on April 29th, the choir loft was overflowing with her “children.” My, my, the music they made in her memory! I suspect that nowhere in American — or the world for that matter — was music of praise and generosity more gloriously sung than yesterday in that sanctuary.
In a world too full of anger and blame, fear and shame, I give thanks for James Cone and Gaye Hudson, two folks who didn’t know one another, two who knew injustice and burdens, but they knew more, they knew the joy of living with generosity toward others. I give thanks for these two who make a difference in my life.
Who or what will wash away the tears? On April 5th, 1968, I woke up crying. It was a cool morning, sunny as I remember, but a crushing shadow of sadness enveloped our small apartment. I had arrived home from travels late the night before. Stopping for fuel along Interstate 40 near Jackson, Tennessee that evening I was met by an attendant (others pumped gas in those years) who, even before asking whether I wanted “regular” or “high-test,” ebulliently announced, “We finally got the SOB.” I didn’t know what he meant. “Regular,” I remember saying. Later I would think that there was nothing regular about that evening.
Upon leaving the gas station I turned on the radio and heard the horrible news. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered, in Memphis, just a few miles away. The words “We finally got the SOB” were still fresh in my ears on that Friday morning, April 5th, 1968. They continue to echo fifty years later.
I wept on that cool sunny morning. Spring was near but hope seemed to be further away than ever. I was midway through my seminary education having come to understand and believe in Dr. King’s efforts. Professors like Gilbert James and Bob Lyon had challenged me to think more deeply about injustice. And I was reading widely — stretched to think that sin was more than individual and that prejudice was only the window dressing of racism. I was learning that discrimination and systemic injustice were often more difficult to see and much more difficult to address. I had not joined in any marches by then. Reading Dr. King had lead me back to the works of Gandhi, and surprisingly, back to E. Stanly Jones and J. Waskom Pickett out of my own tribe of Methodists.
(I chuckle at the folks who today tell their story of heroism — joining the Freedom Riders and so on. I’m glad, but my memory of those years does not include much heroism on my part.) I did march but it was four days later at Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta. A few other students from seminary joined a couple of professors in the trip but we couldn’t get near Ebenezer Baptist Church for the funeral.
We did march, in truth it was a procession, continuing for several miles from Auburn Avenue to the Black Colleges in west Atlanta. I recall seeing the mules and a wagon pass. At a distance there was Mrs. King and the children. There was Harry Belafonte and other civil rights leaders: Andrew Young, Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson. The Kennedys and Nixon, Humphrey and other politicos passed by. More than anything, I remember the press of people and their tears… and songs. Men hanging on telephone polls singing. One fellow, handkerchief in hand, weeping from a perch high up in a tree comes back to memory.
“We Shall Overcome” and “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” were the songs. I knew then that tears and these songs would not be enough. Racism was more profound and entrenched than I understood then. My racism. Much as my heart was in the right place, this national sin required more than changing my heart — or the hearts of ten million others. Like so many of my peers in those days I was blind to this pernicious illness that touched every sector of our lives. There were expansive institutional, economic and cultural dimensions of this sin. Shaped by a predominantly white southern Indiana culture, racism was like the water in which a fish swims. It was all around me, in the language spoken and the institutions that would educate and credentialed me and in the church where I prayed.
It was in my senior year of high school that I had first experienced any real racial diversity. No, let me be more specific, it was only then I had my first lasting conversations with black students. It was then I had my first African-American friends. Here were my first arguments, first disagreements with black students, who were also friends. I was growing toward understanding, but slowly. At the time I didn’t know it, but that year was a remarkable gift, a privilege.
My “white privilege” was being unmasked, slowly and sometimes painfully, my layered naiveté about racial relationships was exposed. This unmasking of our nation’s sins continues these fifty years later. Still I live with hope — I have seen some positive changes. I have also witnessed great ugliness that can only be shaped by a nation still laboring to find equality for all.
Six years prior to Dr. King’s assassination, in 1962, the bishop moved my father, a pastor, to Indianapolis to serve a central city church. This meant I would be attending Shortridge High School. Shortridge was at the time among the most racially diverse schools in the state, probably the nation. The African-American students were about half of those enrolled.
Here I met African-American students as smart, and many smarter, than me. I remember another tenor in our choral group who one day said to me, “You have your prophet Billy Graham but we have a King.” He meant it out of kindness and I heard it in confusion. Didn’t we share both? I wondered.
Years and study have followed. I did graduate work looking at how racial attitudes, institutions, and cultures might be changed. Like my tears and songs, the teaching, preaching, writing and sharing I have done over these fifty years have not been enough. Racism still rages like an unchecked fever in our society. I have sometimes thought I should return my diploma to Emory University where I wrote a dissertation titled: “Suburban Churches and White Racism: Strategies for Change.” What more might I have done? Or, perhaps, I should turn in my ordination papers as the church seems as limited in addressing its own racism as ever. There are still too many who would join in saying “We finally got the SOB.” Some days it seems that even those in our nation’s White House live in a world that cannot acknowledge this national sin — and are far from supporting efforts to bring equity.
It is true, tears are not enough. Nor are songs, or sermons, or books. But they are all essential, I have come to discover. These and other artifacts of our learning new ways to live, help us as we work to reshape our communities, our friendships, our churches, our politics.
So there are still tears, and songs, and sermons, and books, and movies, and churches, the institutions we lead and serve, and our mundane daily schedules. All of these are a part of moving beyond our nation’s blindness.
In a nation where far too many “Christians” hide beneath the umbrella of cover-churches and look-the-other-way-religious-leaders who give space for greed, racial bigotry, manufactured cultural divisions and self-centered nationalism, let’s offer a counter narrative. Let’s proclaim messages of transformation and renewal?
In this season let’s encourage one another to think about the issue of wealth and poverty in new ways? The book by Maricio Miller, The Alternative is a place to begin. #WednesdayAshes is a way to share new understandings. If you are in or around central Indiana, folks will be gathering to learn more on February 24th Register here.
What better time to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
We might be clear that the time for repentance and renewal in this nation so full of words designed to divide and demean is at hand. Personally, I am sending my congressional representatives the passage from Isaiah 10:1-2 under the #WednesdayAshes.
10:1 Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, 2 to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.
I write this post on Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, the day known for Madi Gras or Carnival in many parts of the world. It is a time for play, for “letting go,” for silliness… and preparation.
Years ago, when teaching in the Republic of Panama, I discovered that in that culture at least, Carnaval lasted for days – make that weeks – with music and dancing till dawn every night and tricksters roaming the streets by day ready to smear the unsuspecting passerby with makeup or face paint. This frolicking was a counterpoint to what followed, the Lenten season. These forty days of Lent (excluding Sundays) were the days prior to Easter and were to be a season of fasting, mediation and self-denial.
As an adult, I have come to value the remarkable gift of the alternating seasons of the liturgical year, and alternating opportunities to live more fully, more deeply, into the dimensions of human experience. Over the course of every liturgical year there are seasons of celebration and times of preparation, reflection and penitence. This rotation captures the human reality — no fake news here — we humans live with the complications of joy and sorrow, sickness and health, solitude and community. At best, at our most whole and holy center, appropriate belief and value systems will reflect this alternating dynamic.
Shrove Tuesday, for our family at least, usually means pancakes and perhaps a silly mask or costume… not much more. No dancing all night or smearing with face paint. We typically eat pancakes with lots or syrup, fruit and maybe even whipped cream on top. We do this knowing that the next season will include some times of sacrifice, discipline and prayer. Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, begins a time of meditation and, perhaps, fasting and self-denial.
Some traditions speak of “giving something up for Lent.” Perhaps it is sweets that are “given up,” or not going to the movies, or giving up attending a sports event (well, not basketball in Indiana!) Perhaps some change in diet or giving up some other pleasure is practiced.
In recent years I have appreciated those who suggest that perhaps we should think about what we might ADD to our daily life patterns during Lent. Perhaps we should add some acts of kindness, charity or justice. I like it. Our pastor, Jimmy Moore, suggests this idea of adding something at Lent. Then, jokingly, he says that when growing up, he had already given up all the pleasures and excesses of life, because at the time he was a Southern Baptist and had already given up all such temptations. I laughed, and understand, because growing up in a strict conservative Methodist home, we had already given up dancing, movies, rock and roll music and, of course, smoking, alcohol and playing cards!
As Lent 2018 begins, two realities collide.
There is scripture that speaks of God’s desire for humanity and there is the proposed national budget presented today in Washington, D.C. From scriptures, think especially of Isaiah 58:1-11, where the prophet asks what sort of fast does God require of the faithful? Hear these words written hundreds of years before Jesus of Nazareth, and referenced by him in his ministry. They still carry a force for shaping the lives of believers today.
Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
Then the righteousness of the Lord will go before you;
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. [New International Version]
Ironically, tragically, these words of guidance and reminder to the faithful, read during this 2018 Lenten season, COLLIDE HEAD ON with the national budget from the White House presented TODAY! There are deep budget cuts proposed to efforts that provide food, housing and health care for the poorest among our people in the U.S. [Less than a month ago, deep tax cuts were made that benefited the richest among us.] Instead of building up our foundations, instead of seeking to strengthen our COMMONwealth here is a focus on walls, on further depleting our environment and the exclusion of those who differ.
So, what fast is required of us? We shall pray and reflect; however, this is not a season for quietism or passivity. We will need to find alternating patterns of action and prayer during Lent this year. Richard Rohr appropriately calls his ministry a “Center for Action and Contemplation.” These two emphases seem right this Lent. Perhaps this is one of the sacrifices required this Lent — to do both — act and pray. Some time normally given to meditation, may be time that will go to writing a congress person. Maybe the money saved from having no desert should go more directly to offer food to the hungry.
This Lenten season I invite you to add some act of kindness and justice to your normal routine. I invite you to daily prayer and meditation. If this is not a part of your routine — this is your opportunity.
There are many fine resources. You might subscribe to the insightful reflections of Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation CAC Daily Meditation; or, look to the Upper Room Upper Room for the daily devotionals there.
Perhaps you would wish to join some in New Harmony, Indiana on March 23 and 24 for a “Finding New Harmony” retreat (check out: www.mycalmcard.com ).
How will you observe this Lenten Season? What might you give up? What might you add?
A Leaf from the Notebook of an Untamed Pastor: A Fifty Year Window
2018 marks my fiftieth year as an ordained pastor. Five decades! Many fine memories, good friends and much learning. Wonderful, loving people have been teachers for me at every stop. As former Indiana University President Herman B Wells once told me, “One sees things more clearly when viewed in fifty year blocks.” Dr. Wells then laughed — he was 93 years old at the time.
So, what do I see more clearly in 2018? What might I share from a fifty-year window into this vocation?
A year has passed and I have shared strong words about Mr. Trump as a citizen; this year, 2018, I speak as pastor. It’s time to speak as a person of faith in an untamed fashion. What we face in our nation is SIN — a clear and present danger to the spiritual health of our society and believers. I have been too cautious in not speaking in terms of faith and in scriptural language. I have not clearly called for repentance — from DJT. Nor repentance for myself and so many in our nation.
Clearly, ideology and grasping for power have replaced decency shaped by biblical and faith understandings. Have we had other presidents who were sinful? — Of course — in fact, this is a character flaw, sin, we all are challenged by. More to the point — it is the acknowledgement of sinfulness that marks movement to maturity and spiritual health.
In DJT we are witnessing an assault on truth, on the poor, on the immigrant, on God’s creation. It is sinful. This is a daily assault — sometimes hourly assault. Our judicial and legislative systems, designed to align with highest religious values, are continually being threatened and undermined. Name-calling has become more normative than honest dialogue. Those who disagree with the president are threatened with verbal abuse, even jail. This is wrong. Accepting it is a partnership with evil. Sadly some support comes from those brothers and sisters who claim to be Christian — yet, little of what they argue appears to be established on scriptural basis or on principles of disciples.
On July 15, 2016, when Mr. Trump announced he was seeking the presidency, I was almost immediately troubled. My pastoral radar sounded an alarm. Bluntly, the fears unleashed, the thinly veiled racism and factual distortions, layered higher and higher, were anti-Christian. My experienced eyes saw a person who was clearly a troubled, angry and manipulative man. He belittled others so easily and thought far too highly of himself. Over the months that have passed these initial indicators of the man’s soul-sickness have only become more tragically and dramatically evidenced by sinful decisions and impulses.
I have decided to become an unleashed pastor because what we are witnessing is dangerous to our future and that of our grandchildren. What we see unfolding comes straight out of Stalin’s play book — it is a pattern of disinformation, demonization and displacement. (See Anne Applebaum’s fine book Red Famine.)
Let me offer a pastor’s call for repentance. My own confession first.I have been too timid to speak of the sinfulness of Mr. Trump’s words and actions. I have been too quick to allow those who argue a false equivalency, his defenders, suggesting that the 2016 presidential election was between two equally flawed candidates. No. This is simply NOT TRUE, based on any fair-minded look at the options. Was Secretary Clinton plagued by her own failings? — of course. However, I am bold to claim we have journeyed in the ways of the devil after this election far more than had there been a different outcome. What we face now scriptures speak of as the evil of principalities and powers. The spiritual well-being of our nation is at risk.
As a pastor, every year I would meet with the church’s nominating committee. Our task? To propose leaders the upcoming year. Honestly, if Donald Trump were a member and his name proposed for any leadership task, I would quickly speak against him in almost any role. I would speak about his not being a “good fit.” No place for such a man as an assistant usher or a parking lot attendant, until there was evidence of more spiritual health. And I certainly wouldn’t want him anywhere near the finance committee, youth work or buildings and grounds committees. His evident narcissism and duplicity would be my guide — based on experience.
Fifty years have sharpened my radar about people. Yes, I have made mistakes in this judgement — and keep learning from them. And, yes, I know people can change — I have witnessed this. However, my experience has taught that change comes with personal awareness of brokenness and the knowledge of the need to accept God’s transforming gifts in one’s life. None of which are evident in this man. If any role were offered, it would be the opportunity to spend a year working (silently) alongside the poor and studying scripture with a good teacher. That would be an appropriate place for DJT – a place to begin a journey to healing and renewal… It would be an invitation to conversion. I do not know the wounds contributing to his arrogance, masked low-self-confidence and sinful actions — but they are not helped by the enabling going on by many politicians and alleged religious leaders.
We are a nation struggling under the spell of a narcissistic, sin-burdened, con-artist. A man who lies so frequently that truth and falsehood are continually blurred. Can anyone account for a need to claim to be a “stable genius.” Such hubris, such arrogance! Can you imagine Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan making such a claim — with a straight face? My dear Republican friends, what have you endured… and so many of you accepted as normal? We have a self designated “stable genius” who doesn’t read, has almost no understanding of geopolitical historical realities and bases our nation’s future on own self-aggrandizement. I do give thanks for Republicans like Steve Schmidt, Jeff Flake, David Jolly and Mitt Romney. Perhaps they will help the party and our nation — save it’s soul. However, they may not be enough. More is required of us all.
The United Methodist church once claimed a mission to “Reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness.” Sadly, our recent response to the assault on our nation’s highest values, and Christianity itself, has been muted at best. We do speak a word on behalf of the immigrant and the poor — but we say nothing about the sinfulness of our nation’s leaders at this critical time. So much for reforming the nation and spreading scriptural holiness.
We have known greatness. Our work in education and mission offer remarkable hope. There have also been times when we have been an embarrassment to ourselves and our nation. Now, as we are silent, I believe is a time when we should be embarrassed.
We have failed before — Methodists back-tracked from our early impulses against slavery or took too long to support our courageous women seeking suffrage and equality. Still, like Legion in scriptures, upon being confronted by the Christ, we somehow turned around and came to our senses on these matters and many others. This is the way sinful persons and institutions change. But there is also potential for movement in another direction — it is this sinful downward movement I fear for our nation (and church) just now. I speak as an untamed pastor, shaped by this denominational tradition and filled with awareness of many of my own shortcomings.
Still I speak as one with experience — experience in recognizing sin-sickness and the need for repentance. One sees things more clearly when viewed in fifty year blocks.
Hoosier United Methodists Finding Our Voice: A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana
Revs. Maureen Knudsen Langdoc and Bryan Langdoc recognized as new ordinands, Clergy Covenant Day, 10/25/17.
I awoke this morning with an all too familiar thought about the church in the United States. It is this: The United Methodist Church (and other denominations like it) still act as if we are the Mainline church when, in fact, we have been moved to the sidelines. Must we remain silent in the false hope that we might regain our power position in society? NO!
With a sense of lost status, we employ business models and church growth strategies as if we still haven’t learned that our best hope is to once again be the church based on the leading of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of believers in each local setting. In the process, seeking not to rock the boat, we have remained silent to the realities all around. We have become cowardly in acting to address the national fevers of fear and division that threaten our future and undermine our best selves.
Where is there hope? In many places — mostly not recognized by the “church development experts.” I see hope in our young clergy, folks like Maureen and Bryan Langdoc. I see hope in the faithful folks sitting in the pews of our local churches that are so easily overlooked because they are in the “wrong neighborhood” or are “congregations too small to make a difference.” I see hope in the older clergy, many now retired, but who continue to offer their gifts. You GO — Maureen and Bryan; You GO — younger clergy across our nation; You Go — faithful lay persons in local churches; You GO — older clergy often ready to serve but overlooked; YOU GO — HOLY SPIRIT.
If we are true to our faith and not simply believing in some set of misguided techniques and strategies, we would be saying something about the challenges to our civil society. We would let God be God and stop trying to be soft-pedalling mediators. Admitting that the Gospel calls us to give witness against fear and division, whether we are mainline or sideline, we would seek to speak Gospel truth to the meanness and irrationality perpetrated on our people. So, I asked friends to join in putting together a petition. See: Hoosier United Methodists Speak Out.
There was a memorial service for one of those good retired pastors, Rev. Frank Sablan at Broadway UMC, one of the places Frank served. At this memorial service were several of the lay and clergy persons who had joined in ministry at Broadway. We gathered for a photo and I realized the treasure that is all around but often overlooked. Good people, still sharing their gifts. Mainline or sideline it doesn’t matter.
We call on Hoosier Untied Methodists to speak out. Our church needs this witness, even more than our nation. If you are not in Indiana, we encourage you to join with others in giving voice to our true hope.
A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana.
We the undersigned United Methodists speak a word of concern for our nation; and we confess that we have been silent for too long.
In our nation’s body-politic we are witnessing behaviors that are fundamentally at odds with our most basic faith expressions and creeds. A culture of fear, personal attacks, disregard for the truth and denial of scientific research now undermines our most cherished covenants as a nation and people of faith. Daily there is an assault on our deepest values of respect and human equality through administrative language, policies and practices. This language and these practices undermine our commitments to honest dialogue, equal justice, decent speech, fairness toward our neighbor and care for our earth. In the process, our nation is losing its critical role as the most important actor in favor of basic human rights around the world.
The bullying, bigotry and exclusion which seek to overwhelm our better angels, run counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our children and grandchildren are watching, and sadly, learning. How will we give Christian witness? We cannot remain silent any longer. We join Senator Jeff Flake and other men and women of courage and good will in saying “ENOUGH” of this course and destructive behavior.
We call on all of our congressional leaders, especially those in Indiana, to move toward greater civility, respect and desire for practices of justice for all upon which our nation’s greatness rests.
Patchwork: Lessons from a Community of the Lost and Found
Our difficulties start with the fact that we have lost each other.
This weekend, July 15th, 2017 we will be joining others to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Patchwork Central Ministries in Evansville Indiana. It hardly seems possible that four decades have passed since the Amersons, Doyles and Kimbrough’s made a covenant to live in an “intentional community” in a core-city neighborhood.
Alan Winslow, February 2017
We will also be celebrating the 95th birthday anniversary of Alan Winslow, a long-time member of the Patchwork Community. Alan, along with Alice Serr, lead Patchwork’s Neighborhood Economic Development Center for many years. This was a program of micro-lending before such efforts were widely undertaken. Alan is one of the scores of incredible lay persons who have been a part of the Patchwork story over these four decades.
Perhaps we were “foolish beyond our years” in 1977.
No doubt we were naive. Perhaps we were just a part of our generation’s search for an “alternative lifestyle.” No doubt we wanted to test some of theories learned in graduate school. As we would have said at the time, we were seeking to find new ways to live as people of faith. No doubt we were open to adventure, to odyssey, to new lessons about ourselves and others.
Whatever the case, we took the risk of leaving safe jobs and titles to join this experiment in covenantal living. (I will avoid the easy jokes about making these changes due to eating some bad tacos or barbecue.)
Judi Jacobson, Alan Winslow and Elaine Amerson, circa 1982.
We spoke of being an intentional community because this was the term used by others at the time. There were other Christians, friends in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago and California who were experimenting as well. It is safe to say we were trying to live out our personal vocations as Christians in ways that offered us the chance to explore new styles of worship, ministry and witness. Why Evansville? Why this medium-sized community down on the Ohio River? As we used to say, this only makessense if it can “Play in Peoria.”
Over the years the Patchwork Central Community grew from the ten of us (six adults and four children) to dozens of folks. We who would gather for worship, social service, educational and counseling programs, community organizing and protest rallies and so much more. We were “small but mighty in spirit” and our numbers seemed to increase in proportion to our commitment to try yet another mission. Food panty, after school program, health care clinic, art education, photography, minority leadership development, micro-lending through Neighborhood Economic Development, Back Alley Bakery, tool lending, low-income housing, jobs program for ex-felons painting houses and more. Our friend, Jim Wallis from the Sojourners Community, after a visit, jokingly said, “Patchwork is a place with more ministries than people!”
While many of us were United Methodist, ordained even, from the beginning we understood ourselves to also be ecumenical and interfaith in practice. So, quickly, there were friends from the Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Jewish communities. Sunday evening worship grew. Before long this little gathering turned into several dozen who worshiped, ate and laughed together on Sunday evenings. The room was often overflowing with folks who found this to be a safe place and open place.
The three founding couples lived in separate homes, but shared many resources. The joke among the men was about who got to “wear the community necktie.” Truth is, we rarely wore ties. We improved our turn of the century (1890 to 1910) homes. Others joined. Some lived in the neighborhood, but folks joined from around the city and the region.
We grew in numbers and influence in the city. Soon we had the opportunity to purchase the Washington Avenue Synagogue nearby. How could we afford it? Our question became, “How could we not afford such a wonderful center for community activities and worship?” We covered the down payment for the facility by selling a used car that was given to us by Drs. Polly and Ernie Teagle of Belleville, Illinois. The rest of the mortgage we undertook “by faith.” Hard to believe bankers would support this rag-tag group. Such adventurism — but somehow it worked.
There are so many lessons from those years. On this anniversary I think about what it means to be lost and found. The 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel is about finding and losing. Here are parables of lost sheep, lost coins and a lost child — and the finding again of each.
What was lost and what did we find in those early years at Patchwork? Who was lost and who found, at Patchwork? Here are four lessons from those years — the list could be much longer (and, no doubt will be in future reflections).
First, we had lost our belief the institutional church could act in creative ways, especially outside the impulse impelling it toward focusing most ministry in suburban neighborhoods. (There was a book published earlier written by Gibson Winter and entitled “The Suburban Captivity of the Church” named the dilemma we saw.)
What we found was this. If we took the risk of acting first, and asking permission later, some folks in the church would surprise us and support ministry within lower-income communities. We decided to start Patchwork Central, and although some tried to dissuade us, others, some in leadership, said, “Well, you may be acting foolishly but we will do what we can to support you.”
I am not certain this would happen today. I see a majority of leaders who are so risk-averse they seem stuck forever in the way things were always done. For us, we have the gift of folks like Lloyd and Marie Wright and Sam and Marie Phillips. Lloyd was the United Methodist District Superintendent in Evansville and while he often wanted us to “slow down” and “not try to fight city hall,” he none-the-less stood by our fledgling efforts at new forms of ministry. Sam and Marie Phillips were the sort of progressive leaders we are lacking today. Sam had been a D.S. as well and was working in the area of global mission. The Phillips understood. And, I could name many, many others, clergy and lay. Suffice it to say — we found support and vision that we mistakenly thought had been lost to the entire church.
Second, speaking for myself, I thought the potential for ecumenical work in a core city neighborhood was a lost cause. There were pundits in those days who said that a focus on social justice would drive people from the church. Justice work was blamed for any decline in the church. It seemed a world of “every denomination for itself” and the primary focus of churches was only on church growth.
I was so very wrong. There were clergy like Ed and Mariam Ouelette (UCC), Walt Wangerin (Lutheran), Joe Baus (Presbyterian), Jim Heady (UMC), Alice Serr (Catholic) and Michael Herzbrun (Jewish) to name a FEW. AND, many of the strong and growing congregations were ones that joined us in our ministry efforts.
Third, speaking again for myself, I thought there were few resources in my new neighborhood upon arrival. I thought imagination and energy for change was lost to these new neighbors.
I remember, with embarrassment, saying that our work in those early years was to “bring resources to places where they don’t naturally occur.” Such hubris!! Such ignorance. I believed the notion that we would “discover the needs of the people” and set up plans and strategies to fix these dysfunctions. Instead, what we discovered were neighborhoods full of people with insights, talents, capacities and education beyond our imagination. The poverty problem was my own — my poverty of vision. I couldn’t see the potential resource that was all around. In almost every new endeavor we found folks with gifts to share. Where I had seen a desert of resource, there was more abundance than I could have imagined. However, I needed to stop and listen. If I did, I would discover that my role was more that of friend and coordinator than initiator.
Perhaps most significantly, I thought the basic ingredients of community were something I needed to bring because they were otherwise lost. Somehow, I thought, I was to bring them to a community void. Well, community by its very nature is about discovering relationships already available to us — if we can see them and risk finding.
We discovered that everyone can and does live in community. The question becomes how intentional do you want it to be? The choice is to risk living in new ways. The choice is to see with new eyes what is possible. It requires work. bell hooks, in her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope puts it this way: “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”
In the parables we call the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 we too easily think of the son as the lost one. However, a closer read shows that the father and older brother were also lost. They had given the younger brother up for dead — and the parable suggests that when all seems lost, it is then a new relationship is possible, if it is accepted.
Ken Medema puts the lesson from scripture on finding and losing in a memorable verse:
Finding leads to losing, losing helps you find.
Living leads to dying but life leaves death behind.
Finding leads to losing, that’s all that I can say.
No one will find life another way.
There will, no doubt, be many memories this weekend about the early years at Patchwork Central. Some will want to speak of what we gave — or contributed — to this ministry that still survives. I will know the truth, for me Patchwork happened because of what I lost while there, and in so doing, what WE, together, found.