It is a short, rather boring, walk from the elevator to our Chicago apartment. Twenty-three paces. We rarely meet anyone in the hallway. Nor is there anything particularly unusual about the tan walls and dark carpet.
It is this very ordinariness that makes what sometimes happens in the hallway so remarkable. The first time it occurred I was rushing to bring in groceries. I noticed the music — “what fine music,” I thought. It was a piano sonata, probably on the radio or a recording. Nice.
Shortly afterward, I heard the music behind the door again. Chopin, I thought… and just then, the piano music abruptly stopped, then began again a few measures earlier.
This wasn’t a recording at all! There was an actual pianist — and a talented one at that — practicing in #1408. It was my special gift, each time I walked past and listened to the artist at practice. I suspect she didn’t know she was gifting me or any of the others of us who passed by.
Then one afternoon, a violin was added to the piano. On another occasion there was a flute. Then I noticed a few times when the pianist wasn’t as accomplished.
[I am both slow-witted and a bit dull, you see, because it took me weeks to understand that this was the apartment of a music teacher. Of course, of course, there is a college of music nearby our apartment. Students, with differing skills and who play various instruments were coming for lessons.]
On one occasion, there was such a marvelous combination of violin and piano that I confess I stood in the hallway and luxuriated at the fine, hidden away, performance for several minutes. So exceptional were the musical gifts being practiced behind the door they demanded my slowing down and listening. That is when I first met one of my neighbors. A young woman. We exchanged greetings. She smiled, and stood with me for a moment, listening. “Isn’t this wonderful” she said as she moved on to her apartment.
The doorway to #1408 offers me a valuable lesson in a world chock-full of anonymous, mundane interactions. All around — just on the other side of this anonymity, this troubling news and fear-filled analysis — there is often beauty that I otherwise tend to miss. There is teaching and learning that is going on. There are glorious gifts waiting to be heard, to be seen, to be understood or simply appreciated. Sometimes the gift is offered as a solo, sometimes it is more than one who is sharing.
Then it happened, one afternoon, I met her, the pianist, the teacher.
We were leaving our apartments at the same time. She was almost as I had imagined her to be. Petite, handsome, she was moving carefully to close her door, a violin case in her hand. When I told her how I appreciated the music emanating from her apartment, she seemed surprised, a little worried. “I hope my music isn’t bothering you,” she said. “Bothering?” I reacted. “Not at all! Every time I leave the elevator on the 14th floor, I hope you will be playing. It is the best part of returning.”
I still don’t know her name — this teacher, this beauty maker. That will be remedied one day soon, I will make certain to learn more at the right time. For now, even though we are still moving in anonymous worlds, I receive her gift as a reminder that my senses are often too dull to receive other offerings.
What gifts around us do we miss each day? What gifts might we be sharing that we are unaware of at the time? Where are there human and transcendent notes of joy and hope that are muted by the “normal.”
I find that by passing my neighbor’s apartment, even when there is no music, I am reminded to consider such questions — and I am able to approach my day with an anticipation of the gifts all around that I often otherwise miss.
(Our primary residence is in Bloomington, Indiana: we also keep an apartment in Chicago. We love both cities and because we have a couple of grandsons in Chicago, well…)
I am not a certified psychologist or psychiatrist — and the world is a better place for that, I am sure. Still, I will put out my analytic shingle today and offer this — the mental derangement we are experiencing is not just that of one lone-killer. We, corporately, too, suffer from what might be diagnosed as a “Lone Killer-Nation syndrome.”
The horrific events in Las Vegas are quickly assigned to one, single person, Stephen Paddock. It is how we have come to think about such tragic events. Here we have fifty-eight persons slaughtered and another 527 injured, many with life-altering physical and mental traumas. Over the past thirty years we have had nearly double the number of mass shootings as the next twenty-four nations in the world combined. (see: US Ranking in Mass Shootings)
We stand ALONE among the nations. Talk about American exceptionalism! Is this to be a sign of our strength and what we model for the world?
Symptoms of our national derangement:
With 5% of the world’s population, we have over 30% of the mass killings by gun violence?
The U.S. experienced mass murders at the rate of more than one per day in 2017 (see for example the Gun Violence Archieve (Gun Violence).
By ever-widening majorities, our citizens want stronger background checks on gun purchases (90%+), especially military style assault weapons (60%+).
However, these desires by the majority are ignored by legislators who believe they owe their election to support from groups like the NRA.
Researchers now find it necessary to distinguish between “mass murders” and “mass shootings.”
Politicians this week, made uncomfortable by this tragedy, say that “this is not an appropriate time to discuss gun violence in our nation.”
Pundit Bill O’Rielly, in the wake of this tragedy, opines that events like those in Las Vegas are the “Price of Freedom.”
As these killings were being planned in Las Vegas, many in congress were putting together legislation that would offer the option of silencers available on all weapons.
Historically, NRA membership and the sale of assault weapons INCREASES following tragedies like the one in Las Vegas. Stock values of companies that make these weapons increase following such tragedies!
We suffer from LONE-NATION mental derangement. For years the NRA, National Rifle Association, has blocked any effort to adopt common-sense gun control laws in the U.S. Laws, like those that have been implemented in places like Australia, demonstrate that a cure to our illness is possible. However, it will be increasingly difficult. At this point, we have more guns than citizens in our nation. Unwilling to control them, we have come to a point where these hundreds of million weapons are pointed directly at us, at our children and the children of every one of us — Republican, Independent or Democrat. There was no discrimination at that concert in Las Vegas — and this is what we are accepting in the future? Talk about CRAZY!
Yes, Stephen Paddock, committed an unimaginable atrocity — a lone gunman. “Las Vegas,” is now added to our internal maps of fear, joining “San Bernadino,” “Orlando,” “Columbine,” “Aurora,” “Newtown,” “Virginia Tech” and dozens of other tragedies.
Stephen Paddock had 23 weapons of war in his hotel room. Another 19 guns were found at his home. This along with thousands of rounds of ammunition. Many of these weapons used by Paddock were purchased at the Guns and Guitars store in Mesquite, Nevada. The store’s manager reported that he followed all of the procedures and background checks required. Really? This is the price of freedom — Really?
No, this is not the price of freedom, it is the cost of our societal derangement.
Almost autumn; rouge-tinged leaves hint that a soon-to-arrive-change is near. Rotund tomatoes have captured a summer filled with both promise and tragedy. It is time… to remember, to move on.
Saturday morning and a visit to our hometown Farmers’ Market. A much-needed respite, today’s early gifts.
Our overripe national drama could cause one to despair, to wonder if a return to normal can be gained, or regained.
From near and far are images of tragedy… a nursing home in Hollywood Hills, Florida, opioid overdoses down the street, a denuded Virgin Island paradise, mud, posturing politicians, mold, South Texas languishing, St. Louis marching in step with decades of accumulated grievance. Politicians preen, speak sly words and pose for photo-op-displays-of-compassion. These televised images vie for attention alongside heartless racist-tinged rhetoric.
Will our national identity be reduced to cheap reality television episodes? Are we prisoners to shallow, disjointed actions and pathetic promises? “Everyone will be happy”!? Is this reality? Fake becomes real, while the real, the true, is declared fake. Don’t lose your balance fellow pilgrims-of-hope.
Even here, especially here, there is truth… there is music, poetry and beauty. So much fine produce at the market, stacked high, even okra (mostly for my spouse) and summers-end sweet corn (mostly for me). The community band plays sweet summers-end music. Abide With Me as it tunes up for the morning. Tune to the “A.” Some things do remind one of stability. Abide…
Sweet corn, ripe tomatoes, sweet music and poetry abide. Justice will prevail. Our belief in respect and decency will survive this cruel passage. It is clear in the acts of human compassion evidenced in the places of unimaginable destruction. From St. Johns, a family shares space under their tarpaulin. One visits a nearby hospital — just a brief word, a smile and a prayer. We applaud as early response teams arrive in Texas and Florida, and ahead of them are thousands-upon-thousands of cleaning kits, (flood buckets), arriving along with a piece of our hearts.
How will we know the way? What direction and pace shall we travel? Poetry directs us beyond the limits of here and now. Friend Walter Wangerin, Jr. calls our name:
I am the World-Rim-Walker.
I tread the sheer crags
Where night and daylight
Contour one other.
So we journey ahead as Rim Walkers toward the Eternal. Between the tragedy and treat offered in the daily news cycles and our truest hope found in the dignity of human beings at their best. Here and there… we move forward.
These are our compass points. Smiles and greetings. New friends met and old friends greeted. Fresh eggs, ripe tomatoes, kale and spinach now join honey, music and poetry to point to our pathway ahead. We journey together fellow Rim Walkers.
May your late summer be filled with laughter, joy and the reminders of taken-for-granted beauty all around. Together let us continue to walk in ways that rebut and rebuke the vapid efforts to divert us from the ways of our truest hope.
*Poem The Wanderer is from “The Absolute, Relatively Inaccessible” by Walter Wangerin, Jr., Eugene, Oregon, Cascade Books, 2017.
One month ago, hurricane Harvey formed over the unusually warm waters of the Atlantic. Hurricane Irma was not far behind. Day by day since, we have been transfixed by images of calamity. First the Caribbean Islands. Then, the Texas Gulf. Then, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina – a full month’s dosage of disaster. Two of the most destructive hurricanes on record hit the United States only days apart.
What does this do to our limbic system, especially the amygdala, the mechanism in our brain that regulates responses to fear? What happens to our moral compass? Our spiritual perspective? These disasters come on top of months of upheaval in our national body-politic.
In my consciousness at least, these tragedies have moved from my thinking “isn’t that sad for those poor folks; I might do something” to “these are my family and friends; I will respond!”
You might consider these hurricanes “slow disasters.” (Hurricane Harvey stayed for days over south Texas. Rainfall was measured in feet, not inches. Irma, moved ever so slowly, eventually covering the entire state of Florida. Painfully slowly tracking up through Georgia and South Carolina, with ripping wind and record flood, and giving Atlanta the first ever “tropical storm” in its history.)
While these disasters seemed unending, they are but a tiny fragment of a much larger, slower disaster that has been unfolding over decades. A few courageous folks spoke of this larger reality, this SLOW DISASTER. As Hurricane Harvey approached his city, Republican Mayor Tomás Regalado said: “This is the time to talk about climate change. This is the time that the president and the [Environmental Protection Agency] and whoever makes decision needs to talk about climate change.” Mayor Regalado told the Miami Herald “This is truly, truly the poster child for what is to come.” (See: Miami Mayor Calls on Honest Climate Change Talk.) Brave man — truth teller he.
In contrast, last week EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt opined, “It is very, very insensitive to talk about climate change in the wake of such extreme storms.” Astonishing denial, this.
In the face of such clear evidence regarding the changes that have been slowly underway for decades, Pruitt seeks to somehow blame those who would tell the truth. He continues his assault on those who have been warning of such horrors surrounding the environmental degradation of our common home for decades.
“NO, Secretary Pruitt,” we need to say, “YOUR deceits and those who join you in such chicanery are undermining the future well-being of our grandchildren. You blow and blow and blow your hot air into a continuing SLOW DISASTER.” On the hurricane scale this is a magnitude 5 level storm-of-denial.
Painful as it may be to admit, we need to have the truth spoken, here and now. Calling any talk of climate change now “very insensitive” reminds me of what was said by a few following the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook, when it was suggested that it was an inappropriate time to speak about gun control!
It may be an uncomfortable time to speak — but speak we must. The evidence is abundant. Our climate is changing! We can trust science — our arctic and our glaciers are melting. Seas are warming and rising everywhere, threatening low-lying communities around the globe. While no one can as yet exactly measure how the magnitude of the hurricanes is directly related to human activity, we are shifting more and more from awful storms to catastrophes. As David Leonhardt writes, “Climate change doesn’t seem to increase the frequency of hurricanes, but it does seem to increase their severity” (David Leonhardt, New York Times, 9-12-17).
I remember well the late 1960s when we were told that research wasn’t yet clear enough to link cigarette smoking with cancer. It’s time to work with facts on the ground and in the air. Meanwhile Mr. Pruitt a climate change denier, is pulling the plug on critical research his agency has been carrying out for decades because he doesn’t like the science pointing to a SLOW DISASTER.
Yesterday, in Chicago, skies to the northwest were of a hazy orange hue, as they have been for weeks — this from wildfires in Saskatchewan and Manitoba Provinces in Canada. Smoke dims our skies from over a thousand miles away. And today, from the southeast, circles of clouds are arriving as left over signs from Hurricane Irma. Our global ecology and our local ecology are interrelated. Climate patterns covering thousands of miles these are. And we have before us slow disasters that are decades in the making.
A part of our dilemma in speaking about these tragedies is our cultural propensity to extend too easy blame or to believe in retribution. More astonishing than Secretary Pruitt’s comments were those made by television evangelists like Jim Bakker who suggested that the hurricanes were a part of God’s judgement on our nation. In the process Mr. Bakker was quick to sell survival kits to prepare his viewers for the end times. Yikes — now that is a stretch.
Then there is Rush Limbaugh who decided the increasing severity of hurricanes was simply being fabricated by the media — or by corporate America to sell more products by creating panic among the people. He suggested that the severity of the hurricane hitting Florida was overblown. Tell that to the folks in the Keys, Naples or Jacksonville today, Rush. Of course, Limbaugh managed to fly out of South Florida to safety elsewhere just before the hurricane arrived.
How do these “truthers” prosper? What gives them any agency in our world? Perhaps it is our inability to live with the complexities around the unintended consequences we face. Perhaps it is the hope that we will not be implicated in the creation of these slow disasters or that we can avoid the lifestyle changes that will be required. Perhaps we understand that folks are too easily blamed for things beyond their control. I live in Indiana — a place where tornadoes often occur. I don’t think I cause them. Even so, they seem to be gaining in frequency, size and destructive power. It is not my fault that I choose to live here.
However, each of us has contributed to small changes in climate that aggregate and rebound — an unintended consequence to our society’s lifestyle choices. In places like Houston and Miami, there have been patterns of development or loose zoning practices that clearly contribute to the scale of flooding and hurricane damage. Unwise development and the loss of barrier islands has been going on for decades in Louisiana, Texas and Florida — it has been a SLOW DISASTER.
How then shall we live? Three things have benefited me:
1) I have chosen to change the way I begin each day. It has been good for my limbic system — prayer before work or the news. Instead of beginning each day with the newspaper or some work project, I spend my first moments in prayer, reading scripture and writings from other religious traditions.
It helps. Here are some examples:
From Buddhist writings I found, “Teach this triple truth to all: a generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”
From the New Testament, Philippians 4:6 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
From the Prayer for Patient Trust by Teilhard de Chardain: Above all trust in the slow work of God.
2) Seek to be better educated and work with others on addressing climate change at your local level. For me this has meant working with the Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light(www.hoosieripl.org) group in Indiana and the Creation Care Alliance among United Methodists (http://www.inumc.org/creationcare).
3) Support groups that work nationally and internationally to address the reality we face with the SLOW DISASTERS surrounding climate change.
So, in the face of denial and systems of blame, there are ways to work with a quiet and joyful heart to seek to join with others in “the slow work of God.”
Many of you have been doing this for a long time — I learn from you — together let’s do what we can to turn SLOW DISASTERS into MOVEMENT FOR STEADY RENEWAL IN HOPE.
Our pugilistic president has once more sought to bully his way past the moral and legal heritage we together claim as a nation. Much has already been said about his pathetic performance in Trump Tower on Tuesday, 8-15-17. He spoke his mind. In the process truth, his presidency and our nation’s standing in the world were diminished. It was a shameful moment that will, I suspect, become a central moment identified as the end any prospect to provide ethical leadership.
Increasingly, however, my concern is not primarily about Mr. Trump’s bigotry and failings. He is clearly not up to the job, intellectually or morally. His ignorance and intolerance are, sadly, no longer astonishing. My concern is now with those folks who continue to stand behind him.
It was rather graphically portrayed on Tuesday. There, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York were several Cabinet Secretaries standing behind as he spoke — each one of whom would be on the enemies list of the hate groups marching in Charlottesville.
The question before us all now is where do we stand? Political leaders — Republican, Democrat and Independent — have spoken out against the moral equivalency arguments misused by the president yesterday. However, this still begs the question about WHERE THEY WILL STAND GOING FORWARD?
We watch as one by one, folks leave their posts in the White House. Increasingly, many of these folks, fine people they, leave this administration with their reputations in tatters. They have, as the old joke goes, “Tried to teach a pig to sing.” The futility of this effort is identified as follows, “it only wastes your time and it annoys the pig.” As we have already seen there is a pathetic kind of musical chairs being played out in an administration that has no guiding set of principles other than the hope of returning us to a world that never existed — to the mythical land of “Make America Great Again.”
Romans 12:21 commends the faithful as follows: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” How then shall we live?
Is Mr. Trump redeemable? Yes, of course, as a person. I am a Christian pastor, after all, and I do believe in conversion. However, there is another question which we must consider: “Is this presidency redeemable?” To that I would answer “NO.” We have now passed the point of no-return for this administration. I speak for myself, and I regret to say, I suspect this is now the sentiment of a majority of others in our nation.
What then to do? Yes, you guessed it — we begin with ourselves — let’s start there. If we are not going to stand behind this fatally flawed president what will we do?
Years ago there was an Open Housing campaign that ran ads in national newspapers with the headline “Your Heart May Be in the Right Place But Are You?” As I suggested earlier this week on this blog, we need to reach across the many divides in our society (there are more than two, Mr. President) and build and rebuild what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.
(I am avoiding the question of what wasn’t done that allowed us to get to this place. I look around my denomination — United Methodism — and see our failures. We were so busy trying to grow our congregations that we missed what was happening in our communities. We allowed racist perceptions, fears of the undocumented and discrimination against gay persons to distort our Christian witness. We sought to “grow” our congregations by filling them up with people like ourselves.)
We need to be honest about the ways economic exclusion and racism have denied opportunities and allowed our nation to value crony capitalism and violence as our tools of choice when facing complex problems. For those of us who are perceived to be “white” and have thereby benefited from this underlying racial advantage, we need to rethink how we spend our time and resources. We may need to rethink our paternalistic styles of “helping the poor” as these often do more damage than good.
And, yes, we must support corporate, civic and political leaders who will no longer stand behind this president’s misguided set of words and actions.
We saw some corporate leaders take that step away in recent days, leaving the president’s manufacturing council. In every place now possible, I am prepared to argue that folks need to step away. Find a political leader who has a clear moral compass. Encourage and support him or her.
Send words of support to those corporate and political leaders who do step away and say, “Thank you for modeling true patriotism and the best of our citizenship by no longer following this misguided, confused man.” I believe our democracy is up to it. I pray our democracy is up to it.
Post Script — Why My Strong Words:
I have wondered if I should respond to the president’s words yesterday. After all, I don’t have much in the way of authority or agency. My words might only do damage or cause pain… perhaps even be painful to persons I love and respect. However, I haven’t exactly been a wilting violet in the past — and, there is a sense that each one of us needs to now join in seeking to be a bit more bold and honest if we are to seek a peaceful and healthy nation and world. I also decided to write after seeing the video attached below. It is chilling to see the intentions of hatred from the inside white supremacists. So, I have added my small voice — more, I pledge my actions on the behalf of reconciliation and stronger communities.
Perhaps Mr. Trump mistakes loud verbal fisticuffs with moral strength. Sad. He stepped off script and spoken his mind yesterday. Among the many utterly foolish things said a the press conference in Trump Tower yesterday (8-15-17) were these words: “I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story.” No, Mr. President, you are wrong. There are many sides.
As persons from MANY sides are saying today, there is no moral equivalency between Neo-Nazis, KKK and other supremacists with those who were counter protesters. The president says he took time to gather the evidence before he spoke. Really? Has this been our experience over the months of this twitter presidency? I wonder if he took the time to see the images in the video on White supremacists on Vice News video on HBO. This remarkable coverage, from inside the hate group, gives a clear picture of the violence intended leading to the tragic events. Surely Mr. Trump could and should have this information — AND MORE. He is, after all, the president of the United States.
There are multiple sides to our nation’s story. Perhaps Mr. Trump is only able to work in a binary world of either this / or that. However, this is a nation that continues to benefit when our leaders have a moral center and when they seek to unify rather than divide.
Some have recently suggested to me that I should be equally concerned about the hatred and violence expressed by groups on the left. All such hatred and violence must stop — I am concerned, yes, but not equally. The reality is that the actual criminality, on the streets, is not comparable in threat or in our response to it. White supremacists represent more than 90% of the violence visited on us by terrorists-made-in-America in recent years. Most tragically, these supremacist groups have been validated and sustained by the beliefs and actions of staff persons currently serving on the White House. When David Duke praises the courage of Donald Trump for his words yesterday, there is no clearer witness needed to the danger that is at hand.
As best as I can recall, I met Warren in the early 1980s. Warren professed himself to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I met him because Will told me I should.
We lived in a core-city neighborhood in Evansville, Indiana at the time. There were reports of several rape attempts in our neighborhood. The assailant was said to be an African-American man. Soon after these reports began, we learned that the Ku Klux Klan was going to patrol the neighborhood to protect our “white women” in our racially diverse community. What to do? Our ministry, known as Patchwork Central Ministries, was located in the center of this aggression, violation and fear-filled response. What to do?
Memories of these days have come rushing back into my mind this weekend. Seeing the hate-filled actions and language of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia has brought back images and stories now more than thirty years old. Some things have changed over the decades but, sadly, other things have not. Without recounting all of the ways we prayed, and we made strategies, and sought to give Christian witness back then, I would share one thing that proved most helpful. Someone, perhaps it was Calvin Kimbrough, suggested I should “talk with Will.” To say “Will” was enough. He didn’t need a last name — I knew it was Will Campbell in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. We had recently read Will’s book “Brother to a Dragonfly.” He was a wonderful part of our tribe — a progressive Evangelical Christian! So I called him.
Mississippi born and a graduate of Yale Divinity School, Will was not only known for his engagement in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans but was also known for developing friendships with a whole range of people including members of the Ku Klux Klan. You see, Will took this Christian Gospel for ALL PEOPLE stuff seriously.
I called Will, left a message and, in a day or so, he returned the call. Explaining our situation, he replied, “The first thing you need to do, is to say to the Klan ‘NO, YOUR ACTIVITIES ARE NOT WELCOME IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD.'” That sounded good — We had already done that — said “NO.”
Then, Will, stumped me, surprised me. He confused me. Will asked, “What are the names of the Klan people you know?” NAMES? Will thought I would know their names! He thought I might know THEM? I confessed that I didn’t know any of those folks. He said, “Well, then, what the hell you been doing? You better get started. It is not enough to say ‘no.’ Now, your next step is to reach out to the Klan folks as people.” There are many stories of the way Will Campbell reached out, made friendships, and shared the gospel with folks with whom he strongly disagreed. He was a radical Christian in that he didn’t set up limits to where reconciliation and renewal might occur. Will Campbell believed in the power of Christian witness and love.
I don’t remember the exact sequence of events that followed, one thing led to another and I meet some of the folks who said they were members of the Klan. I remember Warren especially. Warren and I talked on several occasions. In fact, I invited him to our Sunday evening worship — and he attended — several times. He listened, stayed and ate dinner with the group.
The story of that season in our neighborhood moves on in many directions. The rapes ended. I don’t remember that anyone was ever caught. Then there was the evening in worship when the offering was taken. After receiving communion persons might leave something in the offering plate. Sometimes it was money, sometimes a poem, sometimes a prayer request, sometimes a drawing. On this evening, I watched as Warren made his way forward and dropped something heavy in the offering basket. As soon as worship was over and dinner was about to begin, I took the offering basket to the office. There I found a few dollars, prayer requests and Warren’s membership card in the Klan. And, yes, there was also a 22 calibre revolver.
Warren disappeared shortly after this. I called his phone a few times with no response. I went to his home once in a nearby town. Knocked on the door. There was no response. I left a note for Warren. He had disappeared. Word came from one of his friends that he had gone back to his hometown in Southern Illinois. Did he leave the Klan for good? Was this a sign of a conversion? Or, just a chance to make a new start? Maybe that is what conversion meant for Warren — and for me.
For me, Will taught that I needed to “know a name — and a person” if I am also going to condemn and say “NO” to their words and behaviors.
As I have thought about Charlottesville and the evil exemplified there this past weekend, I am reminded of a sermon that Dr. William Pannell preached years ago. He began by saying that he was going to use the ugliest four letter word in the English vocabulary. It was, he said, “the word THEM.”
Let me ask you, good reader, the question that Will Campbell asked me years ago. After you have said “NO,” (something we must do as a nation), do we know their names? My conversion continues — how about you?
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.