Slow Down to Be the Church Well

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In the past two weeks, I have devoted most of my weekends to making new friends, reacquainting with old friends, and learning how to do church better (HINT: Based on my experience at these events, it appears to require a lot of dialogue, listening, singing, and eating).

Last weekend I attended the first ever Slow Church Conference hosted by the Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis (April 3-5). This weekend, I served as a delegate for the Church of the Larger Fellowship to the first ever MidAmerica Regional Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (April 11-12), a conference in four locations—Bloomington, IN—Topeka, KS—Wassau, WI—Ann Arbor, MI—linked via twitter and live streaming technology.

I learned valuable lessons at each event, with surprisingly similar messages resonating around the lunch table, in the hallways, and workshop rooms of each.

Here’s just a few the questions still stirring things up for me:What would I learn about others and myself if I attended to both with more intention?

  • How would my life be transformed if I quit spending my time or investing my time in things and people who matter to me and, rather, devote myself to them, being fully present to them?
  • What spiritual practices am I willing to devote myself to in order to fulfill my role in reconciling and restoring all things (Missio Dei) from a perspective of abundance and abiding faith rather than an anxiety-ridden, often frenzied sense of urgency?
  • How would our churches change if we adopted the prayer, “Spirit, run us into the people we wouldn’t want to.” (Willie Jennings)?
  • Do I know my church’s history? Why are we where we are? How did we arrive at this place? What implications does it have?What obligations do we have to the place in which we find ourselves?
  • What changes must we make to live into the place we find ourselves?
  • How would our response to mission change if we committed to being with people more than doing for people?
  • Where can I go in the neighborhood to meet God today?
  • What if changing the world really means changing our little corner of it through faithful presence?
  • How do we do this all together, overcoming the terminal individualism characterized by our fragmented contemporary society?

Check out what others have said and let me know in the comments what is stirring for you?

We are lucky to have the audio of Willie Jennings’ keynote address (and Q & A session) that set the tone of the Slow Church Conference Thursday evening as well as the Rev. Ron Robinson’s summary of Dr. Jennings’ keynote posted to Facebook. Thank you to Chris Smith and the folks who got the audio up as well as to Ron Robinson for generously sharing his thoughts on this vital topic.

 

I live tweeted most of my notes, so I put together a story on Storify comprised of tweets from both conferences for folks to check out at the link above or embedded below.

 

Photo Credit: Slow Church Sign by Sara Sterley (@sx2 on Twitter)

Beloved Community Beyond Our Church Walls

Spiral Mandala

January is the time when in the states, we honor and celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of Beloved Community that MLK frequently addressed in his writing and sermons. I am grateful to the wise and wonderful Rev. Johanna Crawford for providing some background and new perspectives on this important theological concept. I particularly love the visual of the ever expanding circle of community that we are called to bring about here on earth. 

Beloved Community is not held within our church walls. As soon as you begin to think like that, you have moved into the exact opposite of beloved community, because in creating that definition of community, you have necessarily created otherness.Rev. Johanna Crawford

Check out her full post, “Beloved Community: The Now and Not Yet” at the Boots and Blessings blog.

Photo Credit: “Spiral Mandala” by Jim Bubgardner (interactive version)

In Medias Res

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Thanks to the gentle nudge of a new friend and mentor, I am finally getting around to starting a blog. Where to begin? In the middle of things of course. This blog will be largely dedicated to documenting the progress of a liberal religious community in early formation that I’m a part of. We started on this journey in June 2012 learning quite a bit during our first year. I may get around to telling you our history and from whence we have come one of these days.

For now I will start right here, 15 months into it. We recently returned from a fantastic retreat weekend in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the site of the first Life on Fire un-conference. It was a fabulous weekend to network with other folks aspiring to live more authentically by enacting a mission-driven culture in liberal faith communities.

I made my way to Oak Ridge with thirteen fellow sojourners from our group, provisionally known as the Free Range Unitarian Universalists of Indianapolis (FRUU). What possessed me to drive 6+ hours through the Smoky Mountains on a three-day weekend, you ask?

Over the course of the last two years, I had reached a turning point spiritually. Thanks to a gifted preacher and spiritual guide, I found a way to integrate the religion of my upbringing with my current faith journey. I also realized that the way church is done in some Unitarian Universalist communities could be so much more—more joyful, more engaged, more transformational, more vital, more relevant.

Plato's Allegory of the Cave (click to watch the video)

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (click to watch the video)

My experience was akin to what the prisoner likely felt upon rising up out of the cave into the sunlight for the first time in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I knew I could no longer be satisfied with the flickering shadows on the wall. I could not go back to doing church the old way. It was painful to even contemplate.

So we set out to build a new way to be in religious community with one another. One of our members, a former Disciples of Christ minister, preached a good sermon for us one Sunday framing our journey in the context of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, “Welcome to the Wilderness.” The metaphor has stuck this entire year and proved quite apt at times. We’ve had to draw on faith to keep us going, unsure of what our next move would be or if it would bear fruit. Along the way we have learned to set aside small differences and build trust in one another to sustain us through the tough times.

Inhale Love. Exhale Compassion. Repeat.

vigil-meditation

Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.
—Cornel West

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
—St. Francis of Assisi

Now this is something I can do

In three days, the Indiana House would vote on HJR-3, a proposed amendment to our state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage.  It would also ban recognition of anything substantially similar to marriage such as civil unions and domestic partnerships.

My friend Diana had approached me for help organizing a protest prayer and meditation circle at the statehouse.

At this time, in this place, the least I can do is hold space for peace, love, and compassion.

With no time to lose, we got to work crafting an invitation and notifying the folks in the Freedom Indiana campaign to coordinate site logistics.

I could meditate, sending loving-kindness to everyone in the statehouse on both sides of this issue. This much I could do.

I was so relieved that Diana was organizing this event.

Knowing there would be an oasis of peaceful loving energy emanating through the halls of the statehouse somehow made it bearable to be there.  Maybe I could endure the divisive rhetoric, the chaotic energy of demonstrators, and the tension in the air that would surely be present that day. 

The early days

Over a decade ago, I was on the front lines of this struggle as a founding member of the Indiana Transgender Rights Advocacy Alliance (INTRAA) and Indiana Equality, the statewide coalition originally formed to fight employment discrimination in the LGBT community.

We got pulled into fighting the same-sex marriage ban fairly quickly.

In 2003, the backlash to Massachusetts legalizing same-sex marriage was swift and furious. Powerful political interests preyed on people’s fears, employing a strategy of getting marriage amendments on ballot initiatives nationwide in order to turn out conservative voters and consolidate political power.

Their strategy worked very well, too.

By November 2004, eleven states had amended their constitution to include a ban on same-sex marriage. By 2006, ten more states joined them (“History of Same-Sex Marriage in the US, 1970 to Now”, The Boston Globe).

The tide seemed unstoppable.

It’s no wonder at that time, no real money or resources were coming in to Indiana to help us fight this assault. We were a deeply red state, easily written off as a lost cause. Those of us left to do the work were all volunteers holding down “real” jobs and doing this on the side.

But we persisted anyway, reaching deep into our own pockets to fund the efforts, taking time off work, sitting down with friends to ask for money to defray printing and mailing costs (oh yeah, no Facebook to help us get the word out either). Sure, major Indiana employers like Eli Lilly and Cummins would issue statements opposing the measure, but the big checks were not forthcoming. Burn-out was always nipping at our heels.

It was a Sisyphean effort, and the best we could hope for was to delay what seemed inevitable. Ironically, thanks to the conservative nature of Indiana, a constitutional amendment must first pass unamended in two consecutively elected state legislatures before it can go to the people to be ratified.

Our strategy was simple enough: keep resetting the clock. 

Someday, perhaps this relentless assault from the right wing would dissipate or die of its own accord.

Those were difficult times. I eventually succumbed to the burn-out and retreated, leaving the fight to the next generation, who I prayed had the energy and stamina to see it through.

A new strategy

So, with memories of these past experiences on my mind, last Monday on my lunch hour I made my way with my meditation cushion and yoga blanket to the statehouse.

I may not be up for the political machinations anymore, but I could meditate, sending loving-kindness to everyone in the statehouse on both sides of this issue.

This much I could do.

Even though my husband and I are legally married in Indiana, as a transgender couple our marriage is not truly protected until same-sex marriage is also recognized. 

It’s a hell of thing to watch with bated breath as people in positions of power wield it against you and the people you love, all in the name of “letting the people decide” if you should have basic rights others enjoy.

Even though my husband and I are legally married in Indiana, as a transgender couple, we know our marriage is not truly protected until same-sex marriage is also legally recognized. Friends of ours in similar circumstances have faced legal challenges to their marriages, usually posthumously. When the surviving spouse should be mourning, they are instead fighting protracted legal battles with insurance companies over survivor benefits.

For the past thirteen years, we have been careful about who we let in, about who we share our truth with. Just writing these words here scares me, and I realize once again, how difficult it is to live authentically, to own your story and share it with others, when you fear retribution for simply being who you are.

That’s why I was eternally grateful to Diana and other friends from church who were present last week as the House debated a proposed amendment to HJR-3 that would strike the second line banning civil unions and domestic partnerships.

In times like this, seasoned advocates like to think we are impervious to the rhetoric of hate, that we’ve heard it all before and know what to expect. Even so, as the Speaker announced it was time to take up HJR-3, I instinctively moved closer to my friends. There seemed to be safety in that circle which just hours before had been filled with loving peaceful energy from the meditation and prayer vigil.

Now, we huddled outside the House chamber waving signs and watching the television monitors closely.

The vote

With a republican super majority in both chambers and the backing of Governor Mike Pence, passing HJR-3 unamended seemed like a sure bet. Had our luck finally run out?

But then something miraculous happened.

A few brave republicans proposed, then argued passionately for the second clause to be struck down. And even more miraculously, enough broke ranks with their caucus and joined the democrats to pass the amendment to HJR-3 by two votes (52-43), potentially resetting the clock on the ballot initiative yet again! 

What happened next, I did not see coming.

As most people were cheering joyously, I broke down. I could not stop crying. I reached out and Diana was there for me. She held me whispering softly over and over, “It’s alright. It’s going to be all right.”

Her husband encircled us both with his arms, and I knew she was right. It may not happen this week or this year, but eventually it will be all right. We will all be able to share the untold stories inside of us without apology or fear.

What a day that will be!

Later, I understood my emotional release that night in the context of a story the Rev. Meg Riley told upon hearing President Obama’s remarks affirming LGBT citizens’ lives in the wake of the DOMA and Prop 8 Supreme Court decisions last summer.

She said that when she heard those words from a sitting president, places deep inside of her she didn’t even know were broken started to heal.

Diana is right when she realized, “My friends are harboring deep wounds and that healing is desperately needed—in our families, in our political system, in our media, in our culture, and in our country.”

Thank you for being there for me as part of me broke open and started to heal that night.

Building Bridges, #1023 in Singing the Journey

Building bridges between our divisions.
If I reach out to you, will you reach out to me?
With all of our voices and all of our visions,
Friends, we can make such sweet harmony.

LISTEN

This post is part of the 30 Days of Love UU Blog-a-thon. Be sure to check out other posts in the series and sign up for more from 30 Days of Love: A Spiritual Journey of Social Justice sponsored by the Standing on the Side of Love campaign.

Welcoming the Stranger

Welcome Stranger by jonathanpercy (flickr)

I just returned from an eye-opening interactive event called “Welcoming the Stranger: What’s at Risk?” as part of the annual Spirit and Place festival here in Indianapolis. I got to experience what it might be like to be a recently relocated immigrant to a city where I had few resources and did not speak the dominant language. About 80 of us participated in the activity which lasted 2 hours. Many were assigned individuals to role play. Some were children as young as two years old, others school age. Then there were adults, some with jobs, others without. Many were undocumented immigrants with limited English proficiency.

I was asked to sit at a table and “be the church” in the neighborhood. I was given some money and food/clothing vouchers and a page full of guidelines and rules. The church ran a homeless shelter, but the shelter also had many rules and guidelines I was supposed to follow. My guidelines instructed that no family could stay in the shelter for more than 2 weeks. There were limitations on the amount of money I was supposed to give to any individual, and I was supposed to document in a ledger all the referrals to other agencies I made.

I learned that people often have different needs than helping institutions assume are the priority.

It was an awesome experience. I learned that I had more money in my coffers than the guidelines said I would have, so I took that as a sign that the church had recently had a huge fundraiser to support our community outreach efforts. I gave out freely without regard to the rules. Based on the missional concept that the “church” is not confined to the four walls of the building, I also made weekly trips to the “jail” to visit with folks who had been detained for a variety of non-violent offenses mainly due to language barriers. I was even able to bail some of them out and get others work (if they didn’t have a green card, I employed them at the church and paid them under the table).

What I learned was even though we had lots of resources to give out, I ended up with left over vouchers and petty cash at the end of the simulation. People needed me to help them find where to go to get things done much more often. They needed help navigating the rest of the system. Where to buy food, where to take their kids to day care, how to apply for disability, go to school, etc. Each of those stations existed in the simulation space, but they were labeled in different languages that not many of us spoke (e.g., Croatian, Hungarian, etc).

The invitation I accepted as part of the simulation of "Welcoming the Stranger" I participated in last Sunday.

“Could you be the church?” The invitation I accepted as part of the simulation of “Welcoming the Stranger” I participated in last Sunday.

At the beginning of the exercise, when the families were all still in their homes (i.e., chairs set up in groups of four in the center of the room), I took the opportunity to go around to all of the agencies in the neighborhood (i.e., tables set up on the perimeter of the room) to try to figure out what role each played in the community. I went back to the church and drew a map of the room so I could make better referrals. I then took the “rules and guidelines” sheet and drew a bunch of religious symbols on the back of it — Hindu, Muslim, Tao, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc. I wanted folks to know where the church was in town, since my station was labeled in a language very few people in the room would understand. I hoped the symbols would help. I held up my sign so people would know where to come for help.

I learned that people often have different needs than helping institutions assume are the priority. I expected people to come for the stuff I had to offer: the money and the food / clothing. But it worked out differently. In the first few minutes very few people voluntarily approached the church. And when they did, they would hesitate to ask for help directly. And they expected that there was some quid pro quo involved, like we would make them join the church in order to get services. I told them they were welcome to come to services on Sunday if they liked, but it was not necessary.

I learned that a handshake and a smile go a long way to breaking the ice and can take desperate people quite off guard. I also learned that there is simply a dizzying amount of legal documents that immigrants need to navigate and that I, as a native speaker, even could not decipher. Eventually even the windfall of resources the church had in its folder started to run short.  Two different families came to ask for help each with a similar problem: one adult member could not find work because of they did not have the money to pay the legal services to file the application for a work permit. I had neither the money nor the expertise to help them fill out the paperwork or properly file it. It was an awful feeling. Compounding the sense of helplessness, I was working with a nine-year-old interpreter for a father who could not speak the same language I was speaking. I was basically turning away a nine year old.

Our mission field just showed up at our door. We could embrace it or reject it, and we chose to embrace it. ~George Robinson

It was very good to experience this with so many others. We debriefed the exercise afterward. At our table, we had a couple of folks who were children of immigrants and lived through many of the experiences we got a taste of in the simulation. They testified to the realities reflected in the simulation. Their stories were powerful.

The church that hosted the event, First Baptist, not 15 minutes from my house, has become a second home to a large population of Burmese refugees in the last 6 years. They describe it as a church within a church where the immigrant families hold their own services and sometimes have twice as many people in attendance than the original congregation.

“Our mission field just showed up at our door. We could embrace it or reject it, and we chose to embrace it.”George Robinson, Director of First Baptist Athletics

 Talk about a mission having a church! Would that we all could follow such an courageous example.

To help their congregation understand the new reality they live in, both the long-term members and the newer ones, First Baptist helped establish and provides office space for a new community organization. For more information, visit the Burmese Community Education Center.

The transformational work the folks at First Baptist are doing is truly inspiring.

 

 

Photo Credit: jonathanpercy (flickr)