The Ban on Refugees Is Personal For Us


IMG_1555 2On Wednesday, my community got together to celebrate.

Our congregation has been preparing since June to host a refugee family.  We heard last week that we have finally been matched with a family from Afghanistan with two parents and four children.  We planned a meeting for this past Wednesday to celebrate and to hear reports from every team that has been working on the project.

The Housing Team went first.  After touring a number of affordable rental communities in the area, an off-hand comment led us to a local church that owns a town home nearby.  We negotiated an agreement to rent this home for our family.

The Furnishings Team has been at work for a couple of months now, cleaning, repairing and fully furnishing the home.  Dozens of people donated beautiful furniture as well as every other possible supply a house might need:  sheets and pillows and towels and cleaning supplies and paper goods and toothbrushes and children's books and more.  When we found out that one of the children is 14 months old, the Furnishings Team went into overdrive finding a crib, a high chair, car seats and various supplies to child-proof the house.  The team reached out to friends from the local mosque and invited them to tour the house and make suggestions.  With their help, our team added a Koran and prayer rugs to the furnishings.

The Food and Clothing Team kicked into action once we knew the country of origin of the family and the ages of the kids.  They shopped for pajamas and winter coats.  Anxious to stock the pantry with food our family will recognize and enjoy, the team visited some Afghan restaurants and spoke to the cooks and staff.  They made notes on the brands of rice to buy and the stores where they could take the family to shop.

The Transportation Team has gone way beyond collecting a list of people who would be willing to drive our family to appointments.  They've met with staff from our Regional Transportation office and learned about every local bus line.  They have made contact with someone who set them up with scheduling software and have run trainings for their volunteers on how to use it.

The Employment Team got to work way before we knew what skills our family might have when they arrive.  They learned about local employers who might hire someone with limited skills in English.  They reached out to restaurant owners and others who employ recent immigrants from the Middle East.  They networked and strategized.

The Welcome Team (include the remarkable Rebecca Dietz, pictured above) has been meeting regularly for months to learn about Middle Eastern culture and Islam.  They reached out to our local mosque and made deep connections there with a group who is also working to aid refugees.  They sponsored a worship exchange between our congregation and the mosque and hosted two evenings of conversation with our Muslim neighbors about Muslim beliefs and practices.  Once we learned that our family speaks Dari, the Welcome Team went on a quest to find Dari speakers in the community.  They talked to people at Afghan restaurants and reached out to friends of friends.  When someone at the local kabab place shared that her mother speaks Dari, the team reached out and made a personal visit.  They set up an evening for everyone involved with the project to learn more about Afghan culture.

And so on.  There are 14 people on the steering committee for this project but there have been over 50 people actively involved with these six teams.  While our congregation said "YES" to God's call to do this and signed the contract with the resettlement agency, at least five other congregations have donated funds, supplies and time to the project.  We raised over $22,000 towards rent, utilities and other expenses.  

But more than time, more than money, people have given their hearts to this project.  We depend on volunteers to do a lot of things at our church, and a little bit of pleading and cajoling goes with the territory.  Not in this case.  People have offered things before we asked for them.  People have shown up without being invited and have thanked us for giving them an opportunity to respond to the world-wide refugee crisis in some positive way.

On Wednesday, we got together to celebrate all of this.  But that day, a draft of an executive order was leaked to the press which would halt all refugee resettlement in the U.S. for 120 days and significantly reshape it after that.  So along with our prayers of thanksgiving, we held hands and prayed that somehow God would make a way for our family to arrive.  We prayed that executive order would be modified or delayed until after February 8th.  We held hands--Christians, Jews and Muslims together--and cried for our family, for the parents and each of their four children.

President Trump's executive order became official Friday afternoon.  We will not be welcoming our family in February.  No one can tell us if they will ever arrive.  The crib and the car seat.  The bunk beds and prayer rugs.  The special rice and the rocking chairs.  Each one of these things has been prepared for this family.  Each one is a gift from someone in this community whose heart is overflowing with concern and care for the most vulnerable people in the world.  

On Wednesday, I cried, but today I'm organizing.  This work, after all, wasn't just a good deed, a project that I was hoping to accomplish.  This is God's call--to me, to my congregation, and clearly to many other people in this community.  Our work over the past six months has been an expression of our faith that directs each of us and all of us to welcome strangers and to care for those who are without homes.  

This work has been an expression as well of who we are as Americans.  Many of us (my family included) have ancestors who came to this country as refugees.  We love the Statue of Liberty as much as we love the American flag.  This executive order is not just an attack on refugees across the world--it is an affront to the thousands and thousands of people like me and families like mine and churches like mine across this country who have given their heart to welcoming refugees into their community, mentoring and loving them and encouraging them to become a part of what makes this country great.

We are not going away.  We have 120 days to tell our story and make our case for restoring our country's commitment to refugee resettlement.  We welcome you to help us do that.


You Don't Know Me

Imgres-1Last night was rough.  Testimony before the Howard County Council about CB-9 which would designate this community a "Sanctuary County" got underway around 8:00 pm and didn't wrap up until 2:00 am (I only lasted until 10:30 pm).  There were a lot of angry people in the room, most of whom were wearing red shirts or buttons indicating their opposition to the measure.  Because of an earlier commitment, I didn't arrive until a little before 8:00 pm and found a seat among a group of red-clad people who made insulting comments about every person who spoke in favor of the bill as well as the Council members who proposed it.  There were lots of gestures to go along with the comments as well as signs.  I tried to close my eyes and just listen to the testimony, but it was hard.

Testimony had been going on for about an hour when Karina, the young woman who spoke to our congregation this past Sunday, got up to testify.  "My name is Karina," she said into the microphone with a strong voice, "and I am undocumented.  I came to this country illegally from Mexico 11 years ago when I was a child."  The woman my left actually gasped when she said this.  I had a feeling she had never heard someone say such a thing before.

Karina went on to talk about her chance to gain legal status through the DACA program and her desire to give back to the country.  She then addressed Councilman Jon Weinstein directly.  "I ran cross country in high school with your sons.  Please ask them if they ever felt threatened by me."  She talked about how "de-humanizing" it is to be called "an illegal".  She reiterated that she has no interest in committing crimes.  She wants the same thing the rest of us want--a chance to learn, to make a living, to support her family and to feel safe.

The next person who spoke was against CB-9 but had obviously been listening to Karina.  "People like her, who come here as children, well, something should be done about that," he said.  But the testimony quickly went down hill from there.  Throughout the night, many people called undocumented immigrants criminals.  There were lots of references to gangs like MS-13.  "Violent felons" was a term used multiple times.

As I fell asleep last night, all those angry words were swirling through my head.  But when I woke up this morning, I was thinking about Karina.  I was thinking about how much courage it takes for her to tell her story, last night and every day.  She told us on Sunday that the more she speaks out, the more confident she feels.

We talk a lot about "call" at the Kittamaqundi Community.  We do our best to discern God's call on our lives and to shape our lives in response to that call.  When I first came to KC I sometimes wondered if all the talk about call wasn't just a fancy way of saying, "I do what I feel like doing and nothing else."  But I soon lost my cynicism.  It was clear to me that when people really do make a commitment to discern and follow God's call, their lives look different.  They aren't just joining up with the cause-of-the-month.  Their work in the world comes from a much deeper place.  Their actions are connected to who they are, as people.

I think that's why Karina's story has such power.  It doesn't come out of her anger or fear.  It doesn't reflect her political ideology or her desire to for approval.  It comes from a deeper place.  I think she has a call.

Last night's hearing was an education for me.  Call me naive, but I expected to hear a debate focused on whether CB-9 would do anything positive or whether it was unnecessary.  I thought there would be discussion about whether the county would be risking Federal funding if we adopt the resolution.  I didn't realize that people in this county think we should alter the current policy of the county police so that they would become extensions of ICE, the Federal immigration enforcement like they attempted to do in Arizona.  The proposed legislation is a codification of current practice--but that is clearly not enough for a (very vocal) segment of the community.

The people who want to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country are proposing one response to a huge variety of situations.  I am sure that there are people who have come into this country illegally with the intent to do harm.  Other people come with the intent to earn money to send to families back home--they never intend to live her permanently or become citizens.  Other people are fleeing violence in their home countries.  Others a pursuing opportunities.  Others are brought here as children and have no say in the matter.

It is ridiculous to call all of these people criminals, even if they all lack legal status.  I am guessing that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants never commit a crime while they are here.  But this is part of the problem with our broken immigration system.  If it were easier for people to immigrate into this country legally, if the young people who qualify for DACA could get permanent legal status, etc., then it really would make sense to allow the police to enforce immigration law.  If it was much easier for people to immigrate legally, then the people who are here illegally should be regarded with suspicion.  But that simply isn't the case.  There are just way, way too many undocumented people in this country to be able to say anything about all of them as a group.  In order to deny the complexity of the problem (and thus advocate for a one-size-fits-all solution) we would have to deny that people like Karina exist.

But she will not let us do that.  She insists that you look at her and acknowledge that she is not a threat to you.  She insists that you recognize that she is a human being, just like you.  I, for one, find her impossible to ignore.


Sanctuary: Seek First To Understand

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Each year, as Martin Luther King's birthday approaches, I think about the major civil rights issues confronting our country today.  It seems to me that is the best way to honor King and his legacy--not only to remember what he did, but to consider what he would be doing were he alive today.  This year, the King holiday occurred in the middle of a raging debate about whether Howard County should become a "sanctuary county".  Earlier this month, two members of the Howard County Council proposed Council Bill 9 that would prohibit county officials from inquiring about immigration status while conducting their business.  It seemed clear to me and to the team planning worship this month that we should focus on this issue during our worship service on January 15th. Undocumented immigrants are a group of people that live in our country who do not have the same legal protection of their civil rights as the majority of the population.  If King were alive today, we decided, he would certainly be involved in this issue.  

Here's how we decided to engage with the issue:  we invited three young women who are students or graduates of Howard Community College to come and speak about their lives during our service last Sunday. One of the women was sick and couldn't come, but the other two shared their immigration stories with us.  Both came to the United States as children to reunited with parents who were already living and working here.  One came into the country legally (but overstayed her visa) and one crossed the border illegally.  Both currently have status through the DACA program, granted by executive order from President Obama in 2012.  

While I have certainly known undocumented immigrants throughout my life, I had never before had an in-depth conversation about that experience.  The two women who spoke to our congregation this past Sunday were thoughtful and resolute and disarmingly honest.  I was impressed by how committed these young women are to their education and to building careers that will support their families (including their mothers) and allow them to serve others.  They both articulated a desire to work with people in this country and internationally who are in some way "marginalized" as they have been.  

After the service, a person in the congregation said to me, "These women are exactly the kind of people this country should be welcoming--we would be crazy to kick them out."  I had to agree.  The conversation helped me to understand that our policies towards immigration should promote the values we want to see in our community:  commitment to education, to service, and to self-sufficiency.  DACA does that, clearly, and should be preserved and expanded.

I also learned from Sunday's conversation that local sanctuary legislation has value for the immigrant community even though it doesn't really give sanctuary to anyone who has violated Federal immigration law.  Language matters, one of the students explained.  The declaration of the intent to offer sanctuary, even if it falls short in reality, feels like an affirmation of our immigrant residents' value and worth.  That struck me like something King--and for that matter, Jesus--would want to offer.

I didn't begin 2017 with a fixed viewpoint about sanctuary legislation.  I do identify as a Democrat and the bill has been proposed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans.  But immigration has always struck me as an issue that doesn't necessarily parse along party lines.  Barak Obama has deported more people than any other president before him.  George W. Bush advocated strenuously for immigration reform legislation.  And the problems with the current broken system seem so obvious that I thought there would be more common ground between groups that advocate different solutions.

Undocumented immigrants pose a big challenge to any community, including Howard County where there are relatively few due to the extreme affluence of the area.  It seems obvious to me that people who do not have legal status in a community are much less likely to report crimes, testify in court, have drivers licenses or insurance, live in homes that have been legally inspected, or work in jobs are that "on the books".  It also seems obvious to me that when people are living in a country illegally, with no hope of ever becoming legal citizens, they have a different attitude towards the country.  They don't have the same "skin in the game" as those who are citizens--they don't pay the same taxes, they can't be drafted, they can't vote or run for office or serve on a jury.  Those things matter to me.  I value citizenship and I think that every community works better when the vast majority of people in it are citizens.

But I'm also realist, and I don't think deporting 11 million people is a realistic proposition.  It is one of those proposals that sounds simple but would actually be ridiculously expensive and time consuming not to mention inhumane when so many undocumented parents have children who are legal U.S. citizens.

I'm sure that smart people could work together to come up with a solution to our county's immigration problems.  But in the meantime, what should local governments do?  It seems to me that we should focus on maintaining the safety of our community and its residents.  I've long been in favor of issuing drivers licenses to people who don't have social security numbers.  In fact, I've never understood why anyone who spends time in a car would oppose such a thing.  When you strip away the rhetoric of the "whereas" statements, CB-9 simply assures the undocumented community that they can safely report crimes or interact with the police in some other way without fear of deportation.  I know that many police officers are in favor of these resolutions because it allows them to focus on public safety and not take on a second job enforcing federal immigration law.

But the debate over the past couple of weeks over CB-9 has not focused on commonsense solutions to local needs and priorities.  It went straight to a partisan fight complete with name calling and hyperbole.  I had hoped that I might actually learn something about the issue this month, but I've learned very little other than the deep dislike that many Republicans and Democrats have for each other at this point.  It wasn't until this past Sunday, when the two undocumented women spoke at KC, that I felt like I began to get past the partisan talking points.

I'm going to the hearing at the County Council tonight, but truth be told, I'm dreading it.  Since our (Republican) County Executive Allan Kittleman has already pledged to veto the bill, the whole evening promises to feature a lot of accusations and very little thoughtful listening.  My husband reminded me this morning that this is deliberate--the more unpleasant public hearings are, the fewer people want to participate in them, and the less connected people feel to their government.  So I will go, for the same reason I am in favor of federal immigration reform:  I believe in citizenship.


New Kirk

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My dad, Bob Kirk, and my daughter, upon completion of a 5K in Saint Paul, Minnesota, New Year's Day 2012


When I was growing up, on a fairly regular basis my father (whose name is Bob Kirk) would announce it was time for a "New Kirk".  This usually just meant he was going to stop eating ice cream after dinner but his enthusiastic declarations were inspiring none the less.  It became part of our family's culture.  Instead of complaining about our bad habits, we would randomly declare that not only were we going to turn over a new leaf, but we were going to become new people, New Kirks.

What good does it do to make declarations like that?  Does it help to say out loud who we are--or who we intend to be?  Does saying it do anything to make it so?  

This past year, I heard a number of respond to an offensive comment or action by saying, "This isn't who we are," or "This isn't us."  For example, when Donald Trump said that we should ban all Muslim immigrants from entering the United States, Paul Ryan didn't just argue with the policy.  He said that it wasn't "reflective of our principles, not just as a party but as a country".  That response became a refrain throughout the year.  When a number of racist comments were posted online by high school students after the election in November, our County Executive gathered the community together and talked about how great Howard County is.  He then mentioned the racists comments and posts and declared, "This isn't us."  

These kinds of statements are supposed to end arguments.  You can argue about how best to solve a problem but you can't argue about who we are.  We're all just supposed to know that, on a deep, cellular basis.  

The problem for me is that every time I hear the statement "This isn't who are are," I want to argue.  I mean, if someone in our community does or says racists things than part of who we are as a county is racist.  Even if someone said, "This isn't who we want to be," or "This isn't who we aspire to be", I'd want to say, "Really?"  I'm not sure how helpful it is to talk about what we wish people were like.

All good organizing is based on reality, on the facts on the ground. Elections are helpful for this--even when we don't like the results, we can benefit from knowing what millions of people in our country agree to or want.  That's the basis for our next steps--not our beliefs about what people should want or believe.  In general, the time we spend expressing shock that someone dared to say something or do something is wasted time.  They've said it.  They've done it.  That's the world we live in.

But I am my father's daughter.  On any given day I am likely to declare myself a "New Kirk".  This time of year, in particular, I want to declare my independence from who I've been in the past. I want to take advantage of the clean slate of a new year even if it is just a fiction of the calendar.  So I wonder, instead of declaring "we are better than this", what if we proclaimed that we WILL be better than this, starting now? What if someone in this county filled with "Choose Civility" bumper stickers said, "Okay people, let's start over.  We clearly haven't chosen civility in this county.  But we can--starting now.  Let's figure out how actually to choose to treat one another with civility this year."

Then let's really have the conversation about all the things we've been avoiding talking about throughout the ten years of the Choose Civility campaign: racism, fear, social segregation, economic segregation, etc. etc.


Handle With Care

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A few years back, on the first day of high school marching band camp, my son Paul had a long-time wish come true. After two years of struggling to get a decent sound out of a fiberglass sousaphone, Paul was presented with a brand-new, still-wrapped-in-plastic, shiny brass sousaphone. His band director had only one thing to say as he gave Paul the sousaphone: “Just don’t dent it.”

You can see where this story is headed, right? Paul did not drop it—he makes that point whenever he hears me tell this story. He was seated with it that afternoon and it just kind of slid off of him and onto the ground. The sousaphone fell no more than three feet so it is surprising how much damage Paul was able to cause. It had a total of five dents, including a large visible one in the bell. It was my job to take it to Baltimore Brass for repair, and I sat in the lobby for over an hour as two technicians hammer away at the instrument. In the end, they were able to repair about 70% of the damage. I told the repair guy the story of what happened, thinking they’d join me in one of those “kids do the darndest things” kind of chuckles. But he just gave me a stern look and said, “Tell your son this is why we don’t give you shiny new things.”

Those words have been on my mind these past few weeks. At times the whole world seems like that sousaphone to me—shiny and beautiful but surprisingly easy to dent. It seems unwise that we should be entrusted with any of it. Think of the natural world--flowers and butterflies, exquisite works of art, can be crushed by anyone who steps in the wrong spot. One small change in an ecosystem upsets every other plant or animal in that system. Small changes in air temperature or ocean temperature or in the chemistry of a stream or a bay make it impossible for some species of plants or animals or fish to survive. And then there are the people around us. We know how delicate our own spirits are—how an unkind word from someone close to us can send our mood crashing, how thoughtless remarks from years ago still wound us. Why would God ever entrust a bumbling, careless group of people like us with a world like this one?

And then there are babies. When I had my first babies (twins, at that) it seemed unwise that anyone who let us go home from the hospital given how helpless they were and how incompetent we were. We read our baby books and so we knew about all the things that could go wrong. The more we read the more incredible it seemed that anyone at all survived the first six months of life. I mean, baby horses can stand up minutes after birth. They can walk within an hour of birth. But human babies? They can’t even manage their own head for four months or so. And look at us. We can’t keep hold of a tuba for a day without denting it. How the heck are we supposed to handle a baby?

And yet, each year Christians tell a story about how God showed up in this world as a baby at a time before hand sanitizer or vaccines or car seats.  Was this really a good idea?  Why don’t we tell stories about how God arrived in the world as a full-grown person with a fully-equipped posse? Why doesn’t God show up in the world with superpowers, able to fly, stronger than anyone he might encounter? Or, failing that, why not wait until we’ve wizened up, until we’ve made peace with each other and figured out the cures to our diseases? Why not wait until we figure out how to handle things that are as vulnerable as a baby or a world or each other?

They cynic inside us can answer that question, I’m sure. God can’t wait until we’re ready because we’ll never be ready. We’ve been smashing butterflies and fighting wars and dropping tubas for millennia. There’s no reason to believe we’ll ever learn to act differently.

But what if God actually knew what God was doing? Put yourself into that scene by the manger. Imagine yourself holding the baby Jesus, or leaning in close to get a look at him asleep in Mary’s arms. Think of what it’s like to hold a baby. Remember how still and attentive we become, how careful and conscious and present? What if that inner softening is more than sentimentality? What if that is actually something that God wants from us?

It’s a strange idea, really. We find it much easier to believe that God wants us to try harder, to work longer, to be better. We find it easier to believe that God wants our best effort. God wants us to crack the code, to figure it out, to summit the mountain without an oxygen tank and then we’ll finally be enlightened. But what if we we’ve missed something? What if this story which is so much about softening, opening and receiving is all on purpose?

Each Christmas, Christians proclaim that God is reaching out and offering us something, something that is tender and delicate but also as study and resilient as a baby.   This is life. This is love. This is peace. This is hope. We have been entrusted with this. So stop doing for a moment. Open your arms and let Love lay its gifts there. 


Productive Disruption

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"Did you hear about the Oakland Mills walkout?" a fellow clergy person asked a group I was a part of this week.  "Four hundred kids walked out of class and the principal went crazy!"  I was surprised by his comment since I watched Principal Orlando stand at the gate to the athletic fields and greet the kids as they convened there for their protest. My daughter told me that as they re-entered the school, her principal told her, "Great job!  I'm proud of you!"  

Maybe Principal Orlando was just relieved that everyone went back to class when the protest was over.  Maybe she was proud that all the speakers had stayed "on message" with no one veering off from their administration-approved script.  No one had mentioned the name of the offending student.  No one criticized the administrators of the school.  Everyone stayed positive, proclaiming their school to be a place where racist comments and threats will not be tolerated.

But maybe Principal Orlando recognizes that sometimes, disruption can be productive.

The walkout was precipitated by a threatening post directed towards African-Americans made by a student at the school.  The offensive post was not an isolated incident.  Other students in other parts of the county have posted pictures (and earlier this year, a video) that also made threats and/or used racial slurs.  And as everyone knows, the on-line activity of these teenagers pales in comparison to the hateful things adults (including, I'm sure, some who live in Howard county) do and say on line. As this kind of activity becomes more common, more mainstream, we are in serious danger of getting used to it.  

The OMHS walkout was a clear statement that at least within that one high school, hate will not become normal.  It will not be something we get used to.  And disruption of the the regular school day, disruption in the regular order of things, is a very important part of making that statement clear to everyone involved.

A week ago, I participated in the #OneHoward community forum convened by County Executive Allan Kittleman.  I thought the forum was fantastic--a wide variety of people from the county spoke, and their comments were thoughtful and complex and engaged.  A big part of why that happened is that early on in the forum, a friend of mine got upset when  David Anderson, the pastor of Bridgeway Church, showed a video interview with one of the high school students who made an offensive post. Other friends noticed her distress and together they disrupted the forum.  Yes, there was shouting and tears and pointed fingers.  But the topic of the forum--a rise in racist and religiously intolerant activity in our county--is very upsetting.  As long as everyone smiles and talks about how we all value diversity in our community, the conversation does not matter to anyone.  Once people disrupt all that bland civility, we can start having a productive conversation about how we can face into what is really going on.

I left the forum encouraged, but the comments that I've read on line and heard in person since then depressed me a bit.  "I heard that forum was a disaster," friends said.  "I bet Kittleman will never hold another one."  Several people told me that they are hoping other forums will be "better organized".  I'm glad the conversation is going to continue, but I hope the takeaway from last week's #OneHoward forum is not that our conversations about race need to be more controlled.  I hope we remember that disruption is sometimes exactly what is needed.


Not There Yet.

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I have to admit it:  I'm struggling.  

The election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency has deeply unsettled me.  Back in October, I told a number of people that I believed this election would be a referendum against the divisive and spiteful politics of Donald Trump.  Instead, his election feels like an endorsement of the very worst in politics, and in people--fear of people who are different from you, a lack of compassion for vulnerable people, and a willingness to blame and shame and undermine anyone with a different point of view.  

I have worked for many losing candidates in the past--in fact, the candidates I really get excited about almost always lose.  But I have never before had a sense that the opposing candidate has contempt for the things I love most about our country:  rule of law, democracy, religious freedom, cultural diversity, a free press, public education, international diplomacy, and more.  Trump's nominations for his cabinet have only increased my sense that these good things are now under attack.

I'm struggling to figure out how to be a pastor in the midst of all of this.  Many of the people at the Kittamaqundi Community are upset about the election, but not everyone is.  There aren't a lot of passionate Trump fans in our congregation, but there are certainly people who are more confident than I am that everything will be okay.  There are people who are tremendously tired of talking about the election and want more than anything to change the topic.  And there are people who simply have other, more immediate concerns at the front of their minds.  While the election might be dominating my thoughts, I know it cannot dominate our congregation's life or we will become a less hospitable place.

But many of the people who are worshiping at KC on Sunday morning, many of the people who I am meeting with and talking to during the week, are deeply upset about the election.  On November 13th, the Sunday after the election, our usually animated congregation was almost silent as we gathered for worship.  It felt like someone--or something--had died.  People have told me about struggling to get out of bed.  People have called me in tears over all that has happened.

What is my response to that grief--as a person, and as a pastor?  I know what I have felt called to say at the many funerals I have led over my 22 years of ordained ministry.  My faith--proclaimed with a power beyond words or reason in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ--gives me the confidence to say that God's love, God's promise, cannot be defeated by death.  In the darkest night, God's light shines.

I like being the one who proclaims hope in the midst of despair.  But right now, after the election, I can't do it.  That's not to say I think things are hopeless--I don't.  But I don't want to smooth things over too quickly.  I'm not ready to hold a healing service or to hold hands and sing "Kumbayah" like they did at my parents' church the day after the election. 

I've been fretting about this, feeling like I was falling short of my call to be a minister of the Gospel.  But this morning, as I was praying, it occurred to me:  this is what Advent is all about.  The season we are in right now, these weeks before Christmas, is about waiting for something to come, yearning for something that isn't yet here.  The first candle on the Advent wreath is for hope, but not because we already have hope.  We light the candle as a way of showing how much we long for hope.  

There is sadness in admitting that we don't already have what we need, that we're not "all good".  But it isn't just sad--it is also true.  This is where we begin, each year.  I am going to claim this ancient season of waiting as the medicine my spirit needs right now.  


Do We Still Want to Do This?

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Abraham Verghese's masterful novel, "Cutting for Stone" tells the story of twin boys, born in Ethiopia to an Indian nun who had a relationship with a British surgeon.  Because their mother dies during childbirth and their father flees the country, the twins are raised by two of the hospital staff, Hema (an obstetrician) and Ghosh (who becomes a surgeon).  The couple falls in love as they care for the infants and eventually, Ghosh proposes.  Hema accepts--but only for a year.  For the rest of their lives, Ghosh proposes on their anniversary, and Hema agrees again to marry him for another year.

The relationship between Hema and Ghosh adds a bit of comedy to a story that involves a lot of conflict and sadness.  But their unique marriage stayed with me long after I forgot other elements of the plot.  In fact, I've brought it up on several wedding anniversaries.  Dan has not found this particularly amusing--for him, marriage means having an important question settled once and for all.  And while I certainly see his point, there is something compelling to me about asking each other once a year, "Do we still want to do this?"  It means that we don't just continue on automatic pilot.  It means that we have to recall the reasons why our marriage has value and consider what we must do (or stop doing) to keep it going.

I serve a congregation that continues with this same model of commitment that Hema and Ghosh have.  Membership in our community is for one year only.  Each November, every person in our community must decide whether or not to become a member for the following year.  The question isn't just a rhetorical one, either.  Each year, some people who have been members for years decide to take a year off.  Each year, someone who has been around our community for years without ever becoming a member decides to join.  Once everyone has considered their own commitments, we gather for a whole-congregation retreat to ask, "Is God still calling us to be a faith community?"  If we decide the answer is yes (and that's what we've decided each year for almost 50 years now) then we re-covenant as a community during a wonderfully celebratory worship service.

I have never encountered another church that handles membership in this way.  In most churches, membership is for life. Even if you stop attending a church, they will still count you as a member (and request a pledge from you) unless you actively protest.  I think the idea is that people may drift away, but there will come a point when they realize they need a church, and there it will be, ready and willing to welcome them back.  But now that I've encountered the Kittamaqundi Community style of membership, I wouldn't want to do it any other way.  It means that we can't take our community for granted.  We're clear that our common life arises out of the intentional commitment of each of our members.

I've been wondering this week, is there some way to ask an entire city, "Do we still want to do this?"  That might seems ridiculous considering the amount of infrastructure and investment that goes into building a community like Columbia, MD. I know this city will continue whether or not we "opt in".  But Columbia is a planned community, organized with a very specific set of intentions.  It was meant to be racially and economically integrated, a model to the rest of the nation that was wondering if such a community was even possible.  Many of the "pioneers" who first moved to Columbia came because they were interested in living in such a community--by moving here, they "opted in" to the vision of the developer, Jim Rouse.

But now, fifty years later, there are all sorts of other reasons to move to Columbia--location, schools, the "high quality of life" recently celebrated by Money Magazine.  So I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that not everyone who lives or works here believes that lower income people, for example, should be able to buy a home or even rent an apartment in Columbia.  I've heard this value questioned explicitly and implicitly at all sorts of public meetings over the past year.  It gets my back up.  "This community was never intended to be an enclave for the one percent!" I want to shout.  "Don't you get it??"

But maybe what we really should do is pose the question.  Do we, as a community, still share this value?  Do we still want to live in a community where "the janitor and the CEO" lives nearby each other, as Rouse famously said.  Maybe we have gotten ahead of ourselves in our conversations about how to build affordable house or end homelessness.  Maybe we need to back up and ask the kinds of questions that would help us to remember why this was ever a value to begin with.

In the early years of Columbia, I've heard there were annual celebrations of the community's birthday at the lakefront.  We have another big birthday coming up next year.  The best possible thing to celebrate at that time is not that we made it this far--but that we have generated the community will to continue. 


How to Start a Conversation

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One of the several highly articulate teens who spoke at last night's meeting

Years ago, I was part of a group of young ministers who met regularly with an experienced minister for mentoring.  I often think back on one conversation we had about pastoral visitation.  All the young ministers knew we should be visiting people in their homes.  Our older parishioners, in particular, seemed to relish the opportunity to have us over for tea and cookies.  But we were starting to dread these visits which could easily last a couple of hours.  It just seemed like all people wanted to do was chat about their grandchildren or gossip about other members of the church or complain about how the congregation had declined since the 19050's.  How could we help these conversations become more personal, more reflective, without being awkward or intrusive?

"That's easy," our mentor told us.  "You can have a significant conversation with anyone in 20 minutes.  You just begin by saying, 'Tell me about your grandmother.'"

I've thought of this advice many, many times over the past 20 years.  For awhile, I did ask a lot of people about their grandmothers and was rewarded with some amazing stories and even a few tears.  But I soon realized the broader principle. Good conversations involve stories.  When we tell stories to each other about people who have influenced us or experiences that have changed us, stories that explain why we have particular commitments or values, something important happens.  We build connections.  We establish trust.  We let each other know that it is okay to be who we are.

I believe in conversations.  So of course I was excited when I saw an announcement on the Howard County Public Schools email newsletter a couple of weeks ago announcing an event entitled, "Voices for Inclusive CommUNITY" co-sponsored by the school system, the Howard County Police Department and the Howard County Office of Human Rights.  Here's how the event was described:

Community members are invited to an evening of dialogue about establishing and strengthening relationships among students, parents, school officials and law enforcement. This event provides opportunities to understand what HCPSS, the Howard County Police Department and the Howard County Office of Human Rights are currently doing, and provide input on building a more inclusive community. The evening will include small roundtable discussions.

When I heard that the "small roundtable discussions" were going to be facilitated by people who had been through the school system's excelled Cultural Proficiency program, I was even more encouraged.  Any event that brings a diverse group of people together (especially people who might not talk to each other easily or frequently) and gives them a chance to speak and be heard by each other is worth the effort.

The event took place last night at Long Reach High School.  It was well attended by school system folks and police officers with about a dozen high school students and a handful of random people from the community such as me.  It wasn't a waste of time, but the conversation was pretty superficial.  Everyone is trying to build an inclusive community even though it isn't always easy.  We need to keep trying.  We need to keep talking.

Then, as we were getting up to leave, one of the police officers at my table told the beginnings of a story.  She talked about the neighborhood in Baltimore where she grew up.  She said a few words about her mother and her brother.  Suddenly, instead of talking about the importance of vulnerability, she was being vulnerable.  The conversation suddenly mattered.

As I was driving home, I thought of a community event I attended at the beginning of the year. PATH organized a series of well-attended events that brought together leaders and members of Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations in Howard County.  In one of them, we were instructed to find a person in the room who we didn't know and to have a 20 minute conversation based on a couple of questions.  After 20 minutes, we found another person and had the conversation again.  I don't remember the specific questions now, but I remember the conversations I had.  I heard personal stories about how a neighbor of mine has experienced living in our community.  I learned something specific about what they valued and why.  By the end of the conversation, we felt connected to each other.  We weren't strangers anymore.

I wish last night's meeting began where it ended for me.  We need to have one-on-one conversations with people who we don't usually get to talk to--police officers, teenagers, school teachers, people who have a different racial or ethnic background than we do.  We can't just brainstorm ideas about what other people should be doing.  We need to tell each other personal stories about why we do what we do, why we value what we value.  That may sound like it would take forever, but in my experience, you can say a lot in 20 minutes. 

 


Confessing Other People's Sins

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Andrea Lewis and Rosa Kirk-Davidoff discuss the novel "All American Boys" at KC last Sunday

My husband Dan came home from Yom Kippur services last week satisfied.  "There was a real good list of collective sins," he told me.  In addition to the usual list, his rabbi has verbally inserted some additional confessions, appropriate to the time at hand.  But even the list printed in the prayer book seemed on target.  The version in The New Union Prayer Book begins,

For our failures of truth, O Lord, we ask forgiveness.

For passing judgment without knowledge of the facts, and for distorting facts to fit our theories.

For deceiving ourselves and others with half-truths, and for pretending to emotions we do no feel.

For using the sins of others to excuse our own, and for denying responsibility for our own misfortunes.

Inspired by my husband's appreciation for this annual ritual, I suggested a few years back that we include an extended corporate confession in our Ash Wednesday worship at the Kittamaqundi Community.  The planning team was skeptical and made me promise to explain that the confession came from the Jewish prayer book.  They didn't want anyone to take the list too personally.  The following year, the team gently suggested the prayer was way too long.  Wouldn't it be better, someone offered, if we had a period of silence during which people could make their own personal confessions?

No one wants to confess to a crime they did not commit.  For that reason, ritual confessions try to make the sins so general that everyone ends up being personally implicated:  "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us," the Book of Common Prayer famously reads.  But when we gather together, the point is not only to admit to our personal failings, but also to admit that we are also somehow tied up in the bad actions and ideas of others.

This isn't just a challenge for people leading and participating in religious ritual.  It is also a challenge for any person or group who wants to make the world a better place.  

Consider the problem of racial bias and discrimination.  If we are going to really address these issues, each of us must consider, how am I part of the problem?  What can I take responsibility for?  What commitments can I make personally that might improve the situation? But those questions, while necessary, are never the end of the conversation.  If we are serious in our analysis of the problem, we will end up confessing not only our sins, but also the sins of others.  We recognize that we are part of a sick system, and no matter how good we intend to be, we are implicated in the crimes that system commits.

Last Sunday, a group of us from KC and the neighborhood got together to discuss this year's One Maryland One Book selection, "All American Boys" by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.  The book begins with a scene in which a young black man is assaulted by a police officer.  The story then continues, in alternating chapters, in the voice of the young man who was assaulted (Rashad) and the voice of another teen (Quinn), a white kid who knows both the black teen and the police officer. Both teens struggle to figure out how to respond.  Some of the people around both kids encourage them to keep their heads down and step back from any kind of protest or statement.  Others encourage them to stand up for what is right--even if it means challenging or possibly antagonizing people who have encouraged and supported them in the past. 

The novel does not resolve all of the questions it raises.  We never hear, for example, what happens to the police officer.  Is he punished for his actions, or does he get away with what he did?  The one thing that is clear by the end of the story is that it is not possible to be a bystander.  When it comes to issues around race and policing, all of us are involved.

That's a challenging topic for any group to discuss, but we managed it last Sunday, in part because an amazing Howard County police officer was in the room.  Sargent Stephanie Wall from the Community Outreach Division read the book and participated in the discussion enthusiastically and completely non-defensively.  She was clear:  there are police officers who do terrible things in this country.  Most police officers do not, but every police officer is implicated in the actions of those who act unjustly or unwisely.  Every single officer, every single police department, needs to commit to healing the damage caused by the history of racial bias in law enforcement.

I left the conversation deeply encouraged--and challenged.  What would it mean for me to acknowledge and to confess the harm done by Christians?  By white people?  By Americans?  How might I do that in a way that doesn't just overwhelm me with guilt but rather energize me to engage more deeply with the healing of the world?