The Muslim Refugees We're Not Talking About

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As I'm writing this, President Obama is giving a speech at the beginning of a special summit on the world-wide refugee crisis in advance of the United Nations General Assembly.  He will reportedly "vow to welcome 110,000 [refugees] into the United States next year, a 30 percent increase from 2016."  

Is this an act of bravery on Obama's part?  An act of compassion?

According to Donald Trump Jr., it is an act of foolishness equivalent to gobbling up a bowl of Skittles when you know full well that there are three poisonous ones in the mix.  The Post did a fantastic job debunking that analogy.  I'm still thinking of the Olympic-sized swimming pool (and a half!) filled with Skittles.  But the fear of refugees remains a powerful theme in American life and American politics right now.

Advocates for refugees have worked to counter balance all that fear with calls for compassion.  The Post quotes Chris Boian, the spokesman for the U.N.'s refugee agency saying, "People around the world are frightened by things they see happen, acts by extremists, but it's very important to understand refugees are not the perpetrators of this kind of violence.  They're fleeing that same violence."  Are you scared of ISIS?  So are millions of people living in Syria.  What would you do if you were in their shoes?  How would you want other countries to respond?

These are powerful questions, especially for families like ours whose ancestors came to the United States as refugees from state-sanctioned violence and war.  But these questions ignore the role the United States has played in the creation of the refugee crisis.  This is a complex question when it comes to Syria--there is more than enough blame to go around for the on-going crisis in that country as Ban Ki-moon noted this morning. But the question of responsibility is much less complex when it comes to refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan.

This was the part of the presentation the staff from Lutheran Social Services made at our church last Thursday that caught me by surprise.  Mira Mendick mentioned almost in passing that of the 1,200 refugees their agency settled in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. this year, the majority entered the country with a "Special Immigrant Visa", the program to resettle Iraqi and Afghani men and women who worked for the U.S. military as translators or in other capacities.  These people risked their lives for the United States and are now unable to live safely in their own countries.  But the SIV applicants are screened and vetted right along with everyone else trying to enter this country, and the process can be painfully slow.  Even now, in 2016, we are resettling these people in our country.

In all of the news and commentary about refugees trying to enter the U.S. over the past year or so, I have not heard anything about the SIV program.  In fact, prior to our meeting last Thursday, I had a conversation with members of another church about the difference between the current refugee crisis and the situation of the "boat people" who fled Vietnam in the late 1970's.  Why, someone wondered, was there such a massive, compassionate response to the needs of these people?  The Kittamaqundi Community sponsored a refugee family from Vietnam in the early 80's (a story I just learned last year) and a number of other congregations in Howard County did the same thing.  Why isn't there the same out-pouring of care for today's refugees?

I thought I had an answer.  Americans felt a sense of responsibility towards Vietnamese refugees because of the Vietnam war.  We felt like we had let these people down, abandoned them to our enemies.  We knew that many of these people had assisted Americans.  Others, such as the family my church in St. Paul, Minnesota sponsored, included children fathered by American GIs.  But we have no such sense of responsibility now.  Accepting refugees is no longer a matter of stepping up to fulfill our obligations.  Now it is just a matter of being kind.  And the call to "do the right thing" is hard to hear when you're afraid.

But I was wrong.  At least when it comes to the majority of refugees resettled by Lutheran Social Services in our area this year, we were fulfilling a responsibility.  We created these refugees.  They assisted the United States' military efforts in their countries and their lives were endangered as a consequence.  The suggestion that such people are akin to poisonous candy seems not only baseless but cruel.

 

 

 


A Door Just Opened

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I don't know if it registered on the Richter scale, but I think there was a small earthquake in Columbia, Maryland last night.  At least, I felt the earth shake a little.  

We hosted an event last night at our church for everyone who is interested in helping us resettle a refugee family in our community.  We invited Lutheran Social Services (who contract with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to oversee refugee resettlement in our area) to send a couple of staff to give an overview of their "Good Neighbor" program and answer questions.  We announced the event to our congregation and figured we'd host 30 or so.  

But we are so excited about this project that we couldn't stop talking about it with other people we know.  Some of those people are connected to other congregations in the area.  They brought word of what we're doing back to their leadership or their Missions Boards and the excitement spread.

We planned for 30 last night, but 62 people showed up, including representatives from New Hope Lutheran Church, Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, Bet Aviv, the Muslim Community Center, Dar Al-Taqua Islamic Center, and Sandy Spring Friends Meeting.  Luckily, we baked a lot of brownies.

There was a real sense of excitement in the room before we even began.  A few minutes after 7:00 pm I stood up and welcomed everyone to the event and to our community.  "There are some prominent voices in our state and in our nation who are saying "NO!" to refugees," I told everyone.  "But we feel compelled by God to respond to the desperate needs of millions of people in a different way.  We want to say YES!  We want to say WELCOME!"  Everyone in the room shouted back, "WELCOME!"  And we were off.

Don Link, the "Caller" of the Seeking Refuge Focus Group at our church spoke first.  He told the group of his struggle over the last year as he learned about the deep suffering of immigrants fleeing the brutal war in Syria. The situation overwhelmed him--the magnitude of the problem and the intensely personal pain that came through photos and stories. But his faith won't let him shut down or walk away when he feels overwhelmed.  Instead, he prayed and listened and in time, discerned that God was calling him to act.

In May, Don stood up in front of our congregation and read a short statement about his call. This kind of thing happens on a fairly regular basis at KC so we have a little ritual for the occasion.  We put a stole on Don and prayed over him.  And then we all considered how God might be calling us to respond to this crisis as well.  Fifteen of us ended up joining Don's team and many others got involved with the first action, collecting materials for "Welcome Kits" that Lutheran Social Services distributes to the hundreds of refugee families they are resettling this year.

After we had been meeting for a couple of months, it became clear that we were ready for the next step:  a "Level One" partnership with LSS, a one-year commitment to a refugee family that includes rent assistance, employment assistance, completely furnishing an apartment, providing help with clothing and food and transportation and all the other things a family might need.  

I don't think I'll ever forget the moment we made that decision.  We knew that it was a huge step for a small church like ours--we figured it would cost us at least $20,000.  But when we said YES to that commitment, we didn't feel overwhelmed at the thought of all.  Our YES released a kind of buzzing energy through our group.  We felt it physically--we practically danced out of the room.

That energy was back last night.  After Don spoke, our guests from Lutheran Social Service gave an overview of the program and did a great job answering our questions for about a half an hour.  Then, Art Spilkia led us in a powerful song which has become a KC favorite: "I Refuse" by Josh Wilson.  

I don't want to live like I don't care
I don't want to say another empty prayer
Oh I refuse to
Sit around and wait for someone else
To do what God has called me to do myself
Oh I could choose
Not to move
But I refuse

And then, Ann Ivester made her pitch.  As we sit in our safe homes, we feel so disconnected from the stories and struggles of refugees on the other side of the world.  We can't imagine what their lives are like.  We have never faced the kinds of decisions they have had to make.  But that sense of disconnection isn't really the whole truth.  After all, every refugee wants his or her children to be safe from harm.  We share this desire with the whole human family.  So tonight, Ann said, when we take a step to help a refugee family, we draw a thread of connection between our lives and theirs.  With this thread, we start re-weaving a fabric that has been torn, the fabric of human community.

And then we passed out pledge cards.

It didn't take long for people to fill them out--and they asked for more to take home to their congregations and friends.  We collected the cards (and the checks that were attached to many of them), prayed over them and wrapped the night up with a rousing chorus of "This Land Is Your Land".

Don counted the checks and pledges as soon as he got home and sent this email to the group:

Great job tonight, everyone!  God is good; God is here.

Quick Tally:

$4,825 checks in hand

$7,750 pledged (includes 1 month rent and $1,500 for mattresses)

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$12,575  Wow!

Wow indeed.  Back when I was in college, I took a class called "The Mystical Experience" and read works by the Desert Fathers and Theresa of Avila and many others.  I was fascinated by what they saw and heard and felt.  The power of Divine Presence!  I so wished I could have even a taste of what they experienced.  I wanted to know God first hand--not just read about God and talk about God and think about God.  I had a sense that in order to know God like the mystics do, I would need to retreat to a mountain top or take a long, solo journey on foot.  

Turns out I was wrong.  I just needed to join a community that together says YES to God's call.

P.S.  We still need to raise about $7,500 more to fully fund this project.  Maybe you--like us--want to be a part of a positive response to the worldwide refugee crisis?  Please shoot me an email for more info OR send a check to the Kittamaqundi Community Church with "Seeking Refuge" in the memo line.  Our address is 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia, MD  21044.  Thanks!


Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

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A little over a week ago, Dan and I dropped our son Paul off at Dulles Airport, gave him a hug and reminded him one more time to stay safe.  The next day, Paul arrived in Beruit, Lebanon where he will be living and studying for the next three and a half months.  This feels like a big step for him and for me--I've never been separated for this long from any of my kids.  Who will be there for him if he gets into trouble?  Strangers.

Like most people who were paying even a little bit of attention to the news in the 1980's, Beruit brings to mind war, rubble and attacks on Americans.  It took me a while to get these images out of my head when Paul told me that he want to enroll in an intensive Arabic program at the Lebanese American University this fall.  Paul's Arabic teacher recommended the program and his college approved it, so that helped.  Then I found out that I kind of know the family of another student who is enrolled in the program this fall.  That made me feel even better.  I felt like I was stringing together a series of relationships that would help me to connect to where Paul was going. 

But those relationships remain few and tenuous.  If Paul had decided to study in London or Paris or Beijing for a semester, I know I would be flooded with the names of friends-of-friends who live in those cities.  People who would be happy to host Paul for dinner if he was feeling homesick.  People I could call on in the case of emergency.  But I have yet to hear from someone with a good friend from college or a distant cousin living in Lebanon.  

So saying good-bye to Paul was an act of faith--not just in him (and I do have faith in him) or in God (who loves Paul even more than I do) but in total and complete strangers.  If he gets in trouble and needs help, I trust that there will be a person of good will who will help him.

This felt not-quite-right to me until it occurred to me that I'm on the other side of this equation as well.  I'm a stranger who, in a few month's time, will be offering assistance to a family who is traveling to a country where they know absolutely no one.  I'm part of a team who will soon be helping to resettle a refugee family to Howard County, Maryland.

Our congregation has been taking steps in this direction all year.  We've been praying for refugees for several years, even since the thousands of refugees leaving Syria made the world-wide crisis impossible for us to ignore.  But there's a funny thing about prayer--our pleas to God to assist people in trouble often come right back at us.  "I want to help", we sense God responding, "through you." One of our community members, Don Link, stood up in front of our church at the beginning of the year and announced that he couldn't ignore God's call any longer.  He needed to do something to help refugees--and he invited anyone in the community who felt the same call to join him.  Over 20 people responded right away and many others have come alongside the leadership team.  When we began talking to our neighbors in the community and to the leaders of other congregations, we received even more promises to help with funds and other resources.

This past week, as our "Seeking Refuge" team ended its meeting, Don invited us to join him in prayer for the family we are going to welcome.  We don't know who they are yet.  We don't know how many people will be in that family or even what their country of origin will be.  They are complete strangers to us, and we to them.  But we are already connected to them, already looking forward to meeting them, already planning ways we might help them.  

I hope they know that.  I hope they, like me, have faith in the kindness of strangers.


Community and Hope In the Face of 500 Murders

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My late mother-in-law, Linda Davidoff, trained me to notice the placement of a story in a newspaper. This morning's story in the Washington Post about the astonishing murder rate in Chicago this year was on the front page, above the fold, top left.  "Pay attention to this!", the Post commanded. 

Needless to say, this story about homicide statistics made the news while just about every single one of those 500 murders went unreported--in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, or anywhere else.  On average, newspapers in major cities cover only about 10% of the murders that take place in any given year.  That's what prompted L.A. Times reporter Jill Leovy to start the "Homicide Report" blog in 2006 in which she attempted to report on every single murder that took place in the city that year.  That effort led to Leovy's much-acclaimed book, "Ghettoside:  A True Story of Murder in America" which I just finished last weekend.  It was a truly eye-opening book about black-on-black violence and I can't read about what's happening in Chicago without wondering if Leovy's analysis of Los Angeles would apply there.

Leovy builds a thoughtful and nuanced case that comes to a surprising conclusion:  the problem in high-crime urban neighborhoods is not over-enforcement by the police.  The problem is under-enforcement.  

Considering the absurdly high rates of incarceration in this country, that might sound like an strange conclusion.  And Leovy's book came out early in 2015, before the most recent round of stories about police harassment and shootings of African Americans.  But Leovy is adamant that good policing--especially good detective work--is a necessary part of the claim that "Black Lives Matter".  If you don't prosecute a murder, then you are sending a clear message that a person who was killed was worthless.

According to Leovy, in the 13 years prior to the homicide she describes at the opening of her book, just 38% of the 2,677 killings of black men in Los Angeles led to an arrest.  This is a crucial statistic, Leovy argues:  "...history shows us that lawlessness is its own kind of order.  Murder outbreaks, seen this way, are more than just the proliferation of discrete crimes.  They are part of a whole system of interactions determined by the absence of law."  I've thought a lot about community, but I hadn't thought about this--a community will police itself unless it is persuaded to give that power to someone else.

In Chicago, the homicide clearance rate in Chicago for 2016 is 19.3% as of August. Yet no one in any of the stories I've read today about Chicago refers to Leovy's reporting or her conclusions.  The Chicago police superintendent Gary McCarthy offered this analysis:

"It's not a police issue, it's a society issue," Johnson told reporters outside police headquarters after a long weekend that saw 65 people shot, 13 of them fatally.

"Impoverished neighborhoods, people without hope do these kinds of things," he said. "You show me a man that doesn't have hope, I'll show you one that's willing to pick up a gun and do anything with it.

"Those are the issues that's driving this violence. CPD is doing its job," he continued.

But if having no hope leads to violence, what kind of hope makes people consider other options?  Leovy gives a clear--and convincing--response.  People need to hope that the police will arrest, prosecute and convict violent offenders.  While it may well be true that many of the young men in the high-homicide areas lack hope that they will live a long life, they rebuild that hope only when they have enough confidence in the police that they will not try to retaliate for crimes committed against them or their family and friends.  And what's more, all the other people in the affected neighborhoods need to have enough confidence in the police that they are willing to talk to detectives and willing to testify in court.

The Washington Post story said almost nothing about the people who were shot this weekend, but it did report on the many people throughout the city who responded to activist Phillip Jackson's call for a "Community Peace Surge".  There were street festivals and block parties and neighborhood cookouts.  Neighbors challenged each other to leave their houses and to proclaim their commitment to living in peace instead of cowering in fear.  I'm sure these actions created hope.  They helped everyone see that good things are still possible in their neighborhoods.  But their efforts only go went so far.  Things were quiet on Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday 21 people were shot.

Towards the end of her amazing book, Jill Leovy offers this reflection:

The Monster [Leovy's term for the epidemic of murders of young black men] arose from what was meanest and most vicious in human nature.  But the dark swath of misery it had cut across generations of black Americans was a shadow thrown on the wall, a shape magnified many times the size of its source because of a refusal to see the black homicide problem for what it was:  a problem of human suffering caused by the absence of a state monopoly on violence.

The Monster's source was not general perversity of mind in the population that suffered.  It was a weak legal apparatus that had long failed to place black injuries and the loss of black lives at the heart of its response when mobilizing the law, first in the South and later in segregated cities.  The cases didn't get solved, and year after year, assaults piled on upon another, black men got shot up and killed, no one answered for it, and no one really cared much. (pp. 307-8)


This Is What Democracy Looks Like

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(photo by the remarkable Daniel Osborne)

This past week, Sunday couldn't come soon enough.  The shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas, the deep sadness of the families of those who died, the anger on all sides and the sinking feeling that we are stuck on play-and-repeat...by the end of the week, I was drained.  

But I knew that gathering with my church community on Sunday morning would help, and it absolutely did.  It helped to sing together.  It helped to read and reflect on Jesus' response to the lawyer who asked him, "Who is my neighbor?"  And it really helped to pray together with a group of people who know that however sad we get, however much we rage, however deep our despair, God will meet us there.  Those aren't just words at the Kittamaqundi Community.  That is our experience.

Then, after worship, I gathered with a group of 12 other women (ranging in age from 18 to 82) who will be leading a summer camp for girls from our own church and our partner congregation in Baltimore, Agape House.  We did some hard work together, listening and speaking the truth to each other in love.  We ended with a sense of excitement about our work together.

Then, I drove Jimmy home.  Jimmy is a treasured member of our congregation who lived on the streets for almost 15 years before we met him.  We talked about the week's news in the car and shared our reactions which were not the same.  We listened to each other with respect.

Then, I joined in with my Daughters of Abraham book group.  I got there late, but I didn't want to miss this monthly gathering of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women.  I had missed an extended conversation about the veil, but I arrived just in time for a conversation about the meaning of grace for Christians and whether there is a parallel concept in Judaism or Islam.

The bookclub ended 15 minutes early because most of the women were heading over to the Black Lives Matter demonstration a few blocks away.  We walked over together and met up with some other members of group who were already there.  I was delighted to see a number of folks from my church and others I know from school or the neighborhood.  I held a sign and waved at cars for a while but I also wandered around and talked to everyone I knew.  There was sadness and anger in the mix, but there was also a lot of positive feelings.  People were excited that so many people had come out.  People were happy to see their friends and their neighbors, and to meet the people standing next to them.

By the end of the day, I was filled up again--filled with faith and with hope.  I live in an amazing community filled with people who want to connect with each other and build a better world.  

But here's the thing:  None of what I experienced on Sunday happened by accident.  The church (the people there, the kind of worship that happened) is the result of decades of intentional work.  Same with the camp.  Same with Jimmy, who I would only know (and who I'm pretty sure is alive) because of the Route One Day Center and the long hard work of Anne Dunn and many, many others.  The book club has been going for 5 years now, but only because of the sustained commitment of Ruth Smith, the remarkable woman who called it into being. 

And as for the Black Lives Matter gathering, I am so aware that I benefitted on Sunday from the work, the commitment and the inspiration of other people, around the country and here in Columbia.  These protests have been happening for months and I've never felt motivated to attend.  But I was so grateful that it was already happening when I finally paid attention enough to hear God's call to show up and join in.

This is what democracy looks like.  We build it together, not by accident, but on purpose.  We have such a long way to go as a country.  There is so much work to do are we are all so tired of working on these problems.  We have to stop and cry sometimes, alone and together.  But then we get back to work, taking one small step, making one connection, having one conversation and then another and another.

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(This photo is mine--my favorite from the day.)


Finding a Way to Talk About These Hard Things

 

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On Monday, our family celebrated the Fourth of July in part by watching the movie, "Free State of Jones".  The movie is based on a fascinating true story about a poor Mississippi farmer, Newt Knight, who worked as a medic for the Confederate Army.  In 1862, he deserted, disgusted by the news that men who own more than 10 slaves are exempted from military service.  He eventually found safety with a group of escaped slaves, and attracted other deserters as well.  In time, the group took control of Jones County, Mississippi and seceded from the Confederacy.  

The story doesn't end with the end of the Civil War but continues 15 years into Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.  This makes the movie less coherent and significantly more disturbing to watch.  By the time we left the theater, I felt like the movie lasted much longer than 139 minutes.  It wasn't a great movie, but I was glad I saw it.  I won't soon forget what I learned or what I felt.  I'm very glad movies like this one are getting made with big-name actors and shown in major movie theaters.  More honest movies about the history of race in our country can only help us have more honest conversations.

The shootings that followed this week reminded me that the violence and malice so vividly illustrated in the movie are not over and done with.  President Obama put it beautifully in his remarks on Thursday:

To be concerned about these issues is not political correctness, it’s just being American and wanting to live up to our best and highest ideals.  And it’s to recognize the reality that we’ve got some tough history and we haven’t gotten through all of that history yet. And we don’t expect that in my lifetime maybe not in my children’s lifetimes that all the vestiges of that past will have been cured, will have been solved.

Today, as we try to recover from the trauma of this week's shootings of civilians and policemen, everyone seems to be saying, "We've got to find a way to talk about this."  But how do we possibly do that?

Falcon Heights, Minnesota and Baton Rouge, Louisiana are very, very different places.  I am sure that the police departments for these two cities are very different as well--different cultures, different kinds of training, different personnel, different leadership.  But the fact that police officers from both departments were involved with very similar situations helps me to remember that there is systemic racism in the mix here.  And the racist comments made by the disturbed man who shot the policemen in Dallas makes it clear that it isn't only white people or police who are shaped by systemic racism.

Systemic problems--systemic evil--is particularly hard to talk about, in public or private conversations.  We find it much easier to talk about why individual people have biased views or act in biased ways.  We can even imagine how particular leaders can cultivate bias within their organizations.  But what about a bias that is cultivated and perpetuated by our culture as a whole, that seeps into every organization and every interaction?  How can we begin to get a hold of that?

It seems to me that we often need a "third thing"--a cultural artifact of some kind--to get the conversation started and to keep it going.  Movies. Television shows. Magazine articles.  Or even books.

Each year, the Maryland Humanities selects a book for a state-wide book club called "One Maryland One Book". This year, they chose a Young Adult novel called "All American Boys" by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.  The book is about an encounter between a white police officer and a young African-American man that ends in violence.  The chapters alternate between the voice of the Black kid who was assaulted and a White kid who is friends with the policeman.  It isn't high literature, but it does a solid job portraying different points of view.  In the end, the book makes it clear that police brutality is unacceptable, but it doesn't make any one person or group the villain.  

Public libraries and school libraries all over the state will be promoting this book in September and October.  The authors will be speaking at the Baltimore Book Festival and at several events for high school kids.  Our congregation, in partnership with Columbia Town Center, is planning an neighborhood book discussion.  It seems like an excellent opportunity to do some of what everyone knows we need to do--talk about our history and begin the hard work of building a better future.


Dance Like Someone Is Watching

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You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.
-"From the Heart" by Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh, performed by Kathy Mattea
This past Sunday was a Big Day for me and my Little Sister, Desirae.  It was Dance Recital Day--a first for both of us.  
I first met Desirae when she was in fourth grade.  She was a part of a "lunch bunch" for girls that is led as a volunteer for A-OK Mentoring-Tutoring.  We developed our own board game that year called "The Hollywood Game" that involved traveling from humble beginnings to stardom in Hollywood.  My contribution to the game were "Interview Cards".  I told the girls that famous people can expect to be interviewed by reporters and talk show hosts, so it was a good idea to practice giving engaging answers to personal questions.  I wrote dozens of questions on index cards and when the girls landed on a square marked "Interview", the person to her left got to take a card and read a question.  It was a great way for me to get to know the girls and for them to get to know each other.
One of my questions was, "Name one thing you would do if you were really, really brave."  I remember Desirae's answer to that question when she was nine years old.  She got a dreamy look in her eyes and said quietly, "I think I would get on a stage and dance in front of people."  I took note.
Dance lessons were not going to happen for Desirae without a scholarship, something that is surprisingly hard to come by considering the number of dance studios in this affluent community.  I figured that we were going to have to be content with YouTube lessons until we sold some cookies to my neighbor as part of our bake sale last fall.  Making small talk with Desirae, he asked what she liked to do.  "Dance," she told him.  
She said it quietly, looking down at the ground, but to her great credit, she did tell him.  Turns out, he has a connection to a dance studio.  So he made a few calls and starting in January, Desirae was enrolled in Hip Hop 1, turning her dreams into reality.  I got to watch through a little window as she become more confident each week, blossoming under her teacher Lexci's praise for her obvious ability.
As the year-end recital approached, Lexci shouted to the girls as they danced, encouraging them to be bolder and stronger with their movements.  "Come on, show it to me!  I don't believe you!"  Desirae had every step down.  She nailed the Baby Freeze every time.  But she stared at the floor in front of her as she danced.  As a result, she looked tentative and a little scared.  I found myself wondering if a recital is really necessary.  Maybe it just generated anxiety and got in the way of actually learning to dance.
On our way to the dress rehearsal last Tuesday, Desirae told me all about a movie she had watched over the weekend.  It was hard to follow the plot, but it seemed to have to do with an ice skater who was having trouble completing a jump successfully in a competition.  The turning point (as far as I could tell) came when the skater received the advice to imagine that no one was watching her perform.  "Does that seem like advice that might help you too?" I asked Desirae.  "Yeah...I think so," she said.  
That night, she looked up a lot more.  And every time she looked up, she busted out smiling.  "Lexci says we should look like we have attitude," she told me on the way home.  "But I kept smiling!  I couldn't help it!  I was having so much fun!"
And then came the recital.  Approximately two and a half hours into the show (!), Desirae's class came on stage.  When the lights came up, Rihanna starting singing, "Work, work, work, work, work."  And there she was, right in the middle, head up, dancing as everyone watched.
I've been thinking about this ever since.  Rosa's former violin teacher used to say that most people take about a 20% hit when they perform, so we need to be 120% prepared if we want to avoid making mistakes when we play in public.  That advice was based on real experience, but it also begged the question for me.  If our highest artistic achievements happen when no one is watching or listening, why perform?  Isn't there something strange about a practice that we can only fully enter into when we pretend that it isn't really happening?  When we "dance like nobody's watching"?
But watching Desirae dance, I could see that the stage, the lights, and most of all the audience were essential to what happened that day.  She needed to override her self-consciousness to get out there and dance with her head up.  But when she did, she made a connection with the other people in the room.  Dancing wasn't just a dream she kept to herself.  Dancing created a relationship between her and a world of people she didn't know, but who were delighted to she what she can do.  That relationship is essential to growing up, to having a public life, to being a contributing part of the wider world.
So dance like nobody's watching, if that's what it takes to get you dancing.  But I hope that eventually you'll let someone else see you.  And then, dance like people are watching and see what difference it makes.

It Takes a Village to Hit High C

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A group of us were sitting around tables at church this past Tuesday, putting together a fundraising mailing for Help End Homelessness, HC Inc.  This is the kind of task that I basically need to be with a group if I'm going to do it.  If we divided up the letters and each took our pile home, they would sit on my desk for weeks.  So on Tuesday, we divided up the letters and right then and there wrote notes to the people we know, folded up the letters and sealed the envelopes.  It was surprisingly painless--and it gave me a chance to talk with some of my favorite people.

Randy was still buzzing with excitement from playing two shows with the Columbia Orchestra over the weekend.  The program included Mahler's Second, the "Resurrection Symphony".  Randy told us, "On Saturday night, I hit a high C on the trombone!  I hadn't been able to do that as I practiced the music on my own, but with the help of the whole brass section, I nailed it!".  He was discussing this experience with another brass player after the concert who assured him that many people have had a similar experience (note:  I tried to fact-check this on the web but came up empty).  

There is "something about playing with a group" that enables music to happen. Now, I know from personal experience that ensemble playing cannot make up for an individual's lack of skill or lack of practice.  In fact, an player who is off pitch or off rhythm can pull a whole group down.  But music is one of the many experiences in life where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  

I'm fascinated by the experience of community--and the connections between experiences of community and our spiritual life and understanding.  Maybe I'm making up for the first two or maybe three decades of my life when I put a high value on individual achievement, standing up against the crowd and finding your own unique voice.  I still value those things, but more and more I recognize that my greatest personal achievements were only possible because I was part of a community.  My list of things that were possible because I was part of an ensemble includes:

  • Becoming a foster parent
  • Raising three kids of my own
  • Growing my relationship with God
  • Becoming a decent preacher
  • Becoming less of an idiot than I used to be

In each case, I improved not because I took a class or read a book or had a mentor.  I grew as a person because I was around people who (1) believed in me and loved me and (2) were serious about learning and growing in their own lives.

This past Wednesday night, I got together with four other women for pizza and beer on the patio of Union Jack's.  I doubt anyone who saw us there that night would have called what we were doing "spiritual".  But that group of women (and two others who were sorely missed Wednesday night) have agreed to travel together this year, "bearing witness" to each other's lives.  We are honest with each other.  We give each other room to tell the truth.  We refuse to give advice--no lecturing or fixing allowed.  When something sad happens to one of us, we cry together.  And when something great happens, we all celebrate.  Week after week, we hit the relational equivalent of high C.  What a gift.


Republicans, as a Progressive Christian, I Share Your Pain

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook a screen shot of comments about atheists made by people who call themselves Christians.  Some suggested that we should "kill them all and let them see for themselves that there is a God".  My friend who shared the screen shot noted, "This is why I became an agnostic. This, apparently, is the 'love' Christians speak of. Why should I believe in your god when you can't even follow your own tenets?"

This isn't, of course, the only time I have read or heard things like this.  On a fairly regular basis, I hear someone complain about a heinous act someone committed or bigoted comment someone made and I brace myself for the comment that often follows:  "And he/she calls himself/herself a Christian!"  As a Christian pastor, I find it nearly impossible not to feel implicated by these comments.  I am not only identified personally with my religion--my professional role suggests to many people that I am a representative of the religion as a whole.

For years, whenever I was confronted with the stupid things some Christians say or do, I felt the need to explain that people who do such things aren't really Christian.  Jesus Christ, the founder of our religion, told people to "love one another as I have loved you", and modeled a compassionate, forgiving, boundary-crossing love in all he said and did.  I would quickly add that I am a Christian who, like Jesus, sees every person alive as God's beloved child, deserving of respect and love.

In other words, I defended my identity as a Christian by denying that anyone who disagreed with me could be a sincere disciple of Jesus Christ.

But a few years ago, I had a realization.  The Christians who make exclusionary, hateful statements genuinely believe that theirs is the true expression of the Christian faith.  They have Bible quotes and interpretations and entire theological systems to back them up.  I may not agree with their interpretation, but I can't deny that they are Christians.  

So maybe that means I'm not a Christian?  I've considered this possibility.  I went through a phase of calling myself "a follower of Jesus" instead.  But then I got mad.  Why should I let someone else take charge of that identity?  Why should they be the ones to define Christianity to the rest of the world?

But if I'm a Christian AND those judgmental jerks are Christians too, I had to admit we had something in common.  They read the same scriptures as me, they come to the communion table just as I do.  I decided I needed to find a way to express more than contempt with people who disagree with me.  I have to find a way to engage with them.  Our common identity as Christians is not a mistake--it is a challenge and an opportunity.

For months, I've heard Republicans disavow Donald Trump.  He's not a "real" Republican.  He's "hijacking" the party.  This isn't the party I know and love.  This isn't my father's party.  I recognize that line of thinking.  If I could only explain to people what Republicans are really about, they would come to their senses and dump Trump.  But that strategy hasn't worked.  Registered Republicans in 28 states have selected Trump to represent their party in the general election.

So now, Republicans who don't like Trump, who don't agree with his positions, have to make a decision.  They could decide to stop calling themselves Republicans.  I imagine some will do this--they'll become "Independent" or they'll join a third party like the Libertarians.  But I hope that most Republicans--including the elected leaders of Howard County and the state of Maryland--will make a different decision.  I hope they will say loud and clear, "I am a Republican--and I don't agree with Donald Trump because I'm a Republican."  Go on to say what that identity means to you.  Engage Trump supporters as a fellow Republican and make a case against allowing him to define the party--in this election and in the decades to come.


The More People Who Vote the Better

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My daughter, Rosa, is currently running for President of the Student Government Association at Oakland Mills High School (and if any OMHS students are reading this blog, you should definitely vote for her!)  Voting started today and runs through Friday.  When I asked Rosa last night how her campaign is going, she told me, "Well, I've got a bunch of posters up around the school.  But you know Mom, now I've got to work on GOTV."

If you grow up in a political family like ours, you know that a huge part of any campaign is the work it takes to Get Out The Vote.  People may like you, agree with you and want you to win, but if they don't actually make the effort to cast a vote for you, you won't win.  So Rosa is spending her week trying to get everyone she knows at her high school (and a lot of people she doesn't know) to walk over to the media center during their lunch hour and cast a vote for her.  

With any luck at all, her opponent is doing the same thing.  The point of an election, after all, is not just to select the candidate who is the best representative of the interests and concerns of the voters.  Elections are tools to increase civic engagement.  By asking people to make a decision between candidates, we give them a reason to investigate what the candidates stand for and to consider whether or not they agree.  

In other words, I vote because I care about my community.  And voting makes me care about my community more.

Which brings me to another election.  My neighborhood, like every neighborhood in Columbia, has a Village Board that consists of seven members who are up for election each year.  This year, there are seven people running for seven seats.  The Oakland Mills representative to the Columbia Council is also uncontested.  In order for the election to be valid, 10% of the eligible voters must participate--and if that number is not reached in the first election, there will automatically be a second election.  What this means, of course, is that even though the election is uncontested, the candidates have to Get Out The Vote.

This takes work.  And it is work that the current Board members and Village staff would prefer not to do.  So, this year there are also two amendments to the Oakland Mills by-laws on the ballot which would enable the neighborhood association to cancel the election if it is uncontested.  The election newsletter than accompanied our ballot explained that currently eight out of ten of the Columbia villages cancel uncontested elections.  

I think this is a really bad idea.  I think it is great to ask people to vote--it reminds them that they are part of a community and that they have a voice.  I also think it is great to require candidates to ask people to vote--it reminds them that they are part of a community and gets them to talk to people and maybe even to listen a bit.  

And what's more--if you cancel uncontested elections, then there is an incentive for there to be uncontested elections.  The current board, which would be inconvenienced by an election, will encourage people not to run unless someone leaves, in which case they will try to fill that vacancy with a single new candidate.  I don't think it is good to create a system with those kinds of incentives.

So I urge my fellow Oakland Mills residents NOT to vote for these referenda.  What's more, this has me thinking about upcoming state and national elections.  What if 50% of eligible voters needed to vote for the election to be valid?  Wouldn't that be interesting??