Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On Being Inexperienced

While working at my “day job” on Sunday, I heard a hit-it-out-of-the-park sermon by Bishop Gene Robinson, who is the bishop-in-residence at St. Thomas Episcopal Parish, Dupont Circle. Sermons are by nature ephemeral events, written in a week and forgotten by the next. But the mark of an effective sermon is a sermon that you think about the way home on Sunday, over breakfast on Monday, and while you lie awake at night on Tuesday. For me, this was one of those sermons. Because I heard that sermon, I will never gloss over Psalm 27 again.

This sermon reflected Bishop Gene’s real experience of grace despite true persecution. (The man probably still gets death threats. He certainly still deals with a lot of hateful BS.) Somehow, he’s come through all of it made stronger in faith and in personhood, and when he was preaching about Psalm 27, you could tell. The image I saw was that of the blacksmith shop: impurities rising to the surface of the metal and being burned and hammered away in the intense heat. There was pain, but there was strength. 

The sermon inspired me. And if I’m being totally honest, the sermon also made me despair. Bishop Gene is a 20-year-old port compared to my Welch’s Grape Juice. I just felt very young, and very small, and very much that compared to people who have been in ministry for decades or have innately better talents than myself, I have no idea whatsoever what I’m doing. I don’t know jack about starting a new community of faith like I long to start on H Street. And yet, here I am. So, exhausted from a long and emotional day on Sunday, I wallowed for most of Monday morning, because for some reason self-pity seemed like a better idea than actually doing something to actualize a goal. I will admit that I do have a weakness for theatrical disconsolateness. And so I found myself dramatically lying on the floor sighing (for the record, I only do this in front of the dog and sometimes Husband who just rolls his eyes, but yes, it does make me feel better) when from somewhere in the cobwebs of the attic of my mind a memory surfaced.

I was sitting in the basement of the Capuchin Monastery at Catholic University, in the makeshift office of the shoestring non-profit TASSC (Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition), huddled around a space heater with a retired full-time volunteer who lived with some local peace activists. There was something in his demeanor that made me instantly like him, but as I got to know him better, I found a wellspring of integrity despite his failing eyesight and shuffling gait. He was in terrible shape, but his mind was sharp as a tack and he was very, very wise. A leader in the Civil Rights Movement who taught the first integrated class at the University of Alabama, he left teaching after being granted tenure to work for immigration rights in the American Southwest, and he had stories like you would not believe. TASSC was the kind of place where stories were valued, and so I heard many of them. And Wise Friend was gracious enough to listen to me and my I’m-a-22-year-old problems. 

One day at TASSC, I was chatting with a survivor, and I said something really inconsiderate. Painfully inconsiderate. I just wasn’t watching my words, and they flew out of my mouth and hung in the air, and the survivor just gaped at me. I fumbled around for an apology, but even now I cringe at the memory. I was on the verge of tears when I told Wise Friend about it. He chuckled, and then looked at me with utter compassion and said, “That’s the thing about experience, Becky. By definition, you don’t have it until after you need it. Cut yourself a break.”

Oh yeah. So I thought about Wise Friend, decided to cut myself a break, got up off of the floor, and actually did some work, trusting that my willingness could somehow be transformed into experience.

Part One of this essay series can be found here.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Becoming Invisible in Your Own Neighborhood

Yesterday, Morning Edition put out a story about how the process of gentrification might actually be beneficial to those who have always lived in the neighborhood, and they focused on H Street. This isn't too surprising that NPR chose H Street, given their new headquarters only a few blocks away, but regardless, I was heartened by the news that by moving to H Street I wasn’t kicking somebody’s grandmother out into the cold.
The article explores how the process of gentrification improves parks, schools and other amenities. That isn’t exactly newsworthy, in and of itself. But NPR went on to look at new studies which seems to imply that not only do long-time residents stay in the gentrified neighborhoods, there are many other side benefits, including better credit scores, new jobs, and a safer environment.
If this is true, it’s good news. What’s puzzling to me is why it doesn’t seem to be true. The social scientists were just as surprised as I am. They were gathering data to see how much displacement gentrification caused, but instead they found gentrification increased retention, and they were shocked. They must have been shocked because when gentrification happens, it doesn't seem like the people who lived there before are still there. 
This is what troubles me: If the people who have always lived in the neighborhood are still here and present, why does it seem as though the people who lived here before have been displaced? What has changed so much in newly gentrified community that it seems as though the people who lived there before have suddenly become invisible? Are our social groups so totally closed off, with different hang out spots, different work and life schedules, that they never overlap in meaningful ways? 
And if we are actually so isolated that we never see or interact with each other, what is it that would make our neighborhood a neighborhood, not just a ZIP code?

PS If you have thoughts on this -- why it seems like people aren't there anymore -- please leave them in the comments, I am genuinely curious!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The "Death" of a Church

A church very close to where I live was just sold for $2.2M to developers. I'm not sure what the deal is, or why the church decided to sell. Perhaps they are taking the money and starting a new ministry somewhere else; perhaps they are moving somewhere else in the neighborhood; perhaps the community slowly died, and the building was only a shell of what the community used to be. I work elsewhere in the city on Sunday mornings, so I haven't been around to see whether or not there are active church services there or not. A reasonable amount of internet snooping led to no new information, and so I'm left with my conjectures.

A few neighborhood blogs have covered the announcement, most notably Frozen Tropics and HStreetGreatStreet. This is the former church of St. John Church of God, if you're wondering which one:

St. John Church of God, Jan. 21, 2014, H&13

Near the front steps:

The former St. John Church of God, Jan. 21, 2014

The chain and lock seem just a little heartbreaking to this Vicar, and when I peered in the front doors, the door to the sanctuary was open, revealing the pews and "Do this in remembrance" lettered on the altar and all the little things that make a regular building a church, hymnals in the pews and signs to the bathroom and bulletin boards with outdated announcements no one has bothered to take down. I found myself a little sad for this little church.

But. Church buildings shouldn't be museums of places where people used to gather in faith but now sit empty. Church buildings shouldn't burden their congregants to the point where all they do is maintain the building and neglect their mission. Church buildings shouldn't exist just for the sake of existing. The building of the church isn't the church, the building is just a place for the people who make up the church to use as a tool for mission. And if that building is getting in the way of the church doing what the church should actually be doing, it needs to go. Period.

I'm not saying that the church building can't be the center of gravity for a community, or a place of sacred reflection that feeds the souls of those who come to worship there. But if the building itself becomes the object of worship, it needs to go. I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of faith communities could be set free if only they could get rid of the idol that is their church building. I wonder what these communities would discover about themselves, about their priorities, about their faith, if they were willing to set out on an adventure, to see their building as a tool for doing ministry in the world around them.

So, on further reflection, I'm not sad for the community, or that little church building, of St. John Church of God. Good for them for going out on faith and moving on, in whatever direction they are taking.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Blog Housekeeping and a Standing Invitation to Coffee

I'd just like to take a moment to thank everyone who's been reading the blog and rooting me on. Your support is very much appreciated! It's been a great experience so far, especially because it forces me to stop and think and crystalize thoughts into words, which is a gift in and of itself.  I look forward to stepping up my game and posting more often in the coming weeks as I finally get into a rhythm of life at St. Thomas' Dupont and on H Street. I'll also try to get a blogroll going and get a more aesthetically pleasing look going on -- that's not my talent, but hopefully I can draft some help to get it rolling.

Secondly, if you know anyone who lives on H Street, or you are someone who lives on H Street, I would like to talk with you. I've been working on meeting people for individual conversations to see what the hopes and fears and dreams and joys are for those who live in this neighborhood, whether they've been here for six weeks, six months, six years, or longer. I'm working to figure out what sort of shape my community work here will take, and in order to do that, I need to meet as many different people as possible. So, if you know someone, or you would like to meet with me to share your story, you can message me on Facebook (Becky Zartman) send me a tweet at @Becky_Zartman, Google+ me at +BeckyZartman, or fill out the prayer request form on the side of the blog. This is a standing invitation as long as this post is up, so no matter if it's a few months from now. I still want to meet you, so send me a message. I'm open to coffee or drinks somewhere near H Street. 

Thanks again, everyone. I'm looking forward to a great 2014.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How I got to H Street, Part I: On the Insanity of "Calling"

A "calling" is a funny thing. The first funny thing about a "calling" is the term itself; it's the Christian terminology for the idea of a vocation,* but vocation with fangs. I say with fangs, because if it's a calling, it won't leave you alone, it will keep you up at night, it will go away for a little while and then come back with a later and say, at first very sweetly, "Listen. Stop running. You know you were created to do this." If you keep ignoring it, then it gets a little louder. And a little louder. Until one day, you can't ignore it anymore, and you say, "FINE." And despite the pain that comes with change, you wonder why you hadn't been doing it all along.

Everyone has a calling; I believe that firmly, because I've seen what happens when people follow a calling. Callings aren't just for the professionally religious, but are, at heart, a human experience. Some people get their callings young; some people get them when they are middle-aged; some people only find them at the completion of their lives. To believe that people are called to a purpose is audacious because it implies 1) that there is an order to the universe, albeit a creative, creating one and 2) that you were intentionally created the way that you are, because 3) your presence is a gift to the world. To believe in these three premises, and then to believe that what you do really matters, is insane. But I believe it anyway. I believe it because I've seen, in others, a calling that brings love and joy to the world like a ticker tape parade. I believe it because I've seen, in others, a calling that brings love and joy to the world in the quiet of a conversation, a healing touch, an imparted inspiration.

I make no claims about my own ability to bring love or joy in any capacity, but what I can claim is that callings are crazy, and sometimes not at all what you think it would be. I know, because it happened to me. If you would have asked me, going into seminary, what my calling was, I would have told you it was probably not in a church, it was probably going to be in an academic setting. As such, I took New Testament Greek for the whole year. As such, I decided that I would start taking upper-level New Testament classes my first semester of seminary. As such, I took an entire semester class on the letter to the Galatians, reading hundreds of pages weekly on six chapters of scripture. As such, swimming in the Greek and the historicity and the apocalyptic antinomies and the Hebrew Scripture references, my mind was opened in a way it wasn't before. As such, for the first time in a very long time, my tiny black raisin heart (atrophied by intellectualizing everything I touched) cracked open. Just a little bit. But it was enough to let that little bit of a whisper of something new come in.

And so, by the time I graduated, taking more and more Scripture and translation classes, thinking that they were still the answer to my calling, yet every single one nudging me more into a new way to be, my calling had shifted. I had been called, at least for the foreseeable future, into a new adventure that was not more school. I couldn't just read Paul anymore to read Paul, and I couldn't study the Gospels just to study the Gospels, and to sound knowledgeable about theory. What Paul had to say, what the Gospels had to say, is radical and life changing and nothing at all like the namby-pamby Precious Moments pious BS that gets marketed to well-meaning middle America. It's also not merely an intellectual exercise in the history of thought. It's way more than that, and I had been caught up with it.

*Side etymology note: vocation actually comes from the Latin vocare, 'to call,' so this whole thing is more wrapped up in tautology than I had originally intended, but the definition stands.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


I've made a huge mistake. I could have been the Vicar of Swampoodle! What a missed opportunity.

Seriously, though, I was looking up a restaurant that I had a Groupon to (which, btw, is now closed, and I have no idea if I can get my money back) when I noticed something peculiar.

Right there, in the middle. Swampoodle. Swampoodle? What the heck is Swampoodle? 

So, I do what any self-respecting person does, and I google it. Turns out that it's a real neighborhood in DC, although it's not at all what it once was. According to Wikipedia, anyway, it was an Irish neighborhood of slums that had Tiber Creek (a whole creek! where did the creek go?) running through it that would overflow and create huge puddles. In case you haven't already, this is the point where you should try to say "puddle" with an Irish accent. Anyway, the neighborhood was rife with crime, but still a busy and vibrant neighborhood (with a baseball stadium that seated 6,000!) until it was cut in two by the construction of Union Station in 1907, after which the residents dispersed into the city. Now nothing is left except a few original houses on the outskirts of the neighborhood and a mostly-forgotten name. It reminds me of how easily distinct and multi-generational communities can fade away, even if it is in the name of "progress."

And so, Swampoodle is now "NoMa." I guess living North of Massachusettes Avenue is better than saying you live in a Swamp Puddle, but NoMa sounds so sterile in comparison.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Craving Stability

Like any other twenty-something who has moved from a small town to a big city, the last ten years of my life have been constant flux. The last year has been particularly acute, which is probably why I've been thinking about it so much, but seriously. I've moved countless times, changed my state residency twice, went to school, graduated from school, transitioned into full-time work, changed jobs, transitioned within the job, went back to school, graduated from school, transitioned back into work, transitioned from single to married, transitioned from a lay person to an ordained person, transitioned in my family relationships, and watched most of my friends move through the same process, just with their own constellations of constant change. 

(As a side note, the Church in general does not do a good job ministering to people who are in constant change. This is another blog post entirely.)

Maybe I'm getting older, but this starting to be exhausting. Not that the flux isn't fun, it is a time of intense personal growth, but I'm ready to inhabit a new way of being now, to find a center in the chaos. I am more than ready for some stability, and weirdly, I've been thinking about monks.

In monastic orders, there are three basic vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. But some orders (orders are specific types of monks or nuns, each order has a different ministry or focus) have additional vows. One of those vows is stability. When a person takes a vow of stability, that person vows to remain with one community for the rest of his or her life, come what may. It doesn't matter if the community gets a bunch of new people that a monk doesn't like, he's staying, and they will grow together. It doesn't matter if a nun is facing uncomfortable truths about herself because of what is happening in that community, she's staying, and she will grow because of it. The vow of stability takes away the autonomy to just move on, and instead fosters a trust that together, a community can flourish. 

While I won't be taking any monastic vows anytime soon, I'm looking forward to being in one place for the foreseeable future, and look to the monastic tradition for assurance that this longer-term transition is really for the best. I do find it odd that I'm finding that "one place" in a place of constant change and motion and businesses opening and closing, a constant and changing tide of people throughout the day and week, but hey. At least I know it won't be boring around here. I'm thinking this experience will be less like laying a foundation, and more like casting an anchor over the side of the boat. But regardless, I hope that 2014 is the beginning of the rest of the twenty-teens for me. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Wilderness New Year

Happy New Year! I hope that everyone had a fun and joyous ringing in of 2014. My family celebrated in the way it usually does: packing up our gear and heading deep into state forest, hoping that there will be snow in the mountains. 

A snapshot near camp -- Potter County, PA -- Jan. 1, 2014

That far in, there is no phone or internet connection. The time spent in the woods, cut off from how we usually communicate and by necessity aware of safety protocol (Going for a walk? Where are you going? How long do you plan to be gone? Do you have matches, a compass, a map, and a whistle with you?) is always a good reminder of our own fragility in the beautiful, cold and vast wilderness that is not only the woods but the city. And after a long, solitary walk in the forest, there is nothing like being greeted by a warm stove and dinner on the table.

My wish for the new year is that whatever wilderness you find yourself in, you will also find warmth, love, and belonging. Happy New Year.