Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Practical A/Theism

A piece for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington's blog, in which I contemplate the power of the alpha privative. (Just kidding. No one would read that.) Really, I'm asking the question,  "If someone cannot discern your beliefs out of your actions, do you really believe your beliefs?"

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What have I been doing with my life?

On October 6th, I had a 9:00am meeting in Northern Virginia, and I offered to drop Husband off at work on my way by. We were passing a federal courthouse when all of a sudden I saw something that made me question what I had been doing with my life for the last seven years. 

In 2007-2008, I spent a year closely connected with a non-profit called Torture Abolition and Survivors' Support Coalition International -- TASSC, for short. And TASSC was closely aligned with both the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House, located in Petworth, and another small intentional Christian community called the Assisi House. The people who lived in these houses were teachers or activists, some in religious orders, some not, but all saw the world differently from most people, and for that matter, most Christians. It was here I was introduced to William Stringfellow, to Dorothy Day, to the Berrigan brothers, to Peter Maurin -- a strain of Christianity singing a countermelody to the sleepy protestant mainstream I grew up with. Those who lived in these houses were transformed by the witness of these authors, and they lived lives of witness. 

I loved those quirky folks, and those authors inspired me, too. But after a year of witnessing with them through TASSC, I felt compelled to effect, to plan, to change the world through my own sheer will. In other words, I felt called to do, while their mode of life is organic, to be. I went on to learn fundraising at top ten charity, the most planning-oriented and "effective" mode of helping that I could figure to do. You can't feed or shelter people without resources, or planning, or support staff. You can't make real change without worldly influence. In a nutshell, I was here to do what nearly everyone in Washington comes here to do -- to be smart and to change the world. So I better go about doing it. And I worked my small part. 

But on that Monday morning on October 6th at 8:45am, when I saw that group of Catholic Workers and TASSC people standing outside of the Federal Courthouse, all of that work seemed to be dross. Here they were, this ragtag crew of ten folks or so, holding anti-torture signs long after the national debate about "enhanced interrogation" has moved on. Seven years later, I recognized almost all of them. One wore a "Shut Down Guantanamo" t-shirt. I have that one, too. It's in my drawer, still bright orange. His was faded to the point it wasn't orange anymore, and kind of hard to read. By the way, if you were wondering, we still have prisoners in Guantanamo. 

Seven years of faithfulness. Seven years of steadfastness in the face of the world who at best doesn't care, and at worst despises them. And seven years was the only seven years that I saw -- the Catholic Workers of DC have been at it much, much longer than that. I've been thinking about them for weeks now, what it must take to do the same actions over and over again, never seeing substantial change. At the moment I drove by, I thought to myself, "That's what faithfulness looks like." And then I thought, "What have I been doing with my life?" 

Friday, October 17, 2014


I've got a friend who writes really good books about really interesting topics -- his name is Kerry Walters, he teaches at Gettysburg College, he pastors in Central Pennsylvania, and he writes prolifically. From time to time he also kindly puts up with my crazy in person or over Facebook (and to his eternal credit, he has been doing so patiently for over ten years now).

Anyway, Kerry just wrote a book about something local and pertinent: local, because Kerry writes about DC in the 1850's; pertinent, because it's about the National Hotel Epidemic and the panic that ensued. With the first patient to contract Ebola on US soil up the road at NIH,  epidemics and how we react to them are top of mind lately. 

But more than that, as this Post article by Clinton Yates points out, Kerry speaks thoughtfully about what really hasn't changed since 1857 in DC. Unfortunately, that includes gentrification, law enforcement issues, and racial injustice. If you're interested in thoughtful reflection about these topics, it will be a book worth delving into, especially if you live in DC. The book comes out October 21 -- I've just ordered a copy, and you should too. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

New Creation!

October 1, 2014 -- Episcopal Church of the Annunciation, Memphis
Photo by the Rev. John Burruss, who takes good pictures even if he's in a bee keeping suit.

Usually I try to avoid posts that are about church itself, but I'm going to break my own rule for just one post. But with all of the noise about "the end of theological education as we know it" because of the crisis at General Theological Seminary (if you haven't heard about this, good for you!) and the fact that I've been in contact with dozens of my classmates over the last two weeks, I feel like I need to say something a little more pointedly church-oriented. So, if you're brave, keep reading. If you're smart, tune in next week.

There's a narrative about mainstream Protestant churches which claims that the churches are slowly dying. Churches are merging, or being closed down, and selling their buildings. Millennials are suspicious of institutions, the median age of church goers is older than ever, and more people than ever before don't affiliate with any religion at all. I understand that.  But that's not what I'm actually hearing from my friends who are one or two years out of seminary.

A friend who graduated with me is starting an ecology initiative with the church's land that will eventually support ministry to sex-traffiked women in Memphis. This year, they had their first crop of honey, and are working on preparing the soil for planting a huge garden that will grow herbs for tea and herb rubs. The community took what had been a burden to them -- acres of land to keep -- and made it into an asset for good. Now they stand for something. The church had been shrinking, but it's growing now.

Another priest friend is starting a print shop with his church community in Kentucky that will teach printmaking skills to those in hallway houses and prison, and will be a place where those people can be employed until they can find other employment. This project is in its very beginning stages, but it's exciting to see it get put into motion.

Another friend moved to Texas, and is teaching American Civics classes in Spanish at his church, to help immigrants pass the citizenship test. That church is growing, too.

I heard story after story from friend after friend -- and even if people weren't working on entrepreneurial and self-sustaining projects, they told stories about neighborhoods coming back to life in Baltimore, of growing youth groups in South Carolina, of creating safe havens for the LGBT community in Arkansas, of dinner churches for young adults being established in Southern Maryland, of public and liturgical witness all over the country, of laundromat ministry in DC, and some really amazing outreach in bars and coffee shops.

We choose the stories we tell, and I choose these stories over the narrative of the decline and death of the church. When we allow these sort of creative ministries to happen, even if it means having priests who don't look or act like the parish priests of the past, or priests who are one foot in the secular world and one foot in the church world, we tell the story of our faith in a way that speaks to others. In the news the past few weeks, and from the older seminary alums I was working with in meetings this week, I heard the death and dying narrative repeatedly. But what others see as death and dying, I see as an opportunity to prune back the branches, and to allow new growth to flourish.  Besides, it's already happening.