mission

Accessibility and Necessity

By Rev. Mindi

I remember when my child was less than a year old, joining a clergy group for breakfast, and finding out the hard way the restaurant bathroom had no changing table. And this was one of those baby pooplosions, where you cannot wait to change the diaper. It made me angry, and luckily, my clergy group decided to switch locations after that.

I also remember so many times my husband had to change our son in the car because the men’s public restroom did not have a changing table. Very few still do, and this is 2016.

With all the talk about bathrooms in the news these days, I wonder:

Are we having this conversation about accessible restrooms in our churches?

I serve a congregation where thankfully all of the bathrooms in our small building were renovated in the last fifteen years, are all accessible for disabled persons, and two out of the three having changing tables. All three are large enough not only to bring a wheelchair or walker inside, but also for someone to bring in another person who needs assistance in the bathroom.

My child is almost eight, and due to his disability needs assistance in the bathroom. Oh, and because both my husband and I are incredibly tall people (someone once remarked that we breed giants), our kiddo is the size of a ten-year-old.

I highly suspect this being an election year has brought this latest wave of transphobia and bathroom shock to light. Masked in the cloak of protecting our children from predators (look at statistics of child assault and abuse and you’ll find that 75% of the time it happens within the home from a relative) we have ostracized our transgender kin. And we have made restrooms—a basic function, a basic need of our humanity—less accessible than before.

Even if my kiddo didn’t have a disability that required some assistance in the bathroom, I’ll be honest: as a parent, I have a hard time sending my child alone anywhere with strangers. But I am 100% not worried about transgender folks. I am also 100% not worried about someone pretending to be transgender who might harm my child, because let’s face it, that is NOT happening. That is a lie perpetuated to drum up fear in an election cycle. No. I am concerned, however, of something happening to my child in a public restroom from a child predator, who most likely will be a white straight dude, based on statistics.

I remember the fear when I sent my child to preschool, after having moved, knowing no one in the area. Sending my child to a strange teacher with strange paraeducators in the classroom who would be helping my son use the restroom. Why? Because videos and stories of students with disabilities being abused by staff are abundant on the internet. New stories are abundant in the suburbs of Seattle, along with stories from parents.

I have seen the stares, heard the jokes, seen the rolling eyes by women as I bring my tall son into the bathroom with me. I remember once at a child’s play space a young girl complaining that “there is a boy in the bathroom!” I once had someone complain when my child was three—yes, three years old—that he didn’t belong in the women’s bathroom with me.

I am afraid for transgender people. I am afraid that they will be abused and harmed, even killed, by someone claiming to “protect” someone else. I am also afraid that as my child grows larger, as he gains more independence and uses the restroom by himself, people will report him because of his strange sounds and the time he spends in the restroom. I have known many parents of teens with disabilities telling me how they had to talk with a police officer outside of a public restroom where their child was inside because someone called the police on a “dangerous” person inside. I am also afraid that someone will take action themselves and claim to be “protecting” others.

So what can we do as the church? I’ve seen many conversations in social media focusing on certain laws and policies, but what about within your own congregation’s physical space?

We can start by creating safe spaces in our churches. Create restrooms that are accessible for persons with disabilities and their caregivers. Make it known that these restrooms are accessible and gender neutral. If you have existing men and women’s restrooms, if they have single stalls this makes it easier to go gender neutral, but also consider the need to renovate (if you can, knowing how church budgets are these days) to make them accessible for persons with disabilities. Also add changing tables, and if you are able to, adult changing tables. I have seen one restroom with an adult changing table. Yes, they are necessary for many adults with disabilities, and finding them in public is a very difficult task.

The simple, shortcut answer, is to create one gender neutral restroom, one accessible restroom out of the rest. This can ostracize folks, singling them out to use that restroom. Also, to be quite honest, it’s a pain to have to wait in line for the restrooms anyway—but to have to wait for that one special stall, or that one special bathroom to open up while everyone else is at least moving forward in line—that’s degrading. The longer-term solution is to make all of our restrooms accessible to all people.

While the debate continues over laws and policies, can’t we, within the church, start making safe and accessible spaces, including restrooms? Can’t we lead the way?

 Many thanks to the Unitarian Universalist Association for this inclusive restroom sign.

Many thanks to the Unitarian Universalist Association for this inclusive restroom sign.

"Meeting the Challenge of this Decisive Hour" --Honoring MLK's Legacy

By Rev. Mindi

I never knew Martin Luther King, Jr. was controversial until my senior year of high school. Until that point, all I had learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. was that he was a civil rights leader, that he had called for the end of segregation, that he had spoken up for blacks in the South and that he was assassinated and when I was in elementary school in the 1980’s he was given a holiday. That was what I knew.

What changed during my senior year? In our Government class, we were asked to name some of our heroes of the United States, and I raised my hand and said, “Martin Luther King, Jr.” Other students scoffed, some said, “he’s not my hero.” I explained that he had led a peaceful revolution and my teacher corrected me: “they weren’t exactly peaceful.” I still remember those exact words.

I was taken aback at the age of seventeen because what I had learned in school so far was a tidy, very white viewpoint of Martin Luther King, Jr. I had read the “I Have A Dream” speech. I had read about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I did not know about the March to Selma, or the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, or the violence that erupted in the South at polling locations when African-Americans showed up to vote. I also didn’t know that people could still be racist. I knew of a few people who were, but overall, I thought we were in a post-racial America. I had believed it, until that day, when I realized that either we bought the version taught in school of a gentle, meek and mild Martin Luther King, Jr. who had a dream for all children, or we bought into the racist view that MLK had started violence and riots because people were equal and that if you talked about race, you were the racist. While many of us reject the latter, we have swallowed the pill of the former.

The problem is, almost twenty-one years after I have graduated high school, white churches for the most part still buy into the first viewpoint. Especially on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, in the liberal-leaning traditional congregations, we read quotes here and there from MLK about peace and justice that doesn’t challenge us, but makes us feel better about ourselves. We sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” or “We Shall Overcome” only on this Sunday and no others. We join in community celebrations and we say we are working for racial justice, but are we just swallowing the pill we have been giving ourselves since his assassination almost fifty years ago?

My white kindred, I urge you to read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I urge you to take seriously the challenges that MLK lays out, in a very Pauline way, of how we have acted towards our kindred of color. And we must examine ourselves—are we putting ourselves in the same position as many of the white clergy leaders MLK was writing to? “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” writes King in his letter. White leaders condemned the actions of King and others, despite them being peaceful, but “because they precipitate violence.” Because white supremacy still exists, and the reaction to black lives protesting, even peacefully, is violence. However, over the past year, since the protests in Ferguson began, and in later New York and Baltimore condemning police brutality, the silence of white church leaders has been louder than the condemnation. 

We need to read all of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, especially the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and remember Dr. King’s call. It is all too easy for those of us in the white church to pick a quote here and there, to sing the songs and believe that it’s all better now, but it is not. We must not only speak but act for racial justice, and most of all, we must listen to our African-American kindred who are still struggling for equality and justice, and listen to their call, all of it, even the parts that make us uncomfortable. 

Financial Support "Ain't What It Used To Be."

By Rev. Mindi

The second congregation I was called to as a pastor, an old New England church with white columns and red carpet down the aisles of the white pews and white walls, had a chart in the back of its sanctuary, built in 1825. The chart was for the old box pews, long pulled out of the main floor, but still standing up in the balcony. Because, as you may know, back in the day families paid for their pew for the year. Back then, when someone got mad at you for sitting in their pew, it was because they had paid good money for it. That was how church buildings were funded, Sunday School literature purchased, and how pastors were paid.

At some point, the box pews were pulled out. The idea of being able to buy your seat in church and pay more for better seats became appalling. You can’t claim it’s your pew anymore, and all are encouraged to give what they are able. And this model worked for some time, where those who had more could give their share, and churches began creating endowments and building bigger buildings. Families still had a lot of children that filled up those Sunday School classes.

But here we are, in the twenty-first century. Two adults with full-time incomes also may have student loans, childcare expenses, healthcare expenses, rent or mortgage, and other costs that leave little wiggle room. Fewer and fewer have disposable income. People are not able to give as much to the church, and churches are shrinking their budgets, cutting staff, and in some cases, closing altogether.

We know this. And we know the church is changing and the new worshiping communities don’t look like what we have known on Sunday mornings. For some of those communities, income isn’t a problem. They meet in coffee shops or at bars or other public places, and don’t pay rent, or pay little for reserved space. Many do not have a full-time pastor, but someone who leads their community and works a different full-time job. Some of them are not seminary trained and don’t have the same debt. The operating costs may be significantly less.

But there are still many who value seminary trained pastors, who need to pay their pastor something to help with their debt, who have expenses for worship space. And they have a lot in common with the traditional church coming in to today’s world: both need to figure out how to raise financial support.

Being a PTA mom, sometimes I turn my nose up at the word “fundraising.” All I can think about is wrapping paper and cookie dough sales. But we need to look at ways to raise financial support beyond what we are used to, whether we are in a new, innovative ministry that meets outside of the box, or if we are continuing within the traditional church—the old ways are not going to work any longer.

Here are some ideas I have seen traditional and non-traditional worshiping communities use:

--Dinner and Silent Auction

--Kids Carnival

--Community Festival and Appreciation

--Concerts

--Inviting people to partner with the community through financial giving, whether they attend worship or not, by inviting people to give to help fund meaningful work in the community.

--Online giving campaigns

For the next two weeks, the “out-of-the-box-in-the-box” worshiping community I am part of, Open Gathering, which is a ministry of Bellevue Christian Church in Bellevue, Washington, is partnering in an online fundraising effort with other innovative ministries in what we are calling the “Island of Misfit Toys” Fundraiser. We are inviting folks from our communities and those who support them to offer up an item for an online auction—something they received for Christmas they didn’t want, or new (and like-new) items they have, or handmade items (there are some delicious baked goods being offered by a former Manhattan pastry chef). You can check it out on Facebook, and even bid on items to support some of these innovative ministries happening around the country. To see what other ministries are being supported by this online auction, visit this website.

Feel free to steal these ideas. Better yet, reply to this post and share your own ideas for thinking outside of the box, partnering in the community, and helping to support new and innovative ministries, whether it happen within the traditional four-walled church, or outside of the box!

Is there another way? Buildings, landlords, and ministry

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Rev. Mindi

My alma mater is selling its buildings, its beautiful campus, and relocating. At least, that is the plan. It made the news last week. The oldest graduate theological school in the United States is going to sell the campus.

I’ve written about churches and buildings before, our connection to a space, the power structures in place with building ownership, and of course, the fact that the church is not the building but the body of Christ.

Currently, I’m a part-time pastor of a tiny church, with a tiny church building, with a tiny campus on top of a hill, across the street from an elementary school. A building that is just shy of sixty years old. A building with asbestos in the ceiling and peeling paint and ripped brown carpet in the sanctuary.

I also serve with my husband at Open Gathering, a gathered community without a building. And I have a group of young adults in my tiny church that have started to form a new(ish) community we are, for now, calling “Good Neighbors.” One is renting space; the other meets at a local coffee shop/bar (which, actually, is a Lutheran ministry funded from the sale of a church building).

So what’s the big deal about buildings?

We get attached to space and places. Of course, I am going to mourn when my alma mater moves. Not only did I live there for three years, receive my Master of Divinity there, make some of the greatest friends of my life there and learn so much—I happened to meet my husband afterwards and we had our wedding reception there. The background of my wedding photos is the quad at Andover Newton.

But the school can continue in a different place and space. Indeed, for much of the arguing going on about whether online classes are not personal enough, let’s face reality: more and more people are going to school online. More and more of us are getting our core instruction that way. It doesn’t replace the practical—and I feel that a good seminary education that prepares us for ministry is going to get us out into the field more. Interning at local congregations. Participating in local ministries. Doing chaplaincy residencies at local hospitals and mission organizations. That’s what I received at Andover Newton that was most formative for my practical training.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s what we need for our congregations as well: more practical training in the field. Participating with other congregations in ministries in the community. Volunteering at our hospitals and homeless shelters. Visiting one another where we reside and where we work. I have noticed an increase in participation, from both congregation and community, every time we move an activity outside of the church building—Bible Studies in coffee shops. Pub Theology gatherings at a local bar. Caroling at the train station.

But there are buildings that house wonderful ministries as well. All too often, I have seen congregations hold on to the building by renting out every single space every single day of the week. The congregation becomes a landlord. They are concerned about wear and tear on the building but also how much income is coming in.

Our tiny church building houses four congregations. Four! Our building is in use every single day of the week—for worship, for Bible study, for prayer gatherings, for a Christian preschool in the morning and an After-School tutoring program that we run in the afternoon. We also have had Vacation Bible School, as well as a Social Skills Summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically-developing peers.  A few years ago we planted our first Community Organic Garden plot, and we hope to expand. One thing I have noticed: when we stop worrying about what's going to happen to us, and start focusing on what God is doing through us, we are open to more possibilities.

Sure, we face the same issues. And maybe we’re kidding ourselves by holding on as long as we can. But the difference may be seeking what is the intention for the space we are in. Is it so we can just keep going? Is our renting to others just to sustain us? Or is it possible to be open to other ministries and missions and giving space for them to flourish? What is God’s intention for us? And ultimately, we do have to ask the question: is building ownership the only way to do this?

It's hard to begin to think of letting go of a place where you've had your wedding, had your child dedicated or baptized, or where your parent's funeral was held. It's hard to not have an attachment to that space, and it is a grieving process.

In my congregation, we are asking some of the hard questions now, and we aren’t sure exactly where we are going. But we are trusting the Holy Spirit. I pray that the leaders at Andover Newton are doing the same. For the rest of us in traditional churches with aging buildings, what is the Spirit calling you do to? Because I’m sure when you agreed to join in membership, or if you’ve been there since Sunday School days, that God wasn’t calling you to be a landlord of the church building. God is calling you into ministry.

 Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Living by the Sword

by Rev. Mindi

American children are nine times more likely to die in gun accidents than children anywhere else in the developed world.

Firearms were the third leading cause of injury related deaths nationwide in 2010.

The CDC reports that 21,175 suicide deaths are by firearms, just over half of all suicide deaths every year.

This year alone, over 62 shootings have taken place at schools, over twelve thousand killed in gun incidents, and almost 25,000 have been injured in gun incidents in the US.

And the list goes on and on and on. These statistics alone, and report after report after report, ought to make us question the plethora of guns in the United States, the attitudes about gun ownership rights and responsibilities, and the overall risk of life when it comes to gun ownership. I know—some of these are criminals with guns. Yes. However, look at the rates of accidental death and injury, especially to children—and we ought to at least question our attitudes about availability of guns.

On Monday, Jerry Falwell, Jr. made the statement that Christians should be arming themselves to shoot Muslims. He later clarified he meant Muslim extremists, but still. “Christians should arm themselves.”

What?

Why in the world should Christians arm themselves? Isn’t this antithetical to the message of the Gospel? To Jesus, the one who saves? Jesus, the one who gave up his own life?

Carol Howard Merritt writes about the reality of domestic violence and murder when guns are present in the home. We all know the church has a history of hiding abuse and covering up domestic violence, persuading women to stay in abusive situations where they are more likely to end up killed by their partner.

Rebecca Sumner writes about a time when she stopped someone with a gun by using her words. And she isn’t the only one—remember this story? It was in 2013 that Antoinette Tuff talked down a shooter in a Georgia school, in an incident where no one lost their life.

Both Carol and Rebecca mention the phrase, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” in their stories. Here’s my story. I know more than one person—who are generally good people, who have been law-abiding citizens for the most part—have, at times, been so angry they pulled a gun on someone who wasn’t armed. Or threatened to pull a gun on someone who angered them. Or talked about going and shooting up someone who had hurt them. Or even pulled out a gun on someone they loved.

Good guys, all with guns, who, if they had their gun with them in that moment, would have become the bad guy. Because it is so much easier to lash out in a fit of rage with an accessible gun. It is so much easier to do something you could never imagine yourself doing if you have a gun. It is so much easier to kill someone, or yourself, if you have access to a gun. And it is nine times more likely that your child will die in this country than anywhere else. So we need to stop saying “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” because more often than not, the good guy will become a bad guy.

Jesus, when met with violence in his arrest, argued against violence. Jesus’ disciples did not carry weapons, even when their lives were at stake.

 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

Matthew 25:51-52

 

Disability Advocacy in Your Community

By Rev. Mindi

April is Autism Awareness Month. In previous years for Autism Awareness Month, I have written about how to create a welcoming environment for families that have children and youth with autism in your church. However, there is a greater need within the greater disability community to help support advocacy. Here are some ways you can help become an advocate within the greater community, and therefore your church.

Did you know that you can be an educational advocate?

As a member of my local special needs PTA (Parent Teacher Association), I have let parents know that I am willing to go with them to IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings. Students with special needs often have an IEP or a 504 plan (a 504 plan provides for accommodations for students with special needs; an IEP provides for individualized instruction and is much more detailed).  What do I do at those meetings? I am a non-anxious presence, there to provide support for the parent so they know they are not alone, as well as for the student. I ask clarifying questions. I am not there to take sides, but rather to encourage dialogue and offer support.

I am also an educational surrogate. I serve as a surrogate within the school district for students whose parents do not currently have custody and are not in the foster care system. I work to ensure that a student receives the supports necessary, which may include an evaluation for services and support and the beginning process of an IEP or 504 plan. I become part of the educational team.  How this happened for me is that I was asked to do this by a district official, who knew me as a parent of a special needs child, a board member for the special needs PTA, and as a local pastor. Since this time, I have now met two other pastors in other districts who also serve as educational surrogates in their district.

You can also join your local special education PTA, if there is one, or help form a community support network for students, as well as parents and educators of students with special needs. It takes the whole community, not just the family, not just the school—to help educate and support our special needs students and families.

Look for local disability advocacy organizations—they often need volunteer help—and partner with them. The ARC is a national disability advocacy organization with local chapters that has folks with disabilities on their staff and boards, and works to help individuals become self-advocates. With any disability organization, always check to see where its funding comes from, how its funding is used, and whether or not persons with disabilities serve on its board and staff. Persons with disabilities should be included in their own advocacy.

And as always, remember to include folks with disabilities in your church life. Folks with disabilities are already part of your congregation. They may be regular attenders in worship, but sometimes we forget that folks with disabilities can, and should, be included in leadership, worship, education and outreach—in other words, all aspects of the life of the church just as anyone else. And above all, be an advocate, wherever you are, for inclusion of persons of all abilities into our faith communities.

Rev. Mindi and her friend Rev. Danae Ashley launched Autism and Church in January. They are looking for more contributors, especially from adults and youth with autism, to write from their experience.

Losing to Gain

By Rev. Mindi

I was called to a small church two and a half years ago, a church that promised a two-year agreement but couldn’t go beyond that because they would surely run out of money. They were in do or die mode, and it was going to be an incredible challenge. It was a congregation that met for Sunday School, worship, coffee hour, and once a month, a potluck supper and a board meeting.

Here we are, two and a half years later, beyond that two-year mark. We’re not much better off financially, but now we have a thriving Young Adult’s group that meets twice a month for Pub Theology, a restarted women’s group that meets monthly for lunch and to support local and global missions, and now an after-school tutoring program for students in need and we are preparing to do a summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically developing peers. Except for the women’s group, the other three ministries received grant funds. We have also started a community organic garden, an annual Easter Egg Hunt, and participated in many more local missions and community events.

The truth is we still are hanging on the edge of financial sustainability, but the congregation seems to be doing well. We are in this together. We are struggling together and working to give more and to do more in the community, rather than sitting on what we have to survive. It’s been exciting to see.

Sadly, far too often churches, missions and ministries are cut short, told it is because of a lack of funding, but often it is a lack of vision. The inability to perceive beyond what is in front of them, the building closes, the congregation’s members are told to move on, the mission is dissolved, the ministry ends. But what is shocking is that often these churches, missions, and ministries end with thousands—sometimes tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even a few stories I have heard with seven figures—left in the bank. 

 

Did we not learn our lesson from Jesus’s Parable of the Talents?

I was talking with a colleague of mine who has started many churches, and he let me in on a secret: sometimes it is better to go forward with vision and little to no money, than to have money and a lack of vision, which often equates to money with strings attached.  Those strings may be an old guard vision of what church is or a perceived intention of the original givers, rather than being open to the movement of the Spirit in the here and now and the potential for ministry right in front of us.

A wise professor once told me that Jesus does not like big bank accounts on churches. It means we are not using God’s resources as God intended—to fulfill the needs of our neighbors in this world and to continue to share the Good News of God’s Love. But all too often, money sits in bank accounts and churches, missions and ministries close.

I’m really proud of the little congregation I have been called to. They don’t have much, but they are doing a lot with the little they have. And somehow, grant funds have come through and we’ve been able to do more than we could imagine. Even when it comes to the resource of time and people-power—we ended up receiving a couple of volunteers from the community and parents of students willing to volunteer and work with us. The more we dream and act, the more we seem to be able to do—and the worries over finances, while still there, seem less and less every day. God isn’t through with us yet. While we don’t know what the future holds, and maybe we’ve just postponed the closing date—no one can say we sat around worried about losing what we have any longer.

Change and Control

By Rev. Mindi

Recently I was part of a conversation with someone about a local nonprofit advocacy organization. The local nonprofit has had ups and downs but is less than three years old. It’s doing amazingly well for a new program. And yet, they told me that one of the founding board members feels the organization should fold because “it’s fizzling out. No one wants to be involved.”

I and others look around and see the amazing work this organization is doing, how it is reaching new people all the time, and wonder how in the world a founding member could say that. Then we realized that this founding member is tired and doesn’t want to be involved any longer, but does not want to see the organization proceed without them, and does not like the direction it is going with the new folks that have become part of it.

Immediately a little bell rang in the back of my head. This is just like church.

A lot of churches have people who are on the governing board who have been part of the congregation for a long, long time. They remember how great the church used to be, and all the programs it once had, and all the things they used to do—and because the church is no longer doing them, the church is fizzling out. Dying. Even if new people are coming in.

Now, we all know churches that hold on so dearly in hopes of not dying that they don’t ever change and eventually do end up closing. But I have seen a few churches in which those in leadership clung so tightly and were ready to have the church close and die as long as the hymns didn’t change. As long as the pastor they loved could bury them. As long as they could still sit in the same pew. And the leadership board never changed because they never asked anyone new, or made assumptions that new people couldn’t fulfill the commitments.

I guard against jumping to the conclusion that this is all elderly people in the church. Some of the greatest supporters for change in every church I have ever served and in many churches I have known have been my 80+ folks. While they love the old hymns they haven’t been afraid of trying a new song, or a new way of worship, or a new way of community involvement, even if they cannot participate at the same level any longer. I have found it doesn’t matter what age the person is; what matters is control.

Are those in leadership willing to let go of having control and allowing room for the Spirit to guide change in the congregation? Are we willing to let go of having control and allow room for new people with new ideas, insights and energy to move an organization forward? Are we willing to let go of “my way” or “our way” or “the right way?” And perhaps the greater question, for both the nonprofit organization and for our churches is this: can we be part of something we don’t have control of?

I see churches closing, but I also see a number of churches managing a great shift, from inward focusing to outward focusing, to finding new ways of being part of the ever-changing communities we are in. While these congregations may dwindle in numbers on Sunday morning, the impact they are making on the community is increasing tremendously. Making this shift does not mean these churches won’t close; but it does mean they gave the opportunity for the Spirit to be at work.

Churches, community organizations, nonprofits and others can learn from this: when we try to control and put our vision in place as the right one, it may work for a while but eventually it will fail. Because the Spirit works in community (we see this all the time in the book of Acts). The Spirit works when we come together and build vision together. When we try to maintain control, we have lost sight of the work of the Spirit among us. When we only have the same people, the vision grows stale. Leadership must change and grow, just as the church or organization must change and grow, and just as the community already is changing and growing.

Trust the Spirit; trust the process; trust that new leadership in the church will not let it fail. Even if they don’t do all the things you once did. Even if they don’t continue all the programs you did. Even if they come up with something very different than what your vision of the church should be. Trust the Spirit, and trust that new leaders will be open to the movement of the Spirit of God just as you are.

Slow Down, and read Slow Church

By Rev. Mindi

My small local clergy group was taking suggestions for new books to read, and me with my smart phone and sometimes smart mouth decided to search right then and there for a new book rather than taking a month to go do research. In my Amazon recommendations popped up Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. I really didn’t know much about it but that it was a brand new book, and that the book has a Twitter account that followed me, so I followed back.  It was really by chance and Amazon’s logarithms that I began reading this book.

But I’m so glad I did. Smith and Pattison are not pastors, not professional church leaders, but were inspired by the Slow Food movement to think about church life as an alternative to the “McDonaldization of Society” as George Ritzer coined it. (I read The McDonaldization of Society back in college and still have the book on my shelf—it was a profound wake-up call to the capitalist production machine that our society functions by: the idea that we have to make more stuff and make it faster, and that even our self-worth has come to depend upon it).  Slow Church looks at how church, just like the rest of the institutions of our society, have bought into the hyper-fast production-based model. “Decades, if not centuries, of taking shortcuts have repelled many people from the faith and diminished the quality of our life together” (117). We have tried to short-circuit discipleship and evangelism.

You might think at first that this is a book for a more conservative or evangelical audience, not for a mainline congregation—but we have done the same thing in the mainline church. Maybe we haven’t watered down the Bible to a tract that fits in the size of a business card, but we have (often) failed to do a good job of teaching our children and youth what it means to believe in and follow Jesus, what it means to be part of the church, how to participate in the kingdom of God.

Furthermore, we have failed to connect with the greater community, and that is the key of Slow Church—a reminder for us to slow down and reconnect with God, others and nature. “The ‘ecology’ of Slow Church is embedded in the interconnectedness of creation and God’s reconciliation of all things” (90).

Mainliners don’t differ much from our evangelical or fundamentalist kin in that we also water-down and short circuit the uncomfortable parts of our faith. We don’t do mourning well. Where our evangelical and fundamentalist kin will jump to “there’s one more angel in Heaven,” and lots of celebration that a loved one is now with the Lord, we do the same: we water-down the grieving process and try to jump into getting over death, rather than struggling with the suffering. Slow Church looks at the way our society as a whole has tried to just overcome suffering rather than the “willingness to enter into the pain of others” (83). If we are going to be committed in community to one another, we also need to be willing to suffer together as well as rejoice. This is what it means in particular to be part of Christian community: that we do not suffer alone.

Slow Church is about digging deep and being engaged and committed to the process of God-growth in us and around us. This commitment happens with God and with each other and with the greater community. Slow Church goes back to the roots of our faith in Scripture—Sabbath practice, discernment, community—and asks how we can re-engage with our roots and develop long-term, lasting foundations.

My major critique of this work is that  while my experience resonates with the book's view of church and society, I wonder if similar parallels would be drawn by my colleagues of color and different church cultures. I often err on the side of viewing US culture as homogeneous when it never has been; even critiquing the McDonalidzation of our US culture comes through a white lens, as the McDonalidzation was a white creation to begin with. Just some food for thought.

I highly recommend Slow Church. It is not often that I read a book that I say, “Yes, Yes!” out loud while reading it. I often highlight while I read; this time, I made notes as to what parts to quote for my next board meeting when we talk about stewardship. Each chapter has good discussion questions at the end for small groups or churches. The authors also have a blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slowchurch/ and are active on Twitter and Facebook.

Educating Ourselves on Racism

By Rev. Mindi

Once again, I am going to make an assumption that most of the readers of this blog are white.

Once again, I am going to raise the issue that we need to educate ourselves (read: white congregations) on racism in America, that racism is still alive and well, and that we white Christians need to listen.

The events in Ferguson, Missouri go to show us that racial profiling and anti-blackness are systemic. This is not just the beliefs of a few racists in a town far away. This is a systemic way of thinking that infiltrates our education, economic and prison systems. You probably have heard about the school-to-prisons pipeline before.

Black leaders have been using Twitter and other social media to inform the public about what really is happening in Ferguson and what is continuing to happen. The hashtag #FergusonSyllabus has been an excellent and eye-opening tool to learn how to talk about systemic police violence towards black individuals. The resources being shared across the country include historic resources about slavery and Jim Crow, personal experiences of black women and black men, the history of police violence in the United States, and continued discourse in civil rights.

Our mainly-white congregations need to be using these resources too. First, clergy and lay leaders need to familiarize themselves with recent history and see that the latest events of police violence are part of a systemic history of violence towards black people in the United States. We need to understand ourselves and then bring this to our congregation, in Sunday School and in the pulpit.

Secondly, our congregations need to become involved in anti-racist work. Partnering with local organizations already doing this work is key. Find other churches to connect with as well. But do this after you have done the educational piece first.

Thirdly, listen. Hear all the stories that are often not front-page news. Listen to your community members. It is easy for us to ignore stories and reports when they don’t affect us. I know that I still fall short and fail to listen when I hear stories that affect my neighbors of color.

Fourthly, remember your Scriptures. Remember the stories of Joseph in prison, the Hebrew people in slavery, the exile and return. Remember Daniel and the Hebrew children. Remember Jesus. How does the Gospel speak in these times? Who does the Bible call us to listen to?

Don’t let this fade away as Ferguson fades from the news. Take up the challenge to remember Ferguson, to remember Michael Brown and keep his family in your prayers, and to work for justice for all.

National Moment of Silence 2014 #NMOS14

by Rev. Mindi

Michael Brown became the latest victim of unarmed black teens murdered in this country on Saturday afternoon. He was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri. As a response to this, to the killing of Eric Garner and many others by state violence, a National Moment of Silence has been organized via social media, and there are vigils taking place across the country. To find one near you, search on Facebook or twitter #NMOS14 +your city’s name. If there isn’t one for your area, consider holding one—there is still time. Also, check the national site on Facebook for further instructions. The goal is to have a peaceful vigil as a response to the violence happening especially to young black men in our country.

Now, here’s the thing: most of you probably won’t bother to look. I know that the readership of this blog is primarily white. I’m writing this not to insult you, but to make you look at yourself, your congregation, and what we value. All too often, White Christianity ignores the experience of Christians of Color around us. I know I have. I have taken up the cause of my LGBTQ siblings, I have spoken up for rights for people of all abilities, but rarely do I write or speak about racism. It’s not because I don’t know that racism exists; it’s that while I can temporarily look at the world and see oppression through the lens as an LGBTQ ally, or look through the lens as a mom of a child with a disability, I do not look through the lens as a person of color. I see the world through my whiteness.

Only rarely, occasionally, have I had a glimpse of what my friends who are black have experienced. I have been in the car with a black friend when he was pulled over by the police, asked to step out of the car with his hands behind his head and searched, then released with no ticket, no explanation but that he was swerving in his car (he wasn’t). I have been pulled over for speeding and received a warning, even when I spoke up to the officer that I wasn’t speeding. Let’s face it—I talked back. If I was black, I do not think I would have gotten off so lightly. I have black children in my church whose parents and grandparents have told me about the times they have been harassed by store clerks because their kids were “attempting to shoplift” when all they were doing was picking up toys and looking at them. My child is loud and runs up and down the aisle, and I can explain that he has a disability, but he is still seen as white first. 

But the truth is I don’t think about it much at all. I don’t think about the systemic racism in our country that filters young black men into the prison system—or worse, they end up dead. I don’t think about the numbers of times that black men are pulled over verses white men. I don’t think about the Stand Your Ground laws and assumptions about black people that protect white folks and cause black youth such as Trayvon Martin and Reshina McBride to end up dead.

I have to change my way of thinking. I have to stop talking and to listen. Go to these vigils. Listen to the stories in our cities, in our communities of the loss and harm that black families have experienced. Work for systemic change. Go to your police departments and ask what sort of training they have to end racial profiling. Find out what the demographics are of your community and how many police officers of color serve. Work to educate your own church and community on racial profiling and violence against persons of color. And White Christians, may we start listening to the experience of Christians of Color in our congregations, in our denominations, in our communities.

Proverbs 21:3 To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

How do we let go of Sunday morning?

By Rev. Mindi

One recent Sunday morning, I looked out over the empty pews and I thought to myself, “what can be done to get people here?” Then I thought of all the “regulars” who weren’t here, and I thought to myself, “What can be done to get the ‘regulars’ to come back?”

Then I wondered why am I so worried about Sunday mornings?

I’d fallen into the Sunday morning trap again—the idea that “church” is the thing we do on Sunday mornings only, that “church” is the place we go for an hour on Sunday.  We’ve known, from the beginning of our movement, as Paul talks about us in 1 Corinthians 12, that the church is the body of Christ. It’s like that old song we sang in Sunday School: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people…”  We all know this, and yet, we fall into the trap again and again and again.

When I looked beyond the empty pews, beyond Sunday, I remembered all the volunteers we had for the last two weekends for our annual Rummage Sale. I recalled all the neighbors who came out, who not only perused our “treasures” but also sat down over a hot dog and chatted with us about their lives. I remember the people who lined up for pies on Saturday morning. I also remembered the Women’s group that gathered earlier that month for lunch, the two Young Adult Pub Theology gatherings, and the bags of donations that appeared in the office for the local women’s shelter.

Why are we so caught up on Sunday morning? Why is Sunday morning still the litmus test as to whether or not a church is healthy or viable?

Money.

Sure, we receive money at our Rummage Sale or other events, but the main way we keep our lights on, pay the pastor (me) and fund the missions and ministries of the church is through the Sunday morning offering.  And if people don’t come on Sunday, they are not necessarily going to give financially—mainly because we don’t ask.

What if…

We offered other ways for people to give to the church—online giving, card readers, QR-codes on the bulletin?

We encouraged giving at other times, at other opportunities, to share in the ministry and fellowship of the congregation?

We counted our blessings in the people we reach out to, the small groups, and the missions and ministries we offer instead of persons in pews?

And what if… dare I say it?

We changed everything.

What if we weren’t as concerned about being financially viable as we were about the ministries and missions we share in?

What if we sold our buildings, moved to partner with other congregations, or started meeting in public spaces such as schools, libraries, coffee shops, or other locations?

What if we all, when we pledge our finances to the church, also pledged our time, our gifts, our talents? What if we took a share in the work of the church, each of us?

This might mean that…

Pastors could no longer survive on a congregational salary alone. Let’s face it—a number of our pastors are already bi-vocational and many of us do not meet denominational standards for compensation.  It would mean that seminaries would have to completely change because those going into ministry wouldn’t be able to afford the three-year master’s degree, knowing that they would be coming out with debt (five, but often six figures worth of debt). And this is already happening—seminaries are closing, or completely going online. Students take one or two classes at a time while working a full-time job. I’ll say it again: this is already happening.

We would have to all change—the church, the pastor, the body of Christ.

We would have to change everything. But we might be able to do something radical.

We might be able to follow Jesus differently.

I’ll raise my hand: I’m scared of this. I have loans to pay off. I have other debts. I need to provide for my family. But as it is, I serve two congregations part-time. I am surviving. I also love what I am doing. I have begun to change. But it’s time for the church to recognize this isn’t temporary.

This is the new normal.

Practicing Inclusion

By Rev. Mindi

“Inclusive” has become a buzzword descriptor among churches these days. Perhaps you mean it to include LGBTQ individuals and families in your congregation. Perhaps you mean it to include people of different ethnic backgrounds. Maybe it means including people of different economic statuses.

Inclusion means including everyone. It doesn’t mean creating a special program for or a specific mission outreach to a certain group of people.  Inclusion means you actually include someone: you value, encourage participation, listen to and incorporate all people into your congregational life.

Inclusion is actually very difficult to accomplish. Most of us have the best of intentions but don’t actually follow through. Most of the time, our inclusion is actually under another buzzword, “Welcoming.” We throw together a welcoming statement and say we welcome all people. We might even go to the next level and say we welcome all persons regardless of age, gender expression, sexual orientation, racial or ethnic identity, economic status, ability, etc. etc. etc.  However, there are places where we specifically do not include people and we need to not only be aware but acknowledge this.

We often do not include children, whether it be in worship (though many churches do include children to a degree, but we still often send them out after the Children’s Message) or in church business. Sure, we might ask them their opinions or talk with them in children’s sermons about things happening in the life of the church, but rarely are they included in business meetings or given the right to vote (my current church is in the process of revamping its constitution and it still states that members have to be age 16 in order to vote).  We have our reasons—they are not old enough to understand, or they would just vote the way their parents did giving them twice the vote, or other reasons we pass off. We also don’t include homebound members (often still called “shut-ins” in the life of the church) because they are no longer able to attend.  Sure, we visit them now and then, but we don’t include them in the business of the church, or the worship, for that matter.

And we do not include people with differing abilities, usually. We assume persons who use a wheelchair or walker, or those who have long-term illness, mental or physical, cannot participate in the life of the church. Sure, we welcome them to worship and we may build ramps and make our restrooms accessible, but we often do not ask them about participating, assuming they cannot.

Can a person who uses a wheelchair still hand out bulletins and greet people? Can a child carry the offering plate? Can a person who is ill still help make decisions in the life of the church? Can a young teen have a mind-blowing idea that could change the church? Of course!

Look at your congregation’s practice of inclusion. First look at what you say about yourself. Then look to see what you are really doing. Who is in leadership? Who is involved in worship? Who is involved in outreach or other ministries? What is the diversity represented? Even if there is little ethnic diversity in your congregation, look for other diversities. Are people with differing abilities represented? Are people of different ages represented? Economic status? How do you include home-bound members and those who deal with long-term illness?

How are you practicing inclusion in the life of your church? Is it a matter of lip-service, or are you doing your best to include people from all areas of life?  If not, how could you improve?

Here are some recent examples from churches I have known that have made a change to practice inclusion better:

 

-Including a ramp for the choir loft so that singers of all abilities could participate.

-Moving the choir down to the sanctuary floor for the anthem so that others could participate who could not get to the choir loft.

-Inviting a young man using a wheelchair to collect the offering

-Including a teen with Asperger’s on the youth outreach committee

-Making all restrooms accessible and changing the signs to “Restroom” with no gender indication

 

What can you do to practice inclusion better as a church community?

Like a kid who can't sleep at night: Excitement in pastoral ministry

By Rev. Mindi

My son AJ gets so excited for school that he has trouble going to bed at night. Often as we finish up his bath routine and get ready for bed, he starts repeating stories or songs or other rhythmic patterns he learned from school. It runs through his head and then he can’t shut it down. He’s just so excited for school. Even in the morning, sleepy as he is, once he is out the door waiting for the bus, he is excited.

I’ve been feeling this way about the churches I serve lately. But let me step back for a minute and let me be honest:

I don’t always feel excited about ministry.

The day in, day out of pastoral ministry can be draining. I’m sure I’m writing to the choir but day after day of pastoral calls, visitations, hearing complaints and frustrations, and dealing with budget shortfalls, disappointment over not having enough volunteers, and working way too many hours can just take its toll. Ministry can, at times, seem more like a dead-end job instead of a calling.

During school vacations our son gets bored after the first few days. He doesn’t fight the bedtime routine much. He gets a little more irritated and aggravated during the day as well as a little more mischievous.

Church can be a little like that. Boundaries get tested and people seem to be more aggravated and irritated at times.  Maybe it’s not that church is boring, but that when there aren’t many changes to the pattern, it appears like boredom.  We get annoyed.

How do we break that pattern for ourselves as clergy? Look back on where you have found excitement before. Where have you found renewed energy in the past?

For me, the excitement and energy was found when I gathered with a small group of church members and started to ask what excited and energized them about church. They began talking about things such as small group dinners, book groups, lunch gatherings. Things they remembered from the past, or things they always wanted to try but hadn’t done so.

What I did was listen, encourage, and bless.

I listened to their memories, their ideas and old dreams. I let them romanticize and be nostalgic. I asked questions about those good memories.

I encouraged the ideas that had legs. I encouraged the people who had those ideas that they had the gifts to lead, to plan and to implement. I offered help only where I felt it absolutely necessary to guide or tweak, but otherwise, I encouraged them to lead.

I blessed the ideas by acknowledging them, sharing them, and lifting them up.

In another church, I had what I thought was a good idea and shared it with another member. While they had reservations about it, they had another, similar idea, and I did the same. I listened to the concerns. I encouraged the new idea and offered to help. And I blessed the opportunity to share in ministry with another.

Now, I’m the one bouncing with excitement, thinking of the ways the Spirit is moving in the church. I’m the one who is excited to be in community with these great people of faith. 

And here’s another thing I learned: While excited about my ministry, the aggravations and irritations and attitudes of discouragement don’t get to me the same way. I’m not concerned about them, not spending my time and energy worrying and fretting.

That’s not to say I won’t have a time when it will happen again. That’s not to say I won’t get tired or burned out and not feel excited. But I am hopeful as a minister that those times will be shorter and less frequent, that I will remember to start again by listening, then encouraging and blessing, and the joy and excitement of the Spirit doing new things in ministry will return rather quickly.

 

Disclaimer: I realize this may be a stretch. But it’s 10:15 pm and I’ve put my son back to bed for the umpteenth time, and in thinking about his excitement for school, I was reminded of how excited I am, right now, in my pastoral ministry. I’ve never been more excited and passionate about what God is doing in the congregations I serve and in my life than now.

"Almost Heaven... West Virginia"

By Rev. Mindi

I am a fifth generation ordained American Baptist pastor. My grandfather, his brothers, my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were all Baptist ministers in West Virginia.  Though I’ve only been to the state a handful of times over the years, there are certain things that stick out in my mind. Getting carsick on the winding back roads in the mountains. The blue sky. The high bridges over the deep rivers cutting through this Appalachian state. The number of churches.  The green rolling fields. Now, all those generations before me are buried back in West Virginia. And the mountains—my God, the mountains. While I grew up in Alaska with Denali practically in my backyard, the mountains of West Virginia, much, much older—both geologically speaking and in my connection with them.

Coal is part of West Virginia.  Outside of my extended family, just about everyone I have known in West Virginia worked in a coal mine or for a coal company or had a family member who did so. Many of the members of my family’s churches were workers in the coal mines or worked for the coal companies in some way. They provide most of the jobs there. Coal provides, but coal takes away. Just do a quick Google search for Coal Mining in West Virginia and these are the photos that come up. Entire mountains have been taken down by the coal mines.  And of course, for years the coal companies paid their workers in script that could only be used at the company store.  I know of at least one story in my family that my grandfather got into trouble for trying to help miners organize within his church.

So this latest tragedy—300,000 people now without access to water, having to purchase bottled water or have it sent in from the National Guard—has me fuming. It’s not only not drinkable, but residents have been advised not to bathe in it, brush their teeth in it—basically, they should not touch it.

West Virginia is Baptist Country. My great-great-grandfather was the Director of Religious Education for the West Virginia Baptist Convention for over thirty years in the early 1900's, my great-grandfather was president of the state convention in 1948. The river is the place you go in your white robes to be baptized as a believer by immersion.  I can’t sing “Shall We Gather At The River?” without thinking of the cool waters pouring down from the Appalachians.

Water is the symbol of our life as Christians. We celebrated the Baptism of the Lord last Sunday (if you follow the Revised Common Lectionary), where Jesus goes to John at the River Jordan to be baptized.  Right now, you cannot get baptized in much of West Virginia. You cannot gather at the river because we’ve allowed it to be poisoned.

The company that stored the chemicals was never inspected or tested because it only stored the chemicals, it didn’t create them, so therefore they were exempt from the Department of Environmental Protection regulations.  And because of so little oversight and the loopholes, scientists don’t even know what exactly was leaked, how bad it is for us and other creatures, or what the long-term damage might be. Scary.

So what is our call as Christians?

We need to work on strengthening environmental protections and regulations. Look into your own state’s environmental protections, call your legislators and ask what needs to be done to make sure this doesn’t happen elsewhere. Take up the call for environmental justice in your church because environmental justice affects all of us. This is not something that can afford to be a liberal issue, this must be an issue of health and safety for all of us and for God’s Green Earth. 

Pray for the people of West Virginia. If you have connections regionally or locally with other churches, ask about sending funds or bottled water to help. And bring about resolutions or statements, however your denomination works, to address these kind of issues so that the church also is heard. Give the church a voice that speaks out for environmental justice nationally.

One industry should not have that much power in one place. One industry should not hold the jobs, the mountains and the water supply hostage, directly or indirectly.  As Christians, we need to be speaking up and taking a stand.

Communicating God without Words—A Father’s Thanksgiving Reflection

SEATAC Airplaine.jpg


I spent my first four years of life running around Rosedale, Queens, New York City.  I have many memories of that house and neighborhood, before moving to the suburbs in Connecticut.  I remember the houses being very close together, and I knew where the ice cream truck parked for the night.  I remember one girl playing house and making me her “husband,” but I did not recall she had an identical twin.  I worry I may have unintentionally cheated on my pretend three-year-old “wife.” Most of all, though, I remember the airplanes. Rosedale is located at the end of a runway of JFK International Airport.  It was exciting.  The planes were quite impressive and flew close enough to rumble knick knacks off shelves.  


The God I knew in my childhood was much like these airplanes.  Powerful, impressive, and just beyond my reach, while making me shake in my boots.  Once I moved to Connecticut, I ran around the woods instead of the end of a runway, but I would always stop to see jets flying overhead. I struggled with my relationship with God, for I could only imagine the power and strength and not the vulnerability and love Jesus modeled. God, to me, would come and go with great power, just like those planes. I thought I had left that image of God behind, but it took my son for me to see the Divine in the small, the vulnerable, and see God every day. 


Today, my wife, son, and I live near SeaTac Airport in Seattle, where we see the airplanes often.  I am glad we are not at the end of a runway—we have many knick knacks—but we do get to see the airplanes landing almost every time we leave the neighborhood.  There are times when we take local roads right near the airport and a large airplane flies only yards above our vehicle.  Both my wife and I think it is amazing and I often remember that house in Rosedale. Our five-year-old, A.J., is unimpressed.  


Though A.J. must hear and see these large airplanes—at a friend’s home that is in the flight path he will cover his ears when the older louder ones pass overhead—my son stays in his own little world, which apparently has little interest in these loud, powerful, colorful, fast, airplanes.  He is much more interested in the texture of various plants, the repetitive sound of his own voice (called echolalia), jumping, trees, and the alphabet. A.J. lives with autism, and so my wife and I do as well.


I continue to point out the airplanes to my son, not knowing if he cares.  I wonder how he will remember these days, because he does not often use words to communicate.  He will probably remember specific trees, for it is clear that he looks at the tree in entirety, often even proclaiming aloud, “Tree,” to new ones. When I see an airplane impressively fly overhead and my son is not interested, I am reminded how different my job is as a parent of a child with an invisible disability, because I am able to recall being able to run with the older children at his age and be involved in their activities and trouble, but A.J. does not engage with other children.  I notice that he is generally happy, but I mourn most that I don’t have the boy to share airplanes, play ball, or joke with.  I have to adapt, but at times I simply want to cry that my son at five still does not call me “papa,” but I don’t for it would be selfish of me.  


Every parent can say “this is not what I signed up for.” Honestly, I know neurotypical children who I would have a very hard time watching, let alone living with.  There are some things about having a son with autism that are actually advantageous.  When we play with toys in the store, he always puts them back before we leave.  He never talks back, which I observe is the greatest difficulty with most kindergarten children, especially when it comes to negotiations. However, he is still not toilet trained and is above the weight limit of any changing tables. He does not understand the need to communicate.  He has been trained to ask for a few things he desires greatly, via a communication board, such as tickles, deep pressure, back rubs, and pizza. He knows many nouns and actually understands many of our directions and commands; but he currently has no desire or ability to communicate his needs, wants or thoughts.  This is frustrating. 


Before my son, I had two dogs that were very happy and received a lot of my love.  One was a Labrador Retriever-Rottweiler mix, named Manchester, who was very energetic, gentle, smart, and obedient. Not only did he know simple commands, he was smart enough to understand complex sentences.  He would perk up at certain words like out, food, couch, ball, walk, vet, car, and would figure out what was happening.  People were impressed with how much he could understand and how well he listened.  We would often go to parks together and even walk around the small New England towns we lived.  It was wonderful dog/person relationship.  Manchester had his routines. He communicated in his own way, by a nudge, a grunt, or by jumping when excited.  


My son communicates much like Manchester. Manchester nudged and whined when he wanted something to eat. So does, A.J.  I share my experiences with this canine and my son, because to the outsider, the relationship must seem quite similar. Those who do not have a child like A.J. need some way to understand how different life is in my house.  Comparing my son to other children, especially children without a disability, is unfair, but people do that constantly.  As a result, they either see my son as less than other children, or else excuse his peculiar behavior by say things like “all children do that.” A.J. does certainly some things like a typical five-year-old, such as wanting candy, but much of his behavior is closer to that of a typical 18-month-old, not a five-year-old. Most people do not want to see that A.J. has a disability, and they say things with good intentions, but it is clear they are avoiding the reality of his vulnerability, because they do not want to face their own.  


My wife and I have had some great progress using communication boards with A.J., we encourage him to sing songs, and we often hear things he enjoys because of his echolalia. So far, other children have loved A.J. and enjoy his energy.  Sometimes they ask why he doesn’t talk, but generally, they seem fine with it.  At times, I have observed some kids making fun of A.J. for still wearing a diaper.  Luckily, he doesn’t understand teasing yet, but it saddens me that other parents must have modeled such behavior, and my son will always be vulnerable to such teasing.


With A.J., I must constantly think about containment. A.J. will run or slink away if his interest is not held.  Shopping is a chore even without a child, but now that A.J. does not fit in the cart it is nearly impossible to go grocery shopping with him. At a large gathering one time, he snuck out from the children’s program and was found many yards away. Worse still is his lack of awareness around cars.  I must have a hand or be ready to grab him at any moment.  My wife and I have considered one of those backpacks with a leash, but it does not help teach him the awareness that can only be learned by holding a hand.  We model everything as best we can. We move together more on routine and simple clear words, “stop, come here, juice” and a few others.  Often I narrate what he is doing and keep saying things like, “Look an airplane.” I have been told this will eventually help him.  


While many of the therapies seem more like tricks and training, there is so much joy and exploration my son has.  Though he has trouble with communication, he still adds to the conversation.  He does not suffer, but he does need special assistance so we can know more about his gifts.  He also has developed humor, from tickling, to the scene of Snoopy wrestling with the chair on the Thanksgiving special. I look forward to more jokes and laughter in our home.


We do not work out of an economy of deficit, but one of gift.  That is, each person adds to the conversation with their unique gifts.  This doesn’t mean that disabilities aren't difficult; they are. But they are made even more difficult when neurotypical people see those living with disabilities as a drain on resources; as a deficit.  


A.J. does not have a disability in order to be a life lesson for me, or others, nor is he one of the “least of these.”  We all learn from our children.  What I’ve learned from my son who lives with autism, is how terrified others are of the vulnerability they observe in him.  Most people do not want to admit that A.J. is different. They try to avoid treating him in a patronizing way or they choose to see his difference as a life lesson.  They rather say, “It’s ok” or “He will be fine,” or they start a story with, “I know someone with autism…” People do not want to deal with their own vulnerability, so they avoid seeing A.J.’s disability.

 
I want to share A.J.’s exciting gifts of energy, humor, exploration, letters, counting, (in English and Choctaw), and cuteness, but also share the frustration and difficulty of having autism.  This is why I shared the odd thought I often have, that my son reminds me of my old dog. It is difficult for me as a father, and yes I believe we will progress pass this stage of communication, but we will never remove autism from our reality.  No pity needed, though it does require some special accommodations.  When we look at all people for their gifts and not their deficits, we see accommodations as important for all of us so we can include everyone.   We all benefit and we need to invite everyone to this vulnerability.


I have intellectually talked about a God that is present and interconnected with everyone; I know I have preached it many times.  However, since my son was born I truly had to learn it through my whole being, right down to my heart.  I do not know all of A.J.’s gifts yet, but he has encouraged me to see my own gifts, rather than my deficits.  In my heart I held the image of God as powerful and unattainable, and thus I saw God often only when I felt guilt or shame, when I saw myself as a deficit.  I now see God in the dirt and trees through A.J.’s obvious vulnerability.  No longer does God fly past and make me tremble, I am rooted among all of God’s children and creation, rooted and interconnected by the dirt and mud puddles that reflect my own gifts.


So when the airplanes fly overhead years from now, I am hopeful my son will be able to say, “Look an airplane.”  Even if he does not say it in words, I am sure he will recall the love of his mother and father and understand the Divine is closest in the rooted trees that are vulnerable to drought, wind, and humanity, interconnected through the dirt they all share, no matter their ability. 

 

 

 J.C. & A.J. visiting Big Tree in 2012

J.C. & A.J. visiting Big Tree in 2012

Healthcare: Injustice for All

By Rev. Mindi 

A four-year-old classmate of my son’s has cancer, very advanced, and the insurance company has deemed his treatment “experimental” and will not cover it.

A friend is stuck paying thousands out of pocket for a procedure that was not covered by her insurance company but deemed vitally necessary for her health by her doctor. Hospital refused to consider her for their low-income payment plans because she didn't qualify.

A friend’s father had a stroke. The doctors at the local hospital refused to consult with his neurologist because he was part of a different hospital group and therefore critical information was not passed on.

This is wrong. This is injustice.

In the U.S., healthcare reform is coming into play. One can no longer be denied insurance coverage due to a previously diagnosed condition. Families can carry young adults on their insurance plans until age 26. Many forms of birth control are now available without extra cost through insurance providers (though there is a religious exemption that is still being debated).

But it’s not nearly enough. The gap between those who are so poor they have to be on state insurance and those who are just able to afford to pay for insurance or have an employer who will do so is widening. The gap of those who will slip through the cracks, who will pay a penalty and not have any health insurance is a chasm no one should have to fall into.  And even wider still will be those who will have insurance, but like my son’s classmate, the insurance will fail to cover many expenses.

My own family, on a denominational health insurance plan, pays much out of pocket to cover our son’s therapies and various appointments, not to mention dental coverage that is extremely costly and not covered. We are stretched so thin that we have had months where we have decided what bills to pay and what bills to put off.

And even those on insurance find themselves victims of hospital for-profit corporations whose doctors have to play politics to keep their job rather than consulting with one another across the same field, thus resulting in misdiagnosis, misinformation, and at times critical injury or death.

This is wrong. This is injustice.

Where is the church in all of this? In the news, the “church” is the one arguing for religious exemptions from having to provide coverage for birth control. Within our denominations, our churches vary at providing good coverage or poor coverage. I was on one denominational plan before I was pregnant with my son that provided so little maternity coverage (as I have found few mainline Protestant denominations do) that I switched to a private plan. We paid a little more per month for premiums, had a higher deductible, but almost everything was covered for our son’s birth. This turned out to be good news, as I ended up with an emergency C-section, a massive infection and extended hospital stay, plus home health care. I can’t imagine the thousands of dollars we would have paid out of pocket had I been on the previous plan, or how soon I would have been sent home from the hospital.  The church plan would have left us scrambling to pay the bills.

Churches, we can lead in this.

We can demand better coverage from our insurance companies for our staff and employees.

We can work to organize people in our congregations to speak out for better healthcare coverage from their employees and from insurance companies.

But most of all, I believe we need to change our system. We have to confront the idea that employers are the best dispensaries of healthcare coverage has got to change. Healthcare cannot be a benefit that is earned by a few.

We need to challenge the idea that healthcare is a privilege, and lifting up healthcare as a universal human right.

We must change the notion that anyone is expendable, whether they have a disability, an illness, a genetic condition, are poor, are sick, are elderly, are not documented, or any other way people have been devalued by our system of health care.

We must speak out for a new vision of healthcare, one in which people are valued over corporate rules and politics. One in which doctors and experts are free to speak to one another and share information easily to reduce miscommunications and mistakes.

What if churches were to lead the way? What if we were to bring together doctors and nurses and hospital officials in our communities and say, “How can we change healthcare in our community so that no one falls through the cracks?”

What if we were to group together and provide low-cost health insurance to our members (imagine the memberships piling in!) and provide basic medical services (such as regular health screenings, flu vaccinations, and other prevention-based services) to the community?  What if we didn’t just have blood drives but had basic first-aid drives and gave away basic first-aid needs to the community? What if we got a dentist and a hygienist to offer free dental cleanings once a month?  What could we do together?

If we as churches are concerned about the well-being of those who are part of our community, then we must step up to bring change about to health care. And I believe we can start that transformation of the system by rethinking our role. We don’t have to just speak out for one form of health care reform or another. We can act. We can support local clinics, or begin one. We can do our part to transform the conversation, to transform the system, if we dare to dream about our role in healthcare differently.

Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. ~James 5:14