justice

2017: What The (White Protestant) Church Must Do

By Rev. Mindi

I read this post shared by an Episcopalian friend this week, and along with some online conversations on “what is the future of the church?” with declining attendance and resources, I’m wondering what has happened to our ecumenical movement? What has happened to our movement for unity?

As an American Baptist pastor married to a Disciples of Christ pastor, I can tell you that not much really separates us. We all do baptism pretty much the same way. We do communion the same way, albeit Baptists tend to only do communion once a month. We aren’t opposed to doing it every Sunday, we just make it out to be more work than it really is. We have some common roots in history. We have faced some of the same struggles on inclusion and diversity in recent years, and as both denominations have taken steps to truly live into God’s ways of love and justice and the teachings of Jesus, some of our more conservative kindred have gone out the door, or have simply stopped talking with us.

And it’s not only American Baptists and Disciples, but Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalists (and other UCC-ers), and the list goes on. While we vary in our ways of baptism and communion and vary in our liturgical rigidness, when we start talking about issues of justice, Black Lives Matter, inclusion of transgender and lesbian, gay, bisexual and other queer folks, and welcoming refugees and immigrants, we have so much in common. I regularly have conversations in ecumenical gatherings of clergy (especially fellow clergy in a similar age range to me, but not always) about the same issues facing our churches. The same issues facing our communities. The same longing to follow Jesus and being held up by resources.

So why oh why oh WHY ARE WE NOT WORKING TOGETHER? Why are we still separated on Sunday mornings? Why is (as the author of the blog post I shared stated) Sunday morning still the most segregated hour, decades after Martin Luther King Jr. called us out on it?

I know I am not the first to say it, but as a response to white privilege and white supremacy, perhaps those of us in the traditional white protestant churches, as we face closing down and shrinking numbers, need to go join a Black church. Perhaps we need to listen to someone else preach on Sunday morning and tell us how to be involved in the community. We can do this within our own denomination to start with.

Secondly, we can join with our kindred down the street. While many of us have “full communion” with other denominations or allow for those of other ordination standards (or none at all!) to preside at the table and at baptism, we do not move beyond those relationships (as again, the author of the blog post I shared stated).

As we enter 2017, the future of the church doesn’t lie in us keeping to ourselves on Sunday morning. If we do that, we will continue to shrink, decline, and close. Those of us who are white Christians need to especially consider giving up our power and ownership of space to join with our Christian kindred of color to truly follow the ways of Jesus (who wasn’t white, as we keep pointing out but fail somehow to truly comprehend). We might find that the church isn’t declining, but thriving, if we give up our own vision of what the church is supposed to look like, and join in God’s vision:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God, and to the Lamb!”

~Revelation 7:9-10

Leading the Way

By Rev. Mindi

Almost three and a half years ago, I began at my current call to ministry, a tiny congregation to the south of Seattle. A congregation with very few children and that, quite frankly, wasn’t used to having children present in the congregation.

My (at the time) four-year-old child with autism was definitely a change for this quiet congregation. AJ can vocalize and laugh and giggle very loudly. On occasion, he had made not-so-happy noises. I have interrupted my own sermon to try to calm him down when others could not.

When we first came, he ran up and down the center aisle and the sides. He would run all over the chancel throughout the service and be difficult to contain and have him sit still. Once, he figured out that he could step over the pews instead of walking between them, and stepped over each one.

I heard complaints on occasion about my son being too disruptive and too loud. My first pastoral relations committee meeting was a tough one. I heard people ask if my husband could take my child to his church instead. I know people want to come and worship and take that one hour out of the week to reconnect with God and it’s hard to do it when the child next to you is screaming, or shouting, or yelling. But it’s even harder for the parent who wants to come to worship with their family and finds they are not welcome, let alone the pastor.

Now at age seven and-a-half, AJ still runs around, up and down the aisle. He sits at the drum kit and plays the drums, and often at the keyboard, refusing to follow any instructions but plays his own tune. However, when the prelude starts, for the most part he now knows that he needs to sit down. He often sits in the back pew with a friend, sometimes one his own age, but often an adult who can help him sit most calmly in church.

But something remarkable has happened in these three and-a-half years, and it’s not that AJ has quieted down or matured a little. It isn’t that AJ has changed his behavior; it is that the church has changed with him. Children now take the offering during worship, and on occasion AJ has helped. A few young families have come with their little ones who have run up and down the aisle and all over the chancel. The children lead the adults in saying the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday before the Prayers of the People. And one of our youngest read part of the Gospel According to Luke on Christmas Eve, along with the other adult readers.

At my most recent pastoral relations committee meeting, one of the eldest members of the congregation brought up how wonderful it was that children feel free to dance and wiggle and move about. She remarked how delightful it was to her, that it warmed her heart to see the children so free to be themselves in our church, a place where they are welcome just as they are. And she turned to me and said, “It’s because of AJ. AJ has made this church welcoming of all children.”

Too many churches still try to do a separate-but-equal ministry for persons with disabilities, or an outreach to persons who are houseless, or to teens who are at-risk. Too many churches want to do something to change other people, to make them more acceptable.

But this is what inclusion does: inclusion changes us.

We are continuing to have to push for inclusion in our child’s school and our school district. Often, students with special needs like our child’s are separated in a Special Education class. While they receive more individualized instruction, they do not receive the socialization with other students. However, as we keep promoting at our child’s school, it’s less for AJ’s growth as it is for the other general education students. How will “typical” peers ever learn about students with disabilities if they are not in their classes? How will adults live with and work with (and hire, if they become employers) students with disabilities if they have had little to no social interaction with their disabled peers?

Outside of public education, we still are struggling for inclusion for AJ in extra-curricular activities: music and dance and sports. Summer camps have been notorious for not including (by not accommodating) students with different needs. And sadly, this has proved true for us, even at church-run day camps and Vacation Bible Schools. We know from other parents that this does not get any easier as children grow into teens and young adults; few of them are ever included in the events of their peers.

This is one of the places that the church still has the opportunity to lead the way in our communities, and frankly, in our world as a whole. We have the opportunity to lead the way in building up the beloved, inclusive community of Christ here on earth. We have the ability to truly make a difference—not just for people with disabilities—but for all of us, because inclusion changes us. And I believe it changes us to be more like the image of God.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. ~Isaiah 11:6

Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. ~Mark 10:15

"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. 

Violence is not Redemption

By Rev. Mindi

By the time you read this, Kelly Gissendaner will most likely be dead. Killed by the state of Georgia. Five others are due to be executed in our country this week, including Richard Glossip, scheduled to be killed Wednesday evening.

If you don’t know Kelly’s story, look at the hashtag #KellyOnMyMind. Kelly had her husband murdered. There is no question about that, no doubt about guilt. But there is also repentance and forgiveness. Kelly has repented of her actions, reconciled with her children who have forgiven her, attended seminary while in prison, helped counsel and care for many women while they were in prison. But all actions as of 8 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday night have not resulted in clemency or a stay of execution.

What strikes me about Kelly’s story is not her own work, though anyone can see from her life that repentance and forgiveness is possible in this lifetime. What strikes me is that we still have not learned our lesson as a people.

Fourteen years ago this summer, I was in the middle of my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, 400 hours of intensive works as a chaplain intern at a hospital in Boston. As I entered a patient’s room, I paused, because I noticed he was crying. He wiped his eyes quickly, but I asked him how he was, what brought on the tears. He jerked his head up to the TV, and I looked to see the names of the victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. Timothy McVeigh was being executed that day. The patient told me that he was from Oklahoma City and had lost a friend in the bombing. “This has brought it all back. His death hasn’t made this any better, but it has brought all this grief back.” His expression turned to anger, and he said to me, quietly, “Timothy McVeigh killed over a hundred people, but we killed Timothy McVeigh.”

Though I have always been, for the most part, against the death penalty, McVeigh’s case had caused me to almost change my mind. This ruthless act, without remorse, to kill as many people as possible—if anyone deserved death, it was McVeigh in my mind. To this day, I can never forget the TIME magazine article with the photo of the firefighter carrying the dead baby girl out of the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

However, to this day, I can also never forget the words of that man in the hospital, with the tears down his face, reliving his grief as if his friend had been killed that very day I was visiting him.

The death penalty does nothing to deter murder; it does nothing to relieve pain and suffering. While I have never experienced the grief and pain of having a loved one murdered, I have met more people since that day whose loved ones were killed, who find that the death penalty does nothing to bring them healing or wholeness. It does not bring their loved one back.

We have mistaken punishment for justice. We have believed in the myth of redemptive violence. Our own Jesus was killed through capital punishment. So why do we still hold on to it? Why do we still believe that capital punishment is just, that killing another is a satisfactory response to murder?

I’m glad that Kelly’s life was transformed by Christ, that she has reconciled with her children and experienced forgiveness. I’m glad that so many have spoken up and that this movement has swept across the country and the world. I’m very saddened that at the moment I am posting this, there seems to be no hope at this time to save Kelly’s life. I am grieved that so many call this justice served, when there is no hope of restoration in this. Murder does not cancel out murder.

We must work to abolish the death penalty entirely, for the innocents and for the guilty, for those that grieve and those who cry out in anger. For the death penalty will never bring justice, but only relived pain, grief, and emptiness.

25th Anniversary of ADA

By Rev. Mindi

The Americans with Disabilities Act turned 25 years old this past Sunday, the same day my son with autism turned 7. As we celebrated his birthday, I reflected back on the last seven years—he was not yet two when we knew he was different, and three when he was diagnosed. Our lives were already changing direction when he was born, but now it was clear the trajectory was different than what we imagined when he was an infant.

At 25, we have come a long way, but still have far to go with ADA. ADA prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, commercial facilities, telecommunications, and state and local government services. For more information on statistics on services provided in the United States for the 56.7 million Americans who have a disability, click here. However, we are not there yet. In New York City, only 21% of the subway stations are accessible for persons with mobility difficulties. Many other transit systems across the country are not fully accessible. Unemployment rates remain high among the disabled population. And did you know, disabled persons do not have to be paid the federal minimum wage? There is a Special Minimum Wage that can be invoked to pay someone whose disability impairs their productivity level. Yes, this is the law.

After 25 years, where are we as the church? Most church buildings I know of are still not fully accessible. Some have finally put in a ramp and widened doorways, but all too often it is the back or side door, not the front door. Pulpits and choir lofts remain inaccessible, and pews are often difficult for persons using any mobility assistance to sit in. Lack of funds is the most likely culprit. Historic building preservation committees have regulated accessibility to entries out of sight. Elevators are expensive. Even making bathrooms accessible doesn’t happen in every church.

Beyond mobility concerns for accessibility, how is your sound system? Do you have listening devices for the hearing impaired? Large print Bibles for the visually impaired? How are folks with other disabilities welcomed into the life, ministry, and leadership of the church? As the rate of diagnosis for autism and other disabilities increases, how are you welcoming children, youth, and adults with disabilities? Are they welcomed and given appropriate accommodations in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School?  

25 years. One quarter of a century, and we still have far to go in terms of justice and inclusion for persons with disabilities. Did you or your church acknowledge the 25th anniversary of ADA? What will you do now?

Peace vs. Justice

By Rev. Mindi

Recognizing that I am a white pastor and writer on this blog, and guessing that the audience of this blog is predominantly white, my question is this: do our prayers for peace mean silence?

Often, sadly, I think they do.

In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s violent death while being in police custody, protestors took to the streets of Baltimore. It wasn’t long before more police were called in, then stones were thrown, then hundreds of police in riot gear, then fires started, then the National Guard was called in. What I hear and see from my white colleagues is “pray for peace in Baltimore.” What I hear and see from my colleagues of color is “work for justice in Baltimore.” Sometimes, I think white Christians think that peace and justice are the same thing. They are not.

True peace comes after the work of justice, not vice versa. I think all too often white Christians quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others about nonviolent protests and do not quote them about anger and the work of justice. We quote Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but not “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which King clearly calls out white clergy who have tried to silence him in the name of peace. We think that if people who are oppressed would just sit down and talk calmly and rationally about their feelings, the oppressors will then listen.

Imagine if Jesus had walked calmly into the temple and sat down at the moneychanger’s tables and said, “Listen, I want to talk to you about how you are cheating the poor by selling them doves that are not acceptable for sacrifice and are not giving a fair exchange rate for the temple currency.” Do you think they would have listened? Or would they have ignored him, or even had him removed?

Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Jesus also turned over the moneychanger’s tables, scattering the coins, and stopped the carrying of merchandise through the temple. If that doesn’t sound like the beginning of a riot, an act of vandalism, an outpouring of righteous anger, I don’t know what does. Jesus didn’t call for the harming of others. But it’s clear that Jesus didn’t care about property, either. He cared about people. And after he threw the tables around, the leaders looked for a way to kill him because they were afraid of him (Mark 11:15-18).

We claim to follow Jesus to the cross, but I bet we never got past the temple doors. We never got to where the message became uncomfortable. We want peace, not the sword of division. But calling out injustice may cause division, uncomfortableness, and anger.

I call myself out in this. I was all set to preach last November as we were waiting for news of any indictment of Officer Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. But I never got that far. Even in praying for Michael Brown’s family, I was asked to not be so divisive. I was asked to pray for the police officers and to pray for peace. And in my own fear of being seen as divisive, of causing controversy, I consented. I still was active in public conversation and social media, but within the hour of worship, I went silent after that. I didn’t want to cause trouble. I failed the church, and I failed the children of color that are part of my church family.

We cannot pray for peace without justice. Psalm 34:14 says “seek peace, and pursue it.” The pursuit of peace is the path of justice. Justice demands that the violence of murder be accounted for. Justice demands that the systemic subjugation and killing of black persons in America be stopped. Justice demands that the cries of the oppressed, through chants and signs to rocks and flames be heard. Be listened to. Be understood. Not simply condemned without accountability for the death and violence that has already taken place.

If you are like me, wanting to speak for justice but afraid to do so, please do one thing: stop simply “praying for peace.” If you want peace, as everyone knows, work for justice. Look to the prophets and preach on justice. Look to your community and find ways of working for justice. Amplify the voices of the oppressed in your community and share their stories (with their permission, of course—or better yet, invite others to come share their stories) with your congregation.  

We can pray for peace, but only if we first have truly worked for justice. Otherwise, our attempts at peace are just to make ourselves, often white Christians, feel better and safer, instead of lifting up the oppressed and seeking justice, as Christ called us to do.

Equal Marriage?

By Rev. Mindi

I celebrate with my gay, lesbian and bisexual friends and family that now, in over thirty states, you can get married and have your marriage legally recognized. We still have a long way to go for rights for all LGBTQ folk (and especially the T, our Transgender kindred). But I am happy and celebrate in this moment.

But there is another group that does not have equal marriage, and those are persons with disabilities.

In the United States, if you are disabled and you get married, you run the risk of losing some, if not all of your disability benefits. According to the Social Security website ssi.gov, if you were diagnosed with a disability as a child and then get married, your benefits are revoked. Disabled individuals who marry someone who also has a disability can lose up to 25% of their benefits. My husband and I have heard many painful stories of couples who are not legally married because they would lose their benefits. We have also heard stories of couples who didn’t know that their benefits would be reduced so much, and struggle to make ends meet but cannot have a job due to their disability.

This is legally recognized marriage in the United States, and it is not equal or just. Many persons with disabilities choose to have a religious ceremony only, and maintain separate addresses so they can maintain their benefits that they need in order to live.

Sadly, the church, like the rest of society, is silent on this. When we and other disability advocates bring up this issue, we often hear, “That’s sad.” “I didn’t know.” “That’s too bad.” But I see no action. I see no work on legislation or even a cry out that this is unjust.

As we near the end of Disability Awareness Month, as we celebrate the news of legal marriage across the country for our gay and lesbian kindred, let us raise up our voice for disabled couples. Please listen to disabled couples and hear the stories of families. Speak to your lawmakers and encourage legislation to change this devastating fact for couples in every state.

And raise this issue in your congregations. People need to hear that equal marriage still does not exist for couples in which one or both have a disability. As you study this issue, be aware of areas in which the church is still not welcoming of people with disabilities, visible and invisible. How accessible is your building? How inclusive is your governing board? How welcoming are your Christian Education programs? What can you do to change the culture of your congregation?

May we celebrate with our lesbian and gay families and continue to work towards equal marriage in this entire country, and may we also raise up the voice for those who continue to struggle for a legal marriage in which their rights are protected.

Social Media and Social Justice

By Rev. Mindi

I’ve heard so many people comment about what has happened in Ferguson, Missouri, with the words “It’s like the 1960’s all over again,” or “The South never changes.” Never mind that Ferguson, outside of St. Louis, is technically a Midwest town, what is happening in Ferguson, happens all over the United States. And what happened in the 1960’s never stopped in much of the country—what stopped was white people’s awareness of it. This is the reality for black people in the United States: they are more likely to be accused and harassed by citizens and police, more likely to die from violence at the hands of the state.

What has changed since the 1960’s, however, is social media. While the news has covered Ferguson, though it was very slow to do so on national networks, individuals have been reporting via Twitter and Facebook, and livestreaming audio and video. We get not just one eyewitness account of what is happening, but multiple accounts from multiple viewpoints, giving us an overall narrative of what is happening in real time.

A similar thing happened when news of Robin William’s passing broke last week. The hashtag #FaithintheFog came through as a way for people of faith who have mental illness to talk about the stigma, the backlash in the church, and the ways the church has not always been helpful, but harmful.

Social media has offered people an opportunity to share within a global community network about what is going on, to engage in conversation and to build a greater narrative together. The church needs to follow suit. The church universal has the opportunity to engage in a greater narrative, to tell its stories and engage what is important.

Last week, I wrote about #NMOS14, the National Moment of Silence 2014 that took place across the country on Thursday. As was noted on Twitter by @FeministaJones, most of the vigils were organized by diverse people under the age of twenty-five (for more information about how this movement got started, click here).

When I came to my current church two years ago, it didn’t even have internet. We have had to build from scratch: website, Facebook and Twitter, and a weekly e-newsletter. But we don’t leave out those who do not use social media: we print the e-newsletter for those without email. We try to highlight something that happened on Facebook or Twitter in the newsletter so others can read it.

But we are not stuck behind. We are moving forward and working to join in the greater narrative. And the church universal needs to be sure to move with it. The old dismissals of “That’s not real connection or relationships” need to die. #NMOS14 happened because of social media. In Seattle, the momentum is still going and requests for further gatherings to talk about justice issues and follow up with action has all happened because of social media, and there is also accountability because once something is on the internet, it’s on the internet.

Sure, what we have now—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.—will fade away and something new will come. I hear that argument all the time. But if we just wait for the next thing, we will miss out now. Growing up in Alaska, we didn’t have a phone for years—we had a CB radio. My friends in the villages also had CB radios. But if they just kept waiting for land lines to come in, they would still be waiting. Entire villages in Alaska, Canada, South America and Africa—have gone from no phones to smart phones with 4G service. 

The world has changed fast and will continue to do so. But the cause of justice has not changed. Racism has not changed. The stigma around mental illness has not changed. And these things will not change, unless we join in the greater narrative and work for peace and justice with our brothers and sisters in this country and around the world.

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.

God Abounds With or Without You

By Brian Carr

As I was driving the other day, I passed a sign in front of a very large and popular church that read “God abounds in faithfulness.”

At first glance, I thought nothing of this statement. God abounds in faith? Sure, that makes sense to me.

But as I began to think about the message behind that statement, the more disturbed I became. My uneasiness with that message is twofold – first, it is suggesting that God is reliant on our faithfulness in order to abound; secondly, it is suggesting that those without faith will never have God abundant in their lives.  

Now you may be thinking to yourself that I am overthinking this message and exaggerating its negativity. You might be right, but what good is my faith if I cannot critically think about the messages I receive on a daily basis? I would argue that most Christians would agree with this statement at first thought, just as I did. But stopping at “first thought” is a terrible ending point when we examine doctrine and theology. 

So let’s move beyond our first thoughts of this sign, and figure out what message it is conveying.

When we simply look at the phrasing of this statement, it already becomes troubling. If we are saying that God abounds in faithfulness, then aren’t we implying that God does not abound outside of faith? That God does not abound if we are not faithful? This may not be explicit, but anytime we make a statement in the absolute positive, we are also affirming the negative (or opposite) of this statement.

 This is incredibly limiting of God. Is this saying that God needs our faithfulness to abound? Are we putting boundaries and boxes around God and trying to define how and where She can abound?

This statement also suggest that God will not abound in your life if you aren’t faithful. This is very exclusive to those who are not faithful (and how are we defining faithfulness, by the way?). Are we suggesting that God cannot hold a prominent place or presence in the lives of non-Christians (because, let’s be honest, this is what is meant by not faithful)? This is another way in which this statement limits God while simultaneously excluding a large amount of people.

God is certainly bigger than this, right? A better phrasing of this statement would be “one way in which God abounds is in faithfulness.” And before you argue that that I’m nitpicking, know that the way things are phrased can have a profound impact on how they are interpreted.  

For example, notice the powerful difference between these two phrases:

“Men should allow the ordination of women.”

“Men should support the ordination of women.”

The subtle change from “allow” to “support” makes a huge difference. On the surface (our “first thought”) these two statements seem to mean the exact same thing. However, this is not true. The term “allow” implies that the person who is doing the allowing has the right to also not allow the same thing. The first phrase suggests that men are being graceful in giving permission for women to become ordained. It is a very sexist and patriarchal statement. Changing the verb to “support” has now made it no longer sexist. The power of phrasing is real. One word (or lack thereof) can dramatically change how something is interpreted.

Where was I going with this? Oh, right! I am saying that the phrasing of the message on the sign can lead to a very dangerous interpretation of God and of Christianity. In this specific case, the phrasing of that sign leads to an exclusive message of Christianity that limits the presence of God.

The moral of the story? Choose your words wisely and your church signs even more wisely.

 

 

 

"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.

Lectionary Reflectionary: Syria

By Rev. Mindi

 

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. ~Luke 14:25-33

 

The lectionary isn’t always this timely, but it does seem to happen now and then. As we are on the verge of war with Syria, I wonder if we have truly weighed the cost. Having lived in Oklahoma for almost three years, we came to know many families who had a loved one serving in Iraq and Afghanistan; sadly, I knew many children through the preschool I worked at and later in the public schools whose parent had been killed in action.

Have we truly weighed the cost as a nation considering war? We have seen the bodies of children after the chemical weapons attack; how many more bodies will be added to that from our strikes? For surely we cannot guarantee a school or daycare or homes will not be destroyed. We cannot guarantee more children’s bodies will be added to the pyre. What kind of deterrence will missile strikes make? Or will it just make a new generation of people in another land hate us?

I could go on and on. But Church, we’re the one that needs to weigh the cost:

What are we holding on to when we don’t speak up against war? Fear of rocking the boat? Fear of offending those who have served before?

What is possessing us that we step out of the conversation and instead stick to preaching personal salvation? A false sense of security that we are doing the right thing and not becoming political?

If we truly are to carry our cross—the instrument of death—what is it that we need to put to death to follow Jesus?  Is it our fears? Our need to fit in? Our need to keep the “peace” with the people around us even if it means the silent majority outside of our relationships will suffer?

My mother and stepfather love bumper stickers. My mother has lots of peace-related bumper stickers on her car. She has twice been almost run off the road because of her bumper-sticker statements. Once I was in the car with her and two men yelled from their truck on the highway, showing her their dog tags, and then violently turned their car into her lane. My stepfather, who did two tours in Korea and Vietnam, proudly has "Veterans for Peace" bumper stickers on his truck. He also has had threats, but not quite as severe.   

Peace is not the easy way out. Peace is hard. Peace is the way of the cross, to meet the world's violence with nonviolence. Peace is the way of Jesus, who calls us to put away the sword. 

We need to sit down and weigh the cost—in other words, we have to stop being wishy-washy. Are we going to stand, or are we going to be silent?

Church, we need to stand up and demand that our leaders seek peace. There is still time to call your Senators and Representatives. There is still time to have prayer vigils for peace. There is still time to work with other peacemaking organizations and join up in your local community.

There is still time for peace.  Maybe, just maybe, this time can be different. We can actually weigh the cost of our silence and weigh the cost of war, and say, “no more.”

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