It is 2016, going on 2017…

[Note: This is an end-of-the-year letter I wrote for our congregation, Woodridge United Methodist Church. I’ve adapted it here for, hopefully, appealing to a wider audience.]

I am often asked about that weird word in my title. Koinonia is a Greek word used in the New Testament. I’m not a Greek language scholar, but those that are write that koinonia means community. The way the term is used in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 2:42-47) suggests community that is formed through worship, fellowship, and living together justly. It seems to fit as my title, as my main areas of responsibility are youth ministry, outreach and justice projects, and worship.

Of course each of those areas also have a full committee working on them. Instead of telling each of their individual stories, I focus on an event that brought all three areas together in a vital, beautiful, inspiring, Spirit-filled way — creating community. Or, if I may dare to say it, creating koinonia.

With input from Youth Council and our youth themselves, we decided to go to Birmingham, Alabama for our summer youth mission trip. Immediately, our leadership team knew we needed to spend as much time as we could learning about the civil rights movement before our trip and as much time as we could visiting the movement’s special sites once we were in Alabama. Studying The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a key component of our preparations.

But first we read the letter to Dr. King which prompted his now-famous epistle. Most of our group was surprised and disappointed to learn that two Methodist bishops were among the eight signatories of the letter accusing Dr. King of being an outside agitator who had no business being in Birmingham. With the context set, we dove into the letter itself.

I am fond of quoting the portion of King’s letter that reads,

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

While that first sentence is oft-quoted, the final two sentences seem to me even more vital. For they remind us that no matter how independent we think we may become, each of us is dependent upon others. We need each other and so we need to look out for each other, help each other, speak up for each other. Reading through Dr. King’s letter together transported us back those 60 years, evoked questions and concerns, and helped us consider our present time: In what ways is our society better? How can we better live into the ideals of the letter? What is the role of the Christian community in this? What is WUMC’s role?

The letter and all it provoked made us uncomfortable. Which is probably why it is so powerful and still relevant.

One of our members provided another milestone in our preparations. Thanks to her connections, the mission trip group was blessed with an evening with two leaders in the civil rights movement: the Rev. Dr. Stanley L. Davis, Jr. and the Rev. Dr. B. Herbert Martin, Sr. The duo shared stories of their experiences, suggested some sites to be sure to visit in Birmingham, and encouraged us to be faithful witnesses of God’s love for all people. Then Dr. Martin offered a closing thought that transfixed us and became our prayer for our time in Alabama:

Hate no one no matter how they have wronged you.

Live humbly no matter how wealthy and privileged you become.

Think positively no matter how hard life gets.

Give much even if you have been given little.

Forgive all, especially yourself.

Never stop praying for the best for everyone.

Always forgive. Forgiveness upsets, interrupts, and distorts the plan of Satan to defeat you. Always be forgiving.

Love is of God and God is love. Love is bigger than the past, our pain, our anger, fear, our scars, and yes, bigger than this whole world with devils filled.

There is somebody bigger than you and I. Behold the universe — the only thing bigger than you — walk there, live there in.

Do not worry about thinking outside the box — there is no box!!! There is no fence! There is no border!

Live free in God.

Thanks to one of the families on the trip, each member of the mission trip had those beautiful words laminated on a card along with Dr. King’s words that I quoted above. Our trip included meaningful work with community organizations, fun conversations on the road, vehicle mishaps, moving worship, laughs, tears, and lots of pictures. The attending youth were fantastic. They are why we do this.

I can never say this too much: our mission trips would literally be impossible without the dedication of and sacrifices made by our volunteer adult leaders. THANK YOU Lorie, Alma, Glenn, and Kevin.

As amazing as all that was, our time at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was, at least for me, the most moving experience of any of my 20 mission trips. God’s Holy Spirit is in that place. God’s Spirit is at work in the people who are continuing the story of Exodus, the prophets, and Jesus by working tirelessly for all people to be truly free. I want to be part of that story.

So that is on my mind as I consider plans taking shape and ways we might show better hospitality in our church and our community in 2017. For some time now, our lighted sign reads, “We stand with Standing Rock.” I hope we will further our lines in God’s ongoing story of freedom by renewing and increasing our connection to the Standing Rock reservation, and finding ways to support their efforts to protect their water supply against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Our young people return to South Dakota in June 2017 for mission in Martin, South Dakota.

We look forward to confirming into full membership 15 young people in May, should the whole Confirmation class choose that path. Regardless of the final outcome, the families in that class are already deepening their connections with each other, with the congregation, and with the community — and, ultimately, that is why we have the program.

One way I hope we will expand koinonia in 2017 is through fuller participation with Northern Illinois Justice For Our Neighbors. If even some of the president-elect’s campaign promises are fulfilled, our neighbors who are recent immigrants could be extremely vulnerable. We can help JFON care for them. That is a way to love our neighbors we have left largely unexplored. I hope we begin to correct that in 2017.

To paraphrase the great Maya Angelou: As we work for justice for all God’s children, whatever challenges and roadblocks 2017 brings, I know that with God’s Spirit, like a song, still WUMC will rise.

Continuing conversations on race

Yes, the church season of Lent has begun. But today, at Woodridge UMC, we’re delaying our Lenten sermon series on Jesus’ parables so we can continue our Black History Monty sermon-discussion series, “Conversations on Race.” Thus far, the collaboration among our senior pastor, Rev. Danita Anderson, the congregation, and I has been honest, uncomfortable, and – I hope – fruitful.

One of the best resources I’ve found for our this series is the United Methodist Church’s General Commission On Religion and Race (aka GCORR. Yes, it’s true. The UMC loves us some acronyms.) We all know the interwebs can be a real rabbit hole in which it is easy to lose significant time. GCORR’s site is actually worth whatever time you can give it. So. Much. Good. Stuff.

Lots of which can and will help us as we continue to have honest conversations about things that matter – like racism. Here’s a small taste of what you can find at GCORR:

Stereotypes vs. Generalizations 

Stereotypes are a way we attempt to bring order to a large diversity of information.

Stereotypes imply that how a group of people are, believe, and behave is predictable and the same for all members of the group.

Generalizations allow that there is variation among people from a given culture – not all persons will act or believe the same.

Generalizations appreciates differences within culture and between cultures [read the rest]

Subtle Racism, a resource 

Are you familiar with everyday racism, subtle racism, or racial microaggressions? The following “sound bites” are intended to help readers examine the times in our lives when we experience or participate in subtle or everyday racism. Of course they are debatable; that’s the point.

Racism is…

  • A waiter always giving the check to the white person at the table.

  • Someone who blames the ghetto on those who live in it.

  • Calling an Asian-American “brilliant” because she or he speaks such good English.

  • Favoring Civil Rights, but knowing one must look out for property values.

  • Using chemicals on crops in California so they survive the trip to New York, but not worrying about whether the labors working those crops survive the trip home.

  • [read the rest]

25 Things Your Congregation Can Do to Affirm Diversity and Challenge Racism

Things to Know 8

Of course, GCORR isn’t the only one offering good and challenging resources on race in the USA. Here’s a couple others I’ve been looking at recently. (More resources that have influenced our thinking about race, race relations, privilege, and more.)

From BuzzFeed, “14 Words that carry a coded meaning for Black people.”

What you say: “That’s ghetto.”

What we hear: That is a negative thing I associate with blackness and/or the working class.

What you say: “You are so well-mannered.”

What we hear: The way you carry yourself does not align with the way I have been led to believe black people act. You are a rare case.

What you say: “He is such a thug.”

What we hear: He is the n-word.

[read the rest]

Or this from Upworthy, “They liked her because she ‘talked white.‘”

Yes, I know I already linked to this spoken word performance. But it is just so amazing I had to do so again. So if you missed it previously, go watch it now! Or if you didn’t miss it, well, it’s probably worth another viewing just to see what new insight you might catch.

How about you? What are you reading and watching and listening to that can add to this ongoing conversation about race, race relations, and privilege?

Uncomfortable on purpose

The huge snowstorm that hit last weekend (5th largest in area history!) may have impeded travel, may have been fun to play in, and may have even kept you from attending our worship services. But as bad as the weather was, it could do nothing to dampen the spirit – or dare I say Spirit – in this place. We sang, we prayed, we laughed, we gave – a typical time at the best place to be on a Sunday morning…only likely with more gratitude than usual for a warm, safe refuge from the snow. But not everything was business as usual. Pastor Danita began the sermon time thusly:

This time of sermon engagement has been misunderstood as a time when you get to sit back in the comfortable pews and hear something from that antiquated book, telling you how you should live your life, while all the time you are thinking, ‘What time does the game start?’ or ‘When is lunch?’ Too often some have walked away from the sermon time wanting to express opinions, ask questions, or simply be in dialogue about what was said. Pastor Dave and I agree opportunities for conversation need to happen, so we’re not going to stand for you walking away in silence anymore! The sermon is a time for us to reflect and act together for change, to hear in our different voices and to do collectively what we cannot do alone. Not one time did Jesus say to the disciples, ‘sit back and relax, let me tell you a bedtime story that will lull you into a worthless and non-productive existence.’ Starting today you get to participate!

For you see, last Sunday Pastor Danita and I began our month-long sermon series of conversations on race.

Pastor Danita & me
As you probably figured out, that’s Pastor Danita and me. No idea why I’m not smiling though.

We know talking about race makes us uncomfortable. We know talking about race makes us afraid. We also know that talking about race – real, true, open dialogue – is the way we can begin to break through that fear; the only way we can begin to become comfortable; the only way we can be transformed so that we might participate in the transformation of the world. Finally, we know that such conversations don’t just happen. They almost always need to be curated. To that end, Pastor Danita also shared this on Sunday:

First we want to recognize and acknowledge that we consider this to be a safe space. We will not allow judgmental comments that negate another person’s sense of worth. We will listen to one another and share respectfully. No one gets to raise their voice (except Pastor Dave and I but that’s only in an emergency). We are here to live together, to work together, to pray together, to learn together, and to grow together. We want to be more than just a museum for our denomination. We want to make a difference in the world, starting here and now.

I’m telling you all this because I want you to be proud that your church family is having this much-needed conversation. I’m telling you this so you will be prepared for the next chapter of this conversation happening this Sunday, February 8th. I’m telling you this so you can and will participate in this ongoing conversation. We need you to be part of the dialogue. Again, from last Sunday’s sermon time:

If we don’t learn that it was people just like us – our mothers, our uncles, our classmates, our clergy – who made and sustained the modern Civil Rights Movement, then we won’t know we can do it again. And then the other side wins – even before we ever begin the fight. I invite you to take a listen and then…we’ll talk!

Last week we used the movie “Selma” as our cultural touchpoint and asked what you saw and heard in the movie, how it made you feel, where and when do you see racism and hatred today, and how do we respond to hate.

This Sunday we’re talking about language, about the power of words to hurt and to heal. In the coming weeks we’ll look at the notion of a colorblind society and privilege. Plus, as a way to make tangible the idea that Black history is American history, each week this month, Vann and Barb Harris will display a portion of their vast, fascinating, and often unique Black History collection. But theirs is no look-but-don’t-touch, just-move-along museum collection! Check out their display, hold the items, and ask questions.

There are of course numerous resources to help us engage in these vital conversations. The following are a few that are informing what we present. We invite you to read, watch, consider, question, dream, and prepare.

But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow

Peggy Macintosh’s now iconic White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack

Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation by Jennifer Harvey

Again, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long form Atlantic article that is especially important for understanding the history of racism, especially regarding housing. Perhaps surprisingly, Chicago is center stage in that history.

The Average Black Girl

Racism in the USA by the numbers

The myth of race, debunked in 3 minutes

Luke 6:27-36

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

James 3:1-12

As you read and watch and consider, what do you feel? What questions arise? What engages you or surprises you?

Each week during the sermon time, we’ll continue to ask questions, offer thoughts, and curate conversation in a safe place. So don’t be shy! We want – we need – to hear your voice too as we strive to grow in our love of God by growing in our love for all our neighbors.