Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Streets of San Antonio

Living on the streets might look like a piece of cake. No bills to pay. No one to report to.  No dirty dishes to clean up. You carry everything on your back. You’re free!

After just a day on the street experiencing a “homelessness immersion” with Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith, I’m convinced it’s about the hardest work I’ve ever done.

My day began early Friday morning with a walk to Milam Park where Lorenza’s journey started two and a half years ago. She gave everything away to live in solidarity with the poor who live “under the stars.” She laughed that she had to phone someone that evening to drive her to the park because she had forgotten that she had given away her car.

Thankfully, it was an absolutely gorgeous day. As she laid out her mat near a park bench, Lorenza gave me three tasks for the day. “We need money for bus tickets so I can get to the conference office. We need lunch. And we need a safe place to sleep.”

“Oh, and no cheating. You can’t use the ATM.” She put her head down and closed her eyes, which I took to be a sign of great confidence in my hustling abilities.

Lorenza’s friend, Richard, showed up and smiled and said, “Just walk around and ask folks for change for the bus.” Like it was no big deal.

So off I headed, winding through the downtown, lugging  a ratty old back-pack borrowed from a staff member. After wandering for an hour and a half, and asking countless people for change, I had empty pockets to show for my labors. And I couldn't help but notice that the goofy grin with which I had begun the day had melted away. 

I did stumble upon Goodwill (and a public bathroom!) and they said the Salvation Army might have bus passes. I tried to call but no one answered, so I began a long hike over there. I learned later that being sent somewhere else is a common tactic to deal with the homeless. No wonder some folks who wander in the doors of UUMC looking for assistance are not always in the best frame of mind!

On the way, my back-pack came apart and hit the street. I sat down under a tree, literally undone. No one had even reached in their pocket for change. Very few folks made eye contact with me. Some just walked on by without acknowledging my existence, giving me a wide birth.

As I fixed the backpack, I looked around and spotted a Plasma Center across the street. Light-bulbs went off. I hustled through the door, practically ran up to the receptionist and said, “How much money for a plasma donation?”

“Forty dollars,” came the reply. I did a little inward fist bump, signed in and called Lorenza.

“Jackpot,” I told her. “Get over to the Plasma Bank.”

When they called me up to the desk again, they asked for my ID. In particular, they needed my social security card.

“You’re kidding,” I said. “I never carry my social security card.”

“Sorry. That’s the rule. Everyone knows that.”

I sat outside the plasma bank, downcast. I had been “homeless” for about two hours now and was failing miserably.

I met up with my friends, and they suggested we head to Travis Park UMC. They might have some bus passes. On the way, I tried my luck one more time on bus money, and came up with a transfer. And someone actually reached in their pocket to see if they had change. I was making progress!

I walked back to the church with Richard, who proceeded to step off the curb right in the path of a car. I grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back. Lorenza said this happens to folks on the street all the time. You walk around so much, you just walk into the street without looking, and boom!

We made it through the door of Travis Park just in time for the lunch Bible study. I beamed at Lorenza: “Well, I didn’t get bus money, but I did get us lunch!”

“No,” she smiled. “I got us lunch.”

We joined about 30 street folks around long tables for what was, I’m sure a great Bible study, led by my puzzled colleague, Rev. Taylor Boone. The problem was, I was so concerned about getting bus passes and wondering where we would sleep that night, that I couldn’t concentrate on the study.

We learned that Travis Park no longer gives out bus passes. But I did receive one neatly folded dollar bill from a Travis Park staff member, Communications Director Betty Curry. (This will figure prominently later on in the story.)

And I found a safe place to stay for the night. Taylor suggested the Haven for Hope, San Antonio’s center for services for the homeless and those in transition off the street.

Soon we were on our way across town to the Haven. In order to get into the courtyard, I had to become a Prospect and go through intake. Two exceedingly kind staff took us through the intake process. I sat with two men, who immediately struck up a conversation.

The younger of the two wanted to know if I needed a jacket. “It’s gonna get cold next week,” he said. I told him I had a jacket in my pack, but the man next to him asked him what size it was. Turned out it was a perfect fit. The younger man stripped off his jacket and gave it to his new friend.

The older man was a Haven veteran and he proceeded to school us rookies in the rules. Where to put stuff. What to listen and watch out for. I marveled at unexpected hospitality.

With my Prospect card in hand, we lined up for the bag check and the metal detector. We had the kindest policeman ever go through our stuff. And we were in. Even though it was mid-afternoon, folks were already claiming prime spots on the courtyard for the night, men on one side and women on the other, trying to get some rest. Did I say that unbelievably loud freight trains pass right by the Haven about every 15 minutes?

We made a quick tour of the facilities and walked back to Travis Park. Lorenza had a wedding rehearsal that afternoon, so I waited outside on the steps, glad for the chance to rest my feet. My handy SWTX Conference pedometer had already recorded over 20,000 steps for the day, about ten miles.

I tried reading on the steps, but I was so tired and sun-burned that concentration was almost impossible. How do you do anything on the street when all of your energy and all of your time is spent waiting for food and walking to public bathrooms and finding a shower somewhere and a safe place to sleep for the night?

I looked up from my book at one point, and a guy about my age walked over to me.  “Do you have any spare change for a bus ticket?” he asked.

I laughed out loud. “I’ve been trying all day to get bus money and all I’ve got is one lousy dollar. How are you doing?”

“I’ve been looking for about an hour,” he said. “I’ve got nothin’.” Now he was standing right in front of me.

I reached in my pocket. “Here. Take this.” I handed him the dollar bill.

“No way, man. I can’t take that. How are you going to get home?”

“I’ve got a badge to sleep at the Haven tonight. I’ll be fine. Just take the dollar.” I put it back in his hand.

He stared at the bill for a long time, like I’d given him solid gold. He shook my hand and we exchanged names and we fist-bumped.  He walked away, and then turned back and held up his hands as if to ask, “Really? Your last dollar? For me?” I smiled and waved and walked away.

Sometimes grace sneaks up on you. You’re thinking that the day is all about you and your skills and what you can do. And the amazing generosity of perfect strangers breaks in. Breaks you wide open.  

I had failed miserably at homelessness that day. But I had discovered the many and diverse faces of Christ on the streets of San Antonio. Praise be!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mixing Faith and Politics

It’s conventional wisdom that faith and politics don’t mix. In polite company, it’s best not to talk about either and to put them together is like pouring gasoline on a fire.

In my United Methodist congregation and in a number of other faith communities, there is lively sense that our faith, our principles, the things we hold to be true, inevitably shape our political, economic and social beliefs. And so while mixing faith and politics may be a social faux pas, perhaps it’s something  best consigned to the dust bin of history.

My congregation, located next door to the University of Texas campus, has regularly taken stands on political issues. Many of us have joined the call for more humane immigration reform, for an end to solitary confinement and the death penalty, and for support of a living wage.

We’ve also joined a growing chorus of Austinites who whole-heartedly support affordable housing.

A couple of years ago, with the help of Austin Interfaith, we had several meetings with folks who are homeless. We listened to their concerns about life on the streets.

I vividly recall one meeting where we began listing some of the ways that their lives could be improved. They needed more day time shelter. Safer places to sleep and keep their stuff. More public restrooms and water fountains around the downtown.

As we went down the list, one glaring omission stood out to me. I had to ask, “What about housing? Most of you live under the stars. Why isn’t housing at the top of the list?”

And to a person, our friends who live on the street said, “Pastor John, we have no hope of ever getting any kind of housing in Austin, Texas.”

Our hearts sank.

After all, what could we do? Our church already feeds over 250 people every Saturday morning and clothes over 100. We provide programs on Thursday afternoon for street youth and we contribute to the Micah 6 Food Bank. We’re maxed out. Every congregation in the University area does incredible things to help alleviate poverty, but affordable housing? That was so far beyond our reach as to be unimaginable.

Following that meeting, we learned of a new bond that was being proposed for the 2012 election that would provide $78 million for affordable housing, including some funding for permanent supportive housing for our homeless friends. The last bonds passed in 2006 helped pay for the construction, renovation and repair of 3400 homes. The investment for the city brought in almost $150 million and created over 3000 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs. How could this possible fail?

Unfortunately, the 2012 bond did fail by a very slim margin (1.5% of voters) and the funds for affordable housing have almost run dry. But there are still 38,000 families that can’t find a home they can afford in Austin and more than 2,000 homeless students in AISD schools. Low income families typically cut back on food and medical expenses, and move often, which makes it difficult for their children to do well in school. They’re also more likely to become homeless, which puts added stress on our thin infrastructure that provides shelter and services for the homeless. Doing nothing is not a solution without its own very human costs.

As people of faith, what is our calling? The Old Testament prophet Micah asks the same question: “What does God require?” And the answer begins, “To act justly.” If we follow our faith, we will be pushed out of the relative comfort of charity into the tricky work of doing justice. We will dare to move beyond simply giving a cup of cold water to consider systems of injustice. We will be drawn into that uncomfortable mix of faith and politics, where we practice our religious tradition’s deepest teachings by challenging policies and advocating for programs that seek the fullness of life for all human beings. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Rally for 15

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and much of the focus has been on freedom and civil rights and rightly so. This was a large part of what that march was all about. But there was a second component of that march that is often left out—it was a march for jobs.  
For Dr. King, those two things—jobs and freedom—were intimately connected. There cannot be human equality without  economic equality. What good does it do, he asked, to have an integrated lunch counter if a person can’t afford to buy a hamburger?
Fifty years later, that hope for jobs that would pay living wages is still a distant dream for many.
Fifty years later, not only corporations have let you down. Your faith communities have let you down.

The scriptures of my tradition, the Old and New Testaments, could not be clearer about the exploitation and the underpayment of workers.   The prophet Jeremiah writes: “Woe to him . . . who makes neighbors work for nothing and does not give them their wages” (Jeremiah 22:13). Woe to him, meaning that the judgment, the wrath of God is upon those who do not pay their workers.

And in the letter of James in the New Testament, there’s this: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4). Your cries today reach the ears of God and call for an answer, for redress, for action!
We have ignored these troublesome parts of our heritage. We have talked about spiritual things in our faith communities and have forgotten that you cannot separate a person’s work from their soul. We have imagined that when Jesus said love your neighbor that he meant, be nice to them. Not pay them fair wages that keep up with the cost of living and that allow them a life of dignity and in safety.
We talk in our communities about the importance of getting a job and finding meaningful work, of work as a way out of poverty. And yet it seems that we have created instead work that keeps people in poverty. We have let you down.

Over the last 50 years, we have stood idly by while the gap between the rich and the poor in our nation has widened into a vast canyon and poverty has spiraled out of control.

Every Saturday morning at my church, University UMC, we serve close to 300 people brunch, and we clothe another 100 folks, and the stories I hear make me incredibly sad and tired. 

I’m tired of hearing the stories of folks who have jobs but who do not have enough even for the daily necessities of life. I’m tired of hearing about folks who work two jobs and can’t make ends meet. I’m tired of hearing folks who have low paying minimum wage jobs tell me that they have to choose between housing and food, because they don’t have enough for both. If I’m tired of hearing about it, I can’t imagine how incredibly tired are the folks I’m listening to.

Are you tired?
Forty-five years ago, Dr. King came to Memphis, TN to march in support of sanitation workers who were seeking the very same things you all are seeking today. Better wages and a better life.

And people were saying then what they’re saying now. Let’s not rush into things, Dr. King. Let’s give this some time.

Dr. King said: Now is the time. Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all of God’s children …. Now is the time for justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. Now is the time.

 When is the time? Now is the time. Thank you.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Ministry and Power

(A guest blog by Rev. Ginny Hathaway)

We know that in the UMC we have a bifocal approach to a call to ministry.  We affirm that God calls persons into the ministry; but we also affirm that the Church has an important role in calling the called into ordained ministry in a denomination.  We, in the UMC, have a very particular process for that and a structure that carries the responsibility for that process. But, if we are a community of discipleship, a community of persons intent on following Jesus, then it is necessary for there to be mutuality in that structure and process.

We still struggle with the role of power in our institution. I believe that "community" is characterized by a dedication to radical equality and lived out grace if it is to be true to the vocation of faithfulness to Jesus. Power must be exercised as power for others and power with others. If it is exercised as power over others, then it is not faithful to its role in the faith community.

In his book on the subject, "Church, Charism, and Power" Leonardo Boff talks of power in community as being faithful only when it is conferred in recognition of the gifts persons have for administration, for instance, or the ordering of the work of the institution. Those gifts are called into the service of the faith community.  The position in which a person is called to exercise his or her gifts does not make that person better than, superior to, or more powerful than anyone else in the community.  So any individual or group in whom particular responsibilities might be vested has a calling to be very, very careful about how they exercise their responsibilities in mutuality, with grace and humility.

Here is where I particularly take issue with the Board of Ordained Ministry of our conference (Southwest Texas) and their decision to remove Mary Ann from candidacy. If they had an understanding of faithful exercise of power with and for the community which they serve in the capacity in which they have been called to responsibility, they might have drawn back from the way they did relate to Mary Ann and found a more grace-full process. It stuns me that a group of persons who profess Christian values would not feel any responsibility to get to know Mary Ann. They would have been the better for seeking to understand what gifts she brought to the faith community that resulted in two churches and two districts recommending her as a candidate. They owed her, if they had any concept of their duty being to be in a relationship of mutuality with candidates, a process in which they heard from her about her call, in which they were in dialogue with her about her desire to be in ministry, about her faith and commitment. They owed it to themselves to get to know her. They had an absolute responsibility, if they were to dare to exercise the kind of responsibility they are given by the Conference, to spend time and effort with her, to see what they all had to offer each other.

Given the wording of the Discipline, I can't help but think the Board would have assumed they would get to the point of turning her down eventually; but there could have been and should have been a long road to travel between now and "eventually". There should have been a willingness on their part to travel that road together with Mary Ann. There should have been enough openness and imagination in persons invested with such consequential duties to want to learn about this person, to listen to her, to respect her voice.

No one, no group should have the heavy responsibility that the Board has if they are inclined to make decisions without dialogue, if they feel they can exercise power without doing the work of relationship, if they hold themselves apart from or above the possibility of growing with and learning from those who entrust their love for the Church and the work of ministry to them.

It is sad for the Church and its future that its servants would deal with such a gifted candidate and such a complex issue and such a continuing struggle in the institution with what appears to be an utter disrespect for Mary Ann's call, an obliviousness to the possibilities and imperative of a relational approach to this situation that would enable them to be better stewards of their duties, and an inability to imagine that they might yet have something to learn and some growing edges, whatever the individual perspectives and opinions of various members might be.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Food Stamp Challenge, Part 2

This Sunday, we’ll be gathering after late worship to talk about the Food Stamp Challenge that some of us have either completed or are going to try as a Lenten practice.

I discovered that enough people have taken on the challenge that it’s now thing. There’s even a Wikipedia article on the challenge.

The challenge is not without controversy. Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ, took the challenge and many dismissed it as a political stunt.

Some of the “learnings” I’ve read about from the challenge fall in the category of stuff we should know if we had been paying attention or listening to friends and neighbors who’ve been on (or are on) food stamps. Like, people on food stamps don’t go out to restaurants. They don’t drink lattes. They don’t buy organic food. Really?

What I’ve been forced to think about is how my attempt to eat on $63 a week for two is not anything like what it would really be like for someone who has lived for a significant period of their life in poverty. I’m cutting back on certain foods and making different choices, but I have all kinds of material and immaterial benefits that they don’t have.

I’ve also been pushed to think more deeply about the whole idea of Lenten practices. Why do we put ourselves through these ordeals? Is this a carry-over from more severe disciplines of the medieval church? Is this just another way of covering over my Protestant guilt? I did my thing for the poor with this challenge, so I’m good for the rest of the year.

Is it the intention that helps us move beyond Lent as a competitive sport? Is there a way to bring more mindfulness to Lent so that it moves beyond the simple acts of giving this up or taking that on to something deeper and clearer?

I like what Nadia Bolz-Weber says about Lent: “Lent is about looking at our lives in as bright a light as possible, the light of Christ, to illumine that which moth and rust can consume and which thieves can steal.   It is during this time of self-reflection and sacrificial giving and prayer that we make our way through the over grown and tangled mess of our lives. We trudge through the lies of our death-denying culture to seek the simple weighty truth of who we really are.

I hope you’ll join me for conversation this Sunday about the food stamp challenge, about Lent and about the wider subjects of spiritual disciplines and Christian spirituality.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Lenten Challenge Begins

Some of you have joined the UUMC Lenten Challenge to buy groceries for the week based on the guidelines for families living on food stamps. For the two of us here at the parsonage, that’s $63 for a week’s worth of groceries.

I’m not sure I can remember a time when we came back from a full hour of grocery shopping and the bill was under $100. Clearly some things will have to change. And I’m going to guess—just a wild guess at this point—that there will be ALL KINDS of uncomfortable revelations along the way.

So, day one: planning. Many questions surface.

How much does stuff cost? This sounds horrible, but I don’t pay a lot of attention to prices. I do compare prices, but I have no idea how much a gallon of milk or even a jar of peanut butter costs. This is privilege, sticking its tongue out at me.

There are lots of technical questions, Pharisaical questions, about how to work out the cost of eating over the week. Like: what do I do with the leftover food in the refrigerator? (eat it) Do I count the cereal that I already have, but I’m going to use, or just the new stuff? (figure it in) If I don’t use the Half-and-Half in my coffee, it will go bad, and that would be a waste, right? (right)

This morning we created some menus for the week. We had to be much more detailed than we usually are, because we’ll be buying everything we’re eating. A whole chicken is the centerpiece of our cuisine and it will be recycled through three different evening meals. My old school lunch box favorite, PB&J, will get us through lunch. And for me, it will be cold cereal and bananas in the morning.

We have a grocery list, but we have no idea how much everything costs. (see above) So shopping will be a bit more confusing and time-consuming. Usually we divide and conquer. I remember explaining our process to a young woman checking us out. She thought it was so cool that we split up the list and then met at the cashier. Don’t all old married couples do this? (My list is longer, but Linda takes on the stuff that I would never find in a million years.)

We’re also bringing a calculator. If we fill our basket up and the total is $63.31, it’s back down the aisles to make some adjustments (and buy cheap stuff that is bad for us).

As we worked through the planning, I found myself saying, “It’s only for a week. We can do anything for a week.”

The face of privilege again. With a big question mark that hangs over the week.  What will you do with what you’ve learned? 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Why Don't You Just Leave

Today, I’m grateful for the Reconciling Ministries movement that allows congregations, who respectfully disagree with their denominational teachings excluding LGBT folks, to remain in the fold as the loyal opposition.

As I wrote these words, I wonder how truly loyal I am to the wider United Methodist Church. If I were choosing a church today with my commitments to justice and equality, I wonder if I would choose a UMC congregation. There’s much about this church I love, but the unrelenting turn of the church over the last thirty years away from social justice and toward biblical fundamentalism and disciplinary legalism is disturbing.

What brought this reflection on was a comment  I often hear from church folks about my stance toward gays and lesbians. “Why don’t you just leave.” I omit the question mark, because it always feels more imperative than interrogative.

Just leave the United Methodist Church. Like it would be so easy to pick up and move to another state, away from family that we care for and support. Like it would be so easy to move into another denomination, go through the certification processes and become pastors of a church. Like it would be so easy to leave the church that has become my home.

This makes me wonder what kind of a church tells its pastors and parishioners, “You just need to leave.”

Perhaps it’s a church that told lay and clergy, who marched for civil rights, if you want African-Americans  in our church, you need to get out of town and start your own church.

Perhaps it’s a church that told women back in the 1920s who marched for equal rights or women in the 1940s who pushed for the ordination of women, you need to find another church.

Perhaps it’s a church that told lay people back in the day, if you want to be represented along with clergy at annual meetings, maybe you should join another church.

Or maybe it’s a church that told the whole denomination, if you want to free the slaves, then we’re out of here.

We have this dream in the UMC that we were at the forefront of civil rights struggles, and while that was certainly true in some individual cases, as a denomination, we have come kicking and screaming into every battle for civil rights. Today our churches remain highly segregated along racial lines and essentially closed to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. Power flows top-down from bishops and clergy, and suspicion of female pastors and female leadership remains.

Until the United Methodist Church fully faces this heritage of discrimination, we will continue to proclaim a broken gospel, one where our speech does not match our words and actions, and where we let “spiritual concerns” trump real world concerns, as if the two could ever be separated.

For my part, as a UMC pastor who plans to stay and preach and live in the UMC, here’s my new year’s resolution.  I will continue to proclaim the whole gospel to the best of my ability, and I will listen and respond to those on the margins. I will find ways to open the church to those who have been so long excluded, and I will walk in that gospel way one day at a time. I invite you to join me.