be the good samaritan: say black lives matter

This morning, I preached this sermon on the Good Samaritan at First Presbyterian Church in Argenta (North Little Rock). After church, I went out to lunch with some friends. When I walked out of the restaurant, I saw a black woman crying. She was 58 years old. Her home just burned down in a fire. She approached a white woman to ask for financial support, and the woman had literally shooed her away and said “ask one of your own kind.”

This is why I stand with the black lives matter movement. Because we do not live in a world where all lives matter. Yes, all lives DO matter, but I’m not sure that any demographic has experienced more hatred and less affirmation of their humanity. No group in the history of the United States has been as dehumanized as the black community. This movement is about protecting, cherishing, and affirming the belovedness of black lives. I will proudly and loudly say that black lives matter until society actually reflects this truth.  Until people like the woman who shooed the black woman away to “her own kind” recognize that she in fact sent away her neighbor.

Below are Prayers of the People I prayed in church today (written by Rachel Shepherd) and the sermon I preached.

Black lives matter, y’all.


Prayers of the People

Creator God, we thank you and praise you because you made us and everything we see. In the beginning, all lives mattered equally: the plants yielding seed, the fruit trees of every kind, the swarms of living creatures in the water and on the earth and in the air. As people began prioritizing their own power and privilege, you noticed that some lives seemed to matter more than others. You sent prophets to remind us: “Slave lives matter! Poor lives matter! Widowed and orphaned lives matter!” We responded that all lives matter and turned away, not wanting to make the changes your words required.

When you came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, you continued to make your priorities clear: “Lepers’ lives matter! Samaritan lives matter! Children’s lives matter! Women’s lives matter! Hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and imprisoned lives matter!” We responded “All lives matter,” and nailed you to a cross for the crime of calling us out. After a very real and painful death, you rose again to share meals and good news with the people you loved.

Holy Spirit, you placed a flame in us so we can’t help sharing the good news. You remind us still that the “least of these” lives matter to you. Be our vision so we might see the world through your eyes. Grant us the courage to speak the truth in love and proclaim: “Black lives matter! LGBT lives matter! Homeless lives matter! Muslim lives matter!” When we honor the less privileged people among us, we do not diminish other lives but affirm that all lives matter. When others light a candle, it in no way diminishes the brightness of my own. Let us continue standing in solidarity with the least of these until every candle is lit, our broken systems are healed, and your image is honored in every life.

Thank you, Holy One, for being with us our whole lives and for continually pushing for balance and dignity for all people. Our voices are joined in solidarity now as we pray the words Christ taught us: [Lord’s Prayer]

Ashley Clayborn's photo.

Sermon

 

One day a teacher of an adult Bible class got up and tested [Jesus] with this question: “Doctor, what does one do to be saved?”
Jesus replied, “What does the Bible say? How do you interpret it?”
The teacher answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your physical strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
“That is correct,” answered Jesus. “Make a habit of this and you’ll be saved.”
But the Sunday school teacher, trying to save face, asked, “But … er … but … just who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus laid into him and said, “A man was going from Atlanta to Albany and some gangsters held him up. When they had robbed him of his wallet and brand-new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car, leaving him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway.
“Now it just so happened that a white preacher was going down that same highway. ‘When he saw the fellow, he stepped on the gas and went scooting by.
“Shortly afterwards a white Gospel song leader came down the road, and when he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas.
“Then a black man traveling that way came upon the fellow, and what he saw moved him to tears. He stopped and bound up his wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water-jug to wipe away the blood and then laid him on the back seat. He drove on into Albany and took him to the hospital and said to the nurse, ‘You all take good care of this white man I found on the highway. Here’s the only two dollars I got, but you all keep account of what he owes, and if he can’t pay it, I’ll settle up with you when I make a pay-day.’
“Now if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three-the white preacher, the white song leader, or the black man – would you consider to have been your neighbor?”
The teacher of the adult Bible class said, “Why, of course, the nig – I mean, er … well, er … the one who treated me kindly.”
Jesus said, “Well, then, you get going and start living like that!”

This depiction of the Good Samaritan is found in the Cotton Patch Gospel. Its author Clarence Jordan was a white southerner who, in the 1950s, believed that the radical nature of the Gospel was getting lost in translation for his fellow white southerners. He placed Jesus’ ministry in a new context: the Deep South. The Samaritan in the “Cotton Patch” version is a black man who helps a white person left for dead on the side of a highway.

I love this re-imagining of the Good Samaritan. A narrative that imagines the Samaritan as a black man in the Deep South reminds us that this is not a simple, feel-good, moralistic tale, but a story of radical neighborliness. It’s a powerful message. No wonder this story transcended the walls of the church; it’s practically become part of popular culture. There are laws and charities named after this parable. It’s even a colloquial term for an ordinary do-gooder who sees a need and responds. The story of the Good Samaritan is almost too familiar. We know the story so well it doesn’t make us uncomfortable anymore.

One scholar has said, “The purpose of religion is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” If we hear this story and don’t feel uncomfortable, we aren’t listening closely enough. When we treat this story as a simple, heartwarming lesson about kindness, we become desensitized to the transformative message at its heart.

To understand the truly radical nature of this parable, we also need to understand the story of the Samaritans. They were not simply outcasts; they were the hated and despised enemies of the Jews. They were the unclean, foreign and strange Others. They became a despised people over the course of several centuries. In the 6th century BCE, when Assyrians destroyed the temple in Israel, they also exiled the most educated Jews, or the upper crust of society in order to deprive the Jewish people of its leadership. Only the poorly educated and impoverished Jews remained. The Assyrian king then sent foreigners into the country to intermarry with the remaining Israelite population. They attempted to carry on their Jewish customs, but after a few generations their worship evolved into practices that more closely resembled paganism than Judaism. These descendants are who became known as the Samaritans. They were considered “half-breeds” and “impure,” a “mongrel abomination.” (sound familiar?) Later, Samaria became a place of refuge for Jewish outcasts; Jews who were excommunicated, criminals, and refugees found safety in Samaria, thus increasing the hatred. Even though they had a shared genetic and religious ancestry, they considered their differences irreconcilable.

This is why the very phrase “Good Samaritan” is radical in and of itself. Those two words were an apparent contradiction, yet Jesus unapologetically chooses a Samaritan, an Other, to be the hero of the story. This is why the Cotton Patch’s Good Samaritan, a black man in the role of the hero, is a good and faithful retelling of the parable. This is the interpretation that was needed in this particular cultural and historical moment.

Scripture is a living text. To live faithfully in the world as a follower of Jesus, we must have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. So now, I invite you to imagine the story of the Good Samaritan rewritten once again, but in our current context, the year 2016. I invite you to recall the news from this past week and imagine whom you would cast in each role in the parable. Who is the person left for dead on the side of the road? Who are the robbers, responsible for violence with no apparent consequence? Who is the priest and who is the Levite, distancing themselves as much as possible from the man left for dead in the street? Who is the Samaritan?

Which character are you?

With Jesus’ parables, I believe it’s natural to read ourselves into the text. We search for the spaces we fit into the story. I also believe it’s natural and tempting to read ourselves as the heroes. No one wants to be the robbers. No one wants to be the priest or the Levite. We want to be the Samaritan. We want to believe that we would show mercy to the person left for dead in the street. As much as I know I want this, I also know it’s not true. I know I’m not the Samaritan. Honestly, I think it’s really difficult for anyone with white skin to be the Samaritan. Difficult, but not impossible.

I’ve spent most of my life oscillating between being the priest, the Levite, and the lawyer. In the past, I have seen the suffering of the Other and promptly distanced myself, both physically and emotionally. I become the Levite and priest anytime I willfully separate myself from the pain of the black community. Any time I deny the ways I have benefited from white privilege and systems that were designed to protect me and not others. If the priest and Levite had drawn closer to the man left for dead instead of further away, they would have to face some truths about themselves I suspect they’d rather not admit. Perhaps they’ve spent a lifetime hiding under the veil of willful ignorance. They would rather look away and keep scooting by than admit they could do something about their neighbors’ suffering.

I’m also the lawyer because I’ve searched for justification in creating that distance. The lawyer asks Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?…Who is my neighbor?” The law in Leviticus he’s referencing defines neighbor as his fellow Israelites. The lawyer is really asking Jesus, “Whom don’t I have to love? Surely you don’t mean I have to love non-Israelites?” I’ve been the lawyer every time I’ve thought or said that black people were “naturally more violent,” or that black community needs to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps and work for what they want,” or anytime I’ve used the phrase “black on black crime,” or any other time I’ve dismissed the suffering and the reality of what black lives live through. Anytime I buy the cultural narratives that somehow blame the black community for their own suffering, I become the lawyer justifying my ever-expanding distance.

This is why being the Samaritan is so difficult and exactly what I believe makes the Samaritan good. When there was a choice to either draw nearer to the pain or to create more distance, the Samaritan chose to draw near. To draw nearer to someone else’s grief instead of running away. To run toward what might be uncomfortable, scary, and eye-opening, instead of intentionally ignoring that pain.

For churches that follow the lectionary (the set of Scripture readings that follows a three-year cycle), the last time the Good Samaritan was read in churches was during the summer of 2013. The night before, George Zimmerman was declared “not guilty” of the murder of Trayvon Martin. That means that the morning after a man was acquitted of the murder of an unarmed black teenager, churches across the country heard the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was also after this acquittal that Alicia Garza first penned the words “black lives matter” as part of a love letter to the black community, thus creating a hashtag and beginning a movement. This morning we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan a few days after the murder of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Today also marks a year to the day when Sandra Bland was pulled over and subsequently incarcerated and eventually killed. This is significant. We can look back over the last three years and mark progress, or lack thereof. What has changed? Anything?

My personal story of discovering how my whiteness impacts the way I move through the world follows a similar trajectory as the birth of Black Lives Matter. In the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death and his murderer’s acquittal, I began the process of lifting my veil of white privilege.

I grew up in the segregated town of Beaufort, South Carolina. I attended what I later learned was a “white flight” school, a private school founded in the 60’s so white parents wouldn’t have to send their children to the newly-integrated public school. I could probably count on one hand the number of people of color I interacted with in my whitewashed childhood. My framework for understanding the world was through an exceptionally privileged lens. In college I became a sociology major before I even totally understood what sociology even meant. Happiest accident of my life. I slowly began deconstructing what it means to have white skin in this country and how much of a privilege it was to not have to think about race. During the summer of 2013, I was working at the Urban Ministry Center, a day center for people experiencing homelessness in Charlotte, NC. More specifically, I was a soccer coach for a homeless women’s street soccer team. My job was to reach out to women, invite them to soccer practices, foster a trusting community among the team, and then coach at the Street Soccer Homeless US Cup held in New York City. A week after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, six women experiencing homelessness, nearly all black, and I piled into a minivan for a thirteen-hour road trip from Charlotte to New York City. They of course were in charge of choosing music and we found a black radio station, playing music exclusively by black artists and with black radio hosts. It still remains a mystery to me how we managed to play this supposedly “local” station nearly the entire way to New York, but we listened to it nearly for many hours. And I just had my hands on the wheel, eyes fixed on the horizon ahead of me, laughing and shaking my head at the music, the conversations, the dancing, and other shenanigans in the seats behind me.

We were nearly there. The hosts of the radio station were about to begin the next song when they asked a question to be discussed after the break: “Did black people care more about the Trayvon Martin trial than white people?” For a split second I was completely taken aback. I was afraid of the answer to that question. But women I was with knew the answer. The atmosphere had transformed in an instant. There was shouting. A resounding “YES.” There was anger, which quickly became tears. Then wailing. Grieving. I did nothing but listen. I listened to black women cry about Trayvon Martin’s death, but quickly realized they were not mourning one life. They were mourning injustice. They were mourning a broken system. A system that was built for and does nothing but benefit me, but brought this van full of black women to wailing tears. And I listened. I listened and bore witness to a pain that I have never felt and will never experience. I had never been in a space like that before, nor had I ever sat with the despair of a grieving community in this way. I gripped the steering wheel, my now tear-filled eyes fixed on the horizon ahead.

There are bodies lying in the street. Who will be their neighbor?

I said earlier that it’s difficult for white people to be the Samaritan. But it’s not impossible. Our roles in the story aren’t fixed. Just because I’ve been acted the part the Levite, the priest, and the lawyer in the past, that doesn’t mean it’s who I am today. But I have to actively decide to draw near. Practically speaking, this means I educate myself. I read articles and books written by people of color. I use the Root magazine as a news source because it provides black perspectives on current events. This past Friday, my housemates and I attended a protest on the steps of the Little Rock Capital building. I joined hands with my black brothers and sisters. We sang together. We cried together. We prayed together.

What if the Samaritan is good because of the simple decision to draw nearer to the pain instead of backing away? I’m the Samaritan only in my best moments. Our roles in the story are fluid. They aren’t fixed. And some roles in the story are closer to the kingdom of God than others. What if eternal life, what the lawyer was so concerned about and started this whole conversation, might also be known here and now? In this place? In nearness, not remoteness? In deciding to be closer, and not searching for ways to push away?

Make a decision. The kingdom of God is near. Pray for the courage to approach it. Be the Samaritan.

embracing the stranger

 

I’m grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had to be a guest preacher in congregations in Arkansas this year! This morning I was invited to be with First Presbyterian Church in Argenta. Here goes:

Luke 9:51-62

51 As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem. 52 He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, 53 but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?” 55 But Jesus turned and spoke sternly to them, 56 and they went on to another village.

57 As Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head.”

59 Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.”

He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”

61 Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”

62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

**********************

Three days ago, I asked a few friends to talk through this passage with me. I was stuck; the passage was confusing, upsetting, and frankly I thought Jesus was acting like a jerk. So, more specifically, I asked to lead the Bible study at Mercy Church, an ecumenical worshiping community for people with and without housing. I’d read a lot of scholars’ opinions on possible interpretations, but reading Scripture in a space with people experiencing poverty and homelessness illuminates Scripture in a way reading commentaries can’t. After reading through the passage once we immediately dove into a discussion of the very last line. So following in the example of my friends at Mercy Church, we’re going to work our way backwards through this story as well. The last line, confusing though it might sound, provides a solid framework for the preceding story.

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Have you ever tried to use a plow? If you look anywhere other than directly ahead, your furrows and subsequent planting will be crooked, resulting in wasted time, space, and energy. You need a single-minded forward gaze without distractions to use a plow properly and ensure your crops will be planted in a straight line.

At this point in Luke’s Gospel narrative, we see a distinct shift signaling Jesus’ resolute and single-minded purpose toward his destiny: Jerusalem. Jesus has put his hand to the plow and isn’t looking back. He has set his face toward Jerusalem, marking a re-orientation in looking from the past to the future. There is a sense of urgency in his words; he knows what lies in store for him in Jerusalem and he knows that every last remaining moment of his ministry counts. There is no time to say goodbye to family and friends. No time to arrange for a parent’s funeral; Jesus is on his way to his own burial. No one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. This is a kingdom where traditional loyalties are questioned and rearranged. Even family and accompanying obligations take second place. Jesus interprets all of the requests as a desire to hang on to the old life, which he emphatically rejects. In God’s kingdom, our past is less important than how we choose to move forward; this is “the way.” There are many reasons to not join Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, but Jesus’ face is set in only one direction; he is leading the way forward with or without us and it is our choice whether we join him.

Only one of the three potential disciples in this passage does choose exactly this. He says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” This is the only place in all of Luke’s gospel where anyone volunteers to follow Jesus. It seems like an admirable thing to say, but Jesus doesn’t welcome him in or commend him. In fact his response is abrupt and rude. “Foxes have dens, the birds of the skies have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” This man says he’ll follow Jesus anywhere, but Jesus isn’t welcomed anywhere, and neither are his followers. A life following Jesus, at least according to his words in this passage, is one marked by rejection.

If I wasn’t preaching on this passage this week, and I had to finish the sentence “A life following Jesus is one marked by…” rejection is not the first word that comes to mind. It’s not the first word I want to come to mind. I would have wanted to say “love,” or “acceptance,” or “compassion.” These are harsh words, but with Jesus’ face set to Jerusalem and preparing himself for the fatal journey ahead, this is not the time to sugarcoat anything.

I believe that God became human in the person of Jesus in order to show solidarity with the human condition. If Jesus’ life was marked by rejection and suffering, that’s because the God we worship chose to endure this to empathize with the suffering we experience now. The way he lived his life on earth gives us a window into understanding what communities Jesus has chosen to identify with. In this case, Jesus has shown solidarity with the people whom society has rejected. The people who are marginalized, who aren’t welcome, those who have no space to lay their head: this who he aligns himself with. He identifies with the people sleeping on the streets, with no place to lay their head. Jesus is telling the would-be disciple that if he isn’t prepared to experience the rejection and marginalization that accompanies being a disciple of Jesus, then he isn’t ready to follow him.

The interaction that preceded this passage had both affirmed that the road toward Jerusalem would be marked by rejection and mirrored the coming reality that awaited him in Israel’s capital. A few disciples went ahead to a Samaritan village to prepare a space for Jesus, but when they learned his destination was Jerusalem, they refused to show hospitality toward him and his followers. Rejection is an essential component of Jesus’ narrative, but his disciples, even the ones who have been with him throughout his entire ministry, don’t understand this. James and Johns’ reaction to being rejected by the Samaritans is to suggest the ancient equivalent of nuking the enemy; “Hey God, should we call down the fires of heaven to consume this town?” Jesus admonishes them for wanting to employ violence. Just a few chapters later tells a story about a good Samaritan who challenges any resentments his followers may be holding onto following this encounter. Jesus brushes the dust off of his sandals and goes somewhere else. His hand is on the plow, still resolutely heading forward to Jerusalem. This was his destination. The worst rejection was yet to come.

I’ve often heard these stories told as a call to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, to not reject him in your heart. Sure. But perhaps a more tangible and in my opinion interesting way of understanding this story is to think about whom society rejects. What groups of people consistently face discrimination? Whom does society reject, subsequently rejecting Jesus? I can think of several. Consider the rise of virulent anti-immigration rhetoric, both in this country and the UK. An article published in the Washington Post yesterday asked “The uncomfortable question: Was the Brexit [or “British Exit” from the European Union] vote based on racism?” The same article continues notes that “In the heated atmosphere before the election, the lines between anti-immigration rhetoric and pure racism became blurry.” The question of immigration became the defining issue of Brexit. Advertising campaigns in favor of leaving the E.U. resembled propaganda by Nazi Germany, and those same parallels can be found in our own country. The majority of voters chose to leave instead of stay “against the advice of the majority of the country’s politicians and many experts from around the world, who said the country’s political and economic standing would be deeply hurt. Some experts suggest the explanation for that decision has to at least partly be put down to racism and xenophobia.”

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On the same day the world was reeling in shock from the aftermath of Brexit, our YAV community joined the Islamic Cultural Center of Little Rock for Iftar, breaking the fast after sunset during Ramadan. Out of consideration for our hosts, Dani and I wore headscarves. I was a bit nervous about mine and was frantically adjusting it even as we were walking through the parking lot into the building. I hadn’t needed to worry, though; even if a bit of my hair was poking through, we were greeted with nothing but generosity and hospitality. People we’d never met were smiling at us and hugging us and putting food in our face and pushing us to the front of the food line and telling us just how glad they were that we had come. They were showing us a hospitality that starkly contrasted the Islamophobic, anti-immigration rhetoric we hear in our current political climate. When we openly reject immigrants based on tired stereotypes, whether from the Middle East or Central America or anywhere else, we become the Samaritans rejecting Jesus for having his face set toward Jerusalem.

Rejection can encompass more than refusing hospitality to a group of people; as one of my favorite theologians Henri Nouwan says, “…I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection…. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

I’d like to tell you about a dear friend of mine who is part of a community that often faces both self-rejection and societal rejection, and about a time when he gave both the finger.

click here to read this story from his perspective! 

Today is June 26th. On this day a year ago, the Supreme Court ruled that gay Americans had the right to marry in every state in the country. The day stands clearly in my mind because I was living in Washington DC, just a few miles north from the room where it happened. At this exact moment a year ago, I was racing on a bicycle through the streets of DC to the Supreme Court to celebrate with the crowds gathered on its steps. I arrived to find rainbow flags waving, faces painted, and tears of celebration and joy. I wove through the crowds for a few minutes until I saw him. Flanny Flanigan. Flanny was one of my best friends in DC and fellow church intern. He identifies as gay, but he was not yet out to his family and had spent most of his life in the closet. But last summer in DC, with a LGBTQ-affirming community surrounding him, he “had a lot of time to make up for.” So I wasn’t surprised to find Flanny outside of the Supreme Court. I was surprised to find him wearing a tie-dye t-shirt, purple shorts, multiple miniature rainbow flags, and of course a rainbow flag as big as himself as a cape. He was holding a sign that said in all caps and rainbow lettering “FREE HUGS” with a huge crowd of people surrounding him waiting for their turn to embrace him. He stood there on the steps of the Supreme Court for nearly eight hours, embracing countless strangers and the strangers embracing him in turn, taking pictures with him, buying him donuts, and sharing stories.

Have you ever had the experience of bearing witness to someone else’s pure, unadulterated joy, and seeing them you can’t help but feel just as ridiculously joyful? I watched Flanny stand on the steps of the Supreme Court, so authentically and unapologetically himself, simultaneously embracing his own identity and allowing others to embrace him in turn. He showed love to others, accepted the love of strangers, and loved them unconditionally in turn. This story gives me hope for a future where we know that rejection is not the end of the story. Even with the senseless violence in Orlando two weeks ago, this story offers a hopeful way forward. When we embrace the stranger across differences, when we find the image of God in the rejected and know them as God’s beloved child, we are stepping into our Christian vocation.

This is the future Jesus calls us into with single-minded and resolute purpose. Love will ultimately triumph, but the journey to Jerusalem is just beginning. Jesus is calling us out into the unsafe spaces, both in the world and within ourselves. Just like Jesus with his hand on the plow, charging into a future we cannot begin to know or understand, planting seeds in a garden we may not get to see, we must go forward, toward danger and rejection, eyes opened, without looking back. Maybe even holding a sign offering a free hug. Amen.

Peace,

Emily

PS I have discerned my plans for next year! I’m beyond thrilled to announce that I will be serving in Peru for my second year of service with the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program! More specifically, I’ll be in Moyobamba (a small city in the rainforest) working with a program that serves children who are deaf-mute. I’ll learn Peruvian Sign Language and eventually teach classes in the community, especially for parents with no other means of communicating with their children.

If you’re interested in walking with me and supporting me financially throughout this coming year, follow this link and click “Support Emily.”

My heart is so full. I have so much gratitude for all of the communities that have supported and guided me throughout my journeys. Here’s to another adventure!

 

Another Photo Blog!

Here are a few snapshots of what we’ve been up to out at Ferncliff lately!

 

We built a goat playground! The tires were constructed by the Clemson University Presbyterian Student Association. There’s even a tiger paw print etched into the cement on the top tire! Goats love climbing, so Billy and Bobby are all over this playground. We’ve seen them running laps on it as well!

The Second Presbyterian Church youth group invited us to float sixteen miles down the Buffalo River!

I organized a “millennials retreat” for the 20-somethings of Second Presbyterian out at Ferncliff. We played games, canoed and kayaked, cooked a cake inside of an orange (which I didn’t know was a thing until very recently). It was a ton of fun!

We visited Crystal Bridges, a free art museum with beautiful natural walkways in northwest Arkansas. Then we formed a band and posed for pictures!

I had the incredible opportunity to hear Alicia Garza, one of the founders of #blacklivesmatter movement. I was reminded that narratives are crafted in a particular way to create a particular outcome. That yes, all lives matter, but we don’t live in a world that affirms this truth or the value of black lives. I was reminded that hashtags don’t create movements; people do. I hope to continue learning what it means to be a responsible white ally in this movement.

Several of our community days in the past month have centered around food justice.  Here, we shopped together at our local Kroger in search of locally-grown food to prepare for lunch. Since agriculture is Arkansas’ largest industry, we thought at least some of the vegetables would come from Arkansas. Nope. The squash Erik is standing in front of came from Guatemala. Most of the other veggies came from California. We used vegetables from the Ferncliff garden for our lunch instead! Other community days’ we’ve visited Heifer International’s Headquarters to learn about sustainable community developments and gone to the Farmer’s Market together.

We have two bunnies, Penelope and Lola. Both have escaped recently. Erik and I (plus two guys from Ferncliff’s maintence) spent an afternoon in pursuit of Lola using a trashcan, a bamboo stick, and a net.

We marched in an Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace through Little Rock and attended a remembrance service. We read the names of people who have died at the hands of violence in our community, read excerpts from many religions calling for peace, and prayed this prayer written by an Interfaith youth group:

We are standing in your presence to pray for peace and harmony.
We pray for a day when your love envelops the earth.
A day when spirits that unite us are stronger than the forces that divide us. A day when all people are one no matter what color, race, or religion. Please grant us compassion to care for all creation; love to keep us strong; and acceptance to reduce hatred.
Please guide our hearts through understanding, so we may coexist in harmony, and universal peace may prevail the earth. Amen!

I’m so thankful for this crew! These are a few of next year’s YAV class at Ferncliff for Discernment weekend. I discerned as well.. I’ll tell the story (and announce where I’m going) in my next post.

Sixty 4th graders and I played in the garden, got our hands dirty, turned compost, watered, weeded, checked for chicken eggs, cuddled with goats, and sampled some lettuce and spinach picked right off the plant. They asked questions, exploring the natural world with eyes wide open and filled with wonder.

A boy told me he never knew he liked spinach before today. I was grateful for an unexpected lesson in odd chicken behavior from a girl whose family raises chickens. Another boy asked me very detailed questions about the compost, hoping to relay the information to his family so they could start a compost pile of their own. I heard one girl excitedly say to her friend “I want to plant a garden at home now!” and began to imagine what she would grow.

I’m inspired and filled with hope by the wonder I witnessed on this field trip and am looking forward to experiences like this every day when campers arrive!

 

Mercy Church’s offering time isn’t about collecting money. You bring something of yourself to offer the community, whether it’s a song, poem, artwork, interpretive dance, joke, story, or drum solo. My offering today was the first sugar snap pea harvest of the season from Ferncliff’s garden! I’m grateful for the opportunity to connect my work in the garden with people experiencing homelessness, especially in the context of worship.

Also at Mercy Church, Marie, Erik, and I had the opportunity to lead the Maundy Thursday worship service. The community you worship with influences the lens through which you interpret scripture; reading through the passion narrative with people experiencing poverty and homelessness changes how I understand the crucifixion.

We went on a retreat to Gulf Shores, Alabama with six other Southeastern YAV sites! It was an absolutely incredible and restful weekend, filled with laughs, reunions, and a only few sunburns. The YAV community really is my family. I couldn’t be more thankful for them!

There are so many more things I could talk about! We just have so many awesome opportunities here in Little Rock.

ALSO, shameless plug, the Little Rock site still has openings for next year!! Apply by June 1st!

How do I apply?

Peace,

Emily

“What does working in a garden do for Jesus?”

I had the awesome opportunity to preach at First Presbyterian Church in Arkadelphia, Arkansas this morning. The text was Luke 24:13-35, otherwise known as the Road to Emmaus.

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When I drive away from my home for the year, Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center, I immediately encounter a six-mile long road. This road actually bears a closer resemblance to a tunnel. The trees, dense with bright green leaves, reach toward the sky and arch overhead. Twisting down the road at forty-five miles an hour, you are enclosed in an impenetrable green wall. It was this vision of green that greeted the other Young Adult Volunteers and I on our arrival back in early September. Then fall came, and this green wall became a tunnel of every imaginable hue of red, orange, and yellow. When a particularly heavy rainfall left the trees totally bare, everything was grey and dead. I disliked the gloominess of early winter. But there was a gift in the dreariness I hadn’t anticipated. Without the leaves creating a wall, suddenly the woods were transparent. I could see hundreds of yards away into the woods. I noticed the terrain extend out and then slope up to form hills I hadn’t even known where there. There was even a barn I had never noticed before. Where there was once an opaque green wall, for the first time my surroundings had become visible. But after four months, the seasons continued. Spring came. Buds appeared on the trees. After four months of grey everything was rushing into bloom, the colors unexpectedly and alarmingly vibrant. I had forgotten trees could be pink and purple. Beautiful though it was, awareness crept in that I soon wouldn’t be able to see how the forest stretched away on every side of me. Soon the barn would be hidden from sight. I found myself longing for the bare trees again, to see the barn on the hill and the expanse of the woods. I found myself reluctant to enter into spring. I wanted to understand my surroundings, to see the gifts of the bare and withered trees, see the faded earth stretch and curve upward into hills. Instead, I felt like new life had obscured my vision.

 

The disciples on the road to Emmaus also experienced obstructed vision. Like the leafy-green, twisting tunnel on the road from Ferncliff, new life surrounds them and they can’t accurately see their surroundings. But perhaps it wasn’t life that was hindering their sight, but their reluctance to enter into a new season. Where I was reluctant to enter into spring, they were reluctant to move from Good Friday into the joy of Easter. There’s a real hesitation in trusting the possibility of new life. The resurrected Jesus, the very manifestation of new life, accompanies them on the road and they don’t recognize him. A few days ago, I read this passage in a Bible study with people experiencing homelessness. We all concluded that the reason the disciples didn’t recognize him had to be because Jesus was in a dress and wearing Groucho Marx glasses. I’d be impressed if this was all it took for the risen Christ to walk around unrecognized. I’m not saying their hypothesis is wrong, but perhaps another possibility for why they don’t recognize him is connected to their inner turmoil surrounding Jesus’ death.

The disciples are grieving. They’ve lost their way. A man they had followed, had trusted, and had regarded as a prophet had let them down. They’ve begun their journey home to Emmaus, leaving behind Jerusalem and any remaining fragment of hope. Here they were, still living under Roman occupation. Here they were, not liberated as they had hoped. They were discussing the story of what had happened; according to the Greek a more accurate translation might be that they were “examining the evidence together.” I can imagine their conversation is drawing them more deeply into despair.

Jesus approaches them and sits with them in their pain. Even when the disciples are rude and snarky, putting him down for not keeping up with current events in Jerusalem, Jesus patiently invites them to share their story. He walks with them on the road, unrecognized; he joins them in their sadness and despair. Having been in the tomb for three days, he understands what it means to be there. He listens to their story of confusion, disorientation, deep grief and loss of direction, human failure, and inner darkness. Finally the disciples name their hurt: “we had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.” We had hoped. These three words are the crux of their pain. They’re grappling with not just the tragedy of what happened, but also the gaping hole of all that could have happened but won’t. They’re grieving a dream that will never be realized.

After they name their hurt, they launch into a story about how the women from their group said Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb. Now it’s Jesus’ turn to be snarky; he responds, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all the things that the prophets talked about.” Earlier the disciples were angry with Jesus for not keeping up with the current events, but then Jesus responds with frustration that they aren’t linking the current events with the larger picture, connecting it back to Moses and the prophets. Jesus asks, “Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” As the theologian Henri Nouwan writes, “These words…radically change our view of suffering. Pain and suffering are no longer obstacles to the glory of eternal life, they have become the inevitable way to it.” Jesus is teaching them about resurrection. Somehow, inexplicably, suffering and death lead to new life. Through pain, we encounter grace. Seeing life through the lens of Easter gives us the courage to move from mourning to hope, from despair to gratitude, and from holding on to letting go.

Despite all of the snarkiness in their exchange, the disciples invite Jesus into their home when they reach Emmaus. They extend radical hospitality to this complete stranger who spoke hope to them on the road. In this moment, the disciples move from talking to relationship. When they invite him into their home to break bread together, they embody one of Jesus’ central messages-radical hospitality-and only then do they recognize him. Christ is revealed when we embody his ministry, when we stop talking about it and begin doing the work of Jesus.

At the beginning of my YAV year, a man confronted me with a question I’ve grappled with ever since. First he asked me about my work at Ferncliff and I excitedly told him I was working in a garden. This man, a retired pastor who had just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination, narrowed his eyes and furrowed his eyebrows. Several silent seconds passed. He abruptly let out a loud laugh and asked “what does working in a garden do for Jesus?” I felt myself freeze. Until this moment, I had only been met with encouragement, excitement, and kindness when asked about my work as a Young Adult Volunteer. I don’t react well in confrontations, so I just mumbled something about creation care and being called to be stewards of the environment. He once again narrowed his eyes incredulously, then laughed and shook his head as he repeated, “‘stewards of the environment.’ This obsession with green stuff is ridiculous.”

Since that day, I’ve thought a lot about how I would answer that question were he to ask me again. “What does working in a garden do for Jesus?” I would still say that we protect what we love and if we don’t encounter creation we won’t understand or come to love it. I would say that we need to take our roles as stewards of the environment seriously. I would say that our tradition tells us that God’s original plan for humans was to live in and cultivate a garden; our tradition tells us our humanity is, in its purest form, inextricably connected with the earth. Our tradition also tells us that the human (adam) comes from the earth (adamah), and that our mandate is “to serve and to guard the land.” God took soil and breathed life into us. Our lives are intimately connected with creation. Even beyond this, I’ve discovered as the Greek Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard has written, “Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden being.” Christian theology reflects the cycles of creation. Nature provides tangible evidence of resurrection. Food scraps from the kitchen and what remained of the plants we harvested in the fall were thrown into a compost pile, decomposed during the winter, transformed into soil, were added to our raised beds in the early spring, and now nurtures the roots of sprouts beginning their new life. Compost is resurrection. I get to witness resurrection every day in the garden. And not just in the life and death and rebirth of plants, but also in the context of Ferncliff. We find discarded materials to use for garden beds and trellises (structures that support upward-growing plants). We have bathtubs as garden beds, old tires for our potato beds, old fences, bamboo, and broken bike tires for trellises. Materials that would otherwise have been cast aside and thrown away now hold and support life. It’s a sacred thing to participate in the cycles of life and death and to bear witness to tangible resurrection.

There’s also an enormous amount of trust involved in gardening. This YAV year has been my first real encounter in a garden and I entered the year doubting whether I was actually capable of making anything grow. Especially in the beginning of the year, I would plant seeds and seriously doubt that any life would actually emerge. Working in a garden teaches me to relinquish control; I plant a seed in the soil, ensure it’s properly watered and has compost for nourishment, but I can’t make it grow. As the poet Wendell Berry says, “the seed doesn’t swell in its husk by reason, but loves itself…love articulates the choice of life in fact; life chooses life because it is alive.” I get to bear witness to this mystery of a seed growing and emerging from darkness. I have to trust that the seed will move into new life.

Life is full of little Easters: moments when we see and live into Jesus, the resurrection and the life. But that doesn’t erase the pain of Good Friday. God doesn’t erase the suffering Jesus experienced, even though that pain no longer defines, overwhelms, or threatens to destroy him. The same is true for us. It’s easy to fall into one of two temptations: to skip Good Friday and rush into Easter or to wallow in Good Friday and claim that’s the end of the story. When you plant a seed, you fully submerge it in the soil so it’s surrounded by complete darkness. New life begins in the dark, whether it is a seed in the ground or Jesus in the tomb. However, it can also be tempting to remain in the dark and allow our faults, mistakes, or the worst things that have happened to us to define us. We need to have space to confront our pain, our brokenness, and our grief head-on without dwelling in it. We create that space when we look for signs of resurrection glimpses everywhere. Each storm nourishes you, sustains you, and invites us to sink more deeply into being a beloved child of God.

As I drove through the opaque green tunnel on my way to church this morning, I realized I still miss how the earth curves upward into hills on either side of me. But maybe it’s enough to know that the barn is there. I’ll carry the lessons I learned in the winter into the spring, from one season of my life into the next. I’ll leave you with a quote from the poet Mary Oliver: “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” Amen.

Peace,

Emily

I Visited the Wrong Person in Hospice

I’ve been reticent to post about this, largely because I was so wildly embarrassed. This story unfolded over the course of several months, starting in September when I joined the Second Presbyterian Church choir.

I’m not particularly musically inclined, which became apparent to everyone in my first rehearsal. Our choir director later told me that at our first rehearsal, I spent more time frantically looking at my neighbors’ sheet music trying to figure out where we were than actually singing. He knew I was struggling, so he suggested I sit next to a strong alto to follow along. I sat next to a wonderfully kind older woman named Joan and over the next several months I developed a friendship with my new “alto buddy.” We’d chat about life during rehearsals and I’d make self-deprecating jokes about my musical inabilities. When I’d come in for Wednesday rehearsals, I’d immediately seek her out and plop down next to her. I appreciated both her willingness to sit next to someone who was constantly singing the wrong notes and her patience in helping me find my way when I was totally lost.

A few months later, she stopped coming to rehearsal. For the first few weeks I simply searched somewhat desperately for another alto to follow around. A few more weeks went by and I began to worry about my alto buddy.

Fast-forward to Christmas Eve. Because of terrible weather through Atlanta, I was unable to fly home to South Carolina for Christmas with my family. I was heartbroken; I hadn’t gotten to be with my family on Christmas morning the previous year either. Though the Second Pres Christmas Eve service was beautiful, I wanted to make reindeer food with my young siblings. I sang with the choir, but because I hadn’t been planning on singing I hadn’t even rehearsed the music. Not that knowing the music would have made a difference; I was crying through most of the service anyway. I was really, really missing home.

The choir lined up in the aisle two-by-two to walk to the front of the sanctuary to receive communion. We were about to begin the procession when I glanced over and saw Joan walking, albeit much more slowly than normal, toward me. It had been over two months since I had seen her. Seeing Joan walk toward me gave me the joy I’d been pretending to have that Christmas Eve. I told her how much I missed her as we embraced and asked how she had been. She simply replied, “Not well. Can I walk with you?” Leaning on me for support, arm-in-arm, we walked with each other to the front of the sanctuary and took communion together. I believe trusting God means knowing you are exactly where you need to be in a particular moment. I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be that Christmas Eve, even though it was entirely different than I had intended.

Fast-forward a few more weeks. In mid-January, the choir received an email informing us that Jean Ann Morris had entered hospice care. Though the name was different, I somehow became certain that this was actually Joan. My mind raced through a series of rationalizations about how this could be my alto buddy. Maybe they misspelled the name; Jean and Joan are similar after all. Maybe it’s spelled Jean but actually pronounced Joan. Maybe I’ve been calling her the wrong name this entire time and she’s been too sweet to correct me. The email included a middle name, but maybe the person writing the email was just being formal. I also didn’t know her last name. Though there were still several cognitive dissonances, I managed to convince myself that Jean Ann Morris was my Joan. I knew I had to visit her.

The next night, I drove to hospice and asked for Joan. The nurse furrowed her eyebrows for a moment, but somehow she figured out what I was talking about. She led me to a room and I peeked inside. Inside was not Joan, but a woman I had never spoken with before. I had a moment of panic; I said rather nervously to the nurse, “wait, no, that’s not her.” Her son, accompanying her in the room noticed I was outside and asked, “Are you with the Second Pres choir?” I said yes, getting more and more nervous by the minute. “Who are you looking for?” he asked. More timidly and embarrassedly than ever I said, “Joan?” And he replied “You mean Jean Ann Morris?”

Ahh. The email wasn’t wrong.

Following this wildly awkward encounter I stepped inside the room of a dying woman I’ve never spoken with. Understandably I didn’t think she would recognize me, so I was grateful when the nurse asked how we knew each other and I could tell the nurse, as well as Jean Ann, that I was in the choir. The nurse and son left, letting us visit alone. Our conversation was perhaps one of the most unexpectedly joyful conversations I’ve ever had. In a total of ten minutes of speaking with her it was so evident that her life had been filled with love and beauty. She spoke of how much joy she’d experienced in her life and how thankful she was for such nourishing communities like the choir. She laughed mischievously as she said “I’ve planned the memorial service and I have a real workout planned for you all: four anthems and no hymns!”

She died a few days later. The day before her memorial service, several inches of snow fell on Little Rock, effectively shutting the city down. We were trapped in Ferncliff for the weekend and unable to attend the service. The morning after the first snowfall, I hiked Luke, the hill next to our house. Surrounded by unreal beauty, all I could think about was Jean Ann and what it means to live a life filled with love and with beauty, surrounded by communities who support and nourish your soul. I realized this is the life I want and I doubt I would have been able to name this so succinctly had I not visited her. We spent ten minutes of our lives together, yet I still feel her impact.

I couldn’t be more grateful for my mistake.

Photo Blog!

If you’re facebook friends with me, you may have noticed I’ve kept up with a practice of doing a photo a day of my YAV year in Little Rock. Here are a few pictures from this album that I hope capture just how diverse my experiences here in Little Rock have been!

In no particular order…

 

We had a group of students from Austin College on their alternative spring break planting onions, building raised beds and trellises for the garden made out of bamboo!

 

On one of our community day we visited the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, which celebrates African American community and culture in Arkansas from the mid-1800s to the present. The most illuminating exhibit showed how the construction of I-630 intentionally decimated 9th St., a thriving black business district. Families were displaced and communities were torn apart in the name of “urban renewal.”

I’m learning how to drum at Mercy Community Church, an ecumenical worshiping community that shows radical hospitality especially for people who are chronically homeless.

The YAVs assistant stage-managed Seussical, the Second Presbyterian Church youth group’s annual musical!

Preaching a sermon at Westover Hills Presbyterian Church

 

perpetually chasing chickens

I learned how to use a solar-powered oven to bake cookies! It’s actually quite an art form, so I’m still working on it

 

The YAVs were deployed to Oklahoma City with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to provide support and repair homes that had been affected by recent floods and tornados

I harvested exceptionally large mustard green leaves.

 

Kait and I performed a scene from La Boheme on the same stage as a professional opera singer in Vienna through our amazing church choir.

I got to sit with the orchestra during one of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s performances of The Little Mermaid.

We attended a vigil at the Capital for Syrian refugees.

Every month we attend Beer and Hymns, a ministry of Canvas Community Church, at a local bar.

We have an amazing spiritual director who took us to the Painted Pig, where we each could create a cup for ourselves.

 

We have so many diverse and interesting opportunities to be part of here in Little Rock. I don’t think I ever could have predicted how much I’d have fallen in love with this city. It’s been an unexpectedly incredible ride, and I can’t wait to see what experiences the next few months have in store!

peace,

Emily

gardens and mercy

One of my primary responsibilities as a YAV is to cultivate the garden at Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center. A few weeks ago (or months now? It’s a been a while since my last update), I was charged with constructing a keyhole garden. Here’s the basic principle: it’s a circular raised bed that looks like a piece of pie was cut out. In the center of the bed is a compost basket. When you water the compost, the nutrients seep into the surrounding bed. Keyhole gardens are often found in impoverished countries with poor soil and little rainfall. You don’t need to water the plants growing around the perimeter; only the compost basket in the center of the circle needs water for the surrounding garden to flourish.

 

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Perhaps my favorite part about working in a garden is discovering the many metaphors that resonate with my life. I’ve found that gardening reveals simple truths about myself, about God, and about what the kingdom of God looks like in its purest, unadulterated form. So the whole time I was building the keyhole garden, I wondered about how this garden reflects the kingdom of God. My mind kept returning to how radical it is to put compost in the center of the garden. Compost, made up of the stuff we throw away, the uneaten food, the trash, what we’ve cast out, is in the center. What you keep hidden in a trash can, maybe under your sink or in a far corner of the house, take out every few days so its smell doesn’t permeate your home…that’s what’s necessary to sustain life. What we often cast aside as trash is exactly what you need to cultivate in order for the rest of the garden to thrive. This disrupts how I think about the sacred and the profane. Trash is made sacred by sustaining life. The value we normally ascribe to trash is turned upside down in this new context.

Extending this even further, what does this imply about groups of people systemically treated as trash? Who does society marginalize, cast out, and throw away? In the last few years, I’ve had many opportunities to work closely with people experiencing homelessness. Life on the streets is isolating and dehumanizing, and even many of the services provided for people experiencing homelessness rely on a hierarchical model: server and served, us and them. Even agencies with the best of intentions use dehumanizing language and frameworks that further marginalize people experiencing homelessness.

At the Little Rock YAV site, we spend about 4-5 hours a week outside of Ferncliff working with a community organization of our choice. After touring nearly ten organizations, I chose to work with Mercy Community Church, an ecumenical worship community for people with and without housing. It’s a space of hospitality, rooted in the notion that worship can function as a space that breaks down social and class barriers between people. Mercy Church doesn’t provide any social services; it’s simply a space for people to be in relationship with each other. I often can’t tell who has a home and who doesn’t. We sing together, passing around a bag of instruments where anyone can play anything regardless of skill level (there’s quite a bit of off-tempo drumming, which I absolutely contribute to). After we sing, we lift up joys and concerns; because we’re a community, we shout hallelujah together for the praises and ask God to hear our prayers collectively. After a break for some coffee and fellowship, we study a Bible passage together in place of a sermon. Power is intentionally decentralized; Mercy Church’s theological principles inform and guide every aspect of our worship together:

 

“God has a particular heart for the poor, calling the Church to create spaces of hospitality for those who do not find a place of welcome elsewhere. Because we believe that God is already—and especially—active at the margins, we believe we are called to be among the poor not primarily as teachers and providers but as co-learners and friends, to be transformed as much as to transform, to recognize our own need for recovery as much as to help others recover, and to find the Gospel in the margins rather than proclaiming it from our positions of privilege. As a result, our vision is not to create a ministry to the homeless but rather to develop a welcoming and accepting ministry with and among the homeless as partners and neighbors—as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

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Mercy Church, like the keyhole garden, reflects the inside-out upside-down values of this kingdom Jesus talks about throughout the Gospels. Where those relegated to the margins are brought into the center. Where nurturing and caring for what is unjustly deemed “trash” nourishes and sustains life. Where the first will be last, where a King is the least of these, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless, the hungry, and the brokenhearted. Jesus tells us in Luke: “The kingdom of God is already in your midst.” It’s among, around, and within us, but it’s not yet fully realized. This is why when Jesus talks about what the kingdom of God is like or when we experience kingdom moments in the ordinariness of our lives, we need to pay attention. The beauty of following Jesus is that we’re called to be co-builders, to plant seeds that will one day grow, to water the seeds already planted, to be a step along the way to bringing Jesus’ kingdom into the world. The kingdom is not a location; it is a state of being, a way to live, a commitment to loving God, loving others, and loving yourself. It’s a promise and an opportunity to love fiercely in the face of fear and to be “prophets of a future not our own.”

I’m so grateful to be YAVing here in Little Rock and to have the opportunity to bear witness to many kingdom moments whether in the garden or worshiping with friends experiencing homelessness.

Heartbreak, Hope, and Reconciliation in Guatemala

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O God, hear my prayer,

and do not hide from my plea.

Attend to me and answer me.

A young Mayan girl has watched her father get into her older sister’s bed every night for years. Because she’s growing older, she knows her father will soon climb into her bed as well. She turns to CEDEPCA, the Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America, for help. They strategize, taking the young girl’s context and resources available to her into consideration. On the night her father comes to his young daughter’s bed, he lifts the sheets to discover his daughter wrapped in a bag, tied with rope. The father is overcome with shame and leaves the family. He never touches his young daughter.

My heart is in anguish within me,

The terrors of death have fallen upon me.

Fear and trembling come upon me,

And horror overwhelms me.

Alicia is seventeen years old. When she spoke of her dreams for her community in Guatemala, her eyes shone with a deep inner confidence. She has attended workshops with CEDEPCA since she was thirteen years old with her mother. As she accompanied her mother, she slowly began absorbing the lessons her mother was learning: la violencia contra la mujer es contra la imagen de Dios—violence against women is violence against the image of God.

Many of Alicia’s childhood friends are now pregnant or on the verge of marriage. At CEDEPCA, she’s listened to countless stories of women trapped in the cycle of violence, raped and murdered at the hands of husbands, fathers, stepfathers, and uncles. Alicia recognizes the path her friends are on and wants so much more for them, yet feels intensely stigmatized when she tries to tell them so. “People make fun of me,” she explains. “My male classmates try to throw away what I accomplish. They try to change my reality. But if somebody doesn’t struggle, then nothing is accomplished.”

Next year, Alicia plans on attending the university to become a civil engineer, own her own business, and invest in her community. She says CEDEPCA gave her the audacity to dream of a better future for herself and for her community. “Somebody who protects themselves is somebody who loves themselves,” Alicia says. “I want my friends to love themselves.”

So I said,

‘Had I the wings of a dove,

I wanted to fly away and have rest.

See, I wanted to flee far off,

and settle in the wilderness,

so hurry to my refuge,

away from the blast of the wind, from the storm.’

 

In October, ten women embarked on a journey to Guatemala to listen to the stories of women who have survived sexual violence. Nearly 45 percent of Guatemalan women have suffered some instance of violence in their lifetime and, in many ways, the country’s history has been shaped by sexual violence. When the Spanish invaded Guatemala and conquered the indigenous Mayan population, the religious discourse they imposed claimed that women needed to have as many children as possible to produce more field workers. This legitimized rape and shaped how women understood their worth, as dictated from an oppressive God. Fast-forward a few hundred years to the 20th century, when over 200,000 (primarily indigenous Mayans) were murdered in a 36-year internal armed conflict. Six hundred communities vanished. Violence against women was used not only as a weapon of war to suppress anyone who resisted the genocide, but also as a method of wiping out Mayan population. Rather than attack the guerillas, the military dictatorship’s strategy was to “destroy the seed” of the guerillas by raping and killing their wives, mothers, and daughters. Femicide, the murder of a person based on her gender, wasn’t declared illegal until 2008.

Confuse O Lord, confound their speech;

for I see violence and strife in the city.

Day and night they go around it on its walls,

and iniquity and trouble are within it;

ruin is in its midst;

oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace.

Our delegation sought to understand how the Guatemalan church is responding to sexual violence. CEDEPCA, the organization Alicia and her mother are involved with, is a faith-based non-profit that offers education and accompaniment with those who suffer from violence. They not only want to dismantle the machismo woven in and throughout their culture, but they also seek to dismantle the violence internalized within women.

How is it possible to deconstruct such a violent way of understanding yourself and the world? CEDEPCA’s answer is a woman-centered theology, taught through a process that aims to empower people who are marginalized socially and politically and who may not have more than an elementary school-level education. Through classes with titles like “It’s Marvelous to be a Woman,” women are taught to read Scripture through the lens of their lived experiences. Read in this way, the Bible can be a source of liberation rather than a tool of oppression. Scripture has the potential to liberate us from cycles of violence, both cultural and internal.

Our group listened to a panel of women who had participated in CEDEPCA’s workshops. Courageous women spoke about how reading Scripture from a woman’s perspective has impacted their lives. Many cried as they shared their stories of abuse, how they can now articulate that what they’ve experienced is not what they’ve deserved. Dios no quiere las mujeres sufran ningun tipo de violencia – God doesn’t want women to suffer any type of violence.

The Scripture passages woven throughout this article are from Psalm 55, which I invite you to read as though it were written by a woman who experienced sexual violence.

Yes, if an enemy had abused me,

I would have borne it.

If a foe had set himself over me,

I would have hidden myself from him.

But you: one of my own,

my companion, my friend,

with whom I enjoyed sweet fellowship,

walked in the crowd in the house of our God.

Healing spaces are a critical piece of a healing journey. For many Guatemalan women, the church is the only space where they can gather safely and freely, where their husbands allow them to go unaccompanied without suspecting anything. Here, women connect, share their experience and hope, and realize they have value. Here, women create a network of support with other survivors of violence. Here in the church, women organize, birthing new visions of an equitable society.

Women create many healing spaces outside of the church walls as well. Our group visited Las Poderosas Teatro (The Powerful Ones (feminine)), a theatre collective made up entirely of women who have experienced sexual violence. The shows, which they write, direct, produce, and act in themselves, are biographical; the women’s stories and experiences are woven into the performances. They seek to expose different forms of violence: psychological, patrimonial, ecological, social, and sexual. They perform educational workshops about violence in rural parts of the country; after one workshop, a man stood and said “I can’t believe the harm I’ve done to my wife.” Through theatre, the women of Las Poderosas have found not only a healing outlet through art, but also in their activism, knowing their work has tangible effects in the lives of the women and men who see their performances.

Corazon de Mujer (Heart of Woman) is a weaving cooperative made up of female indigenous survivors of the internal armed conflict. They share stories, support each other in their efforts to gain literacy and educate their children, and build enterprises for a better livelihood. They weave beautiful fabric from home so they can still attend to their everyday household needs, yet also contribute to the wellbeing of the household. With the additional income, their families are thriving and can afford to send their children to school. The women of Corazon de Mujer found financial interdependence and a healing space through meaningful work.

For I, I call to God,

and GOD will rescue me.

At evening, at morning, at midday I lament and moan,

and he will hear my voice.

He will rescue my life for salvation

from the quarrel against me,

For they are too many about me.

 

How do we imagine reconciliation in this context? A few years ago, there was a rift between CEDEPCA and the IEPNG, the Presbyterian Church in Guatemala. For the first time in three years, these two groups were brought together for an all-day workshop to combat sexual violence from a faith-based perspective. Our group from the United States bore witness to the reconciliation of these two groups on either end of the progressive and conservative spectrum. Some women had traveled up to twenty-four hours to attend this workshop. We worked, played, laughed, cried, and prayed together. It was a day of healing, hope, heartbreak, and reconciliation.

I learned in Guatemala that reconciliation is first an inner process of recognizing God within us. Recognizing that we, as women, also bear the image of God. When we are reconciled to the beauty of God within us, our reality comes into focus. We see we are not alone in our experiences. We see we deserve more than to be trapped in a cycle of violence. We begin to recognize when others are trapped, and seek to disrupt violence internalized within others. When we see the image of God in ourselves, the image of God in the other also comes into sharper focus. We see beauty. We see that violence is not what God wills for us. In Guatemala, our hearts were cracked open in heartbreak, filled with beauty and hope, esparando (waiting and hoping) for God to weave our hearts together in solidarity and love.

But I, I trust in you.

Re-Imagine Compassion

ec·u·me·nism. ekyəməˌnizəm,eˈkyo͝omə-/. noun. the principle or aim of promoting unity among the world’s Christian churches.

Like many Christians, progressive and conservative, I was enthralled by Pope Francis’ recent visit.

One of the many things I appreciate about this Pope is his refusal to be pigeonholed into our binary ideological and political system. Both progressive and conservative Christians were eager to point to some specific statement or action in an effort to claim the Pope as their own: “See? He’s on our side.” Fighting over which “side” the Pope is on points to a larger problem within the Church: ideological divisiveness.

Both psychological and sociological studies reveal that creating divisions is a part of being human. We create political, ideological, gender, and racial binaries, as if there are only two categories of people: Us and Them. Our inclination to create borders between ourselves and others illustrates, at least in part, what it means to be broken and sinful. Mother Teresa said “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other–that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister.” One of the greatest tasks of our time is to see the image of God in every person and to remember that the way we construct “them” is just that: a social construction.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). Paul gets it; binaries are human-made divisions and cannot be a part of the kingdom of heaven.

Perhaps today we could re-imagine Paul’s words: “There is no longer American or Syrian, there is no longer wealthy or poor, homeless or housed, black or white, Republican or Democrat, male or female, gay or straight; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

I’ve lived with this us-and-them mentality for most of my life, but this divide has never been so prevalent as it’s been in the Church. I’ve been active in churches on either extreme of liberal and conservative spectrum. I’ve heard both conservative Christians and liberal Christians demonize the other, and I’ve been part of the demonizing. I’ve been both extremely conservative and extremely liberal. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve also experienced intense personal hurt from both extremes.

With extremist ideology, there comes an absolute refusal to concede any mistake. Ecumenism, defined at the top of this post, requires humility: the self-awareness to admit our shortcomings and to ask forgiveness when our actions have caused our sister or brother pain. Ecuminism requires finding common ground with those whose beliefs most differ from our own. We must be willing to see God in those whom we disagree with most. At a conference in Montreat a few years ago about interfaith relations, many college students said it was easier for them to dialogue with people of other faith traditions than people who came from conservative Christian traditions. Again, this speaks to the ideological divisiveness within the Christian tradition.

Ecumenism also requires intentional cooperation and fellowship. Here in Little Rock, a beautiful illustration of this recently opened my eyes to the hope of a future with ecumenical harmony. Two of the YAVs here, Dani and Erik, work for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which I discovered quickly I knew almost nothing about. I knew that they responded to disaster, as their name suggests, though I never considered what this entailed. I’d never thought about all the moving parts and pieces of recovery, especially long-term and sustainable recovery. Each denomination and organization offers something unique to stricken communities, according to their own gifts and resources. For example, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance specializes in emotional and spiritual care and hospitality (when groups want to volunteer and repair damaged homes, Presbyterian churches in the area will house them). UMCOR, the Methodist organization, offers case management. I’d never even considered how vital that ministry is post-disaster. The Southern Baptists specialize in both mass feeding and clearing away debris with chainsaws and bulldozers.

An umbrella organization, VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters), coordinates the ecumenical and interfaith disaster response agency so that every need in the community is met. It’s not helpful for everyone to do a mass feeding or repair homes; there are many parts of the body and each is vitally important in allowing communities to collectively grieve and recover.

This is what this ecumenism like:

The American Red Cross: shelter, blood donations, health

The Southern Baptist Men (and Women): mass feeding, chainsaws & bulldozers (for clearing away debris like fallen trees), laundry trailers

The Salvation Army: clothing donations, mass feeding, canteen units

UMCOR (United Methodist): case management, long-term recovery

Episcopal Emergency Response: transportation

Seventh Day Adventist: warehouse operations

Catholic Charities: case management, relief grants

Team Rubicon: search and rescue, debris removal, house repair

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance: long term recovery, hospitality, emotional and spiritual care

This is where I see 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 beautifully played out.

(TL ; DR – Every part of the body is important—the feet, the eyes, the mouth, the hands! We all have an important function, and in order to be united, we must recognize each other’s value and worth.)

The coordinated response to disaster is crucial. Whether they provide shelter, spiritual care, case management, or even chainsaws, each denomination/organization plays a specific and vital role. This is a beautiful picture of ecumenical harmony: responding compassionately to suffering, alleviating the stricken community’s burden together as the body of Christ, each according to their gifts, abilities, and resources.

Perhaps one of the reasons ecumenism is so effective after a natural disaster is because this disaster is not as obviously political as, say, the refugee crisis. But in both scenarios there are suffering human beings. Though everything is political (as I learned as a sociology major), what would it mean for the Church to acknowledge the political and ideological differences within, and then imagine a united and compassionate response to suffering? What would it mean for us to no longer use politics to shield ourselves from confronting the reality of suffering?

What do you imagine?

I’m so filled with hope to see denominations across the ideological spectrum can work together to alleviate suffering post-disaster. I believe we have the imaginative capacity to make this happen beyond natural disasters. I have faith that one day, the Church Universal will learn what it means to respond compassionately to suffering, no matter how politically contentious the disaster might be.

Settling In and Embracing Incompetency

After nearly three weeks here in Little Rock, we’re finally settling into a flow and rhythm of life. Kait and I have been learning the ins-and-outs of keeping chickens and goats alive, tearing apart fire ant-infested garden beds, and replacing them with some creative alternatives.

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Nothing goes to waste here at Ferncliff. Several bathtubs were donated to the camp, and naturally, the best way to put them to use was to create a handicap accessible raised bed!

Working in the garden has been a surprisingly difficult adjustment. It’s exhausting; call me an overprivileged white girl, but this is the first time I’ve ever done physical labor for a job all day. I’ve already taken more naps in Little Rock than I did in the entirety of my year in DC.

One of my favorite things about gardening is that I can always find some metaphorical resonance that connects to whatever my existential crisis of the day happens to be. The answer seems to always be surprisingly simple, but I needed to stick my hands in the dirt to make any sense of the answer.

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As much fun as it’s been to ponder garden/life metaphors, I’ve been a bit apprehensive about working in the garden. I don’t have much experience, and I honestly don’t know much about how to make things grow, or even keep them alive. I know that folks at Ferncliff may read this, so I want to be honest: I really don’t know what I’m doing.

If not having a clue about how to make things grow in the garden wasn’t bad enough, I also decided to join the 2nd Presbyterian’s phenomenal choir (sidebar: this is a big deal for me. Ever since I saw people literally cover their ears during my performance in a middle school talent show, I’ve been a bit self-conscious about being musically disinclined). I’ve been to one choir rehearsal so far and have participated in one Sunday worship. I was totally lost during both experiences (though wonderfully kind choir folks took care of me and helped me navigate these unfamiliar musical waters).

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navigating actual waters

Between the garden and the choir, I’m reminded of just how little I know. That’s where I’ve found grace; everyone has been so patient and willing to answer my 8294356219372 questions. This last week has exposed my deep-seated fear of being perceived as incompetent. I admitted my fear to Marie, our site coordinator, to which she responded: “Have you ever been in a place where you didn’t have to achieve?” Hm. No. Honestly, I’m not sure that I have. But if I let go of a desire to achieve, I can also let go of fearing failure and embrace an opportunity to learn something (w)hol(l)y (&) new.

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Maybe my YAV year will be about embracing my incompetency, learning to love failure, and intentionally surrounding myself with people who know way more than me. All this while given the grace to explore and expand my horizons without judgment of how little I know at the start. Today I’m thankful for patience and grace.

Peace,

Emily