Category Archives: Christian humanism

Remembering History: The Greensboro Sit-ins

I wrote the first version of this post three years ago. Since this is the anniversary of the Greensboro Sit-ins, I thought this would a good time to dust it off and give you an updated version. Enjoy.

The Greensboro Sit-ins at their height: 63 of 66 seats taken by African-American students waiting to be served. It only took 6 months for them to get a bite to eat.

57 years ago today, four college students walked in and sat down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N. C. Now, a group of people sitting down at the lunch counter wasn’t a big deal; it happened every day. But, this? This was different.

You see, these four young men, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair (now Jibreel Khazan) and David Richmond, were African-American and African-Americans were not served at this particular lunch counter. If a black person wanted to eat at Woolworth’s, they went to the counter in the basement. But, under no circumstances did they sit down at the main counter upstairs, a custom that prevailed in Woolworth stores across the south in those days.

But, these four 17-year-old freshmen did just that, politely asking to be served. Eventually, the manager asked them to leave, but they didn’t; they stayed on those stools until closing time. The next morning, the four, later known as the Greensboro Four, were back along with 20 of their peers, including students from Bennett College (a historically black women’s college in Greensboro). On the third day, 60 students showed up. By the fourth day, the crowd had grown to more than 300 people and 63 of the 66 seats at the lunch counter occupied by young African-Americans with final three seats taken by waitresses. That must have been a sight to see.

At first, Woolworth’s stood by their policy, stating they would abide by local custom and keep the counter segregated. But, after 6 months of bad sales and worse publicity, they relented and opened it anyone. The story doesn’t end there, however.

The actions of these four young men started a chain reaction, with sit-ins happening all over the south which led to the desegregation of not just lunch counters, but other places as well. In May of 1960, a group of Nashville students led by John Lewis, the Georgia congressman our president recently accused of all talk and no action, achieved citywide desegregation. The genie was out of the bottle and there was no going back.

The sit-ins also led the SCLC to fund a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh N. C. for delegates from the sit-in centers, 19 northern colleges and groups like CORE, and the SDS . Out of this conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed. To say the sit-ins changed the face of the civil rights movement is an understatement. Sometimes, I wonder if it would have nearly as successful if those four young men hadn’t walked into Woolworth’s that day.

I grew up in Greensboro and, for North Carolina, it’s a pretty progressive town. I’m not sure why, Maybe, it’s because this area was originally settled by Quakers, a group known for being progressive. Guilford County was a stop on the Underground Railroad and Levi Coffin, one of the most well-known conductors, grew up here. And, of course, there are the Sit-ins.

But Greensboro has a split personality when it comes to race and civil rights. Yes, it was here that sit-ins brought new attention to the civil rights movement. But, it was also here that, in 1979, a group of Nazis and Klansmen shot and killed 5 protesters in what is known as the Greensboro Massacre. Go figure.

Here in the United States, we’ve come a long way regarding equality. Jim Crow laws are pretty much a thing of the past (the overt ones, at least). Black people are welcome in any establishment in the city and their employment opportunities have increased. Sounds good, huh?

On the surface, maybe. But, according to the latest data, almost 1 in 5 people in this city live below the poverty line and most of them are black. And, in the last few years, North Carolina has enacted new voting laws that purposely make it harder for African-Americans to vote. To top it all off, the President of the United States is a black man and has been subjected to more vitriol than any president in recent memory. The intransigence that seems to be a part of American (especially southern) DNA, can be discouraging. When it is, reading about what happened in 1960 lifts my spirits. If we could make those changes, the ones facing us today aren’t so bad. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.

No One Leaves Home…

Refugees
3:30 in the morning is entirely too damn early to get up, even if you only have to pee. When that’s the case, you can stagger to the bathroom and handle your business without turning on any lights or anything else that will wake you up enough to prevent going back to sleep. Getting up at 3:30 because you have to be somewhere is a different story and that’s the case for me today. I write this, sitting at the hospital in Mt. Airy while my mom has knee replacement. With that in mind, I’ll ask you to forgive me if I take the easy way out and give you a post mostly composed of words from other people.

Yesterday, during the early service at church, one of the pastors read a poem from Somali-British author/editor/poet/teacher, Warshan Shire, titled “Home”.

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

In 1934, a little less than a year after the Nazi’s passed their “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring”,  Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke at the Fanø Ecumenical Conference and said:

“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture, and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security… To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying down the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.”

 

Seriously, Y’all?

Syrian Refugee
Okay, the dialogue about the Syrian refugee crisis has gotten way out of hand. Is a country that was founded by immigrants, some of whom were fleeing sectarian violence and persecution, seriously debating whether or not to accept people fleeing from sectarian violence and persecution? I would think that this is a no-brainer, but obviously not. But, why? Why is this even a question?

I can answer that with one word: fear. You can parse it however you want, talking about “security”, “prudence” or whatever the current excuse might be, but the bottom line is that Americans are afraid to even let these folks into our country, much less welcome them, because of a threat made by ISIS. These douchebags, who fill social media with all manner of bullshit, claim that they’ve used the refugee crisis to smuggle 4000 trained fighters into western countries. And, even though there is no credible evidence of this happening, Americans are wetting themselves in fear. What the fuck? When did we turn into craven little wusses, cowering in fear because of some fuckhead talks big on the internet?

Now, let me say I’m not pissed at regular folks who are asking these questions; they’re merely responding to the fear-mongering bullshit that is permeating the airwaves and internet in the wake of the Paris attacks last week. The people pushing that bullshit are another story. Between politicians playing on people’s fear and uncertainty and the media’s need to fill the 24 hour news cycle (not to mention their whorish desire for higher ratings), these assholes have created a climate in the U. S. that is depressing, to say the least.

That climate has led people running for the highest office in the land to say incredibly asinine things. According to Jeb Bush, we should restrict our efforts to aid refugees to Christians. Seriously, he actually said that. And, as bad as that is, Chris Christie’s remarks are even worse. According to The Big Guy, we shouldn’t even let orphans under 5 into the country. What? While that sounds uncomfortably close to a GOP brain trust member Louie Gohmert’s “terror baby” comments, in Christie’s defense, I should point out that he feels this way because “…they have no family here. How are we going to care for these folks?” So, while it could be worse, it’s still bad enough that one of Congress’ most virulently Islamophobes, Peter King (R-NY), publicly disagreed with him.

In what may be the most clueless display by a “Christian”, Mike Huckabee went on Morning Joe to trumpet his unwillingness to take in refugees. For those of you who didn’t know, Huckabee is a former a Baptist minister. You heard that right, friends; a man who accepted a call to carry the message of a refugee says, in essence, that we should turn our backs on refugees. Fuck.

Sadly, these yahoos aren’t alone; I have lost count of the disgusting posts I’ve seen about the refugees. This may be a little inflammatory, but I’m not sure you should continue to call yourself a Christian if you think turning Syrian refugees away is the right thing to do.

I know we’re trying to figure out which is more important, compassion or security, but it’s really no contest: compassion should always come first. Especially when security really isn’t an issue, as in this case. In the last 14 years, the U. S. has taken in 784,000 refugees and, in that time, 3 have been arrested for terrorist-related activities. I tried to figure the percentage of that group who turned out to be terrorists, but the result was so statistically insignificant, it couldn’t be represented on the calculator. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should also admit I suck at math and may have screwed things up. But, still, 3 out 784,000? And, those 3 weren’t even close to doing anything.

I think it’s time we, as a country and as individuals, examined why we’re so afraid of an ridiculously remote possibility that we’re willing to shit on a bunch innocent people. Considering that Americans suck at that kind of self-reflection and avoid it like the plague, I’m not holding my breath until we do.

Much Ado About Nothing?

Red cup returns ! #starbucks #holiday #ueno
On Monday, I weighed in on the Starbucks holiday cup controversy that, it turns out, isn’t all that controversial. At least, that’s what some folks are trying to say. Conservatives are claiming that no one is upset about Starbucks decision to go with an unadorned red cup this holiday season in place of the more Christmas-ey versions from years past. And, at least one progressive voice has said the whole thing is “much ado about nothing.” Of course, it is; the statement “much ado about nothing” is the most accurate descriptor used for the Right’s “War on Christmas” since the damn thing began. But, does that phrase apply to the cup story? That’s a good question, so let’s see if we can come up with an answer.

In a post on his blog, “The Holy Kiss”, Roger Wolsey says, “It seems that the ONLY conservative Christian who was upset about it was a “pastor” whose primary ministry is posting self-glorifying rants on YouTube.” Well, not exactly. You see, in a follow-up to the Breitbart London article that spawned this “nontroversy“, Tory MP David Burrowes said the cup’s design was most likely a bow to “political correctness”. And, the Christian Institute’s Simon Calvert asked “What is it about Christmas that Starbucks are afraid of celebrating?” adding that “They should get involved and stop being Scrooges.” A Buzzfeed article also included screenshots of tweets from regular folks who were less than pleased, most of them showing their displeasure by expressing an intent not to spend any money with the chain. Granted, this doesn’t add up the “movement” Feuerstein hoped to generate, but it’s not exactly “nothing”.

Conservative media hasn’t been silent on the matter, either. The New York Daily News ran an article quoting student pastor Nate Weaver, who wrote on Facebook, “I’m officially banning Starbucks from my life”. Of course, most of the conservative offerings seem to be an attempt to downplay the matter. The Federalist, The Blaze and Right Wing News have all run pieces laying the whole thing at the feet of Feuerstein and claiming that no one is actually upset about it. Which, as I’ve just shown, is not strictly true. Of course, publications like these wouldn’t trash a story because it makes conservatives look stupid, would they now?

Interestingly, The Blaze’s piece  says the “controversy” hardly represents “conservative Christian thought, or any thought in general.” It then goes on to say that it was “invented by anti-Christian bloggers and cable news personalities, aided by the work of one or two convenient patsies, and designed to make all Christians look weak and ridiculous.” That’s eerily similar to Bristol Palin’s comment that the whole thing was “an attempt by the LEFT to make Christians look stupid.” Yeah, as if Christians need any help looking stupid; we’re doing a fine job all by ourselves.

Whether this tempest in coffee cup is an actual controversy or an aborted attempt by an attention whore to get people to…, well get attention, what it is not is an attack on Christmas or Christians. Starbucks still sells a coffee they call “Christmas blend” and they still sell the same seasonal drinks (aka flavored sugar-water that has been in the same building as actual coffee). They still sell Advent calendars, gift cards that say “Merry Christmas”, even Christmas tree ornaments (although, it is a representation of the hated red cup, so maybe I shouldn’t have included it). But, this whole stupid mess is indicative of the farcical exercise known as “The War on Christmas”. Which, as I said at the beginning of this post, is most definitely “much ado about nothing”.

Pope Francis and The GOP: Where Is The Love?

Both the media and the GOP think Francis is a "progressive". At least one of them thinks that's a bad thing.
Both the media and the GOP think Francis is a “progressive”. At least one of them thinks that’s a bad thing.

Unless you live under a rock, you know the Pope is visiting the U. S. this week. What you might not have known is that Frankie is a “progressive”. At least, that’s what the media (and the Republican party) keeps telling us. Only in the America of the 21st century could a man who’s pro-life, anti-LGBT and against the ordination of women be called a “progressive”. While the media is having a field day with Francis’ visit, saying that the GOP isn’t exactly happy about the whole thing is a bit like referring to the Hindenburg disaster as a “fire”: true, but an understatement of massive proportions.

Take Marco Rubio, for instance. This good Catholic boy recently said, “As a Catholic, the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, the successor of Peter and the head of the Church…And in theological matters, as a Catholic, I believe when he pronounces himself from the chair of Peter, which is actually very rare, he is infallible in those decisions, in those issues. That does not extend to political issues like the economy”. He added, “On economic issues, the pope is a person.” Fellow Catholic Chris Christie agrees. He told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “I just think the Pope is wrong. The fact is that his infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones.” Isn’t it funny how the Pope’s infallibility evaporates as soon as he starts contradicting conservatives about money or the environment?

Two other cradle Catholics, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Rick Santorum (who, thanks to Dan Savage, needs no introduction) get a little more specific in their criticism of Pope Francis. Both take issue with Francis’ comments on climate change, with Gosar claiming the Pope is promoting “questionable science” and Santorum declaring, “The pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours.” Rick went on to say, “I think we [Catholics] are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.” Couple of things here: 1) I love how any science that doesn’t allow the GOP’s corporate pals to continue raping the planet in their quest for riches is “questionable” and 2) Francis is scientist, having graduated as a chemical technician and working in that capacity for the Hickethier-Bachmann Laboratory before entering the priesthood. Sounds like someone didn’t do their homework.

You would think the GOP’s very own propaganda channel media outlet, FoxNews, would back them up on all this asshattery. But check out this commentary from the network’s own Shepard Smith:

“I think that we are in a weird place in the world when the following things are considered political. Five things, I’m going to tick them off. These are the five things that were on [the pope] and our president’s agenda. Caring for the marginalized and the poor. That’s now political. Advancing economic opportunity for all. Political? Serving as good stewards of the environment. Protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom globally. Welcoming [and] integrating immigrants and refugees globally. And that’s political?

I mean, I don’t know what we expect to hear from an organization’s leader like the pope of the Catholic Church other than protect those who need help, bring in refugees who have no place because of war and violence and terrorism. These seem like universal truths that we should be good to others who have less than we do, that we should give shelter to those who don’t have it. I think these were the teachings in the Bible of Jesus. They’re the words of the pope, they’re the feelings of the president. And people who find themselves on the other side of that message should consult a mirror, it seems like. Because I think that’s what we’re supposed to do as a people, whatever your religion. I mean, it seems to me — and I think to probably, as Bill O’Reilly would put it, most clear-thinking Americans — that that’s how we’re supposed to roll.”

A FoxNews anchor taking Republicans to task on the air? Just when you thought things couldn’t get any more weird.

Taken by itself, Smith’s comments could be written off as a cynical attempt to make Fox look like it’s living up to its tagline, “Fair and Balanced”. But, lately, the network has been giving Trump hell and Chris Wallace called Carly Fiorina out on her Planned Parenthood BS, both of which gives some credence that “change of heart” theory. Holy crap on a cracker. Is there a rip in the space-time continuum that I didn’t know about? Or, maybe, the Apocalypse is upon us; I don’t know. Either way, this is uncharted territory and it’s a little scary.

You’re Going To Be Disappointed

disappointmentFor those of you who don’t already know, I volunteer at Love Wins Ministries, “a ministry of presence and pastoral care for the homeless and at-risk population of Raleigh, NC.” It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I first met Hugh at The Morning Times coffee shop in downtown Raleigh (his “office” at the time) five years ago. After an early retirement from the fire department in 2012, I was finally able to jump in and help on a regular basis. I’ve spent most of my life serving my community one way or another and that’s not an impulse you just turn off. Thanks to my friends at Love Wins, I didn’t have to.

One of the things I do around the hospitality house is provide rides to a local food pantry. It’s really a great way for me to be involved; as someone who’s more introverted, I do better in small groups and I’ve made some amazing friends on these runs. Getting to know some of the folks who come by our little oasis in the desert that is poverty/homelessness has changed many of my attitudes about people dealing with these situations. While it’s been good for everyone involved, it hasn’t been easy.

In the years I’ve been hanging out at Love Wins, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people and I’ve celebrated their good days and shared the sorrow of their bad ones. Unfortunately, the latter seems to outnumber the former by a pretty significant margin. And, a lot of the time, those bad days are the result of my friends’ lack of judgment. I’ll be honest with you, it’s exasperating beyond measure to put time and effort into helping someone better their situation only to see them shoot themselves in the foot over and over again.

Hugh has said more than once that if you do this work expecting people to get better, you’re going to be disappointed because, by and large, people don’t change. It’s one thing to hear these words in the abstract and think to yourself, “Sure, but I’m tough; I can handle it.” It’s a different story when you’re actually invested in the situation. Things change after you’ve bent over backward to get someone into housing only to find they about to be evicted because they aren’t paying their rent. You can tell yourself all you want that you don’t expect them to change (i.e.”get better”), but the simple truth is that, on some level, we all expect it. At the very least, we want it and it hurts when it doesn’t happen.

Regardless of what The Big Man says, being disappointed comes with the territory when you do this kind of work and it’s happened to me a few times (and by “a few times”, I mean “so many times, I’ve lost count”). When it does, I have to remind myself that what I see is only a snapshot of this person’s life. I don’t know what went before and I really don’t know what comes after this moment where our paths have crossed. Maybe they’ve tried so many times to “get better” without success they’ve given up.  I can understand that; all too often, the deck is so stacked against my friends that I’m amazed they can get out of bed in the morning, much less get through the day. A ride to the food pantry or a local church for a shower isn’t going to magically change anyone’s attitude and make them what society calls “normal”, but it probably will make their day a little more bearable. In this business, we call that a win. And, yes, that’s a little disappointing in itself. But, it’s enough to keep me going. One day, it might not be. One day, I may get so burned out that I throw up my hands and say “Fine! If you don’t care, why should I?” and just walk away. But, today? Today, is not that day.

Listen To Me, Damn It!

  When it comes to the situation in Baltimore,  Hugh Hollowell, my brother from another mother, has said that white people should  “Shut up, and amplify minority reports and black voices.” And, he’s right, that’s what we should do. But, the truth is, a lot of people won’t hear what those black voices are saying because it doesn’t fit with their version of the way things are/should be. On the off-chance they might listen to one of their own, a straight white man from the south, I offer the following commentary:

Once again, a young black man has died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. And, once again, people are so pissed off about it, they’re rioting.  Sadly, some white folks have chosen to respond by saying ugly things about those pissed off people. They’ve called them “thugs”, “animals”, “savages”, etc. They’ve claimed that the protesters don’t really care about their city or their neighborhood; that they only want to burn and loot. Now, to be fair, there were criminals out there taking advantage of a golden opportunity to ply their trade, but blanket statements like that are almost never accurate and, frankly, they’re pretty fucking offensive to majority of people involved. So, why do normally caring, sensitive people sound like such callous assholes whenever we have this conversation? Maybe it’s because they don’t understand what’s really going on.

When I hear people saying this kind of stuff about the protests/riots, I hear good people who can’t comprehend the anger of the black community, an anger born of centuries of systemic racism and abuse. Anger born of seeing yet another young life snuffed out by the very people who are sworn to protect it. Anger born of the knowledge that the person who took that life will not see justice. Anger born of seeing that murder justified with the statement, “Well, he’d been arrested 18 times” or, “He shouldn’t have run” or “Don’t want trouble with the police? Try not breaking the law for a change.” Anger born of growing up trapped in poverty and being told you don’t deserve any better when you ask for a wage you live on or some basic health care. Anger born of being called a “race baiter” every time you ask to be treated fairly. Or, of being called a “thug” or an “animal” or a “savage” when your anger finally boils over at the injustice that impacts every aspect of your life. Really, these riots are our African-American brothers and sisters are saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

I have been told that the media is responsible for these protests and, yes, they do bear some responsibility. But, let’s be honest here: blaming the media is a cop-out, because the underlying problems existed long before people started tearing shit up. And, the media, always hungry for ratings, is only showing us what they know we want to see.

Yes, what’s happening in Baltimore is wrong. Rioting is not the best way for the people of Baltimore, or Ferguson, or New York or any other city where these actions have occurred to be heard. But, rioting seems to be the only way these folks can get our attention. So, maybe, instead of decrying these acts of violence, we should instead ask ourselves why white America only seems to give a fuck about what’s going in these communities when people start burning shit up.

Of Chia Pets And Used Underwear

satire defToday, I want to share an article I found this morning in The Old North State Beacon (“All the fake news that’s fit to print since I made the site up this morning”):

Woman Stunned To Find Poor And Homeless Don’t Want Her Leftovers

         A Greensboro woman was bewildered when a local ministry for the poor and homeless turned down her donations recently. Last month, Frankie Whitesteen’s family held a yard sale in preparation for moving to their just finished home in New Irving Park, an upscale subdivision in the city of Greensboro. There were quite a few items left over, so last week, she decided to donate them to “Love Conquers All Ministries”, a non-denominational ministry that serves downtown Greensboro’s at-risk population. But, she says they wouldn’t take her offering.

          “They were kind of rude about it, too” she said. “When the man saw what I had, he said ‘Jesus, lady! What am I supposed to do with this crap? If you couldn’t sell it at a yard sale, what makes you think my people want it?’ And, he claims to be a preacher, talking like that?” Whitesteen said she was so disheartened by the reaction, she took the items to the dump rather than trying to find another agency who might find a use for them.

          When contacted for a statement, “Love Conquers All” director Aaron Hallowell said “I guess I was a little hard on her, but you should’ve seen what she brought. Torn clothes that smelled like moth balls, lingerie and used underwear, some expired cans, a Chia Pet and a bag of used diapers. What the hell am I supposed to do with a bag of used diapers?” Hallowell says it’s not the first time people have tried to “donate” such items and the agency has gotten things like half used spices, a box of corn starch, expired medication, used toiletries (half empty bottles of shampoo, for example). “I’m really sorry I blew up like that, but her “donation” was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

When told what Hallowell had to say, Whitesteen was shocked. “I just don’t get it”, she replied, shaking her head. “I had all that great stuff and he wasn’t the least bit interested.” As for the diapers, she said “Well, I figured poor people might have babies and babies need diapers. It’s not like I sent ones that had poop in them. It was just the pee diapers. Besides, using soiled diapers might motivate them to go out and get a job so they can buy fresh ones.”  Whitesteen admitted that she’s never actually met anyone was homeless and/or poor  and has no idea what their needs might be. She said she didn’t understand what difference that could make. And, when it was pointed out that people in those situations might not care for her cast offs and leftovers, Whitesteen was flabbergasted. “But…, they’re poor. Shouldn’t they take whatever they can get and be grateful for it?”

A Mystical Experience?

Buddy_christ
This doesn’t really have any connection to the post. But, how could I resist sharing the “Buddy Christ”?

I have written more than once about my problems with the more mystical aspects of Christianity. Some of those issues spring from a mind that may be too analytical for my own good (questioning the virgin birth, miracles, speaking in tongues, etc.), but most of them are related to the absence of a “God” experience in my life. It’s caused me more than a little grief, but I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve been looking in the wrong places for the wrong experience.

How about a little background before I explain that last sentence? I was raised in the Christian faith, was baptized and confirmed and a member of the United Methodist Church((until we parted ways due to their intransigence on LGBTQ issues)). At the age of 10, with both my parents sitting beside me, I got “saved”; for the first time, anyway. You see, in the years that followed, I heard many people talk about their salvation as a mystical experience. They said a peace they’d never known came over them, that God/Jesus touched them. Hell, some even said the power of the Holy Spirit laid them out on the floor, unable to speak or move. In other words, they felt something big in that moment when they dedicated their life to Jesus and I…, didn’t. Other than a little relief that I wouldn’t go to Hell if I died in my sleep((an actual concern)), I didn’t feel any different than I did before I said the “Sinner’s Prayer”. That was worrisome because if everyone else had some big “God” moment when they got saved and I didn’t, the only logical assumption I could come to was that I wasn’t saved. Which meant that every altar call was filled with angst and worry about whether or not I should “rededicate” my life to Christ. It wasn’t long before I began to dread those fabulous little guilt trips. One of the best things about those years I spent away from church? No fucking altar calls.

About 10 years ago, when I came back to Christianity, it was to a more progressive version which, thankfully, doesn’t feature altar calls. But, that didn’t mean my problems with mysticism were over. Because, even in progressive circles, the “God” moment still has a place and after all these years, I still haven’t had one. Or, have I? Here’s where I finally get around to explaining that statement at the end of the first paragraph: as I’ve begun to embrace Christian humanism((“God has a plan, that plan is us”, Hugh Hollowell)), I’m beginning to think my “God” moments involved people.

Maybe I experienced the presence of God in the doctors, nurses, family and friends that have helped me through all my health problems. Maybe God was present when my marriage imploded and my loved ones sat with me and helped me through that awful time. Maybe I experience the presence of God at Wild Goose, reconnecting with friends I only get to see a few times a year. Or, on Sunday mornings during the greeting moment in worship when someone I see every week pulls me into a warm embrace and asks how I’ve been.

Is this possible? I don’t know. Since I’m not sure if I’ve experienced the presence of God in the first place, how do I know what that feels like? And, if i don’t know what it feels like, how could I know how if it happened? But, if I did, it certainly wasn’t the way I expected. I was looking for the deep spiritual moment, alone and surrounded by God’s presence. I’m beginning to think maybe I did have that deep spiritual experience, surrounded by God’s presence. Only, I wasn’t alone. And, that’s kinda cool.

Angels Without Wings

On occasion, the staff at College Park Baptist Church will ask members for stories about our lives. At the beginning of Advent, they did it again, this time asking stories about times we might have been visited by angels. Being that CPBC is a rather progressive church, these stories are about people who have come into our lives and shown us the love of God. I’ve submitted a couple of pieces like this and, yesterday, I presented mine at both services. Here it is:

One of the best pastors I know.
One of the finest pastors I know.

When Michael first asked for people to share stories of those who have shown us the light of God’s grace and love, I thought “Hey, I can do that. I know how to write and everything!” Deciding to write the piece was easy enough, deciding who to write about? Not so much. As some of you know, I write a blog and, on a good day, choosing a topic can be difficult. Most days, the trouble is a lack of subject matter. But, once in a while, there are more good topics than I can shake a stick at. And, that was the case here. While my life has been no walk in the park, I have been blessed with an embarrassment of riches when comes to people who lift me up. There are my parents, who taught me the meaning of love. There’s Craig Hodges, the supervisor who believed in me when everyone else thought I was a lost cause. And, there’s the people here at College Park, who embraced Parker and I from the moment we walked in the door and made us feel like family. Every one of those would make a great story, but I didn’t choose them. Instead, I decided to tell you about Jenny Wilson.

About 10 years ago, I was in a bad place. Things weren’t going well at work, I was lonely and isolated. My relationship with my ex-wife was at its lowest ebb and, in turn, was affecting my relationship with my children. Saying I was depressed would be like saying Custer had a bad hair day at the Little Big Horn. In the midst of this, Rachel (my oldest, who was about 13 at the time) sent me a letter because she was concerned about me. Actually, being the good evangelical that she is, she was worried about my soul. You see, I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a church goer back then and she was afraid that when we died, we wouldn’t see each other in heaven. If you’re thinking that’s kind of screwed up, you’re right. But, I have to be honest, that letter got to me. It didn’t help that I read it right after listening to Dolly Parton and Sonya Isaacs sing The Angels Rejoiced, an old country song about a man who also wasn’t a church-goer fulfilling a deathbed promise to his wife “to raise her children right”. Now, at the time (due in part to that “no walk in the park” thing mentioned earlier), I hadn’t been to church in about 25 years; aside from the odd wedding, funeral or special occasion, that is. But, I decided to give it a shot, if only so I could tell my daughter, “Hey, I tried, but church just isn’t for me”.

Years before, I had been a good Methodist (who am I kidding, I was never a “good” Methodist) and that seemed like a logical place to start. So, the next Sunday, I showed up at the local Methodist church, slid into what Matt Cravey has referred to as “the scoundrel section” and prepared for…, I didn’t really know what. Like I said, it had been a long time since I had darkened a church door. Luckily, change occurs at a glacial pace in the UMC and things were pretty familiar; comfortable, even. One thing was different, however: the pastor was a woman. That wasn’t a big deal to me, though; I’ve never thought a person’s plumbing had much to do with their abilities. I still remember the sermon she preached that day: Love God, love your neighbor. Yep. The first sermon I heard in 25 years was the heart of the Gospel. I’d like to say I felt my heart strangely warmed, a la John Wesley, but it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean the sermon had no effect. While it might not have been warmed, my heart was certainly unsettled.

After the sermon, right before they passed the plate, I did something that changed the trajectory of my life: I filled out the visitor card and checked the box that asked if I’d like a call/visit from the pastor. A few days later, I got a phone call from Jenny and we chatted. I told her about my not-so-happy past experiences with religion and she told me about the UMC. Somewhere in there, she said something that struck a chord with me: that she never asked anyone to check their brain at the church door. That’s when I knew I was in the right place.

In the years that followed, Jenny became a friend, a confidante, a mentor and a counselor. She answered my questions and offered gentle correction whenever I needed it. She was a model of Christian grace and love. I only saw her get mad once and, even then, she was nicer than I am on my best day. It’s no stretch to say that I would not be standing here in front of you if not for her. Not that I’d be dead or anything. I just wouldn’t be standing up here talking to you folks like this.

I realize I’m not exactly thinking outside the box, picking a pastor for this and everything. But, I used to think that pastors who are actually pastoral were a rare commodity. In the past 10 years, it’s been my pleasure to know quite a few who are. And, Jenny Wilson was the first.