A Liturgical Die-In

Structure of the Liturgical Die-In. This is what we worked off of in our collaborative planning.
Structure of the Liturgical Die-In. This is what we worked off of in our collaborative planning.

The Forum for Theological Exploration  (FTE)  had their annual Christian Leadership Forum in Dallas, TX  at the American Airlines Training Center during the first week of June. I coordinated the worship along with leading an idea lab on liturgy on the streets.

The conference started Wednesday afternoon and went until Saturday morning. Each day we had two, 30 minute worship services--one in the morning, one in the evening. The worship services connected to the theme of each day and to the overarching theme of "Active Faith Matters." The CLF also grounded itself in the 60th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the murders of Freddie Grey, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. What does an active Christian faith mean in the face of supremacy and domination?

I came to Dallas with structure for each liturgy, hoping the energy, world view, and passion of participants would be infused into the structure. For our Friday evening liturgy, I created a structure for a liturgical die-in. What follows is the liturgical framework, sermon, prayers and reflections from the leaders of this liturgy and  its participants.

This is what was created in a mere 30 minutes.

We gathered in our conference room standing as a mass. No chairs. We were standing up while singing "I'm on My Way to Freedom Land."

(play the song while you read the rest of this blog)

Emily weaving her way through the crowd telling the Gospel story.
Emily weaving her way through the crowd telling the Gospel story.

Emily Wilkes, intern at Church of the Pilgrims,  shared the Mark story of a group of friends busting through a roof of a house to get their paralyzed friend, who was on a mat, as close to Jesus as possible. Emily had memorized the story and she told it by heart.

Emily's Reflection from the experience:

Standing among a crowd of nearly two hundred people, I began to tell the story of a paralyzed man whose friends tore off the roof of a building. I wove in, out, and through the crowd; their physical closeness and excitement gave me permission to channel their energy in my storytelling. It was an ecumenically diverse space, where many shouted affirmations as they felt moved. This evident participation drew me even more deeply into the story, and I was transformed through its telling. Within myself, I could imagine I the confusion, tension, anxiety, and joy the crowd surrounding Jesus must have experienced. The two hundred of us inhabited and embodied the story together. After we’d entered into the story as a community, we were then ready to enter into the sermon.

After Emily's storytelling, we sang a Gospel Canticle, "Blessed be the Lord, for he has come to his people and set them free" from the bilingual hymnal, We Pray in Song. We sang this several times with contemplative energy.

Kimberly White

gave the sermon, also weaving through the FTE crowd.

Here is

Kimberly's sermon

:

Hands up! Don’t shoot! These words and the gesture have become a rally cry of the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has swept our nation. In the aftermath of the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, many people set out to demonstrate against a system that was oppressive. And here, we find the paralytic man in his own oppressive state. He is confined to a mat, unable to move.

While we don’t know what lead to this man’s paralysis, we do know that he is a representation of something. This paralytic man is a representation of what oppression can do to a person, and even a community. He represents hopelessness – he has been in this state of paralysis with what seems like no hope of healing. He represents this notion/thought/idea that this paralysis is permanent. He represents helplessness– because of his paralysis; he can’t even get to the one who could offer hope. And on top of that even if he could move himself, he can’t get past the crowd – the crowd that should have been crowd surfing him to Jesus in the first place.

But thank God for the four men. It is the four men that stand in solidarity with him. It is worth noting that all the texts that narrate this story call it “their faith,” which Jesus says. That the paralytic had faith himself, we know from the proclamation of his forgiveness, which Jesus made before all that were gathered. What we are taught in this moment is that not only did the man have faith, but the bearers had the same faith with him. While the paralytic couldn’t change his condition on his own, they recognized that there was one who could help him. All they had to do was get him to Jesus – the source of his healing. Spiritual healing – his sins were forgiven. Physical healing – he was able to pick up his mat and walk.

And here, we find ourselves – our America – paralyzed by oppression. The oppression of addiction, homelessness, hunger, depression, poverty, war, gender inequality, racial injustice and a myriad of other things. Think again of Ferguson, of Cincinnati, of South Carolina, of Baltimore. Think of the protests that were taking place. Think of the die-ins. Those who lay in the same position as the paralytic man. Die-ins represents this same image as the paralytic – helplessness and hopelessness. Those who participated in these protests did so as a sign of solidarity to fight against all that was and is taking place in the city and the broader community. Like the four who carried the paralytic man, each of those who have made gestures likened Christ to have done so for one purpose and one goal – to get to the truth. These four bearers carried the man to the truth. And today, I invite you to pray in the posture of this paralytic man and those who have laid in solidarity. That our prayers would be like the four men, carrying us to truth. That our prayers would speak love. Speak community. Speak life. And tell the story of our faith, as a community, that will lead us to healing.

Here is Kimberly's personal reflection after the die-in:

It’s happening in Florida. It’s happening in Ferguson. It’s happening in New York. It’s happening in Ohio. It’s happening in South Carolina. It’s happening in Baltimore. It’s happening all around us – hundreds of people are laying motionless on the ground in a position of death staging die-ins as a form a protest to the atrocities that are facing our communities. While this act of protest has, as of recent, come on the heels of a death in the Black community, this day, it happened as a form of worship. For days we gathered in Black Hawk Ballroom to talk about #ActiveFaith, and in this space we had the opportunity to put those discussions into deed. The act of a die-in has become a sort of rally cry for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and we were able to see the correlation between these die-ins and the one that the paralytic man faced everyday due to his own oppression. As the scripture was recited, the crowd began to fidget.

As the sermonette went forth, the crowd verbally affirmed the words. And then, in that space, we were all asked to get in this posture of the paralytic man and those who have laid in solidarity. As the history was given, names of those Black and brown bodies that have been gunned down were read off, and prayer was offered up, the images of unmoving bodies strewn on the floor floated in my mind. I imagined every face. I felt every body. For a few moments, I opened my eyes and looked to my left and to my right. Feelings of grief, shock, fear, anger, hope, and a myriad of others things overwhelmed my body. We worshiped in this position. We prayed in this position. And in the end, just like the four men who carried the paralytic man to Jesus, we helped each other out of that position and back onto our feet. While we know that the oppressions of the world won’t be healed in one moment, in that hour of worship, we stood in solidarity with the ones who will fight until healing comes. We stood in solidarity with the dreams of our ancestors. We stood in solidarity with the dreams of our neighbors. We stood together after laying in a position of death. We stood, in order to tell the story of our faith, as a community, that will lead to healing.

Marquisha leading the die-in prayer
Marquisha leading the die-in prayer

Marquisha Lawrence led the die-in prayer after Kimberly's sermon.

Here is Marquisha's prayer:

 I

n Ferguson, we die in for 4.5 minutes representing the 4.5 hours that Michael Brown's body lay in the street. As you lay there, we ask that you reflect on the word that was given to you on Wednesday...reflect and pray about how you can be bring innovation, wisdom, connectivity, transformation, healing, dreaming, discovering, risk taking, questioning, truth telling, boldness, authenticity and new possibilities back to your ministry settings, in your own congregations, in your own cities, in your own states, in your own denominations, in your own academic settings.

I invite everyone to die in...now...

(4.5 minutes)

(Ashley's note: When Marquisha said "now" 200 people dropped to the floor on their backs in an instant. We stayed on our backs throughout the entire prayer).

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far on the way. We lie here before you praying for our cities, praying for our congregations and praying for ourselves that we might have courage, that we might have wisdom that we might be bold enough not to cower when you have called us to stand tall...when you have called us to be innovative...when you have called us to speak truth to power...when you have called us to dream a bigger dream...you have called us to sing a new song...when things get tough and we can't find our way, help us to remember that our work is not in vain and neither were the lives of:

Freddie Gray

Kevin Allen

Rumain Brisbon

Tamir Rice

Akai Gurley

Kajieme Powell

Ezell Ford

Dante Parker

Michael Brown

John Crawford III

Tyree Woodson

Eric Garner

Victor White

Yvette Smith

McKenzie Cochran

Jordan Baker

Andy Lopez

Miriam Carey

Johnathan Ferrell 

Carlos Alcis

Larry Jackson

Deion Fludd

Kimani Gray

Marissa Williams

Timothy Russell

Reynaldo Cuevas

Chavis Carter

Shantel Davis

Ervin Jefferson 

Kendrec McDade

Rekia Boyd

Ramarley Gray

Trayvon Martin

Dying in Prayer
Dying in Prayer

I invite you to silently rise and support each other as we get up.

We end this die in the way that we end every die in with the words from our dear sister Assata Shakur: repeat after me:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom

It is our duty to win.

We must love and support each other.

We have nothing to lose but our chains.

Amen.

Marquisha's Personal Reflection

In preparing for the liturgical die-in, I was sure to add in the names of many of those who died in police involved deaths. The list is pages long, but I randomly selected 33 names. When the section of the prayer came to the 33 names, I told myself to: “slow down and articulate every single name. Do not go too quickly, for this may the last time that their names are called in honor.” As the names were read, the tension in the room swarmed with people crying, moaning, and tapping--all with their backs on the ground. It was hard to tell whether these reactions were from despair, discomfort or a myriad of other feelings, but for that moment, these 33 people were acknowledged as humans, worthy of honor.

Once we were standing after Marquisha's prayer....

The crowd had this posture during the Jesus is Coming song.
The crowd had this posture during the Jesus is Coming song.

We finished with a cathartic song, "Jesus is coming, this I know. Freedom is coming, this I know."  We sang this over and over and over again. And over again. Until finally someone tossed open the doors of the conference room,  the song coming to a close and  off we went to a reception and dance party that included a band with a horn section.

Reflections from Two Participants from the Die-In Liturgy

Hassan Xavier Henderson-Lott

In the fall of 2014 I began to associate myself with the alliance #ShutItDownAtlanta. This organization served as an avenue through which many of differing identities expressed our frustrations concerning police brutality in America. Among the many who gathered in solidarity with the victims and the families of victims who had fallen, were individuals; African-American women and men whose lives though well-lived, are overshadowed by fear and the suspicion of whether or not their lives actually matter. Never before had I been provided an outlet to express my truth. Loudly we marched in hundreds chanting and singing! But there was never was a time to grieve in community. Internally, in the comfort of my own heart and mind I mourned the losses of my sisters and brothers murdered by police. Strength was the name of the game! “Don’t let them see how badly you hurt.” I would not cry. I would not give-in to emotionalism.

However I did not then understand the importance of weeping. Loudly I marched through the streets of Atlanta, solaced by the display of “strength” as intense rambunctiousness. But in Dallas, I was vulnerable. I prayed through weeping. The die-in experience affirmed for me the strength in silence and the credibility in crying. As I lied on the ground I experienced a transfiguration of the room. The carpeted floor became concrete. The silence of the room was loud with the sirens of emergency vehicles. I was Michael Brown and Eric Gardener and Yvette Smith. I heard nothing, including my Mothers mourning the loss of their son. I returned to witness participants striking the floor with their hands. They were supposed to be completely still. They were in pain! I knew that the experience was all too real for many in the room. They beat against the wooden floor of a ship. I was on a ship, lying on my back; my mother still mourning the loss of her son! I witnessed the pathology of black suffering in America. I experienced a historical memory of my past. It became not only real but tangible to me. All within four and a half minutes I traveled back over four hundred years. I got up, on my feet. And I danced in the same confident hope of my ancestors. “Jesus is coming, Oh yes I know!”

Andre Gilford, Jr. 

Bodies lying

Spirits standing

All colors together

In prayer.

During the Forum of Theological Exploration’s Annual Christian Leadership Forum, I participated in a gathering of young adults committed to spiritual renewal and social justice. These individuals came to Dallas with a purpose, seeking a renewed sense of purpose and mission among those who share in that pursuit. During our corporate worship time, our various feelings and experiences came together in prayer, unexpectedly. We were white, black, South Pacific, Asian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, middle class, upper class, in seminary and discerning the call. We were all different, but together we came to a sacred space to worship. And in our worship, we provided space for the Black lives denigrated by the power of a racist and oppressive system called America by dying in. We prayed together in silence by lying on the floor and being still in the moment. Die-ins represent the four and a half hours that Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO laid in the street after being killed with his hands up by a local White police officer.

By lying on the ground together with my peers and colleagues in ministry, I was overwhelmed. My spirit, still standing, connected with the spirits of the ancestors who cry out from the earth calling for this system of racism and oppression to be ridden. I felt connected to the spirit of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and many others who have been killed at the hand of racism. As I laid there, I listen to my sister Marquisha Lawrence speak the name of the known sisters and brothers who unwillingly gave up their lives for the freedom of those who continue to be the subject of violence and pain under the guise of racism. Never before had I felt immense feeling in prayer. There was something to our bodies lying and our spirits standing; all colors together in prayer. We needed that space to take a moment and use our bodies to resist all injustice against those most at risks. In that moment, we stood still and provided space for our spirits to connect with the spirits of all Black lives. Our bodies laid on the ground stood as a symbol that Black Lives (do) Matter.

Professional Photographs by the Forum for Theological Exploration, Atlanta, Georgia.

Storytelling with Faith and Wonder

My good buddy, Casey Fitzgerald, is a master Biblical storyteller and has started a blog called Faith and Wonder to explore more deeply personal storytelling in relationship to Biblical storytelling. Casey's tag line is "living and telling stories with Spirit." Being a Biblical storyteller means Casey learns the Biblical stories by heart and shares those stories with congregations and audiences of every interested sort. Casey's pretty bad-ass.

Casey started a podcast not only for Biblical storytelling but to have others tell their personal story alongside a Biblical one.

Casey asked me to jump on her podcast to share my own personal Emmaus Road experience. Here is our 25 minute podcast where I share my story of worshiping at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia and realizing I had a choice to make: Will I be a minister for Christ or a Minister for the Machine?

Check out the podcast HERE.

Check out Casey in storytelling mode here.

Powerful People: Improvisational Worship, Improvisational Unionism

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.

This post comes from Michael Oswalt, a dear, sacred friend who arrived on the Church of the Pilgrims scene in the early 2000's. He left for several years to get his law + M.T.S. degree at Duke, where he refused to get sucked into the pull and financial incentives of corporate law. After graduating from Duke, Michael returned to D.C. and Pilgrims to work for the SEIU. Michael now commutes daily from the skyscrapers of Chicago to the cornfields of Northern Illinois University to teach labor law at NIU's law school. Here Michael writes about the intersection of improvisation and unionism. 

Improvisational Worship, Improvisational Unionism

Michael M. Oswalt

 First of all, let me say that I’m absolutely delighted to have the chance to explore some thoughts on Ashley’s wonderful God of the Sparrow blog. Having seen first-hand the creativity and intention that she puts into thinking about the structure and possibilities of church life, it is no surprise to see those same gifts reflected here on a weekly basis. And indeed, with the space that I have I’d like to touch on a way that some of the innovative things that happen at Church of the Pilgrims have influenced the thinking that I do in my day job as a labor law teacher outside of Chicago.

nerf ball
nerf ball

Most memorably for me, in 2012 Pilgrims spent a season focused on worship as improvisation. A newcomer walking into an adult education class that year would have been more likely to see a Nerf ball flying across the room or web of bodies miming a fantastical scene than a lecture. A visitor to the service might not have noticed anything particularly out of the ordinary (at least for Pilgrims!), but those who had a hand in planning it out would have felt a fluidity in the order of events that was palpable, a sense that the unexpected was not just to be expected, but somehow the “point.” A famous example of what I mean was an instance where a congregational send-off to a member moving away unexpectedly morphed into a formal laying-on of hands at the urging of someone’s child, who had simply wondered out loud: “Why aren’t we putting our hands on her?”

What made that instance and so many others “improv” was the congregation’s embrace of something called “yes-anding.” Yes-anding is the life-force of improvisation. It is what gives improv its free-form, spontaneous quality, because making a commitment to yes-and means accepting whatever comes along and building on it, no matter how bizarre or seemingly out of place it might at first seem. You want laying of hands? Let’s do it. And somebody get a candle up here too. That’s yes-and.

So how does any of this relate to labor law?  Well, I think that in some ways unions have recently adopted their own commitment to improvisation, only the setting is the workplace, not the church, and the activity is strikes, not worship.

Understanding my point requires recognition that in recent decades unions have essentially abandoned the strike. Because of how judges have limited the right to strike and expanded employers’ rights to defend against them, strikes have generally been viewed by unions as risky propositions with little upside.

A protester holds up a sign at a demonstration outside McDonald's in Times Square in New York
A protester holds up a sign at a demonstration outside McDonald's in Times Square in New York

But things changed in late-2012. That year Walmart workers staged a nationwide strike on Black Friday, and days later fast food workers struck for the first time in New York City. Both happenings were preludes to more and bigger strikes that continue today.

To this point the strikes have generated media attention and some popular momentum to hike the minimum wage, but as Walmart and the major fast food companies like to point out, in absolute terms the number of workers actually walking off the job has been quite small. Moreover, unions ultimately need members to survive, yet the Walmart workers group, Our Walmart, says it’s not interested in unionization, and the fast food workers, who do say they want a union, seem unlikely to reach that goal anytime soon based on how the employment structure of the industry interacts with modern labor law.

So why would unions be excited about these efforts?

For the same reason Church of the Pilgrims scrapped its usual script and did a laying-on of hands to say goodbye—they’re pushing improv. At Walmart and in fast food the decision to strike is the ultimate yes-and. Imagine plugging in orders at a McDonald’s register when a group of activists comes streaming through the door cheering for you to stop what you’re doing, walk outside, and join a chant for “$15 and a Union.”  It’s a scary proposition, no doubt, but for over two years now unions have prompted a good number of McDonald’s workers to accept that invitation. In the moment they have been saying “yes-and.”

Putting resources into this type of improvisational workplace activism is a major departure for American unions. Strikes are usually considered useful only where they impact employers where it hurts—the bottom line. Here unions seem excited to raise up the courage of a select few who opt to strike, even if the vast majority of their colleagues do not. Most labor strategies come with some goal related to getting more members, or at minimum an identifiable end game. Where all of this might lead, however, is unknown and probably unknowable.

But that’s improv. The right number of participants is the number of participants. Wherever the action takes you is okay.  If the era of mass mobilization is over, the era of working with whoever happens to show up has begun. With improvisation, that’s enough.

Will any of this help fix inequality or maybe rebuild the labor movement? Who knows?  But many of the workers involved in the strikes echo the sentiment expressed by Walmart striker Dominic Ware: “It’s amazing, it’s really amazing . . . [I]t just touched me in so many ways that I really haven’t taken it all in . . . It’s just beautiful man. We’re winning. No matter what Walmart says, we’re winning.”[1]

For unions, the hope is that Dominic’s co-workers, and Dominic’s friends, will see his experience not as some brave personal feat but as an invitation to see his activism now and raise it later—because you can bet there’ll be another chance to yes-and right around the corner.

[This post is adapted from a forthcoming article, Improvisational Unionism.]

[1] Josh Eidelson, Historic Walmart Strikes Hit 100 Cities, The Nation, Nov. 23, 2012.

Biography

Michael Oswalt-DB-13-web
Michael Oswalt-DB-13-web

Professor Michael M. Oswalt joins the Northern Illinois University law faculty in fall 2013 teaching primarily in the areas of labor and employment. Professor Oswalt’s research focuses on the relationship between law and activism, particularly how legal and other regimes transform the possibilities for engagement in civic and institutional arenas, including the workplace. His work has appeared in the Duke Law Journal, the Minnesota Law Review (with Catherine Fisk)and theJournal of Catholic Legal Studies.

Professor Oswalt graduated from Haverford College and holds a joint degree in law and theology from Duke University’s Law and Divinity Schools. At Duke Law he was a member of the Duke Law Journal and served as Note Editor for the Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy. After law school he clerked on the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals for Judge, now Justice, Sonia Sotomayor. Most recently Professor Oswalt was a law fellow for the Service Employees International Union where he provided counsel to a variety of low wage worker organizing campaigns. He is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and has been active in a number of IAF-affiliated community organizing networks.

Yoga: Jennifer Harvey and the Practice of Yoga

Jenny, Chris, and Harper on the first day Iowa had marriage equality.
Jenny, Chris, and Harper on the first day Iowa had marriage equality.

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of powerful people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.

Guest Blogger is Jenny Harvey, whom I adore, and known now in the academic world as Rev. Dr. Jennifer Harvey. I met Jenny at Union and ran many a miles together, early in the mornings, in Riverside Park.  I loved sharing time and conversation with Jenny at Union, and still do now as we've grown-up into married adults with kids, a dog, and the never-ending quest to find time for yoga. Jenny is now a professor at Drake University and lives in Des Moines with her spouse, Chris, and two kids, Harper and Emery.

Here, Jenny reflects on her consistent, spiritually aware yoga practice.

“I practice yoga.”

“I’m someone who practices yoga.”

I’m not sure if there’s a difference between these two statements, but lately it’s seemed worth wondering about.

For years I dabbled knowing the flexibility and strength yoga could help me build would be good for me. But I usually couldn’t shake this thought as a sat, posed, breathed or whatever-I-was-doing: “Seriously, my time would be better spent running.” A soccer player and runner, I couldn’t find the will or way to take yoga seriously even while this nagging voice (and a lot of people I really respect) kept telling me I should.

Then came my late 30s, with its aching knees (making running more dicey), two babies (so soccer too time-consuming) and a decision to make a one-year commitment to yoga twice-a-week. Some part of me knew I had to practice with consistency for a sustained period before I could actually know what yoga might be in my life.

Turns out what it might be is the emerging understanding that practice is everything.

Looking back I see my commitment even then was a decision to practice. (Of course, I wasn’t thinking that at the time. I was just praying to the ‘groupon’ gods: “please send me another yoga coupon so I can keep going without paying full price.”)

Practice.

Besides loving bodily activity, I’m also a person of ideas. I teach, write and tend to live in words, thoughts and categories. My ongoing relationship with my religious tradition—Christianity—has been vexed relative to how adequate (or inadequate) I have found its “beliefs” to be; how much its “claims” make sense; what the right kind of “thinking” about the divine might yield in my actions.

I didn’t anticipate that a year-long commitment to what I saw merely as a new type of physical activity would become spiritual activity that would turn this way of understanding upside down.

Here’s how it’s happened. The constant refrain of my teachers as I practice, urging me to “be in the moment” has crept into life off the mat. The constant reminder as I practice to let go of negative energy (self-judgment, worry, control) has found me turning away from my own or others’ negative energy off the mat. The realization that what I am experiencing on the mat has as much to do with how I choose to see it than to what is happening physically has become more and more my default recognition off the mat.

I’m coming to understand life as practice even as these practices have begun shaping my life.

It turns out my fixation on getting ideas and thoughts right first is backwards. It turns out practice changes thoughts and ideas, how I see and how—even who—I am.

“I am someone who practices yoga.”

Yoga is teaching me that I am (that’s the “someone” part) literally what I do (“who practices yoga”).

There isn’t a self, separate from practice.

The implications of this truth are astronomical for about a million other things in life. Practice is always process and never perfection. Practice has an insistent rhythm that transcends will or mood. But for me today the most important is this: a release from lifetimes telling myself “I should [idea/thought] do this [action]” only to be frustrated at my lack of follow through, discipline, choices, or whatever.

Putting practice first is nurturing fragile and tentative transformations for which I’ve longed for years, ways of being that thought I would get to eventually if I had figured it all out in my mind first.

Well before my year was over practice became part of who I am (for now—by nature practice also assumes impermanence: the physical with the spiritual; ideas about “should” less distinct from that which I simply do; postures on the mat not so different from those emerging in me (as me) off the mat.

Practice.

More about Jenny:

Jenny, Chris, Harper and Emery.
Jenny, Chris, Harper and Emery.

Jennifer Harvey is a yoga-obsessed writer, educator and parent interested in how social structures shape us and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures.  She is passionate about racial justice, the problem of whiteness, queer life, community and spirituality.

Her forthcoming book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation  will be out in November 2014. She also the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty  and Disrupting White Supremacy: White People on What We Need To Do. Jennifer blogs at Huffington Post and her own blog formations.  where she posts her written attempts to make living connections among all of these passions and interests.

The Landscape of Laverne Cox!

Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox

This post first appeared on TwintasticWorld, a blog all about twins and curated by my fabulous, fantastic friend/gay beau Patrick Scott. Twintastic World covers the life of Patrick, who is gay, and his identical mirror image twin, Matthew, who is also gay. And! Get this! Patrick is married to Michael, who is also gay (ha!) and a twin himself. It's gay twin central. Patrick asked me to write about Laverne Cox, whom we both adore, after we found out she's a twin.....and her twin is gay. GET OUT!

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

I was first taken by Laverne Cox when I discovered her show, “Transform Me” on VH1 in 2010. “Transform Me” had Laverne and two other trans* women, Jamie Clayton and Nina Poon, make-over a cisgender woman.

Laverne, Jamie, and Nina would arrive at the soon-to-be-made over woman’s house in a Glambulance–an ambulance made over in the spirit of a disco ball. Each episode started off with the participant sharing her story of why she wanted a visit from Laverne, Jamie, and Nina. After the initial sharing of “this is why we are gathered today,” Nina and Jamie deconstructed the participant’s closet and make-up, and Laverne sat down for the “heart-to-heart.”

I started to adore Laverne during these “heart-to-hearts.” While Laverne, Jamie, and Nina were there to take on the external makeover of new clothes, hair, and make-up, Laverne stressed the internal transformation that was just as vital, and the most life giving part of the experience. As trans* women, Laverne, Nina, and Jamie considered themselves well qualified to help someone match their inner greatness with the external look. The transformation, Laverne would say, needed to come from the inside, bringing out who you are, having the internal and external be fully reflective of your fullest self.

The female contestant would often shed tears during these “heart to hearts” about a distorted sense of body and self, stuck in stories of self-defeat and deflated self-worth. Laverne would look at the contestant with such love and understanding. Laverne would share her own story of connecting her inner knowing of being a woman and the drive to externally express that knowing.

It was this type of moment that shifted the cisgender woman from the typical comment at the beginning of the show: “wow, I’ve never met a transgender person before” to “Oh, my God, Laverne. Please don’t leave me. You totally get me and my life.”

One episode had Jackie, a self-identified hippie, repelling down a cliff with Laverne (in an amazing outfit) leading the charge. The goal was for Jackie to face her inner fears and embrace her inner courage. Laverne, with a shared fear of heights, joined the experience to show Jackie she didn’t have to face her fears alone.

Facing fears. Embracing our fullest selves. Finding our inner courage. Connecting our interior and exterior selves. Taking life on with others by our side.

Sounds like great criteria for relationships and friendships.

Plus Laverne Cox is a twin.

 (Reflective moment by Patrick, of Twintastic blog, inserted here) I love when Ashley talks about connecting our interior and exterior selves. I feel like that is exactly what trans people are accomplishing. They are completing themselves, by allowing the outside version of themselves truly represent what is on the inside. Preach it, Ashley!)  

This sounds like a sermon I could preach at my church, Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA), in Dupont Circle in D.C. We fly a rainbow flag outside our main doors, symbolizing our welcome of LGBT folks. We do this since the Church at-large has taken on practices, at times abusive, which deny the existence of and full participation of LGBT in the life of the Christian community.

The flag symbolizes Pilgrims being “OUT” so to speak with our holy welcome. This means if Laverne Cox came to Pilgrims (hopefully with her twin!) she would be fully welcomed into our Christian community to practice the ways of the faith. No “ifs”. No “ands.” No “but wait….does she have a penis or not?

Laverne would be welcomed.

Those ways of the faith include taking risks, facing fears, embracing our fullest selves, connecting our interior and exterior, finding our inner courage, and taking all of this on not alone but in community. We take, face, embrace, connect, and find not just for our own sake but for the sake of the planet which is profoundly broken. That brokenness includes trans* folks, especially trans* women of color, who face higher unemployment rates, higher rate of physical violence, and discrimination in housing than gender-conforming people.

Thankfully, with Orange is the New Black (season two!)  I can still get my “Laverne fix” and witness her embodied self.

May that embodiment be so in all of us.

Get More: TRANSform Me

Powerful People: Karina Saunders, Popular Education, and Service Trips Part 2

Karina Saunders
Karina Saunders

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.

Karina is my co-worker in The Pilgrimage, the principle outreach ministry at Church of the Pilgrims, that focuses on the experience of the hungry, homeless, and working poor. The Pilgrimage welcome mostly college and youth groups to engage in service learning and popular education to envision a world made new.  This is part 2 in a 2 part post. 

Changing the Narrative of a Service Trip PART TWO

 The Tina Jones Project is a small attempt to remember the lives of people who affect our daily lives but are often invisible. The hope is by giving group participants the name and brief bio of someone living in poverty; they will begin to understand the structural injustice that keeps millions of people in constant struggle.

Tina Jones

Your name is Tina Jones, and you are a single mother of two children Mandy, 8, and Tim, 4. Recently you were laid off from your job, and consequently you missed a rent payment on your apartment and were evicted. Your sister lives in the area and has been letting you and your children stay in her extra room until you get your feet back on the ground.

The group arrives from __(fill in university/ school)____, and during orientation I ask them to think through a typical day. Who are the invisible people in your life? Who are the people behind the scenes—the working poor that make your everyday easier? They write down the names of the school janitor, the cafeteria workers, the people who reshelf fruit at the grocery store, the bus driver, the sanitation worker, and all the other people who work like stage hands in their daily world. What does their typical day look like? What would the world look like through their eyes? Then I introduce the theme.

Throughout the week as they’re building relationships, serving, and learning about the needs of this city (going to places that meet immediate needs), I ask the groups to think about the bigger story. What are the systemic problems that cause the existence of these social service agencies?

Each member of the group then gets the story of a person living in poverty in the city. I ask them to write this person a letter, wondering what their life might be like. Questions like: What does your daily routine look like? What community is most important to you? If you get sick what happens? Can you take off work? What makes you feel proud/shame?

In this way, the lens is created and groups continue on with their week of learning and serving, while observing and looking for where their “person” might be. One day during the week, they visit a transitioning neighborhood (NOMA) and walk around uncovering the many stories and layers that exist in this community. Would my “person” live in this neighborhood?How might they feel about the new development?

action reflection model of popular education
action reflection model of popular education

I want them to see the effects of change on a neighborhood full of long term residences. Each morning the group is given a focus word, and asked to look for how the word plays out in their day and in their person’s story. I want to give students a chance to narrow and process the universe.

At the end of the week things look different. We share as a group new noticings, and we begin to understand the lives of the invisible people that affect us on a daily basis. Solutions are more complicated than starting a food drive. The weight of the stories and the daily realities of so many people is heavy. But, hopefully these stories of struggle and structural injustices now have names. The names are of people met in DC during a service project, the name of the character the students walked with all week, and the names on the list of invisible people in their daily life.

My hope is that with these stories and names, group members can no longer cross service off their list of obligations for the year. They must now be more aware and invested in fighting the injustices that cause poverty.

Powerful People: Karina Saunders, Popular Education, and Service Trips

Karina Saunders
Karina Saunders

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities. Karina is my co-worker in The Pilgrimage, the principle outreach ministry at Church of the Pilgrims, that focuses on the experience of the hungry, homeless, and working poor. The Pilgrimage welcome mostly college and youth groups to engage in service learning and popular education to envision a world made new.  This is part 1 in a 2 part post. 

“But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; tread softly because you tread on my dreams” – William Butler Yeats

 Changing the Narrative of a Service Trip PART ONE

One of the best parts of my job is creating frameworks for students to see bigger contexts that shatter stereotypes and build bigger stories. As the program manager at a service-learning center in DC, I develop schedules and programming for groups that come to learn about the gap between the rich and the poor.

Through service, learning, and reflection, I hope to engage groups in questions about poverty, charity, and justice.  The hope being that by the end of their time here, they will have more tools to create change in their home communities.

 However, in reality, most groups come to “do service” often missing the context and background to why there is a need for service in the first place. During my time here I’ve become increasingly aware of the misconceptions groups carry with them about poverty in the city and in their own home communities.

They often come hoping to be shocked by the disparity that exists only in the nation’s capital. They want to give food to “them” at a soup kitchen, and then cross off their volunteer hours or social obligation of community service for the year.

DC Central Kitchen
DC Central Kitchen

 Often in a closing reflection I would hear wonderful stories that broke barriers, and reminded participants that people living on the street were really no different than themselves.  They could share the story of Jeff, outside CVS who taught them the importance of acknowledging the human dignity of people. Or they would boast in the number of lunches or meals they prepared at DC Central Kitchen. The trouble comes when I ask what they will do with their new revelations, the “now what?” question. The group would be silent. Breaking stereotypes of homelessness is important work.

Cutting vegetables, serving a meal, helping someone apply for a job, donating clothes to an employment training program—These are all important pieces to ending poverty. But, the story is bigger. If I want a group to be affective agents of changing the reality of poverty, they need to be familiar with the differences between charity work and justice work. They need to understand a glimpse of the challenges affecting those living in the poverty.

I believe we can’t just do service work and we can’t just do justice work, we need to do both. We need to meet the immediate needs of people, but we also need to create structures that prevent poverty. And so, to respond to the need for groups to zoom out a little, and see the bigger story of poverty in this country we started the Tina Jones Project. Meeting a person’s immediate needs for one week out of the year---is great, but what needs to happen is a shift in the narrative.

Powerful People: John Allen and Lenten "At Table."

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.John Allen grew up in Needham, MA, graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina and received his Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in 2013. He is currently a Pastoral Resident at Wellesley Village Church and ordained in the UCC. John spent a lot of time in James Chapel, the liturgical laboratory at Union, and thrives on liturgy that takes us full throttle into the heart of the Biblical narratives.  While at Davidson, John was Pilgrims summer intern in 2008 or 2009---I can't remember what year. Below John shares his experience of liturgy "At Table."

Christian worship, even in its more modern forms, tends to be unidirectional. Classic architecture dictates all participants facing the front, more recently communities are making a shift toward worship in the round facing a center point. Neither of these arrangements however allow truly erode the sense of authority and sacredness having a fixed location which others face from a distance.

At Village Church we have begun gathering for worship around tables. This “At Table” worship service happens in the evening, over a meal, and invites participants to make worship at each of their tables. Bread and juice are set out in the center of each table and participants eat food and share conversation with one another, blessing and sharing the elements at each table and having sacred conversations about ordinary life.

At Table is a model for Christian worship with its roots in the early Christian meal. Jesus’ first followers did not meet in churches, while their movement was fledgling and their numbers small, they met in each other’s homes, or in rented rooms, for dinner. Gathering in ‘supper-clubs’ was a common form of meeting in Roman society. All the ship-builders in a city might have had a weekly dinner meeting, or all those who worshiped Dionysius. So also, the ‘Jesus people’ had their weekly dinner.

Whether religious or not, all these meals followed a familiar pattern. Guests would gather, say a blessing, and eat having informal conversations with those around them, about their day, their lives, and probably a good bit of gossip.

Agape Meal in Ancient Christian Life
Agape Meal in Ancient Christian Life

After a time, the host would rise and bless a cup of wine, sometimes as an offering to emperor, or some other deity. In the case of the first Christians, this cup was offered in memory of Jesus.

After that, attention would turn away from eating and toward the “symposium,” a time of conversation on a specific topic. This might be a time when one of Paul’s letters would be read or a story about Jesus told and the guests would discuss and debate long into the night.

Many ancient ‘supper clubs’ were quite homogenous. Those who attended these meals all worked together and were often all from the same ethnic group. Early Christian meals however seemed to break some of those trends. People from all walks of life ate together, and it seems possible that women’s leadership was recognized more in these gatherings than in other spaces.

It was this sort of radical inclusion that often got Christians in trouble in the ancient world. They were accused of being an unruly bunch who were bad for Roman society because they would not follow social norms. Hence the common accusation hurled at Jesus in the gospels “he eats with sinners.”

It is remarkable how many well-known Biblical stories take place around meals and it is telling that the central sacrament of our faith is the sharing of bread and wine. In recognition of this Hal Taussig and Janet Walton at Union Theological Seminary have developed a modern Christian worship service called “At Table” which seeks to bring the spirit of these earliest Christian gatherings to life for us today.

The service we do at Village Church is our own adaptation of their work.

What we have learned doing this worship at Village Church is that stripping away pretensions and formality around worship creates a space for profoundly genuine experiences of God and one another. By dispensing with vestments, fixed roles, a singular table, and polished forms of speaking and prayer, worshippers are invited to meet God as they are, and to witness each other having that experience.

There are plenty of awkward moments in the service.

  •  Storytellers often stand up to talk and struggle to quiet the room down.
  • Sometimes uproarious laughter at one table impinges on a painful story being told at another.
  • Sometimes people pouring grape juice into their glasses pour too much, and they have to pour from their glass into someone else's to be sure that all have some.

These are the moments I love in the service because the people of God are asked to be improvisational in navigating a shared sacred experience. Worship is a rehearsal for life. The more choreographed forms of Eucharistic worship in our community may instill us with a sense of God’s abundance and abiding presence, but they do not quite help us practice the bumpiness of communal life.

Gathering At Table we learn that we encounter God as we navigate our interactions with one another through humor, grace, laughter, and honesty.

As we go forward, I wonder how we could bring more spontaneity into our time together. For now we plan who will lead different moments, who will tell a story, what songs we will sing, who will cook dinner for everyone. The one thing we never plan is who will do the dishes, but people stay, often because they want to linger over a conversation, or simply because they are faithful disciples.

I often wonder if we might carry that trust to other areas of a service. What would it look like if we did away entirely with roles and entrusted the yearnings of the community to lead us through our time together? What if we asked folks to bring a bit of something to share and trusted that we would be well fed? What if we heard someone’s story and said, that’s the one we all need to hear, stand up and tell it again.

Powerful People: Bethel Lee and Yoga Chapel

Bethel Lee
Bethel Lee

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.

Bethel Lee is chaplain to Yoga Chapel, a ministry that weaves together the art of Christian reflection with the wisdom of the physical yoga practice, and ordained into the United Church of Canada. I've said this before---Bethel creating a yoga chapel pretty much makes her the most interesting person in the world to me.

Below is a reflection Bethel wrote for Yoga Chapel and the yoga practice she's offering during Lent that focuses on the garden. It's so beautiful. Bethel created a yoga practice that is woven into this reflection, in between the opening and closing meditations. This Maundy Thursday, our plan at Pilgrims is to end our service in our own garden, using some of Bethel's words.

Opening Meditation: Genesis 2:4-9

The author of Genesis describes the beginning of Creation in this way: God waters the face of the earth, just as we might water a bed of flowers. And then, with this now fertile ground, God plants a garden in this new world. And this garden is where humanity begins.

It would’ve been quite a different story if the author had placed our origins say in the desert, or a valley, or a swamp. But sometimes this is how we perceive ourselves. When we’re not doing so well or when we’re really struggling with something, it can be tempting to believe that the place we come from, that the stuff we’re made of is no good. Swampy. Bleak. Brittle.

Lent is traditionally a solemn time, a difficult time. And during Lent we are called to remember that “from dust we came and to dust we shall return.” In the season of Lent we are called to remember how fragile life is, how fragile we are – our bodies, our thoughts and all our big plans– we are humbled that in the large scheme of things, they are but dust.

But as the writer of Genesis insists, this dust that we come from and this dust to which we return isn’t passive or meaningless – indeed it is rich and fertile, and when watered by God it always bears the capacity to give birth to new life. No matter what might fall apart in your life – whatever may be going on in your body, your thoughts or plans, the message is that there is always hope.

If you were to hold the same view of Creation as the writer of Genesis does, how might that change how you see yourself? How might you understand and treat yourself? How might you understand and treat others, if you too carried the vision that the source of your being, the place from which you come, is a garden – a place flourishing with energy, a place where things grow with wild abandon, a place of beauty and a place of new life.

Closing Meditation: Mark 14:32-36

Toward the end of his ministry, toward the end of his life, we find Jesus in a garden. In a garden called Gethsemane, he pours his heart out to God as he battles unbearable grief. This garden scene seems worlds away from that idyllic garden in Genesis – that hopeful beginning, that place of bubbling life. This garden, at night, where Jesus has thrown himself onto the ground seems like such a dark and desperate place.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if in Jesus’ darkest hour, it was this sanctuary of a garden – surrounded by this green growth and organic beauty that he could see and touch and smell… I wonder if it was this garden that reminded him of who he is and what he’s made of. As Jesus waters the garden with his sweat and his tears, I wonder if he remembered in this moment that there is always hope for new life when God is the Gardener.

In the words of May Sarton, may God, “Help us to be ever faithful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers.”

Garbage Can Turned into a Font

Robin Nagle, anthropologist in residence for Dept of Sanitation, NYC
Robin Nagle, anthropologist in residence for Dept of Sanitation, NYC

While on sabbatical, I met with Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence for the Dept of Sanitation in New York City. Robin taught a seminar at Union Seminary in NYC on "Garbage and Sacredness" and once I saw this title, I wanted to meet her. I found Robin's email on Google, fired off some emails and soon enough, had a time set-up. This is what I learned from my time with Robin---everything is sacred, and everything is garbage.

All of life is temporal---everything will and must die. I'll die. You'll die. The computer I'm typing on will become garbage. Everything will be discarded--making it garbage.

And everything is sacred.

If everything is garbage and sacred, Nagle argues, then why are sanitation workers treated like garbage, their role in the public health of an urban landscape like NYC deemed invisible? What's sacred? What's profane? And who the hell gets to decide?

What environmental crises can we trace back to garbage? What do we learn about the values of a home, community, city, and planet by what people discard?

This is what I love about work like Robin's:

1) It makes me feel more creative.  Sacredness and garbage? Never thought of that connection before. That's creativity.

2) I love nerding out on a theory or methodology, seeing how it's translated into liturgical life.

When I returned from sabbatical, I preached that Sunday of Labor Day weekend. It was also the 50th anniversary remembering the March on Washington. MLK, Jr. was executed while marching with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN.

I seized the moment and focused on sanitation workers in liturgy.

I prepped by watching "At the River I Stand", a documentary of the Memphis sanitation workers. It shows the horrors of being a sanitation worker in Memphis and the community organizing efforts that eventually gained the workers a contract with the city.

In the documentary, sanitation workers and their supporters were shown at a rally in a church sanctuary a few days before MLK, Jr. arrived the first time in Memphis. The offering that night was collected in.....garbage cans.

*light bulb*

We can do that. Off to Home Depot I went to buy two large metal trashcans and several small ones.

i am a man
i am a man

I spray painted "I Am A Man" on the sides of each can---the words on striking sanitation worker's signs.

Three of the small cans were used to collect our offering during the worship service.

One big can was placed in front of the communion table.

One big can became our font. I took the big glass bowl off our baptismal stand and placed it one top of the garbage can. I put garbage in the font. Why?

Garbage Can as Pilgrims Font
Garbage Can as Pilgrims Font

Because everything is sacred, and everything is garbage. Our font symbolizes the Church will honor our sacredness throughout all of life, even through death when we become dust and compost. In our baptism, we tend to the planet as sacred. The words, "I Am a Man?" That's baptismal language.

As I reflect, "garbage can as font" informed my energy for taking ashes into the streets on Ash Wednesday-- being present with workers considered irrelevant, invisible, and the bottom of the labor chain. Ashes claim solidarity in life and death. It's the role of liturgy, in a sanctuary and on the streets, to make that solidarity visible.

Powerful People: Abby Mohaupt

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950's is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors.   First up is Abby Mohaupt. Abby is an artist and Pastoral Resident at First Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto. I met Abby through Sara Miles who thought we would like each other. And we do! Abby Here Abby write about compost and yoga--two of her loves.

Every Sunday, two to four Tupperware containers appear (like magic) under my desk in my office. These containers are filled with rinds and coffee grounds and banana peels and apple cores.

Two members of my congregation used to sheepishly try to sneak this garbage into my office in paper bags and leftover lettuce bags, until I presented them with their very own reusable containers, and said for the millionth time that compost is wonderful.

I take these containers home to my compost pile, letting their contents join the weeds and worms, stems and stalks, pits and peels from meals ago.

This is real resurrection.

Turning the new earth and the earth-to-be—mixing past and present and future—soil invades my fingers nails.

The scent of earth fills my nostrils.

The heat of decomposition warms my skin.

O God, this earth is so good.

I could eat it.

These peels and rinds and pits—they are reminders of death and what has been.

They transform in the ground, resurrecting into dark earth—full of new life to give to the meal that has not yet been planted.

++

Every Monday, I rise before the sun and walk a block to the yoga studio to breathe deeply and let my body transform into new shapes.

Joining my class, we sit on our mats and set intentions for our practice. I always try to focus on how strong and wonderful this body of mine is.

Breathing in, I remember the breath of God.

Breathing out, I give thanks for the Spirit.

My fingers—still muddied from that new earth—spread across the mat and I push my hips up and back, my toes curling under. I give thanks for these muscles and this skin, stretching and moving.

And rising into mountain pose, I give thanks for the ground beneath me. That beautiful, eatable ground.

These are moments of God—of grace—incarnate.

I didn’t believe my body could be transformed into crow or warrior or eagle.

+++

Home again.

I wrap my hands around my mug filled with coffee. My mug from one of my budding composters.

Not grounds.

Not compost.

Just coffee.

Breathing in, I can smell the delicious earth.