On the Road to Racial [and other types of] Reconciliation, or What I Wish the Churches I’d seen in the South Looked More Like

On my ride aboard the Long Island Rail Road returning from a trip to New Jersey this weekend, I thought a lot about a course I took at Vanderbilt Divinity where we were discussing racial reconciliation, and on the table was a really tough question about whether black congregations and white congregations should be worshiping together. That may seem like it deserves an obvious answer in 2015. Of course they should, right? But we arrived at that question by first asking why our churches – unlike our schools, unlike most of society since the 1960s – had remained mostly segregated. Was that evidence of our inherent prejudices? The ones we seem still so stubborn to admit we have? Was it simply the reality that different experiences had created different cultures? One black student remarked that she feared if she were to worship in a white church, her cultural history would be washed away. Would a white church with a white pastor focus as much on the story of the Exodus where Moses leads God’s people out of Egypt like those slaves seeking freedom along the underground railroad? Would that sense of liberation – still so crucial to black churches – be as important to white churches? Moreover, what does it mean for a white church to have been “free” for so many generations that we can no longer conceive of the need for liberation for others? Have we lost the ability to relate? Must we experience oppression to see the need for calling the oppressors into question? If we think we have no need of this, do we lack empathy for those who still very much relate to the need to be liberated? That day in that classroom opened my eyes in a way I don’t think I’ve realized until recent events, really, that whether or not black churches and white churches should worship together is a deeply complicated question with a deeply complicated past, present, and future. What I came to terms with at the time was this: maybe we need to be segregated in our worship, but we still have to find some way to work together for the betterment of everyone. Separate in worship, together in mission could be a solution. But I’m not so sure I’m as satisfied with that answer anymore.

This morning, I attended my first church service north of the Mason-Dixon, and it drew an incredibly incriminating picture on the almost insular way of the church in the South. Sure, up here, the church may be dying in numbers, but what I saw this morning drew a picture of a church that is, in my mind, thriving. On the wooden pews in an ark-shaped sanctuary in Bloomfield, New Jersey, there are members from four continents and twenty countries. Every color. Gay. Straight. Female. Male. Transgender. Hurting. Joyful. Family. The lot of them: family. And you could feel it. Something that was in the air, like a kind of earnestness that the people there wanted to be there. No – that the people there were there because they needed to be. That they were honest about their brokenness and joyful to be made whole together. Outside of camp, I’m not sure I’ve seen so many different people made into one family in a church. And for most of the service, I was just overcome with sadness for my home state, for the South, for the reality not that it’s broken but that it’s so gosh-darn unaware of just how broken and pathetic it is. No, more than that: that down south it’s in-your-face adamant about how it carries the one-and-only capital “T” truth when the church in the South as I experienced was driven too-often instead by staged ostentation and a smug need to grab and maintain control and power in a world where people of privilege fear losing it.

Eh, I should come down off my high-horse long enough to say that my own disdain for those kinds of churches or even for the South at times isn’t lacking its own arrogance. Nor am I naive enough to imagine that every church up here is like the one I went to today. Or that this particular church isn’t without its own members who are there for the wrong reasons: to gossip and grasp power when and where they can. That’s just all too human to be confined solely to one region of the country. And yet, having seen what church could be is to know what so many congregations are lacking, and frankly, I’d take a small church with a healthy soul over a large soulless church any day. But I can’t seem to shake the question over what’s the difference between here and there, between this church or that one? Maybe it’s tied to the urban nature of a church that’s only a twenty-minute train ride to New York City. More exposure to diversity is bound to breed world-centric behaviors as opposed to the more insular, isolated rural communities of the South. Or maybe it has something to do with southern culture’s tie to social traditions. If you were born into a world where people go to church because “that’s just what you’re supposed to do,” you’re bound to find people who are there to maintain “polite social behaviors,” or niceties rather than to claim with honest self-awareness their own struggles in an effort to find sacred wholeness like that preached about in our holy texts, or y’know, to do church.

Of course, the deeper question underlying much of this is to ask, “What is church?” It’s become trite to say it’s when “two or three are gathered” in God’s name. I’m not sure I really know what that means anymore. Plenty of awful people gather themselves invoking the name of God or Jesus or Allah, after all. But I’d be willing to bet that, even if we remain segregated in the here-and-now, what church – what all of religion – is meant to be is to provide a space where “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28), nor gay nor straight nor conservative nor liberal nor rural nor urban. If religion can’t be what breaks down the barriers that are the sources of our strife and violence, what good is it doing us? I, for one, want to seek out and hold up those places where that’s actually happening, where those boundaries fall away, because it is happening. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It may happen in a place where the church is dying, but on this road, we are well on our way to something good, to something better, and we will keep moving forward as best we can.

Peace Corps on Shelter Island?

FerryAt the risk of sounding like I’m boasting, I’ll avoid any overuse of the words “idyllic” or “bucolic” or “precious” to describe the little island I recently moved to on the Eastern end of Long Island. But it’s hard not to have this strange overwhelming sense of awe when I drive around Shelter Island – a land without streetlights, a land without postal service to your home, a land with no speed limits over 35 mph. It’s… a different place.

Between Long Island wine, the Hamptons, or some of the homes on Shelter Island that are on the market for millions of dollars, there was a part of me at first that felt deeply out of place. My last exciting adventure took me to northwestern Africa, and though it’s been a few years since, the images of a developing country are never far from my mind. And they are even more evident in the midst of some of the wealth I encountered moving to the “not-exactly-but-almost” Hamptons. That is not to badmouth people who have come into wealth by any means. It’s just to say that it’s been a somewhat jarring experience to move to such a place from, well, the kind of poverty you might expect to encounter in a Peace Corps country. No surprises there, I guess: going from one extreme to the other is always going to be jarring.

And yet, maybe that’s why this next sentence is going to sound so insanely ridiculous: Shelter Island is more like Peace Corps than just about any other place I could imagine moving to in America. But maybe not how you think.

The first reason why it’s so much like Peace Corps here is transport. Like Morocco where I lived in the Peace Corps, you often find yourself limited to travel by certain hours. Shelter Island has a very reliable ferry system, but the fact that it shuts down between midnight and 5:45am could leave you stranded on the island or on the mainland. When there is no bridge or tunnel, you have to plan everything around the ferries. And in bad weather? You could find yourself stuck on the island for a few days at least. That does two things: it creates a tight-knit community on the island but it can also make you feel isolated at times. I can’t begin to tell you how similar that was to my life in Peace Corps.

The next thing is the wildlife. My first morning waking up in my temporary little cottage in the woods (still with a seaside view), I woke up to deer, turkeys, and chipmunks running around outside. Deer are heavily populated on the island, having swam here across the Peconic. But it was really the turkeys that took me back to Morocco. So much of the experience of Peace Corps made you feel like you were backpacking, always communing with nature in some way or another. That is very evident to my life currently. And there’s plenty other sea life to enjoy: whales and sea lions in the winter, ospreys and seagulls everywhere.

Finally, it wouldn’t have been Peace Corps if it wasn’t meaningful work. I am working on Jennings Point at Quinipet Camp & Retreat Center where we do spiritual and environmental education and run both summer camping programs and retreats for very diverse groups. The work we do impacts people in real, meaningful ways, and that’s something I needed to be doing, something I see myself devoting my life to one way or another.

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So, to some Shelter Island residents, it might sound a little crazy to compare the place to a developing country in Africa, but I think it’s worth noting that it’s those very characteristics that drew me to this wonderful island sheltered between the North and South Forks of Long Island. It’s those characteristics that are why I’ll stay.

From the Wisdom of Solomon to Baltimore

There was a risky wager made when Lincoln gave the South a chance to be reconciled to the North without greater punishment than the loss both sides had so deeply suffered already, a wager that hinged on the hope that the “better angels of our nature” would prevail. The understandable hope was that time would heal the country. And, indeed, some scars were healed, while others kept hemorrhaging and yet others scabbed over only to be ripped open again later. A hundred years on, it took a preacher from Atlanta to acknowledge where gangrene had set in, to expose it for it was, only to have us pretend one more time that we were well on our way to healing so that by the time an African American president was elected, some would rush to claim we’d reached the mountaintop. Vanity of vanities! The words of the Teacher are apt for this moment in our history: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles” (Ecc. 1:4-6). Do we not yet know this? Have we not learned from words etched into the papyrus by now? As long as we humans grace (and break) this place we call home, as we are prone to do, we will confront the ongoing cyclical brokenness to which we seem bound. Either we confront it head on with painful self-honesty or it finds us, sneaking up to surprise us in our arrogance. So long as there is a powerful, there will be a powerless! And every time, the powerless will rightly challenge those who have hard-fought to maintain the status quo of their privilege. Our hope, of course, is always that the challenge would be peacefully fought and peacefully won, but is it so difficult to understand from the shoes of another why some – perhaps with hopes exhausted or in the attempt to seize hope again – might turn to rage rather than calm capitulation? Wouldn’t you? It’s hard from a state of privilege to conceive of what it would be to experience real, every day, systemic oppression. But if it felt that the forces of society had not merely imprisoned you to the life of poverty but so too actively (whether consciously or not) sought to ensure that the populace from which you were born was a populace battered and beleaguered, violence would be a very likely outcome. To say as much is to understand it and to see it as a response to another violence, one that came before it and was perpetrated by a government where real representation of that populace remains absent. We are a country founded in precisely as much righteous violence. That is not to condone it, past or present, but merely to acknowledge with empathy from whence it came so as to then empower the powerless rather than thwarting their cry with riot shields, pepper spray, or bullets. If you wish to know how this story ends, you merely have to look at our own history; either we change to be a better society, or the violence is likely to continue or grow. It simply is what it is. For at the root of all violence is a disembodied despair, the desperate plea crying out to God or to society or to the universe: to whomever might listen that these unfolding events that have and are transpiring were not the lot in life we human beings were promised by simply being born into this world. And in that violent despair, it suddenly seems that what is inalienable belongs to some and not to all – and that those who have attained it will not merely grasp it for themselves but for their progeny too and to the detriment of those who are not their blood kin. And so you should expect it in the streets of Baltimore or Ferguson or in the crumbling streets of Gaza or Egypt or as quiet whispers across North Korea or as loud marches in Hong Kong or in any nook or cranny of this world where people will clamor for justice and peace. Lincoln’s wager goes on, tested and tried, and hope will surely prevail whether it’s hard-won or not. Times like these, we rightly question whether there is anything new under the sun but hope that the expected cycle will tip again toward justice and remain there as long as it can.

Cultivating Change from Then to Now

My family’s house in Jackson – the home I was raised in – sits on a wooded hill that’s made mostly out of a reddish mud-clay mixed with brown top-soil. I’ve no idea if those are the correct geological terms for what the stuff is; I just know that’s what it looks and acts like. It’s about the most infertile stuff you could imagine for growing grass, and ever since I was five or so when we moved there, Dad has never been in line for the local yard-grooming award, which was pointedly awkward since the next door neighbor is a professional landscaper.

As a kid, of course, this was fantastic. Grass to the American homeowner is springy, green, and appealing to the eye, but there’s nothing like dirt, dust, and mud to make an eight year-old happy. And I’m not just talking about makin’ mud-pies or that moment when you walk inside and your mother spits on her finger to wipe the mud off your cheek. I think I mean something deeper than that: that exposed earth between the tall oaks and maples was so unusual in a land of perfectly-groomed yards that, as a kid, I felt the call of the woods and the wild, wild wilderness right in the heart of suburbia. When fellow neighborhood children might venture off to a local creek that twisted and wound its way to the Forked Deer, that was exciting and adventurous and all, but there was something wonderful about knowing I only had to go as far as my back doorstep (or as far as my imagination) to be in a whole other world from the sameness of the suburbs. That little shaded hill with its crappy dust-bowl and with clay that wouldn’t do for molding a pot for the kiln was a land of magic to me. And it was mine.

For the past few weeks, though, Dad’s been at work tilling the mud-clay and mixing in fertilized soil from a cotton field, seeding it with what I’m guessing was Kentucky bluegrass or something similar. Other dry-patch spots of dirt unkind for walking my puggle in the rain have been covered with actual sod, and to see it is somewhat jarring for me. It looks like, well, all the other yards here in the neighborhood. And while it’s a good thing, ultimately, to have finally tackled the yard some twenty-five years later, a sadness comes with it. I miss already the exposure, the open-and-honest grit-and-grime, the sounds of the backyard childhood.

A week from now, I’ll be on the road to another mystical land (another place wooded and on a hill), this one in New York and surrounded by water and love. I’m not sure why, but it seems fitting now – at the beginning of this change – to see the ground tilled, the grass planted – the home, once home – new and different. To see the change go with me, I guess. I am a person who from the ground I came and to the ground I am returning, and I yearn to always be mindful of that. It’s something sown into my persona to the point that I’m a little too eager sometimes to get to the root of things, no matter how much of that ugly gritty ground is left exposed in a world where we too-often prefer our “yards” nice, neat, landscaped. And yet, as much as I love getting to the roots to know them, I think I do so because I want to be a part of cultivating them, of seeing them mowed down and bare to growing something that belonged there in the first place. There is no ugliness in the barren land to me; only potential and hope. Because eventually – no, now – long-gone are the dead, dry grasses who have made way for something better, something longer-lasting. That’s what I hope for myself. It’s what I hope for everybody.

Endorsing Camp: a “talk” about Lakeshore and why you should support it!

I was asked recently to speak in a local Tennessee church about my experience of Lakeshore Camp & Retreat Center and thought I would publish (an edited version of) the talk here on the blog for it to be read:

Several years ago, as a high school senior, I would not have given a glowing endorsement of “church camp.” In fact, I stopped attending camp at the tender age of 11 because someone – presumably one of twelve boys in my cabin – stole my wallet. I mean, really, who steals an awesome neon-checkered wallet at church camp?! I’m still mad about it; after all, there is nothing that gets me (and most of us) more fired up than hypocrisy in the church. But if hypocrisy were a good enough reason for giving up altogether, the Christian movement probably should’ve ended before Jesus was even crucified. We stick with it because, despite the hypocrisy that’s inevitable to our brokenness, our hope in the presence of God eclipses all of that. Sometimes, it’s not even despite the hypocrisy but through it that love prevails. The question is whether we’re willing to work through it: be it our own hypocrisy or the hypocrisy of those we claim to love.

So, despite my inability to give a glowing recommendation for church camp as a high school senior, I nevertheless chose to start working at Lakeshore as a college freshman and continued there for four summers (despite wrecking the camp truck on the first day). And what I saw in those four summers was life-changing – for me as a young adult and for the thousands of campers who came through Lakeshore: I saw kids who came with no friends forge a family by the campfire and discover their strength of character in the woods. I saw youth from at-risk backgrounds hear the words “I love you” for the first time in a meaningful way. I heard their shock-and-awe when they woke up to the smells of home-cooked pancakes, the first home-cooked meal some of them had ever had. I saw leaps of faith from forty feet in the air on the camp ropes course and small, important steps of faith taken as youth explored and echoed an age-old story of redemption to find their place within it. I watched and joined as we canoed, hiked, creek-stomped, and hammocked through creation and were taught to care for what had been given to us. No cell phones. No glued to TV-screens or computers. And yet more connected to what mattered than we’d ever been.

And, of course, there’s plenty of stories of life-changing moments where someone knelt and prayed in the tabernacle or on the dock, where hearts were strangely warmed, but to be perfectly honest with you, while that’s important, soul-wrenching stuff, I think the power of camp has as much to do with the everyday stuff, as well. It’s kind of like this: if you achieved the incredible feat of completing (and understanding) a work by James Joyce or, say, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, you don’t pat yourself on the back for learning your ABCs in Kindergarten afterward. But by God if those ABCs weren’t really important, and camp is kind of like that for youth (or even adults retreating there): it’s the ABCs of Christian formation, of life formation, of learning how to “stick with it” in the face of hypocrisy, whether your own or somebody else’s. Of learning how to hope beyond despair and love beyond fear. I don’t know many places that care for all ages and love all people the way camp does.

So, all that said, I guess it’s interesting to me that while we have youth directors and pastors in churches, there’s no “coach” that is going to demand of your kid, “Sorry, you can’t be on this team if you don’t attend camp.” And that’s not to knock the importance of, say, cheerleading or basketball camp where that often does happen, because they are certain to build teamwork and character and healthy lifestyles. But a Christian camping and retreat center like Lakeshore does those things, too. And even more, it focuses on the one thing that we – no matter what age we are – have this strange tendency to neglect the most: our spirit. We live in a world where we are not always expected to take good care of ourselves, where we seldom have empathy or love for other people or are held accountable by them – especially those vastly different from us, and we certainly aren’t taught to draw near, to retreat, to listen for the voice of “something greater” moving in our lives. But that’s three things camp does do. And it does them really well. And while I don’t seriously think we need a church coach enforcing the expectation of attending church camp, as it would defeat the purpose of us making our own free choices, I do think it’s worth being reminded of where our priorities really are, of how centered we aim to be.

More than that, we live in a world where too many “Christians” have turned Christianity into a dirty word, where even church camp probably too often has a bad rap for being a little too much Bible-thumper, a little too much “Jesus-camp” and a little less like the love it claims to uphold. In a world where there are Christians too-often preaching bigotry, we need Christians who stand for something better to educate youth to think critically about their faith and to engage it in a loving context. If the “church” is to survive into the next century, it so desperately needs a generation of Christians raised on the kind of values that are loving to all people, to all of creation – as well as a generation of Christians who can hang on – still loving – in the face of those who don’t. I’ve seen Lakeshore Camp & Retreat Center raise those kinds of kids to be adults – something I’m proud to have been and keep being a part of. And I want to see that legacy continue.

So, if you’re a parent, I encourage you to send your kid to camp and let them see for themselves what this thing of grace is all about. If you have money, I encourage you to donate to the scholarship fund so campers of all walks of life can experience the same thing. If you’re in college or about to be, I encourage you to volunteer to work a summer or apply next year to be on staff. If you’re a young adult, I encourage you to spend a week or a weekend there, perhaps as a volunteer or maybe for an adult retreat. If you’re a pastor, I encourage you to take your church on a retreat to the camp. It is a place for all to “experience life, love, and the God of grace.” It needs you, church, and frankly, you really need it.

Some Thoughts for a Good Friday

The world has become ugly and dark. Terrorist groups slaughter. The wealthy grow wealthier as the poor remain poor. The planet itself is slowly but surely dying off, we’re told. Our most precious resources are grown increasingly scarce. Our politicians follow the money instead of the heart. And for most of us that’s just the stuff we read about but don’t actually endure. What we do endure, we are stricken by our own ugliness: a broken friendship or lost love, self-doubt and indecision, self-righteous certainty in the places we actually should’ve been doubting, a fear of others or of self that cripples us or grows our hatred. These are the voices shouting at us from our computer screens and televisions to our parents and loved ones to our friends and enemies to our innermost thoughts plaguing us, weighing us down. It is a world without silence, these days, without respite. Instead, today’s world is one of loud extremes. There, on the fringes, voices from a small handful have pushed the moderate many to their own extreme – a world now of false dichotomies no one seems to notice – and the cycle only repeats. Honest concern with nuanced perspectives are lost to sound bites and memes that appeal instead to our emotions. Ideologies are dwindled down to 140-character barking – all context and concern washed out by our desire for the quick-and-the-easy.

And yet, perhaps, seventy years ago in the midst of world war, the same could have been said: the world was dark and ugly then, too. Another seventy or so before that, and we were a country divided – family against family – an unquestionably ugly time in our history. Trace back through humanity’s short breath on this “pale blue dot,” and it’s always there: fear and hatred and war and the loud, powerful few who long for control. We were bombarded, then as now, just by a different medium. Is it that we think we’re special that the world is just now unbearably bad? Is the fact – if it’s a fact – that it’s “always been this way” meant to reassure us with hope that we are not alone in our suffering or sink us into some despairing fatalism that there is no cure for the human condition but death?

Maybe that’s why I relate so strongly to Good Friday. It is not the story of resurrection. Don’t be fooled by the fact that we think we know the ending. Easter morning is not yet come. It is instead a story of wondering, of questioning. It’s a story of seemingly intense abandonment, of scattering, of hiding away in denial. And it’s the story of that which we inevitably face – the death of those we love and of our own end. In a sense, it’s a story still being told, repeated daily on our screens and in our heads and in our exchanges. That same ugliness – from Rome to Flanders Field to Normandy Beach to modern Syria and Iraq to Capitol Hill and into every major corporation – it does not go away.

And yet in the midst of that, the hope we do manage to conjure up as human beings – when we can – is the best kind of hope. Because we don’t yet know how it ends, just that it will. And to say that there is hope in the face of this unending uncertainty that so surrounds us is to participate in something near miraculous: Against all the odds, against our own history, against our guaranteed nature, even against our guaranteed deaths or in spite of them, we conjure up sometimes something good and try to live into our best selves no matter what the next day or hour or minute could bring or brought before it. For all the voices shouting and pulling and drowning out our common space, it’s on that note, when that happens – that hopeful harmony – that “resurrection” arrives, that something wholly good is able to conquer our cynicism. It’s when we whistle walking through the dark house or hum a beloved tune to calm ourselves – hours before the choir exclaims any joy at all. And so, we wonder, can we bring nuance to the conversation, silence to the constant noise of the day’s desire to pull us in a thousand directions, peace to a world in terror, sustenance to a planet hungry for new life, wealth free of want to the wealthy and trust again in our leaders? Judging by our history, the answer is no, probably not. But we’ll hope anyway, be our best selves anyway, drip our drop in the bucket anyhow, and if we fail at those great endeavors, we’ll still have succeeded, somehow in the most important way possible. Happy Good Friday to you and yours.

Jennings Point: ‘on board, I’m the captain, so climb aboard’ – styx

coarse, cold,
the sand about the wintered beach
was mixed with snow,
and I could not tell the difference,
save the crunch of those crystal pebbles
below my leather soles,
and near,
five old rocks like giants
guard the Peconic’s dance of
unnamed hues in the mystic moat:
coarse, cold,
but weathered in the way love weathers,
better for the wear that called us forth.