congregational transformation

Could your church help your community find hope in the wake of the election?

Last weekend, people started reaching out to me because they were afraid, and they didn’t want to stay that way. They didn’t want to rage or burn things down; they wanted to find a way to contribute to their community, to help others overcome fear.

So with the help of a PHENOMENALLY gifted intern, the Oakland Peace Center created a resource fair. The goal was simple: to help people feeling a sense of urgency discover that they have a power to make a POSITIVE contribution in their community, that they need not dwell in anxiety and fear but can overcome it by coming together.

The reason I’m writing this is that within four days, we had thirty organizations agree to table and four hundred people attend (in the rain!!!). Check it out!

crowdcrowd2

What this tells me is that people are hungry for positivity, and that people are hungry right now for a sense that they are not alone.

Now, the Oakland Peace Center is made up of forty organizations who are working to create equity as the means of creating peace, so we had a good baseline. But our partners are mostly small, scrappy organizations working to help people at a local level. We wanted folks to connect with them, but we also wanted to provide resources for people looking to get engaged in work we didn’t have covered: advocacy with Muslims, health care access, learning how to intervene when someone is being assaulted (verbally or otherwise), women’s rights, environmental justice. So we needed to reach new organizations as well as new people.

Here’s how we did it:

We listened and we checked in: On the Friday and Saturday after the election I got several messages from people saying “what do I do to engage in protecting people’s healthcare?” or “a lot of people are asking me what they can do to protect immigrants’ (or refugees’ or LGBTQ people’s or Muslims’) rights. Where do I point them?” Then a facebook friend shared an event happening in LA that weekend and asked if anything like that was happening in Oakland. I said no, but it might help me field the questions I was getting. I was at an OPC partners’ retreat so asked them what they thought, then spent another day or so asking organizations what they thought. We began to sense that people were hungry for the opportunity to do something pro-active. Youth were walking out of school; people who had never marched were marching; whole congregations were wearing safety pins so they could express their solidarity with people for whom they feared. We had a sense that this could be meaningful and helpful to the community. In our community, we felt a need to capture the energy of the present moment, so we moved quickly (four days!!!! whew!), but we might do another one in January or February. Another listening we did was during the event: we thought our next event would be more about training people, but what we heard was people wanted another of these resource fairs so that their friends could come and so other organizations could be in the room. So we’re shifting focus from what we thought was best to what the community has told us would be best.

Our message was positive: In both our email blast, our flyers and our facebook messaging, we didn’t focus on hostility or negativity or anxiety. Truthfully, many of us feel those things, and they are valid feelings. But we believe at the Oakland Peace Center that what we are building is even more important than what we are tearing down, even though there are things that need to be torn down in order to build. Our facebook message read “If you feel a drive to do something about the environment, immigrants’ rights, healthcare, Black Lives Matter, indigenous rights, reducing bullying, increasing a culture of peace and inclusion, or any other issues to make this community better, please come to this gathering and learn about the ways you can participate! Whether you are a long time activist or have never attended a rally in your life, your contributions matter!” My sense is that right now, people are feeling negative, powerless and isolated. So our message was positive, reminded people of their power, and reminded them that they were not alone. And the event reinforced those themes.

We Honored Multiple Ways of Creating Positive Change: The other beautiful thing that emerged out of who the Oakland Peace Center is (and which I believe churches and faith communities can create for the same reasons) was that we had multiple dimensions to how people could be engaged. “Get In Where You Fit In” was a slogan our intern Virginia used, and it was true: we had organizations working on policy issues national and local, we had organizations engaged in community service work (who were not afraid of the organizations doing policy work), and we had organizations connecting people to inner peace so that they can take care of themselves in order to take care of others. The OPC is committed to creating peace-filled communities, and we need different policies, and we need people engaged in service and solidarity with each other, and we need people who are able to heal from trauma and find peace within themselves. All of those resources were available, and some of them even got taught right there during the event, like intervention during assault and the basic skills of HeartMath and anti-bullying techniques.

We made sure that as many of the communities potentially impacted by upcoming policy changes were in the room as possible: we reached out to Muslim organizations, disability rights organizations, environmental groups, women’s groups, LGBTQ+ organizations, organizations supporting the Movement for Black Lives, immigration organizations, and so on. There are usually organizations doing both advocacy and social service around these communities in every state in the nation as well as in most major cities.

We created an air of celebration: People who came wanted to experience hope. And part of how hope gets crushed is by replacing joy with fear. So we created a festival atmosphere: popcorn and fun, high energy music, and a kids’ table with children’s books representing both themes of inclusion and justice (which we promoted in advance so people knew it was a family-friendly event). Joy is an underutilized tool of creating justice! We even had a woman who creates justice-oriented children’s coloring resources volunteered at the kids’ table! (Here are some of the pages we provided the children.)img_6597childrens-books

We didn’t create anything new: With any issue we are concerned about, there are folks doing really good work who are underresourced. This is a moment to connect, not necessarily re-invent the wheel.

We created spaces for people to cast vision, share their commitments and offer words of hope. We had poster board where people wrote what they were committing themselves to and what their hopes were. We didn’t create a physical space for grief, although one restorative justice partner gathered people who wanted to really let their feelings out and feel heard, and that was beautiful. One of the organizations, Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, invited people to cast a vision for a moral economy when people visited their table: fame

We learned some really inspiring things:

  • People were so excited about this that even without asking for them, we ended up with phenomenal volunteers!
  • There were a lot of young people who came because they want to become activists. But there were also senior citizens who felt that they could no longer stay uninformed or unengaged. I believe that is true of church folks as well: as OPC intern Virginia White reflected to me after the event, “people have care about these issues but haven’t known how to engage, or didn’t think they should. This is not about convincing people to do something new.” That’s who our event was for, and they came in the rain by the hundreds.
  • Some people were puzzled by why we would do something like this until we explained that part of the mission of the OPC is to connect people to each other’s work. And they were also puzzled by the fact that the church (in our case, First Christian Church of Oakland) played a role in this gathering as the folks who created the OPC. What a beautiful moment of puzzlement to help the community realize that the church can and should be engaged in this work of standing with indigenous and Black and LGBTQ+ and environmental and civil liberties organizations. What a teachable moment.
  • This event created hope. Let me say it again: at a time people are experiencing fear, we created a space of hope. Participants thanked us, and so did the organizations, some of whom have been in this work for decades and feeling a little out of hope themselves. At our best, isn’t that what the church is supposed to be about? Hope conquering despair, not just in the abstract, but in concrete ways.
  • Over and over, people said they felt a sense that there really is a community dedicated to supporting each other. During my introductory announcement, I reminded people that “we need us. We need to have each other’s backs. In the coming days we will need to be able to trust each other, and that happens when we really show up for each other.” So I told them to talk to all of the tablers but also to talk to each other, because we have each other’s backs best when we know each other, and that can start here. And people did. And it was transcendent.

I was asked to share our methodology so others can borrow from it. I decided to write it in a way that I hope churches in particular can borrow from it. It took a lot of time and effort, but it was not difficult logistically to manage. Once our facebook numbers started looking good, some of the organizations that had never heard of us before suddenly thought this would be a great opportunity.

 

How Marcus Borg gave me hope

Renowned liberal theologian and Historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg passed away yesterday at the age f 72. In honor of his life, here is my brief reflection on how his wisdom helped me in my ministry.

I only got to hear renowned theologian Marcus Borg speak once. It was interesting. I was grateful for the chance to reflect on my relationship to the divine through new eyes. But I came across his work after liberation theology had already broken my world apart and connected me to God in ways that would leave me changed forever. I deeply appreciated how he reconnected many of my friends to a relationship with God and the possibility of a relationship with the church, but he wasn’t my guy the way James Cone or Gustavo Gutierrez or Emilie Townes or Kwok Pui Lan were.

Until I heard a story, third hand, about the way he answered a random question at a lecture. And that story allowed me to remain hopefully engaged in the work of congregational transformation for almost a decade. More than any of the countless books I read or courses and workshops I attended, this one story continues to give me hope.

I tell this story almost everywhere I speak on congregational transformation (if I think the audience won’t be hurt by it), because at moments I feel defeated by the church’s struggle to change, I am reminded that of the privilege I have of living in this moment where the church is turning into something phenomenal and powerful, whether I want to be a part of that or not.

I didn’t even hear him say it, and it wasn’t the kind of thing he was famous for saying.

My friend Russ told me that a friend of his went to a Marcus Borg lecture, and someone asked the following question:

“Dr. Borg, what is the future of the church?”

Almost without hesitating, he responded, “Right now, the church is made up of two groups of Christians. There are conventional Christians who go to church because that’s what you do, who were shaped by an era where church was a typical part of the culture. And then there are the intentional Christians, the ones who don’t experience church as the norm but are craving spiritual community and are willing to invest deeply in the relationships and the rituals and the interactions with what is transcendent; they are also driven by the desire to be in deeper relationship with the community around them. In fifty years, all of the conventional Christians will be dead. The church will be much smaller, but it will be much more alive.”

Thank you, Dr. Borg, for giving me the hope necessary to do the work of congregational transformation even when it felt like Jesus himself would have struggled to effect change.

Christmas values – Day 9: Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

“Why do you think churches led by people of color are thriving while a lot of White liberal churches are dying?” asked a student at a class where I was on a panel of people of color representing the racial/ethnic ministries of our denomination. The person who asked is a friend of mine whom I value, who is going into the ministry, and whose church full of kind people was preparing to close.

The other panelists talked about the depth of faith of those leaders and their courage in talking about faith as opposed to White people. I was intentional not to contradict them, so I paused before adding my own comment:

“There is a sense of urgency in our communities,” I said heavily. “When we experience oppression daily, the hope that can be found in church is necessary. The challenge of the liberal White church is that it has forgotten the urgency of what it has to offer. The values of inclusiveness, of fighting for justice, of worshipping a God of the oppressed, those things are literally life-saving, but because of White privilege, the church has been lulled into a false complacency that is literally costing lives as well as souls.”

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Christmas values – Day 6: Charity

“Scrooge was better than his word.  He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.  He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.  Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

It feels like at this time of year, liberal or conservative, we all grow a little more tender hearted towards those in need.

Ok, our definitions of who is in need are sometimes head scratching: a friend of mine in the midwest recently started pastoring a church that runs a toy drive among its working- to middle-class congregation (a lot of nurses and administrators and so forth), with the toys going to their own children at the church’s big Christmas celebration. When he asked about whether they might want to give to children in real need, maybe through the town’s fire and police annual Toys for Tots project, they stroked their chins and acknowledged that one year, they did give the leftover toys to charity.

But that congregation notwithstanding, we all donate a little more and smile a little more and hope it all balances out when we claim our tax deductions in April.

Of course, there are some people who worry that even this season is becoming less charitable as a warped version of free market capitalism becomes laudable in certain circles (what Ayn Rand horrifyingly referred to as “the virtue of selfishness”). Witness here Jimmy Kimmel’s rendition of the Fox News interpretation of It’s a Wonderful Life: (more…)

The spiritual journey to a secular job

I’ve got one thing on my mind, baby, and that one thing is…fundraising.

Sexy, right?

The Oakland Peace Center is hosting our very first fundraising campaign ever, and it is all I can think about right now.

I sent a couple of appeal emails to people I know through church, and it got me thinking about how a pastor ended up setting up a nationbuilder account and encouraging friends to host house parties instead of creating liturgy and preaching about stewardship. It also got me wondering, if I was called to the spiritual life, why does this secular work feel more spiritually fulfilling?

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Homelessness, the woman on my patio and the Woman at the Well

Sermon preached at First Christian Church of Palo Alto, August 10, 2014.

Text: John 4:5-15 (with references to later verses), the story of the Woman at the Well

Preamble to the sermon:

I am known in some circles for preaching a really up-on-your-feet, clap and shout amen kind of sermon. I think that was why I was invited to preach. So I want to apologize in advance. Three things have happened to me this week that placed a more reflective message on my heart:

  1. A friend of mine from FCC Redding told me this week that when she went on vacation to Savannah, Georgia, she noticed there were no homeless people downtown. When she asked about this, she found out they weren’t allowed in the tourist district. Unsheltered people used to get locked up in jail, but too many of them tried to get arrested so they would have a roof over their head and regular meals. So now they get rounded up and put in an open air pen, to create a greater disincentive to be visible or get arrested. (more…)

Ekklesia: Are you just somebody that I used to know?

Is Christian Privilege killing the church?

At what some of my colleagues saw as the breaking point of Occupy Oakland, January 28, 2012, one of my friends said, “Ah, Occupy Oakland, now you’re just somebody that I used to know.” For a lot of folks committed to seeing a justice-filled peace in Oakland, Occupy was a roller coaster of deep love, deep pride and deep disappointment. On January 28, we witnessed some of the most awful police actions of a months-long movement riddled with awful police actions, but it was also a reminder, as another friend of mine pointed out, that OO suffered due to a lack of intentional non-violent commitment and also intentional non-violent strategy.

(I later spoke on a panel with Erica Chenoweth, whose book “Why Civil Resistence Works” showed quantifiably how nonviolence is strategically more effective in creating lasting change at the national level when used consistently within a movement. If you don’t want to read a very dense book, she sums it up in 12 minutes in her now famous Ted Talk. A number of OO folks that day wrestled with the elitism that often shows up in accusations against people who participate in property damage or violence and also the fact that OO’s “diversity of tactics” strategy reduced safety particularly for people of color who were less likely to engage in the movement, among other complex issues.)

Long story short, the Gotye song captured a feeling about Occupy Oakland among some of us movement types: we loved you, we gave ourselves to you, you broke our heart; now you’re just somebody that we used to know. (Two years later, I believe the Occupy movement had a lot to do with creating space in the public discourse for addressing wealth inequality in America, the fast food and WalMart workers’ movements, and the gap between poor working people and the ultra-rich. However, I still regret that Occupy Oakland didn’t become the unifying strategic nonviolent movement that our city needed and deserved.)

 

All of this is a long prelude to my reflections on the church today. Occupy Oakland was a flash in the pan compared to my relationship with the church. I have loved Jesus like he was my best friend since I was three. When I was in fourth grade, my mother and the church’s Christian ed director said that when I grew up, I would either be a nun or a Jesus freak. Church folks have loved me and nurtured me and cultivated me for leadership. When I moved to a new school, my church youth group loved and supported me when I would have otherwise felt incredibly awkward and alone.

The church did such a good job of this love and nurture that I eventually followed my calling to become an ordained pastor. So why do I sometimes feel like the church is just somebody that I used to know? (more…)