Power Exists to be Given Away – Reminders from Movement Living

Power exists to be given away. 

The reminder of this came as I listened to the Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson preach at the historic Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn via podcast last week, in a sermon entitled “Another World.” I hit pause when I heard her words, “It’s that exousia power that we share with one another, that gets bigger and stronger and bolder the more we pass it on to one another. You would be dangerous if you ever understood how powerful you are.”

To know this in your bones is to have experienced that dangerous power that erupts when courage, compassion and community collide into a force that threatens Empire. To know this is to have experienced the transformation that is only possible through a community that relies on one another. To know this is to have seen how power can multiply when we hold it loosely and share it liberally.

Power was meant to be given, to be received, to be shared – not to be taken. 

It was a human hand, reaching for a piece of fruit, that was the first power grab. Seeking to take what was neither given nor offered. Interrupting the flow of power that knows its source only in God. Knowledge is power they say, scientia potestas est, and in reaching for it, the first humans sought to take what was not offered, to undermine and supplant the role of God as giver and install themselves – ourselves – in the role of taker.

To serve an omnipotent God is to serve a God who possesses all power, from whom all power is derived, to whom all power will return. To serve an omnipotent God is to hold loosely the power that is given to us, and discern wisely how we might best give and share it with others. In so doing, we move as we were intended to do within that limitless ocean flow, sending out our waves and anticipating their return. The ebb and flow of shared power connecting us to God and to one another. 

When we fail to grasp this, we grab and tumble and struggle for power, driven by fear, striving not to slip beneath the waves.

Power, whenever grasped too tightly, held too closely, guarded, hoarded, defended exists within that tradition. We fear power, and we fear losing it. We know something is amiss, just as the first people did when they hid in fear and shame. 

Knowledge, being one of the many forms that power takes – when hoarded and guarded from the community – continues to exist as that fruit ripped from the tree, growing rotten in our hand. A divider rather than a unifier. A rift between us and God, between us and Creation, between us and one another.

Even children, in their innocence, know the damage that this does. Even they feel this truth as they sing their schoolyard rhymes, “Secrets, secrets are no fun. Secrets, secrets hurt someone.”

Power exists to be given away. In its giving and its receiving, love is made manifest, and we are bound to God and one another. 

Sitting with twelve students around a fire on an overlook at the top of Mount Lemmon this weekend, the sounds of various conversations mingled together until one student asked me, “What do Methodists teach about hell?” All conversations stopped, as silence fell immediately. I answered, shared my thoughts, then said, “What do you think?” What followed was more than two hours of what many would later describe as the most significant spiritual conversation of their life. All because they were invited into the conversation as people with knowledge, voice and power. All because power was shared and not asserted. My power and spiritual authority in the group was not diminished, even when opinions differed; it was strengthened. We all were strengthened. Power grew because it was shared.  

It is easier for me to talk about campfires and baking cakes than it is to talk about my life’s work in advocacy. Most people would know my work, but do not know my name; that has been a result of great intentionality and a particular orientation towards power that neither seeks it nor flees from it, but rather disperses it. 

Power is not something we can flee from or avoid or reject, because we do still live in a patriarchal world that inflicts violence and oppression. We do still have a responsibility to work together to diminish that harm. 

For instance, I have spent the past 20 years watching young men get paid more, promoted more, heard more. I have watched them nonchalantly step in and fill the spaces that I have tried to step back to leave for others, blissfully unaware that the default in this life is injustice and inequality and it is only through intentionality that we create a different world. To be silent about this, would be to adopt the position of accomplice in condoning the taking of power that our culture encourages. That is not the sharing of power to which I refer. 

How then do we live in this world that seeks to crush the vulnerable? We live by different rules. We live as followers of the one who emptied godself of power, not the one who grabbed for the fruit, the knowledge, the power. We live by building another kind of power, serving another Kin-dom. We cannot set ourselves free by transitioning the power from their hands to ours. We must create a new kind of power, a new way of living. 

When Dr. Janet Wolf brought me to the Children’s Defense Fund’s Samuel Dewitt Proctor Institute this past summer, I came weary and desperate to be in beloved community, to saturate myself in this different way of living with like-minded people. Yet, I did not know that what I really needed to see was exactly what I found in Janet – the image of what this life looks like in the long term. There have been so many risks I’ve taken in this journey towards justice, so many moments that many feared I would not survive, that it has been hard for me to envision the longterm. Yet, she and others are living it and sharing it and inviting others to experience it – this beautiful power, flowing rather than contained.

This orientation towards power is a lifestyle. It is not the social viewpoints or convictions that must change in order to truly set us free. It is the way we relate to power altogether.

Whereas the first humans grasped for power that was not offered to them, our true guide, Jesus Christ, emptied himself of power – kenosis. He lived a very human life and was tempted in very human ways. He was tempted three times: to assert his power, to demonstrate his power, and lastly to seek more power. In all three instances, while he was tempted in the wilderness, his response was to resist the temptation, to reject an orientation toward power that would have created a distance within the divine and between the divine and us. He was focused and sacrificial in creating a different model for us. 

This is why it is so important that we follow that example that has been set for us. It would be easy to say, “Why should we try this again? People have been trying to live this way for millennia, and injustice still exists.” Yes, true. And now it is our turn, our chapter, our moment to carry this particular orientation towards power forward, trusting the Messenger, the Creator, the Guide.

It is easy to point to the dangers inherent in trying to live as creators and not controllers. It is easy to see the way that fear tugs on our attention, turning our head aside from the beauty that God holds for us. 

It is therefore incumbent to say clearly what a generous orientation towards power is and is not. 

It is not to surrender to violent forces. It is to confront them.

It is not to surrender the vulnerable. It is to center them.

It is not to trade power in alliances and exchanges; giving the appearance of sharing power, while truly hoarding it for ourselves. Trading it rather than releasing it. Making a market of what God has given to us.

Rather, it is to acknowledge the Source of power, its ebb and flow, and that it is only passing through us as it flows forward to connect us to someone new. 

It is to ask, What do you think? – sharing the task of theological creation, both intellectually and practically. 

In 2015, when Sandra Bland died in a jail in Texas, I was a speaker and writer living forty minutes away. Four hours before she was arrested on July 10, 2015, I had just submitted the first chapter of my first book, a writing journey that had begun years before in another country. Sandra was a Methodist woman with a powerful voice, who also had many powerful things to say – and in the hours and days following her death I listened as she said them in the vlogs she made in the six months before her death. Beyond all the work that we did to make sure that her death was not erased, there was a more personal commitment that I made to her than simply to sit vigil in rural Texas for the months that followed her death and caused me to face the possibility of my own. The commitment was that wherever my voice was heard, her voice would be heard. That meant that every microphone that heard my voice, heard her voice – as I held the speaker of my phone up to the microphone. Whether a pulpit, a conference, or a protest – if I had the mic, then she had the mic. She spoke in the midst of sermons, at a planning meeting for the World Methodist Conference, at trainings for the Forum for Theological Exploration, and City Council Meetings. It wasn’t always easy, it wasn’t always welcome – but it was always just, and it was always necessary. In the sharing of power, in the way it flowed, something shifted, something changed. Praise be to the Source of all Power that shares with us that we might share with others. 

Power exists to be given away. 

If this seems impractical, and out of touch with the needs of institutional survival, then we must wonder what kind of power do we seek? What kind of community are we building? What kind of god do we serve? 


“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” 

-Toni Morrison 

Stop Choosing Guns Over Grandchildren

“Please explain the specific situation you would need to kill so many people in one minute like you can with a military grade assault weapon,” my niece questioned her grandmother under the photo my mother had posted of a woman holding an AR-15 style gun shortly after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton. “An armed citizenry is the best way to deter an oppressive government,” my motherimage1.jpeg defended her stance. 

As I watched them go back and forth, my niece being dismissed over and over agin, I could only think: None of this makes sense. I grew up in an anti-gun household.

A child of the 80’s, in the height of the Super-Soaker and Nerf gun era, I was not allowed to touch either one. I was not allowed to play with the little colored water pistols that seemed omnipresent at the time. I was not allowed to play paintball. I was not allowed to be like other children. We were an anti-gun household. 

Somewhere along the line, the worship of guns had become a fundamental doctrine of the political religion my parents practice. It was now a necessary shibboleth of this religion where joking about shooting people on 5th Avenue and still getting elected desensitizes one to the fears of the children among us.

It was not always this way. 

In the fall, once hunting season began, I was not allowed to play outside as a child. One close call too many had made my parents decide that it seemed better to keep the kids inside for months on end, than risk another close encounter with the hunters who resented the boundaries we tried to assert when we moved to my grandfather’s house in the woods outside Philadelphia and invaded “their” territory. 

From October through Christmas, once bow-hunting season ended and gun-hunting season began, I was terrified to leave my house. Our property was a favorite spot for killing deer, and the hunters did not care how many signs we put up or how many calls we made to the County or the State Police. Nothing we did seemed to matter. They would walk right up to the border of our yard if they wanted. They would shoot bullets through the “No Hunting” signs until the tattered metal was no longer legible. They felt entitled to kill things on our property, and their constant intimidation limited the carefree nature of my childhood. I was always looking for orange clothes, bright clothes, something that would keep me safe. 

I was a sophomore in High School, more concerned with AP classes than with playing outside, when heavily armed teenagers walked into Columbine High School and changed reality for my generation and those that have followed. I was the same age as the kids they killed in 1999, and the same age that my niece is now in 2019. 

All these 20 years later, when the shooting in Parkland happened, my niece was one of the many brave students around the country who led walk-outs at their schools to demand action. Watching her fearlessness and compassion, I felt overwhelmed with pride for who she is, but I also felt remorse. 

It hurt so much to know that she has to feel the fear that I felt at her age. I wished that my generation had been able to stop this. I wished that we had the capacity to do more.

As I watched the alacrity and eloquence with which her generation responded, I reflected back on the shock that we felt at her age. What a different childhood they must have had from us – a childhood that required of them this capacity for maturity and leadership. We were still children in a way that they are not. We were still given the space to recover in our bubble of shock in a way that they have never been permitted. These shootings do not come as a surprise to them, and what a tragedy that is.

They have been watching the adults and politicians and people with power in their lives allow kids their age to be murdered their whole lives long. My niece was a couple years older than the kids that were murdered at Sandy Hook, and she grew up watching the majority of people in this nation do absolutely nothing to stop more of her generation from being invaded in the places where they ought to be safe. I could have done more. I should have done more. I wish I had done more. 

I remember seeing the black revolver that the nice retired couple from my home church liked to leave out on their kitchen table when I came over, in order to make a statement. The way that I had grown up made this torture for me, I was terrified to be around the guns that they casually left in front of me in order to make a political statement. It grated against everything that my parents’ had raised me to believe, and like a cat being pet the wrong way, I fought the urge to react. I wish I had. I wish I had raised holy hell. I wish I had spoken up and confronted the leadership of my home congregation, back in another era, back when they listened to me. I wish I had told my pastor how much it broke my heart that he permitted a radicalizing environment to flourish in the congregation. I wish I had told him how confused I was that he seemed so kind, but permitted so much unkindness to grow around him. 

I could have done more. I could have said more. 

Instead I’ve spent my life trying to prove quite a different point. Rather than fighting the power of guns, I have fought to disprove the power of guns. I have fought to show that truth and kindness and courage is more powerful than fear and racism and control. I have put my body in front of guns again and again to disprove their power. I have fought fear with every inch of my being. I have faced death in order to break its power. 

I faced those guns unarmed in order to reveal that the power I serve and the power I fear is the power of God. I faced them unarmed to show that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” I did it to reveal the heresies of racism and the hypocrisy of those who sit in pews on Sunday and serve the god of violence on Monday. 

I spent the first half of my life terrified to be around guns, and the second half of my life trying to show that there are things that are more powerful than artillery. I fought guns with faith, with hope, with love, with perseverance. I refused to let them control me anymore.  

Somehow, while I was looking one way, the guns were advancing in another direction. I never thought that I would have to worry about them coming into my parents’ home. When hunters’ guns surrounded my house and killers’ guns came into our schools, my parents’ house had been the one place in the world where I could trust I would never find them. 

Yet, now, the same parents who forbid me to touch brightly colored pink transparent water pistols as a little girl, now own guns themselves. Now defend guns themselves. Now glorify guns themselves. 

My niece closed one of her arguments with this plea, “I’d like to think the people who love me want me to be safe.”

We need to do better. My generation did not have the preparation to be the ones that could stop what is happening to kids in classrooms and Walmarts and concerts now, but we get it. We know what this fear feels like, we know what this fear tastes like. We know what it is to know where the exits are and not want to go to school the next morning after a shooting. We know that this is a different fear than the one felt during the Cold War, because those bombs never dropped on the desks our parents hid under – but these bombs, these bullets, are falling on their grandchildren constantly. Our kids are not in a training exercise, they are in the trenches. 

I am so sorry. This burden does not belong to you, but you have taken it up. We must do a better job of showing that we stand behind you. You are loved, deeper than words, which is why the only thing sufficient to show you how much you are loved is action. 

Their freedom was never ours to give away.

On Monday, July 22, at 9:00 am, the Tucson Board of Supervisors will meet to decide whether to approve a plan negotiated between the Catholic Bishop and the Pima County Administrator, a decision made unilaterally and without consulting the greater faith community, to remove families from church buildings and deliver them to the County Juvenile Jail under the care of Catholic Community Services. http://chng.it/7ChGrbsy

Recently processed asylum seeking families are the responsibility of the religious community to welcome, not to contain. It is our responsibility to celebrate their freedom, not to limit it. It is our responsibility to approach them in solidarity, to honor their dignity, intelligence, courage, and self agency – not to pity their vulnerability and take pleasure in trumpeting their gratefulness for our charity. 

Their freedom was never ours to control, to contain, to transfer. Bishop Weisenburger, their freedom was never yours to give away. 

They have risked their lives in the pursuit of this fragile, precious freedom they pursue. Every inch of it is priceless. Every inch of it was paid for in blood and sweat and tears. Every inch of it demands our respect, summons our acknowledgement, and compels our honoring. 

How many inches of it will we choose to compromise to satisfy our pride, to avoid the financial cost and physical toll of welcoming them, while still maintaining the control and the credit? 

Something very insidious has crept into the conversation we are having in Tucson about how to best offer hospitality to asylum seekers. A very important nuance: these families are not being transferred to our custody. They have been released and were supposed to be given a ride to the vicinity of a loving space where they would be offered hospitality, if they chose to accept it. They could then choose whether to enter the many sites of hospitality scattered around the city, and receive our offering of “Bienvenidos,” or they could choose not to. As hospitality sites, we were only ever supposed to be an option for courageous families with self-agency. They were ours to embrace, not contain. 

This is something different. Driving families to a far part of Tucson, into an institutionalized government building, this feels more like a transfer of custody than an offer of welcome. Whatever the conditions they will find inside, it will not change the reality of where they are. They will be being transferred from one detention center to another, we will have intercepted their confidence that they have reached freedom for a tiny bit longer. 

This is not a matter of diminishing the incredible beauty of the sacred work that Casa Alitas has done for the past several years, or questioning its tradition of intentional and compassionate hospitality. We have a responsibility to examine the situation at hand, and how decisions have been made, and what the consequences may be for our community in the short term, and for communities in which this model may be replicated in the long term. 

This deal struck between the Catholic Church and the Government, would give the Catholic Church full control, using this deeper level of partnership with Border Patrol to force all other religious communities engaged in hosting to be under the control of Catholic Community Services. No longer would there be spaces independent of them, whose numbers did not count in the numbers they could claim of people hosted through their work.

This impulse, directed in part by the desire of Border Patrol to have a central location where all processing will take place, is also one where government figures will inevitably have easier access than in the local congregations who have been determined to protect the freedom of these families upon their release.

It feels as if we are forgetting that we are not the ones processing these families out of custody. Our intake forms are not their pathway to release. They were only supposed to be a way of gathering information about their travel plans so that we could help them get safely to their destination. They were never supposed to be used to pursue media attention and wrack up numbers about how many we have served in order gain notoriety, control, and funding. 

This is not supposed to be about us. Not supposed to be about what “we think is best.” Not supposed to be about the public image we can curate. This work is best done without people knowing the exact location. This work is best done by those directly impacted folxs in our community who understand and can empathize with our guests – exactly the type of people who will be unable to participate anymore if we put this in a detention facility, because they themselves are undocumented, or triggered by incarceration spaces, or vulnerable. 

I have been offering hospitality to asylum seekers alongside such leaders since 2014, first in the Greyhound bus station in Houston, Texas, and now through the shelters of Tucson. Yet, that ability to offer empathy is not my expertise but theirs.

Rather, while some people are experts on the inside of jails, I am an expert on the outside of jails. I have likely spent around 1000 hours in the past few years observing the trauma incurred on the human spirit when you deliver them to institutionalized detention areas. Sitting in vigil in front of the Waller County Jail for the first three months after the death of Sandra Bland, I became an expert on the tears of visiting family members, and the dehumanizing way guards changing shifts talked about those inside. Sitting in vigil in front of the Tornillo detention camp for the first couple weeks it was open, I became an expert on the look of terror on children’s faces as they were driven inside.

I know that Pima County & CCS will work to make this look as good as possible at the start. I know how media can be used to selectively paint the picture we want. I know the children and parents who are taken into the Pima County Juvenile Jail will make the most of it. They will still offer up the gratefulness that paternalism thrives upon, because it will be better than the dog cages and the ice boxes and even the street. 

But this was never our only option, and they will not believe you if you tell them they are free. This will be a half-way house, a step down unit, a space where those with power have made the choice to slide their freedom back an inch or two. This will be the institutional embodiment of the ankle monitors that it pains us so much to see them wearing – a diminishing of the distance between them and the places and people who caused their trauma. A reminder. A place where servants of the State have more access to knowledge about their whereabouts and movement than in the churches that prioritize guarding their privacy and freedom.

The Church in America – excluding those parts like the AME Church built through the liberation of people of color themselves – has always been good at these negotiations.

Powerful arms of the Christian institution have always been so good at determining what is best for others. We found ways to argue that the way we treated enslaved people was kinder than others and, therefore, “Christian slave-holding.” We found ways to feel fully confident that the kidnapping of Indigenous children to hold in schools was what was best for them because it would help them assimilate. We have always known best how others should be clothed, and housed, and fed, and contained.

I have heard all these arguments before. I have heard all these questions before. That this is better than the other options – that we have strategically been barred from exploring or knowing exist. That we must trust those making the decisions, despite the secretive and problematic way they reach their decisions. We should “just trust them” many of the people of San Antonio said when Baptist Children & Family Services was running Tornillo, while their headquarters were based in the San Antonio community. How easy it was for us to take to the streets and pass judgement – and how difficult it was for them. How easy it is now for them to see the error of our ways – and how difficult for us. We can be so farsighted – it is so easy to see clearly what is true and just from a distance, but it becomes so murky close up when we know the people. 

It makes one question whether freedom and self-agency and dignity has been the priority of the institutional culture making this decision. There is a wide divide between charity and solidarity. How much are we resisting our desire for the gratitude of vulnerable people? How much are we fighting the inherent temptations of white supremacist culture to believe that we know best, that we do best, that we are best?

The narrative being offered up by some is that if we do not “contain” these families upon their release then they will take to a life of crime, GOP Board of Supervisors Member Ally Miller even saying that these families would present a threat to our community safety. How is it that this decision satisfies a longing some have to “lock them up”? Where is it that we are sliding towards in the erosion of our ethics and the fatigue of our compassion?

It was never our job to contain them. It was always our responsibility to love them, to treat them as equals, to honor their courage and dignity, and their right to make decisions for themselves.  

Cooking sopa de pollo in the kitchen themselves. Walking out to go up the street and get a Dr. Pepper themselves. Kicking a ball in the free and unfettered and unfenced air. Debating about whether to postpone bedtime in order to finish the movie. These are the precious things people start to do when they feel free. These are the precious things we stand to lose. These are the actions that replenish the spirit, that are the food of freedom helping it to grow strong.

Their freedom from our custody may be fresh, even newborn. Yet, it is theirs.

Their freedom was never ours to give away. Never ours to control. Never ours to exchange.

 

Voice your concern about #nochildjailshelter at http://chng.it/7ChGrbsy

Governmental & Catholic Powers Partner to Force Will on Tucson Community

“So your plan is to do everything through one site, utilizing Catholic Community Services and your location at the jail, and not include any of the other faith communities that have been caring for immigrants because it is easiest for you?” County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry was asked at the Humanitarian Crisis Roundtable that met on Monday, July 15th.

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Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry
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Bishop Weisenburger of the Tucson Diocese

 

“Yes,” was his simple answer, confirming that this was not merely a decision to move guests from the Monastery to the Juvenile Jail, but further a decision to seek to end other faith communities hosting guests. It was a decision that had been made by Bishop Weisenburger, and the undisclosed members of his committee, without consulting the greater network of hosting sites. In a letter to the County on July 3rd, Bishop Weisenberger had conveyed the idea that the faith community in Tucson was not able to handle the work of continuing to host guests and needed the government to step in and help.

Engaging in a collegial and collaborative manner by engaging the input of colleagues doing the same work, rather than given the appearance of speaking for the faith community as a whole, would have been a simple thing to do because the mechanisms had already been being put in place.

Several months before, the Southern Arizona Border Care Network met for the first time on December 6, 2018, to dream of creating a community of transparency, support, and collaboration. They dreamt of shifting the culture of humanitarian aid to center immigrant voices, knowing how often decisions were made in a way that did not include directly impacted people. Little did they know how soon those dreams of collaboration would be shattered as a display of institutional power would assert itself over the community and decree that the families they aided would be moved to cells within the Juvenile Jail complex.

As people filed into the small chapel off of the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church that first day, the number kept growing and growing and more and more chairs were pulled into the circle. In a few seats by the door were a cluster of Unitarian Universalists; over on the far side of the room were clergy who were immigrants from Mexico themselves, serving and offering hospitality in Nogales, Tucson, etc. In the room, there were people who knew each other well, and people who were just meeting for the first time.

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Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank assists with intake at The Inn in 2017.

 

Intentionality had been taken in the planning of the meeting, with an awareness of the faith community’s propensity to call upon white clergy to lead and speak. Therefore, a Latina woman who had grown up on the border in Nogales, who had her roots dug deep into the sand of the Sonoran desert, was chosen to lead the conversation. The Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank was deeply familiar with the work of providing hospitality to asylum seeking families after having served as the Chair of the Board of The Inn Project since 2016, during which time over 10,000 courageous people had walked through its doors. 

The Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank led the meeting in a gentle, but intentional way, that drew in the voices of immigrant clergy and centered their stories. It felt like something different was happening. It felt like there was a glow in the air. It felt like a family curse had been broken, as the voices of pastors who were immigrants themselves found themselves heard in a new way. People leaned into the warmth of the moment and stood for long minutes chatting afterwards at the door. Women of color – accustomed to being ignored in these kinds of meetings – talked about the confidence and inspiration that Dottie’s leadership and centering of them had awakened. The truth that they mattered and that their voices mattered was unapologetically proclaimed in that space.

In the meetings that followed, stories would be shared, a narrative and invitation of hospitality would be written, and an atmosphere of trust and transparency would be built and assumed.

In March 2019, the group would approve a statement to be released to the community that would detail the militarization we experience in Southern Arizona, the ministry of hospitality on the border, and the need for support from others. Groups signing on as members of the Southern Arizona Border Care Network would include: The Inn, Casa Alitas, Casa Mariposa, El Mesías United Methodist Church, First Christian Church, Justice for Our Neighbors, Keep Tucson Together, Mariposas Sin Fronteras, Menlo Park United Methodist Church, Mountain Vista Unitarian Universalist, Southern Arizona Sanctuary Coalition, Southside Presbyterian Church, St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Justice Arizona Network, Borderlands Unitarian Universalist. 

One line from the narrative that they signed was, “An increased number of asylees are being detained in mostly for-profit prison-like facilities. They are not given legal options. They are herded through our legal system without due process. Children are put in detention with parents, as well as unaccompanied minors being detained in prison-like tent facilities. We are treating the immigrant among us as criminals, instead of asylees or refugees or neighbors.” 

The group would meet again on May 2nd to discuss how to support one another and reach out further into the community.

A couple days later on May 4th, however, the first cracks in the veneer of transparency would appear when a press conference would be held by the City to begin to frame the narrative in Tucson in a very different way. The new narrative centered the work of only one of the members of the Southern Arizona Border Care Network in a way that erased the work of the others and the community of trust that they were trying to build. 

This member, Casa Alitas, had expanded their capacity a few months earlier and were seeking community support in maintaining the numbers they were serving.

In the months that followed, the narrative would be continually strengthened that all other sites providing hospitality in Tucson were small, temporary satellite sites of Casa Alitas, solidifying power, in the perception of the government and the public, in the hands of one group. This appearance of dominance would give the Catholic Community Services that oversaw the work of Casa Alitas, and specifically the Catholic Bishop, sole negotiating power with the County over the fate of asylum seeking families. 

Conversations would happen behind the scenes, amongst the stakeholders that Bishop Weisenberger chose to include, about what would happen to the families. By speaking of a “committee of faith leaders” making the decision, it would give the impression that others doing the work were included in making the decision. Yet, despite the fact that Casa Alitas had signed on as a member of the Southern Arizona Border Care Network, key members of that community would not be invited to the table, nor would it be made clear and transparent who was. An agreement would be made privately between the County Government and the Catholic Bishop to relocate asylum seeking families to cells in the Pima County Juvenile Justice Complex, then shared afterwards with the community. 

The news was shared with the public in a news article on July 8th, with the acknowledgement that it would create dissension and divisions in the community, “Kozachik concedes that putting the families inside the Pima County Juvenile Justice Complex doesn’t look good at first glance, but said it should not feel like asylum seekers are being kept in custody.”

Immediately there was an outcry from many Women of Color in Tucson, most notably prison policy expert, Tiera Rainey, who was well schooled on the effect that incarceration atmospheres have on individuals. In contrast to how Women of Color were treated at that first Southern Arizona Border Care Network meeting six months before, their voices were dismissed by those forcing the plan forward.

According to the Tucson Sentinal, Councilman Kozachik said, ”Look they’re well-intentioned, but we’re not incarcerating Guatemalans,” he said. “I think people when they see the changes, they’ll be on board,” he said, adding that the county was picking up costs for the facility, including maintenance, food prep and laundry costs.”

And Catholic Community Services Director, Teresa Cavendish said, “Right now we’re having our hands tied, while work that we’ve been doing for five years is being second-guessed by people who don’t do this work.”

The community was told to just trust the government and the Catholic Church, without being given a reason to do so. We were thrust backwards into the atmosphere where the white men with power make the decisions, and the rest of the community “trusts” that they know best. The very definition of paternalism. We remembered those who have not experienced incarceration themselves may have a hard time recognizing it when they see it. 

In reality, the community had actually been given a very clear reason not to “just trust” as the Government and Catholic Community Services had partnered with the media in creating a narrative that was inaccurate and that intentionally and strategically erased the work of their partners in order to position the Catholic Bishop as the sole person to make the decision about what to do with asylum seekers, and to position Catholic Community Services as the sole controller of spaces for asylum seekers in Tucson.

The work of the Latina woman who had been laboring to organize the Southern Arizona Border Care Network was erased and strategically undermined.

The voices of Women of Color like Tiera Rainey were demeaned and dismissed, by decision makers, by the media, and by community members that insisted we should “just trust.”

The meeting to approve the plan was moved up from August to July 22 in order to accomplish the power play before the movement resisting it could gain traction, and before community members and faith leaders had a chance to talk.

According to the Tucson Sentinal, Councilman Kozachik threatened, “If this falls off the rails,” because of objections, “(opponents) own the street release option, if we don’t get this facility.”

Intimidation flourished. Institutional authority took precedence over expertise and experience. The community floundered under the sense of manipulative urgency that was being thrust upon them. The desire for power, control and funds were prioritized over the unity and well-being of the Tucson community.

Federal funds could be used to reinvigorate County facilities, with the Catholic Church sharing credit with the government. It was a win for decision makers, but a loss for those they had excluded from the table.

What will it cost our soul to insist that a jail cell is a dorm room? What did it cost those that called a tent city a summer camp just a year ago? 

Voice your concern. Sign the petition now: http://chng.it/7ChGrbsy

Dear Beth Stroud: Thank You

You won’t remember the moment your courage began to awaken mine, but I will never forget it. It was my first Annual Conference, and I was home from seminary at Duke Divinity to intern for the summer at Wayne UMC with Joe DiPaolo. As I left the large hotel ballroom where we gathered for plenaries and voting, you stood at the doorway with a group of young clergywomen peers. Yet, you were not there as a clergy delegate – you were there as something much braver. You were there as a lay delegate, because a couple years earlier, our Conference had brought you up on trial for being in a covenant relationship with a woman, and taken your credentials. Yet, there you were, standing in the full and obvious power of your calling, regardless of what the words on your nametag said.

I had grown up in a United Methodist congregation that did not allow women in the pulpit, where the senior pastor was admired for once having tried to bring a complaint against Bishop Susan Morrison. With little knowledge of our world or system, I was stumbling through my first steps into my call. I was entering ministry, despite having been told my whole life that to do so as a woman was rebellion against God.

I followed my mother out of the room, and stepped onto the escalator to descend to the next floor. You must have sensed me watching, because your head turned and you saw me. It felt like you could see right through me. I stood there frozen as the stairs of the escalator moved beneath me, slowly taking us out of one another’s line of sight.4027219124_5fe52b97c6_b

That little part of me that knew that I was a Queer pastor – even if I would not admit it to myself -was running around in circles inside of me. She did not know whether to run back up the escalator and hug you and thank you for your courage, or run away and hide. She felt like she’d been seen, and it was terrifying. She finally calmed down; she strapped herself in for the ride, and spent the next decade hiding from herself in order to serve the church she loved.   

The trauma of what you and your young clergy colleagues had been through still saturated the air that day. I did not understand, I could not understand, but I felt it. The weight of your witness was impossible to ignore. The intensity of their love and respect for you meant that the wound your trial left has never healed. It has never stopped being visible. There is a hole blown through this generation, because a piece is missing that should never have been taken away from them. A limb was severed, and they are still mourning. We are still mourning. 

I was not at home in Philadelphia when it happened, when our Conference put you on trial. In 2004, I was over 600 miles away in Greenville, South Carolina. I was a college student working four jobs, running new student orientation, and fighting not to answer my call. 

In those final months of 2004, however, I stopped fighting my call. The Spirit was doing something. I began to attend a United Methodist Church pastored by a woman. Growing up in one of the churches in our Conference that vocally opposed women preaching, I had only seen a woman in the pulpit once when our District Superintendent, Violet Fisher, came to speak. My resistance, my liberation, my obedience to God started with the simple but revolutionary act of waking up on Sunday mornings to hear Rev. Jo Anna McGehee proclaim the Gospel in the sanctuary of Monaghan United Methodist Church.

Within a year I would be a student enrolled at Duke Divinity School; and a few years after that, I would be ordained in Philadelphia.

That was only the beginning of what has been a very difficult journey to get to this point. Seven years have passed since that ordination. It feels as though I’ve lived a dozen lifetimes in the years between.

I’ve spent my whole career living in the shadow of what we did to you, but now I’ve stepped out of it.

Last year, I came out myself as Queer clergy. Tomorrow, I will walk into the meeting of our Annual Conference as the first openly Queer clergy since our Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference put you on trial, and wounded us in a place where we have never recovered.

I want you to understand what your courage has meant to me. Remarkably, it was not your dramatic and highly publicized courage at your trial that impacted me. It was your completely subtle, unrecognized act of courage when you walked back into Annual Conference that day in 2007 and showed us all how intact your calling still was. Your name badge may have said Laity rather than Clergy, but it was clear that God said otherwise. That blow that you dealt to exclusion created the first crack in the wall that was holding me back.

I needed to see you that day, in order to someday be able to see myself. 

Now it’s my turn to show up. Because someone needs to see me like I once needed to see you. Someone needs to see what it looks like when we love ourselves despite what they say.

Thank you for all you did to make that possible. Thank you for still showing up even when you did not have to, even after what we did to you, even when we did not deserve you. Thank you for being there to let me see what real courage looks like in person. The church law books may not have changed, but a different battle has been won – the battle for my own mind and my own heart and my own calling.

Thank you for showing us the way. 

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

– Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, by United Methodist author, Harper Lee

Stand With Us Now: An Appeal to My Generation

“Well, we’ll have retired by that time anyway,” they laughed. I remember the first time older clergymen joked with me about the predicted inevitable decline of our denomination, and the reality that it would not be their problem. It would be ours – my generation’s problem – and in that moment, in their joke, it would be mine. We were being handed a tattered kite, that had been held by many other hands, and told to make it fly. We gave it everything we had. 

They were using humor to cope with the reality that we have been facing since we began our paths as pastors. Yet, there is a truth behind every joke, and that truth is that they did know they would retire before the hardest days came, and they were relieved. I do not think they could have known the weight they were placing on our shoulders. They could not understand, because they did not have our experience of starting out in serving the church during a time when it was no longer the center of culture, amidst a generation that was often more likely to flee away from the church than towards it. 

A few months before I graduated from seminary and joined the ranks of my generation of clergy, “The Crisis of Younger Clergy,” by Dr. Lovett Weems and Dr. Ann Michel, was published. The book raised the alarm about the dramatic decrease of young clergy numbers, and increase of congregants’ ages. In a later interview, Weems called for a realignment of priorities, saying, “I am afraid that if we do not, when the death tsunami, as I call it, washes over the United Methodist Church between 2018 and 2050, it could very well wipe out the United Methodist witness in vast portions of some states.”

This is the pressure cooker into which the earliest members of my generation entered ministry. This is the pressure cooker that the generation above us – we love you Gen Xers – as well as young laity in leadership, were already navigating. 

We have carried this heavy burden for the past decade. We have committed time to cohort programs like the Lewis Fellows. We have worked at Lilly Funded programs like Duke Youth Academy and Youth Theological Initiative, to try to invest in younger members of our generation. We have done extra trainings, and given our own time and money to earning DMins. We have worked hand in hand with young laity to plant churches and to make new places for new people. We have built communities and networks to support innovation, like UMC Lead. We have watched as the General Conference poured millions of dollars into helping more of us answer our calls.

This pressure, and the attention that came with it, sometimes made our beloved Gen Xers feel passed over, and our cherished Baby Boomers forgotten. 

The pressure weighed on us. It cost some of us our health. It cost some of us our marriages. It cost all of us dearly. The weight of extra labor fell even heavier on young women and people of color, and heaviest on young leaders who were both.

Each year, on the day the young clergy statistics came out, I would scan them, always finding my Conference near the bottom, rotating places with a couple other Conferences for lowest percentage of clergy under 35. I clung to “The Crisis of Younger Clergy” because it was one of the few things that provided direction and understanding. I began charting trends, and mapping out the locations of young clergy in the Conference so that I could show people where there were colleagues they could reach out to for support. I wanted people to have hope and feel less alone and continue to be able to stand together.

When I was commissioned, I sat down with my new District Superintendent, the same man who had baptized me, and I told him, “These are my priorities: First, God. Second, my generation’s relationship with God. Third, the United Methodist Church. Fourth, this Conference. Fifth, this District. If any of the latter three conflict with my ability to be faithful to the first two, I will choose the first two.” I kept my word. 

What does this commitment look like now? I cannot easily ignore the effect that our violence towards LGBTQIA folxs like myself is taking on my generation on the margins of this church. Neither can I easily ignore the struggle of those deeply entwined within this church, with whom I have struggled in the trenches under all this pressure as “young leaders,” spread out over the four Jurisdictions and seven Conferences where I have worked and lived. 

At this moment, as the intersectional energy of UMForward goes back out across the nation, and so many are turning their attention towards Kansas City and what will happen at UMNext, I cannot help but think about the fact that it is possible that the majority of the room will more closely resemble those approaching retirement than those entering ministry. 

I have to ask myself, what is true? 

We have been told our whole careers that this problem was ours to solve.

We have been told that we have to stop the death of this denomination. 

Yet, now as it lies here on life support, and the family is deciding whether to pull the plug, only a minority of us will be allowed in the room. 

What do we make of that? Why were we so necessary before, when death seemed nigh, but less necessary when it is on the doorstep knocking. Might our presence in some way hinder the adequately financed exit that some of our colleagues have so long teased us they would be making before the end came. Might circumstances be different now that those pensions and retirement are not looking quite so secure. 

Those young & youngish people who enter the UMNext space do so with the weight of a generation held on the shoulders of only a few. We all know the labored, cautious walk of those made to feel like tokens, whether for their age, race or ethnicity, gender or orientation. Simultaneously they bear the burden of representing the many who are not in the room, while also knowing how easily they can be replaced – exactly because of how many are in waiting outside the room. 

Perhaps, in this moment, we can be kind to one another, my beloved generation. Perhaps we can remind those that enter as the few that we have your back. We are praying for you. So be bold. Speak up as if you have nothing to lose, because the time for caution has long since passed. The ladders some once wished to climb lead to nothing but questions and chaos. Go to the spaces you are called, but stand with us. Stand with us, here on this solid ground, your feet firmly planted, rooted, grounded. As you make choices and speak words, do nothing out of fear, beloveds. Do everything out of courage, for perfect love casts out all fear… and love is the work that has been given to us. 

All our lives, all our careers, we have been told that someday, we would be the only ones left standing. Do not let the anxiety of this moment make you forget that now. We will someday soon be the only ones left standing – so make your decisions in such a manner that you will not be standing alone. Stand with us now, so that we can still be here to stand with you in the near coming future – wherever that ground may be. Nothing is worth more than us – than the community – than the people.

You know that our generation will not stay with us if we build a church with no understanding of intersectionality, still laden with white supremacy and patriarchy, continuing to allow violence against LGBTQIA folxs like myself for the sake of “unity.” 

I have spent the past several years placing my life and body between weapons of destruction – both literal and figurative – and those they seek to harm. I ask you now, will you be just as uncompromising in your solidarity?  Will you refuse to allow structures to continue to be constructed that permit harm and spiritual violence against myself and other members of the LGBTQIA community? Will you continue to work to dismantle the systems of white supremacy and patriarchy that do violence to people of color, Black and Indigenous leaders, and women?

Stand with us now, dear friends, so that in the time to come we can still be here to stand with you.

 

You can play with me

“You can play with me,” a little voice said to me from the other side of the slide. It was my first day at a new school, and when recess came, I had fled to conceal myself under the big metal slide on the far edge of the playground. Turning my head, I looked up to see another girl, tiny like myself, with a hand of friendship reached out in sincerity. Slowly, I crawled out from under the slide and took her hand. For the next twelve years that we went to school together, I would never forget the way that Becky made me feel in that moment. Included. Worthy. Interesting. Loved.

Over the past week, I’ve found myself wanting to say the same thing that Becky said to me to some many hundreds of United Methodists: “You can play with me.” 

In the weeks since the Special Called Session of General Conference, I know that I have not been the only one hiding under the slide, feeling as if the whole world is chatting on the swings without me. We can’t really see or hear to know for sure whether that feeling is real or just our imagination. Perhaps everyone has found a corner of the playground to hide in themselves, or perhaps they are all twirling and talking together on the tire swing, spinning until they feel like they are going to throw up. Secrets are held close, and no amount of craning our necks will give us a clear view. 

Gatherings were announced for May, one open to the public, and one by invitation only; each offering a space to discuss how we would move forward, what would come next. The public gathering invited anyone who wanted to come to join the conversation. The selective gathering encouraged people to nominate others or nominate themselves if they wanted to be chosen. 

At first the reaction and condemnation of the selective talks was swift on social media, people said things like “we’ve tried this before” and “the time has passed for cis-het white men to be steering the ship.” As time passed, though, people became curious. They poked their heads out. Those that hadn’t had much interest in playing kickball found themselves wondering, “Will I be picked for the team?” Wondering whether they would be called special, chosen, leader, worthy, wise. Gradually, rigid resistance gave way to the expectant awaiting that fell over the crowd. 

In a moment when so many of us were feeling cast out, what a comfort it would be for somebody, anybody, to draw us into community, to help us feel less impotent. 

I was chatting on the phone with a friend on my way home from work when she went to check her email. “Maybe there will be one for me,” she said hopefully, like Charlie Bucket opening another chocolate bar, hoping to find that one last Golden Ticket to gain entry to Willy Wonka’s tour of delights. “Oh.” I heard the pain in her voice. The sound of one already excluded, being excluded still. It turned my heart inside out. 

All I could think in that moment, all that I’ve been able think in every moment since, were Becky’s words: “You can play with me.” 

I wanted to say it to her and I wanted to say it to you… and to be honest, it did not even start last week, I’ve wanted to say it every day since February 26th. 

I want to be on your team. The guys who have declared themselves team captains did not pick me either, friend. But that does not mean that we can’t play. I want to climb out from under my slide and pick dandelions with you. I want to join the crowd throwing the dodgeball up against the big stone wall. I want to take turns timing each other on the monkey bars, and spin in circles until we fall down laughing in the grass.

I want to play with you. I want you on my team.

I think you are so special, and worthy, and interesting, and wise. I think you are a leader who we cannot do this without. I am just such a big fan of yours, and I am sorry that I have not told you that enough. You amaze me every day when I see the brave and creative things you are doing passing through my newsfeed. 

Friend, I know that I can’t offer you a field to play on, or the newest toys, but I have a feeling that we can make do. That is when we have always had the most fun anyway. Running through the woods. Using our imaginations instead of our search engines. Creating toys out of sticks and rubber bands and dreams. That is when we have created the most beautiful things. When resources were low, but love was high. When power was lacking, but creativity was abundant. When we did not have the answers, but we had faith that God would give them. 

Friend, I do not know what comes next, and it has been so hard for me to pull myself out from under this slide. But now that I’m out here, standing in the warmth of the sun, I find my heart overflowing with the words that someone once said to me: You can play with me. You are not alone. You are fun, and wise, and incredible, and good. You are brave, and strong, and creative, and kind. You are simply fantastic, and I just can’t wait to see what holy mischief we can cook up together. 

Come on, let’s go adventuring, friend. You can play with me.

"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)