All posts by Hannah Adair Bonner

Hannah Adair Bonner is the Director of Frontera Wesley, The Wesley Foundation of Tucson. She was ordained in the United Methodist Church in 2012.

Staying at the Table Together: Communion During COVID as a Global Conversation

As I reached the front of the outdoor chapel at CDF Alex Haley Farm to receive communion, we threw our arms around each other in the tight, fierce grip of women who do not fall apart – who cannot fall apart – and wept. I could taste the bread on my tongue. I could feel the presence of guardians around us, gently buffering our space. Church Mother, the Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson. Scholar warrior, Dr. Janet Wolf. I was safe in a way I rarely am, and I let out the heavy sobs of grief and relief that blended into one feeling.

Communion has always been a visceral thing for me. It has always been a physical thing for me. It has made Christ present for me in a way nothing else can. 

I was the child who scattered the remaining bread amidst the graves in the cemetery behind the old church. I was the teen that carefully poured the juice into the grass. I was the woman who defied an upbringing that condemned women pastors to answer the call and become a steward of these sacred things. 

In the grip of my Soror, the Rev. Carissa Rogers, surrounded by the saints, I felt an unleashing of a grief too large, and a hope too vast, for any one person to carry on her own. We had been called, and we had answered – she and I. We had given our lives to be stewards of this sacrament, this Holy Mystery, this sacred meal. The cost had been high. 

The institution demanded its pound of flesh, the sacrifice of our wholeness, the tearing out of the need for tenderness and affection. I had grieved as my friend, my Soror, my clergy sister, had decided wholeness was too high a price, as she had surrendered her credentials in order to remain an unapologetically Queer woman. For my part, I had sublimated my whole self to the call, foregoing safety and tenderness and companionship, only to find that my body was still broken, my sacramental authority still under attack, that there was nothing I could give or give up that could alter the brutal weight of the system on the body of a young, Queer woman.

Yet, I had just seen something that had turned the weight of it upside down, took it off my shoulders and placed it beneath my feet, gave me a foundation to stand upon rather than a burden to bear. I had seen with my own eyes my friend standing behind the Table, invited to assist in presiding over the elements for this gathering of some of the world’s most faithful, most powerful, most humble servants of God. I had seen an afro-futuristic vision of what could be, and what ought to be, and what is.

We were staying at the Table – despite it all – because it is in this sacred meal we are reminded that there is nothing we have to give or be or do to be worthy of the love of God, the gift of grace, the presence of the Spirit. We believe this, we proclaim this, that is the call. 

This week, the United Methodist global family was supposed to be gathering in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in order to determine the future place of folxs like Carissa and I at The Table. Instead, we find ourselves having very different conversations. Conversations that many people never thought we would have about the future of all of our COMMUNAL relationship with The Table as a people driven apart by pandemic, unable to pass the peace, or break one loaf, or share from one cup.

In a time of social distancing, this most physical aspect of the calling, presiding at Table, has become one of the most difficult aspects of our work to grapple with and grieve – not only for Queer clergy, but for our whole pastoral community of Elders and Licensed Local Pastors. 

Early on, we all heard with horror about the Episcopal priest in DC who had become the epicenter of an outbreak after serving communion and shaking hands with hundreds of people. Pastors around the country of all denominations reckoned with the fact that we had the capacity to be “super-spreaders” simply by doing our work of loving and guiding in the same way we always had. 

So, together we ask, how do we stay at the Table now? 

In consideration to those of us who have been fighting our whole lives to be able to bless, break, and share this bread with the most outcast, the most rejected, the most overlooked, it is advisable not to approach this conversation with a casual tone, lest we appear to be flippant about what has been so heavy and so painful for so many for so long. 

‘We’ll just do it online,’ is not a fully satisfying conclusion to anyone, but perhaps even more uncomfortable for those who have never known the privilege of being able to take their place at The Table for granted. So let us agree to pursue whatever path forward in a way that does the least harm. 

That is far from the tone taken by Diana Butler Bass in issuing her piece describing those who did not do online communion as “Hoarders of the Eucharist.” While people of good conscience all around the world, the stewards of the sacraments, seek to do their best during this difficult time, it is a highly privileged pronouncement to make just a couple months into this new chapter. Further, it was an accusation that rang quite hollow indeed when what was intended was not a vigorous conversation about how to get the sacraments to the most vulnerable and the least conveniently located, but rather how to get them to the most comfortable and conveniently contacted. 

Therefore, I want to approach this conversation with the tenderness that this Institution has often denied me, and ask that we be so very gentle with one another in this conversation. That we be so very aware of the different things this meal has meant to each of us. That we be so very aware of the different things this meal has cost us and given us. That we be so very aware of the wounds of those of us who come broken to the Table. 

As someone who relies upon listening as the first step to any decision, plan or approach, I spent the weekend before this listening deeply to anyone who would speak to me about this. I spoke to friends across Pan-Methodism, and across denominations, and across the globe. I was blessed to get to receive the wisdom of friends from the Methodist Church of Mexico, the Methodist Church of South Africa, the AME Church, the CME Church, etc. 

For example, I am deeply indebted to my friend, the Rev. Lauren Matthew of the Methodist Church of South Africa, for opening up a vast window into conversations in their nation. Rev. Matthew serves with the Methodist Church of South Africa Doctrine, Ethics and Worship Committee, which is engaging in thorough and public discussion of online Communion over Zoom. The first part of the two part series discussed presentations and papers by the following thinkers:  Rev. Thembani Ngcayisa, Rev. Faan Myburgh, Mr. Peter Frow, Rev. Sidwell Mokgothu, Rev. Tim AtwellDr. Angela Flint and Fr. Thabang Nkadimeng. The second part of the series discussed presentations and papers by Mzwandile Molo Martin Mostert, Mteteli Caba, Norman Raphahlela, Roger Scholtz, Wesley Magruder, Wesley Olivier, Xolisani Silolo, Sifiso Khuzwayo.

In all these conversations that I had with friends, however, I realized that there is still privilege inherent in the fact that we are people with education and credentials communicating over computers, with wifi, and electricity. So, one of the most important calls I made was to one of my closest friends, Donald, whose friendship is indeed a privilege, and who has compassion for our unhoused neighbors as one who has spent much of his life as one of them. “The way I think about it,” Donald told me, “every time we get to eat, it’s Communion. Maybe y’all could figure out a way of getting hungry people food along with their Communion.” 

It is the task of those of us who are the stewards of these sacred things to not only learn, carry, and teach the tradition and theology of that which we steward, but also to maintain a rigorous commitment to ensuring that this meal does not become a mockery by leaving out the very people whose inclusion transforms this Table into a revolutionary act. We are the ones responsible to ensure that our Tables do not begin to mimic the ones the world sets out, where folxs sit only with who they feel comfortable, speak only with whom they agree, eat only with whom they can network. 

To invite folxs to gather with us at the computer in order to break bread and share juice assumes that a) they have a computer or smartphone b) they have access to electricity that would permit long periods of use c) they have access to wifi or enough data to stream large amounts d) that they have bread and juice, food and water, substitutes of any kind. 

Therefore, as our congregations gather in this way, it is incumbent upon us as the stewards of this means of grace, that we do not allow our computer screens to become closed circuit networks where we do not see the parts of the world that make us uncomfortable; that we do not allow our screens to become windows to other worlds, but not our own. 

I wanted to offer some thoughts, largely derived from the conversations I’ve been having and the wisdom that has been shared by my friends around the world. I want to encourage those who are moving forward on this path to do so in a way that listens to one another, seeks to be as true to the sacrament as possible, and that does as little harm to those for whom this will not feel like an option, either because of conviction or accessibility. 

So, please receive and ponder with me these things that I’ve received, these things that I am allowing to challenge me. I want to invite you to conversation not debate, because we have already fought enough wars over these things. At some point, everyone will likely find something with which they agree and something with which they disagree, and many things with which to wrestle. 

I invite you to receive and ponder with me this tenfold prayer/reflection/meditation, in order that when all is said and done, when we are able to sit at The Table together again, no one will be missing needlessly.

1. First, may we always remember who is missing, who we have left out.

It feels to me in pieces like Diana Butler Bass’s, that there is a lot of conflation going on between people who are truly excluded, and those who are simply inconvenienced. In seminary, I learned of a group during the Reformation time that fasted from Communion for decades because they could not agree upon what it is. We, by no means, should be those people, but neither have we reached any kind of state of emergency amongst those of us who are comfortably tucked in our homes, with our families, and our food, and our many devices; unbothered by the terrorism of racism, the necessity of being an essential worker, or the loss of those close to us; we who have missed a Communion or two in the past because of a vacation, or a soccer game, or an alarm that didn’t go off. There are many people who do not have the luxury of this security, these leisure activities or possessions, certainly, but let us not conflate ourselves with them. May we, rather, be mindful of them and hear them. 

To me, the accusation of “hoarding the Eucharist” and the arguments to share with the excluded and abandoned, ring hollow when the method through which we are sharing is not accessible to those who are truly cast aside. It rings hollow to say that we are hoarding the bread from the hungry, when we are not truly speaking of sharing bread with the hungry, but of eating our own. The radical, redistributive nature of Communion, lost for the most part over millennia, is in no way recaptured if it leads to a deeper engagement only with those who have the resources to tune in. We must push ourselves further, once again, to consider how our feast can be tied to, connected to, offered to those who most need it. If we do not, we render ourselves cynical indeed to claim their suffering for ourselves, while doing nothing about it. 

Let us strive to be honest about who are the vulnerable, who are the suffering, who are the excluded and discern whether we are acting to prioritize their inclusion, or whether we are comforting the comfortable. It is okay to do both, but we must do both, and not merely the latter. 

For decades, we have had the capacity to extend the Table in this way to those who we call “shut-ins”, to folxs in prison, to folxs who cannot be with us physically for a plethora of reasons. Yet, we did not pursue this option until we needed it ourselves. This extending of the Table can truly be a blessing to those who we had not thought to offer it to before in this way, but we need to reckon with why – if this is so necessary – it was not necessary for them before it affected us. This is not a guilt trip that any single person should take upon their shoulders, this is a communal question that we all as a community can struggle with together. 

Donald suggests that perhaps as time goes on, if we were driven to get Communion to those who are most hungry, that we could also bring them enough food to soothe their hunger as well. And that, takes us closer to what Communion was, and is why we must not forget to listen. 

2. Second, may we always remember that people are truly dying, and that within the context of the United States, this is hitting our Black communities and our Indigenous communities hardest of all, and bringing terror to our Undocumented kin. May we be sensitive and intentional about hearing their voices in the conversation, and be vigilant to hear voices from our global church as well. 

Oftentimes, those of us who have the most privilege of physical safety and emotional distance are the ones who can invest the most effort in these conversations. Case in point, what I am doing right now. For those of us in the predominantly white parts of the Pan-Methodist family, we will not find as heavy a percentage of our members to be in the populations most heavily relied upon as essential labor and most likely to be disproportionately impacted by contagion. 

This is not a new part of our story. In 1793, my home city of Philadelphia was ravaged by the yellow fever. The white population that could flee did flee, escaping out of the city to avoid contagion, leaving behind their friends and neighbors to die alone. It was the AME Church, led by Richard Allen that stepped up.

“When few white citizens dared to leave their homes to help others in need, Allen and his band of black aid workers roamed Philadelphia streets. Based on eyewitness narratives, one can imagine Allen and Absalom Jones, a fellow African-American leader and founder of St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church, entering homes with boarded-up windows. Neighbors yelled that the devil inhabited people’s homes and bodies: “You won’t go in there if ya’ know what’s good for ya’!” Inside they found white victims of the fever, abandoned or left alone when the rest of their families died. Allen and Jones built caskets, laid the dead to rest, and moved along.”

They had hoped that their actions would transform their relationships with their white neighbors, proving to them their worth. Instead, they were demeaned and accused of only helping white people so they could rob them. What an evil world we white members of the population built that we ever demanded that they had to prove anything to us to begin with, and that even the risk and sacrifice of their lives was not sufficient to satisfy the bottomless pit of our deadly racism. 

Let us seek to live differently in this time. Let us see what is happening in the world around us, be mindful of the different roles we are physically playing, and listen to the wisdom of those most impacted. 

According to my dear friend John Thomas III, the Editor of the Christian Recorder of the AME Church, “I think that the AME Church found that we agreed to disagree with valid theological arguments on both sides. It’s a situation where you trust pastors to make the best decisions for their congregations and members given the need for social distancing.” While some Bishops had strong opinions against home communion, John told me that others took a more open approach. Such as Bishop Clement W. Fugh, who suggested a Communion of Empty Hands, in which Communion could be celebrated online and members would receive it with empty hands at home until they could receive it physically. 

The CME Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal, meanwhile seems to be in a similar situation as the AME and UMC, in that there is no universal pronouncement and churches are each deciding at a local level. My friend, the Rev. Dr. Shazetta Thompson-Hill of the CME Church, tells me that some are doing it online, others by drive-thru Communion, and others are abstaining during this time. The AMEZ, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, on the other hand, has taken a stance to prohibit online communion. 

My friend, the Rev. Xam Murillo of the Methodist Church of Mexico, reminds me that their Liberation focused tradition is more prone to listen to the needs of the suffering in determining their actions, than those of us who emerge from the perspective of the colonizer. He shared with me this story, 

“Bishop Federico Pagura, who founded CLAI and was WCC president for Latin America, he shares being in Guatemala after a devastating earthquake. People gathered knowing a bishop was in town. They asked him ecumenically to celebrate: Methodists, Roman Catholics, etc… he laughs at himself writing when he asked for the wine and bread… and they offer him choclo bread and coffee, and he consecrated and celebrated with it…”

 Xam’s story brought to mind what my friend Minister Candace Simpson reminded me of this week – that in Acts 8:36, the Ethiopian Eunuch cried out, “Look here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

3. Third, may we engage across ecumenical lines without tearing down the polity and theology of other traditions.

We are not going to agree about this, because we never have. People were fighting wars over these points and killing one another for hundreds of years. We do not have a unified Christian theology of what the sacrament of Communion is or means, or whether it even is a sacrament. 

It is not “playing fair,” therefore, for Butler Bass to have hurled the misnomer “Hoarders of Eucharist” at those who are merely doing their best within their convictions of conscience to be good stewards of what has been entrusted to them according to their own theology and understanding of what is taking place. And not to be redundant, but we are two months into this… people have fasted from Eucharist for decades in the past… we have not reached the point at all where conversation has been exhausted and where insults are to be thrown. 

Such behavior can lead easily to misunderstandings of what is actually happening around us. For instance, my friend the Rev. Jemima Strain of the Methodist Church in England tells me that the Archbishop of Canterbury (Anglican) presided at communion while they live-streamed on Easter Sunday. “Their theology is that the priest/presbyter is receiving the elements on behalf of the faithful.”  (See comprehensive report on online worship in England here.)

Things are not so here in the United States, however. Dr. Wil Gafney, of the Episcopal Church, the body of the Anglican Communion within the United States, on the other hand explains that “We are all experiencing a Eucharistic fast, not imposed by clergy or hierarchy as suggested in [Diana Butler Bass’s] piece. Indeed, we who have authority and agency to consecrate elements are not doing so until we can do so with our people. And individual priests cannot commune her self but a priest isolated with her partner or family can and they are not doing so.”

One can easily understand how such casual accusations of “hoarding” without a real understanding of the theology of Eucharist for another tradition, and the sacrifices being made by its clergy and laity, could be destructive of Christian community and fruitful dialogue in this area, and do needless harm and offense to those who are seeking to be faithful to their convictions. 

Instead, perhaps we could lean into how we can best live out our Methodist theology and converse with others in order to learn rather than critique their own theology. There is the opportunity that they may provide us with things that may deepen our own practice.

For instance, I spoke to one of my favorite academics, Dr. Thea Portier-Young, knowing she would have a different perspective as a Catholic woman. She made a suggestion that is quite appropriate for our tradition and understanding of the elements as well. That suggestion was that we train people within households to be eucharistic ministers, to know what to do with the elements afterwards. This provides me an opportunity to segue to a prayer very close to my heart. 

4. Fourth, may we not damage our understanding of this means of grace and the impact it has upon us by handling it without care, by being careless or casual with that which millennia of faithful Christians have sought so hard to pass on to us with care and reverence.

As that little girl who took care of the bread and juice after the service, as that Chapel Intern who properly disposed of the elements after services at Duke Divinity School, I feel a deep conviction that how we treat what we have rendered consecrated will have a huge impact on our experience and understanding of it.

Therefore, Thea’s suggestion of training Eucharistic ministers is one that I find very helpful. It is the opportunity to prepare folxs and in so doing to deepen their understanding and appreciation for the elements of communion. 

How many little girls could sense their first bit of calling as they take responsibility to make sure that the elements of Communion do not end up down the sink or down the drain or in the trash? How many folxs might have their tactile experience of communion forever transformed by understanding that we do not treat it the same after it has been consecrated? How much more meaning might it have for people?

These, of course, are just ancillary benefits to the reality that this is really important. As pastors, we are the stewards of these elements, of this meal, and it is our responsibility to do all within our power to follow through to the end. This means that if we as a community are going to permit folxs to use elements within their own homes, and we are the ones to consecrate them, then we must take responsibility to also educate folxs about how to properly dispose of that which remains. Eating it will likely be, for many, the simplest and most nutritious conclusion to the affair. 

5. Fifth, may we maintain not only the mystery but also the unity of this means of grace.

I am indebted fully for this insight to the Rev. Abigail Parker Herrera, both for the concept and for the wording. 

To Abby part of maintaining the mystery and the unity is that we strive to truly share this meal together in as similar a way as possible to the embodied presence together, not diminishing the things that do not need to be diminished in order to suit our own convenience. This principle applies to the timing in which which we partake. To her, to simply watch a service of Communion at our leisure, it would feel like a diminishing of the Body of Christ. It would feel as if we are saying, I have no need of you, you have no need of me. 

These days, for those in education as students or teachers, we are accustomed to the language of synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous means that online lectures are live and students and professors participate in real time. Asynchronous means that professors record their lectures and students digest them at their leisure. 

In order to maintain the understanding on the part of folxs that Communion is both participatory and communal, it would therefore seem apropos for it to be synchronous (at the same time) and not asynchronous (at your leisure). For those who do not celebrate their services live, it would seem like something to explore whether that portion could be live, or whether a separate Communion service via Zoom could be made available for those who want to receive.

1 Corinthians 10:17 tells us, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” How then can we seek to challenge ourselves to maintain that sense for our congregations. This may be one way for those pastors who weary of feeling like producers to seize the opportunity to engage in live, unpredictable community with their congregations. 

My friend, the Rev. Xam Murillo tells me of the most incredible way that they have been doing this in the Methodist Church of Mexico. The Bishop sent out to all the churches a theological document so that they could study about Communion and the elements ahead of time. He also sent with it a very simple recipe for bread, so that they could make that bread at home and all have the same loaf ready. When the time came, the Bishop led the whole country in Communion all together, and they all had the understanding from their study, and they all had the same loaf of bread in their hands. It may not have been necessary to have the same bread, any form of food would do, but was it not beautiful? Did it not provide a way for the people to feel closer to one another, and for the experience to feel closer to what they long for and miss? Did not the intentionality of it remind them of the mystery and unity of the meal?

It seems appropriate to strive in all ways to experience this together, to feel unified, transformed by the Holy Mystery, and made whole.

6. Sixth, may we take this opportunity for folxs to learn, to be educated about the sacrament and deepened in their appreciation, understanding, and experience of this means of grace. 

It was working at the Duke Youth Academy with Dr. Fred Edie and Rev. Elizabeth Ingram Schindler that I came to understand the transformative power of a mental connection to what is taking place in Communion. After my students left, they would often contact me, telling me how much they missed Communion. We created a longing in them for a sacrament that was not rote recitation, but was transformative liturgy. They understood, for many the first time, what they words they were saying meant as they spoke and heard the liturgy. It was no longer something to “get through”, it had become poetry to them. 

I find that there is no greater joy in my life than to be able to share Communion with young people in a way that makes them feel something, know something, believe something. 

It seems that we have a moment now, as the Methodist Church of Mexico is seizing upon, to help deepen folxs understanding of this meal in a way that could be transformative for the rest of their lives. What would it look like to encourage them to study and prepare for online communion, the way we have done? What would it look like to help folxs to feel the seriousness of what is taking place, to treat it as sacrament and not ceremony? What would it look like to take time during the service to learn about different parts of what we do at The Table?

May we not allow the necessity of Communion, that some feel in this time, to become the convenience of Communion that may last for time unforeseeable. Let us do all in our power to retain the sacredness, the mystery, of this means of grace.  

7. Seventh, may we remember that we are stewards of a Holy Mystery, and avoid the temptation to strike the rock. The “why” is important as well as the “what.”

In Numbers 20:6-13, God instructs Moses to speak to the rock and cause water to come forth. Instead, Moses chooses to do the more dramatic thing, the thing that will give him the opportunity to perform, the thing that will remind them of his power rather than God’s power: Moses strikes the rock. 

In Exodus 17:6, God had told Moses to strike the rock in order that water might come out, and Moses does so. Yet, here in Numbers 20, God gives a different command – God says, speak to the rock. Yet, perhaps Moses felt silly, or perhaps he felt insecure and wanted to remind the people of what he could do. So rather than doing what God commanded, Moses struck the rock as he had in Exodus. 

God did not punish the people for the choice of Moses, water still came forth. Yet, God told Moses that because he had done this, he would not be able to cross over into the Promised Land. God needed the people of Israel to know who had brought them there. God needed the people to know it was the power of God and not the power of Moses. 

In this different time, we must remember to consider the “why” and not only the “what” of what we do. We may do something that causes water to come out, but may we be careful to do so to show God’s power and not our own. May we be careful to do feeling the weight of God’s guidance, and not the pressure of the people. 

We must be aware and kind to one another. Some will choose to abstain from doing Communion in this way, and some will not. Each one must search their hearts for the “why” of “what” they do. 

My friend John Thomas III of the AME Church, reminds me that they are watching their community be decimated by this virus, and they must comfort them in the way each pastor feels convicted and called – not engage in the debates of we who have the privilege of distance from the fire. 

Conversely, a pastor may feel that they too are under fire if they feel under pressure from tithing church members to celebrate Communion. Is the decision to do so in response to the fear of interpersonal consequences the same as the decision to do so out of compassion for those experiencing true terror? 

We must always consider the “why” and the “what.” It looked the same both times that Moses struck the rock, but the second time, he wasn’t doing it because God told him to do it. 

Communion is not only about comfort, it is also – and perhaps even more so – about discomfort. It calls us to come and sit beside those that do not look or sound or smell or think the way that we do. 

We each must discern whether we are doing it out of fear or courage, convenience or conviction. There will be some that do and some that do not for all these reasons and more, and I wish very much that the weight of that decision did not land so squarely on individual ministers to add to the many things so heavy on their minds. It is a heavy weight indeed, and one which I do not truly want to make heavier.

8. Eighth, in our debates about this may we not erode the callings of our clergy, ordained and licensed, especially those whose authority is most often challenged and attacked. 

There is a sensitivity I would like us to have about the ways that authority is assumed or is earned depending on one’s level of privilege. I am hearing repeatedly within the conversation that it shouldn’t just be Elders and local pastors who can preside over the Table anyway. If that is a discussion for us to have, then let us have it, but let us not conflate conviction with convenience and do damage to those whose authority is already so often undermined and diminished. Within our connectional system, some have authority assumed because of their gender, race, orientation, nation of origin, physical capacity, while others must work doubly hard to be able to lead in the way that they are called. What is handed to some must be earned, struggled for, and sometimes demanded by others. 

Bearing that in mind, may we be aware of our own privilege and the ways that we express it or are unaware of it within this conversation. Like the hip cis-het white male pastor who says, “Just call me Bob,” while his Black female counterpart goes by the Rev. Dr. – may we not undermine the authority of our peers by tossing aside so lightly something that our privilege renders less costly to us and therefore less dear.

9. Ninth, may we respect and remember that online community and online Communion are experienced differently for different people. May we be sensitive and gentle with one another where we each are.

This reality may be affected by a multitude of factors, among them each person’s accessibility to technology, and their past experiences with it. When it comes to technology, we are not only talking about having a device, but also of appropriate electricity and internet connection, and the knowledge of how to use it. 

You may have seen the SNL skit about Zoom meetings where two women who work for the company simply do not know how to interact with a camera. They sit too close, too far, they chatter. While this may be amusing to digital natives like myself, it is all too real and all too painful for those who are trying to keep up these days. 

I was blessed to be able to order a webcam and teach a friend in his 80’s how to FaceTime and Zoom with his family. For him it was a good experience. He was able to figure out the technology that I had shipped to his house, with me walking him through it. He was able to begin to video chat with his children and grandchildren. That was a beautiful thing for him, but for most people in his demographic, and for those excluded from technology because of resources or accessibility, it will not be so simple. 

Conversely, for those who do not view online community and online experiences as real, it would be advisable to be respectful of the experiences of those for whom it is very much real. We have different experiences of what it means and what it feels like and what it is capable of doing in our emotional, psychological and spiritual realities. 

The Rev. Jemima Strain, informs me that while the Methodist Church of England is not celebrating Communion online at this time, they are struggling to be creative and listen to one another and find a way forward through engaging in the gift that online community can be for many, offering an act of spiritual communion, for instance, on Easter Day.

The Council of Bishops of the Methodist Church in Brazil, on the other hand, has ruled much more broadly that Holy Communion shall be celebrated during online worship, preferably live-streaming, with a video to be available for those who cannot attend live, and an audio version for those without access to video-streaming .

For me, as someone who has moved so frequently, and whose acts for justice have had consequences, my truest support system has come to be my online community. The women who often advise and hold me up and know me best are the ones who have been doing so for the longest through online community. The people around me physically, for the most part, did not watch what I went through in front of the Waller County Jail with the kind of focus that many of my friends and Sorors around the country did. They do not know the trauma I’ve endured or how it changed me, and they don’t always know how to support me. But Candace and Carissa and Valerie and Wil and Traci and Aundria do. That experience is real for me. 

I share this to say, let us not be hasty to dismiss or mock those who struggle with technology; and likewise, let us not dismiss the power that it has had to create support and survival for some, and how it might now do so for others. 

This will mean that the experience of online Communion will not feel the same for everyone who chooses to partake, because of these factors and so many others. It may work great for many, and just will not for others. Perhaps we can be kind to one another in this, not condemning those who do not feel the connection or even want to explore it, nor condemning those who experience it as a joy and a means of grace. 

10. Tenth, may we remember that we are not alone in discerning the right path forward. We are in this together. 

May we remember that it is the presence of Christ experienced through the community that caused us to love The Table at which we gather. May we remember that we need one another, that we love one another, and that as we move forward we still want to be sitting with one another at this Table. 

Hard conversations are being had all over the world about the future of the church and the future of The Table, and these conversations will be richer the more they are cross-pollinated and encouraged.

May we celebrate one another’s creativity as we grapple with these hard questions, and find delight in experiencing community in new ways that will transform the church. 

May we talk with one another and never feel like we are in this alone, and never feel like we have to figure out all the answers in the isolation of our homes, and empty churches with empty pews. 

May we be gentle with one another, remembering that we are truly all doing our best, and we have come so far in such a short amount of time. 

May we still be able to meet one another at the Table someday, to hold one another’s griefs and sorrows, joys and celebrations, and squeeze all of the pieces of our scattered selves and scattered flock back together again.

The UMC in 2020: God Overrules Our Rules

(On January 1, 2020 legislation went into effect that had passed by 53% at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in February of 2019. This legislation – if obeyed – seeks to impose harsh penalties on those who stand with the LGBTQIA+ community, and drive LGBTIQIA+ clergy, like myself, out of the church.) 

“It is plain to me that the whole work of God called Methodism is an extraordinary dispensation of His providence. Therefore, I do not wonder if several things occur therein which do not fall under ordinary rules of discipline.” – John Wesley, 1771, Letter to Mary Bosanquet Fletcher

Every once in a while, when we have made gods of ourselves and set up our own words as idols, God has to step in and remind us who and whose we are, and who it is that calls us. God seems to prefer to do so by loving people we did not love, by calling people that we would not call, and by using people that we threw away. 

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” they asked of the colonized form of a middle eastern carpenter. The answer that made them so uncomfortable was ‘yes.’ Not only could good come from Nazareth, but God chose that place exactly because they did not expect – did not want – their Savior to be “one of those people.” Jesus entered the world in such an unexpected way that it frightened the powerful, humbled the proud, and disrupted systems of oppression. 

God likes to use the people we would not choose ourselves to remind us we are not God. 

John Wesley, failed missionary, was just such a person. 

Plagued by accusations of disruption and disobedience to the Order of the Church, John Wesley wrote to his brother Charles in 1739 to explain his resistance. “I have both an ordinary call and an extraordinary,” he wrote. The ordinary call, John explained, was his ordination, that moment the Bishop lays hands on our head and says, “Take thou authority.” The extraordinary call is what God commands us to do with our ordination. 

In John’s view, the ones who ordain are not the ones who call, and the ones who ordain are not the ones who have the final word on what we do with that ordination. 

The evidence of the extraordinary call is not an adherence to the Discipline, nor the approval of the Bishop, John explains, rather “God bears witness in an extraordinary manner, that my thus exercising my ordinary call is well pleasing in His sight.” 

It is God who calls. It is the Institution that ordains. Yet, it is God – once again – who determines how we are to live out that ordination. While the institution may affirm, honor and even credential our call, the call belongs to God. We must always be ready for that moment when God reminds us of that.

This moment in time, this tiny measure of history, is that moment for United Methodist clergy and laity all around the world. That moment when God is using LGBTQIA+ folxs, and the call God has placed on our lives, to remind us that God is God and we are not.  

We are faced with a choice, all who stand as leaders in the United Methodist Church in this moment. Will we hide in the ordinary, or accept the extraordinary call offered to us in this historic moment in the church? 

John Wesley, himself, never felt like he had much of a choice in the matter. From the beginning of the third rise of Methodism, in the year after John felt his heart “strangely warmed”, he was under constant critique from his colleagues. He was accused of disrupting the order of the church by allowing lay preachers, and later women preachers. He was accused of interfering with the ministry of other pastors, by preaching in the fields of their parishes when he was denied the pulpit.

John was accused of ‘dismissing church order,’ of disruption, of risking schism. Specifically, his Clergy Order accused John of breaking Article 23 of the Anglican Order, their Book of Discipline, which forbade preachers from being sent out without the institution’s authority. 

Frustrated, John wrote to his older brother Samuel, “What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God, and to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends.”

With his brother Charles, John could be more transparent than with Samuel, writing, 

“‘But,’ they say, ‘it is just that you submit yourself to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.’ True; to every ordinance of man which is not contrary to the command of God. But if any man, bishop or other, ordain that I shall not do what God commands me to do, to submit to that ordinance would be to obey man rather than God.”

John Wesley, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Harriet Tubman and Jarena Lee, found that the way that we answer our call is more than pragmatic – it is also about the integrity in our relationship with God. If we are determined to obey God, we will from time to time be called to disobey man in both his governmental and religious authority. This is inevitable in a world where both our governmental and religious institutions are often tempted to place themselves on the throne.

We are living in just such a moment. A moment when the world seems upside down, because they want us to believe that we are disobedient and rebellious simply because we seek to be obedient to the call from God.

Mary Bosanquet Fletcher knew well this game that Institutions and powerful men play, when she wrote to Wesley in 1771 to plead with her friend to finally have a little backbone when it came to women’s leadership, to stand with them in their right to preach. She used his own words to argue that some of us have an extraordinary call, and we have no choice but to answer it. She held him accountable to give the same grace and flexibility with the Discipline to others that he had allowed for himself. 

Her words – and more importantly, her witness and her fruit – worked. He assented to the fact that she held a truthful claim to the same extraordinary call that he had claimed for himself. Women began to receive license to preach thereafter. 

This is what has always been powerful about our movement – that a group of people so intense and disciplined and focused on Scripture and Tradition, could also be so open to our understanding being transformed by Reason and Experience. 

It was our Order that organized us, but it was Grace that transformed us. It is our Discipline that informs us, but it is the Spirit that guides us. Let us not prioritize the former over the latter.

Woe be to those who make an idol of their own words. Woe be to those who abandon the fruit of the spirit that is self-control, in order to seek control of others. 

Our desire for understanding and control – our desire to be like God in our mind – has plagued us since the beginning, clashing with God’s desire for us to be like God in our hearts. Our lust for order and power clashing with God’s compassion and grace.

Focusing on what LOOKS like a speck in another’s eye, we fail to remove the log out of our own eye in order to see them clearly in all their glory.

Like James and John, men struggle for the seat at the top, bickering like apostles over the seats at the left and right hand of the throne. Even John Wesley struggled with Whitefield, struggled with Asbury, struggled with Garrison, struggled with his brothers Charles and Samuel, seeking to protect the power and control and order that had been accumulated. 

We have always been a stumbling, bumbling crew, that require signs and wonders to believe. That demand that those God has chosen will let us kill them before we will trust their call.

I have stood at the end of a gun, at the edge of a knife, before. The gun-cocking on computer screens did not scare me out of my calling. Warnings to “Go back to the church of Satan” did not make me budge. I know what it is to have my ordinary call interrupted by an extraordinary one. I know what it is to face fear and refuse to give it the final word. 

I have stood on sacred grounds with these Queer feet; held the Holy Book and broken the Bread with these Queer hands; proclaimed the timeless Gospel with this Queer mouth. And God has rendered my witness irrefutable. 

In the words of John Wesley, “God bears witness in an extraordinary manner, that my thus exercising my ordinary call is well pleasing in His sight.”

All throughout the world there are members of our LGBTQIA+ community – clergy and laity – living out these extraordinary calls, with great faithfulness and deep sacrifice and profound courage.

The United Methodist Church is made up of many more people who will have to make the choice between protecting their own ordinary call – their ordination and leadership positions – and listening for and yielding to an extraordinary call that is summoning us out of our stable, secure place. Do you hear it?

All of our careers, they have been telling us that it was on our shoulders to save this Institution. What would happen if we choose to save the church instead?

Will you be a true Methodist? Will you rebel, resist, disobey unjust laws? Reject stability and professional advancement when it gets in the way of God’s call? Read, write, and create vociferously? Preach the Gospel with courage and compassion? Care about the health of people’s bodies like you do their minds and souls? Reach out constantly and stay connected? Empower people no one has empowered before?

Will we look threats and cruelty square in the eye and resist harm together? Will we declare that all belong?

Will you refuse to stand under the shelter of a mutilated tree if these LGBTQIA+ limbs are severed?

We build towers. We build walls. We make rules. But God tumbles towers, God tears down walls, and God most certainly overrules our rules.

“But what if a bishop forbids this? … God being my helper, I will obey Him still: and if I suffer for it, His will be done.” -John Wesley, 1739, Letter to Charles Wesley

 

Looking for resources to aid in resisting? Check out the resources for individuals and communities at #ResistHarm. Look into the efforts at All Belong. Find liturgy and add your support to the work of enfleshed. Find resources specific to your context at RMNetwork. Heard about something? Suggest other ideas in the comments section below!!

 

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 

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.