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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 others, 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 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 – was 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 time and money to earning DMins, and tried to do everything to make new places for new people. We have built communities and networks to support innovation, like UMC Lead. We 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.

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

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

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

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

I have to ask myself, what is true? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You can play with me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravens

“Hey, you up?” There’s only one thing that could mean, I think to myself, pulling on my robe: JJ brought me food. She has been doing it ever since she moved in a few months back. Working long hours, and then picking up something to eat on the way home, and bringing something for me as well. At first, I used to tease her that she was trying to fatten me up; but as time has gone on and finances have gotten tighter, I don’t feel amusement any more; I only feel gratitude.

She is a raven to my Elijah; making sure I don’t go to bed hungry.

Come to think of it, ravens have become pretty common around these parts lately. Although unlike Elijah’s story, they don’t swing through with a mouthful of bread. Instead, they take the form of lunches after church; bags of groceries when my car broke down and money got tight; bills at restaurants, intercepted and paid before they could make it from the waitress’ hands to mine; texts from down in our kitchen, letting me know Sim Q is cooking; and, yes, late night hollers of “Hey, you up?”

I can’t help but think of our dinners at the Isaiah House, my heart’s home, where I lived the happiest year of my life with Rebekah and David, Sarah and Tom, Luke and Timothy, Ms. G and Ms. S. We were a whole bunch of strangers become friends become family, which is not too far off from my life these days.

Our meals were the best eating of my life. They were a collision between rice and oil and the vegetables from our garden; occasionally topped off by a cake that Ms. S or Ms. G had gotten from the food bank. We ate vegetarian, except on birthdays, for reasons having to do with finances and stewardship of the earth’s resources (food you grow yourself is free after all).

Although we were not all in agreement on this, and when Ms. G could get her hands on some chicken wings, into the toaster oven they would go. “Hey, you hungry?” she’d whisper to me conspiratorially, slipping me some buffalo-battered deep-fried protein: our little not-so-secret secret.

The two most treasured food memories of my life are as follows: my grandmother’s blueberry pancakes, and Rebekah’s Tomato Pie (made with ingredients from the backyard of the Isaiah House). I will probably never get to eat either of them again, but I will never forget the love that went into making them so much more than food.

That is the way it so often is. Food, as necessary as it is, is so much more than food. It can be a means of showing love, expressing solidarity, and creating community. In the act of sharing food, we take the thing without which we cannot live and we give it to another; as if to say that we do not want to live without one another; as if to say that in sharing what gives us life, we give our lives to one another.

That was what Jesus meant when he picked up a loaf of bread when he was having dinner with his friends. He picked up the loaf in front of him and he broke it into pieces and gave the pieces to the friends sitting around him. As he did it, he said, “This is my body broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.” In doing so, this word made flesh, God made man, did what comes natural to so many people – he used food to send a message about love. He used food to say that he would give his life for them. Only in his case, he meant it literally not figuratively.

Within a matter of hours after they had eaten together, he would be arrested unjustly; he would become a victim of some of the most extreme police brutality in recorded history. Without the rights of a citizen, and because he was an ethnic minority, he would receive no legal representation. He would be given the death penalty and promptly executed by the State.

When he regained his life, his friends would not recognize him. At least not at first. Not until he picked up a loaf of bread, and broke it, and handed it to them.

We find ourselves in the breaking of bread. We learn to see God. We learn to see ourselves. We learn to see others.

That is what we have been doing ever since: handing each other pieces of bread to show that we are family and we give our lives to one another.

When the early Christians began sharing communion, the breaking of bread and sharing of wine, it had a lot more to do with community than ritual. When they gathered and shared food, there were many amongst them that actually needed that food. The act of sharing was more than a tradition, more than a recitation of words, it was a necessity. In feeling their need for food and their need for one another, they recognized their need for the one who had first broken bread for them and told them to share it and told them to do it in remembrance of him. As they sacrificed what they had for one another, they remembered the ultimate sacrifice that he had made for them.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the funny thing is, I have never wanted to be a Solomon with all the wealth in the world. I have always found the story of Elijah to be so much more compelling. A man surviving on pieces of bread, brought to him in the beaks of ravens and later from the hands of widows and orphans. A man who spoke truth to power at the risk of his life, and went where God told him to go without questioning the reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer to have a reasonably stocked refrigerator, and bank account if we are being honest. Yet, there is something so faith provoking about hearing those words, “Hey, you up?” and knowing that as long as there is bread in this world and people faithful enough to share it, none of us needs to be hungry.

Yet, while there is so much bread, there are still so many that are hungry. All we need is a little more faith. All we need is a little more confidence in the fact that two thousand years ago, when Jesus said, “do this in remembrance of me,” he really meant it. He really meant that if someone puts a loaf of bread in your hands, the most faithful thing you can do with it is share it.

I do not think I am the best at remembering this, but I have a lot of ravens around me and they are teaching me how. It’s hard sometimes; and it’s humbling; and it’s so very beautiful.

It is in the breaking of bread, and in the sharing of bread, that we who are broken become whole.

Raven
Raven
Ravens
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Raven... icecream raven to be exact.
Raven… icecream raven to be exact.
Ravens
Ravens
Raven
Raven
Ravens
Ravens

 

Ravens
Ravens
Ra
Raven
Ravens
Ravens
Oh... just dreaming of ravens.
Oh… just feeling grateful for ravens.

 

A Time to Listen, A Time to Speak

“I cannot wait until I am in a different appointment, so that I can preach the way that you do.”

I cocked my head to the side, a little puzzled. I had just finished a sermon on racism, privilege, solidarity and what it means to be the family of God as the guest preacher at a predominantly white gathering. It is true that serving as the first white pastor on the staff of a predominantly African American congregation means I am accustomed to receiving a consistent flow of interesting statements and questions from those both inside and outside of our congregation. But the clearly articulated assumption that my situation somehow gives me immunity to the consequences and discomfort of addressing injustice made me pause.

After that pause, my response was very simple, “Actually, I’ve always preached this way. No matter where I’ve served. You can preach this way anywhere. It is possible.”

When I first became clergy at the age of twenty-six, I was appointed to two small congregations in rural Maryland, in the beautiful marshes of the Chesapeake. When the appointment was made, my District Superintendent presented the congregations with a resume that led them to expect anyone but a small, blonde woman to walk through their doors. It informed them that I had served an African American congregation in Durham, North Carolina; been part of multiple anti-racism trainings and efforts; and most recently served a diverse, urban congregation in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

Ironically, or appropriately, the city of Coatesville, that I was leaving, shared an ignoble distinction with this community in Maryland, which I can only assume was an act of coincidence or divine intervention. The distinction is that Coatesville was the host to the last recorded lynching of an African American man in the state of Pennsylvania; while Princess Anne was the host to the last recorded lynching of an African American man in the state of Maryland. In the case of Coatesville, it was Zachariah Walker in 1911; in the case of Princess Anne, it was George Armwood in 1933. Both of them accused of crimes; but more importantly, both of them innocent for all eternity, denied their right to be proven guilty or not.

The way that I found out about the lynching of George Armwood was not from my District Superintendent or from a history book. The way that I heard the story was, instead, over coffee with a man who explained to me that he had relatives who had been a part of the mob. He had relatives who had told him about watching George Armwood die. He presented the facts with little value judgment given; to this day, I do not know with certainty how he felt about those who had taken part in the murder.

What I do know is the reason why the conversation, and many more like it, came up. That reason is the same reason for my colleague’s recent response: I had just finished a sermon on racism, privilege, solidarity and what it means to be the family of God.

It is true that I preach that way in Houston, Texas, at St. John’s Church, one of the largest predominantly African American congregations in Methodism. But it is also true that I preached that way in the pulpits I served in Durham, North Carolina; Dames Quarter & Oriole, Maryland; Coatesville, Wayne, & Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and any other places I have traveled. The truth of the matter was that I spoke to my congregations and audiences about these realities not because we did not care for one another; I spoke to them about hard truths because I loved them and they loved me, and we all deserved the space to talk and think about how to act in order to love others better.

I do not lead a charmed life where there are no consequences for what I do and say. The reality is that there are consequences, and I have and will pay them.

I must also acknowledge, however, that I preach this way because I can; I am able to say things from the pulpit as a white person with privilege that it would be much more difficult for my colleagues who are people of color to say without different repercussions, pressures and stresses.

For this reason, I also acknowledge that I preach this way because I must. I preach this way, in whichever pulpit I stand, because when I search “Cross-Racial Clergy” on Facebook, I am confronted with a virtual monument which will last for as long as God and Mark Zuckerberg will allow. It is the profile of my friend and colleague, the Rev. Joyce Anderson, in whose eyes my youthful exuberance often caused both a smile and a sigh. A smile because she was a loving person; a sigh because I did not really understand the difficulty of her life as “Cross-Racial Clergy.” I wish I could tell her that I understand better now; I wish I could tell her that I am still listening to her and that her experiences and witness have not been silenced by death.

In her last blog post, exactly 3 months before she passed away from cancer, Joyce wrote:

“During Black History Month worship services in white churches I have experienced White members passively, but passionately, apologizing to me for the centuries of oppression, suppression, and dehumanization against my African ancestors.  This always made me uncomfortable, because the fact is that those acts were everything but passive. They were blatant acts of cruelty and violence. They were done with calculated evil and conviction, supported by carefully legislated laws, and laced with thin and blasphemous attempts at corroborating them with Biblical principles. The true offense was, and still is, against God.  If anyone needs an apology, it’s God.”

These are the feelings that Joyce endured as she struggled to remain polite in a church culture where the silence of we, her white colleagues, caused the burden to be too heavy and change to seem too far away. We perpetuate this reality when we, as white leaders, are more concerned about the comfort of our congregations than we are concerned about the safety and well-being of our colleagues who are persons of color.

Several years ago, Bishop Kenneth Carder explained to a group of students at Duke that it is not the role of women alone to make churches ready for female pastors; male pastors must also preach as if equality was their responsibility. I raised my hand and asked him a question that he was glad to answer in the affirmative: should not the same also be true for white pastors who bear the responsibility to prepare their congregations to love, accept and follow pastors of any race or ethnicity?

This is the reason why we must preach as if lives depend on it; because somebody’s life does.

I have been quiet for the past few months; unable to write since the blog I posted about standing in a street still stained with the blood of Michael Brown. My ears were still ringing with Justin Hansford’s explanation that this disregard for Michael’s body, this lengthy exposure and exhibition of it, was – in effect – a modern lynching. The body sending a traumatic message to the community where it was left to lie.  It has been my time to listen, rather than speak; to read, rather than write; to follow, rather than lead.

The question was raised by someone a couple months back of whether it was right for me to stand, on occasion, in the pulpit of a predominantly African American church during such a time as this. I have done a good deal of thinking about it. And I know that it is, in fact, for just such a time as this that I stand where I stand. That I speak, after listening. That I write, after reading. That I lead, in the very act of following.

This is where God and the Pastors of St. John’s have asked me to stand. This is where we have chosen to stand together.

Have the courage to join us. Not only in knowing when to speak, but also in knowing when to be silent – when to listen, to read, to follow.  Then, when it is your time, speak truth; in whichever pulpit, podium, or desk you stand; with whichever congregation, classroom, or context you address; carrying whichever fears and apprehensions you bear.

“I say come ye ye who still have hope
That we can still survive now
Let’s work together as we should
And fight to stay alive

I say come ye ye who would have love
It’s time to take a stand
Don’t mind abuse it must be paid
For the love of your fellow man”
Nina Simone