Friday, December 24, 2010

How many hats!

To the other one, to Borges, is to whom things happen. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and I delay myself, perhaps almost mechanically, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; from Borges I find out through the mail and I see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belong to no-one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, although I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being: the stone eternally wants to be stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books that in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belong to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.

Jorge Luis Borges, El hacedor, Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1960

A few weeks ago I attended a charter school board meeting to support teachers who had voted to be represented by the AFT teachers' union. A number of people spoke, including several clergy, union leaders, and the executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, where I currently work. The last person who spoke was a young organizer with the Arise Chicago workers' center who started her bit by saying "I come wearing many hats", which may be possible because people in Chicago just literally wear a lot of hats. However, her choice to identify with the female gender, the families of schoolteachers, and the worker justice movement provoked some thought on my part as well.

I, too, often come wearing many hats. I am a recent Bucknell University graduate with a degree in psychology and Spanish. I am young adult missionary and an organizer intern for a national worker justice group. I am something of an urban hipster and Central Pennsylvania redneck. I am United Methodist by membership (and by health insurance) and I attend a Lutheran church. I work on the North Side and I live on the South Side.

That is a lot of metaphorical hats to balance on my unsteady head. And then just today I read this article by Jim Wallis about how on one Christmas Eve during World War I soldiers from Germany, England, and France left their respective trenches to share the magic of the night. The showed each other pictures of their families, shared music, and played soccer with each other in the middle of the No Man's Land in between the trenches. What kind of hats were these men wearing that night? Their nationalities? Their platoon? Their ethnic blood? Their religious affiliation?

There is indeed something comforting to divide up people into clear, distinct categories. Every teen movie, especially High School Musical, plays with that theme. The Olympics and the World Cup heighten nationalistic pride as athletes drape themselves with their homeland's flag. War demands that we caricature the Other and take aim. And at the end of the day, we can sleep at night.

Tonight is Christmas Eve, however. We remember how a displaced couple brought a new life into the world in the most primitive of conditions because of the far away order of the empire. We remember how shepherds witnessed prophecy fulfilled. We remember how foreign dignitaries honored a peasant infant. And like the Virgin Mother, we treasure all these things in our hearts in a unity that defies an age of structural reductionism.

We do live in a terrifying complex world in which we all wear many hats, and sometimes like Borges we can't even tell which hat we are wearing. And that is the surpassing beauty of the Christ child, Emmanuel, the Holy of Holies incarnate in human flesh--we can always remember who we are when we step into the Divine Presence. The world does not become any less complex necessarily, but when we follow the Way of Christ life does become simpler. Our hat becomes a crown of thorns, in relationship and partnership with Christ and the rest of God's children. We share it with the Other and we become friends, outside of the trenches in the scorched earth between us. This is the Gospel.

Merry Christmas, dear friends.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas in Chicago

I was going to write about how I've interacted and worked with labor unions. Or how Paolo Freire's Pedogogy of the Oppressed is manifested in an OSHA training that I recently attended. Or how I cope with living half my life on the South Side and half my life on the North Side. Or how hilarious and guilt-inducing the concept of trampolining bears is.

However, I can't help but write about Christmas now. I admit--I watched the Christmas episode of Glee on Hulu, and now I find myself in an indelible funk of sentimental memories and "skin hunger". Such is Christmas in the 21st century American city. With this all in mind, I will make no philosophical claim or political defense in this post.

This is how I've seen Christmas in Chicago.

In illuminated residential houses throughout Bridgeport that somehow warm the heart while multi-directional winds numb my fingers.

In snow-covered industrial spaces, like railroads, coal piles, and vast parking lots, that exchanged their mechanized non-soul to the purity of nature born no doubt born very high in the gray sky that hides the top of the Sears Tower.

In carols and songs backed by a pipe organ, bells, and an excellent choir in the chapel of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

In slowly decorating the Christmas tree in the sanctuary of First Trinity Lutheran Church every Sunday after we celebrate communion.

In the view from the top of the el tracks over Roosevelt with winds whipping from the lake, past the Field Museum, over the river, and out to the western reaches of the city.

In the Holiday Train that moves from rail to rail of the CTA, which just happened to be on the Orange Line stopping at Roosevelt at about 6 pm this past Friday. It even smelled like a gingerbread house.

In decorating a scrounged Christmas tree in Trinity House with scrounged lights and candy canes that my grandmother from Iowa gave me when I left after Thanksgiving.

In the green garlands that coil around the street lights of Bryn Mawr Ave. and the wreaths above the turnstiles of the transfer at the subway.

In giving away live Christmas trees in the snow at Benton House, which involved manually sawing off the bottoms the trees so that they seep in water better and perhaps forever making my overcoat smell like the boreal forests of Manitoba.

In the many wonderful people that have helped make my transition to Chicago so fulfilling and joyful. I thank all of you and pray that you have a very hopeful, peaceful, loving, and Christ-filled Christmas.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Consumerism and Catholic Workers

NOTE: This was written on Friday, Nov. 26

Ah, Black Friday, the day when retailers supposedly exchange their red ink pens to those with black. Long lines waiting in late November cold at truly ungodly hours of the morning snake around stores like credit card garlands, and the tryptophan of the previous day’s feast finally wears off as the terrified Best Buy clerk tries to unlock doors with a 9-and-a-half foot pole.

I spent today inserting 12-foot tall posts in Iowa topsoil with my uncle and cousins. It made me happy.

Yes, I do suppose that I am a bit elitist in how I turn my head away from today’s commercial activities. I have no more words to express my attitudes about Black Friday that A Charlie Brown Christmas could preach through Linus’ thumb-filled mouth.

It does, ironically, stimulate my thoughts around a group with whom I have been dining on Monday nights since shortly after I moved to Chicago. St. Francis Catholic Worker House of Hospitality on the 4500 block of Kenmore is a fascinating microcosm of a movement that has existed since the Great Depression, and the folks that occupy the house continually pique my sense of curiosity about counter-cultural lifestyles. The Catholic Worker movement was started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, and even today the Workers espouse their values of compassion for the ignored and oppressed, simplicity in all facets of life, and a fierce spirit of independence from hierarchies and bureaucracies. Catholic Workers do not have to Roman Catholic in faith tradition, or follow any faith tradition in particular. Though many are ardently pacifist and represent some of the more proactive peace activists in the United States, others are quite content to spend their days quietly serving their neighborhood for friend and stranger, yuppie and hippie, junkie and teetotaler, and everyone in between.

The majority of the folks at St. Francis are 20-somethings who have stepped outside the race track to the top of society in order to explore themselves and service to others. None of the Workers have full-time jobs, though most have part-time jobs at supermarkets, non-profit organizations, or are enrolled in university classes. Many of the residents are recent immigrants from Africa or the Middle East who are seeking temporary housing until they gain their bearings in the Midwestern metropolis of Chicago. It amazes me that 18 people can live in an Uptown two story residence and not kill each other.

The Catholic Workers seem to represent the counterpoint to everything that Black Friday is. Where stress and hurriedness dominate the impatient throngs at a Target near you, time somehow seems to slow in the house. Where anything and everything has a price that is just low enough to convince the rabid consumer to drive another 45 minutes on name-your-expressway, the Catholic workers somehow subsist on donations and a meager communal pooling of resources. Where the American Dream consists of moving up (the corporate ladder) and out (to the suburbs), Catholic Workers strive to remain (with the) down(trodden) and in(side struggling neighborhoods).

This lifestyle is not for everyone, including me. I have had illuminating conversations with one Worker in particular, and his stories and arguments always impact me in some way. He claims to have never have had any real ambition for greater wealth and power, and his sardonic criticism of our society’s most guarded structures are incredibly simple, rational, and cutting. He offers no real solutions to our most basic problems, only his own story of wandering and eventual settling into St. Francis. Perhaps the thing that most struck me one night was how he described in the most matter of fact manner that he “really can’t think of anything that [he] wouldn’t give up for this place.”

I am convinced that God lovingly guides us to different places in life where we can use our gifts, talents, and passions for the most good, as long as we listen. For some that is construction while for others it is the management of a Fortune 500 company, and I pray that those two groups of people are the best construction workers and CEO's they can be. Some people spend their days behind computer screens and others spend their days in meat processing plants, and I pray that those two groups of people are the best office and factory workers that they can be. Then there are some people who somehow find themselves marching to a beat of a different drum than everyone else. These are the true counter-cultural prophets who constantly and quietly remind us that the dichotomy between intrusive, overbearing government and uncontrolled, oppressive capitalism is a false one. There is another way; there are other ways.

I thank my friends at St. Francis for teaching me this, and as long they continue to invite me to their dinner table, I will continue to learn in their house.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Of memory and mincemeat

Today’s post is based on a true story from my grandmother, whom my siblings and cousins have always addressed as “Oma”, the German word for grandmother. I’m not sure how many times I have heard this particular story, but I do not remember appreciating it until only a few years ago. It is a story I hear every Thanksgiving over mincemeat pie.

The story is set in a far off land on the other side of the world where winter is summer, fall is spring, and supposedly sinks empty in the opposite direction. Uruguay is a small, South American country, only about the size of South Dakota, wedged between the regional powers Argentina and Brazil and the Atlantic Ocean. It seemed like a very strange place for a group of German Mennonite refugees to settle, but that is indeed what happened. These Mennonite farmers had lived around the Free City of Danzig for many generations, and they considered themselves fully German, despite their minority religious affiliation. This being said, they were caught in the middle of the Second World War, supporting their homeland’s government just as any upstanding German citizen would do. They did not realize that they would not remain in Germany for much longer.

I do not know what all of these Mennonites who lived in Nazi ruled Germany thought about the authoritarian Third Reich, but I do know some illegally harbored fugitives who would have gone to some concentration camp, and I do know that some joined the German army. Most lived out their daily lives as best as they could in the midst of war, with the Polish border not far away. Most were not bothered by the Wehrmacht or the Gestapo. They were regular German folks. 

Oma does not defend what she learned later about her former homeland’s government. She herself came face to face with the barbed wire of some sort of prison camp. Yet it is not these days that still haunt her.
As the Nazi army retreated westward, stories came about the Red Army of the Soviet Union. Stories that quickly convinced my grandmother’s family and her neighbors to flee further west. I have heard Oma speak of this time of her life only a few times, but they included nightmarish scenes of cold winter nights with unidentified bombers flying overhead. They also included the humiliating experience of being a refugee within her own country. Dire poverty became daily life, and eventually the decision came that the people who made Danzig flourish would leave for this strange, little South American country, Uruguay.

As new immigrants, poverty traveled with my grandmother’s family and friends. They lived where the Uruguayan government allowed, often in tents in the middle of the vast, grassy pampas. This is where minced meat makes its appearance. With the end of the war, refugees spilled out from the tattered remains of Europe to every corner of the globe. Unlike the stereotype of SS fugitives hoarding Auschwitz gold, most of these refugees were desperately poor and displaced. People of faith in the United States recognized this need, and as their God had commanded them, they did their best to love their former enemies.

 I say they did their best. Their best was at times in the form a non-perishable can of mincemeat. Now mincemeat is something of a misnomer. It is not meat at all but pieces of fruit soaked in a heavy, syrup with a varity of spices and is most often used in pie. Evidently, mincemeat was not familiar with Oma’s family, nor were they familiar with mincemeat. However, having received the generous gifts of their American brothers and sisters, they were determined to eat it with pure graciousness. But how to prepare it? They had never seen or heard of anything like it. Well, it says “meat” on the label, so it must be all right in stew.

The way Oma tells the story, mincemeat is not all right in stew.

Having eaten my share of mincemeat at Thanksgivings past, I sometimes doubt that it is even all right in pie. However, we don’t eat mincemeat pie because we find it so terribly delicious. We eat mincemeat pie because we remember. We remember soldiers and friends, cold, awful winter nights, dirty refugee camps, crowded trans-Atlantic liners, and how the home of yesterday is not the home of today. We remember that sometimes we cannot make it on our own, and that the love, care, and generosity of others are what truly sustain us in times of need.

In America today, we have much to be thankful for, and we have many ways to express that thankfulness.

I, for one, will give thanks over mincemeat pie.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Theater, God, and worker justice

Yesterday was a very busy day. At Interfaith Worker Justice we had coordinated the organization of 30+ events from all over the United States protesting wage theft, the failure to pay workers their legally or contractually promised wages, and they were all to occur on Nov. 18, just a week before Thanksgiving. Naturally, the office was a bit tenser for the past two weeks than normal, but like any large event, the National Day of Action Against Wage Theft happened whether or not we had all of our ducks in order. There was a certain feeling of electricity, even as I went about my day-to-day activities of drafting e-mail updates, putting information on the IWJ website, and transcribing conference call notes. It all reminded me just a bit of my days in high school as an actor on stage.

In the great Elizabethan  comedy, As You Like It, William Shakespeare wrote this about life and theater:

“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…”

The entire monologue explains the different stages of a man’s life, but it certainly has greater implications than just that. I literally played many roles in theater, and I even considered studying theater at Bucknell University, though my down-to-earth pragmatism quickly got the best of me (I majored in psychology and Spanish). After all, I had a call to ministry, not to the stage. Or so I thought. As a volunteer youth ministry leader, I found that at times I had to change metaphorical hats rapidly, from jovial teammate in a dodgeball game to deadly serious speak as I gave the “talk” about Jesus at Young Life club. And to be totally truthful, there is a significant amount of theater that occurs in worker justice organizing as well. Sometimes it is literal, as shown by some events yesterday that utilized some street theater dramatizing the act and effects of wage theft. More often it is the subtle changing of tones to push people to action, whether they are Roman Catholic priests or illegally unpaid workers.

My exact “part” in the stage of IWJ and even the greater Chicago area is complicated. As a new arrival to Chicago, I have many opportunities to explain to strangers what I’m doing here. The circumstances of the environment often play a role in my answer. I might tell someone at my church that I am United Methodist missionary and then smile, nod, and escape as the nice church lady tries to express her approval. If I am feeling a bit more spunky and difficult, then I describe myself as a religion-labor organizer who works to involve clergy and laity in the struggle for worker rights. I might even raise a fist in solidarity. The look on my conversation partner’s face is priceless.

Most of the time I say something like the following: “I am a United Methodist missionary who is serving at a workers advocacy group called Interfaith Worker Justice.” It is neutral enough, and it all but guarantees further discussion. How am I missionary and I’m still in the United States? Will I try to convert them? What in God’s name did I study in college? It’s often a great way to talk both about social justice and the Gospel that I’ve dedicated my life to, often a precursor to an awkward silence, often a thought provocateur. It’s not often a great way to engage in small talk with a cute girl at a bar.

I was reminded of all these things yesterday as about thirty worker rights activists gathered to support a worker who had been owed over $4,000 in back wages from his former employer. It was a cold, November morning on Chicago’s North Side only five blocks from Lake Michigan, eventually we were able to move into the car wash waiting room, where we did wait—for almost an hour and a half while negotiations continued between the owner, the worker, two clergy, and the workers’ center director. None of us expected to hang out for that long, but it was a great stage for me to go through the motions of explaining my “part” at Interfaith Worker Justice. What I found was a series of very rich conversations about the role of the Church in social justice, and the role of social justice in various churches, with a reporter, a community organizer, and a Democratic Socialist. Even though I was playing a certain “part”—both representing the United Methodist Church and IWJ—I was surprised and pleased at how comfortable the exchanges were. Most of the folks were people of faith, I found out, and the thought of a “domestic” missionary was as refreshing to them as it had been to me last spring.

Followers of the Abrahamic faiths often refer to God as divine “author”, and like an actor at rehearsal, we spend much time trying to determine what our role really is. If only it were as simple as looking to a book for my lines and stage directions…yet our human experience is so much more profound because we are afforded the opportunity to write at least part of the script ourselves. Therefore, taking hold of the pen, let’s write a world that upraises peace and justice, love for our fellow humans, and a constant embrace with our Creator Mother-Father God.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In defense of Chicago Transit Authority

My workday morning routine is pretty typical. Get a shower, do some devotional time, make coffee.

See, while this may not seem strange to those folks who have been living and working in large urban environments for some time, riding a train every day is a new experience to me. In rural central Pennsylvania, public transportation is minimal. In the small town where I spent the first ten years of my life, I think that there is still a Capital Area Transit bus stop, but I can’t remember ever seeing a bus stop there. Like much of the United States, everyone in my hometown has a vehicle or at least has access to ride in the vehicle of someone else. And we don’t truly have curbs, so that’s why I have such hard time parallel parking (false).

I was blessed to have a car in college so that I could effectively volunteer as a Young Life leader in a town 10 miles west of the university (and drop high school kids off at their houses another 20 miles west of there). In my various temporary jobs during breaks, I always drove at least 20 miles, and the church where I interned for a summer was 30 miles away. The only buses that ever passed my house in the woods were the school buses.

Public transit is new to me, and though Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) makes enough sense—usually-- it is surprisingly expensive. $2.25 per trip, whether by bus or train, adds up pretty quickly when the minimum number of fares per week is ten. And of course the people always invade the privacy of my morning reading time. No one actually talks to me, but people sing outlandishly loud along with their I-Pod, laugh far too much, and quite frankly, smell bad far too often. Oh, and CTA can be completely capricious and irrational. For instance, it is not totally abnormal for a train to suddenly go “express” and pass by three stops without my noticing. It is customary to go “beepbeepbeep” and announce that we are experiencing mechanical difficulties and will be moving promptly. This may happen three or more times during a given commute. Truthfully, a co-worker once commented that staying committed to the CTA is like a battered wife making excuses for her alcoholic husband.

But I have a car in Chicago, and I don’t use it for commuting.

Obviously, this is a sign of my relative wealth and the support of my loving family. However, what I find in using CTA is a bit of the authentic experience of living in a city. I am still a newcomer, a stranger, really, in a vast metropolis of teeming streets, towering skyscrapers, and dilapidated, abandoned factories. I can choose to insulate myself from this unfamiliar, sometimes unwelcoming environment by manipulating my station wagon through Lake Shore Drive while listening in “Morning Edition” on NPR, but I feel that I do gain something quite intangible by riding the Red Line every day. I have read a half-dozen books since I arrived in Chicago, largely during my commute. I have noticed how quickly the racial and ethnic makeup of commuters changes when I cross from North Side to South Side. I have learned that yerba mate, my favorite South American tea, can inundate an entire train car with the smell of “wet dog”, as one teen-aged girl told me while covering her nose and mouth.

These experiences are also on top of an investment I make in my community. I see the same people on the street as I walk or bike to the rail landing in the shadow of Comiskey Park. I share in the misery of unexpected delays and unwanted odors with the other folks in the train car. More than once, someone has stopped me because one of my several buttons fell off my converted lap-top case. The experience is not always pleasant at the time, but it helps to build a body of experiences that in due course develops my understanding of my mission placement site. Who knows? Jesus may yet stand uncomfortably beside me, cleverly disguised as a tired-looking black woman, and I may have the opportunity to offer Jesus my seat.

Spiritual growth only occurs in vulnerability, and vulnerability only occurs in the presence of other people. Like people on a north-bound train.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Prophetic voices and wage theft

As I became aware of God’s heart for justice in the world, other progressive evangelical friends pointed me toward the book of the prophet Amos. I had skipped through Amos when I was a young teen-aged dude in conservative Central Pennsylvania, and the only thing that stuck out to me was that the seemingly hot-tempered prophet called the women of Israel “cows” (4:1), which, being a young teen, I thought was absurd and hilarious. Now it’s as if I can’t avoid the provocative language of Amos. My InterVarsity small group in college studied it, and it keeps showing up in the e-mail alerts I receive from organizations like Sojourners.

So what does Amos say? Like the other “minor” prophets, not much when compared to wordier books of the bible. Just something about how God’s anger burns against those who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6-7) And that hot-headed prophet who insulted good and proper ladies? Amos actually defended Israel from the wrath of the righteous Lord, pleading with God to spare the descendants of Jacob (Chapter 7).

Today the voice of Amos means more to me than ever before. I have the incredible opportunity to work with a national organization called Interfaith Worker Justice, which strives to organize religious communities to support low wage-earning workers, and I have already come into contact with horrendous stories of exploitation and abuse. Workers may log 60 or 70 hours, but they’ll only receive 40 hours of pay. Minimum wage is often ignored. Laid-off workers don’t receive their final paycheck. Using the language of IWJ and other worker rights advocates, they are victims of wage theft.

Put in the simplest of terms, wage theft is the practice of paying workers less than they earned. Through the blood, sweat, and tears (and even deaths) of past activists, in the United States we now have laws that establish a minimum wage, prohibit child labor, and protect the right of workers to organize. While those laws are still on the books, far too many workers fall through the cracks. The most discouraging thing is that the victims are often recent immigrants, and they both do not know their rights as workers and are terrified at the threat of deportation. In fact, labor law applies to all workers, regardless of immigration status, and as a Christian, I can’t help but draw a parallel to Leviticus 19:33, in which God commands the Israelites to treat the foreigner as a native-born

I am incredibly proud that I can help IWJ in raising awareness of the “crime wave no one talks about”. Affiliates in the IWJ network and outside allies are organizing in dozens of cities to demand an end to wage theft on the National Day of Action Against Wage Theft on Nov. 18, despite the decidedly anti-worker atmosphere of the current atmosphere of economics and politics. On second thought, it is precisely because of this poisonous atmosphere that we “prophecy to the hills” (Ezekiel 6). As people of faith, we are not only aware of God’s blessings on earth, but we are also aware of how the events on earth are different from what God intends. It is then our responsibility to testify to that which we know: that we are capable of better than denying workers their earned wages, abusing outdated laws to oppress a generation,  and systematically creating a society of inequality and strife.

The voice of Amos is indeed strong today.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My home and mission field

I went to a one-year-old's birthday party, and I think I was the only person whose first language was English. I was also the only Anglo amongst a group of folks from Nigeria, Cameroon, and India. This was just before the little Chinese kids began running through the room. And not long after the jazz/gospel band finished accompanying the chanting in the Lutheran worship service. I almost forgot that it was Halloween that day.

I and four other people live in an apartment that takes up about half of the second floor of a community center that is owned and run by First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, a.k.a. First Trinity. The other half is a large, open room that is usually called the Orphanage and is the venue of many concerts ranging from folk to death metal. A very imaginative group also uses the space to LARP (live-action role play) every other Friday (think Dungeons and Dragons except acted out). Downstairs is a community clothing closet ("God's Closet") that is open to the public Tuesdays and Fridays. An African heritage congregation and a Chinese congregation meet in the chapel across from God's Closet, which was why I was almost run over by Chinese children while eating birthday cake. An AA group meets weekly in a classroom on the first floor. Oh, and by the way, this is all next door to the actual Lutheran church.

Living in community was one of my top priorities when I learned that I would be moving to Chicago. First Trinity was not truly my first preference, but after being rejected by my top two choices (both of which would have been only 10-20 blocks away from the office instead of 12 miles away), it seemed quite inviting. That welcoming spirit has only continued as I live in the apartment and participate in the life of First Trinity. I've the wonderful opportunities to be serve as a cantor in the chanting of the "kyrie" and as substitute bellringer (being careful to not pull the rope that would release the bat guano). I've made chili for a Halloween concert, and I've learned my fair share of Lutheran theology at bible study.

Of course, this small church community is inside the larger South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport, a community dating from the mid 19th century when Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants came to build the nearby canal. Now Bridgeport is one of the top four most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago with an influx of Latinos and Chinese added to the hardscrabble mix that populates the area. It is not only possible but very likely that as I leave a bar after watching a football game, I will hear Chinese, Spanish, some Eastern European language I can't identify, and of course that great, endearing Chicago accent. Like any neighborhood, Bridgeport has its issues. Old-time racism simmers just below the surface, and the poverty line is somehow geographical as well as federally mandated.

First Trinity could not exist without the quirky inhabitants of the former parsonage and community center, nor could it be without its host neighborhood Bridgeport. I find little space for pretension here, and the authenticity is both comforting and abrasive, sometimes both in the same moment. While my official placement site as a US-2 missionary of the United Methodist Church is with Interfaith Worker Justice, I am finding that Bridgeport and First Trinity is as integral to my small part of missio dei as IWJ.

They are both my home and my mission field.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Workers in the Fields

We are all workers.

I am on a new and wondrous adventure. Having received my undergraduate degree from a small liberal arts university in the rounded, tree-covered mountains of Pennsylvania, I came to Chicago ready to change the world. And ready was how I felt. I had spent my entire life in central Pennsylvania, minus a semester in Argentina, and I had indeed worked. As a full-time student, as a part-time theater technical assistant, as a church summer intern, in golf course maintenance, in custodial work, in landscaping. I did not particularly know much about worker justice. I had heard reverent stories of César Chavez and Mother Jones. I had also heard contemptuous words aimed at the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, and the United Autoworkers. I knew that God had moved me to my knees in compassion and to my feet in fiery passion in defense of immigrants’ rights. So many things had coalesced to make me who and how I am, but I did not know what that would mean in a new city so far away from the deer paths of my youth.

I did not expect a desk job when I applied and went through the interview process of the US-2 program of the United Methodist Church. Nor did I expect to live on the near South Side within earshot of US Cellular Field (and still often called Comiskey Park). Nor did I expect my commute via the Red Line el tracks to take more than an hour.

Nor did I expect to write a blog about it.

However that is the beauty of life. Sometimes our best-laid plans fall by the wayside, and sometimes our most ill-conceived plots become our most defining triumphs.  It is overflowing with contradiction, confusion, chaos, and catch-22. We drown in tears of laughter, pain, joy, sadness. Or freshly chopped onion. Life is not always terribly poetic, but, my goodness, does it always make for a good story.

These are some of the things that I work for in the Red Poppy Fields. For friendship, family, community and many splendid things. But I also work for justice, respect, equality, sheer survival and many things that dirty our hands and bloody our faces. That is also what it means to work in the Red Poppy Fields.

And we all work there.

What we pick may vary—college degrees, sub-poverty level wages, pensions, jail sentences—but we all ultimately share the harvest collectively. What does that harvest look like? Parks full of children shrieking with delight or penitentiaries packed with unreformed convicts? A golden sunset sliding past a Midwestern silo or a smoke-choked battlefield that was once an Iraqi marketplace? A white wedding in a church sanctuary or a flag-draped casket in a military cemetery? The harvest is all of these things together, and I certainly have been unable wrap my feeble mind around all of it.

It is my hope that you will follow me on my adventure in Chicago, in the Red Poppy Fields, and we can share our bits of the harvest along the way. It is my prayer that we will love and respect each other in our actions and our words. It is my dream that just a piece of heaven might come on earth.