Thursday, April 28, 2011

Power, Amibition, and the Path of the Cross

"A lot of people thought Cesar was trying to play God, that this guy was trying to pull a saintly act. Poor Cesar! They just couldn't accept it for what it was..."
- Dolores Huerta in Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa

A few weeks ago I had the incredible honor of helping with the interviews and days of discernment for the next classes of US-2 and mission intern young adult missionaries of the United Methodist Church. First off, April is a beautiful time of year in Manhattan. I wish that the flowers were blooming in Chicago now like they were in the West Village then. Next, it is always a pleasure to interact with the wonderful, very capable folks at the General Board of Global Ministries who work tirelessly on the third floor of the Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive, just across the street from the famous Riverside Church. But really, the thing that will make those couple days stay with me is interacting with young adults who had converged from all over the United States to offer a few years of their lives in service to God and their fellow people. Those folks blew me away with their passion, their intelligence, their imagination.

And their ambition.

After returning from a night out, a few of us settled into the basement lounge of Alma Matthews House just because we knew that we wouldn't see each other again for a long time. Discussion wandered everywhere from liberation theology to infallibility of scripture to how we could lock out the guys who were smoking outside. For whatever reason, however, we kept returning to how we, the so-called Millennial generation, would soon step into the leadership structure of the United Methodist Church, especially with general conference approaching in spring of 2012. We were aware of the power of our voice, and I for one found both hope and at least a bit of panic at that thought.

See, I grew up with the saying, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Especially by my junior of college, I had all but rejected most bureaucratic structures that concentrated power, and I had flirted with Christian anarchism. I still have many friends who remain on that far left edge who reject nearly any form of organized power because of how it is often abused.

I no longer see that philosophy as feasible. The problems of the world are too great, too complex, and too often perpetuated by people with much more organized money than I have to follow such an ideologically pure path. In order to unleash the streams of justice, people must pool their power until dams of oppression finally break. I did not understand this even last summer when I first was introduced to my current placement site, Interfaith Worker Justice, and I felt incredibly uncomfortable claiming any power for myself when power from God alone. Then I started learning about organizing for social change, about different strategies and some tried and true tactics to put pressure on the power brokers who keep so many in chains. I came to understand that organizing is another form of the Holy Spirit, and, just as some folks speak strange languages and supernaturally heal the sick, this form of the Holy Spirit is righteous power.

I, like some of those of young adult missionary candidates, have ambition, or better stated, ambitions. I have ambitions to eventually obtain a master's of divinity and perhaps the white collar of ordination. Though the concept seems a bit far-fetched, I also can see how I could land in other positions of power and authority within or outside of the structures of the United Methodist Church. God help me if that happens.

Which makes me think of Cesar Chavez, whose biography I am currently reading. Despite the fact that he never even graduated high school, Chavez came to embody the farmworker movement and interacted with some of the most powerful men in the country. There are pictures of him with United States senators and even the pope. And naturally many people view him as something of an egomaniac. From what I have heard and read, there is some truth in that. It is also true that to wield power, one must also have a strong ego.

Thus, I don't think that we as Christians should flee from power. Hiding away in a cloister can be as insidious a temptation as controlling the masses from the bully pulpit. We, as Christians, must claim and then utilize our power in a fashion that honors God. The problem is that many Christians disagree about what honors God. Therefore, we must constantly stride the path of the cross and center ourselves in Christ's love. The path of the cross is sacrifice and nonviolence and hope. The path of the cross is ambitious because the cross has unimaginable power.

It is the power of love.

Friday, April 22, 2011

I Thirst: a Reflection for Good Friday

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.'
-John 18:28

It was one of those blisteringly hot days back in July. The previous day had been Independence Day, though we had started work earlier than usual, we still only worked a half day. I didn’t particularly like being denied a half day’s wage because of some silly nationalistic holiday, so I was determined to earn it back by working an hour longer each day for the rest of week.
            At the golf course nestled in the narrow valley, I worked as simple laborer on the grounds crew. Because I had started later in the summer than the rest of guys, I didn’t have the skills of my peers, and I was given the most manual labor. In this case it was removal of nine months’ worth of compacted leaves on acres of flowerbeds. That involved going between a leafblower and a rake and flat shovel. Usually working in pairs, we would load up the big Chevy pick-up with leaves, dump it behind number 13 tee, and repeat. It was good “honest” work.
            On this hot day, I was working alone. I was in the shade, and I thought that I was keeping well hydrated. I don’t know if I just didn’t drink enough water or if the extra hour in the dust put me over the edge. I was feeling extra tired and a little dizzy when I got home that day, and I just went to bed and tried to drink as much water as possible.  The next morning I got up at 4 AM as usual, tried to eat some breakfast, and nearly vomited. Something was wrong with my body.
            Up on the cross Jesus was thirsty too. He’d already lost a lot blood from the flogging, and the physical exertion is more than I can imagine. I feel that we talk a lot about Jesus’ perseverance in the church, as we should, but then we use it affirm to our “Protestant work ethic” as well. However, in Jesus’ admission of thirst, I see the embrace of human frailty, our bond to the physical and physiological. Jesus didn’t keep a stiff upper lip. Jesus didn’t try to show up the other guys hanging with him. Jesus took the path of humility, recognizing his humanity when he was so close to the revelation of his greatest divine glory.
            This is the Jesus I know. Born to poor, refugee parents, raised in a marginalized and oppressed culture, working as a tradesman and a teacher, then persecuted for political agitation. Jesus loved. Jesus wept. Jesus ate and drank, so that means that he also peed and pooped. Jesus was human just like you and me.
            I missed two days of work that July due to heat exhaustion, and it wasn’t for some grand cause. I was constantly thirsty for those two days because I tried to deny my humanity. I thought that I could justify myself through my work. That’s not the path of the cross, not the path of Christ. Today as we remember Christ’s divine nature, may we also remember his human nature. Today as we remember our liberation from thirst, may we also remember our liberation to thirst.


Friday, April 1, 2011

Intentionally Communing

Keep in mind that our community is not composed of those who are already saints, but of those who are trying to become saints. Therefore let us be extremely patient with each others' faults and failures.
-          -Mother Teresa

The story of how I came to live in community is a little convoluted. I did not intend on living on the Near South Side of Chicago, an hour’s commute via public transportation to the office of Interfaith Worker Justice. In early August of 2010 I had thought that I would live in an intentional community made up of mostly seminarians in the Far North neighborhood of Rogers Park, but I learned, quite accidentally, that the community was exclusively for seminarians. And someone forgot to tell me. Oops. That set me off on a panicked effort to live at another intentional community also on the North Side. Through the generous help of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, I spent the last weekend of August in Chicago hoping that I would be accepted by the residents of that community. I learned in the parking lot of Baltimore-Washington International Airport that they hadn’t accepted me. 

That was 6 days before I was to move to Chicago from central Pennsylvania. Oh dear.

Luckily, the office assistant of the IWJ office had also done a Google search for “Christian intentional communities” in Chicago. That was how I got into contact with First Trinity in the near-south neighborhood of Bridgeport. I had visited First Trinity during my short weekend stay in late August, but I had figured that it was too far away from the office. Suddenly, I had little choice but to live there...or live with the family of a second cousin of my father whom I had never met.
First Trinity it was.
I moved into the second-floor apartment of the community center across from the old Lutheran church over Labor Day weekend after a 12-hour car drive via the Pennsylvania Turnpike and flatland-crossing interstates of the Midwest. My room was threadbare. The walls were decorated with blue-and-gray streaks and aquatic plant scenes. The paint was chipping. I slept on a roll-away bed mattress for about two weeks until I brought home the mattress left by my US-2 missionary predecessor.

But the folks there! They were such an odd assortment of folks. Bohemian artists and musicians, immigrant students and workers, and a few guys who had lived there since the late 1970’s. On Labor Day we had a big barbecue where we ate hamburgers around a big table and then played Uno. I felt pretty accepted pretty fast.
But I also learned that community is a difficult thing to perpetuate without any structures or organized effort. One roommate left three months after my arrival; he and his girlfriend needed more space than the little apartment could provide. True story. Shortly after Christmas another roommate left for a construction project at O’Hare, and though all his things remained at Trinity, I have seen him maybe twice since the beginning of the year. Three more “roommates” who lived in the old parsonage across the driveway also left by the end of February. The musician who shared a wall with me was the next to leave in mid-March, and it is likely that one more roommate will leave by the end of May. 

We call that “transistioning”.

With the absence of folks with whom I had only begun to develop relationships and the appearance of new folks with whom I had no relationship, I finally got proactive in my community-building. One of the newbies had lived in an honest-to-God coop for a few years, and so we worked together to make a proto-coop out of our mismatching neighbors. We sent out e-mails and knocked on doors, and then repeated it. Last Sunday we finally had our first Trinity Community meeting where 10 of the 13 current residents showed up. 


We have a long way to go before we function as an actual community and instead of just people who live in the same space. Because the community consists of two buildings, we have to organize separate meetings to go over things like cleaning common spaces (bathrooms, kitchens, living rooms), provision of communal resources (toilet paper, sponges, pots & pans, etc.), and respecting each other’s different schedules (no violin after 11 pm, please). In lieu of active and organized residents, the church board of trustees and deacons had been interviewing and admitting new residents. It is my neighbors’ and my hope that soon we will at the very least have a stronger voice in that process. And lastly, maybe we’ll actually, you know, like, hang out together every once and while?

Community is a hard thing to practice in general, and it is even harder when the community is as diverse as the one at First Trinity. We are co-ed, represent four different nations of birth (and thus four different native languages), are between 20 and 65 years old (though mostly under 30), and have jobs ranging from full-time student to missionary to software engineer.  Deciding issues through consensus will be fun.

But I don’t think that the beauty of community can be captured by demographics. It comes to light in short narratives. Stories like helping a love-struck roommate make an unplanned trip to Phoenix. Stories like sharing impromptu birthday cake on a Wednesday night. Or everyone singing along with music from a laptop as the night drags on. While community takes some very intentional organizing and planning, community also just…plain…happens.

While I was in college, my closest friends and I had been struck by the account of the community of believers from the book of Acts. Our community at Bucknell didn’t look like that, and Trinity Community won’t look like that either. Maybe that’s because every community looks different, and that’s cool. But what remains constant is the sharing of resources, of space, and of life.

I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else right now.