Keeping an Eye on Things

When I want to see live gospel stories, I go to the Amoco station at 14th and Euclid in my Washington, D.C., neighborhood.

One Saturday morning I stopped at the gas station for a cup of coffee. I was standing at the front door lowering my lips to a steaming Styrofoam cup when the Wonder Bread truck pulled up to unload the weekend deliveries. The driver opened the cargo bay doors and began off-loading flats of bread.

Creative Commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/
Roadside Pictures/Creative Commons 3.0

Across the parking lot, a woman in her late 40s saw the truck full of bread and made directly for it. She was thin. Her clothes were not clean. Her face was drawn with cold.

The driver seemed nervous to leave her standing next to his open bay doors as he wheeled the deliveries into the store. He glanced at me as if to say, “Keep an eye on things.” She did indeed appear to be weighing whether she could grab a couple of loaves and run. She didn’t.

When the driver returned, she asked him very politely, but with a certain level of desperation, if she could have some bread.

“Sister,” he said, “it’s not mine to give.” She asked again, for just one loaf. With some anguish, he turned his back on her, saying again, “It’s not mine to give.” She walked away.

The driver looked at me, embarrassed. He seemed genuinely ashamed that he didn’t give bread to a sister in need.

The driver was correct in saying that the bread was not his to give. There are inventories to be filled and every item must be accounted for, lest he be accused of stealing. In one sense, the bread is “owned” by Interstate Bakeries Corp. In another sense, a more human sense, bread is to be shared.

In the crisp morning air, Jesus’ question in Luke’s gospel was stretched like a spiritual tension wire between the delivery driver and myself—Who among you, when your child asks for bread, would give a stone?

LAST AUTUMN, another scene unfolded at that same intersection. I attended an impromptu prayer service on the sidewalk across from the gas station. A young man, Erlin, had been killed there in a gang altercation two nights earlier. The word went through the neighborhood that his mother wanted to pray.

Twenty people were crowded around a scrawny maple tree. Someone had taped Erlin’s picture to the trunk. His elementary-school-age nieces and nephews held votive candles purchased at the dollar store.

Erlin’s buddies from his “crew” were there too. They lined up behind his mother, forming a kind of honor guard. They wore dark glasses. A few had guns shoved down the front of their nylon running pants. Some, out of respect for his mother, had put their weapons—thick chains and baseball bats with nails hammered into the ends—behind the dumpster a few yards away.

A woman from Erlin’s church led prayers. The little kids said they hoped “Uncle Erlin” was in heaven. Local activists pleaded for an end to the violence, begging his crew not to retaliate.

Finally, his mother asked to speak. In her soft Jamaican accent, she said how much she loved her son. She said he struggled to do the right thing, and that watching him struggle had broken her heart.

Then she turned to his friends—his fellow gang members—and said the most amazing thing. “He was my son,” she said. “You were his brothers. Now you are my sons and I am your mother. Now we are family. This is the way it is.” She expected his “brothers” to be at her table for jerk chicken and potatoes any time they were hungry. She expected them to help her fix things around the apartment. They must come to her with their problems, and she would pray for each of them every day.

In the gathering dark, I heard the line from John’s gospel echo and twist. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing by, he said, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”

There is nothing at the intersection of 14th and Euclid to mark the miraculous moment when the kinship model of Erlin’s family shifted. Nothing to mark his mother’s blunt and radical understanding of what makes a family. But the plain prayers of children and ordinary people have soaked the dusty ground. The blood of a young man, who struggled to do the right thing, anoints the place—like on a sacrificial altar.

Ownership vs. kinship. Bread alongside blood. Where do you go to see the gospel unfold?

Reprinted with permission from Sojourners, (800) 714-7474, www.sojo.net.

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Labor of Love

Vicky Kemper is a former editor at Sojourners magazine. She wrote much of that magazine’s ground-breaking Central America coverage when she began work there in January 1985. Now she’s a United Church of Christ pastor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

In her Labor Day 2008 sermon, she reflects on the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C.– where Sojourners community was based–and where I still live. She examines how the radical good news of Jesus challenges, chastises, and cajoles the economically comfortable, while also offering justice and liberation to the economically uncomfortable.

It is hard for those of us who think of ourselves as politically liberal, socially progressive and theologically cutting-edge to admit that when it comes to economics—things like wages and profits and taxes and immigration policies—our views sometimes have more to do with our material perspective—where we live and how much we have—than our spiritual faith.

Vicki reminds us that it’s the uncomfortable area of economics that most often gets Jesus into trouble.

After all, the Roman authorities did not execute Jesus for talking about religion; they put him to death on a cross because his teachings threatened to turn upside down the very political and economic values and structures on which both the Roman empire and the Jewish temple were based.

But while the Word is hard for those of us who are wealthy by the world’s standards, God’s love is profligate, wasteful, excessive, overabundant, and poured out for us when we let our hearts be cracked open against the hard edges of the daily lives of the poor.

Thanks, Vicki! Keep that pulpit hot! Read her whole sermon here..

The Flat-Coat Retriever of Grace

I have a bumper sticker that reads: “Lord, help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.” This is a theological replacement for my shy and vulnerable mid-20s angst which shrink-sized to “I think your karma just ran over my dogma.”

In poet Denise Levertov’s poem “Overland to the Islands” she lets her imagination map out her way to God:

Let’s go—much as the dog goes,
intently haphazard, …
dancing
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
nevertheless he
keeps moving, changing pace
and approach but
not direction—‘every step an arrival.’

My dog is like this. Always exuberantly joyful. Always forgiving of my many faults. Where I fail in hospitality, she welcomes friend and stranger alike. When intellectual theology fails, my dog nudges me back to the heart of my faith w-a-l-k. (No, sweetie, not right now.).

Review on “Cut Loose the Body”

More reviews on Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poetry on Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib edited by Joseph Ross and myself. This one from Robert Giron over at Chez Robert‘s. There are still some copies of Cut Loose available through D.C. Poets Against the War.

Here in this short chapbook, we have a variety of poets who have spoken out against the injustices committed by civilized humans within our lifetime, yet Myra Skylar’s poem The Infinite Regress of War speaks to the history of influence:–

…Poet, if I put your words
inside my poem, have we not crossed over

into one another?

–For the import of this collection is to make the reader–yet sadly the ones who need to read this more than others will probably not read this–reflect and perhaps be moved to action to stop injustices from happening in this world which we must all share, regardless of cultural or political background.

Read the whole review here..

1-900-PHONE-PRAYER

So I’m answering phones at work over lunch…(It’s one of those egalitarian things that everyone at my work shares, in case the world falls apart while we are taking a break and we don’t know about it.) Mostly I’m doing my best impression of a Dial-M-for-Murder operator from the 1940s … “What extension please? I’m sooo sorry. She’s away from her desk right now or perhaps downtown destabilizing the International Monetary Fund. Would you like to leave a message on her voice mail?” And, even though we are a magazine, I for one am not at all capable of handling a simple subscription question, so I leave the real receptionist something under 100,000 renewal requests on small sticky notes casually plastered across her desktop.

So this time at lunch…with the handset already warm and sweaty, I yank it off the cradle and hear a broken down man’s voice saying, “Is this Sojourners? I need you to pray for me.” Then the line went dead.

Even though I am Catholic and there’s probably something in the rule book against “laying hands on” inanimate objects, I put both hands on the phone and prayed with all my might.

Where ever you are sir, may the angels escort you..

Road Trippin’

Here are answers to some of the Frequently Asked Questions about traveling on the Jesus Road.

1. Who else will be going with us?
Well, some guy from the IRS signed up. A couple of machinists (one’s even non-union). There are some middle-aged women who knew how to buy low and sell high, kicking in a little cash for the trip. A girl in the sex trade business who might bring a couple of her friends who are exotic dancers. A few 20-something anarchists who want to yank the hinge pin out of the whole damn Pax America project. A soccer mom. One guy who identifies himself as a “pretty much reformed” sex offender. A Gulf war vet. A minister or two who will hook up after their evening church meetings are done. We’ll most likely pick up more folks as we go along.

2. What do I need to bring?
It’s pretty much a come-as-you-are arrangement. Good walking shoes. Maybe a water bottle. We’re not sure how far we’re going so it’s best to pack light. We can get what we need along the way.

3. What will we talk about?
What things make you happy. Who you love. Who you hate. Why cities are so tall. What to do when so many people come to the picnic that you run out of food. How to be a good person. What to do when your friends leave you high and dry. How to fight for what’s right without using your fists. Who God is. How to deal with a bad boss. How to tell the difference between a phony bill of goods and the genuine article. How to mourn. How to get rid of money so it doesn’t weigh you down. How to pray. How to forgive. Why people are poor. How to die. How to live.

4. What will we do on the road trip?
We’ll talk in the mornings, get to know each other better. In the afternoons we’ll see if any of the folks in the town we’re in could use a helping hand. Sometimes they just need somebody to watch the kids or get groceries. Sometimes you find people who are real sick and we’ll try to make them well. We’ll check out the jails. See if anybody needs us to trade places with them. We’ll try to help folks turn their lives around. Occasionally we’ll come across a town (and maybe a whole country) with a real devil on its back—we’ll do our best to get it off. We’ll do a little tearing down of old buildings and raising up new ones. We’ll have bread, cheese, and fruit for supper. Drink a little red, red wine. Sometimes we’ll go hungry. But every night we’ll sing, dance, play charades, make up poems, sleep under the trees.

5. Where exactly is it that we are going?
Well, the destination is a little uncertain. We’ve got a map and some pretty good guides. The guy who’s been there before died—got shafted, actually, on a trumped-up felony charge. Didn’t even get “life without parole”—just slipped him the needle. Turned out later he was innocent. Well, innocent of those trumped-up charges, but guilty as hell of wanting to turn the whole “protecting our way of life” enterprise on its ear.

6. What will I tell my family?
By all means, bring them along! But if they won’t come, are too busy, or need a lot of time to pack, then leave them. They’ll come along when they’re ready.

7. Do I have to have special qualifications to join?
Not really. There are no academic requirements, no social status prerequisites. It’s mostly for any kind of folk who want to shed their old life and get born into a new one.

8. Will it be dangerous?
Could be. The police get antsy if the crowd starts getting too big. There’s not really a permit for this kind of thing. But the folks who’ve done this before say you just deal with the danger when it comes along. No need seeking out the authorities. When the time is right, they’ll find us.

Reprinted from Sojourners (www.sojo.net)..

Tracking Jesus Inside the Empire

I moved to Washington, D.C., in 1986 for a nine month internship with Sojourners community. Twenty-two years later, I still live in D.C. I’ve lived in three different houses, all in the same neighborhood of Columbia Heights, all within four blocks of each other.

Rooftops in Columbia Heights
Rooftops in Columbia Heights

I still work for Sojourners. Over the 22 years, I’ve had five different jobs for which I was more or less paid: peace ministry intern, director of the internship program, assistant editor, associate editor, and poetry editor. (On the side, I also freelanced as a pastor/worship leader; had a few horticultural gigs working at the greenhouse and herbarium on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral and a landscaping job for a military retirement home; taught poetry classes; led retreats; and proctored the tests for those taking the GREs.) I live six blocks from where I work.

Even though I live in the capital city of the most militarily powerful country on the globe, my “world” has remained relatively small and contained. I didn’t intend to stay in one place for so long. My desire was to be much more itinerant—owning little, moving frequently, living in the moment. A “bird of the air,” a “lily of the field.” More along the lines of a free-wheeling St. Francis, rather than a cloistered St. Clare.

But, it turned out to be “otherwise,” as poet Jane Kenyon puts it. And I’m extremely grateful for the “otherwise.” I realize now that this accidental vow of stability has rooted me in a neighborhood and given me a perspective on events that I might have missed … otherwise.

It’s given me a perspective on empire and Pax Americana from the vantage point of those who live 20 blocks from the White House, in the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood that has had a 30% poverty rate and 11% unemployment rate all the years I’ve lived here.

This experience now leads me now to explore a “theology of place” in urban America from the vantage point of my 100-year-old row house in Columbia Heights.

That’s what you’ll find on this blog … questions about place, people, transition, rootedness, dispossession, owning, stewardship, urban biophilia, green cities, blocks abandoned by empire, oral histories, cracks in the architecture of despair, city planning, urban ministry, city theology, the art of the unexpected, indigenous urban worship, beauty breeding hope, poetry, murals, magical urbanism, guerilla gardening, bible-busting, and tracking Jesus through the back alleys and side streets of “the most important city in the world,” as an obnoxious advertisement for Riggs Bank used to say.

I’m hoping it’ll be the most amazing pilgrimage one can take without ever leaving home.

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