a new kind of church

Edith Windsor, 88, passed away last week and honestly, my heart broke a little.

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Edith Windsor.

Born in 1929 in Philadelphia, amidst the tumbleweeds, dirt, and turbulence of the Great Depression, she entered her young teenage years in the midst of World War II, and then “came of age” in the 1950’s and 60’s when the United States was thick in the Civil Rights Movement.

From the very beginning, her existence lived and breathed history. She was whip smart, too, having earned a Master’s Degree from NYU in Mathematics and worked at IBM, eventually becoming a computer programmer.

Edith Windsor was (and is) an icon in the LGBT+ community; she was the lead plaintiff in the landmark case United States vs. Windsor that ultimately overturned section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) (defining the term “spouse” as only applied for marriages between a man and a woman), a landmark victory for the same-sex marriage movement in the United States.

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Edith, following the ruling in United States vs. Windsor

Windsor’s journey started in 2009 when her spouse, Thea Spyer, died of complications from multiple sclerosis. Because they had married in Canada, the marriage was not recognized in the United States because of DOMA. Ultimately, she was forced to pay an excruciating amount of estate taxes, and knowing this was unfair and inequitable, she filed suit. Because of this case, beginning in 2015, the highest court in the land granted gays and lesbians the right to marry the people they love. Rainbow flags flooded the streets everywhere across our nation; again, our Constitution found a way to deliver on the promise that we set forth so long ago: all (men) are created equal.

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Photo Courtesy of John Pavlovitz Blog.

Edith’s legacy is etched in stone and it will not soon be forgotten. At her eulogy, the Rabbi Amy B. Ehrilch noted, “…Her legacy is one of love, and the right we now have to marry the people we love…to have love as your legacy in life, and in law, is an everlasting blessing.”

Not knowing the nature of her last days, I cannot be sure if she knew of The Nashville Statement or any of the subsequent releases of mass statements for (or against) members of the LGBT+ community. If she had, I am sure it left her saddened and confused.

When The Nashville Statement was initially released, concurrent with Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, the first thought I had was: why now? What’s the point? I mean, hello, we have a city nearly underwater and instead of using our energies to support them by whatever means possible, we think it is necessary to draw the line between us and them? Really?

That was even before I read the statement.

In a week of fragility, I avoided reading what I was told was a document of ignorance, judgement, and division. Curiosity won me over, as it usually does, and I found myself reading this particular Evangelical Christian Statement of Faith or “manifesto” sponsored by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Word after word, in the 14 statements put forth (with each statement including both an affirmation and denial), it was as though a large line was drawn between “right” and “wrong” and unquestionably, I was left to think I was wrong simply because of who I am.

Article 7, for example declares, “We DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.”

 

Article 8, continues, “We AFFIRM that people who experience sexual attraction for the same sex may live a rich and fruitful lie pleasing to God through faith in Jesus Christ, as they, like all Christians, walk in purity of life. We DENY that sexual attraction for the same sex is part of the natural goodness of God’s original creation, or that it puts a person outside the hope of the gospel.”

 These statements, peppered with fancy language might sound kind to some, but let me tell you, these words aren’t “kind.” These words are telling me – and others – that our understanding of self (and identity) is not supported by God. That’s heartbreaking. Plain and simple. Additionally, I have major issues with the signers of this document choosing sexual orientation and sexual identity, above many other things (think: war, death, violence, hate) as the main markers of “ruin.” Of all the things.

Woefully, what I think is forgotten when mass paragraphs of rhetoric are released is the fact that when we are talking about this, we are talking about people. You know, human beings. The Nashville Statement defaces the humanity of the “issue” and, at least in me, pressed and prodded a trigger of doubt of who I was and the wondering if God could really love me. Revisiting this shadow of doubt every so often is tremendously painful. I spent years in this space, and when it lurks and creeps back into my life, it takes every ounce of faith to scream and shout, “No!”

Which is why I was immensely relieved, in light of The Nashville Statement, that there were a handful of other statements – largely from church leaders from around the country – that stood in defense and in love for LGBT+ people. As I read through the Christians United Statement, I saw my pastor’s name at the bottom of the document with hundreds of others.

Michael Hidalgo, Denver Community Church.

Exhaling more deeply than I had all day, I let the tears of relief come to my eyes.

We’re not alone, I thought.

I felt a lot of things, but the most important one was gratitude. Beyond any doubt, I am grateful that I am a part of an inclusive, welcoming, and loving community. I am grateful that the faith community I choose to take part in prioritizes unity over uniformity. Denver Community Church (DCC), though an inclusive church, does not maintain a church body where everyone thinks the same thing on LGBT+ related issues. However, as church body, they stand in defense of us, believing that everyone has a right to be loved – namely, a right to take part in the aged tradition of pursuing a God that created us, loves us, and chooses us (all of us). In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined a faith community quite like this. Loving Jesus in this way, in this lens, allows me to know him better, to know myself better, and to know others better, too.

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Denver Community Church, Uptown.

I came out (officially) in 2016, one year after DOMA “was dead” and same-sex marriage became legal. This is important because “coming out” is different than it was 20 years ago; hell, it’s different than it was 200 years ago. Culturally, we’ve come a long way, and it is common to find many who acknowledge the level of safety and acceptance that exists in the fabric of our society.

I am a beneficiary of this. I inherited this. I got damn lucky.

With these ever-pressing cultural shifts, there is an opportunity for a new narrative for the church, and for LGBT+ people. This is not a case of the church adopting the mainstream culture, instead, I think it is actually a chance for the church to pursue love – whatever the cost. When Jesus tells us to follow him, to really follow him – and leave everything behind – I think that is what he’s talking about. It’s not just about our things – it’s about our assumptions, our preconceived notions, even our own ideologies. When we surrender these for a chance to love (and learn more about the people around us) crazy, crazy (good) things can happen.

Traditionally and historically, church communities have stood as pillars of “righteousness” and have rejected the idea that people could (and would) be gay.

That’s putting it lightly; gay people have been pushed to conversion therapies; gay people have been embarrassed and abused, and perhaps most frequently, their attendance has not been welcomed. The church, if anything, should be home to those who are rejected. Why on earth, have we tolerated, allowed, and permitted (implicitly or not) the church to be the rejecter?

What if churches – and perhaps, all faith communities for that matter – recognized that humanity is most beautiful because of its diversity. Because of its colors, ethnicities, genders, and orientations.

At DCC recently, Pastor Hidalgo pointed out a perspective on Genesis that he had studied from a Jewish Rabbi. This Rabbi presented a unique lens to view what God was creating in Genesis and at the time of creation; in verses 11-25, the first chapter of the Bible details the type or kinds of vegetation, light, and creatures that were being made. But, when it came to humans, in verses 26-28, there was not the same, parallel language of categories. Simply, there was, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them…” This is about humanity and the vastness by which God has created us.

Now, more than ever, churches have a chance to re-write oppression and judgements of the past; we can be reconciling communities; we can open our doors; we can change.

Changing the narrative from rejection to welcoming requires commitment, time, and resilience. There are a lot of stakes; money, leadership, opinions, and ideologies. People will disagree. People might even leave. However, the formation of the church was just like this: progressive, radical, and hinged upon what? Love. Tell me Jesus wouldn’t say the same thing.

What if the church reclaimed the story?

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There is so much room for reconciliation that I can hardly wait to see what the rest of my years bring. Maybe it will be at DCC, or maybe it will be elsewhere, but I intend the rest of my life to seek these sacred spaces: the ones where both Christianity and inclusivity can thrive. It’s here, I think, where we’ll know a deeper part of Jesus.

We can move the needle toward love and it is this pursuit that is what life is really about.

“call ya when i’m pregnant.”

I have loved writing since I can remember – always.

Consistently there has been something enticing to me about putting pen to paper, eagerly seeking (and earnestly hoping) to capture the nuances of life through words, descriptions, and stories of all kinds – amusing, difficult, mysterious, complicated, sweet, painful, hopeful, and joyful, just to name a few. Life is these things, and words can be both not enough and more than enough, and it is fun, frankly, to play with that reality.

From the beginning of my childhood, and still until now, I journal regularly.

Some people hold onto collections of stamps, coins, or baseball cards like they are the true gold standard in our world. Others have difficulties in letting go of sentimental birthday cards. For me, it has always been those damn journals. Recently, I was packing belongings to move to a new place in Denver and decided that I had to fit all the notebooks, planners, and decorative journals into one (yes, one) box. I did it – but it was not easy. When you have over 30 notepads of thoughts, dreams, and reflections, packing becomes slightly more complicated.

Because of this persistent affinity for writing, I chose to take a journalism course while in my first year of high school. It was a dream; I learned about different types of reporting, writing styles, and ways in which to conduct interviews. Following my time in this class, I was tempted to join the newspaper club, but instead, opted for yearbook. I began the following year as a staffer and bopped around the school, taking photographs, carefully placing them in lay-outs, and writing unique, engaging captions.

Yearbook was full of lively, energetic, and interesting people. As an athlete, I knew a great deal of the football, soccer, and field hockey communities, but when I joined yearbook, I experienced a deep-dive into the circles and groups of people that worked behind the scenes to share what was happening within our high school community at-large. I made new friends, and I liked it.

One of my new friends was Chelsea.

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Chelsea was Editor-in-Chief when I joined the club, meaning that she was overseeing and managing both the staffers and editorial team, ensuring that our content was high-quality and “on-theme.” Most yearbooks have a “theme” (typically chosen at the previous summer’s Yearbook Camp – yes that’s real – for the following year).

I liked Chelsea from the start; she had an infectious laugh, a strong drive to do impeccable work, and an approachable attitude for when I – or others – had questions. By the time I was a junior, and she a senior, I was also on the Editor team, with the role of Copy Editor. This meant we had long nights in the yearbook room when deadlines were looming, and more regular meetings together to ensure the copy of the yearbook matched the photographs and overall story of Grandview, our high school.

A year ahead when I was a junior, Chelsea graduated Grandview High School in 2006 and prepared to leave for college – but not before I could write in her own yearbook, per standard high school tradition.

We found this book recently, amidst old dust and faded boxes, with intrigue about what I might have possibly written inside.

You see, last summer, Chelsea and I re-connected in the most unexpected and surprising of ways, after over eight years without any regular, consistent communication. With yearbook behind us and a lot of life lived, we remained “Facebook friends” but not meaningfully connected, considering we were both roaming around the Denver area.

Our lack of connection changed only because of a happenstance conversation with my roommate. On a breezy, mid-summer evening last year, we headed to the movie theatre to see “Me Before You.” We had each read the book and cried (okay, sobbed) and wanted to see the movie so we could assess the adaptation. On the drive to the theatre, we had what would be a life-changing conversation.

Casually, she probed, “So, Heather, what’s going on with you? You haven’t mentioned anyone special in your life? Are you dating anyone?”

I paused.
My stomach tightened.
Sweat began to trace along the hairs of my neck.
I swallowed hard and hoped that my voice wouldn’t be too shaky.

I knew I was gay. I was ready to be out. But, I was also excruciatingly scared. Still, I knew that I needed “practice” if I was going to start living out my truth and being 100% authentic with the people I knew. My roommate was a safe person, so I decided to take a risk and speak honestly.

I said the quickest of prayers, hoping this wouldn’t wreak havoc.

You know, actually I am not dating anyone right now. The thing is, I want to date a woman…and as you know, I’m a Christian…and I’m just now sure I can find anyone who is both – gay and Christian.”

Oh! You should meet my friend! I mean…not like a set-up or anything…but as a mentor and a person to talk to. She came out late last year and has continued a journey of reconciling and integrating her identity as a gay woman and her faith. You all should meet up. I’ll connect you.

Oh. Well. That wasn’t so bad, was it?

I smiled, taking a deep breath, grateful that I could trust myself – and God – to be open and share. And hey, who knows! A new friend. I could always use one of those.

We saw the movie and went home and everything was fine.

Until, a few days later when everything was not fine.

It was…well, it was insane.

When speaking with my roommate again, I found out that her friend was Chelsea. As in yearbook Chelsea! I was speechless, flabbergasted, and amused. Just in the previous weeks, I had seen a photograph of Chelsea at her brother’s wedding and decided to look at her profile like any respectable Millennial. Immediately, I was impressed with the fact that she was open, out, and public with her sexuality. I admired that, perhaps because that was what I so deeply wanted, too.

We laughed, and I knew then, that yes! I wanted to see Chelsea. An old friend, I wanted to reengage, learn from her experiences, and understand more about how I could simultaneously move closer to God – and to my own authenticity. I was excited; Chelsea and I exchanged a few messages and we planned a coffee meet-up for a few days after at one of my favorite places – Purple Door Coffee.

We did have that coffee date, and then we had another one, and another one after that, and soon, walks in the park with ice cream. Things unfolded both slowly and quickly, and I found myself intrigued, enthused, and terrified by the way that I felt. I was beginning to like her – yes, Chelsea – my yearbook friend. The crazy thing was (and is) that re-learning about a person almost a decade later is like learning about a new person entirely. We aren’t the same people anymore. We changed, experienced more of life, had joys, had pain, and certainly, had a lot to talk about.

I had intended our coffee connection to re-ignite our friendship. I did not expect to fall in love. But, as it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.

This of course, coincided with years of previous work I had been doing to exist in the difficult space of unpacking my identity as gay Christian woman. I have known I was gay for a long time. For much of that, I didn’t have the words to articulate. For some of that, I didn’t have the time to process. Sadly, for a great deal of that, I was hidden, ashamed of who I was, scared of what it might mean. I tried “praying the gay away” – I did that for at least two years of my life. But, in 2016, before I met Chelsea, I finally was giving myself to God, asking who He wanted me to be. I was committed to authenticity and love, largely from what I was seeing in the world around me; the Pulse shooting happened, and suddenly, I knew that my hiding was over. Enough was enough.

Most of all, I didn’t want to live my life holding back, shielding the “real me” for the rest of my life. That is hardly living; in many ways, that’s an active kind of death – and I was not interested.

So, Chelsea and I get together, we date, we talk, and we begin to grow – together.

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Which brings me back to the boxes and of course, that old high school yearbook.

We have been packing for the last two weeks because we are moving into a new apartment – together – in the Lowry area of Denver, just about a half-mile from the first house I ever lived in, right after I was born. That’s kind of beautiful, I think. When we dug through some old items in Chelsea’s boxes, we found the yearbook, and we found what I wrote (which, warning, is slightly embarrassing, largely because of the strange vocabulary that I thought was acceptable in 2006) –

Chelsea!

Where do I begin? You have made YBK everything and more for me! You’re such an amazing leader and a fantastic editor in chief. You always made me smile and your laugh kicks booty.

You’re gonna kick butt in college and wow! You’re gonna work with babies someday! I’ll call you when I’m pregnant! I love you so much!

Have fun in Oklahoma…when I’m visiting my grandpa (he lives in Hooker), I’ll call you so we can hang out. Good luck and we will miss you.

Visit tons! We should hang!

Heather N.

Yes, I loved writing, and reading these few sentences might be my most cringe-worthy pieces I have ever put to paper. I mean, “booty”…really?

But my, how we laughed when we found this.

How wonderfully, ironically, perfect.

Perhaps we do not always know what our words can do or where they will take us, but sometimes, they come back and make us laugh, cry, joyful, and nostalgic. I still can’t believe that my story – our story – has played out like this. I still cannot believe that all of this, this part of my story, is real. I’m happy, honest, and most importantly, truly, authentically alive.

I’m only here because I chose truth over lie. I’m only here because I chose life over death. I’m only here because I, in the core of my being, knew that I could trust God’s love enough to be gay.

I’m here, and my writing is proof of it. Even in small scratches of words in yearbook. It’s all with us, it all reminds us, and it all moves us forward as we exist in the tensions of who we were and who we are, and who we will grow to be.

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OP ED: Let’s Not Politicize Everything

Learning things starts with one important attribute: curiosity.

Recently, as I’ve been trying to better understand the life, stories, and experience of being a refugee in our current climate, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I’ve read articles from the New York Times, The Heritage Foundation, and The State Department.

What strikes me most rapidly in our current discourse on refugees is that we have politicized every part of the issue. I understand there are different ways to implement policy on people moving to this country. I also believe we must consider the social, economic, and cultural implications of integrating our country.

But, I believe in it. And, more importantly, I believe there are some parts of the issue that don’t need to be politicized. For many of the individuals relocating to the United States, they are coming from violence, war, and pain. They have been forced to leave home. In fact, they don’t have one.

And, when they do finally get a chance to come to this country, you can see from graphic below that it is not easy. The likelihood of foreigners attacking us is a narrative that is promoted to incite fear. It’s hard to ignore in these days of ISIS and attacks happening globally. I get that, and it’s true, it is scary. But in fear, we shouldn’t blame the vulnerable, marginalized, or other.

Sometimes, the issues that we face aren’t “issues.” Instead, they are people. They are stories. We can’t forget that. It’s easy to paint over the complexities of people and war when we don’t come face to face with it.

So, in addition to reading about the process of for refugee screening, I want to publicly encourage people to get involved in knowing refugees in their local communities. Reach out to organizations working within these communities. Get involved. Go outside your bubble. When you do, you realize that politics is unnecessarily stripping people of their humanity, and when that happens, we are at risk for forgetting what community, unity, and peace can actually look like.

America, we can do this. We can do this. I believe, and I always will.

I have much more to say but for now, I will simply hope these words and hopes are sufficient, and that the America I know and love will come together in these uncertain, questionable times.

We have a big opportunity to grow as people and communities, and I hope we do just that. Get informed, read, learn, and make friends. You won’t regret it.

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when education is not enough.

I come from a family built solidly and firmly on the bedrock of education. Becoming an educator is a source of deep pride; my father, for example, attended Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado (a member of the first graduating class) and after receiving his education license during his undergraduate studies, he returned to Overland to teach and has been there ever since.

For nearly 30 years, my father has been teaching a diverse, multi-cultural student body in geography, history, and social studies. Much of his life has been formed within the confines of a classroom, and honestly, I think it’s super badass. He’s inspired me to know the incredible gift that education holds.

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That matters because I grew up noticing and observing and then believing that education was the tool. For me, it was. I attended school systems with resources, qualified teachers, and supportive add-ons to enable the highest student potential to be met. This extended into college too, as if education was assumed to always be present and existent in my life.

So, remaining always enthusiastic to the process of education, I am faced with a deeply important and stark question: what happens when education is not enough?

Kigali, Rwanda

Inside a thick-aired upper room of a small alimentation in Kimironko, Kigali (towards the east side of town) I sat together with a Rwandan student of mine of whom I have known for six years. I hadn’t seen her since my last work trip to the country (in late 2015) and so she updated me, slowly and meaningfully, on each fragment of her life. I leaned in, listening, hanging on every word, wanting to know exactly what was happening.

With bread and fanta on the table, she chewed and sipped and told me everything.

Her mom is sick. Gravely ill. I try to imagine her lively, energetic mother withdrawn and in pain. It’s agonizing, honestly, to even imagine. This student does not have a father – her mother is her only parent. She confesses a fear of what happens if her mother dies. It will be okay, I tell her. But, really? Will it?

Her older sister, in pursuit of a job, left for Kenya without telling anyone in her family. Her family is devastated. They are waiting, hoping she will return.

Her younger sister passed the national exam last year and was selected to a reputable school two hours away from their community. They could not afford the school fees, so instead, she is attending a school that requires a 90-minute walk each day, one-way trip. The school’s education is sub-par and so, she fears that her sister will retain little, and perhaps be confined to the fields for farming for the rest of her life.

This student has the same concerns for herself; she graduated secondary school last year (a major accomplishment) but now, without an accessible (or even permeable) job market in her rural community, she feels stuck, isolated, and alone. Her fear, in addition to being single, is how she could possibly support her family without finding a job.

As she tells her story, I listen. As I listen, the same question repeats itself. This is a girl who did everything “right.” She studied hard, got good grades, and yet still, remains stuck.

How does she get out?

That’s the question, and it’s one that I cannot shake.

As she confesses all of things before me, her throat tightens as she does her best to not cry. Crying in public is quite taboo in Rwanda, and she knows this as much as anyone else. I give her a few minutes to hold it together, reminding her that I’m there for her, and with her. She is stressed and rightfully so; she worked for the last six years (even coming back to school after her father’s death so she could make a life for herself) and now this?

Now what?

How do we fill this gap?

Certainly, that’s the root of the model with my work with TWB: we seek to provide a tangible, realistic, and powerful application for an educational foundation. Yet, our program hasn’t yet reached this young woman – nor has it for all the women in Rwanda (and around the world) that enter the sphere of education but fall short when it comes to applying it. Herein lies privilege – yes, privilege, that uncomfortable elephant in the room of a word where we confront what others have (or do not have) and try to understand how we leverage our own existing mobility.

This student of mine is currently immobile – at least in an opportunistic sense.

For now, I have encouraged her to join other girls that I have supported to map out “next steps” especially as it relates to community-based solutions that would enable her to continue to take care of her family. Whether a small business (of tutoring in English for example) or seeking out educator jobs, I have instilled the hope that she can seek with diligence and confidence. She has something to offer the world and my god, she will offer it.

Yet, even in these small actions that work for a better future, we must take a larger step back and think about the education systems we promote and the larger systems of society they exist within. The strongest education, I believe, is one that is experiential and applicable. Learning can be done for learning’s sake, but it also must allow the learner to build capacity to leverage their own work ethic, knowledge, and potential for a better life.

What if we could re-work our systems and integrate the job market with what we are teaching? What if instead of teaching rote memorization skills, we built a curriculum that was alive, active and channeling participants directly into a trajectory? What if, instead of de-funding our entire system, we invested in it and compensated teachers for the value that they are worth?

I don’t have an answer for these questions, thought I genuinely, authentically wish that I did.

What are your thoughts?

How can we address the gap of education and income security?

How do we protect those, especially women, who are left with limited opportunities and yet incredible, limitless, budding possibility?

These are hard, awkward questions.

But until we ask them, we cannot discover and work through possible solutions. Let’s begin the conversation together. Let’s do this together. Let’s make education work for everyone. And I do mean, everyone.

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the power of people

Since becoming an avid fan of walking (read: my knees keep hurting whenever I run) I have found numerous ways to channel my thoughts while my legs boost me forward.

Sometimes, I listen to podcasts (the Robcast, Denver Community Church, Modern Love, Call Your Girlfriend, and Fresh Air top my favorites); sometimes I focus on the sounds around me and identify what each thing is (certainly, more applicable in an urban environment), like yelling children, sound of birds, or bicycles climbing up long, arduous hills.

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Kayonza, Rwanda

Occasionally, and when I’m feeling particularly contemplative, I literally put myself in someone else’s shoes.

The exercise is simple: when you find yourself in an area with other humans, find someone that catches your eye. Without being a total creep, observe them.

Ask some (or all) of the following questions:

  1. Who are they?
  2. Where are they going?
  3. Where are they coming from?
  4. Do they have a family?
  5. What has happened in their life?
  6. Who has molded their life?
  7. What goals could they hold? Dreams?
  8. What might be easy in their life? Hard?

You won’t know the answers to these questions. That’s the whole point.

The exercise is not about judgement, nor is it about feeling jealous or “sorry” for another person; it’s about thinking about all kinds of persons and what their lives might be like.

I believe, and I know, that existing outside of ourselves (even for a few minutes) cultivates a deep, abiding kind of empathy because when we realize that the moving world does not hinge upon us, we are more fully aware of what and who we are surrounded by. I started doing this a few years ago, and I’ve noticed that with time, it’s furthered my understanding that we all sit on different spectrums of everything.

There is no linear human being.

Most recently, I did this exercise on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a town named Cyangugu. The town sits on the Southwest corner of Rwanda, with just over 60,000 people living in the surrounding area. It is a lakeside town, with sambaza (a type of fish) as a preferred food type. I spent little time here when I was in the Peace Corps, as my community was nearly 8 or 9 hours away, within the Eastern part of the country.

Our TWB team was in the region to complete a bread market analysis which involved visits with other local bakeries, visiting shops that source bread for customers, and researching local preferences for consumption. To understand the place as best as I could, I knew that moving by foot would be advantageous. I think that because you can use your five senses in varying degrees, walking is the most optimal way to learn about a place. Amid our bread research, outside a crowded, local market, I decided to contemplate a woman moving hastily with charcoal on the road.

It was raining.

The moisture of the air swelled together with the dust-capped pavement, like a gust of earth touching each part of my body. I tried to squint my eyes so I didn’t fall into a ditch or misstep and run into one of many pedestrians moving from one place to another. People were moving with intention; while the sunshine might keep people in a haze, the rain acts like a buzzer for immediacy. Suddenly, whether going to the market, to the lake, or to home, the journey must be done speedily.

As the pace of the conglomerate of people around me quickens, I spot a middle-aged woman carrying charcoal. The bag rests in such a way that the top piece is strapped around her forehead and the bulk of the weight is held by her back. She was wearing royal blue fabric with yellow adornments. She was also sweating, profusely, and her muscles seem to mold to the bag as if she knows it well – perhaps carrying these kinds of things every day. Her skin is well-worn by the sun. She seems tired. Strong, but very tired.

She had a ring on her left hand – perhaps she was married – and hence, it’s possible that she was also a provider for children, too. She dropped the charcoal near a bus for loading. I watched from afar as she received a wage – what appeared to be in coins – from her presumed boss. She counted her money. She left.

Was this her day’s wage? Was it enough to buy food? Is she from around these parts?

I can’t know the answers to the questions. I know nothing about her life. And yet, I feel heartbroken.

At any given time, we are surrounded by those who have a life full of opportunity, or perhaps oppression; poverty, or perhaps money; dreams, or perhaps hopelessness; limitations, or perhaps, educational access; hunger, or perhaps food; a job, or perhaps unemployment; nothingness, or perhaps status; mobility, or perhaps subjugation; isolation, or perhaps friends; and health, or perhaps sickness.

Turns out, our privilege is mobile (we carry it with us) and it sits on a spectrum depending on where you find yourself.  If we are engaging with the people around us, we can’t always know the levels or places of their privilege, but we can assess the levels of our own – depending on the situation.

As I watched this woman walk away, with hundreds of others around me, I couldn’t help but think: why do individual lives often look so disproportionate? Is this privilege at work? Or something else?

For instance, on this trip, I walked into bakeries, asked questions, and received tours of the facility without hardly a second glance. I even went home with a free loaf of bread. It’s possible (and likely) that being white had something to do with this.

In the same trip, however, I also entered a bar full of drunk men to purchase a bottle of water. Quickly, I was made to feel small, like my place was not there. I was mocked and laughed at and felt uncomfortable immediately. A drunk man tried to touch me – I left. Here, in spaces like that, I hold very little power – conceptually speaking. It’s possible (and likely) that being a woman had something to do with this.

After intentionally thinking about this woman – and the realities and possibilities in her life – I came back to our hotel room and cried.

I cried because I am maddened by inequity. I’m angered by lack of opportunity. I’m aghast at the nature of cyclical poverty. I’m saddened by loneliness. All of it – it’s so much to absorb and understand. It seems, tapping into this ONE woman’s life for 15 minutes allowed an outpouring of questions, thoughts, concerns, and opinions to rise from deep within me.

I can’t forget the way this feels.

If I forget, I become numb to justice.

If I forget, together, we will not overcome.

If I forget, we cannot acknowledge where we are limited, but where we have power.

I want to understand, know, and dissect the privilege I have. I also know, intimately, that there are areas in my life in which I’m not privileged. Learning to know these places is just as important.

And so, I will keep going on my walks and will maintain awareness of the people around me. For me, people serve as markers and reminders of all the powerful, incredible diversity of humanity, and still also the work we have ahead to ensure human rights are met for everyone.

Justice does not imply equality and that life is the same for everyone; justice, instead, necessitates equity – that we all can build a healthy, prosperous, supportive life, all within the context of our God-given place on this Earth. Whether in small-town Indiana, or on the shores of Thailand, all of us, as people, must know more about others, and then take hard-looks at ourselves, too. We must not be afraid to see our own privilege (and limitations) and then address it head on.

How does our privilege perpetuate systems?

How do acknowledge our mobile privilege and do something about it?

How can our privilege influence change?

These are the questions that this exercise ignites in me.

This is the power of people.

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Cyangugu, Rwanda

Eat Together Anyway

Anxiously awaiting four (yes, you read that correctly) different thanksgiving gatherings over the holiday, I wrote a simple prayer in my journal.

Writing my prayers with paper and ink, for me, gives them fullness because in writing, there is an ease in both articulation and authenticity. With little effort, my hopes, fears, anxieties, desires, concerns, and thoughts rise from my soul and I know what it is I want to speak to God.

Plus, being a vegetarian on a holiday with excessive amounts of turkey calls for extra kinds of prayers (kidding, kind of).

I want to share this prayer with you.

Lord, thank you for this day.

I give thanks for a time we can remember, reflect, and cultivate gratitude.

I recognize that this space is holy. Humble me Lord, and let me honor that today.

I thank you for the humans I will sit with today. Cousins, aunts, step-uncles, family friends, grandparents, dogs, and mom, and dad, too.

We sit and eat with our people whom have both celebrated and hurt us; With our people whom have inspired and disappointed us; With our people whom have defended and accused us; With our people whom have loved and left us.

We are sinners and we are saints. And so am I.

I ask, Jesus, that this day of gratitude looms larger than philosophical, political, and worldview differences.

We eat together anyway and God, that’s the real gift.

Jesus, bring your mercy and bring your peace. Extend it where I may fall short. Thank you, Jesus, for this life.

I love you, this day, and I love this life, too. Amen.

This might be shocking (insert sarcasm here), but I’m actually not an expert on prayer. I don’t know for certain how it works. I think that’s what makes the whole faith process miraculous; we don’t know precisely when, or how, God enters these conversations, but without a doubt, He is there.

I think prayer is a revealing of self before God. Which, seems funny, because God already knows us. Still, like the exchanged vulnerabilities in any relationship we have in our life, it’s our responsibility to reveal the cracks in our perfectly manicured presentation of self and share who we are. Like, for real.

That’s why I think prayer is powerful and, I think it’s why prayer works, too.

As we toss away the layers before God, we also do so with other people. We become ourselves. And with time, we become more comfortable with that, inviting and allowing God’s grace to change us. We’re imperfect (and so are other people), and my goodness, that’s literally okay.

The table of Thanksgiving offers us this opportunity to not only empathize with the imperfection of ourselves and others, but to celebrate the goodness, beauty, and loveliness of ourselves and others, too. No matter the brokenness, the victory, the celebration, or the heartache, we’ll eat together anyway.  

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We’ll eat together even as we talk about religion, politics, money, sex, or the 2016 election. 

We’ll eat together even if not everyone in our family can be there.

We’ll eat together even when someone drinks too much and says something insensitive.

We’ll eat together even if a loved one refuses to accept another for who they are.

We’ll eat together even if forgiveness has yet to be offered, received, or accepted.

We’ll eat together even as family members begin counseling to save their marriage.

We’ll eat together even if someone continues to work far too much.

We will eat together anyway because we are family and these are our people.

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I’m grateful to have this – knowing full well that there are many individuals roaming streets, dumpsters, and shelters, with no place to go.

I’m thankful to have a home and these traditions that have come long before me.

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I’m thankful for this year, because without it, I don’ think I would be able to celebrate love, community, Jesus, perseverance, hope, freedom, and maturity the way that I can now.

I am thankful because it is the love of Christ that allows me to see this world bent towards justice and light and courage.

2016 was not good – for many (think: Syria, the death of Muhammad Ali, the Zika outbreak, racial tensions in the U.S., Brexit, etc.). John Oliver even talked about it being the worst year ever. Historians don’t necessarily agree, but we can all recognize: this year wasn’t the best.

Yet, I’m propelled, encouraged, and inspired to continue to seek all that we give thanks for: community, hope, love.

Our job is to seek, promote, and allow these things to come before the standing world order of power, greed, money, self-focus, and all of the sin that runs rampant to de-throne a different kind of kingdom that Jesus speaks so heavily about.

Until then, as we strive towards this, we give thanks and work that much harder – together.

We can give thanks because we are not alone in these pursuits.

As an addendum to my prayer, I wrote the following words in my journal from a book by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, of House for All Sinner & Saints,

“It is next to impossible in isolation to manufacture the beautiful, radical grace that flows from the heart of God to God’s broken and blessed humanity.

As human beings, there are many things we can create for ourselves: entertainment, stories, pain, toothpaste, maybe even positive self-talk. But it is difficult to create things thing that frees us from the bondage of self. We cannot create for ourselves God’s word of grace. We must tell it to each other. It’s a terribly inconvenient and oftentimes uncomfortable way for things to happen. Were we able to receive the word of God through pious, private devotion – through quiet personal time with God – the Christian life would be far less messy.

But, as Paul tells us, faith comes through hearing, and hearing implies having someone right there doing the telling…Sometimes, I believe that God’s word of grace can also come through simple, imperfect everyday human love.”

Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber

Woman, Why Are You Crying?

“Woman, why are you crying?”

Mary Magdalene, outside the empty tomb of Jesus, in the Gospel of John, faces this question twice, in the midst of her visible, open process of lamentation and despair. The first time, she answers to two angels, seated where His body had been.

They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.

The second time, she answers to Jesus Himself – unknowingly. Thinking the inquirer is actually a gardener she replies, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.

Jesus, in the flesh, softly says to her, “Mary.”

Instantly, she understands it is Him. Jesus. He calls her, gently and tenderly. And she knows, in the depths of her soul, without a doubt, that she is not alone anymore.

Redemption has been made possible.

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This week has felt like one large, collective grieving process. Our grief isn’t about “my team” losing an election. This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. Nor is this a pity party for not getting what I want.

Friends, this is about the flagrant, blatant, no longer concealable brokenness of the world.

Hate, fear, separation, division, isolation, racism, poverty, anger, misogyny.

Injustices that Jesus warned of are currently and actively alive, celebrated, and promoted. With every fiber of my being, this breaks my heart. I recognize that many individuals don’t believe in the rhetoric, act, or spread of hate. But, given the circumstances of our society, we must ask ourselves, with raw, vulnerable transparency, “what are we actually doing about it?”

Friends, what do our lives stand for?

Leaders should reflect the values, vision, and hopes that we carry. It felt, in the deep corners of my heart, that the selection of a man that campaigned on exclusion, judgement, and malice affirmed this kind of approach to leadership.

Tears fell.

They continue to fall, like Mary, because though I know redemption is possible, there is murky water to sort through first.

First and foremost, we must process and recognize our own ignorance, privilege, and perpetuation. How can we advocate for our brothers and sisters without considering our own existing fortune, predispositions, and assumptions?

Then, we must actively engage. Participate. Be willing to be uncomfortable. Not shy away from the beckoning challenges of brokenness. It’s easy to hide in our bedrooms, busy schedules, or commitments. It’s tempting to fill days with echo chambers, simply living a comfortable life because we can. But, in doing so, we miss an invitation to grow, to change, and to speak out for what is right.

As we begin conversations, we must enter with peace. With compassion. This could be the hardest murky water to dive into and swim within. Compassion requires a willingness to see from a perspective of another. Willingly, we remove our own blind spots in exchange for empathy. This is what makes real love so damn radical.

As this repetitive, painful process of pursuing social justice occurs, I think – I hope – this kind of courage will lead us to deeper healing and optimism and also, justice. Real, living justice. The kind, I think, that Mary is crying for when she is searching for Jesus.

Needing a burst of sunshine and energy in my heart, I called a former of student of mine, Zahara, on this slow Sunday morning. As I sipped my lukewarm coffee in a bold-red adirondack chair, she told me of her recent success in school and how she would soon be starting student-teaching with a group of nursery students in a small, rural Rwandan community. For the sixth-straight day, I cried, because she is living proof that when justice occurs in the practical lives of our people, the joy is unescapable, the transformation indescribable.

Zahara also spoke of a current famine taking hold in the Eastern part of the country. Her mother,  a subsistence farmer, is having difficulty finding food. The seeds have been planted, but it’s not clear when they will grow and harvest can take place. Her words echoed exactly, I believe, what our country faces in the aftermath of our political process. She said, “It is difficult to see the food. We are trying. We are cultivating something.”

We are cultivating something. But, what will it be?

Innumerable phone calls, text messages, hugs, emails, and conversations filled my week, and for that, I have reason to hope that we are not alone. I also made a list in my journal called “We Are Going to Be Okay” with ways in which I can see God moving and promising something better than this pool of hate that has been accepted. My list included snippets of moments with refugee women throughout the week, meals shared with loved ones, and the beauty of the trees all around us. For those that reached out this week, I say thank you. Thank you for your love, your resilience, and your grounding pursuit of standing together, even in times of uncertainty. 

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Lastly, in just another example of the hope we can hold onto, I heard a small portion of Maya Angelou’s inaugural poem for Bill Clinton in 1993. Later, I read the entire text (see below), and realized that her word were my prayer. And so, I share it in earnest, hoping that you too, even in tears, will continue to believe in us.

I’m sad. I’m broken. I’m concerned. But, I am not done. This, well, this is only the beginning. May love be our sword, may hope be our compass. Let’s do this.

A Rock, A River, A Tree Hosts to species long since departed, Marked the mastodon, The dinosaur, who left dried tokens Of their sojourn here On our planet floor, Any broad alarm of their hastening doom Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages. But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully, Come, you may stand upon my Back and face your distant destiny, But seek no haven in my shadow. I will give you no hiding place down here. You, created only a little lower than The angels, have crouched too long in The bruising darkness Have lain too long Face down in ignorance. Your mouths spilling words Armed for slaughter. The Rock cries out to us today, you may stand upon me, But do not hide your face. Across the wall of the world, A River sings a beautiful song, Come, rest here by my side. Each of you, a bordered country, Delicate and strangely made proud, Yet thrusting perpetually under siege. Your armed struggles for profit Have left collars of waste upon My shore, currents of debris upon my breast. Yet today I call you to my riverside, If you will study war no more. Come, Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs The Creator gave to me when I and the Tree and the rock were one. Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your Brow and when you yet knew you still Knew nothing. The River sang and sings on. There is a true yearning to respond to The singing River and the wise Rock. So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew The African, the Native American, the Sioux, The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh, The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher, The Privileged, the Homeless, the Teacher. They hear. They all hear The speaking of the Tree. Today, the first and last of every Tree Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the River. Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River. Each of you, descendant of some passed On traveller, has been paid for. You, who gave me my first name, you, Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then Forced on bloody feet, Left me to the employment of Other seekers — desperate for gain, Starving for gold. You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot, You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought, Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare Praying for a dream. Here, root yourselves beside me. I am that Tree planted by the River, Which will not be moved. I, the Rock, I, the River, I, the Tree I am yours — your passages have been paid. Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need For this bright morning dawning for you. History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon The day breaking for you. Give birth again To the dream. Women, children, men, Take it into the palms of your hands, Mold it into the shape of your most Private need. Sculpt it into The image of your most public self. Lift up your hearts Each new hour holds new chances For new beginnings. Do not be wedded forever To fear, yoked eternally To brutishness. The horizon leans forward, Offering you space to place new steps of change. Here, on the pulse of this fine day You may have the courage To look up and out and upon me, the Rock, the River, the Tree, your country. No less to Midas than the mendicant. No less to you now than the mastodon then. Here, on the pulse of this new day You may have the grace to look up and out And into your sister’s eyes, into Your brother’s face, your country And say simply Very simply With hope Good morning. – Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning”