a new kind of church

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

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 5.50.09 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 5.51.15 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 5.53.45 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 6.00.32 PM.png

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?

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 6.03.16 PM.png

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.

“I’ll be 100”

I had two important conversations last week.

One was like a perfect glass of orange juice on a Saturday morning, glazed with pulp and fine laughter too. My Sunday small group sat comfortably in a circle, grazing on hummus-infused sandwiches and crunchy tortilla chips when one of my newer friends remarked, “I’ll be 100,” before sharing an innate part of her life. She meant that she would be transparent, honest, with a bit of “you get what you get.” Grinning all around, our discussion was real, or “100” and it always is there in our little church family. It has been the expectation set and the expectation that has continued; we share life.

Days prior, I had the other talk, only this one was a far cry from OJ; instead it was more like a sloshy, artificial, lukewarm 7-Eleven slushie; a hot mess.

We, this person I trusted and myself, sat at the coffee brown high stools of a local Starbucks nervously grasping our warm cups of Americano. Pursing my lips, I waited. He told me of his appreciation of my “courage” to share my story with him but that ultimately, the revelation was not enough for us to, well, frankly, stay together.

A melting slushie is even worse as the flavor dissipates and becomes diluted with water, and this exchange was not different.

I’m going to be “100” here and write this because it needs to be written.

The details do not matter but it was painful; it was rejection.

If you have shared your story; your truth; your experiences; your heart; your struggles; your secrets and you have been rejected, I am sorry.

I am sorry because that is the last thing we should be doing. As neighbors or family, or friends, or within any kind of community, acceptance, mercy, and love no matter what is both the pinnacle and foundation of relationship.

Personally, I have seen enough of the opposite of these kinds of reactions and it is time we move intentionally in a different direction.

I shared my past. My past is full – isn’t that typically the case for any human, for all of us?

Try this. Go walking down your street, turn the corner, look around. The people you skim over? They have been through something. That’s the truth and there isn’t any other way around it. The life we build, the things we go through – it makes us who we are.

If you have struggled with healthy eating, sexuality, broken families, people-pleasing; stand up because I have been there too. Life is messy and it is no use pretending otherwise. My hope is that by sharing, others feel inclined – free – to do so too. Presenting a past relationship on a silver platter in this conversation was risky. It holds stories, feelings, and memories that are some of the most important in my heart and in my life. But I did it. I pressed the imposition of vulnerability because much like facing an overbearing monster in life, you just have to set your own fears aside.

I told him of a woman that I did love and what it was like to go through a relationship like that. The good, the bad, the surprising, the difficulty, and mostly, the isolation of a mostly joyful experience in my life.

Grace, depth, and kindness exited the front door and fear and misunderstanding, with a basket of judgment, sat down and made themselves at home.

Worst of all, he admitted his own lack of knowledge on that part of my life and when pressed, I don’t think he even wanted to know more. Rejection and self-righteousness. Ugh. What’s uglier than that?

How do we bring our stories to the table, connect and dig deeper to find how God has uniquely created us and uses everything in our life for an ultimate good? How do our relationships and experiences serve in a larger picture of refinement and growth?

That question probes me, guides me, and has fueled me whether I have been in Colorado or far outside these boundaries. It’s also a major reason I write; it’s in books, pens, and ideas that we see patterns and experiences that prove there is something more to all of this.

It’s here where I feel called most into ministry – particularly in cross-cultural contexts.

The church needs to be safe.

I hope – I feel called – to be a part of that.

I want to enter ministry and discipleship training to develop further my relationship with God so that I, along with my friends, family, strangers, whomever, can feel safe with whatever their life has looked like.

Shame is not from God; it should not have a place in our church. It’s existed too much in my own relationship and understanding of God, and I am anxiously excited to give that away and replace it with something far more meaningful, truthful, and long-lasting. The ministry training will positively impact, I hope, the way I may work within and outside the church walls down the road.

But, honestly, it will also deepen, change, and challenge the way I understand God. As the training is only one month away, my prayer is that my heart is ready to leave the guilt, shame, secrets, and lies behind. It’s time to embrace truth. It’s time to seek how God sees me. Not how the world defines me, the way I envision my life, or the way the people I love most see me. Those things pale in comparison to being a daughter of God himself. When I left Rwanda in December 2013, I jumped right back into this American life. I took a job. I went back to Rwanda. I came back. I took the same job again. Not once did I really process in a healthy way, and before I get back to my roots in working with an organization that promotes women’s business and empowerment in East Africa, I really do need time to invest in God and my spiritual development.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. –Micah 6:6

If you are interested in learning more about what I will be doing this summer, please feel free to comment or contact me via email or phone. I would be happy to share.

If you are also interested in contributing to my fundraising efforts, you can visit this link here:

http://kbm.donorpages.com/TheExperience/HeatherNewell/

Experiencing Jesus

How would you live if you knew you were going to rise?

One of our pastors posed this question in his sermon this past Palm Sunday.

Before asking, he talked about how Jesus lived his last week. Even though Jesus knew what would be happening to Him, He lived courageously, served others (even washing his disciples’ feet), and prayed for others as God’s plan was actively fulfilled.

He knew prayer was a non-negotiable; the suffering He began – and continued to endure – was ghastly.

So, that begs the question, why did he live like that – even when death was upon him?

It was because the story was not done; the story had not been left unwritten.

Though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will his offspring and prolong his days,

And the will of the Lord will prosper in His hand, After the suffering of his soul,

He will see the light of life and be satisfied;

By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong,

Because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors, For he bore the sin of many,

And made intercession for his transgressors.

Isaiah 53 10-12

What if we lived out lives like this? Knowing completely, resolutely, absolutely that our lives our not our own. That we have been graciously given life; yet the brokenness we feel, live, and experience every single day is not the end.

When our pastor first asked that question, of course you think of distant images of far-off places for travel, extreme sports you might dive into, delicious food you might gourge, or that thing you have always wanted to do. I thought of those things; I decided quickly that if I had one week to live, I would eat as many burritos and enchiladas as any human ever could, jump from an airplane – just for fun, and travel as much of the world as I could in a short amount of time. Wine in Italy, mountains in New Zealand, beaches in South Africa.

But all of that aside – the question quickly becomes less rhetorical, and a lot more real. Our lives are written just as so; Jesus calls us to a community of righteousness (not self-righteousness) that allows love, mercy, and truth to overcome the evils we co-exist with.

It could change everything. Perhaps, this is a sliver of what Jesus was showing us; our short time on Earth has meaning. Even in the process of redemption, it doesn’t mean we can “cop out” and wait around for the end days to come. Let’s rise up; let’s live this life!

I want to live like that. I want to live from a place where I can say, “not me, but Him.”

He must become more, I must become less. “The Experience” is just the beginning. This life, I commit to, give it up. It’s not for me anymore.

http://kbm.donorpages.com/TheExperience/HeatherNewell/

*

Over 6 years ago, I participated in my first march on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. If you have ever met me, this might surprise you; one of my favorite reading topics has been the Civil Rights Movement and so it seems strange that to that point, I had never taken part in one.

Well, that year, a student at Hendrix College, a young sophomore, I decided it was time.

By myself, I met a community of people at the local library. Carrying signs, banners, and proclamations for love, we walked all over the Conway city limits, turning back to the library after an hour or two. As we descended upon the library for the final part of the march, the crowds became thick, heavy, and unrelenting. The walls of the library became full enough that not everyone could enter. People were flocking to see a local pastor preach about the kind of community that King dreamed of – the kind that was first of all inspired by God himself.

As we waited, people sang, prayed, and cheered.

It was a moment in my life where I thought to myself, “yes. This is living. This matters.” It was important to recognize that; to see that what we marched for, what we remembered – it wasn’t just a man. It was a way of life, a way to embrace faith, and it’s remarkable that despite the kind of world we live in these days, these joys and celebrations of unity are possible. His kingdom can – and will – come.

*

experiencing fellowship

I’ve been reading through old journals, scribbles, and reflections and found one the other morning that brought me back to dragon fruit, fresh spicy cilantro, and a thickness in the air that allows little room for breathing. 

I was reading about my time in Vietnam – 6 years ago – when I went on a 2-week trip with a group of Hendrix College students. 

We had traveled to the country to work in a remote, small village to build and assist a community in building homes. More than a “missions trip” the focus was to talk to people. Observe. Listen. It was intentional in that way, and because of that, there was an openness established from the beginning. 

Vietnam was one of the first distinct experiences I had in completely surrounding myself in another culture. The biggest one, to that point, really had been moving to Arkansas for school. I mean, let’s be real, it’s Arkansas

I wrote in my journal of a poignant moment towards the end of the trip,

On the boat ride back from the village, the mother of one of the families we worked with took my hand and held it the entire boat ride. Language became nothing in that moment, our communication surpassed words. She gave me a beautiful bracelet off the realm of her dainty wrist. Why? Maybe she wanted to say ‘thank you’. Maybe she noticed me looking at it. Or maybe, it was simply an act of love and recognition of value. She had been the same woman to dance with me at the BBQ, the same woman who shared her children’s upbringing, and the same woman that worked alongside me to lay bricks. We had fellowshippped together and so maybe sharing her bracelet was to serve as a reminder for how God completely transcends anything we know, understand, or grasp. He is at work. At home, here, and in this woman. Thank God for that. 

When I experienced Vietnam, I was introduced to the idea of surpassing cultural limitations.

I firmly believe that’s something God has called me to do.

Below is a video that is just a small piece of what a meal was like in Vietnam. A Vietnamese BBQ to be precise. Grilled pineapple, rice wine, and roasted meat – and that was just the beginning. Like a humid, summer day at the park with family, it was about togetherness. And fellowship. Always fellowship.

That’s a girding force behind moving forward and choosing to do “The Experience.” It’s about building my own relationship with God so I allow the transformative experience of God to work under any kind of circumstances. Any.

http://kbm.donorpages.com/TheExperience/HeatherNewell/

fellowship, reconsidered.

I was a young child with an auspicious beginning.

Mom tells this story with a smirk on her petite face; we were in the waiting room at the pediatricians office when I was still a very young girl, perhaps no older than two years of age. Glancing around the room, Mom says I looked back at her, squeezed her knees, and squealed with delight, “Mommy look! A chocolate baby!” This wasn’t said with a drop of malice but instead out of excitement, I noticed something different and this delighted me, evidently.

Yep. Kids say the darndest things.

*

By the time I was entering adulthood, this anecdote seemed all the more amusing. Not only had I attended a school in a racially diverse state (at least more so than where I had originated from) – Arkansas – and also had a father as a long time educator for one of Colorado’s most diverse schools, but my college senior thesis (a year of work, mind you) centered on race relations and urban development for youth in New Orleans.

The moment that was the biggest “game changer”, you might say, was when I sojourned down to a small town in Mississippi early in 2008. We had started what had been dubbed “The Journey of Reconciliation”; a college trip aimed to immerse students in the history and realities of the Civil Rights Movement, the legacy of its people, and places, and the value of service. Truth be told, I went along with one of my best friends Michelle – long before our abiding friendship had been cemented – and it wasn’t upon some dignified invitation that we went. No, we heard students discussing the itinerary in the wooden hallways of our old chapel following a service one evening and decided to invite ourselves to an informational meeting. We went, and I’m pretty sure we paid all of $70 for the entire trip. Yes, the glory of Hendrix College.

We rode in these hilarious white vans with other college students through Memphis, Mississippi, Alabama, onwards to Atlanta and back again. A Colorado girl, this was my first time in the Deep South and it left a lasting impression.

Little Rock Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas

Little Rock Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas

Lorraine Motel, where MLK was assassinated. Memphis, Tennessee.

Lorraine Motel, where MLK was assassinated. Memphis, Tennessee.

Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama. Site of where many activists were brutally attacked, notably with intense water hoses.

Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama. Site of where many activists were brutally attacked, notably with intense water hoses.

I have this orange folder that has a piece of purple duct tape on the front. On it, I wrote,

Movements begin with individuals.

When I open the folder, it explodes with ticket stubs from the National Civil Rights Museum, a copy of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, a city map of Atlanta, and a wrinkled paper of writing prompts that our leaders directed us to reflect on. A couple of the questions listed are,

“Compassion literally means ‘to suffer with.’ Did you see evidence of compassion offered to the victims and their families? When have you offered compassion in your own life and where has compassion been offered to you?”

In one of the moments that stands as a marker in my own faith, we stopped at small, little Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Located in Neshoba county – where the first land owned by former slaves occurred in 1879 – the church stands as a major historical landmark as it played a role in “Freedom Summer”. The plaque outside the church summarizes the events briefly and succinctly,

“On June 21,1964 voting rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerener, who had come here to investigate the burning of Mt. Zion church, were murdered. Victims of a Klan conspiracy, their deaths provoked national outrage and led to the first successful federal prosecution of a civil rights case in Mississippi.”

Mt. Zion Church.

Mt. Zion Church.

Before attending a service, we had the incredible opportunity to hear an elderly woman speak with us about her experiences as a young girl when history was playing itself out. She spoke at length about the church being burnt by members of the KKK. Her descriptions of the smell, of the magnitude of the flames, and the hatred resonated deeply. I don’t remember every detail she spoke of, but I do remember how it made me feel. Her testimony was as powerful as I ever heard. I knew that day that God had worked something miraculous in that woman’s heart – perhaps in this community too – and that never has left me. When it comes to what abiding faith looks like, that is what it means. To praise God in times of discrimination, murder, and fire

As we continued our travels South, I felt certain that what Dr. King and many of our citizens accomplished back in this struggle couldn’t be confined to any legislative or power controls. Yes, that was the end goal – the big idea – but before any of those larger changes could take place, it was about taking claim of lives and livelihood. It was about blood and death – literally. It was love transforming hate.

Life's Most Urgent Question.

Life’s Most Urgent Question.

I didn’t know how important it was that I bear some understanding of racial inequality and struggle at the time, but it has followed me everywhere I have gone. The South, perhaps more than many other places in our country, holds our deepest and darkest history and secrets. America, claiming to be a land for the free, hasn’t always been. What scares me, is that even now, can we really stake that claim?

*

Selma is a powerfully intense film because it bears witness not only to the history of the movement, the people, and the ideas, but the pressing, undergirding need that still exists.

I liked it to, because I walked out of the theatre (blubbery and tired from all the tears I shed), not in a spirit of anger or disbelief, but in a deeper understanding that God has called us to be people that are different. We have reacted to this shamefully, consistently throughout human history trying to mold others to what we think is “right”.

Our reflection of who Christ is should be, is, and will always be different.

It’s far more than just color. It’s more than race. It’s even more than our personalities, our choices, or our fundamental beliefs. It’s our character. It’s our heart. It’s how God wants to use us.

I attend a church that I think gets this. It’s not all about free love and it certainly isn’t a “soft” church, if you know what I mean. But difference is valued. Our pastor recently shared with us that in a massive church survey, most of the congregants loved the diversity of the church more than anything else. There is something special about worshipping The Lord alongside people who come from different places, who might have a different amount of money in their pockets, and have been through a depth of experiences that you could never understand. It’s special because the foundational conversations can take place; understanding can be more facilitated, and I think this was what Dr. King was talking about. I think that’s what Selma was about too.

It was about equal rights, the struggle, and the deep pain that some people have had to walk through. And still, it represented the need for unity and sharing the struggle together. When the second march to Selma happens, it’s bigger, stronger, and it’s diverse. In this moment in the film, you can’t help but feel that yes! That’s what reconciliation looks like.

In Philippians 3:10, Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

When my Sunday community group has discussed this verse, and since referenced it time and time again, it’s been about a larger understanding of what Jesus had to go through in order for us to be made new. We can never replicate what he has done, and yet, we can engage and accept the sufferings of others so that we can better envision and experience the kind of community I think Jesus longs for us to have.

I’m not saying leave your job today and go out and protest and march in the streets.

Honestly, if you turn on the news these days it might compel you to want to shut out, disengage, and ignore the chaos that seems to be happening. We are living in weird times.

But I’m not even saying watch the news, either.

Maybe it could start with watching a film like Selma or maybe it means seeking community a bit more intentionally than you have before. Maybe it’s having a conversation with somebody that not only looks different and is different from you, but may even THINK different than you. I struggle here the most. It’s easy to talk about community and all of this “kumbaya” sort of feelings, but on a practical level it can be hard, especially when you want to respond before even listening to what another person is saying.

Ignorance might drive me crazy, but wouldn’t I be the ignorant one when I refuse to listen to another person’s thoughts and ideas?

Yes, building community and understanding is quite difficult.

However, Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement, and Selma remind me – and all of us- that it has been done before. And absolutely, it can be done again.

*

“love more laugh more judge less”

I parked past a back alley in the pub’s space for cars a couple blocks off of Lafayette Street. The intersection is Colfax, historically and notably the part of town full of sleazy dive bars, trouble, and cheap motels that people get for Lord knows what.

When the front door shut behind me and the bell rang, I asked the nearest cocktail server where I might find the group I had come to meet.

“Ma’am, where might I find the After Hours group?”

“Oh – that’s downstairs, hon.”

One wooden step at a time, I slithered against an empty dining room and continued towards the sound of laughter and loud voices. I glanced about 20 yards off to the left and around 20 people were scattered in a small corner of the bar. Maybe it’s them?

I started to see a few of them paying their bar tabs and that the tall glasses of Colorado’s delicious craft beer were nearly empty. I stumbled a moment while I looked at my black sports watch on my left wrist and thought, dangit. Forgot to wear that thing today. What time was it?

I approached two older men and a middle-aged woman and introduced myself.

“Hi there, is this After Hours?

“Oh you sweet thing! Yes this is it,” the older woman excitedly yelled. In that moment she also saw my hands full of three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It happened to be the day that instead of making sandwiches together, each person brings a couple to donate for the following day’s distribution. This woman sure ain’t Southern but she saw those things and before taking them exclaimed, “bless your heart, sweetie.”

She hugged me too and I was like woah. What’s going on?

Turns out, I read this week’s online posting wrong – on days we meet at the Irish Snug (this particular pub), we start at 6:30pm, not 8:00 like other weeks. Oops.

*

I heard about After Hours here: After Hours Denver

Well, really, the link came from my dear friend Michelle who heard about it and thought it might be something I would like to check out and maybe be a part of.

After Hours is spear-headed by Pastor Jerry and a group of people who embrace God’s love in whatever form that might look like. Rotating every Monday, the group meets at different Denver bars to put together sandwiches for distribution in the homeless community but also to discuss God’s word and hear a sermon every couple of weeks. Read carefully: this happens in a bar. This group believes in trying to explore God in a different, unique way, welcoming all who come. Anyone who walks in the door is welcome.

I saw a little bit of everything. Homeless men, young professionals, people of both sexual orientations, government officials, people all over the spectrum. I stood at a small round table after being introduced to the group and talked to an ex-parole officer, an environmentalist, and a homeless man about the great need for water in our country. And the origination of the “Cornish Pasty” (no, not pastry). Evidently this is totally a mid-west thing (at least in Indiana) so I just sat back and listened. Because I was so late, I missed the sermon, but I stuck around for over an hour for some pretty open and fluid and random conversation.

I was told later in the evening that Pastor Jerry’s sermon was focused on racism, abuzz like most of America post-Ferguson.

What I noticed quickly was that no one’s physical or societal classification seemed to matter. I was only present for a short time but first impressions do carry a lot of weight.

The Pastor slipped me his card as we started to exit and head back upstairs to the cool air of a slow-ending summer. It was in the shape of coaster, colored in scarlet red, and with yellow writing it said,

“Love more laugh more judge less.”

Chances are, I’ll be back. Hopefully on time.

*

that’s love y’all

*

Something amazing happened just a few hours before I got on a plane and left Rwanda.

I met with one of my supervisors at the Peace Corps office.

The Peace Corps office in Kigali sits upon a hill that overlooks a very green golf course. You can see Kigali City Tower several miles away, and when you look far, towards the horizon, you can see some of the city smog mixing with the blue mountains and the yellow-orange sun. It’s a breath-taking view and I always thought that our office was located in a very picture-esque part of the city. Plus, not only was Bourbon just a 5-minute walk away, but a new coffee shop of wonderfully epic proportions (smoothies! cinnamon rolls! pastries!) opened just across the street this last summer.

So I passed by all of this and walked the obnoxiously narrow stairway to my supervisor’s office. This was the last step to officially “cos-ing” that is, closing out my service and officially ending my 2-year job as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was feeling humbled, quiet, and reflective that day. It was my last day in country, after all, and my life had finally met the next crossroad, whether I was ready or not.

I entered his office that glowed just a bit from his yellow lamp and sat down, took a breathe and we started to chat. I figured about 5 minutes into our discussion that I would be out of his office in less than 20 minutes. He was asking the basic, obligatory questions that every Peace Corps Volunteer gets asked before they leave and quite frankly, I was giving superficial and short answers. Let’s just get this over with.

But then something weird happened. I mentioned off-handedly about my time in the Catholic Church in Rwanda and how my friendship with Divine really did elevate my faith to a new level in terms of trust, reliance, and belief. That girl changed my life, and I started to open up about to my boss and former Peace Corps Volunteer. He smiled a bit and remarked, “wow, that is just so beautiful.”

Next thing I know, an hour has passed and we have been exchanging stories about how God works in our lives and in the relationships we make “out there” and how it’s so incredibly hard to come back and explain exactly how that all worked. It’s completely transcends how we understand people, God, and faith.

Before I left, he did two things. First, he told me that I’ll be fine. He told I would end up right where I needed to be. And that not to worry, those connections you make? They are always there. Be patient, he said. Just enjoy the transition because soon, you’ll be back. Whatever that means.

The second thing he did was strum his fingers along the bindings of hundreds of books. He was looking for something. A few minutes pass and finally he finds the mid-sized paperback he had been searching for. He writes something in the front page and passes it to me.

“I like to keep a few extra titles that I feel strongly about to pass along when it feels right. I want you to have this book. Read it. I think you’ll find a great deal of strength and meaning in it. So much of what you’ll read in here will speak exactly to what you told me about God, Divine, and your life for the last couple of years in Rwanda.”

I could barely muster a thank you. I stumbled over a few words and said goodbye.

I opened the book on the plane, right before taking off.

On the first page was a quotation from Oscar Romero in 1977, The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood…

The next page is dated December 10, 2013, with “Kigali” written under the date.

Dear Heather,

It is good to serve with you. Here’s hoping our paths cross again.

Abrazos.

Then he signs his name. Abrazos comes from a Spanish word meaning “to embrace.”

The book he has given me is called “The Violence of Love” and it is a compilation of radio speeches from El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was a leader of the church during El Salvador’s bloody civil war and one of the primary way he reached his followers and citizens was by of radio. This book is a collection of some of the most moving and meaningful excerpts from Romero.

I didn’t know how important it would become to me.

*

I’m a mess. I drop my phone, my hair is a bit frazzled, and I slip on a small patch of ice on the way into church. I get there – about 10 minutes late – with a warm cup of coffee in hand and look for an open seat. I find one near the front row, next to an older single woman. Today, I’m worshipping alone as mom had headed up to the mountains for a birthday celebration with Randy. No matter that I’m late, my coat is off, I’m singing, and I’m there.

The song plays on and it’s beautiful. I close my eyes, pray, and open them back up. I take a moment and look around and it’s like I’m seeing something miraculous for the first time.

I’m surrounded by a group of believers and a congregation. I’m seeing men and women raise their hands asking for everything. Maybe they are needing strength in an illness, peace for financial security, or hope for a never-ending cycle of doubt. I don’t really know what everyone is praying for. But it’s here that I realize that this jean-lovin’ group of Christians isn’t all that different from the African-fabric wearing Christians I prayed with for so many days in Rwanda. As I glance around, my memories of Rwandan Sundays float back and it’s like I’m seeing these two very different places at one time. Embarrassingly, I start letting go of some held-up tears because I’m so emotionally moved. I’m not sad – it’s not that I’m missing Rwanda at this time – I’m overwhelmed. It’s an incredible thing to realize how badly we need God and how deeply we need Jesus. It’s not just about our church or our family or our country. It’s about everyone. Because I can guarantee you this, the prayers of Rwandans and Americans really can’t be that divergent. All of us, we give thanks. We express our love. And we ask for answers. And God loves us back. Jesus provides grace. Herein lies the beauty of Christianity, and on this particular Sunday, I’m just so moved by the fact that we can actually experience God’s love at any time, in any place. The cold, concrete floors edged with dust hold the feet of Rwandan Christians. The carpeted floor full of remnants of Colorado snow keep warm the feet of American Christians. God has the power to take us, to take the weak things of the world, and He makes them strong. It doesn’t matter where you go or where you are from. God is God.

I sat down after the time for singing and wiped away my tears. I’m sure the single woman next to me thought what in the heck is wrong with this girl? but I just smiled and continued to listen.

You know when everything just aligns as it should?

The message for that day stemmed from Acts 1:14.

They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Our pastor went on to discuss the way in which Peter and John and other followers of Jesus prayed. And I sat there engrossed the entire time. So, this is what it’s like to understand the body of Christ. Or understand a small part of it, anyway.

*

Later that Sunday, I opened that book up. The Violence of Love. You know what excerpt I read?

Let us not measure the church by the number of its members, or by its material buildings. The church has built many houses of worship, many seminaries, many buildings that have been taken from her. They have been stolen and turned into libraries and barracks and markets and other things. That doesn’t matter. The materials walls here will be left behind in history.

What matters is YOU, the people, your hearts. God’s grace giving you God’s truth and life. Don’t measure yourselves by your numbers. Measure yourselves by the sincerity of heart with which you follow the truth and light of our divine Redeemer.

-December 19, 1977

Sometimes God just makes it so abundantly clear.

*

I’m keeping all of this in the back of my mind. This kind of community – us, as a people – that God wants us to be. I’m staying rooted in the people back in Rwanda who taught me a lot about this and continue to encourage me to stay on God’s course. And I’m reaching out to the communities that exist around me, because we were never meant to feel God alone. Sometimes, certainly, but if I learned anything from that one service and that one excerpt, it’s that we are in this together.

Because so much of life is not getting what we want. Or what we think we want. Just this last week.

A disappointment here, a rejection here, and by Friday, there’s a completely heart-breaking situation that makes me just want to stay in bed all weekend long.

We have to fight this inclination. We have to do better, not because we should, but because we can.

Because as Timothy Keller writes in Encounters with Jesus,

“God looked into our world – the world he made – and saw us destroying ourselves and the world by turning away from Him. It filled his heart with pain (Genesis 6:6). He loved us. He saw us struggling to extricate ourselves from the traps and misery we created for ourselves. And so he wrote himself in. Jesus Christ, the God-man, born in a manger, born to die on a cross for us. Behold who Jesus is, how he loves you and how he came to put the world right.”

That’s love, y’all.

*

family

lance