“Diversity is such a white word.“That sentence, spoken courageously by one of our black brothers in the early days of our church has pushed us to think beyond a goal of being a diverse church to dreaming about a church that becomes diverse as a product of doing justice both inside of our community and in our engagement with the city.
Today is Valentine’s Day, a day when billions of dollars will be spent on Hallmark cards, chocolate covered strawberries and expensive dinners in an attempt to show someone our undying love (or at least temporary desire).
It’s also Ash Wednesday, a day when millions of people will don ash on their foreheads to remind themselves and others that “they are but dust”—mortal people whose life is a vapor in the span of human history—and that we all need to repent of the evil we’ve thrust into the world.
The juxtaposition of these two days is absolutely perfect. They seem to represent complete opposite sensibilities:
Q. How do you define humility and what does walking humbly with others look like practically?
A. There has never been a healthy, diverse, and united community that did not pursue or at least expect some level of humility among its people. I know that is a huge, sweeping statement, but I believe it's true. It's simply not possible for people with very different cultures, preferences, expectations and ways of relating to stay together without the virtue of humility.
That's why Paul reminded the Ephesian church, comprised of Jews and Gentiles alike, that Humility (and its cousins, Gentleness, Patience, and Tolerance in love) is crucial to their being one united community. As Oakland Communion and The Way move forward toward becoming one church, it's crucial that we get this part right.
So what exactly is humility?
Sometimes it's helpful to define something by pointing out its common counterfeits--the things that pose as humility but actually aren't:
Q: How do you believe God might be using racial diversity in these days to heal the church?
When I was in high school, I began having strange episodes. I would be playing soccer, make a sharp movement, and suddenly the entire bottom half of my body would go weak and numb for about thirty agonizingly-long seconds. Each time it happened I was terrified. I felt paralyzed, like my feet had grown roots into the grass. As the episodes became a bit more frequent and we sought for a cause, doctor after doctor said it was a total mystery.
No one knew what was happening. The episodes weren't terribly frequent or painful. Finally, we just gave up trying to figure it out. That is, until the muscle spams started.
Q: How might the development of America been different without slave labor?
A: The Man in the High Castle is a TV series that asks, "How would things be different if the Allies lost WWII?" In it, the entire piece of land that used to be the United States is divided between Germany and Japan, and Americans are degraded, second-class citizens.
I would love to see the creativity of storytellers and filmmakers brought to bear on the question above in Netflix original series, because I think the plausible truth would be more beautiful and complicated than we might initially think. So how might the development of America been different without slave labor?
Q: "Describe an experience in which you had to leave your own comfort zone to engage someone cross-culturally."
A: In 2007, I traveled to Guatemala on one of those infamous short-term Christian mission trips. We were there for a month, learning the language, assisting in a free clinic and supporting local coffee farmers. And because most of the group was white, young Christians, our leaders were quick to stamp out what could have easily turned into self-seeking and colonizing endeavor.
In a way, we were set up for Christian tourism from the beginning. There were probably two dozen options to choose from, each represented with a colorfully decorated table at what felt like a missions bazaar. The leaders of each group hawked their country as the most beautiful, the most needy, the most challenging and fulfilling place to go. We students signed up for our three favorites ("where you feel called to go"), and were assigned to one of those trips. I got my first choice.
We were college students thirsty for experiences, and missions offered up a truly righteous way to travel.
In Day 1 of this week's reading, Mark DeYmaz and Oneya Fennell Okuwobi share this story:
Somewhat troubled by this teaching on Gentile inclusion [being inextricably linked to the gospel in the book of Romans], a pastor in Phoenix once asked Mark, 'Isn't the gospel enough?' In other words, he was suggesting that by simply preaching the gospel, diverse people will be moved to walk, work, and worship God together as one in the local church. Yet...86 percent of churches throughout the United States remain segregated at present, failing to have at least 20 percent diversity.... So we should honestly ask, 'How's that working for us?'
I feel for this guy in the story. He wants to believe that by telling the Christian story of God reconciling all people to himself through Jesus, making us one with him, then all people will naturally reconcile with each other. It seems like it follows logically. But it hasn't happened. And he's left grappling with the efficacy of his core beliefs.
I would like to suggest that the problem isn't necessarily with his gospel. The problem is that he is asking the wrong question.
It's 2018, and many of us are wondering what we need to do to become the better version of ourselves that we want to be. At Oakland Communion, we are leaning into that question as a community as well.
From the very beginning our mission has been to put on display God's radical love for the world in Jesus -- to provide a taste of what the Bible calls God's kingdom for the world that God loves. And, from the beginning, we've had a shared understanding that there is no way to accomplish that mission in an increasingly divided world if we are not also radically committed to racial justice in our church, city and country.
That's why, as a community, we decided in the fall of 2015 to pursue full unity with The Way Church. We realized that the ideals Oakland Communion and The Way were committed to separately, we could actually embody together.
A lot of my friends, especially those who don't identify as Christians, prefer to say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas", and I get that. In fact, I not only get it, I'm grateful for it. "Happy Holidays" serves a number important functions: it reminds us that there are more holidays in our community than just the Christian ones, and therefore undermines attempts at Christian cultural hegemony; it socially releases people who are not Christian from identifying with a Christian holiday in their greetings; and it doesn't assume that this Christian holiday is the primary reference point for the person you're with.
All of this is deeply respectful of the person in front of you, and completely appropriate for a pluralistic society like ours. I also think it's deeply Christian. As a Christian, I believe we shouldn't use cultural power to coerce people into our spiritual frame of reference, however deeply we may believe in it. (BTW - part of why I believe that is the posture of the God in the Christian Christmas.)
But that's not the only reason I'm grateful for "Happy Holidays." I'm grateful because it reminds us that Christmas is not just a cultural holiday shared by all, the one so often defined by shopping, jingles, lights and trees.
It's Advent, which means the consumerism of American life is in full swing preparing for Christmas, and I have never felt closer to it. For the last two weeks, Steph and I stayed in a hotel right next to all the big box stores in Emeryville. It was a madhouse. One Saturday it took her 45 minutes to drive two miles! Living right next to Best Buy and Target, I have never felt closer to the intensity of consumerism than I did those two weeks. To be totally honest, I felt more connected to materialism not just physically but spiritually as well.
You see, the reason we were in that hotel is that our entire apartment and all of our belongings have been contaminated with asbestos. It's a long story, but suffice it to say that all of our clothes and shoes, much of our furniture, many of our books and all of our electronics will be thrown out. And when I was talking with a new friend about the situation, I had a realization, "This situation feels like a pivot point. I could either become way less materialistic or way more."
There is something mysterious about food. When human beings of any time, any culture, any income bracket, any religious persuasion or lack thereof, and any cuisine decide to cook and eat together, something sparks. The ritual of the table preparations, the incense-like aromas of meat and vegetables, and the way someone needs to say something before we all dig in--all of this smacks of something sacred.
Another day, another tragedy. USA Today reports that 2017 has been the deadliest year in at least a decade for mass shootings in the US. Allegations continue to surface about powerful men sexually harassing and abusing the people around them. All of this after a summer/fall of nearly unprecedented natural disaster in our hemisphere. How can we keep from going numb?
It's a natural reaction to too much pain. Let's shut down the nerve centers that tell our brains something's deeply wrong. When it comes to our emotions, we're sometimes afraid if we feel the pain we won't be able to function. So we distract ourselves with entertainment, addictions, and self-interested time consuming goals for our careers or travel experiences. If we're busy or distracted, we won't have time to feel, and we won't be in danger of shutting down.
But the truth is quite the opposite, if we don't feel the pain we won't be able to function because we will not address the cause of the pain, the thing threatening to destroy us.
This Sunday, as you no doubt know by now, dozens were killed and many more wounded in a mass shooting inside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Yesterday, I could not keep the tears from streaming down my face as I listened to NPR's descriptions of 18 of the 26 killed--grandparents and little children among them.
And when I go online and look at our collective response as a nation, if I'm honest, my hopes are not raised. It seems like we are having the same exhausting and seemingly unproductive conversations we've been having after shootings in Vegas, on university campuses, at elementary schools and in movie theaters. What will shake us up enough to dislodge us from our partisan certainties, and open us to dialogue about real changes? If this doesn't do it...It's hard to say what will.
But this week, tempted by despair that anything will change, I actually found renewed faith in the writings of a self-described agnostic (which surprised this pastor, but maybe shouldn't have).
Our identity statement as a church, one we came to after 8 months of life together, is "We are a spiritual family centered on Jesus and committed to justice for the whole city of Oakland." But why the whole city rather than a particular neighborhood? Why not focus our efforts hyper-locally?
It's a good question. Especially in the age of churches moving away from regional approaches in favor of being a neighborhood church, our statement could seem behind-the-times. In fact, there are deeply important things to learn from renewed hyper-local approaches to building church communities. They encourage actual relationships with actual people. They emphasize deep commitment to a place and a community that goes beyond our consumeristic desires. Hyper-local churches can do life together during the week in their community, rather than driving in for Sunday services and driving home to separation from those they call family. All of these things and more are ideals we strive to embody in Oakland Communion as well.
So why do we have a "whole city" approach to our mission and identity? Because we believe our life should always be adjusted to our locale and our course shaped in light of our context.
For four days this month, my wife and I backpacked through the Grand Canyon. It was one of the most epic adventures of our lives so far. The staggering cliff faces, the trifle-like layers of schist and sandstone, the bizarre peaks that looked like they were teetering on a knife's edge--everywhere we turned our eyes or pointed our camera shocked us with beauty. But if any of the days tempted us not to notice, it was the grueling descent.
We need to talk. Your anxiety is getting out of hand. Sometimes it presses you into frenetic service, spurring you in the side until you wear yourself out on the altar of "His Excellency." Sometimes, no doubt out of self-preservation, you perform the anatomically challenging task of stuffing your fingers in your ears and hands over your eyes, so that you can pretend there is no amazing feat to achieve. You vacillate between stressed-out striving and overwhelmed evasion of responsibility. It seems hard for you to do the slow and steady, day-in, day-out, diligent but imperfect stuff of life. I get it. It can be hard for me too.
As I see it, this belief, that belonging is fundamentally about birth into a particular community, legal status, or benefit to the existing group runs into at least two enormous problems for me. First, it is completely unable to deal with the historical reality that present day America is a result of illegal immigration onto Native American land that brought unspeakable harm to the existing community. Secondly, while it might comport well with nationalistic sentiment, it absolutely flies in the face of my Christian conceptions of belonging and home.
Three years ago today, Michael Brown was killed in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. The community was rocked. Many of us were in mourning. We were angry. The officer who shot him was not even indicted, but there was nothing new about that. Amidst all the pain, chaos, protests, and posts, Steph and I felt like we needed the company of our friends. So we opened our home and asked folks, "Hey, you wanna come over and process how we are thinking and feeling together?"
That night, one of us mentioned their Christian faith and how it gave them certain ways of thinking about what happened to Mike and many others like him. A friend of mine, who isn't particularly religious, responded, "Wait, can you clarify something for me? You're saying that your faith has something to do with these broader systemic issues? It's not just about your personal life?"