Nicaragua Friendship Mission, Day 7 and Traveling Home (Day 8)

Yesterday we said goodbye to Chacraseca. It was exciting to head out on our day of sightseeing and cultural experiences, but also a little sad. The Casa de Paz was a good home for us this week, and the people of Chacraseca are wonderful. We’re grateful to say that some have become our friends.

From Chacraseca, we travelled south past Managua to Vulcán Masaya (the Masaya Volcano). The visitor center was informative, but nothing could prepare us for the drive to the top where we could look into the volcano’s crater. Visitors are only allowed at the top for 5 minutes because the gas that escapes the volcano will make you sick if you stay longer. Even with only 5 minutes to look around, we were blown away. When the wind hit the smoky gasses just right, we could even see the glow of lava at the bottom of the crater!

From Vulcán Masaya, we drove to the town of Masaya. This is an area filled with all sorts of artists and craftspeople, and is particularly known for indigenous culture and gorgeous pottery. We went to visit the Lopez Family, who have been making pottery in the traditional way for generations. Just Hope partnered with the family to help them build their own kiln — prior to that, they had to rent space in others’ kilns, and made very little profit to help their family. Now, they are expanding and doing well.

At the Lopez home, we ate a delicious lunch. Then we watched a demonstration of how their pottery is made, and got to try our hand at working the wheel and etching designs into glazed pieces. When the demonstration ended, we went to their shop and browsed their gorgeous work. Each family member designs pieces differently, so the selection was as wide as it was beautiful. 

From the Lopez shop, we went up to the top of the hill where we could view the huge lagoon that separates Masaya from Granada. It was windy and cool, and we enjoyed beverages and ice cream from our perch before heading back down towards Managua. At the end of the day, we settled into the Best Western across the road from the airport, ate a lovely poolside dinner, and enjoyed air conditioning for the first time in a week. Bedtime came early because we had to start waking up around 3 am to be ready for the airport.

Today we’ve made it to San Salvador, El Salvador, which means 1/3 of our trip home is complete. The flight to Houston doesn’t leave until 1:20, so we’re here for a while. Plenty of time is available to eat breakfast/lunch, walk a bit before a longer flight, and reflect on the experience we’ve had.

Before we left, one of our hopes was that we would be changed by our experience in Nicaragua. If that was our goal, then we haven’t been disappointed. It’s hard to be among these people without being changed by their stories, their situations, their hopes, and their radical hospitality. In the weeks and months to come, we’ll work to bring these experiences into our wider church and our daily lives. We hope you’ll join us in worship on Sunday, February 19th when we share stories, photos, and tastes from our trip!

Nicaragua is in our hearts, and to our new friends we say “hasta luego”!






Nicaragua Friendship Mission, Day 6

Today was our last full day in Chacraseca. The first half of the day was very full. After breakfast, we first visited Ileana. She shared her story with us — that several years ago she lost her young son, who had been born with a variety of health issues. After his death, she experienced extreme depression. With the encouragement of a friend, she began making jewelry to sell to groups that come through Chacraseca. This creative work helped to pull her out of depression and begin living again.

Ileana’s dream was to have a house of her own. As she earned money with her jewelry, she began saving and purchasing supplies as she could. Over the course of the years, she has built and decorated one of the loveliest homes in Chacraseca. Her hard work, creativity, and strength are truly inspiring.

When we finished visiting with Ileana, we began the long trek to Miramar — the farthest sector of Chacraseca. It takes an hour on very rough roads to reach Miramar from our home base of Casa de Paz. When we arrived, we met Doña Fatima, who is the head of the women’s microcredit bank in her sector. She introduced us to two women who have received micro loans from this program. They have used the money to purchase cattle, and either make money by selling the milk to a distributor from Lèon, or use the milk to make a variety of foods for their families.

The women who have benefitted from micro credit are deeply grateful for the opportunity. These small loans of $200-$300 dollars help them to begin achieving  more for their families, while also building self-confidence. It was a joy to share in their hopes, joys, and dreams, and also humbling to share in their struggles and sorrows (one woman’s son died only 10 days ago, so her grief was very fresh). 

This afternoon we had down time to clean up (Miramar isVERY dusty), rest, and begin packing. Then, before dinner, we met with Juan for some final debriefing and discussion about our time here. This included brainstorming ways to share this experience with people at home. After dinner, Juan Pablo (our fearless and faithful driver) shared some songs with us, including a song he has written for visiting groups from Just Hope. We gifted Juan and Juan Pablo (as well as our other translators) with FCC Smithville Christmas ornaments as a way of saying thank you for everything they have done for us this week. 

It is hard to say goodbye to people you’ve come to think of as friends. Thankfully, we aren’t saying goodbye — we’re saying see you later to partners and friends in the struggle for justice and hope.







Nicaragua Friendship Mission, Day 5

How is this week flying by so quickly?!

Today, we began with breakfast and then a lesson in making tortillas on a wood-burning eco stove. It’s a good thing we did an ok job, as the tortillas we made were part of our lunch later in the day!

After tortilla-making, we met the women of Cosiendo Esperanza (Stitching Hope). These talented and business-savvy women dye their own fabrics and then use them to create beautiful clothing, bags, stoles, and more. They also sew high quality school uniforms and sell them at reduced prices throughout the sectors of Chacraseca so that parents are better able to afford their kids’ school expenses. 

This week, the women of Cosiendo Esperanza are under a deadline on the uniforms because school begins on Monday. In order to help them, our job was to dye t-shirts in bright colors so that they can use them for screen printing and then sell them. They taught us the dyeing technique and then let us at it — this saved them half a day of work, and we had a great time. We also purchased some of their gorgeous inventory, and some of our own quilters spent time discussing techniques and equipment with them via the excellent translation of our friends Francis and Juan.

After lunch, we went into Leon to meet with Kara, who is Program Director for Just Hope. She taught us about the history, purpose, and projects of Just Hope, and she helped us to process some of what we’ve learned this week. She also helped us to begin thinking of ways we can continue to build this partnership after we return home to Missouri. When it was time for her to go to a meeting, we got in the van and headed to the ocean for some time at the beach.

It was wonderful to walk along the beach and wade in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. We wandered, collected shells, and took lots of pictures. Then we ate a magnificent (and VERY reasonably priced) dinner of fish, shrimp, and lobster at the seaside restaurant. On the way back to Chacraseca, Juan Pablo stopped the van so we could look at the stars — without the light pollution of the city, it was quite a sight!

Now we’re winding down and getting ready for bed. It’s been a great day, and we’re excited to see what tomorrow will bring. ¡Hasta mañana!



Nicaragua Friendship Mission, Day 4

It was another full day here in Chacraseca. We began by walking over to the local Catholic Church in Chacraseca for a quick look prior to our appointment with the head doctor at the health clinic. Then, when she was done with staff meeting, we had our tour. It is mind-blowing how much the medical staff is able to accomplish with greatly limited space and resources. Each day the line of patients starts forming as early as 4:30 am, and each day the team does everything they can to improve the health of the community. They are amazing. 

After our clinic visit, we travelled out into the sectors for a very important appointment. We arrived at the home of one of the Nicaraguan half of our 20 Women of Hope group (the group of Smithville and Chacraseca women who provide a scholarship and other support to a college student. First, we met with our original student. Then we met with our new student, and learned all about her hopes and dreams to become a nurse.

After these meetings, we spent time doing a cooking exchange with the other 20. Women of hope. The Nica women watched as we cooked, and the uS women awkwardly made our way through the wood stove kitchen…

After meeting with our 20 women of hope group, we went back to our home base and met with the president of Chacraseca. He was very passionate about his community, especially regarding education.

After our time closed, we went to Leon. While there, we visited the cathedral, an ice cream shop, and more. It’s been a full and wonderful day, and we’re headed to bed feeling grateful.
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Nicaragua Friendship Mission, Day 3

Today was all about getting our feet wet in the communities of Chacraseca, which is a rural county outside the city of Leon that is marked by a lack of resources. Our morning was filled with home visits, where residents (mostly women) were ready to share stories about different aspects of their lives.

One woman told us about her life as a high school teacher. She teaches civics, social sciences, and artistic expression in a school of 120 students. Resources are thin, but her passion for teaching is strong, and graduation rates keep going up year after year.

Another woman has had her life changed by being chosen to receive an ecological stove. Rather than inhaling the smoke of an open fire, risking frequent burns and declining health (a plight common among women here), she now uses significantly less wood in a stove that stays cool everywhere except the cook surface and that sends all the woodsmoke out of her kitchen through a metal chimney. She has become a strong leader in her community, and uses her influence to encourage others to try these stoves in their own homes.

Yet another woman currently lives in a shack constructed of wooden beams and black plastic sheeting. She raises her son in that small space, but is on the waiting list for a new house and continues to hope for the day when it is her turn to have a new home built on her land.

Both a man who spends his days farming the land through increasingly dry years and a woman who is too sick to work spoke about la lucha (the struggle). In this part of Nicaragua, life is struggle. But the struggle is not something they do alone. Instead, leaders in the community volunteer their time to work for the good of their people, and generally strive to do so in an equitable and fair manner.

After lunch, we visited the local hardware store — a small business created by women to meet the community’s need for a place to purchase building supplies locally. This business, which as expanded to include a cafe, was initially the recipient of a microcredit loan. These loans, offered to women by women, enable individuals to get start up money for small business ventures without providing collateral. The microcredit banks are initially funded by donations that come via Just Hope.

After the hardware store visit, we attended a special performance at the brand new Chacraseca Cultural Center. Students from their music and folkloric dance groups wowed us with traditional dances and songs about Nicaragua. The performance was wonderful! There are very talented kids here in Chacraseca.

At the end of the day, we spent time reflecting, listening to Juan Pablo singing/playing guitar, eating dinner, and hanging out. We’re all deeply moved by the things we’ve seen and people we’ve met today. Now we’re headed to bed so we can be refreshed for another very full day tomorrow!


Nicaragua Friendship Mission, Days 1 & 2

Friends, it’s been a busy two days! Yesterday was our travel day from Kansas City to Managua — a long day that was made even longer by a variety of delays. Ultimately, we all made it to Managua by 9 pm (with no time difference between here and home). 

After getting our luggage loaded on the van, our driver (Juan Pablo) and the director of Just Hope (Leslie) shepherded us to Hotel Gueguense for a night of sleep and the beginnings of adjusting to our new surroundings.

This morning we had breakfast at the hotel, which included the staple dish of beans and rice — known in Nicaragua as Gallo Pinto. After breakfast, Leslie began our introduction to Nicaraguan history by explaining the gorgeous murals that decorate the central corridor of the hotel. Included in that explanation was a description of a panel that shows many local dishes all made from corn. Corn is both a staple food and a powerful symbol of perseverance because during Nicaragua’s colonial past, the common people were cut off from most food sources other than corn. Their ingenuity allowed them to survive when their oppressors expected them to starve. 

As we traveled around Managua, our history lesson continued. We visited various landmarks including their earthquake-damaged cathedral, national palace, and highest point (which once held the Somoza dictators’ residence). Through these landmarks, we learned the history of persistence, strength, and revolutionary spirit that is characteristic of Nica culture. 

Just before lunch we beat an our journey from Managua to Leon.  On the way, we stopped for pictures near two volcanoes, and had a lunch of quesillos (tortillas, soft cheese, sour cream sauce, and pickled onions).  So tasty!

Once in Leon, we visited the office of Just Hope. There we were split into three families, given profiles and given the task of shopping in a nearby market for food. One family had 30 Cordova ($1), another had 60 ($2), and the third had 90 ($3). Using information about normal expenses for families in Chacraseca, like the cost of firewood for cooking and the cost of school uniforms and books, we had to decide how much we could spend to feed our families for a day and decide whether or not our kids could attend school. After making those tough choices, we then went into the market with our translators and decided what food we could afford to purchase.

The market was full of fruits, vegetables, grains, condiments, and the like — but we left with precious little food. Two groups were able to purchase food for the day, and the 30 Cordova group discovered that we had so little to spend that we could only afford food if we chose to cook twice a week and make those meals last for days. A pound of rice, a pound of beans, and one tomato would have to last a family of 5 for the whole week. 

The exercise was difficult on many levels. We went back to Leslie’s home to discuss and process the experience.  In each of the family groups, we discovered there was no feasible way to both keep our kids in school and feed our families. This meant that school was not an option, and that realization hit people hard. We’ve come back to this reality multiple times throughout the night.

After we finished our discussion, Juan Pablo drove us the final distance to Chacraseca. On the way we saw many interesting sights, including a man on a bicycle carrying a large statue of Jesus under his arm, and a clown climbing into the bed of a pickup truck.  We settled into our space here at the peace house, ate a delicious dinner, debriefed the day, and now we’re headed to bed.

It’s been a hard day and a good day. It’s difficult head and heart work to hear familiar history told from a perspective that doesn’t favor your own nation.  It’s also good work, for deep listening is one of the most central facets of friendship. 

Tomorrow we have an early day, so tonight we’re off to bed.  Goodnight!


Standing for Love in #KansasCity

It’s been 24 hours since we made our signs and headed to downtown Kansas City, but the messages, the chants, the facial expressions and gestures, the police, the anger and the fear continue to linger in my mind.  What a day…

We went to the Trump rally for a number of reasons. As DOC pastors, PKs, a church lay worker, and a neighbor, some of those reasons ranged from a desire to stand for our faith to a simple “mom said so” — but we all shared a desire to declare what we are for instead of shouting against Trump. So we made signs urging love of neighbor, and held them proudly.  My sign read, “Love thy refugee neighbor. #kindness”.  Others swapped descriptors, changing refugee to Muslim, black, LGBTQ, Hispanic, immigrant, and even wrong.  A friend’s youngest kids held signs declaring “LOVE” and “Be Nice. Say Kind Things. Be Gentle.” — the deep wisdom of preschool and Kindergarten that we seem to forget as we age. Standing on the same stretch of sidewalk across from the Midland Theater, we created a poster board wall of love for our neighbors.

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Photo credit: Travis Smith McKee, 2016

All told, we spent around two hours in the protest. During that time, we met lots of other protesters with similar signs that spoke of love’s power over hatred, and the inherent value of our neighbors. We also met people whose signs called out the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that have characterized much of Trump’s campaign. And yes, we met people whose signs and words were angry, people who spoke with voices and fists raised high. Though most Trump supporters were inside the Midland, an occasional supporter wandered through the crowd as well. In other words, it was exactly what a public demonstration is supposed to be: a place where perspectives are given voice out in the open, where people express their ideas, values, hopes, fears, and anger in the public square. That’s a part of our political system that I hope we never lose – the right to peacefully gather and protest whenever and wherever we feel we must.

Now, as you’ve surely heard, eventually the protest heated up. Children are excellent  barometers of mood, and our kids grew restless as the air around us began to change. Thanks to their fidgety warning (and hunger), we left the street and stepped into the grocery store that sits across from the Theater. Shortly thereafter, the first blast of pepper spray hit the crowd. A lovely Methodist woman whose sign spoke of love was one of the people who was hit. She and I had stood side by side only minutes before.

It was utterly surreal, watching through the grocery windows as protesters began surging away from the spray.  We were simultaneously grateful and worried. On the one hand, the children in our group were safely oblivious as they munched on their snacks. On the other hand, two in our group were still outside.  And what of the other protesters, rally attendees, and police?  Were they safe?

We left through the parking garage, because store employees would no longer let people in or out through the street entrance. Though it was a safety measure, it also meant that pepper-sprayed protesters couldn’t buy milk — the only thing that would relieve the pain. After exiting the garage, we were reunited with our two friends. They’d found themselves trapped in a group of people preparing to rush across the barricade (an action that apparently prompted the first use of pepper spray). Thankfully, they managed to push through the pressing crowd before the spray was used.

Our ride home was odd. Each person in the vehicle moved in and out of reflection, trying to make sense of what we’d experienced. For me, that reflection focused on the question: “Why did I come here, really?”

Personally, I had a hodgepodge of reasons for standing on the street in the rain with a sign.  Some are obvious, at least to those who know me, and others have been a surprise — in some ways, I didn’t know why I went until after we’d returned home.  While the action certainly doesn’t require defense, I think it is important to share why the day was so important to my life of faith. So, here goes nothing:

  • For observation – In case you haven’t noticed, we receive very different accountings of recent protests depending upon which news station or pundit blares from our screens. Some describe protesters as anarchists and thugs.  Some describe protesters as heroes. Both fail to take into account the diversity of people who show up to these demonstrations, the wide range of folk who are jarred by the rhetoric of this campaign season.  Thankfully there are still others who view protesters as people with real concerns, hopes and dreams, who protest because they want to stand against what they see as a swelling hatred in the United States. Knowing that the people of my congregation would hear widely varying reports of what took place, I wanted to see for myself so that I can help to separate fact from fiction.
  • For justice – The groups of people named on our signs are the very groups that candidates such as Trump speak against. As hateful rhetoric increases and translates into acts of violent aggression, many of our neighbors feel increasingly unsafe. Though we have never met, these people are my brothers and sisters.  They deserve to see people holding signs that name and proclaim their full humanity and dignity, especially in public places where they are rhetorically and/or physically attacked. I was moved by the number of people who stopped and thanked us for carrying signs that named them as neighbor instead of other or enemy.
  • For the little girl in me – I grew up in awe of the social justice activists of the Civil Rights Movement, the suffragists in both Britain and the US, the anti-colonial activists from around the world, the feminist leaders, the activists who protested injustice not despite their faith but because of it.  As a teenager, I regretted being “born in the wrong time” because I naively believed that all the good fights had already been fought and won.  As a college student, I began to see that there was so much left to be done…and with every year that passed, I began to find excuses not to show up.  My own activism slowly morphed into words backed by little action, and that child-who-was looked at me with very little respect.  I want to be someone the younger Lara would be proud of, which means putting myself where my words are, where the need is, where my faith tells me to go.
  • Because I am afraid – I almost didn’t go yesterday. The pull of a lazy Saturday at home was strong, but my fear of what might happen was even stronger.  What if the protests became violent?  What if church folk criticized me for attending?  What if? What if? What if…  At the last minute, I settled down just enough to hear the quiet voice inside me whisper “If you are afraid, then you MUST go.”  She was right.  The things in life that really matter are worth taking thoughtful risks, and I believe all the above reasons really and truly matter.
  • Because it’s not about me – As honest and personally true as my self-reflection may be, this place that we’re in – this hatesplosion – is bigger than me or any other individual. It is about all of us, together.  It hurts all of us, together (though some clearly bear more of that hurt than others). And if we are to find our way out of here, it will require all of us working together. That means showing up and doing the hard work of reconciliation and compassion, even when our hands and voices shake.
  • Because the Bible tells me so – If there is anything I know with utter certainty, it is this: the Bible reveals that God is intimately concerned with the welfare of the other. Widows, orphans, immigrants, strangers…all are named as beloved, and all make it to the list of folk we’re not only called but commanded to love.

That’s where I stand. I don’t expect others to stand there with me, though I’m certainly grateful for the company. Nor do I claim to speak on behalf of my congregation on this one. They get to take their own stands, wherever and however they hear God call them. I’m not telling them who to vote for, because I value the separation of church and state. But I’m also no longer hiding behind that separation, as though being a pastor means I can’t have personal convictions. I can, and I do. I’m standing for love.

 

 

Our Squandered Miracle…

He sat up in the bed, hospital gown intertwined with tubes and eyes full of wonder.  The baby in his lap gurgled, hand in mouth, oblivious to her surroundings.  And his wife?  She laughed, lips spread with her first genuine joy in months.  Just as he was amazed by the little one, we were amazed by him.  He was alive.

A couple of weeks earlier, doctors said this wasn’t possible.  He would never talk again, never remember who he was, never stand, or walk, eat or smile.  In short, his persistent vegetative state would not allow him to be him.

But his eyes followed mom every time she moved through his room at the LTAC.  No, they were GLUED to her.  We noticed, and so did the nurses… but the doctors warned against hope.  Hope could be a liar.

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In contrast to the vibrant hues of burning bush and maple, our hearts were dreary one November morning.  Maybe we were imagining the signs.  Maybe the doctors were right after all.  Pushing down fear with spoonfuls of soup at the deli next door to the LTAC, we steeled ourselves for another visit.  Another letdown.

When I stepped into his room, something felt different.  The air buzzed, expectant.  He turned his head toward us and purposefully whispered, “Hi.”  Then he smiled with what looked like pride and, in an instant, everything changed.

Later that day, one of his nurses told us that he had started speaking the night before.  He’d been practicing, struggling to break out of his bodily freeze so that he could communicate with us.  And now that he was free and we could prove he was “in there,” the doctors stepped up his various therapy sessions.  Day by day, he came back to life.

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IMG_8284That November we received nothing short of a miracle.  And so I keep the picture of them — Dad, Mom, and sweet little Saya — as the background on my computer at work.  It’s not how I want to remember him: my father, who chafed at the idea of doctors and hospitals, tied up in tubes and institutional linens.  But I need to remember him this way.  I need to remember the miracle.

Remembering the miracle every single day is the only way to counter the furious despair that comes from watching a miracle get squandered.  Bent with rage at the systems — health insurance, veterans affairs, nursing home management — that doomed Dad to a slow and torturous death, the only thing that saves my soul is remembering the miracle that was, before it was ruined.

Because It WAS ruined.  Rather than continuing to pay for high-quality LTAC care, Tricare downgraded him and had him placed in a one-star nursing home.  ONE. STAR.  One star out of five.  And in that sub-par facility, where a small staff struggled to make do with long hours and meager resources, Dad went from sitting up, speaking and learning how to walk, to bed sores, sepsis and pneumonia — in the span of a month.

That one decision — a choice made because of an insurance company’s bottom line — was literally the difference between life and death.  Though he died in October of 2014, he was killed in December of 2013 when they moved him out of the LTAC.

Clearly, I’m angry.  I’m mad that they moved him before my sister, who lived out-of-state, could experience November’s miracle — she only got to see the decline that took place in the nursing home. I’m furious that, in retirement, my father was worth so little to the insurance company that serves veterans and active duty military families.  And I’m downright livid about the ordeal we went through and the indignities he suffered.

But I’m not just angry on behalf of my family.  The things we experienced don’t amount to an isolated incident in an otherwise healthy system.  Rather, they are indicative of a healthcare (and, especially, a health insurance) system that is rotten through.  I’m talking about a system in which analysts at a health insurance company get to decide what treatments are necessary, what drugs will be helpful, and, ultimately, whether someone lives or dies… a system in which profits are often more important than people.

And that’s just what happens if you have insurance.  If you don’t have insurance, then the stakes get even higher (and the costs increase exponentially).  Without insurance coverage and the reduced rates that an insurance company negotiates with healthcare providers, Dad’s first two months in the hospital would have cost close to half a million dollars, which means that a family who could not afford insurance would never have had the opportunity to experience a miracle in the first place.

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Obviously, there is more to the system than this.  The nuances of insurance are manifold and confusing for doctors as well as patients.  There are ethical questions about how much should be done to prolong a life, who should make those decisions, and how families should be involved in the process.  And there are a great many doctors, nurses, chaplains, administrators and other healthcare professionals who care deeply about their fellow human beings and do their best to work for health and wholeness.

But, as is sometimes the case, the larger system takes on a life of its own.  In the process, people are literally dying — especially folks who live in poverty and must rely upon emergency rooms and urgent care centers for all of their healthcare.

In the midst of these realities, when I look at the picture of Dad smiling down at his new relative, I remember that:

  • We can do better.
  • We MUST do better.
  • Miracles are possible.

Because I believe these things are true, I feel compelled to speak out and work for a better system and a better way.  If Dad taught me anything, it was to risk doing/saying the difficult right thing instead of remaining silent.  As a pastor rather than a healthcare professional, I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to help… but since when was that a good reason not to try?

Soul Friends

***This is a throwback, a blog post from 2011 that I rediscovered today.  I (re)share it because the last couple of years have proven it’s truth: friendship is a spiritual discipline with the power to keep us afloat in all times, but especially the tough times.  Thank God for good friends!***

Friendship as Spiritual Discipline (4/8/2011)

Gathering Voices Post by Lara Blackwood Pickrel

As I type these words, I’m sitting in a Catholic retreat center in Saint Louis with two dear friends/colleagues.  The official purpose of this meeting of the minds is a writing retreat (we’re chewing on something that has the potential to be pretty exciting!).  Computers are out, keys clicking a symphony of ideas – and we really are getting some serious work done.

Yet, in many ways, the real work is happening aside from the writing.  We laugh.  We feast. We pad around in bare feet for late-night conversation.  Words ebb and flow, dancing from silly to vulnerable and back again.  We dream out loud.  Exhausted, we sleep hard so we can get up and do it all again.  This is the labor of soul friends.

Friends have always been important to me, and at the same time, friendship has often been difficult.  As an “army brat”, moving from place to place, I learned early on that friendships can swiftly evolve or end and take lots of work to maintain – especially over geographical distance.  Often, it was easier to just move on.

As a minister, I’ve moved with the same sort of frequent irregularity that is becoming more and more characteristic of young adults across the board.  Consequently, I have sometimes found myself living in a new place, isolated except for the rich tapestry of friendships that exist beyond my physical locale.  But I haven’t always reached for the tapestry.  Hiding behind my “introvert badge”, I’ve instead savored my isolation, even wallowed in it – only to discover somewhere down the road that (go figure!) my spirit was literally starving.

I’m beginning to understand that friendships aren’t “just” friendships.  Friendships (and the work of cultivating them) are a form of spiritual discipline, just like prayer or scripture reading or mindful eating.  When I don’t pray, my spirit suffers.  When I don’t spend time reading the Word, my spirit/mind become impoverished.  When I don’t eat mindfully, my spirit/body become stressed and broken.  And when I don’t practice the art of friendship, my spirit begins to turn in on itself.

It turns out that I’m not alone in this.  The friends who journey alongside me need this too.  It is part of the human mold, this yearning to be connected in meaningful relationship.  So now, we carve out time.  One small group of soul friends meets every fall, another meets for both business and relationship twice a year, and this trio will meet each spring.  We stay in conversation via social media throughout the year, but we also need this time set apart to laugh and cry and dream “in the flesh”.

While, to a casual observer, there’s nothing about these gatherings that screams “work”, this is holy work all the same.  It is part of our vocation (not just as ministers, but as Christians) to be the best friends we can be…and that requires practice!

Speaking of which, my friends are waiting and it’s time to get back to work…

  • Who are your soul-friends (friends who walk with you on your journey through life)?  
  • How can the Church help us to cultivate deeper, life-enriching friendships?  
  • What other seemingly-mundane activities could actually be spiritual disciplines?

Just a Symbol? — A Reflection on the Relocation of GA 2017

During the lead up to Indiana’s Gov. Pence signing SEA 101 (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — RFRA), some of the national leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) sent a letter to the governor that implored him to veto the bill. (See full text of that letter here – scroll to bottom of page for the original letter) In that letter, Sharon Watkins, Julia Brown Karimu and Ronald Degges expressed their belief that though “religious freedom” is used in the title and language of the bill, the heart of the bill is really about the freedom to discriminate against people who believe, live and love differently than any given business owner in the state of Indiana. They then went on to explain that the potential effects of the bill go against both the values of our democracy and the values of Jesus, who “sat at table with people from all walks of life, and loved them all.” The letter ended with a statement indicating that if RFRA was signed into law, the CC(DOC) might choose to move their 2017 General Assembly (slated for Indianapolis) to a different location.

As we know, the following day Gov. Pence signed SEA 101 into law. A media storm ensued, punctuated by a number of businesses and organizations that began pulling their conferences out of the state or publicly denouncing the RFRA. In the midst of that storm, Disciples leaders began working on how to follow through with the statement they had made. Should they move the General Assembly? If so, then to what new location? Research began in earnest to see which other states have laws similar to Indiana’s RFRA, so as not to jump from the frying pan into the fire (or another frying pan, at the very least). Ultimately, the General Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) came together for a special meeting — during Holy Week! — and made the official decision to seek a new location for GA 2017. (You can read the official announcement here)

Already the talk has begun among Disciples on social media. Some see this move as a victory — a moment when our Church has taken a public stand both for people who are routinely forced to the margins of society and for the values we have affirmed and claimed at past General Assemblies. Some don’t think the move goes far enough — how can pulling a small to medium sized conference that won’t happen until 2017 actually affect anything? Others agree with the idea, but believe the method is wrong — wouldn’t it be better to flood the state with events and organizations that welcome all people? Still others see the move as divisive — a moment when “all means all” does not apply to our more theologically conservative brothers and sisters.

For the sake of full disclosure, I land squarely among those who are proud of this decision and I am thankful that our leaders have been bold enough to publicly articulate a lesser-known kind of Christian witness in a time when Christian belief is perceived as tantamount to bigotry. That being said, I’m not surprised that some Disciples are troubled by this action. As a denomination, we’ve frequently struggled with the tension that exists between a desire to be prophetic and a desire to honor and cultivate Christian unity, and this is a moment where we stand in the middle of the weave, wondering whether warp and woof of the fabric will hold.

Here’s what does surprise me. In various comment threads, I’ve heard a sentiment that goes something like this: the decision to pull GA 2017 from Indiana doesn’t mean or accomplish anything — it is only a symbolic gesture.

 

Only symbolic. Only a symbol. Huh.

On the one hand, yes. Moving GA 2017 to a state that does not have such a law in place is a symbolic gesture. It makes a statement, but doesn’t force change in Indiana.

But on the other hand, is it only a symbol? No. Hell no. As Christians, we are a symbol-driven people. Every Sunday when we gather around a table set with bread and cup, every time we gaze at a cross or stained glass window with reverence, every time we look at our gathered congregations and see the body of Christ, we live in the power of symbols.

Symbols are vehicles for truth. They communicate things of value in ways that go deeper than words.

This action made by our General Board communicates a truth — several truths, really:

  • There are Christians who, because of their faith and their study of the bible, believe passionately that because God loves all people we are called to live lives and build societies that reflect that radical love.
  • The people who are most negatively affected by the RFRA are, in fact, people. They are beloved by God and we are called by Christ to treat them as such. That call is non-negotiable.
  • Discrimination couched as religious freedom is still discrimination, and discrimination should never be legal.
  • Using the language of religious freedom to legalize discrimination is an insult to religious groups of all kinds.
  • While we aren’t perfect, and while there is no perfect place to hold GA 2017 (because discrimination, bigotry and hatred take place in every corner of the world), we can still use the power that we have to make a better choice than staying in a place that legally permits discrimination.

Some of these messages are communicated less clearly than others, to be sure. But to say it is only a symbol is to dismiss not just the hard work and prayer of every General Board member, but also to dismiss the power of symbol in our faith and in our life.

The other thing about symbols is this: powerful symbols might not change the circumstances and injustice that we face, but they do change us. An open communion table changes the way we view hospitality and grace, and asks us to offer those gifts differently. The vision of Christian community as the body of Christ changes the way that we see and value the people who sit next to us during worship, and asks us to love and work with those people differently.  Symbols ask us to change in response to the truth(s) they convey.

As a symbol, the decision to move GA 2017 out of Indiana might not change the circumstances on the ground in that state, but it does force us to change. We now have to do the hard work of finding a new place, researching other state laws, and communicating the hows and whys of the decision. We have to talk about how the One we follow and the faith we affirm do or do not (and will or will not) shape the practical decisions of our life together. We’re forced into a new place and a perhaps a new way of being.

So is it a symbolic gesture?  Yes.  But is it “just” a symbol?  No.

 

A symbol is never just a symbol.