Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: September 2013

Tell Me Your Story, Penn

My friend, Howard Pinder, came up with this great idea.  The “Tell Me Your Story” sign.  I’ve been emulating him at the University of Pennsylvania this week.  It’s pretty fun! People look at me when I’m holding the sign, many look away when I meet their gaze, they look away and smile.  Many give a thumbs up or say they like my sign, only a few tell me their story but enough people do for me to be excited about doing it again.

I even ran into my old friend Stephen, who was in town for like 12 hours.  How rad!

I even ran into my old friend Stephen, who was in town for like 12 hours. How rad!

I’m breaking down the barrier between us.  I’m inviting people to escape their cynicism and fear for a moment.  I’m doing something weird that breaks the monotony of those who are just passing by.  Those who stop to talk are interested in why I’m doing this.  “What is this for?”, “Is this for a class?”  Nope, I’m just a local pastor looking for friends.  I think everyone has a story worth telling because everyone is valuable in God’s eyes.  You’re important so what happens to you is important.  I want to listen because I think it’s good for me to honor your importance and give you my ears as gifts.  I usually tell people about Circle of Hope because they want to know what sort of church has a pastor that does this sort of thing.  It’s a great opportunity to meet the next partner.

5 stories I’ve heard:

1) A man from India is here visiting his niece.  He runs a green technology company in India that makes less money than his old company but he is more satisfied with the more meaningful work.  His Hindu faith influenced him passively by instilling in him a reverence for nature that he wants to protect with his business.  He told me how he decided to change his vocation after a conversation with a friend.

2) A first generation immigrant from Afghanistan lost her dad to cancer 2 years ago when she was a freshman.  She realized then that there is more to life than economic success and being “the best.”  She wishes more of her peers at Penn would learn this because she is sick of the elitism she perceives among them.

3) A woman grew up on a farm in South Dakota with her 10 younger siblings.  She was sort of Mom #2 to her youngest siblings.  One morning, one of her brothers busted a gash in her other brother’s forehead with a golf club.  The whole clan climbed into the van and went into town to get him stitched up.  It wasn’t a big deal to her–a real pioneer!

4) At his senior show, a guy got a few friends to sing “I get by with a little help from my friends” by the Beatles with him.  Thy all sang to another friend who was part of the show too.  It sounded like an episode of “Glee”

5) A woman waxed nostalgic about watching boys play football on her street in Detroit.  She misses the strong sense of community she experienced as a kid. She feels a bit isolated in her current circumstance.

People are looking for connection.  People have a story to tell.  I make the cell group I lead about telling our stories all the time.  In telling our stories we get to listen to ourselves tell it.  Our fears often feel less frightening once externalized.  Our hopes often feel more real when shared.  Taking the risk to connect, especially with people we don’t know or with whom we don’t have an automatic affinity is one way that we can experience Jesus’ love.  Uncanny bonds and unexpected discoveries are made on a regular basis in places where Jesus is at the center.  A sense of belonging comes quickly and a warmth that defies easy explanation.  That’s the “safe place” we say we are.  That’s the “safe place” next to Jesus.  I felt some of that even with strangers on Locust walk this week.  I wonder how deep this will go.

[Check out tellmeyourstoryphilly.com for some of Howard Pinder’s collected stories]

Circle of Hope’s Public Joy

I was driving down the Broad Street on Sunday when all of a sudden I had to pull over abruptly in the center “parking lane.”  My friends, Forest and Ben were playing guitars in front of the library at Broad and Morris!  It was a beautiful morning and these beautiful people were making some beautiful music in Circle of Hope Broad and Washington’s beautiful neighborhood.  I made a video of it.

Happening upon them where I found them was really cool because we had just been there the Sunday before at the AMPM (the morning Public Meeting designed to include children and family.  We played games, ate snacks and told stories in DeSilvestro Playground (behind the libray).  Here’s another video of Tracey and Moses telling a story about peace making goats in English and Runyankole (from Uganda).

Circle of Hope is getting out on the street in new ways.  This is one example of our public joy.  Those who read my blog know that I stand outside of our space at 1125 S. Broad Street a few mornings a week and say “hi” to people.  A couple of weeks ago I met with a guy who was in a tough spot.  I listened to him tell his story of active drug addiction and childhood abuse calmly and also unreservedly.  By unreservedly I mean I didn’t hold my tongue.  When he asked someone if he could buy a cigarette I said, “Are you crazy? You just told me you have $11 to your name and you’re buying cigarettes?”  He laughed.  Later in our conversation he got someone to give him one and as he puffed he asked me, “Man, are you high?”

“What?  Why do you think I’m high?”

“I dunno, you’re just so like peaceful and calm.  You’re funny man.  I’m telling you all this stuff and you keep listening.”

“No man, I’m not high, that’s just the peace of Jesus.”

That’s what we’re doing, friends.  That’s what Jesus is offering: Peace in the midst of crazy, uncomfortable stories and joy all over the place–the kind of peace that get’s noticed if we give Jesus the opportunity to get out in public by getting us on the street, especially right in our neighborhood and it’s “Main Street”, South Broad Street.

Subvertising: let’s use advertising to supplant advertising

I remember seeing these weird stickers and spray painted stencils of Andre the Giant when I first moved to Philadelphia in 1996.  I was just a kid and Circle of Hope was just an idea.  Now Shepard Fairey’s OBEY design is almost 25 years old and it’s on a T-shirt worn by what seems like 1 in 10 of the college kids I’m seeing these days, and Circle of Hope is very much more than an idea and into it’s 17th year.  I’d like to see these parallels converge a bit more as I work to develop our mission.

Shepard Fairey’s “Endless Power” Design

Shepard Fairey is a subvertiser.  He’s managed to get really mainstream which is sort of weird but he’s one of the most well known subvertisers I know of. Wikipedia’s article about subvertising says “the key process involves redefining or even reclaiming one’s environment from a perceived corporate beast.”  I don’t know if Shepard would be so direct but one of the recent designs on his website obeygiant.com speaks that sort of language.  He takes an obvious message- “we are going to run out of gas” and makes it look cool.  He puts a funny mustache on the image of the emperor and it sells like hotcakes.  I do believe that he is not at this just to get rich (I think he’s doing that though) but he’s also hoping that his message is noticed on the shirts of all those college kids regardless of why the individual is wearing it.

Jesus is interested in reclaiming our environment from the corporate beast too, so I think we ought to figure out how to do it.  Of course we wouldn’t advertise (some of my friends in Circle of Hope can’t even stomach saying the word in the context of our mission) but we would subvertise and we ought to think hard about how to get our name and even our “brand” associated with resistance and restoration, questioning the powers that be, and liberation from oppression.  This is the message that is resonating with those who are buying the OBEY brand if only subliminally for some.

We want to do more than wear T-shirts though.  We want to supplant advertising and fuel the rebellion that Jesus is leading.

Another thing that I think is interesting about Shepard’s ideas is his popularization of the phrase “the medium is the message.”  It was introduced in Marshall McLuhan’s most widely known book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964.  Though not exactly a corollary, our incarnational approach to evangelism is akin to McLuhan’s and Shepard’s idea.  Our medium for transmitting the gospel is the community.  We are the gospel as much if not more than we preach it.  This has it’s roots in Anabaptist theology, yes, but more so in the message and modus operandi of Jesus.  He said, “I am the Way” –it’s me.  He went around preaching about other things too but he makes it clear in all four of the gospels that the most important thing is not a thing or idea at all–He’s Jesus.  The promise from Jesus is “trust in me and I will give you all I have from the Father, including eternity.”  When I say “we are the gospel” I’m not supplanting Jesus but I am being like Him.  No, I am not the Way but I believe the best way to communicate Jesus to those who do not yet know Him is to invite them into a way of being.  We say “We create an environment where people can connect with God and act for redemption.”  The medium, us as followers of Jesus and temples of the living God, is the message.

Unfortunately, just being who we are does not suffice in a world of noise and isolation.  If anyone is to be exposed to who we are we’re going to have to be conspicuously.  I think a really good way to do that is subvertising.  Let’s supplant advertising by using the medium, speaking the first language of our consumerist culture and see if anyone will notice. I’m praying they will.

Some ideas

  • Manifestos like this one printed on newsprint and inserted in the free papers like Citypaper and Philadelphia Weekly (if they live off of sex advertisements I think we can exploit them for Jesus’s cause)
  • Book marks in the books sold at bookstores or mock subscription postcards in magazines (I think I should probably be kicked out of UPENN’s bookstore, don’t you?)
  • Mock customer appreciation cards like this one

Print

  • Stickers like these
Stickers from the Street Team's "We Agree" campaign

Stickers from the Street Team’s “We Agree” campaign

Circle of Hope has a Street Team led by Luke Bartolomeo who designed this cool stuff.  We’re interested in these ideas.  Would you like to join us?  Let me know.

Benjamin White
267-825-5348
[email protected]

Dear Philly University Students : an open letter (it’s about Jesus, ok?)

Dear students,

Welcome to Philadelphia!

I want to be your friend.  What is your name?  Will you escape your own personal zone long enough to connect with me?  Most of you won’t, but that’s okay because I’m pretty sure some of you will.  But really, those people who are ready to connect are the anomalies so don’t feel weird if you think I’m weird.  I am weird.  So I’ll just go for it…

Don’t you think that Circle of Hope is a perfect place to dedicate your energy and creativity to Jesus?  Ok, you’re not that religious or you’re not that religion’s religious, but you do have energy and creativity and you’re looking for a way to use it aren’t you?  Why not Jesus?

  • It’s a real shame that the Church has been co-opted by the institutional passion-sappers of our society.  I don’t blame you for being suspicious, especially if you have a bad experience with the church or some pseudo experience with a pseudo church person (like on TV).
  • It’s a real shame that our prophetic voice has been silenced by things like student loans, international threats and fears of international threats (and threats of fear of international threats).  That which cows us under the pressure just to make it is that which we need to make our lives about unmaking.
  • It’s a real shame too that we’ve made it rude to talk about Jesus anywhere but in a Church’s building.  My private faith is meaningless.  When we trapped it in our heads we cut our own capacity to transform the world right out from under ourselves.

eastern fair

But Jesus is saving me from shame, so I’ve been working on having real experiences, unmaking ungodly powers, and being so rude as to talk about Jesus in public. I went to a bunch of student activities fairs on your campuses this week (Philadelphia University, uArts, Penn and Eastern).  Here’s a picture of me and Jonny at one today.  I was struck at how many of you (students) were interested in Jesus’ mission in the world.  Some asked me what we do in Circle of Hope and I said we resist and restore.  We say “Jesus is living the greatest mutiny ever – we should not waste our rebellion on each other.”  Too many of you have seen us wasting our rebellion on each other.  Let’s turn our focus on those forces which are hellbent on dominating us.  We have a common cause.  I’m offering you a common community and a common hope. 

Someone told me yesterday that they were excited about the revolution I hoped for but that it was a shame that it had to be about Jesus too.  I told him that I couldn’t do it without Jesus.  I’ve learned too much about what humanity is capable of.  I’ve failed to stop wars with the best of them.  My hope in humanity gets dashed even within my own life.  People betray me and lie to me.  I let myself and others down too.  I can’t be as ambitious as I need to be if I don’t have some sure hope–something, or better yet someone, bigger than myself.  “I’m doing this with Jesus,” I told him.  “Because I can’t do it without him.  If you try, you’ll come up against your own limitations too.”

The safest thing to do is to keep your head down and fit into the tiny space the economy has carved out for you.  Life with Jesus is not necessarily safe, but it is worth your life’s devotion– all your energy and creativity.  Circle of Hope is looking for you as a partner.  We will be safe for you to explore while you’re figuring it all out.  But if you get next to Jesus, you can expect an adventure at the least, a life worth living that is a threat to all that oppresses at the most.  Call me back.  I’m on your phone I’m at your door.  Find me, I’m looking for you.

Peace,

Benjamin White
[email protected]
267-825-5348
circleofhope.net