Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: Mischief

Camden County College Hates Me

I’m sorry, I don’t follow the rules. The Public Safety Office at Camden County College clearly told me that I was not welcome on campus unless I was a student or an authorized guest. I went anyway. Again, I’m sorry, but it’s a place to meet 10,000+ young people from all the local area high schools. I have to at least put up flyers on the first day to at least let them know that Circle of Hope exists. At most, I would love it if I could hang out there and make relationships. I can’t shake the need to broadcast to them that there is an alternative to the hypocritical, judgmental church they imagine from national media or know from personal experience. At most, I want them to have a transformative experience with the living God. I can’t shake the desire to share this joy.

I wasn’t trying to go unnoticed

Jesus wants to unlock people at Camden County College for selfless love which is freedom and joy in serving others. They need to know that Jesus wants to help them let go of the lies they are fed about carefully guarded personal satisfaction and its perennial shadow, an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility to make and maintain the world as they know it. Camden County College needs, at the very least, a couple hundred pink flyers posted on every possible bulletin board that there is a community nearby that is re-centering itself around something (and someone) who can actually do something to change the world.

But Camden County College wants me to know that I am not welcome there. A security officer called to let me know that I had broken the rules. It wasn’t hard for him to get a hold of me. I had put my number on all the flyers. But the rules are the rules and he was just doing his job. There is no solicitation at Camden County Colleges. Once again, I’m sorry. I had indeed seen the notice on the bulletin boards that said that any posted flyer not approved by the campus life office would be removed, but I just thought, “OK, remove it, maybe someone will see it before they do.” I also knew that flyers I posted last semester had gone un-removed for months, cuz I’m persistent like that. They asked me not to come back (again), but I’m probably going back. I’m wondering if my flyer shouldn’t say, “They told me not to post this.”

I admit, my ire is up. I could just rebel for rebellion sake because I really am a rebel at heart. But I’d like to make a bigger point about the rules. The rules are designed to protect young people from any influence. According to the rule makers, overt influence is violence. All of our opinions, motives and desires are spontaneously generated from our deepest personhood, or so they would have us believe. When in fact the opinions, motives and desires of a whole generation have been sacrificed to the gods of industry. Our hearts have been claimed by what we consume and those who sell it to us. It is best for the rule makers that everyone believe they are self made in every respect, so that the reality of our unprocessed opinions, motives and desires be otherwise un-engaged and thus more easily shaped and manipulated by the rule makers.

The incoming class of freshman have no personal recollection of the events of September 11, 2001. They were babies or not yet born. Instead they have grown up in the culture of fear that the rule makers have built ever since. They have grown up under surveillance. They have grown up on display, submitting to voluntary surveillance on social media. They have grown up knowing that only the government will keep them safe, and just barely. This ever present, vague sense of threat has shaped them. It has shaped all of us. This threat is excellent for the rule makers. It keeps us in line, in our own lane, and unaware.

Jesus undoes the rules, not necessarily the Public Safety rules of Camden County College, but those rules that keep us locked up in self protection and in fear of what might happen if we mess up. He makes us aware of that which we can’t see without him. He lights up the dark, un-examined opinions, motives and desires that make us who we are, and mostly make us unhappy. He invites us to lose that life so we can find a new one in him. He breaks most of the rules that make our lives such drudgery. He influences us. But that influence blasphemes the other gods who reign over us, and i refuse to pretend they don’t exist.

I’ll have to deal with the consequences of returning to Camden County College when I do, but my decision will not be based in fear of what the rule makers will do to me. I’m being specific about the real threats at Camden County College, and they are not my pink flyers. I’d like to convince a few more students to break the rules with me and influence people for good rather than leaving it to those who will only take from them.

Other gods only take. Jesus gives. I’m praying to help many people at Camden County College receive from him.

 

 

I’m back on campus

Camden County College, Tell Me Your Story

Me and my new friend, Yelitza in the Cafeteria at Camden County College

Some of you heard the story of how I got kicked off Camden County College’s Blackwood campus last November for holding my “Tell Me Your Story” sign.

It caused a bit of a stir among my friends and people I didn’t even know. Someone egged me on to enroll in a class because the security official who booted me said I would be welcome only if I were a student. A bunch of people quickly helped me reach the $500 GoFundMe campaign goal I started (Thanks again!) and now I’M BACK ON CAMPUS!

My first day was Thursday. After my Digital Photography class (It’s basically just Photoshop 101 which I am totally interested in and it could come in handy as I communicate Circle of Hope’s unique vision) I went and sat in my old spot with my sign. Within 5 minutes I was having a great conversation with a new friend about his long distance relationship. Within 15 minutes I was confronted by security… again.

I thought last time it was the head of security, but this time it was actually the head of security. A guy named Steve. Nice guy. I’m not sure why they need to come out with the heavies, five deep to have a conversation with me, but that’s how they roll, I guess. Steve asked me if I was a student. I whipped out my shiny new student ID and John, the not head of security who I had spoken to before asked me if I attended classes. I told them how excited I was about learning Photoshop. Steve thought it was actually pretty great that I went and did what John had suggested, but he wanted to give me another hurdle. I had to go and talk with the Dean of Students to get permission to do my project.

The Dean, Jackie, was nice but in a hurry, so she asked me to send an email. This is what I wrote her:

Dear Dean Tenuto,

Thank you for seeing me in your office on Thursday to talk about my idea to listen to people’s stories on campus. You asked me to tell you why I wanted to do this.

It’s basically an expression of who I am and a gift I have to give to the campus. I always wanted to bring the power of a non-anxious presence “to the streets.” There’s something special about a non-judgmental ear with a stranger. I discovered this as a hospital chaplain, a career for which I am highly trained but no longer employed in full time. I recently moved to Camden County (I live in Haddon Township) and I thought the Blackwood Campus was one of the few places around that had a high enough concentration of available people to try my idea.

My plan is to sit in the “quad,” or whatever we call it outside” the Connector” building, with my “Tell Me Your Story” sign once a week for an hour or so. I did this a lot last semester on Wednesdays (before security asked me to leave) and it was a lot of fun. I only got positive feedback from the students. Now that I am a student, myself (I enrolled in a photography class mostly in defiance to the strange experience of being kicked off campus for what I thought was a beautiful thing), I think this exercise doesn’t really need sanction because it is a peer to peer connection that enriches the community and builds connection and kindness on campus. However, I submit to the request of campus security as I did in November.

Will you now give me permission to do this, please? Thank you.

Peace,

Ben White

And I got permission! Now I’m free to do my beautiful thing and hopefully keep making friends. I was there yesterday but it was raining, so I was in the cafeteria. I’m looking for people who want to be the alternative with me. Jesus is building a Circle of Hope in South Jersey. I’m looking for those who want to expand our Good Story Telling and break down as many barriers between neighbors, classmates and even security officials as possible.

I Got Kicked off of Camden County College’s Campus Today

Yep, you heard that right. I got kicked off of Camden County College’s Blackwood Campus today for hanging out with students who I met while holding a sign that said “Tell Me your Story.” The head of security asked me to leave because I was not an authorized guest. I asked him how I could be authorized and he basically said I couldn’t… We’ll see.

tell-me-your-storyI went to Camden County College (CCC) with my sign because I wanted to meet young people who might be interested in making a movement that broke down the barriers isolating so many of them. The campus in Blackwood, NJ, is pretty set apart, geographically, from anything else, so everyone is commuting. Everyone is rushing by each other, getting to class, feeling alone a lot of the time. The college is a kind of paragon of the epidemic of isolation that comes sweeping behind our technological integration of pocket computers. It was a great place to randomly ask for connection to strangers and it was very well received. I probably talked to a hundred people.

Army Recruiters get a pass but I don’t

A couple of weeks ago I met some army recruiters there. They were friendly people and interested in my sign like so many others so we talked. In our conversation I kept saying the word “killing” as a major downside of joining the military. Finally one of them tried to correct me, “We don’t really use the word ‘killing’, we say ‘we’re defending the guy next to us.”

Yep, you do. You do say that, new army recruiter friend, because if you don’t, you would have to admit that no matter the reasons, in the end, war comes down to killing. Human beings are not designed to kill. Something inside of us rejects it and it takes some serious reprogramming (like avoiding the word “killing”) to sign up to be a part of it. (Have you seen the Netflix show, Black Mirror’s episode, “Men Against Fire”?)

I asked, and none of the three recruiters had discharged their weapon in combat. One was a mechanic; another was a chemical weapons specialist, and the third was a data analyst. I doubt there are many infantrymen who have been through the reality of war and not just it’s periphery that are recruiting the next generation of killers. There is an epidemic of suicide and addiction among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan (and don’t forget Vietnam). War has the nasty habit of breaking people.

And now, after being booted from campus as an unauthorized guest, my encounter with these recruiters is starting to sting a little more. These peddlers of death (giving and receiving it) were there as authorized guests, talking to students, but I can’t be there as a peddler of love and connection!? I am decidedly not super religious when I talk to people, because I want to provide a space for them to be heard and cared for, not pump my own agenda. I give them my card or a flyer about Circle of Hope’s Sunday meeting if they seem interested in what I am doing, but not everyone gets one. I am not a gimmick, I am a human being with skills in being a non-anxious presence (I was a hospital chaplain) who follows Jesus too. I am eager to find people who want to build Circle of Hope with me, but I am glad to just be a compassionate ear as well.

Opposition is Par for the Course

tell-me-your-storyIt took security about two months to notice my weekly Wednesday presence. I made some friends and maybe some future partners before I got caught so not all is lost, but I hated the feeling of being caught. They asked me to leave and requested I not come back unless I enrolled as a student (Digital Photography might be a fun class though).  I don’t want to sound too weird, but it seems like I’m encountering some serious resistance, like from cosmic powers of darkness or something. The Spirit of the Age protects students at a public institution form my influence. Ugh!

As demoralizing as my ousting was, I take some comfort in this opposition. It sounds just a little like Jesus in the Garden, “Am I some dangerous revolutionary, that you come with swords and clubs to arrest me?”, or Paul in 1 Thesalonians “You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition.” Opposition is par for the course in this Good News spreading business.

But… Peacemaking

I am a peacemaker. I call war what it is and I make space for some peace of mind through storytelling. I am not welcome. They are war makers. The “opportunity” of military recruitment in our “volunteer” armed forces is a lie. They convince people that killing is protecting. They are welcome. This is the world we live in! We’ve been saying it all week in the wake of the elections, but I need to hear it again, “Take heart, Jesus has overcome the world.” And when I do take heart, I feel a something burgeoning against this resistance. If we are opposed, we must be on the right track. The Spirit is on the move like in Gethsemene and Philippi–hopefully in Camden County too.

Welcome, Jesus, to the world and South Jersey

We really got ourselves into a mess recently at Circle of Hope.  God afflicted us with this surprising idea to shift our church planting staff around.  Nate Hulfish is moving into an Adminstrator/Communicator role for the whole church and I am moving into the role of Pastor of Marlton and Crescent.  I never would have expected this for myself, but the strange attraction to this region–this new territory where I would go as pilgrim and stranger–is sticking with me as we move forward with the plan.  It’s poetic to experience the conception of such a strange and wonderful  idea when we remember the strangeness and wonder of Jesus’ conception and the mess into which he was born.  I was dreaming a week or so ago about what it might be like.  So I went as a stranger and a pilgrim to the land of jug handles and a hundred little towns–South Jersey within 20 minutes of our outpost at Marlton and Crescent, and I found a welcome sign for each of those towns (40!).  Welcome, Jesus, to the world and to South Jersey.  Welcome, me, too.  I’m coming with Him.  Check out the slideshow of my adventurous day below.

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]

Holy Mischief at Philadelphia University

It’s the first week of school!  Everyone’s got their new sneakers on and they’re trying to figure out where they fit in at a lot of the university campuses.  I’m hoping that some of them will fit in with us at Circle of Hope so I went to University of the Sciences and Philadelphia University on their first day of school to see what was up and let people know we were looking for them and they had a place with us and with Jesus.

labyrinthAt Philadelphia University I was surprised to find a beautiful stone labyrinth on a path between the main campus where a lot of the classes are held and the Ravenhill campus where a lot of the freshman live.  I had to walk it right then and there and as I did I was inspired to share this opportunity with the people who were there.  I wanted to say “Look what you have here!  Do you know how great this is?”  I suspected not for many, so I decided to make a sign to install there the next day.

I made a sign that said this:

“A labyrinth is an ancient form of meditation famously appropriated by Celtic Christians to symbolize the spiritual journey.  Follow the path and follow the twists and turns of the journey to the center.  It’s an active way to slow down and reflect, to get your body involved in prayer.  It’s an opportunity to be led by God.  It’s meant to be repeated.  It’s the same coming out as it was going in and yet also different.  Taking an intentional walk on this labyrinth every day could be a discipline for your spiritual growth.

Circle of Hope is a church community in Philadelphia that is committed to preserving the old ways of worship and inventing the new.  One of our proverbs says, “We stretch ourselves to worship with diverse styles. God is transnational, transcultural, even transhistorical.”–  learn more at www.circleofhope.net”

labyrinth signI had it laminated and I put it on a stick to plant in the ground by the labyrinth pointing to this great resource.  Someone told me it was weird that it had our info on it- like I was taking credit for Circle of Hope that was not ours to take.  It did feel a little mischievous, and that was half the fun, but I don’t think it is wrong to follow the path that was laid for me.  I was taking advantage of what God was already doing on campus.  This labyrinth had been done.  I claimed it for Jesus and His mission among us.

I was very encouraged to spy on the sign after I placed it and see people stop to read, and to see security guards walk right by it without a second glance.  It was for all the time that I was at Philadelphia University yesterday.  I hope it’s still there now.  I hope that people are intrigued about their own spiritual growth and about us.  With prayer, fun little seeds like this will bear fruit, either remotely or in person as we continue to frequent these campuses and make relationships.  I’m on Penn’s campus today looking for friends and softened hearts.  Thanks for being with me in prayer.