Talk to me

An insightful guest post by Wes Willison! 

Oh I talk too loose
Again I talk too open and free
I pay a high price for my open talking
Like you do for your silent mystery

 [Joni Mitchell]

Why not monologues?

Is there anything wrong with hearing from one voice during Sunday meetings? Not really, no. Our pastors are great! They say good things. It’s helpful to hear their insights into faith, life, community, and the way of Jesus.

However, how many of us have been in churches where it was exasperating and exhausting to only hear one person’s opinion all the time? If you’re like me, it’s common to visit another church and get turned off by not just the content of someone else’s words, but also in the format of their delivery: one voice, raised above everyone else (often physically, in a pulpit) handing the listeners words to agree with and absorb. It’s not that I disagree with everything (or even most things) I hear in sermons; instead, it’s the lack of encounter or relationship that this format posits.

Without even trying to analyze the content of specific sermons, I am told by this format that:

  • my voice is less important than the person who is speaking
  • I know less about God than the person speaking
  • the means of encountering God are to listen to someone else’s knowledge

Is this all necessarily bad all the time? No, of course not. There’s a time and place for hearing the words of one person who knows more than me.

However, no single one of us humans — especially men, especially white men, especially American white men — can know the full breadth and depth of God’s revelation. As much as Jesus has revealed to us the nature and dimensions of God’s activity on earth, no one of us is privileged to have a complete view on that knowledge. Each of us have different experiences and perspectives of that revelation, and it’s helpful to hear each others’ stories to get glimpses of what God is up to.

Why stories? Why dialogue?

What does this mean for us practically? That telling stories is important. In fact, it might be more important than any other way we use our words. It also means that talking to each other — in dialogue — is important. That’s a major reason why we have talkback every week. When someone speaks, everyone has an opportunity to respond with a anecdote, insight, or question.

Story-telling is a recognition of our own subjectivity, our own limited perspective when it comes to the broad and wild love God has for us. None of us can know the pain and joy of someone else’s experience of God until they share their story. To use a biblical word, testimony matters. Stories are not about theology, they are about God’s action in our lives. They are not reflections of our intelligence or ability, but instead reflect our gratitude and struggle. They do not make others more or less than human, but instead they help us recognize the image of God in ourselves.

Dialogue is a recognition of our own relationality, our location in a social fabric. We aren’t alone in our relationship with God: God is loving all of us, and God is loving our community. Pressure and encouragement from someone else helps us recognize and give thanks for the ways God loves us. When someone asks us for clarification on our story, we can recognize the places in which our story is incomplete, either to ourselves or to others. Asking someone else to tell their story — and then honoring it — is an antidote to proselytizing. It is not colonial, it is familial. It is not towards coercion, it is towards mutual joy.

Story time

Two Sundays ago, I talked with Pearl Quick about her story at the 7PM Sunday meeting. We met in a Lutheran church around the corner from Circle of Hope 2007 Frankford Ave. Dimly lit, on rickety folding chairs, with about as many pews in the room as there were people. I’ll admit: it wasn’t a comfortable space for such an intimate conversation. But frankly, even the Frankford Ave space would have felt incongruous. Our conversation felt like it deserved a few drinks in someone’s living room after a good meal.

To have such a small-scale, personal conversation in a church setting was new for me. I’ve always experienced Sunday church meetings to be formal, intensely planned, and generally uncomfortable. Talking with Pearl was not that way, and not only because I happen to be friends with Pearl. I was able to ask real questions of Pearl in addition to the ones I’d planned, and responding to everyone else’s questions during Talkback felt less discontinuous with how the rest of the conversation had unfolded: it was all the same, all one conversation. I’m still trying to figure out what I learned from the experience, but I’m pretty sure it was less about the content of what Pearl said and more about the way in which story was shared and embraced.

I would have also enjoyed hearing Pearl give a whole 30 minute speech about her experiences, no doubt. She’s a dynamic speaker, powerful storyteller, and has plenty of charisma. In fact, I think my clumsy questions were probably more of a hindrance than if she had polished a speech and delivered it without interruption. But even so, I’m happy for the opportunity to be a part of unfolding Pearl’s story. It was a slightly forced environment — not quite the natural, improvised, unplanned dialogue that I imagine the 30 minutes could have been — but our planning and preparation helped ensure that the most significant parts of Pearl’s story were shared, and powerfully so. Furthermore, there’s an implied second half to the conversation that we haven’t reached yet: Pearl talking to me about my own story. I’m looking forward to the time for that story too.

Next week, Kristen will be chatting with Phoebe Bachman, a collaborator at Philadelphia Assembled. I’m looking forward to the story, I’m looking forward to the dialogue. I invite you to come along and hear for yourself. Even more, I invite you to come along and ask a question for yourself. Unless you ask that question, Phoebe’s story will be that much incomplete.

Signing The Declaration as a team during 911 and UNDRIP anniversaries

I love being part of the Circle of Hope pastors and staff team. We’ve grown and changed over the years and continue to hold to what holds us together, love. Since its release last Tuesday, our team of pastors and staff have signed the Theological Declaration on Christian Faith and White Supremacy out of love for Jesus, one another, for the church, the victims of unjust systems, and for those caught up in these deceitful ideologies.

I hope that you have caught wind of The Declaration by now. One of my mentors, Randy Woodley, became an instrumental figure in drafting this theological and practical response for Christians in the midst of overt white supremacy and white nationalism in our communities. He personally invited me to partake in this move, inspired by the Barmen Declaration of 1934 by Christians in Germany who opposed the harmful influence of Christians adopting Nazi ideals and infecting and misshaping the Church.

When Unite the Right gathered in Charlottesville a few weeks ago, a long, sick story added a new iconic chapter. Since 11/9 (the last US federal election), white supremacy has been emboldened and become more overt. Many Christians in the US have fallen prey to norms and ideals that contradict the Good News of Christ. #theDeclaration isn’t just about pointing out the speck in our proverbial brother’s eye, it is a tool “to acknowledge and repent of the church’s complicity in perpetuating white male supremacy in all of its forms and to hear and to heed the call to return to the truth of scripture, fully revealed in the person of Jesus.”

As a continuing expression of the Anabaptist movement, we don’t all think that making statements to the Powers That Be or to those not part of the covenanted community is essential to what the church is given to do. We form alternative community to the domination system, participating in the cultivation of God’s harmonious reign slowly and together. One of our main partners, MCC, released a potent Statement on White Supremacy and Racism last month.

911 and UNDRIP anniversaries give us tangible reminders of work to be done

September 11, 2001 (remember to never forget, btw) often gets memorialized with loss, grief, and a promise that unity under the US American government will make everyone safer from violence, through violence. We would like to forget (or not learn) that the death toll for the War on Terror has grown into the millions. On that anniversary, I still resonate with what Terry Rockefeller of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows shared at Jesus, Bombs, and Ice Cream, “There can be no war on terror. War is terror.

After 25 years of organizing, we can celebrate today the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The US, of course, was with the main settler colonial states of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand to oppose the landmark victory. Former President Obama officially lent US support to the declaration in 2010. Along with over 560 federally recognized Indian tribes, over 60 state recognized tribes, and countless other native relatives in the US—we’re still waiting for action.

Signing the Declaration isn’t just word, it comes with action.In response to these truths and in rejection of these false doctrines, we implore people of Christian faith to match confession with repentance. Let us find new ways to be together in the world. We offer four actions we might take toward the healing of our nation:” to listen, lament, repent, and re-imagine. I’m grateful that Circle of Hope has been a space where these practices are part of our rhythms of life and path of discipleship. I hope that more of our siblings in Christ can be present to our moment in time, and the Holy Spirit’s power and direction to healthy and authentic expressions of life in Christ. I hope more Christians will sign and implement the Declaration. I hope more people will be freed up to join in Jesus’ world redemption project.

Tanking with the Sixers for Lent

Love is central to our common life and common work. Our pastors and staff work on their love. We enjoy our work most of the time, and find it fun and lifegiving. We also make time to have fun together. To play. More common experiences shape us and build up our love and our sense of team.

I excitedly got us to buy Sixers tickets. We just suffered three years of taking, where the team kept the roster slim and traded away veteran talent for draft picks and players hanging out in Europe. This year some very talented rookies took the floor, and the #1 draft pick last year was set to return from his foot surgery. When Joel Embiid was playing out of his mind and the date for Ben Simmons’ debut was seemingly just days away, I thought seeing a young team playing well and sorting itself out would be good for us. Our team is young in a lot of ways – people are in new roles over the past two years and we’ve expanded to include more pastors over the past few months!  Then came more injuries and Joel and Ben were shut down for the rest of the year. The trade deadline did not pass without unloading more veteran talent for draft picks and project players. Tank 4.0 ensues. 

What can we learn from watching terrible basketball? Only a few of us are fans, and we hadn’t all been to a professional sporting event before. So there’s a lot we can learn just from bringing people with varying levels of interest and experience together. We can also learn about what it’s like to gut out harder times – startups, new ideas, life’s limitations, and high learning curves.  I’m among the dwindling yet faithful remnant who still #TrustTheProcess, I believe that all the losing is actually building a juggernaut from next season over the next 5 (at least). That’s a lot like Lent. We’re uncovering our limits and obstacles, and receiving what we need from God to face our suffering. We don’t think we’ll overcome it all right away. We know all of our efforts will pay off in the way we want or hope. We do want to learn how to hold on to hope – that Jesus is in our pain as we suffer with Jesus in his – and the Spirit will make us to bear good fruit for God. We need the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and equipping to overcome our important obstacles and we have her, just like the Sixers need and have Dario Saric. 

I’m so grateful for this classically wonderful group of people. It was so sweet and fun to be together knowing that as good and difficult as our work is right now, our future is even brighter.

In case you don’t recognize them all…(bottom row, left to right) Rod White, Gwen White, Ben White, Rachel Sensenig (middle row, left to right) Nate Hulfish, Joshua Grace, Bethany Hornak, Julie Hoke, Jerome Stafford, Jonny Rashid (top row) a few friendly onlooking coworkers. Missing: Luke Bartolomeo and our part time Local Site Supervisors Jimmy, Pilar, Kim, and Krissy. You can read more about our dynamic team here.

Pray for our squad (Circle of Hope, although many Sixers would appreciate it, too). We are daring to take risks with a brave face. We take great comfort in knowing we have so many parters wanting to co-create in making more beauty with the Spirit together. 

An opportunity for wonder

What is more wonder-full than wonder in the eyes of children? I think that’s one thing that makes Christmas time so special for a lot of people. Wonder has become a serious spiritual discipline for me, as weird as that might sound. During Advent I get even more serious about wonder – the decorations, songs, smells, and other traditions hopefully help stoke my imagination about deeper meaning. I need to try to wrap my heart and my mind around this Story again every year or else I’ll think it’s normal.

Creator becoming part of creation honestly blows my mind, and I want it to. It doesn’t really get my imaginative fires burning – beckoning me to spend time every day considering what it means, motivating my heart, my behavior, and my relationships – unless I keep the disciplines that keep me mindful of how Jesus is being born anew. What in me could get renewed?

I’ve heard from friends that the best part of giving a present is watching the child open it and freak out. That’s fun, but a lot of pressure to keep up (my kids are 15 and 12 now, that’s a lot of Xmas’s). For me, the best part of giving a gift is being part of a larger generosity movement and expressing God’s generosity by making his dwelling among us. It opens up universes of possibilities. There are daily practices that help me – Circle of Daily Prayer [water] has been offering a song every day. That might be a good enough start for you.

We face a lot of dangers. It looks like Donald J. is going to become our president. People are having a lot of difficulty staying together. It rained this week and I had more people tell me they wanted to hurt themselves than the rest of the year combined. I’ve heard of families splitting up or about to. Perpetual, preemptive war continues abroad and the battle of capitalism vs creation continues at home and Obama still won’t stand up for the Standing Rock Sioux against the banks, extraction giants, and their militarized police/mercenaries. Another unarmed black kid got killed over nothing – James Means was 15.

People are financially strained and somehow the internet was permitted to boss around everyone’s money for a week by making a consumer spectacle out of Thanksgiving/Black Friday/Small Business Saturday/Cyber Monday/Giving Tuesday. Don’t fall for it. It’s the reverse order of your values, anyway – right? Don’t let it break your sense of wonder. Don’t let this stuff get you away from a deeper reality…that Jesus is calling us back into harmony with God, with one another, and with creation. We form alternatives to the destructive symptoms and act in ways that oppose the pathologies that cause such alienation.

We have so many opportunities to get our goodness fueled and help heal some wounds this month. Get some good stuff from God and spread it around. There’s enough comfort & joy to go around. You may want to get your calendar out…

Nov 27 First Sunday of Advent

We explored the prophets pointing to another way and listened to stories from the water protectors at Standing Rock to connect to our own dissonance, resilience, and rejoicing. You might even want to join in tomorrow on a #NoDAPL Day of Action.

Dec 2-3 Art Shop This is our 12th expression of 50+ local artist/crafter/makers.

Dec 4 – Second Sunday of Advent

We’re looking to John the Baptizer who signals the time has arrived and listening to Black Lives Matter to connect to our own dissonance, resilience, and rejoicing. 5 & 7pm at 2007 Frankford

Dec 10 – House show: music/poetry/wonder/potluck/NoDAPL Me and Martha are trying to throw an inclusive party. Some of my favorite performers will be performing. We’re gonna raise some funds for Standing Rock. Potluck starts at 6:30

Dec 11 – Third Sunday of Advent

This time Mary and Joseph prepare for the miracle. We’re getting into the Magnificat a whole bunch. These migrants get us to looking at the absurdity of talk of “building a wall” and undocumented people in our own communities that help us connect to our own dissonance, resilience, and rejoicing. Some of us have been part of the #right2work dinner series, highlighting undocumented restaraunt workers in Philly.

Dec 17 – Free Baby & Kids Goods Exchange (10am-1pm at 2007 Frankford). This is usually our largest monthly session where parents and those expecting practice redistribution of kid stuff and saving ecological and environmental impact. We still need volunteers to set up, hang out, drive people home, and clean up.

Dec 18 – Fourth Sunday of Advent

We will light the fourth Advent candle for the Shepherds, who respond to the news of Jesus being born with songs of joy. We turn our ears to Syria and other people displaced through the war of terror to help us connect to our own dissonance, resilience, and rejoicing. 5 & 7 pm at 2007 Frankford.

Dec 20 – Caroling through Kensington/Fishtown  – meet at 6:30 at 2007 Frankford, we’ll start walking at 7 and return for warm drinks and snacks. I don’t really like Christmas carols, I’ll confess, but I do love how moved my neighbors get when 100+ of us sing to them. It can be life changing. 

Dec 21 – Homeless Memorial Day, 5-6pm at 15th & JFK. We will assert the dignity of all persons and remember those who died this year. Many won’t have another formal rembrance.

Dec 24 – Christmas Eve, 10:45pm vigil at 1125 S. Broad (also there’s a 4pm family-oriented observance). Sometimes we watch the big flakes of snow fall out the window while we hold candles singing Silent Night at midnight. That or something else magical might happen.

Dec 25 – Silent Night, Holy Night – 60min of candlelight reflection at 5 and 7 at 2007 Frankford. Loads of snacks in between. Lots of people need somewhere warm, indoors, and kind to be on Christmas. I love it when it’s on a Sunday because it’s easy to make it about Jesus.

From Befuddlement to Mystery during the Carnival de Resistance

I had two spiritually profound experiences two weeks ago that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. This is about one of them. I was part of the Carnival de Resistance residency in Minneapolis (many fond memories!), beginning a new seminary class and feeling lots of feelings. I was there for 10 days of a 30 person, 30 day eco village experiment and arts carnival – easily find pics on the Facebook page. I had been sitting for a few days with some difficult questions that had arisen during my seminary work. During one of our performances my befuddlement had moved into embracing mystery in a way where felt connected, and embraced back by God. I felt the Holy Spirit in my body as I drummed and choked through the lyrics to the anthem’s line “I’m gonna stay on the battlefield till I die…” You may want to listen to Sweet Honey in the Rock’s version while you read.

The Mexican muralistas walked behind our dancers (Jenna, Helen, Belle, and Tevyn – inspiring Circle of Hope partners!) with this banner (above) and raised their fists – both in defiance of tyranny and together with those defending water against the extraction industry with their private military. Everyone under the big top (besides people playing drums with both hands, I guess) raised a fist. It was the climactic moment of the show, the second time we performed it. It was more than an exhilaration from performance. It was more than just having strong and complicated emotions. I know what the presence of God feels like. God is there when I feel most alive, when I’m distressed – and still surprises me sometimes.

Experiences or activities that help us connect with God

I’m glad that I learned how to worship God at a young age – especially in the context of when the church gathers. Worshipping together has been a central discipline to my whole adult life. I use it as a time to be formed by bringing our hopes, worries, and everything else to God through mutual expression, often through art and music – while including others. Each of our meetings on Sunday night feel like an inclusive family dinner to me.

I’ve love how this meme can help us think about spaces of personal God time. They bring up a common problem – so many people unsuccessfully try to cram that experience into a church building and don’t acknowledge that a close encounter with God’s Spirit often happens when we’re doing what we love. I’ve heard people this year talk about developing intimacy with God when they run 5 miles, work on their garden, write a song, go hiking, sit in the woods and listen to birds, read and ponder the words of mystics, march against injustice, practice photography, consider the wonders of the universe, meditate on Scripture, dance, making a friend on purpose, paint, clean the house…I could go on.

These encounters don’t need a priestly figure performing the ceremonial rites ahead of time. Jesus made all times sacred, we just need to enter in. Everyone participating might not have the same intention and interpretation of the event. We do have unity of purpose at our Sunday meetings and cell meetings – we call it “setting the sacred space.” What practices or habits help you experience God’s presence? The two meetings of the church each week probably aren’t enough to sustain you longterm – part of following Jesus is growing your capacity to experience the Holy Spirit all the time.

We resist what we don’t already understand

Susan Boyle illustrated the classic aphorism

Susan Boyle illustrated the classic aphorism “don’t judge a book by its cover” on Britain’s got talent. *swoon

I heard one of our pastors, Gwen, say at Doing Theology last week that we are naturally suspicious of things we think are different than what we already know. I know I can be like that. When I don’t understand something or when an idea doesn’t reinforce something I already think/believe/feel – it takes some intentional work to not go with my instinct to close off, resist, or withdraw. It’s a risk because sometimes it’s healthy and others we miss something that the Spirit might be bubbling up.

If you’re still reading and ready for another relevant song, the First Nations DJ trio A Tribe Called Red dropped a new album recently that’s been on repeat for me. Here’s the first single featuring Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), “R.E.D.” 

I only have two classes left to complete for my Masters in Intercultural Studies degree through my seminary, NAIITS. My current class of ten people is Ethics in an Intercultural Context. Since it’s the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies, we often consider implications of mission in Native contexts (historically, currently, and the future) and give special attention to Native experiences. My professor was not afraid to start our class off with some rather antagonistic writings by Vine Deloria – a hugely important Native scholar.

The assigned article and excerpts were hard for me to get through. I was taking a break from Carnival community life, trying to study before sending in my reflections for our weekly class Google hangout. I felt a little mentally blown out to sea. I was struggling to know what I felt or thought about questions raised in my readings, like:  Do Liberation Theologies really just reinforce white supremacy, perpetuating the same myths & systems that keep us from creating new ways of thinking and relating? Can Christians become spatial (connected to place) as well as temporal (going along time) in order to become more than colonizing to her non-members? I wanted to understand other perspectives and only had a few hours of dialogue. I was in that headspace for a few days, feeling befuddled while trying not to resist, withdraw, or close myself off to the new ideas.

As a group we, local pastor Jim Bear Jacobs (Mohican) showed us the documentary Dakota 38 and led a talking circle. The US had forced Dakota elders (mostly women) into a deadly internment camp, a final straw for the nation. They fought back. The day after the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in US history – to hang 38 of the leaders of the uprising. I highly recommend the documentary Dakota 38.

The Reality that doesn’t quite exist yet

As we work to realize together what “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven” means, we are not just biding our time. Don’t we actually experience pockets and moments of Christ’s Reality. Thinks click. They make sense in our heads, our hearts, together, and give us courage to live a demonstration of it. A little taste of heaven! Rather than thinking heaven only exists in some other strange planet or dimension, why not live into the new reality Jesus initiated and invites us into right here in our own planet, time, community, geography, and body? We can live into it together and make more pockets and moments where Jesus is the foundation of all – and harmony returns to earth.

Back to the climax of the CDR’s water show “Burning River” : Tevyn just gave a moving closing monologue that tied together elements of the show. Water is a gift from God and is necessary for life, health, and healing – in both the figurative (living water) and literal (rivers, etc) sense. Working for the health of the water is deeply connected to how we view creation – as a commodity or a gift from our Creator and we’re invited to baptism even in the polluted water. We’re singing, dancing, raising fists (see first paragraph). It all connected for me. We were in one of those sweet spots. Our discourse and ideas merged with saying yes and being part of the Spirit’s movement. It connected us to the struggle against evil and greed, and with those forming an alternative that was ready to act.

Don’t let your befuddlement keep you from engaging with God and the befuddled others (aka the church). We may feel how it’s working before we understand it completely. That’s the kind of life I get to be part of every day as part of Circle of Hope. We’re embodying an alternative to what people generally think is reality. Generating justice and hope and our neighborhood (not just someone else’s neighborhood) is at the heart of us. I’m pretty excited for what we’re going to do this week about it.  

 

 

 

*

Carnival de Resistance

Expressing alternatives as a spiritual discipline

I’m joining an expression of alternativity today as part of the Carnival de Resistance for part of the month-long Minneapolis residency. Belle Alvarez has begun early stages of forming a mission team to help our church relate to a possible Kensington 2017 residency, and she, along with Tevyn and Jay, Jenna, Helen, Stephen, Joby, and Rachel, have been training with about 20 other Carnivalistas for two weeks. One carnival member just got back from Sacred Stone Camp, ground zero of the water defense movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and others are traveling up from Mexico and Honduras to join in creating playful space to allow prophetic Scripture speak to our current ecological crises. We’ve been partnering with some amazing people in the Harrison neighborhood of North Minneapolis, including our host Redeemer Lutheran. With a large Native population, some of our most important connections have been with indigenous leaders like Rev Bob Two Bulls, a talented artist and liturgist whom we’ve known for a few years. Black Lives Matter has been quite active in the face of fierce police response, and as of a month ago the officer who killed Philando Castile 30min away is back on the street.

You can read about my experience last year or ask me about the other times I’ve been involved personally with the project. I look forward to not just repping our church community and city while on vacation over the next 10 days, but practicing creative thinking so I can be a more mature, grounded, and flexible leader. For me, the Carnival helps me not be so uptight in my thinking when processing all the above hyperlinks (and other oppressions). God uses the playful space to help meYou can follow daily updates with photos and videos on Facebook if you like the Carnival’s page

Our teams help us get out there

One of Circle of Hope’s strengths flashes when our simple structure (cells and Sunday meetings) bears fruit and gets us out touching our communities together with a common purpose. Our Compassion teams and Mission teams run on the steam of those who form them, with support from our leaders and partners. Many of the teams help us do things together like service, expressing Christ’s compassion and ours. Others take us into new territory and help us think and act differently, even through doing something like playing table top games or holding space for a playgroup with different intention.

Feeling jammed up?

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people this year about feeling the pressure to be this or that, how not being something is important, and how being right/correct seems really important. Some are part of the church and struggle in various ways: calling themselves a Christian, making prayer or reading the Bible important spiritual disciplines, following our basic agreements for leaders (like attend monthly trainings), or living out basic applications of our covenant like regularly sharing in our common fund. If any of this touches on your experience lately, I feel for you.

Our spiritual discourse this year brought the concept of alternativity front and center. Rather than feeling beat down by a series of bad A or B choices like Coke/Pepsi, Red State/Blue State etc, we focus on birthing new possibilities and investigating new ways of thinking. Our problems and responsibilities grow more complex. Our responses grew more creative. It’s lovely. Exploring our own alternativity means enjoying our uniqueness as a church in the Philadelphia region. Our region, while enjoying some of the best of many traditions, has also become a hotbed of young NeoCalvinist church upstarts and dying Baby Boomer-dominated odes to yesteryear. I get their slick flyers in my mailslot. I hear from them a focus on their technified Sunday morning buildings, individual salvation through their specific doctrine (see my post about taking the Mormon Temple tour), and repression of women leaders. Rather than feeling daunted by Christians mainly not working together for holistic (or even holy!) transformation, I feel revved up to do something with our five congregations and other networks we are connected closely to. 

Jesus leads us not just to think different, but to embody our ideas

I’m glad we are doing something else—not merely in spite of other Christians, but out of inspiration from our Creator Jesus. I’m glad there is room for some bold expressions against rather bold structural forces of oppression. While embodying alternatives is what we’re all about, we also arouse expressions meant to pique curiosities and suggest wonder to those yet to join. I was talking with Shane Claiborne the other day about the strong possibility of The Simple Way being the primary host for a 2017 Philadelphia residency in Kensington. That would be something special! If you are part of Circle of Hope, thank you for allowing me the privilege of being away for something so energizing for me. I’ll miss worshipping with you on Sunday night and being with the Leadership Team on Monday, but you’re in my heart and on my mind.

Lessons from the streets during the DNC

I don’t usually get blog requests from Circle of Hope leaders, so when one of them came to me, asking me to break down my reasons for so passionately railing against the system all the time, I decided to spend a few hours in the forest, getting back in touch with God and creation; I wanted enough solitude to figure out what it was I has to say, and I’m realizing it may take a couple post to break it down fully.

I’m want to make space for us to develop our ways of thinking. I spend a lot of time listening to radical people and live in a radical community of Jesus lovers, so my perspective is my own, but I’m eager to dialogue and grow together.

Spoiler alert/main point

I am part of a local expression of the trans-national, even trans-historical Body of Christ. I think our most important work– politically, spiritually, etc., is to embody alternatives, with Jesus, to a series of bad “choices” we’re spoon fed by the media and dominant culture. We are not doomed to remain stuck in between a series of bad options. God can fill us up and empower us to create pockets of resistance– where the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus refers to in the Bible can become very tangible and very accessible here on earth right now.

There are a lot of ways to participate in politics – I hope to sprinkle some hope, peace, and possibility into your day. You’ll notice that I talk about a lot of radical stuff including listening to, learning from, and organizing with different kinds of people than those who are most popular. You may need to do some side reading understand a few things but I’ll do lots of links and pics because you might not have read up on Black spiritual leaders or know why we are interested in what Mumia Abu Jamal has to say. I’m primarily speaking to people who are a part of Circle of Hope so I’m making some basic assumptions, but you don’t have to be into Jesus or Circle of Hope to get this.

Praising the Lord

I got to spend about 5 days outside around the time of the DNC – in the streets with several marches and demonstrations as well as attending panel discussions, pop up art exhibitions and worship sessions. I didn’t catch any of it on tv and saw only a few video clips but there seem to be a lot of people with some strong feelings about this election. So if you are feeling a wound up here is some examples of ways I turned my frustration with the powers that be into a generative force of community:

I spent most of my effort organizing drummers and Christians to Praise the Lord with drum and dance (Psalm 150) for two primary marches – the March for Our Lives with the Poor People’s Economic and Human Rights Campaign and the Black DNC Resistance March with the Phila Coalition for REAL Justice. I also was with the Moral Monday crew enjoying the Repairers of the Breach event (also at AFSC, some leaders pictured right), and enjoyed sitting under the trees with the peace and anti-war activists put together by the Brandywine Peace Community. Before I gave my hopeful 10min speech I met Emily Yates, an Iraq War Veteran for peace who sang a brilliant banjo singalong ditty about the failed promises of war administrations after Medea Benjamin and CODE PINK shared. Connecting with God in community this was so inspiring that our cell meeting this week included three people not normally part of it (we meet on Thurs 9am at Franny Lou’s Porch).

Reflection, Art, Field Trips, and “Taking the day off”

One angle – notice the US is made of guns

Taking a day of creative rest can help get you centered. The “Truth to Power” Revolutionary Art Exhibition by Rock the Vote included some of the most beautiful and disturbing images that reflected back a rather grim state that our nation is in. I loved the creativity and profound opportunity for networking. Nate took our Circle of Hope staff as a field trip and Jeremy gave his green architects the afternoon off to go drink it in.

I got into this DNC business with an “on-ramp”

Another angle – notice the US is a gun (made of guns)

of a profound Love Feast and baptisms in the Delaware River, a Kensington Royals sweep where I threw a complete game shutout, and an inspiring Sunday meeting. Afterwards, I spent time listening to the crickets and frogs like I mentioned earlier. Reflection is an important part of the action.

¡Escucha! ¡Escucha! ¡Estamos en la lucha!”

Some of my time was spent with dear friends from the Kentucky Workers League and their comrades at the Socialist Convergence (at AFSC) where we rocked out with the Global Grassroots Justice Alliance – a diverse group with indigenous people from the US and Honduras (at least) and my favorite new chant that means “Listen! Listen! We are in the struggle!”

I’m not a socialist myself, but appreciate the solidarity that can come from their class-conflict analysis, and heard several lucid insights: One of which was a more comprehensive definition of the economic concept neoliberalism. The ruling class continues to exploit everyone else and the earth. Neoliberalism sees competitive behavior as a foundational impulse between people. It turns souls with creativity and critical thinking skills into nothing more than consumers and puts an enormous emphasis on the power of the market to save us while simultaneously convincing people that their wealth was earned by merit and not as a result of privilege heaped upon privilege.

Also, If you don’t know your federal, state, and city reps – you may want to begin with learning about them rather than getting freaked out too bad by one president. IMO US Presidents have all been really bad in their own ways, with a few moments of exception since those old plantation owners and John Adams convinced poor immigrants to break off of their English father back in the 18th Century. There are useful ways to participate at many levels of government. I think there are a lot of good ways to participate in elections, including not participating in them. Don’t reduce your political participation down to one ballot or one election. Representative democracy, with its superdelegates and electoral college certainly will not produce justice for all or liberty for the disinherited.

I’ve listened to many of my indigenous, Latino, Queer, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim friends rail against Donald J’s bigotry, questionable morality, or the generally pathetic Republican notion that this man should be president. “Build a wall” or “register muslims” or the real enemy of the [white] US is Radical Islam are not policies. New SCOTUS judges could overturn Roe v Wade or make America ____ Again. The RNC held up a mirror up to the United States to see how ugly our fear and wealth hoarding can be. Lots to not like, eh? Does that mean we jump to supporting anyone who can defeat him?

Dr Anthony Monteiro, my favorite professor from Temple’s African American studies program leading a panel discussion at the Socialist Convergence about xenophobia

Dr. Anthony Montero and Mumia Abul Jamal had some opinions about the ruling class/warmongering party (Democrats) who have successfully and profitably connected mass incarceration and poverty at home with regime change and drone warfare abroad for 16 of the last 24 years. The transnational corporations are loving it! I had to consider a thought that I don’t think I could have come up with on my own because I’ve been so inundated with anti-Trump rhetoric. Mumia said in an interview from prison “If Trump is the price we have to pay to defeat Clintonian Neoliberalism — so be it.” I’ll just leave that there for a minute…

 

 

You can see that there are any number of reasons to support/not support either/both of the major candidates. Vote/not vote in a way that makes you feel like you had some integrity with your values and your behavior. If your civic duty is to cast a mere ballot every couple of years, you have already given away the leadership of our communities to corrupt Powers. We need to be organizing, demonstrating, praising God, and embodying the very things we hope and pray for. You can vote for the candidate/party that you want to lead the country. You can actually feel good about it, not just manipulated.

Jesus knits us together

I saw groups of people this week that I wish would come together but seemed separate. They were in

Art Bucher’s shot of four of our pastors and lots of friends praising the Lord during Monday’s March for Our Lives

Philadelphia at the same time. Jesus got to all of the good actions – especially those organized by poor people or those thirsty for the world that doesn’t quite exist yet. Circle of Hope was at a lot of the actions, too. Why can’t the anti-war groups (mostly gray haired white peaceniks who have worked since the 60s) hang with Black Lives Matter? Why were there six distinct socialist movements not knowing about each other? Why did the Wall of Love in the face of Westboro Baptist not connect to the Poor People’s march? They did connect – through the Spirit and through the people who made intentional or accidental overlap. We are all connected, especially those blessed ones who hunger & thirst for righteousness/justice. Let’s receive the courage to be OK with Jesus and do the good work we’ve been given to do, regardless of who wins certain elections.

 

What do we do with a miracle?

Gerald‘s wife Yannick and their sons Berlins (14) and Dawens (10) have cleared the US/Haitian bureaucracies and arrived in the US last Thursday and at their new home on Monday.Their family’s story, a harrowing tale, not only teaches us how to build partnerships responsibly,
On Saturday, 50% of Circle Thrift proceeds (all locations) went to Heads Together Haiti, our compassion team that does empowering work both in Fayet. This turned out to be almost $2,000 and will go to helping re-settle the family.
Our compassion team and some friends tried to make this frigid first impression of life in Philadelphia warmer with a care package and some drumming and dancing – check out Julian’s vid here of Gerald & Yannick dancing for joy with Dawn and the drummers. I’m really grateful for my friend to be together with his family. I also am married with two children about their ages. I can barely fathom how it would feel to be separated from my family because of violent desperation for over three years, or the joy of being together again in a new country and climate.

The Circle of Hope Leadership Team talked a bit at last Monday’s Imaginarium about partnering well. Here’s more to the story of how this partnership has worked over the years, and how we hope it will continue.

It was also a Tuesday, six years ago last week that the earthquake hit Haiti. We had already been working with Tetan San (Heads Together) for six months through our compassion team as well as other groups we’re connected to like Haiti Partners. Everyone on our team has been to Haiti, either before or after the quake. Because of Gerald‘s access to money from the US in an impoverished, rural, and now earthquake-torn region, he was abducted by a gang and held for ransom. He knew that staying in Fayet meant paying growing tributes to the gang who held him. The literacy and community organizing, including administrating the school we helped rebuild,  would be considerably compromised. His wife and two sons (then about 8 and 4) fled to a friend’s home in a nearby village.
Not knowing what to do, Gerald fled to Philadelphia in the summer of 2012, where he had a small but dedicated support network – among us. With the trauma and definite threat, he hoped to find a haven for his family and to be able to continue aspects of his community work. While speaking both French and Creole, his English was not great. We needed some creativity to get him to the US as immigration from Haiti is extremely difficult. Refugee status would only protect him. We needed a miracle.
We began a legal process/battle to attain amnesty so his whole family could relocate to Philadelphia, or at least to the US. We invested in legal help and Gerald found ways to work (like Circle Thrift!!) and develop his English language skills. A few months ago, we got the good news that even while many Haitians got temporary extensions of their Temporary Protected Status, Gerald‘s case was permanent and extended to his family. It’s taken more prayer, money, and time to get to this point.
With many thanks to Haiti Partners and the House of Grace Catholic Worker, the family is about to be reunited.
We continue, through Gerald and the rest of the team, to do grassroots work of proliferating possibilities for kids, especially, in Fayet. His heart inspires me. I’m grateful that we can partner with such a dedicated leader. With many other larger forces at work – including political and economic freezing out of Haiti since their independence, we played a role in this story before we got involved directly in 2009 with these folks from Fayet. I’m grateful for the courage of so many to stay involved, pray for miracles, and follow the Holy Spirit as we work out some small solutions to large problems. 
What do we do when we’ve prayed for something for this long that was really unlikely, most would even say not going to actually happen? Can we be grateful? Can our faith be strengthened? Do we dream bigger? I hope we can see God working in the partnership – even in the ups and downs – and feel like we can actually change the world. Jesus wants to. Jesus is.

Consumer Debt – how we annihilate it (Part 2)

I am in a conversation with three different math wizards right now trying to “put it in a bottle” or to codify “the algorithm” so we have a nice tight sound bite when explaining our methods. We want to offer practical solutions to the slavery of consumer debt by building community trust, sharing, and providing capital to eliminate consumer debt in our community. The Debt Annihilation Team fosters a process of recovery from shame, bondage, and debt to freedom, simplicity, and community through generosity, hospitality, and trust. I admit it sounds lovely and is tremendously difficult, especially for people who are jammed up and/or dysfunctional financially. It is not a quick fix, although quicker than most people we’ve talked to who don’t have a strategy to get out.

With Galatians 6:1-5 as our backdrop, the Debt Annihilation Team (DAT) uses three components: team leaders & administrators, coaches, and DAT Groups. We form Debt Annihilation Groups out of applicants for a projected period of time when they will use seed money and an agreed upon strategy to pay off one another’s debt.

We have given covenant members of Circle of Hope preference in forming our groups because our commitment to one another flourishes in accountable discipleship environments. I’ve talked to over a dozen other faith communities over the years who love the idea but haven’t tried it yet. If you’re not able to be part of us or don’t want to be, I encourage you to use as much of this stuff that’s useful and form your own group locally. We’ll share all of our info and ideas with you.

We begin with an intake process with full disclosure – one online then a follow-up face-to-face with other potential participants where we make clear the theory and basics of the group covenant. Those who wish to proceed meet with a Personal Finance Coach before entering the group, putting together a basic budget. You might be surprised how many people want to get out of credit card debt and don’t follow basics of money management. 

Our group members agree to by DAT Group Covenant which will indicate the people in the group, the length of time, the order of annihilation, and how much money will be contributed. The length of time will include replenishing the seed money.

We use seed money – in the past given by Circle of Hope,  to jump-start a snowball effect where everyone gets their consumer debt paid off. Here’s the gist of how it works:

We discern the order of “annihilation.” If all credit lines are the same, the high interest rate needs to go first, as this strategy mostly benefits everyone because we save money and time by knocking out interest.

 

Example of “the other brand” aka people fending for themselves

For instance, let’s say five people each have $5,000 of credit card debt (and different interest rates%). If they paid their minimum payment of $50 plus $100 every month, on their own it would take…

“Laura” (29%) 69 months, paying her $5k debt plus $5,287.45 in interest.

“Starbuck” (25%) 58 months, paying her $5k debt plus $3,625.37 in interest.

“Saul” (20%) 50 months, paying his $5k debt plus $2,359.18 in interest.

“Caprica” (15%) 44 months, paying her $5k debt plus $1,508.52 in interest.

and “Adama” (7%) 38 months, paying his $5k debt plus $576 in interest.

They would pay $13,536.52 paid in interest, over three-six years. Of course most people pay bits “when they can” and try to at least pay their minimum. If a lump sum of cash comes in like a big income tax return, more goes to the card. If they continue using their card(s) it’s usually longer.

 

Using the same simplified examples…

Here’s how we do it. We use the seed money, then when the first person is paid off, all baseline funds (including those of person who is paid off) go towards the next person. The process repeats until everyone is paid off and the seed fund is replenished for a future group.

Imagine the same scenario, but this time we use the $10k seed money to knock out Laura Roslin and Starbuck’s debts. Now they each have $150 that they use to pay directly to Saul Tigh’s lender. Saul pays his own minimum ($50) plus $100 to his lender. Caprica 6 & Commander Adama pay just their own minimum ($50) and use their $100 to pay directly to Saul’s lender.

It takes 9 months to pay off Saul’s debt, paying $396.45 of interest. Then Saul joins Laura & Starbuck (debt free) with his now $150 that all go directly to Caprica’s lender. She now adds her $100 to her minimum payment ($50) while Adama maintains his minimum ($50) to his own, and his $100 to Caprica’s.

It takes 8 months to pay off Caprica’s debt, paying $271.21 of interest. She joins the others debt free, and now everyone uses their $150 to pay off Adama’s lender.

It takes 7 months to pay off Adama’s debt, paying $114.99 of interest. Then the group replenishes the seed money at the same rate, taking 13.33 mo, at 0% interest. The debt was paid off in 23mo. In 36mo they annihilated all consumer debt and replenished the seed fund for another group to start.

When they formed a group, they only paid $782.65 of interest over 36 months, compared to over $13k over 69.

Next post will be about how to get involved in the 3rd group we are about to start. We are looking for people to train as personal finance coaches as well as potential group members.

Can’t get enough? Here are a few posts about the teams.

Shalom! journal for the practice of Reconciliation here

The Christian Century, by Jesse James DeConto (p10) here

Consumer Debt – how we annihilate it (Part 1)

I love the old story that someone’s dad used to flip burgers part time to pay for college out of pocket while they attended. It sounds to me more like education in pre-Gulf War Iraq (free at all levels) than the US a generation or so ago. Every graduating class gets more debt piled on to the point that it’s normalized to have student debt as a rite of passage. If you don’t have any – a normal person might assume that you don’t have a college education or your parents paid for you – unless you are over 6’10” (then they think you should be playing for the 6ers).

It’s not just education or mortgages, which are still considered “good debt” since they are an investment that normally gains in worth or earning potential. Consumer debt, or revolving debt, has less of a noble connotation.  According to Nerdwalletthe average household in the US with a credit card has over $16,000 of credit card debt. If you include households with no credit card debt, we still average over $7,500. That’s over $918.5 billion.

For many people, credit card debt serves as a sign of financial mismanagement, economic emergencies beyond one’s means, bad spending habits, predatory lending, or the open wounds from another kind of financial crisis. Shame comes along with almost any reason – most people feel as though debt cripples them, or hangs heavy around their neck. Many people I talk to can only pay their minimum balance or just a little over, leaving them with thousands of dollars collecting interest each months at rates from 0% (temporarily) up to 29.99% if you miss a payment.

I first heard about combining debt in the late 90s at Circle of Hope when people like Will O’Brien, Randy Nyce, and Trevor Day would consider our financial power when form community. They were using some economic theory and theology that I trace back to Ched Myers’ work on Sabbath Economics – these two books are a good start. It took years to get an idea small enough to try, and then a few years to find someone to organize it -it ended up being me. Even though a recent internet IQ test put me just below genius at 137, I have few math skills. In Part 1, I’ll explore the concepts that we distilled enough to try with brave “astronauts” coming together in 2010 with five people and $22k of credit card debt, and then another group in 2013 with $26k that is almost done. When I post Part 2 next week, I’ll give specifics on our strategy as well as how to get involved. 

Handle your debt like a group, rather than an individual

Romans 13 inspired us to want to “let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.” Our shame isolates us. Our attempts to save face can isolate us. Turning to the corporation rather than the Body in distress isolates us. Forming a Debt Annihilation Group takes a lot of work up front and keeping disciples, and it happens in common – even considering the debt common.

Get coaching, and have financial transparency

Our coaches get trained by Everence to help with budgeting and by our team members on how to have healthy conflict, be supportive, and keep encouraging group members. Telling the whole truth about our money habits flies in the face of what we’ve been taught and undermines the Powers.

Change your mind about money

We have been indoctrinated to Spend, Save (if you can), and Share (if you’ve got extra). In our coaches’ training, we learn a new paradigm of Share (give from your best), Save (plan for more than the moment), and Spend. If you don’t have money to share and save, chances are your expenses are inflated and you need some help learning how to cook at home, chill with the bars/coffee shops (even the ones owned by my friends!), and honing down paid entertainment to name a few. Heal your mind.

Make a plan and stick to it

Even the best laid plans can be laid to waste by not following through. Even when it’s Christmas. Even when your car breaks. Even when you car dies. We have so many resources as a community to reduce the cost of these things – plus your cell leader can help you in crisis. One meeting we passed the hat so one group member could get a Transpass and had one less reason to borrow from the corporation again.

Enjoy freedom

Becoming debt free calls for celebration. Tell your story. Enjoy the proverbial monkey being off your back by remembering and sleep better. Be generous.

Feel free to add your thoughts or stories to this post in the comments, or questions you might have about the concepts and philosophy. Next week we’ll have more practical application and opportunities to be involved in the third round we’re getting going by the end of the year.