Pressing on to the Kindom of God

Group of people marching down the street with signs.

The author joins a caravan seeking shalom in her city, marching in solidarity for justice with immigrant neighbors.

Two years ago, I wrote an article for this publication on the significance of the United States having elected our first female President. I wrote it before the election, obviously, but hedged things in such a way that it could still be tweaked and published in the very unlikely event of Hillary Clinton losing the election, which, of course, is exactly what happened. After the defeat, even the “also ran” article hit nerves too raw, and in the end, it was all scrapped.

The past two years have unleashed and unmasked so much in our society. White supremacy, nationalism, and all kinds of fear and hate have been emboldened and empowered. The hate has been deadly. At the same time, there has been a greater public resistance than any I have seen in my lifetime. I joined the throngs in the Women’s March in Washington, DC. “The Future is Female” shirts started popping up everywhere. The #metoo movement has seen progress in holding powerful men to account for sexual assault, though we still have a long way to go.

A fire has been lit for many women who are mad as hell and not going to take it, to borrow from the movie Network. The 2018 midterms saw the greatest number of female candidates in any election, the greatest number elected, and resulted in a number of firsts: the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, one of whom is the first Somali-American elected to Congress; the first two Native American women elected to congress, one of whom is lesbian and a former mixed martial arts fighter; the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts; a Latina who became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

There is much to celebrate in all of this, as our elected representatives start to become just a little more representative of the diverse population of the United States. It’s a start. And yet. Lest we get too comfortable, or too self-congratulatory, I have a message for my white sisters: we’ve still got a lot of work to do. Read more

silhouette image of a hand placing a piece of paper into a slot in the top of a box

A Prayer for Election Day

silhouette image of a hand placing a piece of paper into a slot in the top of a boxEven as we speak the words
“A Prayer for Election day”
We find in our guts
the traces of humanity:
in suspicion
in wondering
what kind of prayer this might be.

For what are we asking of you,
Divine One who gave us voice
And thought
And will

What shall our petitions be
On this day we deem to set aside
For democracy
For exercising each of our own
Civically gifted political authority

And yet, still, we have need of you
Of your Wisdom and your Word.
In spite of and because of
This worldly yet holy belief in our collective voice
For it is exactly that divisiveness our suspicion breeds
That we seek to heal and make whole

So we come to You,
God of a power that is beyond our understanding.
With these prayers for our day of voice and vote.

 

For all those who vote, for their diverse voice and conviction, and for our collective discernment as national community.

We pray to You.

For the casting of ballots, may they become our voice of your creation, calling out the promise of your Love and Justice.

We pray to You.

For candidates and ballot measures and all those who work to share their message

We pray to You.

For our thoughtful considerations, debates, discussion and research

We pray to You.

For just access to ballots

We pray to You.

For volunteers and election workers and their equitable exercise of stewarding the election

We pray to You.

For what seems to us the inevitable tragedy of voter discrimination

We pray to You.

For the waiting and the watching, for our doubts and our dreams

We pray to You.

For all those who will be elected this day and for all those who currently hold public office, that their work might be enlivened by Spirit’s stirring toward our common humanity.

We pray to You.

And for the courage in the days to come to continue to seek and speak our values that are rooted in Your Love and Promise,

We pray to You, O God of Love
Who gives us voice
Who convicts our thoughts
And who calls us to lives of justice, peace, and reconciliation.

Puerto Rican flags hanging downward - red and white stripes with a white star in a blue triangle

Holy Spirit Movement: Puerto Rico Se Levanta

Puerto Rican flags hanging downward - red and white stripes with a white star in a blue triangle

There is a phrase that has become a rallying cry for Puerto Ricans, whether on the island, mainland, or those of us in authentic solidarity with la gente Boricua: that phrase is Puerto Rico Se Levanta, or Puerto Rico Will Rise. Our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters have been in mourning over the loss of the lives of their neighbors and families. Their hearts are broken by the incompetent and insufficient response of the U.S. Government to offer aid and recovery.

Though I am not Latina, I speak Spanish as a second language and serve a bilingual (English/Spanish) and multi-cultural church in Chicago. Our church began praying the moment we learned how devastating both Hurricanes Irma and Maria were to God’s people in Puerto Rico. We are a majority Latinx church; some of us have family still in Puerto Rico, and many were waiting anxiously for weeks, and even months, to hear that good news that God had delivered their lives from the devastation. My own suegro (father-in-law) migrated to Chicago from San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico over sixty years ago. But the Holy Spirit moved our church to do more.

The Holy Spirit spoke to us of the work of deliverance through the words of the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 61. Our church is located in a part of Chicago that has been an enclave for Puerto Rican migrants for many years, with the neighborhood of Humboldt Park developing what is known as Paseo Boricua in the late 1960s, and Humboldt Park still being a focal point for Puerto Rican culture, food and celebrations today.

Our church building was built with twelve apartments. Over the years, our congregation has utilized the apartments to house waves of immigrants and migrants, starting with German immigrants when the church was built in 1928. For almost twenty years, the apartments were used as domestic violence transitional shelter for women and their children, while our church basement was a transitional shelter for single men. In those years, our church began a program that is now a separate non-profit called Center for Changing Lives that is about helping people escape the cycles of poverty in a way that honors each person as creative, resourceful and whole.

The women and men we were honored to house engaged in coaching, holistic financial education, and goal setting. The majority of them now own or rent their own homes. For almost five years since Center for Changing Lives and our church became separate entities, our church has utilized our apartments for low-income housing in a part of Chicago that is being rapidly gentrified, where studio apartment starts at $1500 per month. Read more

Please, Let it Be Just Me

Image text on dark background with mountains and clouds says: "How long, O Lord? How long? Let it be just me, God. Please let it be just me." Allison Unroe

Image text says: “How long, O Lord? How long? Let it be just me, God. Please let it be just me.” Allison Unroe

Years ago when I was in youth ministry I found myself deep in conversation with a group of freshman girls in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. It was dark and cold — winter in the Blue Ridge mountains — and I’d driven a 15 passenger van loaded with kids through the ice and snow that day. I wanted to be in bed, but I knew this was important.

It had started as a bit of a joke — a sort of, “I bet we can get Allison to say that there are circumstances in which someone deserves to be raped.” The hypothetical situations they threw out were outlandish at first, but quickly the giggles had subsided and the what-ifs got very real. “What if she’s wearing a tight top and short skirt?” Nope. “What if she’s sloppy drunk and making out with him before she changes her mind?” Nope, not then either. “What if she’s walking alone at night when she knows she should  have a friend with her?” Still no.

At around 3am the 14 year old leading the charge completely deflated. Her face fell. Her shoulders slumped. She gazed at the floor and mumbled, “I know you’re right. But you’d never convince my dad…”

I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary, not math. I still don’t know my multiplication tables beyond the easy numbers – 1s, 2s, and 5s. But I also know my fours. I know my fours well because a man I knew and trusted raped me. Before I became a survivor, though, I was an advocate, so I knew the numbers. Back then the statistics said that one in four or five American women would be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. And so I started counting.

In meetings at work and in worship at church and in workshops on retreats, at family gatherings and at dinner with my friends, I count. “One, two, three, four, five—I’m five,” I say in my head, “Let it be just me, God. Please let it be just me. Let my suffering be sufficient for all of us.” Once the numbers tip past six women I start hedging my bets. “What are the chances there’s another survivor here?” I already know. They’re way too good. Read more

droplet of water bouncing out of water with circular pattern resulting

The Stone Cast Upon the Water

droplet of water bouncing out of water with circular pattern resulting

Droplet

The August 15 edition of the “Christian Century” magazine highlighted research done by Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin which shows that “girls who have had a direct example of clergy-women in childhood grow up with higher self-esteem, better employment records, and more education than girls who did not.” [1]

In a spectacularly coordinated move of the Holy Spirit, just three days later, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America celebrated the installation of the Rev. Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld to the office of synodical bishop. This past May, she and the Rev. Patricia A. Davenport became the first two African-American women elected to the office of bishop in the denomination’s history.

Davenport and Thomas-Breitfeld were two of six new women elected to the office of synodical bishop in the ELCA this year. If you’re keeping count, this brings the total number of women serving as synodical bishops in the denomination to sixteen. And then you can add to that the denomination’s Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, who has been serving in that role since 2013.

To help put all of this in perspective, here’s your quick ELCA primer:

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the largest Lutheran church body in the United States and is among the largest mainline denominations, with about 4 million members and nearly 10,000 congregations. The congregations of the ELCA are grouped into nine geographic regions. Each region is subdivided into synods, which contain anywhere from 30 to 300 congregations. There are 65 synods, and each synod is under the care and leadership of a synodical bishop. Meanwhile, the entire denominational organization is overseen by a bishop-in-chief, called the Presiding Bishop.

In 2015, the ELCA celebrated the 45th anniversary of the ordination of Lutheran women in the United States. As of that time, women made up thirty-five percent of all active ELCA clergy. Women made up nearly fifty percent of all people ordained in the ELCA between 2010 and 2015. Currently, women represent one-quarter of the total number of bishops serving the ELCA.

As a young clergywoman serving as an ordained minister of word and sacrament in this denomination, I feel both proud and hopeful looking at these numbers. I am pleased that the number of women serving and leading in this denomination continues to trend upward.

I am in a strange and beautiful context right now, where there exist thirteen ELCA congregations in and around my town. (As a point of reference, the population of our town is 8000 people!). Of these thirteen congregations, eight of them are served by women clergy. There are also a handful of women clergy serving in other denominations and in neighboring towns, which means that most of my colleague interactions are with other women – women for whom I am profoundly grateful, both for their gifts of ministry and for their friendship. I am grateful to be living in a place and time where women in ministry are the norm and not the exception. Read more

The Cost of Inclusion

The doors may be open, but is that really enough?

There is a hymn that is often sung in churches entitled “All Are Welcome,” and in the fourth verse there is a line that goes:

Here the outcast and the stranger

bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring an end to fear and danger.

All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.[1]

I have heard this song at reconciliation workshops, Sunday worship, ordinations, and baptisms. Although it may not be the origin of the phrase, “all are welcome,” it certainly has been married to the movement of inclusion. This is especially true in a post-segregation society in which we claim to live and worship.

And why not? “All are welcome,” and its sister phrase, “all means all,” seem to cross the boundaries that society had set so firmly into place. But when we bring everyone into the space without the work of deconstruction to systems of oppression, we are asking the “least of these” in God’s creation to pay the price of their dignity and pain. Are all really welcome in a space that asks the oppressed to offer their hand to their oppressor?

This song gives us the space to explore what we are asking people to do when we say, “all are welcome.” The phrase, “Let us bring an end to fear and danger,” does not ask us to stop making others fearful, it asks the fearful to stop being afraid. Fear is the natural and appropriate response by the oppressed to the dangerous acts of oppressors. It is conjured into being by those who anticipate danger. Now, I understand that the song is talking more broadly about the human condition. We all experience fear at some point in our lives. We have all experienced loss, want, and the need to belong. But when we lack nuance in our work of reconciliation and inclusion, we privilege the oppressor and ask those who have been hurt to pay the price of our welcome.

So, the big question is…should all be welcome? Read more

Slaying Giants

David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.”Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” I Samuel 17:32-33 NRSV

We love a good underdog story. There’s something in us that comes alive when the sixteenth seed makes a Cinderella run for the NCAA Championship, when the kid who was mercilessly teased in middle school becomes a millionaire, when the statue of a fierce little girl stares down the iconic Wall Street bull—when David, the shepherd boy, slays Goliath, the giant Philistine warrior.

What I do for a living puts me in a unique position to field perhaps more than my fair share of questions from children. Among my favorites are “If God made everything, then who made God—and when did God start?” and “Aren’t we all just characters in a story that God is reading?” Another notable question I’ve received is “Are you Jesus’ mommy?”

When I answered that I was not in fact the Blessed Virgin, the child followed his question with an insistence that I was, indeed, Mary, the mother of Jesus—and that he knew it but would keep my secret. Lately, because I am 35 weeks pregnant, there’s been an uptick in the repetition of a non-theological question, “How is your baby going to get out of there?” Thanks be to God for the privilege of referring this question back to parents’ discretion.

But one of the most heartbreaking questions I hear from children is one that I wish more adults would have the heart to ask as well. Basically, it boils down to whether God loves the victims in the Bible stories we tend to celebrate as victories. After all of our teaching that God loves everyone, it should come as no surprise that our children are asking, “Didn’t God love the people who died in Noah’s flood?” “Didn’t God love the Egyptians who drowned in the Sea of Reeds after the people of Israel had crossed on dry land?” “Didn’t God love King Saul?” And the question most relevant to today’s Old Testament reading, “Didn’t God love Goliath, too?” Read more

A Different Kind of Visitation: Re-Thinking Matthew 25

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” ~Matthew 25:31-46

I have always gravitated to certain parts of this passage from Matthew 25 more than others. It has always felt easier to offer food or clothing, or at least the resources to purchase those things, than to care for the sick or visit those in prison. I figured other people are more skilled in those areas, so I would leave that work to them. But then I moved to Tucson, Arizona and was invited to visit immigrants in a detention center just up the road. So three years ago on a hot, dusty June morning, I arrived at Eloy Detention Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, privately owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America/CoreCivic.

After being buzzed through two layers of chain-link fence covered with barbed wire and passing through the metal detector and two more security doors, I entered the stark, cold visitation room. Individuals in jumpsuits were slowly being brought in and directed to different parts of the room. Visitors would sit on one side of the rows of hard mini-couches, and those being detained, on the other side. Then we would begin to talk.

My training and experience as a pastor helped me to have some clue as to how to start these conversations, but it still felt awkward. I knew very little about how folks wound up there, and how they survived the isolation they began to describe. I did not yet know that many of the people I would visit over the next few years were asylum seekers, fleeing war-torn countries, often with their babies on their backs, desperately in need of safety and security. I did not know they could get stuck in that place for months or even years while they fought their cases. There was so much I didn’t know that first day.

But I quickly learned that facts, while important, were not necessary for these encounters. An open heart and ears that really listened were, however. People began to trust me with their stories. I heard about moments and situations they had worked to overcome, and the things that kept them moving forward. I began to see beyond the barbed wire and jumpsuitsand to see these folks as friends and conversation partners, not as criminals – the labels the guards and ICE agents wanted me to latch onto. They wanted me to see them as less-than.

The women and men from around the world who have left their communities of origin and find themselves detained in Eloy Detention Center have taught me so much. They lean on one another. They encourage each other. They see themselves as connected. They listen when others cry at the thought of surviving one more day in a place where the isolation is designed to break them. Because in this place, idleness is not discouraged, but rather imposed. Programmed activities are few. Craft supplies are rationed. The optional jobs on offer pay only $1 per day. But faint hearts are strengthened through the support of others. Hope can be restored. Creativity emerges. Intricately-made swans come to life from just a few strips of paper. Strong purses are woven with colorful checkered patterns. Food items from the commissary are combined to recreate enchilada recipes that remind them of home. Praise songs float around the dusty outdoor recreation space and high into heaven. These acts of resilience remind me that the human spirit is stronger than our broken immigration system.

Matthew 25 emphasizes that when we visit someone in prison, we are visiting Jesus. And like all encounters with Jesus, we risk being transformed. I have been moved to tears by the stories I have heard, but I have also been pushed to put my compassion into action. I have been urged not to fall into the trap of deciding who is worthy of my care and attention, and who is not. Our current culture seems to suggest that if one is labeled “criminal” or “animal” or “undocumented” or anything else that begins to strip someone of their humanity, we are let off the hook, as if we no longer have to care about people who are kept behind lock and key and meters and meters of barbed wire.

But Matthew 25 tells us otherwise.

The author’s sign and shirt for March for Our Lives. The Cross in both is made from parts of an AK47.

Swords Into Plowshares

The author’s sign and shirt for March for Our Lives. The Cross in both is made from parts of an AK47.

The author’s sign and shirt for March for Our Lives. The Cross in both is made from parts of an AK47.

I would like to begin by sharing a bit of how I came to realize that gun violence is my problem, and not only can I be a part of the solution, but as a Christian, as a human being, as a mother, I have to be.

I grew up in rural Maine. Many of my family and friends are gun owners. Hunting is a way of life in Maine – and a source of food for many Maine families. Guns were a part of my environment growing up, but they were a tool for protecting livestock from predators and for getting food. Maine has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the country, but one of the lowest gun crime rates, so I simply didn’t encounter the issue of gun violence. I went to college in Medford, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, where there certainly is more gun violence than in Maine. However, it didn’t come close to me, so sadly it was easy to ignore.

The reality of the issue of gun violence began to be real for me when I spent my first year of ministry working as a hospital chaplain in New Haven, Connecticut – a city that sees numerous shootings every year. I remember how my colleagues who had been there a long time would lament when the weather began to get warm in the spring because it meant the guns would come out, and there would be an increase in shooting victims arriving in our Emergency Room. No longer was gun violence something that happened “out there;” it was close and real.

But then I left hospital ministry and worked in a small town parish and on a PhD in theology, and gun violence stayed at a distance. However, it was through my parish work that I began to learn that gun violence did not need to be a permanent reality. I learned about stories of hope and transformation. The parish in which I was working, and our diocese of Connecticut, have a companion relationship with the Diocese of Lebombo in Mozambique. Through that relationship I learned the remarkable story of what had happened to the guns at the end of their civil war.

Their bishop started a program that quite literally turned swords into plowshares. People were invited to trade in their guns for farming equipment and tools of industry. And the people did. Over 800,000 guns were turned in. Those guns were turned into artwork, such as the cross above, which is made from the pistons of an AK-47. The good work of the people of Mozambique give me hope that transformation is possible.

Since 2011, I have worked on diocesan staff, and I was in my office on the 14th of December 2012 when I began to see news alerts that there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Since I have chaplaincy training, I offered to go with my bishops that afternoon. We spent the afternoon at Trinity, Newtown, planning a prayer service for that evening. We ministered to anyone who came in the door and heard heartbreaking stories – particularly when it became known that a six-year-old whose family was very active at Trinity was among the victims. Hundreds of people poured into Trinity that evening. The shock and terrible pain was evident on every face I saw that night. Read more

Lisa Lopez head shot - smiling

Why We Need More than a Framework of Rights in the Struggle for Justice

Lisa Lopez smiling, sitting at a table in a restaurant, with a menu in front of her

The author: The struggle for recovery after Hurricane Maria has eroded my confidence in using the framework of human rights for continued justice work.

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated my home island of Puerto Rico. In less than 24 hours, over 3 million people lost access to running water, electricity and telecommunications. Hundreds of families became homeless; hundreds more lost the assets that provided for their employment. Healthcare services became severely limited, and the educational system was thrust into crisis. Unable to hear the voices of loved ones immediately following the hurricane, many Puertorricans living in the continental United States began to organize for recovery, knowing that the island would need all the help it could get. What I didn’t know then was how the experience of the struggle for recovery would erode my confidence in using the framework of human rights for continued justice work.

Most of us diaspora Puertorricans organized out of a sense of responsibility towards all residents of our beloved island, but we called others to labor with us out of the conviction that we were fighting for the human right of all Puertorricans to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being. We felt compelled to call others in the United States to action because Puertorricans have been United States citizens by birthright since 1917.

Yet it didn’t matter how eloquently we implored others to recognize the people’s fundamental human right to a standard of wellbeing; many agreed with the idea of the human right, but not with the call to responsibility for that right. It also didn’t matter how insistently we asked our government and neighbors to treat residents of the island with the same respect and care our country bestowed upon victims of Harvey and Irma just a few weeks earlier. The appeal to citizen’s rights also fell on deaf ears.

“We have spent enough,” I heard, while people began to die from lack of access to treatment that could have been provided with the power grid in better shape. “They can’t expect help forever,” I heard, when it had barely been a few weeks since the disaster hit and millions were still without running water. Most interesting was how often the plight of suffering Puertorricans was dismissed by appeals to fairness that sounded more like excuses for inaction.

I heard many argue that the financial response of government and citizens had to be balanced with the concerns of the rest of the nation, yet made no effort to explain what they understood those concerns to be. Others, naming victims of subsequent disasters as reasons why aid to Puerto Rico should be limited, seem uninterested in considering scenarios where full recovery for all those affected might be possible. Still others in communities like the one I serve, where people contend with different levels of poverty as a daily reality they can’t escape, found it difficult to join in the recovery efforts for Puertorricans when it meant fighting for access to services they do not always enjoy themselves.

It became exceedingly clear to me that though the call for the defense of human rights often takes center stage in contemporary struggles for social justice, it is dreadfully insufficient for the kind of enterprise we need to undertake if we are to protect the life and dignity of every human being. To speak of justice on the basis of human rights is to speak of justice on the grounds of what people deserve, and we have never been skilled at recognizing the good for another without thinking about our own good first. Read more