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

collage of pictures of participants of March for Our Lives march in Washington DC

Marching for our Lives: Called and Named

Looking younger than her eleven years, Naomi Wadler stepped up to the microphone to address more than half a million gathered in Washington, DC. She recalled how she and a classmate at her school in Alexandria, Virginia, organized an eighteen-minute walkout on March 14th, along with students across the country. With others, they walked out one minute for each of the victims of the Parkland shooting, but Naomi added an additional minute for Courtlin Arrington, the young black teen killed at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama, weeks after the Parkland shooting.

Naomi named Hadiyah Pendleton, Tiana Thompson, and other black and brown girls who are killed by gun violence but whose names aren’t known and spoken, who become relegated to statistics rather than lives. Their names joined a chorus – a communion of saints – lifted by the young speakers throughout the afternoon: Stephon Clark, Cynthia Williams, Zaire Kelly, Ricardo Chavez, DeShawn Moore, Victoria Soto, and too many more. I was grateful to be part of the great cloud of witnesses to this hallowed event, which culminated in an extended period of silence as Emma Gonzalez gave space for all gathered to experience the six minutes, twenty seconds, that it took for a gunman to kill seventeen souls on that Ash Wednesday.

The numbers impacted by gun violence are staggering, and we heard some of the numbers. But over and over, we heard names. Names were lifted, and like the church in El Salvador, naming the losses and disappearances during the reign of terror by death squads, I wanted to shout, “Presente!” In naming those young lives cut short by gun violence, we honored their lives, and asserted that they were more than statistics.

The passage from Isaiah that I kept hearing was from Isaiah 11, about God’s peaceable kingdom, in which “a little child shall lead them.” That was certainly appropriate as we saw these children – many a few years away from voting themselves – speaking powerfully and prophetically, and calling for change. But my mind kept finding Isaiah 43 instead: “I have called you by name, you are mine.” God assures Israel that God will be with them – through waters, fire, and flame, they will not be overtaken. God will save them.

The act of naming is a sacred one. Christening is now a synonym for naming, but it quickly shows its Christian roots, where a new name and new identity as one claimed by Christ is bestowed. God names us and claims us. As these young people whose lives have been permanently scarred by gun violence named lives lost, it seemed to me as though God was shouting the names for all to hear, saying “These are not numbers or statistics. They are not unfortunate casualties of unavoidable tragedies. These are my beloved children, and their blood cries out from the soil.”

Also in Isaiah 43, God says, “Do not fear…you are precious in my sight… I love you. Do not fear, I am with you.” Just after Naomi, 16-year old Mya Middleton came to the stage. She shared her own story, living in Chicago and going to the store to buy some food for her mother, sick at home. The young man in front of her ended up pulling a gun on her. If she ever told anyone, he threatened to find her and kill her. But she told the crowd, “I will not be silent! I will not live in fear!” Read more

Godless Politicians Can Save Their Thoughts and Prayers

If that title sounds cranky, it’s because it is. I am. I’m fed up.

I’m fed up with mass shootings, and I’m fed up with the political inaction that inevitably follows them. I’m fed up with the idolatry of guns in my country, the United States of America. I’m fed up with the false equivalence between any reasonable discussion of gun regulation and banning all guns. To quote my beloved deceased dad, “There is too much stupidity in this world.”

But what I’m really cranky about is how my religion has been ambushed, stolen, and pillaged, then twisted and used for political gain.

As an Episcopal priest, it’s my job think deeply, prayerfully, and biblically about how we live our faith, and teach and preach this on a regular basis. On the Sunday after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which was the first Sunday in Lent – a season of penitence – many churches across the country read the conclusion of the story of Noah and the flood: the part where God beholds the mass destruction God has caused, has utter regret, and vows to never again bring this kind of massacre upon humankind. God seals the deal with a new law, or covenant, and symbolizes this new policy with the rainbow, the sign of God’s promise to never again allow this sort of death and destruction rain down on creation.

Prayer for America

Too many politicians who claim to be Christian – who claim the faith I have committed my life to – react to massacres in the complete opposite way from the way that God does. The godly response when one beholds mass destruction is to cry out in anguish, regret that it ever was allowed to happen, and vow, by way of a new law, to never let it happen again.

On February 14, Ash Wednesday, the day the church remembers our mortality as a way to begin the penitential season of Lent, parents with ashes smeared on their foreheads mourned the deaths of their slaughtered children in the (then) latest, but most certainly not the last, mass shooting in our country. I waited as the inevitable response followed: the heated social media posts about gun control versus the Second Amendment, the impassioned cries from parents and loved ones of the massacred victims begging to our politicians to finally do something, and, worst of all, the “thoughts and prayers” that politicians hand out like candy when tragedies like this occur.

Thoughts and prayers? Save it. It’s just insulting. Read more

#BelovedCommunity

Hashtag my trauma
Publicize my drama
Go ahead, paparazzi me and my mama.

Don’t understand
The supply and demand
For our vulnerable blogs
And sensational vlogs
Voyerism or loneliness?
My addiction to the blue screen
My thumb scrolling fast and mean,
A desire to know and be known
Yet the tandem desire to be left alone

Get one mention in Sunday’s sermon
And his/her/their pain goes viral
Tweeting for a few days
But what’s the homiletical plot?
Does the preaching change the lot?
Did we give an altar call,
eyes closed,
heads bowed,

Alleviate affliction, humble the proud, did we end with the cup and the bread, somehow praying for the sick and remembering our dead?

Did you have a moment of reflection for their rejection,

Did we have a what next, a call to action?

Is anyone on their feet, or is it social media reactions?
Am I the hands and feet? Or the typing fingers of the body,
Will we see each other face to face and meet?
Will we let ego keep us separated and haughty?

Or is the virtual perception, my new reality, our only connection.

Maybe I need the church to help me feel,
Your blog to help me heal,
But maybe and I think you know it, too,
We need to touch and pray like we used to do,
Then go out and serve
Instead of remain
Impotent outside of a web domain
Nothing wrong with the internet
But human contact Just might yet
Be the way we were meant to be
Somewhere inside of the beloved community

How to Dress for a Protest

This past Saturday, our Iowa winter weather pushed above forty degrees. The sun was warm, the air was humid, and the sidewalks were filled with puddles. It was a perfect day for our community’s Women’s March. It was a terrible day for figuring out what to wear.

I knew that I wanted to wear my clergy collar. I knew that I didn’t have any shoes that were both waterproof and comfortable for walking. I knew that I would regret looking too casual. I knew that I would regret looking too fancy.

I pulled on some black leggings and my gray jersey-knit clergy dress (with collar). I layered a half-zip fleece and a black puffy vest. I zipped up my brown boots (the flat ones) and challenged myself not to step in too many puddles. I slung my green cross-body backpack over my shoulder and filled it with meager essentials – wallet, cell phone, water bottle, a granola bar, some lip balm.

Finally. Dressed and ready.

Except for one thing. A hat.

The week prior to the march, I had purchased a skein of the bounciest, softest, squishiest pink alpaca yarn – the sort of yarn that I can only afford to buy one skein at a time. I loaded it onto my knitting needles and, a year out of fashion, knit myself a pink hat, square at the top so that subtle kitten ears would emerge when I pulled it onto my head. I’d finished the hat on Friday night and deemed it the softest, warmest, most comfortable had I’d ever knit.

I grabbed it on my way out the door. But instead of putting it on, I shoved it into my backpack, woefully indecisive about whether to wear it. Woefully indecisive about whether I should have made it in the first place. Woefully indecisive about whether I should be wearing my collar to the day’s march and rally. Woefully indecisive about whether I should be heading out the door at all, especially with my four-year-old son in tow, who had resolutely informed me that: He. Was. Going. With. Me.

He and I walked, hand in hand, along the bike trail toward Mary Christopher park, the kickoff spot for the the Decorah, Iowa edition of the Women’s March. As we walked, I tried to explain to him, in four-year-old terms, that this march was a way to say that everybody is special, and everybody deserves love and homes and food and doctors and jobs, no matter who they are. I tried to explain that we were marching because we believe that God loves everybody – everybody!

As a person of faith, I am convinced – convicted, even! – that God’s love and mercy are for everyone. I believe that God’s grace is the great equalizer. I believe that we receive God’s gifts of forgiveness and wholeness and hope in order that we can offer those gifts into the world. I believe that following Jesus means that we have an inescapable call to serve one another and to show self-giving compassion for all people and all creation.

It should have been easy for me to march. It should have been easy to wear my faith on my sleeve.

But the closer we got to the gathering crowd, the more insecure I felt. I was conflicted about bearing my faith into the public sphere. I worried about what I was wearing. I felt anxious about who would see me, what people would think. I was wearing an incredibly comfortable outfit, and still I felt so very uncomfortable. Read more

Naming Names

A colleague wrote on Facebook, wondering why women in the church have yet to join the wave of harassment and abuse allegations now crushing the establishment of entertainment and media like a tsunami. “Are we enslaved to fear, or just irrelevant?” she mused.

It was at the end of the longest day of these revelations in a while, and I know this colleague advocates for victims, and so I did not run with my first reaction–which was to break out the CAPS LOCK OF RIGHTEOUS ANGER about victim-blaming. I knew that wasn’t what she meant. I knew she was asking the question of the institution, not of me. But my reaction to her question was the same one I have of some many people asking a similar question, over and over:

“Why haven’t women been naming names until now?”

In that question, I hear the harmonies of men asking why women who are assaulted don’t come forward earlier, or don’t report assault to the police. They ask, “Why don’t you, as a victim, act in a way that relieves my discomfort in having this occur in my carefully-ordered world?”

Of course, as is repeated again and again, there’s no “perfect victim.” There’s no correct way to behave when you are traumatized. And our institutions are set up to protect the perpetrators in power, and not the victim. Sometimes that bias is subtle, and sometimes (looking at you, Congress) that bias is right smack in front of our faces.

That bias is also present in the narrative about naming names. That narrative is predicated on the assumption that previous to this moment in time, women did not talk about what happened to them, but when you think about that, it’s ludicrous. Women have been naming names for decades, and there is plentiful evidence of this once you start looking for it. Read more

“I Believe the Women”

With great understanding,
Wisdom is calling out
as she stands at the crossroads
and on every hill.
She stands by the city gate
where everyone enters the city,
and she shouts:
“I am calling out
to each one of you!
Good sense and sound judgment
can be yours.
Listen, because what I say
is worthwhile and right.
I always speak the truth
and refuse to tell a lie.
Every word I speak is honest,
not one is misleading
or deceptive.
-Proverbs 8:1-8 (CEB)

detail from Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on canvas, 1609

The allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct continue to mount in every sector of society. In response to the allegations against Senate candidate Roy Moore, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I believe the women.” These four words hold extraordinary power, and the fact that they are so extraordinary points to how necessary they are.

The word of a woman is often questioned – including by women themselves. In the wake of #metoo, one thing we’ve seen is just how much women have internalized our victim blaming culture. Many have been reluctant to name sexual misconduct for what it is, or have felt partially responsible for it because they had been flirting, too, or they had enjoyed a drink with a friend. There is an inner voice asking, “Was this somehow my fault?”

In a culture that prizes women who are nice, sweet, and submissive, calling out harassment is strongly discouraged. For many women, speaking out would be detrimental to their careers or advancement. There is a pressure in many industries for women to be able to keep up with the men, to prove that they aren’t too emotional, too difficult, or any number of negative stereotypes that would prevent them from fitting in to the dominant culture. Louis CK’s sexual misconduct opened up dialogue among female comedians, who find that “not being able to take a joke” when it comes to sexual misconduct is a real career killer. Where men continue overwhelmingly to dominate certain industries, where “locker room talk” is actually the talk in whatever rooms of power – board room, green room, Senate chamber – women are under pressure to prove that we can take it, that we can hang with the best of them, while allowing the dominant rape culture to define the “best.”

Certainly, there have been, at times, false accusations made. But the vast majority of allegations of abuse and harassment are not false. Women have very little to gain in accusing men – particularly the rich and powerful – of misconduct. When women do speak out, our word is doubted, our character maligned, or worse. Women who have spoken out against powerful men have received death threats and lawsuits. It’s no wonder so many keep silent. Read more

Me Too

silencing women

It started appearing on the Sunday afternoon in the week after the story about Harvey Weinstein broke. A simple Facebook post that caught me off guard and made me suddenly unable to breathe. It said:

Me, too.

If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.  #MeToo  

Please copy/paste.

There wasn’t just one or two or three. I stopped counting at 10. Most of these were posted by colleagues and friends who are also pastors.

I did not copy and paste. I did not add my voice to the mix. I have shared my story in the safety of Young Clergy Women International groups and with close friends and colleagues. But to make it a status…well, that would change everything.

I’m looking for a job. Will this influence employers who may see it? Will my former Head of Staff (who, for the record, was not the perpetrator, and whom I never told) figure out which member had sexually harassed me on numerous occasions? Would those who worked with me at my former church know? Would members figure it out? What would my friends think? These and a million other questions swirled through my mind as I read and reread the words “me too” and my mind flashed back to those awful moments I, like too many women, have endured. Read more