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.

prayers written in a spiral on paper

Until You Know That I Know-And You Are Okay with That: Pastoral Confidence-Keeping

prayers written in a spiral on paper

All the confidences we keep, written with walnut ink.

Clergy do not all live by the same ethical standards—or even embrace them—but here is one we all aspire to keep, with some variance: unless I know that you know that I know that thing about you, and you’re okay with my knowing, I do not know it. I’m not going to bring it up with you. You do not have to talk about it with me, but you can if you want to.

Or, if I know something that few people know, you’re not going to hear about it from me.

And (this is the other side of the coin): at any given time, I might know more than you think I know.

I can offer an example, one of many curated from a group of clergy friends so as not to come from my context:

While serving lunch at the church’s soup-kitchen ministry, a congregant mentions to me that his great-niece, who is also a member of the community, has been diagnosed with endometriosis, or diabetes, or skin cancer. He indicates that this is not public knowledge (or he doesn’t—the next steps of the minister are really the same either way).

Now, I know something. I have been entrusted with a confidence of two different kinds. For one, the congregant has shared something that is important to him. The act of sharing with another person, particularly a pastor, offers that person a safe place to talk about it and a way to sort through something that indirectly affects him. The act of telling someone what you know is cathartic.

The second and most important layer of confidence, or confiding, is that I know something about the great-niece that she did not tell me herself, something very personal with long-term effects and possible heart-aches, that she may at some time want to sort through or may want to forever keep private. Now, when I offer a pastoral or priestly presence to that great-niece, I can be sensitive, but it is absolutely not cool for me to bring it up or let on that I know about her struggle with diabetes or skin cancer or endometriosis. I know more than I will or can let on.

This keeping of confidence is both a high-stakes issue for some congregants and a highly difficult task for the pastor. It is high-stakes because breaking either of those confidences can be tantamount to betrayal of trust by a minister, and by proxy, the church. Or they could not care at all. And one can seldom predict the difference with confidence. This is especially true in situations where reproductive issues, gender, or sexuality issues come into play. Mark my words, if the confidence has to do with the reproductive system, it is a high-stakes issue, a sacred confidence to keep, and not my story to tell. There is a high level of difficulty in this kind of pastoral confidence-keeping because often the information comes to me in a laundry basket of other information: “Sarah is out of the hospital, Josi is starting kindergarten in the fall, and my great-niece has endometriosis.”  Read more

watercolor drawing of three women's swimsuits - one flowered 1-piece and two striped 2-pieces

A pastor. In a swimsuit.

watercolor drawing of three women's swimsuits - one flowered 1-piece and two striped 2-pieces

swimsuits

Sometimes I forget that my sunglasses don’t actually make me invisible.

It is a Sunday afternoon. I am at the pool. I dig through my big, floppy, flowered bag that is stuffed with towels, water toys, extra swim diapers, the pool pass, and a meager amount of cash for buying popcorn and hot pretzels with cheese as our post-swimming snack. I spray thick layers of sunscreen over my kids’ arms and legs. I sunscreen my own face, rubbing furiously so that I don’t leave big white goopy streaks across my nose and cheeks. I pull on bucket hat that I purchased years ago on clearance. (It was probably so cheap because it is a strange neon color somewhere between yellow and green, a color that is flattering on absolutely no one.)

And then, before we march across the pool deck to the graduated edge of the shallow end, I put on my sunglasses.

Sunglasses are good for keeping your eyes safe. They are good for seeing lost toys at the bottom of the pool. They are great for staying inconspicuous while people-watching.

But they do not make you invisible.

I live in a town of 8000 people. Summer in Iowa gets hot. We all go to the pool.

I can deal with seeing congregation members at the grocery store and at the park. I make small talk when we bump into each other at daycare pickup, at the library, or at the Sugar Bowl, ordering our ice cream cones.

But the pool is different.

Because I am their pastor.

And I am wearing a bathing suit.

Which is of no particular concern to them, I must be clear. They have no problem with it. It’s a non-issue. I’m the one with the problem. Read more

Here I Sit

I have spent my final year on the Board editing the column, “Here I Stand.” It has been a joy and a privilege to share the stories of my sister clergy women, their convictions and the remarkable experiences of their particular and diverse contexts. As I come to the end of my time as a part of the leadership of this amazing organization, I find myself finding some new inspiration from our puppy.

In January we brought home a new black lab puppy. His name is Espen (a combination of the Norwegian names for God and bear). Just like our last black lab, he is already teaching me profound lessons about who God is and who I am called to be. Our next door neighbors have a dog too. It is the highlight of Espen’s day to be able to play with Benny. If we let him, Espen would spend the entire day just as he is pictured above. Sitting at our back door patiently waiting, ever hopeful that Benny will come out the door to play.

I have been struck by his patience and his ability to incarnate hope. It does not matter what time of day it is or how long it has been since Benny has come out. Espen lives out a conviction that new possibilities can happen at anytime. Past experience does not always have to be an indicator of the future. New realities are possible. To borrow from CS Lewis, at anytime, we can be “surprised by joy.”

Patience is a virtue on which I am perennially working. I often feel in a hurry. Read more

Wedding Season

The author’s wedding cake, 2008

It’s that time of year once again: Wedding Season! Young clergy women are here to offer some helpful advice and words of wisdom to the happy couples and their family and friends. Let the wedding bells ring!

Planning:

  • If you want to get married in a church and/or by a clergy person, contact the church and clergy person before finalizing the date! Make sure you have read and agree to comply with any policies of the church and the officiant. Make sure your vendors (photographer/videographer, wedding coordinators, etc.) have also read and agree to comply with the church and officiant policies.
  • Do not assume that you can simply rent a church and bring in your own officiant. Most churches have policies about this. If it isn’t clear in the wedding policies, ask.
  • Know that most clergy require some kind of premarital sessions with the couple, so plan accordingly.
  • Research local and state laws regarding wedding licenses. It is the COUPLE’S responsibility to secure the wedding license, and you will need to do this within a certain time period before the wedding. Don’t come to the wedding rehearsal without it! Make a clear plan for how the license will be filed. Will you or a family member be mailing it? The clergy person?
  • It’s a big day, but it’s not the only day. Be mindful of your budget. Starting off a marriage with a huge debt for wedding festivities is not advised! Also remember that just as your photographer, cake baker, and musicians are professionals paid for services they provide, so is the clergy person. For many weddings, clergy will put in 10-20 hours of additional work, often on days and at times where they would otherwise be off. If the clergy person is required to travel, all expenses should be paid, including a hotel room if overnight accommodations are needed. Clergy might have set fees, which will be communicated clearly, or they might have sliding scales or leave it to the discretion of the couple. Remember that the clergy person has at least one advanced professional degree, and is putting significant time and energy into your big day, and compensate accordingly.
  • We know, we know – online ordination is a thing, and your best friend, your cousin’s uncle, or any Joe Schmo off the street can become credentialed to officiate. That’s not really equivalent to having an ordained, trained, and experienced clergy person as an officiant. If you do choose to go that route, please don’t ask a clergy person to lend expertise.

That “religious” thing:

Read more

Do & Don’t: An Open Letter to Older Male Senior Pastors Regarding Your Working Relationships with Younger Women/Femme/Non-Binary* Associate Colleagues

The author officiating at a baptism in partnership with her
colleague, Pastor John Matthews, at Grace Lutheran Church in
Apple Valley, Minnesota.

Several months ago I received a phone call inviting me to speak on a panel to a cohort of women clergy who met monthly. Several of them were associate pastors, struggling mightily with how to claim any authority at all in their respective ministry settings.

The facilitators were inviting me, they said, because I was an “outlier” in my own call; the relationship between my older male colleague and I was understood to be an anomaly because we functioned as partners more than anything. They knew that we shared a genuine, mutual respect and that we actually enjoyed our working relationship. They knew that I exercised considerable agency and authority in my role, and that my colleague supported me in that, rather than being threatened by it. They knew that we pushed each other to be better, more authentic, and more courageous in our pastoral identities, and that both our congregation and the wider community were benefitting as a result.

Let that sink in for a minute – my pastoral colleague and I have a functional working relationship built on mutual respect, and we enjoy each other’s company. That makes us outliers.

This is a problem.

It’s a problem for the church in general, but it’s especially problematic for the thousands of younger women, femme, and non-binary associate pastors in this country and around the world who are routinely treated by their older, male senior colleagues as if they have none of their own God-given gifts for ministry, even in ministry settings and denominations that claim to believe otherwise.

Another member of the panel that morning was a younger male associate pastor. At one point in the conversation he was beside himself with grief at what he was hearing from the women in the room, and he wondered aloud about how he could be sure he didn’t become the very problem they were naming so clearly. Not wanting to assume that we in the room had all the answers ourselves, I posed his question to several online clergy groups, garnering responses from hundreds of women, femme, and non-binary associate pastors in a wide array of Christian denominations.

As you can imagine, their responses ranged from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous. They offered examples that were uplifting, heartbreaking, and everything in between. As best I can summarize, their responses to the question “What do you want older male clergy to know about how best to function with their younger women/femme/non-binary associate colleagues?” are as follows:


Read more

“By the time you’re 35…” Young Clergy Women Edition

If you’re anywhere around age 35, you’ve probably heard by now that you should have twice your annual salary saved for retirement. You’ve likely also enjoyed the many responses to that sage advice, including the despair shared by a generation facing widespread financial uncertainty and a rapidly changing employment landscape. Young clergy women came up with our own list. Enjoy!

– By the time you’re 35, you should have had at least ten well-meaning people stop you and say something derogatory about your age. “I’m not calling you ‘mother,’ I have granddaughters your age.” “Thank you for your little talk [sermon] this morning!”

– By the time you’re 35, you should have at least 50 years of church experience.

– By the time you’re 35, you will have accrued more ordained experience than most male cardinal rectors, to your shock.

– By the time you’re 35, don’t worry. You’ll still be “a young person” for another 15 years.

– By the time you’re 35, you’ll still be told you “look like a teenager,” and are “too young to be a pastor,” but also hear “why you didn’t ever get married and/or have kids?” because obviously, you are too ancient to do that now.

– By the time you’re 35, you will have lived more years on this earth than Jesus Christ. Congratulations!

– By the time you’re 35, you should have published at least one book.

– By the time you’re 35, still no one will care what you say because you’re still a woman.

– By the time you’re 35, you should know at least five local male colleagues your age with your same level of experience who have larger, better-paying, or more prestigious calls than you…or are going to get another degree … who all are married, with three kids under the age of 6…. and who are writing a book.

– By the time you’re 35, you’ll see just how many of those male colleagues, especially ones who consider themselves to be feminists or allies with clergy women, don’t see a problem with the discrepancies between their careers and those of their female colleagues, or don’t think that the patriarchy benefitted has them in their careers.

– By the time you’re 35 you will have been ordained, had three pastoral positions, earned your PhD & written a book and people will still have problems with addressing you as ‘Rev’ and ‘Dr.’

– By the time you’re 35, you will not yet be old enough for congregation members to take you seriously, yet you will also be too old for denominational authorities to count you as one of those elusive and highly desired “young people.”

– By the time you’re 35 you should have moved eight times in your adult life.

– By the time you’re 35, you’ll have more books than nearly any non-clergy person you know.

– By the time you’re 35, you’ll have given up on the church/ministry at least three times and, yet, somehow, still love it.

– By the time you’re 35, you’ll know just how critical and unique Young Clergy Women International is for your own support and sustainability in this sometimes maddening, and yet rich and beautiful, calling.

macaroni and cheese

A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey: Food Justice & Soul Work

“Attitudes to food have always been integral to the spiritual life and a prime metaphor for vital energy for our goal…the nourishing of a community is inextricably bound up with the notion of eating together.” Shirlyn Toppin[1]

macaroni and cheeseThe way we think about food and eating is deeply connected with the way we think about ourselves, families, and communities. For Black women, cooking, serving, and eating are bound up with our faith, our families, and our culture. Eating together is a spiritual act that heals, redeems, and refreshes those who participate. Not every woman knows how to nor wants to cook or serve; yet every woman eats. The eating and sharing of a meal can be an opportunity for Black women to receive that healing, redemption, and refreshment.

Tina Turner asked one of the most important questions of all time in one of her biggest hits, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” When it comes to food and faith, the answer is, “Everything.” Love has everything to do with food and faith. Food is an extension of oneself. Food is an avenue to show love to the others in our lives. Food and faith have always been a major part of Black lives, including in my life. The church is where many believers learn how to love and treat their neighbors; simultaneously, food gives believers the opportunity to demonstrate that love for their neighbors.

Growing up, I was expected to participate in worship every Sunday during church service and to be in the fellowship hall for dinner after service. I couldn’t wait to get into the fellowship hall to eat. Churching really does bring on an appetite! While the doctrine and dogma of religion restricted me, food seemed to free me. Food was never restricted. In fact, I had to eat all my food on my plate because it was rude not to and wasting food was prohibited. It felt good to be filled physically and enjoy tasty soul foods such as crispy fried or smothered baked chicken, creamy macaroni & cheese, rice & gravy, butter beans, cabbage, fresh yeast rolls, and pound cake or chocolate cake.

When food is scarce, it can feel like a trial not just to our bodies, but also to our souls.  My faith has been adversely challenged when I experienced those times of lack of food. I remember a time when no one in my immediate family had money to buy food and all we could make was bread. I felt the tears welling in my eyes and I immediately ran into my room so my family wouldn’t see me cry. I asked God why was God doing this to me? What was the purpose? Later, I learned through the Wake Forest University’s Food and Faith program about the systemic designs of hunger and lack of economic justice which, unfortunately, plagues many Black women and children.

Can faith move the mountains of hunger and lack of economic justice alone? Fannie Lou Hamer said, “You can pray until you faint, unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.” Read more

An Open Letter to the “Minister” in my Facebook Feed

Dear Facebook acquaintance,

Since we haven’t actually talked or seen each other since middle school, let me just start by saying I’m aware that you’re hearing from me out of the blue. We connected several years ago through the magic of Facebook, where I learned that you’ve become a lawyer, enjoy the party scene, are friends with lots of beautiful women, and have some pretty strong political opinions. Looks like you’re enjoying life and succeeding well at it.

Speaking of Facebook, you shared a picture recently that we need to talk about. It was a picture of you officiating a wedding on a beach somewhere. It looked lovely – beautiful setting, beautiful couple, all that. But I was shocked to see you wearing a clerical collar, that little white square of plastic at the base of your neck contrasted against a black shirt, that unmistakable uniform of the clergy – one I wear every day. I didn’t know you had become a priest! How cool! However, a little bit of internet sleuthing revealed that you got ordained online, and wore the uniform to be funny (and that you were never going to let your devout Catholic mother see that picture. I think that’s wise, because I remember her, and she’d kill you if she saw it.).

In case you haven’t taken the time to scroll through my Facebook page, you should know that I actually am a priest. After leaving my first career as a teacher, I went to seminary (a three-year, full-time graduate program), got my Masters in Divinity, did several internships in churches and hospitals, went through years of meetings with committees and governing boards, medical and psychiatric evaluations, and was finally ordained in a very beautiful and moving ceremony. I have been working as a full-time pastor for the last six years.

I’m surprised by how many people have asked why I went through this long and crazy process when I could have just gotten ordained online. That question has never been anything less than a stab in the heart: it tells me that people have no idea what clergy actually do. Being ordained isn’t about getting a piece of paper certifying my credentials. It’s about a calling by God, a life commitment, and work that is more difficult and holy than you could ever imagine. Read more

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