John 14:1-14 (NRSV)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

 

It helps to understand today’s gospel if you imagine it as a movie. You’ve been watching this movie for at least 90 minutes. You watched the main character, Jesus, be born in that awful barn. You saw him grow up, you saw him baptized, and you saw him build his community and surround himself with these disciples. You’ve become attached not only to this guy, Jesus, but also to his disciples. You have gotten to know them through this movie, have come to feel the intimacy of their relationships, and you feel the same hopes and desires that they feel. You know that they are people who have struggled… people who long for a better day when they and their people will be able to live freely, people who have been taught, led, and cared for by Jesus. They follow him devotedly, and you, the viewer, you have come to follow him, too. They … and you… are inspired by him… they love him and never want to live without him. He is everything to them. They follow Jesus like children follow their mother… finding safety, love, and nurturing in Jesus… and you, the viewer, you feel their feelings. You feel that safety and love that Jesus brings.

And then… in the scene before today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.” Jesus explains that although they are going to look for him, they… you… cannot come where he is going. And, just as children burst into tears when their parents leave for the day, you feel the tears well up within you. Why does Jesus have to leave? We were finally becoming a true family…finally feeling surrounded by love and feeling truly fed by Jesus. Really? NOW, Jesus has to leave?

You relate to Peter when he protests. He says, Jesus, of course I can follow you. I WILL follow you… wherever you go. To the death, if I have to!!

That’s how you feel. You love Jesus. You feel SAFE with Jesus. Jesus must not leave. As you watch the scene unfold in this movie, you see that the other disciples are getting upset, too. What would they do without Jesus? They gave up their entire lives… they walked away from everything… so they could follow this man, learn from him, and become his family. And now… they finally are his family… and he is going to leave?

That’s what you’ve watched so far. That is the somber mood as we watch the current scene… today’s Gospel. Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus tries to comfort them… to soothe them. He insists still that he does have to leave, but it’s not forever. He will come back for them. Jesus will come and lead them to where he is going so they can all be together again. And besides, even if he doesn’t come back, they know where he’s going… they will come join him one day.

But wait… then one of the disciples speaks… we don’t know the way! How will we get there? Where are we going?

You, the viewer, you can feel the tension come back. Just as Jesus was beginning to soothe them, now the anxiety is up again as you realize… Thomas is right. We don’t know how to get there! How can Jesus just leave them… leave us… here all alone? We’ll never find him!!

But then Jesus speaks again, in his soothing, comforting tone… of course you know where I’m going. You all know God… the Father of all of us. You know God intimately, don’t you?

As the disciples slowly nod, you think about this. Well, yes… you know God. It’s not like you’ve ever SEEN God… but you have felt God’s presence. Sometimes more strongly than others. Yes, you suppose we do know God.

Jesus continues… if you know God, then you know me. Haven’t you figured that out, yet? We are one and the same, God and I. God is in me, and I am in him. No one comes to the Father except through me because I AM him. If you know me, you know God. And if you know God, then you know me.

Jesus’ words seem to be working, but the disciples still aren’t really sure…they want to believe, but they struggle. Can they really let this man go? Jesus was supposed to save their people, and now he’s going to leave? Who will lead their people?

Jesus speaks again – don’t they realize that they will lead their people? Don’t they realize that this is why Jesus has taught them… spent so much time with them… he has raised them like a mother raises a child, making them ready for the world. They will lead their people… and they will do even greater things than Jesus ever did!! Because they have more time. They don’t have to leave, yet. As you watch this scene unfold, you, the viewer, think about what that means… to lead their own people. And yet, those disciples are not with us anymore. Who must lead the people now? Today?

As you ponder these questions, our Gospel scene ends. You’ve seen this movie before, though, and you know that Jesus continues to soothe them, telling them they will not be alone. Jesus’ Spirit, God’s Spirit, will be with them. Not just with them, but IN them. God, the Spirit, abides in them… they will never be alone.

To never be alone… that’s a happy ending, right? Is it? Of course, we have the whole book… the whole bible… and we know what comes next. We know that Jesus dies… that he suffers… that he is crucified. And we know that these disciples… they suffer, too. Because that’s what it means to follow Jesus. It means choosing the more difficult path. It means suffering for others. In our first reading today, we hear about Stephen, who is so thrilled and full of joy as he sees “the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” We hear about how his shout of joy is followed with another awful death. And yet… even as he dies, he cries out his last mortal request to God… please… do not hold this sin against them.

This is what it means to follow Jesus. It means following the cross. The death. The crucifixion. And why? For the sake of the world. For the sake of those very same people who persecute you… who make fun of you… who throw all kinds of stones at you. But why would we do this?

In my previous life as a computer consultant, I did a lot of traveling. Being on an airplane had really never bothered me, but somehow, as I boarded more and more of them, it occurred to me one day that I was increasing my own odds of being in a crash. I remember, like it was today, sitting on that airplane, looking out the window, and thinking about how, every time I boarded a flight, I was making it more likely. My mind started to imagine it… the airplane crash. What if… what if it crashed and I didn’t survive? I’m so young (I was back then!)… I don’t want to die, yet!

My mind jumped around with all these horrible thoughts, and as I clung to life, I began to panic. I began to think that… if I did ever get off this plane, I would never get on one again. I began to hyperventilate… trying to keep myself breathing.

And then… suddenly… a sense of peace overtook me. I felt my nerves settle down. I closed my eyes, and it was so clear… so present… God was with me. I could feel Jesus’ touch in my body. I could hear his soothing, comforting tone… the same one we heard in the movie… I could hear him telling me… Do not let your heart be troubled. Trust God… trust me… I am in you, and you are in me. You will never be alone.

As I let myself soak in these comforting words of Jesus, I knew it was going to be ok. Now… here’s the kicker. I did NOT suddenly think that my plane was not going to crash. I still recognized that as a distinct possibility… a possibility that became more and more possible every time I boarded a plane. And… I did NOT suddenly think that, if my plan DID crash, God would protect me so that I would survive. I knew, deep within me, that that is not how God works. Those thoughts of how the plane might crash, and I might die, and how much I wanted to live, they all still flooded my mind. But they were no longer frantically bouncing around… instead, they were mere facts… possibilities… and they didn’t matter. Because God is with me. Yes, I might crash. But God is with me. Yes, I might even die. But God is with me.

That is also what it means to follow Jesus. It means trusting God’s promise. It means trusting Jesus. It means knowing you will never be alone. Following Jesus means following the cross… following the crucifixion… putting yourself out there, your body, your mind, your very being, out in the world in order to bring God’s love into the world, knowing that your mortal life may not be saved… while trusting God to hold you, knowing you will never be alone.

Today is Confirmation Sunday. Teenagers in our community will make a public affirmation of their baptism. This is their public and verbal acceptance of a gift God gave them long ago. They will say that they renounce the devil, the powers of this world, and the ways of sin. They will recite the creed, words of belief that a council of men, long ago, came together to write in affirmation of their faith. They will say these words with full awareness of what this means, because they have spent many Sundays in Confirmation Class. Learning about the Bible. Learning about Jesus. Learning about our history as a people of God. And now, today, here they are, ready to profess their faith… to say, “I believe in God. I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

I must be honest… I wish what they will say is not these “I believe…” statements, but rather, “I trust” statements. Because… even though the translation of today’s Gospel that I proclaimed says, “I believe,” the Greek, the original word in our Scriptures, is better translated as “I trust.” The kind of belief Jesus is talking about is not a matter of professing a faith, but rather trusting God… trusting Jesus… or at least trying, over and over again, to trust God… in all that you do. And so I hope… I pray… they have all learned to trust. Because that is true salvation. If you but trust in God to guide you, if you but listen for God’s voice, if you watch for God, wait for the opportunities to do God’s work… be that by feeding the poor, or standing up for justice… I promise… even in the times when you do NOT feel God’s presence, God IS with you. For Jesus promises… just as God is in Jesus, and Jesus in God… God is in you, too. And you will never be alone.

 

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My Baby

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My dog died last week. She had cancer… she had had cancer for 4 years now, and on Thursday, 5/8, Pebbles told me it was time. I looked into her eyes, and I could see it… her pain… and her request… please, let me go. I had been watching for this message. I hope and pray that she had not been trying to tell me this before… that this was the first time… but I can’t be sure of that. All I know is that, on that Thursday, after the hike we took that day, it was finally clear to me, and I knew what I needed to do.

I didn’t want to do it. This is my baby. I found her at the humane society 11 years ago, and she very quickly crept into my heart in a way that no other animal has ever done. My husband jokes that no other person has ever crept in my heart that way… and maybe he’s right. Because all I know now is that I miss her terribly, and I feel a need to talk about her… to tell stories. Isn’t that what we do when we grieve?

I remember so many things, so many times. I remember stories, and habits. Like the loud thump I would hear when I walked into a room where she was as her strong tail beat the hard wood floor. She knew that, when I looked at her and heard that thumping, I could never resist going to her and rubbing my hands through her thick fur. She knew how much I loved to snuggle up with her, and I knew how insistent she was that I pet her. That was our deal… as long as I pet her, she would stay and snuggle. I use “pet” loosely. It didn’t have to be much… I remember nights when I was exhausted, lying next to her, falling asleep as my hand lightly moved on her fur. As I would drift off, my hand would stop moving, and then Pebbles would gently nudge my hand and lick my fingers. “Mom, you stopped petting!” I would slightly move my thumb along her fur, and that was enough. She’d snuggle back in. Eventually, though, I would stop, and her nudging and licking would not persuade me. That was when she would get up and move just a few feet away. She still wanted to be close, but no petting, no snuggle. That was the deal.

I remember how, when I went to find a dog at the humane society with my mom and my friend, I told them I wanted a dog who would snuggle. When I met Pebbles, she just wanted to play. I wasn’t sure she would ever be a snuggler, and so I wasn’t sure. But Pebbles seemed to have picked ME out. It was as though she already knew… YOU are going to take me home… and she was right. My friend kept telling me… that dog is totally a snuggler. Just you wait. I still wasn’t sure, but I think Pebbles had already captured my heart anyway. As we headed home, I sat in the back seat with Pebbles, and Pebbles, this 70+ lb dog, quickly snuggled up in my lap. My friend gave me a quick look from the front seat that said, “I told you so.”

I remember how one rule Pebbles was very good about obeying was that she was not allowed up on the furniture. That is… not unless we invited her. I remember how she would suddenly decide it was time to snuggle, and she would come up to where I was sitting on the couch, and sit at attention next to me, staring at me while she wagged her tail with that THUMP…THUMP…THUMP, until I said, “OK, Pebbles, come on up!” I would barely get the “OK” out of my mouth, and she would leap 3 feet into the air and land HARD on my gut as she quickly made herself at home on my lap. I love my snuggle lap dog of 75 pounds!

I remember my favorite snuggling position, which was when I sat with my legs slightly opened on the floor, and Pebbles came and curled up between my legs. It was in that position, that she would often let herself fall asleep, safe within my lap. I’m very sorry to say that I can’t find ANY pictures of us in that position. I will always regret that.

I remember how much Pebbles loved food. I mean… I know dogs love food, but Pebbles LOVED food. We went to visit her friend, Punkin, who lived right down the road. Punkin was sitting unleashed in her front door. It was a hot day; the front door was open to the house while Punkin’s mom made dinner in the kitchen. As I chatted with Punkin’s father, I let Pebbles off leash so that she and Punkin could play. They were romping around in the front yard, having a great time. When Punkin’s mom opened her oven to check on the garlic bread, Pebbles knew that was her one and only chance. Punkin’s dad and I didn’t even know what was going on as Pebbles dashed inside the house, stuffed her head into the oven, grabbed the full loaf of garlic bread out the oven and gulped it down before any one of us had a chance to even yell her name or a quick, “No!” It was gone. The entire loaf of bread.

I remember how difficult it was to train Pebbles. It wasn’t that Pebbles didn’t know what I wanted her to do. She knew. I would tell her my command, and she would look at me. I could see what she was doing. She was assessing. Assessing how far away I was from her, and whether I would be able to catch her and make her do what I wanted. She would give me that look… that “No… I don’t think so,” before she would turn away and do what she wanted. I kept working with her, and we would be making so much progress. She would finally seem to be listening, willing to do as I asked.

I remember how much she loved to go to Juanita Bay park, and how, before the park was renovated, I would take her and break the law by letting her off leash when there weren’t many people around. She loved to run on the beach, jump in the water, and chase the ducks. I remember when my mom, who also loves Juanita Bay park took Pebbles with her and let Pebbles off leash. I was at work, and after a meeting, I checked my phone to find a voice-mail from my mom. I remember it clearly: “Hi Anja! I’m at the park with Pebbles and just thought I’d call to see ho— Pebbles? PEBBLES!!! PEBBLES, YOU GET BACK HERE!!! Anja, Pebbles just ran off and I can’t — PEBBLES, YOU LEAVE THAT PERSON ALONE!!” I’m pretty sure I cried as I laughed and imagined my poor mother chasing after Pebbles, trying to get her to come back.

I remember the time, at that same park, when Pebbles had been SO good for SO long, and so I let her off leash (I never did learn). She continued to be very good… coming when I called her, sitting when I said. Now, it was time to leave, and I think Pebbles knew her time had come to go back on leash. As I approached her to put her on leash, she spotted a man, probably in his 70s, walking his little puntable dog on a leash, and she jumped at her last chance to misbehave. She sprinted to the little dog and began by simply sniffing him. The little dog got nervous, and started to run away from Pebbles… but the little dog was on leash, so he could only run around his dad’s legs. Pebbles was always happy to chase! And she did. That poor man was scared for his dog, as his poor dog was scared for his life, and raced around and around the man’s legs. As the man tried not to get tangled, while also trying to help his dog get away from Pebbles, he started spinning in place, faster and faster, until finally this little puntable dog was no longer running away from Pebbs, but flying at the end of the leash while he yelled at me to take control of my dog!! I asked the man to hold his dog, instead of slinging the poor dog around in a circle, which the man did. Once the little dog was no longer running in circles, Pebbs stopped running, too, and I grabbed her easily, apologizing profusely to the man and the dog, asking if the dog was all right.

I remember how Pebbles never forgot a squirrel. We would go to parks with lots of trees so that Pebbs could chase squirrels up them. She never was able to get too close, and the squirrel would run up the tree, into its branches, and over to other trees. But Pebbles would just keep staring up at that tree, barking, waiting for the squirrel to come back down. Eventually, we would leave to go home (if I could catch her), but the next time we came back to the same park, Pebbles would immediately run to the very same tree, look up and start barking. No squirrel in sight… it was as though time had not passed, and she had just finished chasing that squirrel up the tree.

I remember how I quickly learned that the trick to getting Pebbles to come was to run AWAY from her. Learning that trick made life MUCH easier, even if it did upset people when they were frustrated with Pebbles, and I simply turned and walked/ran away.

I remember how excited Pebbles would always get, even up through that last fateful day, when she knew I was going to take her for a hike. She watched me… always watched me… and she had figured out the signs. She noticed when I grabbed a certain jacket… you know… one of the few jackets I only wore on hikes or runs. But then, she still wasn’t sure… her ears would perk up, and her head stretched high as she kept watching me. She wanted to see what kind of shoes I put on. Reaching for my hiking boots was game-over, as she jumped off her doggie perch and rushed me, barking and jumping all over me, yelling, “Hurry up!! Let’s go!! I’m so excited!” As annoying as it could be to try to tie your hiking boots while she’s barking and jumping on me, I still loved that.

I remember how much she loved to go for runs with me. I would always use a head leash (looks like a muzzle, but isn’t) on her because it was hard to get her not to pull. With the head leash, I could just wrap the rest of the leash around my waist, and run hands-free. I remember running to a park where I let her off leash for awhile, and then started my run home so that she would come chase me, and I could put her back on leash. I wasn’t thinking when I put her leash back on her because apparently I clipped it onto her normal neck collar instead of her head leash (I still had the rest of the leash around my waist). I only figured this out when I began to run home with my friend and Pebbs saw a squirrel. She took off across the street, dragging me with her. Thankfully, my quick thinking friend raced after us. Since Pebbles was dragging extra weight (me), my friend was able to catch Pebbs easily and she grabbed her collar. I stood up, slightly bloodied, and assessed the damage. I was fine, but Pebbles was whining desperately because … didn’t we realize we were letting that squirrel ESCAPE?!?

I remember how quickly Pebbles got hot when we went running…even on cooler days. She always looked for water of any kind… a muddy puddle? Great for drinking from. A beach on the lake? Perfect for jumping in. I remember how she would shake her fur to get the water out, while she was still standing in the lake. The best, though, was a muddy pit somewhere, wet enough to jump into, and murky enough to paint her strawberry blonde fur brown. She loved that until we got home and I made her shower.

I remember how difficult it was to get her into the shower. She always knew when it was time, and she would hide somewhere in the house – if possible, underneath a table or desk. When you reached in to grab her scruff to make her come, she would roll over onto her back, with her legs in the air where she could kick you away. When you got past the legs and grabbed her neck, she would put her mouth on your hand with JUST enough pressure to hurt, but not enough to break skin, so that you would pull your hand away.

I suppose my stories make Pebbles sound like a very poorly behaved dog… a dog who was alpha over me. In some ways, maybe that was true, but actually, most of the time she listened to me. I learned how to insist that she listen to me, and eventually, she learned that life was easier if she just did it my way. Once she got older, she rarely misbehaved with me at all. Maybe that’s why I remember the stories when she misbehaved so well. I would be so angry and frustrated, but laugh with love at the same time.

I remember how much she loved the snow. She would watch the snow fall, and I knew she was trying to be patient, knowing I would eventually let her go play. I remember how, when she was still a puppy, she loved to eat the snow. I remember the first time I left her in a fenced in backyard full of snow. When I got home, the entire yard inside the fence was green/brown while the yard outside was still white, covered. Pebbles had eaten all of the snow. I remember going out for hikes and walks in the snow, and how she would sprint around the snow, and rub her nose, her face, her whole body in it. I remember, right after I found out that she had cancer, picking her up from the vet and taking her to an empty field. It had just snowed, and even then, her body full of cancer, she sprinted like a crazy puppy all around that field, throwing herself all around that snow, rolling in it over and over as I laughed until I cried, so happy to see her having fun, while knowing she was dying.

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I remember when I found out that she had cancer. I remember my incredible grief as I pondered what to do. The only treatment possible was radiation treatment. I had no idea that they did radiation treatment on animals, using human facilities during after-hours. They said the treatment would not cure her, but it would prolong her life. They didn’t know for how long. They said it could be anywhere from 6 months to 3 years. I didn’t know what to do. If it would only bring her 6 months, it probably wasn’t worth putting her through that. But 3 years…? She was 8 when she was diagnosed. 3 years would be extending her life by more than 25%. After a lot of heart-wrenching reflections and conversations, we decided to go for it. I remember how grateful I was (and still am) that my husband was willing to let me make this decision.

I remember how much she loved the staff at the radiation center. They didn’t want a bunch of dogs in the hospital, so we would wait in our cars until they came out to get us. Pebbles and I would sit in the back of my Jeep Wrangler together while Pebbles watched the doors… she knew the staff would come. As soon as she saw them look our way and motion for us, she would leap from the Jeep and sprint to the doors, so happy to see them. They loved Pebbles. She would happily follow them into the hospital, and when they patted on the gurney, she leaped up onto the thin matt. I think she loved the loving attention they always gave her.

I remember how Pebbles always came looking for me whenever she didn’t feel well, or was spooked or scared. She hated thunderstorms and fireworks. As soon as she heard the first BOOM, she would come to wherever I was, and stare at me, telling me to make it go away. If it continued, she would start shaking, with her tail tucked deep underneath her. I would hold her or pet her, and she would calm down some. If it happened in the middle of the night, sometimes all I could muster was to put my hand out while she stood next to the bed, panting, and I would gently pet her while I tried to sleep. After a few minutes of petting, Pebbs would sit down, and eventually lie down. The minute I stopped petting, though, she’d be back up and standing again, demanding my attention.

I remember all of these stories, and many, many more. Maybe, as I think of more, I will add to/edit this post with them. Right now, though, I most remember our last trip. I remember going to Leavenworth to celebrate my anniversary for a few days. We brought the dogs (we also have Bamm-Bamm) because I didn’t know how much time I had left with Pebbles. Things seemed fine that first night until Pebbles started sneezing blood. This wasn’t really alarming… you see, her tumor was in her nose, and it often caused nosebleeds. Most of the time, though, she would have a little blood that she needed to sneeze out, and then she’d be ok for awhile. This night, though, it was more than usual. She would come to my side of the bed, and look at me, panting. I put my hand out and started petting her, and she began to relax until she would sit, and then lie down on the floor next to where I was on the bed. Now, as I look back, I wish I had gotten up and cuddled her. She deserved that. We had bad nights before, though… and then Pebbs would rally the next day. When our first morning in Leavenworth came, at first, Pebbles rallied. My husband was still sleeping, and as I got up, Pebbles jumped to her feet as she wanted to go outside. I threw on my shoes and headed out. Pebbles perked up even more, head up high, tail also, as we walked down to the river. As usual, she enjoyed going down to the river and drank and drank and drank.

When we came back to the house, I got worried again. At first, she didn’t want breakfast, and THAT was alarming. I was able to coax her into eating along with a pain pill, and then we went back outside, where she loved to be sitting underneath the trees, taking in the birds around her, and I sat with her. She seemed to feel better again after awhile, and we all got in the Jeep and found an easy hike. While we were in the car, her appetite picked up and we gave her some more treats. Once we were on the hike, she perked up more, even though her eye seemed to start swelling. She couldn’t see well out of it, but she was still happy to be out on the trail. When we came to the water, she went straight to it as always, and trotted around in the water. I threw both dogs treats, and Pebbs wagged her tail, watching me, asking for more each time. I remember being so happy that she was enjoying herself.

I remember walking back to the Jeep, and having to pick up not just her rear legs, but her front ones, too, to get her into the Jeep. I remember watching as her face began to swell more, and she continued to struggle to breathe. I remember going into the place where we were staying, and how she wouldn’t eat. It was then that I looked into her eyes, and I knew what she was telling me. I suppose I was still hopeful… maybe it was just because she didn’t get any sleep last night. She just needed to rest. I made her comfortable, propped her head up with a pillow, and we took Bamm-Bamm with us and left Pebbs to sleep some in the house. It was when we got back that I knew without a doubt… it was time. She had a large lump by her eye, and her nose looked swollen to me, too. My husband and I debated whether to drive her to Wenatchee to an all-night vet, or to wait until morning and take her to the local vet. My gut told me to take her immediately, but I think I really wanted to believe I could still have a little more time with her. We waited until the morning. I will always regret that decision. I think we could have saved her a difficult night. She slept for most of it, but I would wake up in the middle of the night, and check on her. Sometimes, she would be lying there with her head up as she struggled to breathe. I would coax her back to sleep as I pet her and sat with her.

The next morning, it was too early to take her to the vet, and I was going nuts, so I went for a walk, and I bawled. I knew what was coming, and I just cried my heart out as I walked along the river. When I got back, I woke up my husband and told him we needed to get going. It was still a little early for when the vet would open, but I wanted to be there right when their doors opened.

I remember how hard it was to get her into the vet’s office. She just didn’t want to move. She was so uncomfortable…in so much pain. I remember how the veterinarian picked her up from the waiting room and took her into the private room. I remember how quickly and urgently he put in her IV. I think he was more aware of how unhappy she was than I was. He wanted to get her out of her pain. I remember him telling me that he was putting the drug in, and to talk to her. I remember holding her desperately, crying as I told her I loved her, as I told her she would always be my baby… the same words I used to tell her every night before I went to bed. I remember the doctor saying that she was sleeping now as I held her close and cried. I remember continuing to talk to Pebbles as the words came to me, “I don’t want to live without you.” I remember that although I thought those words, I didn’t say them. It seemed too melodramatic. After all, she’s just a dog, right? She’s just a pet… I knew I would outlive her. How could I be so attached. How could I actually even think those words…I don’t want to live without you. And yet… I didn’t. I don’t. It’s not that I don’t want to live… but I don’t want to live without her. I want to live WITH her, and I hate that I can’t. I remember thinking that it would be so insensitive of me to say those words… so insensitive to those who have lost their loved ones… parents, spouses, and especially children. I remember thinking that if this was this hard for me… how hard must it be for the parent of a young child who dies way too soon? I felt selfish to even feel this way. But now I’m being honest… and I don’t want to live without my Pebbles. Without my baby. I want to live WITH her. And I can’t. And so I grieve. I miss her. She’s my baby.

I have had other pets. I have been attached. I am definitely an animal lover. But I have never had an animal take my heart the way Pebbles took my heart. I am so incredibly blessed to have her. And I do still have her. I have her memories. But I don’t have her fur to clutch and cuddle up next to anymore. I don’t have her presence, the presence that was ALWAYS happy to see me, even when I was in an awful mood.

I remember it all.. every detail. It may seem like I’ve written it all out here in this very long blog post, but I haven’t. There’s lots that I haven’t written. But I remember. I love you, Pebbles. I will always love you. You will always be my baby.

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Back to School

SONY DSC

Well, I’m back. It was nice being home, but I have one more semester to complete in Berkeley, California. John and I got up extra early yesterday morning in order to meet my friend and fellow student, Chelsea, at Southcenter Mall at 5:45am. Then, Chelsea and I began the 12 hour drive (13 hours with stops) to Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.

The drive was, unfortunately, somewhat eventful. It began in the Chehalis area when I was stopped by a police officer for speeding. It was on a short 60 mph stretch of highway that is sandwiched between two long stretches of 70 mph. I didn’t notice the change in speed, and they got me. In Oregon, the “check engine” light came on, and so we stopped at a gas station/mechanic shop for a quick inspection. All appeared to be ok, so we continued on our route.

In California, the Superbowl began between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers. Chelsea is not a football fan, but I am. And I’m from Baltimore. So, we found ESPN radio and listened to the game. Chelsea was such a good sport, listening with me, asking about what was going on, and even rooting with me for a little while. She said she really wasn’t rooting for anyone, but I distinctly remember her yelling, “No!” when the 49ers scored. I was hoping to make it to Berkeley in time to watch the end of the game with my dorm, but it was not looking good. The game was moving along pretty quickly, looked to end between 6:30 and 7, and we would probably arrive around 6:45pm. But then the Superbowl power outage came. I’m convinced it happened for me. We made it to PLTS before the 4th quarter began, and I ran inside to root for my team. A game that had started out as an easy blowout for the Ravens had turned into a very close, nail-biting game. Thankfully, though, the Ravens won.

But I didn’t start this blog to talk about football (GO RAVENS!!). I felt like writing when I got up this morning, showered, dressed, and then opened my curtains to look outside. That’s when it really hit me. I’m back. Back to the PLTS community. Back to the studies. Back to the loneliness away from my husband and pets. I really do enjoy the PLTS community and the studies, but I really miss John, Pebbles, Bamm-Bamm, and Carmel. As I lay down to sleep last night, I had a sudden urge to go say my nightly good night cuddle with Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm, and then to cuddle up to my husband and fall asleep. But none of them are here. As I look out my window this morning, I see and remember the regular fog rolling on, inhabiting this silent, beautiful monastery-type campus on the top of the Berkeley hills. I remember the serenity that I often felt, the peacefulness and calmness that often overtakes me, here. And the loneliness.

I suppose “bittersweet” is a good term. It is sweet to see the friends I made last semester, and to hear about their lives over the past couple months. But it is bitter to be away from those who I love so dearly. Yet, it is sweet to be here, among the fog, trees, and sun that will come later. To relax in these hills and ponder God’s many meanings and messages. It is a blessing to be here. If only I didn’t come alone.

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My Cross-Cultural Experience: Final Day

the gang in courtyard

This will be a short post to wrap up the “My Cross-Cultural Experience” series. Yesterday was my last day of the “Ministry in the City” class, and since it was simply one meeting that lasted the morning, a debrief, it will be, well… brief.

Those of us in the class met in the morning with the two pastors who were leading us all weekend, Pastors Jim and Brian. When we arrived at the church, Pastor Jim was ready for us with coffee, tea, muffins and books! As you can see in the picture below, some books that were recommended for the course were laid out on the table so that we could peruse. I have already downloaded “Race Matters” on my Kindle.

Recommended Reads

After we said hello, got our caffeine, and discussed the books a bit, we moved into the Sanctuary where we discussed the weekend. We talked about the parts of the weekend that particularly touched us (there were many given), times when we felt uncomfortable, times when we felt challenged, and how much our host families really touched our lives. We spoke of the style of service, and whether it is accurate or appropriate to call it “black” preaching. The general feeling, at the end of the conversation, is that it is not “black.” There are many preachers (such as our own Pastor Jim) who naturally go to this style, even though the color of his skin is pale. What it IS is verbally expressive, with lots of movement. It is more of a dialogue versus the more typical “Lutheran” sermon that is a monologue. I commented that I felt it was less guarded, more emotional and vulnerable. Another student pointed out, though, that she has seen sermons that are very emotional and vulnerable, and yet still are not like this more expressive and free style that we have been experiencing over the weekend. I think she made a very good point. I have seen vulnerable and emotional sermons that were also more “stiff,” too. It is hard to find the right words to describe the distinction that we all had witnessed and understood.

This new (to us) style worked very well for some, and not so well for others. It works extremely well for me. I find myself opening up more, letting my own guards down, and feeling the community and the community’s love much more directly. I suppose I feel the Spirit more directly. I would very much like to experience more of this kind of preaching, and hopefully have my own preaching influenced by it. I think that, if my guards were completely down, I would be more expressive and emotional myself when preaching. I am going to look into whether it would be feasible to take one more class (beyond the currently full 5-class schedule) in preaching a style more similar to this. I think that if I would be forced outside of my own comfort zone a bit in this way, I may surprise myself.

We also spoke about the assignment that we all have due: a 3-5 page paper where we choose an urban ministry principle to try out in a parish/community setting, and then write about how it goes. We brainstormed principles together (seek out the good news, know the community, know the congregation, enable authenticity, remember history, break bread together, be vulnerable, etc.), and discussed some possible paper topics. It seems to me these principles aren’t really specific to “urban ministry,” but rather fit any ministry. I think I might choose “challenge each other and the congregation towards appropriate change” and see about introducing more inclusive language in the worship at PLTS. But I haven’t decided for certain… we’ll see.

When we finished our discussion, we gathered in a circle for the Eucharist. Pastor Brian led, and I very much appreciated how he said the words of the Eucharist without “citing” them. What I mean is that he said them more conversationally, as if he was just casually speaking with a group of friends, and explaining what the bread and wine are, and why they are given. The words spoken were the scripted words, but said in a more intimate way. It was touching. When the bread was distributed, it was not done by Brian to each person, but rather by Brian to the first person, who then took the bread and gave it to the next person, and so on. I very much like this approach to the Eucharist better than the more “top down” approach that is usual in the Lutheran church, where the pastor is the only distributor. By allowing each person to give the bread to the next person, we are reminded that we are truly a “priesthood of all believers,” and that one of us is not elevated above the others.  The wine was distributed in the same way.

When the Eucharist was done, we shared the peace with hugs and good wishes, to end our session. I insisted that I wanted pictures, and so we then headed outside to take some group shots. Can you tell it was cold yet sunny?

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Then, we split up. The younger generation headed out together to In n Out Burger at my request, as I wanted to get my California burger before heading back to Seattle. We had a good and filling lunch, and then decided to go check out the Venice canals. Although it took me a few tries, I found the canals, and showed them off a bit (this is next door to the neighborhood where I used to live in LA) before rushing back to my car and barely making my flight home.

The gang, standing on a bridge over one of the canals.

The gang, standing on a bridge over one of the canals.

This class has been a huge blessing for me. I am still reflecting upon all that I’ve learned and experienced, and I expect I will continue to reflect upon this for quite some time. In this short time, we have built ourselves a tight-knit community, and I really hope to keep that community going. I am hopeful that I will be able to keep in touch with at least some of these new friends, and enjoy the blessings of that community throughout my path of ministry.

To all of my fellow Ministry in the City classmates: Thank you, Peace, and Blessings.

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My Cross-Cultural Experience: Day 4

Pastor Jim

Pastor Jim

Today was my last full day of this class. I meet again with the group at 9am tomorrow morning, and then the “Ministry in the City” class will end at noon, and I will head home to Seattle. I am feeling a bit bittersweet about this ending. I am VERY ready to go home. I miss my husband, my dogs, my cat, and my bed. I’m looking forward to seeing my step-daughter before she heads back to school, and hanging out a bit with my sister and her kids. I am VERY ready. And yet, I am sorry that this experience is almost over. I have learned so much already, even without the time needed to truly absorb it all. I expect I will reflect over the next couple of weeks, and will come to some epiphanies and realizations for which I will be very grateful. I will also miss the many gracious, amazing, talented, and giving people who I have met. This includes my host family, the many pastors, the choir, and congregation, all of whom have met us with open arms and open hearts. I feel as though I have been a part of this community, and I’m not ready to let that go.

I am the only one in my class who is going home tomorrow. The others are continuing with a second half of the Cross-Cultural Experience. In this second half, they will change to new host families, host families who are Hispanic and do not speak very much English. I will miss out on this, and I really am disappointed about that. I could have taken this part of the class, but it would have meant being away from my husband for another 2 weeks, and having very little time with him before going back to PLTS in February. Considering how much time I am already away from John due to going to school in Berkeley, I decided not to spend these next 2 weeks here in Los Angeles, despite how much I know I would learn if I stayed. These decisions are so hard.

And so, I am now winding down from my last full day, and looking forward to telling you a bit about it.

The day began with bible study at 9am at Holy Trinity Church. We were discussing Genesis 32, which is when Jacob wrestles with God. This passage is incredibly rich with meaning and lessons, and the discussion was full. We humans tend to believe that struggling or arguing with God is disrespectful, irreverent, or impudent. We can relate to Jacob, though, because, in actuality, we all wrestle with God. In fact, I was particularly struck by how Jacob’s struggle with God results in an injured hip as well as a blessing. This resonates with me as I often struggle with God… I struggle to understand and discern what God is saying to me, I struggle to accept the suffering I see in this world, I struggle to accept both my own injuries and my blessings, and I struggle to understand why. As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes I even struggle to accept God. At these times, I feel frustrated and unworthy. I know that my faith is not as strong as I would like, and I begin to feel despair. But then I remember Jacob. I remember that Jacob struggled, too. And when Jacob’s struggle with God was over, he left with a lifetime injury to help him always remember his struggle, and a blessing. My struggles often end this way, too.

After the bible study, the other students and I joined the choir to warm up, and then the service began. And what a service it was. Holy Trinity Lutheran celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr., today, and so the service opened with a recording of one of his last sermons, called “The Drum Major Instinct.” There were many moments and ways that this sermon touched me. Dr. King spoke about how the race struggle is really a class struggle. And yet, because of a very “human” tendency to elevate oneself, we find ourselves pushing others down, whether that push actually helps or hurts us. Dr. King spoke of how this struggle is not just between people, not just between classes, and not just between races, but between nations. It leads us to war and death, despite Jesus’ call for peace and love. Dr. King spoke of the fall of the Roman Empire, and how many parallels there are to what we see happening in the US in the 60’s. Those parallels still exist today. Towards the end of the sermon, Dr. King speaks of all that Jesus did, and points out that he was a man who never owned a house, never had a family, never went to college, “he just went around serving and doing good.”

And then, in this sermon that Dr. King gave exactly 2 months before his own death, Dr. King spoke of how he would like to be remembered when he dies. He said that he does not want anyone to talk about his Nobel Peace Prize, he does not want them to mention any of his awards, or even where he went to school. Instead, he wants people to say that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life in service, that he tried to love others, that he tried to feed the hungry, that he tried to clothe those without clothes, that he tried to visit people in prison, and that he tried “to love and serve humanity.” This may be the part of the sermon that touched me the most deeply. It touched me mostly because it reminds me of my own father. My father has many faults; he made many mistakes. But I can honestly say that he tried all of the above, and for that, I consider him a great man.

Now, as I write this, I realize that perhaps this sermon struck me deeply for another reason, as well. Perhaps it hits home because of the blog I wrote just the other day when I found myself back “On the road again.” In that blog, I spoke of my own struggle with letting go of my own luxuries of a nice home, nice clothes, and nice dinners. I do still struggle with all of these things and more, and yet, I can honestly say that I try to love, feed, clothe, visit, and serve others. And, like Dr. King, that is truly how I hope people will remember me.

I did not have much time, though, to reflect upon all of this at the time. When the sermon was finished, the service began with the choir’s processional into the church. We began with “The Lord Is Blessing Me,” sung with much gusto, pleasure, and heart. Now, I should say, this pastor and choir director are the same pastor and choir director who visited PLTS back in September when Pastor Jim preached “Who are our Ninevites?” and I blogged about the experience. Worshiping with Jim and Donnie truly is an experience, and this was no exception. The church was full of gospel music, heartfelt praise, and all-encompassing love. I saw people taking pictures and video of the service, and if I can get my hands on the digitals, I will post them with this blog on a later date. There are no words to accurately describe the experience. It is simply beautiful and heart-soaring, and the heart begins to soar as early as the processional.

After the Prayer of the Day, Pastor Jim opens us up to “Good News” time, when people are invited to share any good news going on in their life. I have now seen this as part of a few different services, and I have to say… I LOVE this practice. What a great way to build community, helping people celebrate together and care for each other. This was no different. Next, Pastor Jim did a welcome to all visitors, including a specific call-out for those of us visiting from seminaries. A long and meaningful “Passing of the Peace,” followed, where I not only shook hands and hugged those up in the choir loft with me, but then stepped down into the pews and received and gave peace to many others. Eventually, we heard the call to return to our seats, and then the service continued with the reading of Scripture, followed by something very unique and, again, heart-moving.

After the Scripture was verbally proclaimed, the youth of the congregation bodily proclaimed it through dance. This was absolutely incredible. It began with a young girl, probably 3 years old, while the others were crouched behind the choir loft, waiting. After she had finished, around 20 more youth, between the ages of 6ish through 14 or so, joined her, and the dance was amazing. Fluid movements and graceful coordination filled the floor accompanied by smiles and support clearly visible within and among this group. They danced to a medley with meaningful words in contemporary music, and it was so easy to see how much FUN they were having!! As I watched, I found my eyes filling up with subtle tears. Again, words are not sufficient. When they were finished, we were all moved so strongly that most of the congregation not only clapped, but stood up cheering… so proud of their daughters and sons.

When the dance was done, the gospel was acclaimed and proclaimed, including a little skit performed by a couple of young men. The young men were playing the part of two of Joseph’s brothers, speaking about how annoying their little brother is, and how his words really anger them. It ended with the line, “I want to kill him! Then we’ll see about that dream!” My most memorable line as Pastor Jim’s sermon began was when he proclaimed, “They can kill the dreamer, but they can’t kill the dream!” How incredibly true. I had never thought about this way of tying the biblical story of Joseph with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., but it works perfectly. A person’s dream is a person’s “soul force,” and when an entire community embraces the same dream, the power of “soul force” is amplified! But… what exactly is “soul force”? Pastor Jim spoke of it with examples. It is why Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. It is what motivates a person to die for a cause.  I think of “soul force” as the force within each of us that keeps us moving. It identifies injustice, it motivates us to do something, to stand up, to speak out. It is the force within us that feels with and for others, the force that self-identifies and that connects outside of ourselves. It is our most passionate dream, it is our calling. It is God within us, speaking to us, speaking to others through our beings, our words, our actions. And so we are asked… what is our “soul force”? How is it calling to you?

The rest of the service was more prayer and song. We finished with the choir processing out, and as I walked by and looked into the faces of everyone there, I could see and feel just how happy everyone was to not only be there, but also to have me there with them. There is no better welcome.

There was some community/social time immediately following the service, but then us seminary students were gathered and led into a tour of the neighborhood where we noted one block of multi-family homes, and another block of single-family homes. We stopped and discussed one place only a few blocks from the church where there had been a gun shooting only a couple years ago, and we spent some time speaking about the presence of gangs in the area, and how this impacts the youth. We returned to the church in time to meet up with our host families for an amazing lunch, with ribs, corn, potato salad, greens, beans, and gumbo!!! There was also sweet potato pie and brownies. I, again, ate way too much food. I enjoyed, during dinner, talking with my host family as well as Pastor Reggie and his wife (from the Ascension Church on Day 2).

As I finished eating, Pastor Jim sat down with us, and we had a helpful discussion regarding how one introduces this kind of culturalism into the more typical “white” Lutheran church. I was very appreciative of this conversation, as this is something I have been struggling to grasp during my entire time here. I very much feel called to helping the ELCA become more open to “non-white” cultures. It is so inspiring to see the few Lutheran churches that do this well, and I often wonder how I can follow in their footsteps. My dream is to foster a church where whites, blacks, Hispanics, and others all come to worship together, in an appreciation for what each culture brings. Yet, I have sensed some hesitation from many white, ethnic (often Scandinavian) Lutherans who feel very closely tied to the Lutheran traditions and liturgy, which often feel very stifling to those of other cultures. I find myself frustrated, trying to figure out how to introduce the gifts of these other cultures in a way that most of those who are in the congregations now will embrace and enjoy like I do (if not as much as I do). My conversation with Pastor Jim was very helpful, and we plan to continue it tomorrow.

As the hall was emptying, Donnie (the choir director) walked through, and we engaged in quite a long conversation. It seemed like it was only a few minutes later that I looked around and realized that Donnie and I were alone in the hall. We had been speaking for quite some time, and the others had all gone home.

Donnie and I walked each other out, said our goodbyes, and I headed back to my host family’s home. There are so many people I want to keep in touch with. I hope and pray these relationships do not end when I leave tomorrow.

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My Cross-Cultural Experience: Day 3

Tonight’s post will be a short one for two reasons: 1) Day 3 was a shorter day, and 2) I need sleep. We began at a new church, the Chapel of Peace, where we had a bible study at 9am. We discussed Genesis 16, which I greatly enjoyed. We talked about some of the difficult passages in Genesis 16, and brought a couple of different translations into the discussion. We asked many questions. Why did Sarai offer Hagar to Abraham? What does this story tell us about Hagar and her status? Why were there problems afterwards? What did God’s messenger mean by telling Hagar to go back and “submit”? Is it significant that Hagar is the first person in the bible to whom a malach (messenger/angel) speaks? And many more questions.

The bible study ended when we were told that lunch was ready for us. A member of the congregation had made us delicious chicken, rice, gravy, beans, and sweet potato pie! I must say… I have been eating incredibly well while here. Much better (and much more) than I ever expected. After lunch, we tried to walk some of it off with a community walk around the neighborhood of Chapel of the Peace, which is also in Inglewood. We saw a variety of neighborhoods, including some apartment buildings and single family homes.

We returned to the church to get into cars and drive to the Crenshaw Mall and Leimert Park. At the mall, we met an African-American pastor from Philadelphia, who showed us around the area. We toured the mall, which seemed very odd to me at first, but then I realized that where people go to shop is a big part of a community’s culture. We talked about the history of the mall, and the original belief that an African-descent community would not be able to support a mall as nice as this one. Well, this community proved those naysayers wrong. After the mall, we continued our walk through a neighboring commercial area, filled with individual and privately owned shops with lots of African art, books, and other mementos. I greatly enjoyed this part of the commercial tour much better than the mall, and I even bought a few things.

I must admit, though, I was checking the scores of the Ravens/Broncos game throughout the tours. Being from Baltimore, I was rooting for the Ravens, and was disappointed to see that we were down 7 points with only a minute to go in the game. As we walked by one of the stores on our way back to the cars, I heard a sudden commotion inside the store, and looked in to find people crowded around a TV. Without even thinking, I ran inside the store, and watched the last 30 seconds of the game with the store owners and customers (all of African descent). Everyone just looked mildly amused that I busted into the store to watch the game with them, and we all cheered the Ravens on.

A couple of times during the day, as we (a group of about 7 white people) walked through the mostly black neighborhoods, a person walking on the street would ask us, “Where are you from?” or “Are you from California?” Obviously, we stuck out as not belonging to these neighborhoods, and people were curious about who we were. We would answer and a friendly conversation began each time. A bit later in the day, I reflected about how different our experiences as white people in a black neighborhood are from the experiences I have heard about of black people walking through a white neighborhood. It seems that, when the roles are reversed, the whites who live in the neighborhood often look upon a black person walking through with suspicion, and are sometimes even encountered in a hostile manner. We, on the other hand, were encountered in a very friendly and curious manner. I never felt challenged or unwelcome. How might the Trayvon Martin case have turned out differently if, instead of following Trayvon, George Zimmerman had casually walked up to Trayvon and asked in a friendly and welcoming manner, “Where are you from?” It is these subtle differences that make all the difference.

After our tours, we headed back to our host families. My host family was home, and I greatly enjoyed finally having some time to talk and get to know them. I watched the end of the Ravens game with them, and we cheered the Ravens onto victory together. My host family cooked a fabulous dinner, and we watched the beginning of the next game together. After awhile, my fellow seminarians headed out to a local bar for a drink and to watch the end of the 49ers/Green Bay game, and so one of my host family and I headed out to the bar together to join the others. We had a great time watching the end of the game, talking, and even dancing a bit to the DJ music. It was fun to hang out not only with my fellow seminarians and my host, but also with the locals in the bar. They all were incredibly friendly, chatting with us, dancing with us, and inviting us back. If only all communities could be so friendly!

Now, I am back at the host family home, and exhausted. I hope any readers will forgive me for being somewhat short this evening in my post. Tomorrow is another day with worship at Holy Trinity, another community walk, and gumbo for lunch. I will write more then. Good night, all.

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My Cross-Cultural Experience: Day 2

liturgical dance

I am SOOO tired. What a day. I knew it was going to be packed from the schedule, but I did not realize just how much information I was going to try to absorb in such a short period of time, and how exhausting it would be. I am dead tired, and ready to fall asleep, but I am going to attempt to write a little about today before I do. I am worried that if I don’t write about it now, I never will….

The day began when I left my host family’s home to pick up a friend and co-seminarian, and then meet the others at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. From there, we carpooled to St. Mark’s (Lutheran) Church, where we met with Pastors Jim, Brian, and Matt. We spent some time with introductions (again, but more involved) and prayer before the pastors gave us some background information about the New City Parish. The name of this group is slightly misleading, as it is actually a coalition of nine urban Los Angeles Lutheran congregations. It began in 1992, as a response to the horrible beating and violence that occurred when the “Innocent” verdict from the Rodney King trial was given. The story, as well as the impact that can be seen from the work of this coalition, is very impressive and inspiring. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend checking out their website, newcityparish.org.

Next, we spoke about the neighborhood there by St. Mark’s, which is next to the University of Southern California (USC). USC has been slowly and firmly taking over the neighborhood and pushing out the families that have been calling Inglewood their home for many years. Although some see this displacement as a good thing because it is changing a low income black neighborhood into a high income white one, these pastors explained how this movement, which some call “progress,” is taking away homes, damaging communities, and leaving low income families with little to no options for finding affordable housing. One of the pastors, Brian, took us for a brief walk around the neighborhood, pointing out the single family homes that still exist, and then the large lots where single family homes were torn down in order to build brand new, multi-level apartment buildings with student housing. As we spoke, it became clear that the issue is not whether USC has the right to expand and build in the community, but rather HOW they go about doing it. Some houses have been bought by USC, and tenants told they will be given $200 to help with the costs of moving out within the month. Most tenants are low income, struggling, and do not know what to do. They don’t know what their rights are, and they end up doing as they are told because they do not believe they have other options. One woman, who we had the opportunity to meet later in the day, fought back. She gathered the other tenants and kept saying, “We must fight back!” The group floundered, and eventually stumbled across a non-profit advocacy group, who started to help them. Eventually, Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) was born. This group worked hard, challenging many corporations who were pushing around the poor, taking advantage of their lack of funds and ability to fight back, and slowly, things began to change. Their work is most certainly not complete, but they have earned themselves a reputation as a group to be respected. In fact, recently, The Staples Center proactively contacted SAJE to speak about their desire to expand, and collaborate with SAJE on plans that will allow their expansion while also working with and providing for the community that would be impacted. This success story was told in depth through the community walk, followed by lunch at Mercado La Paloma, and then completed with a discussion in the SAJE/UNIDAD office. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the SAJE website: www.saje.net.

When our discussion at SAJE ended, we rushed off to the Hope Street Family Center. Despite being tired and running late, I believe this was my highlight of the day. It was my highlight because of many discussions I have had with friends and family on Facebook regarding who is to be blamed for the increasing amount of homeless and underpaid/unemployed families. Some of my friends and family believe that the problem is big government. They say that our government programs create families who are dependent on government for their food and housing, and are unable to support themselves. They believe that the US is a land of opportunity, and anyone can “make it” here, as long as they are willing to work hard.

I disagree. I often point out that people who are born into poverty do not have the same opportunities that people who are born into wealth have. I speak of families whose parents are not at home to teach their children the basics that we take for granted; basics like self-care, financial planning, non-violent relationships. These families have little to no financial means, and are forced to live in violent neighborhoods where the children are exposed to drugs, and eventually offered get-rich-quick opportunities through drug traffic or other illegal means. Without the parental guidance and support, without any examples around them of someone who found a way to be successful within the bounds of the law, and with the constant view of how easy life seems to be for those who get involved in these illegal activities, most of these children succumb to the pressure. Eventually, these kids either die of violence, or have their own kids, and the cycle continues. I refuse to blame these kids (and later adults), who have had no support, community, or education to guide them out of the difficult situation into which they were born. And so, I argue that what is needed are programs that will help educate both parents AND kids.

Well, that’s exactly what the Hope Street Family Center does. They have multiple programs, all focused on the kids, but which extend to the parents, designed to get these families the education they need to parent, eat healthy, exercise, read, and succeed in school. This Center’s programs are funded by the government, but, of course, are being cut every year as our government looks to lessen their spending. It is precisely programs like these that I believe MUST remain funded and operating. It is precisely because of these programs that I endorse raising government revenue as opposed to reducing government spending. These programs are not giving “handouts,” but are instead teaching families how to support themselves. They are ending the futile cycle of uneducated, struggling kids giving birth to kids who, due to their circumstances, become uneducated and struggling.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know that not all programs are successful like the ones run by this group. And I know that there are efficiencies that can be gained in government spending. But any call to cut programs instead of REFORMING programs will end up hurting not just these programs, not just the people who are enrolled in them, but also all of us. If we do not make efforts to break this cycle, it will mean more violence, more isolation, less community, and a bigger wealth disparity. If you’re interested in learning more about the Hope Street Family Center, check out their website: www.hopestreetfamilycenter.org. And if you’re ever in LA, check them out in person. An investment in this group is an investment in a future that will require fewer welfare programs because those who are struggling the most will be educated and aware of the few opportunities available to them.

After the Hope Street Family Center visit, we headed to the Ascension Church for a quiet dinner with Pastor Reggie. Pastor Reggie and his wife welcomed us with open arms, sharing their personal stories, and speaking a bit about ministry in Inglewood. After a very filling dinner (I ate way too much), we joined Ascension Church for their “Hip Hop Worship.” I wish I had more time and energy to describe this worship. First, I would not actually call it “Hip Hop,” but it was an unstructured form of worship that was lead by the youth of the congregation. There were about 50 people in attendance, with about 10% white (not including us), and most of the rest black. They began with some song and prayer, and sharing of the peace. Then, our leader of the evening invited everyone to share their testimony of good news. The first person who spoke actually brought tears to my eyes. It was a tall black man who took the microphone and proudly told us all that he had just received his son’s report card, which had 3 As and 1 B. He spoke about how incredibly proud he was of his son, who was the ~14 year old boy sitting next to him. Why did this bring tears to my eyes? Well, the first reason is because I am a hopeless sap. But the second is because this man’s pride in his son was so strong that I could feel it, and I knew his son could feel it, too. I believe so strongly that it is expressions of pride and hope in others, like this expression of a man about his son, that inspire and motivate people to keep on working hard. It was incredibly touching.

As other testimonies continued, we heard about more excellent report cards, good health, and a young man (teenager or early 20’s) who said he finally got a job. He would not tell us what the new job is, and so a woman in the congregation took the microphone and told him, “You may not want us to know what the job is because you’re embarrassed, but I’m telling you this now: that job is a blessing. It is nothing to embarrass you because it is a mere stepping stone. It will take you to bigger and better jobs. Ones where you will be proud to speak of them. God is leading you.” Yes, that one brought a few tears to my eyes, too.

After the testimonies, we had more song and dance, and then we were entertained by a beautiful liturgical dance performed by a young woman with ballet/modern dance. When she was finished, the entire congregation stood up with enthusiastic applause. This happened again at the end of the night when a teenager got up and signed a gospel song to us with expressive sign language movements. Both the dance and the sign language were absolutely stunning, and emotion provoking, and both were met with support and appreciation by everyone in the room. We also had a skit, and even a well thought out, loving, and inspirational sermon delivered by a young woman. So much talent in that room; I only wish I had more energy left at that time to engage fully and completely.

The night ended around 9pm, and my group of seminarians and I drove back to Holy Trinity, and then back to our host families. As I lie here now, ready to sleep soundly, I have so many images and lessons flying through my mind. I can only hope and pray that they settle there, enabling me to reflect upon them fully, absorb them completely, and inspire me wholeheartedly.

Good night, all.

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January 12, 2013 · 8:47 am