Monthly Archives: January 2013

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?

SONY DSC

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

My Cross-Cultural Experience: Day 1

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

If you read my previous post, you already know that I am in Los Angeles for a class. Well, the class began tonight, and I thought I would try blogging every night, in an effort to share what promises to be a very interesting experience. First, some context.

One of the required classes for a Masters in Divinity degree from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) is this class, also called, “Ministry in the City.” Although students may propose and complete an alternative experience to satisfy this requirement, the experience that PLTS provides for its students is in LA. It is designed to embed students in a community that is different from their own home community, and hopefully different from any community in which they have previously participated, so that they can learn and experience not only a culture that is different, but also how ministry within that culture is changed. Since most students at PLTS are white, the cross-cultural experience that PLTS provides begins within an African-American community in one of the LA neighborhoods that many people believe is “unsafe,” Inglewood. To illustrate what I mean, within only the past few days, when I told a few friends that I would be living in Inglewood for the weekend, my friends expressed concern for my safety, and spoke of the city as the slums of LA.

This morning, since I had some time, I drove down to Inglewood, and specifically the neighborhood where I would be living, even though I was not due to be here until 5pm. I drove down from downtown LA, and noticed how the nice malls turned to strip malls, and the cute restaurants became fast food joints. I did see more trash in the streets, and the skin color of the people walking around became darker. When I turned into the neighborhood, though, the trash disappeared. The houses were modest, but well kept with nice yards. As I looked around, I wondered… why do people call these the slums?

Actually, I didn’t wonder that. I know why. Because it is a black neighborhood. This is not to say that anyone who calls Inglewood is racist. For example, my friends who think of it as “unsafe” have probably never even driven through here. They think this area is a slum because that is what they have heard from others. It is an image, a caricature that has been passed down from the mid-1900’s, that is racially based. As I learned this evening, in the mid-1900’s, the nicer neighborhoods in LA were “white only” neighborhoods. Many of them had “sundown laws,” that allowed blacks to be in town while the sun was up, but required them to be long gone when the sun went down. And so, these neighborhoods were born. Neighborhoods made up of blacks, most of whom did not have much (if any) financial opportunity. Because they were, and are, mostly black, they were considered to be slums that are not safe places for any respectable person to be. Curious, I even looked up the crime statistics of Inglewood, and compared them to a city that is considered to be one of the safer ones in California, Sacramento. The crime rates in Sacramento are actually worse than Inglewood. But I have never heard Sacramento called “unsafe” or a “slum.” It is true that when I compare the crime rates between LA overall and Inglewood, there is a one point (out of 10) difference in the violence statistics with Inglewood slightly more violent. However, a one point difference does not seem to me to warrant the “slum” reputation.

This class is coordinated through a local Lutheran (ELCA) church, Holy Trinity Church, and that is where the class began. As we found the room in the church, we were greeted with offers of bottled water, granola bars, and coffee/tea, while we introduced ourselves to the other students and instructor. We chatted for awhile, and then were given some information and background about the area. The church invites its congregants to host us, and we were given a schedule of events, along with a list of students and each host family’s names, addresses, and phone numbers. Ideally, every student has a different family with which we live during our long weekend here. After the orientation and getting-to-know-you was done, we moved into the Parish, where dinner (lasagna) was served. Some of the host families joined us for dinner, and we spent some more time getting to know each other while we broke bread. The church’s choir rehearses on Thursday nights, and we were invited to join them. All of the students opted to join the choir, and we enjoyed a couple hours of rehearsing gospel music together.

The rehearsal was difficult for some of us, as those of us who are in choirs in our own home churches (or elsewhere), are used to being given sheet music and following the tune by reading the music. In this choir, though, most participants do not read music, and so instead, we are given sheets with words only on them, and expected to follow along in our respective parts! Although this did not seem to be any problem whatsoever for those who are members of the choir, it was very difficult for me!! I found myself wanting to make up my own harmonic tune to go with what was being played on the piano, but I discovered that we WERE expected to sing a specific line of music. Just because the sheet music was not written in front of us did NOT mean we were not expected to discern the appropriate melody or harmony and sing! Thankfully, my fellow Sopranos were happy to sing loudly in my ear so that I could pick it up and join in with them. This is just one example of how being embedded in a different culture will make some differences more visible and even envious. I am very envious of their ability to pick out the appropriate part in the music by ear!

My host family was not able to join us for the dinner, but the matriarch did join for part of the choir rehearsal. I met her after choir, and she waited for me to finish up some of the logistical necessities, and then led me to her home. I met her husband, and she showed me around her very nice home. Similar to the houses that I saw when I did my “drive-through” earlier in the day, her home is modest from the outside, but quite roomy and well kept with beautiful wood floors, a bit of crown molding, and a nice, large kitchen. I have my own bedroom, and she graciously offered me coffee and tea, and told me to help myself in the morning to any of the breakfast items she pointed out as she gave me the tour. She explained that she will not be here in the morning when I leave at 8:30am for my class day tomorrow, because she works at UCLA. I asked her what she does, and found out that she is a micro-biologist! (So impressive!) She and her husband were very tired, and need to get up early, so after making sure I had everything I needed (including the wireless code, which is enabling me to write this), they headed to bed.

Tomorrow, I have a long, busy day. My schedule begins with meeting up with other students at Holy Trinity so we can carpool over to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. From St. Mark’s, we will be led through a “community walk,” where we will experience and observe another community in Inglewood, including lunch at a local restaurant. At 2pm, we will meet with representatives from UNIDAD (United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement), and then meet someone at a local Family Center. We have dinner at 6pm with the local pastor of that church, and then will attend a Hip Hop Worship at Ascension Church, which is led by the youth of that church. I have to admit… I think the Hip Hop Worship is going to be the highlight of a very full and interesting day!

And so, I am going to head to bed. As I sit here, I take in the silence from outside. No road noises (unlike my own house at home), no sirens (also unlike my house), no disruptions. It sounds and feels pretty safe to me.

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On the road again

My old apartment in Pasadena

My old apartment in Pasadena

 

My first semester at PLTS ended in mid-December, and I’ve been soaking up as much “home time” as possible. Today, though, my soaking time ended as I stepped onto a plane to head to Los Angeles. No, Los Angeles is not the location of PLTS, but it is the location of the class I am taking during our January-term (J-term). It is also where I lived back in the late 90’s, and so I planned to arrive 2 days before class starts so that I can visit with friends. I have been here now for an entire 5 hours, and I am experiencing quite a mixture of feelings.

First was the joy of seeing the sun. Yes, most of you non-Pacific Northwest people take the sun for granted, but those of us who live in the top left corner of the US typically struggle during the winter. There has actually been some nice weather since I’ve been home, but the past week especially has included a lot of clouds and rain. (When I say “rain,” I mean “drizzle,” ie “Seattle rain.”) As I stepped out of the airport to the shuttle stop to wait for my rental car shuttle, I found a spot with sun, and just basked in the warmth and light. It really is amazing what a difference the sun makes. However, as I stood there, enjoying the heat, another feeling came over me; a familiar feeling from when I lived in LA.

When I lived in LA, I was a computer consultant who traveled every week to go to my client sites. I would get on the plane at LAX on Sunday evenings, and return to LAX on Friday evenings, spending most weekends at my home in Pasadena or Marina del Rey. Those places, though, despite being where my apartment and things were located, never did feel like home. I remember flying into LA, and always having this odd feeling that I was beginning a short, mini-vacation. It was the weather, the proximity to the beach, and, as I am only realizing now, also the feeling of luxury and comfort, that contributed to this sense of being on vacation instead of coming home. As I stood at that shuttle stop this morning, although I couldn’t name it, I began to discern that old feeling of luxury and comfort.

One would think this would be a good feeling but, to be honest, it was unsettling. I didn’t really understand why, though. I got my rental car and headed to Pasadena, where I would meet up with a good friend later in the afternoon. My plan was to walk around Pasadena, my old stomping grounds, and see how things have changed. First, I headed to my old apartment. I wanted to see if it was still there, and if it had changed. For most of my drive to the old apartment, I really didn’t recognize much of anything. But then, as I passed the old Vons grocery store, I realized I was only a block away. When I pulled up in front of the old apartment, that past feeling of luxury and comfort crept up on me again. Now, my old apartment is not an apartment of luxury. So, why would this feeling come to me at this time?

As I sat there, taking in the setting from my car, I began to discern this feeling; why I was having it, and what it was telling me. My discernment continued throughout the day, and now, as I sit here to write this blog, I feel as though I am only beginning to understand it. When I lived in Pasadena, I was in a very different stage of my life. I remember telling college friends that I was living the “good life.” What I meant by “good life” was a life where I was making plenty of money, doing and buying whatever I wanted, and living in sun and comfort. My goal at the time, if one would even say I had any goals, was to live life to the fullest. In a sense, I was living the Ecclesiastes life, following the advice of Ecclesiastes from the bible who tells us that life is short and should be enjoyed as much as possible. I was focused on buying nice things for my apartment, drinking good wine, and taking fabulous vacations. I can remember, back in those days, telling people I was fiscally conservative and socially liberal (a phrase I often still hear today). I wanted to protect my money (after all, I had worked hard for it), and allow people to live their lives as they see fit. Makes sense, right? So… why would this feeling bother me today?

Today, I am in a very different place. Today, I am much more aware of how the very laws and systems that support and allow me to live such a life of luxury and comfort are the same laws and systems that make it incredibly difficult for people who have been born into poverty to find a way out. Today, I am more aware of my own privileges, gained from my race and “class.” Today, I realize that the reason I have had the opportunity to “work hard” for my money is because I have parents who loved, nurtured, and taught me qualities that many of us take for granted: financial sense, strong initiative, competitive spirit. I have parents who were financially comfortable enough to live in neighborhoods free of violence where I would go to good schools, and have friends with goals of college and academic success. Because of this financial status, I was always told that I would go to college – there was no doubt to that, nor any alternative even considered. Because of my race, I was never questioned by police, I did not have to feel second-class by another person looking at me with fear. I was always given the benefit of the doubt in all my interpersonal relationships, both casual and significant. I never felt as though I had to prove anything to anyone, and I was not worried about how my actions would impact how others viewed my race. Today, although I still enjoy these privileges, I am aware of them, and I feel a responsibility to do something to change the way our world works. I no longer call myself fiscally conservative. I believe that we who have some financial means have a responsibility to those who are struggling to make a life for themselves. I suppose I have moved from Ecclesiastes to Luke.

That feeling I was and am discerning was a feeling that made clear how I have changed since those days; how my goals and priorities have changed. Yet, it also made clear that I am still not doing enough. Yes, I have quit my lucrative job at Microsoft to dedicate myself to a career of service. Yes, I am politically active in efforts to spread the privilege I enjoy to those of other races and income levels. Yes, I now enjoy a deep spiritual foundation from which I draw to keep me motivated and working for others. But I still live in a beautiful house. I still enjoy buying nice clothes. I still eat out at nice restaurants. Maybe I don’t do these things quite as much as I used to, but I still do them.

So what do I do? Do I feel called to do as the bible tells us, and sell (donate) all of my possessions in order to follow Jesus? Should I completely let go of my life, which still has many pieces of luxury and comfort, in order to truly devote myself to others?

I don’t know if this is what I am supposed to do, but I am pretty sure I’m not going to do it. I fall short of much better people than me such as Mother Theresa and other unnamed people who have totally dedicated themselves to the betterment of people different from themselves. This is a weakness I see in myself. Perhaps this is why the feeling that I am and have been discerning was and is bothering me so much. It shows me that yes, I have changed, but I am still the selfish person I used to be. I still hold onto things for myself, while knowing that others are suffering. And I wonder… is this any better than I was back then? Back then, I could argue ignorance. Now, I know… but I still don’t let go.

It makes me think of Matthew 19:24, and I become more aware of my failings and weaknesses… and even more grateful for what Jesus gave up for me, and for those I mean to serve. And it gives me motivation to keep trying. Keep discerning. Keep loving. Maybe… just maybe… one day, I’ll look back on today, and realize how much I continued to change…

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Matthew 19:24

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