Friday, December 16, 2011

Being Lost at Christmas

After ten years of as pastor at Spirit of Hope, Christmas has a distinct rhythm.  It goes something like this:

In early November we start receiving three or four calls a day from those seeking Thanksgiving or Christmas food baskets.  By Thanksgiving the donations are coming in and the food pantry is bursting at the seams.  Community is built by a big food organizing and packing party, and we begin the Advent countdown to December 25th.

The first Sunday of Advent the large wreath is hung, hanging on 75 feet of chains from the tower into the center of the sanctuary nave.  The second week the wreaths go up around the walls.  By the third week the tree and lights are added.  Music begins to shift to the same Christmas songs that are heard on the radio, and we make sure we have enough candles for Christmas Eve Candlelight (6 p.m.!).

More coats are handed out as the cold creeps into our Michigan December, and the donations of heavy clothes, especially men’s sweatshirts, jeans and coats begin to roll in.  As soon as they arrive they are distributed to the community.

Saturday Community Kitchen becomes a place of Christmas carols, hygiene kits and care packages from partner churches all over Southeast Michigan.  The number of those served goes up as we become a neighborhood source for a wealth of small items necessary for daily life.  Every now and then we are also privileged to distribute some luxuries: aftershave, perfume, and just-out-of-style hats and ties. 

And one more thing happens in my ministry, the pastor’s ministry: the search for the lost.  We are not talking about the spiritually or emotionally lost, but those who have physically disappeared.  By mid-December there are already three gone, but two of them found so far.  

Many people become lost from our community.  Sometimes it is a good thing:  A sister or brother has found a leg up, has a new opportunity and has moved on.  We rejoice over those victories.  At other times, people become lost because they can no longer afford the heat in their building.   Perhaps an elder died at the hospital, but because they had no family we never heard when or why.  I’ll never forget the first time I experienced losing someone who froze to death in our neighborhood, my first January at Spirit of Hope. 

Most commonly, a community member will enter the hospital, or move.  Phone numbers change or a phone becomes too expensive.  One year we lost a transgender sister who went into the hospital.  The hospital listed her by her birth name that was on her identification.  We did not know that name, so could not find her.  Thankfully she healed and showed back up again. 

While the rhythm of placing wreaths and the tree have become routine, the rhythm of losing people still disturbs me.  “Where are you?!”  Praise God that we search for each other.  Even better, God decided to stop waiting for us to find her, and instead arrived in our neighborhood in the form of a baby who looks like us, feels like us, and lives like us.  If God can find us, we will keep finding each other at Spirit of Hope.  Peace, power and joy.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Just Plain Queer

Sometimes enough is just enough. Many things have been making us mad as of late. A series of events and episodes have been adding up over time. They have been adding up for “the queers,” as we are known by Troy Mayor Janice Daniels.

Some days from now she will be just another politician, but for the people she referenced, this is not the first time and it will not be the last. The insults have been adding up as of late. Make no mistake about it, there is a full out war on anyone who is different in Michigan. There are only so many phony anti-bullying, anti-marriage, anti-benefits, anti-citizenship rants that a community can take. Yes, the mayor questioned our citizenship, our privilege to even be in this world, with her mini-rant and lack of a sincere, apologetic response.

We are queer, but we are also known as those queers. As an out queer pastor, I know the difference. I am queer when gay and lesbian youth have been kicked out of their homes and have no place else to go, ending up on our church doorstep, or the doorstep of an ally who knows us and sends them to us. I am a queer when a parent pulls their child out of our youth program because they learn we are welcoming.

I am queer when adult lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual adults come out for the first time at Spirit of Hope, the first church in which they ever felt fully welcomed. I am a queer when friends of our members question why they would go to a place where those kinds of people exist openly.

I am queer when someone my grandparents’ age comes out to me, the first person they have ever come out to. I am a queer when I open personal or church email condemning us to hell for teaching people to sin.

As a church we are queer for having fabulous parties that we call Sunday morning worship, where you never know who might show up. We are that church of queers when neighboring ministries condemn us for opening the doors to those they kicked out.

As a church we are queer for performing same gender weddings, and requiring couples to go through pre-marital counseling to build up their relationship for the long haul. We are that church of queers when other local ministries see women that are too manly and men that are too effeminate move comfortably in and out of our doors.

While I am no theological scholar, I know this much is true: Jesus is not only with those queers, but is queer himself, always on the outside looking in. Hopefully some of those who continue to attack us will one day realize that they are queer enough for Jesus to love them too. And with that, I give up my anger. Peace, power and joy. PMB

Friday, December 2, 2011

Reflecting on World AIDS Day 2011

Invincible. Like a person of steel. Impenetrable to the forces of death. No bullet shall prosper. Blood cells of lead, T-cells that no longer need to be counted. Astounded at the power in my body, in my mind. Closed to those whose hatred grows. Evil, falls away at the touch of my fingers. No weapon formed against me shall prosper.

Every year World AIDS Day becomes a bit more personal. Each year in Detroit I know a few more people who are positive or who work in the field of preventative medicine or patient care. Rather than being sad, however, I feel privileged to be able to be a part of the fight against a disease that is stubbornly persistent despite its preventive nature.

With many diseases, we wait for a random chance. Cancer is genetic in my family. Most of my relatives do not smoke, and the stereotypical cancer-causing lifestyles do not apply to the majority of us. Somehow it still shows up. No preparation. Not a lot to talk about.

Yet HIV gives us a chance to talk, to open up to one another. This disease is challenging us to talk about sex, relationships, and love. HIV is pushing us on our vulnerabilities as communities, almost like a mirror of social ills reflected in our physical calamities. Where discrimination exists, HIV is more prevalent.

Last night I was privileged to hear the story of Jeanne White-Ginder at World AIDS Day Detroit. She reminded me of the early prejudice against children, and well, anyone with with disease. Ryan White was a hemophiliac, and became positive through treatment from that particular physical weakness. However, today we may not judge those who receive it "accidentally" or "through no fault of their own" (i.e., the law partner's quote from "Philadelphia"), but de facto judgment comes on anyone positive who does not receive treatment or compassion. As someone who works in the field of HIV treatment and prevention once said to me, "Consider all the famous people in this country, and the HIV rate. You can't tell me that Magic Johnson is the only famous person living with HIV." They don't come out for a reason.

If we were to reflect on the people in Jesus’ life, the people he talked to, lived with, and empowered to minister are, statistically, more likely to be HIV positive: the woman at the well, the Gerasene demoniac, Mary Magdalene, any one of his transient, fisherman disciples. Today they would be the most at-risk groups, the people least likely to be part of the stability of modern economic and social circles.

Unfortunately we are not invincible. We are vulnerable. But in this case we are not vulnerable to a random disease that falls on us like a lottery number. Rather, we are vulnerable to our own weaknesses: a lack of self-confidence or worth, even if just for a few moments, depression from a world formed against us, health care out of reach, or a desire just to feel good about ourselves and doing whatever we need to make that happen.

While some declare dead the moral souls of the infected, the rest of us will declare alive the moral responsibility of our collective faith. We rise and fall together. The more we love and act from the depths of our souls, the less of a chance this disease has to prosper.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Disciple Might Step In Front of a Truck

My mother always told me to look both ways before crossing the street. Hopefully somebody taught you the same. Because of that it was counter-intuitive to step out into the Ambassador Bridge's main truck depot on Thursday, October 27th with 150 fellow activists . We stepped in front of trucks (betting they would stop!) to put ourselves between them and the city streets of our neighborhood. The drivers, who are not to blame for the problem, were kind enough not to run us over.

Why put ourselves in front of trucks? And more importantly, why do so as a Christian? When the economic system of the community was oppressing the people and offending God, Jesus overturned the tables in the temple (Matthew 21). In other words, he interrupted, even temporarily obstructed the entire economic system of the temple.

The truck access to the city streets of Detroit is not only illegal, but immoral. Despite years of legal rulings, the company has refused to comply, sending trucks on local streets instead of to the freeways, where they belong. As a result, we have pollution, crowding and wholly unsafe conditions in our community. The bridge company does not take actions that reflect a care for the people who live and work in the area.

The activists on October 27th interrupted international trade for forty minutes on a busy workday afternoon. In an act of civil disobedience, the first thought was not about what was legal, but what was just. The legal system and the company were betraying the community. Therefore it was imperative that we demonstrate our own power.

We align ourselves with a long history of those acting in civil disobedience because of their faith, values and care for their people. The civil rights movement in the American South may be the most obvious example, but we can also think of the man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, and the recent round-the-clock protests in Cairo.

Faith leads us, and it leads us more than the safety of our finances, or the need for a clean arrest record. Civil disobedience is risky, but so is following Jesus.