Saturday, September 1, 2012

All You Gotta Do Is Say Yes

Preached this sermon on Sunday, September 2nd at Spirit of Hope in Detroit. It comes from Song of Solomon, chapter 2, verses 8-13.

Words, words, words. What do we do with our words. Can I start by talking about myself for a minute, or something that happened to me? It has to do with words. I put up a blog posting on the Huffington Post. Or, and I don’t say this to brag or whatever it may sound like, but they asked me to write something specifically for the national party conventions that started last week with the Republicans, and continues this week with the Democrats. They wanted me to talk about poverty, and how we think it will or won’t be covered by the major parties.
          So, you know me well enough to know that when I write for things like that, I can be a bit direct. Well, because sometimes we just need to say what we need to say. People with lower income have less and less power every year in this country, and at some point people are going to get together and really change the way things work in this country, rise up, and maybe even topple the powers that be. I used some more dramatic language than what I just said now, but you get the idea.
You may know that as on most news sites, there is a place at the bottom of the article, or essay or blog to write comments. So some people wrote some comments. In fairness some were supportive. But some were not so much. And while I should know not to read the comments, well, I did.
          In fact, I admit to having a minor obsession over checking what people are saying about what I write. And, as you know, in internet comments, it quickly becomes not just about what was said, but about the person who wrote the article in the first place. Some insinuated that I should not be a priest, and that I am a communist, and other such things. While my article was certainly serious, there was a part of me that wanted the commentators to take a chill pill. Relax for a minute.
It happened because the people who wrote, at least in my estimation, refused to address the issue of poverty with any sense of compassion, much less empathy. But knowing that doesn’t really help me. These words, these hurtful words, designed to be hurtful, got to me for a few minutes this week. Maybe words have gotten to you sometimes. Maybe you have been attacked, whether by a total stranger or by people who are very close to you. Maybe those words were intended to hurt you, and maybe they were just carelessly put out there and intentional or not, made you feel bad. Words have power. Some say sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Well, I think words do hurt. We can ignore some, even most bad words, but sometimes they get through. Sometimes they affect us.
So when I saw Song of Solomon this week for today’s scripture I was thrilled! You have no idea. Or maybe you do. After all that ugly stuff here is something beautiful. The beauty of God and love just poured out there! We get to talk about love for just a minute. In fact, the surprise for me was, this is the second time in a week I am preaching from this text. I preached this text last Sunday afternoon at a wedding, on the Detroit River, with beauty all around. People and nature, and the river, and all of it.
Today we get to read some love poetry from Song of Solomon, otherwise known as Song of Songs.
          You know we have an open mic here at Spirit of Hope, the third Sunday afternoon of the month. Among all the things that come across the stage we have some love poetry that comes to us at Spirit Spit Open Mic. While I love poetry, sometimes, I hope I am not confessing too much here, I don’t know the difference between good stuff and not so good stuff. To put it simply, sometimes I know good poetry, and sometimes I don’t.
          Especially when reading poetry, it is hard to know, at least for me, what is good and what is bad. Are these beautiful amazing words of love? “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”
Are these beautiful words, designed to transform love in our hearts, expressing the deepest beauty of the soul, or is it an easy to memorize cheap poem recited after a few drinks to manipulate you into bed. These are the things I don’t always know? Don’t pretend you don’t understand what I am talking about. How many people have used fancy words, luxurious words, words you thought someone wanted to hear, but not necessarily what you actually meant, to get what you want?
What if the people who put together the Bible put Song of Solomon in the Bible, so people of faith would have a tool, a poem if you will, to help them go to bed with someone? I wasn’t there. I don’t know why it was put in!
          Song of Solomon is in the same category as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. None of these books talk often, and certainly not directly, about God; and they really don’t talk about Jesus. They are laden with wisdom and love and thanksgiving, and sage advice, observations about the world.
          Wisdom literature is generally considered the parts of scripture that are most feminine, and written in a more feminine voice that other parts of scripture. In wisdom literature there are times when the male actively pursues the female, almost aggressively. And there are times when, well, the female actively pursues the male, almost aggressively. This part, in the woman’s voice, saying, “come to me, come to me.  It is spring, come out to me. Implying, my arms are open. My heart is for you. Come to me, my love!
          And the beats of Floetry start to groove in the background. "Loving you has taken time, taken time, But I always knew you could be mine. I recognize the butterflies inside me. Sense is gonna be made tonight, tonight. All you gotta do is say yes, say yes, say yes." (from Floetry, "Say Yes")
          Is it getting hot in here? Don’t look at me like that. This is all scripture here. Don’t hide. See, we usually talk more easily about other parts of Scripture, such as when God wants us to do something, or God does something to us. But, can we handle it when all the Spirit is putting out there through scripture words of intimacy, and love, and floetry, if you will?
          Sometimes, maybe you have experienced this, the church doesn’t always talk well about intimacy, and sex and love and how people get close. We do but we don’t. We give a long list of the things you are not supposed to do. But we don’t talk about the things that God wants us to experience. I hope you hear that we are beyond just romantic love here, beyond what it means to love a husband or wife, though that is in here too. As is evident in this scripture, as well as in the rest of Song of Solomon, and Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, God uses words to help us get closer to one another. God uses words to bring us closer to the Spirit. Intimately. Sharing ourselves. Sharing our deepest, most distant secrets, and feelings. You know, the things we have shoved so far away that we forget sometimes that they are even there.
          Intimate, like Jesus touching those he is healing. Intimate, like praying with someone at their bedside when they are sick. Intimate, like laying hands on those who need to know they are anointed by the Spirit. Intimate, like us working together, doing the love of God in our community. Getting to know one another not just as people across the aisle on Sunday morning, but as sisters and brothers.
          That’s why I love these words. Oh, these words do amazing things. These are good words. Good words of invitation. Good words that balance the sharp, biting, noise that comes across our television screens, that are pointed at us when we are in conflict, that are used to harm and hurt you, or us, or your neighbor. Good words are here. Good, loving words. And they are saying, come in, come closer, come to know me, come along. The winter is over, it is time for spring!
          Words that reflect the relationship that God has with us. The relationship that Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have with us. So close to us. So intimate. Never with a word that will harm you. Never with a word to make you feel ugly or insignificant. Never with a word that makes you feel less than you are. Never with a word to turn you with anger or hatred to your neighbor. Never with a word that moves you away from God, but only closer.
          Come into the space with good words. Loving words, and a loving spirit. This is the place where words should not hurt you. And they lead you to the living word. Lead you to the word of peace. Lead you to the word of freedom. Lead you to the word of righteousness. That one word, that we say. That name Jesus. That means more than any other word we can utter. In that word, we have everything we need. Maybe not to fix everything that is wrong in our lives, but that leads us to peace. That loving word. That intimate word.
I invite you today to know that word, and be doers, and not just hearers. You are invited into the Spirit. Invited into the love. God is proposing to you today. All you gotta do is say yes, say yes, say yes. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Poverty and National Party Conventions

I brought the church van to her house in our neighborhood. She and her five children needed to get out of the house in the middle of the afternoon while her boyfriend was out looking for some drugs. The one hundred year-old wood frame house was falling apart. The front door was only partially on its hinges and most of the windows were either broken or missing. The house stank. While the electricity was on, neither a single fixture nor outlet was safe. About a year later, when another family was in the house, it burned to the ground.
On this particular summer afternoon we loaded the van with all the clothes worth saving, along with some personal items. I stored them in the basement of the church, away from the sight of church members, lest expose her to embarrassment. She found a shelter, and eventually got herself on her feet. Her children today, are at many different levels of health, mentally and physically. Thousands of Detroiters live this life every day. Millions are in similar situations all across urban and rural America. What is going to happen when these millions of Americans realize they are a growing minority, perhaps future majority, stop working just to survive, and revolt against a nation that does not have their interests in mind?
As the transfer of wealth from poor and middle class to rich increases in size and scope never seen before, our national leaders have grown incapable of speaking the word, “poverty.” If we hear it even once at either of the national party conventions this year it will be a shock. At the same time, right wing Christian leaders give these same national political leaders cover by keeping them focused on issues like opposition to gay marriage, abortion, wars against contraception, blaming women for rape, attacking Islam and making up fake causes like battles for religious freedom. (By the way, all of these causes raise both the politicians and the religious right huge sums of money.) Meanwhile, they use tiny portions of vast resources to start conscience soothing food pantries while ignoring the root causes of poverty and the growing power of the super rich.
The Christian right may be damning itself to hell, but the rest of the country does not need to go with it. Christian history and theology is founded on building power for those on the outside. Jesus, the embodiment of God on earth, went to the places of deepest division and not only brought healing, but gave power to those who never had it before. When the empire of Rome took everything away from them, Jesus gave it back.
Make no mistake about it; the number of outsiders is growing. While the major parties speak about the middle class, shrinking from sixty three to fifty-one percent of the population over the past two decades, they must also speak about the poor. As voter suppression through de facto poll taxes, the purging of voter records and unconstitutional targeting of communities of color grows, so will the anger.
            When the economic and political elites of Detroit got together to begin to address poverty and the disempowerment of its citizens, their most creative solution was the building of casinos. The casinos further drain our local wealth and add to the poverty in our neighborhood. The powers that be did not come to the citizens of our community offering expertise on Swiss bank accounts, advice on starting a superpac nor an outline to start a ponzi scheme. Most of us stopped believing in our economic and political leaders years ago.
Our nation’s history says we only prosper when we expand and not contract ourselves. Ironically, it is also the message of Jesus. We prosper when we expand the inner circle and the number of people connected to the resources of our economy, our political system and our educational institutions. It is happening outside of traditional structures. In Detroit and elsewhere we are building our own businesses, at the beginning edge of creating our own food supplies and at the very start of bringing together communal interests at a large scale. Those living with low incomes have always done this. People of color, women, the LGBT community, communities of the disabled and many more outsiders have always been the creative centers of survival and hope. However, as the numbers of outsiders grows, so does our willingness to work together and form new partnerships, perhaps more than we have seen before this generation. Micro-development, the building of local power and resources, will be the key to the next generation’s building of wealth in communities of low income.
            The poor, such as the woman who fled her own home that summer day, will have their power. It may take a generation or two, but as Dr. King reminded us, the arc of the moral universe bends, and it bends toward justice. Will justice come through the working together of community, the leaders and the people they serve, or will it come with non-violent or violent revolution? We have not hit rock bottom yet. As wealth continues to be distributed from the poor to the wealthy, people are beginning to wake up. It may take another generation or two, but if we continue on this trajectory, revolution will come and it will change America forever. The need for a President Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Lyndon Baines Johnson is necessary. Their commitment to addressing poverty and strengthening the power of those falling through the safety nets saved America in their respective generations. Anything less than such a commitment from the major parties and their candidates for any office will leave those on the outside wanting. So far, the party conventions appear to be a repetitive exercise of political masturbation, a lot of noise and excitement without touching a single person and producing no results. The future of America is held in tension, and if things keep heading in the direction they are, those of us preaching nonviolence and peace in communities of poverty will soon lose all authority, and maybe we should. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Christians, Heretics, and Fried Chicken

They are using our name again, calling themselves Christian. They stood in line for chicken to support the practice of “repairing” gays and marginalizing us to the point of destruction. They say they stood in line to defend the first amendment, the right to speak. However, I critique the leadership of Chick-fil-A because I embrace a faith that goes beyond the amendment of one nation’s constitution. Rather, I believe in a value system of love that is eternal and a corporate understanding of justice for all people.

Chick-Fil-A Controversy: Gay Activist Plan Fast Food Protests

Some customers stated that they were in line silently standing up for their faith. If part of my faith was to deny certain groups of people adequate housing, access to medical care, good jobs and then send that same group to “repairative camps,” you would rightfully call me a hate-monger. I will just call them heretics. Centuries ago the church would burn heretics at the stake. In my worst moments I just hope they go home with heartburn.

I am a Christian. Unfortunately most people believe the haters like Mike Huckabee are the Christians. Haters believe that following the beliefs and teachings of Jesus, arguably the most justice-orientated, inclusive and loving person in history, leads them to stand in line at Chick-fil-A to condemn the faggots, dykes and queers. Little do they know they are heaping hot barbeque sauce upon their own heads.

The lines around the building and blocks of Chick-fil-A were a reminder to those of us who are progressive Christians how far we have to go. The disheartening day of August first was depressing even by the standards of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement for liberation. Bigotry came out of the closet in force that day.

Be not dismayed, however. Yes, we have been beat up, stepped on, abused, bullied, murdered and marginalized for too long. For every two steps forward there is one step back. We are the ones who end up on the crosses of contemporary religious hatred. However, we know we are hated because we are making progress. We need to turn up the heat. Progressive Christians need to come out of the closet, and we need to do it in mainstream life every day, not only when a convenient culture clash hits social media.

Haters and heretics are mad because we have the media tools and compelling arguments to turn the tide from hatred into love. We no longer accept hatred and discrimination as Biblical law. We will not remain in “our place,” which really makes the haters and heretics hotter than the oil in a fryer. Yes, the real Christians are not hating, but loving. We are not seeking Biblical law to keep others out, but believe in justice that holds everyone in.

For those who just want to eat their sandwich in peace, I apologize for this interruption. You probably did not make it to the end of this posting anyway. The opportunities for cultural change are not always planned or convenient. Sometimes they do not even make any sense. Nevertheless, here we are, searching for something better, bigger, more loving and more hopeful than the narrow messages of television Christianity.

Unfortunately, many have been led astray, convinced that their prejudices are the Word of God. There is part of me that actually feels for the people outside all those Chick-fil-As.  All those people stood in line around corners and across parking lots, searching for righteousness and something to believe in.  In the end, however, all they got was a chicken sandwich.

The Christian faith is and has always been better than that, even if the church has not. Defined by love, upheld by hope and driven by a sense of justice, people of faith are standing up every day, even without headlines. It is with a sense of anticipation that I await the day when even the heretics are converted to believers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Of Rolexes and False Prophets

Of Rolexes and False Prophets

On occasion, on a day of exceptional clarity and humility, it is possible to see one’s own holy judgment.  It happens when I catch myself in a lie and again when I refuse to forgive someone who betrays me.  But most recently it happened when a very slight, but very real internal smile fell upon my heart at the robbery of one of Detroit richest clergy members.  With sincerity I tell you, the smile only came after I learned he was physically well, bruised but not broken.  However, when the dust cleared and all that was left was a press conference, the smile was real.  I lay before you my confession:

The Detroit Free Press reported that the Rev. Marvin Winans was robbed at a gas station in Detroit by a group of young men, all in the light of day.  A clearly unashamed act of violence and perpetration of ugliness, the young men did what they could to destroy their victim’s ability to hold on to his possessions, much less his dignity.  At the loss of his 2012 Infinity, Rolex watch and a wad of cash, he was left as a Biblical traveler on the side of the road.  Finally, a person who recognized his celebrity invited him into her car and carried him to his church home.  Ironically, the new church home, a reflection of his lost Rolex, is not yet completed due to years of financial backs and forth.  When the final bricks are laid, it will be an honor to the Winans name.

Perfecting Church and the Rev. Winans are part of a theological movement known disparagingly by its critics as prosperity ministry.  An extra-biblical theology, prosperity roots itself in a particular kind of American capitalism, the kind that made slavery profitable and women’s suffrage a threat.  (Women tend to vote for policies that help the poor more often than men do.)  This particular brand of capitalism, endorsed by slave owners and prosperity ministers alike, upholds a false theology that claims God blesses through wealth.  In fact, it often, even usually does not matter how that wealth is obtained.  As long as one has it, one is blessed by God.  Rich people are blessed.  Poor people have yet to receive their blessing.  Your blessing is achieved while becoming a slave to the pursuit of more stuff. 

Prosperity ministry relies on self-absorption and the orientation of life toward the acquisition of material goods, such as Rolex watches.  When a person’s core value is the acquisition of wealth, it makes sense that people who do not have wealth, will do whatever they need to get it.  The Rev. Winans recently lived through the obvious result of his own preaching.  While I certainly do not know the circumstances of the young men who perpetrated this crime against the reverend, it can safely be assumed that they wanted what he had.   They wanted their blessing too. 

The pastor showed his own self-absorption by hoping his robbery will be a sign for the city to turn around, and that even the governor is calling him to assure it.  A glaringly noticeable absence in his public comments is recognition of the suffering of others, beyond his own person, of the hundreds who have been victims of crime in Detroit this year alone. 

Prosperity ministry contrasts itself with a theology of the cross which stands in the hope of the giving of oneself.   Most importantly, the theology of the cross stands in the giving of God, that God gave up everything to save the people.  Accordingly, Christians are called to give of themselves in their time, their possessions and their wealth in the pursuit of love and justice for the world, and value the same things as Jesus.   Namely, we are called to value people over material goods. 

Life in Detroit is hard, yet rich with the opportunity to touch lives with words and actions.  Life in Detroit is the holiest ground for a true gospel of the cross.  The only way to see the amazing life of the city is to give up oneself.  Selfish living is the beginning of the emptying of hope. 

When pastors, preachers and politicians speak about the downfalls of our city from the cowardly built walls of ex-urban security, they expose the idiocy and selfishness of their own selves.  When the true prophets of large churches climb into the pulpits they will encourage the members of their vast, upper middle class congregations to move their lives to Detroit.  They will encourage their membership to pay Detroit taxes, to build and rebuild neighborhoods and become the holy population base necessary to have a thriving city that truly loves its own people.  Unfortunately, so far we are only hearing the pompous and impotent cries of holy men (almost always men) rallying around the useless cries of lost moral values.  The word justice, other than for the return of their Rolex watches, never crosses their lips.  A true prophet however, would move his or her wealth blessing into the city, and leave its profit as a prophetic witness to the struggle of equity for the poor, and the young men who no longer see hope in wealth.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gay Christian Money

Perhaps the only symbol more recognized by Christians than the cross is the dollar sign.  Purists are filled with angst when we mention such realities, but those of us on the ground understand that without money good things are much harder to accomplish.  Without money we are not able to support staff, whether pastors or ministers, administrators or youth mentors who do good things.  Finances supply food programs, educate preschoolers and provide assistance to the poor.  Buildings that serve as gathering spaces, shelters for the lost and outcast take funding to operate.  Good things happen with money.  Money is not bad, nor is it good, but is a tool to do good or bad in the communities we serve. 

 Stock Illustration - rainbow dollar 
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Giving USA estimates that $101 billion was given to religious organizations in 2010.  It is an astounding number that represents the power of religion in our culture.  The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is represented in that $101 billion.  In fact, if we very unscientifically assume that about ten percent of the church and its tithing members are from the lgbt community, more than $10 billion dollars comes from our pockets to the church.  Add to that number the giving of allied heterosexual families, and the dollars may be staggering.  $15 billion?  $20 billion?

In the Christian tradition we give because God calls us to give of ourselves.  Whether we take the Biblical mandate of ten percent, or another figure, we do it because we know that giving is a sign of faith.  Giving is an acknowledgment of a wider group of believers that is bigger than the simple individualistic relationship of me and God.  Traditionally, tithing was intended to support the outcast and the weak, literally the widow and the orphan. 

Why is it then that so many lgbt people and our allies are tithing to churches that do no such thing when it comes to our community?  We are tithing to churches that seek to “re-program” us, isolate us, condemn us, or give us phony platitudes such as “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”    Many of us live in the closets of our own churches, supporting the very institution that would prefer we did not even exist, and in some cases actively pursues policies and practices that try to eradicate us. 

Unfortunately, every day, I am fighting you.  As an out Christian Lutheran and Episcopal clergy person I am abused every day by you.  Your tithe to your church that condemns lgbt people is being used against me, and millions of other people, including you.  You are, however, my brothers and sisters, so let me make some suggestions.

Like you, I need to give of myself.  Tithing is not a habit, but a deep part of our beings, a way of showing gratitude, even on the days when it is hard to find something for which to be grateful.  Do not stifle your tithe, but send it somewhere else.  Send it to Christian congregations that are working for full inclusion, not only of lgbt people, but of women, and people of all income levels, races, and cultural backgrounds.  Many of us exist!  Your church might pretend that we are as rare as a snowball in hell, but we are here in a much larger abundance than you may imagine.  Open your eyes to the powerful spirit of inclusion that is around you, preaching to you and teaching you love in the strangest of places.  If that does not work, google us. 

When you need to be in that church, even if every week, with your mother or your grandmother, we know you need to be there.  Coming out is a process only you can know is right for you.  (Ten years ago I was closeted and in the pulpit.)  Please, however, stop tithing in that place.  Take a dollar bill and put it in a bright clean envelope, and place it in the offering place, but send the tithe to us.

If for some reason sending that tithe to an inclusive church does not suit you, find a community organization that does good things, that shelters lgbt people who are abused, or that supports youth or elderly members of our community.  Even send it to the campaign office of the president of the United States.  After all, in these past months, he has done more to teach God’s love for the lgbt community than your church ever will.  

Friday, April 27, 2012

Teaching Power in Detroit

The conversation starts something like this – Me: I think you would be great to lead this project.  Response:  Oh, Pastor, I just couldn’t possibly do that. 

Sometimes the above response is merely an act of humility.  Yet it may also be a natural response to deny one’s own gifts, and especially the skills and abilities others see in us.  But in Detroit, conversations like this take on special importance.  We are a city that has been abandoned by the powers that be, where the safety of our block is mostly up to us, and the beautification of our neighborhood happens only on our own watch.  When we deny our own abilities, we also deny our own power.

The Bible talks about power.  In Acts chapter one, Jesus is about to depart the world and leaves the work to the few but dedicated followers who remain.  Jesus tells them that the Holy Spirit will come upon them and they will “receive power from on high” (New Revised Standard Version).  In this case Jesus is telling them that they will survive, come together, be sent out, and so forth.  It is known among Christians as the beginning of the Church.  Jesus could have said a lot of things will come upon you: confidence, faith, fearlessness, hope.  Yet he said, “power.”  It is an important word.

Power is the ability to get things done.  The basic foundation of community organizing teaches that organized people and organized money, in short, power, is the most effective way to accomplish our goals.  Unfortunately we have taught ourselves that power is a negative thing.  Really, we let others teach us such nonsense so that they can keep power for themselves.  The culture of mainline Protestantism teaches that we are to be humble, which easily translates into giving up our power.  Such teaching is dangerous, especially to people of color, women, people of low income, the lesbian, gay and transgender communities, and anyone who lives under a system of oppression. 

Teaching people to have less power is safer, easier and more expected, but it is also oppressive and destructive.  Teaching less power forms the basis of all forms of oppressive systems, including racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism and more.  Here is what they hope we believe: In order for you to have power, others must have less.  For African Americans to have access to higher education, it must mean they are asking people of European descent to stop going to college.  To allow lesbian or gay people to have access to marriage or health benefits must mean we are asking heterosexuals to redefine their own marriages.  Neither example is true.

Corporations, government entities, development corporations and more teach us in Michigan and Detroit that we are part of the problem, not part of the solution.  Power, however, is not a finite resource, and we can have it.   In fact, we do.  Detroit will turn around, and does every day, when we understand the power we have to transform the way we function.  The rules placed upon us are only rules if we choose to follow them.  Every day we must remind ourselves that this is our community and we have the power to change it.  We are the powers that be.   We remind ourselves every day because each day structures and interests are telling us we are not.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Street Level Religious Freedom

As the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS continues through Sunday, March 11th, thousands of Detroiters are living with HIV.  Rates are high, but we do not know how high since reporting is still relatively inaccurate due to several economic, cultural and social factors.  The ministries of Spirit of Hope reach many positive people each month.  Some of our guests do not know they are positive, but many more do.  While some are on the protease inhibitors that modern medicine has made possible, others continue to struggle with issues of unstable income, ever changing housing situations or the insobriety that keeps them from the drugs that will prolong their life.  Fear and ignorance compound the problem, creating confusion.   The health status of many begins to decline when the urgency of treatment is ignored. 

So, what if a doctor, clinic or health provider, in the midst of all of this chaos, decided not to treat people with HIV because it was against their religion to treat diseases that can be transmitted sexually?  Preventing the spread and providing treatment for HIV infection and AIDS is a difficult task in Detroit.  Nevertheless, hundreds of individuals through various health agencies break their backs and risk their hearts to get to the streets and reach those who will allow themselves to be reached.  It is saintly work.  Balm in Gilead, Gospel Against AIDS, AIDS Partnership Michigan and many others do the hard work.  The question begs to be asked again: What if that doctor, clinic or health care provider decided not to treat people with HIV because it is against their religion to treat diseases that can be transmitted sexually?

The doctors, clinics and health providers receive federal grants, insurance subsidies and public services.  Do they have a right to deny services because of their beliefs, or does the funding they receive negate their ability to protest?

A well-known young adult shelter is located down the street from Spirit of Hope.  A religious institution, they appropriately receive government grants and services, along with private money, to do the important work of sheltering the hundreds of Detroit young adults left out of the system every month.  The public and religious partnership assures enough resources to create a successful program that neither on their own might be able to do.  Yet the staff is known for its mistreatment of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.  Mistreatment may be an understatement.  Bullying and abuse from resident to resident happens under the staff’s watchful eye, not only without protest, but sometimes with affirmation.  Former residents and staff have confirmed this.  Do the principles of religious freedom allow this organization to discriminate and abuse some clients even though they receive public money?

A wing of the religious establishment is up in arms in our country today because they are being required (but not really because of exceptions allowed by the president) to cover contraception for women.  Many, but probably not all, of those religious-based health care centers receive public funding of some sort.  Do they have the right to deny services?

When will wealthy men lose health services and have their lives put at risk because of supposed religious freedom?  Progressive Christians, admittedly not getting the microphones much in this debate, know the truth: The Christian faith is being used by conservatives to abuse, discriminate against and mistreat members of our families, communities and churches.  The reprehensible arguments are cloaked in deep ignorance of the lives of those on the edges and fueled by fear of people who look, think and live differently from religiously conservative parts of American culture.

Religious freedom does not give license to deny health care access to the sick, abuse the LGBT community or criminalize being a woman.  Neither does the Bible.  The neighborhoods and streets of Detroit are the living highways of public and religious policy.  Let us get out of our heads and open our eyes to the reality of policy and its affects not merely on corporate or partisan American politics, but the consequences on the ground in our own families, faith communities and neighborhoods.  Life is too short to let the powers that be play games with our sister and brother’s health and well being.  Start the fight by getting your HIV test.  You can do it confidentially and for free during worship at Spirit of Hope this Sunday, March 11th.  That is true religious freedom at work.

Balm in the Gilead Logo

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Spiritual LGBT Life in Detroit

Not one month into my tenure as pastor at Spirit of Hope in Detroit, the first guest in our community kitchen came out to me with his positive HIV status that was threatening to develop into AIDS.  It counts as one of the most humbling moments of my life.  A twenty-six year-old spiritual student of life, allowed to wear a plastic collar attached to his neat black dress shirt, is exposed to the reality of a man one generation older who lives on the streets.  The man and I still talk regularly, but I do not know how or if he defines his sexual orientation, nor do I know anything about his sexual activity or gender preference.  I do not even know how he contracted HIV. 

Many in our Spirit of Hope community who define themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are with us in the first faith community that ever accepted them.  Not only our members, but many we serve and with whom we live in our near west and southwest sides of Detroit are estranged from family, friends, their home faith communities, their workplaces, neighbors and more.  Yet the differences between the LGBT community defined in our church community, and the publicized and funded arm of the movement fighting for deserved civil rights, are all about economics, race and often even gender.

As the national conversation about the rights of the LGBT community revolve around marriage, our local community focuses on survival, on the man who came out with his HIV status.  While I do not know his sexual orientation, I do know that the LGBT community here has embraced and supported him.  At the risk of over-dramatization and negating the joy that outweighs the hurt in our community, it is not unheard of for our people to face beatings, homelessness, health risks and just plain loneliness in a world that is hostile to their, and our, very existence. 

Marriage issues are important.  Marriage rights put front and center the reality of the existence of LGBT people in our country.  Marriage rights, when achieved, will increase the visibility of people suffering from oppression throughout our community.  Yet we in the movement must be careful, because marriage rights must not be our final goal.  The goal must be the lifting up of all members of our community in every context and reality of our peoples’ existence.  Marriage is one of many tools to achieve that goal, but not the only one.

The prevention of HIV, the housing of those who are rejected by family and friends, the building of relationships across racial and gender lines while being aware of systems of discrimination and prejudice, the use of our wealth to build long lasting systems of hope and the support of our LGBT elders who never had the luxury of being fully out must be at the top of our agenda as well.

Nine years ago, not long after I talked to the man mentioned above, I walked three blocks from Spirit of Hope to a local, more fundamentalist Christian youth organization that has a strong influence on many youth in our community.  In those three blocks, I walked past abandoned and falling structures, one functioning drug house and several groups of youth milling about at bus stops and on street corners.  Upon my arrival, one of the adult advisors at my destination informed me that the biggest threat to our youth is the rapid expansion of lesbianism in Detroit high schools.  It was as if there was a Santorum bubble around this man that did not allow him to see reality, including the reality of a gay pastor standing before him.

Faith leaders must step forward now to teach and, if necessary, to shame those who abuse outsiders to uplift their own moral righteousness.  Soon we begin the annual National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS ( ).  Women’s history month is here in March.  Pride celebrations begin in June.  Every day of the year we have an organization supporting and sheltering youth in Detroit and vicinity ( ). We must lift up all of our community and get out of our spiritually neutral closets. 

And to my fellow leaders in the establishment LGBT fight for justice, we must turn our eyes to our entire community.  Race, gender and income are serious parts of our struggle.  It means even more risk for our entire community that lives at the precipice of demoralization every day, especially in Michigan where beating up the LGBT community is a conservative sport.  It may not feel like we have privilege, but comparatively, many of us do.

We have strength in numbers.  Even battered and journey-weary travelers have power in the binds of common purpose.  More people are on our side than we think.  And even when we cannot see it happening, conservative shackles always yield to the spirit of justice that resides in the base of our historic living faiths.  Truth always wins, even if it takes time to come out.  Let us all come out together.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Faith Groups a Detroit Lifeline

Every now and then I get the strangest looks walking into a group of hip, relatively new Detroiters working on development plans for the city or our church neighborhood.  The looks come because I am wearing my clerical collar.  Even when without the uniform, my presence is often questioned with side glances, questioned expressions or hesitant greetings of “um, nice to see you.” 

What do you do with a clergy person at a development meeting?  Or when planning new street art projects?  Or building a board for a new non-profit?  Am I there to give them lectures on abortion, gay marriage or contraception?  (Pro, pro, and pro, just for the record.)  Do they think I am going to take up a collection?  (Well, only if they ask me.)  Worse yet, will I try to “save” all of them in Jesus Christ?  (I usually do not carry my life preserver.)

Spirit of Hope ( ), the Christian community where I serve as pastor in Detroit, serves almost 11,000 free meals a year.  We give out 50,000 pounds of food in our pantry.  Thirty young men are mentored every year in our Pray and Play Basketball League.  We built Spirit Farm, four city lots of love to grow food for ourselves and our neighbors that also beautifies a stark major intersection in the city.  Forty people attend our weekly Spirit Spit Open Mic.  Forty families are served each year with our own Sunshine Community Preschool.  Countless neighborhood meetings, projects and programs are launched from our property annually.  We clean up local vacant lots, parks and the streets.  We provide a place for some to dry out from their addiction, be welcome in their HIV status and find power in their respective sexual orientations or gender expressions.  Addicts who lost everything at the casino down the street come by for gas money or a ride.  And yes, we do have Sunday morning worship where we praise God and participate in the sacrament. 

So yes, we have opinions and a stake in the future of our neighborhood and our city.  We will be at every table possible to influence the physical, cultural, environmental or spiritual direction of our community.  Hundreds of small and middle-sized congregations all over Detroit are making a difference.  When people fall through the cracks, we are there.  And in Detroit, hundreds fall through the cracks every day. 

While those who grew up in the city usually know the value of faith communities to Detroit, many newcomers near the center-city do not.  Of course Christian leadership of the past several generations has done a phenomenal job of alienating, abusing and hurting people, something for a later blog post.  Nevertheless, the micro-level work of countless churches has been essential to Detroit.  Many neighborhoods would not exist today without them. 

As Detroit development becomes more foundation-based and government grant-orientated, smaller organizations, including faith communities, are being left out of the conversation.  It is our responsibility as those communities to make sure we are at the tables of influence and cross streets of decision-making.  However, without community power-brokers paying attention to the faith-based work going on in their neighborhoods, they will miss a massive resource.  Without the street-based voice and experience-soaked souls of the faith community, decision makers and resources holders will fail in understanding significant dynamics of the places they seek to transform.  The largely hands-off approach of mega-church non-profit corporations, local foundations and government agencies cannot make up for personal relationships that are the building blocks of our communities.  Of course faith communities are not the only places these relationships happen, but they are among the oldest, most stable and most reliable.

Still, many are hesitant to work with us.  Yes, we will challenge.  We will bring up issues of class and race, and the more progressive of us will also name gender and sexual orientation as places of justice that must be planned for in development projects.  (I remember some years ago, as I began to speak at a development corporation meeting, a member cursed me out under his breath out for bringing up the issue of racial injustice, again.)  However, it is better for difficult and life-changing conversations to happen at the beginning of a project than the end, when opportunities for buy-in and local support are long gone. 

Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, members of the UCC, and hundreds, even thousands of others are here sweating and loving this city.  We ignore them at our own peril.   

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Big Failure

In a conversation this morning I was reminded that I am a failure.   That was not the intention of the person speaking with me, but a conclusion I came to on my own.  It is a striking realization.  After four weeks of a mini-sabbatical, it has been difficult getting to a place of reflection, debriefing, healing and letting go.  Perhaps more than nine years of significant failure takes its toll on the back, shoulders, head and heart of anyone living and working in a place like ours in God’s city of Detroit.

The truth is Spirit of Hope fails far more often than it succeeds.  I am not going to say that twice because it is hard enough the first time.  More people go back to their addiction than come out.  For every victory at Spirit Farm we encounter two more obstacles.  When new souls come to the community they bring their gifts, but also their baggage.  As many people reject us for being welcoming to same gender loving people as embrace and admire us.  With every place we provide positive change and improvement in our neighborhood there are several places that get worse.  No matter how much change we affect, the push back against us seems so much stronger.

Spirit of Hope fails in programming all the time.  We believe we have the greatest idea, support from the community, and the tools to make it happen.  Somehow, it flops.  If we were a sports team we would be up for the first round draft pick every year because we always have the worst record.  Still, without question, the only ministries, events and programs that matter have come from major failures. 

Wisdom knows, in the midst of failure, whether to abandon a ministry or program altogether, or modify it for improvement.  Wisdom knows how much to invest oneself in the heart and life of another person, knowing that person is likely to abandon the love being offered free of charge.  Wisdom grants strength to heal, dream and hope even when clouds of heaviness seek to weaken, harm and depress.  Wisdom is the spirit of hope that has become the very stitching in the seams of those who work for love and justice and change. 

Sitting at the feet of Dr. James Cone at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, just a few weeks after the events of September 11th, 2001, when our nation was screaming for blood, he reminded his students that Jesus was a failure.  A success would have made Jesus king or emperor, embracing his teachings and making his words and calls for justice the mainstream thought of the culture.  However, Jesus died poor, rejected, and murdered for his beliefs and his lifestyle of bringing liberation to the people. 

Failure is a lifestyle.  All those who dip their toe into the pond of justice work will find it cold and treacherous.  Not many, especially not many with privilege, will stay there long.  The failure becomes too heavy of a burden and the water is too deep.  Yet failure is necessary, because every now and then the powers and clouds of ugliness and oppression yield because they cannot take it any more.  The push, the wind, from those who are not afraid to be failures, becomes too strong for them to remain in place.  

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Woman In the Sun


As she removed her shirt, exposing her breasts to the late day Detroit sun, I crashed the lawn mower into the sign that said, “Spirit of Hope.”  She is exposed, changing clothes in a space without walls.  Across the street from my lawn mower crash, the western rays were catching full glimpse of her curves and beauty marks, while her face showed no sign or irregular thoughts or discomfort.  She was half naked at the bus stop at a very busy six-way intersection, and she didn’t seem to care.

The men on my side of the street looked my direction and wondered what the reverend would say and do.  The best I could do was a shrug, and continued mowing as if nothing unusual was happening at the bus stop, to the woman at the well, across the street. 

This sister’s exposure and Mary Magdalene scandal became the fuel for hen-ish male conversation, gawks and lustful glares.  Exposed to the world, her issues were laid before us in a way we men on our side of the street would never understand.  She was naked, her issues lay bare before the world. 

We are in a neighborhood where a woman’s struggles are exposed.  In Rick Santorum’s America the scandal was a naked woman at the bus stop.  How dare she expose herself to anyone that walks by?  Whatever will we tell our children?  In our Detroit neighborhood, the scandals are a lack of affordable housing for this woman, lack of mental or physical health treatments if she needs them, not enough police to protect her from harm and not take advantage of her themselves, more liquor and drugs than quality food in the neighborhood, not enough quality early childhood centers.  I can list many more scandals exposed by her undressing that day.

This woman is getting naked on a corner of judgment, where naked women of her kind, her ilk, are scrutinized every day.  Judged by men in suits sending out proclamations of righteousness while remaining behind closed doors with blue pill erections.  Placed into categories of hopelessness by those who know them least, but who judge them best.  Exposed to the world?  Many have no choice.  Always naked no matter how many sets of clothes are in their bags or on their back. 
With her new shirt in place, she reached for her waistband, and in one fell swift motion pushed her loose-fitting pants to the ground, underwear too much of a burden on such a day as this.  The cackling of the male hens crescendo as necks twisted heads in this direction and that.  Her former outfit was placed neatly in her bag, a new pair of pants pulled out in a deliberate, not too hurried, not too slow, dressing process.  With all in place, the awaited bus pulled to the corner, consuming the rays of the sun that once fell upon this naked human sister, and she was gone. 

I choose to think her only exposure that day was that of her naked flesh.  It is the only thing I can see clearly, without further assumptions, guesses or pseudo-psychological evaluations or judgments.  I don’t know a thing about her issues.  But perhaps if we all got to know each other a bit better….

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Baptism of a Dead Teenager

The title is jarring, but it is the only one that comes to mind.  The certificate is sitting right here - a baptism certificate for Andre.  He had been visiting Spirit of Hope with his best friend for some time when they both declared their intention to join the church and be baptized.  As the day came closer, Andre was less consistent in his attendance.  Time passed and his friend was baptized, but Andre dropped out of sight.  The certificate was prepared and ready.  He would come back, right?  It was set aside.

A few months later, two years ago January 7th, we learned that Andre had died.  He had been baptized into a different life.  In a day of poor decision making, he tagged along on a robbery with an older acquaintance with great influence on him.  It was the house of a police officer, and Andre was shot as they tried to enter.  And he was gone.

Andre is gone, but his baptism certificate remains, never baptized.  At least once or twice a month I look at it on the shelf in my office.  In a world as intense as Detroit it is easy to lose track of a sister or a brother.  We lost track of Andre.  Damn it.

Tomorrow, on the day of the year when the church recognizes the baptism of Jesus, we are going to burn that certificate at Spirit Farm, along with prayer cloth and other sacred items.  As the prayers turn from cloth and marker into dust, ash and smoke, they will be put into the universe.  So will the potential of the life of Andre and his baptism.

With time, ash and smoke turns into hope.  Part of Andre’s name is in the name of one of the babies in our congregation.  It does not feel like a lot of power, but it is something.  Baptism of the Spirit, by the fire of the Spirit, will live past the few minutes of the fire we start tomorrow. 

May the fire of the Spirit lead us to watch out for one another, bother and cajole one another.  May the fire of the Spirit teach us.  May it open our ears and our hearts.  May it burn in us the memories of the failures and the victories. 

Teach us, Spirit.  Baptize us every day.  Grab us.  Hold on to us.  Do not let go.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Even when I’m crazy….

“Even when I’m crazy, God is still God.  God has me when I’m crazy.”  So says a person I know who struggles with paranoia and bi-polar disease.  He was in the middle of one of his occasional paranoid rants some time before worship began.  After a few minutes of a routine I now consider normal, he paused and looked around the sanctuary.  That’s when he said what he did.

Paranoia seems to be the only rational reaction to life on our streets right now.  Four women, allegedly somehow tied to the sex industry, were recently found dead on the other side of the city.  Food sources are drying up so quickly it makes my head spin, and the Detroit News today reported there might be a billion dollar surplus in the 2011 state budget, which many people in power are declaring a victory.  The budget was balanced almost exclusively by raising taxes on the elderly and slashing funding to all levels of childcare and education. 

It’s official, I am paranoid, and it feels completely rational.  It is January 4th and we have not yet had snow in Michigan.  The lakes are not frozen over.  We cannot keep warm clothes in the Spirit of Hope clothing pantry before they disappear to those who need them.  The preschool is about ready to dry up in funding, and a few thousand extra dollars show up, unexpected and brilliant.  There was an earthquake just down the road in Ohio the other day, caused by fracking.

It was New Year’s Day Sunday and everyone was expected to be at home asleep recovering, and we had nearly regular attendance numbers in worship.  I feed the fowl on a cold morning and Auntie Roberta, the large white Spirit Farm turkey, rubs against my legs like a cat looking for affection.  By 8:30 in the morning I see more people I know in the Family Dollar than I do in the neighborhood bar 8:30 at night.  The budget is never balanced but somehow there is just enough.

Nothing is predictable.  Maybe it never was, but it seems even less so now.  The massive amount of unpredictability leaves people without stability, reliability and a sense of peace.  Even positive, unexpected change has a way of throwing people off, leaving us with a sense of paranoia.   I cannot help but think of the man possessed by demons, hanging in the tombs near the Gerasenes.  Jesus confronted that man as if nothing was unexpected or unusual.  Maybe Jesus understood the man’s insanity was really quite rational. 

Even when I’m crazy, God is still God.  God has me when I’m crazy.

Even when I’m crazy….

“Even when I’m crazy, God is still God.  God has me when I’m crazy.”  So says a person I know who struggles with paranoia and bi-polar disease.  He was in the middle of one of his occasional paranoid rants some time before worship began.  After a few minutes of a routine I now consider normal, he paused and looked around the sanctuary.  That’s when he said what he did. 

Paranoia seems to be the only rational reaction to life on our streets right now.  Four women, allegedly somehow tied to the sex industry, were recently found dead on the other side of the city.  Food sources are drying up so quickly it makes my head spin, and the Detroit News today reported there might be a billion dollar surplus in the 2011 state budget, which many people in power are declaring a victory.  The budget was balanced almost exclusively by raising taxes on the elderly and slashing funding to all levels of childcare and education. 

It’s official, I am paranoid, and it feels completely rational.  It is January 4th and we have not yet had snow in Michigan.  The lakes are not frozen over.  We cannot keep warm clothes in the Spirit of Hope clothing pantry before they disappear to those who need them.  The preschool is about ready to dry up in funding, and a few thousand extra dollars show up, unexpected and brilliant.  There was an earthquake just down the road in Ohio the other day, caused by fracking.

It was New Year’s Day Sunday and everyone was expected to be at home asleep recovering, and we had nearly regular attendance numbers in worship.  I feed the fowl on a cold morning and Auntie Roberta, the large white Spirit Farm turkey, rubs against my legs like a cat looking for affection.  By 8:30 in the morning I see more people I know in the Family Dollar than I do in the neighborhood bar 8:30 at night.  The budget is never balanced but somehow there is just enough.

Nothing is predictable.  Maybe it never was, but it seems even less so now.  The massive amount of unpredictability leaves people without stability, reliability and a sense of peace.  Even positive, unexpected change has a way of throwing people off, leaving us with a sense of paranoia.   I cannot help but think of the man possessed by demons, hanging in the tombs near the Gerasenes.  Jesus confronted that man as if nothing was unexpected or unusual.  Maybe Jesus understood the man’s insanity was really quite rational. 

Even when I’m crazy, God is still God.  God has me when I’m crazy.