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Posts tagged ‘Philadelphia’

God’s Bias

Luke 6:17-26     

Recently I had the honor of attending the Unifying Our Communities in Response to Hate Conference at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

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This gathering brought together community stakeholders, government officials and law enforcement to discuss the “state of hate” and share ideas on how community members can respond to hate and bias. It featured: Rabbi Jeffery Myers from the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA; the Reverend Eric S.C Manning of Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC; Attorney General Josh Shapiro; and Pardeep Singh Kaleka & Arno Michaelis, authors of Gift of Our Wounds, from Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

I wish to focus on Pardeep and Arno, and their movement against hate.

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Some of you may remember Pardeep’s name. He is a member of the Sikh Gurdwara in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that was attacked on August 2012. Six people died at the hands of violence, the worst race-based attack in the U.S. since the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Pardeep lost his father in the attack. Since then, Mr. Singh Kaleka has been a voice for forgiveness and justice. 

In his own words:

I decided to respond to this tragedy with compassion. There is a saying in Sikhism, ‘Charhdi Kala’ which means ‘we move in relentless optimism’. Regardless of hardships in life, I’m optimistic about the future.

‘Charhdi Kala’ and compassion go hand in hand. Some people think of compassion as offering forgiveness and all is forgiven, but I think of it as a process, in other words I attach a purpose to what’s happening in life and appreciate the good things when they come.

On 5th August, there was a purpose to what happened. Someone came to our temple trying to divide us, saying that we didn’t belong and that we weren’t wanted in his country. With ‘Charhdi Kala’ the purpose of our response is to reach out, to include the other and say this will not happen again.

It was that attitude that led Pardeep to reach out to an extremely unlikely person: Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist who helped to start a gang back in the late 1980s that produced the August 5th Sikh Gurdwara shooter. Upon learning about Arno’s background and why he became a white supremacist, Pardeep was convinced that the two needed to work together. And so they have. The two co-authored the book The Gift of Our Wounds, sharing their stories and how such a hateful tragedy can lead to love, cooperation, and positive social change. Likewise, the two created the organization and movement Serve2Unite, a proven means of establishing a healthy sense of identity, purpose, and belonging that diverts young people from violent extremist ideologies, gun violence, school shootings, bullying, and substance abuse, along with other forms of self-harm.

How-to-join-a-community-of-young-peacema

The organization has helped thousands of students from over 30 schools who have experienced human kinship while addressing a host of social issues, including homelessness, veterans’ issues, human trafficking, police-community relations, gun violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, Holocaust remembrance, and genocide prevention.

I mention this powerful story of hate leading to learning, compassion, and justice, because hate crimes are on the rise and sadly, many Christians do very little about it. And in some cases, Christians are even complicit in the hateful acts.

So allow me to ask two questions:

Who are the poor in spirit?

How do we respond to hate?

​See, here’s the thing. Jesus of Nazareth, in Luke’s Gospel, was healing people. Who was he healing? Those on the margins. Those who were called unclean. Those who felt left out, targeted, forgotten, abused. And Jesus got flack for it. It wasn’t religiously kosher. It wasn’t religious enough. But why? Why did people, including Jesus’ own colleagues, criticize the healings? Because the system itself was unjust. Because priests and scribes and politicians and rich people benefited from the system. And they didn’t want to lose power.

So you can imagine that these words were inflammatory:

Blessed are those who are poor, hungry, sad, hated, excluded, defamed.

Woe to you who are rich, abundant, privileged, included, spoken well of.

Yes, wrap your minds around THAT.

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Mind blowing for most. For Jesus though, this was justice.

The Sikhs and Jews and Black Christians and Muslims who are constantly attacked and targeted—they are blessed. The ones who are not—the U.S. White Christians, for example–woe to you.

This is Justice.

So who are the poor?

They are anyone on the outside—marginalized, oppressed, without food and basic necessities, forced out of their homes, refused work, abused, forced to deny their true selves, denied basic human services and rights, mistreated because of their gender, shunned because of who they love, ostracized because of their skin tones, defamed for simply how they look or how they live their lives. They are the poor in spirit.

And when they are attacked by hate and fear and ignorance, God always favors them. This is God’s bias. Because God is on the side of those on the margins.

And so, the second question. How do we respond to hate?

Well, for someone like me who is NOT the poor in spirit, my response is different. I have not had such horrific things happen to me because of the color of my skin, my religious background, sexuality, or gender. I am privileged. And so, my response to hate must look different. It is not enough for privileged people like to me to just not be hateful or to not participate in say, white supremacy or racism. No—I must do more. I must respond to hateful words and acts with compassionate words and acts—for those on the margins. I must stand with them when they are targeted, I must help them to pick up the pieces to heal when they are attacked. I must join hands with them to say: NOT IN MY TOWN!

I am moved by what Pardeep shared:

Image result for pardeep singh

“We may not choose what happens to us, but we surely choose how we respond.”

Yes. We do choose how we respond. So how will we respond to hate? We cannot be paralyzed by it; we cannot be silent; we cannot be apathetic. We must, as Pardeep and Arno did, unite together to work for justice and peace and compassion. To paraphrase Arno from The Gift of Our Wounds:

Hurt people do indeed hurt people. When suffering is not treated with compassion, it spreads; when fear isn’t met with courage, it lies to us and disconnects us from our humanity; when ignorance is not countered with wisdom and understanding, it grows and solidifies.

Hate is only overcome with long-term kindness.

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Moving Day

John 1:35-42

Moving day box
The last couple of years I have been wrestling with a question that probably I should continue to wrestle with:

Where am I going?

It’s really a question akin to what is the meaning of life I suppose, but where am I going rings truer for me, because I like movement and I’m not always sure that everything has meaning. But I do think everyone and everything has a path. So we are all going somewhere…

Where am I going?

Sometimes that question is asked in a literal sense, because maybe you and I, we are going to a place. People move; humans are migratory just like other living creatures. At times we go to a physical place that is a different town, community, state, or country. We move. When we go to that new place things look different, feel different. Even the food tastes different. And we see things differently. I’ve moved a TON in my life. Each place where I have lived has been different.

desmoinesRecently, I returned to Iowa, the place where I was born and where I spent my adolescence. It had been 10 years since I last went to Iowa. It sure looked different. Honestly, I felt almost no connection the place anymore. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes I experienced as an outsider, a visitor. It didn’t feel like home at all.

Though the place felt like that, I experienced something different with the people I encountered. I reconnected with family members I hadn’t seen in a long time. For the most part, it was great. They were able to see with new eyes [for I have changed] and I was able to see them with new eyes. We stayed together, ate together, shared laughter and shared stories. When I returned to Philadelphia, I felt that I had come and gone from a place that had no meaning, and that now I was returning to a place that had no meaning as well. The places felt like that to me, but not the connections to the people.

You can probably tell that I’m not very nostalgic about places, but I certainly appreciate and embrace human connections. In fact, I think that human connections are why places come to have any meaning at all. I work with a Christian congregation. Almost 2 years ago, this congregation decided to sell its original building. That building was and is just a physical space, but for some, that place holds great meaning—only because of the people they met and connected to there. There is a reason why people drive by their old school, church, or home and feel something. In those places they had strong connections with others. In my opinion, I think we often take such connections for granted. We assume that friendships or strong relationships will always be there. We stop caring for them and nurturing them; we can even forget to be grateful for them.

So when we move somewhere else, it becomes clear, doesn’t it? Wow. Those connections really mattered to me. And if we step back and reflect, we can experience gratefulness for those wonderful connections to others.

Movement and place are two critical aspects of the spiritual life and two repeating themes in the stories about Jesus of Nazareth. Take a look at this Gospel story. John, Jesus’ cousin, the son of Elizabeth, saw Jesus walk by. He saw him going somewhere. John was intrigued. “Look!” he shouted to anyone who would listen to a locust-eating, crazy looking prophet-dude. John’s voice must have been convincing or at least loud enough, because John’s own followers left him and walked towards where Jesus was walking. They changed their path. Jesus noticed, and asked them a simple but loaded question: “What are you looking for?” They didn’t answer him, but instead asked Jesus a question: “Teacher, where are you staying?” They were not only interested in where Jesus was going, but also where he would stay. Jesus replied simply: “Come and see.” They did go and they did see. One of the people who went and saw was called Andrew. His brother was called Simon. Andrew went and found Simon and told him about this whole following Jesus and seeing thing. He even brought Simon to Jesus. And then Jesus gave Simon a new name: Cephas, Peter.

You see, Jesus was always going somewhere, and he was always calling others to go somewhere.

Journey
They were always on a journey. Jesus left his place of origin. He left those who were most familiar to him. He was always going somewhere, and he always invited others to go with him. Along that journey, they all connected to each other, they saw the world [and themselves] differently. Those who gave into inertia [the stubbornness of staying put] became sad, angry, or just completely stuck. I resonate so much with this movement of Jesus, and how he continually called all kinds of people to move with him, towards love, towards compassion, towards health and peace and fullness.

So what if we all ask this question:

Where are we going?

And not just related to place, but where are we as people going. Are we going towards the things that give us life, bring us joy, and fill us? Are going towards acts of justice in our communities, walking with those on the margins, journeying with those who feel pushed down or forgotten? Are we going, expecting to see God’s Spirit at work in all these places and relationships and activities? Are we? By asking this, we place ourselves on a path of movement. We orient ourselves towards transformation.

Friends, we are made to move, to grow, to learn, to connect and re-connect, to change.

It’s moving day. Every day is moving day.

All in it Together

Mark 9:38-50

POPE-A-LOOZA

popeLast Friday and Saturday, I had the opportunity to spend time with friends in Philadelphia while Pope Francis visited for the World Meeting of Families. I am fortunate to have a few friends in Center City who live in an apartment building right near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Art Museum where much of the festivities took place. It was a really fun and interesting experience. I enjoyed being with the hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, and neighboring and far-away U.S. states. It was also a surreal experience to see all the roads closed in the city, and no cars. People were free to walk and bike everywhere without hindrance.

It felt kind of like the Netherlands!

JoshBike

It was fun biking around the city on Saturday morning with a couple thousand people. I also thought it was hilarious to see people dressed up in pope outfits, complete with the papal hats. People cheered as we biked through their neighborhoods as if we had accomplished something important.

After the bike ride, my friends and I walked to the Ben Franklin Bridge which was open to pedestrians. It was pretty cool to walk across the bridge the reaches to New Jersey, without the car traffic and tolls.

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While we were there, groups of people marched into Philly. Here’s a clip of a group from the New Jersey Diocese.

This led us to Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the Saturday evening concerts and papal address. Not sure how many were actually there, but certainly we were not alone!

crowdsAs we made our way as close as we could to the stage, we saw rows and rows of porta-potties–perhaps more than we saw people?

portopotties

Of course, we had to pass through one of the security checkpoints. It took less time than it usually takes in the airport. People were nice. We laughed and passed though without incident. Of course, others who tried to pass the checkpoints on the other side of the Parkway [closer to City Hall] were not so lucky. A bit busier!

phillynight

Once on the Parkway, somehow we were close enough to see this. Apparently, the Pope is fast. Or at least, his little white golf cart is.

We stayed to hear musicians like the Fray and Aretha Franklin perform. Then, the Pope gave his address. More later on that.

Now give me a moment to reflect on this experience via this story in the Gospel of Mark.

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In Mark’s Gospel, following Jesus is about following the Jesus way. Here we see a scene in which those who follow the way are contrasted with those who don’t. But it’s not what we might assume. John, one of Jesus’ disciples, claims that there are some people who are not following “them” as opposed to Jesus or the way. Obviously, the disciples can easily forget that it’s actually not about them. Also, John is complaining about people doing something [i.e. exorcising a demon] that they themselves could not do. And John’s comments are ill-timed, because Jesus had just dropped the inclusive teaching about welcoming children. Now John and the other disciples want to exclude, claiming that “those others” were not one of them?

Jesus’ response is pretty clear:

Stop criticizing people who are actually trying to do the same thing we are. Who is not against us is for us.

For Jesus, even a simple act of kindness like giving a cup of water to someone is enough to be part of the way—part of Jesus’ team.

But then Jesus gets mad and is quoted as saying some pretty harsh things to those [like John and the disciples and anyone else] who get in the way of the inclusive, welcoming nature of the reign of God. In fact, anyone who causes “little ones” [i.e. those who are marginalized, forgotten, pushed down, persecuted] to fall will be in HUGE trouble. Cue the awful image of a large millstone around your neck as you are thrown into the sea to drown.

And then we get into body parts. The hand, the foot, the eye. If any of these cause someone to fall away, cut them off, thrown them out.

And…SIDE NOTE!

The word hell is not appropriately translated. It should be more like Gehenna which is the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. It’s a place where child sacrifices were made long ago, before Jesus’ time. That place was a symbol of death and destruction—a real place with no pitchforks, devils in red suits, or fires.

Frankly, Jesus uses such strong imagery because people were really divided–separated by social class, religion, and customs. And even people who were trying to do something compassionate or good might get criticized by others simply because of their particular religious or political affiliation.

So Jesus adds salt to a wound, but it is meant to heal:

Being salted with fire is all about healing. First century medicine utilized salt and fire to heal physical wounds. But in this case, the healing is mental, spiritual, and social. And it also leads to peace.

In any positive and impactful social movement, people outside of the “movement catch on and participate in their own way. This should always be affirmed. In fact, in my opinion, the only thing stopping religions from cooperating around the world are the people who are the “insiders” in each tradition. They put up barricades and roadblocks, like I saw this past weekend in Philly. They don’t affirm other traditions, even when they do good in the world. They hold tightly to their theologies and ideologies and prejudices. No cooperation happens.

I’m not Catholic. And I certainly don’t think that one person, i.e. Pope Francis, is more important or that his words are necessarily more special than others. But when someone or a group of people strive for justice, compassion, and peacemaking–I don’t care what religion they claim, or if they claim no religion.

They’re on my team if they care about those who are marginalized. I’m with them if they keep their saltiness but also accept and affirm the saltiness of others. We’re all living on this planet together. Being at peace with each other means swallowing pride and admitting that no one gets it right.

We have the opportunity and responsibility as people to join with those around us, not just because they claim the same religion or because they think like us– but because we care about humanity, this world, and recognize the pain we cause each other.

What I saw and experienced in Philly during the Pope’s visit was a large group of people who simply wanted to connect. Religion took a backseat. Politics hovered over us, threatening to distract us. But in the end, it was an “all-in” moment.

In his seemingly spontaneous address on Saturday, Pope Francis spoke about love and family. “In the family there are indeed difficulties, but those difficulties are overcome with love,” “Hatred is not capable of dealing with any difficulty and overcoming any difficulty. Division of hearts cannot overcome any difficulty. Only love can overcome.”

I’d like to think that he defines family more loosely than the Catholic Church does. I’d like to believe that he defines family as the great big human family–not narrowly defined as a mom, dad, and kids. Pope Francis’ past comments seem to reflect a more compassionate and accepting view of same sex couples, gay and lesbian folk, and transgender people. Likewise, this pontiff has reached out verbally and otherwise to atheists and people of other religions. And he has expressed great sorrow and pain over the culture of child abuse and deceit that has plagued various dioceses.

I won’t agree with most of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic tradition. But that is less important. For I do think that hatred among any of us is only destructive and distracting. As a human family, we need to love each other, and that is unifying. But it will mean accepting and affirming our unique, salty selves and doing the same for all others. In this way we can strive for peace and be at peace in ourselves.

And woe to any of us who try to undermine anyone else who is doing just and compassionate work. May we love each other as we are, may we find ways to cooperate for common good, and may it lead to peace.

My final thoughts after a full weekend.
Hatred is destructive & distracting. Love builds and heals. May we reflect this in our cooperation and in our accepting of all people.

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