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The land of the free is filled with more incarcerated citizens than any other country in the world.

General Colin Powell speaking at United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC

General Colin Powell speaking at United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC

General Colin Powell, speaking at an America’s Sunday Supper event in Washington, D.C., presented this hard fact along with a challenge: focus on what we want our nation to become…and back up those dreams with the education required to achieve our goals. America’s Sunday Supper is a nationwide movement to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., through dialog about social issues followed by action. The D.C. event focused on education was held at the United States Institute of Peace, and featured Powell and his wife Alma who founded America’s Promise Alliance, dedicated to providing the essentials that children need to succeed and make our communities better. Those invited to this event were asked to focus on ways that their organizations could participate in increasing the graduation rate in the U.S., where one child drops out of school every 26 seconds. I was asked to attend on behalf of The United Methodist Church because of my leadership role in America’s Sunday Supper.

The Methodist tradition includes an historical reverence for education which has been expressed through the building and maintaining of educational facilities and institutions throughout the world. We adopt schools locally, and we enhance the quality of education globally with technology and human development projects. We have institutes of higher learning that are world renowned and credited with producing graduates who do amazing things with their lives. It is part of our essence as United Methodist Christians to promote the full use of one’s mind, which leads to a better life and improved communities.

As a deacon whose secondary appointment is in a church-of-the-poor setting, I see the difference that mentorship & tutoring can make – in children’s lives and for parents whose own education may be lacking. I left the event with these inspirations for our denomination:

  • After-school tutoring programs held at United Methodist churches herald the spirit of commitment to education long ago established in Methodism. These programs build bridges within community – getting volunteers from local colleges and universities involved in the lives of children and families. What if all United Methodist churches worked together to offer after-school tutoring?
  • Support groups are needed to increase parental commitment to schooling. Poverty self-perpetuates – with generation after generation remaining stuck in cycles that can only be broken through education within a greater community. What if United Methodist churches worked together to offer once-a-month listening sessions facilitated by social workers/community organizers? Then, the needs of parents could be heard by those closest to social services who could aid and encourage them.
  • With each year, school supplies become increasingly expensive and when children go without, they suffer from embarrassment and cannot meet school expectations. A partially-used Sunday school room or closet could be renovated and stocked with the help of local businesses. Parents could make donations as they’re able, pay what they can, and assist in managing the store. What if United Methodist churches offered the tools kids need to succeed?
  • Kids know what to do to get punished, but often don’t know what to do to get rewarded. Incentivize students to attend school and make good grades. For students who have perfect attendance, offer a pizza and movie night, bowling adventure or some other reward based on their likes. What if United Methodist churches helped to build pride in students to use their intellectual gifts fully?

General Colin Powell said, “Education is the civil rights struggle of our day.” After further research, I learned, “Dropouts are far more likely to become unemployed, receive public assistance, commit crimes, and become incarcerated. At the same time, they are less likely to receive job-based health insurance and pension plans, to stay healthy and live full lives, and to vote and make other kinds of civic contributions.” (Rouse 2005, Waldfogel et al. 2005, Muennig, 2005, Moretti 2005, and Junn 2005)

Methodism has been a very present force in social struggles through the years, and we can be part of the solution in high dropout rates in the U.S. Doing so will not only decrease incarceration rates, but bring forth the beloved community – the embodiment of our faith.

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America’s Sunday Supper is promoted as an annual Rethink Church event happening in January each year during the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Day of Service. Learn more about Rethink Church events at www.umcom.org/rethinkchurch.

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Troops are coming home from war each day – not redeploying as they have over the last twelve years – but trying to find new ways of reintegrating with what was once familiar. Families, friends, workplace, faith communities – you name it. None of it will ever be the same. They’ve seen too much…felt too much…experienced the wounds of war spiritually, emotionally, physically.

Many Americans who disagree with war itself also turn a blind eye to veterans – personifying war with these men and women who joined the military to better themselves, their families and honor their country. Where has that blind eye gotten us? Today, thousands of veterans are living on America’s streets – many addicted to drugs or alcohol. Others may be keeping “their chin up” – doing everything they feel is right – but suffering a darkness that is unimaginable to those of us who’ve never experienced war. Others still quietly suffer, sometimes ending their lives to quiet the pain that feels irreparable.

You may have heard the parable of the river.

“Once upon a time there was a small village on the edge of a river…One day a villager noticed a baby floating down the river. The villager quickly swam out to save the baby from drowning. The next day this same villager noticed two babies in the river. He called for help, and both babies were rescued from the swift waters. And the following day four babies were seen caught in the turbulent current. And then eight, then more, and still more! One day, someone raised the question, “But where are all these babies coming from? Let’s head upstream and find out who’s throwing all of these babies into the river in the first place!”

The complexity of war demands a comprehensive response. We don’t have the luxury of choosing only one approach to heal the wounds of war and prevent it from happening again. We must care for those who return home, even as we work towards new means of conflict resolution that help humanity rise above violence that only begets more violence.

America’s Sunday Supper is an event that’s happening once again this January in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Day of Service (January 21, 2013). King gave his life to matters of justice like those we face today and fought against the military industrial complex. What he said in the 1960s resonates today:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

After increasing the national deficit by spending trillions of dollars on war, many are now calling for “entitlement” cuts as a means of fiscal responsibility. Yet, if the opportunity presented itself, these same people would also rally for new wars against nations they hate. So, it’s not really about the money. It’s about priorities.

How can we work towards new priorities as a nation? How can we honor those who’ve given – in many cases, the best part of their lives – even as we fight the systems that promote war?

We’ve often romanticized war as a solution because we don’t bother learning about its damage to individuals and to nations. America’s Sunday Supper can be an opportunity to raise awareness, promote dialog, and participate in service.  Watch a movie together, dialogue, do something. For more information, go to www.sundaysupperumc.org.

Operation Homecoming is a movie that you can screen without charge in your church or community setting. Note: language, violence.

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Mender of Broken Walls


It’s the morning after the election, and how are you and I different? Our candidates may have won. They may have lost. A survey posted on Facebook said, “1 in 5 Americans think that if their candidate loses, either human civilization will be doomed or America will cease to be a great nation and they will move to Canada.” Yet still, we are here. And, today, we proclaim unity – as Christians – as one body – as one through God.

I’ve been thinking that I were a candidate without a label, what would I stand for? What would I stand against? What would they say about me…for me…against me? And today, no matter who was elected, how I would be the change I want to see in the world – how I would change over the next four years. I’ve been thinking about how God works as a ground swell…from the roots of the trees upward and outward and how no matter the level of justice that our top courts and government provide, you and I are the ones who can also choose to oppress or set free…you and I are also the ones to live our lives in ways that demonstrate the very principles by which we vote.

In Bishop Trimble’s article “Voting and the Common Good” he poses the questions by which he chooses candidates:

•       Will they champion the best interest of children, the marginalized and the most vulnerable citizens?

•       Will they work with other elected officials of the opposite party?

•       Are they accessible to all the people they desire to represent?

One of my favorite authors, Charles Dickens wrote:

If the leaders of our great nations would but cast their eyes upon the lowly byways where disease and poverty now walk, many low roofs would point more truly to the sky than the loftiest steeple that now rises from their midst to mock them by contrast. (paraphrased-The Old Curiosity Shop)

We may look to the questions that we personally have asked of our candidates.  What is it that you based your votes on?  Were they based on personal preference, or communal good? How do these questions honor God in communal life? How do they respect life in all forms? How do they build God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven?

No matter if your candidate won, we – you and I – have work to do. We may want to pick someone else to do the job, but we’ve got to have some skin in the game. We can no more delegate our civic duties that we can delegate our discipleship. God created us to be in community with each one of us vitally important to the overall health of the body! We are Christians first – citizens of heaven – souls who will journey beyond this earth. What will we invest our time in? Many like to say that we’re a Christian nation, and see certain words on our dollar bills and in our courthouses. But unless words are lived, they are empty and meaningless.

Excerpts from Isaiah 58 (The Message)

“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
cancel debts.

What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.

Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.

If you get rid of unfair practices,
quit blaming victims,
quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.

You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.

    And it concludes in another translation,

“You will be called Mender of Broken Walls”

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be called a mender of broken walls. I’d like to participate in this work – beyond my voting and into the very core of my life. I’d like to show that beyond the
voting polls, my life stood for something that represents much more than my personal interests – but that through my actions, I exemplify the principles on which I vote.

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King's Montgomery Kitchen

Photo by Leslie Clagett.

Years ago, I visited an art museum in Memphis, Tennessee – meandering about until I found an exhibit on the civil rights movement. I still remember how I felt reading about Dr. Martin Luther King’s “kitchen table” experience and how it set me on a path of striving to live with greater purpose. This is a story from his life that many haven’t heard.

In January of 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King struggled for courage to keep up the fight that would later become known as the civil rights movement. After having his life threatened, King went to his kitchen table and had a conversation with God – expressing his doubts as a leader and asking for guidance.

“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward…The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid…I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.” (Stride Toward Freedom)

The art exhibit featured a kitchen table with a coffee cup humbly displayed along with those words.  The table was simply made, but it echoed the holiness of communion – Christ at the table – feeding one who was hungry with something more than physical sustenance – the power to go on.

King’s table experience empowered him to feed others – to share a vision of something much larger than any one life – and to inspire others to fight for that something more. Elsewhere in the exhibit were pictures of lives lost and maimed, exposing the ugliness of humanity’s bent toward oppression. Yet that ugliness was diminished and overshadowed by the power to overcome, and it was that power that dominated my experience.

As I walked through the museum, I read another quote of Dr. King’s – one that is reflected today on the monument in Washington, DC:

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

I left there thinking about life differently – I felt challenged to live a life that’s not as much concerned over personal welfare as much as leaving the world a better place. If you’ve ever had to clean out someone else’s stuff after they’ve died, you know that it’s not their material leftovers that matter – it’s the other leftovers of their life that count. These may be their ideas, their love, their way of being in community –  all things you can’t measure with money. Kind of like crumbs of the soul left behind to feed generations to come. A committed life echoes and informs future generations to make life better – for the whole of creation.

King’s life showed the power of not just letting things lie, but that by taking risk together we can create the beloved community intended by God. There’s still so much to do in the world today – things that need to be discussed and acted upon by people committed to leaving leftovers from their lives that are worthy of consumption.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been working on “America’s Sunday Supper” supported by Rethink Church and HandsOn Network. It’s a way for people to come together on January 15, 2012 (the day before the King National Day of Observance) and talk about issues over dinner – then follow with a service project. This project work is what’s made me think back to King’s kitchen table experience. What if we were to go to the table with angst over today’s issues of injustice? What might God say to us? How might we become the leaders who still inspire future generations?

Hosting a Sunday supper isn’t like taking to the streets and putting my life on the line. But if it creates an opportunity for me to meet God at the table and eat in the communion of saints (and sinners), I’ll be there.

For more info about America’s Sunday Supper, go to www.sundaysupperumc.org or email sundaysupper@umcom.org.

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We all are strangers. We are known and loved by some but if we go to the right (or wrong) places, we may be feared, harassed or rejected because of our stranger-ness.

I’m from Irish descent and wanted to know what my ancestors faced when they first immigrated. I googled “anti-Irish sentiment.” What I found were pages of references that had somehow escaped our family’s neatly kept genealogy. Harsh racial stereotypes were there, exposing pre-conceived notions of a people not yet fully encountered in America. The Irish were labeled “drunkards,” “lazy,” – some of the worst terms I cannot bring myself to type. A song, “Irish Need Not Apply,” described the common experience of someone earnestly looking for work, yet being rejected because of heritage.

“Fear of the other” is a part of humanity. We are tribal-based – making us comfortable in some places and on high alert in others. Years ago in Panama, I got to know two tribes who’d lived beside one another for generations. I had the naïve notion that they must all get along – they had to share everything. Yet I learned pretty quickly that one tribe had long judged the other as dirty and unsophisticated. Division abounds.

Our better selves arise when we are driven by love rather than fear…when we are willing to go to the unknown places to understand people rather than taking the easy way out by letting statistics and divisive newscasters rule our thoughts. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear…The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18, CEB) Being made perfect in love is tough work…you just can’t shut out the strangers if you want God to be continually at work within you.

There’s a story I’ve come upon in my work at United Methodist Communications. A story about a teenage girl born and raised in America, whose family was torn apart by a broken immigration system. No matter where you stand on the issue, the way this case was handled will make any person of compassion cringe.

We can take the easy way out and not explore the issues that are breaking apart families who, like our ancestors, came here because they yearned for more than their native lands could provide. It’s a challenge, isn’t it? It’s so much easier to remain comforted in the narrowness of our own thoughts. If you’re daring enough to step into Jasmine’s story, you may find love pushing you beyond fear.

Generations later, here I am. A fully assimilated, contributing member of society who is remembering her own story and learning the stories of others. What’s your story?

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Have you heard of the “two wolves” story? Inner wolves at war within us? Here is a very personal look at this struggle within me – in light of what is going on in Washington.

“They should just go to the banks to worship on Sundays . That’s where their god is.” The words of my friend Wafa still echo in my mind all these years after her death. Having moved to the U.S. from Syria, she was tired of being evangelized by clients whose lives seemed to resonate more with goods than with the good of humanity. I’m certain she would have a colorful commentary today on those who so loudly proclaim that this is a Christian nation, all the while cutting benefits from those who can least afford it.

I can’t reconcile the two – being Christian and not caring enough to create a just and equitable system for the economically disadvantaged.  I just don’t get it. So I’m trying to see another side….to hear another argument…another solution – one that involves limited government with vastly reduced social programs. Here goes.

Social Security goes away and becomes a self-guided, saving program. We Americans have proven in the recent recession how well we save for a rainy day. We don’t need government bailouts. If we invest in Wall Street and it crashes, well, stuff happens. To each his own. Squirrelling money away in the mattresses worked for our ancestors.

Health insurance goes back to what it was pre-health reform. If someone has a pre-existing condition, they will just have to pay for their own treatment. If they can’t afford treatment, maybe it’s just “their time.”  The poor have always had to make decisions like this. There was a young woman at church who died this year from such an event.

No more government housing programs…shacks are an acceptable way to live in (so long as it’s not in my neighborhood). It’s how people lived in the olden days (and how people in tent cities across the U.S. still live). I’ve been to plenty of countries where the government doesn’t help with housing. People can survive in tin homes and lean-to’s. I’ve got some great pictures from Africa to show what it could look like.

Let each family decide how its children should be educated…no interference and no government funding. The school system is broken and private corporations will deal with it much better than legislators. Other countries don’t provide free education. I’ve helped pay tuition in Honduras and Zimbabwe before…I could do that here as well. Children who can’t afford to go to school could be eligible for labor pools (the best parents could learn from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”) They’re adding beds at the new privatized prison down the street in expectation of new “clients”….so still there’s still a chance they’ll have a bed and a roof.

I’ve thought this through and yet it still doesn’t feel right to me. Maybe after a while, I can just get numb to the sadness of it all and quit caring. Does the bank have Sunday morning hours?

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Walking through a neighborhood the other day, my husband noticed how beautiful a large oak tree was, but lamented that the yard around it was so dry and desolate. It was obvious that in the heat of Nashville, that tree had soaked up so much water for itself that it left little behind for grass, flowers, or anything else to grow.

Later in the week, I sat around a table with the women of Sixty First Avenue United Methodist Church at what became for me a deeply meaningful experience. I began to think of that tree as a metaphor for what is happening in the U.S. these days. For the common laborer, years of working hard has provided little to live on and nothing to save. Many laborers (laid off, retired or disabled) now stand just beyond the shade of these vast “trees” in what has become a barren space in America’s landscape.

The little they’ve come to depend upon is drying up further. Distant bickering of elected leaders echoes in their daily lives, as they worry if a father will get the medicine he needs to prevent heart failure; if insurance will pay to stop infection in a friend’s recently amputated leg; and how they’ll survive if Social Security cuts are made. People who have contributed much in their lifetimes have so often been used up and tossed aside for cheaper labor pools, and greater profit. I’m reminded of a favorite movie quote: “A country’s character is defined by its “everyday rustics”…They are the legs you stand on and that position demands respect.” (Ever After, 1998)

Distinctions between “the wealthy” and “the poor” become chasms if we fail to engage one another, especially if we do not relate with persons living in poverty. It’s easy to judge a group of people, if you’ve only labeled them generically and remained at a distance. When you come to know “the poor” by name, hear their stories and realize their gifts, preconceived notions dissolve. Complexities arise. Shades of gray become varied, and what used to be easy judgment becomes greater understanding.

In the humble walls of Sixty First Avenue’s sanctuary, I’ve realized that perhaps the greatest spiritual challenge is to love more than we think possible. If we leave presumptions on the altar and let something new arise, maybe we’ll be able to mimic the love that Jesus showed others while on earth. When we love more, we think beyond our own endless desires, personal growth and financial independence. The barren spaces start to matter and we imagine how we too can be suppliers of lifegiving water.

For further reflection:

Check out this living wage calculator and compare it with the minimum wage those who serve you may be making: http://www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu/

 

 

 

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