Tag Archives: Drew Hart

Hope — an orientation of spirit

It is almost 2017. Last night in our meetings we were talking about Mary and her miraculous Child, born under the domination of the Roman Empire, even more, born of sinful parents and destined to take on their sin — and ours too.  Advent contains an amazing, hopeful story. But do we have any hope left, this year? Really, is there a circle where hope is alive?

It would have been a discouraging year even if Donald Trump and the Russians had not won the election, as it appears they will. It was a year full of arguing about whether black Iives matter and a year when people put “blue lives matter” signs on their lawns to talk back — in neighborhoods minutes from our meeting place in South Jersey. People of privilege scolded us that “all lives matter,” even as it became more and more obvious that such a thought is just a good idea, not a reality. Among us, we passed around great books and films that told us the horrible truth again: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow about mass incarceration, Drew Hart’s book Trouble I’ve Seen about racism in the church, Netflix’s 13th about the amendment that is perpetually subverted, and I finally just finished Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. just mercy

Bryan Stevenson’s great book

I would love to write a lengthy review of Stevenson’s book, if only to  solidify everything I learned from him about the prison system, about a corrupt and broken justice system, about unjust incarceration, about sentencing juveniles and the mentally ill and about the slow eradication of the death penalty. But I won’t. I know you feel too busy or beaten down to even read this blog post, much less read a long review or even more, a book, so I won’t go there.

Let me give you just one quote in honor of Mary, whose son would be unjustly condemned and receive the death penalty. Let me give you one quote that speaks into our time and tries to encourage people who want to make a difference but who just get tired or cynical and who often end up in despair with few places to look for encouragement.

Stevenson is talking about a case he worked on for years in which a man was serving time on death row for a crime he did not commit. He says,

“I was developing a maturing recognition of the importance of hopefulness in creating justice.

I’d started addressing the subject of hopefulness in talks to small groups. I’d grown fond of quoting Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader who had said that ‘hope’ was the one thing that  people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the era of Soviet domination.

Havel had said that people struggling for independence wanted more money and recognition from other countries; they wanted more criticism of the Soviet empire from the West and more diplomatic pressure. But Havel had said that these were things they wanted; the only thing they needed was hope. Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather ‘an orientation of the spirit.’ The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.

Havel prescribed exactly what our work seemed to require….Together we hoped.”

We certainly have our work cut out for us as followers of Jesus right now, don’t we? Stevenson and Havel are great examples of what Jesus followers  do when they are called to give their gifts in the cause of truth justice and mercy. Mary is a prime example of a less brilliant person, Iike most of us — too young, too poor, too powerless to do anything, who gives herself to God’s calling. We need an orientation of spirit that makes us individual witnesses, and we need to live in a circle that gives a larger witness than our individual capacities. In the face of abusive power we need to hope in a future promised and won by God-with-us, God-continuing-with-us.

Let’s be strong, not in our own capacity or even our mutuality, but in our hope — hope clutched Iike the lifeline it is, hope in Jesus who has blazed our way through the fearsome and relentlessly evil circumstances we face. We are a circle where hope is alive; but it is a flame that needs air and fuel; it needs tending and, like Mary knew when hope was recognized in her womb, magnifying.

Fomenting Diversity in the Age of Big Data

We did a little demographic work recently. If we ever become proficient in running the programs that store our data, we can do more. And I think we may need to do more. We live in the age of data and it seems like the younger one is, the more one is interested in parsing data to decide what reality is.

We are on the cusp of entering the age of “BIG data.” We are growing up the ultimate consumers who expect to have their personal preferences met by the institutions with which they trade their info. The huge data whales of our info ocean, like Facebook, are training millions of people to trust them with their lives. When someone walks into Circle of Hope (or, more likely, checks out the webpage) they have new instincts to apply to see if they “fit.” Even more, they look for the perfect image of an institution that meets their estimation of righteousness.

Data breeds the illusion of perfection

People are now well-known for applying all their info gathering to assess the quality of their most personal relationships. And the church is on the personal relationship side of life, for sure. In an article in Psychology Today Hara Marano quotes Barry Schwartz noting that

“One of the problems with unrestrained choice…is that it raises expectations to the breaking point. A sense of multiple alternatives, of unlimited possibility, breeds in us the illusion that perfection exists out there, somewhere, if only we could find it. This one’s sense of humor, that one’s looks, another one’s charisma—we come to imagine that there will be a package in which all these desirable features coexist. We search for perfection because we believe we are entitled to the best—even if perfection is an illusion foisted on us by an abundance of possibilities.”

So it is no surprise that people bring similar mentalities to the church. They raise their expectations to the breaking point. A lot of people give us one public meeting, and maybe not even all of that, before they have decided we are not the best fit.

Looking for the perfect racial mix

One of the more painful results of people comparing us to their data relates to race. This is one reason we have to learn how to use our database (which doesn’t even track most of the things people assess!). We need to learn how to sort our people a little bit so we can give an intelligent answer to people who ask questions.

We don’t think it is particularly right to sort people according to class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, region of origin, political party or social media savvy. But many people we meet do that sorting instinctively and we need to speak some kind of language they understand. For instance, I had to prove that regular attenders of Broad and Washington PMs are about 25% so-called people of color. Our neighborhood association area is 68% white, 6% black, 19% Asian and 7% Hispanic. Ours numbers about match those of the Center City Core and are a licc population by agettle more “white” than the percentages of extended Center City. Point Breeze is surprisingly changing in make-up as we speak.

When someone enters our room (and often I do this, too) they “count the beans” like the proverbial accountant. How many people of color are there? This is especially relevant to us, since we say one of our convictions is “Fomenting diversity and reconciliation is at the prophetic heart of our gospel.

“Have we achieved enough diversity?” is our question, too. In the age of big data and the accompanying rise of expectations, one might expect people to expect the perfect mix of population they prefer. We’re subject to that ourselves.

There is a lot more to the social dynamics of forming our church, of course, than just assessing its racial make up. For one thing, our target population has been the 19-35 years olds who make up 35%of extended Center City and nearly half of the core of it downtown. They are notoriously not followers of Jesus and we have good news for them. They are also mostly “white.”

If people want to count beans, I wish they were assessing how many faithless people are in the room when we meet. But even if I don’t like how people arrive at their questions about diversity sometimes, I still think they have good questions. Even though we might not meet some standards of righteousness, fomenting reconciliation is one of those convictions we will go down fighting for.

Counting different ways leads to different assumptions

I often gently argue with bean counters by noting that we are a lot more than what is happening in a meeting at any given moment. We are a 24/7 organism, not a meeting. The meeting is representative, but we are fully engaged with the city, as individuals and households, across all barriers all the time. Plus, many of our compassion teams connect us with groups that are not as diverse as we are, and not as interested in being so.

This year, we decided to demonstrate how we relate across barriers more deliberately as an entire church. One of the network’s five goals is: Use our series of six Saturday seminars to feature facilitators from outside of our network who can open our minds and hearts and enrich our diversity.” Our first seminar will be lead by Drew Hart (who wrote a fine blog post recently). The title is “Jesus Doesn’t Sleep on Racial Reconciliation and Neither Do We.” (It has a Facebook page, of course). Come meet Drew on January 12th.  Our seminars will highlight the many relationships we have that make us quite successful at fomenting diversity and reconciliation.

I fear that some of you who got this far in this post are feeling a little tired, like you have been swimming frantically away from a data whale trying to consume you, and now you are tempted by your own pastor to make friends with the darkness of bean counting! I am not really recommending righteousness by demographic perfection. I just want us to listen to the people around us with love, to keep recognizing our weaknesses, and to keep striving to overcome the barriers that continue to divide people, especially the ones that keep them away from Jesus. We are doing that. Even if we fail in the eyes of many (or our own eyes), let’s keep doing what Jesus does, without slumber.