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The Cold Weather Shelter is Nothing to Be Proud Of

As of yesterday, it is illegal to house homeless families on cots on the floor in a room with lots of other people in the District of Columbia.  Housing a family in these conditions, according to child advocates, is "callous" and traumatizing to children.

So how should I feel about the fact that our congregation did exactly that for the past week when we hosted Howard County's Cold Weather Shelter?

There's been a great deal of coverage in the Washington Post over the past month about homeless families in Washington, D.C.  There has been an astonishing 135% increase in the number of homeless families seeking emergency shelter in the District this winter.  Why?  News stories have suggested a number of factors including an unusually cold winter and a law that requires the District to provide shelter to anyone in need of it during "hypothermia alerts" when the temperature falls below freezing.  Despite Mayor Grey's best efforts, that law still allows families to stay sheltered until they can locate permanent housing.  Add to these factors the loss of thousands of affordable housing units over the past several years due to gentrification and the result is a real crisis.

Where to put everyone?  The DC General family shelter was filled at the beginning of the season with over 300 families and over 470 families are staying in hotel rooms, some in Maryland.  In January, the District began housing families in recreation centers.  Now, 79 families living in the rec centers have joined a class-action lawsuit against the district, charging that these facilities are traumatizing to children.

On Monday, D.C. Superior Court judge Robert Okun issued a temporary injunction ordering the District to immediately stop housing families in the rec centers as their class-action suit progresses.  The Post story reporting on the decision quoted a number of complaints from homeless families:  "The lawsuit alleged that children, parents and sometimes grandparents had been unable to shower for days and got only cots in big, noisy rooms that were illuminated all night."  

We try to do better than that a KC, but the truth of the matter is we aren't that far off from what this complaint described.  We only have one shower for all the guests and you have to walk through the men's sleeping area to get to it.  Everyone sleeps on a foam mattress on the floor, and the size of our building means that all the men sleep in a common room and all the women and children sleep together in another area.  

"How's it going in the men's area?" I asked a guest after the first night.  "A whole lotta snoring," he responded, laughing.  I can just imagine.

We hosted the second-to-last week of the Cold Weather Shelter and by then the population is down from the coldest months.  Most of the residents were single men, and there were a handful of single women.  There was also a family with three kids.  The night I stayed overnight at the shelter, I watched as one of the little girls got up in the middle of the night and wandered over to the bathroom, alone.  She looked sleepy, not scared.  But if she did feel scared, who could blame her?  She sleeps in a different church each week in a room with a group of strangers.

The Cold Weather Shelter is a big effort for every church that hosts it.  Not only does the congregation need to staff the shelter from 6:00 pm until 7:00 am, it provides rides for the guests, three meals each day and does the laundry for all of the guests.  Many congregations including ours offer little extra activities in the evening like live music or bingo or baking nights. Lots and lots of volunteer time goes into this shelter every year.  For a congregation the size of KC, it is pretty much "all hands on deck".  

I am so proud of our congregation for the work we did with the Cold Weather Shelter last week.  All jobs were filled, all the meals were amazing and lots and lots of love went into everything we did.  

But I can't feel proud of the fact that Howard County has a Cold Weather Shelter.  It is definitely a better alternative than sleeping outside in the winter, but it isn't much better.  It is especially tough for kids.  In fact, it really is unacceptably bad for children.

Washington, D.C. is overwhelmed with the increase in homeless families there.  Howard County is not.  In fact, on January 22nd of this year, when the County did its point-in-time survey of homeless residents, it found only 25 households with children under 18 who were homeless in this county (although there are reasons to believe that number is actually somewhat higher).  This is a solvable problem for a county like ours.  

Other areas of the country have begun to solve homelessness--not just manage it.  For example, there are no longer any homeless veterans in Phoenix.  It seems entirely possible to me that Howard County could resolve to no longer have any homeless families.  At the very least, we need to stop housing families in the Cold Weather Shelter.  Then, we should stop housing anyone in this way.

Before the next season of the Cold Weather Shelter begins, I resolve to convene a conversation among all the congregations that hosted the shelter this year about how we can stop congratulating ourselves for our generosity and start working towards making this kind of inadequate housing unnecessary.

Cheering for the Girl in Pink in the Back


This past Friday night, I saw Oakland Mills High School's spring musical, "Once Upon a Mattress". I saw it Saturday night night as well.  And I saw the Sunday matinee.  I loved all three performances.  The show is my idea of a perfect high school musical--fun ensemble numbers, a variety of good roles, a few great songs, and it is very funny in a totally stupid kind of way.  The Oakland Mills cast pulled it off with a ton of enthusiam.  There were some outstanding singers among the leads and some very good comic actors.

But honestly, I wasn't really paying attention to the main characters in the play.  I spent all three shows watching the Lady in Waiting in pink who appeared in the court scenes at the beginning, middle and end of the play.  That was my daughter, Rosa, and this was her first-ever high school musical.

Rosa was ecstatic the day she found out she was cast in the show--it didn't matter to her at all that everyone who tried out got a role.  She quickly learned all the songs, including the ones she wasn't singing, and then she learned a lot of the lines, despite the fact that she didn't have any.  She made up a backstory for her character--gave her a name (Rosalind) and figured out her motivation for everyone movement or gesture.  She decided that the reason why she wasn't paired with one of the knights in the dance scene was because her boyfriend was a vampire and not able to appear in court.

Rosa was completely present every moment she was on stage.  She looked anxious and frustrated and jubilant at the appropriate moments.  But that wasn't really why I had so much fun watching her.  I couldn't take my eyes off of her because she's my daughter and I love her with all my heart.

Earlier in the week, I led a class on the Psalms at KC.  We were talking about what a song of praise would look like in a present day context, so I played Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" as an example.  One of the participants told the group that she has a picture of herself holding her first grandchild right after he was born.  It had been a difficult delivery but everyone was okay in the end.  She said the look on her face in the photo can still bring her to tears--so much love, so much joy.

She told the group that she took the photo with her to a spiritual direction session one time, and her director told her, "Imagine--you are looking at your grandson at that moment with just a fraction of the love with which God looks at you at every moment!"  What an amazing thought.

This morning, Howard County's Cold Weather Shelter is moving from our church to Glen Mar United Methodist Church for the last week of the season.  Last night, as our Youth Group shared dinner and played bingo with the guests of the shelter, I had a conversation with a guest that is still on my mind.  He said the thing he didn't like about being in the Cold Weather Shelter is the feeling of being in a fishbowl.  "I hate the feeling that people are sitting and looking at you from across the room.  You guys are the total opposite of that.  You've been talking and laughing with us all week."

I know what it means to look at someone with love.  When my daughter was on stage this weekend, she was the star of the show in my eyes.  It felt to me like there was a spotlight shining just on her.  I'm guessing that every other parent or grandparent felt the same way about their kid--there were spotlights shining on each of the 45 kids in the show, and each of those kids was a star in the eyes of the people who loved him or her.  

At the heart of my faith in God is my bone-deep sense that God looks on each person in the world--each baby, each child, each adult--with love so strong that we cannot defeat it.  My prayer is that today, tomorrow, every day, I might look at someone else with some portion of that love.

Reflections on "Frozen": Identity and Community in Tension

Last night, I finally got around to watching the newest Disney movie, "Frozen".  I was staying overnight at the church, one of the jobs that comes with hosting the Cold Weather Shelter.  I needed to be awake from 2:00 am until 6:00 am but my brain wasn't functioning well enough for me to accomplish anything.  I thought "Frozen" would be just the thing for a time like that--entertaining but completely undemanding emotionally or intellectually.

I enjoyed the movie thoroughly--the ice and snow images are rendered beautifully and it was great fun to hear the voices of some of my favorite musical theater voices (Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad) come out of the animated character.  But it made me think way more than I had anticipated.  The movie isn't just about a Disney princess finding her true love.  It is about young women figuring out their identity--and figuring out how to relate to their families and their communities in the context of that struggle.  

Do I need to disconnect from community to figure out who I am?  Do I need to connect with community to figure out who I am?  The answer is, of course, I need to do both.  

A quick disclaimer before I go on:  I recognize that I suffer from "Punch Buggy Syndrome"--the phenomena in which you suddenly start seeing the thing you are looking for.  I've been thinking about the interplay between individual and community as I get ready for my sabbatical and now everything I see/read/talk about seems to relate to that theme.  

This is not to say that I have stopped seeing Jesus in every movie I watch--a point of great amusement to my congregation ever since I preached a sermon on "The Dark Knight".  In "Frozen", for example, everything is set right when the lead character, the one who has been wronged, sacrifices herself for her sister.  Just in case we miss the significance of what is happening, the movie keeps reminding us that this sacrifice is an "act of true love".  Hard to miss the Christ figure in this one.  (Plus, the old Christian hymn, "Fairest Lord Jesus" was originally part of the opening music.)

Interestingly, in addition to the not-very-subtle Christian subtext to "Frozen", there is a not-very-subtle Queer subtext to the movie.  I wondered about this when I first heard "Let it Go", Idina Menzel's Academy Award winning power ballad from the movie.  The song talks about trying to be a good girl and trying to keep control and finally deciding to "let it go" and be one's true self even if others find that upsetting or offensive.  The song isn't very subtle and the movie isn't either--Elsa's parents decide that she has to be shut up inside a room until she can learn to control her "power", but she is unable to do so.  When others see her power, they are shocked and she is ostracized.  Elsa is the first Disney princess without a male suitor.  When I googled "Frozen movie gay themes" I found that thousands of people have been celebrating this movie as a coming out story while others have condemned the movie for the same reason.

Here's what many commentators seem to miss:  the importance of community in the movie.  Perhaps part of the problem is that this doesn't fit the "classic" coming out narrative in which the non-conforming individual has to break away from their community of origin so that they can fully and openly claim their unique individual identity.  In that version of the story, the individual comes back to community in order to challenge them to open up, become more accepting, and to love the non-conformer for who he/she really is.  In this scenario, the community of origin is the problem and the individual is the solution.

But the story in "Frozen" is more complex.  The non-conforming sister is "alone but free" once she leaves town and build an ice palace of her own in the mountains.  She seems content to stay there forever (despite the fact that she doesn't seem to have anything to eat.  Was I the only person bothered by that?)  But it turns out that her departure has left the entire town she came from in perpetual winter.  Her decision to run away has diminished her community.  They need something that only she can provide.  

Elsa, however, doesn't know how to un-do her freezing magic.  She doesn't know how to be herself in the context of community.  For this, she needs to learn from a group of trolls who pass some wisdom on to her sister Anna (that bit about the act of true love).  I found this part particularly interesting--but I've read almost no commentary on this aspect of the movie, perhaps because it is in the midst of a lot of silliness.  Anna is led to the trolls by Kristoff, a man she encounters in the mountains who says he knows some "love experts".  Anna thinks Kristoff is joking about this, but it turns out to be true.  Kristoff knows about love because he has been a part of a loving community, something that Elsa and Anna have missed due to their parents' fear of Elsa's powers.

Since the wisdom about love comes from a community, we shouldn't be surprised that it leads the sisters back into community, with each other, but also with everyone in their kingdom.  Elsa cannot form a healthy, life-giving relationship with herself and her powers when she is up in the mountains, alone.  She finally becomes comfortable with herself when she finds a way to use her gifts to the benefit of her community--she makes an ice rink!

When we find a way to hold our individual gifts and needs in creative tension with the gifts and needs of our community, we create a strong and life-giving identity.

One last thought:  while I think this movie is about identity in general and not necessarily about gay identity in particular, I do wonder if it says something about the evolving relationship between gay identity and the broader culture.  Perhaps coming out no longer necessitates a break from one's community of origin?  Maybe we're coming to a place where we can even acknowledge that excluding queer folk damages our communal life, making it colder and less flexible?  If this is a coming out story, it is one that includes coming home.

Conversation with Steve Snelgrove, Part 2: Partnering with Churches to Improve Patient Outcomes


This past Friday, I had a chance to hear a short talk by Steve Snelgrove (pictured above with a guitar signed by the members of Alabama!) the new President of Howard County General Hospital, at a breakfast sponsored by Leadership Howard County.  Mr. Snelgrove said a couple of things that caught my attention in particular because they involved a partnership between the hospital and the faith community.  

Howard County Hospital will be under great pressure over the next five years to reduce health care costs dues to changes in the Maryland Medicare Waiver.  Snelgrove gave some very preliminary ideas about some approaches he'd like to take to help contain and reduce costs.  The first idea was to significantly increase the number of people in the community who have advanced directives regarding their health care.  As I wrote yesterday, I think this is a great idea and one that my congregation and many others could help to implement.

The second idea involves partnering with the faith community in a more formal way.  Snelgrove described a program called "FaithHealthNC" which began during his time at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.  At the Leadership breakfast, Snelgrove gave a very quick description of the program:  the hosptial partnered with churches throughout the community to support patients who had just been discharged from the hospital.  Volunteers from the church make sure the patient fills their prescriptions, goes to follow-up appointments, etc.  The program successfully reduced the chance that a patient will be re-admitted to the hospital soon after their discharge--a result that has been identified nationally as essential to reducing Medicare expenses.  

After describing the program, Snelgrove added this enthusiastic endorsement:  "And there's no cost to it!  These church people are just passionate about helping people."  

That caught my attention.

It isn't true, of course, that the things that churches do are cost-free.  Churches require funding to support their staff and their buildings, of course, and the staff and the building facilitate the volunteer efforts of the congregation.  Large volunteer programs, inside churches and outside of them, always require staff support.  So, my first reaction to Snelgrove's proposal was skeptical.  Asking churches to do something to save a hospital money shifts the cost of health care--it doesn't necessarily reduce it.

When I tracked down the program Snelgrove was describing, I realized that there was more support to churches involved with FaithHealthNC than I initially thought.  The network provides churches with a "Health Care Liaison" who works directly with the volunteers from the church to provide the information they need to help with follow-up care.  The "covenant" the churches sign, and the training provided to volunteers, is focused on confidentiality.  This enables the Health Care Liaison to share medical information with the volunteers so that they have good information about what the patient needs.  

This makes sense to me.  Every pastor and every congregation I know wants to help the members of its congregation who are sick or in the hospital.  For one thing, Jesus showed concern for those who are ill throughout his life.  He told his disciples that when they care for the sick, they are caring for him.  But care for those who are hurting isn't just a practice of Christian discipleship.  It is a function of community.  When you are connected to someone who is hurting, you hurt too.  

And yet, the health care system can actually serve to separate people from their support networks, especially those who don't have family members or others who will share news about their loved one with that person's faith community.  Like many other pastors I know, I've had the experience of suddenly "losing" a parishioner, only to discover that person has been in the hospital.  And if the hospitalized person is disoriented or confused or unable to communicate clearly, it can be very hard to know what to do to support that person once they are out of the hospital.  If I could sign a covenant that would allow me and other volunteers from our church to receive medical information directly, I would gladly do it.

But is that all Steve Snelgrove was talking about?  I got the sense that the program he had in mind served people who were not part of a church congregation as well.  It sounded like the hospital would also call on a church to support people in their "neighborhood" who were in need of follow-up care.  He said that this helped the hospital and helped churches because they "want to grow their membership".

This is where things get tricky.  Can an organization assign a community to care for someone unknown to them in the way that they would care for those who are a part of their community?  Can someone get the benefits of a community simply because they've been referred to that community by their health care provider?  Can the support of a caring community be packaged into a program, detailed in a covenant and marketed as a way to reduce health care costs?

Maybe it can.  But I'm not sure it should.

There is a lot of evidence that membership in a faith community has a positive affect on a person's health.  In fact, in a video on the Wake Forest Baptist hospital website, Rev. Gary Gunderson says that participation in a congregation is as healthy for a person over their lifespan as smoking is unhealthy over a lifespan.  But he goes on to point out that this isn't just a matter of personal beliefs--this is a social affect.  People live longer, healthier lives in the midst of caring communities.

But you can't just go out and buy community for yourself or for anyone else.  Communities are a network of relationships--they are not service providers.  When people are a part of a community, they give into that community as well as receive from it.  Simply put, people who have visited others in the hospital are more likely to get visits from others when they themselves are in the hospital.  When these reciprocal relationships take place in the context of community, not everyone has to pay in the same amount because not everyone withdraws the same amount.  But the fact remains that communities are places where people help out, find a way to be of service, feel needed and get appreciated as well as places where people get help and support.  I am certain that the giving part of community participation is as much a benefit to someone's health and well-being as the receiving part.

So I'm not quite sure what to do when there are initiatives to extend the benefits of a community to those outside a community.  I believe strongly that I am called to welcome strangers and care of the person who is bleeding on the side of the road whether or not they are part of my tribe.  Along with my congregation, I've participated in lots of efforts to help people in need outside our community--brought food to people living in camps along Route One, repaired houses in Appalachia, befriended kids in West Baltimore, and this week, our church is hosting Howard County's Cold Weather Shelter.  It is a special week for our community and we take pride in offering great food and warm hospitality to our guests.

But the times I've felt we've really made a difference in someone's life are the times when a person we've met through one of these outreach programs has become a part of our community.  This has happened time and again at KC.  Several former residents of the Cold Weather Shelter have joined our church.  Several people who we first met through the Route One Day Center are now integral members of our community. 

One of these members was hospitalized last month.  Our community visited him and prayed for him and sent him cards and followed up with him after he was discharged.  But I'm convinced that what really made a difference in this man's recovery was that he wanted to come back to KC to make the coffee.  He claimed that task as his job a few years ago and he doesn't really want anyone else to do it.  And we appreciate it, deeply.

At the end of Steve Snelgrove's brief talk last Friday, his reminded everyone in the room that each of us needs to take responsibility for our own health.  He put up a slide that reminded us to stop smoking, lose weight, get exercise and eat fruits and vegetables.  I'd add another point to that list:  nurture your community connections.  

You can't just increase your daily allowance of community when the doctor orders it.  Community isn't something we consume or access or leverage.  It is something we create together.  

Conversation with Steve Snelgrove, Part 1: Reducing Health Care Costs by Talking About Death

Last Friday morning, I attended a breakfast hosted by Leadership Howard County that featured a talk by the new president of Howard County General Hospital, Steve Snelgrove.  I found it fascinating.  After a brief introduction, Mr. Snelgrove spent most of his time explaining recent changes in the Maryland Medicare waiver, something I knew nothing about.  He went on to detail two programs that were of interest to him because they were proven to reduce health care costs.  Both require partnership with the faith community--and both raised lots of questions for me.  Unfortunately, the breakfast program didn't include any time for questions and answers.  So, the talk served to begin a conversation that I'll continue here.  

First, a few words about the new Medicare waiver for Maryland.  It could be that most people in this state are already aware of the special arrangement Maryland has with Medicare, but this was the first I'd heard of it.  The waiver, first established 36 years ago, has meant that Maryland hospitals are reimbursed for procedures at the same rate, regardless of insurer, including Medicare.  These reimbursement rates are set by the independent Health Services Cost Review Commission, which has over the years managed to keep increases in cost lower than in other states.  In every other state in the country, Medicare sets its own rate for reimbursement, generally the lowest of any insurer.  Hospitals make up the difference by increasing the rate at which private insurers are billed for the same procedure.

Beginning this past January, Maryland has a new "modernized" waiver.  Now, instead of reimbursing hospitals for each admission or procedure, Medicare will pay each hospital an annual sum based on the population that hospital serves, increasing each year at a rate tied to the growth of the state's economy.

Snelgrove pointed out that this change is an important corrective to the previous system which incentivized hopitalization and testing.  Now, hospitals will have an incentive to keep patients out of the hospital, pushing them to promote wellness and disease prevention in their community.  Snelgrove didn't have a lot of specifics to mention here except to remind each person in the room that they shouldn't regularly eat a breakfast like the one we had just been served.  

Hosptials will also have to cut costs.  Snelgrove had more to say about this point.  He made quick mention of reviewing staffing within the hospital but then mentioned two programs that could make a significant difference.  First, he talked about the need to encourage everyone in the community to fill out Advanced Directive forms regarding their desires for end-of-life care.  He mentioned LaCrosse, Wisconsin, recently profiled by Planet Money on NPR as "The Town Where Everyone Talks About Death".  Ninety-six percent of the people in LaCrosse have advanced directives compared to just 30% of the population nationally.  Not coincidentally, LaCrosse is on the bottom of the list of Medicare spending by 306 regions in the country.

How did this happen?  The Planet Money story gave all the credit to a man named Bud Hammes who is employed by a local hospital as a medical ethicist.  He saw so many families agonize over decisions about the treatment of their loved ones that he decided he needed to take action.  He started promoting advanced directives as a way to help people, hospital patients and their families, not as a way to cut costs for the hospital.  That was an accident.

But now, hospitals all over the country are anxious to replicate what happened in LaCrosse in order to save money.  I understand that--but for that very reason, I think it would be best if campaigns to get people to create advanced directives were not led by hospitals, but by the churches, synagogues and mosques in a community.  And I think we could--we should--do that in Howard County.

If a hospital employee approached a relative or parishioner of mine and offered to help them fill out an advanced directive, I'd be worried.  Knowing that they are under intense pressure to cut costs, I'd worry that each question would be shaped in a way that would encourage each person to ask for less treatment, less intervention.  But churches and other faith communities have no such interests.  In addition, in the context on a faith community, conversations about end-of-life care can be framed in a broader conversation about a person's beliefs and questions about death and life after death.  This conversation can help the person make decisions about their care and treatment not based on fear, but on trust.

The Kittamaqundi Community has long held a call to help people think and talk about death.  Over the years, we've held a number of classes to help members and friends reflect on and prepare for their death.  When I arrived at the church nine years ago, I found a file in the office with each members' name on it.  Inside were outlines for each person's funeral including their favorite songs and readings and other requests.  While I found this a bit strange at first, these pre-planned funerals have been a great help to me over the years.  In fact, they've encouraged me to plan my own.

This emphasis in our community comes out of the particular call of several of our members.  One of our members, Pat Englebach, published a book in 2000 called, "Last Rights:  Taking Care With Your Final Journey" which leads the reader through a series of reflections about the end of their lives including the creation of advanced directives.  Another member, Jack Dunlavey, is one of the chaplains at Howard County General Hospital and teaches the training program for volunteer chaplains which includes much conversation about end-of-life decisions.  Jack has taught our most recent course on death with Carol Lobell, a retired therapist in our congregation.  Bill McCarthy, also a part of KC, sits on the ethics board of the Howard County hospital.  Clearly, we have the ability to take this conversation outside our own community.  I'd like to see us do that.

But churches aren't the only place where people talk about death.  Three days after I heard the NPR story about LaCrosse, Wisconsin, I heard another story about "Death Cafes".  Started by a British web designer named Jon Underwood, these cafes are not a location but an event, a salon as it were, where the subject is death.  Underwood wasn't out to reduce health care costs, but he was interested in making death something that people feel more comfortable talking about.  Inevitably, the conversation expands beyond death.  Underwood says in the NPR story, "When we acknowledge that we're going to die, it falls back on ourselves to ask the question, 'Well, in this limited time that I've got, what's important for me to do?' "  

The movement has spread to the United States including Baltimore where two nurses, Valerie Sirani and Amy Brown, held their first cafe back in June, 2013.  The topic is wide-open and "delicious cake" seems to be a feature.  Because these are "no agenda" conversations, they are different from ones that are explicitly hosted by a faith community.  But they serve another hugely important need--they get the conversation started.  Who wants to host one in Howard County?

I appreciate the prompt from Steve Snelgrove to start thinking about how to engage more people in Howard County in a conversation about death and dying--before they get to the hospital.  I think this is an important way for the community to partner with the hospital to the benefit of everyone.

Tomorrow I'll write about a second proposal Snelgrove mentioned for reducing the cost of health care with the help of the faith community--one that I found much more problematic.

Question Authority

Years ago, when I first saw a bumper sticker that read, "Question Authority", I scanned it wrong.  Instead of reading that phrase as an imperative ("You should question people who are in authority"), I though the phrase was descriptive of the driver of the car ("This person is an authority on questions")  Although I believe that the imperative statement is true, I prefer my initial, incorrect reading.  In fact, this is what I strive to be every day:  a person who is good at asking questions.

I am interested in all sorts of questions, especially those that relate to the nature and purpose of human life and human community.  My religious tradition, Christianity, give me a vocabulary for asking those questions.  Story after story in the Bible describes people in conversation with each other or with God about these kinds of questions.  I appreciate that the questions and the responses to the questions are both included in scripture.  I take a cue from that to continue the conversation.

By necessity, I also ask questions about my faith tradition--its scriptures, its central beliefs and practices, its history.  I am always excited when a conversation, experience or a text spurs me to ask a question I haven't considered before.  And I'm always troubled when I encounter a question that, for some reason, cannot be asked or considered in the context of a particular community.  

The fact of the matter is that such questions exist.  Every community has convictions or standards of behavior that are so foundational to that community that to question them takes the questioner outside of that community.  Some questions don't just inquire into meaning or significance.  They start to poke at questions of identity--who are we, really?  What makes us who we say we are?

Writer Ayad Akhtar is fascinated by these questions.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year for his play, "Disgraced", a play about a Muslim-American attorney who has kept his religious identity a secret until he is decides to defend an unjustly-accused iman.  The questions the attorney asks eventually separate him from his employers and eventually his marriage.  The play hasn't been produced in the D.C. area yet, but I am hoping that it will included in next year's season at one of our region's fine theaters.  

In the meantime, Akhtar's second play, "The Who and the What", has premiered this month at the La Jolla Theater in Los Angeles.  The play is a family drama about two sisters and their immigrant father, but embedded in the story are some questions about the Prophet Mohammad and the origin of the teaching about women and the veil.  Can the character ask these questions and remain part of her religious community and part of her family?

A tip of the hat to Allan Lohaus for directing me to this play and to a pre-show conversation with the playwright and author Reza Aslan which you can watch online here.  The title of the conversation was "The Human Divine:  Searching for the Person Within the Sacred".  The first part of the conversation began with both authors making the case for why exploring the human lives of the founders of a religion can be compelling and revitalizing to a person's relationship with that figure.  Jesus or Mohammad "comes alive" when we explore questions about who he was in the context of the history and culture of his time.  This has certainly been true in my experience.

But as the conversation continues, it ventures more deeply into they dynamics of identity and the questions we ask.  Akhtar says something to this affect:

At times we process things by projecting them on others.  Not everything can be understood through our own internal processes.  We require the externalization of conflict in order to process it.  Sometimes we project our greatest aspirations onto the central figures of our religious because that enables me to say I can reach that level of goodness by being like him.  We just need to be aware of this dynamic and watch out for our tendency to keep what is best in me outside of myself.
There's a lot to think about there, but I appreciate the reminder that external conflict is a way in which we process internal conflict--and not necessarily a wrong way.  This is part of what we need from community.  We work things out in relationship to each other--and that includes arguing with each other.  Too much community harmony and we lose an important tool for navigating our own internal conflicts.  
As be continued.


Reflections on "12 Years a Slave" and "The Invention of Wings": The Stories We Tell About Saviors

I'm making an effort to write regularly on this blog because I'm in training for my sabbatical--from late August until the end of November of this year, I will be stepping away from my usual work at the Kittamaqundi Community so that I can give my undivided attention to a research and writing project.  I'm looking forward to having the time to do some serious writing--and scared about my ability to write for many hours every day.  So, I'm building up my stamina.  And, I'm starting to think about what I'll be writing about. 

My sabbatical project is entitled, "A Spirituality of Us".  Broadly speaking, I want to draw lines of connection between spirituality (which is mostly understood as a private, personal experience) and community.  I'm not just interested in applying the teachings of our faith traditions to issues in the public sphere.  I want to consider how our spiritual lives--our experience of God--are shaped by our experience of community.  While my own tradition, Christianity, is rooted in the story of an individual who had a unique relationship with God, that story involves community from the moment it begins.  Jesus gathered a group of disciples from the moment he began his public ministry and much of his teaching involved how we should treat each other in community.  The community of disciples carried Jesus' message to others who then formed communities based on that message.  

Which brings me to "12 Years a Slave", the movie that won this year's Academy Award for Best Picture.  Our family saw the movie as soon as it came out--it was one of those movies that I wanted to be sure my teen-aged kids saw.  I found it difficult to watch and deeply moving.  But there was something about the story that didn't sit right with me.  It bothered me that the slave at the center of the movie, Solomon Northrup, is saved at the end of the movie by the individual efforts of a few white men.

A number of commentators have noticed this theme in American movies and written scathing critiques of the racial stereotypes perpetuated in them.  But I'd like to think critically as well about the myth of the individual savior that seems to hold such power in our imaginations.  The way we usually tell the story, groups of people perpetuate evil (as whites did with slavery) and groups of people hang in there and do the best they can to help each other survive (as blacks did during slavery).  But change comes, redemption comes, primarily through the efforts of an individual. 

I read the analysis of "12 Years a Slave" that followed the Academy Award on Sunday at the same time that I was finishing up Sue Monk Kidd's newest novel, "The Invention of Wings".  I read this book with some apprehension since I've had mixed feelings about a number of Kidd's other novels including "The Secret Life of Bees".  But this recent novel is based on the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two of my personal heroes, so I couldn't resist.  To my relief, this book avoided the exact problems that make "12 Years a Slave" problematic.

I should probably write a separate post about "The Invention of Wings" and the Grimke sisters, but for now I offer this observation:  Sue Monk Kidd tells a story about the evils of slavery and the efforts of those who resisted without identifying anyone as a trapped victim or a savior.

 The story is told through alternating accounts by Sarah Grimke, a white woman born to a slave-holding family who becomes an abolitionist, and by Handful, a slave who is given to her for her 11th birthday.  Both women feel trapped by their circumstances--although Kidd is careful never to equate their constraints--and both women find ways to exercise their own agency, from deceit to outright defiance.  

Then, at the end of the story (spoiler alert!), Handful tells Sarah that she has decided to "leave or die trying".  Sarah rushes back to Charleston to try to save Handful by purchasing her from her mother.  Her efforts fail, but Handful has a plan of her own.  Sarah becomes her co-conspirator, not her savior, and the story suggests that Handful's future will be assured by the abolitionist community that has nurtured and shaped Sarah.

After the success of the movie version of "The Secret Life of Bees", I'm guessing Sue Monk Kidd has already sold the movie rights to "The Invention of Wings".  In the hands of the right screenwriter and the right director, this movie could challenge the dominant Hollywood narrative about trapped black people saved by individual whites of good conscience.  And that, in turn, could help us reflect more deeply about community.  Not only do we work together to perpetuate evils systems, but we work together to heal the world.


Think the Best

As I made clear in this blog years ago, I am no fan of the signature book of Howard County's Choose Civility campaign--"Choosing Civility" by Johns Hopkins professor P. M. Forni.  In general, I don't think lists of "rules" of behavior are a helpful way to build civil community.  Rules about public behavior encourage us to supervise each other and to notice when someone around us has broken a rule.  The rules on Forni's list that are helpful are the ones that encourage us to turn a watchful eye on ourselves, monitoring some of the interior conversation that will inevitably shape our external actions.  Forni's most helpful rule, in my opinion, is #3:  Think the best.  

Forni is doing more than suggesting people should be avoid cynicism and cultivate a kind of optimism about human behavior.  This "rule" is actually a strategy for calling others to better behavior.  Forni writes, "When we approach others assuming that they are good, honest, and sensitive, we often encourage them to be just that."  He continues:

Even outside the classroom I expect that everyone I meet will turn out to be good rather than bad. I have felt this way all of my life. What I find exciting in a new acquaintance is the thought: Maybe I'm making a discovery here; maybe someone entering my life who is nice. That's what gives me joy: the possibility of goodness. I appreciate exceptional intelligence, I can be changed by beauty, and I am intrigued by charisma. But I will be moved by goodness. Of course I am aware that not all those I meet can be paragons of goodness. Still, my bet with myself is that they will be nice to me. I think of my goodwill as an unspoken challenge to them and envision that our lives will be made better by our interaction.

Forni's advice came back to mind last week when I read the summary of the Public Religion Research Institute's massive new survey called, "A Shifting Landscape:  A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues".  Much of what the survey found confirmed what I already knew.  But one finding in the survey really surprised me:

Even though most polls since 2012 have shown a majority of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, only about one-third (34%) of the public believe that most Americans favor same-sex marriage. Nearly half (49%) of the public incorrectly believe that most Americans oppose same-sex marriage, and roughly 1-in-10 (9%) believe the country is divided on the issue.

Regular churchgoers (those who attend at least once or twice a month), particularly those who belong to religious groups that are supportive of same-sex marriage, are likely to over- estimate opposition for same-sex marriage in their churches by 20 percentage points or more.

  • „„About 6-in-10 (59%) white mainline Protestants believe their fellow congregants are mostly opposed to same-sex marriage. However, among white mainline Protestants who attend church regularly, only 36% oppose allowing gay and lesbian people to legally marry while a majority (57%) actually favor this policy.
  • Roughly three-quarters (73%) of Catholics believe that most of their fellow congregants are opposed to same-sex marriage. However, Catholics who regularly attend church are in fact divided on the issue (50% favor, 45% oppose).

To summarize, people believe that the country is less accepting of gay and Lesbian people than they actually are.  This is especially true within religious communities.  Note that this is NOT about people outside of churches guessing that the people inside of the church are more judgmental than they really are--that I understand.  This is about people who are part of a particular church assuming that the other people in the church are a whole lot more judgmental than they really are.  

When it comes to the people we go to church with, many of us do not think the best.

Forni argues that when we think the best of the people around us, it invites those people to fulfil our expectations of them.  I wonder if the inverse is true?  If we assume that the people around us are judgmental and unaccepting of difference, perhaps we are less likely to share our opinions or to inquire about theirs.  We don't speak up when we hear an ignorant comment because we assume that everyone will attack us if we do.  We may even say judgmental things ourselves, just to conform to what we think the people around us believe.

The good news in the results of this survey is that it would be quite easy for mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches to increase the level of acceptance of gay and Lesbian people in their congregations (which of course they should since that's What Jesus Would Do).  They just need to encourage people to talk to each other.