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Do We Still Want to Do This?


Abraham Verghese's masterful novel, "Cutting for Stone" tells the story of twin boys, born in Ethiopia to an Indian nun who had a relationship with a British surgeon.  Because their mother dies during childbirth and their father flees the country, the twins are raised by two of the hospital staff, Hema (an obstetrician) and Ghosh (who becomes a surgeon).  The couple falls in love as they care for the infants and eventually, Ghosh proposes.  Hema accepts--but only for a year.  For the rest of their lives, Ghosh proposes on their anniversary, and Hema agrees again to marry him for another year.

The relationship between Hema and Ghosh adds a bit of comedy to a story that involves a lot of conflict and sadness.  But their unique marriage stayed with me long after I forgot other elements of the plot.  In fact, I've brought it up on several wedding anniversaries.  Dan has not found this particularly amusing--for him, marriage means having an important question settled once and for all.  And while I certainly see his point, there is something compelling to me about asking each other once a year, "Do we still want to do this?"  It means that we don't just continue on automatic pilot.  It means that we have to recall the reasons why our marriage has value and consider what we must do (or stop doing) to keep it going.

I serve a congregation that continues with this same model of commitment that Hema and Ghosh have.  Membership in our community is for one year only.  Each November, every person in our community must decide whether or not to become a member for the following year.  The question isn't just a rhetorical one, either.  Each year, some people who have been members for years decide to take a year off.  Each year, someone who has been around our community for years without ever becoming a member decides to join.  Once everyone has considered their own commitments, we gather for a whole-congregation retreat to ask, "Is God still calling us to be a faith community?"  If we decide the answer is yes (and that's what we've decided each year for almost 50 years now) then we re-covenant as a community during a wonderfully celebratory worship service.

I have never encountered another church that handles membership in this way.  In most churches, membership is for life. Even if you stop attending a church, they will still count you as a member (and request a pledge from you) unless you actively protest.  I think the idea is that people may drift away, but there will come a point when they realize they need a church, and there it will be, ready and willing to welcome them back.  But now that I've encountered the Kittamaqundi Community style of membership, I wouldn't want to do it any other way.  It means that we can't take our community for granted.  We're clear that our common life arises out of the intentional commitment of each of our members.

I've been wondering this week, is there some way to ask an entire city, "Do we still want to do this?"  That might seems ridiculous considering the amount of infrastructure and investment that goes into building a community like Columbia, MD. I know this city will continue whether or not we "opt in".  But Columbia is a planned community, organized with a very specific set of intentions.  It was meant to be racially and economically integrated, a model to the rest of the nation that was wondering if such a community was even possible.  Many of the "pioneers" who first moved to Columbia came because they were interested in living in such a community--by moving here, they "opted in" to the vision of the developer, Jim Rouse.

But now, fifty years later, there are all sorts of other reasons to move to Columbia--location, schools, the "high quality of life" recently celebrated by Money Magazine.  So I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that not everyone who lives or works here believes that lower income people, for example, should be able to buy a home or even rent an apartment in Columbia.  I've heard this value questioned explicitly and implicitly at all sorts of public meetings over the past year.  It gets my back up.  "This community was never intended to be an enclave for the one percent!" I want to shout.  "Don't you get it??"

But maybe what we really should do is pose the question.  Do we, as a community, still share this value?  Do we still want to live in a community where "the janitor and the CEO" lives nearby each other, as Rouse famously said.  Maybe we have gotten ahead of ourselves in our conversations about how to build affordable house or end homelessness.  Maybe we need to back up and ask the kinds of questions that would help us to remember why this was ever a value to begin with.

In the early years of Columbia, I've heard there were annual celebrations of the community's birthday at the lakefront.  We have another big birthday coming up next year.  The best possible thing to celebrate at that time is not that we made it this far--but that we have generated the community will to continue. 

How to Start a Conversation


One of the several highly articulate teens who spoke at last night's meeting

Years ago, I was part of a group of young ministers who met regularly with an experienced minister for mentoring.  I often think back on one conversation we had about pastoral visitation.  All the young ministers knew we should be visiting people in their homes.  Our older parishioners, in particular, seemed to relish the opportunity to have us over for tea and cookies.  But we were starting to dread these visits which could easily last a couple of hours.  It just seemed like all people wanted to do was chat about their grandchildren or gossip about other members of the church or complain about how the congregation had declined since the 19050's.  How could we help these conversations become more personal, more reflective, without being awkward or intrusive?

"That's easy," our mentor told us.  "You can have a significant conversation with anyone in 20 minutes.  You just begin by saying, 'Tell me about your grandmother.'"

I've thought of this advice many, many times over the past 20 years.  For awhile, I did ask a lot of people about their grandmothers and was rewarded with some amazing stories and even a few tears.  But I soon realized the broader principle. Good conversations involve stories.  When we tell stories to each other about people who have influenced us or experiences that have changed us, stories that explain why we have particular commitments or values, something important happens.  We build connections.  We establish trust.  We let each other know that it is okay to be who we are.

I believe in conversations.  So of course I was excited when I saw an announcement on the Howard County Public Schools email newsletter a couple of weeks ago announcing an event entitled, "Voices for Inclusive CommUNITY" co-sponsored by the school system, the Howard County Police Department and the Howard County Office of Human Rights.  Here's how the event was described:

Community members are invited to an evening of dialogue about establishing and strengthening relationships among students, parents, school officials and law enforcement. This event provides opportunities to understand what HCPSS, the Howard County Police Department and the Howard County Office of Human Rights are currently doing, and provide input on building a more inclusive community. The evening will include small roundtable discussions.

When I heard that the "small roundtable discussions" were going to be facilitated by people who had been through the school system's excelled Cultural Proficiency program, I was even more encouraged.  Any event that brings a diverse group of people together (especially people who might not talk to each other easily or frequently) and gives them a chance to speak and be heard by each other is worth the effort.

The event took place last night at Long Reach High School.  It was well attended by school system folks and police officers with about a dozen high school students and a handful of random people from the community such as me.  It wasn't a waste of time, but the conversation was pretty superficial.  Everyone is trying to build an inclusive community even though it isn't always easy.  We need to keep trying.  We need to keep talking.

Then, as we were getting up to leave, one of the police officers at my table told the beginnings of a story.  She talked about the neighborhood in Baltimore where she grew up.  She said a few words about her mother and her brother.  Suddenly, instead of talking about the importance of vulnerability, she was being vulnerable.  The conversation suddenly mattered.

As I was driving home, I thought of a community event I attended at the beginning of the year. PATH organized a series of well-attended events that brought together leaders and members of Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations in Howard County.  In one of them, we were instructed to find a person in the room who we didn't know and to have a 20 minute conversation based on a couple of questions.  After 20 minutes, we found another person and had the conversation again.  I don't remember the specific questions now, but I remember the conversations I had.  I heard personal stories about how a neighbor of mine has experienced living in our community.  I learned something specific about what they valued and why.  By the end of the conversation, we felt connected to each other.  We weren't strangers anymore.

I wish last night's meeting began where it ended for me.  We need to have one-on-one conversations with people who we don't usually get to talk to--police officers, teenagers, school teachers, people who have a different racial or ethnic background than we do.  We can't just brainstorm ideas about what other people should be doing.  We need to tell each other personal stories about why we do what we do, why we value what we value.  That may sound like it would take forever, but in my experience, you can say a lot in 20 minutes. 


Confessing Other People's Sins


Andrea Lewis and Rosa Kirk-Davidoff discuss the novel "All American Boys" at KC last Sunday

My husband Dan came home from Yom Kippur services last week satisfied.  "There was a real good list of collective sins," he told me.  In addition to the usual list, his rabbi has verbally inserted some additional confessions, appropriate to the time at hand.  But even the list printed in the prayer book seemed on target.  The version in The New Union Prayer Book begins,

For our failures of truth, O Lord, we ask forgiveness.

For passing judgment without knowledge of the facts, and for distorting facts to fit our theories.

For deceiving ourselves and others with half-truths, and for pretending to emotions we do no feel.

For using the sins of others to excuse our own, and for denying responsibility for our own misfortunes.

Inspired by my husband's appreciation for this annual ritual, I suggested a few years back that we include an extended corporate confession in our Ash Wednesday worship at the Kittamaqundi Community.  The planning team was skeptical and made me promise to explain that the confession came from the Jewish prayer book.  They didn't want anyone to take the list too personally.  The following year, the team gently suggested the prayer was way too long.  Wouldn't it be better, someone offered, if we had a period of silence during which people could make their own personal confessions?

No one wants to confess to a crime they did not commit.  For that reason, ritual confessions try to make the sins so general that everyone ends up being personally implicated:  "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us," the Book of Common Prayer famously reads.  But when we gather together, the point is not only to admit to our personal failings, but also to admit that we are also somehow tied up in the bad actions and ideas of others.

This isn't just a challenge for people leading and participating in religious ritual.  It is also a challenge for any person or group who wants to make the world a better place.  

Consider the problem of racial bias and discrimination.  If we are going to really address these issues, each of us must consider, how am I part of the problem?  What can I take responsibility for?  What commitments can I make personally that might improve the situation? But those questions, while necessary, are never the end of the conversation.  If we are serious in our analysis of the problem, we will end up confessing not only our sins, but also the sins of others.  We recognize that we are part of a sick system, and no matter how good we intend to be, we are implicated in the crimes that system commits.

Last Sunday, a group of us from KC and the neighborhood got together to discuss this year's One Maryland One Book selection, "All American Boys" by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.  The book begins with a scene in which a young black man is assaulted by a police officer.  The story then continues, in alternating chapters, in the voice of the young man who was assaulted (Rashad) and the voice of another teen (Quinn), a white kid who knows both the black teen and the police officer. Both teens struggle to figure out how to respond.  Some of the people around both kids encourage them to keep their heads down and step back from any kind of protest or statement.  Others encourage them to stand up for what is right--even if it means challenging or possibly antagonizing people who have encouraged and supported them in the past. 

The novel does not resolve all of the questions it raises.  We never hear, for example, what happens to the police officer.  Is he punished for his actions, or does he get away with what he did?  The one thing that is clear by the end of the story is that it is not possible to be a bystander.  When it comes to issues around race and policing, all of us are involved.

That's a challenging topic for any group to discuss, but we managed it last Sunday, in part because an amazing Howard County police officer was in the room.  Sargent Stephanie Wall from the Community Outreach Division read the book and participated in the discussion enthusiastically and completely non-defensively.  She was clear:  there are police officers who do terrible things in this country.  Most police officers do not, but every police officer is implicated in the actions of those who act unjustly or unwisely.  Every single officer, every single police department, needs to commit to healing the damage caused by the history of racial bias in law enforcement.

I left the conversation deeply encouraged--and challenged.  What would it mean for me to acknowledge and to confess the harm done by Christians?  By white people?  By Americans?  How might I do that in a way that doesn't just overwhelm me with guilt but rather energize me to engage more deeply with the healing of the world?


Does Howard County Need an Elected Sheriff?


Now that Howard County's elected sheriff, James Fitzgerald, has finally announced his resignation, there are some important questions facing our community.  The sheriff's behavior, which included racist, sexist and anti-Semitic comments as well as favoritism and intimidation of those who disagreed with him, raises important moral and ethical questions.  How was this man allowed to get away with behavior which would have led to his termination in just about any other job?  That line of questioning will lead, I hope, not only to some honest conversation about racial bias in our county, but also to some organizational and structural questions.

Why do we have a sheriff?  And why is it an elected position?

Our recent experience with Fitzgerald begs both of these questions.  The office of sheriff seems like an artifact from the rural days of Howard County when there weren't municipal police departments. Every news story about Fitzgerald over the past two weeks includes a line like this one from yesterday's story in the Baltimore Sun, reassuring the reader that the sheriff does very little:

The Howard County sheriff's office provides courthouse security, serves warrants, transports prisoners and addresses landlord-tenant disputes. It is not the county's primary law enforcement agency.

The Washington Post says the sheriff's office "acts primarily as an arm of the court system, transporting prisoners and issuing summons."  Aren't these jobs that could be done by the Howard County Police Department?  "Courthouse security" could certainly be handled by a private security company.  Wouldn't that save the county money and simplify the organizational structure of law enforcement?

Organizational structure brings us to the issue of accountability.  The people who support elected sheriffs always trumpet the importance of having a law enforcement official who is "directly accountable" to the people of the community.  Fitzgerald has proved this argument incorrect.  Clearly, he had no sense of accountability to the people of the county.  Those people have been demanding his resignation for weeks.  Over 500 signed an on-line petition.  There have been several demonstrations and many calls, emails and blog posts.  Fitzgerald's only response was to say that he was "humbled". This man seemed to see the sheriff's office as his own private kingdom.  His power was absolute and no one could challenge him, inside or outside of his office.

So who got Fitzgerald to resign?  Elected officials, notably County Councilman Calvin Ball.  Governor Hogan issued a statement condemning Fitzgerald minutes before he resigned--presumably that statement was made privately before it was made in public.  So if the real structure of accountability for the sheriff's office is the County Council, why not change the County charter to make sheriff an appointed position?  The governor will be appointing a new sheriff to serve out the remaining two years of Fitzgerald's term.  I will be interesting to watch what happens.  Maybe accountability--and transparency--will actually improve.

I am hardly an expert in the area of law enforcement agencies, but it took only a couple of Google searches to realize that Howard County is not the only place where sheriffs are controversial and combative figures.  Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona is the most notorious example. Milwaukee County's Sheriff David Clarke has made a name for himself through frequent Twitter tirades.  But there are lots of smaller stories.  Check out this story from Portsmouth, Virginia where the sheriff has pursued a vendetta against the mayor all year.  Or listen to what Maryland's Wicomico County sheriff, Mike Lewis, had to say about the shooting death of police officers in Dallas this past July.

When there are so many examples of office holders who use their position to spout off, antagonizing large portions of the community they were elected to serve, or to harass citizens or political rivals, the issue is not just the person--it is the position.  Law enforcement officers need clear structures that guarantee accountability and responsibility.  Howard County's experience adds to the evidence that law enforcement agencies work best when, like police departments, they are accountable to some people in particular, not just to "the people" in general.


We Are Part of a Bigger Story



Sometimes, it helps to step back and get a little perspective.  When the anxiety of the present moment starts to feel overwhelming, it helps to put today's dramas into a bigger context.  

There were very few glimmers of insight in last night's presidential candidate's debate.  In the middle of ninety excruciating minutes of accusation and animosity, there was one helpful, constructive comment.  A Muslim American woman named Gorbah Hamed told the candidates that Islamaphobia is on the rise in this country and asked, "how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?"  I thought it was the best question of the night, asking the candidates to connect national policy and campaign rhetoric to the lived experience of particular Americans.  The two candidates gave starkly different responses. Donald Trump used the question to imply that Muslims in this country are hiding and protecting terrorists such as those who perpetrated the attack in San Bernadino, CA.  

Hillary Clinton's answer began this way:  "First, we've had Muslims in American since George Washington."  

That one sentence went by in a flash.  I doubt it will receive much comment as the debate is analyzed in the days to come. But I don't want to forget it because it reminded me of the power of the Bigger Picture.  We are, and have always been, a nation composed of people of different religions, people from different cultures and countries of origin.  The American story is, in part, a Muslim story.  

Dan and I saw Part One of Tony Kushner's epic play, "Angels in America" at the Round House Theater in Bethesda on Saturday.  The production marks the 25th anniversary of the play, evocative timing for us.  We were married in my home town of St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 3rd, 1993. Immediately after our wedding we drove to New York so that I could attend a retreat that was required as part of the internship I had that year.  I like to say that I spent my honeymoon alone in a Passionist Monastery, but that's not entirely true.  After the retreat, I met Dan and my maid-of-honor Helena Hedman in New York City.  The highlight of our weekend together was seeing Part One of "Angels in America" at the Walter Kerr theater where it had opened just a couple of months before.

It was one of the most memorable pieces of theater I've ever seen.  The plot revolves around two couples whose lives and relationships are coming apart:  a Morman husband and wife who beginning to acknowledge the husband's homosexuality and a gay couple, one of whom is becoming progressively more sick with AIDS.  But the story does not stay small--the characters include Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg and scenes take place in the world of reality and fantasy, from New York to Antartica. The show is three and a half hours long, culminating in the arrival of an angel who crashes through the roof of the theater and announces, "The great work begins!  The messenger has arrived."

Twenty-five years later, it wasn't that last scene that made the strongest impression on me, but the first.  The show opens with a funeral for the grandmother of Lewis, the partner to the man who is sick with AIDS.  An elderly rabbi (played memorably by Meryl Streep in the 2003 HBO adaptation of the play) gives the eulogy, admitting at the start that he didn't know the deceased personally.  But he continues, saying that he knows the kind of person she was, an immigrant who brought an ancient culture with her when she immigrated to America.  She worked the earth of the Old World "into the bones" of her children and grandchildren.  He concludes, 

You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not anymore exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is. 

Collapse and chaos threaten to overwhelm the characters in Kushner's play.  Lest we forget, by that point over a million Americans were infected with HIV and effective treatment was still a ways off.  By 1993, the disease had killed almost 150,000 people. But by placing that story into an epic context with visitors from the past and visitors from heaven, Kushner insists that we do more than grieve or rage in response.  We must link our story to the Great Voyages of our ancestors.  We must recognize that we are living out not only our own little dramas, but also the Great Drama of our country, our time.  We understand this chapter better when we understand the ones that came before.

But part of understanding our history is recognizing that our lives also matter.  That was a powerful assertion for a gay man to make in 1993 and it still feels bold today.  I admire Gorbah Hamed and every other Muslim American who will stand up in the presence of these candidates and the rest of us and insist that the story of this election and the story of our country includes the story of their lives.

Does Integration Require Intention?


I think intention is over-rated.  The word certainly has its appeal--an "intentional community" sounds much more important than a community that has come together through luck and circumstance.  I vow, on a fairly regular basis, to be "more intentional" in my prayer life or my relationship with my spouse or or with my eating habits.  This usually means that I'm going to Try Harder to Do Better in these areas.  But I know what happens to all of those good intentions. They don't last long.  Intention is taxing.

I think design is under-rated. I learned this first as the parent of toddlers. I had no idea how to foster in them the intention to (for example) gently handle breakable things.  So I got them plastic plates and cups and put the breakable things out of reach.  I eventually realized I could apply the same principle to managing myself.  If I want to read more, I need to put a book next to my bed and leave my laptop on my desk in my office.  I want to give money to my church so I set up automatic payments from the checking account at the beginning of each month and stop thinking about it completely.  I've worked hard to design my daily routines so that running, praying and writing all happen without a lot of intention on my part.

Maybe that's why I like Columbia, Maryland so much.  Jim Rouse, the developer who planned this community, had all sorts of good intentions about what would happen here.  People of different races and ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds would live together in harmony. People would feel connected to nature and to their neighbor.  Rouse designed the community with these intentions in mind.  Single family homes were built near townhouses and apartments.  Bike paths wound their way through everyone's back yard and opaque fencing was prohibited.  Mail kiosks required everyone to leave their homes to get their mail, increasing the chance that they'd bump into their neighbor and have a chat.  

Jim Rouse required all the developers who built and sold homes in Columbia to sign a non-discrimination agreement (this was before the Fair Housing Act of 1974).  And he directly marketed his development to African-American families in Baltimore.  But he didn't require the residents who moved to Columbia to make any declarations about their intention to help build a mixed, open community.  The design was supposed to take care of that.  People didn't need to have a big commitment to Rouse's vision--they could come to Columbia because they liked the housing stock or the pools or the location or the schools.  They would then find themselves living in a mixed community and would come to value it as they experienced it.

Does that model still work?  Can design sustain integration--or does it need intention?

I've been thinking about that question ever since I attended two talks this past Tuesday by Rob Breymaier, the Executive Director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center.  On Tuesday evening, Breymaier gave a talk entitled "Sustaining Racial Integration in Housing in Columbia: Exploring the Model of Oak Park, Ill.," sponsored by the Columbia Association.  On Tuesday morning, I got a preview of that conversation at a less formal conversation with Breymaier sponsored by Leadership Howard County as part of their "This Just In" series.  Both talks were well-attended and included lots of questions from the audience.

Oak Park, Illinois, was an almost-completely white community 40 years ago, but nearby neighborhoods Chicago were "turning over" at a rapid rate.  Over the course of just a few years, entirely white neighborhoods would become entirely black due to "block busting" which took advantage of the fears of the white residents of the city after the riots of 1968.  Oak Park decided to respond to these changes with a proactive effort to build an integrated community.  The Housing Center, founded in 1972, was a big piece of that response.  Its focus is rental housing which comprises 40% of Oak Park's total housing stock.  The Housing Center offers free apartment referrals, assistance to property owners and managers, as well as support and training of private realtors.  

Rob Breymaier summed up his work this way:  convincing white people that it is okay to live in racially integrated neighborhoods.  They help people generate the intention they need to help Oak Park remain integrated.

Breymaier was absolutely certain that their work is as necessary now as it was when Oak Park began its effort to integrate.  "Without the Housing Center, Oak Park would remain diverse," he said, "but it wouldn't remain integrated."  He pointed out the example of several other communities that had "re-segregated" after they backed off from their intentional efforts to manage and sustain integration.  "We know that everyone carries implicit racial bias," he said.  "Racial segregation is essentially the manifestation of lots of people's implicit bias."  The good intentions of various individuals do not sustain integrated neighborhoods.

The CA-sponsored talk on Tuesday evening ended on a provocative note.  Breymaier put up an image of Columbia from the Cooper Center's amazing Racial Dot Map:


In these maps, each race is represented by a different color:  blue for white, green for black, red for Asian, yellow for Hispanic, and brown for other races.  Clearly not every neighborhood in Columbia is equally mixed.  Some areas are mostly blue dots (while) and some are mostly green (black) or red (Asian).  If you know Columbia, you will immediately see the neighborhoods with a lot of rental housing--they are the ones with a lot of green dots.  Rental property is almost 35% of all the housing stock in Columbia, I'm told.

So after showing those maps, Breymaier asked the obvious question:  Could Columbia (or Howard County as a whole) benefit from an organization like the Oak Park Housing Center?  Which is to say, if some organization isn't tasked with convincing white people to rent an apartment in Columbia, will we end up with a segregated community? 

I find such an idea bizarre.  There are some really affordable, attractive apartments in Columbia that would give a renter access to all that this community has to offer.  Housing can be really expensive in this area.  Doesn't the market supply enough of an incentive to move here?  

But then I think of some of the community meetings I attended over the past couple of years in Oakland Mills where the Village Board and other neighbors talked about revitalizing our Village Center.  The "implicit bias" was quite explicit.  "Those people" in the nearby rental housing were charged with dragging down our schools and our property values.  The Board's revitalization plan was created with the clear intention of reducing the amount of rental housing--and in Columbia, less rental housing means a less integrated community.  Individuals (notably Reg Avery, a Columbia Association board member) spoke up for the value of integration, but none had an organization behind them.  My husband and I struggled to figure out how to speak up for our values in these conversations.  But who were we to say, "This isn't what Columbia is all about," when most members of the Oakland Mills Village board had lived in Columbia 30 years more than we have?

Maybe Jim Rouse's 50 year old intentions aren't enough to sustain integration in Columbia, especially as we redesign his original plan.  If the design Rouse created is losing its ability to sustain racial integration, then we will have to start generating some clear and positive intention to prevent segregation.  In order to do that, Rob Breymaier is clear.  White people need to talk to other white people about why integration is a community value, and talk about why segregation violates that value.  

Columbia may need that campaign soon.  This year's presidential race shows that our country needs that conversation now.  As a recent article in Washington Monthly put it, "white people who live in segregated white suburban communities are much more alarmed about demographic change (the browning of America) than white people who live and work in pluralistic communities."  Which side are we on?