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?


Here's Something That Really Might Build Civility

KC Member Ada Iris Jaime sent me this to post for her:

Since attending K.C. I have asked myself, “What can I bring to the table and offer those who are giving me such nurturing bread?” One day I heard my heart voice the desire to talk to Heather about the ideas that tossed around in my head. She gave me a great smile and suggested I call a "FOCUS group" to help put the ideas to action.

I am putting together a group that would work together to co-create a cross-cultural outreach program based at K.C., reaching out to Spanish-speaking people in Howard County who are hungry not just to improve their English, but to connect to share their culture and connect to the culture in which they live. I am hungry to work and live in a community that cares for each other, as I know so many others are too.

A word about my own background will help to explain my approach:

In my 20's I lived a most exciting life in Seville, Spain where I accidentally on purpose became the spearhead of change in the way the Language Institute where I taught English and Spanish approached their curriculum for college exchange students. Students from all over the world came together in Sevilla to learn Spanish, and local university students attended the institute to learn English, not to mention all the other languages that were offered at the institute. It was so invigorating to walk the hallways and hear conversations in all different languages from people of all different colors, shapes and sizes. I noticed most of the students limited their interactions with classmates and rarely ventured out on their own into the community. Everyone stayed in a group and clustered around those similar to them. Something about this didn’t seem right to me. I knew there was an opportunity waiting for something else.

As a young foreigner myself, I also initially had difficulty integrating in the society I planted myself in and I knew the language. So, it wasn’t a language barrier that kept me apart, something else was preventing me from reaching into the community and this something else, I feel is experienced by all foreigners at one time. I lived trying to co-exist as a foreigner (keeping true to my way of doing things at home) and was tormented by the thoughts of isolation because I saw everything as their way. I wanted that feeling to go away but it was constant and I didn’t know how to initiate social discovery. I knew I had to reach out but didn’t know how. My father's only consistent advice to me when I whined of homesickness was, "When in Rome do like the Romans". And I consistently responded, "I'm in Spain, Dad, not Italy.”

It took me awhile to get what my dad meant, but finally I got it. I had to become one with them to be present with them and therefore no longer will I be alone. I made it my intention to seek to understand and discover what was going on before me and not judge or compare things the way I was accustom to do things (this took effort but became easier as I practiced). Finally I was really awaken to how things are there and experienced it, and had no need to go in my mind anywhere else.

I began to view the world at the people level, with an open-mind and explore with them, meaning just to smile and look people in the eye inviting myself into their lives and allowing them to show me what surrounded us. I began to talk to strangers, waiters, cab drivers, students, clergy, talk politics with Pepe and Manolo who sat at a park bench cursing at a daily news line (I learned many new expressions I could never repeat), play with Pedrito soccer, at the market ask Maria how do you prepare this or that dish, dance with flamenco dancers, and write poetry under the scent of jasmine and azhar.

I found I had to only approach them once, and then they called me over as I passed, “Hola Morena, venid”. The tables turned quickly and they began to ask me the who, what and whys of my country and the people of America and those Yankees. It was awesome to be a spokesperson. I got to know myself at a deeper level and laugh at myself and cherish what I was receiving and what I left behind.

My life in Sevilla changed me right before my eyes and this lesson had to be shared with those who I saw before me doing as I did, living as a tourist and not experiencing the world around them. I knew I had to teach them more than what they could read and write on a postcard. I would tell students my story,

“It wasn't until I sat with anyone and everyone that Seville opened up to me. I realized I lived in Seville. Wow, I no longer considered myself a foreigner, I lived there, I was a part of all that surrounded me. Anyone can take ownership of where they are at if only they follow the way of entering community and limit self to the invitation of show me, tell me, explore with me how is it that... smile and receive.”

I took my students into the community, I organized soccer and basketball games mixing local kids and the exchange students, chess games at the park with the older generation. I brought Maria into my house to teach us how to cook. Later Maria wouldn’t have it with my cooking-challenged kitchen and obligated me to take them to her house. After awhile it was my students inviting me to activities they had conjured with their friends in the community. My students left family when the got on a plane home. Months later they were back on holiday with their parents sharing community in the bars, parks, historic sites, the Plaza Mercado (market place). The feedback was amazing. What was more amazing was hearing Manolo at age 82 try to speak English for the first time.

Other classes wanted to do what we where doing, so, I began coordinating activities for all the language arts teachers. Students regardless of the language had to go out into the community and give of themselves and invite others to share in the experience. Everyone benefited from the dialogues, no one left without experiencing Sevilla. And as they say, “Si no has visto Sevilla, no has visto maravilla” –“If you haven’t seen Sevilla you haven’t seen wonder.” Those years remain in my heart as the greatest wonder.

This experience is the seed to my cross-cultural concept for exploration with the members at K.C. and the community.

I want us to unite with an open and compassionate heart and brainstorm ways to explore how we can be a vehicle of inclusion for those who have planted themselves and their families amongst us and feel they are alone or limit their exploration of our world to that which is familiar to them. I want our lives to be shared with all who live in our community from within our church stretching out as far as God allows us to take it.

My first burning desire is to explore ways we can "Seek to understand to then be understood." Walk as Jesus did, side by side with anyone and everyone with a need or listening heart and offer of ourselves so they can open their spirit of union and co-create community. “Voila”--we find ourselves enriched and at home anywhere we go. We get to know each other. Love our neighbor. It was that simple to undertake when I lived in Sevilla; why not try it over here?

I feel richness invade me as I look across the room and receive a smile from a shining face at K.C., that’s all I need to continue on my journey. I am comforted by resting. I’m home. I want wholeheartedly to offer this smile to those who do not know what is out their beyond the safety and isolation of their walls. So much to share and the only barrier I have found is not to seek the opportunity for something else to happen. Walk with thy neighbor and be blessed along the journey where the spirit will lead us.

Whose Civility?

Last week's weekly email newsletter from the Oakland Mills Village Center included a comment that caught my attention, and provided some new fodder for my on-going conversation (with myself and anyone who will listen) about the possibilities and limits of Howard County's Choose Civility Campaign.

The goals of this campaign are "to enhance respect, empathy, consideration and tolerance in Howard County." No argument there. But it seeks to do this by teaching and reinforcing 25 "rules" for conduct. Is that what we really need? Or do lists of rules end up undermining the very things that would lead us to act "civilly" to each other?

Case in point:

We are facing challenges with the housing market and as a result several homes in Oakland Mills remain unsold and vacant. We have neighbors who are struggling to keep their homes or face foreclosure. The Oakland Mills staff receives calls daily about newspapers accumulating on driveways, leaves not raked etc. Our Covenant Advisor Debbie Bach makes every attempt to contact homeowners and realtors to request that properties are maintained. We are here to help the residents, and spend a lot of time listening to residents and do what we can to help them get through their challenging situations.

There are many neighborly acts of kindness that everyone can do to help one another. If you see that papers are accumulating and you know that the home is vacant, please take a minute to pick up the papers and put it out with your weekly recycling. If you know a neighbor may be facing some tough times stop by, give a call, see if there is something you can do to help them out. Often people who are facing life’s challenges feel like they are all alone and simple acts of kindness can go a long, long way.

To me, this note suggests the limits of rule-based community relationships. If I am walking through my neighborhood and see a house with unraked leaves I can think, "Here's someone in violation of the community covenant! I should report them!" Or, I can think, "I wonder if I my neighbor needs help?"

The later response is, in the end, the response that builds community. It's the response which on which creates the kind of neighborhood where people want to live. And that, in the end, is how best to get people to rake their leaves, pick up their papers and bring in their trash cans. I do those things NOT because there are rules telling me what to do. I do them because I know my neighbors and I want to honor them and the world we are building together.

A Poem About the Cold Weather Shelter

Carol Buell, KC's Poet Laureate, sent this note:

Monday night I slept over at the Cold Weather Shelter and was very moved by how cordial almost all of the guests were and saddened as well by all of it. I wrote this poem.

Homeless Shelter -- Old Barn Church
Columbia, Maryland
February 2008

The lofty-ceilinged barn
Is sheltering the poor,
Keeping them dry and warm
In stone walls heavy and secure.

A night or two, a week,
A place to lay the limbs,
A place to lay the head,
A moment's bed,
Keeping out the chills.
The fear of future dims,
The ache in hearts a moment stills.

All of us this moment seek,
When, scared and lonely, we are caught
In sheltering arms and brought
A brief respite from the storm,
And so we give each other
The courage to go on.

Love, Carol Buell

Notes from the Cold Weather Shelter

This week, our church is hosting Howard County's "Cold Weather Shelter"--the overflow shelter for the area, hosted by a different church each week during the colder months, and administered by Grassroots, our area's crisis counseling center. What this means is that there are around 25 men and women, 5 children and 1 infant living in our church building at the moment, sleeping on foam mats on the floor, eating breakfast and dinner, watching TV, taking a shower, and generally doing life. It makes for an interesting week.

Last night, my daughter's Brownie troop was in charge of making bag lunches for everyone. We assembled them at one family's house, and then seven 8 and 9 year old girls and about 5 parents brought them to the church. Before making sandwiches, I sat with the girls and talked a little about why people might be homeless, and what we can do to help. I've had this talk with kids before, and I began as I usually do by asking, "If, for some reason, you and your family could no longer live in your house, where do you think you would go to live?"

I ask this question in order to help kids think about their "social safety net" and how important it is. So, most of the time, kids talk about staying with their extended families or their friends. Then, I can point out how much we rely on each other, and how we need to become the extended family of people who don't have those connections for whatever reason.

Last night, a number of the girls did talk about staying with family, with their friends or with their parents' friends. But the conversation took a slightly different turn that I expected when the first girl to answer my question said quite thoughtfully, "Well, in the winter, I think we would go stay in the Cold Weather Shelter. In the summer I think we would be alright sleeping outside, or staying in a tent." Her mother, who was standing next to me, looked a little shocked at the idea of their family of five living outside, but the girl didn't seem particularly anxious about it. Then another Brownie suggested her family's plan would be to "live in the woods and build a log cabin for the winter." That got another girl going on how she had visited Lafayette Park in DC and seen people sleeping on park benches there. She had given one of them the fifty cents she had on her. The other girls nodded in approval.

I was intrigued. My plan had been to highlight the things that prevent homelessness, but instead these girls jumped right to imagining themselves as homeless, living in a shelter, in the woods or even on a park bench. It's not a bad way to build empathy. When we brought the lunches to the church, all the girls were disappointed the kids weren't "home", but had gone to the library. As we drove back home, we passed the central library, and one of the girls pointed it out. "That's where the kids are now," she said, peering out the window. "They're probably doing their homework, or playing on the computer." She clearly was imagining herself in their situation.

I wish we could have experiences like that every week, every month. There are plenty of places where adults can volunteer to help homeless or poor people, but very few places for kids to do so in a direct way. And going to a shelter or a meal program is not the same as meeting and serving people in your own church, which in many ways is like your own home. I love to see people from KC just hanging around and talking to the shelter guests--everyone seems relaxed and at ease around each other. Our care for each other feels more natural in such a setting. It feels familial, friendly. It feels like the beginnings of a social (and not just an institutional) safety net.

More on the Route 1 Homeless Project

Anne Dunn, a member of our community, has been coordinating the Route 1 Homeless Project. For Anne, this work feels very much like a call, not just a job. With her permission, I'm reprinting here the report Anne submitted to the Howard County Homelessness board. I think Anne did a great job communicating some of the possibilities she envisions for this work.

Here's what Anne wrote:

Since December 2nd, churches have delivered 519 meals to persons living in the woods, in their cars or in motels along the Route 1 corridor. The number of persons served has averaged 20 per week, but the number varies each week.

In this process we have learned a great deal about these people and their needs. Each individual has a different story and different circumstances that have caused their homelessness. Some live in camps of 2 or in one case 4, but some live totally alone. Some have hope of better times, and others seem resigned to their circumstances. Many have either experienced shelters or have heard reports of shelters and feel this is not an acceptable alternative for them. Some of the comments have been, “If I go in a shelter with the little bit I have, I will come out with less.” A number of them do not seem to be able to cope with the crowding, and in some cases it might not be prudent to put them into a situation where there are people living and sleeping in close proximity. Others have expressed concern about drinking and drug use in shelters. For others it is the rules, and loss of freedom as they see it. For some, the familiar is more acceptable than the unknown. Some seem equipped to live in these circumstances; others are much more vulnerable.

We have found people with jobs, one who receives unemployment, people who panhandle to meet their needs, and others who have no evident source of support.

During the very cold weather we were able to meet the needs of these individuals to ensure their safety. For some it meant providing tents, extra blankets, and propane heaters designed to be used in tents so they could find enough warmth to carry them through. Two went into motels during the Code Blue nights, and one actually ended up going into a shelter at the end of the week.

As the churches have gone out to serve these people, we have found individuals who were sick and needed food and warmth. We have found a mother with three children having surgery for a brain tumor and needing subsequent chemotherapy. One woman had been living in her car that had not run since September 30th. As we have encountered these people, the churches have responded to their needs. We regularly provide clothes (particularly outerwear), hygiene items, boots, and other requested items. In some cases it is as simple as dry socks and blankets; in others it has been far more extensive.

As people have expressed their needs for help the churches have responded. In the case of the lady having surgery, she would not ask for help because she was afraid her children would be taken from her. But once the church learned of her needs they “adopted” the family and began to help her get on her feet again. They made sure the children were taken care of, they took the children to visit their mother in the hospital, they began working on getting her voucher for housing. She had gone through the process and been approved for a voucher, but because of her health issues, she had not been able to follow through. The church took this on by contacting her caseworker and helping this woman to work through the process when she did not have the strength or means to do so herself. They secured the voucher, found her a home and went in on one weekend and fixed up the house so she could move from her motel room to a home. They are also working with the children to provide for their needs including working with the older child who had dropped out of school due to the moving around to get him into a program to get his GED. All of this happened in a little over a month.

The woman who had been living in her car for 4 months had been trying to get a job, but was hampered by the fact that she had no means of transportation. A church member offered to work on her car and in less than a week, she had a car that ran and made the decision to go into a shelter so she could avail herself of the services there to help her get some medical care and support for finding a job. She is still currently in the shelter.

To date, 19 churches have expressed an interest in being involved with this project. Each week, new churches join those ranks. There is a tremendous interest from the Howard County churches to help meet the needs of the homeless people. The experience is that they respond on multiple levels with vast resources to provide assistance.

Awareness has increased as to the needs, and maybe most importantly, relationships are being formed with these people in need, and they are experiencing a sense that someone cares about them.


           As many of you know one of my challenges is setting appropriate boundaries for my time and energy.  It is so hard for me to balance "taking care of myself" and taking care of others.  I have prayed for healing in his area for a long time. My tendency to do too much for others and burn myself out is deep seated and may even be genetic.  My mother before me did the same thing and so did her mother before her. 

            One day recently I was in the midst of preparing holiday dinner for 16 family members and I was "taking care of myself" by going to the therapy pool for my arthritis.  That day, Jean was at the pool.  Jean has known me and loved me for 30+ years.  She told me:  "Normale I think this year you are going to get the award for most improved boundary setter"   

            There is a thin line between being happy and proud of myself and being arrogant.  When Jean said that, I was so happy and proud of myself.  I was just about to step over the line into arrogance when I started to get this strong knowing that I needed to stop by the Nursing Home and visit Jan on the way home from arthritis swim class.

            One of my yearly recommitment commitments for the last couple years has been "to allow God to use me without consulting me".  Since I am over scheduled most of my life, it is almost always inconvenient when God is "using me without consulting me".  It is only in the last few weeks since I have lived into my boundary setting healing more that it has occurred to me that if I am going to make this commitment yearly, it would be a sign of healing for me to leave some space in my life for God to use me without consulting me.  Keeping a life schedule as tight as mine is counter-productive to God using me without consulting me and it is counterproductive to me learning to set appropriate boundaries and take care of myself better.
            When I asked God to heal me so I could set more appropriate boundaries, I had a very definite idea of what "setting appropriate boundaries" looks like.  I had a clear vision of how I will be different when I am healed.  I had just visited Jan the day before and so my vision of "taking care of myself better" definitely did not include an unscheduled stop to visit Jan the day before my big dinner party.  A little voice inside of me was saying "Jean just gave you a at-a-girl for your improved boundary setting .. you can't just live into that and be happy … no-o-o …. you have to rush off to visit Jan… get thee hence Satan … you can't pull me back into my old ways....  Then there was this other voice in my head:  "Is this God using you without consulting you?... no God would not ask you to fit yet another thing into this day".
            And so it went back and forth… Was it my sickness of doing too much for too many calling me to visit Jan or was it God trying "use me without consulting me"?  I just could not shake that feeling.  I had to go see Jan. 
            The bottom line is, when I arrived, Jan's situation was desperate.  She had been moved to a new room, dumped there and forgotten with no telephone to call for help until I arrived.   When I arrived at the nursing home, I was standing on "Holy Ground".  It was one of those moments when God pokes a divine finger through my ordinary life and makes my life extra-ordinary.
            What I learned from that situation was that although it is important to hold a vision of what it will look like when I am healed, I can't be rigid about that vision.  Sometimes the very nature of my disease makes it hard to see what being fully healed looks like.
So thanks to God and community, I have made great progress with my setting appropriate boundaries healing and I realize anew that I cannot do this alone.  My healing is not something that happens and then it is done. 
            As I age there are going to be more and more aspects of my body that will not "heal" if I define healing as having my body completely "normal".  As I age sometimes healing may be about a shift in attitude rather than physical healing.  Maybe healing will be about being grateful for the percentage of my body that does work and figuring out a way to accept with love the percentage of my body that does not work. 
            I can pray for healing and have this rigid vision of how the situation has to change for me to consider myself healed.  If I pray for healing in that way, my healing depends on my opinion of what "healed" looks like.  I may or may not consider myself healed.
            Or I can pray for healing knowing, in faith, that the healing has already begun and that my task is to notice, with gratitude, what healing looks like.  To notice with gratitude what has shifted in me mentally, physically or spiritually, even though I have not healed physically the way I hoped.  
            My healing cannot be blue printed and demanded to be a certain way.  My healing is a process and must have soft edges that join with my connection to the Oneness of God because what "healed" looks like changes in every moment.

Problems With Choosing Civility, Part 2

The Choosing Civility campaign arises from an observation that the unpleasant encounters we have in public spaces--people cutting us off in traffic and flipping the bird to other drivers, people cutting in line or acting snotty in the food store, people letting their dogs poop on the sidewalk--have a big impact on our happiness. P. M. Forni, the author of "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct", is undeniably onto something important when he writes in the last chapter of his book, "Just about the most important thing we do in life is interacting with other human beings.... A better quality of human interaction makes for a better life--a saner, more meaningful, healthier, and happier life." Who could disagree? I certainly don't.

But how do we achieve a "better quality of human interaction"? Dr. Forni suggests we do so by emphasizing 25 (or more!) rules for behavior. This is where he and I part company. While I know that rules can force us to act "civily" towards each other, I think they can actually undermine the quality of our interactions. To really improve our behavior we need something much deeper, something that observing rules can actually impede.

This may seem like a strange point of view for a Christian pastor. I mean, what's the point of religion if it's not for imposing rules? Well, that turns out to be a point that Jesus has a lot to say about. Although you wouldn't know if from a lot of the Christian rhetoric that gets spouted today, the main thing that ticked Jesus off was the hypocritical behavior of religious rule-followers.

Take, for example, the story of the Good Samaritan, one of Jesus' best known parables. Jesus tells that story in order to answer the question, "Who is my neighbor?", so the parable is really a commentary about choosing civility. He describes a scene where a man has been attacked by robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite walk past without helping him, but a Samaritan, a social pariah, goes out of his way to help the hurt man.

This story is not really about how the Samaritan understands the rules of civility and the priest and Levite don't. The whole reason why the priest and the Levite don't stop is because they are following rules, religious rules that specify that touching a bleeding person will make them ritually unclean. The people who are following the rules stay separate from their neighbor in distress, and the person who doesn't give a rip for the rules is the one who is able to respond with spontaneous compassion.

That parable has had a very strong affect on how I understand what motivates moral behavior towards others. If I go out into the world with rules on my mind, the first thing that I will notice about someone is whether or not they are following the rules. If they aren't, I will, without thinking about it, judge that person as part of the problem. I'll distance myself from them, emotionally and almost inevitably physically. Like the priest or the Levite, I'll cross to the other side.

But what if I go into the world like that good Samaritan? Which is to say, what if I go into the world with a sense of myself as someone who's entitled to nothing, someone who's entire life depends on grace? Then I discover that there is grace in my heart for other people, and room in my world for them too. Then I find my life expresses Forni's most important rules: I pay attention to the world around me (#1), I acknowledge others (#2), and make room in my life and world for them (#3, #4, #5).

Choosing Civility (Or Not) in Oakland Mills

For the past several months, our local libraries have been handing out free magnetic bumper stickers that say "Choose Civility in Howard County". Apparently this isn't just an attempt to distinguish our county as more civilized than barbaric Montgomery County or seedy Anne Arundel County (I keep imagining signs at the county line saying "You are now leaving Howard County--please feel free to act like a jerk.") but rather an attempt to bring back a code of conduct in public spaces that seems (to some people at least) to have eroded over the past several decades.

The "Choose Civility" campaign got its inspiration from a book by P. M. Forni, founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project. As part of the initiative, there have been a number of discussions of Forni's book, including one tomorrow in my neighborhood, Oakland Mills. On Wednesday, November 28th, our church will also host a discussion of the book as one of the options for our Spiritual Education Evening. So, to get the conversation rolling a bit, I thought I'd post of a few of my thoughts about civility here over the next several weeks. It also occurred to me that blogging about the topic in advance might help me be...more civil during the book discussions. There are a few things I need to get off my chest.

The fact of the matter is, this campaign drives me crazy. The main reason for this is the subtitle of Forni's book: "Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct". I (#1) don't really think "rules" are the best basis for moral conduct and (#2) twenty-five is just way too many.

Before I get to my more serious point #1, I can't help but linger for a moment on #2. Twenty-five rules?? Have you seen how small the print is on the bookmark the library is handing out with all 25 listed? I bet most people don't read past #4. This might not be such a bad thing, since I personally think the most important rule is #1 ("Pay Attention"), but I wish Forni had stopped there. I wonder if he could site them all with his eyes closed? And once you read the book, you realize there are actually way more than 25 rules. Most rules have sub-rules--just look at #11, "Mind Your Body". I was trying to count the rules in that chapter, but lost track because by the time I got past 20 (no sniffling??) I had to throw the book across the room.

If Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, sponsor of a bill to post the Ten Commandments in both houses of congress, couldn't list more than three of the ten, what's the hope for us?

More thoughtful critique to come....

I Believe in Halloween

I occasionally joke that Halloween is the only holiday of the year that I really, truly enjoy. That probably says more about my problems with a lot of other holidays (high expectations that are never met, the impossibility of making the magic happen at both church and home, etc.) but I do look forward to October 31st at least as much as my kids do. In a few more years, I have a feeling I'll be loving it even more than them.

Why? Over the past few years I've become more aware of the complicated feelings many Christians have about the holiday. Some are so turned off by the connection to the Rosa_the_mermaid occult that they refuse to participate entirely. Others make careful negotiations--no witches allowed, but its okay to dress as a princess. Others let their kids dive in head first, but watch it all with a great sense of unease, waiting for it to all be over.

And in response, other Christians argue that Halloween is a ritual that has become detached from any pagan or dark-spirited roots it once had. It's "just" fun, it really means nothing, so participating shouldn't be any big deal.

But I for one want to participate in Halloween, not because it means nothing, but because I really believe in the values that lie underneath it. It don't think the core values of Halloween glorify practitioners of dark magic. I believe in Halloween because:

1. I believe in walking around your neighborhood, knocking on doors and chatting with your neighbors. I don't do this nearly enough, and I love the fact that on one night of the year, it's not only okay, it's expected. I love the idea that behind each door there is a neighbor waiting for me and my kids with a treat. Okay, so this year, some of my neighbors on Good Lion Road, Columbia (I will resist the urge to list house numbers) weren't exactly prepared for us, but at least most of them opened the door and chatted and admired the kids' costumes. Having interacted once makes it so much easier to say hi again the next time we meet, and before you know it, we're building community.

2. I believe in talking to kids. I know that kids aren't supposed to talk to strangers--just like every other parent I know, I've drilled that one into my kids' heads. But on Halloween, with me and Dan standing nearby, my kids talk to every stranger they meet. And the strangers talk to them--admiring their creativity or bravery, cracking jokes, expressing concern about their safety and their diet. Before you know it, these people aren't exactly strangers anymore. Before you know it, they are people who my kids are allowed to talk to, encouraged to talk to. And that's just on Halloween night itself. I've noticed that a lot of adults use Halloween as a conversation starter for a good month before the event. "Are you going out for Halloween this year? What are you going to dress up as?" That's good small talk. And most adults I know have at least one story from their own experience of Halloween that kids would really get a kick out of hearing.

3. I believe in facing what scares you. At the heart of the Christian gospel is the promise that life is about more than the avoidance of pain or discomfort, and that at the other side of our greatest fears is God's greatest promise. That may sound like a bit more meaning than dressing up as a zombie deserves, but I think there is a relationship between that promise and the rituals of Halloween. My kids are--even at their advanced age--still a bit scared of ghouls and ghosts and aliens. So why not take on that persona for a night and laugh at it? Why not walk around in a group and delight in seeing a vampire on your own street? I can hardly think of a better way to confront a fear. Halloween, in this regard, is really good practice for life.

What am I missing? Are there other reasons YOU love Halloween?