Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Punch in the Stomach

Last night, my congregation hosted the local interfaith emergency housing program. Basically, that means homeless people sleep in our church and we provide food. Some folks who provide food will stay and eat, too. I'm usually one of the ones who sits down to eat with our guests for the evening. I often get the side-cocked head of confusion when I tell them I'm the pastor, but it's mostly good, easy conversation.

Well, kind of. It's weird conversation because it's a weird set-up. I feel weird even talking about this program that makes me feel a bit self-righteous because oh, look at us, we help the homeless. And it's awkward for our guests, too, because, hey, everyone in the room knows beyond a doubt that they are homeless. So I try to make it less weird. I introduce myself and ask their name. I ask about their life beyond being homeless. Where they grew up. What they like to do. I want to see them as more than homeless, as people. It has always seemed like something Jesus would do.

During last night's dinner conversation, we were talking about movies and what new movies we'd like to see. As I proclaimed my love of horror movies, which I often do, the conversation naturally turned to The Purge: Anarchy. It's the recently released sequel to The Purge. The basic premise of both movies is that for one night a year all crime is legal. Murder is included in that. I have yet to see the first one, but one of my dining companions had.

"You know," he said, "I really didn't like that part where they killed all the homeless people."

And silence took the place of words. Because what do you say to that? What could I say to that? I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach.

What could I say when reality trumps ideals? Yes, the people I had dinner with last night are people. They are neighbors Jesus calls me to love. They bear the image of God. I do those people a disservice when I dehumanize them--we all do--but I also do those people a disservice when I don't see them as homeless. Like it or not, homeless is part of their identity, especially when they're sleeping in my church.

And homeless means vulnerable in a way most of us never experience.

Homeless means mostly sleeping where you could be attacked. At the very least, you could be ridiculed and harassed because the broader culture says that's ok. Oh, and you know how we're taught to worry that the homeless person is high on drugs? Or drunk? Or mentally ill? Those same worries exist when you are homeless. It doesn't help that popular culture continues to say, "These are the people who don't matter." I'm not much help when I want to talk about things other than being homeless. For better or worse, "homeless" dictates a lot that goes on in the life of homeless person.

I wish I knew what to do with all that. I wish I had some great revelation to share. Mostly, I'm just pondering the fact that adjectives do matter and that it's ok to let them matter. Sometimes, loving my neighbor means loving my homeless neighbor in particular.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Train Ride

The guy was dressed head to toe in Cubs gear, having obviously been to support his favorite team at the game. He was ready to talk to anyone. He joked with the teenager who had a teddy bear in an Arizona Diamondbacks t-shirt. "You put a cub in that?"

A stop or two later, another man got on the train. This guy's clothes were shabbier; I'd bet he was a far more regular rider. He was wearing an Arizona Cardinals t-shirt. The Cubs guy had to jump on that, arguing that baseball was the better sport, not lowly football. Cardinals guy wasn't biting. Cubs guy then started an argument with him about whether or not there are actually cardinals in Arizona. It was a calculated move, so calculated that one of the people standing nearby said, "What you're trying to start a fight about is stupid. Stop it." Yes, random man on the train, you are correct.

Cubs guy did stop, for a while, but tried to make conversation with a couple other folks. The train was crowded; there were plenty of other possibilities. When Cardinals guy got off the train, Cubs guy tried to talk to me. "You taking the number…?" I don't remember what bus he asked about. I said no and refused to make eye contact, again. I'd figured out early on that this guy was a pretty off. Still, it was a pretty calm train ride overall. Cardinals guy did crowd my space, but my bubble is so large that it doesn't take much.

As in many places in the US, public transit sucks where I live. Out of either conviction or guilt, I take the bus and the train whenever it's actually somewhat convenient. That mostly means trips to the airport or downtown Phoenix. Getting anywhere else is prohibitively complicated and time-consuming. Taking the bus to work would take at least an hour; the drive is under five miles and takes under ten minutes if I miss all the lights.

I'm not going to lie, weird stuff happens on public transit, especially the buses. All the in-person arrests I've seen have been on public transit, though I've yet to see anyone arrested in Phoenix. Sometimes, people make out for extended periods of time. There's always a smelly guy or two. The conversations are often colorful; let's say they're not for the modest. I often think of the kids who are overhearing these conversations, too. I was twice their age before I knew the word they just heard 5 times in under a minute.

Still, I take the bus and the train and wish I could do so more regularly. The world there is different than the world I live in. It's a class difference, especially on the bus. I get that. I know how far into the next town I am based on who's getting on the bus. The divide is visible between a community that's struggling and one that's doing well. I also have the privilege of choosing public transportation when it's convenient for me, not being limited to it.

Public transit reminds me, though, of how different my life is from Jesus' life. It's so rare that I'm in a place with people who need social service agencies unless I'm helping at the social service agency. I'd wager the same is true for most of the people in my congregation. I don't pass beggars on the street; I rarely walk down a street. I'm far away from anyone crying out for help. I rarely pass anyone asking for food. I don't know where the free clinics are and have only a vague idea of where an office of the Department of Economic Security is located.

In short, I participate in a society that has segregated classes, sometimes with frightening intentionality. Things like public transit are reserved for people who can't afford anything else. Serving people who are poor is in well-controlled environments. Relationships with people who are poor are hard to find. It's only in those minutes on a train or a bus that I realize that most of the people on the bus are not the people I encounter in my everyday life. They're literally my neighbors; we get off at the same stop. But I never see them at the grocery store or the gas station. They disappear into places I don't know about.

I can't shake the reality that "Love your neighbor" is really hard if you've never met your neighbor. I can't shake the idea that maybe our poor neighbors wouldn't have it so rough if we did know each other. I can't shake the feeling that a whole herd of the sheep Jesus told us to tend and feed are nowhere to be found. If we spent more time on the buses, we just might notice the neighbors who are missing from our lives.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Forgotten Commandment

I spent last week in western New York state in a lakeside community that is only full nine weeks out of the year. A very few people are year round residents. I was there for a new clergy program and spent the week hearing lectures and good preaching every day, alongside talented colleagues also in their first years of ministry. Nights brought opera, ballet, concerts, and front porch gatherings.

There, among Victorian houses complete with brick walking paths, there was an intentional presence of a bygone era. For those of us who were guests who applied to a program rather than guests who paid for their time there, we had plenty of discussions of privilege and what it meant to walk on those grounds. Retired people could more easily visit than those still working. Those who rented homes and brought their children with them to this place were well above the middle of the middle class. The community was less diverse in race and class than the places we call home.

Even for us, it was a place of leisure, as it was for the other guests. We had wonderful, engaged conversations. "Continuing education" wasn't a misnomer. Yet, I walked along the lake between lectures and the dinner that someone else was preparing. I sat with new friends in the cool of the evening air, talking. (They drink beer; my drink of choice was not available.) Meals brought plenty of laughter and conversation, too. In church world, that sort of re-creation is normally called Sabbath.

In that place of such privilege, I couldn't ignore the privilege of leisure time. I knew before that days off are a privilege not granted to many. Of course I knew that vacations, especially ones away from home, are something many people cannot afford. Then, there are those of us who have jobs that allow us time away and enough money to fund time away, but still feel we can't afford to take it. Leisure always has a not so pretty economic side to it.

But the truth is, it always has. I had to memorize the Ten Commandments in various forms throughout my life. Yes, we covered both numbering systems. Sometimes I had to recite them verbatim, other times I just had to provide the gist.

Among those commandments (which I shall refrain from numbering), the commandment to keep Sabbath has the most explanation--several sentences more explanation than any other, actually. Here's the whole thing, "Observe the sabbath and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day."

 And still, we choose slavery. We choose not to rest. We create and support economic systems that do not allow other people to rest. We enslave ourselves and others, thereby denying God's claim on our life.

Part of the week was joining a Jewish community for their service welcoming the Sabbath--bowing, singing, eating, all out celebrating God's gift of a time of rest. May we all one day celebrate the gift of Sabbath rest.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Bigger than Hobby Lobby

At age 27, I signed up for swim lessons. It took lots of time on Google and perusing swimming schedules and I never did find a group class for adults just learning to swim. Instead, I shelled out $80 for a private instructor. I'm still terrible at the breaststroke and breathing often enough, but I can swim. Actually, I can swim pretty well.

I never learned to swim as a child in part because there wasn't anyone to teach me. Going swimming was also a big deal; pools were few and far between. Giant water parks were hours away. The primary reason that I never learned to swim, though, was that I am female and swimming requires a swimsuit. Those two things were incompatible. By about age 10--that magical age of puberty and accountability--swimsuits were frowned upon by my family. They were immodest. The need for modesty was somehow tied to being Christian, though I don't remember how.

My always chubby but always female body was always carefully guarded, especially in church. Prior to age 20, I had worn pants to church exactly once in my life. There are still Sunday mornings when I pull on a pair of dress pants and there's a quick thought, "Wow, I'm wearing pants to church." In some ways, that's a bigger deal than standing in a pulpit each Sunday. I was not required to cover my head in worship, but that was not uncommon in the area where I grew up. Youth events, even those with wild games, often required skirts for modesty's sake. My hair was very, very long until I was in middle school. Again, that age of accountability thing. By then, I could decide for myself if short hair on a woman is sinful or not. Overall, my family was of the opinion women could have short hair as long as no one was trying to pass for a man. There are biblical prescriptions to go with that as well.

My stories could go on and on. My stories are mild, though, in comparison to others. Teenage girls were discouraged from seeking medical care, especially from a gynecologist, since "no man would want to touch you after that." A friend who dared to purchase colored underwear her first year of college was dragged home since it was clear she had become promiscuous. The colored underwear was burned in a brushfire.

Churches, especially conservative churches, have made a habit of policing women's bodies--clothing, hairstyles, makeup to what they do with those bodies, especially anything that might end in a pregnant body. It's damaging in so many ways. Women learn not only to hate their bodies, but to fear them. Often, they are not taught how to care for their bodies or seek medical care. They're often reduced to only bodies. They learn, from a very young age, that being female means I'm someone the church has to worry about--the kind of worry mixed with fear of this thing in their midst. As is often the unspoken goal, they learn to hide themselves on the margins of the church and all public life.

You might guess by now this has something to do with Hobby Lobby and the recent ruling by the Supreme Court. I disagree with it for all kinds of reasons, but know this: it points to a far bigger problem in our world that has been fed by churches. We keep saying over and over and over that women's bodies are dangerous. They are dangerous when they tempt roving eyes. They are dangerous when they're pregnant, unavoidable evidence of sex. They are dangerous if they are not pure. And, of course, they should always be pretty.

And yes, all of that is lurking behind a corporation claiming religious exemption all the way up to the Supreme Court. There's no easy fix for centuries of treating women as second class citizens; it's clear we're not done yet.

Maybe, just maybe, the Church can lead the way instead of trying to tug things backward. Maybe--if the Church can learn to love our daughters and sisters, bodies and all.