The God of the Bottom

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I live at one of the highest points in the city, Church Hill. This hill on 22nd and Grace (Richmond Hill) has been a place of prayer since 1866. It was likely a place of worship and prayer for Native Americans centuries before because of its view and prominence. I can see the cities sky line from one side, a 270 degree view from another and the river if I go a few blocks over. This hill is a sacred and holy place. It’s a beautiful place. People come here to have an encounter with God and when they leave their face and countenance are visibly changed. It reminds me how Moses went up on Mount Sinai and came down with the 10 commandments and his face glowing. I am also reminded of high places in one of last week’s scripture readings from Isaiah 40, which admonished the reader to go up on a high mountain and sing good tidings about God:

9 You who bring good news to Zion,

go up on a high mountain.

You who bring good news to Jerusalem

lift up your voice with a shout,

lift it up, do not be afraid;

I recognize that this hill is a high place to lift up God’s heart for the city, for prayer, for the Good News of Jesus and of God’s rest and presence. However, about 5 blocks down at the bottom of the hill, Shockhoe Bottom to be exact, I found good news in an unexpected place.

Last Tuesday, I went to Tuesday Versus, an open mic which is housed in an Ethiopian restaurant. The vibe in there is chill, full of mostly grown and sexy young black professionals. Natural hair and stylish caps and clothes prevailed. When I walked in I was hit by some R & B jams blaring from the speakers aided by a live band. The place was packed and I knew it had soul. Just how much I would learn. I was taken aback and pleasantly surprised when a few of the performers gladly took us to church. First, a tall black woman with an asymmetrical red natural hairstyle, quieted the crowd with “Thank You Lord.” Another woman, with a green fitted shirt and pants and cap atop auburn locs, took us deeper into the heart of worship with “I know I’ve been changed.” The audience participated with the chorus with “an angel in heaven done signed my name.” The call and response was lovely and the woman’s voice reverberated throughout the crowd. The song lasted about 10 minutes and gave me chills. I forgot where I was for a moment and was raising my hands and singing at the top of my lungs. The spirit had overtaken the place, more alive and present then I have experienced in a church in a long time. I was reminded how God shows up in both high and low places. He is the God of the mountain top and the God of the valley, the low places, the mangers and the bottoms. God continued to appear in a spoken word poem a gentlemen performed about God manifesting in creativity, in a woman singing of the beauty of love, in a deep, soulful voice.

Advent is a season where we are awake and waiting for God to show up. I love how the spirit moves in mysterious ways, how God shows up in unexpected places, like the savior of the world being born in a manger. Jesus was present at Tuesday Verses, in the poetry, creativity and song, in habiting the people and the place. The performers were shouting good tidings from the bottom (a low place), unafraid and with joy. I am glad that I was awake and present at this appearance of Christ amongst his people. God is with us, that is good news.

A Walk Through History

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During the third week in November, I finished Ben Campbell’s book, Richmond’s Unhealed History, went to the Library of Virginia’s Exhibit “To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade” and walked Richmond’s Slave Trail. I learned many things, but what sticks out is that Richmond had one of the largest slave markets in the country. It is said that nearly 10,000 Africans a month were transported into and out of Richmond. This history was literally buried until a few decades ago and now it has been uncovered and highlighted. I was overwhelmed by the hypocrisy, cruelty and racism that is at the foundation our city and country. Facing the truth is not easy but uncovering these wounds seem necessary to move toward healing, toward reconciliation.

The same week, I attended the 2nd session of Hope in the Cities’ Community Trustbuilding Fellowship, a 5-month training for individuals interested in building bridges of trust over divisions in our community. The focus of the module was the impact of history. We explored how history is always in the room when community building, and it is also entrenched in our land and culture. One of the key things that always comes to my mind as a City Planner is how the interstate highway system, urban renewal and the housing boom of the 50’s and 60’s laid the way for white flight, suburbanization, sprawl, public housing projects and disinvestment in the city. In Richmond, I-95 went right through the city and obliterated, Jackson Ward, a prominent African American neighborhood. That and other highways paved the way for whites to leave the city for the surrounding suburbs. Richmond currently has the highest concentration of poverty in the region and Church hill has almost all of the public housing (which is slated for redevelopment) in the City. This is just one example of how the past and present are connected. It’s taken many of years of racism to get to where we are in America’s racial history. We can not continue to ignore the impact of past traumas on our current situation.

On Saturday, the thirty of us took a walk through history. We started at a confederate monument at Libby Hill Park. Libby Hill was likely a sacred place for Native Americans before colonization and we could also see the docks which would have unloaded enslaved Africans. How do we reconcile the story of Native American genocide and the establishment of the US, of Confederate soldiers and enslaved Africans? I am not completely sure, but we can tell both stories. Maybe we can even acknowledge the other’s hurt and/or ill will. We do not have to agree, but we can understand, forgive and move forward.

On the other side of the river at the Manchester docks, we traversed the woods enslaved Africans would have we walked through bruised, battered and traumatized. to be auctioned off. We joined hands as we walked, descendants of slaves and slave owners, Black and White, Latino and Asian. It was cold, uncomfortable and harrowing to think about, but also a testament of how far we have come. The disparities that continue to mar our landscape speak to how far we need to go. I hope we can go that distance hand and hand, linked together by a desire to build a community of equality, trust and mutual understanding.

While at the reconciliation monument, our last stop along the slave trail, I ran my fingers over the sankofa bird embedded in the sculpture. Sankofa can mean “reach back and get it” or represent the need to reflect on the past to build a successful future. As I think about the Africans who endured hundreds of years of slavery and the racial disparities and police brutality that exist today, I believe we need to fly on the wings of Sankofa instead of embodying ostriches with heads buried in denial and half-truths.

Thirty people begin to do that on a cold Saturday afternoon as walked through history together, hand and hand. I am encouraged that there is a diverse cohort of change agents interested in transforming the hearts and minds of disparate groups through dialogue that can lead to collective action. I believe acknowledging our history and hurts and entering into honest dialogue can begin to break down the stereotypes that lead to racial divisions, tensions and disparities that plague our cities. I was encouraged by these brave trustbuilders, their ability to face the past and willingness to move forward together.

Seeking the Peace of the City

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“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” — Jeremiah 29:7

A few months ago I was at a church ministry fair sitting at a booth promoting Bus Rapid Transit. One older gentleman came up and said “what does public transportation have to do with God?” I went on to quote a few scriptures about God’s desire to redeem places as well as people and seeking the peace of the city, I pointed out how Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, and how the kingdom coming in my mind was a physical, social and physical force. He seemed disinterested in any explanation. Perhaps his mind was already set about what things are spiritual and apparently, transit is not.

Similarly, in September, I was at a Regional Planning District Commission meeting. It is a quisi-governmental body that coordinates and plans for regional transportation efforts. There another gentleman, a Transportation Planner, thought it was so great that a City Planner like myself came onboard the RVA Rapid Transit staff. He said “last year you had two pastors on staff, their job is to save souls, not get involved in transportation.”

At Richmond Hill we pray for Metropolitan Richmond 21 times a week, in specific ways, for its leadership, people and institutions…we pray for its health. Above the doors of Richmond Hill is the scripture “seek the peace of the city I have sent you.” I do not interpret that to mean just peace as in the absence of conflict, but shalom, things being made right and whole. I see bringing Bus Rapid Transit (A metro system on wheels…sleek, frequent and affordable) as an instrument of shalom. Why? Corridors and streets are what connect us as a region, to one another and our shared resources. Bringing Rapid Transit to Richmond in my mind is a movement toward thriving, promoting regional collaboration and reconciliation and seeking the social, economic and environmental prosperity of the region. That’s good news!

As my boss (who is a pastor) and  I attend meetings, give presentations and coordinate Rapid Transit together, I get to see what Pastors and City Planners have in common. At the heart, it’s the love of God, manifesting itself in love for people and wanting to see our city prosper so its people can prosper. Rapid Transit could be a point of connection which leads to reconciliation. Sharing public space like a regional BRT is one way we can engage across jurisdictional boundaries as well as racial, economic and generational lines. Rapid Transit also promotes the common good, improving the health of our communities by connecting residents to jobs, educational institutions, housing and other resources. It can also be a catalyst for visible transformation by way of new development, economic revitalization and the re-design/improvement of roads, infrastructure and buildings. Lastly, it promotes good stewardship of our environmental resources, as riding transit decreases our use of cars which improves air quality and the need for gas. It also decreases traffic so our time can be better spent and accidents which are costly to our health and finances.

Witnessing the response, excitement and possibility that is around Bus Rapid Transit has convinced me that it is actually a movement of the spirit and a sign of coming of the Kingdom. I get to participate in praying and working for the future of Metropolitan Richmond specifically in improving transportation, so we have a safe, reliable and efficient point of connection. That to me seems like Kingdom work to me, a holy calling to help save the soul of our city.

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A Joyful Noise

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This weekend in Richmond was the 10th annual Folk Festival, a time of free melodious goodness along the river. There are five stages with food and crafts for sale in between them. On Friday night, after I finished listening to two soul/blues artists on two different stages amidst the cool air and the sprinkling rain, I was on my way home. As I departed through the paths of wet grass, my journey was interrupted by a loud ruckus that was happening on the other side of the river on Browns Island. With the droves of people that resembled a parade of ants, I walked to see what all the fuss was about. Zydeco (Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers) was the music type I read on my folk festival pamphlet. I wasn’t sure what that was, but it sounded like something I would enjoy. The closer I got, the more I recognized what I was hearing something with the flavor of New Orleans…there were percussions, accordions and a loud voice full of energy blaring from the speakers. The singer was a thick muscled African American man sweating like he was on fire from within, and perhaps he was. The audience was a legion of dancers moving and shaking to the beats surrounded by excited onlookers. Arms, heads and hips were in vigorous motion in response to the band. I was glad that I followed the noise, the energy was electric. The loud and boisterous music sparked something alive in my body and the rest of my weekend has fanned the flame.

I expected to return to Richmond Hill to a quiet and dark building, a stark contrast to the Friday night festival I had just enjoyed. On the contrary, walking up the driveway I heard more ruckus, of women’s voices, the unbridled laugher of familiar friends. At 10:30pm, every light was on in the ground floor, the lounge was full and I could barely hear anything intelliable from all of the voices. I moved through the crowd to the refectory to make sure there was enough coffee for our guests. There was a group of women about to dig into a game of cards, they were trying to decide between phase 10 and rummy. They were all smiles and excitement. This was going to be an energizing weekend I could tell. We had with us a group of spirit filled African American women and another group of spry white women who happened to be recovering alcoholics. Both were a joy, both were fully themselves and spicy.

The next morning the group of African American women brought out their swords with passionate prayer, they were prayer warriors I could tell. Their voices were projected and strong, their prayers passionate and lengthy, full of triumph, praise and declaration. It was a surprising gift, we are usually quiet and structured here, but their prayers were dynamic. There was a yes, yes and amen in my spirit after their prayers. They called down the heavens. The spirit was moving and this had my heart stirring.

On Sunday morning at our communion service, our Senior Pastor was in the middle of his sermon about the feast the king invited his town to and no one showed up. Mid-sentence, we heard an outbreak of laughter from outside of the chapel. It was wonderfully disruptive. The AA women’s group was cutting up during a cigarette gathering at 7:30 am in the morning. I had to smile at the unscripted and wild joyfulness that was happening outside of the chapel, a holy disturbance. When I sat down with them for breakfast, I asked if they were having a good weekend. Everyone agreed that they were and apologized for being loud while we were in chapel. I said “I can think of a lot of worst things to hear than laughter.” One of the women commented that laughter had been devoid in her life as an addict that she welcomed it at any turn, it made laughing all the more sacred now. Giving it away as often as she could was a need for her.She said they liked to have a good time because most addicts think sober life will be dry and boring. Consequently, they try to fill their group time with fun, games and laughter. I like that, filling up the space that used to be occupied by addiction and destruction with laughter.

Ironically, the school of spiritual guidance is here this weekend for their monthly retreat. Their theme is the “12 steps of addiction.” It reminds me that we are all addicted to something that we try to fill our empty spaces with things that work temporally, usually to our own detriment. These group of laughing rebels make me realize how God’s grace is needed to free us from our addition. I’m also reminded how he wants to give us joy in exchange for our sadness.From the story in Matthew that was preached this morning, the preacher asked the congregation, “God has thrown a feast, why haven’t we shown up to the party?” Perhaps we are numb or indifferent, or apathetic or simply full of other things. I am not sure, but all of the music that moved my soul, prayer that was full of the spirit and laughter that shook the room seems like a holy invitation to raucous celebration, to feast on the soul filling and nourishing good things life has to offer. I live at a monastery, so I am all for times for silence, solitude and solemnness. This weekend however, was not one of those times, it was a time of filling, filing my heart, and air and soul with good things. I want to make that a discipline as well, being able to enter into celebration, to break out in song and dance when a good tune is playing, to erupt in lively prayer and praise and to bellow out a laugh that infects the group and disrupts anything around it. These are things I surely want to feast on as often as I can, to enter into as often as they are offered and to spread like a wildfire.