Community: Dispelling the Illusion of Independence

Community

A few weeks ago, members of the residential staff here discussed the rule of community: living one’s life as life together, in a commitment to shared mission and a common life. We had 20 minutes to go find a poem, reading or scripture we thought embodied the essence of community. The “word” that instantly came to my mind was this article I come across on FB on the illusion of independence.

The article began with the author walking through a hotel lobby observing a bunch of downward facing heads, all tranced by their electronic devices. He talked about how our electronic devices often enable our false sense of independence. We can be in a group of people, but alone with our iPods, tablets or cell phones. These personal devices aid in the thinking that we are self-sufficient and/or the product of our own making, separate. The reality is that every inch of clothes on our backs, the buildings we inhabit, materials we use; every item in our cell phones and iPod, including the music was brought to us via someone else’s work, gifts, effort and time. We literally couldn’t exist without the work of someone else.  The people who make our modern lives possible are more invisible than ever, worlds away even, but, they are part of what makes up our whole. We are in fact connected and interdependent. The author writes:

“Freedom is about finding the balance between the small me and a bigger we. In relationship to each other, we learn to embrace the reality and the sacredness of our interdependence, while also respecting each other as independent, unique souls. We learn this in romance and friendship and marriage and family. In fact, any place where two or more are gathered can become a space in which we touch our independence and our interdependence at the same time.”

Richmond Hill is a place where I am able to touch my independence and interdependence quite often. I eat dinner with people almost every night of the week, a chance to practice community. This is one of the few spaces in my world where I can eat dinner without being interrupted by my cell phone or being sidetracked or ignored because of someone else’s.  We call it “Real Time FaceTime.” Just the practice of regular meals supports our mission of hospitality, spiritual development and racial reconciliation. A table, a simple meal and good conversation with new friends is transformative. Whatever has gone on in my day seems to be suspended as I engage in another’s story, or laugh or listen to some element of my own life that I’ve explored before or prompted by others, may be exploring for the first time. In these conversations I am reminded of my own uniqueness, of story, experience and perspective but I am also invited to encounter these things in others. I am constantly brought outside of myself into something larger than myself.

We reflected on community again at another meeting. I commented that for me, community is about commitment, commitment to each one of them, our retreatants and the mission of Richmond Hill. I fulfill my individual commitments (of chores and working on Rapid Transit) because I know that when I do my part, I am contributing to a whole and when I do not, the whole suffers.

There is a collective “we” that I am reminded of here that forms the basis of our lives. It is possible but incredibly burdensome for one person to wash all the dishes after our Monday community meals of 50 people, but with 3-5 people, in sync complementing one another, it happens in minutes. During retreat weekends, we huddle around the round desk to talk through who will do what, as we divvy up our hosting duties. The gate to our entrance often gets stuck, and it’s impossible to open or close it manually without the help of another.  The collective work is emphasized, the individual’s role is necessary.

I was about to go and give a Transit presentation in January. My supervisor offered to accompany me, as he thought it would be a tough group. I said “why do we both have to be there, if I am going you don’t need to.” He said “I know you can do it by yourself, but there is a reason Jesus sent them out two by two Ebony.” He got me on that one. I could have done it by myself, but it did matter that someone was there to support me, a friendly face in the crowd that provided strength and comradery on the way there, during and back. It mattered. I am grateful that this is a place where the illusion of independence is continually shattered when I offer my own uniqueness in service, receive the gifts of others and work toward the shared mission of hospitality and prayer for the healing of Metropolitan Richmond.

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The Inconvenient Truth

Inconventient Truth

In 1903 W.E.B Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” Over 100 years later, that statement still rings true, it is playing out in the incidents in our cities, in disparities in education, healthcare and wealth, to name a few. Race, Racism, Systematic Racism, White Supremacy, Slavery, White Privilege and the nearly four century history and legacy of the abuse of the black body are not conversations for the faint at heart. These are not easy topics to explore, unpack and grasp if we are not ready for the truth, the whole truth. I’ve had the opportunity to hear from some of the nation’s foremost thinkers and historians talk about these things openly. I have also had the chance to discuss these topics with a dynamic group of community leaders who are committed to unpacking this hard truth and moving toward reconciliation. Despite our 400 year history and recent events in our nation, this gives me hope that we can look problems of the color line in the face, if we commit to facing the truth.

On Saturday, John Franklin from the Smithsonian who is involved in the efforts to build the African American History and Cultural Museum in Washington, DC spoke to the participants of the Community Trust building fellowship of Hope in the Cities. He gave us a brief history, with maps and numbers, of the transatlantic slave trade. He said that the Smithsonian wanted to begin the story of African American History with acknowledging that enslaved Africans stories did not begin when they arrived in America. His map showed the dispersal of African Slaves from 1500-1901 and it displayed how 15M+ people were dispersed around the world, only %5 of which went to the US. He noted that “the slave trade was one of the first forms of globalization,” and indeed his maps showed how the institution was a global enterprise.

The week before, I went to a talk by Edward Baptist, author of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalist.” Baptists’ premise is that slavery contributed to the rise of capitalism, that slaves were commodities, the labor and collateral that allowed the US and other western nations to flourish. Cotton was like gold a few centuries ago and enslaved Africans cultivated and picked it free of charge to be bought, sold and processed all over the world. Baptist gave the audience a history lesson on the slave trail that enslaved persons frequently walked from Virginia to places west and into the Deep South. He spoke aloud the 49 names of specific enslaved persons who walked hundreds of miles, nearly starved and in chains during a particular 6 week journey. This reminded us of their humanity, how they would never return to their families, friends and previous ways of life. This happened to people over and over again for centuries, and this is the labor force that built our nation. Our entire nation has and continues to benefit from what slave labor build. Conversely, we also suffer from the consequences inherited from Slavery and Jim Crow, like racial disparities and the wealth gap. I left holding another nugget of truth, glad it was being told.

This Thursday, I went to a MLK Celebration at the University of Virginia with Ta-nehisi Coates as the speaker. Coates wrote The Case for Reparations article which appeared in the Atlantic Magazine last year. The article was astounding, so I was glad to hear him speak in person. He began with a Thomas Jefferson quote about how whipping slaves in front of one’s white children is passing down a legacy and normalizing the abuse of black bodies. He noted that we are shocked by the killings of unarmed black boys by white police officers without consequence because “we do not have knowledge of the country we live in.” What we are facing is a 350 year legacy and heritage of abuse of black bodies and that legacy is what we are seeing played out in our cities today. “When we see a man chocked and there are no consequences, we say something about who lives matter.” Coates said that we would do better if we “acknowledge our 350 year heritage in conversations on race.”

He thought the wealth gap was an obvious issue to tackle in our time. He pointed out that whites have 20X the wealth of blacks, “for every $1 of wealth whites have, blacks have 5 cents.” He also noted where we live matters, “nobody is asking why Micheal Brown lived in the neighborhood he did, why are the conditions there the way they are.” I am reminded that almost every neighborhood I have lived in was one divided by a color line. The best neighborhoods I have lived in were all white and the worst were all black and severely under-resourced. Again the problem of the color line shows up, its embedded in our history, our minds, the contours of our neighborhoods.

When asked what educational institutions should do, Coates replied “so much of the problem is education,” “students need a serious understanding of American History” and “freshmen at UVA should be reading Jefferson’s notes on Virginia, particularly the section on slavery.”

When asked how whites could get other whites to understand white privilege, he spoke of moving away from talking about white privilege (he doesn’t like the term and uses white supremacy, racist and racism), the “focus on individuals is myopic, we need to talk about systemic things… we have a systemic problem of heritage and legacy.”

He admonished the audience to “make a commitment to struggle for struggles sake.” That though it’s a hard truth to face we are responsible to our grandparents who went before us and our grandchildren that will inherit our country because “things we look away from the next generations sees.” Coates denounced the idolization of past leaders because it makes the kind of progress they achieved seem unattainable; “Martin Luther King was a man…and the men and women in the civil right movement were no smarter than we are.” He finished by saying “at some point we will have to decide we want a different heritage.” I came away enriched, inspired and determined to be a part in facing the truth of the past and building a different heritage moving forward. I read an editorial in the Richmond Times Dispatch on Sunday morning about Baptiste’s book and his visit that had the same sentiment that I was feeling that “there is hope in the cities, and we shall never hope in vain.”

I was encouraged by these events that the truth is beginning to be told, the whole truth. I mentioned to a friend that “our nation needs to do some shadow work, we have to wrestle with the dark corners of our soul that we would rather deny.” Denying these things does not make them go away, they persist and rear their ugly heads in other ways and wreak havoc on our nation, in our cities and our people, both black and white. Baptiste, Franklin and Coates reminded me that reconciliation cannot happen without truth, embracing the whole truth of our shared past. The truth will set us free if we let it be told in its entirety. In that telling and reckoning, I believe we will move toward healing and wholeness.

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.

A Child of God

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The other day, someone asked me something close to either what denomination I was or my faith tradition, I can’t remember the exact wording. Well, it’s a bit complicated. I started out in a black Baptist church, went to a white Presbyterian Church for a while, shopped around at some non-denominational churches (both black and white) and most recently I go to a church started by Virginia Baptist, that heavily leans on the Episcopal liturgy and tradition. What does that make me? I am not sure, but I begin to think about this and was reflecting how these experiences has deeply shaped me in some way, all were gifts.

In the Black Baptist Church I started out with in DC, in perhaps being around black church folk in general, I feel like I received the gift of praise and worship. The only reason I even started going to church is because a bunch of my friends were in the gospel choir on Georgetown’s campus and I went to hear them sing. I never stopped going, even on the two weekends a month they didn’t sing. There is something about black people and worship that is a total gift to the world. The music, the rhythm, the clapping, the dancing and sheer joy. Whether it’s crying out to God at times in anguish, or declaring victory in the face of trial or just singing praises to God, I love it all. In lifting up of the soul in spirit filled song to God, the soul is lifted. The previous 3.5 years were difficult at times, music was key, probably 7-8 songs got me through. I sang them when the words didn’t feel true but I wanted them to be. They spoke to my situation, lifted my soul and connected me to God like nothing else. I am glad I started there, I am glad I know how to praise my way through something.

The Presbyterian Church I went to was completely different from my previous church, in many many ways, but I feel like my time there gave me a love of truth and helped me shape a Christian worldview. Being there made me think about, who God is, who he has made me to be and what that meant for my vocation, my politics and my decisions in life. It helped me begin to work through what I really believed. I’m not a Presbyterian theologically, but I really appreciated the time, energy, and thought put into trying to understand God’s word and how to live according to it. Because it was so different, in demographics, in political views, in theology and worship, I had to learn to love people who were in most ways different from me, I had to learn to hear God’s words preached in a different manner, I had to learn (this was most difficult) to worship God another way, with different words, songs and instruments. In a sense I had to get over myself and out of my comfort zone. It was good for me though, having my identity in Christ diffused from my own racial, cultural and personal preferences. I had to see God in others that I didn’t agree with and relate to, befriend and worship with believers on the other side of the fence. It helped me to learn to love and to decipher what I did and didn’t believe for myself.

My last church experience, the church I have been in for the longest in my life was perhaps one of the most transformative…So many gifts. The other day I walked into a church and was looking for the program, but there was none. It made me think of how much I appreciated liturgy. I think All Souls gave me both a love for tradition while teaching me to open and sensitive to the ways God is moving, working and speaking right now. I appreciated having our time together shaped by the church calendar and entering into advent, epiphany, Pentecost, and even ordinary time. I liked the reading of the new and Old Testament in the worship service and reciting various creeds crafted long ago. It was restful to know that I was participating in rituals that were centuries old. I learned different ways to pray, to read scripture, to watch for God. One of the best takeaways was seeing God as a benevolent that was FOR me, inviting me into something good and beautiful. I always found myself thinking what is God saying to me in the mist of this…what is the invitation? Heaped on all the tradition was this openness, a freedom, and friendship. I don’t know if I have ever heard the word hospitality so much as I have in the past few years, the idea of being open and welcoming to God, to love, to people, to even the joys and sorrows that come with life. All Souls taught me that there is space for it all, that I can walk through and welcome it all. That felt like a relief, that I could be where I was, and that God was there too. Refreshing. I think ultimately, I learned to be more human there, more myself. What a gift!

Being here, I am among so many different kinds of Christians. I had dinner with a catholic, Methodist and Baptist the other day. I am glad I can worship with different people, and had the opportunity to receive from various traditions. This morning, Ms. Patricia one of our hospitality assistants greeted us as she walked into the kitchen, “Good morning Children of the Most High God.” Yes, that is what I am, a Child of God, a Child of the King…that seems good and right and true for us all.

Opening, Entering and Becoming

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“Hospitality, rather than being something you achieve, is something you enter. It is an adventure that takes you where you never dreamed of going. It is not something you do, as much as it is someone you become…You make room for one person at a time, you give one chances at a time and each of these choices stretches your ability to receive others. This is how you grow more hospitable—by welcoming one person when the opportunity is given you.”

–Lonni Collins Pratt, Radical Hospitality

The Rule of Life are principals or values we try to live our lives by here. We usually take time during evening prayers to reflect on one rule a week. The rule we were reflecting on recently was hospitality – living one’s life in service of others, in a commitment to welcome guests in love and a spirit of prayer.

At the end of a rather sleepless week, I had a weekend full of cohosting three lively retreat groups here. A surprising thing happened every day as I was praying, conversing, washing dishes and making coffee…I was energized by it. This ability to receive and engage while I have been here has been rather unexpected. Hospitality is precisely what I thought that I would enjoy the least. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with one of the pastors here during my interview. I said “I think it will be hard for me to continuously engage with people/retreatants day after day. I am such an introvert I thought, “I don’t have a lot of energy for people, I am not sure where I will get the energy to do it.” I thought it would be hard and draining, that I would lose myself, my center. But in fact, it’s easy and energizing. I love welcoming people to this place, the peace and solitude it has to offer. It is a joy to serve them while they are here. More than any other thing in my life, my time here has taught me what it means to serve others, to be other focused. We gather 21 times a week, to pray for the city, to pray for individuals on our prayer list and retreat groups and then we intercede for those in our lives that need prayer. Ninety five percent of my prayer life has become other centric and most of my work life here is as well. I wash dishes, clean house and make coffee and tea for our retreatants, I answer their questions and try to make their time here as pleasant as possible. Surprisingly, it is my pleasure to do this. I want them to benefit from this place, to enjoy it and leave refreshed and renewed. When I am cleaning, I am thinking about the experience of those that will come after, I want it as clean as I would like it if I were on retreat. I am often tired, but having to serve others kicks me into another mode and I am able to continue to give, to serve, to smile and love with energy that is not my own. Sometimes, I do not want to clean or wash dishes, but knowing I am doing this for others makes it meaningful and worthwhile. I am able to do it with a sense of dedication and contentment. I get in the zone, the hospitality zone, where it’s not really about me, it’s about being welcoming, and it’s about being helpful pitching in and doing what needs to be done, about choosing to engage and being present to whomever and whatever is before me. I am not my own here, and that is difficult and tiring at times, but I like that my life and time is grounded in a mission and purpose larger than myself. I like belonging to a place, a group of people, to a rule and a way of being that at its heart is prayerful and welcoming. I get to say, “yes” a lot to the needs of others, I get to ask “how can I help you” and most of all I get to receive gratitude and to respond by saying “you are welcome.” Similarly, I want to be more hospitable to God, to say “yes” as often as I can, to ask “how can I serve you?” and to respond as often I as I can with “you are welcome.” I have read that hospitality is a practice that in doing you become, that it is about being open, entering into a moment with another and sharing. It is receiving others and giving them what you have to offer.

A women who was departing after a 24 hour women’s retreat, sang goodbye to us and thanked us profusely for the food and hospitality. She had such a good time that she said she planned to tell all of her friends about us. She left with a pep in her step. It made it all worth it! Being this hospitable and giving in this deep way also makes me extra cognizant of how I might care for myself and allow others to care for me. In that way, I am also more diligent about caring for my needs so that I am in a good mind, body and soul state to serve and open to receiving the hospitality of others.

On a vocational level, I have been asking myself how I might serve the city and am open to the ways that God may open doors for me to do so. I am helping to lead a transit initiative that will connect the region and people to jobs, resources and one another. That is one way. Another is by being a part of a Community Trust building Training, which trains local change agents in how to have honest conversation across division lines of race, class, gender and politics. I am excited to see what fruit, relationships and blessings are birthed out of those, both for me and the city.

On a locational level, I feel invited to receive all that Richmond has to offer by way of getting to know people from various backgrounds here as guests, but also reaching out to people that I want to get acquainted with in addition to taking advantage of the cities festivals, restaurants, parks and events. It’s been fun. I went on a walk around Bryant Park last week with a friend, started mentoring a teen from a local high school, stopped in and joined a drawing workshop at an art studio downtown.I am learning the blessedness of both giving and receiving. I am glad that God has invited me into so much in this season.

What do I mean “open to God”? I mean… a courageous and confident hospitality expressed in all directions…. I mean an openness which is in the deepest sense a creative and dynamic receptivity — the ability to receive, to accept, to become.

— Samuel H. Miller in Man the Believer

Free Hugs

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On Tuesday morning, I came in the kitchen to make boiled eggs for breakfast. I said hello to Ms. Patricia who is one of our two Hospitality Assistants. She makes most of our lunches during the week when we have groups. Great lunches by the way, homemade chicken fingers, mac and cheese and red velvet cookies are just a few items from her menus. I am sure to gain at least 10 lbs while I am here, but I digress. After I said hello and went about my business looking for a pot, Ms. Patricia looked over at David, our tall young administrator and said “She hasn’t learned yet has she?” I was taken aback and thought I had done something wrong in the kitchen. I stood frozen with a dumbfounded “huh?” At that moment, she smiled and came toward me with open arms and went in for a hug. “Ohhhhh, I’m sorry. I TOTALLY forgot.” I had been warned my first week that Ms. Patricia is a hugger. A greeting without a hug is just unacceptable. “Now you can go about your business” she said. And I did smiling, feeling a little tickled and a bit of a pep in my step.

There is a saying by Virginia Satir, a respected family therapist, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” I am glad I have somewhere to go for at least a few hugs a week, and good hugs at that. Ms Patricia gives the kind of hugs that make you feel comforted and fully embraced, a hug that lingers a bit. I wish more people gave hugs like that, and were not afraid to embrace one another.I wonder if the way a person hugs says something about them. Some people are not good huggers, they give awkward hugs, rigid hugs, side hugs (I slightly against these, but tolerate them), hugs where you barely touch. I read that a proper hug happens when hearts are pressing together. This kind of hug can boost happiness, strengthens the immune system, increases trust and security and the benefits go on (click here to read about 10 of them). I am glad that Ms. Patricia greets with a hug, a heart to heart hug. I reminds me that I am seen and fully received even though everything around me is still fairly foreign. Her touch awakened me from my morning trance and forced me into a moment of giving and receiving. It felt holy and it made this place feel a little more like home.