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.

Love as a Movement

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I was at a training for community leaders interested in leading dialogues that bridge divisions. At the end of the evening we broke off into open space groups. This means a number of people propose discussion topics and we go to a room we want to and talk about the discussion topic. We had the freedom to come and go if we were not learning or contributing. The group discussion I joined focused on the spiritual element to healing and reconciliation work. We begin to talk about spiritual practices that might enliven, sustain and replenish the souls of justice workers. It made me think about a song we learned last week at our community worship service. It goes, “I’m gonna love everybody, deep down in my soul.” The music minister said that they used to sing the song during the civil rights movement before they would go out to march or demonstrate. They would sing that one line over and over again until their hearts and minds and spirits had absorbed enough of the message to go out and meet the harshness and brutality they would surely endure. No one moved until everybody felt ready. They let love permeate them until they could withstand abuse without retaliating. I think this is what Martin Luther King would have called soul force. It’s the force that it take to win your enemy or oppressor over not by gun force, malice or excessive force but by the sheer power of your love for what is right and good, to stand up and be beaten for it.

I’ve encountered a lot of rightfully angry activists, advocates and community members. They believe in their cause so much that they hate and libel and retaliate against their enemies. I don’t want to react in anger towards others. I might indeed be angered but I want to respond with the spirit of a peacemaker. At my core, I want to love and respect of all humans, even when it is not returned, even when they lash out against me.

One of our participants said that at the heart of the movement for justice should be compassion and forgiveness. He talked about love as a force, not sentimentality or intense good feelings, but moving into the world from a centered place of good will toward all human beings and the world we inhabit. This kind of movement takes deep inner work, inner healing and constant self-awareness and correction. In that vein, love seems to be more than feelings. Perhaps it’s about commitment to seek the good of the other, for all of humanity, to seek your own spiritual healing and growth, to commit to keep your heart pure of bitterness, resentment and hate. The premise of Initiatives of Change is that social change starts with our own personal transformation. In this particular open space session we explored the kind of practices that help us stay grounded so as to move toward changing the world from a transformed place, practices like reiki, prayer, mediation and in my example singing and worship. Love has to be nourished to be sustained.

Love as a social movement, even a political one, has at its heart the first two commandments, to love God and love your neighbor. To love God is to keep his commandments and be committed to what God would be committed to, which I think is peace, justice, healing, reconciliation and transformation (on all levels, person, social, political etc.), to name a few. Then to love your neighbor which means to love the people who are in front of you, in your community and the larger world; to be committed to their well-being in the ways that God has called, gifted and impassioned you. I think our calling is a way in which we can practice love and let it flow through us in our work and lives. Frederick Buechner said “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In this way we can practice and be committed to love with our whole beings, in our work, our relationships, our conversations and our movements toward our best selves and a better world. That kind of love is much bigger than a feeling, it’s both practical and spiritual. This kind of love is a movement into the heart of God and indeed a movement of the spirit.

 

The Inconvenient Truth

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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.

Say Yes!

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As I was considering moving, the primary motivation for me to leave my life, friends and job behind and live and work here was that it seemed like an invitation from God to be more myself. Here was an open door that was aligned with my mission and passions, so I decided to walk through it. In saying yes to Richmond Hill, I was saying yes to my calling to community, racial reconciliation, to seek the peace of the city and my own spiritual formation. It was an act of obedience.

As a child, the word obedience seemed harsh. I associated it with the potential punishment of disobedience. In my early spiritual life, there was an angry God in my imagination, telling me the right thing to do against my will and desires. I have become better friends with the word obedience and God lately. I have learned that obedience is saying yes to who God has made me and being faithful to the tasks that help me live out that call. That also means saying no to other things, no matter how good they may seem.

Vocare, the school for vocation here, has been a wonderful space to explore God’s will for me in relation to calling. The other day, guest speaker, Dick, said “know your gifts and know God’s will for you.” He encouraged us to identify our God given gifts, strengths and talents so that we could use them to glorify God and help others. That provided such clarity. We are always trying to figure out God’s will and purpose for us and it often feels like walking in the dark. The idea that our gifts and passions are the path to His will for our lives was like turning on a light.

Rev. Nathanial, another Vocare speaker, talked about having a personal mission statement. This statement outlines your values, passion and purpose in a concrete way. It’s been an important guiding tool in his decision making. He’s had job offers he was able to easily say no to because they were not in line with his mission. Alternatively, he was able to say yes to other opportunities that were. It is another way to stay on the path toward purpose and live into a deeper sense of self. I dug my mission statement out of a pile of papers and put it where I could see it. It reminded me that writing brings me life and coaching as a way of helping others find their purpose is a passion of mine. A few encounters this week confirmed my desire and ability. I am encouraged to take a small step toward both.

I want to spend my time and energy in ways that bring me closer to my calling, passions and purpose. In the “The Artist Rule,” Christine Valters Paintner says “what brings me joy and energy also brings me closer to my calling.” Touche’! She also says obedience is listening deeply to the ways God calls you in everyday life and how you respond.”  I have gotten excited about obedience as listening for God in my gifts, in things that bring me joy and energy and responding by doing those things as often as I can. How are you being invited to listen and respond? I hope you have the courage to answer your call by saying yes to what brings you life.

A New Mindset

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I was laying on my mother’s couch on Christmas day reading the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success when I heard a knock at the door. I found my cousin on the other side with a raw turkey in hand. “I came over to fry my turkey” she said.

I cracked a smile, “Come in, my mom didn’t tell me you were coming, but I’ll get things set up and do it for you.” I am now the family turkey fryer on Holidays, just so you know.

The conversation quickly went to how she was doing. “I don’t know Ebony, I’m sad a lot and I stay to myself more than I ever have.” She had lost her mother earlier this year, had a relationship end unexpectantly and her doctor told her that she needed to lose weight or start taking diabetes medicine. That is definitely enough to cause a bit of depression, but I was impressed with her response. Instead of waiting to get diabetes, she started walking around the track, eventually joined that gym and has now lost 42lbs in a matter of months. She told me of triumphantly how she conquered the elliptical.

“When I first went to the gym, I would only walk on the treadmill and go home, that is all I could do. Then I got on the elliptical for 7 minutes, then 15, then 30 and once I passed 40 minutes, I knew I could do an hour.”

She went on in an emphatic tone. “By the summer time, all of this will be gone” pointing to the bulge in her stomach. She went on to talk about how she has been investing in her relationship with God for peace and strength, doing some soul searching to figure out who she is and what she wants to do. “I’m even thinking about going back to school, the boys are both over 18 and it’s time to do me.” “Amen” I said.

My cousin exhibited the epitome of the growth mindset I had been reading about when she knocked on the door. The premise of the book is that ability, skill and intellect are not fixed, with time and hard work, we can grow if we learn from failure and not let it measure who we are. When things weren’t going right, instead of feeling stuck and giving up and in, my cousin decided to grow and put some effort into becoming the person she wanted to be. The elliptical story is a classical example, she went from walking around the track to an hour of rigorous cardio.

This made me think about my own life, where I had given up on things because I wasn’t strong in them, though my ability was fixed and/or didn’t want to do that hard work. I distinctly remember saying to a friend “I do not like to do things that I am not good at.” I realized I was just afraid of failure, afraid to put hard work and effort into something. I just wanted to be good, without the work. Of course this is not true of most areas of my life, but I’ve always felt my sports and artistic ability was fixed. Last year, I took up swimming, it was one of the hardest things I have had to do, being bad at something for a sustained period of time. It took a lot of tenacity to begin to chip away at my fear and improve my skill. I am by no means a good swimmer now, but I can do more than I started out doing. I even had a setback when I freaked out and had to be rescued while swimming in open water. Now I am thinking about going taking some more classes so I can swim unafraid in the ocean.

I think Richmond as a city is beginning to have a shift in mindset, from apathy to the desire to realize its full potential. I’m glad I get to be present for it, to watch and participate. People hear that we are 92 out of 100 of the top cities in the area of public transit and with a little encouragement from folks like me, they are beginning to see that it is possible to change that. I wonder what would happen if more people took on the mindset of growth, learned to get better from failure and thought that it was possible to improve. I wish more people, institutions and cities would have a growth mindset, saying to failure, negative statistics and loss, and we can learn from this, we can grow, we can put in the time and effort and we can become better.

The book points out numerous examples of athletes, business leaders and everyday situations, where people looked at disappointment as a challenge and put in the energy to improve, people we think of as naturals like Michael Jordon. I don’t want to be Michael Jordon, but I do want to put in the hard work to be the best and truest version of myself. I have an inkling there are many things budding inside that need time and persistence to fully bloom.

The beginning of the year is a good time for me to have read this book. A new year is a good time to set goals and intentions, to take on a new mindset even and allow that to transform my life. Sometimes we don’t necessarily need to change a lot in our lives, but we need a new way of thinking in our lives. I pray for new eyes to see, new ears to hear and a new mind to learn and grow. The author points out, “maybe we cannot be anything we want to be, but we can be and do a lot more than we think.” Touché

This reminds me of Paul’s words to the Romans, “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”

Happy New Year!

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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.

Youthful exuberance

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The other week the house has been full of youth. Their presence has make me wonder about what Jesus means to become as a child. The granddaughters of two of the residents were visiting. I thought they would be shy, but neither of them were. Both were full of life and conversation, bright eyed and very helpful in the kitchen. Anaya helped with cooking and Celia assisted in dish washing. I enjoyed their conversation. They responded to my questions with an openness and ease that was refreshing for a 10 and 11 year old. A— shared about a recent altercation at school and C—, some of her insights on the movie Brave. Perhaps they were just outgoing, but there was an eagerness to help and learn and share to discuss and receive. Unhardened and genuine.

During the same weekend we hosted 25 Jewish teens on retreat. Their Rabbi wanted them to have some exposure to Christianity. They were a fun bunch. I sat down at the table with a few of them and they were received me well and really knew how to dialogue and express themselves. I learned a bit about their lives and hobbies, whether it was drama, playing cello and how they prepare for their Bar Mitzvah. They have to lead prayer and the service for their Bar Mitzvah and also seem to take on leadership roles with helping in the Sunday classes from k-7. Perhaps that is why they seem to have such a strong sense of self and interest in others. A few of them were even interested in my life here and my work. When I started talking about rapid transit in the Richmond region, they all got excited. One young lady, thin, braces and with long blond hair, remarked that she would like to get to the city more. Her family lives in the county and they only come into the city for Temple. She thought transit would help. Another brown haired girl with rosy cheeks said it was strange that Richmond does not have a rapid transit system like other cities. They were all hopeful that it “could” happen here. As we finished up breakfast, the 4 of them thanked me for working on transit and thought it was admirable and necessary. I was astonished by their curiosity and understanding, it gave me hope for our future. These will be the people riding transit and running the region in the next 15-20 years. I thanked them too, as their presence filled this space with a youthful exuberance. They were a grateful bunch in general, offering profuse thanks after every meal as they stood stacking their dishes at the window as I washing them.

Maybe what it means to be like a child is: to keep our hearts open, unhardened and genuine and to approach life with youthful exuberance, gratitude and an eagerness to help, learn, share, discuss and receive. I am a witness that out of the mouth of babes and youth, can come wisdom, gratitude and sheer goodness.

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 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.