The Heartbeat of Union: Seven Last Words

When I hear the phrase “Seven Last Words”, I smile. I have fond memories of sitting in church to hear a pastor (actually, seven pastors) engage in a sermon series that draws upon Jesus’ seven last statements before he died. It is a Holy Week tradition in which seven preachers participate in a preaching relay race of sorts. I say that, not intending to trivialize this tradition, but to highlight the aesthetic of the event. It is an event that invokes a myriad of emotions and thoughts. This is not your standard church service.

A few weeks ago, I saw the phrase “seven last words” pop up on my Facebook newsfeed. “It’s only October”, I thought to myself. “Why are we talking about Holy Week in October?”

And then I was amazed.

This Friday, October 24 at 6:30 p.m., The Center of Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, along with several noted co-sponsors, will host a Seven Last Words series.  It will be hosted at Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, and the event will be live streamed. Yes, in October. But this event does not intend to raise the last words of Jesus. Instead (or perhaps, in addition), these seven preachers and activists will raise the seven last words of Black women and men killed by police, security, or vigilantes. Wow. Now that’ll preach.

The very organization of such a series raises several feelings for me, many of which I cannot name. I am relieved that my pain will be understood and made legitimate from the pulpit, especially since religious leaders so often make headlines by cosigning oppression. I am frustrated that this event exists, and I wish we didn’t have to mourn life.  I am grateful to be in a space where theory and practice converge in sermons. I am affirmed in my Blackness and am reminded of the Blackness of the Jesus I imagine. I am reminded of the many parallels between the Jesus story and of the story of Black American experience. Black Americans, like Jesus, are seen as outsiders. We are misunderstood, both by peers and by authority figures. We are considered to be an enemy of the state and a threat to the Empire.  And yet, as much as I wish these seven words represented only seven deaths, I know better. I am scared for the Eighth Word, though I know it will come.

I look forward to this series. I will be keeping up with the twitter discussion and live stream. And I thank, in advance, the people who are doing the work to raise the slaughter of Black people as an issue of sin.     Seven Last Words

The Heartbeat of Union: Who’s Here?

“Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize that teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives”

Ella’s Song, Sweet Honey in the Rock

I have a terrible “poker face”. If I’m excited or displeased, you’ll know before I open my mouth. I’m still working on that. When I first heard of the “Keeping Ferguson Alive” discussion, my face immediately told my story. I was doubtful. Apprehensive, even. Usually when well-meaning people with degrees and relative privilege have discussions about where we go from here, we miss the fact that the people who should actually be speaking aren’t even invited to the table. We should always be curious.

But then I saw the list of panel participants, and I felt much better. The panel consisted of four Union students, Khadijah Abdul-Mateen, Aimme Rogers, Kendrick Kemp, and Foster J. Pinkney, professor of philosophy Dr. Cornel West, and Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou. These are six incredible leaders of their own merit. The four students are incredibly active and engaged on campus and in their community. It absolutely makes sense that these students were sent to Ferguson this summer on behalf of Union Theological Seminary. Dr. West, framed the conversation as an extension of the “militarization of our schools”, alluding to the practices of security scanning in public high schools. Rev. Sekou provided heartfelt reflections on what it means to be a preacher in the midst of societal turmoil. For me, it made sense that these six brothers and sisters could offer harmonious reflection together. And it meant something special to me to see this conversation happen with people I trusted leading the discussion.

Still, it isn’t just about who’s on the stage. It’s about who’s there to listen.

As a teacher, I know that coordinating any kind of off-campus visit is a headache in itself. But when full time teacher and Union student Grace O’Keefe invited seven of her students to join her in this discussion, I saw love.

I happened to sit right in front of Grace and her students while I was live-tweeting the event. These students weren’t paraded around like cutesy mascots. These students were meaningfully engaged in the conversation with a beloved teacher. I listened to them snap at high points of energy, gasp at provoking statements, and ask questions like “are we getting scanning too? Don’t they see how that won’t work?” In fact, the first two questions from the audience were questions that Ms. O’Keefe’s class had written on index cards. At one point, Foster Pinkney spoke to the reality of stifling pedagogy as an obstacle to true liberation, and quickly a student from Ms. O’Keefe’s class said “well, that’s why I’m glad we have our Senior Seminar with Ms. O”.

More than once Wednesday night, panelists spoke to the courageous leadership of young people. I could easily write about what amazing things Dr. West said, but you’d expect that. I could easily talk about Rev. Sekou’s charisma or Aimme Roger’s insightful food justice question. But that’s expected, and you can still check out the video link here. I think the panelists would rather that I use this opportunity to share that students in this city, and others, are absolutely ready to participate in a revolution. I trust that all of the members of that panel would want me to take this time to remind us to listen to the children. Are we ready to take them seriously?

The thing about town hall community discussions is that it’s hard to call people to action without employing the top-down model. I was initially skeptical because I’ve seen charismatic leaders throw slogans rather than solutions. But if anything was learned from this experience, it is that teachers like Ms. O’Keefe and students like hers are seeking a community of encouragement and recognition. Do we hear them when they speak out against school closings or unfair enrollment practices? I stayed after the panel and watched Ms. O’Keefe introduce her students to the panelists. Full of energy and excitement, one thing became clear– when children move to the beat of their own drum (or Beats Headphones), the revolution begins.

I got two sermons that Wednesday night. One from the comments of dynamic panelists, and another from the reciprocated love between Ms. O’Keefe and her students. I am still processing how beautiful it was to see a teacher and her students in the loving fellowship of civic engagement. If we think this movement is happening without young people, we are seriously mistaken. And as it proved clear that night, young people all over this country are using their own language to make sense of Michael Brown’s death. It is time to listen to the youngest among us.

If you have a story you’d like us to cover here at The Heartbeat, email Candace Simpson at cs3282@utsnyc.edu . We’d love to have you.

 

The Heartbeat of Union: An Introduction

I had a personal pre-orientation initiation into Union. On Saturday August 23rd, I went to a protest in support of Eric Garner and his family. Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island after being apprehended by an officer for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. The officer used an illegal chokehold move that killed Eric Garner, and the death was ruled a homicide. His death was a reminder that extrajudicial killings are still happening in this country.

In this spirit, thousands gathered on Staten Island on this particular Saturday to show support for Eric Garner and to resound a chorus of voices against the incredibly bloody summer. Garner’s story was just one drop of water in a bucket of chilling ice water over the heads of Black people. I was drowning.

Michael Brown. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Aiyana Jones. Rekia Boyd. Renisha McBride. The list unfortunately goes on. James Baldwin reminds us that to be “Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” And this summer seemed like a continuous flow of reminders that I was not worth defending as a Black American, as a woman, as a person. I was angry. And unapologetically so.

When I remember that people are continually abused by a system that pretends to protect, I am enraged. I find this rage liberating and compelling to action. But I also acknowledge that it can be paralyzing. What moves me to action is the community of friends that promise to hold me accountable to a larger goal– making sure this never happens again. While I really wanted to curl into a ball and never leave my bed, I felt a tug to be near other people who were also hurting. I needed a community.

I think of formal protest activities as analogous to church membership. Sitting in church does not make me a Christian, and going to a rally does not make me an activist. But tethering in these communities connects me to people who are like-minded. When done right, participation in these communities keeps me accountable to my values. I am among people who are on the same journey. I can do the work because I have people who hold my hand.

So on this particular Saturday, I was with a beloved community of friends from my home church. By some divine order, our group ran into another group of activists and faith leaders. I saw a woman with a “#myUnion” orientation t-shirt. Part of me had not yet transitioned into my new identity as a Union student. My pastor nudged me, “Go talk to her! This is a classmate of yours!”

Shy and nervous, I introduced myself.

“Hi, I’m Candace. You go to Union? Me too, this is my first year!”

“I’m Rebecca, I’m a first year, too!”

I don’t remember anything after that conversation. I was so struck by the “coincidence” that everything after our initial greeting dissipated into the deep recesses of my mind. Of all the people I could have met that day, I ran into a soon-to-be-classmate. What was the Universe trying to teach me in that moment?

Most times, when I imagine God’s voice, I imagine Morgan Freeman from Bruce Almighty. I’m still reminding myself that God speaks through coincidences. What if running into this eventual classmate was a reminder that my faith was indeed an integral part of my identity as an activist? What if this encounter was a message that I was not alone? What if this experience was a nudging from the Heavens to stay true to my politics, my faith, my identity as I embark on this new journey? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’m growing in wrestling with them. That’s what seminary is for, right?

That’s why we’re starting a blog called “The Heartbeat” here at Union. In our bodies, the heart’s beating is nothing short of magic and miracle. The heartbeat is a sign of life, originating in our chests and pumping blood throughout a complicated system. But the heartbeat isn’t isolated. We get a sense of the heart’s beating from the pulse in the wrist and neck. As our heart beats to reminds us that we live, social justice is the reminder why we live. It is our charge and our responsibility. It is the “rent we pay” for living on this Earth, as Shirley Chisholm challenges us.

The Heartbeat will cover stories of social justice beyond the walls of 3041 Broadway. Each of us has taken a special journey to this place, and we honor this journey by proving the work we do at Union is meaningful. We can use theology to speak to people, rather than speaking beyond them. The Heartbeat of our institution is social justice. Let’s check our vitals.

If you have a story you’d like us to cover here at The Heartbeat, email Candace Simpson at cs3282@utsnyc.edu . We’d love to have you.

Mundane Miracles

A truck in the line of Weatherford Fracturing Technologies' convoy headed out of Waynesburg, PA.

A truck in the line of Weatherford Fracturing Technologies’ convoy headed out of Waynesburg, PA.

“All that you touch
you Change.”

Sara is traveling to Berkley to begin the early phases of her ministry. Prophets are being laid to rest. Johnsonburg Camp is creating new projects and initiatives. Grants are being awarded to fund intentional community start-ups. Kristen is going to farm in Colorado. New sources of water hidden under earth’s crust are being researched. Everything is changing. Cathy’s ministry is expanding to address other needs in Waynesburg. Recent college grads are searching for programs that wed faith, service, and a direct confrontation of social injustices. Elizabeth is making roots in New Orleans. The miracles are countless…

During my second year of seminary I had a powerful learning moment in the “Preaching and Worship” class all MDiv students are required to take. We were bouncing ideas off of each other and trying to gain substance for the first sermon of the semester. The text was 1 Kings 17:7-16, the story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath. In these verses the traveling prophet is commanded to visit a Widow, with a small child, as she attempts to survive drought and famine. In this text, Elijah asks for hospitality, just a little bit of water and a small bite to eat. The woman kindly refuses, reminding him with each request that she and her son are near death; there is nothing to give.

“All that you Change
Changes you.”

By the time this small group discussion took place we had each read this chunk of verses many times. So many times that it was becoming difficult for some of us to know what we would like to focus on. One of my friends was sharing his thoughts on the text. He stated that he was having a difficult time finding inspiration. ‘This miracle is just so mundane,’ he said. And there it was…the lesson to last several lifetimes.

Think about the miracles we’ve been taught to respond to with oooh’s and aaah’s. From the wisdom texts to the tear-jerking stories on the news, we expect miracles to be wrapped with thunder and lightning, glowing figures and levitations, new body parts and full bank accounts. These are life-changing experiences, the ones that books are written about then turned into movies. But, fireworks don’t always accompany miracles. Often, the miraculous moments in life are rather mundane—at least by comparison to the stories we know through film and novel.

This trip has been an intense reminder of the frequency with which mundane miracles occur. First year camp counselors, right out of high school, are helping 9 and 10 year olds with their first week away from home. Lasting impressions are being made. Holmes Farm is teaching kindergartners about the importance of healthy eating, connecting them with soil by teaching them to space carrots and plant delicious varieties of lettuce. We’ve driven over 1,000 miles and have not received any damages. All the while hearing more amazing stories of how people have helped lift and love hundreds of others by making simple, but authentic, decisions throughout their life. Our hosts have been warm, generous, and have shown us nothing short of love.

“The only lasting truth
is Change.”

It is true that not everyone has the luxury to sit and count, or at all consider, the mundane miracles that occurred in their life today. But for those of us who do have this benefit, we are wise to glean a deeper lesson from the power of mundane miracles. That is, our conditioned way of recognizing and naming “true” miracles is one that limits us from seeing every interaction as a Divine one. Each hand shake, each wave into traffic from the car behind, the simple smile that led to a free sandwich, the eye contact and head nod that changed your morning commute…all miraculous. We can’t know how living authentically will matter for the person who sees us living our truth. Perhaps it’s not important for us to know that such an impact is made at all. The more powerful thought to sit with is that by living truth, by seeking, questioning, loving, and dwelling in gratitude, we actively participate in the greatest network of human life. Never fully knowing how a simple decision might change the life of the next person we meet.

“God
is Change.”*

May every decision you make leave a residue that inspires love for the one that follows.

*The quotes between paragraphs are taken from Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”. Please read it and be enriched.

 

Unveiling a New World for Ministry

“You’ve spent your time in seminary developing your voice, now it’s time to see what you do with it.”-Wayne Meisel

I graduated on May 17, 2014 with a Master of Divinity. Only a week prior had I decided that I would stay to study another year at Union. With the promise of working with faculty members who have changed my life, and encouraged on a new academic trajectory, I was excited to walk across the stage with enough certainty to celebrate the accomplishments of finishing a masters, and enough faith that the other details of my life will fall into place—like, how I’ll pay rent.

About the time of graduation I was asked if I wanted to participate in the New Faces of Ministry Tour. I had no idea what it meant or what it would ask of me; I just said “yes.” To the surprise of my boss, I asked no critical questions. There are many times in my life when my spirit intercepts the analysis of my brain and makes a verbal agreement—usually an agreement that makes no “logical” sense at the time. I quickly learned that the tour I agreed to participate in would mean me traveling around with another recent seminary grad to talk with folks at camps and in service corps about their commitments to service and how their faith informs such a commitment. From New York to Ohio we would drive, stopping along the way to introduce ourselves to teams of staffers and camp directors, and listening to stories about why people care enough about others, and themselves, to serve. The following week I met Sammie, a recent Princeton grad and my travel partner. With only a week before our departure date we were both relieved that we clicked right away. One’s mind needn’t be filled with the scenes from ridiculous movies to imagine the myriad ways that a road trip with a stranger could go awry. So, together we left. Prepared with a list of meetings scattered through four states, smartphones with Google Maps, car chargers, and playlists to last for days, Sammie and I have embarked on a unique journey.

It’s the newest trend in “church talk”…the anxiety and fear of dying and becoming irrelevant in a world that is so obviously in need of love and healing. What this conversation has been lacking is the insight into the evolutions of church. We hear whispers of the new ways of doing church. People meeting in coffee shops and bars, ordaining their own leaders, moving worship out of the sanctuary and into the streets where the people are. It is becoming clearer that what looks like a decreasing interest in church may actually be an increasing interest in meeting others in practical and meaningful ways. The New Faces of Ministry Tour sets out to meet with summer camps and service corps to participate in a changing understanding of what “ministry” means. In pairs, we’ll traverse different regions of the Midwest and East Coast to lead workshops that reveal these new ways of understanding how service and faith intersect to cultivate ministry. We’ll lead devotionals with the hope of connecting with staff teams and, together, learning how we can support one another in the work we commit ourselves to. Primarily, we’ll be traveling to listen to stories, in order to experience the sacred texts being created in the daily lives of the neighbors all around us, always produced and rarely published. We will, inevitably, learn that the “new” in all of this is really the “unveiling” of the world we’ve been called to serve.

You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at “Faces of Ministry Tour” and by looking out for the #newfaces posts.