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.

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.

Coming Out Muslim @ UTS

 Sitting at the table in front of me were faces that I recognized and yet had never met.  Sitting at the table in front of me were young faces that carried the history of their families, their faith.  Sitting in front of me were calm and reserve faces ready to tell their stories.  Sitting in front of me were faces . . . and one face on Skype!

These faces were here to talk about “Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love.  These young Muslims would go on to speak about their relationship with their faith and families.  It is a perspective that many simply assume does not exist when talking about Queerness, when talking about the LGBTQ community.  And yet the reality is that sexualities are represented in every spectrum of human alliance—religion, race, creed, color, you name it.

And these voices spoke from a wellspring of faithful understanding of a foundational knowing, “Allah makes Muslims . . .” And so the equation resolves, “Allah makes queers.”– Terna Tilley-Gyado.

The simplicity of this statement coming out of the computer screen and scripted so beautifully on a business card, belies the profound nature of statement.  Listening, I found my head nodding in concert and my heart beating with unexpected surprise thinking, “I remember making the same claim as a young Christian as a pre-teen about Creator God!”  This basic claim of belonging to faith because God belongs to all was comforting to hear in this room on this day because I felt in solidarity as a child of God.  A God that does not begrudgingly claim me simply because there are people and institutions that do so.

As the evening progressed, something else struck me. I listened to a woman recount her unconscious notions that come to light when contemplating coming out a person of faith within the community but most importantly family.  As she spoke I recognized the similarities between Muslim families attitudes about their child’s sexual life and that of my African American family and church attitudes about the same.  Everybody knows its going.  If nothing else, everyone knows that everyone is thinking about it in some way, shape or form.  But knowing and thinking about it is much different then acknowledging the sexual beings that we all journey to understand.  (And let it be stated firmly that asexuality is a journey as well.)  She reminded me of a time when I was a teenager, when my family talked about me having children devoid of a sexual union with anyone.  Nobody wants their baby to grow up.  But can you imagine?  If you can’t talk to your family or community about sex period, how do you talk about your sexual identity?  It’s a weird kind of thought—we are sexual beings granted, but we are sexual beings that don’t want to address our sexualities.

Before I go on and with this musing, let me just say that Coming Out Muslim is a project that not only tells of what it means to be a practicing Muslim but it tells of how powerful it is to be queer and a faithful child of the Creator.

coming out muslim

radical love: queer muslims live and love

Moral Mondays, Poverty Initiative, and Karios: The Growing Movement to End Poverty

North Carolina Religious and Community Leaders Galvanized by Struggle to Forward a Truly Moral Platform Across Left and Right in Era of Growing Poverty and Inequality.

by John Wessel-McCoy, organizer for the Poverty Initiative

The Poverty Initiative's Willie Baptist giving Moral Monday's leader, Rev. Barber, a Poverty Scholars Pin at December's Kairos launch.

The Poverty Initiative’s Willie Baptist presenting Moral Monday’s leader, Rev. Barber, with a Poverty Scholars Pin during December’s Kairos launch at Union.

“Our preaching and teaching must address the injustices of poverty, domination, inequality, and denial of health care that still impacts our social reality.” – Rev. Dr. William Barber, II

On Monday, December 9, a small delegation from the Poverty Initiative and Kairos Center for Rights, Religions, and Social Justice (Larry Cox, Colleen, John, and Josephine Wessel-McCoy) attended the Moral Mondays / Forward Together Movement briefing in Raleigh, NC. By 10 AM, the fellowship hall of Martin Street Baptist Church was crowded with people from all over the country ready to learn more about Moral Mondays. Rev. Barber called the room to order, and handed things over to Ms. Yara Allen, who led us in song. Together, we lifted our voices singing “O Freedom” and “My Heart is Fixed.” Already we were learning the first lesson from Moral Mondays–the centrality of artistic, cultural, and religious expression rooted in a history of faith and struggle for our movement today.

Early in Monday’s program, Rev. Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, set the moral framework as the foundation of Moral Monday’s work. The Moral Mondays leaders speak in terms of moral imperatives, and firmly ground their vision of justice in faith. The concern for justice – what God requires – is a public matter. As Rev. Barber puts it, “It is not about right or left; it’s about right or wrong.” Their ranks are diverse in terms of race, class, sexuality, and religion. Politically they have not just won liberals and progressives, but conservatives as well. Leaders have emerged out of North Carolina’s urban centers, rural communities, and everything in between.

Pam McMichaels (Director of the Highlander Center) and Carol Burnett (Mississippi Congregations for Children), both Poverty Scholars,  in attendance at the December Moral Monday's briefing.

Pam McMichaels (Director of the Highlander Center) and Carol Burnett (Mississippi Congregations for Children), both Poverty Scholars, in attendance at the December Moral Monday’s briefing.

From the original 17 arrested at the state capital on April 29, 2013 the Moral Mondays arrests have surpassed 900 to date. In a document entitled “Why We Are Here”, Moral Mondays / Moving Forward describes itself as follows: “North Carolinians who choose nonviolent civil disobedience in the face of an avalanche of extremist policies that threaten healthcare, education, voting rights, especially the poor, African-Americans, Latinos, women, seniors and students.”

It is important to emphasize the indigenous character of Moral Mondays. Ironically, its opponents have accused Moral Mondays of being nothing more than the work of “outside agitators”, when in fact it is more accurate to say that the right-wing perpetrators are marching to orders coming from outside the state. And while Rev. Barber has come to be the face of the movement, he is not a lone prophetic voice and the North Carolina NAACP is not the only leading organization. The struggle has gone much further to bring people together. A clear, competent, and committed leadership has emerged from every section of the state.

The political landscape of North Carolina reflects larger realities in the South and the nation at large. Its social makeup is increasingly diverse and dynamic. New waves of immigrants are part of this new reality. Young people do not share many of the views of their elders in terms of social issues. As North Carolina changes, it brings into question the future of “Plantation Politics”, to borrow a concept from W.E.B. Du Bois, where whites are united across class against blacks (a.k.a. the “Solid South”) to the detriment of all but a few.

Yet, it would seem, based on the political power currently dominating state politics, these old divides have not gone away, and in fact, appear to be growing in strength. Today there is a super-majority of Tea Party influenced conservatives occupying the governorship and the state assemblies.

Injustice against the poor is alive and well today in North Carolina. The Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Acts has opened the floodgates in North Carolina to discriminatory voting regulations – local mandates that would have otherwise been restricted by federal oversight. The current state political regime has shored up its power through an obscene and anti-democratic process of gerrymandering districts along racial lines. Public education, workers’ issues, healthcare, and programs for the poor have all been targeted by this extremist government. And the public debate is polarized – framed along racial lines, the deserving versus the undeserving poor, and Big Government versus privatization and free market “solutions. Figures like the North Carolina-based billionaire Art Pope, a scion of the Koch Brothers, bankroll the whole thing on the Right.

What is Moral Mondays fighting for? At one point in the day, leaders described the process of evolving from a resistance movement (a struggle against) to a movement with an alternative vision and a program (a movement for). In their words: “We lifted up five principles that we believed were bigger than Democrat or Republican but good for the whole:

1. Economic sustainability and ending poverty

2. Education equality

3. Healthcare for all

4. Fairness in the criminal justice system

5. Voting Rights”

This December 9 briefing was their first attempt to engage with folks outside of the state, and the focus of the briefing was largely geared towards how people might replicate Moral Mondays back in their states. One gets a sense that, as they struggle to resolve problems in their own state, they don’t quite know what to do with the tremendous enthusiasm they have inspired in people outside of North Carolina. Martin Street Baptist Church’s fellowship hall was filled with people who have found inspiration and are looking for direction from North Carolina. There is only one thing Moral Mondays asked of us in terms of supporting the North Carolina movement. They invited us to come back on February 8, 2014 for a mass mobilization in Raleigh at the state capital. The Kairos Center and Poverty Initiative are eager to be there and hope you can be there, too.

Micah 6:8 “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

Rev. William Barber at Martin Street Baptist Church.

Rev. William Barber at Martin Street Baptist Church.


The Yoga of Ecology: Ironbound to Green Faith and Environmental Justice

As an aspiring eco-theologian/activist/citizen, I am very grateful and fortunate to be part of the GreenFaith Fellowship Class of 2014. GreenFaith is an ecumenical/interfaith organization building bridges between the worlds of environmental justice, eco-theology, and stewardship.

The executive director of GreenFaith is Rev. Fletcher Harper, who is a Union alumnus and a good friend of many people here in our community. The Fellowship is a wonderful opportunity for like-minded and like-hearted souls from across the spectrum of faith to join with each other to create a green-rooted momentum to overcome inertia and create ecological inspiration in our faith communities.

I came upon the Fellowship when Fletcher spoke about GreenFaith in eco-theological courses I took last year with Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung and with Dr. Larry Rasmussen. I was impressed with both the competency and clarity of GreenFaith’s work in relation to the many myriad ways in which traditions of faith can serve the global environmental movement. GreenFaith was and is able to see, and act upon, how the local pictures of environmental justice work in dialogue with the larger systemic issues of our economic, cultural, and theological misconceptions in relation to how we live on the planet.

The Fellowship is an immersion experience in GreenFaith’s inclusive and expansive vision. Along with monthly webinars, guided readings, and chances to write and discern our own ecological biography, identity, and theology, the highlight of the Fellowship are three retreats where we join our Fellows in intimate community.

The first of these retreats happened recently (Nov 11-14) in Newark, New Jersey. We focused on the issues and realities of environmental justice (EJ), and it was an emotionally intense and challenging experience. Our Fellowship class was a diverse blend of Christian ministers and lay folk, agnostics and seekers, Muslims and Hindus (including myself). We came from Finland, from the Midwest, from Harlem, but in large part few of us had extensive experience dealing with issues of environmental justice. I know that my own budding ecological identity struggles to find a sense of cause and place in the realm of EJ. This retreat was a step forward for me and for many of us in helping to move beyond just thinking and theorizing about environmental justice towards feeling what this injustice is like.

On the first day we took a tour of the industrial areas around the port and airport of Newark, led by the Ironbound Community Corporation, a local EJ collective. The gray weather combined with the images, visages, sights, and smells of the pollution we were taking in created the sense we were in some kind of Limbo or Purgatory. This was an area that had been industrial since colonial times, and was now becoming a post-industrial landscape of empty shipping containers, piles of scrap heap, dioxin-infected Superfund sites (with small pine trees growing out of the top for “atmosphere”), ruined high-school football stadiums, and areas still affected by sewage-steeped flooding from Superstorm Sandy.

One image stood out for me: a eternal line of trucks attempting to enter into the port area. We could not see where this line of trucks began or ended. We could see the angry frustrations of the drivers, truly stuck in limbo. We were confronted with the truth that even if we have the privilege of being able to leave this hellish place, these drivers, and the people living in very close proximity to all of this pollution, do not have the luxury to leave this place, physically, emotionally, and economically.

How many times in our lives, even as we drive our Prius, as we compost our food, as we avoid GMOs, shop organic, conserve electricity, vote Green, and participate in GreenFaith Fellowships, do we ignore environments like this, the people who live in them, and the injustice which permeates and supports the whole rancid edifice? This tour of the Newark port, at the beginning of our retreat, was a prayer to us and from us that we should learn to no longer ignore these kinds of realities if we have the privilege to do so.

After the tour, we stopped at the Greater Newark Conservancy to absorb a healing, hopeful, and sensual urban garden experience. The Conservancy didn’t dull our outrage and disgust, but it showed us that people in the Newark community did not think their situation was hopeless, and that we could learn a great deal from their faith, grit, and determination.

The other confrontational experience of the retreat was a talk done by John Pajak, a leader in the Local 78 union who works in the Newark oil refinery. John talked about his experiences dealing with toxic exposures and safety regulations in his work, and how he constantly has to fight against decisions by management to shortchange these regulations in the name of profit. John considered his work to make sure the refinery ran as ethically and environmentally sound as possible his way of stewardship. Yet, when asked about alternative energies and his union participating in “just transitions” away from the work of the refinery, he was adamant that this was not a realistic possibility. He was frank that his livelihood and the livelihood of his fellow workers was of primary importance, and if people were to insist on advocating for the abolition of fossil-fuel energy, he would fight against it.

For me, it was yet another experience of being forced and compelled to see through the eyes of those who don’t share the instincts and misconceptions of my privilege. It is easy for those of us who don’t work in such an oil refinery to demand that such “monstrosities” be condemned from the face of the Earth. How often do we understand that such condemnation is also a condemnation of the honest efforts of the workers, many of whom are much more acutely aware of the justice issues surrounding their work than we give them credit for. There are no easy answers to the ethical and environmental dilemmas that places like the Newark oil refinery present to us, but there will be no answers at all if we don’t listen to those immersed in these realities, and how their experiences can qualify our naiveté.

Our first retreat together was a not-so-gentle reminder that to stand up for the planet, and the living beings that we share this planet with, as people of faith is no easy undertaking. We experienced the depth of reality not only in the deep undersides of Newark, but also in the wealth of wisdom in the multiplicity of our faith traditions. We took in perspectives on faith and ecology in the Hindu tradition from Dr. Ved Chaudhary and from the Jewish tradition from Rabbi Larry Troster, GreenFaith Rabbinic Scholar in Residence. Rabbi Troster shared with us a call from eco-theologian Mary Evelyn Tucker to retrieve, reinterpret, and reconstruct the substance of our personal faith and of our faith traditions in order to relevantly, compassionately, and justly apply that wisdom to our existential ecological crisis.

I will continue to share my journey into the GreenFaith Fellowship here on the Union in Dialogue, the Union Forum, and the Union Voice.