12 August 2013

The Eye's Treasure is Master

    Matthew 6.19-24:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where theives break in and steal;
"But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume and where thieves do not break in and steal.
"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
"The eye is the lamp of the body.  So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.
"If then the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
"No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

              Demons & Disease

There is a story I have heard from many people—perhaps it counts as a parable now—of a white, Western missionary to Africa bringing the gospel to Africans.  Yet at the same time he also brought his Western, scientific mindset, and he taught it as reality as much as Christ as reality.

The missionary is talking to an African man, telling him that sickness and disease does not in fact come from demons, as this African’s spiritual paradigm taught him; disease comes from bacteria and viruses.  So one day the missionary brings a microscope and shows the African what these microscopic things look like, as proof of his scientific understanding.

The African looks at the missionary and says, “Aha! So that is what a demon looks like!”

I was reminded of this story one week this summer in talking to “Arche”, a former gangbanger, user, and now second-in-charge of Homeboy Industries under Father Greg.

He had used a number of drugs in his life before coming to Homeboy, including coke and meth.  He was telling me that, as he reads the Bible and engages the talk of the spiritual world, of spirits and angels and demons in spiritual warfare, he suspects that when a human being takes one of those drugs, more than chemicals enter the human person.

He tells me that he sees the human being as having free will from reading the Bible; but at the moment the chemicals are let in and start to work on the body, something else starts to work on the soul—evil spirits that seek to take that free will from the person.

He is not the only one to relay this idea to me.  A hostess at the Cafe, whom I will call "Madre," told me once that "you can't be addicted to drugs and not believe in demons."

At least to Arche, taking drugs meant an escape at the time; but it was an escape into bondage.  He liberated his Self into imprisonment.  He illuminated his pain with darkness; "If then the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!"

              The Eye's Treasure is Master

If the process of sight sustains "the lamp of the body," perhaps the process of ingestion sustains the soul itself.  "You are what you eat," as they say:  Or, rather, you become what you take in.  In days past, Arche's eye sought what drugs offered.  His eye fixated on darkness, he took that darkness into his body, and darkness covered his heart, mind, and soul.

The darkness takes many forms for us.  Pornography, for example, ensnares a grievously high number of people today.  It appeals to the God-given capacity to look at what is beautiful and call it "good" or a "delight to the eyes" (Gen. 1.4, 3.6), even to the good desires of belonging and intimacy, but it removes the person of everyone it touches.  It removes realities and offers power (cf. Gen. 3.1, 4-5), a fantasy.  It is like the drug:  Find what you have been created to seek—in pornography, belonging; in drugs, transcendence—but give up your person to do so.

Arche became an addict to his darkness.  He would sacrifice, temporarily, his free will for the solace found in the high.  "No one can serve two masters," and Arche could not give himself to the drug and yet remain in control of himself (cf. 1 Cor. 9.27).

Because what fills the eye, the body will treasure; and what the body treasures will rule it.

For Arche, his eye was once filled with drugs, and the evil spirits of addiction ruled him.  Now, he fixates upon devotion to his community, belief in his God, discipline of his body, and these things rule him.  And to anyone that knows him now, these things are easily seen pouring forth from him.

One day, the Lord willing, Arche will run Homeboy, after Father G does no longer.  He is someone from the same world as the demographic of Homeboy’s clients, taught and developed by Father G and the Scriptures the Church holds so highly.  His spirituality, and particularly its interaction with reality, will also guide and teach and develop members of this community for years to come.

I do not know if he is right about this spiritual component of drug use, about spiritual and chemical being parallel, but I do not think that he is wrong either.  I do know that his suspicion gave me more insight into the world living around Homeboy.  Even people who do not grow up in the Church, people who have been in the middle of the world, see something spiritual behind the concrete reality that they can experience by their five senses.

And I think I can learn a bit from this.  Perhaps the food I eat is not merely food.  Perhaps the videos and pictures I see are not merely images.  And what do the food I eat, or the music I choose, or the movies I watch all have to say about what I treasure and, therefore, what rules me?

04 August 2013

Death in the Barrio

             Job says, “If I ever summoned him [YHWH] and he answered me, I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.  For he crushes me with a tempest, and multiplies my wounds without cause” (Job 9.16-7 NRSV).
            As this is my favorite book of the Christian Bible, I am glad that the devotional I am reading by Barbara Brown Taylor spent so much time on the story.  Taylor does well by all of the voices of the story, even the oft-criticized, “existential” friends.  She looks at their arguments, recognizes their (human) common sense, but then adds, “The sad hole in this logic is the illusion that pain can be controlled” (166).
            I am finding this recognition of Taylor’s to be a “common sense”-type understanding in the community about Homeboy.  Father Greg writes in his book that young people from these gang-inundated barrios tend to plan their funeral as opposed to their wedding.  If you know death is going to come, why try to stop it?  “Dee,” a coworker of mine from one of these barrios tells me that he doesn’t even make plans.  He takes it “day by day.”
            Day by day.  No real plans.  Hopes, sure, and goals; Dee hopes to have his own house, to have a full-time job more stable than one at a non-profit, to see his son more often but his ex-girlfriend less.  But he doesn’t really plan for these things.  Today, he has a job.  Today, he has a home to go to, and a girl.  Today, he may or may not see his son.  And that is the extent of his plans.
            Why is this so?  “I’ve been shot at more times than I can count,” Dee tells me.  “It’s not a big deal to me.  And I’ve had homies die—like 6 of my best friends have been shot and died.  But then I know homies who have been shot and lived.  One was shot 19 times; one was shot in the head.”
            Bullets will fly—Dee can’t stop it.  Homies will die—Dee can’t stop it.  Today Dee’s alive—so he will live it, day by day.
            “After a while there is no reason to talk about it.  When pain [or death] is as ubiquitous as air, why comment on it?” (160).  There have been deaths in this community over my summer here.  Almost every week seems to have someone else’s wake or funeral happening.  And the people I see each day, in dealing with these deaths, speak of it with all the melancholy you might expect but tinged with a “business as usual” feel.
            If Job's story tells us anything, it tells us that God pays attention to what we cry out.  Remember, the book says that Job never sinned against God, even though Job called God's own righteousness into question.  Job thought God's tempest would destroy him—God shows up in a tempest and does not.  If you follow the content of Job's laments, you can see that God's interrogating reply targets that exact content.  God's honoring the lament, answering it directly yet transcendently. 
         Contrary to popular belief, God does NOT tell Job to "put your big boy pants on."  To read this as such is to not be able to read.  God commands Job to "gird up your loins"—a command also found in the Passover story, telling people to prepare for imminent deliverance.
            I ask myself, "If I were the pastor of a church for this community, what would I hope to see in them?"
            I would hope that God would not be silent, even though I know that might come in a horrifying way—as a tempest, a whirlwind, like it was for Job.  I wonder if pain is necessary to break Dee out of the “day by day” malaise; I wonder if he even needs to; I wonder if more pain would only fall on deaf ears, as his pain has been great even at a young age.
            I would hope that people in this community would allow themselves to hope enough in their own futures to make plans, even though I know it will be painful.  Even though I know it is entirely possible any given person might not make it through the year, the week, the day.  I would hope that deliverance would be imminent for them.  For decades now, it has not been.
            In a place with this much grief, I would expect people to cry out much more, to “fill the air with [their] furious poetry” like Job (166).  Perhaps I just do not see it.  But I do sense a distance between many people here and God.  Not necessarily a disbelieving one, but a cognitive one.  One that sounds like Job’s quote above.  Some have explicitly stated to me a belief that God does not take part in this world, and leaves us to our own machinations.
            Perhaps this is the only way to reconcile the pain—and death—that they know intimately with the God they do not.

24 July 2013

To Show Up is to Dignify

 Been a while since the last post.  Partly I've been busy and tired, partly just lazy in writing (I'm working on 3 summer classes this month all while volunteering all day at Homeboy).  But here's a bit of my experiences and reflections so far.

              The Ability to Show Up

 Since I began working with Curriculum, primarily fixing mistakes on class roll spreadsheets—there were more mistakes than correct entries overall—I have shown up every morning, worked into the afternoon, and kept at my job as best as I could.  One day Luis, Director of Curriculum, called me out on that.

 Our office is typically busy, either with workers going in and out, Homies dropping in to chat, members of classes coming with questions, and the like.  On Monday just before lunch, everything slowed down, leaving only Luis and myself in the room.  Luis, all of his own accord, says to me, “Man look at all those classes we have covered.  I came in on Sunday to work on them, and I saw how many you had already knocked out.  You are without a doubt one of the best volunteers we’ve ever had.”

 “Really?” I ask incredulously.  It had only been a couple of weeks at this point.

 “Oh yeah, man.  See, most volunteers, when they see how things work here and how crazy it gets, they check out.  But I saw you walk into Morning Meeting today, and when I did, I just smiled.”

 I already knew that anyone wanting to join Homeboy is first and foremost encouraged just to “show up.”    Quite often, young people or those fresh out of a correctional facility have never had a job.  They've never learned the importance of being "on-time."  When C. S. Lewis breaks down the types of human love in The Four Loves, the first is affection, which comes primarily by familiarity.  To show up everyday, to make it a habit, because that’s the only way this place becomes a community to that person.  On this day I found that not only are Homies “measured” by that standard here, but I am, too.

  Luis encouraged me that day because I keep showing up.  He made me want to keep showing up more.

  And he told me that he himself felt encouraged because I showed up.

  This ability, this desire, to show up is really the only foundation upon which things like compassion or charity can really work. 

              Toxic Charity: Developing Dignity

 I read a book last week called Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It by Robert Lupton.  This man has spent decades in the Atlanta area, and traveling around the world, focused on aiding those who are unable to help themselves.

  “Compassion is a dangerous thing,” Lupton says early on in Toxic Charity.  And he is correct.  This book displays for America and the West to see their misunderstanding of the word “compassion.”  It means ”to suffer with"—from Latin cum, "with," and passio, "to suffer."  Not “to look down and have pity and give handouts to,” but suffer with.  So yes, America’s compassion, the West's compassion, the Church's compassion, are all dangerous things; but any thing is dangerous when it is not itself.

  I especially love this quote he gives of Jacque Ellul:  “It is important that giving be truly free. It must never degenerate into charity. Almsgiving is Mammon’s perversion of giving. It affirms the superiority of the giver, who thus gains a point on the recipient, binds him, demands gratitude, humiliates him and reduces him to a lower state than he had before."

  Lupton’s key word for bringing this toxic compassion back to itself is “development.”  Telling anecdote after anecdote after statistic in which charitable people moved by compassion were “turning [Nicaragua’s] people into beggars," or in which the American government’s aid to Africa is doing less aid to Africa’s poor and more funding of despots, he concludes that this is primarily because there is no system of development for the recipients. 

 “When relief does not transition to development in a timely way, compassion becomes toxic." 

 If the people who find themselves in a place where they cannot stand alone are not strengthened to stand (see Acts 3), then “dignity is eroded as people come to view themselves as charity cases for wealthy visitors."  This “creates unhealthy dependency,” “erodes the work ethic, and “cannot elevate people out of poverty." 

  Good intentions are like clean water poured into a trough so people can drink for a day; but without a fresh well of their own, that water will stagnate and bring them all kinds of disease.  And worse, in my mind—mosquitoes.  This is precisely the light in which I view companies like TOMS shoes, or mission trips to unload hundreds of t-shirts.

  To avoid this, Lupton offers a device and a code.  The device: relationship—“There is no simple or immediate way to discern the right response without relationship."  The code, which must follow through that device:  "Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
"Limit one way giving to emergency situations.
"Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
"Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
"Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said—unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
"Above all, do no harm."

  Through relationship, the giver will know better when which response is appropriate, and therefore will be better situated to “do no harm.”

              To Show Up is to Dignify

  I found this book particularly pertinent to my summer at Homeboy Industries.  In short, this organization creates community to trump gang, primarily focusing on job development and placement of former gang members, inmates, or drug users.  They sell T-shirts that say “Nothing stops a bullet like a job;”—much like Lupton’s time with teens in which he notes that, as they got older, “Bible studies did not get them jobs."

  Homeboy is a picture of Lupton’s dream of “geographically focused vision with measurable goals over extended time” because it first came out of the Dolores Mission, located in the “gang capital of the world,” and subsequently built a headquarters in the middle of many, many gang-controlled neighborhoods.  Their goals are to get jobs for, and change lives of, former gangbangers, and they’ve been doing it for 25 years.  I have had before my eyes a successful picture of what Lupton describes, which is more persuasive evidence than all of his stats.

  This geographical nature seems paramount to us Christians in developing those who are undeveloped (especially those undeveloped by the Church’s own toxic charity), because “our memory is short when recovery is long."  Homeboy is at the mercy of wealthy people miles away from the neighborhood to stay open.  It laid off everyone (even the Father had to file for unemployment) in 2011; the community of people there, however, kept the doors open, hoping for more charity to meet the budget (which happened).  Homeboy hopes to be as self-sustaining as best it can be, but for now it is hamstrung by relying on charity.

  When people walk in the door and take a tour of the facility, they really do stop seeing the tattoo-covered Other and find the tour leader (always a homie) to be a real person.  As Lupton describes from his experience, “When [any people in need] have the opportunity to tell their stories... the [compassionate person’s] ‘pity factor’ diminishes, replaced by respect and emerging understanding."

  This happens on a one-hour tour of the Homeboy facility.  How much more respect and emerging understanding could we privileged Christians find for the poor or undeveloped Other if we were to show up everyday?

  If we show up, we will inevitably form relationship.  If we show up, our memory will not be short for those who need most to be remembered.  If we show up, we find real people instead of possibly trumped-up stories or scary-looking Other people.  If we show up, we dignify that person to whom we show up.  If we show up, we can help educe the God-given graces, words, capacities, and desires of those who have never known they had them.  If we show up, we can help someone become not a beggar but a developing child of God, empowered by all the trappings of such a status once it is accepted.

  And just so, if we do choose show up, and keep showing up, we may even find dignity within ourselves—because make no mistake, to see someone find their own dignity will inevitably make us see our own.

06 June 2013

What a Place to Be with the Lord

 My meeting this week with my supervisor, Phil, served as a major balm to some of my summer’s agitation.  Just having a supervisor now feels a relief in itself; being able to talk to an “undercover missionary” working as an educator in a prison a mere few blocks from my own context actually has blown a bit of wind into my doldrummed sails. 
 As I was pondering the vague position in which I have been left for now at Homeboy, rife with feeling “clueless” and “out of place” and wondering what to do, Phil spoke a word that forcefully reframed my view.
“What a place to be with the Lord, right?”
 What a place indeed.  He made me remember, as I had not in the past few weeks, times I had been here before—deciding on colleges after high school, failing out of A&M, being led back into school there, then on into seminary without any expectation of what I would receive or what I would do when it was over.
 Really, he reminded me that this feeling I have been having in Los Angeles is in microcosm what I have been feeling for a couple of years now.  And I find this a hopeful place.  Why?  Because continually God has provided life, community, challenge and opportunity in these years of vocational and educational and geographical wandering.
 So I wander on.  I do not have to be completely put together (the embracing of which will actually make me more like those whom I am befriending and serving at Homeboy).  I feel liberated to “not have to know everything,” to “ask the dumb questions,” as Phil also guided me.
 Correspondingly, what today began as an overcast morning has become a warm, breezy, California summer day.

04 June 2013

Good is the Flesh: Skin's Altar #2

“Even in Jesus’s most transcendent moment, the moment that set him apart from the rest of humankind, he remained recognizably one of us.  He came back wearing skin.  He did not leave his body behind… Read from the perspective of the body, his ministry was about encountering those whose flesh was discounted by the world in which they lived.” - Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

 I love this idea!  It certainly is a strange one in a religion that has for so long emphasized both the distinction between "spiritual" and "physical" as well as the higher value of the former.

 Yet I would say it is equally strange that Christianity would focus so much on a soul and so little on a body, when the gospel writers gave so much detail about the physical nature of the body in which Christ was resurrected.  Read First John!  The only thing ever called the "Antichrist" in the Bible is any individual who claims that Jesus did NOT come in the flesh to begin with!

How important is it to honor the skin we wear?

“Wearing my skin is not a solitary practice but one that brings me into communion with all these other embodied souls."

The skin I have is the skin I have to wear.  The body I have is the body I have to use.  And everyone has it the same, which is particularly hopeful to me spending my summer in a place with people who share very little else in common with me.  What better way to honor those around me than by paying close attention to the skin they wear—not with a critical eye, but with a receptive heart?

And this is a practice anyone, no matter background or upbringing or education or whatever, can do.  We all have the capability to learn how to honor the Other in the skin they wear, even by and through it.  Plus, seeing people wearing the skin they have, as they are, is a critical component to hearing their entire story.

How do I start honoring another in the skin they wear?  Honoring my own skin is paramount here.  If I value not my own, what has been given to me, as it is, then how can I do it for another?  And this might start with practices like Taylor’s suggestion to pray naked before a full-length mirror.  This seems absolutely antithetical to what I have heard called “spiritual”!  

“Isn’t this a distraction?” my not very picturesque body asks.  But Jesus embraced skin-covered shoulders.  He washed skin-(and dirt-)covered feet.  He used his own skin-covered hands to touch, to teach, to bless, to expel, to heal, to break bread.

“Yet this is the central claim of the Incarnation—that God trusted flesh and blood to bring divine love to earth.”

If you ask me what I think the Church is really about (not even the Church per se, but here I include anyone who is in the Way of Christ Jesus), then one of the answers I will undoubtedly give is this:  That this "central claim of the Incarnation" is as much a promise today as it was when "Immanu el" ("God with us") was first prophesied; as such it is meant to continue to be fulfilled, as concretely fulfilled as it was when the physical body of Jesus came into the world at Bethlehem.

    "Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
          good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
          good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
          good is the body for knowing the world,
     Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

     Good is the body for knowing the world,
          sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
          feeling, perceiving, within and around,
          good is the body, from cradle to grave,
     Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

     Good is the body from cradle to grave,
          growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
          happy in clothing or lovingly bared,
          good is the pleasure of God in our flesh.
     Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

     Good is the pleasure of God in the flesh,
          longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
          glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
          good is the body, for good and for God,
     Good is the flesh that the Word has become. "
Hope Publications]

31 May 2013

Story in the Skin: Skin's Altar #1

Barbara Brown Taylor has lifted a huge blind spot for me; at least, if I was not blind to this before, I did not know it:  “Each of us has a unique body ‘signature,’ which consists not only of our distinctive physical characteristics but also of our posture, our gait, our way of using our hands.”
 I have been raptly seeking the audible story so far in Los Angeles.  I had forgotten the story told in our skin—eyes that tell of power or fear, hands that tell of cheer or gloom, shoulders that tell of confidence or of time spent in a deep shadow.
 Already I am remembering things I did not notice at the time. A Homegirl CafĂ© host, carrying a story of fractured and missing family, who looked me in the eye the whole time she told her story.  Her gaze was one of power, not defiance but acceptance and embrace.  Or the server who smiled brighter when I asked her name.  She did not fear me, a stranger; she was grateful to be known, which I would not have known had she not smiled.
 To Taylor, “the daily practice of incarnation” is “being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of the flesh.”  I think my proper response to this is wonder.  As much as I talk an emphasis of Christ’s humanity, do I look for it around me?  If I did, I think I might be awe-struck more often than I am.
 Because “God loves the bodies of hungry children and indentured women along with the bodies of sleek athletes and cigar-smoking tycoons.”  Therefore, just like any voice can carry the sound and power of The Voice, so can all of our bodies embody the Word Made Flesh.  Our bodies are going to tell a story anyway; why not tell the one that includes, heals, and redeems all stories?

24 May 2013

Sourdough Toast & Guardian Angels

Young men are outside the Bakery again, washing the floor-to-roof windows.  Perhaps they help the patrons eating inside see the world more clearly.

I sit in a corner booth of the Homegirl Cafe for brunch, the gracious Lampea bringing me coffee and mango agua fresca.  Mango is my favorite fruit; this drink has become my new favorite refreshment.  This morning I see, from the specialty coffee to the pork chorizo and the most exquisite sourdough toast  that I have ever eaten, that the Homeboys and Homegirls practice excellence in their work.

[The Bakery and Cafe food is supplemented by Homeboy Industries' own garden.  Check out this vid by another L.A. group working on gardens all over the city: http://www.ted.com/talks/ron_finley_a_guerilla_gardener_in_south_central_la.html? ]

"Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ." Colossians 3.23-4

When I ask Lampea her name, and if I will be in the way if I study, she smiles a bit bigger.  There is light in her smile.

[Any names mentioned in this blog have been changed to protect confidentiality.]

I eat steadily, read some, and when business picks up I pack my things and move to a counter in the Bakery.  I assume my nourishment for the day there is done.

Then a Stranger speaks to me: "Did you just move from one place to another?"

"Yes, in case someone needed my table."

"Well that was a very nice thing you did."  The Stranger, a woman working for the Cafe, then clears a table on the side which has a plug near it, so that I might continue to use my computer.  Her kindness sparked my courage to talk with her.

Though I hoped for it, I did not anticipate how I would be fed by more than food that morning.

I hear a story from this stranger of heartbreak, of a distant family, of a kidnapped son.  Of prison terms and felony and being lost.  But the end of the story, I find, changes the rest of it.  Because the end of her story—really, the end as far as she has discovered—is one in which she has found herself.

"I had to learn to forgive myself."

In working with her case manager, if she was really serious about changing, she needed to have her gang tattoos removed.  So she was sent to Homeboy.  The tattoos on her wrists are nearly gone, and the ones on her fingers invisible, after 11 sessions.  It's a long process to remove the pieces of her old life.

"It's not about what you do right; it's about what you do wrong and are willing to change."

She found people who were like her at Homeboy.  She credits Homeboy, and the people there, for all of the changes, along with her "guardian angels" (literal angels) who she feels like she has "worn out" in looking out for her.  She credits Homeboy's capacity to "never give up on people."

"I have seen people do some stupid shit, they go to jail, then Homeboy hires them right back."

Anyone hired by Homeboy must go through an 18-month program which includes work and classes (AA, Narcotics Anonymous, Fatherhood or Women Empowerment classes, etc.), must be drug tested regularly, must meet with case managers and therapists, and this Stranger-turned-Friend says the whole process is one in which healing, belonging, and empowerment to stand and be responsible are all offered, over and over—if only the Homeboys and Homegirls take them.

Which they have been doing near a quarter-century.  And my newest Friend, she has seen her family come closer recently through tragedy.  She has found a marriage with someone who cares for her as she needs.

Though this week held disappointment for my summer at first, this day has changed my tone entirely.  All because a woman of redeemed life chose to seek out and be kind to a stranger like me.

[Another wonderful video recently shared by a friend of mine carries a similar-yet-unique story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbMwcCvOqPM ]