This summer Exploring Our Faith will move into Christian Discipleship one step at a time. As we approach Pentecost, the children found Jerusalem on the world map. You should have seen their expressions when we contemplated how the life of Jesus has spread over all the other continents of the world. One replied, “We have to get busy. We need to be ready to go to the Moon!”
Joseph Darling-LaGamma is finishing up 2nd grade and has been coming to the church since before he was born. He loves playing football and is a big fan of the Philadelphia Eagles; he’s also a big fan of the Washington Nationals.
I was at a retreat. It was fun! And there was a treasure hunt! And I got a headlight to wear on my head.
There was a dorm that we slept in. The beds were comfortable. And I got an Arrowcopter! It was like one of those copters you rub between your hands and let go and they go, except these used rubber bands tied to a stick. They were fun!!! They could go three hundred feet in the air. And everything was close to the beach. The beach was fun. There was food that we ate. And it was good, especially the lasagna! And the people were nice, really nice. And friendly. And we had a campfire every night. And we roasted marshmallows to make s’mores. They were good! And there was a basketball court near the dorm, and a tennis court by the dorm. And there was also a pool nearby. There was also a game room by the basketball court but it wasn’t open when I went to play.
I think more kids should come. I rate it 4.5 stars out of 5. I would give it a 5 if I there were more activities like being able to swim in the pool. It wasn’t open.
“So, where are you from originally,” I asked the taxi driver on my trip home from downtown.
“Ethiopia,” he replied. “I have been in United States since 1997.”
“Do you ever see your family back home?”
“Oh yes. I go back every year for a visit. You know, I am a lucky man. My mother had 17 children. Fourteen of us went to college. My mom is the most wonderful person in the world. She and my father were an amazing team. She was the organizer – the manager – who kept everything running and organized in the house. My father kept us in line – focused on a straight path. I love them so much. I am indeed a lucky man.”
“And do you have family here?” I asked.
“I am a doubly lucky man. I have a beautiful Ethiopian wife and my family loves her. You know, it is so interesting how we got together. She once worked for me and, because she was sometimes late, my boss asked me to fire her, which I did. Two years later, we saw each other at a restaurant. And that was it!”
“Well,” I responded as we turned the corner of my street, “I am a lucky woman because today I got in your taxi where you warmed my heart with your story of love and gratitude.”
First Church regular visitor Laurelyn is in Nepal for six weeks for her job with the U.S. Government. She sent us this update from abroad.
There have been a number of thoughts running through my head since I left the US nearly a month ago, so narrowing them is challenging. I’ll try to cover at least a few in this post.
This trip is the first trip I have taken to interview refugees abroad as, normally, my job is to adjudicate cases for refugees who are in the US and apply for asylum. This trip also comes on the heels of a recent break up. Given this, I was uncertain whether or not going across the world to stay in such a remote location for six weeks would be a good thing or a bad thing! But, despite my hesitations about the timing of the trip, the opportunity arose and I seized it. Conducting refugee interviews abroad has always been something I have longed to do.
I have had personal relationships with refugees since I was a teenager when my family helped support three Sudanese refugees with their resettlement to the US. We continue to consider them members of our family. I recall with clarity the evening that my Sudanese brothers first told me about their flight from Sudan to a refugee camp in Kenya—during which time they were shot at and witnessed many other children die of starvation or animal attacks. I remember standing and looking at myself in the mirror after they told my family these stories and thinking, “What am I doing?!” “How can I stop this?!” “How can I help?”
My immediate thought was that I had to drop out of school, sell all my possessions (which were not many as a 14 year old) and give them all to the dying kids in Africa. What was more important than this?
However, my senses would always kick in immediately after these thoughts and remind me that I was just a teenager. And, more importantly, I was a teenager who suffered from separation anxiety and never even wanted to even go to my friend’s houses a few miles away for a sleepover let alone leave my family and move to Africa! How could someone like me be called to do something about issues abroad? Why was I given this desire to work in such unknown territory and, at the same time, have to deal with debilitating anxiety the moment I went 10 miles down the road?
These questions were at the forefront of my mind for many years. And yet, some insight from a guest pastor at my school did help me become more at ease with what seemed to me to be an impossible “calling.” One day at high school, our chapel service focused on one of the many conflicts / issues in Africa. Feeling quite torn up about the situation, I approached the guest-pastor who was in charge of the service. I sat down with him and told him about the Sudanese refugees and how affected I was by all these issues, but how I felt so incapable of doing anything about it. His response has stuck with me and has been at the forefront of my mind here in Nepal.
He reminded me of the story of Moses and the burning bush in the Bible. The story is from Exodus 3 and goes something like this…: God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush and Moses takes notice because this bush is not burning up like a bush normally would do. God calls from the bush and Moses says “here I am.” God tells Moses that the ground he is standing on is holy. Then God tells Moses that he has seen the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt and he instructs Moses to go and bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses questions why God would choose him for this task? And God promises S/He will be with Moses.
The pastor who I was speaking with that day in high school recounted this story to highlight the burning bush. I don’t recall his exact words but I remember him telling me something akin to: “don’t worry. You don’t necessarily have to do something right now. You may not be ready. If you are truly called to do something about these issues in this life, then that passion will be like the burning bush in which God appeared to Moses …..it will not stop burning. It will not burn up.”
This story helped me tremendously at the time and in the years to follow because I was not ready or able to travel around the world, and I did not have the skills to work in the humanitarian field for many years. My path into my career was not always straight and it was not always clear. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but I had years of fretting over what I wanted to pursue academically or what career tracks were available. However, remembering the pastor’s interpretation of this epic story from Exodus did help me to feel somewhat more at ease—hoping that if there was truly something that I was called to do, the passion for that something would never completely die out, despite the path being unclear, uncertain and full of set-backs.
The verses of Exodus 3 after God appears to Moses provide some additional food for thought. In these verses, God tells Moses to take off his shoes because it is holy ground. Maybe, in this context, it is signifying that we ought to treat that which we are called to do—those passions and desires and hopes which burn within us—as holy ground. Things to be respected. To be paid attention to and nurtured. Things to be in awe of.
Like I did, Moses questions God’s calling of him in the passage. He, too, doesn’t feel prepared. Yet God responds by promising that S/He will be with Moses. It may sound overly dramatic to those who never knew me as a child, but given my on-going struggle with anxiety as a child and young adult, it is really nothing short of a miracle that I am in Nepal and in the line of work that I am. Looking back, I can clearly see the sequence of events that led to me overcoming anxieties, gaining experience in the refugee protection field and leading to my current job which has brought me to Nepal. Maybe God was with me as S/He promised S/He would be with Moses?
The moment I let this idea settle in, however, is the moment my mind finds the whole “burning bush” idea to be naïve and simplistic. I mean, what about the burning bush passions of refugees who are forced from their home? Or fear persecution or discrimination in their home country for being who they are— for their ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity? Is there not a fire in their hearts that they wish to be fulfilled and yet cannot because of their reality and/or location in the world? Is God not with them? And what about other passions and desires of those people living near us that—no matter how hard they try—seem to continue to elude them?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. In fact, I would be very interested to hear how others have grappled with them.
For now, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be here in Nepal and to finally to be able to work with and for a refugee population abroad. And when I consider the other desires of my heart which seem to continually get derailed, I find myself praying how my Mother taught me to pray about these things…Asking God to make the desires of my heart clear and to take away that which are not the calling for my life.
May God give you clarity. And may God be with you and all people in the coming weeks … as S/He was with Moses.
A nervous monk prays on the plane ride from Kathmandu to Damak.
Refugee kids preparing to fly to the U.S.
Housing in the refugee camp.
Women in an English class at the refugee center.
the author in Nepal!
December 20, 2013 — A little more than a year ago, I was sitting at my desk in the church office and the phone rang. As I picked up the phone I saw on the video monitor that there was a man in a large, powered wheelchair in the vestibule.
When I answered, he explained that he was homeless and wanted to know if it would be okay if he plugged his chair into the electrical outlet below the vestibule callbox. I told him to hold on and I would be right down. I went downstairs and told him that I didn’t want him to plug in there because it kind of blocked the entrance. He said what about the other end of the vestibule.
It was a cold day and I suggested that he come into the Narthex and plug in next to the desk. He said he didn’t want to be in anyone’s way. I assured him he would not. Held the doors open. Showed him where the outlet was. Made sure he was okay. Went back to work.
Over the next three or four months, Sam came by three or four times a week. He’d always buzz up and ask if he could come in to charge. I’d buzz him in and he’d take care of himself. If I happened to be going through the Narthex, we’d have a quick chat. Once Pathways had moved in, I asked Antwan to chat with him and see what he could do. It turned out that Sam had a housing voucher but needed help to find a place since he is wheel-chair bound. He worked with Antwan, used the phone in the Narthex, sometimes he’d fall asleep and his snoring would resonate through the hallways.
Every now and then someone from FreshFarms or Pathways, or the building staff, or Sid, or a church member passing through would stop at my desk and ask if I knew there was guy in a wheelchair plugged in downstairs and apparently asleep. And I would say, “Yea, he’s just charging his wheelchair. He’s a good guy. We can afford the electricity.”
One day, when I was passing through the Narthex, Sam called me over. With a big smile on his face, he told me he had found a place and was going to move in a couple of weeks. He came by to recharge a few more times before he moved into his place last spring.
I said hi to him once over the summer when I saw him heading towards the library.
This afternoon Amanda was busy getting worship folders done before leaving to celebrate the holidays with her family. I was busy getting the building ready for a big rental this evening. I happened to hear Amanda talking on the phone and realized she was trying to understand what someone in the vestibule was asking her. I heard my name and went out to her desk. It was someone asking for me and when I looked at the monitor I guessed that it was Sam. So I went down to the front doors to find out what he needed.
He was stopping by with a holiday card for me and the church, to thank us for what we had done for him. The note in his card reads:
“I never forgot when you opened your doors to me daily to charge my scooter and stay warm out of the cold. This way I was able to be in the presence of spiritual people and the presence of our savior and it still glows in me completely.
Love you all, Byron, church members and staff. You have a warm heart full of love.
In the midst of this Christmas season, Sam’s heartfelt thanks are a reminder to all of us to never underestimate the difference we can make in someone else’s life with a simple, small act of kindness.
Recently, Rev. Bonnie Hardy organized a poetry reading at the home of Polly Gordon in Adams Morgan, Washington, DC. The event was attended by about ten church members and was an informal gathering. While it was originally billed as a “Poetry Slam,” that was something of a misnomer. A slam is a fairly intense competitive event where there are time limits on each poem (usually 3 minutes) and the poets engage in a round by round knock-out elimination, judged on their delivery as well as the content of their poem, until one person is left standing as the winner. This event was a lot more casual, informal, and non-competitive. It was more akin to an “Open Mic” event, sans microphone (hardly needed in the intimacy of Polly’s living room!).
In fact, it was a time for contemplative sharing. As one who is new to FCUCC it was a wonderful opportunity for me to get to know some of the church members with whom I haven’t yet had a change to connect, as well as to connect more deeply with those I already know, like our dedicated Building Manager, Byron, in a completely different context from that in which we usually see him working. The format was simple: we went around the room and took turns sharing different poems. Some were original works that people had written; others were those written by well known poets. One of our resident poetry devotees, Nicki Boisvert, shared with me a wonderful anthology in her collection: “Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty” edited by Alan Jacobs. This book is a treasure trove of spiritual writing from many traditions.
For me, the notion of “spiritual poetry” has always been a subject one should approach keeping in mind the many different ways in which one might define “spiritual”. In my experience, there are poems that many would not consider so spiritual, or at least religious, but in which I find powerful images of the divine. For example, consider this line from Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”: “angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”
I also find themes of spirituality in a poem dedicated to the cause of social justice like Langston Hughes’ famous “A Dream Deferred”:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Most of what we read in the Friday night gathering was more personal in nature and that in itself was a wonderful experience. Poetry can become so personal at times that there is a responsibility on the part of the participants to be sensitive and understanding of what is being shared and to create an atmosphere of trust where such feelings can be shared safely in confidence. That was certainly the case at this event — one that I hope we can repeat again sometime in the near future.
Every year, Ellen Bushmiller, a longtime First Church member and a nurse, travels to Honduras with a team of nurses and doctors to provide free medical care (surgeries) to Hondurans. Ellen is there now, and has sent this update from the field.
The first few days are all set up work - frustrating, detailed, backbreaking work. No patient contact yet. This set up is done by a small group that goes ahead of the main Brigade.
Yesterday, in my new role as Surgery Team Lead, I had to meet with the Director of the public hospital and follow up/solidify/ gently strong arm them into keeping their agreements. I was unprepared for this and hadn’t been included in any of the previous conversations.
The anesthesiologist explained to me how this already poverty-stricken hospital had decayed even more in the intervening year, mostly due to the lack of care from the government. He stated that this is the most corrupt government he has seen. I asked him how he managed. What do you do when your staff is not being paid, when no supplies can be purchased, and the utilities are being cut off? He said he moves forward in faith. He trusts God will give him what he needs when he needs it. I replied that sometimes I too, trust that when I put my foot forward when I can’t see a floor that God will lift a floor to meet my foot. He looked me directly in the eye and said “Ah, we are the same.” I cannot say what he felt, but I felt his faith.
A second Honduran doctor standing quietly in the meeting, spoke and said he would donate his anesthesia machine for the week for us to do our surgery. I don’t know what moved the second doctor to action, but he was moved to action.
Forced to shutter its doors during the government shutdown, our neighbor Ford’s Theatre was unable to host scheduled performances of The Laramie Project in October. First Church was thrilled to step in and offer our sanctuary so that this important show could go on. The Laramie Project highlights the voices of the citizens of Laramie, Wyoming in the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998. It touches on issues of God and scriptural interpretation, LGBT rights and human dignity, familial and community rupture, and suffering under a media spotlight in the modern age. As Building Manager Byron Adams said: "Doing this is a no-brainer for us. It’s part of our extravagant welcome, particularly for a neighbor in need, and continues our long-standing commitment to LGBT rights issues." (Scroll down to the end of this post to find links to media articles on The Laramie Project at First Church and Sid’s sermon.)
Several First Churchers attended performances of the play and submitted these reflections…..
Cast members practicing in our sanctuary
There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free person, male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. - Galatians 3:28, distributed by Byron Adams in preparation for the arrival of protesters from Westboro Baptist church
“They were two kids. They were both my patients, and they were two kids. I treated both of them. Both their bodies. And for a brief moment I wondered if this what God feels when he looks down on us, how we’re all his kids. Our bodies, our souls. And I felt a great deal of compassion for both of them.”- Monologue of Doctor Cantway, reflecting on treating both Matthew Shepherd and his attacker Aaron McKinnie on the same night in the Laramie Emergency Room. The Laramie Project
“Thank you to the Phelps family, whom I love. They provoke people and when people are provoked they ask questions. And the Phelps might not always like the answers that those people find.” - Paraphrase of remarks by Dennis Shepard, father of Matthew Shepard, in reference to the founders of the Westboro Baptist Church.
In concert, these three statements have challenged me. Vexed me. The presence of God was palpable in the play, as were the themes of who God loves and who God judges. Matthew Shepard is, of course, deeply sympathetic. It is easy to see myself in Matthew. But what about his killers, Aaron McKinnie and Russell Henderson? What Aaron McKinnie and Russell Henderson did - mercilessly murdered Matthew Shepard – feels unforgivable. It was grotesque and hateful. Are they and I truly “one in Christ Jesus”? And if so, how are we the same? How are we different?
It is not easy to ferret out responsibility in the story of Matthew Shepard. If Mr. McKinney and Mr. Henderson are wholly responsible for their action then there is very little for the larger community to learn. “We,” the larger Laramie, can only use the example of Matthew Shepard as a departure for self-reflection if we believe that “we” are implicated in his death. That is that, somehow, Mr. McKinney and Mr. Henderson are in a sense victims themselves of a culture that incubated hate. But what then of personal responsibility?
As far as I can remember, at least as it was portrayed in the play, there were many Laramie pastors and preachers who responded to this murder but few who yearned to minister both to Matthew and his grievers and to Aaron and Russell and their defenders. (Closer to home, we might say the same about the victims and perpetrators of our own city’s recent rash of hate crimes.)
Recently, our congregation has done a fair amount of reflection on the parable of the Prodigal Son. In that story, the father presumably never stopped loving his son. Not when the son insulted him, not when the son squandered his inheritance to indulged all his basest desires. Only because his love was constant can the father, without hesitation, embrace the returning son.
It follows that even if the prodigal son had not returned his father would have loved him nonetheless.
Except for in the most abstract of senses, it is hard to for me to know how to love the unrepentantly hateful; to see God’s image in despots like Kim Jong-un; and to muster “a great deal of compassion” for the worshipers at Westboro Baptist Church. This is what challenges me. And this is where I pray for God’s guidance.
Candle vigil memorializing the 15th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death.
The Friday night [October 11] performance was a benefit for the Matthew Shepherd Foundation. Matthew’s father, Dennis Shepherd, addressed the audience after the play. He began his remarks by saying, “My wife told me not to attend the play. She said it would make me angry. Well, it didn’t make me angry. I will always be angry.”
I struggle a lot with what I call “Santa Claus” Christianity—just ask God for help, she will make it all better. I can’t reconcile that with the world that I see around me. And Dennis Shepherd was not offering an easy way out, a “Fifteen years later, I’ve made peace with my son’s death, it’s all OK.” His pain and his anger were clear and bright and unapologetic and, at the same time, holy.
In the play, two members of the clergy say hurtful and ugly things about gay people. I imagine that “Christian” response has compounded the hurt of Matthew’s family over and over again. I was extraordinarily grateful that our church could shelter and embrace Matthew’s father, and the play that carries Matthew’s name, from the rain outside that evening, from the protestors, from the demoralizing and demeaning government shutdown. God cannot make it all better, but she can facilitate such moments of powerful grace.
Mr. Shepard with members of The Laramie Project cast.
What struck me as I watched the Laramie Project, and has stayed with me in the days since, was the gracious humanity of the people of Laramie. I think I was expecting a production that was in some way condemning of the community. Instead the interviewers captured their wonderful humanity and the actors did a marvelous job of portraying them in all their complexity. It made one realize that Laramie is a community like most communities full of good people who are often oblivious to the range of attitudes that exist around them. So in a nutshell, I think I was expecting judgment, but instead found grace.
The grace was apparent in many places, but for me the one that I was most moved by was the man, a member of the LDS church that had been the congregation of one of the killers, speaking of how the young man had been excommunicated from the LDS community, but he was not going to shun him. He was going to continue to visit him and be a presence in his life. It is always easy to abandon those who have done wrong. It is much harder to stay in relationship but to me that is what we are called to as part of the Christian community.
I’m sorry they are returning to Ford’s theater. The play doesn’t need sets. And there was something about this play in a church that bound the actors and the audience together in a way that I have never felt even at the most moving play in a theater. We became a “congregation” a community of people, seeing our own humanity acted out in front of us and in some way transformed by it. It was what worship is supposed to be…and so often isn’t.
Read Rev. Sid’s sermon preached about the Westboro protest and the counter-protest at First Church on the night commemorating Matthew Shepard’s death.
Read this powerful review of the play as performed, “unplugged,” at First Church in which the author says this: "Totally by a fluke of insane fiscal brinksmanship … theater history’s most moving and spiritual parable about gay people’s sacred right to their humanity is now playing, mirabile dictu, in an LGBTQ-welcoming house of worship. Rarely in the eons since theater first arose as religious rite can one find such synchronicity of place and performance."
First Church has been hosting an art exhibit of depictions of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Inspired by this art, a younger First Church learner and his adult leader created this mural of the lost son.
Last Sunday after worship I hopped on my scooter and drove across town to Washington Hebrew Congregation — a synagogue just northwest of the National Cathedral on Massachusetts Avenue. There, hundreds of people were gathered for the start of the annual Unity Walk.
The Unity Walk started in 2005 as a means to celebrate and affirm multi-religious coexistence in the city and the world. It always takes place on the Sunday closest to September 11th. This is intentional, as the walk is meant to serve as an antidote to the belief in some sort of inevitable “clash of civilizations” that motivated, in part, the terrorist bombings on that date in 2001, and that have fueled anti-Muslim or anti-foreign attitudes in the U.S.
The Unity Walk is a chance to stand and march together across many religious, racial, and ethnic lines of difference for a different vision — one of deep religious pluralism that goes beyond mere tolerance. It’s not just about a nice message of respect for other paths to God, but a chance to encounter the other on their terms, so to speak, by going into their sacred spaces. How vulnerable and beautiful is that for everyone involved — the guest and the host? I love it.
And so the Unity Walk is a great opportunity to meet new people in DC and to see the insides of some incredibly gorgeous places of worship along Massachusetts Avenue — including those Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, and Orthodox. I have found in my world travels that these opportunities to stand in the sacred spaces of other religious communities have brought me closer to God. Churches and cathedrals always evoke in me a sense of the divine, of course. But there is something about standing in a space that is decorated, shaped, and divided differently, but in no less a sacred way, that pushes me to encounter God in new ways. It deepens my appreciation for how big and infinite and complex God is, and of the many expressions of the divine around the world — and even here in this town! This is the promise and richness of multi-religious encounter.
This year I did not make it to the actual walk, however. And the reason illustrates the pitfalls one can encounter in these kinds of multi-religious events. My plan had been to attend the scheduled 30 minute opening session at the synagogue, and then to walk for about 30 minutes — long enough to visit the recently reopened Sikh gurdwara, before needing to head to the library to get some homework done. When I arrived, I saw and chatted with some good friends and colleagues — Marc Gopin, a professor at GMU and leading scholar of religious peacbeuilding, and Joe Eldridge, founder of WOLA and head chaplain at American (and husband to Maria Otero). I then took a seat next to other First Churchers.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the opening session started late. The prayers began, as well as speeches, spoken word from the DC youth Split this Rock team, a rousing reflection on Nelson Mandela from the South African Ambassador, a guided meditation from the Brahma Kumaris. Every portion was lovely in its own way and together wove a rich tapestry. But soon 30 minutes stretched into an hour, and then beyond. This is often, I find, the challenge with multi-religious gatherings. In the process of seeking to be inclusive, everyone is offered the microphone. And clergy (and politicians) being who they are, the reflections always go longer than anticipated. It can make multi-religious events like these tedious, and unfortunately can wind up detracting from the spirit of these events. By the time we left the synagogue, it was well past the time I had appointed to get to the library, and so I missed the walk itself. Happily, other First Churchers continued on and I hope those reading ask them about their experiences!
I left glad to have witnessed to this important message. Glad to have made an effort to affirm and deepen multi-religious pluralism (particularly given the rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the US and globally this year). Glad to have heard the prayers and poems and soaring speeches I did, including the echo of the lovely Muslim call to prayer in the space of a large synagogue. But I wrestled with the question: how can we have authentic multi-religious expression in a manner that is less tedious? Is it possible to capture diversity and richness succinctly and still give it justice?
Read more about the event in this Washington Post article. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/unity-walk-celebrates-all-faiths-in-remembrance-of-911/2013/09/08/aa0ea96e-18d2-11e3-82ef-a059e54c49d0_story.html