Monday, June 22, 2015

Reflection: Community Service

Below is my reflection, shared as part of a community prayer vigil held in Dayton following the murders of 9 Children of God at Emanuel AME. Humbled and blessed to have been asked to share a Lutheran voice as part of the service.

Over the past days, words from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8 have come into my heart and have been upon my lips—“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of labor, right up to the present moment…”
We, the whole creation of God, groan, we lament, we cry out for the lives of 9 beloved Children of God, who, while studying the Word of God within the walls of Mother Emmanuel, were not safe from the vicious sin of hate and racism. We, as the whole creation of God groan and lament because again and again, from Birmingham to Charleston, Children of God are murdered in the very house of God—killed by the hands of one drenched in sin and hate.
In the midst of groaning and lamenting, I continued reading Paul’s letter--“The Spirit intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, I call upon the Spirit, I cling to this hope and promise, because my sighs are too deep for words. I speak to you first and always as a Child of God. I also speak to you as an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
And it was at an ELCA seminary, The Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, that Rev. Pinckney and Rev. Simmons received theological training—these pastors were part of our Lutheran family. During their time at the seminary, during weekly chapel, they worshiped, prayed and extended their hands to receive the Body and Blood of Christ with my Lutheran colleagues. And that’s just too close to home…My sighs are too deep for words…
But, the young man who entered Mother Emmanuel and slaughtered 9 Children of God, this young man was a member of a South Carolina Lutheran congregation. In his church, he heard the same liturgy, and extended his hands at the Lord’s Table. And that’s just too close to home—. My sighs are too deep for words…
As Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said in a written statement Friday “All of a sudden and for all of us, this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own," said Eaton.
My sighs are too deep for words as I acknowledge the sin of denial, and complacency, the sin of racism and hate have spilled more blood—my sighs are too deep for words as we spend time in repentance and mourning, not of the sins of the past, of our history, but of the sins of this very present moment. Bishop Eaton encouraged us to spend the weekend in repentance and mourning—then, she said “we need to get to work. Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage."
So I stand here today, filled with sighs too deep for words. My head bowed in humble, constant prayer. Prepared to examine myself, my church, and community. Prepared to be honest, prepared to listen and prepared to act. Let our eyes, filled with tears, be opened. Let our hearts be filled with courage. And let our entire beings be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, ready to transform and be transformed in the name of Jesus, crucified and risen for the sake of us all….

Thursday, October 30, 2014

This Place Goes With Us...

The rust red dirt, fine as baby powder, danced through the bus' air vents, focusing the sun into beams of light.  Upon ending the 1 1/2 hour transit from Johannesburg, the powder settled, almost thick enough to create stains as it was brushed off black pants and sweaters.  Under the red soil lay some of the world's richest platinum mines, pulled from its resting place in the earth by thousands of workers housed in barracks, separated from their families for 11 months at a time.

Sifting through the red powder soil, we find the lives of women in mining towns, brought from Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique with the promise of work in mining communities.  Human trafficking and poverty meld and the bodies of Children of God are dishonored.  The metal shacks that the women call home often lack windows. Doors are reinforced with wood in an attempt to keep their bodies safe at night--though, on occasion, roofs have been ripped off, the intruder taking all that is inside.

Women give birth to babies, and, even in places of unspeakable darkness, children grow and play while their mothers wash clothes, cook food, and form friendships with one another.  When their bodies begin to slim, and tubercular fevers begin, the women press washcloths upon one another's brow, emptying latrine buckets, holding babies while their mothers lay motionless on rust red dirt floors.

Close to half of all pregnant women in the community are HIV positive, with no money and no access to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to combat the disease.

Then the Body of Christ responded.  Tapologo hospice began.

As a priest who lived in the area for much of his adult life, Bishop Kevin Dowling worked to secure treatment services and end of life care to the women living in the villages.  Relationships and trust grew and medications were obtained.  The women in the village were empowered, as they heard of options and possible ways to earn income and break free of those who used their bodies.  However, even as this decision was made, more women were brought to the village, the cycle of AIDS, poverty and trafficking unbroken.

The women began to receive training from nurses and health care professionals.  Empowered to help provide care to their community, the women, even those infected themselves, go door to door, ensuring those with the disease receive ARVs, take the medication correctly, and receive monitoring to promote health.  Chart notes are made, patient's conditions are monitored weekly, and the women, thanks to the support of one another, live.

The hospice beds, once filled with dying women prior to ARV therapy, are now mostly empty with close to 1,000 patients receiving maintenance therapy in their homes.  Mothers who receive therapy are at much lower risk of transmitting AIDS to their babies at birth as they nurse.

Further, the women have become more empowered as they learn trades and skills, which in some cases frees them from those who held their bodies and finances captive.  As a whole, the women have now begun demanding the men use condoms--which, while far from a solution to the dire situation the women find themselves in, has helped reduce transmission.

Loading the bus to leaving Tapologo, red dust footprints covered the floor.  It peppered our hair, filled our lungs, could not be brushed away.  This place goes with us.

New life, new opportunities for the community, new found health provided us with hope and thanksgiving--the Body of Christ was present and transforming.

The beast of trafficking, rape, poverty, and pain remain.  Christ is still on the cross, crying out in agony.

Death and Resurrection.

We give thanks for the power of community, Christ's work in the world, and hope for a future.

We must not be satisfied until women are no longer trafficked.  Babies are no longer orphaned.  Men's lives are no longer damaged by a world that degrades their humanity, leading them to degrade others.

The Body of Christ must look to Tapologo as a sign of light and hope in the darkness.  But we must also take the red powder with us and be the Holy Spirit's very breath upon all that still must be restored.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

And Jesus Dwelled in Khayelitsha

"And an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying 'arise and take the child and his mother and flee into Egypt...for Herod seeks to destroy him"

The blue glow of a 42 inch plasma TV, voices chattering about AIDS, war, and poverty.  A solemn, wide eyed child, large spoon in hand, eating an unidentifiable white porridge, stares into the camera--into the eyes of world wide viewers.  The blue glow and chattering voices were only to provide white noise while coffee is prepared, teeth are brushed, lunches packed.  Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa--the names of nations blend together, turning Africa into a country instead of a continent in the minds of westerners, turning Children of God into human masses. With an overwhelmed sigh, viewers pause for a moment, remote in hand, before reaching their thumb up to the red power button.  And the child disappears.

After the TV has been turned off,  the 12 year old, wide eyed child maneuvers the dizzying streets of Khayelitsha. Stepping outside her home, with walls of rusted metal, her cornrows straight and tight, she empties the family's latrine bucket before picking up the baby. She begins sectioning the baby's hair with a black, fine tooth comb, twisting and weaving, first left, then right.  Music throbs into the street from the bar where too many men gather, playing pool. Her 9 year old sister curiously peeking her head back and forth in front of the open door.  Standing up, with baby's braided hair still in hand, the infant tucked sideways under her arm, she yells to the 9 year old girl to get back from the door.

Traveling from Zimbabwe, the girl's mother, knowing their homeland would bring death, brought the children to South Africa with the hope of giving life. Perhaps a messenger of the Lord, a soul who went before them, told of the roads leading first to Johannesburg, th
en to the Cape flats where shelter could be found.  They arose, fleeing a darkness that can't be quelled by the sun, bringing along not only what they could carry, but also the unspeakable pains that weigh down the very fiber of one's being.

In search of shelter and nourishment, they find streets filled with bubbling sewage and men who take 9 year old girls to back rooms of bars.

It is here, in Khayelitsha, where she will turn 13, 14,  With continued and increasing frequency, she will be shoved into the street from the back rooms of  bars, legs shaking, cornrows tangled, stomach pierced with nausea.  And her belly will swell with child while her body shrinks from AIDS.  The refugee, immersed in the terror of this world, sought refuge in Khayelitsha only to find earthly destruction.  

...And Joseph took Mary and the child by night, and fled to Egypt...for Herod is seeking the child to destroy him.

Jesus, the refugee, undocumented, outlawed, immersed in the terror of this world, fled to Egypt.  The Son of God, fully human, becomes ONE with those who find only earthly destruction.

And Jesus dwelled in Khayelitsha.

If we, the Living Body of Christ, say we desire to seek out, dwell, live fully with the Son of God, then we must dwell among those who find only earthly destruction.  We must speak the WORD, bind up the broken, and transform this earth so that it is more as it is in heaven.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Land of Milk and Honey - The Boy from Khayelitsha - Pierced Flesh

"Go to the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey..."

In scripture, we read of God’s people longing for the promised land—the land flowing with milk and honey. It is God’s kingdom on earth, where the bounty of God is present, where God dwells with God’s people. When we think of the land of milk and honey, we often envision earthly riches, wealth, perfect soil and vineyards—milk and honey and all the modern riches one could ever desire.

As we left Gugulethu, we drove past a place named “the land of milk and honey.”

It was a collection of metal shacks, no running water, and raw sewage filling the streets. It looked like every other impoverished, unnamed settlement on earth. Children running barefoot through the streets, stray dogs lapping up the sewage, a rusted CocaCola sign used as a roof. And it was called The Land of Milk and Honey. Because it is.

We expect to see and find the kingdom of God in the riches of this world, the earthly riches of our lives. Culture teaches us to expect good in wealth. God’s kingdom, the land of milk and honey, is filled with shacks. The promised land—filled not with the bounty of this world, but with the bounty of the kingdom of God, flowing with goat’s milk, freshly poured into a rusted bucket from the animal eating along side the road. Honey, pollinated from flowers growing in a garbage heap. It is a place where we don’t see the riches of this world, thus believing it must be poor. We don’t bother to look for milk and honey, believing it could not possibly be the promised land. But this is The Land of Milk and Honey. It is where we need to look, dwell, be, if we wish to be in the presence of the Divine, drinking deeply from the riches of the kingdom of God.

Pierced Flesh

We spent the afternoon walking through the township of Khayelitsha, a settlement of 500,000 Children of God -- 250,000 living in metal shacks crammed into a few square miles.  Some of the residents have called South Africa home for generations, sent to Khayelitsha, their backs beaten with the whips of Apartheid. Others recently fled Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Congo, looking for a better life, or just for life. Inadequate toilets, overrun with rubbish. Dysentery awaits the children from the waste water, while their mothers and sisters risk brutal rape every time they travel to the toilet.

A 15 month old baby girl, hair braided in intricate cornrows, weaving left and right through her hair, sitting barefoot in the dust, chewing on her rattle--a pop bottle filled with rocks. Small red and white patches on her skin, infection from exposure to waste water.

A 6 year old boy follows us, red and white skin patches, matching his baby sister's. Head shaven, bald spots from ring worm. He limps, his foot red and swollen, wet with moist dust forming to mud on his heel. A splinter piercing a foot. Infected. Raw sewage in the streets. No clean water. A simple childhood splinter becomes potential death.

Our hands don’t touch his bloodied foot. We don’t remove the wood piercing his flesh, pour clean water upon it, apply ointment, bind up the wound. And there are countless pierced feet in Khayelitsha. We don’t have the tools, cannot risk the potential for disease, cannot risk our safety. While we are with leaders from the neighborhood, providing us a level of protection, we are told to stay close together, to keep the tour brief, to only go down the streets designated by our guides. And there are countless pierced feet in Khayelitsha.

Children of God continue to limp with infected, bloodied feet while we silently pass hand sanitizer around to one another on our air conditioned bus. Father Forgive…

And this is why our Lord's foot was pierced, bloodied, immobilized. Wood from the cross splintering off into his bare feet. The dust from Calvary turning to mud as it melds with the blood flowing from his pierced flesh. Our Lord’s skin, torn open by the whip, red patches where the crown of thorns tortured. A splinter that becomes death. A wooden cross, that brings life. Christ's suffering for the sake of the world.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"The Church is No Place for Dying People"

“When I was Hungry, you Gave me Food, when I was Thirsty, you Gave me Drink.”

In the early 1990s, as South Africa wrestled with finding peace amid violence and unrest following the fall of apartheid, AIDS began its deadly infiltration of the country. Spread not only through unprotected sex, but fueled by denial among government officials and agencies and a lack of access to medications, over 5 million Children of God became infected before the country acknowledged AIDS even existed, let alone that it was wiping out an entire generation.

The almond dust peppered our shoes and the smell of goat, roasting whole over open fires in outdoors stands, latched onto our tongues. Guided by members of the JL Zwane Presbyterian church, we continued our pilgrimage through Gugulethu township, an overcrowded and impoverished community, established by the government during apartheid to forcibly remove blacks from the city center. A mix of simple brick homes and metal shacks, residents string wires to the high voltage power lines which run directly over their community—the only way they receive electricity, which still is not provided in many settlements.

While South African President Thabo Mbeki and was denying the connection between HIV and AIDS, and his administration was banning the importation and distribution of antiretroviral drugs, the JL Zwane community was organizing to prevent further spread of the disease and provide care for the thousands infected within their township. Amid tremendous opposition, the church began AIDS ministries.

“We watched too many friends, family, members of our community, die undignified, painful deaths from this disease. Lying on the floor of a shack, dying next to your child, covered in one’s own body fluids, is unacceptable. Saying ‘we don’t know why she withered away’ while knowing AIDS is the cause, only leads to more suffering and death.”

The church empowered leaders who lived in the township, creating community wide assessment tools to understand the needs of their neighbors and the number of people likely infected. Meals and basic care were provided, along with education programs for adults and children. Pastors began going door to door, not with bibles in hand, but with condoms and information on prevention and treatment.

“This church is no place for dying people”

As the church began their ministry to those afflicted by AIDS, many who were a part of the community and surrounding city were very clear — "This church is no place for dying people.” Threats to church vitality, financial support, and the stigma the church would experience were far reaching. Hundreds of people left, angry that AIDS patients were within the doors of their sanctuary and fearful they would contract the disease. No one wanted to recognize, let alone associate, minister to, or be apart of the lives, the deaths, of people with AIDS. Not a single organization in Cape Town would partner with the church. Defiant, they continued their ministry, going so far as creating a partnership with a Minnesota LGBT organization that had experience caring for AIDS patients and their families.

“We expected to find compassionate people of God in the other churches in Cape Town. But instead, God blessed us with a partnership with gay Americans, half way around the world. It wasn’t comfortable at first for any of us. We didn’t understand one another’s cultures or communities. But we understood our brothers and sisters were dying of the same disease, and that God called us to work together to show dignity to those who were dying.”

“The church is no place for dying people.”

No matter where we live, we want to deny death, our own mortality, the ugliness of the pain that surrounds us on this side of eternity. We fear aloud that our churches, our traditions, our bodies will succumb to death. Clinging to the edge of the cliffs of our past, blindfolds tied across our eyes, we do everything in our power to deny death. Often, we would rather leave our brothers and sisters on dirt floors, covered in filth, than pick them up and touch their moral flesh. There is such irony in claiming the church is not a place for the dying—it is THE place for dying people. Our lives, our whole being, our every breath, is centered upon the broken, beaten, blooded body of our Lord, nailed to a cross, gasping for his last breath, before into God’s hands he commends his spirit. You cannot have resurrection without death. There are consequences to death and not every person, church or community is willing to enter into the suffering and pain which is a part of death. Most will not dwell with the dying, their caskets made and waiting. Yet other communities, individuals, congregations, living out their baptismal covenant place the dying in a bed, press a washcloth upon their brow and speak the words “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever” while the dying live out their baptismal covenant to their final breath. Dying, living, awaiting the resurrection.

For we, the church, are the dying.

We, the church, are the resurrected.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

From the Halls of Power to the Fortress Tower, Not a Stone Will be Left on Stone…

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me—For God has anointed me to preach the Good News to the poor; God has sent me to proclaim ‘the captives are set free….”  Luke 4

We boarded the catamaran, bound for Robben Island, a place of imprisonment and torture for Nelson Mandela and countless captives through the years of Apartheid.  For decades, political prisoners were forced to travel this three mile ocean journey, shackled, tossed in the dark bowels of the ship, their final pilgrimage, surrounded by guards with guns, told their feet would never touch the mainland again. 

Refreshed by sea salt air and the splendor of Table Mountain to our backs, we were surrounded by high school students, dubbed “the born frees,” having never known Apartheid, chattering to one another in Afrikaans, iPhones opened to Facebook, texting friends about their history lesson field trip.

“You picked a good day for this journey—I’ve been on this boat hundreds of times, one of the clearest views I can remember,”  Eddie Daniels, our personal guide tells me as the boat slows and docks on the Island, just south of the gift shop and adjacent to the sandwich bar.  “It used to be an emotional journey for me, but I’ve been enough times that it’s been transformed.  I’m free!  This place doesn’t hold me or anyone else any longer.”

Boarding our tour bus, Eddie, 85, slightly unsteady on his feet but his mind still filled with a lifetime of experiences, begins telling us of his first days of imprisonment on the island:  “They locked us up in concrete cells, no human contact.  The only food given to us through a slot in the door.  We lost track of the months, forgotten.”

When political pressure forced the prison to remove the men from solitary confinement, they began work in the limestone quarries, breaking up rock for 12 hours a day.

“We would teach one another—those who knew the classics would tell about the great philosophers of history.  Men who knew Shakespeare recited plays—we taught one another while we chipped away at the stone.  No one could take away our ability to learn and teach.”

The limestone dust would fill their bodies, damage their lungs, coating their throat, eyes, even blocking their tear drops. 

"Some men had tear ducts blocked so badly we can't even shed tears anymore; our eyes are damaged forever."

Steadying himself on the rocky, broken ground, Eddie takes my arm.  Leaning toward me, a secret to tell, he whispers, "They even tried to take away our tears...but see! We don't need tears now--they have been wiped away--we have joy...all this,” his free arm outstretched, sweeping across the island, “All this is transformed. We don't need tears. For we have joy...and they can never take away our joy…it is ours forever.”

Making our way back to the prison block, Eddie pulls out the key to Nelson Mandela’s cell.  “They gave me the key, imagine that!”  His eyes twinkle, nearly disappearing as a smile engulfs his face.

He held the key—the key which once tried to lock away life.  The key--now not powerless, but transformed.  Walking, frail, unsteady, yet knowing, Eddie led us to the hall, the dungeon, which was his home from 15 years.  Rock quarry dust still clung to the corners of his former prison, but no longer to his clothes.  His hand, reaching for the lock, iPhones and cameras swarm to capture the prisoner unlocking the prison.

“Here it is—it used to be a heavy place, one of pain, remembering the fear.  But now—go, go in, see,” gently pressing us into Mandela’s cell, “See it.  See our history, it’s transformed.”  Mental bars creaking, he closes us inside.

Walking down the hall, past dozens of empty cells, up a set of stairs, he reaches for my arm, steady.  Arm in arm with me, the once imprisoned walks out of this place, his hand grasping mine, the key pressing into my palm. 

“Let’s go outside now.  To freedom.  To transformation.  Don’t keep it here,” thumping his chest, “Send it out here,” sweeping his arm toward the students, the ocean, the open world in front of us.

“My heart shall sing of the day you bring
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn….”