Monthly Archives: November 2010

A Hopeful People: Entering a Season of Yearning

Christmas candlesphoto © 2008 Charles Stanford | more info (via: Wylio)The past several years, I have grown increasingly disillusioned with the institutional church as I have grown increasingly committed to the way of Jesus.  My theology has become very simple. “Love the lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself”, pretty much sums it up for me.  I have grown tired of dogma and doctrinal debates.  I long for a community that invests more energy in living the great commandment than it does protecting its self from those who do not share its theology.

This time of year that longing is intensified.  In his message this morning, Rev Bob Partlow reminded us that advent is a season of yearning; yearning for the incarnate God who ushers in the kingdom here on earth.  He shared his yearning for God’s kingdom that is yet to come; a kingdom where babies do not die of preventable disease or where children do not starve in world of abundance.   He also shared his longing for the kingdom that is near to us; the one that dwells in us as Christ spirit lives through us.

Rev Partlow asked, “What are you yearning for this advent season?.”  I realized that what I and others may see as discontentment with the church is actually a yearning for the kingdom.  I am often frustrated with myself because I can’t seem to simply accept things as they are.  I am continually seeking what could be.  I am learning to accept that this is simply how God created me.  I was reminded today that it is my hope in the future that makes me dissatisfied with the present. I see so much potential and have witnessed powerful movements of the spirit.  It has left me hungry for more.  I am not willing to settle for business as usual when it comes to the Christian faith. This advent season, I will continue to seek the breaking in of God’s kingdom here on earth in unexpected places and in fresh new ways.   I long for a community of believers who share my yearning and my hope.

So, what are you yearning for this advent season?


Filed under missional church, Personal Reflection

A Grateful People: Reflections from Hillside Court

Gratitudephoto © 2009 Kate | more info (via: Wylio)We live in Virginia but our family is in Texas.  Being apart from family can make holiday’s feel somewhat empty.  So this Thanksgiving, I decided to spend some time with my spiritual family in Hillside Court and I recruited my girls to go with me.  We spent Wednesday baking cookies and this morning delivered those cookies to six families whom I am honored to think of as my extended family.

What struck me about our visits today was the level of gratitude expressed by all those we visited.  Each of my friends shared stories with us of something they were grateful for; some small and other miraculous.  Anjernette shared how the retreat sponsored by Messiah Church a few weeks ago had touched her.  Mildred shared how grateful she was to have her daughter close this year.  Antionette shared a story of healing for a foot condition she has suffered from for over a year.  Debra shared how grateful she was to have her friends from Embrace looking out for her.  But the greatest gift was shared by my friend Al who shared that he is in remission after battling stage 4 lung cancer.

I live a blessed life.  I often take for granted my family, our health, and our material blessings.  I have never had to wait a year to see a specialist like Antionette did.  I have never lived apart from my children like Mildred has.  I have never battled a life threatening illness like Al.  Somehow in seeing their gratitude for the gifts of health, friendship, and family they helped me appreciate more deeply the many blessings I so often take for granted.

Several months ago I attended “Reconcilers Weekend” at Duke Divinity School.  Christine Pohl emphasized the role gratitude plays in spiritual communities formed at the margins of society.  She recognized that those of us who have many material blessings are strengthened by our new friends and their gratitude for everything.   She pointed to Karl Barth who stressed that grace and gratitude belong together in our expressions of the Beloved Community.  Pohl pointed out that gratitude and affirmation are in short supply in our world and that dissatisfaction is poison to a culture of gratitude. Pohl encouraged us to build a cultures of gratitude through celebrations that include heartfelt prayer, a time of thanksgiving, great food and space for lament.

It is often hard to make Thanksgiving celebrations special when we are apart from family. I am thankful for my beloved Hillside court family who made my Thanksgiving extra special this year.  I pray you all experience gratitude as you celebrate this Thanksgiving with your family; both biological and spiritual.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street

Beyond Handouts: Moving from Relief to Development

Vegetables in Whole Foods Marketphoto © 2008 Masahiro Ihara | more info (via: Wylio)There is a food scarcity issue in our Hillside community. Most residents are not working, some do not even receive food stamps, there is no food pantry within walking distance, most do not have a car, and the closest grocery store is more than four miles away.

As I shared in my post “The Irony of Being Called a Socialist,” Embrace Richmond’s mission is community development not handouts.  I have been researching ways to address food scarcity that moves beyond emergency relief to actual personal and community development.

When doing Asset Based Community Development the first question you ask is “what does the community have to work with?”  The answer to that question is easy…time.  Less than 30% of the residents earn the majority of  their income through employment.   We also have AmeriCorps members who are eager to serve and a growing group of residents who serve faithfully every week.  In addition, we have congregations who would be willing to collect food and help with transportation.

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Filed under Community Development, missional church, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

Welcome to Wonderland: Insights From a Couple of Angry Alice’s

alice in wonderland at the criss museumphoto © 2010 RAFTWET Jewell | more info (via: Wylio)I think I know what Alice felt like when she returned home after spending time in wonderland.  I doubt she went back to life as it was before.  I think she longed to see the mysterious Cheshire Cat appearing and disappearing and I bet she missed the Mad Hatter’s jokes.  I suspect she had a hard time discerning what was real for the rest of her life.  People who fall into rabbit holes are never the same!

Spending my days in the inner city in a culture of extreme poverty and my evenings at my home in the suburbs living midst people of relative wealth, is like falling into Alice’s rabbit hole every morning, spending the day in Wonderland, and coming out into Disneyland every evening.  I spend many weekends in my cabin in the woods simply trying to make sense of these two worlds.   The insanity of Wonderland leaves my head spinning.  Things like kids killing kids, substance abuse, violence and neglect are so challenging to my Disneyland existence.  After spending time in Wonderland, Disneyland just feels fake.  From the master planned communities, to the manicured lawns, to the pedigreed pooches, we are all living out a script in a world designed for our comfort and convenience.  Which is real?  Is it all just an illusion?

In Wonderland $50 would keep a family in housing for a month, but in Disneyland it is simply the price of dinner for two.  Down in the rabbit hole, no one has a car, yet in Disneyland a car is a rite of passage for most every sixteen year old.   In my urban context, people struggle to keep phone service often paying by the minute while every child over the age of seven in the burbs has unlimited minutes and texting.  My friends in the inner city wait in long lines for handouts from strangers to stock their pantries, while we roll through the grocery stores selecting the finest foods for our tables.  I have friends in the inner city who have been looking for a job for years, yet my sixteen year old got a job in a week.

I am not saying this to make anyone feel guilty.  My daughter has a car, all my girls have cell phones and Chris and I have been known to drop more than $50 during a night out for just the two of us.  What I am trying to capture is the surreal nature of these two extreme ends of our American culture.  As one who travels back and forth between these “lands”, I struggle making sense of it all.  I also sometimes get angry: angry at the injustice I see in Wonderland, angry at the waste I see in Disneyland, angry at the church that appears to be just another ride in Disneyland and angry at myself for not being able to stop the insanity of it all.

Hugh Hollowell wrote an excellent post titled “Why I Am Angry – Or Down The Rabbit Hole.” He captured far better than I can, why the Alice’s are angry.  I strongly encourage you all to read Hugh’s post.  I think it might help you all understand why some of my writings may come across as angry.

There is also a certain element of guilt that I feel because I choose to live where I live.  Disneyland has great schools and my children are receiving the finest education.  I think most of us choose Disneyland for our children.  The challenge is to remember that Disneyland is not reality.  We swim in waters that tell us that we deserve a $4 coffee every morning while kids in Wonderland go hungry.  We believe the Disneyland version of a God that would only call us to do things that are safe, convenient and make us feel good.  We want to love our neighbors in Wonderland but only if we can do so from the comfort of Disneyland.   Yet, Wonderland is a world without rules, without schedules, without reason. You cannot minister in Wonderland with a Disneyland approach.

I had a pastor from a very wealthy suburban church ask me this week, “Where does the suburban church fit into the battle to alleviate poverty in our city?”  The truth is you cannot battle the injustice in Wonderland unless you are willing to leave Disneyland. The journey from Disneyland to Wonderland happens physically but more importantly mentally and spiritually. You have to become like Alice, lost in a strange new world with its own rules.  You have to allow white rabbits to lead you and you must be open to learning from a caterpillar.  You have to put up with the misdirection of that mischievous cat, pointless tea parties, and the harsh injustice of ruling kings and queens.  Like Alice you enter this world without a map or a compass, without power and control, and you have to simply feel your way through like a lost little girl.  Sometimes, you will catch a glimpse of a white rabbit and think you are heading the right direction only to find you are more lost than you thought. Unlike the God of Disneyland where we pray and get what we want, the God of Wonderland works in mysterious ways in a land where children are beaten and neglected and others shot and killed in the streets.

Only those seeking to follow a crucified savior dare enter this world.  Only those who believe God can work in uncertainty and chaos will survive.  Only those who believe that their simple presence holds power would find meaning in entering in.  We do not enter Wonderland to “change it”, we enter to be changed by it.  Somehow, when little girls from Disneyland become friends with the March Hare’s of Wonderland, the illusions of both worlds are shattered and the reality of God’s Kingdom breaks in.


Filed under Personal Reflection, Urban Ministry

Open Source Christianity

For the past year I have been reading anything I can find on creating missional structures that release peoples creativity into the community in a way that strengthens and builds up communities.  I discovered a post titled “Chance Favors a Connected Mind…& Leadership Network” by Eric Swanson in which Swanson shares the insights of Steven Johnson about how good ideas form through connections.

If you have read my book, you know that it was Swanson’s proposition that community transformation happens at the intersection of the needs of a community, the calling and capacities of the local church and the mandates of God that lead me to the path that ultimately resulted in my starting Embrace Richmond.  I am living proof of Steve Johnson’s theory that innovation happens slowly as we connect different ideas in new ways.  In taking Swanson’s theory, adding my own experiences and the stories and passions of the homeless friends I met along the way, Embrace Richmond was birthed.  As I have shared in the past, we are a very unique organization and I think most would agree, pretty innovative in the way we do ministry.

Swanson shares two video’s that capture the heart of Johnson’s theory. Swanson sums up Johnson’s main idea saying, “Here’s the big idea: Chance favors the connected mind. Rarely does a good idea emerge from a vacuum.”  The first video is an animated clip of Johnson’s ideas and the second clip is of Johnson sharing his ideas with a group.  Both are excellent.

Last week at the Communities First Association conference, Jeremy Morrman a technologies consultant with Arkeme, shared with our group how program development has changed over the past decade with more and more open source products being developed collaboratively by communities of developers verses through the traditional development process owned and managed by software companies.  The open source platforms are releasing creativity by connecting minds around a particular technological need.  The communities of developers are unpaid and commit to sharing any code they develop freely and openly with others.  These open platforms have resulted in exponential levels of creativity in the field as tens of thousands of people work together with a technology verses just the paid staff of some large software company.  The products created through this method are then offered free of charge to end users.

I have a hunch, as Johnson would say, that if we brought this idea of creative collaborative spaces together with the growing desire of Christians to be change agents in their communities and created low cost, flexible leadership structures, we could significantly reduce poverty in this county. It will require everyone to give freely what they have without looking for ownership or credit.  However these lightweight structures would allow for exponential multiplication of the ideas and thus the potential for a national huge impact.

So instead of Christians looking to paid church staff to coordinate missions events or to non-profits to build programs , we actually create an open platform where people of faith from all across a region regardless of religious affiliation, work collaboratively on a particular issue facing the community without concern for who gets the credit or the need to own the end product. From what I understand about open source projects, the management of a particular project is determined by the group but the end product belongs to the user community.

So, how can we create spaces for collaborative imagination?  Where  can these kinds of conversations happen?  What would a flat, shared leadership structure look like?

As you can see, I have more questions than answers right now but like the turtle in Johnson’s story board, I am on a slow crawl toward a eureka moment.  Your insights just might be the missing piece of the puzzle!  So please share.


Filed under Leadership, missional church

Through the Eyes of an Eight Year Old Girl

Saturday was one of the largest Blessing Day Events we have had at Embrace Richmond in the four year history of the event, with more than 100 individuals from all over the city turning out to bless Hillside court.  MCV brought over a dozen health care professionals and students who assessed the health care needs of more than forty residents during our health fair, roughly  80 coats were distributed, two families received furnishings and volunteers from five different congregations walked every section of the community greeting residents and praying for the families of those who have lost their lives in Hillside court in the past six months.  The night prior to the Blessing Day, yet another youth was shot in the Hillside community.   Thankfully the young man was not killed.

As a part of our debriefing process we ask volunteers three questions.  First, “What will you leave behind as a result of this experience?”   Secondly, “What memory will you take with you?”  Lastly, “What will you do different as a result of this experience?”

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Filed under missional church, Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

The Irony of Being Called a Socialist

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Dom Helder Camara, Brazilian archbishop

I grew up in a small town in Central Texas.  My father was the eldest son of first generation German immigrants.  His father died when my dad was thirteen.  My grandmother was disabled and unable to work outside the home, so my father went to work at the local drive-in restaurant.  He worked there from the age of thirteen until his death at age fifty-five.  He moved from car hop, to fry cook, to manager, to part owner in that time.  Like my dad, my mom became a business owner, starting and building several different businesses over her life time.  At the age of sixty-three, she is still growing her business and creating jobs.  I was born into poverty but watched my parents accumulate a fair amount of wealth.  I am a product of the American capitalist dream.

So as you can imagine, I found it quite ironic that a former friend ( I say former because he unfriended me on Facebook  after insulting me), decided to call me a socialist on my Facebook page.  I had posted a link to a Steven Colbert clip titled “Glenn Beck Attacks Social Justice” which I thought was funny.  It was this link and another post I wrote titled “Social Justice is not a Political Statement” that drew criticism from this former friend.  As I have been praying about this, I find it absurd that anyone could see the work we are doing as socialist is nature.

I was at a Communities First Association Conference this week in New Orleans with more than twenty Christian Community Developers from across the country who use Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) techniques in their work.  When I shared my frustration with being called a socialist, another community developer shared that he had received a call from a friend warning him that ABCD was really a part of Obama’s hidden socialist agenda.  Which is equally as absurd as me being a socialist.  ABCD is simply an approach to doing community work that looks first at the assets in a particular community instead of the needs.  In ABCD, you focus on the gifts, callings and capacities of the individuals who live in communities. You then work to link those assets together in a way that the people are empowered to transform their community themselves.  The whole idea is to create systems that empower people instead of creating dependency on the government or outside agencies.  It is exactly the opposite of what the fear mongers are espousing!

My dad “pulled himself up by his bootstraps.”  The reality is that not everyone’s bootstraps are the same length or strength.  As a Christian community developer, all I do is help people and communities discover they have bootstraps and find ways for them to lengthen and strengthen them.  If that makes me a socialist in some people’s eyes, then I think they need new glasses.  The lenses offered by Glen Beck and others are most definitely causing a distortion of the facts.

Apparently sanity has not been restored and fear continues to rage across this nation when people who are simply trying live out Jesus call to care for the poor are being called socialist simply because they think a comedian is funny.

I want to encourage all the other Christians out there who are seeking to live their call to help those with less than adequate bootstraps.  I pray you find others who share your passion and commitment.  I pray also that God continue to fuel the missional movement that is awakening Christians to their call to love all their neighbors, even those who have not benefited yet from our dream releasing capitalist system.


Filed under missional church, Urban Ministry

An Empty Chair at the Debate: Nov Synchroblog – Seeing through the eyes of the Marginalized

This week I got a small taste of what it must be like to be a politician.  Councilman Samuels is under pressure from his constituents to renovate the oldest park in Richmond which happens to be in the middle of the city.  The park is frequented by VCU students and area residents but is best known for the homeless individuals who hang out there.   In my post “Listening to the Homeless in Monroe Park”, I shared the insights of many who call the park home.

Thursday, I addressed a crowd gathered to discuss the issue of the parks closing. My intent was to share the insights of the homeless; to look at the issue through their eyes.  However, it was obvious that many people in the room came with their own agenda.

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Filed under missional church, Stories from the Street, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

Spiritual Not Religious: Fact or Fiction?

One of the most popular posts on this blog is titled, “Religionless Christianity: Finding God Outside the Institutional Church.”  Many of the hits on that particular post are the result of people searching the web using these kinds of search criteria; “Leaving Christian religion finding God”, “Christianity outside the church,” and “finding God without a church.”  This tells me that many people out there are searching for something.

Over the past year, I have met an increasing number of individuals who are saying “yes” to God but “no” to the church.  Yesterday I got into an online discussion with my 33 year old cousin, Jack.  Since I am ten years older than Jack and went off to college when he was only eight, we were never really close.  However, through the magic of Facebook, Jack and I have gotten to know each other a bit more over the last year.  His facebook posts are often a bit nutty, on the edge of sanity, but lately shockingly profound.  Last night Jack blew me away with the following comments which he agreed that I could post on my blog.

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Filed under missional church, Theology