Monthly Archives: May 2011

Healing the Wounds of the Bible Belt – Revisted

This past week, Jamie Arpin-Ricci a fellow urban missionary, pastor, church planter and writer, tweeted these words, “Everyone suffers from poor mental health at times. We’re not so different from those with mental illness.  End the stigma once & for all.”  Working with people who suffer from mental illness has helped me see the same reality that Jamie points to, “we all suffer from poor mental health at times.”

My family is no stranger to mental illness and I tweeted back to Jamie these words, “If we could do what you suggest, substance abuse would decline and our streets would be safer. I might also still have my dad.”  I have only blogged specifically on the issue of mental illness once and have only written of my father’s suicide in my book.  Jamie’s post challenged me to overcome my fear of judgment in the hope that we can reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.  Last Memorial Day I posted this post on the subject of the church’s response to mental illness.  While many of you have read this story, I thought it was worth reposting.

I grew up un-churched in the heart of the Bible belt.  I become a Christian in my late twenties after a series of miscarriages launched me on a spiritual journey.  Even though I have been a part of the local church for more than 15 years, I still approach the church with the eyes of an outsider and a heart for those who, for whatever reason, have not found a home within the walls of the church.  I am particularly drawn to those who feel unwelcome and judged by the church.

I think this sensitivity toward the outcast is the result of a traumatic event that occurred in 1977 when I was only ten years old.  Douglas Miiller was my favorite uncle, we called him “funny Doug”.  He always had a way of making me laugh.  I will never forget getting my first bicycle.  I could not figure out how to ride it so my uncle Doug decided to show me.  He looked so funny on that tiny bike with his knees up around his shoulders.  He went riding down our drive way, lost control and crashed my brand new bike into a tree…that was not so funny.  Thankfully Uncle Doug was fine but the impact bent the front tire of my bike.  My uncle, whom I know was not a wealthy man, immediately went out and purchased me an even better bike, this one had a basket on the front and ribbons on the handle bars.  I loved my uncle Doug.

As a young man, Douglas Miiller was drafted into the army and served a tour of duty in Vietnam.  He never talked about his days in the military but I overheard the adults saying that, “it messed him up.”  I never really knew what they meant but in 1977, when he decided to end his life, this part of his past seemed to be the key to understanding why he had lived such a tortured life.  From my keen ability to ease drop on adult conversations, I learned that my uncle had a drinking problem which only contributed to his pain.

He was the first person I can remember losing to death.  Dealing with death is never easy, especially for a ten year old, but adding suicide to that equation makes it even more difficult.  As I mentioned, my family did not attend church so the only images of God available to me were those shared by family and friends who claimed to be Christians.  I will never forget hearing the words, “Your uncle is going to go to hell for what he did,” spoken by a child I thought was my friend.  This was the message the Church gave me during my time of grief.  These words wounded me so deeply that it was more than twenty years before I was willing to step foot in a church.

My call to create safe spaces for spiritual seekers grows out of this very early wounding by the messages of judgment that I heard as a child.  In my book, “From the Sanctuary to the Streets”, I have captured the stories of many people, who like my Uncle Doug, never found a home in the church walls but whose lives have enriched my own.  My prayer is that by sharing their stories I will bring honor to the lives of those who feel shut out, judged and cast off.  For those are the very people Jesus chose to identify with and spend time with.  It is in the presence of the “least of these” where I have seen the real “Church” come alive.

My prayer is that through the stories of those who do not feel welcome in the church with walls, pulpits and steeples, we will begin to see that the Church Universal is far bigger than the structures built by human hands.  It exists in the very people who seek to be Christ in the world and in the faces of those Christ identified with in Matthew 25; those who hunger and thirst, the stranger, the sick and those who are imprisoned.

I choose the image of the Vietnam memorial for this post to honor both those who have died in battle this Memorial Day weekend, but also those whom like my uncle had their lives shattered by war.  The lasting effects of the horrors of war continue on for generations.  In some ways, I myself am a victim both through the loss of my uncle and the effects that my uncle’s suicide had on my family, in particular my father who lost his youngest brother.

I pray for peace for all the families across the world who suffer due to war and I lift up a prayer for peace for all the nations.  May your Memorial Day be peaceful and blessed.

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A Church Resurrected: Interview with Pastor Sammy Williams (Northminister- Part 3)

Over the past few months, I have been writing a series of blog posts about Northminister Church.  This series grew out of a post I wrote titled, “A Search for Kingdom Churches.”  My definition of a Kingdom Churches are churches that:

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Do more than give money or stuff, but that build relationships that are transforming not only the city, but also the church.
  4. Support Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like recruitment of church members.

My series about Northminister started with a brief conversation with Pastor Sammy Williams. As Sammy shared stories with me about how his church is loving its neighbors, he continually gave the credit to others like Jeanne Murdock, Cassie Matthews, Karel Harris and Terry Smith.  However, I have been around church life long enough to know that leaders such as these, do not spontaneously emerge.  It is only through pastoral leadership that individuals with such great passion and heart are empowered to do what these amazing ladies have done.  You can learn more about Jeanne Murdock’s and Cassie Matthew’s ministries by reading my interviews with them from earlier this year.

I decided to interview Pastor Sammy Williams to try to understand why God was drawing all these leaders to this one church and why these leaders had been able to flourish in the culture of this congregation.  Sammy gave me the answer in the first two minutes of our interview.  He shared that for many years, he had been mentored by Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Savior in Washington DC.  I have written about Church of the Savior many times and have shared insights gleaned from their printed materials but I have never had the privilege of meeting Gordon Cosby.  I knew right away that the relationship between Sammy and Gordon was the key to why this ordinary urban church that was on a path to death was experiencing an extraordinary movement of God.

Sammy shared the history of the church with me:

When I came to Northminister in 1986, the congregation was  80% retired.  But there was this small group of people in their 20’s who were just alive and who just knew that God wanted to do something with this church.

Northminister was referred to at the time as an “ex-neighborhood church.”  Northminister started out as the Barton Heights Baptist church and was located on North Avenue in the heart of Barton Heights.  They were looking to move in the 1940’s because they had outgrown their building.  Everyone also knew that African American’s were beginning to move north in the city. The thinking of the white community was that black families would never move north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  The church purchased what is now the whole subdivision around Northminster.  They formed a corporation, subdivided the property, and sold lots to members.   They spent 10 years developing the subdivision and building the church.

When they moved into the building in 1956, the Pastor had a parsonage across the street from the church.  Every Saturday after lunch he would leave his house and walk the neighborhood and get home in time for supper.  He said he would have spoken to 2/3 of his members in that short walk.  At their height, the church had 1400 people in Sunday school.

The sanctuary was completed in 1963.  Shortly thereafter, the first African American family moved north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  All the white families began to leave.  So what I inherited in 1986 was the remnant.  It was roughly a 300–member church. While the church started to attract new people, I was doing 30 funerals a year. So we were basically staying level.

We did some strategic planning in 1997.  That task force came back with their report and the first line of that report was – the family secret.  The family secret was that if something radical did not change this church would not survive the deaths of the present members most of whom were retired.

For several months thereafter we facilitated listening sessions.  This was radical for us.  We would come and worship at 9:00 and then break into small groups of 50.  We talked about selling the property and moving to Hanover.  We looked at the cost and the value of selling our building.  When the congregation looked at our beautiful building and the reality of what we could afford to build, the question became, “Are we really called to leave this neighborhood?” There really was a sense that we should stay.

The final proposal we adopted was that we start a new church in the present location. We realized that we were missing two generations and we knew we really needed to reach folks 25-35 years of age to stay alive.  We realized that to attract that demographic we needed a more contemporary worship experience.

I had never been to a contemporary service and had no desire to go to a contemporary service back in 1997.  I remember walking by a contemporary service at a CBF conference and thinking, “Why would anyone want to do that!”  One summer I went to 7 contemporary worship services.  Everything was contemporary but the sermon was the same.  I started asking, “How can we get the sermon to match the culture of the rest of the service?”  Over time I learned to preach in a whole new way.  We started attracting adults who had never been to church.  I taught the new member class and these new members were like blank slates.  They were hungry and I found that they energized me. After doing this new worship service for a year, I realized that I had a “new church” that I really loved and that really energized me.

When we decided to start the contemporary worship service none of us had a clue how to do that.  We put out a call to anyone interested in helping with a contemporary service and God sent eight people.  We had guitar players, drummers, keyboard players and vocalist and I was shocked – they were really good.  They were sitting in our sanctuary and their gifts were going unused.

One of the difficulties I have as a Pastor is that we are taught to compare. The models that are out there all focus on church growth.  One summer I visited 10 of the top churches in Richmond.  They were all excelling in what the world defines as success.  However, only one of them was truly racially integrated.

After that summer, I realized I much prefer what we have at Northminister.  It is not the model for church growth. I have been there 24 years and we have about the same number of people as we did 24 years ago.  The big difference is that we are less than 20% retired.  When I came to the church less than 5% of the members lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the church, today roughly 25% live around the church.  When I came to the church the congregation consisted entirely of European American’s and today roughly 20% of our congregation is African American.

Today I have two very distinct churches.  The early service consists of the remnant of the church I inherited and the later service represents the church God has birthed within the original church.

I recently had a conversation with my staff about a church I heard about in town and their response was “They are the cool church.”  So I asked my staff, “What one word would you use to describe us?” They decided the word “peculiar” fit us best.  However, the one word I pray we become known for is the word “authentic.”

The model that I would like to pattern Northminster after is Church of the Savior. Gordon Cosby is my pastor and has been mentoring me for many years.  Gordon is the most deeply connected-to-God person I have ever met. I go up to spend time with him about once a month.  When I asked him how he got to be the person he is, he said “All my life I have been in small groups with my people and they have taught me the most important things I know.”

I would say that Sammy has clearly been shaped by his mentor Gordon Cosby.  While Sammy would say that Northminister has a long way to go to even come close to being in the same category as Church of the Savior, he has seen what very few pastors ever see.  He has witnessed the resurrection of a church.  He credits this new life to all the leaders like Jeanne, Cassie, Terry and Carol and the compassionate ministries they have birthed for bringing the spirit of unity, hospitality and welcome that permeates this church.  However, none of this would have happened had Sammy not been willing to let go, release control and trust that these women were responding to a clear call from God.

I want to thank Sammy and the folks from Northminster for restoring my faith in the institutional church.  While many of my blogs focus on my perceived short comings of the inherited church models, Northminister is a beautiful example of how God is birthing fresh expressions of the church even within the walls of the existing institutional structures.

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Style Weekly Interview

Thought you all might enjoy reading this interview in the latest edition of Style Weekly:  Just click the image below to get to the article

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A Search for Soul Food

Smoking Jointphoto © 2007 Wiros | more info (via: Wylio)My favorite way to spend a Friday night is to camp on the couch, set Pandora loose with one of my favorite songs and catch up with friends on Facebook and Twitter.  God always uses that background music to draw my attention to ordinary moments and turns them into divine encounters.

Today it was these words from the secular artist Jewell’s song “Little Sister” that got my attention:

My little sister is a Zombie in a body
with no soul in a role she has learned to play
in a world today where nothing else matters
but it matters, we gotta start feeding our souls
Not our addiction or afflictions of pain
to avoid the same questions we must
ask ourselves to get any answers
We gotta start feeding our souls
have been lost to the millions with lots
who feed on addiction selling pills and what’s hot
I wish I could save her from all their delusions
all the confusion
of a nation that starves for salvation
but clothing is the closest to approximation
to God and He only knows that drugs
are all we know of love

These words resonated deeply with my own reality.  We have been working hard with our friends in Hillside, many of whom have become like family to us.   Our friends voice a desire for employment, but like the “little sister” in Jewell’s song, are like Zombie’s whose bodies have been taken over by addiction.  Week after week I watch as good people make bad choices related to drugs.  Marijuana seems to be the drug of choice for many of our younger friends and no matter how clearly we articulate the dangers and consequences of abusing substances, they continue to act as if it does not matter.

Like the older sister in Jewell’s song, I wish I could save my friends from the delusions and confusion that plague the Hillside community.  I wish I could save people from the demon of drugs that is robbing them of the abundant life God desires for them.   As I was reflecting on my feelings of helplessness in this matter, the words “We gotta start feeding our souls” leaped out at me.

My very wise friend Charles Fitzgerald who has himself overcome a 33 year addiction through the support of The Healing Place program often says, “If you miss the spiritual part of the program, you miss the program.”  We all know the battle before us is spiritual in nature.  We can continue to invest tremendous energy into vocational mentoring and job readiness programs only to have substance abuse undermine those efforts for many of our friends or we can get serious about helping people feed their souls.  I am not sure yet what form that soul feeding will take.  I am just sensing God is calling us to focus our efforts in that direction at this season in our journey.

I would love your input into this conversation, especially those of you who have experienced challenges related to substance abuse personally or with family members and friends.

What kind of soul feeding helped you break free of drug addiction?  For those who have walked alongside those with addictions, what kind of soul care did your friend or family member find helpful?  What advice would you give us as we seek to come alongside those trapped in addiction?

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Dream Releasers

I know why the caged birds sing?photo © 2007 bradleyolin | more info (via: Wylio)Telling people about Embrace Richmond in a way that captures the spirit of what we are all about is one of the hardest things I have to do as an Executive Director.  We are not a social services agency, we are not program driven and we are not cause focused.  We are a community focused, relationally driven, community of faith.  I was reading through some of the early writing that I had done back in 2003 before I entered seminary and started Embrace. I ran across this story taken from Wayne Cordeiro’s book titled Doing Church as a Team.   This story was one of the early inspirations for what became Embrace Richmond and I think it captures the spirit of the work we are doing in a beautiful way.  This is Wayne’s story;

Wayne was a child growing up on an army base in Japan.  One day his family went for a ride outside the base.  When they stopped for lunch an old man at a booth caught his attention.  He was selling tiny birds that resembled a finch, in bamboo cages.

He asked the man how much and was shocked to learn they were only 100 yen each, about 36 cents.  It was too good a deal to pass up so he bought one.  As he walking back to show off the purchase to his family the old men called out to him in Japanese “Don’t forget to bring the cage back when you’re done!”  “Bring back the cage when I’m done?  I’m not planning to eat the thing.  I just want to take it home as a pet.”, Wayne replied. “Oh no,” said the old man  “You don’t understand!  The 100 yen is to take the bird to the edge of the valley and release it, so it will be able to fly freely!”

This was the last thing this young boy wanted to do.  He felt that was the dumbest thing he had ever heard of.  But he did not have much of a choice, the old man was keeping close watch to make sure he got his cage back.  So he walked over to the edge of the ravine overlooking the valley below, opened the cage door and gave the bird a couple of nudges.  Edging it’s way suspiciously toward the door of the cage, it suddenly launched into flight with a jubilant chorus of tweets and whistles. 

Cordeiro writes “looking back on the experience now, I would have paid 100 times more if I knew how important that moment would be to me years later.  That day I learned the precious lesson of being a dream releaser.”  He goes on to say

“The Church is laden with treasures, dreams and precious gifts, yet too many precious souls are going to their graves with songs left unsung, gifts yet unwrapped and dreams unreleased.  We all have dreams in our hearts just waiting to be released.”

I think this story is an excellent metaphor for what Embrace Richmond strives to do.  We encounter a lot of beautiful caged birds.  Birds caged by addiction, mental illness, poverty, unemployment, depression and loneliness.  I used to think it was our job to open the doors to the cages and let people out but after years of doing this kind of work, I have come to realize that they already have the keys.  They just need someone to remind them of that fact and encourage them to unlock the door.

That last sentence sounds like an easy task but it has proven to be a very painful process for many who have grown so accustomed to living in a cage that freedom appears threatening or unattainable.  While the little finch in Cordeiro’s story soared through the air, many of my friend’s wings are so underused that they often fall to the ground several times before they learn to fly.  Our role as dream releasers is to be there when they fall and encourage them to keep on trying.

The first time I read this story, I dreamed of being a dream releaser.  Today I am truly blessed to work with the most amazing team of “dream releasers” imaginable.  So thank you Janie, Qasarah, Susan, Sylvia, Vanessa, Chinary, Antionette, John, Charles, Josh, Brian, and Ashlee.  Thanks for helping my early dream of creating a dream releasing community come true.

If you are interested in being a “dream releaser”, please email me at wendy@embracerichmond.org.

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A Melancholy Moment: Flashback to High School

I have three teenage daughters and as they face the challenges inherent in being teenagers, I seem to be reliving those times in my own life.  My eldest is a rising senior and as she looks with anticipation toward college and a very bright future, I feel her anxiety.  Will she get into the college of her choice? What will she major in?  Will she miss her high school friends. Will she be able to make new friends in college?  The future is full of possibilities and uncertainty, hope and fear, promise and possible disappointments.  I remember it like it was yesterday.

My younger two daughters are still in the midst of being teenage girls with all the challenges of maintaining healthy friendships.  As I think back to high school and all the cattiness that was just a part of growing up, I can relate to the stories of discord that they share.  Of course I am sure every mother sees her daughter as the victim, the one who is just misunderstood.  I am sure my girls are not the sweet, innocent, bystanders I make them out to be.  None of us would ever want to admit our children are the perpetrators behind the unkind behavior.  But, as I feel their pain of being the victim, I also remember the times I was the one causing the pain.

I grew up in a very small town.  I had pretty much the same grouping of friends from the day I was born until the day I graduated High School.  Yes, that is us above at our junior prom.  We all just moved through the years from one clique to the next.  I eventually landed in the “brainy/semi-popular” clique.  I was friends with the cheerleaders and the Homecoming queen but I was never center stage.  I learned early on that drama seemed to be directed toward whoever was in the middle of circle and being on the periphery was preferable.

While I truly had little to do with all the drama, I did do some things I am ashamed of to this day.  Like the time I stood by while one friend beat another friend, or the time I shared gossip about a friend that was ugly and hurtful.  Those times I was untrue to a friend still haunt me nearly 30 years later.  I am sure the friends I hurt have long ago forgiven and forgotten about the incident, yet I have not.  Anytime we are untrue to who we truly are, we injure ourselves more than we injure those our behavior was directed at.

So here it goes – Beth, Heather, Kristi, Jill, Marion, Connie, Brenda, Sandy, and our sweet departed sister Janet: I am sorry.  I am sorry for not being the friend you deserved in high school.  I am sorry for any gossip I repeated.  I am sorry for any opportunity I had to defend you and did not.  I am sorry that I cared more about fitting in than I did about being a faithful friend.  It is with tears streaming down my face that I say “Please, forgive me.”  I was blessed to have you all as friends.  Of course there were many other wonderful girls and a few boys whom I had the privilege of calling friends through the years but the nine of you impacted me more than any others.

As I listened to my girls share their friendship woes this week, I realized that many of their challenges would be solved if they or their friends would simply learn to say “I’m sorry.”  I know through the years, I have been a lousy role model in this department.  I am stubborn, selfish and prideful – diseases that are prevalent in our society.  So, I wonder what would happen if all the adults started modeling humility, grace and forgiveness.  Could we change the teen culture?  I know, that is a stretch but you all know I am dreamer.

Hope you all have a good weekend and that you spend it with good friends and if you have a chance, you might want to reach out and say “I am sorry” even if it is 30 years too late.

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Embracing the Grey

I knew Shelly before she went to jail and stayed in contact with her during the 18 months she was locked up.  She never talked much about her spirituality but the one thing she wanted me to bring her when she got arrested was her recovery Bible.  When she was finally released, I helped her find housing and hired her to help me at Embrace.

When Shelly proudly showed me her new, very large tattoo of a cross on her forearm with the word “embrace” in scroll curving over the cross, I know it was meant as a profession of faith and a token of gratitude for the relationship we had built over the years.  I later learned that as she battled her heroin addiction, she also craved the feeling of the needles piercing her skin.  The tattoo parlor became both her new drug of choice and her temporary path to sobriety.  The tattoo symbolized her faith in Christ and her continued bondage to the demon of addiction at the same time.  She had crossed from the black night of addiction, into the grey morning of early sobriety.

Within six months of this unorthodox profession, she attempted to take her own life. As we rushed her to the emergency room and sat with her as they treated her, I realized just how broken she was.  I had prayed countless prayers, shared with her in every way she was open to receiving it, the love of Christ and yet she remained a tortured soul.  She was slipping from grey to black, from the early light of morning to the darkness of night.

Upon her exit from the hospital, I took her into my home, welcomed her into my family, and loved her like a sister.  I poured myself into her but there was a depth of despair that I could not touch. While she did regain her will to live, the darkness had reclaimed her spirit.  When she ultimately slipped back into the dark world of addiction, I felt like a part of me went with her. I felt like I had failed her, not loved her enough, not prayed for her enough.  I other words, I had not been able to save her.  There is a secular song by The Fray called “How to Save a Life” and every time I hear it, I think of Shelly – the girl who taught me about the grey.

Prior to having Shelly for a friend, I thought the Christian faith was pretty black and white.  You either had Jesus in your life or you didn’t.  If you did, you automatically had triumph over the forces of darkness because “greater is the one in us.”  I had been taught “once saved” always “saved.”  Backsliders, I was taught, never fully embraced Jesus and so their profession really did not count.  But that was before I walked with Shelly in the grey.  Her relationship with Jesus though unorthodox was real, she embraced the light and begged it to overtake the darkness, yet the darkness triumphed.

As Shelly swallowed a bottle of pills seeking to end her life, Charles lay on the floor across town saying to himself, “if I have to live this way, I might as well be dead.”  As he contemplated suicide, the spirit of God directed him to The Healing Place, a residential recovery program based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.  There Charles met the “god of his understanding” and it was that nameless God that helped him overcome his 33 year drug addiction.  The AA big book became the only bible Charles has ever read, the fellowship of AA the only church he will ever be a member of.   My traditional church training would tell me that Charles does not know Jesus, but my spirit has told me otherwise.  Every morning Charles gets up at 5:30 to read his AA devotional book, greets the God who freed him from the darkness and sustains him in the light.  Every day I watch as he is being transformed into the likeness of Jesus by that same God who is daily transforming me.

Shelly and Charles helped me let go of my black and white, in or out, saved or unsaved way of thinking.  I think we all exist in the “now” and “not yet” of God’s redemptive grace.  Some have never been touched by the light, some have been touched but get drawn back into darkness, others follow a mysterious spirit into the light, while others of us follow the traditional path of being introduced to Jesus as the light. We all exist along a continuum of darkness to pure light with the majority of us existing in various stages of grey.  We are both a new person and being transformed at the same time.  We are saved from our sin and being saved.  We are all under construction and none of us have fully arrived.

When I let go of a dualistic, right or wrong, in or out, black and white way of thinking and began to see the things in varying stages of grey, I was freed of the need to be right, and the need to judge others as wrong.   I began to see God at work in unusual places using unorthodox approaches and speaking to me through unexpected people.  When I stopped judging or dictating how, when and through whom God could speak, I entered into a mystery where God was the only judge, the only truth, and the pure light.  I was free to follow God in ways my former black and white thinking would not have allowed.  I was free to love people without judgment in a way my right and wrong thinking would have rejected. I was free to embrace the light of Christ in people, places and situations that my former state of being would not have seen.  I have learned to admit that I simply do not have all the answers and this truth has set me free.

This post is part of a synchroblog about some of the things we’ve let go of along the way in our spiritual journeys and what we’re learning in the process.

What have you let go of in your spiritual journey and what have you learned in the process?

Read how others have answered this question:

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