On my first day in a new city, I got off the train and walked confidently out onto 4th street…in the wrong direction. I remembered from Apple Maps that my directions were very simple: just walk down 4th until I reach Ellis and make a left. That was all fine and good except that I wasn’t sure which way to walk on 4th. I pulled up the Maps directions again, but this time it told me to walk down 5th. I listened. (After driving all the way across the country to get here, I’ve realized that Maps is my friend).

When I reached 5th Street at Bryant I was almost stopped in my tracks by this image.

To Cause to Remember Mural


This is a famous mural entitled “To Cause to Remember” by Johanna Poethig. With its depiction of the Statue of Liberty, lying on her side, shackled and torch-less, symbolizing our nation’s “best unrealized intentions,” this mural is boldly political (Poethig). It struck me that this piece of public art is just overt enough to match the stark contrast between prosperity and poverty that my day was sure to hold.

When I woke up that morning I was lying in my comfortable bed in the Rapazzini household in Los Gatos, California, where I’m fortunate enough to be living for the summer. At the end of my two-hour commute, I would be in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. As I moved between these two communities, the number of non-white residents increased by 45.5 percent, the median household income decreased by $99,040, and the number of homeless residents increased from nearly none to approximately 3,000. It’s a dramatic shift.

I anticipated this shift; I had been thinking about it for weeks. But it didn’t stop me from feeling a familiar onslaught of emotions at the sight of the first homeless person I saw. The first step is a kind of detached recognition. I’ve seen enough homeless people in my life (and almost daily on the Corner back in Charlottesville) to be able to walk past someone without thinking twice, but this is exactly what I’m working against. A few years ago, I asked someone I respect what his policy is on giving out money to homeless people. He responded by saying, “I can’t always help them, but I can always acknowledge their existence.” This is a motto I’ve taken to following. So the next step is forcing myself to look and see the man or women before me. Whether this involves actually making eye contact, or speaking with them, or just taking an internal pause to recognize that they are there, I try to do this regularly.

Although the organization I am working with this summer, Because Justice Matters, does not cater to an exclusively homeless population, I believe that this practice is transferrable to everything that I do. Because Justice Matters (BJM) is a non-profit Christian organization in the Tenderloin that exists to serve women who are victims of sexual exploitation and domestic violence, and offers support to those experiencing isolation due to economic and cultural challenges. As I engage with these women this summer, I am challenging myself to an extended version of the practice I just described. Every day, as I move from a place of comfort and affluence to a place of hardship and poverty, I will pause, and I will look. I will try to truly see the women and girls before me.

As I looked up at this mural I reminded myself that I was about to enter a world that is radically different from my own. It’s a hard thing, I’ve realized, to really know and understand people who come from such a profoundly different background. But I’m hoping that with a sustained effort and a lot of grace, God might help me truly see the women of the Tenderloin–as She sees them.

I looked back down at Maps and saw that I was on driving directions, not walking directions. Without this mistake I would have walked right past this mural just another street over. A fateful accident, to be sure.

At this point I’ve been living in the Bay Area and working in the Tenderloin for two very eventful weeks. Although many of the programs that BJM runs are on a break for the month of May and resume in June, I have had a number of opportunities to interact with women in the community.

On Tuesday mornings I attend a community group called Alpha that is comprised of women who live in the Tenderloin, including some of the BJM staff. This is a diverse group of women, ranging in age from 30 to nearly 80. They are black, Asian, Pacific Islander, and white. They come from different cultures, different educational backgrounds, and differing housing situations.

The meeting begins with a meal shared together, followed by a video that covers various tenants of the Christian faith, and then a discussion. Natt, a member of BJM’s staff, warned me beforehand that the video was made for teenagers, and therefore could be a little silly. However, she said, it is more engaging and easily digestible for people with limited formal education. True to her warning, the video was ready-made for white, suburban, evangelical youth groups. As the video played I couldn’t help but think, this must be so ridiculous to them. The hardest circumstance the average viewer of this video probably has to overcome is their mom saying they can’t go out with their friends until they finish their homework. I know these thoughts trivialize the lives of an entire population (which I used to belong to), but in the moment I was disappointed.

I’m not blaming BJM for choosing the video series; they are making do with what they can. But I do wonder, where are all of the teaching videos targeted towards women living in poverty? Where is the material catered towards women who have been affected by violence, exploitation, and mental illness?

I just finished reading Bible of the Oppressed, a book by Latin-American liberation theologian Elsa Tamez. In this exegetical work, Tamez uses the narratives of the Hebrew Bible to reveal that the God of Israel is the God of the oppressed, a God whose highest aim is justice and a God whose modern-day followers must pursue justice in their communities. Although the Bible has been used as a tool of oppression in many times and places, Tamez redefines it as a book that reveals Godself to God’s people – and God’s people are the exploited, the downtrodden, those considered “nothings” by society.

Unlike the Alpha videos, the Bible is, in fact, meant for the women that BJM serves. It contains a message of hope and grace that is intended for them. I can only hope that Alpha Group can guide them to this message.

Introducing the 2015 Summer Interns in Lived Theology

Caitlin Montgomery

Caitlin Montgomery is a third-year religious studies and speech-language pathology student with a passion for helping children with special needs. While interning at the Virginia Institute of Autism and navigating new methods of behavioral therapy for children with autism, she hopes to explore what it looks like to construct a theological framework that empowers individuals with disabilities.

The Virginia Institute of Autism is dedicated to helping people overcome the challenges of autism through innovative, evidence-based programs in education, outreach and adult services. Learn more about their work at their website.

Rachel PrestipinoRachel Prestipino is a third year student majoring in religious studies and global development studies. She is particularly interested in notions of human dignity, especially with regard to women, as they are presented by various Christian theologies. She will be spending her summer serving women who have experienced violence and exploitation in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco.

Rachel will be working this summer with the organization Because Justice Matters whose mission is to reach women who are victims of sexual exploitation and domestic violence, and offer support to those experiencing isolation due to economic and cultural challenges. Learn more about their work here.

Melina RapazziniMelina Rapazzini is a third year student majoring in religious studies and nursing, which has naturally resulted in a passion for studying the intersection between ethics and direct patient care. A native from the San Francisco Bay Area, Melina is excited to live in in Oakland and work with New Hope Covenant Church to develop a reading, art, and gardening program for inner city refugee children. Melina is mostly looking forward to learning from these children how to see and understand the Kingdom of God in a neighborhood with historically one of the highest rates of robbery in the United States.

The vision of New Hope Covenant Church is to worship God and embody the good news of Jesus through Community, Compassion, Discipleship, and Justice. Learn more about New Hope at this link.

Beginning Monday, you can hear about our summer interns’ work in their own words. Watch this space for highlights, visit the intern blog, and get all the updates by following their summers on Facebook and Twitter.

Lived Theology summer internship program in full swing

This summer, three U.Va. undergraduates are participating in the Summer Internship in Lived Theology, our summer immersion program that encourages students to think and write theologically about service. Beginning next Monday, we will be rolling out our interns’ excellent blog posts in which they reflect creatively and theologically on the service work they are doing this summer.

Our summer interns, Caitin Montgomery, Rachel Prestipino, and Melina Rapazzini, are working throughout the summer at three different service organizations. (You’ll learn more about the interns and the organizations in this Thursday’s post.) In preparation for this work, we held two training events this spring to ready them for summers of fruitful work and intentional reflection. These events both included other students and community members as well as our interns and staff.

Josh Kaufman-HornerFirst, we held a workshop entitled Parables of Privilege Meeting Poverty during which we talked with Josh Kaufman-Horner, co-founder of Mission Year and current director of the Center for Hope at the Charlottesville Salvation Army. Josh used parables from Christian scripture as starting points for conversation about privilege, poverty, and faith-based service, including how to navigate difference and avoid some of the common pitfalls of various kinds of privilege.

Vanessa OchsLater that same week, Vanessa Ochs, author and U.Va. professor of religious studies, led us in conversation about writing lived theology. We shared personal narratives around the dinner table and talked about the interrelatedness of story, truth, and faith. We also read and discussed examples of writing about religious belief and lived experience.

We can’t wait to share more with you about our interns and their unfolding summers. Stay tuned to learn more about Caitlin, Rachel, and Melina this Thursday, and for their own words starting Monday.

On the Lived Theology reading list: In Search of the Movement by Benjamin Hedin

In Search of the Movement: The struggle for civil rights then and now Benjamin HedinThis summer the Project on Lived Theology is updating our resources section. As part of the website facelift (which is still in progress) the Project is creating a list of recommend resources. These resources reflect the work of fellow travelers — scholars, activists, and practitioners — that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

Our first offering in this new resource format and news series, “On the Lived Theology reading list,” is In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now by Benjamin Hedin. In this work, Hedin sets out “to find the movement in its contemporary guise, which also [means] answering the critical question of what happened to it after the 1960s.”

From the publisher:

Hedin profiles legendary figures like John Lewis, Robert Moses, and Julian Bond, and also visits with contemporary leaders such as William Barber II and the staff of the Dream Defenders. But just as powerful—and instructional—are the stories of those whose work goes unrecorded, the organizers and teachers who make all the rest possible.

In these pages the movement is portrayed as never before, as a vibrant tradition of activism that remains in our midst. In Search of the Movement is a fascinating meditation on the patterns of history, as well as an indelible look at the meaning and limits of American freedom.

For more information on In Search of the Movementclick here.

About the author:
Benjamin Hedin was born in Paris, France, and raised in North Carolina and Minnesota.  He studied music at the College of William and Mary and in the fall of 2002 entered the Graduate Writing Program at The New School in New York City.  After earning his M.F.A. in fiction from The New School he started teaching, first at Long Island University and The New School, and later in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.

Hedin’s fiction, essays, and interviews have been published by a number of publications, includingThe New Yorker, Slate, The Nation, The Chicago Tribune, Poets and Writers, Salmagundi, The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Radio Silence.  He is the editor of Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader, widely regarded as one of the finest collections of music writing.  He is also the producer and author of a forthcoming documentary titled The Blues House.  This movie tells the story of the search for two forgotten blues singers, carried out in Mississippi in June of 1964, during some of the most violent days of the civil rights movement.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads.

PBS Video offers a brief and beautiful look at Bonhoeffer’s life

Last week PBS Video released a video clip of an interview with Charles Marsh on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The video PBS produced uses photography throughout the 8 minute segment and highlights how Bonhoeffer’s trip to the United States impacted his future involvement in the resistance against Hitler. Watch the entire clip below, or click here to find it on the PBS Video website.