How then shall we live (this theology)?

Painting of Jesus at New Hope

A painting at New Hope–a historically multiethnic church–picturing “doubting” Thomas moving towards Jesus’ wounds


As I’m writing this, this day marks the one-week anniversary of a tragedy in the world’s history. On June 17, 2015, in an act of domestic terrorism, a white supremacist entered into God’s house in Charleston and brutally killed nine of our sisters and brothers. Judas communed in the house of the Lord, Christ was betrayed, Christ was lynched, and Christ was crucified yet again.

How long, O Lord?

In a time of crisis, mourning, anger, and confusion, New Hope Church began its Sunday service creating time and space for us to lament the murders in Charleston–another injustice against our black brothers and sisters. As the leader spoke the liturgy, she began to softly weep.

We cry out to you, oh Lord 
Our hearts breaking, eyes weeping, heads spinning 
The violence in our streets has come into your house 
The hatred in our cities has crept into your sanctuary 
The brokenness in our lives has broken into your temple 
The dividing wall of hostility has crushed our brothers and sisters 
We cry out to you, May your Kingdom come, may it be on earth as it is in heaven”

(Read the full liturgy here.)

For the first time in my life, I was prompted in a church, along with the rest of the congregation, to repent of white supremacy, the greedy capitalistic nature of America, and our harmful silence. We cried, we asked why; it was a sacred place of mourning. In those moments some of my long held cynicisms of the church melted away as I caught a glimpse of what church could be.

Millennials like me are not aching for a “relevant” church that has a hipster worship band, a pastor who talks about who won the Super Bowl, and a cool fair-trade coffee shop. Saturated in consumerism from the womb, we quickly become suspicious when we think people are trying to sell us something. Many are aching for a real church that doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers, that rather has a pastor who is bold enough to call on us to boycott the Super Bowl because it was declared by the Texas attorney general the largest human trafficking event in America. We crave a church that will call us not just to right thinking (orthodoxy) but will also to right action (orthopraxy) so we may live out our theology.

Now that we have read all of the articles posted to Facebook and are officially “orthodox” in our nuanced arguments, how do we live out our theology in the wake of Charleston? In a “race, gender, and class” small group in Oakland we mourned, we shook with anger, we stood in awe of the families who forgave, and yet we had zero conception of what we could actually do. We cannot forget; that is all we know. We are afraid to forgive because we are afraid to forget.

I was a student at U.Va. last year when fellow student and friend Hannah Graham was murdered. Shortly after, a (heinous and later retracted) Rolling Stone article gruesomely detailed a gang rape at a frat house. The year ended with a white ABC officer brutalizing a black student. We moved from dialogue and action around issues of violence, to issues of violence against women, to issues of race and…well, finals happened and we had tests to take. I’ve experienced how easy it is to cognitively disassociate in light of emotional overload. I know how easy it is to be distracted by the next breaking news story because we just can’t deal with what is in front of us.

This is what is in front of us and we cannot forget it. The church cannot let us forget it: a “post-racial, color-blind society” is not only deeply offensive and impossible, it is dangerous. Our racism has been deeply embedded in our subconscious and is the economic and social backbone of our structures. We have slyly transitioned from, in the words of John Powell, “malevolent actions to benevolent oppressive structures.” To my horror, I learned that millennials are no less racist than previous generations. Yet our racism is more subversive because we have an implicit bias that generally goes unrecognized. Even though I’m a liberal Californian college student, I must consider myself the rule, not the exception of millennials. If everyone considers themselves to be the exception, nothing will change.

I must be confronted with my own racial prejudices.

I must first listen to Paul and take captive my thoughts every day. Every day. I must acknowledge my social capital, constructed from 200 years of white supremacy. I must repent of my thoughts, conscious and subconscious. I must then take up the cross through rejecting the privilege I have been given at the expense of my sisters and brothers (or learning how to use it to benefit all).

I don’t want to cognitively disassociate, especially when others don’t have that privilege. I really don’t know the alternative, but I think it might look something like: lamenting, prayer, navel gazing, conversation, messing up, flipping tables Jesus-style, more lamenting, working with integrity in corrupt structures, running from my echo chamber where everyone is just like me, grace for those I want to hate, shouting in protests, ethically consuming, failing again, visiting the incarcerated, lamenting, daily repenting of my sexism and racism and classism, corporate prayer, being a bold killjoy when a sexist joke is made, anxiety, marching to remove the confederate flag while knowing that marching is not enough, recognizing that only God can bring justice yet I have been ordained to do it, doubting, and finally, falling at God’s feet in humility. 

We cannot stop trying even though we are going to fail. For to stop trying is to deny our sisters and brothers, and to deny them is to deny God.

I learned something valuable in the body of Christ this past morning in church. I learned the necessity of being confronted with my own racial prejudices particularly within a multiethnic church. I participated in lived theology as a church, a living chaotic body that mysteriously communes together with the Lord. As a structure we were able to acknowledge our broken world, our broken bodies, collectively repent, accept grace, and begin to turn away from our sin. That is the goodness of the church; it has power as a corporate body, given life through individuals, to enact radical change in ourselves and as a body.

The Church has this power. Every week. Far too often we are too cynical, hardhearted, disenchanted, (insert adjective here) to imagine the possibility of genuine individual and structural change. So we half-ass our confessions and repentances, and as a result we cannot help but half-ass working towards the kingdom of God. And people wonder why millennials are leaving the church for humanitarian agencies.

The liturgy ended with a fierce proclamation of love:

We declare together, oh Lord 
With hearts breaking, eyes weeping and souls stirring 
We will continue to stand and cry and weep with our brothers and sisters 
We will continue to make a place of peace for even the enemies at our table 
We will continue to open our doors and our hearts to those who enter them 
We will continue to seek to forgive as we have been forgiven 
We will continue to love in Jesus’ name because you taught us that love conquers all.

We declare our love for you, our Sisters 
We declare our love for you, our Brothers 
We declare our love for you, their families 
We declare our love as one body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism 
We declare they do not grieve alone today.

“Dorothy Day was a sexist!”… and other ugly thoughts

Nail Day HandsIf you walk through the doors of the building where I work on a Monday afternoon a woman named Kimmie* will undoubtedly greet you. She will probably be wearing her trademark rainbow fedora, leggings beneath jean shorts, and something hot pink. She’ll take a pink earphone out of her ears and you’ll hear pop music blaring as she introduces herself. Then she’ll want you to meet Mama J (also known as Julia), a BJM staff member and something of a surrogate mother to Kimmie. When Kimmie found housing earlier this month (a literal miracle in the Tenderloin), she immediately called Julia and they rejoiced together. Julia even gathered the BJM staff together to host a house-warming party for Kimmie. I felt privileged to attend this party and to be welcomed into Kimmie’s home after helping carry a few gifts there.

This may sound strange, but there is one factor that makes Julia and Kimmie’s relationship especially meaningful to me: Kimmie is transgender. To be honest, when I came to BJM, knowing that it grew out of an evangelical Christian missions organization, I was a little fearful of how they would view and treat trans people in the city. I thought, if I have to spend my entire summer either biting my tongue or trying to convince these people to call a transgender woman “she,” I’m not going to make it. Fortunately, from the first day, BJM dispelled the assumptions that I was trying to resist making.

Now, I don’t want to misrepresent BJM. Although Julia is affirming of transgender lifestyles, from what I can tell, most people here foster a fairly traditional understanding of gender identity. However, there is diversity of opinion, and most of all, there is an attitude of respect for all people. Regardless of her anatomy, if a person who identifies as a woman comes through our doors, she will be referred to by the pronoun she chooses. But, in reality, that’s pretty superficial. That’s the bare minimum of what BJM strives to do. Every Monday, BJM hosts an outreach called Nail Day in which women from the community come for free manicures. Many trans women attend. Volunteers and staff hold their hands, look into their eyes, and talk with them for about 45 minutes at a time. It’s an intimate moment. This is more than respect; this is love.

Nail Day PrayerAlthough some of my thoughts and opinions are still more progressive than many at BJM, somehow I know that if get on a high horse I will get knocked down. So I’ve gone ahead and taken my foot out of the stirrup. I may have read scholarly articles by trans people. I may be swimming in a sea of queer theology and academic jargon. I may even be “Safe Space” certified, but this does not mean that I know how to love trans people. Political correctness is not love. The women of BJM are teaching me how to love trans women. And Jesus is teaching us all.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of the legendary Catholic social activist Dorothy Day. As the publisher raves on the back cover, Day was “unstinting in her commitment to peace, nonviolence, racial justice, and the cause of the poor and the outcast.” She was at the forefront of the social revolutions of her time and an inspiration to activists like Thomas Merton, Michael Harrington, Cesar Chavez, and many more.

As I read her story, I too am inspired by her courage, her compassion, and her piety. But sometimes…. I think she’s kind of sexist. Especially when she says things like,

“I am quite ready to concede now that men are the single-minded, the pure of heart, in these movements. Women by their very nature are more materialistic, thinking of the home, the children, and of all things needful to them, especially love…” (The Long Loneliness, 60)

Day was quite obviously forward-thinking, but how could she have said these things about women? How could she care so much about socioeconomic inequality but not about gendered inequality? In The Moral Vision of Dorothy Day: A Feminist Perspective, June O’Connor recognizes that Day’s moral vision was affected by “sexist thought patterns that she inherited and sustained,” but she argues that there is a “hidden feminist dimension” to her writings. In essence, she, like all of us, was trapped in her time. This doesn’t make her impervious to critique, but it does make her understandable.

In response, I’ve been asking myself the following questions:

If someone read my autobiography 100 years from now, which of my opinions would seem incredibly shortsighted and ignorant to her?

In what ways am I “trapped in my time”?

What are my ugly thoughts?

I’ve been trying to apply this to my thoughts about transgender people and other marginalized groups. I haven’t had any breakthroughs. While I’m happy to distance myself and point out that “the Church’s” thoughts about women, homosexuals, and others have been ugly, I can’t fully exclude myself from this group. Although I’ve changed as I’ve studied, prayed, and listened over the past few years–and I believe that God, in Her graciousness, has redeemed many of my thoughts–I’m far from having it all right. It’s still much easier to see the speck in someone else’s eye than the log in your own. I think Jesus said that…

Mostly I’m just thankful that I’m only 21. I have plenty of time for self-critique. In a particularly frank moment of self-scrutiny, Dorothy Day wrote this:

“I do not know how sincere I was in my love of the poor and my desire to serve them… I wanted to go on picket lines, to go to jail, to write to influence others and so make my mark on the world. How much ambition and how much self-seeking there was in all this!” (60)

Sometimes I see this attitude in myself and I’m actively trying to resist it. I thank God for bringing me to BJM and for introducing me to people like Kimmie as I continue this struggle.


*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the women in this community.

What’s so great about being human?



Last fall at U.Va., I took Dr. Paul Jones’ class on “Elements of Christian Thought.” It is considered one of those “must-take” classes by many of my friends, and I was really looking forward to reading some of the church fathers. Aside from referring to him as “John Paul Jones” in my first discussion section, I thought the class was going pretty well. Until we got to the debates about the theological significance of the nature of Christ, that is. Was Jesus 100% human and 100% divine? Was he either all divine or all human? Was he 99% human and 1% divine with a dash of salt? This was one of those moments where I started to get annoyed with Christian theology. How much does a later theological label on the saving work of Christ really even matter? It bothered me that ideologies that didn’t really seem THAT out there were labeled as “heresies” by the Church. Specifically, the Church’s stubborn insistence on the humanity of Christ threw me for a loop. I’d been in Christian circles my whole life, so I was prepared to give some sort of an answer (mostly centered on the logic of the atonement) should anyone else express a similar concern to me, but there was still something about it that didn’t sit well with me.

Okay, now flash forward almost a year. This week I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Jean Vanier called Becoming Human.  Jean Vanier is a Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian passionate about including individuals with disabilities. In 1964, he left a prestigious teaching job to found L’Arche, a now international group of communities in which people with disabilities live together with able-bodied assistants. These groups center on the importance of community between diverse individuals and seek to embody the characteristics extoled by Jesus’ beatitudes (Matthew 5).

The way Vanier speaks of those with whom he lives — constantly referring to them as friends or teachers, only using the language of disability when it is unavoidable– reveals his deep commitment to the presence of the Imago Dei in all humanity. In his book, he speaks on the beauty of what he calls the “simple relationships” he has enjoyed with his friends at L’Arche. Far from making a condescending statement, Vanier is making a profound distinction between what can sometimes be the overly serious world of the mind and the celebratory world of the heart. As he states, “It has brought me back to my body, because people with disabilities do not delight in intellectual or abstract conversation.” Embodiment is key for Vanier.

This is something to which I can relate, having spent a few weeks at the Virginia Institute of Autism (VIA). Because most of the children in my classroom experience trouble communicating (almost all use iPads to speak rather than their voices), at first glance one might think developing a real relationship with them would be difficult at best. I know this was my thought a few weeks ago. And indeed, this is a common misconception about people with autism. Despite often significant difficulties with social interaction, they do not seem to need it any less. Sometimes, these methods of communication are simply more limited, and it takes the right supports to be able to engage these children in a way that allows them to express themselves. Take one student in our class for example: Corey. His favorite thing to do is play with pens. Talk about the simple things in life! He doesn’t even write with them, he just holds them and stares at them skeptically. Pens are the key to his heart. Or take for example Maria, one of the few students who does use spoken words to communicate. You will probably be met with a blank stare if you ask her what her favorite TV show is, but repeat the line “Clifford, come!” to her a few times and a huge grin spreads across her face. I think this is the kind of “simple relationship” that Vanier discusses. Everyone enters into the “world of the heart” in a different way, and sometimes it is through these simple connections that bring two people together more than anything else. When you are nowhere else but completely present with someone, is that not the best gift to give them? I think being and feeling “known” and understood is one of the most fundamental needs of a person. What a joy it is to find such pleasure in embodiment itself!

Vanier’s main project through the elevation of embodiment was to “become more fully human.” But as I begin to think about this in a more abstract way: what is so great about being human? It seems like if you ask most people, the whole “being human” thing is at best a mixed bag. What makes it an intrinsically good thing to embrace trauma, heartache and disease alongside friendship, love, and health? Humans appear to be the only creatures that feel this unique need, even conceiving as “noble” this thought of “embracing one’s full humanity.” Let me know if you see any frogs vigorously theorizing about how to make the most of their frog-ness.

Upon first glance, I judged this to be an unnecessarily pietistic and potentially prideful attitude towards human life. What’s the use in trying to make the entirety of “humanity” out to be worth pursuing on its own end when it is not clear that “humanity” really is all that and a bag of chips?

Now, I don’t know how much chips impact the quality of one’s humanity (although I can vouch for pretzels), but I began to see Vanier’s point when I considered its rich grounding in Christian theology. And it brought me back to my annoyance at that lecture almost a year ago. Just as I was brushing off the nobility of this pursuit of being human, I realized that on this very pursuit lay the whole of Christianity. In my last post, I mentioned the idea that God may be better explained by his actions in the world rather than his abstract attributes. According to the Christian story, the incarnation– the story of God himself becoming human– is not only the way in which God chooses to reveal himself to the world, but the mechanism through which he saves. For me, this also brought new meaning to those centuries-old debates about the divinity and humanity of Christ. It is precisely because Christ saw fit to enter into humanity that this is such a worthy pursuit for us. The significance of this doctrine is not merely abstract; it is profoundly personal. This absolutely central claim of a deeply relational God is what gives Christianity its uniqueness. The only way to follow Christ is to embrace humanity in the way he did. In a sense, becoming human is the most divine thing you can do.

*Names of the students at VIA have been changed to protect their privacy.


Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human. New York: Paulist Press, 1998. Print.


This Week in Lived Theology: New City Initiative in Portland Oregon

On Tuesday we introduced Susan Holman as our featured contributor of the week as part of the “This Week in Lived Theology” segment that will launch this fall. To engage in the exploration of Susan’s work and issues engaged by her scholarship, such as the intersections of poverty, global health and the writings of the early church fathers, find the Project on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @LivedTheology.

new_city_logoWhen we asked Susan to recommend an organization working in her areas of expertise and interest, she introduced us to the New City Initiative in Portland Oregon. Susan told us,

New City Initiative was founded by Paul Schroeder, formerly a Greek Orthodox priest who is now a social activist in the community working with alternatives to homelessness. Schroeder has an M.Div. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary in Boston, and after he left the priesthood, he knew he was more interested in working in social justice than doing further graduate work. He is translator of some of Basil of Caesarea’s sermons on social justice for a popular patristics series, and it was Basil’s example of a “poor house” that inspired him to name the mission “The New City Initiative.”

To find out more about the New City Initiative, visit their website, find them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter @NewCityInit.

The liberation of aliens

The Exodus- hands and feet of Christ - Melina Rapazzini

The Exodus

“During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites!…The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country. “For otherwise,” they said, “we will all die!” So the people took their dough before the yeast was added, and carried it on their shoulders in kneading troughs wrapped in clothing….. The dough was without yeast because they had been driven out of Egypt and did not have time to prepare food for themselves” (Exodus 12:31-37).

“I was making dinner for my children. I had one child strapped to my back, and one in my stomach. It was then men from Burmese government came. They broke into my house and asked me where my husband was. They wanted to take him for forced labor, to carry their equipment. I would never see him again. I said I didn’t know where he was. They put a gun to my head in front of my children and asked me where he was again. I said I didn’t know where he was. They let me live. I was very lucky. I took my kids and my husband and wrapped up my food… it wasn’t fully cooked because we had to run. We ran for 4 days to the refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border. They burned down my house when I left. We stayed there for 9 years before leaving for America. This happens to my people every day” (Mrs. Q, a Karen Refugee).

As Mrs. Q spoke in her native tongue, her words were gently translated to the room. All of us who were gathered—including three other Karen refugees who I was interviewing, and me–fell silent. As her story unfolded, the atmosphere in the office palpably changed. The air felt thick, sorrowful, and sacred. We sat under a holy mist, consecrated by her story, in solidarity with our sister who had experienced too much.

The Karen people are a minority comprising 7% of the total Burmese population. They have been persecuted by the government for their religious (Christian), ethnic, and resulting political status. A 2005 New York Times report by Guy Horton reported, “documented slave labor, systematic rape, the conscription of child soldiers, massacres and the deliberate destruction of villages, food sources and medical service[1]. BBC has estimated that up to 200,000 Karen have been driven from their homes since the 1950’s, with 160,000 living in refugee camps. The other 40,000 have been resettled to various locations including, of all places, Oakland, California.

It is no surprise that Mrs. Q parallels her experience to the Israelites who God liberated, leading them away from a corrupt political tyrant in Egypt and (…400 years later) into their promised land. She knowingly laughed as she told us that she too was forced to take her half-cooked food on the run. God is the same faithful God even now. As Mrs. Q was honoring us by sharing her story, her love for God was visibly overflowing in her narrative, yet the lines etched on her face and the sadness that occasionally graced her eyes spoke another story and forced me to wonder about questions that she may too have wrestled with:

What about the people who were not as lucky as Mrs. Q?

…Did God’s saving grace not apply to them?

For those still in Burma, who have been internally displaced, who are now foreigners in an alien land, or in a refugee camp, what does liberation look like?

Perhaps dejectedly:

What could I even possibly do about it?

My adrenals are activated knowing how easily these questions can snowball into an existential crisis reminiscent of my first year at university when I found out the Israelites may not have actually crossed the Red Sea.

What does this mean? For them? For me? For the nature of God?

Elsa Tamez, a Latin American liberationist theologian, is all too familiar with these questions and writes in The Bible of the Oppressed, “The Bible does not hesitate to speak of oppression as an action directed against Yahweh Himself” (38). For Tamez, the entire biblical narrative must be read in light of God liberating God’s people from oppression. It should not merely be another easily overlooked theme. From the freeing of the slaves in Egypt to Jesus saving the adulterous woman from death by the religious leaders, God has continually shown God’s hatred of oppression. At every moment in history God has been in solidarity with the oppressed so that they may be assured that love and liberation will be realized.

For Tamez, God of Abraham is not an unfeeling deity that floats around in the sky, that plays with the life of humans like the pantheon of Greek Gods. While I hesitate to quote C.S. Lewis (as I am afraid it may induce an eye roll from a number of academics and disillusioned Protestants), Lewis brings Tamez’s quote to life through an image of God’s grief in light of injustice in The Magician’s Nephew.

“‘But please, please – won’t you – can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?’ 

Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.

‘My son, my son,’ said Aslan. ‘I know. Grief is great.’” 

What if, in an ineffable cosmic algorithm, God is somehow bound?

What if, instead of being sidetracked by passionate anger at God for a perceived lack of saving grace, we put that same passion into enacting Jesus’ call? God is waiting for us to express our faith in God through a public display of love; love which looks like working towards justice for our neighbor.

What would a world look like if we were more like Mrs. Q and truly believed that we are mandated to be the hands and feet of Christ through the Holy Spirit; coupled with the constant hope that Yahweh will do what Yahweh has always done in the biblical narrative, which is to bring justice to the oppressors and liberation to the oppressed?


“Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other. Truth will spring up from the ground and justice will look down from the sky. Yea, the Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Justice will go before him, and make his footsteps a way” (Psalm 85:11-13).

  1. [1]A witness’s plea to end Myanmar abuse‘, by John Macgregor, New York Times, May 19, 2005.

This Week in Lived Theology: Project Contributor Susan R. Holman

“My writing is most influenced by the perpetual paradox of silences in the city.” -Susan R. Holman

This fall, we will launch a weekly feature of Project contributors and initiatives. Throughout the week we will highlight the work and reach of these individuals and programs through various posts on our website and on social media. As pre-launch foretaste of this online segment, we’ll feature contributor Susan Holman this week. To engage in the exploration of her work and the issues engaged by her scholarship, find the Project on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @LivedTheology. Here is a bit about Susan and some of her recent work.

Susan R. HolmanSusan R. Holman is senior writer at the Global Health Education and Learning Incubator at Harvard University and a member of the first class of the Project’s Virginia Seminar. She also recently contributed as a writing consultant for the second class of Virginia Seminar members. Her book project with the Virginia Seminar, God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty, “blends personal memoir and deep research into ancient writings to illuminate the age-old issues of need, poverty, and social justice in the history of the Christian tradition.” Click here and here to read excerpts, and here to read an interview with Susan about this work. Also, you can find resources she’s put together related to this topic at To visit her Virginia Seminar author page, click here.

In Susan’s new book, Beholden: Religion, Global Health, and Human Rights (Oxford University Press, 2015), she “tells stories designed to help shape a new perspective on global health, one that involves a multidisciplinary integration of religion and culture with human rights and social justice.” In her photo essay on the Oxford University Press blog, Susan reflects, “Sometimes the most enduring image of how religion affects health is not what you see, but what you don’t.” Click here to read an interview with Susan related to this wonderful new resource for students of global health.

Recently, Susan contributed to an ecumenical colloquium “Orthodox Christianity and Humanitarianism.” Videos of all the panelists can be found by clicking here. Watch her talk on “Theological foundations: Conceptual architectures and definitions of humanitarianism,” here:

Click here to check out her blog Jottings and be on the look out this week for more about Susan, her work, and organizations and initiatives carrying out work at the intersections of religion, global health, and poverty. You can find our posts and join in the conversation by liking the Project on Facebook and following us on Twitter @LivedTheology.

“Will the real God please stand up?!”

“Better an honest bewilderment than a perfect theory” – Oliver O’Donovan

Harrowing of Hades - will the real God stand up?

Harrowing of Hades by Dionisius from Ferapontov Monastery


“Hey YWAM* lady!”

I paused for a second… Is that me?


I was the only young, white female standing outside of the YWAM building at that moment…so I guessed that yes, I was indeed “YWAM lady.” I turned and looked in the direction of the voice. It was coming from a man in a wheelchair on the opposite side of the street. I recognized him as the man who had said “Good morning” to me a few times this week. As friendly as that sounds on paper, there was actually something quite forceful about his tone. It reminded me of an easily offended person saying, “Excuse you!” when someone bumps into them on the street. I wasn’t sure what I had done to offend, but I figured I was simply misinterpreting his tone and thus attempted to respond cheerfully each time.

“ME?” I yelled back over the traffic.

“YEAH… you got a minute?”

I did. So I crossed the street and we introduced ourselves. I’ll call him G here. G is a middle-aged black man with graying hair and a perpetual look of skepticism, a look which made his reason for calling me over entirely surprising.

“You know, you are just so graceful. You have the most graceful demeanor…That’s all I wanted to say.”

I did not see that one coming.

I thanked him. After that, he launched into questions about where I was from, what I was doing there, what I wanted to do in life, and so forth. It was clear that he has “been around the block” when it comes to YWAM people. He had seen many young people like myself come from all over the country to do their “missionary thing,” as he called it. He wanted to know what I actually hoped to accomplish in just two and a half months in his neighborhood.

It was a fair question. In fact, it is exactly the sort of question that plagues Global Development Studies (GDS) majors like myself. In the GDS program we expend lots of energy critiquing development projects that claim to be accomplishable in such short windows of time. However, I’m not claiming to “finish” anything this summer. I’m simply trying to come alongside the long-term BJM staff and assist them with whatever they need while hopefully learning as much from them, and the women they serve, as I can. I explained that to him and it seemed to earn his approval…for now.

“Rachel…let me ask you a question…Do you consider yourself a Christian?”


He sighed.

Whoops, I thought. Wrong answer. He looked disappointed, like I had been building something nice for myself and then decided to knock it down like a temperamental toddler demolishing her own Lego creation.

Over the next few minutes he proceeded to elucidate his concerns. After being a Christian for years, he no longer identifies as such. He is deeply frustrated with the arbitrary, exclusive God who condemns the entire non-Christian world to hell, and the Christians who claim to hold the keys to heaven. He can’t believe in a Jesus who would say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” at the expense of those who faithfully serve other gods, as their culture dictates (John 14:6, NIV). He can’t respond to a faith that requires ultra-specific intellectual assent to a particular set of doctrines, including the identity of Jesus Christ as fully-God and fully-man, and the complex notion of atonement to which he is the central figure, but appears to only sometimes care about love and justice.

“Will the real God please stand up?!” he exclaimed.

Just when I was beginning to identify with this man and the thoughts that plague him, I was reminded that we lead vastly disparate lives. He dropped a paper bag from his chair and a large butcher knife slid out onto the ground. I picked it up for him and he muttered about needing it to fix something. I thought, Ya know, I too would keep a butcher knife on my person if I slept on the streets every night.

When he finished his critique, I asked if I could say something. He had already begun to roll away but he paused and said, “As long as you do not try to tell me that you’re right. And DO NOT try to pray for me!”

I promised that I had no intentions of praying for him (at least in that moment), and that I thought my response might surprise him. I opened with a pseudo-quote from the Dalai Lama (heard secondhand from a friend who heard it from a friend) in which he urges people who are not already Hindu not to become Hindus, but to follow the path of their own tradition. Although my citation here is clearly dubious, I think the idea still stands. It is remarkable to hear a religious leader affirm people in their choice of another religion.

“I think there’s a reason we’re having this conversation,” I told him, “because I think about all these things more days than not.”

In fact, I am so interested in this topic that I am writing a thesis on Christian universalism in my final year at U.Va. I told him that I by no means have any answers, but that I am trying to understand how it is possible to be a Christian in the most inclusive way possible, in a way that values other religious and cultural perspectives. I divulged to him that I think it is possible to know Christ by another name.

This topic does not have anything to do with my readings this week on the Theology of the Body, and G is not one of the women or girls that BJM works with. For these reasons, this story might seem like an odd choice to share on the intern blog. However, I’m sharing it because as I walked away from this conversation I said, aloud, to myself, “God is so freaking real.”

God has not felt as real to me as He did in that moment in a very long time. In the midst of all the sermons I’ve sat through, all the books I’ve read, and all the prayer sessions I’ve attended lately, God chose to grab my attention right there on the street, in the midst of a conversation with a stranger I never would have suspected to have so much in common with. Is this not what it means to live theologically?

I don’t take it for granted that just two nights prior to this conversation, I prayed with Melina (fellow intern and wonderful friend) for increased grace in my life, only to be stopped on the street and told that I am graceful. I also don’t take it for granted that out of all the YWAM people that G could have spoken with about his concerns, that morning he spoke to me, and I gave him quite a different response than he was expecting.

“Girl, I got good vibes about you!”

I grinned. “I’ve got good vibes about you too!”

We decided that we would both become the other’s spiritual advisor for the summer and agreed to speak again soon. I loved that he surprised me in the beginning of our conversation and, in the end, I was able to surprise him too. I made no assurances to G. I told him that I was not speaking on behalf of YWAM or BJM or any other organization, but that I was speaking entirely from my own heart. I did not promise him that it is theologically responsible to believe that everyone “goes to heaven” or that only a select group does. I simply promised G that I would not tell him what to think and that opinions that come from beyond the evangelical mainstream are valuable.

This, to me, is the closest I’ve ever gotten to lived theology. Here the concepts of salvation, atonement, and grace were not abstract theories but lived realities that affect G in his daily life. They cause him turmoil and strife, just like they do me, because they have the power to affect the way we live here on earth, as well as where we think we’ll be living out our eternity.

A few years ago I would have heard questions like these and been prepared to respond with the answers that G absolutely did not want to hear. I would have thought these were typical questions to which the Bible, thankfully, offers the answers. Now, I realize that these questions are common not because they are simple, but because they are meaningful and often deeply painful. They deserve extended theological reflection, not pat answers. Theologians, clergy, and laity alike have been thinking intensely about these topics for centuries. In the coming years, I hope to join in and give these questions the time that they deserve.

Something tells me that G might beat me to it.


*YWAM, or Youth with a Mission, is the parent ministry of the group that I work for, which is called Because Justice Matters (BJM).

Bonhoeffer and the theology of disability

Theology and Disability

“To love another person is to see the face of God.” -Victor Hugo

I can picture it now: I was sitting near the stir-fry bar in Newcomb dining hall cramming for my Hebrew Bible exam in early December when I was presented with a welcome distraction. No, I’m not talking about the fish tacos. I received an email that morning from the manager of the Project on Lived Theology, asking me to advertise something about some random summer internship to a Christian apologetics club of which I am a part. I had never before heard of this organization, and suddenly I forgot entirely about my previous task of learning to spell “Tanakh” correctly (come on, Hebrew!) and became entrenched in finding all information I could about this initiative and its summer internship.

Having wiffle-waffled in my own personal view of theology in recent years, I knew I had always struggled to see it as valuable in its own right. Although I was drawn to the idea of worshipping God with one’s mind, I usually left even charitable discussions of theology with a nagging emptiness indicative of wasted time. “God’s relation to time is really, really cool- but what does this say about how I am to relate to God and other people? How does this teach me to love other people better?” Theology was for me, at best, interesting intellectual gymnastics, and I regarded my own interest in it as selfish. At the same time, I really thought there was something to the idea of “worshipping God with your mind,” but usually confined this to what I believed to be necessarily a relational and evangelistic use of apologetics.

Flash back to Newcomb. Pieces started to fit together like a puzzle. I am double-majoring in speech therapy and religious studies, and I was looking for an opportunity to delve deeper into something related to either of those over the summer. Usually when I explain my major to people, I am met with a confused look and/or awkward silence to which I reply “Yeah… I know they don’t really go together… I don’t really know what I’m doing with my life.” It only goes downhill from there. I have gotten all sorts of career counseling, from “You could teach communications at a Christian school!” to “You could help preachers with speech impediments!”

So naturally, when considering a program whose goal is to integrate theology into the banality of everyday life rather than segregate it, it did not take me long to decide to apply. And here I am! One of the things I love about the Project on Lived Theology is how individualized each internship can be. I was encouraged to pick an issue that mattered to me, spend some time serving that cause, and then spend time thinking about the theological implications of the issue. I decided to do my project on the topic of disability, exploring what it looks like to construct a theological framework which honors and empowers people with disabilities.

The organization that I will be working with this summer is the Virginia Institute of Autism (VIA) here in Charlottesville, Virginia. As an intern, I will be learning how to implement a relatively new form of behavioral therapy called applied behavioral analysis therapy (ABA) in VIA’s youngest classroom. VIA’s mission is to “help people overcome the challenges of autism through innovative, evidence-based programs in education, outreach and adult services.” There are several different classrooms according to age group, and instruction occurs either 1:1, 2:1, or in a small group setting according to the needs of each student. Because of the extremely low instructor: student ratio, students receive very individualized instruction and data is taken on every activity and analyzed for progress on various prescribed goals. I will be spending most of my time in the youngest classroom, consisting of eight students between the ages of 5 and 9.

In an attempt to learn how to think theologically about this project, I have been reading about several church fathers’ and modern theologians’ views on disability and its theology. Honestly, I have been surprised at the breadth of work that has been done on “theology of disability” and have come to see that the question of disability is necessarily connected to deeper philosophical and metaphysical commitments. For example, one’s answer to the question of disability largely depends on one’s prior answer to the question “What does it mean to be human?”

Greats of the Christian tradition such as Augustine, Calvin, and Luther all contain some degree of internal tension in the way they discuss disability. Many share the often counter-cultural concern of providing for people with disabilities, both ecclesially and governmentally, as well as a rich understanding of the Imago Dei as present in all humans. However, their stubborn insistence that rationality is what separates man from beast seems de facto to exclude people with certain cognitive disabilities, which would include many of the children I am working with at VIA. Personally, I found Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s response to be the most effective in assessing “the real problem” in discussions of disability. Growing up in a context in which the Imago Dei was effectively smashed to pieces in Nazi Germany, his reflections on what it means to be human are particularly emotionally charged. His response to the question of how a Christian ought to think about disability is particularly paradigm-shifting. Scholar Brand Wannenwetsch offers a synthesis of Bonhoeffer’s opinion as it applies to current debates about the language used to describe disability: “Should we ‘include’ the disabled in the protective zone of the language of ‘personhood,’ a moral attitude which would still be based on a condescending ‘us-them’ rationale, or should we instead summon those who consider themselves not disabled to find themselves included in the same frail and dependent human existence as God’s creatures that the disabled exemplify?” (Wannenwetsch 364).

Maybe it is not simply more inclusive language that is needed in a theological framework of disability, but a shift from the ground up in how we talk about the human condition. Maybe able-bodied humans are not born in a state that is “already closer to the ideal.” As my professor Dr. Paul Jones has said in conversation, “maybe there are ways of entering into the suffering of Christ, and even doing theology, that only people with disabilities can do.” This strikes me as incredibly apt. In a time where experience is being seen as more and more informative for theology, maybe “able-bodied” needs to be understood as a category of privilege right alongside “white,” “male,” and “straight”.

Thinking about theology as more and more experiential has led me to begin to see what this “lived theology” thing is all about. What is theology if it is not lived? Can a theology with no inherent attempt to wrestle with its implications for “real life” truthfully be called “theology” at all? What if God is not primarily defined by his abstract attributes (omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience), but by his entering into the human condition? What if it is God’s actions that define him more fully than anything else? And what if the moment in which we most clearly perceive God is not when we finally “get” the best analogy to explain the Trinity (good luck with that), but when we look into the eyes of another human being made in his image?

Wannenwetsch,Brand. “’My Strength Is Made Perfect In Weakness’: Bonhoeffer and the War over Disabled Life.” Disability in the Christian Tradition. Ed. Brian Brock and John Swinton. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012. 353-390. Print.

Welcome to the Harlem of the West

Welcome to Oakland Sign

Prior to this week I was nervous to drive through the city of Oakland, California.

You know in life when over a short period of time your eyes become so opened you almost feel blind? The sheer quantity of exposure to newness is so overwhelming that you find yourself, yet again, oddly put in a box with the seemingly random assortment of Socrates[1], the Apostle Paul[2], Faust[3], and Kierkegaard[4] when they all said some variation of, Ah yes, I don’t know anything. What a frightening relief.

Well, I found myself in that weird Socratic-Apostolic-Literary-Existentialist box.

And I am relatively certain I’m going to be hanging there the rest of my summer.

You are welcome to join.

[1] “I know one thing: that I know nothing”- The Socratic Paradox

[2] “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet you as he ought to know” – 1 Corinthians 8:2

[3] “I see that we can know nothing”- Faust at the end of his life seeking knowledge

[4] “’I see that we can know nothing’, Then that is a conclusion, a result. It is something entirely different than when a student repeats this statement in the first semester of college to justify his laziness” Kierkagaard’s exceedingly witty, if not painfully true, qualifier of [3].

This week I stepped into a city deeply marked by issues such as mass incarceration, illegal immigration, gentrification, food deserts, human trafficking, drug addiction, underperforming tenured teachers who can’t be fired, homelessness, refugees, police corruption, gangs, where violence and structural injustice are everyday realities, not just headlines on a CNN app. The neighborhood where I am working and living this summer historically has one of the highest rates of robbery in the nation.[5] Socio-economic classes are so stratified in Oakland that people in the upper class “hills” live approximately 15-20 years longer than those who living in the lower class “flat lands.”

As I began to spend time in Oakland I learned that I stepped into a city marked by incredible street art that honors the inspiring narrative of individuals and the community, by being the first middle class African American establishment in the nation, by pioneer movements towards restorative justice within the prison and educational system, by advocacy and protests – I mean come on – this is the birthplace of the Black Panthers, Occupy Wall Street, and more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement. Did you know West Oakland was known as the “ Harlem of the West ” during the Harlem Renaissance because of Oakland’s booming jazz nightclub scene and vibrant hub of black culture and art?

Who knew?

Prior to this week I was nervous to drive through the city of Oakland.

Okay, that isn’t entirely true.

This week I have still been uncomfortable while driving through Oakland.

Yes. That is embarrassing.

[5] My grandparents are not pleased.


Superheroes Mural

(Photo by Spencer Whitney of the mural “Superheroes,” commemorating the Harlem of the West)

When the opportunity presented itself for me to do a project on lived theology creating and implementing a reading, art, and gardening program for refugee youth in east Oakland, my immediate response was a visceral discomfort accompanied by increased heart palpations. I suppose I can partially ascribe these feelings to being both explicitly and implicitly told my whole life by protective adults that as a 5’1” white girl I need to prudently avoid any perceived areas of danger. Once I clinically diagnosed myself, as any good nursing student does, with “fear related to irrational socialization as evidenced by shortness of breath and diaphoresis[6],” I immediately understood that I had no option but to pursue the project. I repeated like a broken record what my mission-oriented church emphasized to me growing up, “uncomfortable is good, uncomfortable is growth, growth is good.”

I have become far too comfortable in my religion classes attempting to pontificate about the nuances of how then shall we live according to some lofty theology ideology. These presumptuous musings can far too often be abstracted from the lived reality of.. well, actual humans, because they do not take into serious consideration the diversity of lived experience. They do not listen, sit with, and seek to understand firsthand a sufferer. My fellow Project on Lived Theology intern Rachel Prestipino[7], ironically said late one night as we were bitterly struggling through a paper, “God forbid any papers we write for religious studies be too practical!” While students of religion might chuckle along in solidarity, an erudite (and therefore largely impractical) engagement with religion in the academy is the antithesis of the Project on Lived Theology’s vision. Far too often a ground-up, grassroots sort of theological vision is missing because it’s in an ivory tower (picture here Rapunzel, locked up, smoking a pipe, and designing a habitat for sea horses). Kind of irrelevant.

Heather Warren, a professor at the University of Virginia and an Episcopal priest, contributes to this conversation when she distinguishes between theological analysis and theological reflection. Theological analysis is where an argument is deconstructed, identified, and ethically implicated whereas,

“Theological reflection is a self-conscious, intentional act in which one seeks to know God and be known by God so that one can love God and others as God loves… The purpose of theological reflection is to enhance the possibility of transformation” (Warren 334).

In a paradoxical way, it is easy to study theology five days a week with such an analytically-orientated framework that one may shroud’s oneself from engaging the living God. There is no transformation in mere analysis; the question of how then shall we live will never be satisfactorily explored so as promote genuine human flourishing. Stanley Hauwerwas of Duke University humbly recognizes early in his Gifford lecture that, “at best, theology is but a series of reminders to help Christians pray faithfully” (With the Grain of the Universe 16).

I, Melina analytically-self-shrouded-from-God Rapazzini, don’t pray faithfully.

What does it mean to pray faithfully?

Is it quantity or quality?

Maybe both?

Maybe it’s merely an apophatic moan to God that reflects our lack of knowledge?

Maybe it’s a prayer for transformation of our relationship with God and others.[8]

This summer, aligned with the project’s vision, I intend to let my journey in Oakland not simply be a pragmatic humanitarian effort, nor let it be merely an exercise in religious anthropological exploration. I hope to understand what it means: blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see the kingdom of God (Matthew 5). I hope to catch glimpses of and participate in the Kingdom of God through engaging in life with and learning from those around me. Ultimately I hope to allow God to transform me in my relationship with Her and with those around me in prayerfully seeking first the Kingdom.

Whatever that really means.


By the end of the week I was no longer nervous to drive through Oakland

(As I like to call it: baby steps of sanctification)


[6] A fancy word for sweat

[7] Who also happens to be my classmate, roommate, best friend, etc.

[8] It’s funny, I think the Desert Fathers all the way back in 400AD said something similar to my italic-bolded prophetic proclamation, which in hindsight appears relatively simple