On the Lived Theology Reading List: Born of Conviction

Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi's Closed Society 1st Edition Reiff

On the Lived Theology Reading List this week is PLT Fellow Traveler Joseph T. Reiff’s soon to be published book Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society (Oxford University Press, December 2015). This PLT recommended resource is the first book-length study of the Born of Conviction story recounting stories of white Mississippi Protestants while adding to the ongoing debate among historians and Christian ethicists on the role of religion in Southern white response to the civil rights movement.

From the publisher:

The dominant narrative of the role of white citizens and the white church in Mississippi’s civil rights era focuses on their intense resistance to change. The “Born of Conviction” statement, signed by twenty-eight white Methodist pastors and published in theMississippi Methodist Advocate on January 2, 1963, offered an alternative witness to the segregationist party line. Calling for freedom of the pulpit and reminding readers of the Methodist Discipline‘s claim that the teachings of Jesus permit “no discrimination because of race, color, or creed,” the pastors sought to speak to and for a mostly silent yet significant minority of Mississippians, and to lead white Methodists to join the conversation on the need for racial justice. The document additionally expressed support for public schools and opposition to any attempt to close them, and affirmed the signers’ opposition to Communism. Though a few individuals, both laity and clergy, voiced public affirmation of “Born of Conviction,” the overwhelming reaction was negative-by mid-1964, eighteen of the signers had left Mississippi, evidence of the challenges faced by whites who offered even mild dissent to massive resistance in the Deep South.

Dominant narratives, however, rarely tell the whole story. The statement caused a significant crack in the public unanimity of Mississippi white resistance. Signers and their public supporters also received private messages of gratitude for their stand, and eight of the signers would remain in the Methodist ministry in Mississippi until retirement. Born of Conviction tells the story of “the Twenty-Eight,” illuminating the impact on the larger culture of this attempt by white clergy to support race relations change. The book explores the theological and ethical understandings of the signers through an account of their experiences before, during, and after the statement’s publication. It also offers a detailed portrait of both public and private expressions of the theology and ethics of white Mississippi Methodists in general, as revealed by their responses to the “Born of Conviction” controversy.

About the Author:

Joseph T. Reiff grew up in Mississippi and graduated from Millsaps College and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. From 1980-1985, he served as a United Methodist pastor in the Mississippi Conference, and then returned to Emory to complete a Ph.D. He is currently Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion Department at Emory & Henry College.

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Windows into the TenderloinAlthough I’ve been working in the Tenderloin for ten weeks now, I recently spent the night there for the first time. Before settling in for a night of long conversations, junk food, and Netflix in their apartment, my fellow interns and I made the long trek (0.7 miles) to the Trader Joe’s in Nob Hill, just beyond the borders of the TL. “Heading up to Snob Hill,” one of the interns joked. I played along: “You know you’ve reached gentrification when you reach Trader Joe’s.” But even as I said this I had to admit, I have no idea what it’s like to live in an environment where gentrification is an active threat.

This summer I choose the more economic option to live with fellow PLT intern Melina Rapazzini and her family outside of the city rather than living in the city of San Francisco. Melina and her family are wonderful and a joy to live with, and this was the only way to make this opportunity financially possible, so I don’t regret the decision. However, part of my reflective process this summer has included considering how I might have compromised the “immersive” element of the “immersive learning experience” that the Project on Lived Theology is meant to be.

From the moment that my summer plans came into being I began preparing myself for the mental schism that would result from living in one place and working in another. I touched on the differences between these two communities, one affluent and the other underserved, in my first blog post and I haven’t stopped being aware of them since. But, like anything else, this daily shift in my surroundings became routine. I grew comfortable. I’ve lived in relatively well-off communities my entire life, so it wasn’t hard to let myself do it again. But what I’ve learned from this experience is this: when it comes to community development, working and living in the same place is a necessity. Truly committing oneself to community development requires becoming a part of that community. I must remember that the change-makers are already living in the Tenderloin, many having lived there for their entire lives. They are entrenched; they’re bound to the people and the space in a way that I can’t replicate. If I want to come alongside them it will require being similarly bound. Only when the problems of the community become my own problems, when the community’s successes become my own successes, and my quality of life is inextricably linked to the lives of those around me, only then will I be able to serve the community well. In essence, I can’t be a commuter-developer.

Peace sign mural

Now, this is the ideal. I’m not sure if it’s always possible over the course of a lifetime but I’m positive that it is not possible within a period of ten weeks, no matter where I’m living. Also, this is not what’s expected when the Project on Lived Theology says that they encourage “immersion.” Immersion for such a short period is meant to be a taste of what living and working in a community like this could be like, along with an opportunity to reflect on the experience theologically. So even though I did not live in the Tenderloin, I tried to take in a taste of what life there could be like.

When it comes to being involved in the neighborhood, the leaders of YWAM San Francisco, Karol and Tim Svoboda, are excellent examples to follow. After spending over 20 years in India, Karol and Tim have spent the last eight years living in San Francisco and plan to be there indefinitely. Tim has an indefatigable passion for researching and learning about the neighborhood and its history. He is also a part of Market Street for the Masses, a coalition combating gentrification in the Tenderloin. He laments the entry of restaurants and other businesses, with prices well beyond affordable for most Tenderloin inhabitants, designed solely to cater to wealthier people in nearby neighborhoods. He consistently emphasizes that gentrification includes psychological displacement of a people as well as physical, and that combating it means preserving cultures, not just low-income housing.

Tim’s wife Karol is equally involved in the life of the neighborhood. She was recently invited by the former Chief of Police in the Tenderloin to be a part of a coalition for a safer neighborhood that consists entirely of Yemini women that Karol has befriended, and Karol herself. From my own experience with the Yemini community in the Tenderloin I can see that they are a tightly-knit group. It speaks volumes that Karol was given this position. She was also invited to break Ramadan with some of her Muslim friends and to attend a young Mexican girl’s first communion in the Catholic Church (alongside other BJM staff) this past summer. This, to me, epitomizes living in community; Karol, and all the staff of BJM, have taken the opportunity to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

Early in the summer I was invited into a similar moment of rejoicing and weeping. It was a Friday morning and all of BJM staff was gathered together in the Well, our community center on Ellis Street. The Well had recently flooded and we were standing in the re-construction zone praying for the renovation process when two women, Lisa and Myra, passed by the open doorway. Lisa is one of BJM’s “cornerstone women.” She has been a friend of BJM’s since its beginnings and her story is incredible. (I encourage you to read it here in her own words.) When the pair saw all of us standing in the Well they rushed over to inform us that Lisa was on her way to the hospital – she had received a call that very morning telling her that they had found a kidney for a desperately-needed transplant and that she would be going into surgery as soon as possible. Lisa had been on dialysis for years and the team had been praying for a kidney for just as long. I’ve rarely seen such joy as I did in that room that day. There were looks of bewilderment, followed by shouts of excitement and tears of joy. Everyone rushed to overwhelm Lisa with hugs. She had to run to the hospital, but we quickly prayed her out the door, yelling over the noise of a jackhammer from the street.

In this moment I felt privileged to be a part of the team. I saw the tears streaming down their faces and I realized that these women and girls aren’t just projects to them. As Bonhoeffer says in his classic Life Together, “It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated” (100). Lisa is a sister to the women of BJM. They have taken on her burdens as their own. Thus, when they heard the news it was like a heavy weight had been lifted from their shoulders.

This experience inspired me to ask, what does it mean to take on another person’s burdens? Does it mean providing something constructive to benefit another person, like humanitarian relief or social services? Or does it simply mean listening and empathizing, allowing the problems of another human being to come close enough to feel them yourself? Can we (or should we) do one without the other? As I thought through these questions (to which I have no perfectly-packaged answers), I was reminded of another moment in Life Together. In his comparison of human community and spiritual community, Bonhoeffer says “… in human community, psychological techniques and methods [govern]… service consists of a searching, calculating analysis of a stranger” but in the spiritual realm “the service of one’s brother is simple and humble” (32). Although many of the women BJM interacts with do need services, whether psychological or otherwise, they need not be treated as strangers. And thus, with my limited skills as an undergraduate, all I could do this summer was treat them like neighbors. The only service I had to offer was simple and humble. I listened to women as they described their struggles–things like finding permanent housing, dealing with transphobic relatives, caring for an elderly parent, or trying to earn a college degree as a homeless student. I listened to a young girl admit that she had run away from home because she felt like no one wanted her there. I listened. I served coffee. I pushed children on the merry-go-round. I played card games. I laughed and I ran and I sat and I prayed. Most of the time that was all I could do.

As I transition back to my life as a student in Charlottesville I’m considering what it would mean to bear other people’s burdens in my community here, especially beyond my immediate circles. The UVA community faced many challenges last year, including the death of second year student Hannah Graham, the aftermath of the Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus,” and Martese Johnson’s assault by ABC officers. The idea that I could possibly bear any of these burdens, especially as a white student who is neither a friend of Hannah’s nor a survivor of sexual assault, seems both daunting and presumptuous. Even when I think of my own friends and the difficulties in their lives, I am faced with feelings of inadequacy. How could I possibly bear their burdens? What do I have to offer? As much as I want to see their pain alleviated, I am powerless to do so.

But that’s when I remember, bearing your sister’s burden does not require solving her problems. It does not even mean removing the burden from her shoulders. It simply means listening and serving, simply and humbly.

Tenderloin Mural

Upcoming Carter G. Woodson Forum — Engaging Race, August 27th – 4:30pm, 125 Minor Hall

Engaging Race: The Carter G. Woodson Forum Violence, Citizenship and Social JusticeNext week, the Carter G. Woodson Institute will host a forum titled “Engaging Race: Violence, Citizenship, and Social Justice.” Anchored by Khalil Muhammad, Executive Director of the Schomburg Center in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, this forum is inspired by recent events in Charleston, South Carolina. This event is co-sponsored by the Project on Lived Theology, will be held on Thursday August 27 at 4:30 at the University of Virginia in 125 Minor Hall.

Joining Khalil Muhammad will be Heather Thompson, Professor of History, University of Michigan; Dennis Childs, Professor of Literature, University of California, Santa Barbara; Anthea Butler, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania; and James Peterson, Professor of Africana Studies, Lehigh University.

The Carter G. Woodson Institute promotes interdisciplinary and collaborative research and interpretation of the African and African-American experience in a global context. For more information about the Institute: check out their website, find them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter @WoodsonUVA.

For more PLT events, click here.

The best analogy for the Trinity (hold your stones)


If there’s one way to start a blog post as to ensure minimal readership, it’s by opening with Trinitarian theology. That’s my guess, at least, although Kantian moral epistemology might make a close second. But hold on, I promise it’ll get better. Hotly debated for centuries following Christ’s resurrection, this mysterious “three-in-one” conundrum has been key to Christian theological reflection, dubbing its advocates orthodox and its dissidents heretical since 325 A.D. (I’m looking at you, Arius!) It’s this particular theological concept which married co-authors Myroslaw Tartaryn and Maria Truchan-Tartaryn use to illuminate their understanding of disability in their book Discovering Trinity in Disability. The Trinity is pretty weird: the Father (or Mother), Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit are in some sense distinct from one another, but are all unified in another sense. The above picture is a famous work of art by Andrei Rubilev, the great medieval Russian painter of Orthodox icons and frescos. Despite the fact that each member of the Trinity is depicted as a European male, the picture is a powerful portrayal of the divine fellowship as understood by Christians through millenia. Each person is given the title “God,” and somehow there is only one of those, yet three of them.

The tension in describing the Trinity is one between coherence and incoherence. How obscure does our picture of God have to be before our speech loses its meaningfulness? Tartaryn quotes Augustine’s explication of the divine beings’ relationship to one another: “The triune communion is a consubstantial and eternal unity; but there is nothing but the persons” (Tartaryn 68). My translation of this: there is no magical Trinity-glue. In whatever sense in which the three persons of the Trinity are unified, there is no “extra thing” that binds them together. It is in their very nature as divine persons to be intimately connected to one another. I think this is part of the reason why the Trinity is so hard to explain. All analogies ultimately break down because there just isn’t anything truly comparable in our world to explain the mystery of the divine being. But I also think maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong places. I mean, eggs? Water? Come on, people. Are we talking about breakfast or God?

Although I absolutely believe there is value in parsing out the logicality of our views about God, I am learning that the most important part of this process is what it teaches us about how to love others better. Maybe, if we are made in the image of God, the best way to understand the Trinity actually lies in its application to the mystery of how we as humans relate to one another.

In a totally non-heretical way, I think human relationships are more like the Trinity than we tend to assume. The Tartaryns believe that there is relational power in modeling our relationships off of the Trinity. The fact of three distinct persons being totally unified in will and one in essence can be a compelling image of true community: a community in which unity and distinction are equally valued. Most importantly, the Trinity is an image in which unity and distinction are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they support one another: “Difference is the very foundation of relationship and does not need to be overcome in order to create community.” (Tartaryn 29)  Indeed, one cannot have community without difference. Difference enriches community, but it also makes it a lot messier. If the nature of community is dynamic rather than static, where relationships actually change who we are, it is only through diverse community that we can even aim at that goal.

…Which brings me to this week. I have been reflecting on the meaning and use of community, particularly with regard to the idea of charity. How do we give to others, and how are we to receive? In an environment such as the Virginia Institute of Autism (VIA) in which there is a clear presumed hierarchy of who is giving to whom (instructors give instruction to students), I wonder how we ought to think of our relationships with the students. Do they consist entirely of giving and receiving instruction, where the instructor is always the giver and the student is always the receiver?

An incident from this past week comes to mind: a daily routine gone haywire. It all started with an innocent walk back from the playground. William* dashed off the sidewalk into the parking lot, which he does not often do. Immediately alarmed, I ran after him and eventually attempted to guide him back to the sidewalk. This did not work as well as I had hoped. It appeared that William was heading for a parked car. When I finally caught up to him (6 year-olds are surprisingly fast), he was crying hysterically and trying to open the car’s door. He wasn’t terribly impressed with my attempts to lead him back to the sidewalk, either, biting my arm and intent on prying the car door open. At this point, a fellow instructor again called for backup, and soon I had help leading William back to the classroom. A few minutes later I learned that the car belonged to his parents, and that he probably just wanted to see them.

Later, as I was reflecting on this incident, I realized that earlier that same day William had given me a hug. For a child who has difficulty connecting socially, it was truly a heartwarming gesture. Yet an hour later, there he was, biting me in the parking lot. Community is nice and all, but it doesn’t feel so good when it’s biting you in the arm.

Sometimes moments like that cause me to think that the hierarchical nature of charity is well-founded. I am offering a service to William, and he receives it. “Charity” seems to be a better descriptor than “relationship.” When you think of “charity,” what concepts come to mind? The offering plate in church? The Salvation Army? Sarah MacLachlan holding a pit-bull? Whatever the immediate response, usually we think of charity in a way that subconsciously divides us from those to whom we are being charitable. Despite the fact that charity is understood as a way to aid other people, the word almost never indicates that there is an actual relationship between the two parties. Because the term “charity” is usually synonymous with “giving money to people,” or more often, “giving money to organizations who claim to help people,” I fear that it has become more about the giver than the receiver.

We give money to the malnourished child on T.V. but never allow ourselves to question the systems which contributed to this situation in the first place. We give to organizations to raise awareness about sex trafficking but would feel uncomfortable developing a relationship with a teen prostitute. We give money to organizations who provide weekly lunches for the homeless, but inviting a homeless man to our house for dinner is out of the question. We will give money to causes till kingdom come as long as it allows us to remain relationally “safe.”

Money does not change the world. Relationships do.

Like the Trinity, real relationships are messy. Charity, in this sense, can sometimes be the opposite of relationship. I think I’m learning that there is really no such thing as a pure give-or-take relationship. For better or worse, all relationships change their participants. We can either use people with disabilities as a platform upon which to practice our morality, or allow the presence of the different to usher us into a consideration of our own inherent vulnerability. It is not a choice to be taken lightly.

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

Tartaryn, Myroslaw and Maria Truchan-Tataryn. Discovering Trinity in Disability: A Theology for Embracing Difference. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2013. Print.


It was an ungodly hour. I pried myself out of bed at 5:15 AM, caught the train at 6:03, and finally plopped myself down into the last row of chairs in the room. It was the dreaded 8 AM YWAM Staff Meeting. I ran my fingers through my windswept hair and willed my eyes to stay open as I looked at the title of the PowerPoint presentation that was about to begin: “Evangelism and Spiritual Warfare.”

Oh boy.

As I’ve expressed before, YWAM San Francisco is a diverse organization. Its staff is comprised of people from various age groups, nationalities, and denominational backgrounds. In each of these meetings many different “thought-worlds” collide. In other words, it’s a lot to handle at 8 AM when I haven’t yet had my coffee.

I’ve never had a very strong sense of the negative end of the spiritual spectrum. I grew up around talk of “binding the Enemy,” telling the Devil that he has “no authority here in the name of Jesus,” and the like, but I cannot claim to have any firsthand knowledge of demonic activity. I’ve heard it said that some people are just “sensitive to these things” and that I’m not one of them. (Honestly, that’s fine with me). After taking a touristy-tour of famous Buddhist temples in Bangkok, some of the people in my group reported feeling really “heavy” feelings of “darkness.” I thought I was just having a neat cultural experience. Little did I know. In Indonesia, a missionary told me that every time he heard the Call to Prayer it was like hearing the Devil remind him that he has a hold on the entire nation. I thought I was just hearing minor tones. Once again, little did I know.

The missionary teaching, however, seemed to have a keen sense of the demons among us. He doesn’t see them, he told me, but he has had first hand experiences with them. He told story after story of demons attempting to hinder his missionary efforts. One such story featured a child who grew up in a Satanist community. She attended the Christian school where he worked and would frequently tell him about the demons that still haunted her and terrorized his school. One day she ran to his office from the girls’ bathroom and told him that there were demons in there telling the girls to have sex. He believed her and commanded the demons to leave the school and face judgment from God for their actions.

Since I heard this story I’ve been grappling with mixed feelings towards it. Although I have employed sarcasm throughout this post and displayed my cynicism to the point of self-indulgence, I actually do believe that there are such things as negative spiritual beings. If I am to believe in the existence of a benevolent spiritual being (called God) based on scripture, my interpretation of the world around me, tradition, personal experiences, my cultural upbringing, and a massive leap of faith, then it makes little sense for me to not also believe in malevolent spiritual beings. So I suppose that in the times I believe God exists I also believe demons exist. Having said that, the missionary’s willingness to accept the existence of the demons in the girls’ bathroom disturbed me.

The Church has demonized female sexuality for most of its history. The connection between femininity, sexuality, and sinfulness in Western thought traces back to the Fall, the grand entrance of sin into the world. The burden of this cosmic shift has been laid largely on Eve’s shoulders, and through her, all of womankind. Eve is known as both the weak-willed woman who succumbed to the serpent’s temptation and the lascivious temptress who convinced her husband Adam to follow suit. Pseudo-Paul cites Eve as the source of all women’s subservience to men in 1 Timothy 2:

11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

The phrase “saved through childbearing” is often thought to be in reference to the Virgin Mary birthing Jesus. Eve and Mary are cast in opposite roles as the Whore and the Virgin, the one who brought sin into the world and the one who’s offspring brings salvation for all. They are juxtaposed as the feminine ideal and the feminine reality in its fallen state. These caricatures are ingrained in the socio-religious psyche of the West. For example, look at this fun little piece of Renaissance artwork:

The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve

Notice Eve’s position in the lowest third of the painting, lounging seductively, naked, with the serpent (thought to be the manifestation of the Devil) slithering up from between her legs. The best part about all of this is that it’s based on a shoddy reading of the Creation story. I grew up imagining Genesis chapter 3 unfolding between only two characters: Eve and the serpent. The serpent deceives Eve, who then takes the fruit to her unsuspecting husband, thus tricking him into sinning too. When I looked back on the story in my first Hebrew Bible class, I realized just how much my understanding of the story had been impacted by the Western cultural imaginary. In the same way that we imagine the “Forbidden Fruit” to be an apple even though the text offers no details about the fruit, we have no reason to believe that Eve was alone during her temptation. In fact, the text implies that Adam was there with her the entire time, and was equally deceived, but remains silent while Eve dialogues with the serpent. “She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (Gen. 3:16). This seemed so obvious when it was first pointed out to me that I questioned how I could have ever thought otherwise. Then, I remembered the sort of crap that we feed our kids in Sunday school and it all became clear. (For example, this was a favorite of mine when I was a kid. Check it out starting at 17:20.) Clearly the Church’s demonization of female sexuality was not isolated to the Middle Ages, or the Victorian Era. It continued on into the 1990s and hasn’t stopped yet.

Thus, when I heard the story about the girl raised as a Satanist, my heart went out to her. Although she wasn’t raised in the Christian church, she has clearly been subjected to similarly poisonous portrayals of female sexuality. In fact, the rest of the story (not included here) made it very clear that she was subjected to all kinds of physical and psychological abuse as a child. The missionary displayed a lot of compassion for her and seemed to be a part of her support structure at the school. However, his reaction to her demons-in-the-bathroom story only further solidified the idea that female sexuality is something to be feared and curtailed. The same demons in the boys’ bathroom might be called “natural urges” or “puberty.” I wondered, if this is where the school officials think girls’ sexual urges come from, what could the school’s sex ed. program possibly look like? What is the school doing to teach girls to make safe, informed choices about sexual activity?

In his next story, our staff meeting speaker told about being out with another missionary attempting to engage people on the street in conversations about Jesus. While his friend spoke, our speaker “contended,” meaning he prayed against the Enemy so that the other missionary would be able to succeed in her task of sharing the Gospel. While he was contending, a prostitute attempted to seduce him. He was certain that this was the work of the Devil attempting to distract them from their mission.

I was livid. Here it was again. He had turned this woman into a trope. Much like the “loose woman” featured throughout the book of Proverbs, in his mind, this woman existed only to distract him, the noble gentleman, from his godly tasks. Rather than seeing a woman doing what she must to survive on the streets, probably being exploited by her pimp–a woman his organization should be reaching out to support–he saw a pawn of the Devil. He made her into a tool, a distraction, something less than human. The thought never crossed his mind (at least not that he shared) that her appearance might have been divinely ordained. Instead, he ignored her hurt, he turned his back on her pain, and he commanded “any unclean spirits” to leave in the name of Jesus.

In all of these stories these “demons” are just distractions from the real demons among us: sexism, patriarchy, Eurocentrism, manipulation, and exploitation. In Indonesia I allowed talk of the demonic to distract me from the Eurocentric attitudes I was detecting. Wanting to be as “spiritual” as everyone else, I prayed that my heart would also break for the “lost,” that I too would hear the Call to Prayer and be disturbed. Instead, I realized I respect the Call to Prayer. I wish that a sound would go off five times a day to remind me to stop and focus my heart and mind on God. I think I’d be a better Christian if that were the case. In his quest to root out demons, the missionary perpetuated harmful narratives around female sexuality and possibly even ignored a case of sex slavery in the process. I’ve seen it happen time and time again: the Church ignores real social issues in favor of imagined spiritual enemies, quoting Ephesians 6:12 as they do it. Our battle may not be against “flesh and blood” but the “spiritual forces of evil” have come in the form of tangible, temporal realities – social evils that threaten to overwhelm us if we do not fight back in spirit and in truth.

Autism and the church

Autism Acceptance

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

–Luke 14:12-13

“BRINGGG! BRINGGG! BRINGGG!” I woke up to my 7:30 alarm last Wednesday in a foggy daze. In the midst of my daily decision weighing the pros and cons of hitting snooze, I remembered that today was my meeting with the social worker at the Virginia institute of Autism (VIA). I had scheduled a meeting with her in hopes of learning more about the scope of resources available to families affected by autism in the community.

As I walked by my classroom and stood by Linda’s* office that morning, she welcomed me to come in and sit down as she finished up an email. After exchanging pleasantries, she began by telling me about her role at VIA, which consisted of everything from marriage counseling to program development. “There is much more to caring for a child with autism than just sending that child to the right school. Autism affects all aspects of a family, and the amount of stress it can bring on is overwhelming.” She went on to talk about the high divorce rate among families of kids with autism (as high as 80%), and told me about a new sibling support program for siblings of these children, an often overlooked group. “Seemingly everyday family activities are wrought with stress and anxiety— something as simple as going to Walmart can turn into an exhausting battle.” She cited that 40% of the kids at VIA qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the fact that many of these families are near the poverty line means the number of daily stressors is even higher. “Not being able to leave your child alone for any real period of time—being constantly afraid that he will hurt himself or one of us—that’s tough.”

Having worked in disaster relief after 9/11, she compares her role with many VIA families to that of a grief counselor. “I know a mom who, despite being told repeatedly that her son will never speak verbally, continues to spend money she doesn’t have on extra speech services. She just thinks, ‘if I get him the right supports, if I do enough, he’ll speak.’ When that doesn’t happen, when the disability becomes more and more real as the child grows up, you go through different periods of grief. When a mother realizes she will never hear the sound of her daughter’s voice reading a book, that can be shattering.”

Her background of social work in low-income neighborhoods and faith-based nonprofits taught her to look at helping people from a holistic angle. This wasn’t just about autism, it was about families. “I don’t think I could have come to this job straight out of school,” she said, citing the difficulty of the breadth of the work. “The biggest part of my job is connecting families of children who are newly diagnosed to resources in the community, even if the child does not attend our school.” Her warmth and passion for her work shone through everything she explained.

When I told her more about what I was interested in exploring through the Project on Lived Theology, she nodded as her eyes became wide. “One of the number one complaints I hear from families is that they have nowhere to attend church. They feel their child has no place. Often, parents are forced to choose between bringing only part of their family to church or staying at home.” Unfortunately, many choose to stay at home. Linda could think of one church in the area that has a ministry for people with special needs. An oft-cited statistic is that 90% of families of children with special needs are kept from attending worship services.

What does it say about God’s Kingdom when these kids are more welcome in a public school classroom than a Sunday school classroom?

In Vulnerable Communion, Dr. Thomas Reynolds recounts his own experience of having his son, Chris, kicked out of Sunday school. He received a call from his Methodist minister representing the concern of several mothers concerned with Chris’ “bad behavior” during Sunday school. These accusations were not without reason; as Dr. Reynolds notes, Chris engaged in “verbal outbursts that sometimes involved profanity, a lack of sensitivity to other children’s personal space (occasionally biting them when irritated or provoked) and an unpredictably violent imagination when playing with toys” (Reynolds 11). In this case, the mothers’ concern was that Chris was a bad influence on their own children. However, one does not have to call Chris’ behavior desirable in order to see that including him is important.

A large part of the disability rights movement outside the church has been recognizing the potential of all children to succeed if given the proper supports. It is no secret that most children with autism do not succeed in a regular education classroom alongside typically developing peers. Suppressing their differences only creates more problems. But equally important is the realization that there are areas in which every student can succeed. Dr. Reynolds describes that his son “thrives in some circumstances, but not all.” This much has been made clear to me in my time at VIA, seeing the hope in parents’ eyes when they realize that there is an educational environment in which their child can flourish.

Maybe Chris’ Sunday school classmates would have been impacted by his behavior. But I question why this impact is considered negative in a Christian context. If we want our children to grow up well-versed in the art of distinguishing normal from abnormal and inadequate at loving those who are different, why in the world do we want to follow Jesus?

Over and over again, Jesus resisted traditional religious authority in favor of inclusion. Associating himself with lepers, swindlers, prostitutes, Jesus was not exactly “family-friendly.” Disability rights advocate Lenita Coleman Brown discusses how stigma most fundamentally results from the fear of difference—we fear what we don’t understand: “As the developmental literature reveals, fear is not a natural but an acquired response to difference of stigmas”(Brown 150). Stigma is a way for us to cognitively process difference without getting too messy in the process. But we miss so much when we do this.

Too often we forget that the body of Christ, while divine, was brutally broken. Why should the metaphorical body of Christ look any different? We are all broken. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others.

*Names of faculty members at VIA have been changed to protect privacy.

Brown, Lerita Coleman. “Stigma: An Enigma Demystified.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2013. 147-160. Print.

Reynolds, Thomas E. Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008. Print.

Meditations on an Urban Jungle

Daubigny's Garden

Daubigny’s Garden 1890 Van Gogh

As Van Gogh was battling mental illness he was encouraged to spend time in this garden outside his hospital. While painting it, he began to find a path to peace.

 The Garden is

The life-breath

Of this diseased world

That has so long been in sickness:

That breath proclaims that a saving remedy

Has been sent to heal our mortality

Saint Ephrem

When I first arrived in Oakland, my eyes, void of the grace to see urban beauty, rested only on the unfamiliar, aesthetically unpleasing sites. I saw only dilapidated warehouses menace the streets and looming oil-rigs menace the shore. I watched the elderly trip on uneven pavement, counted how many gun shots I heard at night (12 consecutive was the record), was accosted with the smell of rotting trash on the streets, and once quite literally almost ran into a prostitute as I walked out of church.

To me the phrase “urban jungle” became a euphemism for “concrete warlord.”

I realized I had become one of the Jews who asked in disgust, “can anything good come from Nazareth?!” not believing the savior of the world could come from a place so repugnant (John 1:46). It was Pastor Dan of New Hope church that showed me how to see the beauty. He told me of his youth outreach ministry making “flower bombs,” balls of compost and seeds and throwing them into random dirt patches. The seeds that took, took; those that didn’t, didn’t; and that was fine. I began to walk down the streets and see flowers growing in unused public spaces, plots of land, and even little cracks in the pavement. The Unstoppable Green Thumb’s promise of redemption was faithfully breaking free from the concrete warlord.

Ex-gang members founded the Fruitvale Community Garden as a result of gang injunction by the city of Oakland. “Can anything good come of those who have belonged to a gang?!” asked Oakland officials. Apparently so! This urban garden was founded as a living protest that brought about beauty, toil, friendship, art, sweat, and a full stomach. The ex-gang members did not know they were doing the work of the First Gardener by this act of creation. Vigen Guroian writes in Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening that gardeners are nearer to understanding and obtaining godliness than theologians are.

This little gem hides off Foothill Avenue. It is enclosed by a chain-linked fence, on which if you tilt your head just so, you can see the faint graffiti tags where gangs have marked their territory. Walk into the garden and you enter a place that is neither fully garden nor fully city. Look down and watch worms busily crawling out of fresh compost, look up and see the old apartment complex’s tower above the joyful sunflowers, listen and hear sirens whir, inhale that lovely stench of fresh compost wafting in the gentle breeze, gather figs that fell from the orchard in the far left corner, and taste the bok choy an elderly Asian lady kindly forces into your hand (this, fortunately, happened to me).

A commonality between all gardens is that none are perfect, nor are all gardens beautiful in everyone’s eyes. Imperfections, like pests for instance, act as Babylonian gods who gorge themselves on the ripe produce grown from the sweat of laborers. As the children and myself gardened in the harsh noonday sun, we temporarily felt the burden of Adam’s curse. Recently, drunken people have been loitering in our urban garden late at night. After a long debate among the gardening collective (also referred to as the “anarchists”), it was decided with much sorrow to place a lock on the fence with a number available for those who wanted to join. The drunken loiterers had sinned, fallen short of the glory of the garden, and were cast out. But they need only knock (or call in this scenario) and repent of their destructive ways to be let back in with open arms. Gardens have not been perfect since Adam and Eve were cast from the garden, yet they all live with the remembrance of Paradise: “The Christian who gardens knows that on Easter the curse and the prohibition imposed upon the first couple have truly been removed” (Guroian 38).

On our first day in the garden I taught a lesson on the creation of the earth, when God said,

“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

What does it mean to have dominion? I hoped to help them understand that they are inextricably bound to the garden, the earth. I hoped to teach the children not merely how to garden or to spout off hip things about the garden-to-table movement. I wanted them to garden, and while they were gardening I hoped they might grab a clump of dirt and realize that they were made from the same stuff. I hoped they would plant bean seeds and that I would watch their eyes widen in awe as their seedlings miraculously grew larger each day. I hoped they would rejoice in watering the garden like the angels celebrate when sin is washed away in the blessed water of baptism. I wanted them to see themselves as “apprentice[s] of the good Gardener of creation” (Guroian 61).

The last day of gardening, the kids hung little bird houses on which they painted a fruit of the spirit. These fruits, they learned (in more elementary terms), “ blossom in the garden of our lives when we open our hearts to the Spirit of God” (Guroian 42). Along with their houses they placed their painted bricks around our plot of tomatoes. This final act of enclosing their garden with their artwork symbolized their responsibility for the earth, or at least for their little garden plot.

Through my time in the urban garden I remembered that we are ordained to work for Creation’s ultimate flourishing.

We belong to the earth and our redemption from which we and all creatures have come, by which we are sustained, and through which God continues to act for our salvation. If the water is the blood of creation , then the earth is its flesh, and the air is its breath, and all things are purified by the fiery love of God (Guroian 12).


Garden Party


Scoop Compost