Finding sacred space at Thistle Farms

My second day of work at Thistle Farms Magdalene Residential, I attended a funeral for the seven-year-old granddaughter of a graduate of Magdalene’s recovery program. I sat between two members of Magdalene’s staff I had met earlier that morning, looking down at the flower arrangements and enormous stuffed animals carefully arranged around a small casket bearing of the Princess and the Frog. Everywhere I looked people fanned themselves with programs full of pictures of Harmony with her family and friends. Soft organ music played. On the other side of the church I saw many of the staff members from Thistle Farms I had met during my visit to their offices the previous day. The same people who had warmly and openly greeted me with the scents of citrus, lavender, and vanilla in the candles and soaps they were making now sat in solemn support. It was simultaneously public and deeply private. Family members wept and held each other in the pews closest to the front of the nave as a news camera filmed from the back of the balcony.

Somehow watching a grieving community from the balcony of Mt. Gilead Missionary Baptist Church became part of my workday, and since then I’ve been thinking about something the pastor said in the eulogy. He directly addressed the family and told them emphatically and repeatedly that “this is your time to grieve.” There was something powerful about the declaration of a period of time as specifically designated for grief. Without any desire to compare or weigh tragedies, I’ve been reflecting over the last several days on the ways that the residents of Magdalene experience similarly delineated time in the wake of their own traumatic experiences.

A refrain that I hear repeatedly from the women of Magdalene as they talk about their time in these beautiful Nashville homes is “we have been afforded a gift.” They’re given two years of housing, medical services, and support while they work on their recovery from histories of addiction, prostitution, and sex trafficking. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of sacred space, and the Magdalene houses and offices exist as a sacred space that has to be experienced to begin to be understood or described.

Thistle Farms SinkOne of the founding ideas of the Project on Lived Theology is that “the concrete forms of God’s presence and action in the world promise rich and generative material for theological method, style, and pedagogy,” as Charles Marsh puts it in his Introduction to Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style, and Pedagogy. Our interactions with the presence of God as they happen in real time and in particular places have substantive theological significance. As my theological mentor Nichole Flores told me the other day, “If you’re going to have an encounter with God this summer, it’s going to be when and where you are.” God meets us where we are just as the Magdalene staff meets the women where they are within the sacred space and time of the Magdalene homes and recovery program.

There are delicate balances being struck everywhere you turn at Magdalene in a way that could only be possible in particular spatial and temporal bounds. The women live in homes that are sacred in their distinction from the world for a period of time that is sacred in its distinction from all the time spent outside of its walls, even as the objective is independence and reintegration into the outside community. The recovery process is both rooted in the present moment and looking forward. It is both deeply individual and collectively rooted in encounters, relationships, and community-living. It is heartbreaking, and it is beautiful.

As I spend more time with the women of Magdalene I have been reflecting on how I have been afforded my own gift. I have been welcomed into their designated space and time for reckoning, learning, and healing with open arms, and I am so grateful.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

The Haven and the Kingdom of God

The Haven KitchenFor the past two weeks, I’ve been busy settling into a routine at The Haven, a multi-service day shelter for people experiencing homelessness and poverty in Charlottesville. Over the course of the summer, I’ll be preparing lots of food, helping manage the structured chaos that is the welcome desk every morning, answering a financial crisis helpline, and helping create a writing program for our guests to enjoy.

This past semester I volunteered in the kitchen once a week, but I wasn’t able to truly appreciate this special nook of the Haven until I began spending time there every day through my internship. Most volunteers work the same shift every single week, and this routine results in strong and distinct camaraderie and community between the different volunteer shifts. It’s a largely accepted theological truth that God created kitchens in order to facilitate fast friendships and meaningful, joyful conversations, and the Haven’s kitchen is a prime example. Within each time slot of volunteering forms a small family: a network of individuals devoted to the same cause of loving our neighbors. In these early weeks of my internship, I’m intruding into communities as I cook alongside these families of volunteers. The volunteers ask for updates on children, vacations, and your health. They care for one another as they care for our guests.

In their attempts to explain the general failings of the Christian social gospel in America in the past century, theologians blame the way our consumerist, capitalistic society values individualism and self-sufficiency in ways that complicate the creation of collective community necessary to imitate the Kingdom of God on earth. Moments of true community, selflessness, and solidarity seem to be hard to find. One of the guests at the Haven is a kind, older gentleman who is originally from the hills of Tennessee—I’ll call him Richard. He loves to garden, used to be an avid tennis player, and frequently demonstrates genuine care for others. Richard lamented to me the other day that “no one works in teams anymore. It used to be, people would care for one another, we could wait outside of The Haven and people would drive by, pick us up and take us to work, give us rides. But people don’t care like that anymore. No one wants to be on your team.”

That team mentality, that sense of community even between strangers, a willingness to take care of those who are struggling… where did it go? And, perhaps more importantly, where can we find it again?

Walter Rauschenbusch wrote extensively on the idea of a living, breathing idea of the ‘Kingdom of God.’ This kingdom is often conceptualized as a distant place that Christians will reach in the afterlife if they live a life worthy of God—that is, if their individual piety and purity stand up to the test when they show up at the pearly gates. But the social gospel movement, propelled early on by Rauschenbusch, emancipates the Kingdom from the realm of the ethereal and contends that Jesus’s ideals should mobilize humanity towards justice, peace, unity, and liberation: not in the future, but right now. Social Christianity attempts to “embrace the tridimensional social vision of liberty, equality, and community … but in a country where people only understand individualism, social Christianity is constantly pressed to defend the values of equality and community” (372). Rauschenbusch’s hopes for the power of the social gospel to transform people’s lives don’t seem to have trickled down to my friend Richard at The Haven, wistfully remembering a time when people were kinder and more generous and more willing to be in your corner.

The language of the social gospel is active, immediate, urgent and compelling. Theologian and historian Gary Dorien explains in his book Soul in Society, “If the church is not merely the body of Christians that awaits the kingdom, but the partial manifestation of the kingdom as the body of the resurrected Christ, it cannot regard the way of Christ as an ethic for an age yet to come” (371). By this, he suggests that the Church is more than just a group of people. This statement deifies community—and not some distant community, but one that is immanent and tangible in this life, in this very day. Which brings me back to the rag-tag army of volunteers that faithfully march in and out of The Haven each week. In each plate served, our guests can taste traces of the Kingdom: an authentic, not-from-concentrate glimpse of the realities of Christ and the coming Kingdom. “In the biblical faith recovered by social Christianity, the reign of God is an immanent/eschatological reality that engenders community, peace, and justice” (Dorien 19).

Social gospelers today cling to the hope that through transforming the Church into a restorative community, we can perhaps attain once more that team-mentality that Richard remembers. Personally, when I think of examples of the “kind of progressive religion that plays a morally regenerative role in American culture” (Dorien 372), the kitchen of the Haven seems like a pretty good starting point. Perhaps each breakfast can feed the growing and present Kingdom of God alongside our hungry guests.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

A time for rest

“For in six days God made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, God blessed Shabbat and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:11)

Today, Friday, marks the beginning of the end of my first week here in Berkeley as an Urban Adamah Fellow. Sundown on this day will also mark the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest which continues until the following sundown on Saturday. As I’m writing this, I hear the peaceful sounds—with the occasional expletive sprinkled in—of a house full of my newfound friends preparing to welcome in this time-honored Jewish tradition: the cooking of the Shabbat meal, pairs of feet padding lightly up and down the carpeted hall, a shower running. Already, I can feel the sense of rest and ease sifting down like a gentle snowfall over our home, a welcome respite after a long day of Avodat Sadeh (service of the field) at the farm. They say it usually doesn’t get up into the 80s in Berkeley, but this has been a particularly hot week. By now, I think that even the hardiest of us are ready to lay down our tools and take a break.

Garden ToolsShabbat is not a tradition that we observed in my (half-) Jewish home growing up. Although it is a weekly holiday “guarded” (to borrow from Deuteronomy) throughout the millennia by generation after generation of Jews, Shabbat is still a relatively new observance in my life, and so tonight’s Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming in the Sabbath) holds a double significance for me: as our community welcomes in the Sabbath for the first time together, I will be welcoming it as a new tradition into my life, one that I will perhaps observe in one way or another for the rest of my days. Given the double meaning for me of this particular Shabbat, and the conversations we’ve been having about the tradition today, I’ve been thinking a lot about its meaning and particular resonance in my life right now. In some ways, it seems to me, these three months at Urban Adamah are something like an extended Shabbat, a time for rest. This might seem like a strange claim given the fact that most of my time here is going to be spent doing farm work, but bear with me.

In Jewish tradition, the Sabbath comes with a long list of rabbinic guidelines about what one can and cannot do during that span of time between when the first three stars of evening appear in the sky on Friday and the sun sets on Saturday. This includes things like not being allowed to handle money, tear paper, drive a car, or operate a light switch. As a highly observant Jew, what you’re supposed to do on Shabbat is stay home (and/or go to temple… but don’t drive!), pray, and be happy about it. To many less observant Jews, these rules seem extremely draconian, just another example of how halakha (Jewish law) wrecks any chance of a Jew having a good time. Thus, for many, Shabbat passes by unmarked. But there is another way to look at the tradition, one that is suggested by the manifold restrictions and yet is not beholden to their strict observance. It goes back to the quote from Exodus above about “God [blessing] Shabbat and [making] it holy,” and it has to do with mindfulness.

What does it mean to make Shabbat holy? If the basis for our observance of Shabbat is that we are following God’s example in “resting on the seventh day,” then how, exactly, are we to follow Their example in “blessing” this specific span of time? The rabbinic prescriptions regarding Shabbat achieve this one way by providing a bunch of rules and practices that set Shabbat apart from any other day of the week. The important thing is that Shabbat is somehow different from any old day, that it is in some way special. The other important thing about all of those rules is that they fall under the general justification of one not being allowed to engage in any form of “labor” during that special time. In this way, the proscriptions allow us to have a special amount of awareness during Shabbat—awareness of the day itself, but also (since we are not working and are not even supposed to be thinking about work) awareness of all the things that we usually shove to the side during our hectic weeks. These are things like our family, our community, our God, and ourselves. Observing Shabbat forces you to step out of the whirlpool of everyday life, to just live and just be, and it is in this way that I feel like my time here at Urban Adamah is something like an extended Shabbat.

Having recently graduated and then now having traveled all the way across the country to Berkeley in order to be here, it feels like the time that I will be spending at Urban Adamah is “special,” in many ways set apart from the rest of the life that I have known. As a recent graduate back in Virginia, I felt myself weighed down by all of these questions about what I would be doing next in life, about where I was going and what it would all amount to. There are so many things that I want to experience in the short time that I have, but as of yet, I still have no idea how to go about accessing those experiences. In addition to these broader concerns, I also carry the basic anxiety of how to survive in a world where money is a necessity and things like food, water, and shelter aren’t a guarantee. But being out here, working with the land, connecting with the amazing people around me, and trying to be of service to the broader Bay Area community, it feels like I can let go of all of those questions, at least for the time being. Like I can just breathe and be. And that, surely, is a blessing.

Another aspect of Shabbat which connects to my experience with Urban Adamah is brought into focus in a line from Deuteronomy, chapter 5: “You shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, any of your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your cities, in order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest like you.” Shabbat is not just a rite to be observed by us as individuals, but rather that a day of rest is a right to be extended to everyone in our community, including our animals, our servants, and even strangers in our midst. In this way, it can be read as a call to social action, a call to be mindful of the needs of others and to help them satisfy those needs. It is my hope that through the labor that I do perform over the course of my fellowship that I can help to improve the material stakes of underprivileged residents of the Bay Area, if even only in a small way, to lighten their load a little bit so that they, too, can find some time for rest.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

On the Lived Theology Reading List: Always with Us?

Always With Us, Liz Theoharis, Fellow TravelersWhat Jesus Really Said about the Poor

Quoting Jesus, the passage of Matthew 26:11 reads, “the poor you will always have with you,” leading to interpretations surrounding the inevitability of and moral shortcomings resulting in poverty. In Always with Us?, author Liz Theoharis uses both biblical text and the lived reality of the poor to reject these notions as dangerously out of context. Incorporating voices of the marginalized, Theoharis presents poverty instead as systemic sin, a call for the church to faithfully fulfill its mandate to confront the evils of suffering.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

“Be ready to be stirred up by this scriptural exploration of the meaning of poverty. It challenged me with the moral demand to end poverty now.” —Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice

“Provocative. Powerful. Persuasive. Liz Theoharis’s fresh reading of a familiar biblical text opens up new ground for preaching, teaching, and activism. This is a book of lived theology and radical compassion.”—Laura Sumner Truax, LaSalle Street Church, Chicago

“Theoharis brings the Bible to life in this exciting study of one of its most famous passages. With a combination of rigorous theological scholarship and personal stories from her life as an organizer, she shows us that the front line in the fight against poverty is not in poor neighborhoods but rather within the assumptions of a society that fosters systemic injustice.”—Karenna Gore, Center for Earth Ethics, Union Theological Seminary

“The contemporary church has become so accommodative to capitalism that its theology is often viewed as a justification of economic injustice. Dr. Theoharis’s work stands as a challenge to such theology and asserts that poverty is an affront to God. The church must be a prophetic witness and actor in the world.” —William J. Barber II, President, North Carolina NAACP

Find book details here.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.