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



When a 5 year-old homeless girl washes your feet

Caring for kids has to be one of the best and worst things for one’s health. For instance, last week a kid’s head was in the clouds and she wandered off during a field trip. That really wasn’t fabulous for my blood pressure. Even so, these children have healed me in ways I didn’t know I needed. They unknowingly have been living examples of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s vision of ministry in Life Together–to me and to their neighbor. They have profoundly shaped me in my successes and failures of striving to live out this vision of ministry through their love and grace.

The Ministry of Helpfulness

“Nobody is too good for the meanest service” (Bonhoeffer 100).

A couple of time I’ve stayed to scrub the floor of art projects gone rogue or accidental goldfish stampedes. One day one of our campers, a too-cool-for-school skateboarder donning a backwards cap and a big smile, asked to help. A domino effect occurred, and I was soon swarmed by tiny hands begging to be of service. Approximately 30 seconds after I asked them to wash the tables, the floor flooded and tiny shoes turned the water into mud as effectively as Jesus turned water into wine. A five-year old girl from the camp, who is homeless, erupted into her trademark crazed laughter when she saw my muddy bare-feet becoming culprits in the mess. She commanded, “Wait there,” grabbed wet paper towels, and began intently to wash me. With each stroke this tiny, fierce, homeless girl imprinted her love and mercy into me.

Three dirty towels later she squinted at me with her devious eyes, stole my shoes, and ran down the block laughing the whole way.

These children could have been doing anything else, yet their hands proclaimed to me, “God’s message of love and mercy” (Bonhoeffer 100) through their seemingly trivial acts. In this upside-down kingdom, a homeless girl that I was so glad to serve pulled a Jesus and literally washed my feet out of love. We focus so much on teaching children, we forget what they can teach us. They teach us to embrace interruption and to joyfully love through small acts of service that probably mean a lot more than we think.

Art projects

Art projects that will be used to beautify the community garden

The Ministry of Listening

“The beginning of love for brethren is learning to listen to them” (Bonhoeffer 97)

Narrative is an integrative process. Through sharing personal narrative, we put together the messy pieces of our lives and explain how we are somehow still hanging together. Narratives help us discover what is meaningful in our lives. To honor a narrative, we must cultivate a spirit of listening.

One day in the after hours of camp I was painting a sign: “Community Starts Here!” Ty* approached me, laughed at my horrendous artwork, sat, and began to share his narrative, his own difficult life story, with me. After half an hour he said in a half-joking accusatory voice, “Why are you being so quiet!?”

With probably too much honesty for a 10 year old I slowly replied, “I wish I had the right things to say to make everything better. But I don’t.”

His gaze dropped to the ground.

I was paralyzed by Bonhoeffer’s words, “What can weak human words accomplish for others? Are we like the professionally pious, to “talk away” the other person’s real need?” (Bonhoeffer 104). I couldn’t bring myself to speak false hopes that his absentee parents or his daily bullying would magically become easier if he just accepted Christ. I couldn’t quote a couple of bible verses to make everything alright. God gives us His word and lends us His ear. I forgot that the purpose of listening, “with the ears of God is so we can speak the Word of God” (Bonhoeffer 99).


The Ministry of Proclaiming

“The speaking of God’s word is beset with infinite perils” (Bonhoeffer 104).

But what does it mean to speak the word of God?

“That unique situation in which one person bears witness in human words to another person, bespeaking the whole consolation of God, the admonition, the kindness, and the severity of God” (Bonhoeffer 104). The only thing I could do was look Ty in the eye and tell him what I know with the deepest fiber of my being, “You are loved, so loved; by God, by me, by your friends. You are stronger than you think.”

His eyes lit up, “Me? Strong? Really?!”

This is the beginning of my discerning process of learning when to listen, and when and what to speak. I learned that we must all put to death both the impatient-uninterested listener along with the pious prattler of words.

Kids at camp

The Ministry of Bearing

“Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).

The second day of camp, the leaders were entrusted with stories of children’s past: a father’s recent murder, escaping the Burmese war, houses that were burned down, a father who tried to drown a mother. When Ty told me his story, my heart was painfully overwhelmed. I saw his kind-hearted, goofy nature was slowly eroding away. Part of me wanted to steal these children away and other part wanted to run away and forget all I’ve seen and heard.

One day a nursing classmate asked our dean, “How do we care for our patients without being too emotionally attached?”

The dean of the nursing school kindly laughed, “That is not possible.”

The Christian has no choice but to bear, to sustain, to suffer the burden of a brother or sister: “It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated” (Bonhoeffer 100). God bore with us from the fall, through our unfaithfulness in the desert, to God suffering in the person of Jesus through the cross. A Christian’s life in community can be seen entirely through the framework of seeking to bear the Cross that Christ bore for his brothers and sisters.

At the zoo

I fully admit, I am in no way qualified to supplement Bonhoeffer’s categories of ministry with a my own construction. However, I’m an impetuous undergrad so I’m going to go for it.

The Ministry of Accepting Love

Only when we allow ourselves to be served by others can we look upon them as Jesus– the ultimate servant.

No more of this “individualization” crap.

“Out of place” is a generous descriptor, as I resembled a gangly teenage boy awkwardly asking a pretty girl out when I began canvassing. Thankfully I was with Russell Jeung, my site mentor, who lives in the community and is known and loved here. When the neighbors saw Russell approaching they would smile and eagerly invite us in. Every threshold we crossed, I was privileged to catch a glimpse into a vibrant cultural enclave, intentionally invisible from the public eye. Each home we entered held stories of woe (robbery), joy (green cards), fear (drug lords), tragedy (murders), strength (family), and hope. These narratives were intricately sewn into tapestries draped on the wall; they slowly wafted in like the smell of a traditional Thai dish; they looked like three barefooted grandmothers graced with wrinkles laughing in Burmese. I, a 20-year old white upper-middle class girl, a stranger, a foreigner, was embraced by people of peace; I was given water and invited to sit, rest, take off my shoes, and accept love. In this upside-down kingdom I was accepted as a foreigner by foreigners, and I felt oddly whole.

Accepting love requires humility; one of the highest virtues espoused by the early church fathers. Allowing oneself to be served fosters trust and interdependence; it kills colonizing mentality and the Western god of nirvana through individualization, and allows others the blessing of being the hands and feet and eyes and ears of Jesus.

Kids with sphynx

At the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, the grand Sphinx was humbled by the nose-picking love of these kids.

People of Peace

My 5’1” person was punted directly into the development worker’s nightmare. While planning for a community event in the Oak Park neighborhood, a fellow worker approached me and innocuously asked why I was helping out. Like a freshly painted old record player I espoused a worn out answer with a bright smile, “Why, to help foster relationships and community engagement!” expecting him to drop it.

He didn’t.

“…Well it sounds nice and all”

I stiffened.

“…but sometimes I just feel like people volunteer to feel good about themselves. I don’t like feeling like somebody’s project. They feel good about themselves then they leave. That’s where I’m coming from.”

Visceral anger overtook my thoughts:I am NOT trying to just “feel good” (cue dramatic air quotes). I read the pop-Christian developer’s-bible, When Helping Hurts like three years ago. I’m way too enlightened for that kind of crap! Who does he think I am?!

Next came the judgment: Why would he presume I find so much self-worth in this project?! Who does he think he is?!

Finally came the developer’s dejection: Oh god. Am I really a colonizer? Should I even be here? People have been hurt enough without me.

After reimagining the conversation about 78 times, and after reading Bryant Myers’ book Walking With the Poor (because that is how I deal with these types of things: by reading 300-page books), I realized that my anger, judgement, and tail-between-legs guilt were merely unproductive defense mechanisms that kept my brother in Christ at arms length. In More than Equals, Perkins points to the proclamation of 1 Corinthians 13:7 that love always perseveres. I cannot back away from a brother or sister when they disappoint me or when they reveal their pent up bitterness. Instead I need to learn empathy for those who have been hurt by temporary do-gooder imports. I need to foster, “a commitment to understanding them on their own terms” (Myers 182).

It is the unfortunate reality that my missionary and development worker predecessors and I have earned suspicion and distrust. We must begin to see and understand this with tenderness–not paternalistic pity, but tenderness. I too would be wary of any asymmetrical power imbalance not in my favor. For the first time, I recognized my whiteness working against me, and I was pigeon-holed as untrustworthy because of my color. (Gee, I wonder what it would be like to live every day in that unjust reality). Even though I believed I was in the right, I had the obligation to genuinely ask God again to “search me and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23). The purity of motivations ebb and flow; it is wise to daily acknowledge that and daily repent. Colonizers, California-Spanish missions, and many normal churches today who ship their members off for a week to Kenya all have convinced themselves of their pure motivations. Even so, their work tragically damages people groups by committing murder, inflicting deep psychological damage, and enslaving–overtly with chains and covertly in fostering unhealthy economic and social dependance. We must become thoughtful, holistically educated, developmental practitioners so that our work is ultimately sustainable, empowering, and life-giving.

The past months of planning Oak Park Community Builders camp have been as tedious, unfamiliar, and frightening as playing a game of Risk with competitive relatives. “What are your goals?” pastor Dan asked me.

That everyone stays alive.

It’s the little things.

Camp began this week as any typical chaotic whirlwind does. This included but was not limited to some injuries, a diagnosis of lice, and a mild occurrence of projectile vomiting. Monday, we worked the community garden and learned about the garden-to-table movement. Tuesday, we focused on maintaining/improving literacy at the public library. Wednesday, we went to an A’s game to encourage pride in the city of Oakland (…and because I really wanted to go to an A’s game). Friday, at the end of a long week, we had a healthy living cooking class.

Planting tomatoes in our community plot

Planting tomatoes in our community plot

Oakland A's Game

Solidarity was formed due to many unsuccessful attempts of washing off the paint.The residual yellow/green hue suggested a plague of jaundice had stricken our camp.

cooking class

Making fresh fruit spring rolls with honey lime dressing

As Christians have matured in developmental theology, most find ourselves served by those we intended to serve. We have seen over and over that genuine development is relational development where “everyone is poor in God’s world and everyone is in need of transformation” (Myers 17). I can cognitively ascent to that idea, and reading it can even make my heart beat a little faster. However, in the midst of camp chaos I forget that profound truth and instead begin dreaming of how tantalizing fetal position seems at that moment. Like the opening anecdote to this blog showed, becoming frustrated, emotionally withdrawing, and becoming an army commander is an easy fallback where I assume total control. The problem with total control is that it leaves no room for God’s work of grace and reconciliation; I’ve taken it upon myself to solve the problem in my own familiar way. In the midst of camp chaos and interpersonal discord it is hard to re-imagine both me, the children, and the community worker as broken vessels coming together, listening to and learning from the gifts of the other, and moving towards an understanding of what it means to be reconciled as sister and brother. Only when I have slowed down and begun to build relationships of love and honesty has trust been born. Only within those patient self-giving relationships of trust have I begun to receive healing I didn’t even know I needed from these tiny, 6-10 year old, unassuming wells of life.

I, an outsider, a despised foreigner to some, have been shown the hospitality and saving grace of these little Good Samaritans.

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.

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.

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