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


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.

A Meditation on Bathrooms

Public Pit Stop

Bathrooms are fascinating. They look different all over the world. In fact, for me they are a good indicator of how far away from home I am (i.e. Bidet or no bidet? Running water or bucket? Do I have to dig my own hole or no?). But for almost everyone, I’ve discovered, they are things we don’t think about until they’re gone. They are easily taken for granted. I realized that the longest I spend without direct access to a nice, clean(ish), private restroom on a typical day is the 20 minutes I spend in the car. This is not so for many people living in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco.

The TL, as many locals fondly call it, is infamous for being a place where you must watch your step to avoid stepping on either needles or human waste. The Daily Caller called the entire neighborhood one big “public toilet,” describing the population using it as “drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes, and mentally unstable street people” (citing the San Francisco Chronicle). This portrayal erases the presence of immigrant families, the elderly, and disabled people (and some yuppies) who also form large percentages of the population. While these reports are insensitive and ignorant, showing no sympathy for the problem of public urination as it faces homeless people or providing any productive criticisms, they reflect a commonplace attitude.

Fecal matter in the streets is a source of frequent joking among YWAM staff. Once, when we were out in Santana Row (an upscale shopping area in San Jose), someone remarked that it was so nice to be able to walk down the street without worrying about stepping in crap. We all laughed along and nodded our heads. YWAM staff love the neighborhood, and they show their commitment through their service. However, I realized that for me, laughing about how “ratchet” the TL is only further solidifies the negative image of the community that we are trying to fight against.

I must admit, there have been times when I have seen the public bathroom a block away from the YWAM base and callously thought, “Gee, why can’t the people who pee in front of our building ever seem to make it over here?” Then, one day a woman ran up to the building in a state of emergency. After being let in and allowed the use the bathroom, she came out and apologized, saying that she had tried to use the bathroom down the street but it was locked. Public bathrooms in the TL have had a poor track record of becoming sites of prostitution, drug use, and other dangerous activities. Now, the best options for relieving oneself are the portable pit stops that come in Tuesday-Friday from 2-9 pm. These bathrooms are monitored by attendants from a city-contracted non-profit to prevent the issues that have come with public bathrooms of the past.

While these pit stops have been extremely helpful, reportedly reducing the number of complaints about human waste in the streets from 27 calls per day to 15, they aren’t a foolproof solution. Human needs do not disappear outside of the 7 hours per day, 4 days a week that these two toilets drop on the block. People are still forced to urinate and defecate in the streets, in plain view, every single day. This is not merely a sanitation problem; this is an affront to human dignity.

In this city of impossible wealth, the most expensive U.S. city to live in, homeless people are often considered an eyesore. For some living in other parts of the city, having to walk by a makeshift homeless camp on their way home is a sure sign that “the neighborhood has gone to crap.” Every day thousands of homeless people struggle for a limited number of one-night beds, getting in line in the middle of the afternoon only to be booted out again at 6 AM. They put their names on impossibly long waiting lists for more permanent solutions: 90-day beds, SROs, or Section 8 low-income housing. Thanks to policies requiring hotels to reserve a certain number of beds for low-income people, there are 9,990 formerly homeless people living in 208 hotels in the Tenderloin’s 23 blocks. And yet, the large number of homeless people still on the streets makes the problem seem impossible to surmount.

Two days ago I averted my eyes as a homeless woman, whose name I know and whose face I see nearly every day, exposed herself to everyone on the street (mostly men) in broad daylight and urinated not 5 feet from me. She seemed nonchalant. I can only assume that this has been such a consistent reality for her that she has moved past the point of shame and embarrassment. Two days prior, I stopped in my tracks as I approached a homeless man that I was supposed to be meeting up with when I realized that he was relieving himself in the street. I tried to make myself scarce, hoping that he wouldn’t be embarrassed if he didn’t see me. But he did. Three days prior to that, a woman rushed into Nail Day whispering urgently that she needed feminine hygiene products. When she came out of the restroom she sheepishly asked for a discrete bag to carry the products in. Like the pubic pit stops, the YWAM base also has times in which the restrooms are available, for one person at a time, with a monitor waiting outside. Although these measures are necessary, they must be so infantilizing. I would not feel dignified if I was put in any one of these situations.

I have one last bathroom story to share. Carly*, one of the transgender women who comes to BJM’s Nail Day, has been looking for a church. After visiting many Christian churches and being unsatisfied with how little they actually spoke about Jesus Christ, she settled on a Baptist church like the one she grew up in. She liked the church a lot and was beginning to feel welcome there. Then, the pastor (a man) pulled her aside and led her through the church building to show her the one-room unisex bathroom. She had been using the women’s bathroom prior to that. She hasn’t been back since that day.

Empathizing with Carly, a transgender pastor of a Lutheran church in San Francisco had this to say about her experience with bathrooms: “If I’m standing in front of the bathrooms I’m thinking, if I go in the women’s I’ll get screamed at, but if I go in the men’s I’ll get beat up.” Carly feared that there had been complaints by women of the church who bring their children into the bathrooms with them (because of the nasty stereotype that transgender people are pedophiles). The idea that anyone would think she could possibly hurt a child disgusts her. Bathrooms, which are a place of relief for many, are a place of uncertainty and fear for trans people.

What these stories reveal to me is that we, as Christians, are really good at loving our neighbor until it is hard. Until it makes us uncomfortable. Until it’s smelly. We talk about people being made in the image of God, and the inherent dignity that all human beings share as a result, and then we turn up our noses when we see them urinating in the street. We assume that they are too drunk or high or lazy or careless to make it to a proper bathroom. We isolate them and push them aside when we are forced to mingle with them in private spaces. We show them that it’s more important to us that they use the correct bathroom, the one with a little figure wearing pants on the door, than it is that they are able to be in the presence of God with fellow believers.

In Life Together, his classic text on Christian community, Bonhoeffer says, “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal but a divine reality” (26). This means that Christian community is not about our notions of perfection. It’s not about bringing the exact “right” group of people into perfect harmony with one another so that we feel loved and find it easy to love one another. No, “Christian community springs… from grace alone” (23). Living in community, whether with Christians, non-Christians, or both, is meant to be hard. And if it is not hard, then the community isn’t inclusive enough. This is of the utmost importance because, as Bonheoffer puts it, “the exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ” (38).

We have to do better. We have to love better. And we need Christ to do it.

As a Church and as a society, when we think of places like the Tenderloin we must remember this: Just because there is shit in the streets doesn’t mean the people are shit. And if we can’t wrap our heads around that… well then we’re all pretty shitty.

“The God Who Sees Me”

Hagar and Ishmael

This summer the BJM team is learning how to exist in a place that is not our own. Back in June, the Well, our women’s center in the Tenderloin, was flooded. There was some pretty serious damage and we were told repairs would take at least through the end of the summer. However, thanks to the hospitality of some of our community partners, we have found other spaces that allow us to continue running all of our summer programs. Since the floors of our dance studio are currently being ripped up and replaced, our Thursday afternoon dance classes are being held in the community room of an apartment building on Turk Street.

There is a large Muslim population living in the Turk street apartments and many of the girls who attend dance class come from Muslim families. Thus, as Christians, we are entering a space that is truly not our own. As a staff, we’ve been discussing how to navigate this environment as Muslims and Christians come together. Dance classes normally begin with a short teaching illustrating a concept from the Christian faith. However, something that a few of the Muslim moms said caused us to pause, pray, and examine this practice. They told Karol, a BJM staff member, that the Christians that run these programs always have a hidden agenda. When Karol brought this up in staff meeting I couldn’t help but think, “Well… we do….”

I wondered if I was the only one thinking it. I know that everyone on staff is completely genuine. They all sincerely believe that the Gospel is the most important message that they could impart to these girls and that Jesus can do more for these girls than they ever could. And even though dance class is mostly about promoting a sense of self-worth and providing support for girls in a difficult neighborhood, none would deny that the end goal is for these girls to know Jesus.

As I sat there questioning the implications of this, someone spoke up and voiced my thoughts for me. “Well, we do kinda have an agenda” she said. A shrug passed around the room. How do we do this? If it is true that dance class is about more than creative expression, empowerment, or community support but is actually about sharing Jesus with the girls (in the long run), and this is precisely what the Muslim parents are jaded towards…. Then what do we do?

It saddened me to think that this was the most powerful association the Muslim mothers had made with Christians. The women had not one real Christian friend that did not later pull a bait and switch on them. So we discussed how to find common ground between our devotional topics and the Islamic faith. We decided to avoid back-and-forth comparison of any kind and instead to consider truths about God that the Muslim community would also appreciate. Someone suggested that we even make take-home cards describing the teaching for any parents that are skeptical, feeling that increased transparency could help engender trust. While these measures were all well received by the group, for some I believe they created tension between being respectful and suppressing BJM’s core values. The Gospel is at the heart of BJM, and staff members were hesitant to be any more reticent in their discussion of it. But in the end, we humbly accepted that we are in a place that is not our own and we must respect the experiences of the people whose space we are inhabiting. These women have felt that Christians always have ulterior motives; therefore we must bear the weight of that wrongdoing and the mistrust it has created. We must lament the beautiful potentiality of friendship that has been squandered and perhaps even the barriers to Christ that have been erected by Christians who have failed to love these Muslim women without conditions. And so we prayed. We prayed that we would recognize our hidden agendas and relinquish them. I prayed that the girls would know Jesus within the context of their Islamic world, and that no one would feel the need to take them out of it in order to make that happen.

The next day came and it was time for another dance class teaching. We focused on Zephaniah 3:17, telling the girls that God “takes great delight in them” and that He “rejoices over them with singing.” Then, they were invited to write letters or draw pictures to God. The teacher gave an example of the kind of pictures she might draw for God. She imagines God as a “Papa God,” she said, with a big white beard and a staff like a shepherd. Although the shepherd is certainly a valuable, biblical rendering of God, as I looked around at the faces of the girls in the circle I couldn’t help but wonder, is this the only image of God that is presented to them? When they think of God, do they see a man? Do they see an old, white, bearded, Anglo-American man?

I sat down next to a little Muslim girl named Bria* who was struggling to put crayon to paper. A rather sheepish girl, she sat and stared at the blank page quietly while the girls around her scribbled furiously.

“What do you think God is like?” I asked.

“He’s…. a good guy,” she replied. I smiled.

“What do you see when you think of God?”


“Okay, great! Why clouds?”

“Because… God is on top of us.” She meant above us. I smiled again.

Letters to God

I encouraged her to draw what she saw. Perhaps her image of God is as nebulous as a cloud… and maybe that’s a good thing. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my short religious studies career it’s that a variety of images of God is necessary, and so is the element of mystery. For much of the Old Testament, the predominant image of God is the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” However, in Genesis 16, we are presented with another side of this same God. The God of Abraham, the God of the great patriarchs, appears to Hagar, a poor Egyptian slave woman serving as Sarah’s handmaiden. Sarah, in her impatience to receive the promised heir, forces Hagar to lie with her husband Abraham. After she conceives, Hagar flees her mistress’ abuse by running into the wilderness. It is there, in her most desperate hour, that she meets God. The angel of the Lord (understood to be a manifestation of God on earth) addresses her directly, by name, and allows her to speak for herself. Then, God tells her to return to her mistress, but with a promise remarkably similar to the one that God gave to Abraham: that her descendants would be too numerous to count. In response Hagar “gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are the one who sees me’” (Genesis 16:13).

Hagar saw God and felt seen by Him.

In her landmark work of womanist theology, Sisters in the Wilderness, Dolores Williams connects the story of Hagar, with which the black community has long identified, to black women’s experience of surrogacy/motherhood, oppression, and survival in the United States. She points out that Hagar is the only character in the entire Bible who has the privilege of naming God. When Hagar flees a second time, this time with her son Ishmael, God enables their survival by helping Hagar find water for her dying child, and “God was with the boy as he grew up” (Gen. 21:20). This God, Williams claims, is different from the “malestream” God of Abraham. She is different even from the God of black (male) liberation theology, who is always portrayed as the Great Liberator of the Exodus, in spite of stories like Hagar’s (in which God’s provision does not come in the form of liberation from slavery). Hagar’s God is not the God whose authority Sarah probably cited when she forced Hagar to be Abraham’s concubine. Hagar’s God is the one who sees her.

More than anything, I want the Muslim girls in dance class to encounter the God who sees them. This God might not look like “Papa God” or even the “Christian God” as we describe Him. I later heard that two of our girls (who did a similar activity in another one of our dance classes) wouldn’t stop writing letters to God all week long. They were told to write just one, but, as their older sister reported, they didn’t stop there. When I heard this my heart leapt. By writing these letters to God they are interacting with God in an environment that isn’t mediated, or restricted, by us.

I hope that they continue to speak to God and that God talks back. I hope they know God for themselves and not just the God who is presented to them. I hope that one day, they will see the God who sees them. I hope this for myself too.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are my ugly thoughts?

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

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

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

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


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

“Will the real God please stand up?!”

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

Harrowing of Hades - will the real God stand up?

Harrowing of Hades by Dionisius from Ferapontov Monastery


“Hey YWAM* lady!”

I paused for a second… Is that me?


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

“ME?” I yelled back over the traffic.

“YEAH… you got a minute?”

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

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

I did not see that one coming.

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

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

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


He sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Girl, I got good vibes about you!”

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

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

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

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

Something tells me that G might beat me to it.


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


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

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

To Cause to Remember Mural


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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