Holy Smokes

Nestled into my large leather chair in a smoke-filled room, I let the strands of scripture spin around in my mind. The daily rhythm of my internship takes a slight shift this week and next as I join the interns at my church in a course on ministry to the poor taught by Rebirth’s very own Mo. A man of many talents and a work ethic like no other, Mo not only runs the ministry I get to be a part of this summer, he also owns his own cigar shop-slash-ministry outpost, aptly named Holy Smokes. In many ways, the shop is more filled with the presence of God than many churches I’ve been in in my life. As I sit with the four other students in a circle of large leather recliners usually occupied by middle-aged men smoking cigars, various people walk in and Mo tells them all to pull up a chair and join the study. Inviting people in to be a part of how he’s pursuing the mission of God in the world is what Mo does best.

What Mo also does really well is tie together strands of truths from many different disciplines to form a coherent vision for how and why caring for the poor and hurting matters. In this course, we’ve covered a sociological understanding of the social construction of reality and how that affects any kind of cross cultural interaction; we’ve read Native Son and seen how literature can paint a vivid picture of black life and how the bullets of discrimination, racism, and hatred come flying at black Americans from every direction each and every day; we’ll talk through some of the history of racism by looking at Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail; and where my formal education has been most lacking, we’ve delved into what the Bible has to say about poverty, racism, and where the Church fits into a world bursting at the seams with those two evils.

The structure of this course, just eight three-hour sessions, means that this information is coming at us like less like the cool mist of a sprinkler and more like the blast of a fire hydrant. At this point, I think my mind is still trying to soak in the wisdom from day one, and we’ve already finished day four. In another context, this influx of information would overwhelm me, as the normal pace that UVA has trained me to keep of consuming and digesting course content and then synthesizing and interpreting it to produce something of my own would send me into overdrive. But for Mo, the goal is not perfect retention and hasty production. Just like smoking a cigar (which Mo does just about any time, anywhere), the process should be slow, meditative, and enjoyable. For us, that means asking us to engage in a careful five-step process as we encounter this information: first comes exhortation, which is Mo’s role as the instructor; next, we deliberate, or wrestle, with the difficult topics we’re dealing with; thirdly, we internalize, or let those pieces of wisdom that we, through deliberation with the Holy Spirit, have deemed as truths sink into our hearts and minds; next, we look to see where God wants to specifically activate us within his work in the world; and lastly, we mobilize other people to come alongside and co-labor together.

Throughout the week I found myself mostly in the first three stages, trying to wade through the floodwaters of history, sociology, literature, and theology in my brain, with a few secretive forays into the fourth and fifth stages as my proclivity to plan and to do made it hard to resist peeking into the possibilities of what’s next. My struggle to keep myself from always considering the future is even greater now as I move into my final year of college. In many ways, I have looked at this internship, and the content of this two-week course within it, as resources in my process of discerning what direction I should take in the many upcoming decisions. For the most part, my process has been focused on me: my thoughts, my interpretations, and my future. God didn’t let it stay that way for too long.

The horrifying incidents of this week—the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the attack on police in Dallas—ripped my blinders off and reminded me that what I’m studying in this class, and what I’m doing in my internship, matters. And not just in a few months when I have to choose a thesis topic, and not just in the next year as I’m looking for jobs, but right here, right now. They should not just matter to me because they might pertain to my career path, but because they have to do with real human lives, those who have lost theirs and those that are irrevocably changed because of this week. If I thought I was overwhelmed at the beginning of the week with the high density of information in the class, I was utterly unprepared for how the knowledge of the shootings would hit me. No amount of steps would be able to get me to a place of understanding. No beautifully thought-out process could bring order to the chaos in my mind. As more tragic news kept rolling in like dark, billowing storm clouds, the only word that seemed adequate was maranatha, Aramaic for “Lord Jesus come.” I cannot fix the systematic injustice and the hate and the violence. I cannot stop the fear of “the other” from taking precedence in high-pressure situations and leading to tragic outcomes. I cannot change the fact that I am white and safe, and so many people are black and in danger. I cannot protect the young men and women I drive to and from Bible study every week from the physical and psychological dangers of their world. But I can, and I will, love deeply and pray constantly. I will say until my lungs give out: Maranatha, maranatha, maranatha. If it hasn’t already, I pray this cry will animate every encounter I have in the context of the internship this summer, and that it will work its way into every act of justice or mercy that I am ever able to be a part of. I pray for the passion of this cry to sustain me as I go to Bible studies, plan summer camps, and soak in the truth about God’s heart for the poor and oppressed from my comfy cigar shop chair.

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