Thursday, December 20, 2012

Where do we go after the Shootings in Newtown?

At the one week anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, a community school, the church bells toll across the country, and the media satellite trucks slowly leave Newtown. Where will they go next?  Will we as a nation continue to focus our attention on the epidemic of gun violence or has our addiction to violence grown so serious that we cannot even recognize it?

President Obama spoke compassionately and eloquently at the Interfaith Service last Sunday and again to the Washington Press on Wednesday. 
An impertinent reporter’s question made the evening news.  Coverage did not include the president’s words that in the 5 days following the massacre, people had died all over this land each day: a police officer gunned down in Memphis leaving four children without their mother; two killed in Topeka; three people shot inside a hospital in Alabama; and a 4-year-old victim of a drive-by shooting in Missouri.  “Where have you been?” we should ask ourselves.  Where have the cameras gone since Newtown?

The memorials have been helpful for a grieving nation. Here in our town our church held a prayer service open to the public and all sorts of people, previously strangers to one another, came. The nation has learned how to bring candles and Teddy Bears to memorials.  What else can we do well together?
PBS New Hour shows in silence at the end of broadcasts the names and pictures, as “they became of available,” of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. This week  they showed in silence the names and pictures of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary.  What would it mean if every week they showed the names and pictures, as they became available, of those killed by gun violence in this nation?

Where will the cameras go to help us not to forget, to help us recognize our own addition to gun violence and to give us the courage to act?
To South Chicago? To Midwestern smaller cities? To the mountain states? Everywhere!  

I’ve listened this week to stereotypes of “other” parts of the country.  “Rural” to some implies people who love having guns.  “Urban” or “Inner City” implies “dangerous,”  non-white.  And yet the mass shootings at schools have as often been by white males in suburban or ex-urban  settings.   
Our family lived for nine years in an inner city area in Connecticut, our children attending a community school. The school was at that time “legally condemned” which meant they did not have to provide a safe playground or music, the arts, physical education, etc.  So we in the neighborhood worked together to provide these things for everyone’s children.   While schools and school safety has increased in some places since then, the gap between the rich and the poor has intensified.  Do you “move to a safe place where there are ‘good’ schools”?  We’ve learned that gun violence happens everywhere. And we need  good,  safe community schools for everyone’s children wherever they live.   President Obama has continued to say, “all children.” 

It will take all of us, President Obama said, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, law enforcement officers, mental health workers, pastors, gun owners, all of us.  It will take courage. What images have we seen? Yes, we are told we see “guns flying off the shelves” at Walmart.   But I’ve also heard of buy-backs going on all across the country: a city in New Jersey; a small town in Illinois; local neighborhoods; even churches and stores.  Thousands of guns have willingly been turned in.  Will news cameras show us this? 
We have to believe that this nation that has 5% of the world’s population and ½ the guns can change if we want to be an example in the world. We have to believe that we can cure ourselves from the epidemic of gun violence that plagues this country. And we can start, as President Obama said, with what the majority of Americans want, banning the sale of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.  He called on Congress to confirm the appointment of a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, something they have refused to do for 6 ears.

Or we could go the other direction, buying  bullet-proof backpacks for our children, arming teachers. Foolish!  The epidemic grows. Fear begets fear.

Guns beget guns.
And ads for semi-automatic weapons to the contrary, guns don’t make men more manly.  The power to shoot more and faster does not make one stronger or wiser.  Men also beget life. It’s not about shooting,  but nurturing life.   Can we shape communities of compassion and care, claiming together the blessed power of giving and preserving life, all life, everywhere? What will we see?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Holy Days and Holidays: What Do You Believe?

Four days in a row mark diverse holidays and holy days: Dec. 6, St. Nicholas Day; Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, 71 years since the attack and the U.S. entry into WW II; Dec. 8, the beginning of Chanukah at sunset; Dec. 9, the Second Sunday in Advent.  In this pluralistic society amid many traditions, people might ask themselves, “What do I believe?”  Behind the decorations, “In whom or in what do I trust above all things?”
Years ago, when our oldest son, Mark, was only 3 ½, a woman in a shopping mall abruptly approached and loudly said right in his face, “Have you been good?” Was she assuming he feared if he were bad he would receive coal rather than a gift from St. Nocholas for Christmas?  We were trying to teach Mark the unconditional love of a gracious God. What would he believe?

How do we remember Pearl Harbor Day?  Some remember that actual day.  Others have only heard about it. War intrudes in the midst of holidays. What do we believe about bombs? And war? And veterans? And a path toward global peace today?
Chanukah, “Festival of Lights,” celebrates the miracle that the oil for the Jewish Menorah, only enough for one day, lasted for eight.  In what do people believe today? In the gifts given? In the miracles? In the God of miracles?

Advent Sundays prepare for the coming of Christ. During Advent’s time of waiting, who is this Jesus in whom people believe?  When our youngest son, Kirk, was seven, his turn to select a daily Scripture to read for evening devotions fell on Christmas Eve. He picked the long chapters 18-19 from John’s Gospel on Christ’s suffering, sentencing and death. Had Kirk made a mistake? But we listened. Somehow he believed, even then, you can’t have the baby Jesus without Good Friday and Easter.
That’s not to say this should not be a season of joy, even fun! However, centering on one’s basic beliefs helps focus gift-buying. Even Santa is put in perspective.

Middle son, Joel, now a grown man, teaches public high school music. He, of course, doesn’t proclaim or teach religion, but he invites students in the midst of the music, to quietly consider their own beliefs.  “Where do you place your trust?   What do you believe about the world? About each other?  About the poor? About….?”
By avoiding distractions and resisting that stress, going deeper into one’s beliefs can guide our devotion and our actions.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


It was a November evening, 1982, while my husband, Burton, and I were delivering Thanksgiving baskets in downtown Dubuque when I suddenly felt overwhelming fatigue. I became ill with what at first seemed like flu but from which I never recovered. The illness, later diagnosed as myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS), has many physiological and neurological complications. Today, still with no known cause and no known cure, it affects hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.
I have a disease; I am not my disease. How do I mark the 30th anniversary of living with a chronic illness?  With sadness or celebration? A good way is to have a convocation on “Living in community with Our Abilities and Disabilities.” Many people with CFS become homebound, isolated, but supported by the caring and respectful community of Wartburg Theological Seminary, I have been able to continue fully serving here and in the broader church and world.

Once a month for many years Wartburg holds a convocation, following a shortened Thursday worship service. At the November convocation student speakers  were people who have some sort of disability, or who have a friendship with a person who has a disability.  Lisa Heffernan, WTS M.Div. Senior began, “We share these stories and perspectives to encourage the community to think about how we all live together in this community as people with and without disabilities. Our definition is broad: we will be talking about disabilities in terms of physical and visible disabilities (like mine), physical disabilities that are unseen, and disabilities or conditions that can either be considered mental, cognitive, or emotional. Not only that, but we will be also talking about specific issues that come along with different disabilities and how we might view them within our life together at WTS. The question we might consider is: How do we as a student body, staff, and faculty live together faithfully in this place, with our gifts and limitations, recognizing each person as a child of God and a vital part of the body of Christ?
My own experience and view as a person with a physical and visible disability has greatly changed and improved since coming to seminary. In this place, I am accepted and valued as the person God created me to be—completely and fully. Before coming here, I never had the experience of being in a community where people would seek to have me involved in all aspects of life, no matter how tricky doing so might be. The best brief examples I can give are the time that my class was having a gathering at Pulpit Rock our middler year…on the 2nd floor. Without me even having to ask them to do so, 4 of the guys in my class lifted me up those steps, just so I could be there with my class.  I was scared, but they wanted me there, and I wanted to be there. So they helped me out. The other side of this is that these same friends challenge me to be more fearless and independent. This is the same thing I hope I do for them. We care for and challenge one another. And we include one another in all areas of life here. There are things that are difficult to make that happen sometimes, but I’m finally in a place where my disability doesn’t feel like a barrier to having an active life.”

Aleese Kenitzer, WTS M.Div. Junior, continued:  “I have a significant hearing loss in my right ear. It has been my responsibility to assure that my disability does not affect me in school or in ministry, but it is extremely helpful when people are aware of the fact that I do not hear well, and make an effort to improve communication. But often, I have either witnessed how people do not understand how an impairment affects one’s lifestyle, or have witnessed the response of 'well, people need must scream for you to be able to hear.' Neither one is true, and both of these actions exclude those who cannot hear well. It is common for those with hearing impairments to be excluded because they cannot hear and understand what is happening around them, or excluded because of those who overcompensate.”
Dave Fier, WTS M.Div. Junior came next,  I have a genetic learning difference called Soto’s syndrome. I was blessed to be my current height of 6ft 4inches in fifth grade I haven’t grown since. One of my many challenges is it takes me along time to process information.  “Fear not,” I say. This difference has also affected my coordination and some of my physical abilities. “Fear not,” I say.  Another difference I have been blessed with is to have a heightened emotional and artistic sense.  “Fear not,” I say.  God blessed me with this difference and I wouldn’t have life any other way. Most importantly I am child God. I am a brother in this community of many. The real question is how can we all learn and grow together.”

Tami Groth, WTS 2nd year M.A. Diacaonal Ministry, lives with two disabilities: “My medical history includes both clinical depression--a chemical imbalance which impacts both your emotions and your ability to think correctly--and celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder where gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley, attacks my body. These conditions are not related, but their effects can compound one another. When you cannot automatically join in something as basic as sharing bread with others, it is easy to feel isolated, and isolation can make you wonder if depression is returning.

I fight these issues by creating inclusive community however I can: by making food I can eat to share with others, by meeting others in their own needs, and by sharing what I have learned as I have educated myself about my conditions. Sometimes accommodating everyone’s needs seems like more than we can cope with--the list feels endless. But the joy of seeing someone feel like they can now be a part of a community is boundless, and it always makes me determined never to assume that what works for me works for all.”

Lee Gable, WTS M.Div. Senior, added, “ My friend lives with multiple chemical sensitivity related to fibromyalgia plus complications.  The air she breathes and any surfaces or fabrics she is in contact with are potential sources of pain.  Even your hand lotion can affect her.  She must be aware of what is around her.  She uses air purifiers to hold back the multiplicity of scents and carefully researches and uses products to help her environment not be a source of pain.” 

If you don't see her in church, ask about what is going on or send a card.  Ask the her if she wants to be on the prayer list.  Please don't be offended if she has to get up and move away from unseen conditions that cause unseen pain.  As a child of God living with conditions she would not have chosen for herself, my friend only asks, 'Don't define me by my illness.'”

 So how can we be compassionate, accommodating others, without being exclusive? 

 Megan Reedstrom, WTS M.Div. Senior, concluded the presentations.  I have been asked to talk about friendship because I have the pleasure of calling Lisa Heffernan one of my very best friends. Through our friendship I have become much more cognizant of accessibility and its importance and how frustrating it is when people abuse or misuse things like accessible parking. And through two road trips we have taken together, I've learned that traveling with someone who uses a wheelchair is not that different than traveling with someone who doesn't. We just allow a little extra time for travel, and do a little extra planning to make sure the places we are headed are accessible. The most important thing I have learned in all we have done together as friends is that we are far more alike than we are different.”

Many graduates of Wartburg and all of our seminaries live with disabilities and serve throughout the church in the world. Some are:

Rev. Phil Wangberg, who uses a wheelchair due to cancer of the spine, is pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church, Albuquerque, NM.
Diaconal Minister Rich Mohr-Kelly, who is visually impaired, serves in Pittsburgh, PA neighborhood ministry and at Stewart Avenue Lutheran and Birmingham UCC Congregational Churches.

Rev. Kathryn Bielfeldt, who is blind, served for over 21 years as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church of Campbell Hill, IL and added on part-time service to 2 other congregations in the Wartburg Parish of Southern Illinois. She recently retired.
Rev. Chris Kinney, who has quadriplegia due to MS, Oakdale, MN, currently does supply preaching, advocacy, mentoring, and short-term counseling

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor. 12:27)
After the brief presentations, students, faculty and staff of the whole community engaged for most of the hour in conversation around tables addressing these questions:

Questions for table discussion:
1.      What is your personal experience and/or experience with others who may have disabilities of various kinds?

2.      What do you think “living in community with our abilities and disabilities” looks like?

3.      How are disabilities perceived in the church today? Are some disabilities more “acceptable” than others?

4.      How might a disability (seen or unseen) isolate us or others as we try to live together in community?

5.      What sort of language is helpful (or not helpful) when speaking about persons with disabilities?

6.      What good things have you seen churches do to work toward the inclusion of people with disabilities in communities and/or congregations?

7.      How can we as a community work toward openness and full accessibility? Not because we “have” to, but because we want to include all of our brothers and sisters in Christ into the life of this community and the wider Church.

Some helpful resources: (provide by Josh Melvin, WTS, 2nd Year M.A.)

“Hearing DISability, Seeing disability” by Josh Melvin

Avalos, Hector, The Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.

Bishop, Marilyn E., Religion and Disability: Essays in Scripture, Theology, and Ethics, Sheed & Ward, 1995.

Black, Kathy, A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability, Abingdon Press, 1996.

Block, Jennie Weiss, Copious Hosting: A Theology of Access for People with Disabilities, Continuum, 2002.

Carter, Erik W., Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families & Congregations, Paul H. Brookes Pub. Co., 2007.

Cone, James H., God of the Oppressed, Orbis Books, 1997.

Creamer, Deborah Beth, Disability and Christian Theology Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Eiesland, Nancy L., The Disabled God: Towards a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Abingdon Press, 1994.

Eiesland, Nancy L., Human Disability and the Service of God: Reassessing Religious Practice, Abingdon Press, 1998.

Ferguson, Danyelle, & Parsons, Lynn, Disabilities and the Gospel: How to Bring People with Special Needs Closer to Christ, Cedar Fort, Inc., 2011.

Govig, Stewart D., Strong at the Broken Places: Persons with Disabilities and the Church, Westminster John Knox Press, 1989.

Pinksy, Mark I., Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion, The Alban Institute, 2011.

Reinders, Hahs S., Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.

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

Shapiro, Joseph P., No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, Three Rivers Press, 1994.

Waters, Larry J., Why, O God? Suffering and Disability in the Bible and the Church, Crossway, 2011.

Webb-Mitchell, Brett, Beyond Accessibility: Toward Full Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Faith Communities, Church Publishing Inc., 2010.

Yong, Amos, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

To Vote for Your Neighbor is Not Fraud

To impersonate someone else at the polls is voter fraud; to vote for the sake of someone other than just yourself is to care about your neighbor.   Voter suppression laws enacted in state after state this year have been a solution in search of a problem. Voter fraud was not the issue. Keeping large groups of people from voting and thereby trying to influence the outcome of the election was the strategic goal. Although some voter suppression laws have been curtailed by court rulings, many remain in place. Some new strategies will be implemented.  Election officials may make ongoing changes to early voting availability, including locations and hours.  Putting out confusing information if not outright misinformation, and scrutinizing details on voter I.D.’s may cause havoc on Election Day.  Your neighbor may not be able to vote.  How do we vote, not in the neighbor’s place, but for the sake of the neighbor?
People who cannot or can no longer drive, people who are poor, people of color are vulnerable. Likewise college and university students. On our Wartburg Seminary campus, many students have a driver’s license in one state but are in residence here in Iowa. We have provided voter registration twice here on campus. Students can vote early. And I urge them to do so. “Absentee ballot” does not necessarily mean you are out of town on Election Day. You may be in classes all day and thereby choose to vote early by mail. That also provides a shorter line on Election Day for someone who has to get to work.  That’s a way to vote for the sake of your neighbor.

In some states new laws have taken away voting on the Sunday before Election Day when traditionally African Americans, as a sign of citizenship and freedom after the Voting Rights bill was passed during the Civil Rights Movement, would go together after church to vote. For people with limited personal mobility, that was an act of communal care, not a “voting block.”   Some students on our campus are organizing car pools to go to the polls together before or on November 6, thereby encouraging one another and making sure that all have a ride.  That’s a way to vote for the sake of your neighbor.

As a professor I do not tell students for which candidate to vote, but I can and do raise the subject of the vocation of citizenship. Last Election Day I offered to give students and their spouses a ride to the polls, and even to take care of their children.  One student spouse told me later, “I didn’t call you for a ride, but I might not have voted had you not sent that offer.”  That’s a way to vote for the sake of one’s neighbor.
Voting for the sake of your neighbor is what the right of citizenship is all about. Citizenship is more often taken for granted than examined. It’s not just a matter of exercising my own right as a citizen, but being a citizen for the common good, not only for the country, but for the sake of the world. One is not called to be a citizen in isolation. 

One hears often, “What will the candidate do for me?”  People should ask, “Whose interest is this supporting?” “Who will benefit if this policy is implemented?” “How will people different from me be helped or harmed if this candidate is elected?”  It’s a matter of vocation, paying attention to those who are suffering and using one’s wisdom and to see how they can be best served.  In public policy, priority needs to be given to the good of the community. In the October issue of The Lutheran magazine, Darrell Jocock, Gustavus Adolphus College, has an excellet article on vocation as an invitation to become a channel for God's activity in the world by putting the neighbor first. He gives examples of Luther's involvements in public service.
 It’s not too late to gather people to have informed discussion, to sort out the truth from misleading statements, yes, even at church in an adult forum. (Youth will also benefit from seeing adults do this and from having such conversations at church themselves.) Such informed discussion can empower people for action towards fostering justice and working towards equality.  Vote for the sake of the neighbor to restore relationships and mend the world.

Registering and voting early is essential.  College and university students, and anyone who has moved recently, such as people who rent their residence, may be issued only a provisional ballot at some polls on Election Day. Many of these may not be counted.
In spite of voter suppression efforts, stalwart people have been out registering people one by one, and informing them of their rights, helping them obtain newly required I. D’s. Some of these workers remember when they, or their parents or grandparents, could not vote before the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Thousands of people marched and many died so that others could vote then, and today.  Vote for the sake of them.  Vote for the sake of the voice and vote of those who come after you.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Running Together Rather than Being Chased by Fears

It was a beautiful day for a run. All stood at the starting line amidst the fall colors. One last instruction: “Be careful on the first turn. It is tempting to start out so fast that you catch the heels of the person in front of you, causing someone to stumble. A whole bunch can go down. Ready? Off you go.”

It could have been a fall day on a college campus, but this was an elementary school in a small Iowa city. Third graders, eight-year-olds, prepared to run and walk their first mile! They had previously practiced once around the track which was the path around their playground. This would be 4 ½ times around. And they made it!

Ten years from now they will be 18-year-olds setting off on tracks of their own. What I watched last Friday afternoon, I would like to see ten years from now. All outside together in the world, prepared, fully participating according to their individual gifts and abilities. No one needing to drop out.

This is the season of specials on television, and on-line about our nation’s schools. There are dire predictions. And fear-based headlines: “Is college really worth it?” “The nation’s schools are in crisis.” We used to be first. We need to be first. We have to be first. Run as fast as you can! There are indeed statistics to which we need pay attention, but it is easy to let fears cause us to stumble.

Pell grant money saved, for now. But tuitions continue to rise. Since the beginning of the great recession people are charging less to credit cards and saving more. But defaults on student loans are a reality. Will we make it around the first turn without being knocked down?

Don’t misunderstand me. The challenges are great. We need college students who choose teaching as a career. We need more teachers who can answer the call of a lifetime…for a lifetime. We need communities and states who honor, respect and support teachers and community schools. Public schools where are all welcome.

I worry when competition is the answer for everything. I cringe when blaming teachers’ unions continues to be the fashion. And the gap between money spent on schools for students of wealth and students living in poverty continues to grow. The new segregation.

Yes, innovation is welcome, but I notice that a four-minute TV segment on a charter school’s creative idea ends with “We want this to be a model for every school in the country.” One says what we need is “Grit.” (Yes, we all need persistence and resilience, but does building in some “failure” as a response to “giving a blue ribbon to everyone” really fit students who need self-esteem?) Another says the answer, the only answer, is “technology.” (Yes, we need technology in every school for every student, but also “innovative” ways to help develop face-to-face social skills.) Another says….

And a voucher system for elementary education is just as dangerous an idea as a voucher system for health care for the elderly.

But now I’m sounding dire. Yes we need to recognize the problems; we need also to appreciate places and people who are working hard together. I have seen teachers and administrators creatively working together on professional development, charter and neighborhood schools collaborating, community colleges, states universities and private colleges together shepherding students through their education. I see the graduate school where I teach building a teaching-learning community that is life-giving, and which connects on-line learners with daily life on campus.

Last Friday, every single child in that third grade class was out there together, under the supportive, watching, caring eye of their gym teacher and two paraprofessionals. There were the children who took off fast and ran as quick as a rabbit the whole mile. There were some children with special needs: Autism, Down syndrome. There were children who walked together, friends. All had been prepared to walk, jog, or run as they could. A girl living with a chronic disease did a wonderful job of pacing herself by running and then walking, running and then walking. They were fit and able, as they were capable of being.

Yes, we have a competitive society that schools us all to beat out the person ahead of us. Hurry, hurry or you will be left behind. But I saw no one cheering because they had beat out another. All did their best. All received their times. No not a “give everyone a blue ribbon day.” No ribbons at all. They didn’t need them. The students had purpose and were growing in endurance. They did their first mile last Friday. Miles to go before they sleep. It was a beautiful fall day. Beautiful!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What Does the Middle East Have to Do with Sunday School?

What does the Middle East have to do with Sunday School?And what do controversial political issues have to do with church? An observable answer might be, “Not much.”  And that, I contend, is not good. (I’m speaking as a Lutheran who could be called a “mainline” Christian.) There are, of course, wonderful exceptions: churches where people of all ages talk about global events, engage the Scriptures, pray and are equipped for ministries that matter in a complex world in need of understanding, justice and healing.

However, often well-meaning people are simply too busy.  Sunday School teachers prepare lessons and lovingly teach children but just as lovingly try to shield them from global realities.  And adults, stressed out from work, seek a church-going experience that is a refuge from the world. We believe religion and politics “don’t mix,” so we pray in general for “our leaders” and “world peace” and all we have to say from the pulpit is that political adds have become too negative.

Don’t get me wrong.  Those benign postures are preferable to right-wing positions that picture Christianity as a militant American nationalism.  In fact, while a vicious video clip production that insults and demeans Islam has been the catalyst for anti-American demonstrations in the Middle East and beyond, that is only one piece of a much broader, constant barrage of “Christian” anti-Muslim messages that Islamic countries have been hearing increasingly. The message that to be Christian is to be against any other religion is being taught. And adults in such churches are being told how to vote, and many are continuing to be fed the fabricated story that the president of the United States was not born here, is the “other,” and is secretly not a Christian but a Muslim and therefore anti-American. 
Such hate is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I hold a very different interpretation of the Christian Gospel.  Yes, one reads in the New Testament that Jesus is the way, the truth and the light and that one can hear in that passage that Jesus is the only path to salvation. But judgment is to be left to God. There is danger in fear of the stranger. You see, Jesus continually reached out to those beyond the narrow religious confines of his own faith, Judaism.  Christianity is more than a set of “values.” Jesus is the light of the world.  Jesus loves everyone, heals all in need. Jesus cares about justice, and the poor; he always cares about the poor. Christianity is a religion with doors wide open. And Christianity is never to be aligned to just one national identity. Christ suffers with those who suffer. Christ’s death and resurrection set people free to love the neighbor, not to simply guard their own freedom.

This is not to justify the violence that took the lives of the U.S. ambassador in Libya and three other U.S. servant citizens.  Nor the violence in the Middle East and beyond where yet more people die. This is not a commentary on Islam.  My words here are about Christianity, its message and mission.

So, what does the Middle East have to do with Sunday School?  I hope everything.  I call for the media to recognize that “Christian” is a broad term, not to be associated only with fundamentalist right-wing Christian churches.  I call for mainstream Christian Churches to not be hesitant to speak up. No, don’t tell people how to vote.  That’s rightly against the first amendment. But help us dig more deeply into the Scriptures and help parishioners claim their own voices in the public arena, and to learn about world religions and to love all the world’s people. 

Ray Suarez in The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America, wrote, “As a kid standing for the recessional hymn, I dutifully sang, “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” He added, “What I was not taught was that God had chosen America as the instrument for his will in the world.”

In my book, Open the Doors and See All the People, I write about a Lutheran pastor on Long Island, NY, a Wartburg Seminary graduate, who over 15 years ago helped diversify her congregation’s all-white worship leadership team to include an Iranian deacon and a West Indian assisting minister. Together with other religious leaders in the community she helped form an Interfaith Network and developed a “school of religion” where they engaged in “caring, sharing and comparing.” When 9/11 happened, they were already prepared to come together in an interfaith prayer service 1000 attended. She says, “Our deep anxiety continued, but our faith was deeper still. We have learned to cherish people…all people.”

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pro-Choice and Pro-Labor and, Therefore, Truly "Pro-Life"

On this Labor Day Weekend I want to tell people that I am Pro-Choice, Pro-Labor, and Pro-Union.  That makes me in favor of the “right to work.”  I am for life, all life.  So, why am I considered anti-life? Against the right to work?  Oh, I know the convenient rhetoric. It is all in how you frame the argument. But that’s just the problem. I am appalled by the rash of regressive legislative proposals to restrict women’s reproductive health choices. I am a feminist.  Even a radical feminist.  And that makes me radically pro-life.  In fact, on this Labor Day weekend, I recall vividly the 20 hours of labor I went through in giving birth for the first time.

And, while I am remembering, I recall the relatively small, but significant scholarship I received from the local labor union when I graduated from high school years ago.  I wrote a thank-you essay on why a collective approach to workers’ rights is needed—for the whole community.
Therefore I also am appalled by the continuing regressive moves to crush the labor movement and proud of the efforts in Wisconsin and Ohio, and other places (with varying results), to keep it alive.

We have heard speeches and seen placards of those who want to protect the unborn.  We have witnessed abortion providers harassed, even murdered, under the banner of “pro-life.” We continue to experience the hypocrisy of the very people who say they are “pro-life” being quick to go to war and against gun control.
Labor Day has come to mark the end of the summer season (even though many students have already returned to school).  It marks the beginning of the political season (even though that began over a year ago). Thousands of people probably have no idea what Labor Day really signifies. Initially proposed in 1882 to honor the contributions of workers, unclear if by a machinist who was secretary of the Central Labor Union or by a man from the American Federation of Labor, it became a holiday first in the state of Oregon in 1887 and then in 30 states before it became a national holiday. That happened in 1894,  during the presidency of Grover Cleveland, six days after the end of the Pullman Strike during which workers were killed. Health and safety of workers are still issues. I am pro-life in the deepest sense of the term.

While hundreds of thousands of people are trying to get back to work, the gap between the wealthy and the poor grows.  Figures show the shrinking of the middle class.  Those who would cry “class warfare” only try to hide the reality of the disparity between economic classes.  Sometimes we hear that people want to make a “decent” wage.  A strange term. Are those who make a lot of money “decent,” while those with a low income “indecent”?   That stereotype prevails: dirty faces, lazy.   I know from working in varied neighborhoods that it often takes more work to live as a person who is poor than it does to live with a comfortable income.  So I am pro-life, pro a “living” wage.  Pro the gift of holy work and Sabbath rest.  I am in favor of Labor Day honoring the contributions of all kinds of workers. I am in favor of increasing the minimum wage so that  people can live on it. That means pro life-giving work opportunities for all and not blaming the poor for being poor.  That means not telling work-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstrap stories of success as though everyone can become wealthy.
And I am for responsible partnership in planning for new life.  Yes, that means being for “Planned Parenthood,” both for the concept of choices and for the organization.  I am for women and men laboring together to bring life into this world, raising children, nurturing the world’s children, and sustaining life, life on the planet and the life of the planet.  Why is that so hard to grasp?  It seems so reasonable, to responsible, to natural and so communal. That’s a Labor Day worth celebrating together.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Race, Religion, Women, Economic Privilege ARE the Issues, so Let's Talk about Them

The line was long, but it kept moving, and although the sun was warm, the air was finally cooler than it had been for so many hot weeks. Thousands of us were entering the outdoor arena by the Mississippi River to hear the President and the First Lady.  We passed a small group from the opposing political party with their banners.  Well enough.  But one sign bothered me: “Mr. Obama, this is a Christian nation.” You see, I am a Christian, and I was headed in the opposite direction. And the President and First Lady are Christians, as were many of the thousands being protested.

And “I am a Sikh,” I say, since the August 5 shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, a suburb of Milwaukee, WI, where 6 were murdered and 4 more wounded.

Howard Fineman, Editorial Director of the AOL Huffington Post Media Group, in his blog of August 17, “Why Obama-Romney Debate Will (Continue to) Be Vicious,” gave a list of some of the reasons this has become the most abrasive, personally accusatory presidential campaign in modern times. He said that “Race and religion are sure to surface as corrosive forces.” That is so true!

While campaign strategists daily try to get back “on message,” I find the issues have a very basic core. Whatever surfaces, underneath are systemic, interconnected issues of domination and oppression. We need not label or avoid, but talk about them.  For example, these mid-August days:

A Pennsylvania Judge upholds voter suppression laws: Keep the right to vote in the hands of a few and exclude mostly people of color, the aged, and those with disabilities.

A man is named to be a candidate for vice president with extreme repressive views on women’s rights and women’s bodies: Keep power, or return power, to male leadership (a position held by some segments of Christianity).

Paying taxes to support our common life together in this country is considered only a private matter:  The success of the individual is supreme over the welfare of the community.  

To point out the growing divide between the rich and the poor in this country is chided as racist or class warfare: Withhold political power from people without economic power. Keep “freedom” for those who have benefitted from privilege.

The ones who want to turn Medicare into a privatized voucher system ironically accuse the Affordable Health Care Act: Healthcare is the right of those who can afford it; the poor, including the elderly poor, can be forgotten.

In these Mid-August days, children across this land are getting ready to start school again, and in some places already have, but serious budget cuts leave classrooms with fewer teachers and resources:  “I will care about my own children. Your children are not my concern.” Voucher systems can replace public or community schools.

The shooting at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin faded from the news, even before the normal “news cycle” ran out. A national news reporter revealed she had never heard about White Supremacist groups. Meanwhile there have been at least seven cases of vandalism and attacks on Muslim mosques, a home and a school since August 6 across this country from Chicago to Lombard, Il, to Joplin, MO, Oklahoma City and Ontario, CA: This country “should be, Mr. President, a ‘Christian nation’.” Violence against “other” religions is tolerated and hardly newsworthy.  

I am a Sikh.  I am a Muslim.  I am poor. I am rich.  I am a woman. I am my brother. I am my neighbor’s child. I am the person who will lose my voting rights. I am……  I am called to identify with each person in this nation, in this world. I am called as a Christian to free the oppressed. Christ already has.

There was a long line to hear the president speak here in Dubuque on the banks of the Mississippi a few days ago.  He said, as he has said before and will continue to say, “This election is not about two presidential candidates, or two political parties.  It is about two fundamentally different views of this country.”

I passed by the sign which tried to tell me I was not included in that person’s view of “Christian.” But his sign cannot exclude me. My call to be a Christian in this pluralistic society is to identify with the poor, to work to assure that women are regarded as people with full rights regarding their own bodies, to include the excluded, to work for all to have voice (and vote), to educate my neighbor’s children, here and around the world, to assure that people of all races and religions are safe from violence and empowered to live fully in community.  Let’s talk about it.  Let’s work for it.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Olympics that Include All Make All Strong

The parade of 204 nations stepped along swiftly at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.  I was pleased that after each commercial, NBC “caught us up” with those we might have missed during the breaks .  It was not always so. Sometimes smaller nations do not matter.   Of those proud delegations that entered, 81 have never won a medal of any kind.  But they were there!  Large nations with hundreds of athletes and island nations with two.  The proportions vary by the season, of course. The Scandinavian numbers swell during the Winter Games and countries in warmer climates come out for these.  But they were there! The challenge to the powerful is to know--to learn--the names and cultures of those still less recognizable.

The world is large, and, yes, smaller. An athlete is born in one country, goes to school in another and trains in yet another.  What is your home country?  Have we crossed all boundaries?  Yes,  and no.

Wars and rumors of wars cannot be denied. Violence and animosity are part of world realities. But still the nations were there. The two Koreas did not march together this year as they had for a brief time in past Olympics. Forty years ago was the tragic shooting at the 1972 Olympics; today both Israel and Palestine marched in. A quiet moment of silence elsewhere if not at the opening ceremony  itself.  Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Egypt. Argentina and England. Cuba and the United States both marched in, even though, after all these decades, barriers remain.  Thailand, Timor-Lesta, Tonga, Trinidad-Tobago, Tunisia (where the Arab Spring began.)

And Rwanda was there, the country torn apart by genocide now rebuilding remarkably through respect and collaboration. Today it is the only nation in the world with a female majority in Parliament and 1/3 or its mayoral posts held by women.

For the first time every country had women athletes as part of their delegations.  Forty years after Title IX, this is a huge advance for the games. For some countries, this is no small victory, and still, today, no small challenge for the ordinary lives of women.   The fact that the U.S. delegation had more women than men—by a few—is less notable, not the goal in my book.  Full freedom for and  partnership of women and men is the goal.

And, of course, I cannot comment on the role of women  without mentioning Queen Elizabeth herself.  She grew up way before Title IX.  But she was “the good sport” of the evening.  Her James Bond arrival was a surprise; her steadfast role was not. She was Princess Elizabeth during the 1948 London games, when the city was still much in rubble from WW II.   She herself as a teenager had served in the war as a driver. She became Queen only four years after those games, leading the United Kingdom from Empire to a Commonwealth of nations.  She has always been brave.  Her leadership has helped shape the world portrayed in this opening ceremony where large and small nations respect and work together not to dominate and rule over, but to share in mutual understanding for the welfare of all.

Her actual entrance, along with the Prince Phillip, was followed by the singing choir of deaf and hearing children leading the national anthem of the United Kingdom.  I wondered why the children were dressed in pajamas.  It soon became clear as the next segment in the ceremonies which took us from London’s agrarian to industrial to digital age, highlighted the National Health Services and England’s contribution to children’s literature! Doctors, nurses and children were center stage. Real life, and yes, real contributions to the world!

The Para-Olympics will follow; however,  people, with disabilities, including the runner from South Africa, are also part of these games and ceremonies!  When all are included, we all are stronger.

Which was people’s favorite part?  I appreciated the eight chosen to carry the Olympic flag: Doreen Lawrence, East London resident and community activist; Sally Becker, volunteer relief activist for Bosnia and Kosovo; Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations; Haile Gerbrselassie, Ethiopian long distance runner; Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize recipient; Shami Chakrabarti, director of Great Britain’s Council for Civil Liberties; Daniel Barenboim, orchestra conductor who brings together Arab and Israeli young musicians, Marina Silva, Brazilian environmental activist.

People loved the torch-lighting, a gathering of leaf-shaped bowls accompanying each nation. Digital lights dimmed as people focused on fire itself. Danny Boyle said he liked having the  500 construction workers who built Olympic Park be the ones to welcome the torch .

People. Ordinary people, gathered together. Amazing! Unreal?   No; very real.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Nuns on the Bus

The nuns had been on the bus less than 24 hours of their 15-day tour taking them from Des Moines, Iowa, to Washington, D.C. when we met up with them in Dubuque Monday evening. Surrounded by sisters of all sorts, here I was, a Lutheran nun, of sorts, (a Lutheran deaconess who is also an ordained pastor) with my pastor husband.

Meanwhile, on the steps of the Michigan State House, Rep. Lisa Brown, one of two congresswomen silenced  last week, performed  the Vagina Monologues to an audience of 2500.  Nuns on a bus in Dubuque and a Congresswoman in the Vagina Monologues in Lansing. What do they have in common?  Everything.  Both events, the same night, open to the public, were  giving voice to those whom others would silence.

I saw Sr. Simone, who has been on the Colbert Show, CNN, and MSNBC, as electrifying and calm, personable and passionate.  A member of the Sisters of Social Service and executive Director of Network, a Roman Catholic movement working for justice, peace and economic and social transformation, Sr. Simone is calling for a “Faithful Budget” as a substitute for the Ryan budget.  

I spoke with Sister Diane Donoghue, also a Sister of Social Service, who had come from Los Angeles to be on the bus.  Sr. Diane has been a social worker and community organizer all her life.  In working with immigrants in the Southwest she is intent in empowering them to have a voice. Then she steps back so that they can speak for themselves in the public arena.  Risky? Yes!

No more risky it seems than elected officials speaking to their own bills put forth on the floor of a legislature.

The oppression of women and the suppression of women’s voices, particularly women working for justice is a growing phenomenon across this land. Women who have been sexually abused dare not tell. Women religious who speak for the poor are “assessed” as not having the correct ecclesial message. Women legislators’ voices are gaveled out.

But women will be heard. And more significantly, their persistent voices in solidarity with those who live in poverty whose lives will be harmed by slashing services must be heard.

The gathering at the State House in Michigan last night and the growing number of people who will meet the Nuns on the Bus signals a hunger for voice in the public world.

Congresswoman Brown who says she was barred from speaking in the Michigan House because Republicans objected to her saying "vagina" during debate over anti-abortion legislation performed "The Vagina Monologues" on the Statehouse steps, together with the author, Eve Ensler,10 other lawmakers and several actresses.

While speaking against a bill that would require doctors to ensure abortion-seekers haven't been coerced into ending their pregnancies, Brown told Republicans, "I'm flattered you're all so concerned about my vagina. But no means no."

Brown was barred from speaking in the House during the next day's session. House Republicans say they didn't object to her saying "vagina." They said Brown compared the legislation to rape, violating House decorum. She denies the allegation.

Democratic Rep. Barb Byrum also was barred from speaking last Thursday because she referred to vasectomies during the debate.

The Women Lawyers Association of Michigan — whose 650 members include men — criticized taking away Brown's and Byrum's right to speak: "Representatives Brown and Byrum had a right to have their constituents' 150,000 voices recognized. They were neither vulgar nor disrespectful. When the minority is silenced, justice cannot prevail and democracy suffers."

“No means no!”

Meanwhile, back in Dubuque Tuesday morning, the Nuns introduced local agencies and individuals who would suffer from budget cuts. Sisters, representing some of the 7 congregations of women religious in the Dubuque area, gathered in the hot Iowa morning sun and sang verses they had just composed to a familiar tune:

The nuns on the bus go all around,
All around, all around.
The nuns on the bus go all around.
All through the land.

The nuns on the bus say, “No!” No!” “No!”
“No!” “No!” “No!”
He nuns on the bus say “No!” “No!” “No!”
Ryan’s budget: “NO!!”

The money in the land should make more jobs
Feed the poor, shelter all
The money in the land should be for all.
So justice can be served.

The nuns on the bus speak for us,
Speak for us, speak for all,
The nuns on the bus speak for us
Justice for all.
Those of us gathered this morning in Dubuque outside Maria House for women in need would not be silenced.  Those gathered at the Michigan State House would not be silenced. That, we, and millions more, all have in common.