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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

It seems like too little . . . . These repeated words reflect the recent experiences of Amy Dean of Charlotte, NC, who traveled with four other women from her church to visit and work in New Orleans through the organization Churches Supporting Churches. Rev. Amy Dean is co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte. Park Road BC has become a partner of Corinthian Missionary Baptist Church #2 in New Orleans. You and your church can be part of rebuilding New Orleans by partnering with a church in New Orleans through this program.

The following is a report on Amy's New Orleans trip.

We’ve just returned from New Orleans. The weather was perfect – beautiful sun, no humidity – a rarity in that neck of the woods. The French Quarter is alive and well, though “well” is a relative term here. I’m not sure wellness has ever been a part of life on Bourbon street! But if by “well” I mean that shops are open and restaurants are serving and booze is flowing – then Bourbon Street is definitely well. But all is not well in New Orleans.

LeDayne McLeese Polaski, Wendy Watson, Lorie Gabriel, and I had a few great days in the Big Easy. We have stories share and pictures to show (be sure and make reservations for our last regular Wednesday night supper on June 6 and plan to stay and hear our full presentation), but in the meantime I’ll share a few of my highlights:

  • The Lower 9th Ward is no more. We worked within spitting distance to the new levees – even walking up on them. And where hundreds of houses used to sit – now there is nothing but cement remainders of front porches and a few houses that were made out of brick or stucco. A few good minded folks are planting sunflowers and cypress trees to help draw the lead out of the soil, but it seems like too little. One man was cutting his grass where no house stood. And the dilemma? Should the land be used as wetlands or return to the people for whom it is home? And who gets to make the decision?
  • We were a part of hosting a street party for this section of town. We cut green, red, yellow, and orange peppers and onions to make some kind of good New Orleans feast. People began to gather to eat and get some furniture or clothes and to celebrate life. And if you are apprehensive about how to start a conversation all you have to say is, “Where were you during the storm?” And then all you have to do is sit and listen. So we heard maybe 20-30 individual, personal stories of folks that stayed on their roof or brothers that fought off alligators, but it seems like too little.
  • We worshipped with Corinthian Missionary Baptist No. 2. As we noted, it was the shortest 2 ½ hour worship service we have ever attended – and we mean that very seriously. Pastor Johnson just about preached up a storm and the choir sang their hearts out and Lorie sang the old spiritual “Give Me Jesus” until all that was left for the people to say was “My, my.” They hosted us to good, home-cooked New Orleans cuisine – apologizing all the while that “their best cooks had not returned home yet.” We broke bread around their tables and held their babies and learned some new names, but it seems like too little.
  • I would have expected this part of the city to look as it did 6 months after the storm. But after almost two years, this was not what I was expecting. And this is just one of the popular locations – perhaps the most noted location. What about all the other neighborhoods? And all the other neighborhoods that have been destroyed by tornados since Katrina? Whatever we do and wherever we go simply seems like too little.

But we did not return with a defeatist attitude. We returned energized and excited and grateful to have gone to see for ourselves and to offer a little sweat of our own on the place. I was particularly struck on Saturday morning as I was sledge-hammering some signs into the ground and just about throwing myself on the ground with every swing. We started laughing so hard and I became aware as I heard my own laughter ring through the emptiness of the neighborhood that the air there has not heard very much laughter in the last 2 years. So we left a little sweat and some laughter and a few hugs, and strangle it didn’t seem like too little at all. It seemed just about right.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Rivers of Water from the Faithful Heart, Part 2
John 7
Delivered at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC
Pentecost May 27, 2007

(Continued from previous post)

Jesus’ proclamation about rivers of living water was a promise of the Spirit. It was the Festival of Tabernacles this time. On another festival day, Jesus would already have ascended into heaven. On that day of Pentecost, after his death and resurrection, the Spirit would come, bringing rivers of living water. Its sign on that day would be flames of fire. But on this parched day in Jerusalem at the beginning of the hot summer, Jesus promised life-giving water that would flow in and through and from the lives of all who followed him. Praise be to God. What a blessing he was pronouncing. Anyone thirsty can come to him. Anyone ready to follow can go ahead and take a drink. And the water will be so wet, so quenching, so cooling, that it will transform the drinker into the source of a great river of refreshment and life to share with others. No wonder the crowds were ready to follow him. He was fulfilling right before their eyes the promises of God through the prophets. He was proclaiming the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh. And as Jesus was glorified, then the Spirit’s presence would be poured out.

The chapter ends by reminding us how things go in this world. We end up back in the private chambers of the powerful. In the council chambers, in the office of the chairman, in the legislative committee, in the lobbyist’s private club, in the closed session, in the national security agency, in the cabinet chambers, in the oval office, people with money and connections and official status try to make the rules, bend the rules, break the rules, and rule the rest of us. They heard what people were saying. All their efforts to neatly do away with Jesus were not working. Their own police officers were afraid to arrest Jesus.

“Were you deceived by him, too?” they asked, but it was not really a question. It was an accusation. Then they made a clear statement of the class divisions that governed their view of the world. They said that people with an education don’t get fooled by Jesus. We know our place, and we know his place. But that crowd out there is full of ignoramuses. They don’t know the law. The law is our playground. We own the law. They know nothing. They are a bunch of god-forsaken, empty-headed morons. Because they don’t know what we know, they are cursed. We are the blessed ones. And we do not intend some half-breed bumpkin from Galilee to interfere with our way of running this city. We will defeat this man one way or another. Who elected him president of Jerusalem? We are the ones in charge, and don’t you forget it.

A lone dissenter in the room spoke up. Nicodemus, a secret admirer of Jesus among the Pharisees, asked whether a person who is charged under the law should get a hearing. But this group was way past dealing with procedural justice. Jesus had challenged them too many times. The law would now become a tool of their wills. They would twist it in whatever ways seemed useful to get this man out of the way. It might take some time and planning, but they were confident they could prevail. They did what we would expect. They questioned Nicodemus’s loyalty. “Are you with us or against us? Maybe you are a Galilean too. Are you part of that mongrel race? Maybe you are aiding the terrorists. Where is the yellow magnet that should be on your car? Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? You don’t let your daughter date Galileans, do you? Do you believe in miscegenation?” I guess Nicodemus decided to shut up at that point. He had been around long enough to know who ran things in the city of Jerusalem.

The next chapter shows how the authorities raised the stakes in their efforts to bring Jesus down. It is the story of the challenge to Jesus about a woman caught in adultery. But it turns out to be one of his greatest triumphs. He pressed them so hard and made them so angry they called him a Samaritan and said he was crazy again. But he did not let up, so they picked up stones to stone him to death, but he was able to disappear into the crowd.

What can we learn from Jesus’ days in Jerusalem during the feast of Tabernacles? First, we can see how the crowd was not fully aware of how the powerful forces at work were affecting them. They knew to be wary of the authorities, but they could not always see the way that these authorities were working to keep their privilege and advantage over others. In public, it seems that there is a debate going on between different points of view, which are worthy of consideration. But often at least one side of the debate is based on lies and deception. Someone says that this country tried to buy weapons grade plutonium. Someone says they have labs capable of producing nuclear weapons and chemical weapons. But if it is not true, then the whole debate was thrown out of balance by falsehoods.

Did the Hurricane cause the damage, or did the inadequate levees lead to flooding? Was there an adequate evacuation plane, or were the poor and the prisoners simply left to die? Was it impossible to bring in water and food and busses and trailer houses, or were the decisions and resources caught up in red tape and negotiations about how much profit the no-bid contractors would make? It’s easy to say in public, “Heck of a job, Brownie,” but what is really happening in the rooms where decisions that affect life and death are being made? The Road Home promise of up to $160,000 for homeowners took months to get organized, only to find out that not nearly enough money has been appropriated, that the money is being held up at both federal and state levels, and that as much as one-third of the funds are being taken off the top of the grants to homeowners to pay the government’s expenses rather than rebuild the homes.

Somewhere, people are making decisions, and someone is benefiting from these decisions. But the people whose homes were destroyed seem to be on the outside of all those benefits. Parts of New Orleans where the wealthy and powerful live are bustling and booming. But not far away one can see devastation in block after block of the residential neighborhoods where the average working families lived, where blacks owned homes that were flooded and destroyed, and where the poor found low-cost housing. The city’s population is half what it was before the floods from the broken levees. People wait for information. They share what they have heard. They debate the merits of this or that proposal. But mostly their fates are determined in secret places where the powerful divide up the pie.

We can also learn that the powerful make use of this confusion and lack of information to manipulate, to divide, and to conquer. The ones in power are benefiting from the status quo. They have no interest in seeing things change. They are set in their ways. They don’t want the empowerment of new groups. They don’t want any new ideas to shake up the world they have just where they want it. So they leak out enough information to keep people divided, to keep them afraid of somebody else. All the while, they are looking for ways to prey on the poor and weak. In the Lower Ninth Ward, the investment in recovery seems like it will never arrive. The city leaders say they can’t spend money there since it is almost completely deserted by its residents. The backroom discussions with developers are full of proposals to get this land and redevelop it with expensive, high-rise condos. Some rumors say Donald Trump has bought up many of the lots in the Lower Ninth Ward and that he has plans for luxury housing. One organizer explains how the homeowners, whose homes are completely demolished, are stuck in a waiting game. If they can’t get assistance, they can’t rebuild. If they can’t rebuild, they can’t move back. If they can’t move back, they can’t do much on their own to get the rebuilding started. How long will their patience last? Their pockets are not as deep as the speculators who can find venture capital and leverage big financing from banks. Who will be able to wait the longest? Are the decisions already being made that will force out the long-time residents who fell victim to this enormous flood?

We can also learn that when people are bold enough to speak the truth, there can be a turning of the tide. Jesus kept speaking the truth to power. He was careful and strategic. He did not let himself get isolated and alone to face the powers. He planned the right time. He brought the right message. He called it what it was—people with power who loved to be treated as VIPs and who did not want the people to know the truth. They did not like their masks to be taken off. They worked ever more intensely to find a way to get rid of him. He knew that the day would come when they would give him their very worst, and he knew he would be ready for it. But he also knew that he must plan for himself when that time would come. He had some building to do among his disciples and the crowds that were following him. He had to lay the groundwork. He had to get them ready to face the task that would come.

And when that time would come, they would have the power of the Spirit giving them life. God’s Spirit would be poured out on the sons and the daughters to prophesy. The old would dream, and the young would put their legs and arms and voices to the task. And out of a desert there would flow rivers of living water. One of the old who is dreaming a dream is the Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian of Atlanta, GA. He has gathered his allies across the nation and across the denominations. Out of his dream has come the organization Churches Supporting Churches. The vision is to have three churches in each of twelve districts of New Orleans, a total of 36 churches, receive the support they need to become the leaders of redevelopment which serves the common good, the working class, the poor, and all ethnic groups. Those 36 churches will be matched with ten churches each from around the U. S. and Canada, who will pledge their support at the level they are capable of giving. These 360 churches and more will become the allies who help to build a new city in which the gospel is not a way of placating the masses. It will be a city in which the gospel helps to shape the very neighborhoods that emerge from the destruction.

The young men and women who are leading the way are pastors whose church buildings are destroyed or damaged and whose congregations are scattered across the continent. Aldon Cotton told me that when the storm was over, he rushed back thinking that the disaster would have everyone turning to the church and seeking God. He was disappointed by what he found. People were too stunned and angry to want to care about God. Moreover, most were gone. There was not even a handful of people in the neighborhood from which to rebuild a church, much less enough to fill the dozen churches that had gathered in the neighborhood before the storm. He had no home to live in. He had no building to meet in. There was no income for the church that had previously paid him as a full-time pastor. His library was a drenched, muddy mess. He quickly realized that he would have to have a whole new way of thinking about his work as a minister.

Through Churches Supporting Churches, devoted pastors like Rev. Cotton have banded together to retrain themselves. They are learning to think and plan strategically in a holistic way they never had before. They are learning to analyze their obstacles, to understand political and economic systems, and to negotiate for the good of their neighborhoods. They speak to all who need to hear, and they work together so that they cannot be merely ignored or set aside. They depend on their allies in other places for advice and support. Churches from Brooklyn and Queens, New York, who have experience in housing development, are sharing their expertise and encouragement. Churches with teams of carpenters or youth groups send workers to deal with specific needs and tasks.

The Spirit is at work in the cities where people grow, live, struggle, and overcome. In the wilderness of the Lower Ninth Ward where the Mt. Nebo Bible Baptist Church building used to be, where only a bare slab remains, there will be rivers of living water. In the Central City where the Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church has no place to meet, Jesus is calling to anyone who is thirsty, “Come to me and drink.” In the Mill Grove community of Durham, all who believe may receive the Spirit of God to work God’s good will in them. In East Durham, in Trinity Park, in Old Farm, in Walltown, in Old North Durham, in Summer Meadow, along Alston Avenue, shall flow rivers of living water. The atoning life of Jesus has shown us the way to walk and live in the truth so that we may confront the powers with the very power of God’s Spirit.

It’s a strange thing to say, and the pastors and laypersons I met in New Orleans were careful how they said it. They said that they would never blame God for the terrible losses that people in the Gulf Coast region have endured because of the hurricanes. They said that they did not mean that they thought the terrible conditions of their neighborhoods were a good thing. But they also said that they were finding themselves to be in a unique position for envisioning what the power of God can do. Without buildings and church power structures and committees and ongoing patterns of doing things the same way year after year—with all those things swept away in the flood, their eyes have been opened to what God might do to make their neighborhoods better places to live than they were before. Their ears have been opened to listen to their neighbors and learn what they hope a church can offer to their lives and their community. They feel like they are getting a fresh start. The wind of the Spirit is blowing in that city.

Is the wind of the Spirit blowing here in this city? There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit is among us, prodding us, burning within us, calling us, awakening us, convicting us, comforting us, drawing us ever nearer to God. Are we seeing what God’s Spirit is doing around us? Are we hearing what God’s Spirit is saying through the people God is sending our way? Have we drunk of the water Jesus offers to all who thirst? Has it overflowed in our congregation to be a stream of living water flowing into the lives of others?

Perhaps today you need to come to Jesus in faith to receive the drink that will quench your thirst. He is the one who can forgive your sins. He is the one who can ease your loneliness. He can answer the questions that are nagging at your conscience. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.” He is the way, the truth, and the life. Through him you can come to know God. If you are ready to follow Jesus, then come today to offer yourself a living sacrifice.

Perhaps you have let yourself drift with the crowd. You’ve debated the possibilities without true insight into what God is at work to do. You are ready to set aside the foolishness and confusion and set your eyes firmly on Jesus. You are tired of claiming to know Jesus, but living as if all that water of life is dammed up inside of you to be protected and hoarded. Let it flow out from you starting today. Let your life be a channel of blessing to others. Come today to let yourself be guided by God’s Spirit, the same Spirit poured out on Pentecost so long ago in Jerusalem.

Perhaps you are in this city but not united with any church. You have been meaning to take care of this, but you have been too preoccupied with the day-to-day matters of work and bills and family, as if you could work all those things out without a constant acknowledgement of God’s call on your life. Maybe you have been straying from your service to God, and you need to make yourself accountable to this congregation on this day, saying from henceforth I will covenant with you to serve our Lord. Come today to unite yourself with this church. The doors of the church are open. All who thirst, come to the Lord Jesus today.
Rivers of Water from the Faithful Heart, Part 1
John 7
Delivered at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC
Pentecost May 27, 2007

God created humanity as social beings, and one of the most obvious ways that we display our social natures is in the building of cities. Augustine of Hippo called his magnificent account of the history of God’s relationship with humanity The City of God. In it he explores the ways that those people who have been called to be the people of God live a distinctive life of love in the midst of the City of this World. The very word we use to describe the organized, culture-making, productive life of humanity, civilization, comes from the Latin word for city, a community of people working together.

Our own city is a complex web of interdependent people, institutions, organizations, structures, and edifices. We depend on certain stores for food and gasoline and other components of our lives. Hospitals, manufacturing plants, distribution centers, research labs, malls, apartment complexes, and all manner of buildings and organizations grow up in cities, mutually dependent on one another and on services such as roads, water supply, sewer systems, electrical grids, phone wires and towers, police patrols, jails, and garbage collection. My making these lists does not even begin to reveal all of the complicated interdependence that cities require.

The major events of the world are often connected to cities. We speak of Washington when we talk about decisions that affect the entire world. Nairobi, Baghdad, Paris, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Beijing, Moscow, Atlanta, Athens, New Delhi, Saõ Paulo, Cairo, and New York all shape our awareness and understanding of the world and its people. Even the Bible gives special prominence to cities. Rome, Babylon, and Nineveh stand out for their power and oppression of others. Jerusalem symbolizes the relationship between the people and God, and its character wavers from faithfulness to self-serving and disobedient. After the exile, the people long for Jerusalem. In the visions of the consummation of all things, a New Jerusalem descends from on high, in contrast to the human centered effort to reach God at the great city of Babel.

In this passage from John 7, Jesus appears in Jerusalem, a great city. He has traveled secretly, for his safety, to the festival of Sukkoth, or the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Booths. He did not announce his plans to go, even to his teasing brothers. He probably was still trying to make up his mind whether to make the trip. When he did join the throngs of people, he let himself remain inconspicuous and hidden in the crowds going to celebrate the harvest and make offerings and to live in huts and tents as a reminder of their ancestors who lived in huts and tents between Egypt and the Promised Land. Even more than usual, Jerusalem was filled with the hustle and bustle of activity. There were special plants to be brought as an offering to God. There were tabernacles to build. There were friends to see and relatives to locate. Officials gave readings and rabbis taught in the open places.

The crowds brought excitement and joy, but also tension and anxiety. We know from other stories, not everyone was honest about prices and trading. Visitors might be worried about thieves and unfair merchants. Local residents might worry about the rabble that could be coming to town for the festival. The crowds who did not measure up to their spiritual stature annoyed the proud Pharisees and Scribes. Herodians and Romans would be concerned about political and military intrigue that could be going on among the many visitors.

Jesus had a reputation from previous trips to Jerusalem. He had already crossed enough leaders and shown up enough pretentious religious pretenders that plots had been launched to kill him. He was not taking chances on letting that happen. He knew that if he was going to have to die, it should be on his terms and at a time when his mission would be ready to go forward without him. This was not that time. His closest followers were loyal, but they did not understand who he was or what they were called to do.

When he did not make a grand entrance at the beginning of the festival, people started talking about him. “Where is he?” they asked. The differences of opinion about him became a regular part of the conversation. “How ´bout them Eagles?” “What’s the price of gas today?” “Think it’s gonna rain?” “Do you think Jesus is a good man or a deceiver?” “What’s for dinner?” However, it was not just an insignificant matter. This was a big deal, like asking which presidential candidate you are planning to vote for. The people were confused, and on top of that, talking about Jesus could be dangerous. Verse 13 says that no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.

This is a good point for us to think about the terminology used in this passage. Many times we read about the Jews in this passage. Yet often, the choice of that word in our modern English context misleads. In verse 13 it says the people were afraid of the Jews, yet the people who were afraid were also Jews. We could conclude that they were afraid of themselves, but that would not make sense. It is obvious in this passage and in most of the Gospel of John, and in some other New Testament texts, the term “Jews” has a specific meaning that does not include all of the people who are from the genetic heritage of Jacob’s offspring. For that matter, Jesus himself is a Jew, from the lineage of Judah and Tamar. We could misread this chapter and think that all Jews were against Jesus, if we did not stop to think that all the people who were following him were, as he was, Jews.

So when it says they were afraid of the Jews, it means that they were afraid of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the leaders of the Jews, the ones who were in power, who interpreted the laws, who controlled the economy, and who defined the social pecking order. They had their own police force, and they would use it against people who did not conform to their directives. They could keep people out of the temple and out of the synagogues. Everyone knew that these official leaders of the Jews, these religious and political authorities, did not like what Jesus was saying and doing. All knew that they did not like to see an outsider like him have such a following. They were glad that Herod had gotten rid of John the Baptist and saved them the trouble. But Jesus did not stay out in the wilderness. He kept coming into their midst, into the city, to face them down where everyone could see and hear. Everyone could see how red in the face they got, how they clinched their teeth, how they turned aside to whisper to one another, and how they tried to push Jesus into a corner. So they were afraid, like when the principal comes walking around the corner or when the boss wanders through the cubicles.

This chapter reveals that there was a lot of confusion in Jerusalem. People seemed to be wondering about Jesus, disagreeing on whether he was a good teacher or a clever charlatan. They wondered whether he was right in his interpretations of the law or whether the Pharisees were right in saying he was a lawbreaker. They were confused by the leaders who challenged Jesus and disputed with him but did not seem ready to condemn him.

Part of their confusion came because they did not know what the Pharisees and Sadducees said when they were in private meanings. They did not know of the plans to kill Jesus. They did not know how they plotted to put Jesus on the spot, to try to turn the crowds against him. They did not know what the Pharisees said about them, their own people, when they were behind closed doors. Instead, the Pharisees and Sadducees were pretty good at keeping their public image spic and span. They tried to stay on the high ground in their challenges to Jesus. They were performing for the crowd. Jesus was better at moving the crowd than they were, but they mostly kept themselves at least in a respectable position.

Don’t get me wrong: the conversations were heated. More than once, the exclamation rang out, “What’s wrong with you man? You're crazy!” For instance, when Jesus asked why they were looking for an opportunity to kill him, people in the crowd were exasperated. They knew of no plots to kill Jesus. They responded, “You have a demon!” which was their way of saying, “This man has lost his mind! Who’s trying to kill him? Here we are trying to listen to everything he says. Maybe the Pharisees are right about him.”

Jesus pressed on and clarified his point, and before long more of the crowd was catching on about who was out to get Jesus. He pushed the conversation back to his last visit to Jerusalem when they got all over him for healing the lame man by the pool of Bethzatha. At that time, the Pharisees had stopped the man on his way to the temple because they saw that he was carrying his sleeping mat. They had reminded the formerly lame man of the Sabbath law, which stipulated that he, should not be carrying something around. Not having been able to walk before, it had not occurred to the formerly lame man not to carry his mat when Jesus said, “Take up your mat and walk.” So he told them that the man who healed him had told him to carry it. When they found out it was Jesus, they were so tired of the way that the seemed to flaunt the Sabbath laws. They got after him for his sloppy ways, but he gave them a long lecture about Moses and where Moses got his authority. He made it clear that he could do nothing apart from God, but that they would not know the power of God if it slapped them in the face. All they were concerned about was getting recognition from other people.

Jesus did not want them to forget what he had been telling them that day, so he brought it up all over again. He pointed out that they considered it legal to perform circumcisions on the Sabbath. Circumcision was an important religious rite that showed in the body the commitment to serve God. Jesus did not challenge whether they should do that on the Sabbath. He simply compared the symbolic value of circumcision to the healing of a lame man’s whole body. How could that kind of work of God not be right on the Sabbath?

People began to wonder what was going on. Knowing that the authorities were plotting to kill him, they were puzzled that he could be so open in his criticism and not be arrested. The tide of confusion began to turn toward clarity about Jesus. Now they began to second-guess the Pharisees. “Are they hiding the truth from us? Do they already know that he is the Messiah and just don’t want the secret to get out?” But all the confusion did not go away. People started debating fine points of Messianic lore. They were saying that the Messiah would come dramatically and his origin would be unknown.

Jesus answered their disputations by boldly saying that he had been sent from God. And he challenged the Pharisees’ authority by saying to them that they did not know him. It made them mad enough to try to arrest him, but he got away. More and more of the crowd began to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They talked about what he said. They recounted the things he had done. They listened as people told how he had stood up in the face of the rich and powerful and claimed to have higher authority than they. They looked for more opportunities to hear and see Jesus.

As the Pharisees heard this happening among the crowds, they went into a caucus with the Sadducees. In their private chambers, they agreed to give the orders that the temple police should arrest Jesus. So the guards and the leaders went out to find him. He continued to speak to the crowds. The timing never seemed right to make the arrest.

The climactic scene of chapter 7 comes when Jesus speaks on the last day of the festival. This was the highest day of the festival, the Great Supplication, when the worshippers paraded seven times around the Temple and made special prayers for the quick coming of the Messiah. The Messiah was on their minds, and Jesus was present to address their longings. The Gospel says that he was standing among the crowd, and he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who is faithful to me drink. As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of the faithful one’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” All who were students of the scripture heard the echoes of the Prophet Isaiah. (These quotations are taken from the NKJV).

Isaiah 44:3
For I will pour water on him who is thirsty,
And floods on the dry ground;
I will pour My Spirit on your descendants,
And My blessing on your offspring;

Isaiah 55:1
“Ho! Everyone who thirsts,
Come to the waters;
And you who have no money,
Come, buy and eat.
Yes, come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without price.

Isaiah 58:11
The LORD will guide you continually, 

And satisfy your soul in drought, 

And strengthen your bones; 

You shall be like a watered garden, 

And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

The worshippers were walking in procession and among them were some who carried the Torah scrolls. Perhaps they had already heard a reading from Moses. Jesus had spoken of Moses earlier in the week, and now they heard in his words the echo of water flowing from the rocks in the desert. As Jesus said it to them, these rivers of water would flow from them to the world. What an amazing proclamation he made.

Some began to say out loud, “This is really the prophet.” Others said, “The Messiah has come.” Yet the spin-doctors in the crowd began to dispute about whether the Messiah could come from Galilee. To be Galilean was not so bad as to be Samaritan, but it still raised questions about one’s lineage. Ethnic purity became the manipulative tool of the powerful against the commoners, as it so often has in the millennia since Jesus was on the earth. If the Pharisees from Jerusalem could get the festival attendees to be concerned about bloodlines and pedigrees, they could distract them from the truth of what Jesus was saying. Some confusion remained, but the temple police did not dare arrest Jesus on this day.

(Continued in next post)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Let the spotlight shift to Jena, LA. Durham, NC, has been the focus of national attention on politics in the justice system, the presence or absence of racism, and the way that people debate about crime and race in public. The continuing residue of this discussion has to do with (1) what kinds of power a district attorney can have in the investigation and pursuit of criminal cases and (2) how public intellectuals such as university faculty ought and ought not to speak out in the context of a public criminal case.

In Durham we have the so-called Group of 88, Duke professors who signed a statement concerning the ongoing problems of racism and sexism at their university. They wrote it in the heat of the early investigation about the Duke Lacrosse team party which employed African American exotic dancers in a setting of heavy drinking. As most everyone knows, one of the dancers charged that she was raped, and three members of the lacrosse team were charged. Eventually, the woman's account of the alleged crime fell apart, and all charges were dropped. These professors continue to be the object of attack for having spoken out in a context that some people say was prejudicial to the students charged, unduly critical of their university, and overall in bad taste for talking about racism and sexism as if they are problems in this day and time.

Well, now the same kind of hubbub has appeared in Jena, Louisiana. It is not really new. It started last September. But only now it is getting picked up by a few news sources. Curtis Freeman alerted me to a news story on the BBC website. I found another article at the Chicago Tribune site. I'll quote a bit from the latter as I highlight the story here. I have not seen any all day coverage on CNN or MSNBC or Fox. We'll see if that comes (NOT).

There is a racial incident that started it all. When black students got permission from the principal to go and sit under a tree in the school yard that traditionally was only for the white kids, they did it for the first time. This is 2007. The next morning, three nooses were hanging from the tree. It was not hard to find out who had done it, and three white male students were recommended for expulsion from school. They eventually only got a three day suspension.

This sequence of events led to a good deal of conflict, and a series of incidents involving fights, beatings, and guns (no shootings) occurred. When white people were harassing blacks, they received lesser charges. But when some black boys ganged up on a white boy, causing only minor injuries, they were charged with attempted murder.

So there is a District Attorney acting in arbitrary manner. Many folks around the country incensed about the situation in Durham seem to think that prosecutors acting in ways that don't seem fully just, and even acting arbitrarily, is a new thing in the Duke Lacrosse case. What is new about it is that it happened in a racial context to the disadvantage of privileged white boys in a major university. It has happened over and over to the poor, to blacks, to Latinos, to other minorities, but seldom does the public hear about it. Let's make sure the public hears about Jena, Louisiana, and District Attorney Reed Walters of LaSalle Parish.

Second, most people in Jena want to say that there is not a problem of racism in their community. Yet only sixteen years ago, most of this town's white votes for Louisiana Governor went for David Duke, KKK leader. But in response to the hanging of the nooses, the white school superintendent "ruled that the nooses were just a youthful stunt." The mayor tried to play it down, too. "Jena is a place that's moving in the right direction," said Mayor Murphy McMillan. "Race is not a major local issue. It's not a factor in the local people's lives."

Thanks be to God for a Pentecostal preacher who spoke up, and the lone black school board member who added his agreement.
"I've lived here most of my life, and the one thing I can state with absolutely no fear of contradiction is that LaSalle Parish is awash in racism -- true racism," a white Pentecostal preacher, Eddie Thompson, wrote in an essay he posted on the Internet. "Here in the piney woods of central Louisiana ... racism and bigotry are such a part of life that most of the citizens do not even recognize it."

The lone black member of the school board agrees.

"There's no doubt about it -- whites and blacks are treated differently here," said Melvin Worthington, who was the only school board member to vote against expelling the six black students charged in the beating case. "The white kids should have gotten more punishment for hanging those nooses. If they had, all the stuff that followed could have been avoided."
On one web site I read someone's comment that they feared for him now that he had made these public comments. They expected that he will be harassed and maybe worse. Rev. Eddie Thompson and Melvin Worthington and Caseptla Bailey (mentioned in both news articles) are Jena's Group of 88. When they see racism, they call it what it is. May there be at least another 85 people to stand with them.

Monday, May 21, 2007

When I first heard of the simple way, I was intrigued and eager to learn more. Since that time, I have had opportunity to participate in meetings, visit several of the New Monastic communities, read their writings, and make friends with leaders from new and older communities.

As a young man, I would hear stories, seemingly legends, about Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farms. That group struggled to survive under pressure from the KKK and a culture of white supremacy. They ultimately bore a new form of fruit with the birth of Habitat for Humanity.

On one hand, there has always been a kind of romantic attraction for me to the idea of living in community. On the other hand, the outcome of such living as a witness to the gospel used to seem vague and even ambiguous. This new movement, rooted in older movements in the 20th century U. S. (Koinonia, Reba Place, Antioch House, CCDA) and in the long history of Christian monasticism, has found ways to articulate its purposes in a more public way. Moreover, its insistent public commitment to ministry among the poor has situated it clearly in the camp of the best of recent theological reflection on scripture and practice.

If you want to learn more about this movement and one of its leading public figures, The New Monasticism was featured on Speaking of Faith from American Public Media on May 10. It is a well-edited and captivating program.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

This blog started as a kind of discussion board on which I could comment on current topics and interact with the students in my classes at Shaw University Divinity School. This summer I am teaching a course called Religion in Contemporary Life. It was listed on the schedule with no professor's name, so I volunteered. I reasoned that with such a broad course title, I could squeeze in a variety of readings and topic that I have not had opportunity to work into my usual theology and ethics classes. I'll be using this site to promote conversation with my summer students on topics from our course, and anyone else who happens along is welcome to add to the discussion.

On May 19 we had opportunity to hear from Scott Bass of Nazareth House in Raleigh. Nazareth House is in some ways like a Catholic Worker House. They are a house of hospitality who are also engaged in efforts to end the death penalty in North Carolina. Scott talked about weekly vigils as a witness against the death penalty and nighttime vigils when executions are scheduled. But beyond these public protests, he and his family have provided housing, meals, and friendship to families of inmates on death row. They offer assistance from afar, host them on visits to Raleigh, provide a sounding board, and in a variety of ways try to be present as God's people for these people with acute needs.

Bass explained that the primary insight he has gained in recent years of working with families of death row inmates is that the punishment goes far beyond the one executed. The long process and the killing of the inmate is a devastating experience for family members. The fact that it is drawn out for so many years and constantly relived by the families of victims causes serious harm to those people as well.

A number of factors have converged to stop the executions in North Carolina for an indefinite period. The first was a court case in which a pro-death penalty judge ruled that the lethal injection procedure in North Carolina was "cruel and unusual punishment." A study presented in an appeal entered for one death row inmate demonstrated that the procedures used to execute human beings did not measure up to the standard of care required of veterinarians who are often required to humanely put animals "to sleep." The research done on humane treatment of animals was more comprehensive than the research done on humane execution of human beings. This ruling has implications for the entire protocol for executions, and extensive research and rewriting of the law is probably necessary.

Besides this ruling, another development came from the NC Medical Board. Discussions of the protocol for lethal injection executions among physicians resulted in a sudden interruption of scheduled executions. The Medical Board released a ruling that any doctor who assisted in an execution would have her or his license revoked. The law about lethal injection executions requires that a doctor be present to oversee the proper carrying out of the procedures. Because of this ruling, no doctor can remain certified to practice if he or she cooperates with this legal requirement. Thus, the law cannot be carried out because one of its requirements cannot be fulfilled.

A third problem arose when the judge also discovered that the law requires the NC Council of State to approve the protocol, method, participants, and other details of an execution. This requirement has apparently not been carried out for many years. This is another reason that the judge has stopped the executions for now. How long will this stoppage go on? No clear way out of the current problems is apparent. Months or years may pass before the legal hurdles are overcome. Bass says he hopes that the barriers will be so great that the legislature will choose to abolish the death penalty rather than try to write a new complicated law that will probably only bring up new problems for carrying out the deadly sentence.

Friday, May 11, 2007

"You probably don't realize how much help you have been to me," said Rev. Aldon Cotton on Wednesday, May 9, after a group of volunteers from Shaw University Divinity School completed a neighborhood survey. Four students from the Christian Ethics class, along with their professor, had traveled to New Orleans, LA, from Raleigh, NC, to provide assistance in whatever way they could to churches trying to get back on their feet after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Rev. Cotton is pastor of Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church, which formerly had a building near the corner of Fourth Street and Galvez Street in the Central City section of New Orleans. He explained the significance of the location by saying, "If you understand the geography of New Orleans as being like a saucer, our neighborhood is the middle, the lowest part, of the saucer." That means that when the floodwaters rose, they were very deep at Jerusalem Baptist Church and its surroundings.

Very few people have returned to live in this part of town. Most of the houses have been demolished or gutted, and probably fewer than ten per cent are currently occupied. Here and there, people are working on their homes and hiring contractors, but most of the properties lay empty and overgrown during this late spring in subtropical New Orleans.

The students, Jason Caldwell, John Pierce, Pamela Sattiewhite, and Darlene Thorne, chose to do their final project for Christian Ethics by making a trip to New Orleans. The opportunity came when their professor, Mike Broadway, received a grant from the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America to pay for plane fare and a few expenses to allow five students to volunteer their services to churches in New Orleans.

They participated in a program called Churches Supporting Churches, which was started by the joint efforts of Dr. C. T. Vivian, noted pastor and civil rights leader now of Atlanta, a former dean of Shaw University Divinity School, Dr. David Jehnsen of the Institute for Human Rights and Responsibilities, and Rev. Dwight Webster of Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans.

Shaw University Divinity School’s Dean James T. Roberson, Jr., remarked, “At Shaw we are working to increase this sort of opportunity for our students to learn in diverse places where the church must respond to the critical needs of our day, through partnerships like this one and others. Our mission to prepare clergy and laity to be leaders in the practice of ministry demands that we help them be aware of the critical issues for contemporary churches.”

The first Shaw student to travel to New Orleans under this program, Clarence McLain, went in November to work with Christian Unity Baptist Church. He assisted new church leaders in planning for reestablishing ministries, and he canvassed the neighborhood to gather information on residents and offer spiritual support. One objective of this project is to inspire these students to persuade their own churches to become partners with congregations in New Orleans.

Churches Supporting Churches has organized a group of pastors in New Orleans--Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and more--to take leadership in shaping the recovery of communities. The goal is to reestablish communities by restarting, reopening, repairing, and rebuilding thirty-six churches in all parts of New Orleans. The pastors have been building relationships, gaining skills and capacities, and working in their communities to offer hope, support, and a plan for community transformation. On Monday, May 7, the students were able to observe as a group of pastors met to make agreements and plans for the next steps in obtaining major funding to support neighborhood projects for community development.

One part of the process includes gathering data on the neighborhoods and their needs. The Shaw students walked around each block of a twenty-three block area near Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church. In a day and a half, they recorded the addresses and the condition of each lot. Roughly a third were vacant, having had their structures demolished. A few remaining structures seemed destined for demolition. About half or more were gutted or in need of being gutted, and the waiting game to see who will rebuild and who will sell out hangs over the scattered evacuees and the residents who have returned. Probably no more than ten per cent have been partially or thoroughly rehabilitated so that they can be occupied. It is a dismal sight, and no easy breeding ground for hope.

Pamela Sattiewhite, a first-year Shaw University Divinity School student from San Antonio, Texas, commented on her experiences learning about the needs of New Orleans' people and churches, "It is heartbreaking to see that the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is still evident almost 2-years later. As the people of New Orleans work towards rebuilding their lives, homes, and community, I am reminded that there is no place like home. Despite the outer appearance and conditions of the 9th Ward and other parts of New Orleans, many of the people that I spoke to look forward to rebuilding their homes, and they are happy to share their memories of the ordeal. As I reflect on the spirit of the people of New Orleans, LA I am reminded that 'a setback is a setup for a come back!' "

Rev. Cotton said it would have taken him at least a month to finish the community survey because he would not be able to work on it more than one day a week, and then as only one person. Moving around the neighborhood is slowed as well because of the need to converse with people about how they are doing, and to find out how he can minister to them. By completing the survey, the students were able to hand him the raw data that will become a major piece of the evidence that Churches Supporting Churches is ready to make good use of requested funds for community development.

On Thursday, May 10, the Shaw group met three co-pastors of a United Methodist Cooperative Parish. Rev. James Haynes, Rev. Becky Conner, and Rev. Jeff Conner are serving three congregations on the eastern side of New Orleans. Covenant United Methodist Church in Chalmette has been open for services for some time, and all three congregations have been meeting together there. Cornerstone United Methodist Church in New Orleans East will soon reopen for weekly worship. Hartzell United Methodist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward is on its way toward rebuilding, and a volunteer construction crew from Arizona was hard at work there during that same week.

Rev. Becky Conner asked the Shaw group to help them transport some computers to the Cornerstone church site and move some furniture there so that they will be ready to move their offices and set up a computer lab. The computers were donated by a non-profit from Baton Rouge, and they had been stored in the pastors' apartments while the church building was being restored. They would soon be ready for use in reestablishing outreach ministries to elders and to children. They filled the back seats and trunks of four cars with computers, monitors, printers, and cables and delivered them to the computer lab room at the church.

The pastors said, "We had been dreading the process of taking these computers one at a time each day as we went to work at the church. You saved us so much time today." It was going to be tedious and inefficient. But a small amount of effort by the Shaw volunteers made a big difference for these pastors who have so many important tasks to do in a community with so many needs.

Throughout the week, the Shaw students were able to meet with pastors of other churches, talk with neighborhood residents, and view the continuing effects of the devastating storm twenty-one months after it came and went. Dr. Broadway said, "I can think of no more important place to be learning about ministry in this time than in New Orleans. I am so glad that my students and I have had this opportunity to see the work of God in this place."

Another group of sixteen Shaw University Divinity School students and three professors traveled to New Orleans on February 5-8, 2007, for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. The theme of the conference was “In the Wake of Katrina: Lest We Forget . . . Call to Renewal.” The students enrolled in an elective course called Problems in Pastoral Counseling taught by Dr. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan and Dr. Helen McLaughlin. Participants attended plenaries, seminars, and on-site field education experiences, engaging in ministry to survivors of Katrina at nursing homes and a freedom school; assisted a congregation, research center, and individual home owners with rebuilding, clean up, and preservations, and participated in peer-to-peer discussion with AIDS survivors and persons experiencing labor discrimination. One highlight was attending a moving sunrise memorial service at the Katrina Memorial at the foot of the Claiborne Street Bridge in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Dr. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan says that in this context, students faced the questions, “Where was God in the Katrina event? Where is the church and to whom is it speaking and ministering? Now that the demands of reconstruction and restorative justice in the United States Gulf Coast is upon us, what does that say abou the reconstruction and justice in the Gulf Coast when this nation is at war on the premise of preemptive protection from injustice and the threat of terrorism? This Black Church community, however, is resilient and is fighting to rise again.”
We climbed out of the car on South First Street near the Mississippi River levee. The area is sometimes called "the sliver by the river" in that it is the higher ground that did not get serious flooding after Hurricane Katrina. We were on our way to do some work at Cornerstone United Methodist Church in New Orleans East. A little uncertain about the house number, I stepped toward the porch of the duplex apartment. Before I could get past the first step, we were greeted warmly by Rev. Becky Conner, one of the three co-pastors of Cooperative Parish #6 set up by the United Methodists after the hurricane as a way to try to assist as many of their churches and church people as possible. After introductions and hugs, out stepped Rev. Jeff Conner, her husband, and another of the co-pastors.

We made our way inside their apartment and spent a few minutes getting to know one another. We learned that one of the ministries of Cornerstone had been a computer lab. Among other things, they had held computer literacy classes for the elderly, and they had run an after-school program for children that included computer activities. When the hurricane and flood did their damage, the building was unusable and the computer lab was a total loss. A non-profit in Baton Rouge has been providing computers to organizations which can make good use for them, and Cornerstone had recently received computers, monitors, and printers, so that they can restart their computer lab. The computers arrived ready to use, with hardware and software updated, printer-ready, and internet-ready. But while the building was not yet ready for them, they had to be stored.

Today's task was to get the computers out of the pastors' apartments and into the almost finished church building. A large stack of equipment crowded the wall by the Conners' kitchen table. We loaded them into three cars, with much appreciation from the Conners who had been having to squeeze around them for some time. Having loaded, we set out to Kenner, near the New Orleans International Airport, to get the rest of the equipment.

Rev. Jeff Conner was not able to join us for this task. He had received a call about a death, so he would be spending the day talking with the family and preparing for a funeral. Although the congregations may not be fully functional, the pastoral duties continue. Rev. Charles Duplessis of Mt. Nebo Bible Baptist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward had talked about the cloud of death that hangs over the lives of so many in New Orleans. He explained that the number of deaths in New Orleans each month now stands at more than one and one-half times as high as it had been before Katrina. Some of these deaths have to do with little access to health care and poor living conditions. Others are related to a high level of violence. He added that the number of people attempting suicide remains high. There is drastic need for clergy and churches to minister.

Cooperative Parish #6 includes three congregations that flourished in different communities before Katrina. Cornerstone is in one of the neighborhoods farthest east along the interstate highway that leads to Slidell, LA, and on toward Mississippi. Its neighborhood looks more suburban than the older central parts of New Orleans. The church sits on a large plot of land, and it has a relatively new building which has almost been completely restored and improved.

Due south of Cornerstone in the edge of St. Bernard Parish, in the town of Chalmette, is Covenant United Methodist Church, where services are already being held. West from Chalmette is the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. In this most devastated neighborhood stands the shell of the Hartzell United Methodist Church. Hartzell sits among mostly empty lots where houses were demolished because they were so severely damaged. When we visited the Hartzell site, we found a group of carpenters from Arizona rebuilding the platform on which the pulpit stands.

Along with the Conners, the lead co-pastor is Rev. James Haynes. He pastored Cornerstone for many years, including through Katrina, but planned to retire last year. Instead, he accepted the position of pastoral leader for this Cooperative Parish. All three pastors serve all three churches, and as the opportunity to re-open all three churches comes about, they will share the preaching duties for all of the churches until the Conference determines to change the assignments.

Several more computers, the cables to hook them up, and some printers were stacked at the door when we arrived at Rev. Haynes apartment. He and his wife Mildred greeted us, and we spent some time talking together. When we finished loading, we had the back seats and trunks of four cars stuffed with computer equipment. We got directions to Cornerstone and set out on our caravan. When we arrived, Rev. Haynes brought out a hand truck, and we hauled the equipment to the room that will soon be a computer lab in the education wing of the church building. Once we had completed that task, we took a tour of the building and learned more about the neighborhood, the damage done, and the process of recovery.

We also moved some furniture, mainly some desks that needed to be put into the church offices so that the co-pastors could move into them in the next few days. We vacuumed the carpet in the offices, and then we shared a meal of gumbo. Rev. Conner picked it up from the first restaurant to reopen in all of New Orleans East, a Louisiana home cooking establishment a few blocks from the church. Along Bullard Avenue, an interstate exit and the main road in Cornerstone's neighborhood, were the shells and remnants of a half dozen fast food restaurants, along with shopping areas.

Before Katrina, Bullard Avenue and the nearby exits looked like so many other roads along an interstate freeway, with bustling retail centers and the predictable roadside businesses. Now, surrounded by chain link fences, McDonalds and Burger King and other familiar chains are in various stages of repair, approaching the day that they can reopen. At the next exit to the west, an entire mall has been bulldozed, and large machinery could be seen loading and grinding the concrete remains.

Rev. Haynes explained that with each business that opens, a few more people move back to the neighborhood. Newly opened businesses mean new jobs, and they mean that some of the features of life in the neighborhood are getting back to normal. Other residents are encouraged to return or encouraged to start rebuilding when they can see these signs that it could soon be a community again. But the process is slow. People wait for money, and they wait for hope. Little by little they start hiring contractors, making repairs, and getting their lives back in order.

Rev. Haynes said that the church is making contact with people who are coming back to the neighborhood, and it makes the new arrivals happy to find out that a church is struggling back to be part of the neighborhood. Most of us live in communities where we can take for granted the institutions and services that we are accustomed to having. There is no taking for granted in New Orleans. A person can drive around on main streets for hours without finding a grocery store that is not boarded up. New Orleans is far from what it was, and it remains to be seen what it is going to be. In the meantime, churches like Cornerstone, Covenant, and Hartzell are making sure that they have some say in shaping the next New Orleans.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

We walked into the open space of a multipurpose room which was set up as the sanctuary for Sunday worship. As we approached the greeting table, a man in a colorful shirt approached and hugged each of us, saying, "Hi, I'm Roscoe." It was the end of Sunday School time, and the separate classes were wrapping up their discussions and preparing to regather in the sanctuary to discuss the Bible lesson.

Not quite a year ago, Christian Unity Baptist Church had reopened for worship. It had been a large congregation, thriving just north of the French Quarter at Claiborne and Conti Streets. The building had been remodeled from other uses, and it was sturdy. It also had the unusual feature of being elevated on stilts with a parking lot beneath the building. For these reasons, it had weathered Hurricane Katrina better than some other churches, although the damage was significant. With its members scattered throughout the states, its pastor in California, and its building damaged, the church struggled to keep itself together. With the assistance of Churches Supporting Churches, Christian Unity was able to reopen for worship in the summer of 2006.

Rev. Dwight Webster greeted us in his office and introduced us to some of the leadership of the congregation. It was a warm welcome, and we eagerly awaited the opportunity to share in worship. We took a seat near the front, and soon we were joined by the Sunday School classes for a final assembly. The superintendent reviewed the lesson, and some of the young people were asked to reiterate key points from their study. With some encouragement, they bore witness to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Soon the worship hour began, and there was praise and prayer, singing and dancing. The service was accompanied by an organist, a pianist, a drummer, and a saxophonist. There was some traditional gospel style in the organ playing, but it was not exactly the same as we usually hear in North Carolina. The saxophone was the first clue, but the other instruments also brought a strong jazz influence into the music. Sometimes it was gospel, sometimes gospel-jazz, and other times just plain jazz.

Later in the week, I had opportunity to hear jazz singer Arlee Leonard at St. Anna's Episcopal Church, as part of an evening of ministry to struggling musicians which included a meal and a one-stop ministry center. Her selections included Dorsey's "Precious Lord" and some other tunes that brought the gospel influence to the jazz performance. And the final line of the refrain, "lead me home," took on a special significance for the context of New Orleans evacuees who are holding out the hope to come back home.

Rev. Webster had many organizational matters to discuss with the congregation. He talked about giving and budgets and planning and development. He reminded anyone who was concerned that his travel back and forth to California was being funded in part by Churches Supporting Churches and was not coming out of their pockets. He offered comfort and support to those in need, and he heard reports from deacons, members, ministers, and guests. He recognized members living out of town who had made the trip to New Orleans that weekend. There is much to do in a short time when a congregation is as scattered at Christian Unity's.

One new member, a man recently released from prison, told how he had been on his own and alone when he walked out of the prison gate. He was homeless, and he came to Christian Unity to find some people who would care about him. In a short time, with the support of the church, he had found a job and housing, and he felt like he had a family even though his relatives are scattered around the country. It was a moment of joy for the whole congregation.

An associate minister, Rev. Audrey Johnson, was the preacher for the day. She continues to live in Humble, Texas, with her husband and family. She has recovered from cancer and a stroke, but she is doing well and showing few signs of her previous illness. Her sermon centered around the statement, "It has come to pass, but not to stay." With that theme she addressed the situations confronting everyone in the congregation. Most had seen their homes damaged or destroyed. Many who could not be present were living in other towns and cities. Jobs had been lost. Schools were closed. Some had lost loved ones. Friends had been separated. The church had been dispersed. But even though it had come to pass, it had not come to stay.

The injustices and abuses of power would not win the day. The destruction would not be the final word. The relocation of half the city's residents would not serve the greedy plans of developers who hope they will never come back. New Orleans had suffered great devastation, but it did not come to stay. Rebuilding homes, families, friendships, economic institutions, and churches would be the answer to the devastation. Even if the Road Home becomes a Road to Nowhere, the people of Christian Unity and of New Orleans will rise again. A risen Savior offers the promise that death and destruction are not the end of the story.

She grew tired as the sermon went on, and stopped to drink some water. Then she decided that what had been said was enough. It was an emotional moment for all who listened, for we had been moved with her and by her words. Rev. Webster offered the invitation to those who were present. They listened, they hesitated, and then they came. Eight people came to unite with Christian Unity Baptist Church on that day. Some had recently returned to live in New Orleans and needed to find a church. Others had been in New Orleans for awhile, and they had felt the Holy Spirit's prodding to get back into a church. One woman said she had been "looking" for a church for forty-two years, and she had come to realize that it was time for her to be baptized and become part of a church. Half of the people who came to join brought infants and toddlers with them.

So many people were making new beginnings with God. It was a day of rejoicing and of hope. Stepping out on faith to make a new start works so much better when we do it in the company of others who will love and support us, and who will call on us with love and support. We have to be in this together, and that is the message Christian Unity Baptist Church wants to offer.
Reading the Bible in community is what some, if not all, Baptists claim is a good thing to do. Still some among Baptists prefer the jargon of individual interpretation over any authoritative role for the community. But reading in community is not primarily an issue of giving up authority to a functionary leader; rather, it is an issue of reading in the context of a specific place and time. The context of a specific place and time emerges through the voices of the community.

On Monday night, we attended the Spring Institute held by a group of Baptist churches in New Orleans. The Institute, hosted by Evening Star Missionary Baptist Church in Harvey, LA, had been advertised in the churches, and people had signed up in advance to take one of three classes, each to continue through three consecutive evenings. Local pastors had been invited to lead Bible study and training courses. We attended the course on the Prophet Habakkuk, and the topic of the study was dealing with anxiety, based on a book by Warren Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship.

Rev. Aldon Cotton from Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church led the study. Over forty of us crammed into a classroom, getting additional chairs so that everyone could participate. The lesson began with an overview of the book of Habakkuk, explaining the setting, the historical period, and what can be known about the author. Rev. Cotton encouraged the people to read the book of Habakkuk. In fact, he wondered why they had not already read it in preparation for the first meeting, until he found out that the fliers for the Institute had not informed the participants that the class would study Habakkuk.

The prophet Habakkuk's writing starts with a cry to God, what some would call a complaint. He asks how long things will keep going wrong. He asks how long violence will dominate the land, and how long he will have to keep looking at trouble and destruction. How long will the law be impotent and justice absent? Habakkuk has much to be anxious about. The Babylonian army is harsh and powerful. Their ways are cruel and destructive. Yet this unrighteous army will bring judgment on the unrighteous ways of Judah. Habakkuk cannot see much hope that conditions will improve.

The relevance of the passage was not lost on anyone in the room. They find themselves living in a destroyed city. The weak and poor find little mercy or justice. The legal system seems twisted and broken when it comes to them. The death rate from sickness, sorrow, and violence is soaring. And the billions of dollars put into Katrina recovery seem to be disappearing into thin air. Everyone has friends or family who have suffered immensely. Stories of mistreatment, violence, fear, and loss are just below the surface. All it takes is a moment and an opening for conversation.

One woman responds to the scripture by saying, "This crying of violence, that's what we're going through right here in New Orleans." A few others chime in with remarks about the difficult conditions of life, now twenty-one months away from the Hurricane.

A man says, "The laws being slack is a lot like Louisiana and the Federal Government. They keep saying they will make things right for people who suffered, but the help never comes. The money gets used up and disappears before it ever reaches where it should go."

Rev. Cotton discussed the way that we can get our focus on the world and what is going on that is wrong until we get overwhelmed with worry. But when our focus is on God and what God has promised us, we can remember God's righteousness and trust in it. We create our own worries by getting our focus off God. Then we get afraid to talk to God because of the sin that is in our lives.

The people were listening intently. The conversation went deep. The scriptures were alive in the community of readers, and the shared insights moved through the room with the moving of the Spirit. After closing, the participants went home eager to read the Book of Habakkuk and continue the discussions the next day.

Across the Mississippi River in the Uptown neighborhood, Tuesday night meant Bible Study at the St. John Missionary Baptist Church. Rev. Donald Boutté was beginning a study of the Gospel of Mark. His method was first to spend a few weeks doing a fast walk through the entire gospel to help the congregation gain an overall understanding of the plot, characters, and themes. When the overview is completed, they will return to the beginning and undertake a more detailed exegetical study. On this Tuesday night in May, they were looking at parts of chapters 2 and 3.

Much of the discussion on this evening was about the way Jesus challenged the legalism of the Scribes and Pharisees. They kept getting in conflict with him about his seeming carelessness about the law. He associated with people of whom the law might not approve. He healed on the Sabbath. He picked grain to eat on the Sabbath. He did not fast in the same way that some other religious people fasted. Jesus always had an answer for them, and he always made them madder with each answer, with each challenge to their authority.

The discussion opened up in the congregation to answer the pastor's question about why these events and discussions were causing conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees. What was the problem with their view of the law? A few people spoke up. One said that the Pharisees did not understand who Jesus was when they criticized him concerning the law. Another said the teachers of the law seemed to be using the law as a tool for their personal benefit and not in a way that benefits the average person.

Rev. Boutté turned the discussion toward the people that the Pharisees rejected, the ones with whom they did not want to associate. He pointed out how Jesus associated with the ones that the Pharisees did not. People who did not fit in with the religious crowd were the ones that got Jesus criticized by the Pharisees. It even led them to go running to the Herodians, whom they also did not like, to make plans about how to get rid of Jesus.

He then introduced the work being done to draw young people back into their congregation. The young people in the community had been a large part of St. John before Katrina. But families with youth and children had not yet returned to New Orleans, and no one knows if they will. Here and there, some young people have returned, and St. Johns has seen the need to find them and draw them in. One way of doing that has been to sponsor a football team for 14-18 year old boys. A church member will coach the team, and the church has purchased the uniforms and equipment. Youth services have been slow to recover in New Orleans. It is no surprise that housing and jobs have received the most attention, but young people still need ways to constructively spend their time that can include fun, learning, and growth.

As these teen-aged boys have begun to attend St. John, they do not have the same background as some people who have been going to church all of their lives. They don't necessarily dress the way that the church people are used to. Rev. Boutté asks the congregation how this situation they are in relates to the situation from the scriptures. One woman tells a story about greeting a boy at the door of the church and asking him to remove his cap. When he resisted, she explained that it was the tradition of their church for men not to wear caps. She said, "That tradition is kind of like the law as we have been reading about it." She said that when he still did not want to take off his cap, "I told him, 'Okay, go ahead and wear it. You are still welcome here.'" The pastor remarked about another woman in the church who is very good at inserting some humor to keep the tension down in that kind of situation.

Then a man asked, "How long is long enough for someone to start learning and following the traditions of our congregation?" Rev. Boutté laughed and explained that he has the same kinds of questions, but he is trying not to rush to conformity in a way that the message of love and acceptance gets overshadowed. Others entered the conversation seeking to articulate the ways that a church can practice its traditions without making them barriers for loving acceptance of the outsider. The conversation went on well after the benediction. A communal process of reading together and listening for the Spirit's guidance was again at work.

The specific context of reading in New Orleans helped to amplify the way that churches read the scriptures in the mutual submission and accountability of community. Much is "up for grabs" in the churches of New Orleans. I don't mean that the saving power of Jesus Christ is in doubt. What is open with possibilities is the way that churches have done and will do their work of ministry. The physical structures are broken down, and the organizational structures are broken down as well. People who have always been present to lead may not be coming back. Classes and committees that used to be standard have not yet been reconstituted. New needs and new people may make it possible to put the wine into new wineskins. The best path to letting a new wind of the Spirit blow is to allow the God-breathed Word, the scriptural witness, to dwell in us richly, that we may together discern its good news in this time and place.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

We turned the corner at Dorgenois Street and Fourth Street in the Central City of New Orleans, and we saw a man and woman sitting on the stoop of a house. The woman's eyes showed recognition as we realized we had spoken on another corner a block away, just a few minutes before. The man was all smiles, with a wiry build, clutching in his hands the crook of a walking cane. Their stoop was on the shady side of the street.

All along the block, and in all the adjoining blocks, we had been cataloguing the conditions of a battered and deserted neighborhood. There were empty lots where homes, churches and businesses once stood. Scattered among them were collapsed buildings leaning into a seemingly endless waiting. A few of the structures stood gutted, some with piles of debris outside, their emptiness echoing the empty promises of financial help just down the road. Most of the blocks had only a handful of residents where not so long ago the hustle and bustle of people had filled the area.

We exchanged greetings, "How y'all doing?" I explained that we were working in the neighborhood to help out Rev. Aldon Cotton from Jerusalem Baptist Church.

"Which Rev. Cotton? There's two Cottons . . . " the man went on to explain. He was wearing the monogrammed uniform of a retail worker, talking with his neighbor. He went on to tell us that the two Rev. Cottons in this neighborhood are brothers. After getting some more information from us about which one we knew, he affirmed, "Yes," he knew the Rev. Cotton whose church had fallen down in the storm. We discussed Jerusalem Baptist Church's plans to rebuild across the street from their previous location. He told us, "That Rev. Cotton is the best man for us. He's always doing good."

Throughout the day we had been recording information about a twenty-three block area in Central City, sometimes called Uptown. It is bounded by Broad Street on the north, Martin Luther King Boulevard on the on the east, Galvez Street on the south, and Toledano Street on the west. As many as fifteen churches gathered in this neighborhood before Hurricane Katrina. Now the people are gone, the pastors have relocated for a while, and the buildings left standing are unusable. Slowly some people are finding their way back to fix their houses. Even more slowly the promised funds from The Road Home are trickling through the system to a few. Others, not believing the money will ever make it to them, are finding ways to get the houses rebuilt and rehabilitated. And everyone else is wondering when or if they might sell their property and leave it all behind.

Some of the pastors in New Orleans have come together to build a vision for the future of their churches and for the city of New Orleans. They are letting their lives and ministries be intermingled so that they can be strengthened in their skills, their resolve and their hope. They have targeted certain zones in New Orleans, from the Central City to the Ninth Ward and beyond. The zones are selected because of the severity of their need in the post-Katrina devastation.

These zones used to have low-cost housing, both rental and owner-occupied. They were working-class neighborhoods, made up of families that include a growing segment of the new U. S. economy, the working poor whose toil builds corporate profits while they can't make enough money to afford what they need to get by. These are the neighborhoods that some local and outside developers would love to buy up for almost nothing so that they can make a landfall profit by creating the next trendy location for the up-and-coming professionals. There are leaders and lenders who are hoping the scattered residents of these neighborhoods never come back.

Four Shaw University Divinity School students walked in pairs around these twenty-three blocks. They looked at the door frames of battered houses to find a street address. At some locations, an address had been spray-painted on the asphalt in front of the house by one of the utility companies doing its work. The many vacant lots don't have an address posted anywhere, so the students have to count the spaces and fill in the blanks of addresses between one house and another. Here and there a house is being renovated, and occasionally they find one whose residents have moved back in. Along the way they meet construction crews putting up sheathing, homeowners packing remnants of sheet rock into trash bags, mechanics working on cars in a reopened auto repair shop, and contractors checking out properties.

One contractor in his car greeted Rev. Cotton and asked how his church was doing. As their conversation continued, the man explained that he was driving through the neighborhood to see if anyone was in need of some help that he could offer. Eventually, he took the pastor, the students, their professor, and another fellow doing some contract work to lunch. While "th'owing down" some New Orleans soul food, we discussed the needs of the churches and the community. We discussed the limits of hope in programs offered by the official political structures.

Over and over, neighborhood people, contractors, church members, and pastors have reiterated the same message: if our communities have any hope for renewal, it will have to be led by the churches. There are not any other institutions who have the vital interest of our communities at heart. And if the churches do not realize their calling to minister in this moment of crisis and opportunity, entire neighborhoods, their heritage and family ties, their accomplishments and traditions will be lost. Moreover, the churches will have failed to do what their Lord and Savior said he came to do, to preach good news to the poor. It is no time for empty preaching and promises. The good news must be tangible.

Rev. Cotton and his colleagues are working to see the strength of their relationships begin to bear fruit in solidarity and joint action. They need the descriptions of the properties, block by block, to show that they know the challenges they are up against. They need to demonstrate that they have a plan for using the funds they are requesting.

They also need this data to persuade other pastors that together they can make a difference. When the other pastors can see just how many lots, how many houses need rehabilitation, and ultimately who wants to come back and who wants to sell, they will realize that this is not an impossible and unmanageable task. And they will see that it is not Rev. Cotton or some other pastor trying to take over the whole neighborhood and shut them out. The Rev. Cotton whose church got destroyed longs for the day when all the churches in his neighborhood can share their gifts and pool their efforts to make Central City a beacon of the churches' capacity to renew, to change, to redeem a community.

So we walked on in the late spring heat and humidity. It was a good day to be outside and see the beauty of God's creation. We also were seeing the ways that human power used for domination and sin can let a thriving community become a wasteland. The God who created it all is the same one who promised to bring forth springs in the desert and to make a new shoot grow out of the stump that had been cut off. Churches Supporting Churches is working on getting the debris out of that spring so that the waters of life can flow freely and abundantly in New Orleans. They are watering that stump and nurturing the new growth. And all creation awaits the flowering of the shoot of Jesse, the seed growing secretly, the sudden appearance of the Reign of God on Fourth Street.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Organizing for community transformation takes time. Unfortunately for the churches and people of New Orleans, time for action is not in great supply. A few years ago, many pastors and church leaders in New Orleans had little training in community development. They were not experienced in dealing with governmental institutions and legislation. They had ideas about what would make the neighborhood better, but few of the skills to help them take the steps needed to bring about the changes. Moreover, busy with the important day-to-day tasks of church work, most pastors had not built the kinds of cooperative relationships that would allow them to work together rather than in competition with one another.

Into this setting came Hurricane Katrina. Churches suffered great losses in buildings, evacuated members and pastors, and neighborhoods. As the devastation began to breed ideas about gentrification of neighborhoods, a vision began to take shape through such leaders (I am sorry for those whose names I did not list) Dr. C. T. Vivian, Rev. Dwight Webster, Rev. David Jensen, and many others to create an organization called Churches Supporting Churches. Everyong who heard of the idea thought it was right. But it was slow to develop.

Pastors and congregations were scattered. People had to get jobs, find homes, commute, gut houses, try to rebuild, try to find money. But committed leaders kept building relationships, learning to rely on one another, learning to trust their hopes together, gaining skills to organize, and making the necessary contacts to find funding and training.

Twenty months later, the pieces are falling into place. Relationships have grown. Needed structures are being established. The kind of help that can move things forward is joining in. Lot by lot, block by block, church by church, neighborhood by neighborhood, the evidence of change should soon begin to unfold. And as momentum grows, there will be a flowering of church-based community development in New Orleans that will be good news for the poor, and a new day for churches there.

Among the pastors engaged in organizing and development are Rev. Aldon Cotton of Jerusalem Baptist Church, Rev. Donald Boutté of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, Rev. Marvin Turner of Mount Ararat Missionary Baptist Church, Revs. Becky and Jeff Conner and Rev. James Haynes of Cornerstone United Methodist Church/Covenant United Methodist Church, and Hartzell United Methodist Church, and Rev. Charles Duplessis of Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church. From Central City to Ninth Ward, churches are pulling together, identifying assets, developing models for action, and doing their parts. Pray for the churches in New Orleans that they may lead with the hope that comes from following the Risen Lord.

If your church wants to join the many congregations across the U. S. and Canada and become a part of this effort by joining in partnership with a church in New Orleans, you can contact the CSC National Project Director Rev. Dwight Webster at cubc89@bellsouth.net. You can learn more about the project at their website www.cscneworleans.org.
Wiley Drake has denied ever signing a statement in support of the man who admitted to murdering a doctor for performing abortions. His name has been removed from the web site where it appeared when I commented on this story last week. The previous post mentioned this controversy in relation to remarks about Jesus and nonviolence.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

See the next post for a statement concerning Wiley Drake's denial that he supported this action.

Advocating violence to defeat your enemies is a sure sign of having stopped walking along the way of Jesus. When Jesus was faced with the choice to use violence or allow his associates to use violence to further his cause, he repeatedly rejected it. John 6 reports that when a crowd, having been fed by Jesus, begins to organize to force him to be their king, in an apparent plan to violently drive out the rulers, Jesus immediately withdrew to get away from them. When he was asked, in Luke 9, by James and John whether they should call down fire to destroy a village that did not receive them when traveling, Jesus rebuked them. When a disciple (Luke 22 and Matthew 26), Simon Peter according to John 18, pulled out a sword to fight and struck a man when Jesus was arrested, Jesus rejected the use of the sword and said to put it away. Even in the accounts of the cleansing of the temple, there is no claim that Jesus used the improvised cord whip to strike people--he drove out the animals from the exploitative marketplace where sellers and moneychangers used their privileged position to cheat poor and weary pilgrims. Turning over tables and freeing animals was not a resort to using physical harm against an opponent.

The reader and I might go on and on about various interpretations of whether Jesus ever would approve of force or violence, what the definition of force or violence is, and such matters. But I think it is fairly clear that Jesus rejected violence over and over. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others who adopted a theology of nonviolence rooted it in Jesus' teachings and way of living, and they did not just make it up out of the air. I'm casting my lot with this view. Theories of justifiable violence have a lot of the New Testament to set aside if they want to have Jesus-centered perspective.

So when it comes to Christians advocating social policy and social change, a limiting principle on strategy exists. Christians must not advocate and use violence to force their ways on others. Electing violence as a solution is a way of rejecting the cross, the symbol of Jesus' refusal to take up violence. A little bit of violence might have made the difference to get Jesus out of custody so that a guerrilla resistance force could be set up to keep the powerful off center. But he consistently pointed out that it was not his way, nor was it to be the way of his followers.

The following paragraph contains information based on several sources which was later denied by Wiley Drake. No one has offered an explanation of how his name became attached to the statement of support for the man who murdered a doctor for performing abortions. But Drake has stated clearly that in such cases a person is not justified to commit murder. I appreciate his clarifying this statement and apologize for any misrepresentation which appeared in this blog.

I write all of this to say that at least this Baptist does not intend to remain silent when someone points out that [a new story denies Wiley Drake ever signed the statement mentioned in the following sentences] a Baptist leader, Wiley Drake, has gone on record in support of a person who, in God's name, shot and killed a doctor who performs abortions. Davis's name endorses the man who did this on documents from the organization to which the man belongs. You can read more about it at EthicsDaily.com. I am committed to receiving children into the world as blessings and gifts rather than shutting them out as burdens and hindrances. Abortion shuts out the hope and promise of children. But I also cannot see how believing in protecting the unborn coheres with killing the already born. It's too bad that we Baptists don't have a good way to contest a pastor's credentials to serve as a minister. Drake's statement [now publicly denied] in support of the killer seems to me to be a denial of his baptismal vow to follow Jesus, as well as his ordination vows, none of which say to execute those who oppose him. Drake gives evidence of being bold in his convictions. What he needs to go with his boldness is some more Jesus in his convictions.

Thanks to my friend Larry Bumgardner for bringing this to my attention, and to Mainstream Baptist for making prompt comments several days ago.
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