Unbound In The West
Lum Shee Chinn arrived in San Francisco in 1914. At that time she had six children, some who hadn’t seen their father Wah in several years. Lum Shee wasn’t exactly upper class, but she and Wah had accumulated enough selling wares to move to the US and open a textile business. To hear her only daughter, my grandmother, tell it – “textile business” was a polite way of saying “lingerie for sex workers.”
There is this apocryphal story about Lum Shee, who had bound feet. Her five sons were rambunctious and treated like little emperors, as is the custom in many Chinese American families. They would break things or hit one another. When Lum Shee entered the room to discipline her boys, they would laugh at her, “You can’t catch us.” The pain she experienced when simply walking was intense. The boys would run from the room while she hobbled after them. But Lum Shee was no pushover. She remembered each infraction and would take slow, painful steps into their bedrooms while they slept and beat them with her cane.
Today, we call that “child abuse” and Lum and Wah would be called “illegals”. Chinese people were excluded from entry and naturalization from 1882 to 1952. To gain entry, Lum and Wah did what thousands of Chinese did: create “paper families” to establish an “anchor” for “chain migration” of the nuclear family. Wah arrived years before with the oldest sons, purchased false identities as nuclear relatives of an actual native citizen, then paid for the rest of the family to follow.
They joined an Evangelical Methodist Church. My grandmother told me stories of not being able to see movies, dance, or wear jewelry because of how strictly Protestant her parents were. When I told her about my own conversion to Christianity at the age of 21, she told me the story of seeing her parents’ church Elder in line for a movie on a Sunday afternoon. She decided that Christians were a bunch of judgmental hypocrites. She stopped going to church. My mother never did as a child and neither did I.
The story of Lum Shee and her descendants is a story of the church in the West: a story of immigration, ethnic mixing, religiosity, hypocrisy, and hope. It’s heroes are imperfect. They were sorely hurt and hurt others in turn. We Westerners built walls and red lines and told ourselves we were progressive and welcoming. We told the immigrant targets of our mission we were trying to give them Jesus and we gave them a White Anglo Saxon Protestant teaching them how to behave like a real “American.”
In the eyes of my childhood self, becoming a priest was like becoming “the Man.” All of the privilege and authority that comes with the recognition of religious consecration was the opposite of what I imagined I would become. Like so many Westerners, I want to believe that my accomplishments and power come from intrinsic qualities: I worked hard, I was smart, I was strong. I desperately want to believe that through my ruggedly individualistic efforts, I somehow willed God’s justice and peace into being. Instead I was faced with the realization that God and other people authorize my work and make it possible. Instead the power of the self, I am bound by promises I made to God and the institutions of the Church. My authority doesn’t come from within, but from people who looked on me and decided they could learn something about the universe from listening.
Jesus, the Christ, used his authority to serve humankind. Each year, during Holy Week I observe Maundy Thursday with ritual footwashing. Each year I invite someone to sit on the steps before the Altar while I wash their feet then I take the chair and they wash mine. As the liturgy progresses, I leave my shoes and socks outside the Sanctuary. As I make the Eucharistic Prayers, Strip the Altar and wash it, my bare toes curl into the red shag carpet.
In the West, we remake our selves. We try to make our own destiny.
But each year as Lum Shee’s blood runs through my veins down into my feet, I wonder if this wasn’t God’s plan all along. That somewhere in the violence, hypocrisy and foolish hope of one hundred years in the West, I might end up scrubbing the Blood of Christ from an Altar; feet unbound.
Moving Toward Discomfort
It's a typical story, one that I've heard many, many times. A white church rents space to an ethnic faith community. In the beginning hopes are high, as are expectations. A lease agreement is signed that is specific and concrete. Things are good, for some amount of time. But eventually resentments surface. The renters don't end their services at the time specified in the agreement. The worship spaces are not left clean enough. The children pull the fire alarm too many times, and there is some concern that they may not be well supervised. It's an old story, one that often doesn't end well for either "side."
When I came to my congregation, this was our story. St. C's rented space to a South Sudanese community and all the expected tensions were present. The owning congregation, my congregation of mostly white, mostly older lower to middle class white people, reported that the South Sudanese community didn't start and end on time, they weren't to be trusted in the kitchen, and their children ran wild. There was plenty of evidence to support their claims. But it wasn't the whole story.
On my first Sunday as Vicar, one of the core families from this Sudanese community came to church. They introduced themselves, and I got the feeling they were there to stay. Ambassadors, if you will, to try to begin a new relationship with the new priest who was just starting. And it occurred to me, if they could move toward discomfort - if they could come and worship with an almost all white community of people for the sake of better relationship and connection - well, maybe we could, too.
In the years since then, our relationship with our brothers and sisters from South Sudan has grown and deepened. I worship regularly with them on Saturday nights, and am often invited to provide pastoral care, or offer a sermon. They have chosen godparents for new babies from the among the longstanding white members of the congregation, and there has been an influx of young families of diverse backgrounds to our Sunday morning services, who are interested in worshiping in diverse community. The Sudanese kids still run wild on Saturday nights. But now when my older white parishioners see evidence of this they smile, because those children are "our" children. They are members of our community. We no longer hear complaints about sharing the kitchen, or cultural differences about what is "on time," because we are able to have the uncomfortable conversations about what these things mean. And because we are learning to love each other.
When the opportunity came to St. C's to partner with a couple local non-profits to form a community garden for refugee and immigrant families, there was no hesitation. In the space of a summer, an acre of unused land was transformed into a space for healing, nutrition, and community building for refugee families from South Sudan, Congo, and Bhutan. It has become a core part of our identity as a congregation - that we welcome the stranger, because we are Christian, and because we all come from somewhere, and belong to God. This is something we are learning together, no matter where we are from.
The West is a place where most people have stories - either personal or ancestral - of moving toward uncomfortable ideas, places, or opportunities in order to discover new life. St. Columba's is not always the most comfortable church to be a part of, but we are a community that is learning to move toward discomfort, to see in difference and dissonance a unique opportunity to discover something about the essential belovedness we all share in the eyes of God.
A Sign to be Seen
There was a day when I had the sense that this crazy idea just might work. One morning after our new triptych (a sign with three chalkboard panels) was up, a mother was writing a prayer for the people of Syria. Her young daughter asked her to specifically add the children of Syria. And then an elderly lady, a stranger to this young family, walked up, read what they had written, and then joined them at the chalkboard, and together, they lamented the ways that the human family divides itself all too often.
This encounter is why, for several years, I had longed for an outdoor triptych. A trip-what, you might say? Well, awhile back, when I walked up to a congregation in the diocese where I serve (the Diocese of California, which is most of the Bay Area), I came across a novel sign out in front of their church doors, next to the sidewalk.
It had three panels (hence my yearning for a triptych), each panel a section of chalkboard. And on the chalkboard passersby wrote prayers, hopes and thanksgivings. It was an outdoor, public Prayers of the People. I was stunned.
For us at All Souls in Berkeley, the fullness of time for a triptych came a couple of years ago. At the same time as our Evangelism team was looking to be more intentional about inviting people to join us at All Souls, our Justice & Peace team was wanting to offer public statements of support and advocacy. And our Communications team was trying to create an informal, yet visible, way to let the surrounding community know what we are up to (read: communicate our deep gladness to those around us to the hungry world around us). As we began our planning, amongst the practical questions of city code and concrete footings, we found ourselves consistently coming up against questions of identity. Questions like, “Who are we? How we want to present ourselves to the world? What kinds of conversations do we want to engender in our neighborhood?”
We started from the ground up. We wanted the structure itself to be in concert with our established aesthetic, so the lines are simple and evoke the design of the rest of our signage and the church architecture (read: is our culture consistent?). Another expression of our identity came through the materials, as most of the triptych serves as a kind of a chalkboard. We wanted people to know that within a visibly formal context is a community that isn’t afraid to encounter the messy and transient nature of life.
Our identity found its’ way onto the three panels themselves. The left panel serves as an announcement for the events of our parish life—informal, café-style invitations on the top half, and magnetized formal flyers on the bottom. The right panel serves as a rotating space for the stands that we take as a Christian community. It is meant to be a visible witness of faith to all who pass by.
But it is the central panel of the triptych that is the most interactive. Each week, often in concert with the homily that Sunday, we write up a prompt, inviting people to finish a sentence. We are hoping that this conveys a core value of our parish––that we value dialogue and conversation (read: dialogue is much more important to us than debate). We really do want to know what matters most to the people who live, work, and study in our part of the world.
The results of this invitation have been beyond our expectations. The first day that the triptych went up was Sunday, December 18th. Passersby were invited to respond to the prompt, “I am waiting for…”. We were stunned when we emerged from the service just about an hour later to see that people had already begun to respond. As we were worshipping, people were praying with us, using the triptych to ground their prayer. And it has continued ever since.
Now this space has been, and will be, mis-used. Some people have chosen this medium to be a venue for vulgar and/or obscene responses. But even these rare mis-sues have served as yet another way to understand who we are. When this happens, we evaluate the intent of the message, and if necessary, erase it to leave space for other responses to our prompts (read: sometimes self-differentiation involves setting boundaries with erasers). And yes, our posters, “Jesus was a refugee,” have gone missing, perhaps removed by the invisible hand of the wind, perhaps by hands that belong to humans. When that happens, we replace them. Our stands continue.
After a few months of seeing how this sign has grounded prayer for our neighborhood, and has served as a much needed source of dialogue, we have taken the next step in engaging those who vicariously participate in the life of our parish: social media (read: there are lots of people developing the faith through All Souls, but only some of them show up on a Sunday morning). The triptych now has its’ own Twitter handle: #SignOnCedar. In addition to posting each week’s prompt and responses, we will be asking people far and wide what they would encourage people who walk by the corner of Cedar and Spruce to consider. Our hope is that our circle of our dialogue continues to expand.
God only knows what the next unexpected interaction with this triptych might be. My guess, though, is that in it and through it, we will learn more about our God and ourselves.
Living in Trust
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Romans 5:1-5
Since my husband Grant and I have been a couple, every Friday night is date night. I can't quite remember how we decided to set aside that particular night. It just became a kind of sacrosanct time for us to be together. There are only a few excuses for not going out on date night, mostly having to do with one or the other of our travel schedules. And although I can't remember HOW we decided to have a weekly date night, I can tell you WHY we have date night: we have date night to tell our stories to each other.
Telling stories is a way we remind each other why we are in relationship, and what it means to be in relationship. The benefit of telling stories is obvious to us: it’s a time to catch up on what has passed and to dream about what is coming. Another gift of telling our stories is that it makes us vulnerable to each other.
Relationships are enriched by vulnerability. Vulnerability doesn’t make our relationships; that happens when we choose to love another person. You can live with a person without loving that person, but you can't make any lasting relationship without making a decision that loving that person is better than being indifferent to that person.
This is something of what Paul is talking about in the fifth chapter of Romans. It's all about the relationship that God has with us and that we have with God. That relationship begins with God's decision to love us, each one of us; it continues in our decision to love God. But please notice the order of those decisions: God is always the one who decides first to love. It is God's love, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that even makes it possible for us to decide to love God in return. God is the one who initiates the relationship. God is the one who loves us first.
So why does God decide to love us? I'll admit I used to wonder the same thing about my husband. Why does Grant love me? And even as I write down the question it sounds ridiculous. But there's something inside me that continues to wonder, “is there anything loveable about me?” The simple answer is yes, and it always begins with God. Love is God's nature.
Maybe the hardest thing about believing in God's love is that she loves us despite all of our efforts at being loveable. God loves us in the midst of our distrust of God and ambivalence toward God and wrath we harbor for God. But that is God's nature: to love absolutely and without hesitation, even when we find it hard to love ourselves or those around us. The hardest thing about God's love, is choosing to be vulnerable to love. You have to be open and real and present and vulnerable if you want to experience God’s love.
The only thing we have to bring into a relationship with God is our faith. Faith is a way of life, not a way of belief. It means acting as if the thing we most deeply hope is real. Faith means enduring, personal, trusting loyalty to God. That's all we have to bring to the relationship. We don't have to be good or perfect or holy or Christian; we just have to show up with trust in God’s promise of love.
Which is the same thing that I bring every Friday on date night. Even if it seems that I'm fine in my relationship with Grant, or I'm bored in our relationship, we keep making a time to simply be together and share our stories. Because my love for Grant is about enduring, personal, trusting loyalty. We take the time to remember that this is the case every week. Keeping faith with Grant is not a burden, it's just something that I keep paying attention to, something that I nurture because I want our relationship to deepen and become more than it has ever been before. And that's the best way I can think of to describe what it means to live in relationship with God: trusting in God’s love before all else.
You can put your trust in that.