Are You Ripping, or Are You Weaving?

What we believe influences what we do -
yet do our beliefs align with those required
to weave a society aligned with God's will? 

todd herman web

People are interesting. While we are each a "human being," we are frequently a "human doing" - and occasionally a "human dreaming." We dream, and then we do, so that we can be.

Three Dreams - Different Times, Different Places ...

There have been many famous dreamers throughout the ages - let's focus on three in particular.

Around 700 BCE, there was a dreamer named Micah. A prophet of the Israelites, he relayed God's challenge to Israel:

And what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Being just, kind, and humble - this seems like common courtesy, yet God felt the need to remind people about this.

About 2,000 years ago, another prophet was born, birthed and put to bed in a very humble setting. During his ministry, Jesus taught his disciples this prayer:

Our Father in heaven,
     hallowed be your name, your kingdom come,
     your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours,
     now and forever. Amen.
     (from ELCA.org - based on Matthew 6:9-15 and Luke 11:1-4, NRSV)

Doing God's will and building God's kingdom on earth, in the "here and now" - this is the essence of Jesus' mission and teachings, yet many Christians fail to grasp this concept.

Finally, some stirring words written in September 1787:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. 

In the Preamble to the Constitution, the Founders set forth their ideals for a new nation. The Founders did not know exactly how "a more perfect Union" would play out in the future, yet they entrusted us with the mission of establishing justice, insuring tranquility, promoting the welfare of our fellow citizens, securing liberty, and doing all this for "ourselves and our Posterity" - yet many Americans get so caught up in specific Articles or Amendments of the Constitution, they overlook these ideals.

... Yet Very Similar in Weaving People Together

Whether the goal is to challenge a religious community, communicate a goal while also teaching a key faith practice, or birth a new nation, all three dreams imply community, interdependence, respect, and dignity for all. Bringing forth ideals in a practical manner is the essence of these three dreams.

In a way, Micah, Jesus, and the Founders were all giving their listeners or readers instructions on how to create a better society, one where all people are woven together by a set of shared behaviors, a common vision, and a group of unifying goals.

We were created to live in community, and to weave ourselves together for the common good.

Rippers Versus Weavers

What happens when the notion of community is destroyed? In The New Cold War, a recent opinion column in The New York Times, columnist David Brooks reflected on the recent mass shooting in Pittsburgh, and on the role "protracted loneliness, loss of meaningful work, feeling pressured and stressed in the absence of community" have in increased levels of depression and mental health issues.

He then goes on to make a broader comment, saying:

... the chief struggle of the day is sociological and psychological, not ideological or economic. The substrate layer of American society — the network of relationships and connection and trust that everything else relies upon — is failing. And the results are as bloody as any war.

Maybe it’s time we began to see this as a war. On the one side are those forces that sow division, discord and isolation. On the other side there are all those forces in society that nurture attachment, connection and solidarity. It’s as if we’re witnessing this vast showdown between the rippers and weavers.

“Rippers and weavers” - or, as the article's subtitle terms these, "The forces of division and the forces of connection." - is a wonderful distillation of so many issues currently facing every level of our society, from the community, to the city or town, to the state, to the nation, and to the world as a whole.

What causes people to become rippers? Reasons listed include " ... a radical individualism ... a workaholic ethos ... and [living] in insular media and social bubbles ... "

Do Certain Beliefs Make Us "Inadvertent Rippers"?

Reflecting on this article led me to wonder whether some people might be ripping apart elements of our society, without even realizing it.

A person may not view himself as a radical individualist or a workaholic, or view herself living in a cocoon or echo chamber. Even so, certain beliefs do seem to have the - likely unintended - consequences of ripping things apart.

For example, someone who believes people should have the "freedom" to choose whether or not to buy health insurance is actually ripping apart the underpinnings of our healthcare system. How? Hospitals are, by law, required to provide care, even if they will not be paid for it. All hospitals - even not-for-profit hospitals - must operate profitably to remain viable. Thus, the costs of this unreimbursed care are borne by all of us, either through increased Medicare or Medicaid payments, or through higher health insurance premiums. Whether by higher taxes or higher premiums, we all end up paying for this type of "freedom."

Similarly, someone might believe employers should have the "liberty" to not pay a living wage - and doing so ends up ripping both individual lives and the community. How? Without earning a living wage, an employee hangs on paycheck to paycheck. What happens when that employee has an unexpected car repair, or has to buy medicine for his mother, or has to stay home with her sick child? That person then has to make an impossible choice. Do I repair my car so I can keep going to work, do I buy medicine so my mother can get better, do I stay home with my daughter - or do I pay my rent? Instead of an employer paying a living wage, society pays for the costs of homelessness and poverty. Whether by paying higher taxes or donating to not-for-profit agencies, the rest of us pick up the tab for such "liberty." 

Finally, someone could believe those earning a higher income should keep a larger part of it by paying lower taxes because they "did it on their own.” How might this be harmful? This belief rips society's basic notion of fairness, because people don’t become wealthy entirely by themselves. We all buy goods and services, and we all pay taxes to build infrastructure and educate our citizens, so we have all contributed to a person's wealth. A progressive income tax system recognizes no one truly "did it on their own" and thus asks the wealthy to do more to restock the pond - since they have benefitted from our shared social investments more than most, they can afford to reinvest more in the community, state, and nation.

"Radical Individualism"

These notions of "freedom" and "liberty" and "did it on their own" are not only fallacious - they are also examples of what David Brooks calls "radical individualism."

My friends from First Lutheran and other faith communities who serve breakfast every Friday morning at Greensboro Urban Ministry (GUM) see the fallout of this "radical individualism" every week. In nearly 13 years of serving breakfast, we have seen tens of thousands of guests, and most are dressed for work. These are the working poor, people who do not receive a living wage and thus have NO savings and NO margin for error in their finances. Many times, our guests will wear part of their work uniform - a ball cap, a shirt, or a vest - frequently adorned with the logo of a Fortune 500 company. Surveys show the CEOs of such companies earn over 312 times what their average worker earns - and our guests earn less than the average worker.

Radical individualism is not new - it has been around in different forms for all of human history. In Jesus' time, the civil and religious rulers had money, power, and status - and the ordinary people had very little. Today, many forces are ripping apart social bonds designed to hold people together and to provide checks on excessive power, influence, income, and wealth.

A Reflection For This Holiday Season

Jesus criticized only one type of individual, the "rippers" - the ones preventing all people from enjoying the goodness and bounty of Creation.

Today, as in times gone by, we need a society of healthy people. We need a society providing dignity to all in the workplace by paying a living wage. We need a prudential society - one that has its priorities straight, works toward its ideals, invests for the future, and thinks about posterity.

Providing for all of these needs is entirely consistent with Jesus' mission as "weaver" - of working to bring forth God's kingdom, God's dream for humanity, here on Earth.

This holiday season, regardless of your faith background, I hope you examine your beliefs about how our society should work, and ask yourself whether you are a weaver, or whether you are - even inadvertently - a ripper. To me, only a weaver is truly living, loving, and serving as Jesus did.

Sincerely,

ToddsSignature

Todd L. Herman

 

The Mysterious Oneness of Being

What might physics and faith, quantum mechanics and mysticism, have in common? todd herman webSurprisingly, much more than you might think ...

During this holiday season, as we celebrate various religious and national holidays, our hearts typically expand – making it an excellent time to also expand our minds and reflect on the mysteries of the ultimate reality, the Creation.

The Ultimate Reality, According to Physics

In a recent episode of the outstanding podcast series, "Orbital Path," Dr. Brian Greene, director of Columbia’s Center for Theoretical Physics, describes how mathematics – which has served us extraordinarily well in explaining how the universe works – points to a possible ultimate reality: that everything in the universe is composed of indescribably small vibrating filaments, also called "strings." He likens these vibrating filaments to strings on, say, a violin – just as a violin string vibrates in different patterns to produce different musical notes, the filaments vibrate in different patterns to yield different kinds of sub-atomic particles, the building blocks underlying everything.

These strings might also explain how two particles, "connected" to each other via "quantum entanglement," can instantaneously transmit a disturbance of one to the other. This is true, even if the two particles are on opposite sides of our galaxy, which is about 100,000 light years across. This faster-than-light transmission seems possible because a "quantum thread" directly links the two particles in some mysterious way that bypasses space, while light is always constrained to travel through space.

In other words, physics predicts vibrations and connections are everywhere, even if they are beyond our current abilities to see or measure them.

The Ultimate Reality, According to Christian Mysticism

In “Swimming in Mercy,” a recent meditation based on her book Mystical Hope, Cynthia Bourgeault of the Center for Action and Contemplation reflects on how the Creation might be explained in terms of energy. She notes that matter is really just energy in a very "dense and slow-moving form" (an implication of Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2, where E is energy, m is mass, and c is the speed of light). Then, she asks whether it is "too great a leap to say that energy as we experience it – as movement, force, light – is a 'condensation' of divine will and purpose? In other words, energy is what happens when divine Being expresses itself outwardly."

She continues to reflect on biblical verses typically read in churches around Christmas:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)

And finally, she makes this remarkable statement:

If we understood Word to mean at root vibration – the out-speaking of the divine will and purpose – then the Word is that which makes manifest the fullness of divine purpose as it moves outward into form.

In this view drawn from Christian mysticism, connections among everyone and everything are universal, because the Creation and everything in it is the energetic manifestation – the vibrations – of the dream of the Divine, the Source, the Ground of Being, the One.

Jesus as Mystic – Seeing the Divine in Everything and Everyone

Mystics are persons highly attuned to the energy and vibrations of the One. Jesus and the Buddha are notable examples of mystics.

Jesus

While faith traditions may be associated with mystics – for example, Buddhism or Christianity – at the level of the mystics, religions disappear, leaving only the pure spirituality underlying all faith traditions.

Jesus was a mystic and – while he lacked our knowledge of physics and string theory – sensed the vibrations of Creation and thus saw how everyone and everything are connected to each other and to the One. He understood how lying, greed, hatred, jealousy, bullying, shaming, belittling, exploitation of others or of the Earth, misogyny, racism, sexism, and the like run counter to the purpose of the Divine. In other words, any words or actions that fail to care for – or worse, deliberately harm – Creation and everyone and everything in it shatter the connections linking everyone and everything, going against the will of our common Source.

Jesus as Servant Leader and Prophet – Increasing Shalom and Speaking Truth to Power

Jesus cared deeply about those affected by these disturbances of the Creation – those who are poor, in mourning, hungry or thirsty, or persecuted for a righteous cause (Matthew 5:3-10). This includes the guests at Greensboro Urban Ministry (GUM), whom my friends at First Lutheran Church and I serve breakfast every Friday morning. In the same passage, Jesus also affirmed those who work to lighten their load – those who are meek, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers.

At its core, the mission and message of Jesus was to restore connections broken by those whose agendas run counter to the will of the Word. Jesus' goal was to bring wholeness, goodness, healing, completeness, and justice to all the world – in other words, to increase shalom (roughly, yet incompletely, translated “peace”) in the world.

Journey Outward, Journey Inward

During the holiday season, we always see an outpouring of generosity to our community – contributing to GUM and other worthy charities, donating cold-weather clothing, pitching in to build a Habitat home, and volunteering to help feed and shelter our neighbors experiencing homelessness. All of these acts are certainly good and helpful, and they are part of what the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro (SLS) at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church would call “Journey Outward” – putting faith into action in tangible form, and serving a world in need.

Yet there’s also what the SLS calls the “Journey Inward” – deepening the inner life through various spiritual practices. Many Christian congregations subordinate this inner journey to the outer journey, at the risk of burning out volunteers by serving others without nurturing themselves.

The Christian Gospels may inadvertently promote this burnout by depicting Jesus more as servant leader and prophet, and less as mystic. These books focus on Jesus’ actions, not on his spirituality, yet he could only do the work he did because he was solidly rooted to Source and fully connected with the Oneness of Being.

The baby whose birth many of us will soon commemorate grew into a mystic seeing the connectedness of all, a servant leader working to increase shalom, and a prophet speaking truth to power, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable – whose voice was silenced by a brutal death, yet who still speaks to us, softly, gently, lovingly, calling us to restore the connections and harmonious vibrations of the Creation, as intended by the One.

This holiday season, I hope you reflect on the mysterious Oneness of Being, and begin your own Journey Inward. From that place of calm and strength, you can then undertake your Journey Outward.

Especially with the year we’ve had, we all desperately need to recommit ourselves to restoring shattered connections and fully bringing shalom – wholeness, goodness, healing, completeness, and justice – to everyone and everything we touch.

 

Sincerely,

ToddsSignature

Todd L. Herman

 

Judge Not, Fear Not

Todd tells the story of his daughter, Morgan, and her friend, Jenna, helping out at a homeless shelter - and what they learned from that experience.

image of Todd
 
I co-lead a group of volunteers who gather early every Friday morning at Greensboro Urban Ministry (GUM) to prepare and serve breakfast to 100 or more homeless men and women.  Before breakfast is served, we share a brief devotion and prayer with our guests.
 
I usually arrange the devotion leader, and getting someone to do this can be hard ---- after all, surveys show peoples' top fear is public speaking.  While I always ask our pastors to lead devotions once a quarter, my preference is to get non-clergy.  Why?  Because their stories are more authentic and heartfelt.  Our volunteers and guests can more easily connect with the speaker's story.  We've heard Charlotte talk about her backwoods camping and experiencing "thin places."  We've had Ken share a wonderful poem which had touched his heart.  We've been moved as Ginny shared her experience of her mother's death just the week before.
 
But the most memorable devotion of all?  That was shared on July 19, 2013.  Let me set the stage.Apex 2016 winner
 
On April 7, 2006, First Lutheran Church launched its Friday Breakfast Community at GUM.  A month or so after it launched, my daughter Morgan ---- then a seventh-grader, and without prodding from me ---- said on a Thursday evening, "Daddy, wake me up at 4:30 tomorrow morning ---- I want to serve with you."  So I did, and she got ready.  We rode together to GUM, and we made PB&J sandwiches and bag lunches together.  Afterwards, we had breakfast at Chick-fil-a and then I dropped her off at middle school.
 
We did this again the following Friday, and over that second breakfast, Morgan asked, "Daddy, would it be okay if I brought a friend next week?"  I said, "Sure, Sweetie ---- invite whoever you want, and we'll include them."  Who received that first invitation?  Her BFF since second grade, Jenna Sawafta.  The next Friday, we picked up Jenna, all three of us made PB&J sandwiches and bag lunches, and I took them to Chick-fil-a, then dropped them off at school.
 
Both girls continued serving regularly with the group throughout middle school and high school, always inviting others to come with them, many of whom also became regular volunteers.  Saying our formal "good bye and good luck" to these wonderful kids on June 1, 2012 ---- shortly before their high school graduation ----was one of the hardest things our group ever had to do.
 
  
 
Just over a year later, in mid-July 2013, I was wondering who would lead devotions on Friday.  Imagine my surprise at this text message chain just a few moments later:
  • Morgan ---- Daddy, do you have anyone lined up for devotions yet for this Friday?
  • Todd ---- No, why?
  • Morgan ---- Because Jenna would like to lead devotions.
  • Todd ---- Wow, that would be great!  Looking forward to seeing and hearing her!
Friday came.  Jenna and Morgan were there, along with many of their friends.  Then Jenna shared these words, her voice filled with strength and love:
 
 
For those of you who did not know, I am a Muslim and right now we are celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month where Muslims fast everyday from sunrise to sunset, and this month gets two weeks earlier every year. As many can imagine, fasting in the winter is much easier because the sunset is much earlier, typically around 5:00 or 6:00, and summer is the hardest time to fast because of late sunsets, around 8:00 and 9:00, accompanied by the heat.
 
However, no matter what month it is, fasting is very difficult. When fasting, Muslims abstain from not only food but also drink, including water. The point of these restrictions is to separate human beings from their earthly desires and strip them down to a vulnerable state, where they are left with not much more than faith to keep them going.
 
Ramadan is a time when, through fasting and reflection and self-control, you have the chance to be your best self, and to make the world a little better place.
 
When explaining to non-Muslims the practice of fasting from sunrise to sunset, I often get looks of shock and statements like "Why on earth would you put yourself through that?" "How do you survive?" "What is the point of that suffering?"
 
The truth is that, when I began fasting the month of Ramadan, I was in third grade and had many of these same thoughts. I fasted because it was something I knew I should do, but I didn't understand why.  And I certainly didn't abstain from complaining about it!
 
Ironically, it wasn't until seventh grade, when I started volunteering with First Lutheran Church at Greensboro Urban Ministry, that I truly understood the purpose. Trust me when I say no one was more surprised than me that, through delving into the world of Christianity, I would become a stronger Muslim.
 
When I first began volunteering, doing things as simple as making PB&J sandwiches and serving food and drinks, I began to see how the simplest of good deeds could make a difference. I saw this through the people who looked me in the eye with the most sincere looks I have ever seen, thanking me for what I was doing, as if making a sandwich was changing the world.
 
But then it dawned upon me ---- when I am fasting and I have gone the whole day without any food or water, and I hit the point when I have two hours to go and my head is pounding and I am so exhausted and weak that I can't function, I realize how dependent I am on God. I realize these so-called "simple things" ---- food and water ---- make all the difference. That without these basic things God has provided, I have nothing.
 
 
    
 
 
And that is when I understood the role PB&J sandwiches and a hot breakfast played in changing the world. Even more than that, I realized I am not invincible.  Often, we get so caught up in our lives and dramas, we put God and faith on a back-burner, thinking we are strong enough to survive without it or that we will always have tomorrow. But the truth is, you never know what the future holds.
 
My best friends Morgan and Joann have also fasted with me a few times ---- these were great experiences that allowed us to not only learn more about each other, but grow as friends.
 
Ramadan is also a time of reflection, a time to take stock and be thankful. I am very thankful for the Hermans bringing me along in seventh grade, for growing as a person during my seven years of volunteering, and ---- best of all ---- for realizing through listening to your teachings and prayers that, although we don't share the same faith, we are far more similar than we are different.
 
Thank you for everything you all have taught me!  I hope that in sharing my thoughts with you today, in some small way, I have returned that favor.
 
 
Jenna, thank you for sharing a heartfelt devotion ---- and, yes, you have MORE than returned that favor!
 
In his wonderful book, Jesus For the Rest of Us, former pastor John Selby comments:
 
Jesus seems to have said very little about what we should avoid doing in life.  In fact, throughout the four Gospels, there are only two dramatic statements he's quoted as saying, loud and clear, that carry a negative intonation.  They also happen to be the most insightful commandments ever to ring in human ears.  They stand as our primary psychological challenge if we're to walk the path Jesus walked.  (page 91)
 
What are these two statements?  Judge not, fear not.  Judgement is backward-looking ---- an action or outcome can only be judged in hindsight.  Fearfulness is forward-looking ---- the outcomes of an action, or an inaction, are not known and thus potentially bad.
 
These days, many Christians seem to have forgotten Jesus' commands to judge not and fear not.  Judging actions committed by terrorists have been wrongly conflated into judging Muslims and refugees.  Fearing possible future actions by terrorists have been wrongly turned into fearing Muslims and refugees.  We forget the baby Jesus was himself a refugee, and the adult Jesus was perceived by many as a threat.
 
Living the Christmas Story

Have you ever read the Christmas stories in the Bible and pay close attention? Ever notice the details of the people involved and the shocking insights they reveal about God?
 
  • A teenage girl is pregnant and unmarried.
  • A baby is coming with no father in the picture.
  • Shepherds could not be trusted to testify in court, so they lived outside the village walls.
  • Magi (wise men) were priests from a foreign land, culture, and religion (perhaps Zoroastrians from Persia).
  • The Holy Family is homeless, then become foreign refugees seeking safety due to political violence in their homeland.

 

Nearly every character in the story has been labeled, judged, and excluded due to fear, bias, and stereotypes. Most, if not all, would have been turned away based on the social rules and religious doctrines of the day. Most, if not all, would have been feared and judged as unworthy of God's attention and love. Yet, all the while, angels (portraying the voice of God) tell them constantly, "Don't be afraid. God is up to something amazing, and YOU get to be part of it all!"

Every one of these feared, judged, and excluded outsiders knew ---- and felt ----the power of the label they bore. But God saw the judgmental human labels as a special qualification for God's work. God needed and used these people to birth God's dream of wholeness and well-being for the entire world. These social and religious losers were first round draft picks on God's team of setting things right!

And what happens?
 
  • The unmarried, pregnant teen becomes a model of trusting faith.
  • The disgusting, dirty shepherds are welcomed into the village, becoming the first to hear and tell God's Big News.
  • The foreign priests from Persia come celebrate the handiwork of the One God of their two very different religions, then go back home and continue being the best Zoroastrian priests they can be.
  • And the fatherless baby grows up to be one of the greatest spiritual teachers and social transformers ever.

 

To me, all these characters personify a new hope and vision religion can offer the world ---- if religious people and institutions choose to evolve rather than self-destruct. This would require people and institutions to:

 

  • Create harmony rather than division.
  • Be life-giving instead of violent.
  • Place compassion above doctrines.

 

Jenna and Morgan symbolize what religion and our world could be.  It's an honor to be a small part of their story. It offers Muslims, Jews, and Christians  ---- and all religions ---- a way to become God's blessing for the world ... if we choose to do so. 

Blessings,
 
Jay Hilbinger
Senior Pastor
First Lutheran Church, Greensboro, NC
 
 
After the scholars were gone,
God's angel showed up again in Joseph's dream and commanded,
"Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child, and wants to kill him." 
(Matthew 2:13, The Message)
 
For the Christian, the question is ---- Can you walk Jesus' path, and avoid judging and fearing?  For all people of good will, the question is ---- What is the just and compassionate thing to do?
 
Jenna and Morgan remind us to not judge others whose faiths and backgrounds differ from our own.  Morgan is fearless in calling out those who use their power, wealth, or status to demean, cheat, or hurt others ---- as several bigots and bullies have learned the hard way.  Jenna ---- who is never at a loss for words! ---- overcame any fear she had of sharing her faith story with us.
 
Even as little girls, and now as adult women, Morgan and Jenna have much to teach us.  They teach us about being your best self and making the world a little better place.  They teach us about not judging and not fearing. 
 
Judge not, fear not.  Jesus commanded it.  Morgan and Jenna do it.  Can we?
 
 
Peace, Shalom, Salaam, Namaste,
Todd Herman Signature 
Todd L. Herman
 
 
PS ---- Like all good stories, this story did not end on July 19, 2013.  So, just like the storyteller Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, I will save that story for another time.
 
PPS ---- This year, Christmas is on a Friday.  Even so, my friends and I will show up at GUM early that morning to prepare and serve breakfast, just as we always do.  I invite you to come and serve with us.

On the Other Side of That Line

How do your words and behaviors affect others? Do they ever draw a line between "us" and "them"?

todd herman web

 

 

As is so often the case, the source of this year's December newsletter comes from my experiences serving breakfast at Greensboro Urban Ministry (GUM) with my friends from First Lutheran Church.

 

International Students Serve at GUM in 2015 – Impressed With the U.S.!

Last year, in late 2015, about a dozen students from a language institute in Greensboro came to serve with the Friday Breakfast Team at GUM.  The focus of this language institute is to provide intensive English language instruction to international students – all appropriately authorized by the U.S. federal government – in preparation for college or graduate school in the United States.

These students come to the United States from all over the world, representing a variety of continents, countries, faith backgrounds, accents, skin colors, and forms of dress.  They come because they believe the best about our country – our openness, our inclusiveness, and our reputation as a melting pot for people seeking a better life or education.

Coming to GUM to serve with our group and interview some volunteers about what we get from serving had been assigned as a class project.  Still, the students came to GUM eager to learn about our culture, and especially how we treat our neighbors currently experiencing homelessness.

Even though these were young adults aged 18 to young 30's, they pitched in and did the same work done by our middle school and high school students – making PBJ sandwiches for bag lunches, serving plates of food, pouring milk, and greeting guests with a smile.  They meshed perfectly with our team – you could barely tell “us” from “them”!

After everything had been served and cleaned up, their adviser gathered the students and asked them to share their reactions to serving.  All were amazed at how well we treated persons currently lacking homes! They noted that, in their own countries, no such programs – whether through government or charities – existed.  They were impressed because such programs in our community and nation showed people cared enough to help their neighbors in need.

This year, in late October 2016, I was contacted and asked whether a different group of students from the language institute could serve with our GUM Friday Breakfast Team. Of course they could!  Checking calendars, Friday, November 18 worked well for both the adviser and the students.

 

Finding a Devotions Leader to Navigate Tricky Terrain

Early on Wednesday, November 9, the results of the U.S. presidential election were known.  Over the next few days, I read news reports of supporters of the president-elect directing hateful comments at persons having skin colors, accents, faith backgrounds, or countries of origin different than their own – even though many of the slighted persons were American citizens born in this country!

I became concerned about the international students soon to serve with us at GUM.  I needed a devotion leader who could help address and calm any anxiety these students might feel.  In short, I wanted to ensure these students had the same wonderful experience as the students in 2015.  Two friends, Brian and Kristina – both pastors –immediately came to mind to lead devotions.

When I called Brian, he shared a personal story of hurtful comments directed at a friend who plays with him in a praise band, leading a contemporary worship service at a local United Methodist Church congregation.

“My lead guitarist is Latino.  He's a really good, hard-working, talented guy who has never lived outside of North Carolina and works behind the counter at a popular fast food restaurant in Greensboro.  Two days ago, a customer told him and another Latino co-worker to ’pack their bags 'cause Trump's gonna send them and all the beaners back south of the border.’"

Please take a moment to re-read that passage.  Then, as we approach Christmas, reflect on this question: Where was Christ in that fast food line?  Certainly, NOT with the customer!

Christ was … 

• Standing steadfastly with the demeaned Latino co-workers. 

• Calling out the customer delivering the slur.

• Speaking through that restaurant's manager, consoling the workers and trying to make things right.

Brian had a conflict that particular morning, so I called my friend, Kristina.  A Caucasian married to a Latino, Kristina told me her experiences post-election, and said leading devotions would be a good way for her to wrestle with her feelings and direct them into a Christ-like response.

 

International Students Serve at GUM in 2016 – A Message for Them and All of Us

November 18 arrived, and so did the students.  This year, seven young adults from the language institute came to serve with us, and they excitedly shared their experience of reading Morgan and Jenna's story, which I told to the 2015 students – an assignment in English class!  Like their counterparts last year, they pitched in and started making PBJ sandwiches.  When I asked their adviser about the students' experiences last week, she acknowledged the post-election rhetoric concerned the students, and faculty and staff were already working to address these concerns.

We finished our preparations and circled up for devotions.  Kristina opened by saying she would not normally discuss an election during a devotion – yet these were not normal times.  She shared her experiences with three family members who had voted for the president-elect.  Only her nephew was uncomfortable with remarks and behaviors the president-elect and his supporters had demonstrated prior to and following the election – the other two, both Christians, showed no such discomfort.

Kristina recalled Moses preaching to the Israelites as a commandment from God:

You must treat foreigners with the same loving care — 

       remember, you were once foreigners in Egypt.     (Deuteronomy 10:19, The Message)

She noted we were ALL foreigners in this country at one time, yet we are now one nation united in our principles and ideals.  Kristina challenged us to not only treat others well – to go further and stand up for those being harassed or demeaned.  In closing, she reminded us that to follow God's will requires us …

To do justice, and to love kindness,

      and to walk humbly with your God.     (Micah 6:8, New Revised Standard Version)

When you harbor ill will towards people who are not like you, you likely do not personally know a person of the race, heritage, or religion you are targeting.  You most likely have made those people into what Tara Brach, a Buddhist meditation teacher and a clinical psychologist, terms "The Unreal Other."  When we don't know people who are different from us, it is so easy to over-generalize, stereotype, and turn a very real person or group of people into unrecognizable caricatures.  Tara's prescription?

“The practice that really helps is for people to talk with people who are different.  Yes, there are differences, but the one who is looking at us also experiences the same fears and yearnings as we do – and the same deep, deep longing to love and to be loved.”

 

"Non-Cooperation With Everything Humiliating" – Are We Complicit?

Gandhi based his philosophy on the teachings and actions of Jesus.  Gandhi taught, "The first principle of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating."  We see this many times in the Christian gospels – Jesus standing up for those who have been shamed, hurt, or marginalized.  We see this many times in the words and actions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others working for social justice and civil rights – people, often dressed in their "Sunday best," protesting unfair systems and disobeying unjust laws in a peaceful and civil manner. 

Those of us who fail to call out others for reprehensible words and behaviors?  We are complicit in those words and behaviors.  We are cooperating with something humiliating.  We are not yet living up to the ideals of our faith tradition, whatever that may be.  Martin Luther boiled it down to this – "You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say." 

In both 2015 and 2016, the international students who served with us at GUM saw people serving their neighbors in need, and hopefully reflecting the BEST of their faith and their nation.  Unfortunately, these students – and many others – have now become "Unreal Others" to people who reflect the WORST of their faith and their nation. 

What if we all practiced Gandhi’s philosophy of “Non-Cooperation With Everything Humiliating”?  Would we allow slurs and putdowns to draw a line between “us” and “them”?  Which side of the line would God be on?

Jesus, Moses, Micah, and Gandhi would all answer that question the same way – God will ALWAYS be on the OTHER side of that line.

Sincerely,

toddsig

 

Todd L. Herman

A Preferential Option for the Poor

Todd discusses how our society treats the poor, hungry, and homeless, and what those in our community can do to make a difference.

Todd Herman PhotoHow do you feel we, as a society, treat the poor, hungry, and homeless in Greensboro? 

In the most recent mid-term election there was a lot of talk – and advertising  about certain issues. What are some issues that received little or no talk or advertising in these elections? Poverty, hunger, and homelessness

Why? Likely because the people in these circumstances wield little power. Elections are about power – who has it and who doesn't  and, in our society, power is nearly synonymous with money.

Greensboro Statistics on Dangerous Rise

If candidates for office don't talk about these issues, who will? Folks at Greensboro Urban Ministry (GUM) and similar agencies. GUM's November 2014 e-newsletter provided some statistics from a Brookings Institute's study on poverty in our country following the current Great Recession  and they should cause us all to pause:

•   Greensboro is tied for 10th place in the nation for growth in the percentage of poor.

•   We are in 6th place in the nation for the fastest growing rate of poverty.

•   We took first place for growth in suburban poor.

•   We rank 4th place in the nation for food insecurity  one in five of our neighbors (one in four if they are children) do not know from where their next meal will come.

The e-newsletter calls this a "proliferation of poverty" and accurately summarizes these statistics with "Simply put, our neighbors are struggling."

GUM talks about poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Who else talks about these issues?

•   King Solomon, who wrote "Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy." (Proverbs 31: 8-9, NRSV)

•   Prophets such as Jeremiah, who talks about restoring "the health of my poor people" (Jeremiah 8:22, NRSV), and Isaiah, who stresses the moral imperatives of justice, sharing, fighting oppression, and practicing compassion (Isaiah 56: 6-7, NRSV).

•   Religious leaders such as Gandhi, who said "Poverty is the worst form of violence."

•   Jim Wallis, a pastor, the founder of the faith-based advocacy group Sojourners, who frequently says "A budget is a moral document" because it reflects the morals of those who crafted and adopted it.

•   Pope Francis, in meeting with students of Jesuit schools, saying "Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures."

I recently came across an article by Michael C. McCarthy, a Jesuit priest and professor, who used a term I'd never heard before  "preferential option for the poor." This phrase, a part of Catholic teachings on social justice, is explained by the author as "the principle that a society or an institution must ultimately be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members, not those with access to power and privilege."

A "preferential option for the poor"  what a great phrase to summarize the quotes I've cited! Every person I've listed challenges us to become our best selves, to care for "the least of these" (Matthew 25: 40, NRSV).

Framing Jesus' Mission

Many of us are preparing to celebrate the birth of a famous prophet, Jesus. How Jesus kicks off his public ministry is incredibly significant, because it frames all of his mission. Teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, saying God "has anointed me to bring good news to the poor" then concludes with his own words,"Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4: 18, 21, NRSV).

Would Jesus espouse a "preferential option for the poor"? I believe he would. Just look at those with whom he ate, lived, taught, and preached  the sick, the oppressed, the outcast, those of other faiths, and of course, the poor. What might Jesus say if he walked among us today? I believe his words would be very similar to those of Pope Francis.

Francis has called out nations and economic systems for letting individual poverty become structural poverty, and has delivered a very uncomfortable message to those of us in the advanced world. Likewise, Jesus called out the civic and religious institutions of his time, doing so even though he knew the penalty was death by crucifixion.

Francis' message is especially uncomfortable to those with great power or vast wealth. This message echoes the command Jesus gave to a rich young man to "sell your possessions and give the money to the poor"  which was not the message the young man wanted to hear (Matthew 19:21-22, NRSV).

Time to Reflect

This holiday season, please take time to reflect on the phrase a "preferential option for the poor," and assess how well our society treats our neighbors, the most vulnerable brothers and sisters among us. And what if your reflection and assessment causes you discomfort? Then realize your heart has been stirred to care for "the least of these"  and act on this by donating time and money to agencies like GUM, and by speaking out against injustice in our society.

Sincerely yours, 

toddsig

Todd L. Herman

 

*Look for this article in the Triad Business Journal and the News & Record later this month. 

To get involved, call GUM at (336) 553-2642 or click here.

Todd Herman Associates

336.297.4200

620 Green Valley Road
Suite 104
Greensboro, NC 27408
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About Todd Herman Associates

Todd Herman Associates is a business technology consulting firm focused on non-routine technology issues such as replacing QuickBooks, getting two systems to "talk" to each other, shrinking process cycle time, and taming large volumes of data.