I Need This

I really hope this post sees the light of day.

I am in a season of incoming. There are lots of things (lots of stuff) that I am acquiring. Over the course of the next year, I will buy and furnish a house. I will receive many gifts from friends who love me dearly. I am in a season of incoming.

And because I am a Christ-follower and because I live in a 'needy' neighborhood, this season has taxed my spirit. There is an unconscious accumulation of stuff that just happens as middle-class Americans. We buy things and receive gifts, and things amass in our basements and attics.

My grandfather passed some time ago and some of his things were passed on to me. My parents recently moved and I inherited their surplus. My birthday is coming up, and friends will buy me stuff. And a season of incoming can easily turn into a long season of having, a lifetime of owning, a culture of needing.

And it is to that sentiment that I now turn: need.

My cell phone does not work that well. It often freezes and has some programming glitches. I recently said, "I need a new cell phone." That is not true. I want a new cell phone, but I do not need a new one. I am quite reckless with that word, as we all are.

Because when I need something it seems all the more justifiable. To need a new (and thus reliable) car, a consistently functional phone, a set of matching plates, or a comfortable couch makes the acquisition of such items all the more palatable and justifiable.

But were I to say the more truthful, but less noble 'want,' my character may be called to question. My selfishness possibly exposed. I want a new cell phone. I want a truck that doesn't have problems with power steering. I want nice cutlery and comfortable furniture.

I have 22 hats in my closet. Twenty-two. At South Street today I wore my 23rd hat and one of the kids who attends took it from my head and put it on. This is an infuriating game the children play for two reasons: one- it leaves my balding head cold, and two- without fail the inner city youth I work with and love inevitably look cooler than me in my own hats.

And when the service ended, the child asked if they could keep my hat.

I need this. Not my 23rd hat, but a consistent presence in my life that reminds of my propensity to acquire and my reluctance to give. I need the twinge of selfishness (because I like that hat) to remind me just how petty and selfish I can be. And I need a community where sharing is normative, where giving and receiving is a beautiful two-way street.

I often receive accolades for my work at South Street. I do not deserve them. I need this ministry, because it ministers to my selfish heart. My neighbors, brothers, and sisters (many with legitimate needs, many others with far more reasonable wants than my own) lead my heart to freedom by taking things off my head.

I am in a season of incoming. But there is a season for everything.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

LORD, grant me the wisdom to know the difference.

Grace & Peace

 

Akron: Love & Lament

In less than two miles I was in two worlds.

Tuesday started with my neighbors and I watching a house get destroyed. The house across from me, next door to my neighbors has been vacant since I moved onto Bachtel Ave. 2 years ago. My roommates and I joke that there are more rocks from our driveway on the roof and through the windows of that old, abandoned house then there are rocks remaining in our driveway.

And it was an eyesore. And it was a home for animals (raccoon and possum). And the foundation was bad (or so I was told). And the copper piping had probably long been stolen already. But this being the third house torn down over a five day period on Bachtel alone was still disheartening. It's a brown-dirt scab on an already injured street. I thought of Lamentations 1 "How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.

However, my afternoon was spent at the University of Akron in a conference hosted by the Knight Foundation entitled "For the Love of Akron." We spent the afternoon designing shirts that captured the heart of Akron, perceiving the city through different eyes, and proposing plans to renew the city through art and civic leadership.

It was good. But made for a weird day.

My morning spent watching a house razed. My afternoon spent dreaming about the future of Akron. The contradiction was obvious to me and weighed on my spirit. The present reality of my city didn't match the desired future. And as encouraging as the conference was, my present concerns were left unanswered.

However, I doubt that the city or the Knight Foundation would even be able to answer my lament. I understand most of the economic and political issues at work in my neighborhood. Its easier to 'landbank' and reinvest into a neighborhood later. Not many of my neighbors vote or attend community meetings for change.

So the words of the prophet Isaiah were particularly relevant to me this week: (Isaiah 58:10-12)

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. I like that. Because there are less and less dwellings on Bachtel every month. Summit Lake leads Akron in abandoned and vacant properties. And there is a clear effect on the neighborhood. I ask my neighbors what they think and there responses are usually sighs of 'what if.'

What if my family had moved in? What if they repaired the house? During the "For the Love of Akron" event, many artist's efforts to renew their city were displayed. One such artist Candy Chang from New Orleans developed "I Wish This Was" stickers

The stickers were posted all over New Orleans to express hope, despair, frustration, and potential.

I wish my street were full of good neighbors and not empty plots.

I wish there was a grocery store in walking distance.

I wish the school on the top of the hill wasn't unused and vacant.

I wish my street were a little more like Isaiah 58 and a lot less like Lamentations.

Peace?

I can remember talking about nonviolence and pacifism at a coffee shop. I remember the debate over the theoretical question, "what if someone broke in your house and threatened your family?" I was 20, single, and relatively safe. The notion of someone breaking into my not-yet real house and threatening my non-existing family wasn't even a present reality.

I look back at the conversation in disgust now. Because it so trivializes the real hurt and pain and loss that so many have actually felt. An 11 year old girl was hit by a stray bullet this week. She died soon thereafter. She had been a participant in South Street's urban gardens last year. Some of her extended family are still gardening participants this year.

I did not know the girl personally, but the weight of violence has burdened my heart this week. so much so that the hope of peace seems distant. It is easy for me to turn the other cheek, I've never been hit and I don't fight. But how do I tell children about peace when fighting is all they know? Sometimes, it feels like I don't practice nonviolence, but non-activity. Peace is easy when there is no conflict.

But for my neighbors and city, is peace even an option? Can the deep shalom of Christ be actualized in neighborhoods where girls get hit by stray bullets? I found Psalm 122 in my search for an answer; it reads as follows:

Psalm 122: 6-9

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
"May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels."
For the sake of my brothers and friends,
I will say, "Peace be within you."
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your prosperity.

This is a song of ascent. A song the Jews would sing as they walked the dangerous hills and roads on their way to Jerusalem to worship. And it would be easy to trivialize this Psalm, to view it as a song instead of a promised prayer. So I tried a few extra-Biblical alterations:

Pray for the peace of Akron:
"May those who love you be safe.
May there be peace within your streets
and security within your homes."
For the sake of my brothers and friends,
I will say, "Peace be within you."
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your prosperity.

I am convinced that there is not much I can do to change my neighbors outlook on peace and violence. But I know that I know that God does change hearts, redeem cities, and establish peace.

Pray for the peace of Akron.

 

Blessed

God bless you.

An interesting phrase for a sneeze. An even more interesting word and premise, blessed.

Jesus doles out blessings quite interestingly, blessing the poor, the mourners, the persecuted, and the peacemakers in the Sermon on the Mount. But for us (at least for me) living in a wealthy nation, with a consistent paycheck, good friends, daily meals, and a solid family, blessedness can take quite different forms than what Jesus dictated in Matthew 5.

Because blessings should be associated with happiness, right? Blessings should be connected to a good life. And I am not writing to posit that this isn't true. I merely want to share how I have been blessed in recent weeks.

At South Street, we strive to employ urban youth. To teach them job skills and financial management that will equip them with opportunities as they enter adulthood. We do this on a small scale, hiring 2-3 youth at a time. One particular young woman is bright and witty, with a razor's tongue that keeps the neighborhood entertained and ensures her protection against the insults of others. She frequents our programming and also attends events with other Akron non-profits.

At one such event, this young woman lost her temper as a situation spiraled out of control and our newest hire ended up verbally and vulgarly dissecting the staff of this organization. Needless to say, we heard about it.

So we talked. We put stipulations on her employment based on her reconciliation with this organization. They didn't need to be friends, but they needed to respect each other. And this mediation came to pass, and it went well (for the most part…).

So where does blessing come in? How was I blessed by this whole situation? Frankly it was more work for me and a bit more drama than I care for. But in between the situation and the mediation, this student asked me for some help with one of her school assignments. Poems for English class.

And I was blessed. Blessed to be a neighbor, friend, and brother in Christ close enough that this young student currently on some form of probation felt comfortable enough to not only ask me for help, but to let me read her poetry. Poems of a descriptive personal nature, detailing her temper, her facade, her inner quietness.

It was a blessing to be let in. To be invited into her life and to know her a little deeper through her words. Her words defend her in a rough neighborhood. Her words entertain others and esteem her place in the pecking order. Her words defend against racial and economic differences. Her words can cut you to the core. Her words were a blessing to me.

I am not going to post her poetry her. One because I do not have her permission (although I may ask later) and two because it is her story to tell, not mine. Mine is to share her blessing. Not a blessing of wealth, family, or comfort, but a blessing of depth. Depth of character, story, and shared-life. I am blessed to be welcomed into the heart and life of another.

I hope that in my words you find a blessing as well.

Privilege & Mobility

At South Street, I often work with volunteer groups. This may be one of my favorite aspects of my role there. I feel a kinship with most volunteers, knowing that volunteering has been such an essential part of my own urban experiences. I also get to share some of the theology and theopraxy of South Street with the volunteers, a conversation I generally enjoy having (and a soapbox, I seldom avoid).

This week a group asked me about downward mobility. Before I expand upon my thoughts, let me introduce some background definitions. Upward mobility is a socio-economic idea of moving up social and economic classes. It is one's ability (whether intrinsic to that person, as in naturally athletic or intelligent, or circumstantial) to move up and out of own's present circumstances into a 'better' life. Many would associate the idea of upward mobility with the premise of the American dream.

However, the group asked me about downward mobility. Downward mobility, from the questioner's perspective, is the notion of forsaking one's natural 'success' for a life 'below one's means.' This question is derived from the South Street story. Duane, haven given up a middle class job, for a life of pastoral work in a predominantly lower class neighborhood embodies this notion of downward mobility.

And it was at this point, that my normal paradigm began to shift. A year ago, I would have signed on to the notion that downward mobility was a good thing. That forsaking my chances for economic success in exchange for a life of service was the way to go, however I find there is more to it than that. And the more to do is this idea of privilege.

I have stated above that mobility is connected to one's ability, whether intrinsic or circumstantial, however I would now expand that definition to include privilege. There are occasions where underprivileged individuals and families move up the social ladder. And there are too occasions where the over-privileged (if we have underprivileged, a term I often use in grant writing and hear often times in social justice settings, dare I suggest that we must therefore have over-privileged) will be forced down to a lower economic class. However for the privileged, these are usually matters of choice, whereas for the poor it is generally a forced status.

Why bother with this distinction? To what end rant about economics and class and mobility? Because I am trying hard to love my neighbor and I wonder if talk of downward mobility is a little offensive to them. I recognize that my choice to live on Bachtel in Summit Lake was a choice to forsake living elsewhere, but I often recognize that it was a choice in the first place. I did not move here out of necessity or out of poverty (poverty really being a lack of power and resources). I moved here by choice. My privilege allowed for upward and downward mobility, which is a contradiction somewhat.

So when my volunteer group asked about pursuing downward mobility, I cringed a little. It was suggestive that we could choose to be poor. That 'slumming it' was a good choice for up and coming college graduates. And as I pondered their question, I thought of my roommates. One who just received a promotion at his financial investment firm, the other who just purchased a new (well new to him, used) car since he had a new job. Is that not the definition of upward mobility? New jobs, better pay, better vehicles. A better life?

And that is what I want for my neighbors. A better life. But a better life together. I would not encourage downward mobility for downward mobility's sake, that is a foolish contradiction. Rather upward mobility together, that is an idea I can rally behind. Because with those new jobs and opportunities, my roommates continue to share with those around them. Their success does not just trickle down to the poor, it is directly shared with our neighbors (sometimes, often times we are a bit too selfish still).

Mobility is a real idea. I have witnessed friends graduate and succeed. I have seen neighbors try and try and try and remain unemployed still. Privilege is also a real concept, I have been privileged to have many of the opportunities I have had. I recognize that they were in part of my own hard work, but ultimately the credit lies on the systems that favor people like me (and consequently de-favor people who are different). But it was not mobility that led me to South Street. It was love.

And there is no law on love. Love is not restricted to a particular socio-economic class. And as I struggle to love my neighbor (and in doing so struggle with my love for God), I wrestle with the differences of class and cash. But my hope for my neighbor is not poverty, but opportunity.

So, good reader, as you too consider these things, I am sure that something above comes off wrong, but if you take anything from my jumbled rant, remember to love your neighbor, and wrestle through what that means.