Reconciliation & the Depth of God’s Love

Written By Eric Harmon

If you are like a lot of urban ministers you have probably have an interesting group of people you call friends; former addicts, Nepali refugees, prostitutes, Chinese businessmen, etc… Some of these people are gentle and easy to love and some have their challenges. Often our gatherings are composed of a motley crew all in pursuit of Jesus. This is one of the things I love about being with my South Street family — you can never surprise them with the guest you bring to Thanksgiving dinner!

I have known a guy named Butch for years. He is like a lot of guys I know on the street, sometimes he is homeless, often he is addicted, and usually he is pleasant. Some years ago he was lucid and made an effort to fight his demons. Butch is an unlikely poet with a beautiful voice for singing. But, recently it seems that his mental illness has taken over and he no longer writes or sings. He disappears often, but in time reemerges, he tries to sell me something, I usually decline, and we talk for a while. I hope he starts to write again. Butch was known for his work as a sub-contractor for “Hells Angels” and did a significant amount of time for a series of robberies, one of which where a police officer was killed. He can be a challenge to love and he is my friend.

Reconciliation is a transformative process that is often messy and is a core Christian Community Development Association value. As I have heard John Perkins say before “Reconciliation is much more than getting together singing one another’s songs and eating the other’s food!” But as most of us know reconciliation comes from one on one hard heart work. That takes time, trust, and a reciprocal relationship that is open and vulnerable or what we know as a friendship. Reconciliation is not something one takes on alone. It is certainly impossible to be reconciled to “your neighbor” on your own, improbable “to God”, and difficult “to yourself.” There is a wise African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Reconciliation is a long journey and a friend is a partner in this transformative process.

Thomas Merton, a modern contemplative speaks of the “false self” and the “true self”. The “false self” being the identity of the individual the world has formed within them; addict, murder, loser, loner, etc.   The “true self” being the created self that God intended; beautiful, humble, valued, a child of God. The Body of Christ, a friend, is a guide in overcoming the obstacle of the “false self” embedded within all of us and an aide to rediscover the “true self.” It is messy, ugly, long and truly liberating process to separate what one has done and even who one has become, from who I truly am and who God created me to be. It is a painful process I had to undergo after a tour of duty in Iraq and a two year prison stint, to reveal the red-headed kid from the suburbs who has an impulsive sense of adventure not meant to be used for warfare and crime, but for bringing service in the love of God to some unstable places to some challenging people who were not so unlike myself.

There is an odd verse in Ephesians Chapter four where Paul describes Jesus’ ascension and descention. He ascended that he might also descend and took “captivity itself a captive” and “gave gifts to his people.” I am sure there is some commentary on this that presents a different meaning however, I take this to mean that after the cross even captivity is under the dominion of Christ, so that even the captors (the traditional enemies of God and the oppressed) now have the opportunity to be set free from that which captivates them. This is of course not just for their own redemption, but so that they may participate in liberating others held in bondage (gifts). These gifts are for us, the Body of Christ, the friends of “sinners”, to guide us in the process of reconciliation. It is here we empowered with the audacity to love and hope for some truly challenging people.

This sounds like some nice stuff to give some hope to some challenging people, so maybe they will feel a little better and move along. I wouldn’t believe it myself, however I have seen it work. I have seen the sex offender reconcile, get a job, a house, a nice wife, and become a respected member of the church and his community. I have seen the negligent mom lose her kids for good and after years of transformation in process have the courts grant her custody of children that needed a mom. I have seen the violent offender reconcile, overcome that which disturbed him and once healed, turn around and dedicate his service to justice. I don’t see it as often as I like, but by the grace of God I see it enough to have hope for the next guy.

Building Beloved Community

 

Building beloved community.

The phrase has been ringing through my head all day.

I remember during my Mission Year during our National Orientation in Atlanta we walked to the MLK Jr. National Historic Site. There was a flame encircled in brick, forever bubbling from the ground, with a plaque that read “The Eternal Flame symbolizes the continuing effort to realize Dr. King’s ideals for the ‘Beloved Community’ which requires lasting personal commitment that cannot weaken when faced with obstacles.”

Building beloved community.

“I want to canvas on D’vyne’s street and bring her coffee,” I whisper to Ruth. We were down at the Summit Lake Community Center gathering with other local leaders to hand out flyers to let people know about our community meeting this Thursday.

Our community council is a crew of unlikely partners, all brought together by a deep care for the Summit Lake community. We’ve revitalized the monthly neighborhood meetings, with a desire to build greater connection in our neighborhood. And here we were, 9am with Dunkin’ Donuts in hand, getting ready to go out in pairs on MLK Jr. Day and hand out flyers.

“LET’S GO TEAM!” I screech in excitement as we walk outside in the cold. My enthusiasm is met by laughter, but I just can’t contain it. So many people I respect and care about walking around talking to my neighbors whom I respect and care about about a community meeting that I respect and care about. It’s like a Director of Communication and Advocacy’s dream!

My team is Jeremy, Ruth and I and we get in my car and park at my house because we were given Long St. as a canvassing route. I’m really excited about it because it gives me an excuse to meet a lot of neighbors I haven’t gotten a chance to meet organically, and a chance to visit neighbors I haven’t seen in a while. Darren meets us so then we’re a team of four, splitting up the street and taking sides. Ruth and I are having a blast, walking from door to door, cracking jokes, making Instagram stories. I watch her be a complete rock star, telling people about our community meeting, the importance of their perspectives, and an invitation to come join us. She leads in confidence at such a young age.

We visit our Girls Studio friends, I see some AfterSchool loves, and we connect with parents, grandparents, teens–people in our community who remember Summit Lake in many different seasons. We hear concerns for our community and curiosity about the neighborhood association. We are connecting people, connecting story, sharing life.

Somewhere at the end of Long St. I realize that we are building beloved community.

*  *  *

We’re back at the community center and Jeremy and Darren have left and it’s just Ruth and I. “I want to go bring D’vyne some of this coffee,” I state. Aliyah joins us and we hop in my car with the coffee to bring some to D’vyne. It feels like we’re having a mini Girls Studio reunion and I love it.

We pull up to her house and hop out of the car and stumble onto the porch, rap on the door to see an unfamiliar face opening the curtain, asking who we are.

“We’re here for D’vyne–it’s Aliyah, Ruth, and Amber.” We hear the message relayed to the adjoining room and then we hear an excited scream and D’vyne tumbles out of the house and wraps us in a hug. We’re laughing, just laughing, shoving Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in her face and she’s grabbing her shoes and vanilla coffee creamer and Mama comes out and says she can go wherever because she trusts us.

All of life is but an adventure.

We end up at Save-a-Lot because it’s Aliyah and Ruth’s mom’s birthday so we decide to make a surprise birthday cake for her. She likes chocolate a lot but there’s no chocolate icing so we choose brownies and powdered sugar instead. I grab chocolate pudding, Ruth grabs candles, D’vyne grabs frozen Chinese food and we’re hustling through the check-out line.

Finally we’re in my Summit Lake home, taking off our shoes and letting out a sigh of relief. This space is a safe place–a place where we’ve laughed and cried, a place where we’ve met for Studio, a central hub, a hang out spot. They said they just wanted to chill, and so we chill. We bake a surprise birthday cake. I make us lunch. We take a nap. They do the dishes. We laugh. We live life.

We are building beloved community.

*  *  *

Later in the day I’m at our AfterSchool volunteer orientation, laughing with our incoming interns and volunteers. One is a high school friend of mine, two are interns from Malone, and the third is stepping into being Program Director while I begin to do more Communications and Advocacy work at South Street Ministries. We play a couple of games, eat pizza and wings, and talk about AfterSchool as a program. I think about the AfterSchool families I visited today while canvassing, telling them that program was starting this week (to which one grandma firmly said: “Oh, they’ll be there!” as her four grandkids buzzed around her asking question after question).

In the same day I’ve connected with AfterSchool families and AfterSchool volunteers. It’s such an unlikely partnership, but that’s what we’re about at South Street. We’re about putting people that don’t make sense together into relationship because we believe that God is there in those in-between spaces. We believe that shared risks are the vulnerability on which trust, empathy, and healing are built. We believe that renewing our community is a process that is always undergoing and never complete. We believe in Jesus, who taught us to be a neighbor–who taught us to center our lives and decisions to include and amplify the voices of the most marginalized.

After orientation David insists that we go get the mango drink at the taqueria that I rave about. We pile into the South Street van and head to the plaza in Firestone Park, only to find that the place is closed for the day. Thankfully the little grocery store next to it is open, so we walk out with three Jarritos and a wave to the local store owner.

We are building beloved community.

*  *  *

“Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday dear Mom
Happy birthday to you!”

My heart is so full of the laughter and love for this place, for these people, for this work.

We are building beloved community as an active verb and not a passive, idealistic noun.

What a raw, clumsy, tangibly beautiful life.

A Day in the Life

“Do you have a rice cooker you could bring over?” I’m on the phone with my 15-year-old neighbor Julie as I walk through the aisles of the grocery store looking for curry powder.

“Yeah we do. I’ll check with my mom and see if it’s okay!” she replies.

I grab the curry powder. It’s $4.99—unexpectedly high.

“Sweet. If not it’s totally cool it would just be a huge help tonight. I’ll be home in 15 minutes; come on over then!”

We hang up and I fumble through the remaining aisles finding the ingredients that I couldn’t get in the grocery store in our Summit Lake neighborhood. Standing in line, I’m hit with a wave of fatigue—what a day to be battling a sinus infection. The rest of the day I had been taking it easy, but it seems like now I’d have to kick the adrenaline up a notch. Our South Street Ministries AfterSchool volunteer celebration dinner is less than two hours away and I’m hosting at the Long Street house. This is no time to be consumed by fatigue.

I’m finally pulling into my driveway and Julie is coming around the porch with a rice cooker nestled in her arm. Though I’m tired, I find myself genuinely smiling at her. I’m excited to spend time cooking together. We walk in and find a handful of kids hanging around the common spaces—they needed help with their homework and didn’t realize AfterSchool was over for the holidays so they came to our house. I giggle as I haul the grocery bags to the kitchen; something about that strikes me as beautiful. I can’t quite name it in the moment.

Julie and I look at the recipes to get started for the AfterSchool volunteer celebration dinner. She asks me what is on the menu, and I just laugh—the menu was a typical Amber moment. In my stubbornness to constantly immerse myself (and others) into new cultural experiences, we ended up with a Fijian/Hawaiian/Chinese/Southern/potentially Indian infused cuisine experience. I didn’t realize until all the ingredients were on the table that the menu in all ways looked and felt entirely ridiculous and random. We were in for an eclectic and delightful meal celebration.

“This is how you tell if you have enough water for the rice without using the cup.” Julie shows me how to measure with my finger, and I nod and take note. As I’m listening to her the kids are filling the common spaces with drums and percussion instruments, pianos and laughter. I giggle and my heart is full. I am in my home, cooking a feast alongside my neighbor and friend, and kids are doing homework and playing the drums, and my heart is full.

Soon Z comes into the kitchen and wants to help. I look at her face, so curious and eager to learn. I set her up in helping create the salad by cutting lettuce, celery, carrots. Young Shawn wants to help, too, so we set him up in peeling carrots. They both go to AfterSchool, and deep inside I find beauty in how they’re helping make the meal that will be served to volunteers who have extended their time to serve them. They’re so excited to be of help, Shawn asking if he’s shredding the carrots right and Z is chopping lettuce confident and sure on the counter top.

Ava’s head pops into the kitchen: “Can I help in any way?” I glance at the clock and see that we’ve got five minutes until the event starts and soon set her up with dicing cilantro and scallions. I had been adamant that AfterSchool volunteers not help but only receive during this celebration, but with five minutes to go I throw that rule out of the window and welcome any help. Many hands enter during this time—volunteers, kids, staff—as everyone pulls together the final preparations for the meal.

We’re standing in a circle, kids, staff members, and volunteers alike, and we pray to open the feast of celebration and thanksgiving. Upon hearing the “Amen,” I raise my eyes to the small group. “So…we’ve got quite the meal ahead of us. We’ve got edamame with Thai sweet chili sauce as an appetizer, or pupu. There’s gifted bread from Panera, and a light Chinese salad with rice noodles. We’ve got rice as a base, and glazed chicken curry and Fijian beef stew as main courses. Betsy has gifted a cheesecake dessert. We’ve got sparkling white and red grape juices to drink, and water with sliced oranges. Eat up, friends. Let’s celebrate.”

* * *

An hour later, I find myself standing in the corner at the end of the night, taking it all in. I find myself thinking about our eclectic, culturally sporadic meal, and how it didn’t make much sense together, but it was good. Looking around at the laughing faces and conversation, I come to a realization that this was the perfect kind meal for this group—a group that is sporadic, coming from many different places, but comes together and it is good.

“Happy Birthday to you

Happy Birthday to you

Happy Birthday dear Bob

Happy Birthday to you.”

We’re laughing because the ceiling fan blew out the candles but Bob is rolling with the punches and is laughing, red in the face and caught so off guard. We’re celebrating one another, we’re celebrating Bob, we’re celebrating the kids, we’re celebrating a semester of AfterSchool—we’re just celebrating. After a semester of AfterSchool that during some days was difficult, to celebrate together was a gift.

Sometimes I’m struck with the richness of life. Today was one of those days. On the outside it was so simple—a cooked meal, a shared meal. But on the inside it was a day full of rich moments, of borrowed rice cookers and little hands helping, of hospitality and thanks, of an improv birthday cake and a jacket gifted. On days like these I experience the lines and edges blurring with the reality of the life I’ve chosen, where neighbor is friend, where volunteers become companions, where kids are helpers and leaders, where housemates and co-workers are family—we are all in active community with one another. We really are a rag tag bunch of unlikely partners—volunteers and kids, neighbors and staff—but we are partners in community nevertheless.

As I’m involved in work where I’m actively stepping towards pain, lament, and brokenness, Advent is the longing in my soul that aches for the becoming of a world such as this—a world of wholeness, of healing, of harmony. It is in days like these where I taste the Messiah, Jesus, who knows the pain of all intimately, and in compassion and incredible power makes all things Well—both in our individual lives and on a collective, societal scale.

Sangiam stopped in at the end of the night and in excitement brought up the idea of a house gift exchange between her family and ours at Long Street.

A gift exchange, neighbor to neighbor. The thought was so delightful that joy escaped me in a boisterous laugh.

The celebration continues.

A Life Remembered

A South Street volunteer passed away this month. I received an e-mail with his obituary from his wife, now widow.

George Cull, 84, was a Christ Community Chapel member who, along with his wife Sandy, would open up their Peninsula home and pool to the youth of South Street every other Friday throughout the summer. The kids called him Gramps and his family embodied a deep ministry of hospitality.  The Culls made our kids feel welcomed, made sure they had swimsuits and towels, paid for a lifeguard to be present, and made lunch for our swimmers.

George passed in his sleep this past week. His wife inquired about donating his clothes to South Street and insisted that the kids still come to swimming today (Friday July 17th) because “that is what George would have wanted.” His calling hours are tomorrow from 10 to 1.

A few staff and friends of South Street will attend the calling hours tomorrow. The Culls modeled a powerful ministry of hospitality that the Church can celebrate and learn from. Many volunteers come to South Street for a season — a much smaller group invites the world of South Street into their homes.

As our kids make cards to encourage the family, the love of Christ that was shared through this family is evidenced. Gramps will be missed, but his was a life filled with the love of God.

A love that invited neighbors and friends into his home.