Raising the Minimum Wage

Last night I spoke to City Council regarding the Legislative Priorities for 2017. There were seven of us who did. Topics addressed by the speakers were ethics reform, restoring balance to the Clean Water Commission, Medicaid expansion, capping the interest rate on predatory lending and raising the minimum wage. In fact, ethics reform, Medicaid expansion and minimum wage were all lifted up by Councilman Mike Schilling as priorities that needed to be included or amended in order to give the Missouri Legislature more guidance, but his changes were subsequently voted down by the majority of the other council members. It became very clear that the majority on City Council are not willing to advocate for something if they believe the Missouri Legislature will not take up the cause. But here’s the thing: If we all adopt that attitude, nothing will ever change. Medicaid will never expand to include people who make more than $5,000 and less than $12,000. Minimum wage will stay so low that people cannot support their families on it, even if they are working full-time. Legislators will continue to receive campaign contributions from predatory lending institutions that disguise their true identity. Nothing will change and so people will continue to get sick and not be able to afford healthcare, costs of living will continue to rise as wages remain relatively stagnant, and big money will continue to control and shape the laws of our city, state, and nation. No one wants to talk about these issues because they’ve been labeled as “political.” It’s time we stop letting people silence us with that claim. Don’t allow our legislators or anyone else to call the issues that matter most “political.” Because what they’re doing is playing politics with people’s lives and that is unacceptable.

And so yesterday, fully committed to raising my voice in solidarity with those who are not paid enough to support themselves or their families, I spoke the following words to the Springfield City Council:

Good evening. I am Rev. Emily Bowen-Marler and my address is on file. Over the past couple of years, Springfield has really opened its eyes to the reality of poverty in our city, recognizing that having a hole in one end of the boat affects us all. As a clergy person here in Springfield, I applaud the efforts that the city is taking to tackle the symptoms and, in some cases, the root causes of poverty. I’ve attended a number of meetings and presentations where the data has been laid out and the call to do something about this as a city has been issued. But there is one thing that seems to be missing from the conversation and I notice it is missing from the legislative priorities as well. We know that the poverty rate in Springfield is double the poverty rate in the whole state of Missouri. And we also know that Springfield has a lower unemployment rate than much of the rest of the state, so what gives? The elephant in the room is the low wages that are paid to workers in Springfield. The low wages in this city directly correlate to the level of poverty we experience in our community. Which results in people having their utilities shut off, being evicted from their homes, running to a predatory lending company… I don’t understand how we can claim to take the alleviation of poverty seriously without addressing the low wages that the citizens of Springfield are making. You want to decrease the levels of poverty in Springfield? Raise wages! Even when adjusted for our low cost of living, our wages are too low. When people work over 40 hours a week and are still not able to pay for food, housing, transportation and clothing for their families, something is wrong. When parents have to take on 2 or 3 or more jobs in order to make ends meet, something is wrong. When people have to choose between turning on the heat and eating a meal, something is wrong. Too often people are tempted to lay all of the blame on the low-wage earners, to accuse those who live in poverty of being lazy. When we find ourselves tempted to say such a thing, I would challenge us all to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. To participate in a poverty simulation, to try living on food stamps for a month. But instead of seeking to understand the plight of those living in poverty, our legislature continues to take punitive measures by further limiting the government benefits one can receive, by reducing SNAP and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) benefits, by failing to take advantage of the money set aside for Missouri to expand Medicaid. I understand that there are many who are against the government extending benefits to those in need. If that’s that case, why not advocate for people to be paid a high enough wage so that they wouldn’t have to draw on government benefits in the first place? Our religious and charitable organizations are doing a great job trying to address the symptoms of poverty, but all the available has not lowered the poverty level in Springfield. This can’t be fixed by Convoy of Hope or by the Council of Churches of the Ozarks. There is a problem with our laws. When employers are allowed to pay people such a low wage that government assistance is required to make ends meet, there is a problem with our laws. When we lift up the cause of business at the expense of people being able to escape poverty, there is a problem with our priorities. We should not stand for that. Springfield is better than that. Businesses cannot survive if the people perish. It’s time to stop ignoring the root of the problem and start paying people a living wage.  I sincerely hope you will reconsider adding raising the minimum wage to the legislative priorities for 2017. Lives in our community depend upon it.

 

The Day I Got Harassed in Public

I was asked to speak at the Love Trumps Hate Rally here in Springfield. Please note that this was a rally, not a protest. It was intended to be an opportunity for people to gather together to heal and express solidarity in the face of the turbulence that has arisen from this elections season. I would hazard a guess that people on all sides, no matter how they voted, felt the anxiety and uncertainty leading up to the 2016 election. The rally had a variety of speakers, performers and artists. I was one of the speakers toward the end of the rally. I noticed as I awaited my turn to speak that the crowd had dwindled some. At the same time, I heard the trucks decked out with Trump-Pence signs and the Confederate flag revving their engines noisily as they drove around the square in protest of what we were gathered for. So my anxiety level was a little higher than it had been at other events I’ve spoken for.

I began my speech expressing my excitement on election day, my hopes of witnessing a new barrier being crossed, the excitement to watch history unfold. I shared my disappointment over how the election ended up turning out. As I told the crowd of my dismay at a woman presidential candidate being talked over and interrupted and demeaned and bullied on the national stage, a man started yelling over me as I spoke those words (irony much?). And then, about two minutes later as I was sharing a disturbing story of what a member of our church overheard another man say post-election, a man jumped up on the stage and did a jokester-y dance in front of me while he held an oppositional sign above his head. I continued speaking, sharing how I have family members that voted for Trump and how I am not willing to cut them out of my life over it. Then the man danced his way next to me, put his arm around me (while I was still speaking) and when I turned and looked at him, he said, “Thank you for your vote.” I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what he was trying to do by saying that to me. Almost immediately someone came up and pushed him (without touching him) back away from me and then a bunch of people gathered around me. I have to be honest, for a second or two, I thought perhaps there were several others like him who were swarming around me and I got scared. I could hear some scuffling and shouting behind me and wondered if I should continue speaking. But then I realized the people who were standing behind me were in fact allies forming a protective barrier around me, shielding me from the man who had tried to demean and belittle me in the middle of my speech. And for a moment, I had to stop and regain my composure. People cheered as I steeled myself to finish the speech. Really, I am so thankful to those in attendance at the rally for their incredible support in the midst of a scary moment.

Afterwards the police asked me if I wanted to press charges and I said no. Because I felt like it would make me look bad if I pressed charges for someone coming up to me and putting his arm around me. His action wasn’t violent, he didn’t physically harm me. But I had several men tell me that they viewed it as assault and I’ve been wondering why it is that I didn’t see it that way.

The fact of the matter is, what the man did was wrong. I was speaking and he came up and invaded my space, he interrupted my speech to speak patronizingly to me, but he did it in a way that no one else could hear. He jumped around like a jokester in front of me as he made his way over to where I was standing, making a mockery of the words I was speaking from my heart. I spent a great deal of time crafting my words and then adapting them for this particular audience. I gave a lot of care to ensure that I was seeing the humanity of people on all sides of this election, that I felt it was important for all of us to listen to one another, no matter who we voted for. I wrote and re-wrote, I took the task seriously, and here some guy started jumping and dancing around in front of me as I spoke. I felt humiliated and demeaned. I felt like I was being made a fool of when I was trying to pour my heart out and speak words of hope and comfort to people living in fear and worry and uncertainty. Did he physically hurt me? No. But he did embarrass me (which is one of the worst feelings for me). And he scared me. Because I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know what his intentions were. And I didn’t know if he was alone. I felt extraordinarily vulnerable. And then I was overwhelmed by the show of support from those in attendance at the rally.

The other thing I’ve been wondering since yesterday afternoon is why me? There were a number of speakers before me and nothing like this happened while they were speaking. In fact, I think the only real disturbance during the entire event was the one I just described. So what was it about me that attracted this guy’s attention and inspired his antics? (He later told the News-Leader that he voted for Trump, but that didn’t mean he was a bigot. Oh, how I wish the guy had listened to my speech! It was as much to him as to anyone else gathered in the square. It was a call to ALL OF US to start listening to one another, to begin to understand where the places of hurting are that lead us to vote the way we do.) The only thing I can think of is that it was partly because I was a woman standing alone on that stage. And perhaps that’s why my male friends saw what he did as assault. Because they were shocked to see a man come up and touch me and interrupt me like that in public while I was making a speech because that is an experience they have NEVER had. And this may also be why I wanted to explain it away, to make it seem like it wasn’t as bad as it was. Even though clearly it affected me as I broke down in tears the second I finished speaking. But as women, we are taught (whether explicitly or implicitly) to accept the way men treat us, to put up with it and not confront it. Because if you confront it, it will only get worse for you. So just stay quiet and accept it and move on with your life. It’s exhausting. I don’t know how Hillary Clinton did it.

 

 

For those who are interested, here is a manuscript of my speech:

Nearly two weeks ago, we made our way to the polls, some with dreams of a new barrier being broken, a new era beginning. I spent much of the day with my 8-year-old friend Lily, who was so excited about the news the evening might bring. And I was looking forward to watching history in the making alongside this fierce and excited young girl.

Now, I’ll be honest with you. I have voted in six presidential elections. In half of them, the candidate I supported won and in the other half, the candidate I supported lost. But you know, this election is different. As a person of faith, as a woman called by God to preach the good news, I cannot stand silent in the wake of this particular campaign season and election.

There are so many parts of me that have reacted to what happened on November 8. As a woman, I am demoralized because a woman who ran for president and has been a public servant for 30 years has been smeared and systematically torn down since the very beginning and those tactics worked and she lost. She was talked over and interrupted and demeaned and bullied on the national stage (an experience that frankly almost every woman has had to endure many times in her life) and the one who treated her that way was rewarded. As a person of peace, I am frightened. I heard people promising violence if the election went the other way and acts of violence have been reported on both sides in the wake of Tuesday night. As an ally of those in the LGBTQ community, I am heartbroken as I hear the anguish in the voices of so many. As a granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant, I am angry that my family members were described so hatefully. As a participant in interfaith dialogue, I am worried that all members of Islam are being labeled as potential terrorists. As a pastor at Brentwood Christian Church who works for inclusion and extravagant hospitality, I am devastated that exclusion and inhospitality seemed to rule the day. As a human being who strives every day to see the humanity of those who think differently than me, I am challenged to understand why people voted the way they did.

We are a nation divided. But we are not divided because of who won the presidency. No, our divisions started long before that. And I wonder if that’s what makes this so hard. For months we have been aching for this election to be over so we could go back to some sense of normalcy, where we could go back to just being neighbors and friends and families and no longer enemies. But I think this election may have broken us. I have heard it from people across many generations: never have we been so divided. And we would have been just as divided if the election had gone the other way. Because as a nation, we have failed to listen to one another. We have failed to recognize ourselves in the other. We have demonized those who think differently and act differently and vote differently.

While for many, a vote for Donald Trump did not equate to a vote for racism, xenophobia and hate, it did equate as a vote for those things for some. A member of our church, while sitting in a waiting room on the Wednesday morning after the election, heard a man say to his wife: “Well, thank God Trump is now President. He’s gonna get rid of all the blacks, homosexuals, Jews and terrorists and we’ll get our country back.”

I know I have family members who voted differently than I did. But I’m not willing to cut them out of my life for doing so. And I know that I am coming from a place of privilege, being able to say that. Because I am a straight cisgender white woman with health insurance whose status in this nation most likely will not change under a Trump presidency. But I am an ally of many groups of people who cannot say that with 100% certainty. And I hear you and ache with you. Still, it is important for me to listen to the stories of those who voted differently than me. The stories of those who are struggling to make ends meet, who no longer have jobs available to them that have benefits like health insurance and sick days, who’s communities have crumbled due to closing manufacturing plants, who feel betrayed by Washington every step of the way and just wanted something to change. People vote the way they do for a myriad of reasons and we need to listen to one another. But right now, no one is leaving space for those who may think or vote differently than they do. People are unfriending family and friends left and right, refusing to be in the same room as those they once loved. I can’t help but think many of the bold declarations I’m seeing are tantamount to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face because let’s face it, we are all living in this country together. Most of us aren’t going to leave because of how this election turned out. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters], or perish together as fools.” But how can we ever begin to do that when the wounds are so deep?

We have a broken and divided electorate. And right now, it feels like healing may not be possible. As a minister, I often turn to the Bible where we find people crying out to God in the face of injustice, in the midst of distress, when the people are downtrodden and broken and devastated. The great prophets raised their voices against the powers that be that held the people under the heel of their boot. The prophet Isaiah preached to a broken people, a people living in exile, a people who had lost hope. And he reminded them of God’s work in this world, of God’s dream for God’s people. A new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more weeping, no cries of distress, where lives are not cut short by disease or famine or poverty or war. Where all will have housing and food to eat, where work will bring dignity and life and all will be blessed. The people of Israel needed this word from Isaiah, this reminder that God had a dream for them and that what they were living at that moment in time was not it. They needed to hear that God is the God of justice, the God of the poor, the God of the marginalized, the God of the voiceless, the God of the weary. In the wake of this election, as I wondered what the future holds for us as a nation, I’ve had segments of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” running through my head, a refrain lifting the fog of my despair:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

You may shoot me with your words,
Y
ou may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

We will rise. People of color and people of all gender identities, people of varying sexual orientations and people of all socio-economic levels, we will join hands together and we will rise. People of all ethnicities and people of all faiths, people with power and people with none, we will join hands together and we will rise. People of justice and people of love, people of hope and people of courage, we will join hands together and we will rise. We are called to listen to one another, to see the humanity of each person and to treat them with dignity, so we will rise. We are called to speak out when we see injustice, to stand on the side of the oppressed, to feed and clothe and visit and care for and welcome the least of these, so we will rise. We are called to work together to live into this dream for all people, so we will rise. It starts with you and it starts with me. It starts with us. And we will rise. Before you make an assumption about someone because of who they voted for, stop for a moment and imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes. Imagine the fear of not being able to provide for your family. Imagine the reality of not having any good jobs in your community any more. Imagine the anger at broken promises by politician after politician. Imagine the fear of having your marriage dissolved through no actions of your own. Imagine the terror of hearing that a powerful leader doesn’t want to allow members of your faith into our country. Imagine the anguish of hearing your child cry because they believe that they are going to be sent back to Guatemala. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, listen to them speak with the intent to hear their story rather than with the intent to formulate a response. And then join hands with them so that we can rise together. We have hard work to do, and our work starts here.

And to those who are living in very real fear right now because of campaign promises that were made and now have the potential of being realized, know that you have so many gathered here in this space right now who will stand by you, who will help you, who will rise up with you. We will stand beside you and love through it all. And we will fight for you. It is our calling as a community to make sure that it includes you. To show you through our words and our work that you are not alone and you are loved beyond your wildest imagination. We won’t let anyone in power leave you behind or strip you of the rights you have fought so hard to get. The call of justice won’t let us stay silent. The call of God demands that we speak, propels us to act and moves us to love. Together, we will rise.

Oppose Right-to-Work – Sustain the Governor’s Veto of HB116/SB569

I shared these words in our local newspaper a while back, but this issue has resurfaced in the wake of Governor Nixon’s veto of “Right-to-Work” legislation (HB116/SB569). In light of that, I feel it necessary to lift up why I, as a person of faith, oppose such legislation and support the Governor’s veto of it. In order to stand with middle class and working families and to express our commitment to our calling as people of God, I encourage people of faith and especially the legislators of Missouri to sustain the governor’s veto.

As a person of faith, I am concerned that once again a deceptively-titled piece of legislation is passed that does the opposite of what the average person might believe it does.  This legislation does nothing to ease the ability of Missouri citizens to work and in fact, undermines wages and the ability for workers to stand up for themselves and have a voice in the workplace. What “Right-to-Work” does is give CEOs, special interests, and corporations the right to pay low wages. That isn’t fighting for Missouri families. That does not honor the dignity of our workers.

Throughout scripture, the prophets cry out for economic justice. In the Gospels, Jesus reaches out to the oppressed and the marginalized. In our time, the oppressed are those who cannot support their families because of low wages. The middle class is shrinking and wages have remained stagnant for far too long, even as corporations and CEOs are taking in more and more money all the time. It is my fervent prayer that we work together to strengthen Missouri families, that we value the dignity of every worker in our state, and that we recognize the ways in which Right-to-Work will undermine all of that.

4 Days ‘Til Election Sermon

All week, I’ve been searching for my elusive Easter sermon (I think it’s hiding with the Easter bunny), and on my run route this morning, I found, not my Easter sermon, but my 4 Days ‘Til Election Sermon! I saw 22 signs for NO Repeal as I ran and two Vote Yes on Question #1 signs. Completely unsurprising given the part of Springfield I live in, but I did find it heartening given the knowledge that none of those NO Repeal signs would have been handed out at a church where the average Sunday morning attendance is around 9000 people (which is the case for the Vote Yes signs). So all of the people who had the NO Repeal signs in their yard had to do more than just get up and go to church on a Sunday morning. They had to make a concerted effort to get that sign. They had to reach into their pocketbooks and make a donation to help offset costs to get that sign. I know because I had to wait two weeks before I was able to get my NO Repeal sign!

But the potential influence of that mega church paired with an article I read in the News-Leader yesterday about a letter sent to 35 pastors urging them to vote yes to repeal got me thinking about a parable Jesus once told. He talked of the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches. And those of you who are familiar with mustard plants know that they don’t actually grow into trees, but they are prone to taking over a garden. In a culture where keeping things separate and pure, it would have been crazy talk telling a story of a man who would plant mustard seed in his garden. That would wreak havoc in the garden and infest everything! But see, that’s the cool thing about Jesus. He likes to take things and flip them on their heads. He uses things that might be seen negatively as an illustration of the kingdom of heaven. How’s that for provocative preaching!

The article I reference mentions that the superintendent of the denomination expects there to be 30,000 people worshiping in those 35 church on Easter Sunday. I would be lying if I said that didn’t make my heart sink as I read it. But today, on my morning run, I saw all those NO Repeal signs and I started to think of that mustard seed. How perhaps this NO Repeal campaign is the mustard seed planted in a garden full of people who like to keep things just so, no ruffling of the status quo because things-are-working-out-just-fine-for-me-thank-you-very-much. Maybe NO Repeal is like the kingdom of God, spreading a message of hope and love to all people. It starts out small, and in the face of 30,000 people who may be standing in opposition to us, we feel insignificant. But we are not. The seeds are being planted. With each conversation we have, the seeds are being planted. With each story we share, the seeds are being planted. With each phone call we make, with each door we knock on, the seeds are being planted. And these are seeds of love, seeds of compassion, seeds of justice, seeds of hope, seeds of care for neighbor, seeds of equality, and they will grow and grow and grow until they take over the field of 30,000 and become the largest of the garden plants. We’re infesting the garden with love, compassion, justice, hope, care for neighbor, and equality. These seeds cannot be unplanted. The conversations we’ve had cannot be un-had. Whether the seeds will germinate in time for the election on April 7, well, only time will tell. But know, that regardless of the outcome, the work we have done has been important work. It has been holy work. And it cannot be undone. Justice will come. Hope will rise. Take comfort in that.

Voting on Question #1

I have been reading so many letters to the editor, responses, even sermons now on how people are going to (or should) vote on Question #1 regarding whether or not the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) inclusion to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance should be repealed and here’s what comes to the forefront of my mind: This is actually not an issue about human sexuality. And yet that’s how people are talking about it. What Question #1 *is* about is human rights and whether or not we all have access to the same rights. Question #1 has nothing to do with marriage. And yet people are debating it as though it does. Question #1 is about whether or not every single person in Springfield has the right to keep their job as long as their employer can support their position and as long as the person’s job performance is satisfactory; it is about whether or not every single person in Springfield has the right to be able to put a roof over their head provided they are able to pay for it; and it is about whether or not every single person in Springfield has the right to be served when they go to a restaurant or a store or a place of business. That is it. Nothing more, nothing less.

And so to all of the people who are arguing this on a human sexuality level, it is time for you to consider that maybe you are missing the point. It is time for you to search deep within yourself and ask yourself if you think it is fair, in the United States of America, for any tax-paying citizen to be denied the right to be employed without fear of loss of employment due to something that has nothing to do with their job performance or the employer’s ability to support the position financially, if it is fair for any tax-paying citizen to be denied the right to housing when they can pay for it, or if it is fair for any tax-paying citizen to be denied public services when all they’ve done is walk into a place of business and ask for said services like anyone else. Because that is what’s at stake here.

On April 7, I am going to walk into my polling place and vote NO on Question #1. I am going to do this because I am a person of faith. I am going to do this because I am a follower of Jesus Christ who taught me to treat each and every person with dignity and respect, who taught me that it is in the very ones society despises and pushes to the margins that I can see his face. I am going to vote NO so that every tax-paying citizen of Springfield, MO can have the exact same rights that I have when it comes to employment, housing, and public services. I am going to vote NO and it is my sincere prayer that those of you who live within the city limits will join me in doing so as well.

Pridefest, Rent, and the World We Live In

So a couple of Saturdays ago (June 16), Travis staked out a corner of the Greater Ozarks 2012 Pridefest in the Square to take some photos for Queen City Faces. It seemed like a great idea at the time, a perfect way to capture some of the faces of Springfield. He talked with a couple of people, shared the purpose of Queen City Faces, and took some great shots. After he’d been there for a while, a woman approached him and asked him if he’d considered the fact that some of the people at Pridefest could potentially lose their jobs or face alienation from their families if these pictures placing them at Pridefest ended up online (you can read Travis’ account of this story here). I’m not sure if the woman who talked with Travis was lesbian herself or if she was concerned that even being publicly associated with an event like Pridefest could hurt her career, but I do know that she believed that she could lose her job if her employers saw a photo of her at Pridefest. The whole thing got me thinking…we really do still live in a world where even those who associate with the LGBT community or stand in solidarity with them by attending events like Pridefest can face negative repercussions, and those repercussions pale in comparison to those who are actually lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. What year are we living in? Why is it still OK to persecute these children of God? Why are we still finding reasons to denigrate, dehumanize, scorn, and shun those who need to experience the tangible love of God more than anyone else?

As Travis was taking photos at Pridefest, I saw Phil talking with some “Christian” protesters who were in attendance at the event. Without even approaching them, I knew that Phil was engaging this man holding up a large wooden cross in conversation surrounding the subject of homosexuality and scripture, talking about the love of God and the hatred being spewed by the church. I don’t know the exact words that were being exchanged, but Phil’s oldest son informed me that the guy with the cross was saying that it was bad to be gay, so his dad was talking to him about that. I don’t know that Phil’s words made any difference to the man, but they made a difference to his kid, and I do know that his willingness to offer this man another Christian perspective meant the world to some of my gay and lesbian friends who saw what Phil was doing.

Now, the reason I wasn’t able to be part of the conversation Travis had with the woman concerned about losing her job or the conversation Phil had with the cross-carrying man was because I was preparing to perform with Springfield Little Theatre’s cast of Rent on the Pridefest stage.  Rent has long been called a controversial musical. In fact, I know I myself have given a few disclaimers to people from the church who have expressed an interest in coming to see it. Not to discourage them from coming, just to prepare them for what they were going to see. Rent deals with AIDS, drug addiciton, and sexuality. There are three romantic relationships that run through the musical, one between and man and a woman, one between two men, and one between two women. In Springfield, MO, that’s controversial. But the more I think about it, the more I want to say, you know what? Rent isn’t controversial! Maybe it was back in 1996 when it was released, but this is 2012! The world is a different place! We live post Will & Grace. We live in the era of Glee. We watch TV shows where violence is glorified and murder is celebrated (as long as you’re killing the bad guys, right?). And we think Rent is controversial? 

Which also gets me thinking… Why is showing up at an event that supports the LGBT community controversial? Why is standing up for the rights of a marginalized and demonized and dehumanized segment of our society controversial? Why is a musical that celebrates love and the ways it ties us together in the face of heartbreak and disease controversial? Conversely, why isn’t it controversial to claim to be Christian as you stand for discrimination and hatred? Why isn’t it controversial to spiritually abuse our LGBT brothers and sisters, all in the name of God? Talk about taking the Lord’s name in vain. 

So yeah, these are some of my musings early on in my sabbatical, in the wake of Pridefest. I lament the fear with which our LGBT brothers and sisters live, the fear that leads them feeling they even need to hide their faces a bit at Pridefest (because this is, after all, Springfield, MO), the fear that keeps them out of our churches because of the abuse they have had to endure, the fear that has shut off belief that God could ever love them, the fear that keeps them locked in closets of loneliness and despair, the fear that has them believing that there may not be a safe space for them. My heart aches. And so I stand in solidarity, in the hopes that some day these fears can be assuaged, that the controversy and disgrace will be laws like the one passed in North Carolina, the hateful language upheld in church doctrine, and the wholly un-Christian practice of dehumanizing and denigration of our LGBT brothers and sisters.

Standing Against the E-Verify Ordinance

Some time ago in the Springfield News-Leader, there was an op-ed piece that called into question clergy and church involvement in the efforts to defeat the E-Verify ordinance.  Here is my response to that editorial:

In response to John Main of Pleasant Hope who wrote the words, “Shame on the local churches who are protesting E-Verify.  It’s not Christian that an unemployed American should have to compete with criminals for a job.  Since churches enjoy tax-exempt status, they ‘don’t have a dog in this hunt’ and should remain silent.”  To be Christian is to be a follower of Jesus and a follower of the way of Jesus.  As a member of the clergy, I am compelled to point out that the way of Jesus is the way of compassion, of reaching out to the least of these, of extending care to the poor, to the outcast, to the marginalized.  Members of the clergy and members of local churches who stand in opposition to the mandatory implementation of E-Verify do so precisely because they “have a dog in this hunt.”  They, like I, recognize that such a system targets a minority population in our country.  Such a system does nothing to encourage employers to hire only documented workers, it just drives the illegal hiring practices further underground.  Whether people want to admit it or not, our economy is dependent upon the work of undocumented workers.  They are often doing the jobs that citizens of this country won’t do and they are doing that work for less.  There is an unfair hiring practice in place on the part of many businesses that hire undocumented workers and then pay them in cash so they can get away with hiring workers for less.  And because such practices are done under the table, there are no protections in place for the workers.  These are the practices that lead to modern day slavery, which is one of the many reasons some Christians feel compelled to speak out against this ordinance.  When people claim that E-Verify will solve this problem of modern day slavery, they are failing to recognize that E-Verify does nothing to address the problem of employers paying their employees under the table.

Is illegal immigration a problem in the United States?  No doubt.  But I have to say one of the biggest problems is how it enables businesses to exploit human beings for the benefit of cheap goods and services.  We all want a good “deal.”  Sales at the supermarket or the mall drive many of our purchases.  Until we recognize that the great “deals” we come across each day are often made available to us because of the unfair employment practices of businesses by hiring undocumented workers who are not paid a fair (much less living) wage in order for us to have those great deals, and then work to do something about the exploitation of the undocumented worker, much of the problem of illegal immigration will remain.  E-Verify is not the solution to this problem.  And that is why I can call myself a Christian as I stand in opposition to its mandatory implementation.

Why I am Going to Vote No on Question 1 (E-Verify) on February 7

These are the words I shared on August 30, 2011 at a rally to stand against the E-Verify Ordinance that was going before City Council.  The ordinance did not pass the council’s vote and is therefore going before the people in an election this coming Tuesday, February 7.  I attended one of the Civility Discussions on the E-Verify Initiative last night at Central High School and I have to say, the blatantly racist comments of Jerry Wilson in his closing remarks (the racist nature of which, I am sure, he was oblivious)) have further compelled me to speak out against this ordinance and urge people to stand in opposition to politics and policies of fear and hate when they vote this coming Tuesday.

I invite you to hear these words from Scripture.  In Exodus 22:21, we find, “You shall not wrong or oppress the alien among us, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”  And in Exodus 23.9, “You shall not oppress an alien among us; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”  Leviticus 19.34 tells us “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” And finally, in Deuteronomy 24.14, we find these words, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.”

When I heard that an anti-immigrant ordinance initiative was being put before the people of Springfield, one of the least diverse cities in the country, I must admit, I felt grave disappointment in yet another attempt to play on people’s fear.  There is so much fear-driven legislation being pushed through at city, state, and national levels and it all runs so contrary to my faith as a Christian.  I am against this initiative that seeks to further marginalize the Latino community by unnecessarily arousing the suspicions of employers and neighbors simply because of the color of a person’s skin or the presence of an accent when they speak.  My faith compels me to welcome the stranger.  My faith compels me to reach out to the outcast, to the marginalized. My faith compels me to speak out against hatred and fear-mongering.  And so I come here today to bear witness to the call of Jesus to welcome the stranger.  It’s right there, in Matthew 25, when Jesus addresses the judgment of the nations.  “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was a sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  The call to compassion, to welcome, to love, is a much bigger call than we often live out.  Too many of us live out our lives as though that call extends only to those who look like us or sound like us.  But God is so much bigger than that.  Jesus also said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?…And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?”  We are called to do more.  We are called to live lives of greater love.  That is why I come here today.  Let’s work to make Springfield a community built on welcome and compassion, not a community built on fear and hate.

Blinded by Emotion

Preached on Sunday, May 8, 2011, using the text from Luke 24:13-35

It had been a hard couple of days. And now the dawn of this new day made the previous days’ events confusing as well. As two companions walked down the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, they tried to make sense of all they had been through. At some point along the way, a stranger came up to them. He saw they were deeply engaged in conversation, so he asked them, “What are you talking about?” The companions stopped in their tracks, their sadness overwhelming them. One of them said, “You really don’t know what we’re talking about? Are you the only person inJerusalem who does not know what has taken place over the past few days?” The stranger continued to probe, “Tell me about these things.” The companions let the words tumble out of their mouths, as if somehow explaining it all to this stranger might help make some sense of all that happened. “Jesus of Nazareth, have you heard of him? He was a prophet and spoke of God and God’s kingdom, his words were hard and true, he healed the sick, he dined with outcasts, he was mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. But this very week, the chief priest and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and he was crucified. We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They paused when they said this, their crumbled hope lying around them in pieces. After a few breaths, they continued the story. “And yet, this morning, it seems something incredible has happened. Some of the women of our group went to his tomb to attend to his body, but his body was not there! They had a vision of angels who said that he was alive! Some of the men went after them, to see if it was true, and they also did not find his body.” But something in their voices told the stranger that they didn’t quite believe it. And so the stranger said to them, “You were told that this would happen.Did your teacher not tell you it would be so? That it was necessary that the Messiah suffer and then rise again?  Let me share some things in scripture that might shed some light on this, some things in scripture that have been a part of your lives since you were very young and yet somehow, you have failed to integrate into your living and your being.”

Of course, we know this stranger who joined the companions on the road was Jesus. Jesus saw that they were being overwhelmed by their sadness, that they could not see what was right in front of them, even though Jesus had tried to prepare them for this, even though they could see this would be the inevitable conclusion to a life lived as Jesus lived. Challenging the powers that be, that’s dangerous work. But Jesus also knew that this work was so important, that this message of God was so transformative, death could not silence it. Thus Jesus said things to his disciples like, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.”  However, we shouldn’t be surprised that these words of Jesus did not sink in for his disciples as, in reflection upon these words of Jesus, the writer of Luke’s Gospel says, “But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” We are not so unlike these disciples, you and I. There are many things that Jesus has said to us that we have not understood, that we have not grasped, that we have failed to actually integrate into our ways of living. And I have to say, a prime example of this occurred this past week, in response to the death of Osama bin Laden. Now, please do not hear what I am about to say as condoning the terrible acts of violence and manipulation that bin Laden committed and was behind. His methods were reprehensible and he apparently did not feel regret over the many thousands of deaths he was in some way or other responsible for. Also know that I have seen and heard people from all sorts of political leanings different than my own express something similar to what I am about to say.  What disturbed me this week was the very public rejoicing that occurred in response to bin Laden’s death. The celebrations in the streets outside of the White House and at Ground Zero inNew York City. Hearing of these public celebrations (and again, when I say public celebrations, I do not mean the relief or even joy that flooded through many upon learning the news of bin Laden’s death, I mean dancing and singing and chanting in the streets), hearing of these public celebrations, I couldn’t help but think of the images of people in other countries rejoicing on 9/11 when they learned of the terrible attacks inflicted upon civilian targets in the United States. I thought such celebration then was shocking and sickening, and my response to the public celebrations over this past week was no different. Now, I don’t say these things out of a desire to be holier than though, but rather because it seems to me our faith in God as followers of Jesus compels us to respond in another way.

In Proverbs 24:17 we find the words – “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” And in Ezekiel 33:11 we read, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. And of course, whether we’ve integrated them into our lives or not, we know that Jesus shared words like these as well. Jesus himself said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Why did Jesus say this if he didn’t mean for us to follow it? I don’t think he was kidding. I don’t think there’s some cryptic message in these words. In Jesus’ words is a clear recognition of the fact that violence begets violence. As our General Minister and President Sharon Watkins reflects, “Maybe that’s ultimately in part why Jesus told us to love our enemies. Not just for the principle of the matter, but also because in practice, hate will circle back and strike at us again.” In her thoughts on the response to bin Laden’s death, she goes on to say,

“In the midst of these conflicting emotions, there is the reality that we can choose which [emotions] we act on. Jesus witnessed to the power of love and life. He brought his message into a violent and repressive empire. He expected his followers to resist evil with all their strength – but not by adopting evil’s methods of fear and hate. He called his followers to love at all times and to call upon the power of love to overcome evil, thereby being the sign posts of God’s empire of healing, hope and wholeness.”[1]

What I find even more powerful is that Jesus didn’t just say these words. He lived them. On that terrible Friday, as Jesus hung on a cross, spikes driven through his wrists and his ankles, a crown of thorns pressed into his flesh, people deriding him, spitting on him, on that terrible day, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Father, forgive them.” Such love in the face of such hate. Do you think the Roman soldiers felt remorse when Jesus uttered these words? My guess is they thought he was crazy. Was Jesus looking for their remorse before he asked for their forgiveness? No. Jesus just loved. And such love cannot be silenced by death.

As the companions walked on the road to Emmaus, they had Jesus there with them on the road, and though he drew upon scripture, upon their sacred texts that they knew and loved, their blindness continued, blinded by the emotion of loss and devastation in the wake of their beloved Jesus’ death. It was not until he broke bread with them, doing the thing he had always done with them, that their eyes were opened to his presence in their midst. On that Tuesday morning almost 10 years ago, as I watched the Twin Towers crumble, the first thought that flashed through my non-violence oriented mind was, “What do I think of the death penalty now?” In that moment of overwhelming emotion, I felt my stance against the death penalty wavering and it gave me pause. But over the past ten years, in the wake of warfare and further terrorist attacks (both attempted and carried out) and, I must admit, in my fear of the inevitable retaliation for Osama bin Laden’s death, my eyes have been opened to the fact that true justice cannot be brought about by human beings.  Many say justice was done last Sunday. Was it? One definition of justice is

“the principle that punishment should be proportionate to the offence.”

In light of this definition, could justice ever be achieved in the case of 9/11? Can a person really be proportionately punished in a proportionate way for the violent death of thousands? Such justice is not possible. Once a heinous crime has been committed, nothing can be done to make it right. Nothing. Does that mean that the perpetrator of the crime should not face consequences? Of course not. But we do need to recognize that the punishment will not make it better. It may give us relief, it may bring some modicum of joy, but it can never erase what has been done. The death of Osama bin Laden does not bring back any of the people who died in this country on September 11 or elsewhere in this world over the years as a result of his leadership in al Qaeda. It doesn’t really set anything right. Thus my conviction that justice cannot be brought about by human beings. It is only through the grace of God that justice can be achieved. Which my human mind wrestles with because I then wonder if perhaps true justice must have an element of forgiveness…

Something I have really been struggling with in the aftermath of last Sunday’s announcement is where my true allegiance lies and whether that’s something that can really be put out there for all to see and know. However, I feel compelled, no, I feel called to stand before you and say I am a Christian first and an American second. This does not mean that I do not love my country or that I am not proud to be an American. Not at all. But it does mean that when I say Jesus is Lord, when I proclaim Christ as Lord, those words need to have some implications on my life. It means that I need to take what Jesus says to us through scripture seriously and reorient my life accordingly. And my belief that Jesus is Lord goes hand in hand with my belief that God can bring about justice in ways that human beings could never dream of doing on their own. I think of God’s justice when I read about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, set up by President Nelson Mandela in the wake of the dissolution of apartheid. When I hear stories of confession and forgiveness that came out of South Africa during this time, I can’t help but believe God’s hand was guiding the process, for it seems so beyond what we as human beings can accomplish on our own.

And so I pray for God’s hand to continue to guide us. I pray for the risen Christ to be known among us in the integration of his words into our lives. I pray for our eyes to be opened to the One standing in our midst, inviting us to the Table to experience the fellowship that is shared when we break bread with one another. I pray for the wisdom to act on the emotions that compel us to love and forgive and reconcile rather than the ones that compel us to seek revenge. I pray for us to recognize that when we proclaim Jesus as Lord, our lives can never be the same.  Amen.

They Love the Church But Not the People

A few weeks ago, I found myself wishing like never before that I was Catholic.  May sound strange, but I believe that it is really easy to criticize that which you are not a part of and I didn’t want to come off as just another Protestant criticizing the Catholic Church because I have some really close Catholic friends and there are a lot of things I like about the Catholic Church, such as their care for the sick and the poor and their reverence for the mystery and holiness of God in ritual and worship.  But boy, have I wanted to criticize the Catholic Church over the past month!  You see, I’d received a text message from my sister telling me that the Catholic Church made a declaration that ordaining women was as grave a sin as priests molesting children.  Seriously?  So I had to check it out.  And what do you think I found?  An article from the Catholic News Service stating, “The Vatican is preparing to update the 2001 norms that deal with priestly sex abuse of minors…  At the same time, it will include the “attempted ordination of women” among the list of most serious crimes against church law, or “delicta graviora,””[1] Of course, such a declaration caused quite a stir among many, including members of the Catholic Church, so I looked for another article that addressed this concern:

As expected, the Vatican also updated its list of the “more grave crimes” against church law, called “delicta graviora,” including for the first time the “attempted sacred ordination of a woman.” In such an act, it said, the cleric and the woman involved are automatically excommunicated, and the cleric can also be dismissed from the priesthood.

Vatican officials emphasized that simply because women’s ordination was treated in the same document as priestly sex abuse did not mean the two acts were somehow equivalent in the eyes of the church.

Oh!  Well, that’s a relief!  And then…

“There are two types of ‘delicta graviora’: those concerning the celebration of the sacraments, and those concerning morals. The two types are essentially different and their gravity is on different levels,” said Msgr. Charles Scicluna, an official of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation.[2]

I’d like to point out that while it did state that in some cases, a priest who abuses a child can be laicized (or de-frocked), there was no mention of abusive priests being excommunicated.  And let’s face it, in practice, the abusive priests are generally just reshuffled to another assignment.  Which says to me, admittedly an outside observer of the Catholic Church, that a sin against the celebration of sacraments is dealt with more harshly than a sin against a child.  Is the sacred ordination of a women so bad?  And if so, what does that say about the Church’s opinion of women?  The handling of the ordination of women and the abuse of children tells me they love the church but not the people.  And I wonder, what would Jesus think of that?  Well, the Gospel lectionary selection for this week is a gift in light of this decree from the Catholic Church.  Travel back with me to first century Palestine, to creatively reflect upon the life of an unnamed woman…

She knew it couldn’t be right.  Yes, they had promised to love one another through thick and thin, through good times and bad, through plenty and want.  But surely this was going too far.  Surely she wasn’t meant to love him through the black eyes, the broken teeth, the cracked ribs, the belittling words, the berating comments.  And so she went to the only place she knew to go.  She went to the religious authority in her town.  She was certain he would help her.  After all, he had known her for most of her life.  He had to know of some way out for her, some way that didn’t cause her so much physical pain.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t what he offered her.  No, he just offered words of sympathy and then sent her back to her husband with advice to try a little harder at doing what he asked, and to perhaps just stay out of his way if he seemed to be in a rage.

And so that’s what she did.  Because if that’s what her synagogue told her to do, that’s what she would have to do.  Who was she to question the religious authority?  He was speaking for God, right?

Now she had been married for 18 years.  And over those 18 years, the burden she bore crippled her.  She couldn’t even stand upright.  No longer could she feel the warm sun on her eyelids as she lifted her face to the sky.  No longer could she look people in the face when they spoke to her (which she must admit, wasn’t very often as people tended to avoid a woman crippled like her).  For eighteen years this spirit (which bore the specter of an abusive husband and a silencing religious institution) weighed upon this woman until it became the only way of life she knew.  She forgot what it was like to walk upright.  She forgot was it was like to be able to see the trees along the path rather than just the dust of the road.  She forgot what it was like to feel the sun on her face or to see the look of kindness upon the face of another.

So imagine her surprise when she walked into the synagogue one day and a man walked up to her and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  Jesus had seen her enter the synagogue as he taught that Sabbath Day and the pain of her disfigurement was more than he could bear.  He was moved with compassion and had to go to her.  “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  They were the first words she had heard uttered to her rather than about her in quite some time.  And before the import of what he said had time to sink in, he lay his hands on her in a touch that said, “Be silent no more.  Endure your burden no longer.  You are free from all that has brought you low.”  The woman stood upright and praised God!

Ah, but the story does not end here.  Because Jesus did something naughty in the eyes of the church when he healed this woman on the Sabbath.  Such work on the Sabbath is forbidden!  Who are you Jesus, to fly in the face of the rules of the church?  Don’t you know these rules and regulations, these rites and observances are built into the very fabric of our lives and cannot be disregarded so frivolously?  Jesus, don’t know you we need these rules to keep authority in tact, to keep order in the world, to keep people in their place?  They loved the church but not the people.  And that enraged Jesus.

And so it has continued through the centuries, only now the religious authorities claim to appeal to Jesus in their silencing of abused women.  They have been told, “You should rejoice in your sufferings because they bring you closer to Jesus.  Jesus suffered because he loved us.  If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.”[3] But really, would Jesus tell the abused wife to endure her suffering?  Would he say to her, “But I died on the cross, so you should gladly bear your cross?”  ABSOLUTELY NOT.  And yet, women are raped by men and when they report it, they are questioned, “Did you do anything to provoke him?  What were you wearing?”  Women have endured abuse and been made to feel as if they deserved it.  The story of Eve in the Garden of Eden has become a jumping off point for the Bible to be used over and over again to sanction this abuse, turning women’s sexuality against them, demoting them not only to second class citizens, but to property.  Just think of the tenth commandment, in the list of things you are not to covet, where your neighbor’s wife is lumped in with his house, his ox and donkey, and his male and female slaves.

But things are better now, right?  Women and men are equal right?  Especially in the United States, right?  Well, we may like to believe that, but when we see data in 2010 stating that women make 77% of what their male counterparts make, it gives us pause.  And even in our church, the Disciples of Christ, there are more women than men graduating from our seminaries, and, yet, as Phil mentioned last week, more men are being offered the big steeple senior minister jobs, often relegating women who want to be a senior minister or solo pastor to small rural churches that don’t pay as much as their big city counterparts (because you see, you don’t have to pay a woman as much as you have to pay a man, making a woman  more affordable for a church with a small budget).  It’s important for us to remember that we can’t relegate such action to just the Catholic Church.  That would be unfair and untrue.  Because religious people from the dawn of time and into the present day have sided with the rules and regulations of the religious institution over the needs of the individual person.  We love the church but not the people.  We pledge allegiance to the church and silence the people.  We uphold church doctrine and slam the door in the faces of those who need the love of God the most.

But Jesus reminds us of something very important in the reading from Luke.  Jesus reminds us that the people are the beloved of God.  It is not the rules and regulations that we need to be accountable to, it is our fellow human beings.

When we want to know what God looks like, we look to Jesus, not the church.  We look to Jesus, not to the ones who have a vested interest in power staying exactly where it is located.  We look to Jesus, not to the rules and the regulations that keep people silent, that keep people out.  When we look to Jesus, we love the church, but we love the people more.

Jesus looked at the crippled woman and saw one thing and one thing only: a person in need.  He didn’t see the rules that told him to stay where he was and continue his teaching.  He didn’t see the rules that had been twisted away from their original intentions of liberation from the bondage of slavery.  He didn’t see the rules that told him this woman wasn’t worth breaking the rules over.  He saw a human being and he acted.  And when the religious authorities didn’t waste a moment before jumping all over Jesus for what he had done, he was reminded of the grave need for his work in the world.  As Jesus said in the gospel text from last week: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”  Jesus is making good on his promise, bringing division for those who refuse to acknowledge what their blind adherence to the rules and the institution is doing to people like the woman in our story, bringing division for those who love the church but not the people.  So what kind of Christians are we?  Are we those who value the silence of the suffering over the challenging up the status quo?  Are we those who value peace and quiet over the laughter and squeals of exuberant children?  Are we those who value order and predictability over the shaking up that differently-abled people bring to our surroundings?  Are we those who value power in the hands of the few over equality and dignity for all?  Oh, we love our peace and quiet, we love our order and predictability, we love our power, we love our rules, and yes, we love our church.  But we are called to love people more.


[1] http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1002827.htm

[2] http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1002901.htm

[3] Quoted from Proverbs of Ashes pg. 23 by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker