Monday, September 20, 2010

Limiting God

This past Saturday, I participated in Reconciling Ministries Network's Called to Witness training, part of the interdenominational Believe Out Loud campaign. The following is one of my public narratives* identifying why I am an inclusive Christian.

I have always been a religious person. I grew up a preacher's kid, usually liked going to church--- especially if there were snacks at Sunday school. But God was always just a word to me, an intellectual concept really, until I was sixteen and sitting outside of a bullet-ridden home in a village in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was here, when I was on a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2004, that I saw God, heard God, felt God in all God's messiness and recognized it as God through the person of a seventeen year old girl named Ðana.

Ðana was one of our translators, beautiful with a strong Eastern European accent. My sister Kate, who was fifteen at the time, and I both got along well with her because we were the only young people on the team. However, Kate and I had also never been out of the country before, so we were not used to the food, which concerned our host Saja, who decided we were wasting away. We weren't, but try telling a Bosnian that. So me, Kate, and Ðana went off without the team to Saja's friend's house for a special dinner. On the outskirts of the little town where we stayed, there were many small, stucco homes lining the mountains. Grape vines snaked up the bullet-stained porch and a little table and a few stools sat beneath them. A shy, voluptuous woman had set a few bowls on the table and waved as Saja raced into her driveway.

Kate and I were quiet. We sat down on the stools with Ðana and Saja, smiling and saying hvala (thank you) as our plates were heaped with fruits and vegetables. Saja talked away, with Ðana translating intermittently and the other woman laughing. Being on a strange continent with strange people who didn’t speak our language eating strange, but surprisingly tasty, food should have been terrifying, especially after we had gotten all those "Bosnia? Why would you want to go there?!"s by people at home. But there was a warmth to the evening. Kate and I sat thigh to thigh on a tiny bench and ate lubenica (watermelon) and cantaloupe, listening to the drone of the huge Balkan bugs that zoomed around the porch light as well as the music of the almost-guttural Bosnian language. And in the midst of this, Ðana reached over and hugged us to her.

I love you!

She said.

Ðana, a Muslim woman who had grown up during a war in a country that most USAmericans cannot locate on a map, a woman I had only known for two days--- it was in that moment of her telling us that she loved us that I felt God telling me that God loved me.

Still I am amazed at the path down which such a moment has propelled me. I think it is part of our USAmerican religious narrative that we continually express surprise whenever, for instance, economically poor people demonstrate immense generosity, or people of another faith offer their hands in the peace of friendship. We are so isolated in our social locations** that we cannot imagine God's grace acting through we deem less fortunate. But God continually, constantly, incessantly works through those we least expect. Think of old Abraham and Sarah and their slave Hagar as the parents of nations, think of Moses a bad public speaker as the leader of a people into freedom, think of a foreign widow named Ruth supporting her mother-in-law as the foremother of a great king, think of our redeemer born in a feeding trough for animals.

Yet we as Christians continue to ignore the stories of scripture to reject those through whom God works. We segregate our churches by race and class, we tell women it is God's will that they stay in abusive relationships, we burn Qur'ans. And we deny pulpits and membership to people if they are open about loving people of the same sex. It's like we don't even read the bible.
The bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, destroyed by people calling themselves Christian in an act of terrorism against the Bosnian Muslim people.

How many have we told that God is incapable of working through them the way, that God worked through Ðana? In what ways have we limited God?

God has shown me grace through a woman who has become my best friend, though we don't share the same faith, citizenship, language. Yet so many in the church work to keep that grace out, either by refusing hospitality to those who are different or refusing to see God's face in one that is not like theirs. The church needs to change. We need to change. To stop our communities from keeping God's presence from moving among us.

I am called to inclusivity because I follow a God who showed me how much I am loved through a Bosnian Muslim woman I had known for all of two days. What kind of God do you follow?


*In training, we hone our stories into short testimonies we can share, breaking the silence in a way that is not threatening but often deeply moving. This piece is too long, but, because I am using it here in a blog post, I thought the length could be forgiven.

**Not only are we isolated, but we are so indoctrinated in white imperial heteropatriarchy that we believe the stereotypes promoted by classism, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and heterosexism.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The tragedy of 9/12

Reflecting on 9/11 and Islamophobia in this country

People say that you will never forget what you were doing when you hear about a national tragedy. I was stuck in the hallway during class change and heard about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center from the lips of immature teenage boys. I didn't believe it. When I got to health class, it was on the TV. We went to lunch early and we're allowed to sit by the windows--- in case of the probable? attack on a rural school in Maryland or something. We went home early. I was 13.

Now, I feel rather removed from the events of 9/11. I didn't know anyone in the state of New York let alone Manhattan. I didn't know anyone in the Pentagon, I didn't know anyone in the plane that crashed in Shanksville, PA. I was never one for patriotism either, particularly after the election of George W. Bush. But, especially today as we approach the anniversary of 9/11 amidst the controversy over building an Islamic cultural center a few blocks away from where the towers stood, I sum up my feelings about 9/11 using the words of slam poets Issac Miller and Christian Drake in their poem "Nine Twelve."

"To be honest, I stopped mourning 9/11 years ago. But I will never forget the tragedy of 9/12, the day we could have become a nation of outstretched hands and were asked only to shut up and salute.The moment we could have proven to our enemies that we are not what they think we are. We were almost America."

We were almost America.

I live in a country today where a "church" in Florida is burning Qu'rans in commemoration of the ninth anniversary of 9/11. Where a New York taxi driver was stabbed for being Muslim. Where a mosque in Tennessee was set on fire. Where an Islamic cultural center is part of a national debate because it has been slated to be built a few blocks from where the two towers were. And I am really struggling to understand how this Islamophobia is acceptable, how it fits with the ideals spouted in our idealistic version of USAmerican history.* The Onion, news satire, poked fun at those who equate Islam with terrorism in a joke article that actually reflects a sad truth:
"I almost gave in and listened to that guy defend Islam with words I didn't want to hear," Gentries [the man who already knows all he needs to know about Muslims] said. "But then I remembered how much easier it is to live in a world of black-and-white in which I can assign the label of 'other' to someone and use him as a vessel for all my fears and insecurities."
A sad but true commentary on what is an acceptable viewpoint among USAmericans today.

Tuesday, we had a chapel service at Drew dedicated to addressing "the mosque controversy." The Christian church bears responsibility in part for this Islamophobia, so the Drew community came together as a community asking for guidance. We sang songs of peace, looked to calls for justice, peace, and unity in the Qur'an, and saw clips from popular media interpreting this climate that we live in. We ended with a reflection from Dr. S. Wesley Ariarajah, our professor of world religions. I want to share two of his points in particular as we come up on this ninth anniversary.

First of all, we must stand up against those who use 9/11 as a tool to manipulate the public. Returning to the poem, if 9/11 could have become a tool of unity and a call for peace but instead became a rallying cry for ultranationalists, an excuse to hate Muslims and people in color in general.

Secondly, when a nation begins to identify minority communities as the enemy, as the problem, we are walking on the same slippery ground that let to the Holocaust. Ascribing collective guilt to a particular group of people is never an acceptable response to tragedy. Never. That is how genocide mentality functions! And we, particularly Christians, need to stand up voice this.

Rather, we need to welcome religious diversity, as a Christian community in Cordova has done. Let's, as Gainesville, Florida, mayor did, declare 9/11 Interfaith Solidarity Day. We need to live what God has commanded of us:

O you who believe, stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fairness, and let not the hatred of others cause you to swerve toward wrong and depart from justice. Be just, that is closer to piety, and be conscious of God, for God is well-acquainted with all that you do.**

So as anti-Muslim sentiment climbs higher this week of 9/11, let us instead remember the tragedy of 9/12, that time when we could have used our pain for peace but instead shut up and saluted. Let us stand out firmly for God as witnesses to justice in our communities and this nation.


*Of course, it does fit with the reality of a USAmerican history of genocide, racism, and colonialism. But that is another post for another day.

**Qur’an 5:8. The Qur'an and Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad: Selections Annotated and Explained. Annotation by Sohaib N. Sultan. Translation by Yusuf Ali, revised by Sohaid N. Sultan. (Woodstock: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2007).

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Supervised ministry angst

Here is my theologically-inflected life update complete with some angstiness. Hey, when you need to write, you need to write. Things make more sense to me after I write them down.

Masters of Divinity students at Drew have supervised ministry in their second year. I have not yet started working at my supervised ministry placement yet, but I am still questioning it. You see, my ministry placement is not a traditional one; instead of working out of a church, I will be working part time out of Protestant Community Centers, Inc. (PCCI), a non-profit that has worked with children and youth in Newark since 1964, and part time out of the United Methodist District office for the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference's Gateway North District on their Urban Initiative Project. The purpose of this placement is to do creative urban ministry, which I am excited for. However, I am still nervous about this choice not to be in a church.

I see the churches as a space of radical potential for living as free people, particularly smaller churches in urban or rural communities. Churches could be a way to make community into family, to live out what it means to be children of God. In this image of church as community (not church-as-entertainment or church-as-assuaging-guilt or church-as-waiting-for-the-rapture which are far more common), the church is a space of action and of accountability. I am relying on liberation theology here, on visioning the church as an Exodus community. So wouldn't I want to take this year of supervised ministry to play around in the church? Why am I not connected to a particular congregation?

Perhaps one reason I was excited about this urban ministry project is fear that working in a church (particularly a suburban one) would kill this utopian understanding of church within me (and Christianity is a pretty utopian religion, when one actually looks at what Jesus taught, so I won't apologize or admit naivete on that one). Churches today are so isolated from one another and the world that it is difficult to live into that vision of freedom, which is why it is important to think of creative ways to link them together. So, though I have my doubts about the effectiveness of non-profits and the United Methodist bureaucracy to do radical work, I think we can use such organizations to help with our healing work. The idea of a connectional system is a good one if we could actually get it to work. And, though I feel as though I'm treading water, unsure of what this year is even remotely going to look like, I know this is a great opportunity to try ministry in a bit of an unusual way.

After all, Jesus' example of ministry was not one in a house of worship, but one that created a house of worship in dissonant situations in the streets, on fishing boats, eating with sinners, and on a cross with other dying criminals.