It is time to say good bye to ECS …..for now. A new year of seminary classes has already started. Fishing on a Saturday with J and the residents of Downtown Safe Haven have been replaced with courses on the prophets, church history, Anglicanism and ethics. Tuesday nights reflecting with G on what I had just experienced whilst helping with a DUI group have been replaced with reading and Thursday night shared meals and conversation at DTSH have been replaced with writing school papers.
On one hand so many things have changed. But the work of ECS’s ACCORD program continues. The residents of DTSH still continue to try and do the best they can in the world.
One thing for sure is that I have changed. My placement with ECS was much more than just a placement. It was never a case of simply racking up two hundred hours. I am reminded of the words of Proverbs
One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.
I truly am richer, enriched and watered. I am transformed. With so many good experiences it is on one hand hard to let go. But that very same struggle is made easier when I ask myself what should I do with the transformation that I have experienced?
Like a house built on rock and not on sand, I will use that transformation as a foundation from which to further build on. The passion in my heart for service beats stronger now than ever before.
I bow my head to God in prayer, and place my future in His hands. I know I will spend more time with ECS at some stage in the future, but for now, for a brief time, it’s time to let go.
Many years ago, before I even thought about moving to America, I spent a summer overseas on an experience placement with the Mar Thoma Church in Kerala, South India. The placement was organized by the Church Mission Society (CMS) and it was and still is foundational to how I live out my faith. In the short time that I was in Kerala I experienced what it meant to be a Christian when the majority of the people around you were not. I experienced worship that was from the heart and a liturgy that was alien but also familiar at the same time. I also learnt from other Christian’s how to live in community. I experienced acceptance in the shadow of rejection (I will always be grateful to Helen and Shonagh for being there for me – I have been a terrible friend and a very poor Godparent but you are always in my heart). On return from India I continued to work with CMS and one of the educational packs that they produced was called “The Christ We Share”.
The pack is a series of images of Christ from around the world along with lots of support material. Images of a white, black and asian Christ. A happy and sad Christ, Christ through tribal eyes, a female Christ, a tortured Christ. Over twenty different interpretations of Christ but still a single shared subject.
Thursday nights at the Downtown Safe Haven (DTSH) consist of dinner, a house meeting and then time with everyone just being present and building relationships. A couple of weeks ago I took along my ‘The Christ We Share’ pack and invited folk to look through the images. John* came and sat next to me at the dinner table and started off by telling me that he did not go to church. He picked up the stack of images and started to look through them. “mmmm” was his response to an African portrayal of Christ. “why did you go mmmmm?” I asked and the conversation started to flow. An hour or so later we finished going through the pack and we had entered into more conversation than we ever had done before and on a deep and connected level. Christ himself used parables to teach complex theology in a simple accessible way. What tools do we use today effectively? And for that matter what opportunities are we missing by not using tools that could be available to us? Would Jesus keep a blog? Would he tweet? I think he probably would but I also believe that he would never abandon the personal relationships that he formed.
After John went off to do something else I sat down with two of our female residents. We laid out the image cards on the outside table. Having spent some time in silent reflection we picked up the image that we liked most and was most comfortable with and discussed each others choices. Then, we turned to the images that made us uncomfortable, but we had built enough trust within our little group to explore this uncomfortable side and all that could potentially flow from the discussion.
At the end of the night as I was putting the cards away I was struck by how the same image could provoke different reactions from people. Why was I surprised by that? How do I react when someone else has a different reaction to Christ than I do? What is my response? What should my response be? We are on a journey and there is not a single correct or incorrect answer and the answer I choose can change over time.
What I do know is, that despite our differences, despite how we see things differently, we share a single Christ.
In answer to the question “what holds Christian’s around the world together despite our differences” the simple answer should be “The Christ We Share”.
* Names have been changed.
One of the hardest things about writing this blog is that some of the more trans-formative experiences that I have gained during my time with ECS involve very personal encounters with people who I have met. In some cases I have been able to change names but for other encounters that did not seem appropriate. I had one such encounter on Independence Day and so I write this blog post without details but I ask that you read along with me knowing that a very significant encounter occurred.
For a number of reasons I decided that I wanted to spend part of my Independence Day with the residents of ECS’s Downtown Safe Haven (DTSH). It was one of the best decisions that I have made in a long time. Residents took time and pride in organizing a BBQ at the house. One resident used up her last food stamps to buy ingredients to make a cake, an act of generosity that made my day. For some of the residents it was a time to see family, and for some others a time to feel the pain of being away from family.
The occasion also gave me time to talk to some people at the house during the day time – often when I’m at the house on a Saturday day time folk have things to do: work, classes, visiting or just being out of the house. I found myself talking to one resident. The conversation started as light conversation, went deeper, emotions opened up, feelings and fears came flooding out. Of course I didn’t have all of the answers but I could listen and I could be present. Ultimately we could join hands in the presence of the Holy Spirit and be held in prayer.
In the hit TV show ‘The Big Bang Theory” Sheldon is famous for making his presence at his neighbors door known. Standing in-front of Penny’s apartment he knocks loudly and repeats her name three times ‘Penny, Penny, Penny.’ No one is left in any doubt of Sheldon’s presence. How often do we extend the gift of presence? To be there for someone, without judgement of who they are or what they bring to the moment? We do not have to knock loudly like Sheldon does, in fact often it is better that we don’t even announce our presence at all. The Gospels are heaving at the seams with Jesus being present. He enters into relationship with his family, the disciples, he teaches in the temple. But it does not stop there, he enters in relationship with the poor, the gentile, the sinner, the tax collector, the prostitute.
The encounter that I had on July Fourth came out of the blue and I believe that God placed me that day exactly where he needed me to be at. I do believe that if we are to be a truly serving church that we need move beyond our traditional boundaries. Don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting abandoning the faithful but if we are to fully answer the call of Matthew 25:45
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
then we must be present in areas where most people would prefer not to go.
Whilst we are on the journey of getting there I rejoice in the work of organizations such as the Episcopal Community Services and Father Joe’s Village for the ministry of presence that they live each and every day.
Maybe tomorrow I will be present for someone at work or at the coffee shop. I may not even realize the gift of my presence, but that is not important because I’m not being present for me. Maybe it is a conversation, or even a hug but it could just be a smile.
Sheldon may say “Penny, Penny, Penny” I hope that I have the grace to say “Brother, Sister, Everyone”.
I am now over half way through my time with the ECS Downtown Safe Haven and I’ve got to know many of the residents there. On a Thursday night and Saturday daytime I show up, share a meal, conversation, go fishing – all ways in which to build relationships. Last Saturday I was pottering around the kitchen and dining room when Paul* came in and said “so I hear that you are training to become a priest”, we had met and exchanged a few words before but never really engaged in conversation. “Yes I am” I replied. “Then why are you here?” Paul asked. Now this may sound like a straight forward question when you read it here but at the time it was a little tricky to answer on the spot. “Well I’m here for a summer placement but actually I really want to be here as much as I can, I want to spend time outside of the church and experience God in all of the world”. “mmmm so you going to be a Catholic priest?” “Well not quite, Episcopal – but if you are used to the Catholic faith you would find that we do a lot of things in the same way, and we all believe in the same God” From the little that I knew of Paul I knew that he had a strong faith and attended a church on a regular basis “where do you worship?” I asked. “oh it’s a bible church that meets a few blocks from here, I’m new to the faith but I’m learning everything that the bible has to teach me. Let me ask you a question, why do you pray to Mary?”
The conversation continued as I tried (stumbling at times) to explain that the Episcopal tradition was different to the Catholic tradition but doing my best to convey Catholic theology in a clear and easy to understand way. We ended up talking for over an hour. I was clear that Paul had a desire to learn about my faith and it was also clear that we held differing views on some aspects of our faith. Despite this we found a common ground with Jesus at the center (exactly where he should be). I was keen to learn from his experience of faith and was humbled by the missional application of his living out of his faith in the world around him. As I was reflecting later on, we had differences in what we do inside of our churches and in some of our interpretations but we were united in the need to take Jesus out into the world and our to our call to servant hood.
As the conversation came towards a natural end I asked Paul if he would like to pray together. He wanted to, and so we sat with joined hands and the middle of the dining room and prayed. I felt blessed to have been able to join in Holy conversation with Paul and asked him to lead the prayers. The spirit was truly with us.
Jesus calls us into relationship with others. The Gospels are full of Jesus himself interacting with those around him. Calling strangers by name, engaging with all, with no one excluded. This is the model that we should follow. At times this will lead to direct questions about our faith, it can be scary to think that we don’t have the answer to every question but if we put our faith in Jesus then the answer will come, maybe not in the way we had hoped for but it will come one way or another.
Blake Barrow in his book Stories from the Shelter recalls a story of a man that came into his office at the homeless mission that he was running. The man had never really heard of Jesus and clutching a New King James bible asked Blake if this particular version of the bible told the stories about Jesus. He had heard that there were many different versions of the bible. Blake started off by giving him a bit of a history lesson about the King James translation but quickly realized that the man did not was an academic lesson on the finer aspects of a particular translation. Blake stopped what he was saying and sat down with the man and turned to the Gospel of Luke. “Lets start here with Luke, Luke tells the story of Jesus starting with his birth…….”. Sometimes, indeed often, we need to leave the classroom behind and just find Jesus. Thank you Paul for sharing how Jesus is so active in your life, I am proud and honored to be able to share in your journey of faith in the world in which we live in.
* Name changed
In some ways this is an extension to my blog post from earlier this week as it also is a result of a lunch I had with a fellow blogging friend (see Karl’s Questions). I was given a not-so-gentle reminder however to write this post by something that happened whilst on my summer field placement at ECS’s Downtown Safe Haven yesterday.
I arrived at the house, as usual for a Saturday, just as some of the residents were getting up and thinking about breakfast. One of the residents, Fred* was cooking himself an omelette. I told him how good the mushrooms that were cooking smelled and in response he asked me THE question:
Can I cook you an omelette?
My immediate response was to decline. I was there to help out, not the other way around. But Fred would not take no for an answer.
I can easily add an extra egg and there will be plenty
He seemed pleased that he could do something for me and so finally I said yes. The omelette arrived a few minutes later and I had the best breakfast in San Diego on Saturday morning.
As I reflected on what happened and my response, it struck me that my reason to be at the house was not necessarily to help, although that can be an important element of what I do there, the main reason is to build relationships with people at the house. In light of this how could any relationship form and grow if it is always one way? Just as much as I want to help and to give I need to learn to receive, and in that receiving be transformed by the relationship.
As Christian’s we often want to ‘do good’ but we have to be careful not to run the risk of becoming righteous as a result of our good deeds. In our Baptismal covenant we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. To do this we must be open to the Holy Spirit working through the person we are walking along side.
I am reminded our of Ecumenism and World Religions class last semester. When discussing Ecumenism we noted how it can only truly be successful when all sides move into dialogue and be prepared to be changed and transformed by the conversation. What comes out, must be different to what goes in, otherwise progress is not made.
Navigating our faith is a two lane highway with traffic in both directions, it is not a one way street.
Can I cook you an omelette?
Yes please, I would like that very much.
* Name changed.