Sep 27 2013

Laboring for the Kingdom

Aaron CarrTomorrow morning, on a rare day off from studying systematic theology, reading the New Testament, and parsing Hebrew nouns, I am headed to my Contextual Education site, Berea Mennonite Church, for a solid day of work. Unlike many of my peers, however, I won’t be keeping office hours or preparing a sermon for Sunday morning (though I certainly do those things). Instead, I’ll be wielding a hammer.

There’s a leaking well-head out behind the education building that needs to be fixed. I’ll build a concrete form so that someone else can pour the concrete and keep the plumbing stable. Additionally, the congregation is interested in growing its flock of chickens, so I’ll be researching and building a brooding box for the four-dozen chicks we hope to order before it gets too cold. Sheep pens need to be rotated on pastureland. Vegetables need to be harvested in the community garden. There is always work to do!

If this description of one (admittedly atypical) day doing Con. Ed. sounds a little different, it is because Berea is a different congregation. Our two simple buildings (one for education and fellowship) occupy roughly nine acres of land on the borders of East Atlanta Village and Gresham Park. Much of the land is rented to a commercial farmer who shares our ethical convictions about food (sustainable, local, organic), and the rest is used by the church for its own farm project. We maintain a flock of chickens, a herd of sheep, and a large permaculture garden out front. It is a different kind of congregation.

At first, I was nervous about how doing Con. Ed. at Berea might shape up. After all, I’m taking a degree in theology, not horticulture, and there are important ministerial skills one needs to acquire during this yearlong internship. I didn’t (and still don’t) want to function as just a theologically reflective farm hand. Thankfully, this hasn’t been the case. Instead, my time at Berea has helped me reconcile old divisions in my thinking, especially the gap between theological (read: intellectual) activity and physical labor.

I’ll begin with the theological. We typically take communion once a month at Berea. One of the things I’ve come to realize during these moments is that Jesus is mediated to us by means of a meal (I was raised in churches without much focus on the table, so it’s taken me a while to get this one). Of course, this statement is full of theological meaning. To meet with someone at the table is to share intimacy and vulnerability, and it is amazing to think of God sharing that kind of life with us in the bread and wine.

But this theological claim – that God meets with us at table – also reveals important claims about human labor. If we insist that God reveals God’s self in a meal, we come to realize that, in a profound way, God cares about food. And if God cares about food, God must also care about the way that food is grown, transported, prepared, and consumed. This is where the labor comes in. We mustn’t be content to simply claim that God cares about food. We must be willing to work at creating just food systems in the world. That’s why tomorrow is a work day. The well-head provides water for our livestock. The new chickens will be raised ethically and will provide fresh, cage-free eggs to the congregation and the neighborhood. The sheep remind us where our food actually comes from, and challenge us to remember our place as creatures in this creation.

At a deeper level than all of this, however, is the simple fact that labor can be a good and holy thing. It is not a failure for a well-off, modern, educated human being to work with his or her hands. In labor, there is a sense of accomplishment and the deep fatigue that comes from expending energy in a positive way. There is a fellowship in common labor that I have rarely encountered anywhere else. Even when working alone, there is fellowship with God, who labors with us to build a kingdom where everyone will have enough to eat.

In many ways, I am still unlearning the old division between the life of the mind and the work of the body. Join me in thanking God that communities like Berea exist, that Candler sends its students to work in those places, and that there is good work to do, wherever you are.

–Aaron Carr

Aaron is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a student ambassador. Originally from Cumming, GA, Aaron was a religion major as an undergraduate at Samford University.


Sep 17 2013

African Americans and Esther

The book of Esther provides a deep explanation that dissimulation is a legitimate technique by which a marginalized population can gain access to political power. Steed Vernyl Davidson suggests that dissimulation can be defined as concealing cultural identity in order to rise to political power. When Esther concealed her identity in Esther 2:10, she in essence unlocked her future. She was able to thwart the extermination of the Jews by Haman, and at the end of the book was heralded as influential within society. Esther essentially gained access to power by hiding her identity.

Many African Americans over time have used this concept of dissimulation to gain access to White American political power. Based upon my experience as an African American male, America constantly presents barriers and obstacles that make it difficult for African Americans to advance. Furthermore, concealment is often necessary for cultural survival because it eases those oppressive barriers.

Many marginalized individuals deem that the social system is not designed for the minority to gain political power. To some degree that is accurate because there seems to be this notion of the “richer getting richer and the poorer getting poorer.” Even though a marginalized person has access to education and various resources, there has to be some level of dissimulation to fit into a societal mode of success and power.

In the book of Esther, it was imperative for Esther to conceal her identity in order to advance and survive in society. In both the African American community as well as the book of Esther, political power and influence is not an easy concept. For example, if Esther maintained good work and optimism as a minority in Persia, the Jews may have ultimately been killed by the decree of Haman. However, it was their strategic mindset that allowed them to conceal their Jewish identity in order to avert death and ultimately gain access to political power within the royal court. It could also be suggested that Mordecai believed that the Persian Empire political system was designed to keep provinces, especially those populated by Jews, from advancing in power.

The book of Esther provides an important concept of identity that can be delineated in other social realms. Through my cultural experience as an African American male, I am able to see convergence between the rise to power in Esther as well as my own community. Some African Americans are constantly hiding their “trueness” or “blackness” in order to fit into the larger mold of society. One could suggest that dissimulation is similar to W.E.B. Dubois’ notion of double consciousness because both ideas wrestle with dualism of identity. Like Esther, African Americans who dissimulate into power have to deal with keeping their “trueness” as well as adapting to a different cultural framework. Several African Americans conceal certain aspects of their cultural identity in order to gain status and acceptance in certain power structures. I suggest that this concept of dissimulation is a means to gain power, but it is essential that an individual maintains their “trueness.” It is vital to always remember who you are regardless of your achieved level of status.

–Lawrence Waters

Lawrence is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a student ambassador. He is a licensed minister in the American Baptist Churches (USA) and has served as a youth pastor for several years.  He earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Artwork: “Queen Esther Revealing Her True Identity,” mosaic by Canadian artist Lilian Broca.


Sep 13 2013

The Word of God in the Country of Paradox

(For a version of this text in Spanish, see below)

On a sunny morning in a working class neighborhood of Medellín, we set plastic chairs out along the walls of a scrubbed, white-tiled garage. We sit down facing each other around a wooden table decorated with a Bible and flowers. Each Sunday, a handful of dedicated, socially conscious Christians gather here at El Gozo de Dios Methodist Church and try to contextualize the gospel amongst the paradoxes of Colombian society. Theirs is the country of the richest resources and the sharpest inequalities. They enjoy vibrant cultural diversity and are beholden to homogenizing global consumerism. They were ranked last year as the happiest people in the world and they continue to suffer one of the world’s longest, most fragmenting civil wars.

We sit beneath the logo of the Colombian Methodist Church, in which the old familiar cross and flame morph into a dove: the Holy Spirit straining its wings towards peace, in the yellow, red and blue of the Colombian flag. We sing praises over the calls of the mazamorra vendor passing in the street. His wooden cart is full of the thick boiled corn drink that sustains Colombians with the very substance that some of their indigenous ancestors believed that God used to form human beings.

El Gozo worship

Our singing and the mazamorra vendor both compete with the bells of the Catholic Church a few blocks away. Here in the department (equivalent to a state or province) of Antioquía, home of the most picturesque colonial towns and the biggest drug lords, traditionalism reigns and the majority remain Catholic. However, in isolated villages in the coastal regions, the crossfire between guerilla groups, paramilitaries and the military have become so intense that even the Catholic Church has fled. In some of these communities, the Colombian Methodist Church is the only religious and social organization that has had the courage and the faithfulness to accompany populations ravaged by violence, land appropriation and lack of basic amenities, such as health and education.

When we arrive to the reading of the word, we talk first about what we’ve read in the news as part of the “contextual reading” that God is speaking to us that day, and then we read the lectionary texts. Afterwards, someone stands up and gives a sermon, often peppered with interjections from other congregants. One member of the congregation is the internationally renowned feminist Biblical scholar Elsa Tamez; another is an ordained reverend, theologian and former dean of the Latin American Biblical University, José Duque; another is a disabled man named Jorge with garbled speech and incorrigible jokes; another is a 9-year-old girl named Gabriela who directs herself to “lovely little God” when she prays over the offerings every Sunday. All of these voices are given equal space to offer their thoughts during the sermon.

Sari wth logoThe conversational sermons at El Gozo de Dios reflect an even more intentionally democratic method of Christian education called “Popular and Communal Bible Reading,” or in Spanish, Lectura Popular y Comunitaria de la Biblia (LPCB). I immerse myself in an LPCB group on Tuesday nights, up on a little farm in the municipality of La Estrella, which climbs a foothill surrounding Medellín. La Estrella gives the impression of a relaxed, ecologically friendly little town, yet it also seethes beneath the surface with drug trafficking and violent crime. The farm is home to Juan Esteban Londoño, a humble spirit who has sought an alternative to the culture of violence that surrounded him as he grew up in La Estrella, and has become a brilliant theologian, philosopher and goth-metal musician. Juan Esteban and his wife Natalia act as hosts of this space where pastors, musicians, students, hairdressers, blue-collar workers, and high school teachers gather in the crisp mountain air, surrounded by tangerine trees and sleepy dogs who plead for the food we bring to share. We read a text and then the facilitator, usually Juan Esteban himself, uses a series of questions to lead the participants through analyzing the original context and then applying it to their own contexts and lives. This way of reading involves the critical thinking and wisdom of all members to arrive at collective interpretations of the scriptures. Juan Esteban takes notes and sometimes he synthesizes our theological reflections and publishes them in his blog: teologiaunderground.blogspot.com.

FarmA large part of the work I did in Colombia over this summer was furthering the practice of LPCB and others processes of social and spiritual formation. Thanks to a Candler Advantage grant, I was able to immerse myself in this work and gain invaluable insights into the connection between Christian education and social transformation in the local church. I was inspired by the work of the local church and LPCB groups to bring the challenges facing their society to the light of God’s word. The difficulty, as I have found in progressive churches in the US, is that we often discuss and discern how things ought to be, without actually translating our discoveries into transformative actions. But one of the most important things I learned is that translating education into action is a gradual process, much more gradual than an intensive ten-week internship. Therefore, during this semester off, I have chosen to continue living in Colombia so that I can witness the gradual growth of the Kingdom of God in this beautifully paradoxical place.

—Sari Brown

Sari Brown is a third-year MDiv student at Candler. A native of Michigan, Sari majored in anthropology and religion at Marlboro College in Vermont, and has carried out anthropological research and mission work in Bolivia. Through the Candler Advantage program, she served the Colombian Methodist Church for a ten-week internship. Next year she will be studying abroad in São Paulo, Brazil through the Luce Program, where she plans to work in ministry with Bolivian immigrants.

 

Versión en español: La palabra de Dios en el país de paradoja

En una mañana soleada de un barrio de la clase trabajadora en Medellín, ponemos sillas de plástico contra las paredes en un garaje bien aseado de baldosa blanca. Nos sentamos cara a cara, alrededor de una mesa decorada con una Biblia y flores. Cada domingo, unos cuantos dedicados cristianos de consciencia social se reúnen aquí en la Iglesia Metodista El Gozo de Dios y tratan de contextualizar el evangelio en medio de las paradojas de la sociedad colombiana. Su país es el de los recursos más ricos y las desigualdades más marcadas. Gozan de vibrante diversidad cultural y se someten al consumismo global homogenizadora. Fueron calificados el año pasado de la gente más feliz del mundo y siguen sufriendo una de las guerras civiles más largas y divisivas del mundo.

Nos sentamos bajo el logotipo de la Iglesia Colombiana Metodista, en la que la conocida cruz y llama se transforma en una paloma: el Espíritu Santo estirando sus alas hacia la paz, en el amarillo, el rojo y el azul de la bandera colombiana. Cantamos alabanzas sobre las llamadas del vendedor de mazamorra que pasa por la calle. Su carreta de madera está llena de la bebida espesa de maíz que sostiene a los colombianos con la misma sustancia que algunos de sus ancestros indígenas creían que Dios utilizó para formar los seres humanos.

Tanto nuestro canto como el vendedor de mazamorra compiten con las campanas de la Iglesia Católica a un par de cuadras de nosotros. Aquí en el departamento de Antioquia, hogar de los pueblos coloniales más pintorescos y los narcotraficantes más grandes, el tradicionalismo reina y la mayoría sigue siendo católica. Sin embargo, en pueblos aislados de las regiones costales, el cruce de fuego entre la guerrilla, los paramilitares y los militares se intensificó a tal punto que hasta la Iglesia Católico huyó. En muchas de estas comunidades, la Iglesia Colombiana Metodista es la única organización religiosa y social que ha tenido la valentía y fidelidad para acompañar a poblaciones acosadas por violencia, apropiación de tierras, y falta de necesidades básicas, como la salud y la educación.

Al llegar a la lectura de la palabra, hablamos primero de lo que hemos leído en las noticias como parte de la “lectura contextual” que Dios nos está hablando en este día, y luego leemos los textos del leccionario. Después, alguien se para y da la predicación, lo que resulta muchas veces intercalada con interrupciones de otros congregantes. Un miembro de la iglesia es la biblista feminista de renombre internacional, Elsa Tamez; otro es un reverendo ordenado, teólogo y decano anterior de la Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana, José Duque; otro es un hombre discapacitado llamado Jorge con una forma de hablar borrosa y chistes incansables; otro es una niña de 9 años llamada Gabriela que se dirige a “Diosito lindo” cuando ora por las ofrendas cada domingo. A todas estas voces se les otorga espacio igual para ofrecer sus pensamientos durante la prédica.

Las prédicas conversacionales en El Gozo de Dios reflejan un método de educación cristiana todavía más democrático, denominado “Lectura Popular y Comunitaria de la Biblia (LPCB). Participo en un grupo de LPCB los martes por la noche, en una pequeña finca en el municipio de La Estrella, que se encuentra subiendo un cerro de los alrededores de Medellín. La Estrella aparenta ser un pueblito tranquilo y ecológico, pero a la misma vez se agita bajo la superficie con narcotráfico y crimen violento. La finca es el hogar de Juan Esteban Londoño, un hombre de espíritu humilde que ha buscado una alternativa a la cultura de violencia que le rodeaba desde su nacimiento en La Estrella, y se ha convertido en un brillante teólogo, filósofo, y músico de metal gótico. Juan Esteban y su esposa Natalia son los anfitriones de este espacio donde pastores, músicos, estudiantes, estilistas, trabajadores, y profesores del colegio se reúnen en el aire fresco de montaña, rodeados por mandarinos y perros soñolientos que nos ruegan la comida que traemos para compartir. Leemos un texto y después el facilitador, normalmente el mismo Juan Esteban, utiliza una serie de preguntas para guiar a los participantes por el proceso de analizar el contexto original y después aplicarlo a nuestros propios contextos y vidas. Esta forma de leer conlleva el pensamiento crítico y la sabiduría de todos los miembros del grupo para sacar interpretaciones colectivas de las escrituras. Juan Esteban toma notas y a veces sintetiza nuestras reflexiones teológicas y las publica en su blog: teologiaunderground.blogspot.com.

Gran parte del trabajo que hice en Colombia durante este verano fue desarrollar la práctica de LPCB y otros procesos de formación espiritual y social. Gracias a un beca de Candler Advantage, pude dedicarme por completo a este trabajo y sacar entendimientos inestimables de la conexión entre la educación cristiana y la transformación social en la iglesia local. Me inspiraban la iglesia local y los grupos de LPCB en su esfuerzo por considerar los desafíos que se presentan a su sociedad a la luz de la palabra de Dios. Lo difícil, como he visto también en iglesias progresistas de los EEUU, es que muchas veces discutimos y discernimos cómo las cosas deben ser, sin verdaderamente convertir nuestros descubrimientos en acciones transformativas. Pero una de las cosas más importantes que aprendí es que convertir la educación en acción es un proceso paulatino, mucho más paulatino que una pasantía intensiva de dos semanas. Por lo tanto, durante este semestre libre, elegí seguir viviendo en Colombia para poder presenciar el crecimiento paulatino del reino de Dios en este lugar hermosamente paradójico.

—Sari Brown

Sari Brown es una estudiante en su tercer año del programa de Maestría de Divinidad en Candler. Oriunda de Michigan, Sari estudió antropología y religión en Marlboro College en Vermont, y ha realizado investigación antropológica y trabajo de misionera en Bolivia. A través del programa Candler Advantage, sirvió a la Iglesia Colombiana Metodista en una pasantía de diez semanas. El próximo año estudiará en extranjero en São Paulo, Brasil a través del Luce Program, donde piensa obrar en ministerios con inmigrantes bolivianos.


Sep 10 2013

Brooks Was Here, So Was Red

Many of you may recognize the title of this post as the defining moment in The Shawshank Redemption.  Underneath this etching in a halfway house, Morgan Freeman (Red), an ex-con of 40 years, confronts fear and despair and chooses hope in the very spot where Brooks, a similar man in a similar situation, chose to take his own life.  It is the tipping point of the film; a dramatic moment where the promise of hope triumphant outweighs the danger and futility of losing hope.  It is both moving and powerful to watch and I quickly find myself conjuring up my own stories of hope triumphant, including and especially the Christian idea that though troubles may fill the night, joy comes in the morning.

However, bringing this metaphor out of the script and into the present causes me great trouble.  Certainly there are times in our collective, societal memory that we can recall such real-life stories of hope triumphing over despair.  This past week, as we honored the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington, we were served a wonderful reminder of such an account of hope overcoming overwhelmingly negative odds.  However, as Syrian children are gassed in senseless acts of violence, broken systems of democracy exclude the rights and voices of the poor and hungry, and Bangladeshi buildings crash to the ground claiming the lives of thousands and declaring the ultimate reign of horrific and inhumane forms of global capitalism, I find the metaphor to be broken, or at least, misleading.  It is not the fact that hope cannot overcome injustice that gives me trouble, for I suppose, in certain times it can and does.  Rather it is the perceived simplicity of the choice and subsequent nullification of circumstance and complexity that causes a gag reflex to well up inside of me.

As theologians and citizens of the world in the twenty-first century, it is our responsibility to introduce a third character into the room, one that meticulously and responsibly presents hope while also being accountable to the devastating particularities of modern circumstances.  This character must stand firmly at the same crossroads of hope and despair, where Brooks and Red once stood, and reject the futility of blindly embarking down either road.  And in doing such, this character must creatively re-shape and re-imagine faith, hope, and love.

However, as I write this post, I do not pretend to know what this character might look like, say, or do.  Nor do I imagine that I am, in some way or another, this character.  But, I do know this:  today, many Syrian parents will be reminded that their precious young children are never coming home to them again.  No more family dinners.  No more nighttime prayers.  No more innocent, precious smiles.  Not today, not tonight, and not in the morning.

As the leaders of America meet on Capitol Hill this very minute to discuss the use of force in Syria, this metaphor deserves at least a moment of thought, especially from those who follow the way and example of Jesus Christ.  Surely Christianity has more to offer the world than bombs, which only lead to the perpetuation of violence, and flimsy hymns of metaphorical hope which only fall flat as tears pour onto breathless children.

But then again, for some things, I imagine, there are no words.

–George Kernodle

George is a second-year student in the Master of Theological Studies (MTS) program and a Student Ambassador at Candler. A graduate of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, George has traveled to China as part of a language learning exchange program and to El Salvador with the Global Health Organization. After Candler he hopes to pursue his interest in health policy and management.

Photo credits:

(Top) Movie still from The Shawshank Redemption with Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins;

(Bottom) Photo by Craig Ruttle, a Syrian child at a refugee camp in Yayladagi, Turkey, April 4, 2012.


Sep 3 2013

America’s Great Default

Fearless Dialogue

“Fearless Dialogue” at Candler

Fifty years ago, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King stated that “America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check that has come back marked insufficient funds…” In many ways, it is true that America has defaulted on its promise to “provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare” (indiscriminately). It can be seen in the disproportionate crime statistics, the staggering graduation and incarceration rates, and the unbelievable poverty statistics that have always existed among races and social classes. It is evident in the underfunded education system that serves as a pipeline to prison for lower class students of color. And it is permanently fixed in the biased and bigoted laws that undergird our entire system. But what does that have to do with Candler, education, and theological formation?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that “Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity,” yet the education experience, much like any other experience, does not exist in a vacuum but is susceptible to the mores and ills of society. The most vivid recollections of my childhood education experience do not occur in a desk filled classroom with textbooks and chalkboards, but on a school bus with peers and classmates who were steeped in culture, bias, and prejudice.

One cool autumn afternoon in 1995, I was a fifth grader riding the bus home from my rural elementary school in Perdido, Alabama. I shared a seat with my friend Less Wilson a young white student who was also in the fifth grade. As we sped down the narrow two-lane country street past pine trees and dirt roads, Less leaned over to me and whispered beneath the raucous chatter, “My uncle has a gun, and he’s a member of the KKK.” I chuckled. Surely Less had failed at an attempt to be humorous but I did not make light of his failure nor of my disapproval, but instead smiled and waited for the subject to change. Then Less asked me if I knew what N.A.A.C.P stood for. As I struggled to remember if “Advancement” came before or after “Association,” Less interjected, “It stands for N*ggers, Apes, Alligators, Coons, and Possums.” I wasn’t laughing anymore. I wasn’t angry, I was hurt. My friend Less had showed me just how he felt about me.

HoodieIn 1997, not long after that bus incident with Less, my mom moved our family even deeper into the rural forest of Alabama to live with my grandmother who had suffered a major stroke. It was on the 45-minute bus ride from school to the small town of Little River, AL that we learned two black churches had been vandalized and burned less than a mile from where we were living. They were churches I knew well and had visited many times with my family. Many family members and friends attended both churches on a regular basis. A Ku Klux Klan rally the previous weekend had sparked racial animus and a group of five young white teens ages 15-20, decided to send a message to the African-American community that conveyed just how they felt about us.

Earlier this summer I was disappointed but not surprised to hear the verdict in a Florida case concerning the death of a 17-year-old black teen. The Florida law was very clear, that at any time during an altercation, if George Zimmerman, the defendant, felt he was in danger of great harm, he was justified to use deadly force against Trayvon Martin, the victim. Although the attorneys did not argue a “Stand Your Ground” defense, the jury was ordered to consider it in their deliberations. While I am concerned about the legitimacy of the law itself, I am more concerned with the stereotypes and pigeonholes that exist which led to this tragedy.

In many instances, society reflects the George Zimmerman case. For many, culture’s forceful and disproportionately callous treatment of brown and black persons is justified because of a perceived fear of danger. We suspend school bus programs to keep certain children out because of fear. We pass intrusive laws such as “stop-and-frisk” that only affect subsets of the population because of fear. We enact discriminatory immigration laws that harass and profile because of fear. The fear is perpetuated because of the stereotype. Trayvon Martin died because one fear provoked another.

Since the age of ten, I have witnessed time and time again, these and other experiences that expose a fraudulent social morality. Trayvon, myself, and many others have demanded payment on America’s worthless check only to be taxed with penalties that burden us with stereotypes and assumptions—penalties that allow only a cadre to narrowly succeed in the shadows of ghettos, poverty, and the threat of deportation—penalties that fill our prisons, empty our schools, and continue to segregate our churches—penalties that demand assimilation, silence, double consciousness, and death.

It wasn’t until my first year of theological education at Candler that I experienced, with great continuity, a small portion of beloved community; or the ability to reside in a metaphorical house whose substructure is love. Whether it is genuine conversation with my white brothers George or Andrew, or lunch with my Korean brothers Jayesung and Sang Hyun, chapel rehearsal with my Black, African, or White Sisters Alisha, Shelia, or Allison, laughter filled moments with my African American brothers Shannon and Lawrence, or fellowship with my many brothers and sisters of the LGBT community, there are no penalties.

While we are not perfect, the communities we have forged here at Candler give us hope. Perpetual fear is dispossessed by meaningful discourse and the dispensation of intentional love. Each day that we strive to create this community we are sending a clear message: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt… so we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

–Sam White

Sam is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a member of the Student Ambassador team for 2013-14. A native of Alabama, he earned a bachelor in communication sciences at the University of Alabama. Sam is a preacher and worship leader who hopes to purse a PhD in Sociology of Social Movements and Race and Ethnicity.