Monthly Archives: September 2013

Jesus Freak: Feeding

This is the second of five reflections on Sara Miles’ book Jesus Freak.
You can find the intro to Miles and my first reflections here.

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For Sara Miles, one of the most significant themes of her story and her life is feeding the hungry. With her work at St. Gregory’s of Nyssa Food Pantry, Milescomes back to the idea of food and eating together over and over again. She tells of the chaotic worship that occurs every time the food pantry opens, the community of abundance and compassion, and the mercy that keeps it all together.

There is a story in “Feeding” that communicates two of the most important reminders to all of us: 1) the behaviors many people associate with people in poverty are just as common among people of every socioeconomic status, and 2) we cannot assume we know why people need food assistance or why they exhibit particular behaviors. In this story, Miles visits a fourth grade class at a private elementary school just a few blocks from St. Gregory’s who had volunteered at the Food Pantry the week before. As soon as Miles walked in, she said she was bombarded with questions: “How do you know the people who come get food really need it? How come some people have cars and cell phones but they still get free food? Do people take advantage of you? Why do some people act crazy or yell when they’re waiting for food? What do you do to keep people from cheating?” (36). These questions don’t just come from fourth graders; I have heard some of the same questions asked by adults, by college students, by people who are concerned with what’s fair and who Other those who come for assistance.

glidelogoIf I can go on a tangent for a moment, reading this story (and this whole chapter, to be honest) made me think about my experience in San Francisco in January of this year, serving at Glide Memorial Church in their Daily Free Meals program. There were 13 of us in all – ten college students and three faculty members – and we had many discussions talking about these same things the 4th graders had asked Miles. We talked through a lot of the Othering that happens at food ministries, and how we contribute to it, and what we do about it without feeling guilt for our socioeconomic status. We talked about the range of stories from the people we met, many of whom lived on the street but also people who worked or were in school and came for a hot lunch. There were conversations about people who appeared ungrateful for the food, and the reminder that we had no idea what was going on in their lives that had nothing to do with the 20 minutes they spent in the Glide cafeteria. It was a trip that brought up questions of need, of assumptions, and of fairness. It was much like what I imagine happening in that classroom of fourth graders.

Back to Miles – she goes on to lead the 4th graders through a little exercise and reflection:

“How many of you have ever taken the best piece for yourself, or stolen something?” I asked, raising my own hand.
Slowly, every hand went up. “How many of you have ever been generous and given something away?” Every hand went up.
“Yeah,” I said. “You know, poor people cheat and steal and are really annoying. Just like rich people. Just like you. And poor people are generous and kind and help strangers. Just like rich people. Just like you.”

And we are reminded that those in poverty and those with excessive wealth and those with just enough to live comfortably, we can all be shitty people and we can all be compassionate people. And we can all go to the food pantry at St. Gregory’s or the free meal at Glide Memorial, because we may be a broke college student or living on the street or employed but at minimum wage. It doesn’t matter, and it’s not our place to decide whether someone looks like they need to be fed or not.

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How often have we taken the best piece for ourselves? How often have we seen generous and kind acts from someone unexpected? Feed without questions, be fed without resentment, and invite everyone to the table.

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Religious People Give Money, But Is That Enough?

I stumbled across a study done by The Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2012, looking at how Americans give at the city, state, and regional levels; one of the most interesting findings picks apart religion’s role in how much money people give to charities, both religious and secular.

$withreligionThe Chronicle found that in regions that tend to be more religious, most significantly the South, people were more generous – Southern donors gave an average of 5.2% of their discretionary income to charities, versus an average of 4% in the Northeast.

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However, when donations to religious organizations were taken out of the picture, everyone, particularly the South, gets a lot stingier. When the study looked only at donations to secular charities, giving plummeted. Donors in the Southern andMidwestern regions dropped to giving just an average of 0.9% (from 5.2% and 4.3%, respectively), while the West fared slightly better at 1.1% (down from 4.5%). The Northeast is the most generous region towards secular charities, giving 1.4% on average (down from 4%).

The link between religion and giving is not a huge shock. I can name ten religious organizations that I would consider giving money to, and none of them include my home church. In fact, many people who go to a church, mosque, or synagogue probably hear about the important of tithing or giving to the church on a regular basis. Over and over again, I’ve sat in the pews and heard about my responsibility as a Christian to give generously (note: I am not trying to minimize the importance of tithing – I fully recognize how important it is for the church and how it is an act of giving back to God).

What I think is not discussed, but should be, is the non-monetary donations given to religious and secular charities around the country. Of course organizations need a certain amount of funds to function, but most charities also need bodies, people who are willing to donate their time and skills. If you look at some of the top  charities in the United States, the need for more than just dollars and checks becomes apparent. The YMCA, Habitat for Humanity, the Boys and Girls Club, Planned Parenthood, Red Cross. All of these organizations need passionate people who will spend two hours tutoring kids, who will give up a Saturday to help build a house, who will call their politicians to advocate for women’s health. Do religious people have a responsibility to give back with their wallets and their bodies? Are you giving back to your creator, however you name them, if you write checks without ever seeing what your funding?

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Yes. I firmly believe that to be good stewards of our world, charity has to go beyond philanthropy to include service work. I can’t help but think about John Wesley’s quote, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” When you give back with your time, you often glimpse the divine in the face of that child who is learning to read, that future homeowner, and those refugees from disaster enjoying a hot cup of coffee. Try it out. You never know where you’ll meet your God, your Yahweh, your Allah.

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Homeschooling Isn’t Just for Religious Nuts or Abusers

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I am in the midst of I Fired God: My Life Inside – and Escape From – the Secret World of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Culta memoir by Jocelyn R. Zichterman. It’s a fascinating book, and there are many things to pick apart and talk about, but Zichterman’s assessment of homeschooling really frustrated me as a former homeschooler. In the Independent Fundamental Baptist church (IFB), many families homeschool their children in order to emphasize IFB teachings. And there are many conservative Christian families – Catholic, Evangelical, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc. – who homeschool because they feel public education does not provide the moral framework they desire. Of these homeschoolers, Zichterman warns that “the government’s hands-off approach to homeschooling has enabled psychopaths” and led to a variety of tragedies not limited to physical abuse and neglect (I Fired God 148). Zichterman quotes statistics from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics that show “an overwhelming majority (83 percent) of homeschoolers mention faith as a driving force in their decision to opt out of more traditional educational settings” (149). These families attend homeschool conferences and lead literature that gives them “a generous dose of far-right religious rhetoric, biblical spanking, and a culture of secrecy” (151). Zichterman gives readers the impression that all homeschoolers are Bible-thumping, Hallelujah-shouting, hellfire and damnation Christians, many of whom are using homeschooling to further brainwash their children into an isolated society.

This is not true.

Zichterman is making statements based on her experiences of homeschooling, which are valid and constitute a part of the American homeschool community. Yet there are thousands of families who choose homeschooling for non-religious reasons such as limited access to quality public or private education, and mental or physical challenges of children. There are thousands of homeschoolers who do not keep their children at home to abuse them or to deprive them of a quality education and social life. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of homeschool networks around the country ranging from explicitly faith-based to proudly secular and everything in between.

homeschoolchurchOn the one hand, Zichterman is correct in her assessment and warnings: many conservative Protestant Christians pushed homeschooling in the 1960s and 1970s (and today) because of perceived attacks on Christians in the education system. With a heavy emphasis on the home, some conservative Christian families are concerned with what they perceive to be an increasing secularization of public schools and felt they could provide a quality education rooted in their religious values; in some cases, homeschooling is the primary mode for the transmission of religious doctrine. These families are the ones Zichterman highlights, the ones who may use homeschooling to hide abuses or indoctrination. However, they are only ONE branch of the homeschool community.

There are many families across the United States, like my own, who choose to homeschool because they feel the public or private education they have access to is not the ideal environment for their children. I was homeschooled for nine years in a liberal family and am able to function in mainstream society (I do have a college degree from an only loosely affiliate UMC college). We stand in complete contrast to the picture Zichterman paints of the American homeschooler, and I would be lying if I said reading her critique stung a little. Just like Independent Fundamentalist Baptists are just one branch of the Christian community, so those abusive and brainwashing religious nuts are just one branch of the homeschool community. 

So next time you meet a homeschooler – and you will, with more than 2 million of us around the country – don’t assume they are getting ready to spew a sermon. Treat them like you’d treat anyone who went to public or private school (and really, would you be appalled if someone told you they went to public school? I didn’t think so). We might have spent 7th grade focused on Ancient Egypt, and we may have called a family vacation through a dozen National Parks “a great learning experience,” but we still had to learn, we still hated homework (we just had it all the time), and we are just as likely to be as smart as you. We’re normal (mostly) and we’d appreciate if you would take what Zichterman says with a big ole grain of salt.

 

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Jesus Freak: Come and See

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Over the next five weeks, I’ll be spending my Tuesday evenings discussing Sara Miles’ Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead with a group of adults – young (ish), old, retired Methodist ministers (there’s like 6 of them!), lawyers – who all want to dig deeper into what it means to be a Jesus Freak (which I will get back to soon). We met for the first time this past Tuesday and I left excited for the conversation we’ll be having as we all work through this book. There is so much to talk about in Miles’ work, so each Friday for the next five weeks I’ll be posting about the previous week’s reading. We kick off today with the introduction and first chapter, “Come and See.” Ready?

I began this book with zero knowledge of Sara Miles, so here’s a little background information I learned on Tuesday – Miles is the founder and director of The Food Pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Espicopal saramilesChurch in San Francisco, who was raised an atheist and had a powerful conversion experience at the age of 46, and has been in a committed relationship with her wife Martha for more than 15 years. Now if that doesn’t peak your interest, you can stop reading here.

On the third page of Jesus Freak, Miles gets right into it. She asks, “…what would it mean to live as if you – and everyone around you – were Jesus, and filled with his power? To just take his teachings literally, go out the front door of your home, and act on them?” (ix).
This is the central question – what does it mean to be a Jesus Freak?  When we met on Tuesday, we talked about what images came to mind when we heard to phrase “Jesus Freak.” The most common among the group? Hippie. Pushy Evangelical. 60s and 70s. The dc Talk song from 1995.

I immediately thought of middle school, when being a Jesus Freak was super cool in my social circles. I have to disclose that I was home schooled, from 4th grade through my high school graduation, and very, very involved in my youth group (a downtown social justice and mission-minded congregation). To me, 6th and 7th grades were times when you weren’t Christian but you loved Jesus, and your religious beliefs on MySpace read “Follower of Jesus” or “Jesus Freak.” Now, I associate that time with the superficial nature of teenagers who just want to be in with their peers. For me, my peers were mostly Christians who flaunted it (but only if they didn’t have to explain why or what they really believed). So Sara Miles trying to reclaim “Jesus Freak” is an exciting and daunting task.

Though there is so much to talk about in the first 30 pages, there are three things I want to touch on here. The first is an amazingly profound statement – “If Jesus is about anything, it’s the inconvenient truth that a spiritual life is a physical life” (xviii). Just think about that for a second. Miles is saying that Christians (and I would argue religious people of most any tradition) cannot just get by on inner spirituality. Physical acts of humility, justice, mercy, and love are just as important. We have to interact with God’s world to continue to walk forward with God.

The second point brings up the outcasts in our society – the homeless, the hungry, the minority (religious and racial/ethnic), the sick. Miles reminds us that people like Mary, an unmarried teen who gave birth to Jesus Christ in stable, and John the Baptist, a madman who baptized the Son of God in the river Jordan – “improper figures, completely unauthorized by the religious authorities” (6) – were chosen to share the love and power of the divine. The outcast and the stranger, existing on the fringes of society, bring the holy into the profane spaces of a stable or a river.

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This relates perfectly to the last statement I want to talk about, which is the idea that victims are necessary because they “define the center” (10). Societies and religions need the outcast so they know they are righteous and normal, reflecting the dangerous impulse we as humans feel to “Other” those who are not like us. We all do it. I’ve “Othered” people of different socioeconomic statuses than myself (and usually those of higher status, to be honest). But Jesus, through the many parables he tells and the many acts of mercy and love he performs, shows us that it is not up to us to decide whom God loves. We, as mere humans, do not get to choose whether that person standing on the corner or the CEO in the cushy corner office are “normal” or whether they are part of the family. No one, not Christians nor Muslims nor Hindus nor Atheists, have the authority to make that decision. And the figure of Jesus sends that message loud and clear.

Obviously, I could go on for hours. Sara Miles is a wonderful writer and Jesus Freak is full of powerful statements and questions. I’ll stop for today, but I’ll be back next Friday with more from Sara Miles and Jesus Freak.

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Awkward Email Invites Important Conversation

It’s mid-September – classes have started at Texas colleges and universities, and the first round of tests is looming. In one Texas Christian University classroom last week, the conversation wasn’t about an exam but about an email sent by Dr. Santiago Piñòn.

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The Latino professor of “Understanding Religion: Society and Culture” sent this email to 12 students on Wednesday, September 11: “At the beginning of the semester I usually like to invite all my students of color to get together and discuss the challenges they may face during the semester. However, the time slipped by and I didn’t get a chance. So, I would like to ask if you are interested in a get together on Monday afternoon? We can also discuss the exam that is coming up, if you want. I don’t mind if this would turn out to be a study session for my STUDENTS OF COLOR ONLY [emphasis his].”

Reactions varied among students – Freshman Daniel Casteñada felt the email was sent with only good intentions, and he appreciated the additional support offered to students of color at a predominantly white institution. Student Aurelio Rangel says he doesn’t take offense to Dr. Piñòn’s email but could understand why others may feel excluded. Another student, Allyson Guzman, was a little uncomfortable with the message; wondering if Dr. Piñòn went by pictures or last names, Guzman says she identifies as Caucasian “because that’s what I am.”

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Dr. Piñòn released a statement to WFAA News 8 on Friday afternoon saying, “The intent of the email was misunderstood. I should have been more clear in that any study group is open to all students. My goal is to participate in and contribute to the TCU mission by being available to all students so they are successful in the classroom and beyond…I do like to offer myself as a resource to students (particularly those of color) who may face challenges and become discouraged; goal is to encourage and offer support, so I am troubled to think some students may have thought they were being excluded from a study session because that was not at all the intention.”

The afternoon before releasing that statement, Dr. Piñòn sent an email to his entire “Understanding Religion” course, reminding students that they were free to email, call, or stop by his office to talk about the exam.

religiondiversepracticeDr. Piñòn’s email and the subsequent chatter raises many questions about race and higher education, and the danger of our reliance on email (words can be interpreted in a variety of ways, demonstrated by the different students reactions to Dr. Piñòn’s email). What I think is interesting is that this all occurred in a course titled, “Understanding Religion: Society and Culture.” When I consider that, all I can think is A) how much I would love to take the class and B) what a great opportunity to talk about cultural, ethnic, and societal differences among the class. Take that email and the many ways it was read, and have a class period talking in broader terms about the cultural, societal, and ethnic differences at TCU, in higher education, and in the United States. It’s a perfect learning moment, y’all!

I would be interested to find out if other professors reach out to groups of minority students (and not just racial or ethnic minorities, but religious, socioeconomic, and other minority groups as well). Does this happen at other colleges and universities? Would people react differently if it was a white professor reaching out to white students in a predominantly African American or Hispanic setting? How about an atheist professor reaching out to non-religious students in the midst of Christians, Jews, or Muslims? Maybe this is a chance for all of us to think about how our cultural and social backgrounds color our interpretations, and how we navigate those differences in higher education and beyond.

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Closed Communities and Law Enforcement

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I just finished reading Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs, a memoir by Elissa Walls. While there are many, many issues I could tackle (and probably will at some point), I want to zero in on law enforcement in the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) community of Short Creek, now known as the twin cities Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, and the issue of closed communities and law enforcement in general.

Throughout her memoir, Walls discusses law enforcement with fear and anxiety. In Salt Lake City, Utah, where Walls spent much of her childhood, FLDS families must keep their lifestyle secret from their non-FLDS neighbors and the authorities. The police are not friends of FLDS members, and children are taught to be wary of the men and women in blue.

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When Elissa Walls moves to the community of Short Creek, the police were still a source of unease for very different reasons. The Colorado City Police Department was full of FLDSmembers (and still is today – check out this article about a possible disbandment of the department) who enforced the law of the land – FLDS law and doctrine. Walls writes of police officers arresting teenagers who question FLDS teachings, tracking down women trying to escape the community, and helping the FLDS leaders expel young rebellious men. Short Creek had police officers enforcing the law of the FLDS over state and national law.

This relationship between the FLDS and the law enforcement of the Short Creek community is extreme – police officers allow their religious belief/tradition to dictate who and what they enforce. This became even more of a problem when Warren Jeffs, the controversial leader of the FLDS, was wanted by state authorities in Utah. The Colorado City police department would not assist in the manhunt, closing ranks around the FLDS community. While Jeffs was eventually found and arrested, it was no thanks to the local law enforcement.

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The behavior of the Colorado City officers was extreme, with the FLDS doctrines taking precedence over county, state, and national law. Yet this is not the only community blurring the lines between law enforcement and religious tradition. Kiryas Joel is a Hasidic community within Monroe, NY with its own volunteer fire department, emergency medical services, and public safety department. In 2011, dissidents sued the community, alleging the Public Safety Department ignored harassment and violence against them, siding with the offenders who were supporters of the strict religious tradition. Though the KJ Public Safety officers are not part of the Monroe Police Department, the parallels to Colorado City are clear – religious belief is influential in deciding which which laws are enforced and which are looked over.

On the other hand, Amish communities in the United States are closed communities much like Short Creek and Kiryas Joel, but, because of the importance of non-violence, do not have Amish law enforcement and rarely involve county or state officers. Problems among the Amish are dealt with by leaders of the particular community.

In these insular religious communities, can a balance be found regarding law enforcement? It isn’t absurd to think the police officers working with and around these enclaves should have a general understanding of the tradition and culture. Yet the most knowledgable are those fully integrated members of the communities – can they separate their belief in doctrine enough from government laws to adequately enforce them? In the end, there isn’t a right answer, but it is a question to be considered as closed religious communities continue to grow in the United States.

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The Misrepresentation of Abused Goddesses

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Many of you may have seen an article circulating about a new campaign about stopping domestic violence and sex trafficking in India. The campaign shows two Hindu goddesses – Saraswathi and Lakshmi – with bruises and cuts on their faces and the words, “Pray that we never see this day. Today, more than 68% of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow, it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to.”

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The point being made in this campaign benefitting Save Our Sisters is that though the goddesses are revered in Hinduism, the most popular religion in India (approximately 80% of the Indian population considers themselves Hindu), young girls and women are facing increasing violence. By drawing on the sacred imagery of these goddesses, the pictures should pull at our heartstrings and draw the connection to every day women.

However, Vamsee Juluri, a professor at the University of South Florida and a contributor to the Huffington Post, has a different take on this new campaign. He writes that this campaign can easily be interpreted as anti-Hindu propaganda, particularly after the sexual and physical violence reported in the Western media so much in the past year. Why, Juluri asks, are the goddesses being portrayed as battered women instead of the strong Goddesses they are in Hinduism? By manipulating the images of the goddesses, this campaign has disregarded how “the aesthetics of sacred representation are an integral part of how we [Hindus] view the divine.”

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The Abused Goddesses campaign missed a great opportunity to educate Western media about Hinduism and the beauty and power of Saraswathi, Lakshmi, and all the gods and goddesses. For Americans, particularly non-Hindu Americans, this is a perfect time to go learn about Hinduism and see the Hindu goddesses in their element. With more than two million Hindus living in the United States, Hinduism is not simply an exotic religion far, far away. It is just as important for a Baptist from Dallas and a Jew from D.C. to know who Lakshmi and Ganesha are as it is for a Hindu teenager living in Calcutta. These goddesses are powerful, beautiful, and divine – the West needs to see them in this spirit, not covered in cuts and bruises.

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