Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Here at Sunriver Resort near Bend, Oregon I am surrounded by my Christian brothers and sisters at the Lutheran 2012 synod assembly.
I wonder if you just quit reading. I wonder if a limited, stereotypical definition of Christians turned you away after my first sentence. I dare you to keep reading. If you do, I pray your vision of Christianity will be changed forever and you'll join us in knocking down borders as we reach through communities forming partnerships, non-denominational, unplanned, unpredictable, across all levels of diversity including income, culture, language, gender, and age.
In less than 24 hours I've learned that many of our Lutheran churches share a pastor with other denominations, especially in rural places or places of smaller congregations: Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and those less known. The stories I've heard confirm our guest speaker's theory that this is the new direction of Christianity. Barbara Rossing, Th.D., professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, talks about rubbing shoulders with those different than us, seeing God's face in the the face of another, needing the story of someone else to complete our own story, and renewing abundant life in our local communities.
Nativity has also built a community memorial garden where the ashes of loved ones and pets may be memorialized with plants, trees, benches, and peace. A beautiful natural landscape includes a labyrinth and a fence to keep the surrounding deer at bay. Anyone is welcome to come and sit, walk the labyrinth, or meditate in the peace of the sage brush, juniper trees, and plantings. A beautifully carved juniper cross greets you as you enter the gateway.
Nativity has also opened their doors to the local head start program. The wee ones not only share space with the church and community members, they benefit from the learning gardens, start their own seedlings in the two recently donated green houses, and frolic on two playgrounds built on the premises.
Across from the gardens is a wood cutting and chipping area. Members of the community donate wood. This deposit provides fire wood for anyone in need. Many people here heat their homes with wood. Those needing wood come to split wood, load wood for others and get a chord supply for 15-20 dollars. The receivers enjoy the benefit of giving to others and a cost saving of over $100.00 for their fuel supply.
Making this situation even more unique, the church members do all this on joint property with a wealthy resident. He is supporting the church to support the community by offering his land for additional garden plots, the wood chipping area, and meditation garden. The day we visited two volunteers were planting and maintaining the memorial garden and several people came by to check on their garden plots. Once known as the "little white church on the way to the garbage dump" Nativity is now known for their hospitality and reflection of God's love.
In Heppner, Oregon congregations join to provide care and lunches for students on Fridays. School has always been out on Fridays there. Their was a need for day care and lunch for the students of working parents; the church fills the need and offers a curriculum of morality and spirituality to those who come. Far from a Sunday School offered during the sermon, this reaching to meet the community, breaking out the church walls, joining together in partnership is the new church direction. Throughout the weekend, I heard story after story about the work of churches in the Oregon Synod and it made me feel blessed to be touched by God's grace.
Christians have always reached out to their communities but usually to bring people to Christ, not necessarily to bring Christ's love to others. It's time for us to do more than talk about faith in action. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop says, " We are called to be engaged in God's work of healing and restoring community in the world through love and service." I believe Oregonizing for Mission is our calling.
In the past few years the title of Christian has become synonymous with religious fanatic, unbending, and judgmental. This is not the Christian I see. I see people who unselfishly open their doors, and lives, and resources to help others in need. People breaking down barriers and spreading love. People who are committed to making the world a better place of all of us. People providing a Common Table for all to share.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Here I sit on the floor of a hotel bath room , laptop propped on the trashcan just typing away. My BFF lies in the adjacent room sleeping soundly after successfully overseeing a huge event she’s been working on for over two years and been dreaming about for eight. According to my trusty laptop, it is 2:20 AM at home in Oregon but I’m in Tulsa, Oklahoma, my birth place. In fact, the hospital where I took my first breath as a 4 pound premature baby, who wasn’t supposed to make it, is a stone’s throw away. Now 60, a long survivor, and way over 4 pounds, I have returned to my Oklahoma roots.
I spent my toddler and early childhood years here in Oklahoma wrapped in the care of my grandmother and daddy. On summer days I napped under wet sheets hung from a clothesline to ease the hot, humid Oklahoma thickness and on summer nights I chased fireflies among the cacophony of frogs, crickets, and cicadas. On Wednesdays, I baked apricot fried pies with the church ladies and tinkered on the clunky upright piano, ending the day with an evening service of hymns and halleluiahs. And, on Sunday nights we polished my Mary Jane shoes, laid out my gloves and hat, and tied my offering in a pretty hanky for Sunday School the next morning. I shucked peas and beans with Grandma and Mrs. Patella on the shady cool porch and ran from the old mean rooster in our yard. My brother and boy cousins would tease and torture me with horned toads but watch over me each Saturday morning as we skipped to the corner store to spend our weekly nickel on candy for the Saturday matinee. It was my life in downtown Tulsa in the early 50s.
By seven my dad re-married. We left grandma and Tulsa behind and moved to Littleton, Colorado where my father started a new business. Our family grew as we added my two little brothers and adopted my sister, who is actually my step-mother’s sister who was orphaned much too young. I claim her now and always as my full-fledged sister and I wouldn’t trade her or any one of those wonderful family years in Colorado for anything. I became a woman in the shadows of the Rockies; but most every summer we would pack all seven of us into our Buick station wagon with four- window air conditioning and travel Route 66 back to Oklahoma where our grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins would feed us Sunday fried chicken and slabs of barbeque bologna after we spent an afternoon taking turns churning the ice cream freezer.
In the 60s the army took my brother to Viet Nam and college took my sister to Durango. My parents moved back to Oklahoma and I learned a concept called “in-state” tuition. My parents agreed to let me spend my senior year back in Colorado with my friends as I was very active in high school and couldn’t bear to give up my life there to finish High School in Oklahoma. (Are you feeling the teen drama here?) The deal was, I would attend college in Oklahoma where they would pay “in-state” tuition. So, in short, I had a blast my senior year of high school living with various friends on the Tom-Tom (drill team) squad and cried all the way back to Oklahoma the night of graduation.
Stillwater would be home the next four years while attending Oklahoma State University with summers back in Tulsa waitress-ing my way to tips for the following school year. Instead of chasing fireflies, my sis and I “dragged” Peoria chasing boys. The nights felt even muggier after growing up in Colorado and the natural sounds of frogs were replaced with the Beach Boys and Beatles blasting from car radios through open windows. It was my life in the early 70s in downtown Tulsa.
My first teaching job took me to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Here, I left my white bread world and became the first public kindergarten teacher in a county of black and migrant field workers. Dr. Martin Luther King, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and other civil rights workers I’d seen on TV took on meaning now as I became immersed in a culture far different than what I’d known. At 23, I had only met two black people previous to this teaching assignment: 1) An attractive and very polite young man at a leadership conference in Denver who pulled out my chair for me and 2) A model from Dallas who I roomed with my second semester at OSU. Yes, at 23 I had no awareness of black people living in downtown Tulsa. Unbelievable isn’t it?
Those first few years of my teaching career on the Eastern Shore were as eye opening as an Oklahoma tornado coming straight at you. Every teacher holds that first class closely to her heart; but, those dear little forgotten children captured my very soul and I began to notice…to look…to understand what I was seeing on America’s nightly news.
After twenty more years of teaching, two marriages, three children, and military moves coast to coast, I moved back to Oklahoma in the early 90s. I took a job teaching in, you guessed it, downtown Tulsa. Not far from where the rooster chased me in grandma’s yard, I taught in a school made up of 98.6% black students with a teaching staff of 80% white teachers. This school was comprised of families who were descendents of the Tulsa Race Riots and was located across the street from one of the long-standing churches to survive the racial holocaust.
Like most white Oklahomans I had never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot which took place in 1921 when a black man was accused of accosting a white woman…leading to bombing of Black Wall street located in the Northern part of downtown Tulsa. The oil barons were in our Oklahoma History books. The dust bowl and the Five Tribes…however accurate…but nothing of Black Wall Street, “separate but equal”, or race rioting. It was eye-opening to have Eddie Faye Gates, grandmother of cute little Chutney, visit our classroom and tell the story of such an event.
That same year, I would be invited to attend the Oklahoma State University Writing Project, one of 190+ sites of the National Writing Project helping teachers become teacher leaders and better teachers of writing in all subject areas and grade levels. Attending this professional development and my work in downtown Tulsa transformed me as a person and a professional. Founded in 1974, the NWP is committed to preparing teachers of all students equally, giving them a voice and strength and resiliency. One of the ways to increase teacher awareness was to develop a network of sites in urban areas sharing common challenges. Thus, a yearly Urban Sites Conference evolved offering a space for teachers to talk the hard talk and address the sticky issues of reaching students attending urban schools. As co-director of the OSUWP, my friend (you know the one who is sleeping in the next room) and I decided it would be a great mission to host the USN conference in Tulsa one day.
After directing our local Writing Project site, I took a position on the national staff at NWP. It was like a dream working with teachers all over the country, attending the conferences, coaching the sessions, and mentoring new sites. I served in this capacity for eight years. Unfortunately, last year, NWP lost a large federal grant and I was laid off with most of the rest of our staff. I continue to keep in touch with the many friends and colleagues, especially Britton, the director of OSUWP. This year, our dream of having USN came true; OSUWP hosted the national Urban Sites Network conference in downtown Tulsa.
It’s tradition for the host site to hold a town hall at the end of the Urban Sites Conference. Yesterday as we were rapping up for 2012, teachers shared what they learned from their tour of the Greenwood District, tour of downtown, and a visit to the sites that inspired the book, ”The Outsiders.”
Just as the executive director was sharing her writing from a tour of Greenwood, the Reverend Jesse Jackson walked into the room. There was a frozen hush right before a spontaneous applause. There was history standing right in front of us.
“Recruit, retain, and cultivate”, he told us “just like the successful coaches do. He told us that teachers are in a wonderful position to touch the lives of those young ones at risk and he praised us for holding the conference to tackle the tough issues. He encouraged all to continue the work for the sake of the children.
It was a full circle moment for me. There I was in my birthplace sharing our story with teachers across the nation. I flashed back through time. I could see Martin Luther King with Reverend Jackson on television leading the march for equality …men willing to risk their lives for the betterment of others. I thought about the oppression, the liberation, the transformation, the continuing…the struggle… still.
This week, I return—to my birthplace, to my family, to my friends, to my calling, to dreams fulfilled, and to my faith in education as transformation. It is a coming home like no other, truly a full circle revelation.