Oliver on Serving the Poor

Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those who serve the poor. Jesus didn’t come to bring good news of the Kingdom to those who serve the poor; he brought Good News to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah, or Redeemer.

Jesus’ agenda only brings a message for those who recognize themselves as poor, naked, hurt, tired, overburdened, needy and hopeless. As for the rest, his agenda has little or nothing to offer.

The only way to remain with the poor is if we discover that we are the miserable ones. We remain with the poor when we recognize ourselves, even if well disguised, in him/her who is right before our eyes. When we can see our own misery and poverty in them, when we realize our own needs and our desperate need to be saved and liberated, then and only then will we meet Jesus and live life according to His agenda.

God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed. Finding out this weakness of ours leaves us in a position of having nothing to offer, serve, donate, but reveals our need to be loved, healed and restored.

Claudio Oliver, “Why I Stopped Serving the Poor”

TUSKEGEE: A Photo Journal

My community is the small, rural city of Tuskegee, AL, located in Macon County in the east-central region of Alabama. As my photo captions demonstrate, there is much to know about Tuskegee and its unique history, but to begin I present a selection of demographic statistics to provide a high-level view of the community. According to the most recent estimates published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, Tuskegee’s population is approximately 9,556 persons most of whom (93.5%) are African-American. Its economy has been struggling for several decades, but is showing signs of new life with a higher-than-average median household income growth rate of 36.6% since 2000. Despite this encouraging growth, the median household income in 2013 was $26,848. The rates of poverty and unemployment are high at 29.9% and 22.2% respectively. With regard to education, 82.8% of Tuskegee’s residents have earned a high-school equivalent education, while only 25.6% have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median value of homes in Tuskegee is $80,000, but the housing situation is deteriorating with nearly 21.4% of housing units vacant. These statistics provide a helpful place to begin getting to know this community, but they cannot tell the whole story and therefore must be held lightly with some degree of critical suspicion to provide a space for the personal, familial, and communal stories which compose Tuskegee’s rich narrative to be told.

I do not live in Tuskegee, but it could be considered my “place of work.” In August 2014, I began working for a non-profit organization called Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM). Our ministry focuses primarily on home repair. ARM was founded in 1998 in Sumter County, AL (my hometown), but has been serving in Macon County (and the neighboring Lee County) since 2002. Many of ARM’s ministries are based in Tuskegee, and for the past several years, ARM has been in close partnership with the Tuskegee First Methodist Church. Out of all the communities where ARM serves, Tuskegee is the one where we are most heavily invested.

According to Mtika and Bronkema (2011), a community is “an arena (locality factor) in which community social processes (non-locality factor) take place” (p. 1). As I reflect on how I define Tuskegee as a community, my definition includes all three types of locality factors defined by Mtika and Bronkema (2011): (1) territorial because the actual geographic place known as Tuskegee, AL is the primary focus; (2) institutional because ARM and its ties to local religious groups are also in view; and (3) associational because Tuskegee’s place in the “black community” in America is highlighted. With regard to social processes, my definition of Tuskegee as a community points to the development of common ties, collective reflection over issues, and the formation of identity (Mtika and Bronkema, 2011, p. 10).

My photos of Tuskegee tell a story about the black community’s strength and patient endurance in the face of racial inequality. At the same time, it reveals the deep wounds of racial division, which remain to be reconciled. Ultimately, though, the story I tell about Tuskegee is the story of an outsider. In many ways, it is the “typical” story one might hear about Tuskegee in a history book. My telling of the story lacks what Ledwith calls the “heart” of community storytelling, which are the “voices of the people” (p. 34). This lack of personal character puts me at risk of objectifying the community, of ignoring its particularity and uniqueness, its “soul.” A story without heart and soul is devoid of love, without which, community work becomes “technical, routinized, shallow, and exploitative” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p.25). It is love, Westoby and Dowling (2009) note, that keeps people from getting “stuck in their own story” and allows them to develop a capacity for deep listening that is fundamental to relationships founded in mutuality and dialogue (p. 26). While deeply challenging, this critique encourages me to move humbly out of my place of comfort, safety, and privilege in order to hear and learn from the personal stories of Tuskegee’s people.

Bibliography

Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.
Mtika, Njalayawo M and Bronkema, David. 2011. “Definition of Community Development” (unpublished).
U.S. Census Bureau. (2013). Tuskegee city, Alabama. Retrieved from http://factfinder2.census.gov.
Westoby, P. & Dowling, G. (2012). Dialogical Community Development. Australia: Tafina Press.

Westoby and Dowling on “White” Places

It is often the very individuals, groups, or neighbourhoods that look squeaky clean [“white”] that are experiencing the most destructive energies at a hidden, unconscious or subterranean level. These are the soulless modernist collectives that masquerade as communities – people who come together without a capacity for hospitality to those who are ‘other’. They refuse to dance with their own shadows and therefore project shadows onto other problems.

Peter Westoby and Gerard Dowling, Dialogical Community Development: with depth, solidarity, and hospitality, p. 57-8

On the “Nothing Here” Places

People here often tell you they want to die in this place. They say this even after telling you there is nothing here.

“You know,” says Robert Martin, paraphrasing a speech Anne Shelby wrote for their play, “if you look at the quality of life index, we don’t score very high. We don’t have museums, and we don’t have this and we don’t have that. But how many points would you get for our streams and for people who show up at your door with a casserole and say, ‘Call me if you need anything.’ How many points would you get for being able to grow up in a place where your parents and their parents grew up?”

There is a stubborn toughness in the kind of love for place those words express. It is a toughness that finds its mirror in the toughness demanded of all the people struggling in all the “nothing here” places all over the country. It is a toughness that rebukes the artificial stratifications of race. “All life is interrelated,” said King.

And surely, he would have welcomed “yesterday’s people” as co-authors of tomorrow’s hope.

What’s that in your hands?

A sermon I’ll be sharing at Pepperell United Methodist Church in Opelika, AL tomorrow morning (8.10.2014).

Exodus 4:1-20

I’m not sure how much y’all keep up with current events, but if you’re like me and you like to stay informed about what’s happening across the globe then you know that the news this week has been grim. There’s violence, injustice, degradation, and just plain brutality nearly everywhere you look. Some of these problems have just recently begun but others have been with us for years, decades in some cases. One website I found listed 11 active “wars” in the world today along with 8 “serious armed conflicts”. Untold thousands – millions even – have lost their lives in this violence. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the massive scale of human suffering occurring every single day; children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, neighbors – their lives filled with pain and sorrow. Along with all this violence, we hear about our brothers and sisters in West Africa facing a public health nightmare – the Ebola virus. I don’t mean to be all negative this morning – there’s a lot of good happening in the world that we don’t hear about. But goodness gracious, the news this week has just been heartbreaking.

These are big problems. But, for the most part, they’re all in distant places – or at least they seem distant. But we’ve got our own big problems closer to home too. In Tuskegee where ARM [Alabama Rural Ministry] is currently expanding its work, the community is struggling. The poverty rate has been over 35% and the unemployment rate over 16% for the past 30 years.

I’m not sure about you but when I hear about these kinds of big problems I tend to feel powerless, overwhelmed, paralyzed. Do you feel that way too? What causes our feelings of powerlessness, our inaction, in the face of big problems near and far? Why don’t we, followers of the risen Lord, do something? Why don’t we become people who make a difference? These are the questions I want us to consider briefly this morning in light of all the bad news in our world this week.

 Thankfully, we know and worship a God who is no stranger to suffering, who doesn’t ignore the big problems. As we turn to the story of Exodus, we find another big problem: God’s people, the Hebrews – millions of them – are brutally oppressed as slaves in Egypt. As you heard in last week’s sermon, when God’s people cried out God heard their groaning, God remembered His covenant, God saw what was happening to them, and God understood their pain (The Message, Exo 2:24-25). But God doesn’t stop there. We know what happens next: God calls out to Moses from the burning bush. God has chosen Moses to be the leader of God’s mission for the redemption and restoration of the Hebrew slave. But right away Moses is not interested: first he doubts himself and then he questions God’s own identity. God is open to Moses’ questions and patient with his doubts. God promises to be with Moses and then reveals His true name, I AM – Yahweh – the one who will redeem God’s people from their suffering and restore them in a good land “flowing with milk and honey.” In the face of massive suffering, God is present and acts to redeem and restore because Yahweh is a saving God who doesn’t ignore the cries of those who suffer. Our text this morning picks up the ongoing dialogue between God and Moses at the burning bush. So, Moses has just received God’s invitation to join God’s work of redemption and restoration for the Hebrew people. How does he respond?

It sounds something like this: but… but… but… (I can hear my mom saying, “No buts about it!”). As we heard in our text from Exodus 4:1-20, Moses is not on board with God’s plans. Three separate times, he tries to avoid God’s invitation. Moses is well-aware of Israel’s suffering; he saw it happening as a young man. He may be aware, but, much like us, he feels powerless to do anything. So let’s look at Moses’ three “buts” and see if they don’t offer us some insight into our own feelings of powerlessness:

  1. In v. 1, we find out that Moses lacks credibility and trustworthiness among his people. He fears they won’t listen to After all, he’s a runaway murderer turned shepherd. Why would they believe him? Don’t we feel the same way sometimes? I think we tend to feel like we need more before folks will listen to us – more money, skill, knowledge, training, degrees, expertise, experience, awards, more prestige, more authority? If only we had more we could make a difference because then people would listen. Like us, Moses is looking for that something more that will guarantee he won’t be ignored.
  2. In v. 10, we discover that Moses can only see his weakness. He’s afraid he’s just not cut out for this kind of work. Moses can’t be a spokesperson – he can barely speak! It’s just not his gift, his talent, his personality; God created him to be a shepherd, not a politician. Do we not make the same excuses? Are we not also blinded by our own weaknesses? We all have our lists of things we’d like to improve, right? Maybe someone who doesn’t have any weaknesses to worry about can solve the world’s problems but that’s not us. We’ve got our own issues. We’re not cut out for this kind of work. Like Moses, we struggle to see beyond our own weaknesses.
  3. Finally, in v. 13 we find Moses trying desperately to convince God that this plan is all wrong: “Please, my Lord, just send someone else!” Wow – at least he’s being honest. Moses is convinced he’s not the person for the job. But there’s a major flaw in his thinking: for some reason he thinks that he alone (or hopefully someone else) has to accomplish God’s work. Aren’t we sometimes paralyzed by this same kind of narrow, individualistic thinking? We think we have to solve the world’s problems alone, that we have to be the heroes and heroines, that the solution depends entirely on us. But no one person can handle that kind of pressure – not Moses, not us. It just leaves us powerless and stuck.

I think we’re a lot like Moses: we know about the pain and suffering, we’ve heard the invitation to join in God’s mission of redemption and restoration, and we just don’t think we’re up to it – we don’t have what it takes, we’re not the right people.

But God disagrees… and ain’t that some good news! Every time Moses says “But… but… but…” God asks him a question. God’s not backing down; He pursues Moses patiently and passionately, wanting Moses to trust Him and His power working in and through Moses’ life. God wants Moses to see that what he already has and who he is are more than enough for God. How does God do it? Let’s look at those 3 questions:

  1. After Moses doubts his own credibility, God asks in v. 2, “What’s that in your hand?” Odd question. Surely God can see for Himself, right? God knows that Moses is a shepherd and every shepherd carries around a shepherd’s rod; a wooden staff for herding sheep and fending off predators. Of course Moses is holding a shepherd’s rod – that’s his job, his vocation, he’s a shepherd. For Moses, this rod is just an everyday tool, a piece of wood that represents his lowly profession. But when it’s used in God’s mission, this piece of wood is transformed into a sign of God’s awesome power to redeem and restore. God will take this marker of Moses’ low social status, his lack of credibility, and transform it into a marker of God’s calling and anointing. All Moses saw was his little ole staff; he had no idea what it would become and how God would use it once he joined God’s mission of redemption and restoration.
  2. After Moses doubts his ability to communicate, God asks a series of questions in v. 11: “Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I, the Lord?” Yahweh, God the Redeemer, is also God the Creator. The Creator God who fashioned Moses already knows Moses’ weaknesses even more than Moses does! And this Redeemer God is committed to seeing Moses overcome these weaknesses. God promises to help Moses, to be his Teacher and Guide. It turns out that God’s big plan for the restoration and redemption of Israel also includes Moses’ own personal healing. All Moses can see is who he is, but God sees who he will become when he trusts in God’s help and joins God’s work.
  3. Finally, after Moses tells God how he really feels, we see that God gets angry with Moses, but not in the way we might expect. God’s anger doesn’t lead to punishment or abandonment. God’s anger – God’s passion for seeing Moses take up his place in God’s mission – ultimately leads to a relationship of teamwork and shared responsibility between Moses and his brother, Aaron. As Moses pleads with God to just send someone else, I think God detects the overwhelming sense of pressure that Moses is putting on himself. What does God ask? “Moses, have you forgotten who you are? You’re not just a lone shepherd! You’re a brother! And your brother, Aaron, happens to be an excellent speaker! I never meant for you to do this alone, Moses. I’m not looking for a hero.” Moses refuses to look beyond himself, but God asks him a question that reminds Moses of the relationships he has that can help him accomplish God’s work. Moses doesn’t have to take this risk alone. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for Israel will not be accomplished by heroic feats of individual power. God wants a team, a new kind of family.

It seems that all Moses can do in this story is think of excuses. Benjamin Franklin once said that “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” Good thing Ben Franklin isn’t God! God doesn’t give up on Moses; God doesn’t give up on us. Maybe this morning you think you don’t have anything to offer God, nothing that can be of any use in God’s mission of redemption and restoration in Opelika, Lee County, Alabama, and the world. I think God may be asking us today, “What’s that in your hand?” All Moses had was a shepherd’s staff and that was enough for God – it wasn’t a sword or ruler’s scepter – just a simple staff. What do you have? A skill? A story? An experience? Maybe just free time and a listening ear? Each one of us here is a unique person that means we ALL have a unique role to play in God’s unfolding drama of redemption and restoration. Will you offer what you have to God?

Maybe all you can see this morning is your weaknesses, your shortcomings, your failures. God knows you – inside and out, backwards and forwards, past, present, and future. And guess what? God still wants you! God will be with you, your Teacher, your Guide. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for all people includes you and your personal healing. Will you trust God to be with you? To help you overcome your fears, your weaknesses, your doubts and to make you whole? Will you join God’s work knowing that you can’t accomplish it with your own strength?

Finally, maybe you’ve forgotten who you are this morning; thinking that you have to solve all of life’s problems on your own. Take a second to think about all the different roles you occupy. For me, I’m a son with a mom and dad, a brother to two other brothers, a husband to my wife, a father to my daughter, a co-worker with other co-workers, a friend among other friends, etc… We all live as members of a larger network of relationships that sustain us and make us who we are. And remember that God is Trinity, a community of three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. When we join in this Trinitarian God’s mission of redemption and restoration, we’re invited into a deeper fellowship with God, each other and our neighbors. We’re in this together. Are we willing to join hands and be the people whose life together shows the world a different, more loving way?

I love how this text ends. In verse 18, Moses tells his father-in-law Jethro that he needs to return to Egypt to see if his family is still alive. Now, either Moses is too scared to tell Jethro the real reason he’s returning to Egypt or maybe he still just doesn’t believe it. Whatever the case, the important part is that he goes. He may not understand how God is going to use him or how he’ll be changed in the process, but he packs up his things, trusts God, and hits the road for Egypt to face his people’s suffering head on. We don’t have to all be Moses, but I think we can learn something from his faith.

God has called us into His mission of redemption and restoration for all creation – beginning right here in Opelika, in Pepperell village. The kingdom of God is at hand. In the face of all the suffering we see in the world today, God is asking us, “What’s in your hand? Don’t you know that I created you? Do you know who you are?” We may not be able to see the end result, but let’s say yes to God, pack our bags and head towards Egypt anyway. Amen.

[See also, Dr. Al Tizon’s related post of Walter Brueggemann’s prayer “Deliver Us from Amnesia”]

Transitions: From Philly to Auburn

This post has been long overdue for at least two months. I’ve avoided it because I wasn’t quite sure how to say what I wanted to say… and I still don’t. On the one hand, it’s pretty straightforward: Cassie, Isla, and I will be moving to Auburn, AL, this Friday, August 1st where I’ll soon begin working as Alabama Rural Ministry’s Director of Ministry Operations.

We’re so excited to be moving back to AL – to AUBURN – and I, personally, am beyond excited to be working with ARM – a ministry that has had such a big impact on my life and sense of calling thus far. For those of you who may not know, ARM extends the love of Christ in order to end sub-standard housing in rural Alabama through home repair and children’s ministries. I served on ARM’s summer staff as a construction site coordinator in Sumter Count back in 2005. While my new role will have me at ARM’s main office in Opelika, AL, I’ll also have plenty of opportunity to seek God’s kingdom back home in Sumter County. It’ll be challenging work for me in a number of ways but I’m so grateful to Lisa Pierce, ARM’s founder and executive director, for her vision and the opportunity to work alongside her.

We’re also excited to be back down south, close to our families, and a bit further from the “big city” ;) On the other hand, it’s just not that simple.

I guess you could say we’re “moving back home” since we’ll be moving from PA back to AL (Cassie is from TN but… close enough). But saying that might imply that we’re not at home here, in Wynnewood/Ardmore, PA… and that would be wrong. We are home here. We didn’t expect it, but it happened. All we can say in hindsight is that God is so good.

We’ll be saying goodbye to so many people and places we’ve come to love: Six:Eight Community Church, our community group, all our friends at Linwood Park, our awesome neighbors, our friends from seminary, our co-workers… Leaving Wynnewood/Ardmore will not be easy at all.

All our excitement for what’s next can’t cover up the feelings of loss and grief that come from letting go of our life here in PA. We cannot thank God enough for all the people who have welcomed us into their lives. We southerners talk a big talk about hospitality, but I now know that hospitality doesn’t end when you cross the Mason-Dixon line. Cassie and I have been given such a gift in the friendships we’ve made here. In some mysterious way, we know that all those people, those relationships, will go with us as we move. We’re just not the same people as we were when we moved here 3 years ago. We’ve been changed by the people and the place we’ve come to know; and we can’t escape that – nor would we want to.

In a very real, yet mysterious way, I think Cassie and I have had an authentic experience, a foretaste, of God’s coming kingdom during our time here in Wynnewood/Ardmore – several experiences actually. Some have been at church, others at our community group, and still others at Linwood Park. God’s kingdom has been made real and tangible for us… and I’m in awe as I reflect back on its goodness.

So, transitions… we’re on the move once again, following the Spirit as little children who Jesus said would be the ones who welcome and enter the abundant life of God’s new creation. We hope to stay put for awhile in the Auburn/Opelika/Lee-Macon county area. We hope to be able to plant ourselves in a community in the way our church has planted itself in Ardmore/Wynnewood. We walk by faith – not by sight.

What can we say? Thank God and thank you – all of you.

And now, may “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Amen.