Do We Want to Be Free?

A devotion I shared with the staff of Auburn UMC on Oct. 23rd 2019.

For my devotion today I wanted to follow up on an email Cory sent out last week about visiting the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) museum and memorial as a staff next month. I’d like to share a little context for this visit and hopefully encourage you to make plans to join us.

EJI was started by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and a man of deep faith, as a non-profit law firm in Montgomery, AL over 30 years ago. I learned about EJI from Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, released in 2014. A movie by the same name is being released this Christmas featuring Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx [TRAILER].

As you would expect, Stevenson spends a lot of time with prisoners. I reflected on Jesus’ words that we’ve all heard before from Matthew 25: I was in prison and you came to visit me. Jesus identifies himself with prisoners and calls us to respond in compassion and solidarity.

What does it mean for us to take these words seriously? To see the prisoner as Jesus the Christ and to “visit” him?

To begin to answer that question we need to know something about how the Bible describes prison and imprisonment. I found a great paper online at [Christopher D. Marshall, “Prisons, Prisoners, and the Bible”] that gave a nice Biblical theology of imprisonment:

  • Imprisonment was a cause of great suffering
  • Imprisonment was an instrument of oppression more than an instrument of justice
  • Imprisonment is identified in scripture with the spirit and power of death

So that’s what Jesus has in mind as he’s describing the prisoner and identifying himself as that person. He’s in a place of great suffering, being oppressed, and wrestling with the spirit of death itself.

The biblical and historical context helps but we also need to know something about our current context around prisons in order to live into Jesus’ teaching today.

I started learning more about our criminal justice system a few years back when I read a book called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, also a lawyer. Through her writing and others, I now know we live in a mass incarceration society. What does that mean? It means that in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we lock up more people than any other country in the world. The US accounts for 5% of the total world population, yet the US prison population accounts for 25% of the global prison population. I have 2 graphs that show this phenomenon.

The first compares the US incarceration rate to that of other founding NATO countries.

The second shows the growth of our prison population over time since 1925. It breaks down the population by state prison, local jail, and federal prison. You can see a dramatic increase starting in the early 1970s. This increase is most severe in the state prison and local jails.

This is important to note because each state operates its own criminal justice system. Which brings us to our own state, Alabama, and the truly terrible condition of our prison system.

WRBC News in Birmingham received 2500 images depicting prison violence from a correctional officer working at St Clair correctional facility. Here’s what they said in their report [WARNING: Graphic Violence] published this April:

Alabama prisons are a slaughterhouse, where rape, stabbings, murder and extortion happen around the clock, as confirmed in the recent Department of Justice investigation. In this age of mass incarceration, prisons and jails across America are vicious places, but Alabama’s brutality is exceptional… These photos, a virtual trove of prison gore from inside an especially rotten facility, represent a perversion of the notion that prison should be hard. We now have real evidence that incarceration in Alabama is homicidal and suicidal. A volunteer prison minister once told me he believes the places are demonic. It is hard to look at, but important to see.

Beth Shelburne, “The Bloody Truth: Inside America’s most violent prison system,” 4/11/19

The news report references a Department of Justice investigation also released this April [FULL REPORT], which lays out the many ways “Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners housed in Alabama’s prisons.”

The next few slides give more detail:

The prison mortality rate in Alabama versus the national average. Not only is Alabama much higher than the national average, our prisons are the deadliest in the nation.

Overcrowding in AL prisons vs other states – we are near 170% capacity

Incarceration in AL vs the US vs other NATO countries

The racial disparities in AL’s prison population vs the general population

In summary, Alabama’s prisons are places of extreme and dehumanizing violence, they are massively overcrowded, underfunded, & understaffed, and they are marred by racial discrimination.

So, returning to our text: I was in prison and you visited me. What do we do?

When we go back to the biblical theology of imprisonment we looked at earlier, we find one more theme: God wants to set prisoners free. This is echoed throughout both testaments, in the Psalms, in the prophets, and Jesus himself picks this up in Luke 4 when he quotes Isaiah 61 as his mission statement of sorts.

The question I’m asking myself, a non-prisoner, in an age of mass incarceration and grotesquely inhumane prison conditions is this: am I really free?

Going back to our visit to EJI, Bryan Stevenson said in a recent interview:

Part of our work [at EJI] is aimed at trying to re-engage this country with an awareness and understanding of how our history of racial inequality continues to haunt us. I don’t think we’re free in America — I think we’re all burdened by this history of racial injustice, which has created a narrative of racial difference, which has infected us, corrupted us, and allowed us to see the world through this lens. So it becomes necessary to talk about that history if we want to get free.

Bryan Stevenson, “This Death Row Lawyer Says Americans Won’t Be Free Until We Face Our Racist History”

The question and the invitation as we go to visit EJI next month is this: do we – as a church, a community, and nation – want to be truly free? I hope you’ll make plans to join us.


Look What York Did! – The Coleman Center for the Arts and Community Development in Rural Alabama

york welcomeThirty years ago, one year before I was born and two years before my family moved to the place I came to call home, the Coleman Center for the Arts (CCA) made its humble beginnings in the west-central Alabama town of York. This rural community lies on the western edge of Alabama’s Black Belt region, which is known for its dark, life-nurturing soil. In this place of rich agricultural fertility, seeds of a different kind were planted in York’s economically distressed and socially divided soul. Three decades later these seeds, nurtured by their deep roots, are now blooming in vibrant colors. While the Coleman Center may be “for the arts,” this “plant” is not for the eyes only; it bears fruit with the potential to sustain and renew the life of this community.

In this paper, I tell the story of CCA and critically examine its mission, strategies, and activities to determine how it has promoted or impeded the process and outcomes of community development. A four-dimensioned analysis of its work is included which asks: how is CCA engaging people in critical thinking and self awareness?; how is it developing creativity and innovativeness?; how is it advancing the continuity of community development initiatives?; and, how is it accomplishing security in life chances and sustainable, holistic well-being? To conclude, I offer a recommendation for improving CCA’s work through an analysis of power, critical praxis, community organizing, and solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.

The Story of CCA

In 1985, Dorothy Altman Riddick, known simply as Tut, organized a group of York’s citizens to create CCA out of their belief in the power of art and culture to bridge socio-economic divides (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). Bertice McPherson, a friend of Tut’s, says “Tut wanted to help the people of York by giving them a place to create art and to study” (Harrison, 2012). CCA began as an agency of the city and housed the city’s only library and art gallery, which it used as sites for adult education classes, children’s summer reading programs, and community art shows (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). In 2003, CCA began its first public art projects and launched its artist-in-residence program (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). When Shana Berger and Nathan Purath came to York in May 2005 on a brief visit as participants of this program, CCA was without a director; just two months later Shana and Nathan had permanently moved to York to become CCA’s co-directors (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). “Driven by the idea that art can play an integral role in realizing positive social change,” Shana and Nathan brought new energy and vision to CCA and, in 2008, re-organized it as an independent non-profit entity (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-c; Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

Today, CCA employs three full-time and two part-time staff who oversee the use and maintenance of nine buildings in downtown York, which is a significant amount of real estate in a town of only 2,000 residents (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This small group of people are the catalysts for “a contemporary arts organization that uses art to foster positive social change, answer civic needs, build local pride, and use creativity for community problem solving” (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-a). In order to pursue its mission of integrating “contemporary art into education, civic life, and community development throughout our region,” CCA has adopted a strategy that employs “an architecture for creating participatory projects [and]… a relational framework through which artists and community members collaborate” (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-a; Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-c). As their mission states, CCA’s programs create contemporary art, which “refers to art made and produced by artists living today… [who] often reflect and comment on modern-day society” (The J. Paul Getty Museum, n.d.). Purath says their definition of art is broad – including anything created with intentionality that inspires meaning, embodies a social value and purpose, or sparks emotional moments of fellowship (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). Much of CCA’s work can be further classified as “public art.” Defined in simple terms as any work of art placed on a public site, this kind of art is not defined by its particular form or style but by its collaborative, interactive process, which seeks “out the most imaginative and productive affinity between artist and community” in order to create a “form of collective community expression”  (Association for Public Art, n.d.). Public art – designed through and for dialogue – is an apt pursuit for a contemporary arts organization built on the hope of reconciling a community across its socio-economic and racial divides.

CCA’s works of contemporary, public art are created within four program areas guided by its relational, participatory strategy: education, exhibition, artists-in-residence, and Pop Start. The education program is made up of the city library, an after-school art club, a one-week summer camp, and a youth action council. According to Berger and Purath, the youth action council is a brand new initiative designed to empower a group of 16-20 racially diverse high-school students from both the public and private schools who are given $1000 to design and implement a project which addresses a social issue they care about in their community (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015; Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). CCA’s exhibition program operates an art gallery to host the annual Sumter County Fine Arts Council Annual Juried Show, which displays works by local artists (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2014). The gallery also hosts shows for visiting artists-in-residence throughout the year (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

Over the past decade under Berger and Purath’s leadership, CCA’s artist-in-residence program has grown and developed significantly. Its goal is to create “socially engaged participatory public art [through] projects and processes [which] employ mutuality, collaboration, and reciprocity among co-participants” in order to “address civic and social needs” (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-b). According to Berger, artists whose work seems to connect with York in a meaningful way are chosen to participate, but are asked not to conceive of their projects before their initial visit (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This initial visit introduces the artists to the community and provides a space to discuss the issues they would like to address (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). After this introductory visit, artists return multiple times to share their ideas, receive feedback, and work with the community to create their project (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

This process has resulted in several collaborative, transformative works of art. One project, “Open House” (appendix A), “transformed a blighted property into a public outdoor theater in downtown York” (Berger, 2013). With all the style of a Transformer robot, this “sculpture” of a house literally opens up into “a public space for performance, celebration, dialogue, fellowship and community” with the physical labor of three to four persons over the course of a few hours (Berger, 2013)! The “Open House” is now used to host a series of community movie nights during the summer  as well as other community events (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This project is only one of many produced through the artist-in-residence program over its eleven-year tenure.

In 2013 and 2014, CCA began work on its first economic initiative, Pop Start. York’s downtown has, like many other rural towns, experienced significant decline over several decades. Pop Start plans to “offer rotating business incubation, a cooperative market for selling home-sourced goods, a community social space and an opportunity for artists and community members to experiment with the space of a storefront” (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2013a). The hope is to focus economic activity, provide more support for York’s entrepreneurs, and counteract the sense of failure and loss created by empty downtown storefronts (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). CCA recently was awarded a $200,000 place-making grant from ArtPlace America to fund the first 18 months of Pop Start’s operations, which will begin once building renovations are complete (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

CCA operates its programs with support from a variety of national, state, and local organizations. The Andy Warhol Foundation and Alabama Power have been particularly important supporters who have helped attract additional funds (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). The National Endowment for the Arts, the Alabama State Art Council, and The Daniel Foundation of Alabama have also supported CCA’s work (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). Finally, CCA enjoys the support of many local residents, who have donated several of its buildings and who serve as an integral part of CCA’s work (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

Community Development Analysis

Critical Thinking and Self-Awareness

The practice of critical thinking and self-awareness is essential to the work of community development because communities exist within the relational nexus between embodied persons and disembodied societal structures which interact in complex ways to powerfully shape the community’s life. Without critical thinking, a community will fail to see the effects of these structures and, as a result, may ignore significant factors that restrain or enhance its community development efforts. This failure would place too much emphasis on the community’s responsibility to, in effect, develop itself. On the other hand, a community without a strong sense of self-awareness may fail to see the potential of its own resources and, as a result, feel powerless in its community development efforts. This failure would place too much emphasis on external actors to, in effect, rescue the community.

Critical thinking combined with self-awareness can give “rise to new ways of seeing the world that lead to new ways of being in the world” (Ledwith, 2011, p33). According to community development practitioner Margaret Ledwith (2011), this “critical consciousness” is essential to the process of empowerment, which develops “the theory and practice of equality” necessary in order to communally confront systems of oppression, injustice, and inequality (p32). Because communities are “[arenas] (locality factor) in which community social processes (non-locality factor) take place”, self-awareness is necessary for discerning the community’s embodied locality, but it remains incomplete without critical thinking, which unveils the workings of non-locality, i.e. disembodied, social processes impinging upon the community’s life (Mtika and Bronkema, 2012a, p1).

How is this critical consciousness developed? For Ledwith (2011), the process begins with outsiders who “create a learning context for questioning that helps local people to make critical connections between their lives and the structures of society that shape their world” (p33). The necessity of this “learning context for questioning” arises from Jurgen Habermas’ communicative action theory. This theory explains how sites of “free, open, and unlimited communication” in which all voices in the community are heard within public, rational discussions have the potential to build a common ground upon which a community can act to resist the colonization of macro-economic and political forces “that reduces people to the status of things” (Hustedde, 2009, p28). What communicative action theory calls for is, in a word, dialogue: “a deep, challenging and enriching conversation, a mutual process of building shared understanding, meaning, communication and creative action” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p10). As outsiders create spaces for dialogue within communities, they nurture an environment from which critical consciousness can emerge to support processes of community development informed by critical thinking and self-awareness.

Is CCA’s work creating space for dialogue and giving rise to critical consciousness in York? According to Berger, CCA’s participatory approach to public art projects creates an unfamiliar space for both the local community who are not trained as artists, and for the artists-in-residence who may feel out of place in rural Alabama (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). This mutual unfamiliarity has a disruptive and equalizing effect, which opens up a neutral, free space for dialogue (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015; Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). As artists and local community members share their stories in this space, the community is simultaneously having a conversation with itself – often about tough issues like racial segregation that may not otherwise not be discussed in public (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This dialogue builds York’s self-awareness in powerful ways, but critical consciousness also requires critical thinking. CCA’s work at this time seems to only address local issues and, therefore, fails to analyze how York’s “experiences are linked to the forces of power that are embedded in the structures of society [in order to understand] how these forces reach into communities to impact on personal lives” (Ledwith, 2011, p34). While CCA is opening up space for dialogue that is producing transformative works of public art, their dialogue stops short of critical thinking.

Innovativeness and Creativity

            Apart from a spirit of innovativeness and creativity, community development efforts lose their liveliness. They get stuck in the world “as it is” and fail to inspire the community to action towards the realization of the world “as it should be” (Chambers, 2003, p22). As Westoby and Dowling (2009) wisely note, “the key to community development is… the quality and creativity of people who dream of a better world for their neighborhoods and want to take some form of public, communal, transformational action” (p289). A spirit of creativity and innovativeness gives birth to vision – without which “the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 King James Version). The human capacity for creating – and re-creating – is a profound reflection of humanity’s own creation in the image of the Creator who is the source of life. Creativity is the essence of life – of soul – that connects us to others, to our place, our history (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p14). This “stuff of soul is made by genuinely participating in initiatives emerging from people’s shared suffering and concerns” in a process Westoby and Dowling (2009) call “poetic participation” (p61). Poetic participation is the breeding ground of creativity and openness to new ways of thinking, doing, and being in relation with others. Out of this fertile soul, a community can be re-created.

Is the work of CCA nurturing an environment of poetic participation in York that develops its creativity and innovativeness? Emphatically, yes! As Berger (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015) notes, direct community engagement and feedback with artists is part of their work from the beginning of the process to its completion. “All artist projects are characterized by close collaboration with the community,” says the CCA website, which ensures “that artists and participants sustain deep connections to each other and the work” (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-b). CCA is building soulful connections in York across lines of race, socio-economic status, and age (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This diversity is what attracts and motivates many of CCA’s participants according to Berger (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). People do not participate “because they like contemporary art”; it is because they believe in the outcome and want to be connected to other people (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). The social space of poetic participation that CCA facilitates is an essential place for York to gather and re-imagine a new, more lively, way of life.

            In addition to infusing community development with soulful life, creativity and innovativeness are also essential for community development efforts to remain vital and relevant. A community that is not exercising its creativity is undermining its ability to adapt in a world that is rapidly changing. This ability to exercise creativity and generate innovative ideas is especially important for a community’s economic system. It is a society’s ability to “generate and tolerate new ideas” and “adapt to continuously changing economic and technological circumstances,” says Cortright (2001), that “are a precondition to sustained economic growth” (p. ii). Shaffer and Summers (1989) also identify “the adaptability of the community to changing conditions both within and outside itself” as a key ingredient to the community’s ability “to maintain, if not improve, its relative economic position” (p2). The best example of a community’s creativity and innovativeness in the economic institution is its entrepreneurs since they are “by definition… responding to change and trying to capture the opportunities embodied in change” (Shaffer and Summers, 1989, p8). The practice of creativity is not only good for human development and wholeness – it’s good for business too.

Is the work of CCA facilitating economic ingenuity through entrepreneurship in York and sustaining its ability to adapt? Again, the answer is yes. With the addition of Pop Start, CCA is intentionally and directly injecting new life into York’s economic institution and creating a space for York’s entrepreneurs to flourish. In addition to Pop Start, CCA has participated in past city planning efforts and were part of a small-town design initiative led by students from Auburn University’s urban planning program. These efforts reveal CCA’s commitment to helping York adapt to a changing economic and political environment.

Continuity of Community Development Initiatives

Community development based on dialogue is a slow process because it requires patient listening. In a complex world characterized by speed and instant gratification, this kind of patient dialogue “requires a resistance to the shallow-ing of practice,” which is obsessed with “quick fixes,” in order to take a more depth-ful approach that does not over-simplify the problems a community faces (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p11). Community development efforts must be designed and maintained for the long haul in order to make any sort of deep, transformative change that takes account of a community’s complexity.

However, these deep, transformative changes are the community development outcomes of a very intentional, sustained community development process. As Phillips and Pittman (2009) discuss at length, community development is both a process and a set of outcomes. However, as Mtika and Bronkema (2012b) note, most people focus on the seen, tangible “life course outcomes” while forgetting the necessity of the community development process which creates an environment for these outcomes to emerge by developing the character, creativity, and innovativeness of the community (p31). Phillips and Pittman (2009) explain this interaction between process and outcomes by saying “the process of community development is social capital/capacity building which leads to social capital which in turn leads to the outcome of community development” (p7). The energetic core of this cycle is social capital. Green and Haines (2012) note the significant features of social capital as “the aspects of social structure (trust, norms, and social networks) that facilitate collective action”, which is “central to building other forms of [community] capital” and therefore essential “in addressing common problems that are not easily resolved by individual actions” (p144, 147). When a community is actively engaging community development processes that produce social capital through improving character, creativity, and innovativeness, it is poised to mobilize its own resources, assets, and ideas, as well as those external to the community, to create the community development outcomes it desires. Therefore, the continuity of community development initiatives and their outcomes is directly related to the strength of social-capital-generating development processes.

Is the work of CCA advancing the continuity of community development initiatives in York? A broad survey of their programs suggests that, while a large part of their work is designed to be impermanent, they are still advancing the continuity of community development initiatives through their participatory, relational approach to creating public works of contemporary art. At the same time, CCA has been able to sustain some programs and community assets over the course of three decades such as the city library and art gallery. They have also been able to convert some of the “impermanent” work produced by their artist-in-residence program into more permanent community assets. This conversion can be most clearly seen in the “Open House” project previously mentioned, which continues to provide a source of “cultural capital” by increasing York’s uniqueness and by serving as a site for community celebrations (Green and Haines, 2012, p267). Another example is the “One Mile Garden” (see Appendix B) project which “includes a central garden for growing, teaching and learning” at CCA’s downtown location, as well as “satellite gardens” throughout the community and a public fruit tree orchard at a public park (Berger, 2009). Because CCA connected its artists-in-residence with a local York resident who was an expert gardener, the project continues today as an important source of “environmental capital” which teaches the community to care for its land (Green and Haines, 2012, p215). These two “impermanent” projects have produced important cultural and environmental assets for the York community and show that CCA and its artists are committed to advancing the continuity of its community development activities.

At the same time, “Open House”, “One Mile Garden”, and many other artist-in-residence projects embody the social-capital-generating community development process, which is so essential to sustainable community development outcomes. As Purath explains, much of CCA’s work through the artist-in-residence program has been to demonstrate a capacity for change, building a base of trust between artists and the community and within the community, and creating and maintaining an open space to find common ground (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). Two poignant examples of how CCA is generating social capital are found in its “To My Dearest and Beloved Family” (see Appendix C) and “De-Weaponizing the Gun” (see Appendix D) projects. In “To My Dearest and Beloved Family,” the visiting artist created an exhibition of military portraits and invited York’s residents to “provide pictures of area service members, veterans or those depicted in uniform,” which produced pictures ranging from a Civil War veteran to a current member of the JROTC (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2013b). This exhibition was displayed publicly at the CCA’s art gallery and represented “deep love, pride, admiration and respect” for the community (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2013b). In the “De-Weaponizing the Gun” project, a visiting artist used a small caliber rifle to create pointillist “drawings” of bullet holes on sheets of metal painted white (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2009). The gun, especially a rifle, is a popular and powerful symbol in York where many residents enjoy hunting and sport shooting. This attention from the local community garnered by this project led to an invitation for the artist to perform a live demonstration of his work at the camp house of a well-known white family, which was attended by black and white residents (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This occurrence may seem insignificant, but in rural communities a camp house serves as a kind of social status symbol and this event was the first time black families had been hosted at this camp house. In both cases, social capital was generated as the community gathered to take part in these works of art.

While not all of CCA’s artist-in-residence projects have become permanent assets for the community, they all help create and strengthen York’s social capital. CCA is committed to the long, patient process of listening and dialogue, which lie at the heart of community development processes. This dialogical process represents a significant effort to advance the continuity of its community development initiatives.

Security in Life Chances and Sustainable, Holistic Well-Being

As important as community development processes are, they are incomplete without subsequent community development outcomes. Mtika and Bronkema (2012b) explain how “improving these life course outcomes enhances security in life chances of community members” (p31). By “security in life chances”, they refer to an adequate, equitable level of access to opportunities that allow community members “to improve [the] quality of their lives” (Mtika and Bronkema, 2012b, p31). In addition to improving security in life chances, community development outcomes also contribute to the community’s economic, socio-cultural, and spiritual well-being in the present and future. Phillips and Pittman (2009) show the relationship between these outcomes and economic well-being when they state: “the purpose of community development is to produce assets that may be used to improve the community, and the purpose of economic development is to mobilize these assets to benefit the community” (p11). Westoby and Dowling (2009) connect life course outcomes to a holistic notion of well-being achieved through caring for the ordinary, socio-cultural, economic, political, and ecological spheres of community life. It is clear that community development work should lead to improvements throughout the entirety of the community that can be seen, felt, heard, tasted and touched.

Is the work of CCA increasing security in life chances and sustainable, holistic well being for York? Westoby and Dowling’s (2009) five aspects of community care in relation to well-being serve as a helpful lens for evaluating CCA’s contribution towards York’s well-being. When “caring for the ordinary” is considered, CCA’s work excels in “valuing the mundane, the commonplace, and the everyday events that are the social glue connecting ordinary people with one another” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p185). For Purath, CCA’s community problem solving approach is all about the day-to-day life in York (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). “Caring for the socio-cultural” sphere of community life is also evident in CCA’s work as its programs nurture diverse social relations in a variety of ways (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p185). Purath describes the outcome of CCA’s work as creating a more kindred spirit (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). Closely related to the care of the socio-cultural, he also noted how CCA’s programs are helping to overcome a sense of failure on a psychological or emotional level (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). In this way, CCA is contributing towards York’s “power-to” defined as “personal power to achieve our potential” associated with self-esteem and self-belief, which is “vital to releasing the energy for change” (Ledwith, 2011, p146). The work of CCA is clearly contributing to York’s holistic well-being with its care for ordinary and socio-cultural dimensions of life in York.

With the Pop Start creative business incubator, CCA is preparing to launch its first initiative aimed at “caring for the economy” by creating “alternative, local, human-scale, relational economies with social and ecological objectives” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p185). With one of its purposes of being “a cooperative market for selling home-sourced goods,” Pop Start will strengthen economic linkages in the community, which, as Silver and Loxley (2007) note, may not create huge profits but “will improve the economic and social well-being of those otherwise omitted from the benefits of profit-oriented economies” (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2013a; p8). In addition to the Pop Start initiative still in development, Purath explained how CCA contributes to the local economy by purchasing a significant amount of goods and services from local stores with sources of funding external to the community (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). CCA’s “care for the economy” is still in its early stages, but this will soon become an integral aspect of their work with the launch of Pop Start.

When considering Westoby and Dowling’s (2009) final two categories of community care – political and ecological – CCA’s work has made some steps in the right direction. Its Youth Action Council is its only program with explicit political intentions that seek to “[enable] agency, moving from private concern to public action” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p186). Since the program is still in its infancy, its contribution to York’s political well-being remains to be seen. Care for York’s ecology is evidenced by CCA’s “One Mile Garden” project previously described. While this work is important for “changing hearts and minds” on a personal level, it does not contribute towards other aspects of ecological care such as a structural analysis of broad ecological concerns, the creation of alternative institutions, and the mobilization of political confrontations necessary for structural change (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p186). In its work of caring for York’s political and ecological spheres, there remains much room for CCA to grow.


The Coleman Center for the Arts is practicing community development work in York, AL, in profound, inspiring ways that are making a real difference in the everyday lives of York’s ordinary citizens. According to Berger, this practice is informed by an asset-based approach, which in general seeks to capitalize on a community’s existing strengths and resources instead of focusing on its lacks (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). The asset-based approach is very popular and has many strengths, but is not without weaknesses. As Green and Haines (2012) note, asset-based approaches use a development model of community organizing which “stress the importance of bringing people together and helping them help themselves” (p245). Ledwith (2011) sharply criticizes this kind of “help you help yourself” approach as fundamentally disempowering because it provides “a smokescreen for the forces of structural inequality by ignoring unequal wealth and power distribution, as well as to ignore heterogeneity and inequity within communities” (p29). In other words, asset-based approaches tend to be too optimistic about the power of local communities to improve their quality of life with local resources and strengths. They can fail to see how entire communities and regions have been excluded and marginalized, which severely limits the potential of the community’s local assets. Sometimes they see the local community through rose-tinted lens and fail to notice the exclusion and marginalization in the community’s midst. In summary, asset-based approaches have a tendency to be naïve about power and its distribution within and beyond a community.

Inasmuch as CCA employs an asset-based approach, it is susceptible to this tendency towards power naïveté. CCA does seem to be aware of many divisions within the community, but it is unclear whether this awareness extends to an understanding of internal and external power relations. The first step to addressing this potential weakness in CCA’s approach is to perform a power/conflict analysis of York and the surrounding region of Sumter County. As conflict theory suggests, “communities are always characterized by conflict, usually arising from inequalities of power and/or wealth along lines of gender, class or ethnicity” (Silver and Loxley, 2007, p9). Even in a place as welcoming and friendly as York there is still plenty of conflict and power struggles, especially when considering its not-too-distant history of explicit forms of systemic discrimination against people of color through the 19th and mid-20th centuries.

Green and Haines (2012) discuss three approaches to community power analysis, which serve as a kind of “audit” of the community’s political capital, defined as “access to decision-making” (p239, 243-4). A reputational approach relies on community informants to identify influential people, whether they hold formal positions or not. A positional approach identifies the key institutions in the community and who occupies positions of power in those institutions. Finally, a decision-making approach examines who or which groups of people tend to “win” on important decisions made throughout the community’s history. None of these approaches are mutually exclusive, so it makes sense to use a combination of all three (Green and Haines, 2012, p244). One major weakness of all three is that power is seen only as decision-making ability, but power “can be expressed through non-decisions as well” (Green and Haines, 2012, p244). Sometimes knowing what did not happen in a community or what was not said at a meeting tells you more about the exercise of power than knowing what did happen or what was said.

However, all three of these community power analyses only reveal power inequalities on a personal or communal level. According to Ledwith (2011), power is always operative on three levels: the personal, cultural/communal, and structural (p145). Since these levels “mutually reinforce prejudice and discrimination,” actions that do not simultaneously address all three levels will be negated (Ledwith, 2011, p145). A process is needed for unveiling power on a structural, societal level. This societal analysis is essential to community development because communities occupy a “contradictory position” in relation to the larger political economy as both necessary for its survival and simultaneously “constrained in what they can achieve in terms of shaping or transforming that economy” (DeFillips and Saegert, 2008, p3). Mtika and Bronkema (2012a) note this societal tension in their definition of community when they explain how extra-local social processes provide a general shape within which local expressions of community are formed. If the general shape provided by these external social processes is degrading to the community’s well-being, the work of community development must engage these extra-local realities so that space is made for a more just, equitable, and life-giving community expression to emerge. The process of identifying the “general shape provided by external social processes”, i.e. a structural power analysis, begins by asking questions to encourage critical thinking.

As previously noted, CCA utilizes a rich, relational, participatory approach to creating public art that is founded on and encourages dialogue. This dialogic environment is the essential foundation for critical thinking practice that empowers community members to ask questions about their lives, which unveil oppressive hegemonic structures affecting them (Mtika and Bronkema, 2012b). The key is to deeply listen to the actual experiences of community members, their “little stories”, and to then ask probing questions which problematize these stories and reveal how they are connected to a “bigger story” operating on a structural level (Ledwith, 2011, p72). In order for CCA to encourage the growth of critical consciousness in its work, it must find ways to encourage this kind of critical thinking throughout its programs.

Yet, the purpose of power analyses, critical thinking, and critical consciousness is not merely to identify inequalities of power; the point is to challenge these inequalities that unjustly oppress and marginalize some for the benefit of others. This purpose calls for the practice of relational power, which is “the capacity to organize people and their institutions around common values and relationships so they can act together as one to bring about the change they desire” (Linthicum, 2003, p82). As Linthicum (2003) rightly notes, the development of relational power begins with dialogue and listening that builds trust within personal relationships, but it does not end there. Relational power “is a process for creating social capital,” says Chambers (2003),  “and keeping it in motion [emphasis added]” (p69). CCA is already very good at creating and sustaining social capital, but it should now put this community asset into motion in ways that challenge and confront internal and external inequalities of power.

While confrontation is often not a popular method for seeking change in rural, Southern towns, the kind of confrontation which encourages community development is a “healthy process that enables humans to resolve pronounced differences of opinion” (Linthicum, 2003, p170). Westoby and Dowling (2009) provide a very wise, “care-ful” approach to conflict which is resolved through dialogue with the hope that “people can listen, learn, and move towards one another, being hospitable towards the ‘other’ and therefore becoming community” (p102-3). However, when this dialogical approach to conflict is ineffective, a more explicit “action” may be called for which “seeks to call a government or business official to accountability” (Linthicum, 2003, p158-9). This kind political, critical praxis work will not be easy and it may create enemies, but it is essential work if sustainable, transformative change is desired.

As this recommendation for critical praxis and relational power concludes, it is vital to note the heart of this work: solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized. Westoby and Dowling (2009) emphasize solidarity’s call “for a movement alongside and engaged with the most vulnerable people in places where they live – invisible, unsafe, distant, uncomfortable places” (p212). Solidarity is the practice of radical friendship with and among those who experience oppression and marginalization to the point of identification with and sharing in these sufferings. However, as Oliver (2009) so profoundly notes, “the only way to remain with the poor is if… we recognize ourselves, even if well disguised, in him/her who is right before our eyes” (p4-5). Solidarity means discovering your own poverty and need for justice because, in the end, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [since] we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny [so that] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (King, 1963). Berger and Purath both came to York as outsiders and have stayed for a decade. Their commitment to York is clear and, in a sense, they are already practicing solidarity just by living and working in this community. Therefore, this recommendation for solidarity is an exhortation to make their commitment even more radical as they identify themselves with and sacrificially love those experiencing suffering in York.

“Look What York Did!”

In my interview with Nathan Purath, he mentioned an occasion that made him especially proud of CCA’s work. A “fan” of CCA on Facebook posted an article about one of CCA’s projects with the accompanying note: “Look what York did!” (Purath, personal interview, Jan. 21, 2015). Purath, along with Berger, are right to be proud. The Coleman Center for the Arts is an outstanding, inspiring organization, which genuinely cares for the people of York and wants to see this community flourish. The Facebook comment mentioned is only one voice in a chorus of supporters within York and beyond who want to see CCA succeed because its success will lead to York’s greater well-being. It was a privilege to learn more about Berger, Purath, and CCA. I submit my analysis of their work knowing that I have barely scratched the surface of all that they do. I offer my recommendations with utmost humility, keenly aware of its shortcomings and limits. Overall, I hope my analysis and recommendations will spur further thought and dialogue as CCA moves forward with its community development work. I am proud to say that CCA is part of my home, even a part of my identity. I am thankful for its work and look forward to learning more and participating with Berger, Purath, and the CCA family in the future.


Association for Public Art. (n.d.). What is public art? Retrieved from

Berger, S. (2009). One Mile Garden, Bob Bingham, Robin Hewlett, and Ally Reeves. Retrieved from

Berger, S. (2013). Open House, Matthew Mazzotta. Retrieved from

Chambers, E. (2008). Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action, and Justice. New York: Continuum.

Coleman Center for the Arts. (n.d.-a). About. Retrieved from

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Coleman Center for the Arts. (n.d.-c). People. Retrieved from

Coleman Center for the Arts. (2009). Walton Creel, Demonstration. Retrieved from

Coleman Center for the Arts. (2013a). Pop Up Pop Start. Retrieved from

Coleman Center for the Arts. (2013b). To My Dearest and Beloved Family. Retrieved from

Coleman Center for the Arts. (2014). SCFAC 2014. Retrieved from

Cortright, J. (2001). New Growth Theory, Technology and Learning: A Practitioner’s Guide. Reviews of Economic Development Literature and Practice No. 4, United States Economic Development Administration.

DeFilippis, J. and Saeggert, S. (2008). “Communities Develop: The Question is How?” In James DeFillippis and Susan Saegert (Eds.), The Community Development Reader (1-6). New York: Routledge.

Green, G.P. and Haines. (2012). Asset Building and Community Development, 3rd edition. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.

Harrison, Thomas B. (2012). Mobile Museum of Art opens ‘I Am York,’ a 60-year retrospective for Tut Altman Riddick. Retrieved from

Hustedde, Ronald, J. (2009).  “Seven theories for seven community developers.” In Rhonda Phillips and Robert H. Phillips (Eds.), An Introduction to Community Development (20-37). New York: Routledge.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1963). Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from

Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.

Linthicum, R. (2003). Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference in Your Community. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Mtika, Njalayawo M. and Bronkema, D. (2012a). “Definition of Community” (unpublished).

Mtika, Njalayawo M. and Bronkema, D. (2012b). “Dialogic Pedagogy and Critical Praxis in Community Development” (unpublished).

Oliver, C. (2009). “Why I Stopped Serving the Poor” (unpublished essay).

Phillips, R. and Pittman, R.H. (2009).  “A Framework for Community and Economic Development.” In Rhonda Phillips and Robert H. Phillips (Eds.), An Introduction to Community Development (3-19). New York: Routledge.

Shaffer, R. and Summers, G.F. (1989). “Community Economic Development.” In James A. Christenson and Jerry W. Robinson, Jr. (Eds.), Community Development in Perspective (173-195). Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Silver, J. and Loxley, J. (2007). “Community Economic Development: An Introduction.” In John Loxley, Jim Silver, and Kathleen Sexsmith (Eds.), Doing Community Development (2-13). Winnipeg, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

Westoby, P. & Dowling, G. (2012). Dialogical Community Development. Australia: Tafina Press.

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.

The Kingdom Beyond Borders: Joshua 10:1-15

[CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD AUDIO] …sermon starts at the 3:30 mark

Back in the summer of 2005, after my freshmen year at Auburn University, I signed up with Alabama Rural Ministry, or ARM, as a construction site coordinator. ARM hosts work teams, which were usually youth groups, during the summer. These teams stay for a week at one of ARM’s sites in rural Alabama. Poverty is widespread there. Each team works on home repair projects along with running a children’s day-camp. I worked at ARM’s site in Sumter County, which is based in Livingston, AL – a small town about 10 miles from where I grew up. Sumter County was my home and I thought that I knew it pretty well. Unlike the other ARM staff members, I knew all the shortcuts, the good places to go, and some of the people in the community. I was comfortable, connected, and secure; this place and these people were my home. However, little did I know, everything I knew and loved about my home was going to change in a big way over that summer. It turns out there were some roads in Sumter County that I had never traveled, some houses that I had never visited, and some hands I never dreamed of shaking. Like many communities – rural and urban, in the Northeast and in the Deep South, Sumter County is a very much divided place. It is crossed by clearly drawn lines – border walls if you will, much like the one shown in the slides – that tear it apart. I had lived my entire life there and was well aware of these border walls, but I had never imagined what would happen if I dared to cross them. But this was exactly what my service with ARM called me to do: to respond to the very practical needs of others who lived on the wrong sides of the many borders. When I did, I was surprised, amazed even, to find God waiting for me on the other side; already at work and inviting me to join. I can now say with certainty that, after crossing borders with ARM, my home and my heart have never felt the same.

In our text this morning, Joshua and the Israelites have a similar experience. They were in the midst of settling into their new home in the Promised Land. This was the place God had given them to be comfortable, connected, and secure. Under Joshua’s lead, they had just succeeded in winning two major victories over the cities of Jericho and Ai. They were striving to display a devotion to Yahweh according to the covenant they had renewed before crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land. This devotion to Yahweh was laid out in the book of Deuteronomy and it had three parts: keep the commandments, take the land, and eradicate the foreigners. Pretty simple right? Not really. After an interesting encounter with a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab that seemed to bend the rules, followed by an act of blatant disobedience to God’s commands by an Israelite named Achan, life in the Promised Land really gets complicated when the Gibeonites show up at Joshua’s door.

These people were inhabitants of the Promised Land and were therefore supposed to be destroyed by Israel. However, the Gibeonites easily tricked Israel into signing a forbidden peace treaty with them. When Israel discovered their ruse, they were quite upset but couldn’t break the treaty, so they made them servants. By coming to peace with the Gibeonites, Israel had screwed up in every way possible: they broke God’s c

ommand, didn’t take the Gibeonites land, and didn’t eradicate the Gibeonites. Major, major oops.

Then we come to the story told in our text, Joshua 10:1-15. Listen as I read.

 When King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem heard how Joshua had taken Ai, and had utterly destroyed it, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel and were among them, he became greatly frightened, because Gibeon was a large city, like one of the royal cities, and was larger than Ai, and all its men were warriors. So King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem sent a message to King Hoham of Hebron, to King Piram of Jarmuth, to King Japhia of Lachish, and to King Debir of Eglon, saying, ‘Come up and help me, and let us attack Gibeon; for it has made peace with Joshua and with the Israelites.’ Then the five kings of the Amorites—the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon—gathered their forces, and went up with all their armies and encamped against Gibeon, and made war against it.

And the Gibeonites sent to Joshua at the camp in Gilgal, saying, ‘Do not abandon your servants; come up to us quickly, and save us, and help us; for all the kings of the Amorites who live in the hill country are gathered against us.’ So Joshua went up from Gilgal, he and all the fighting force with him, all the mighty warriors. The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Do not fear them, for I have handed them over to you; not one of them shall stand before you.’ So Joshua came upon them suddenly, having marched up all night from Gilgal. And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who inflicted a great slaughter on them at Gibeon, chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon, and struck them down as far as Azekah and Makkedah. As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died; there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword.

On the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Lord; and he said in the sight of Israel,
‘Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.’
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.
Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in mid-heaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded a human voice; for the Lord fought for Israel.

Then Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to the camp at Gilgal.

The Gibeonites, Israel’s illegitimate, obnoxious neighbors, are under attack by a frightening alliance of Amorite kings. They cry out desperately for Joshua’s help. Listen  in verse 6: “‘Do not abandon your servants; come up to us quickly, and save us, and help us.’” Now, Joshua’s leadership had been pretty inconsistent up to this point. Victories had been won but not without some major blunders. So, what is Joshua’s response? Verse 7: “So, Joshua went up from Gilgal, he and all the fighting force with him, all the mighty warriors.” He takes off. All the fighting force of Israel marches through the night to rescue Gibeon. But that’s not all: Yahweh is there too and Yahweh is revealed in an awesome, unprecedented way. Immediately following Joshua’s bold response, Yahweh offers assurance. Then, God throws the Amorites into a panic and rains down large stones in order to secure Israelite victory. If that weren’t enough, we find out that Yahweh – Creator, Almighty, El Shaddai – actually hears Joshua and responds obediently to his command. Listen to the astonishment in verse 14: “There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded a human voice, for the Lord fought for Israel.” Wow.

So, looking over this story of how Joshua heard the Gibeonites’ plea and went to their rescue only to be amazed by Yahweh’s incredible response, here’s what I’d like us to consider: God responds to us when we respond to our Gibeonites.

It sounds simple enough on the surface, but for this story to come alive in us there are a few questions we should explore: who are our Gibeonites? What does our response to them look like? And, finally, where is God in all of this?

First, who are our Gibeonites? Here’s my definition: Gibeonites are all the people on the wrong sides of our many border walls – just like the families I came to know and serve in Sumter County. The Gibeonites were on the “wrong side” of all three of Israel’s covenantal border walls: they didn’t keep God’s commands, they were living on Israel’s Promised Land, and they were not God’s chosen people. In addition to all of that, they lied to Israel and made them look pretty dumb. Then, they get attacked and start whining. Sure seems like it would have been easy for Joshua to ignore them right? After all, they deserved some punishment. They had brought this attack on themselves by seeking peace with Israel. The text even says that the Amorite king of Jerusalem was scared of Gibeon because of its size and number of warriors, so why can’t they deal with this attack themselves? They’re so frustrating. Gibeonites: illegitimate, obnoxious people who deserve what’s coming to them, on the wrong side in every way. Any modern day “Gibeonites” coming to mind for you?

Well, I’ve got one that I’d like you to meet. His name is JB Lake, or just Mr. JB. I met him during the summer that I served with ARM. When we met, Mr. JB was in his mid-fifties and lived alone in an old, dilapidated single-wide mobile home. Mr. JB is African-American and has schizophrenia. He’s also a writer, with a degree, and loves to write poetry. He lives alone because his family has all but abandoned him. His income was about $600 a month in 2005, all from federal assistance. He called ARM’s office from the Sumter County Mental Health clinic. He said his home needed repairs. I asked for clarification: “Well, is it your ceilings, floors, walls, windows, bathroom…” His answer: “Yeah. All of that.” My staff partner and I visited his home a few days later and I’ll never forget it. You could barely see his driveway from the road and we parked on the street because we weren’t sure if we could drive up to the house; the weeds were chest high. This home was literally falling apart. He had closed off half of it because the roof leaked so badly. There were huge holes in the walls, rotten floors, broken windows, filth, smell, sweltering heat, no electricity, no running water, and no bed. He slept on the lightly covered frame of a couch and cooked canned food on a single gas burner. We stood inside his home and just stared, completely overwhelmed. I had seen poverty before, but this was not Central America – this was my home. Rather, this was my home on the other side, the wrong side, of several borders: race, socio-economic status, educational attainment, social compatibility, age, and even morality (there were big piles of beer cans and quite a few “adult” publications lying around his house). Meet my Gibeonite: Mr. JB Lake; a man who inconveniently shattered the sense of comfort, connectedness, and security that I cherished in my home.

Who are the Gibeonites in our lives today? They are the neighbors, the family members, the co-workers, the community group members, and the Kingdom Partners that, if given a choice, we would have chosen otherwise. They’re the ones we ignore because acknowledging their existence challenges us, it makes us uncomfortable, and it reveals our own pride and selfishness. They are the “outsiders.” They may even look like us, talk like us, and live like us, but, for whatever reason, we’ve built border walls to keep them away. Maybe it’s because they eat at Chickfila, or refuse to eat at Chickfila. Maybe they’re too conservative, or too liberal; maybe they’re the 1% or the 99%; maybe they’re not believers, or maybe they have “bad theology.” Our border walls come in all shapes and sizes; we create new reasons to divide ourselves all the time. In the end, the Gibeonites always live on the wrong side, and they always need us, God’s chosen Israelites, to bail them out of something; always disrupting our calm, interrupting our peace, and challenging our assumptions. And after all, we’re just trying to be good Israelites – it’s hard enough without all these distractions… do you know any Gibeonites today?

So, what does our response to these Gibeonites look like? Looking back at our text, we see that Joshua’s response was bold, decisive, and simple: rescue them, save them, and do not abandon them. In other words, cross the border walls and go to the “outsiders” and fight to secure their place as “insiders.” Maybe these people did trick or mistreat you, maybe they could handle this situation themselves, and maybe you didn’t choose to have them as your neighbors – none of that matters now because you have a relationship with these Gibeonites. Might as well forget about how God had commanded you to stay away from these people in Deuteronomy; the situation has changed and your response should change with it. Joshua wasted no time; he didn’t even stop to pray about it. He just took off toward Gibeon to save his illegitimate, not-chosen neighbors. When he acted, he committed Israel’s full fighting force to the task. With his bold response, Joshua secured a place for Gibeon within Israel’s Promised Land. The outsiders would become insiders.

Just in case you think this is a one-off event, we should briefly look back at two other events in Joshua that we’ve already mentioned. The first major event in Joshua is the battle of Jericho. You’ve probably heard the story. It begins with Israel sending spies into Jericho to scout out the city. Once inside, they meet Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute. She feared Yahweh and believed that the land had indeed been given to Israel so she hid the Israelite spies and helped them escape. She and her family were spared when Jericho’s walls came-a-tumbling-down. An outsider, a woman – a prostitute even – became an insider. (You might recall that Rahab shows up in a very important genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew – you can look that up when you get home). After Jericho, Joshua marches straight into battle against the city of Ai but suffers a crushing defeat. What happened? Turned out an Israelite named Achan had disobeyed God by stealing some of Jericho’s forbidden goods and had kept them for himself. The defeat was God’s punishment on Israel. Achan and his family were stoned when his sin was found out. In this case, an Israelite insider suffers the fate of a Canaanite outsider. So, when we get to the story of the Gibeonites the text has already presented two encounters that reveal some distressing identity issues. Canaanites were being let in and Israelites were being kicked out. This theme of uncertain identity reaches its pinnacle in the Gibeonite story. All the border walls that Israel thought they could count on to keep themselves separate from the Canaanites, and therefore devoted to Yahweh, had been crossed. What does this mean for us?

It means that we are not called to be border patrol agents because the border walls we setup to divide ourselves are not as reliable as we think. In fact, if we are honest, we have to admit that these walls not only keep us from others – they divide our own hearts too. The Nobel-prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, reflecting back on his experience of the Russian Gulag, said it best: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”[1] We’re all human, all fallen, and all made in God’s image. All of us, even God’s chosen Israelites, have a little Gibeonite mixed in. When we setup border walls, we rarely see how we’re actually sectioning off the pieces of ourselves that we don’t like, that we refuse to bring to the light. Border walls keep us from fellowship with others; they keep us from being whole; and ultimately, they keep us from God. I would suggest to you that there is scarce need for border patrol agents in God’s Kingdom.

Thinking back to my Gibeonite, Mr. JB Lake, I can remember several trips across the borders. Our first task was to completely re-roof his house and then to restore electricity and water. We got him a bed and fixed some of the holes in his floors, walls, and ceilings. Every week ARM hosted a dinner with the work team and invited all the families we had worked with that week. Mr. JB was a frequent companion at these meals. Of course, he didn’t own a vehicle so he needed a ride. Those trips back and forth to Mr. JB’s house, just he and I, were quite simply transformational. A minor hurricane hit Alabama that summer and we took Mr. JB to the local Red Cross shelter to spend the night. I remember leaving and being so worried about him there. I regret not staying with him instead of going back to my parent’s house with the rest of the staff. The shelter called promptly the next morning after the storm had passed for me to come get a very restless Mr. JB. We had some “complications” with one work team, a large group from Orlando, FL, with lots of teenage girls, when one of the girls discovered a pornographic cartoon. Of course, there were “concerns” after that incident. Getting along with Gibeonites, inviting them into your life and becoming a part of theirs, is not always pretty. It’s hard work and it takes time. The border walls will need to be continually crossed, and eventually, they cease to exist.

Our response to Gibeonites is simple: we cross borders to secure their place in our lives. The border walls are quite useless and there is really no point in patrolling them. As we also see from our text, our real enemies – the Amorite kings – will not be hard to detect. Evil will be exposed by its actions. Yes, there are some people that are best kept at arm’s length, if not farther, but we must always humbly examine ourselves and our reasons for this separation to ensure that we’re not ignoring the cries of Gibeonites. We’ll sometimes need help from our faith community to discern between friendly Gibeonites and violent Amorite kings, but this is not the core of our mission. We are not border patrol agents. When we hear the cries of our Gibeonites, which assumes we have taken the time to listen, our response is to cross the border walls to secure a place for the outsiders among the insiders. In a word: it’s hospitality.

Finally, where is God in all of our border crossing adventures? Looking back to the text, we can be encouraged by God’s faithful and active presence on the wrong sides of our border walls. It is interesting to note that Yahweh is silent throughout the entire Gibeonite debacle in Joshua 9 and into our text in Joshua 10. Notice when Yahweh decides to chime in; it’s immediately after Joshua sets out to rescue Gibeon. What does Yahweh say? Remember, this Gibeonite peace treaty was a MAJOR TRANSGRESSION of Israel’s mandate from Deuteronomy. Also, remember that God had already punished Israel once for Achan’s disobedience with a defeat at Ai. Surely, God has another defeat in store to punish Israel for making peace with these forbidden people. With all this in mind, Yahweh’s response in verse 8 is even more surprising: “Do not fear them [the Amorite kings] for I have given them into your hands.” Apparently, God is very much ok with Joshua’s decision. If there was any doubt of Yahweh’s approval, we see Yahweh kicking butt and taking names with these Amorites. Then, in a startling, completely unprecedented, blow your mind kind of event, Yahweh comes under Joshua’s command. Yes, this sounds heretical. I’m sorry – this is the Old Testament – it gets weird sometimes. Just listen to verse 14: “There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded a human voice, for the Lord fought for Israel.” Saying that God “showed up” on the other side of the border wall would be quite an understatement. The sun was stopped in its tracks. The moon stood still. Stones rained down from the skies. Yes, I think God may have been in the area. We can’t forget the context for this incredible, nearly ridiculous, divine response: Joshua and Israel were crossing their covenant border walls to rescue Gibeon and ensure their place in Israel. Yahweh was there and no one could deny it.

Mr. JB, my Gibeonite, had lived in Bellamy, AL, my entire life. I had driven past the road to his house countless times before, but I had never thought to drive down it, much less to get to know someone who lived there. When I did, when I crossed those borders, everything changed. Going to Mr. JB’s house, I kind of felt like Moses walking up to the burning bush, it was like I was standing on holy ground. I don’t think I’m being ridiculous with this: crossing our border walls and catching a glimpse of God’s image in the people we would least expect is nothing less than a sacred event. Like Moses, we’ll probably be a little scared. Honestly, it scares me even now to go back to Mr. JB’s house. He still lives in Bellamy, and, while I have been home plenty of times over the years, I haven’t made the effort to see him. It’s not easy. His house has improved, but it is probably still in need of significant repair. He’s still just as poor, and probably just as lonely. But, I can’t ignore him. I’ve crossed the border and I found God waiting for me on the other side. What happened to me there explains why I’m even standing here today – training for full-time ministry at Palmer Seminary and Eastern University.

God is at work on the other side of our border walls. The Kingdom of God is waiting for us there. Why ignore it? When we ignore our Gibeonites, we ignore God, and we ignore ourselves. But how can we know, for sure, that God will be there on the other side? Our faith in Jesus as the Son of God confirms it. We know God will be there because, well, if we have faith in the New Testament, we can say with certainty that God IS ALREADY THERE. Just think: Jesus crossed the biggest border wall imaginable: “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”[2] In the person of Jesus, this border crossing between divine and human was held in perfect tension. Remember also the stories of Jesus’s life: the woman at the well, the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes. Jesus’ life was FULL of crossing supposedly sacred borders. His death was no different. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus not only crossed the border walls on our behalf – he tore them to the ground. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[3] Jesus crossed the border between death and life, so that we might inherit the Kingdom of God. The Spirit of Christ takes up this same work. In the book of Acts, the Spirit falls on the Jewish disciples AND the Gentile believers – that border crossing really threw the early church for a loop. In his letter to the church at Colossae, the Apostle Paul summed up this new reality perfectly: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”[4] Border crossing is an essential mark, the founding mark, of the abundant life we receive in Christ. Enemies become friends. Relationships are restored. The new creation comes to life and, like little children we enter and receive the Kingdom.

As we look back on this story, we can see that God responds to us when we respond to OUR Gibeonites. The Gibeonites are all the people on the wrong side of our border walls. They are the seemingly illegitimate people who get under our skin and call us to make good on all the commitments we’d like to ignore. Our response to Gibeonites will involve crossing borders to ensure a place where outsiders can become insiders. When we, like Joshua, set out boldly across these borders, we can know that God is already at work on the other side and is waiting, hoping, desiring for us to join in the Kingdom mission.

At Six:Eight, we are all about crossing borders. This fall our community groups will restart in partnership with those ‘out there’, our community partners. Too often, our church walls have kept us insulated from the world. But here we have a regular practice of scaling these walls and building bridges over our church borders into the lives of those in our local community. As we go to them and love them where they are, guess what? We have found that God is already there, always present with us.  The Spirit is at work in Ardmore and Havertown, going before us, out over these church walls, preparing this community for the gospel message which falls from our lips, hands and feet. As followers of Christ at Six:Eight, we desire to join the Spirit’s work on the other side of all our borders, to live like Jesus in the midst of those we normally would not have lived among, and to manifest Christ to them in very real ways!  Cassie and I along the Shalom in the Home community group have been doing this for a while now with Linwood Park. We cross borders by pulling weeds, planting flowers, showing movies, and playing games. Recently, we were invited to the wedding of the couple that oversees the Park. Border walls are coming down; now it’s time go out and cross these borders in love!

I wonder: who are your Gibeonites? You could take some time this week to reflect and make a list. Maybe you already know for sure or have some people in mind. How will you cross those borders? Or maybe you’ve tried to reach out before and were rejected or got scared. Try again. Be persistent. Reach out to your faith community for encouragement, prayer, and new ideas. You can do that now even – our prayer team would love to pray with you about a Gibeonite you are trying to reach. As you go about this work, remember that God is already there waiting for you. As we respond to our Gibeonites, God stands ready and able to stop the sun and moon on our behalf – Gibeonites included. Amen.

[1] Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, 17.

[2] Phil. 2:6-8.

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:55-57

[4] Col. 3:11

A Christian Response to Alabama HB56

First, I want to thank my good friend Trent Wilkes for publishing a wonderful, powerful Facebook note on Alabama’s new immigration law. His words inspired me to post a short essay I wrote last week on the same topic. How should Christians respond to AL HB56?

On June 9, 2011, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act into law. This act, referred to as HB56, authorizes the toughest crackdown on illegal immigration in the nation. While parts of the bill have been blocked by judges, the majority of its strict measures have now taken effect in the state. Recently, Alabama senator Scott Beason, the bill’s Senate sponsor, explained that the purpose of the law was to drive illegal immigrants out of the state – to ensure they cannot make a home in Alabama.[1] The House sponsor of the bill said it was designed to “attack every area of an illegal alien’s life.”[2]  Followers of Jesus Christ cannot remain silent in the face of HB56. The Christian response must reveal the truth behind the law’s claims, reshape the conversation about illegal immigrants, and reconcile the body of Christ.

According to AL HB56 supporters, illegal immigrants constitute a serious economic hardship and increase lawlessness. They blame illegal immigrants for a quarter-billion dollars of costs based on a 2010 report by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) which uses proprietary immigrant population estimates.[3] However, according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, the illegal immigrant population is one of the hardest to count at the state level. Pew estimates the population anywhere from 75,000 to 160,000 at a 90% confidence level. Another population-based factor to consider is the state and local tax contribution of illegal immigrants. The Immigration Policy estimates this value at $130 million. Additionally, the Perryman Group has reports that illegal immigrant workers produce $2.6 billion in economic activity and $1.1 billion in gross state product.[4] Since both cost and benefit are tied directly to highly variable immigrant population estimates, economic hardship is at best an unstable argument for HB56. The claim of lawlessness is even less founded. According to the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center’s annual “Crime in Alabama” reports, both the total and violent crime rates have dropped since 1990 – even though the state’s illegal immigrant population experienced significant increases in the same time period.[5] The claim of lawlessness is a lie at best and coded, racist language at worst. Christians must not accept these claims as if they were unequivocally true. As followers of Christ, they must stand for the truth instead of placing their trust in unfounded or overly-simplistic claims that lead to the destruction of thousands of lives.

Christians must also work to reshape the conversation about illegal immigration. The current conversation is being dominated by talk of competition, especially over jobs, and hostility towards the stranger. Instead of competition, Christians must shift the conversation to collaboration. If God does indeed own the cattle upon a thousand hills[6], why would a Christian debate over the scarcity of resources? The story in Exodus 16 of the manna from heaven to feed the grumbling Israelites in the wilderness reveals that there is enough for all when God provides and everyone takes only what they need. With a firm faith in God as Provider, Christians can lead the conversation away from the zero-sum ideas of competition toward a life giving discussion about how all people can work together for the common good. Before the conversation can shift towards collaboration, a more fundamental and radical change must occur: hostility must give way to hospitality. Beneath the talk of competition lies an insidious fear of those who are different – the strangers. This fear promotes an atmosphere of hostility and characterizes the illegal immigrant as a threat. Christians must reject this deadly characterization of strangers at all costs. The stranger takes on a much different identity for the follower of Christ; the stranger is Christ himself. The only Christian response to the stranger is hospitality – not hostility. Through their commitment to hospitality, Christians can build the foundation of the illegal immigrant conversation on the perfect love of God, which casts out all fear.[7]

Finally, Christians must join wholeheartedly in the work of reconciling the body of Christ. As previously stated, the current environment is permeated with fear that is fueling hostility and division, even amongst fellow brothers and sisters in the Body. The Church must take up its call to the ministry of reconciliation that the Apostle Paul lays out in the fifth chapter of his second letter to the church at Corinth.[8] The first step of reconciliation is towards God, but the second step is towards the other. Reconciled relationships among the body of Christ in Alabama must begin with welcoming the stranger in love regardless of immigration status. In Christ there is no illegal immigrant and citizen, for all are one in Christ! The dividing walls of hostility will not stand against the practice of radical welcome amongst followers of Christ.[9] As hostility is overcome, Christians can join together in compassionate care for one another in ways that reveal the love of Christ to the world. The Body must care for its hurting members because the entire body suffers when one of its members is in pain. The church of Christ in Alabama must rise above the environment of fear and show God’s way forward in the illegal immigration debate by their love for one another.

The choice for how followers of Christ will respond to Alabama HB56 is clear: love as God loves or do not love at all. Loving as God loves will require humility, which means that Christians must be willing to give up their desire to be right according to US law. The greatest commandment for Christians is not to be good citizens – it is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.[10]

[1] “State Sen. Scott Beason responds to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano on immigration policy |“, accessed November 2, 2011,

[2] “Federal judge refuses to block most of Alabama immigration law |,” accessed November 2, 2011,

[3] Jack Martin and Eric Ruark, “The Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration on United States Taxpayers” (Federation for American Immigration Reform, June 2010), 78.

[4] “New Americans in Alabama | Immigration Policy Center,” accessed November 2, 2011,

[5] “Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center – Crime Statistics,” accessed November 2, 2011,

[6]  Ps  5o:10

[7] 1 Jn 4:18.

[8] 2 Cor 5:19.

[9] Eph 2:14

[10] Mt 22:36-39.