Youth Strike for Christ

YSfCThis weekend, I got to spend a few hours with a bunch of United Methodists between the ages of 13 and 18 along with various mentors, youth leaders, event planners and pastors. The event is called Youth Strike for Christ, and I was asked to lead a session titled “My Name is Justice.”

I have been reading and watching a lot of amazing things recently involving young people: an interview with Malala Yousafzai, a speech by Madison Kimry, a response to a culture of meanness and bullying by Jeremiah Anthony of West High School in Iowa City, and an amazing project by Katie Meyler whose foundation, More Than Me, is taking on child prostitution in Liberia. Like John Stewart, I am left with an idea of “I don’t know where you come from, but I am glad you are here.”

So I decided not to spend  time telling my groups about injustice, unfairness, and the United Methodist Social Principles. Instead, I invited them to speak from their own hearts and experience; to start imagining ways to respond, and to name the things that may be holding them back. Because the power to make change does not reside in the hands of others. It lives inside each and every one of us, and when we invite the Holy to inspire us, we can rely on that change to be good.

Issues they see in their schools, towns, churches and world: racial discrimination, judging attitudes, terminal illnesses among young people, a lack of respect for the gifts we have (taking abundance for granted and disregarding the cries of those who go without), loneliness and a lack of meaningful work and community building for young people, hunger, poverty, inadequate education opportunities, inability to dress for success, lack of clean, running water, war, lack of respect, rudeness, illicit drug use, alcoholism, misuse of aid offered in good faith, unprotected and premature sex, pregnancy among peers, drug dogs and security cameras at schools, cynicism about people (hard to have faith in others); strong pressure to participate in behaviors which are not good for us (social drinking, drug use, mean-spirited relationships), depression, suicide, potential violence (bomb threats and hit lists: wars and rumors of wars).

Some strategies they proposed: find friends to stand with you; take it one step at a time (don’t try to fix the entire situation); collect “nice” suits and shoes to offer to people who may need them for an interview, etc.; talk to everybody; don’t avoid personal interactions with people who say mean or judgmental things about you-directly address their behavior as it relates to you; overcome your own F.E.A.R. (False Expectations Appear Real); go to the Bible and see what is said there; grow deeper in your own faith so that you have hope, courage, and endurance for the “bad” stuff around you; use the lens of faith and the example of Christ to look for the positive transformations that are happening, rather than focusing on the “few bad people.”

Some costs to doing any of these things that they named: it is hard work and there are other things we may rather be doing; you may lose your friends; you may lose your life like Martin Luther King, Jr. did; you may have to give up family; by crossing the line and spending time with people [who are doing drugs], you might be pressured to behave like them, or teachers/parents/others might start distrusting you-think you are doing “bad stuff” even when you aren’t, what you try might not work

Some reasons why you would do something to change “the whole mindset” of a school, town, or church: you will be respected; you will have respect for yourself; you will reflect God out to the world; you will lose your fear; you wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore; people who are struggling wouldn’t have to work so hard; people could have dignity, people could have more choice 

Some of the gifts I witnessed: respect, caring, engagement with one another, willingness to make room for strangers, giggles, awareness of people who are weaker, poorer, hungrier than they are, supportive and positive interpersonal actions, desire to be of benefit to their community, diversity (of perspective, socio-economic class, and background), leadership, gentleness, shyness, patience, grace, energy, earnestness, confidence, knowledge of the Bible, personal relationship with Jesus, depth of commitment to their community and a desire to meet that commitment through their youth groups/church, readiness to participate in hands-on mission and service, knowledge of Imagine No Malaria, sophisticated opinions regarding economic and political realities, empathy, self-discipline, strong work ethic, positive and supportive family structures and connections, strong self identities, sweet dispositions, sense of set-apartness (Christian identity as a special identity they have in common)

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Climate Justice

-Isaiah 58:6-12

In the Spring of 2009, a friend and I walked into the Federal Building in Des Moines, IA with two copies of a petition urging our Senators to support comprehensive energy reform related to carbon emissions at the the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen which was scheduled for later in the year.

Our petitions were made out of plywood and were about 3 feet square. They were cutout in the shape of the logo for 350.org, a global, grassroots organizing effort started by Bill McKibben. From their own website:

The number 350 means climate safety: to preserve a livable planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm.

On those plywood cutouts, we had collected signatures from concerned people in our community, people who, like us, believed that not only individual conservation, but also significant political and economic will needed to be marshaled to respond to increasing climate crisis across the world.

First, let me say that if you have never hand-delivered a petition or letter to one of your elected representatives, you should definitely do so.  Taking the time to deliver our petitions and sit down with aids of both Senator Harkin and Senator Grassley was a profoundly empowering experience.  To know that we, as citizens, have such easy access to our elected officials is amazing.  To walk two 3-ft. plywood petitions past security guards, step on an elevator, walk down a hall, and sit down in the offices of those we have entrusted with political power, to exercise our own rights and responsibilities as voting Americans is amazing.

The petitions were not the beginning of our action, however, but rather its culmination.  My friend, after seeing McKibben at a Christian Educator’s Fellowship event in Albuquerque, NM, was on fire to push for change. She came back to Ames, IA and started organizing a climate awareness event. She pulled together interested people and we met to make signs, engage public speakers, plan intergenerational activities, and offer people the opportunity to voice their opinion about climate change, fossil fuel emissions, energy policy and our global commitment to the poorest and least industrialized nations of the world. Together, a small group of people planned a half-day of activity, learning and action set for a Saturday in late May.

I wish I could say we had an overwhelming turnout. I wish I could say that our United Methodist Church members swarmed to add their names to the petition. I wish I could say that the Bishop’s Call to Action titled God’s Renewed Creation: A Call to Hope and Action had motivated many of our United Methodist connections to offer to help host, fund, or simply participate in the event. I wish I could say that our relationship connections were strong enough that our UM friends and colleagues simply showed up because we asked them to.

If you follow the news on climate change, you will know that the UN Climate Summit did not make any substantial change in the ways in which carbon emissions are regulated. The decision was made to “wait until 2015” instead.

In November of 2013, members of the Philippine delegation, along with members from 132 other nations walked out of the Warsaw climate change conference after discussion about “loss and damage” stalled.  Naderev Saño, lead negotiator of the Philippine delegation, went on a voluntary fast , declaring,

“In solidarity with Filipinos who are now scrounging for food back home, and with my brother who has not had food for the last three days, with all due respect Mr. President, I will now commence a voluntary fasting and I will refuse to eat food here during this COP, until a meaningful outcome is in sight.”

This conference was held a mere 13 days after Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines.  Typhoon Haiyan is the strongest typhoon ever to have made landfall. [*] United Methodist Committee on Relief, of course was there. Is there. American United Methodist donations of goods, energy, time, and dollars, the “loss and damage” recovery side of mission, are there.  We are people who care.  We respond.

But . . . .

Why don’t we speak up more here at home?  Why aren’t we advocating, legislating, organizing, boycotting, fasting, resisting, educating, and changing the conversation as it relates to climate change? As it pertains to environmental degradation? Why is it so much easier to spend the dollars of pity, than it is to invest in the bonds of kinship?  Why, when it comes to signing petitions, talking with our elected leaders, or discussing the latest crop prices, aren’t we more aware of the importance of thinking not first of ourselves and what we may have to lose, but rather of those whose homes, livelihoods, lives, and very existence are being lost as you read this?

As we celebrate Human Relations Sunday and lift up the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., I want to echo his sentiments that social action is a moral imperative, that

“Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”[*]

When our brothers and sisters in island nations, such as the Philippines and the Republic of the Maldives say, “We need change,” why can’t we take them at their word?  When our brothers and sisters in North and South Sudan are pushed to war because of the growing band of desert across the Northern part of the African continent, why do we insist that climate change isn’t real?   When the acres of arable land are no longer sufficient to feed the people of the planet, how do we entertain notions that it is OK to plant sugar cane for fuel or to ignore the voices of farmers who, through proprietary technology and corporate patents, are no longer allowed to save seeds?

I hear you saying, “Wait.”  I hear you saying, “Now is not the time.”  I hear you saying, “I’m just not convinced.”  I hear you saying, “‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.'”[*] Yet, as I look at all the photographs from the Philippines in 2013, from the East Coast in 2012, from Joplin in 2011, from Iowa in 2008, and from Louisiana in 2005, I feel compelled to commend these words from Martin Luther King, Jr. to you: 

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate . . . Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. . .

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.” [*]

Toledo, Tama and Montour

OLIVER-BRIAN-152_X82RBMY2I recently had the opportunity to talk with Rev. Brian Oliver who serves Christ United Methodist Church in Toledo, IA as well as Living Faith UMC which has two campuses, one in Tama and one in Montour. He called me because he was looking for some resources, answers, and support for the work he has been doing in trying to keep the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo, IA open.

Though, to say that it is work he has been doing is misleading. It is work which a large number of people in Tama County have been doing. The facebook group KEEP IJH OPEN has 9,100 members and that is just the online support community, and does not necessarily reflect the number of people in Toledo and Tama who are involved. When I talked with Rev. Oliver, he lifted up the large-scale support this effort has in Tama County.

I asked him about his churches, and he jumped right back. “They support this 100%.  IJH is not a house of horrors. Tama/Toledo are not child abusers. I do not know whether the rest of the state is seeing through the smoke screen. “

He said of his churches and his communities that

. . . they love these kids.We have hundreds of stories from people who have come through the Iowa Juvenile Home.  How their lives were transformed.  How they never would have made it without the services offered there.

As he talked to me, it became clear that he was in the middle of grass roots organized community activism. He described the bipartisan support of legislators Senator Jack Hatch, Senator Steve Sodders, Representative Mark Smith, and Representative Pat Murphy. He talked about the effort to gather names and stories from former residents at IJH. His voice gained energy and volume as he described the letter writing and petition signing campaign that has been waged, and he grew passionate as he shared that

People talk like this is just Tama County whining about losing income, but it is more than that. The IJH is a place of last resort for ‘the female delinquent’ to use the language of the system. These girls, and some young men, have not been successful elsewhere, and they say they are going to place these girls . . but many of them are going back to the places the came from, and they won’t have the support . . . We know these children. We love these children. Our schools and organizations, our volunteers. They know how to work with the problems and issues they have.

Rev. Oliver also shared concern for the reasons that the State of Iowa has chosen to close the Iowa Juvenile Home. Those activated around this issue believe that Governor Branstad targeted IJH for closure and used sensationalized media coverage of isolated problems to blacken the name of the home and to indict the people who work there.  There is concern that money and the interests of private service providers are winning out over what Heath Kellogg ,Tama County Economic Development Executive Director, calls

“fundamental spiritual things like caring and respecting people . . . qualities of love and trust, which together create the freedom for us to make the right decisions, to connect with others, to challenge and to innovate. “(1)

In my role as Social Justice and Mission LDM,  I have been asked to highlight the ministries of mission and justice with which our local churches are engaging.  Speaking with Rev. Oliver, I was energized and excited to hear his engagement with this issue and the support he has received from his churches. He was almost incapable of articulating the depth of meaning, and the richness of cost that this effort has asked of him.  I could hear conviction and surprise mingled in his voice as he talked about the meetings, the actions, the education, the conversations, and the coming together that this effort to keep the Iowa Juvenile Home open has created.  There was no separation of church from town, from the members of the UMC’s and the people of Tama County.

At one point he said to me, “I imagine that if you and I sat down and had coffee together, we would not agree on a lot of things, but this isn’t a political thing, its about people.”

* As of the writing of this post, a lawsuit has been filed with the hope of stalling the scheduled closing of the IJH on January 16