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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Nausea is Just Beginning

I can feel it coming; the dread, the anxiety, the deep and dark disillusionment, the feeling that all hope for progress and the advancement of the Kingdom is lost amidst bureaucratic wrangling and incessant infighting. Yep, I am talking about General Conference.

I know some folks really get into General Conference because of their love for the United Methodist Church. I know some people are passionate about the stances the church takes on various social issues as well as issues of polity. I know some people are passionate about the direction of the United Methodist Church and feel strongly about where the institution needs to be headed.

I have great respect for those people. I just am not one of those people.

I have been to two General Conferences and for me, that is two too many. When I served in local churches and as a Wesley Foundation Director I felt the same way about Annual Conference. I spent just enough time at Annual Conference for people to know I was there, but that was about it. I used to figure out when the breaks in between sessions were and I would show up and walk through the halls and smile and wave to people – just so folks would think I was there when in fact, I was not.

I know, I know, some will say I am shirking my responsibility. Maybe I am. But I honestly hate the constant fighting. It all feels useless. The same fights with the same people fighting the same battles and no one ever seems to win. And if one side does win, then hell has no fury like the side who loses. And that side will shout and scream and email about it all the live, long day. In fact, I kind of think some folks prefer to lose so that they can shout and scream about how they are persecuted and forlorn.

Yep, I am pretty jaded. And I don’t want to oversimplify the fights or to minimize the passion of folks on either side. I also do not mean to say I do not have an opinion on many of the struggles the United Methodist Church faces when in fact, I do. I just do not believe we will get to a place of greater effectiveness through institutional decisions or positions that are taken. We certainly haven’t yet.

But here is the bottom line for me. I believe that the locus of change and transformation occurs in local churches in local communities. When the local church is missionally engaged in loving people and working/advocating for the transformation of that community to achieve tangible change for and alongside people who are experiencing oppression and marginalization, then THAT is where the Kingdom of God is present and at work. And, I believe, that is where we as followers of Jesus should focus our energy.

To me, General Conference represents the exact opposite of this. It is the locus of all the fighting between those who run the institution and those who want to run the institution. One side is interested in preserving power while the other is obsessed with stripping that power away until they take over, and then they will do anything to preserve the power they took from those who once did anything to preserve it. General Conference gives lip service to the importance of local churches, but with all of the resources that organizations both within and outside the United Methodist Church that are poured into it, it is clear to me that far too many of our leaders believe change will come to the church from the top down. I vehemently disagree.

I was reminded of General Conference being just a year away (ugh) this past Sunday as my pastor shared some of the resolutions that are being brought to the Virginia Conference. The resolutions center on – what else – homosexuality and finding new and creative ways to exclude gay people and “purify” the leadership of the church. Nothing says “renewal” and growth like exclusion and purification – just look at how the GOP has grown in recent years as they have tossed out the moderates!

The resolutions were generated by Good News, an ironically named group of people within the UMC whose brand of good news for the church in recent years has been to whine about the impending doom our beloved institution faces. Thanks guys for reminding us, as if we didn’t all know. What else is ironic is a conservative group sending resolutions to other annual conferences to pass; aren’t conservatives the ones who so often are yelling about the agendas of outside groups meddling into the affairs of local churches and conferences? But let us remember this is General Conference – consistency and authenticity be damned!

Yeah, I know, liberals aren’t a heck of a lot better. Liberals don’t have blind spots, we have blind decades. But let us remember, whatever side you are on, the goal is control.

And to me that goes to the heart of the problem – we have sides who want to have control and who lack a vision for inclusion of the other side and what they value.

Now, let me be straight. I don’t really have a solution. If I had a solution then I would have to go to General Conference and try and work with both sides to move them closer to what I perceived as the solution. I have to go to General Conference anyway because of my work, but I honestly have no desire to offer up some kind of solution. I am not that smart and I am not that arrogant.

The main thing I have learned the last few years is this: I just want to do Kingdom work. And for my money, the locus of the Kingdom – the place where God and God’s people are at work loving those who are unloved and defending the cause of the poor and vulnerable – just ain’t General Conference. It is local churches where the action is.

So, General Conference will come (ugh) and thankfully go. Maybe some things will change, and some things won’t. The sad thing is that we are guaranteed that virtually no one will leave satisfied.

But I can tell you this. The week before General Conference and the week after General Conference I will tell you where I will be. I will be coming alongside local churches who are loving people and working for tangible change. That’s just where the Kingdom of God is.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"I Wish My Dreams Were in Your Politics"

On this past Saturday (May 2) I marched with 500 people to protest the family detention center in Dilley, TX. Yes, our government detains families; women and children, many of whom are fleeing unbelievable violence and poverty in their home countries. Many of those held in these family detention centers are asylum seekers. An asylum seeker is someone who fleeing violence and who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated. Once they are granted asylum, they are a refugee. Many of the families who are detained in the family detention centers will, in fact, be granted asylum. But still, they are detained for unknown amounts of time.

And why are they fleeing? Oftentimes, the violence they flee from is, in part, created by U.S. foreign policies. The failed War on Drugs has not only led to an explosion of the prison population for such things as low-level drug offenses in the United States, this failed policy that spans the terms of 8 presidents has also armed violent and brutal dictatorships in Latin American countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. In an effort to reduce the tide of drug trafficking the United States has supported and given aid to violent dictators who have no qualms violating peoples’ civil and human rights in their efforts to maintain power.

In addition, free trade policies have devastated agriculturally-based economies in these sending countries, while U.S.-controlled lenders like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have installed “structural adjustment programs” through loans granted to these countries that have emphasized market-orientation of their economies to the extent that vital social services have been stripped, which, of course, harms their poorest citizens.

Therefore, people are forced to flee the violence and poverty, and when they arrive in the United States seeking asylum – which, again, many of them will receive – they are detained in one of three family detention centers located in Dilley, TX, Karnes, TX, and Berks, PA. Ever hear of any of these places? Me neither. Imagine if you know or are related to families located in these places, which are rural and isolated. How would you go visit them? Imagine the cost involved in going to see them.

Further, the conditions in these centers are often wretched and have been cited for being so. There have been documented cases of rape and violence. Parents have become depressed and leave the centers stressed and hardly ready to begin a new life in a new country. The stress on children is even greater.

So, why do we detain families when they pose absolutely no security threat, when our own policies have often helped to create the very factors for their need to flee, and our “solutions” to their countries’ problems only further benefit the United States? One reason at least for why we detain families is because it makes a boat-load of money for private prison corporations. You see, private prison corporations such as GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) own most of the detention centers in this country and they make hundreds of millions of dollars in doing so. There is big money in the mass incarceration of people of color and the Obama Administration is handsomely awarding it to these corporations.

This is nothing more than modern day slavery and it is the best evidence we have today that we live in a thoroughly racist country that in its policies cares nothing for people of color.

This is why we marched on Saturday. The feeling of anger and outrage was palpable as we came onto the detention center, located a little over a mile outside of Dilley. As the guards stood silently scattered throughout the field in between the front gate and the facilities where the families are detained, we chanted and yelled, all of us hoping that the detainees would hear us; hoping they would know that someone in the United States actually cares for them, values them. It was weirdly festive but also maddening at the same time.

One of the things I love about marches are the creativity in the signs that people make and the messages those signs carry. There were lots of powerful messages, but one in particular stuck out to me, “I wish my dreams were in your politics.” Man, if ever the solutions were trapped inside the political maneuverings of power-hungry politicians and demagogues, it is this one.

But let’s imagine if this sign were true. What if we really created policies and legislation that made the dreams of those most directly impacted by injustice a priority? What if we took seriously the desires of children who I heard on Saturday whose highest dream is to be reunited with both of their parents and to be allowed to live their lives in a safe place free from violence? What if we made the dreams of a mother who wants to see her children go to high school and then attend college so that they might have a secure future become an actual reality? Seriously, would it weaken our nation to make our priorities not those of the private prison corporations but of those whose dreams are to live together in a safe environment, to attend school, to work, to worship in freedom and to contribute to their communities? Not one damn bit.

To make the dreams of those seeking asylum a reality it must begin by ending family detention. That is why I urge you to do more than read this and shake your head, feel outrage and then turn the page and move on to the next issue. I urge you to call President Obama and demand – not ask – demand that family detention be ended. His number is 202-456-1111. Call him today. Call him tomorrow. Call him the day after that. Get your Sunday School classes, United Methodist Women’s circles, Wesley Foundations, and every network you are part of to make calls every day until this injustice is ended.

To make the dreams of those directly impacted by injustice a political priority means that we must follow closely another dreamer whose mission was simple and direct:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me 
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor
he has sent me to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind, 
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

Yes, let the Kingdom come.