“We are what we eat” Reflections on the Just Food Conference.

I had the opportunity this weekend to attend and be a part of the Just Food conference, hosted by the Farminary at Princeton Theological Seminary. It was one of those experiences where I walked away from feeling overwhelmingly inspired. As I’ve mentioned, food justice has become a consuming passion for me (See what I did there?) and it was good to connect with others for whom the ways we produce and consume are so connected to their understanding of faith. What I’m left with is a conviction that food is the intersection through which we can tackle most of, if not all, of the great challenges of the day if we have the willingness to take seriously the adage “we are what we eat”.

One of my fellow presenters was Joe Martinez. Joe is the head of an organization called CIERTO which focuses on the food supply chain “We establish a transparent and fair process for worker recruitment that prevents recruitment fraud, debt peonage, trafficking and slavery.  CIERTO focuses on farm worker recruitment, training, and dispatch to agricultural employers in Mexico and the United States”. I was privileged to talk to joe during breaks and the work he is doing is astounding. He is working both in Mexico and in the US to make sure that the workers who grow and harvest our food are kept out of modern slave practices and other harmful practices. He and his staff do this work at great personal risk as they attempt to circumvent corruption on both sides of the border.

My conversations with Joe highlighted a personal point of privilege for me. I take great joy in being outside working in the dirt and tending to my garden. For many, the joy of working the soil has been replaced by the drudgery of doing back breaking work only to be exploited by their employers. And this has been much of the agricultural history of the United States and everywhere that the rules of empire have been in play. The work of agriculture has been separated from ideas of being in right relationship with the land and replaced with an emphasis on the bottom line that profits the very few. One of the attendees of the workshop that I facilitated was the pastor of an aging African American Presbyterian congregation. She said that there is no way to get her people interested in gardening or farming largely in part because of the historical implications that agriculture has with the black experience in this country. When people are only a generation or two removed from the plantation, the idea of farming can seem like a step in the wrong direction.

Much of what the conference centered around was a theological approach to repairing this broken relationship with the land. Dr. Elaine James, an Old Testament scholar who does work on land ethics, lead us in a discussion about the language of food in the Song of Solomon. It was fascinating to note that a text that is so often looked at for it’s rich descriptions of erotic love also is filled with imagery of food and agriculture. Once Dr. James highlighted several passages, it was easy to see how we are equally in need of restoration of intimacy in our personal relationships and in our relationship to the land. It was very interesting to note that the sensual nature of both sex and food are celebrated in the biblical text! Fred Bahnson, the founding director of the Food, Health, & Ecological Well-being Program at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, explored the overwhelming presence of trees in the biblical narrative and challenged us to reclaim the language for our faith that is grounded in this world, not just seeking for another. Of particular interest to me, as a lover of compost, was his description of humus, the layer of decaying leaves that gets broken down to feed the trees. He referred to our work as humus and challenged us to think about what we are leaving behind nurture the lives and work of those who come behind us. In a culture that fears death and does everything possible to avoid its inevitability, it was a good reminder that death is a part of the cycle of life.

Restoring our broken relationship with earth can in many ways lead us to restoring the broken relationships among people. the final keynote of the conference was lead by Richard Joyner, Chris Berardi, and Larry Chewning. Richard is the founder and board chair of Conetoe Family Life Center and senior pastor of Conetoe Missionary Baptist. He’s also the chaplain within the Nash Health Care system of which Larry Chewning is the CEO. Imagine that! The CEO of a hospital interested in healthy food! The Conetoe Family Life Center is using farming to increase the health and well being of the poor, African American town and to create leadership in its young people. Joyner explains that the people in his town average an income of $21,000 a year. The third part of the triangle, Chris Berardi, pastors First Presbyterian Church of Rocky Mountain, a congregation whose income is closer to six figures. Around food and farming is where these two congregations find common purpose. It was during this presentation that it hit me: many of the folks that are working on issues of food justice do so by crossing lines of racial division. Food connects us to our common humanity. Everybody eats! It also connects us, painfully, to the history of racial division. Partnerships that are willing to address this reality can go a long way toward healing these divisions and forming new relationships of equality. It’s a start…

A recap of Sera Chung’s sermon for the closing worship would not do it justice. Rev. Chung has a powerful preaching (and singing) voice and she used it that morning to highlight the ways in which we connect food to identity and ultimately the ways that our identities as Christians is connected to a meal of bread and wine. And that’s the heart of it, right? Wheat repurposed for bread, grapes repurposed for wine, Christ’s body repurposed for Christ’s church to do Christ’s work in the world. We are what we eat! That means that we are the agricultural practices that go into what we eat. We are the economic practices that go into what we eat. We are the inclusion and exclusion that happens at our tables. We are  the abuse put into a factory farm and we are the care and love put into a home cooked meal. There is great capacity for death and life in our food. What’s forming in me is an increased consciousness around food and the way it connects me to God and neighbor. I believe that food is the emerging justice issue of our time and but maybe it always has been our most pressing justice issue. Food is about access and equitability. Food is about health and wellness. Food is about jobs and exploitation. Food is about worship and community. We are what we eat and all that has gone into what we eat. So what kind of people are we?

Undecided? Really?!

I could not watch last night’s “debate”. I value my sanity too much. I opted instead to watch “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” which was on FX. I figured if I was going to watch a man and a woman try to destroy each other, it should at least be a really sexy man and a really sexy woman. (Dammit, Brangelina! Why can’t you two work things out?!)

Anyway, the point of a debate, in my understanding, is to have an exchange of ideas in hopes of swaying the American public in the direction of one candidate or the other. I suppose that made sense in a time when candidates and their ideas weren’t being bolstered by a 24 hour news cycle. And I suppose in a situation where the candidates seem to be close on issues, debates are helpful to distinguish one from the other. Aside from the debacle with the supreme court, I think that one of the things that really hurt Al Gore when he ran against George W. Bush was that he didn’t do a great job of distinguishing himself. If you think back to those debates, there seemed to be a lot of agreement between the two. That is not the case in the America of 2016. The two candidates couldn’t be more different and I’m left wondering who these undecided people are.

Perhaps they are coma patients who lost consciousness in late 2014. Waking up to the unlikely scenario in which Hillary Clinton is in a seemingly close race with Donald Trump, our poor, recently reanimated friend watches the debates to make sense of this new political hellscape in which they find themselves, wondering the whole time if they are still unconscious and having some sort of fever dream.

Perhaps our undecided friends have been lost at sea, Castaway-style, with only sports equipment to keep them company. After carefully crafting a beacon out of seashells and palm leaves, they are rescued. When last our weary travel had any knowledge of the political landscape, the Republican party had failed to reclaim the white house after offering two politically experienced men against Barack Obama and was in the process of doing some soul searching as to how the party could reach out to a demographically shifting nation. Our seafaring friend is perplexed as to how a reality TV star was seen as the Republican answer to addressing its lack of diversity.

Perhaps the undecideds are time travelers. Not the normal kind who go back in time, the rare kind who find some sort of magical amulet that takes them forward in time. They care neither about Mr. Trump nor Mrs. Clinton, for they are too mesmerized by the enchanted screens that project images out to this strange new world. They are curious about the handheld devices our overlords are clearly using to keep us docile during our enslavement. They’re a little curious about cars.

Absent one of the above scenarios, I don’t fully understand how people are undecided right now. I get not liking your choices. I get wishing there were other options. I get third party protest voting for reasons of conscience. But I really don’t get being undecided at this point.

If you have decided to vote for Mr. Trump it seems to be because you a) enjoy his act,  b) are a racist, c) you’re not a racist, but you’re okay with racism (which makes you a racist), d) you are incredibly loyal to your party (more on that later), or  e) you really, really, really hate Mrs. Clinton.

Some people just like Donald’s style. He’s loud, he’s brash, he is unfiltered. He is id unrestrained. We’ve seen throughout (white male) history that some (white men) really like this style of “leadership”. It shows that you’re fearless and won’t be contained by pesky things like “facts” and “other people’s worth”. Good on ya’!

Some people are racist. When Trumps says “Make America Great Again” they hear “Make America White Again” and that really excites them! They really like the idea of brown people not having the same rights as white people and they will work hard to make sure that happens. Then there’s the group of people who don’t necessarily share that opinion, but they’re not going to speak out against it. Apparently being a racist is really hard, so some people like to outsource it to their cousins.

Some people are really loyal to their party. Those people seem willing to ignore that said party is being dragged into the gutter by the lowest common denominator of American public life. I don’t fully understand how this group of people isn’t completely outraged by the lack of humanity that Trump has displayed. I didn’t agree with McCain or Romney on policy issues, but I thought of them as gentlemen. George HW and George W Bush, both of whom I think did many things to hurt vulnerable people in this country, are both gentlemen, gentlemen who refuse to endorse Trump. Why isn’t that sinking in? THE LAST TWO REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTS REFUSE TO ENDORSE THE REPUBLICAN NOMINEE!!!  Do you really think you love the party more than those two?

Some people really hate Mrs. Clinton. The Clinton hate machine has been operational most of my life. The Clinton hate machine was and continues to be about making ideological differences personal. The Clintons are the embodiment of the dreaded “liberalism” that all Republicans are contractually obligated to rail against. This is, of course, comical to those of us who realize how centrist the Clintons politics have been historically. Add to all of this that Mrs. Clinton is… well… a “Mrs.”. She was accused during her husband’s presidency of being the real president because we love the narrative of the controlling shrew. Then she was belittled for being cheated on (I’ll never understand that logic), belittled for sticking with her husband, belittled for only sticking with her husband because of her ambitions, belittled for being ambitious (Which is totally cool if you’re a man), belittled for being shrill, belittled for being frumpy, belittled for being unfriendly. In short, belittled for being a woman. The thin veneer of this being about politics has basically been exposed for being primarily about sexism.

At this point, I have to confess. I think I bought into many of the “unlikeable” Hillary narratives because of my own sexism. The Clinton-hating machine has been so ubiquitous in my life that it has at times obscured for me the fact that this is a woman that I should be really excited to vote for.

Look, there are just as many people who will be voting for Mrs. Clinton for reasons of party loyalty and strong dislike of Donald Trump. But there is one thing that people who are voting for Mrs. Clinton can say that Trump supporters really can’t say if they are being honest: Mrs. Clinton is incredibly qualified to be president and that should mean something. Mrs. Clinton has dedicated the entirety of her professional life to public service. Yes, she and her husband have become wealthy off of their work, but it’s impossible to say that they haven’t genuinely given back. She’s fought for education. She’s fought for healthcare. She’s fought for equality simply by virtue of subjecting herself to the rigors of running for president twice. She’s made some missteps particularly on issues of racial justice, but she owns them and I think she’s open to learning.

Look, I don’t have illusions about Mrs. Clinton being a perfect candidate. She will not dismantle American imperialism. I’m not sure any president could right now. I would love to see more progressive voices at the table and I will vote Green down ticket. If the Green party is ever going to have any sway in this country it will be from those who rise up the political ranks, not from opportunists who only show up during presidential elections. But in this election, the choice is really clear.

… unless you’re a racist or a sexist or extremely loyal to your party (which I addressed, reread that part)…

 

 

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The Five Things I need from White People Right Now

Another day, another unarmed black man dead. Terence Crutcher’s SUV stalled as he was coming back from community college classes. He was studying music appreciation and was very active in his church choir. Seeing his picture reminds me of any number of big dudes I know who can sing their lungs out. From his view in a helicopter, a Tulsa police officer thought he looked like a bad dude. Instead of trying to help the man with the stalled car, two officers made him put his hands up as he approached them for help. As he reached into his SUV, probably to grab some form of identification, which again, should not have been necessary because he was the one in distress, he was tased and then shot. He was unarmed. He was the father of four.

I feel like ranting and raving about how angry and scared this makes me feel is redundant. We have a major policing issue in this country. That the fraternal order of police and several major police unions have endorsed Donald Trump highlights that issue. I could certainly go on and on about that here. Instead, what I want to do is highlight what I need, and what I think many black people need from our white friends and colleagues in light of yet another tragedy. This isn’t an exhaustive list and it is coming from my limited perspective, so I’ll make it personal: this is what I need:

  1. Don’t Silence Us: During the opening week of the NFL, former mediocre quarterback who has handed a super bowl ring by an elite defense Trent Dilfer said that San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick should stick to playing football instead of making political statements. Essentially he was saying, sit down and shut up. There are so many ways to silence people. You can tell them that their experience isn’t relevant. You can make light of someone else’s experience of oppression by telling them “that’s not so bad”. You can ask to see their credentials. You can insist that people stay in their lane. White friends, don’t be former mediocre quarterback Trent Dilfer. Silencing black voices is the height of privilege.
  2. Confession: The fact that I have used the general term “white people” will turn off some from the door. “I’m not like them!” “Why do you lump us all in the group?!” “I’m trying to help!” It’s true that no one likes generalizations. My generalizations may hurt your feelings. The generalization of white cops leave dead black bodies on the ground. You need to decide if your hurt feelings are more important than black lives. The confession I need to see is the understanding that you are a part of a system of whiteness that devalues black bodies. Confess that you are privileged in this way without qualification. I don’t want to hear “yeah, but I didn’t come from money”. Poor white people get stunned with bean bags and talked down. Poor black people get killed. Middle class black people get killed. You have to confess this shit. You have to or I can’t take you seriously.
  3. Use your privilege for good: most of my white friends have a pulpit. Like… a literal pulpit. I have too many pastor friends. The ones that don’t have pulpits have blogs. They have social media. They have platforms in which they can speak out about what is happening in the world. Yesterday, I listened to two friends’ sermons. Both give me credit, more than I deserve methinks, for helping them to think through issues of race. My friend Peter’s sermon is here. My friend Todd’s sermon is here. Both literally used their pulpits to own their privilege, confess their sins, and wrestle with what it means for them to move forward in a way that honors the value of all. I am humbled and honored to know such men and I know that I have more friends like this. As a white person, you have access to places that I don’t have and your voice will likely be heard in a way that mine will not. Please, use that for good.
  4. Amplify black voices: Okay, this might seem contradictory to what I just said, but it’s not. When you have the space afforded to you by a pulpit or even your own social media, use that space to lift up the voices of the oppressed community. Yes, it is self serving for me as a black blogger to ask you to amplify the voices of black people. I own that. Still, I’m not wrong. Again, the issue here is access. There are some places that my words will not penetrate because I don’t have access to them. White people have the ability to carry black voices into spaces where they may not usually be heard. Please do that!
  5. Transfer resources: Look, words matter. I wouldn’t write if I thought that words were impotent. But ultimately what black communities need are your time, talent, and treasure. (yes, I just dropped a stewardship cliche in here. Sorry!) Jason Chesnut and Ben Jancewicz are two white friends that I love and respect. You can (and should) follow them on twitter (@crazypastor and @benjancewicz) respectively. They don’t just give voice to their support of black lives. They use their considerable talent and limited time to invest in the communities that they care about. They show up for rallies and protests. They make art about the lives of people they know. They are invested. Last week I was a discussion where the topic of reparations came up. I don’t think reparations would solve everything nor do I think that black people are served by seeking the same soul corrupting materialism that is on display by the dominant culture. But I do believe that material investment in communities of color is an important part of seeing justice done. Your heart is where your treasure is. Someone famous said that.

This is not an exhaustive list, but I am exhausted. I’m tired of having to write things like this. I have so many other things on my heart and mind these days, but every time something like this happens, I feel the need to say something, anything that might make a difference in a world where black people are being slaughtered. These are the things I need from you, white friends. I don’t think I’m alone and maybe your other black friends don’t have the energy to say these things to you. I hope that you can hear me…

 

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Mmmm… food

Bonus points if you caught that my blog title was a reference to the classic MF DOOM album of the same name.

I was already planning on writing about food this morning when a friend sent me this article. Essentially, with Bayer purchasing Monsanto one of the world’s largest food and agriculture companies is being purchased by one of the world’s largest drug and chemical companies. This should terrify us! While I’m sure that there will be some who are ready to measure me for my new tin foil hat, I hope that you will pause and think through the ramifications of having corporations controlling both the food from which many of our illnesses come and the drugs by which those illnesses are “cured”. This is dystopian stuff, but it is very real. 2016 seems to have been written by a conglomerate of young adult novelists.

If you’ve been following me on Facebook or Twitter (@derricklweston) or Instagram (@dlweston), you’ve no doubt seen a lot of pictures of my garden. Many of my friends, including the one who sent me this article, have noticed how much more I post about farming, gardening, and food justice issues. A growing passion has been emerging for me, one that I think is shaping my thinking about my true vocation.

The first summer after I got married, I started container gardening. I didn’t have much space and probably produced just a handful of peas and green beans. I stopped for a long while after we moved to California. My seminary had a community garden. I wasn’t very involved in that, admittedly I was scared off more by the “community” aspect than the gardening part. That probably should have been a warning sign, but I digress. When I moved back to Pittsburgh, I briefly supervised our community outreach team who was primarily putting their efforts into developing a large community garden. Again, I was interested, but mostly stayed on the periphery of what was happening. At the time, I remember being fascinated by how many cool organizations were involved in community gardening and sustainability projects. I was especially enamored by the work my friend John Creasy was doing (and continues to do) at the Garfield community farm. In some ways, John is my patron saint.

When I took my call in Ohio, I went back to container gardening. We were renting and I couldn’t put much into the ground, but I littered my back yard with tomato plants, herbs, peas, and numerous attempts at broccoli, all foiled by little, evil, green bastards known as cabbage beetles. I didn’t produce much successfully back then other than tomatoes and basil, but at that point, gardening developed for me more as a spiritual discipline. I was in a very difficult call and having my hands in the dirt literally and figuratively grounded me. In the spring of 2011 a tomato plant emerged from the bottom of my compost bin to my great surprise. It was “planted” there by the tomato plant that I composted in the fall of 2010. I think it is still the healthiest tomato plant I’ve ever had and I continue to take great comfort from the image of that amazing life emerging from the compost. My backyard garden kept me as sane as I was then.

Through the hard year that was 2014, I wasn’t able to do much gardening, which made the hard year even worse. I had a succulent in my friend’s guest room where I lived. I’ll admit, I probably became unhealthily attached to that plant, but it embodied how I felt, a survivor holding on without very much supporting it. It grew in weird directions and was marked and scarred by it’s environment, but it kept growing. Same here.

When I moved outside of Baltimore, I was excited by the opportunity to have a garden again. In fact, I had more space than I ever had before in which to play. Shannon built me a raised bed in ’15 which she expanded for me this year. As I’ve been unemployed through the growing season, I have put a lot of myself into the garden. I’ve grown more different kinds of things than ever before and in greater quantities. I’ve experimented with companion gardening, bought a grow light to start seeds in my garage, tried “hacks” like trellising cucumbers on sunflower plants and starting seeds in eggshells… both worked, and I  planted flowers to help pollinate the vegetables thus forcing myself for the first time to actually learn the names of some flowers I had seen my whole life.

While doing all of this, I was reading. I was reading a lot! I was reading, of course, about gardening best practices, but I was also reading about some of the very cool things that people are doing around food. People have been reclaiming urban spaces in some incredible ways in order to address the needs of food deserts and lack of access. The creativity and ingenuity on display has been astounding. The book that has most deeply impacted my thinking these days is “The Color of Food” by Natasha Bowens. Bowens, who also formerly blogged as Brown Girl Farming (that blog has moved to thecolorofood.com) has created a remarkable photo journal of people of color making a living through small family farms and reclaimed community spaces. The underlying message that I take away from the book and the stories that it contains is a simple one: people of color made this country wealthy through agriculture and now it is time to use that knowledge for our own communities. It is a revolutionary message.

Coming back to where I started, the ramifications of corporations like Monsanto and Bayer being in bed together terrify me. Most of the food that comes through the major groceries stores come from either Monsanto or ConAgra even when they appear to be competing brands. The implications on people’s health and healthcare by having a major drug manufacturer involved in food production should give us all pause. This is why I am interested in food justice and food production. I believe that food access is quickly becoming the central justice issue of our time and we’re mostly blind to the effects that it has. But there is a solution. It’s a simple solution, but not an easy one. It’s a slow solution, not a quick fix. The answer, simply put, is to grow our own food. We have to take control of our food systems at a local level.

I believe the single most revolutionary thing that we can do right now is to plant gardens. In fact, this is the thesis for a book that I have begun. (Side note: for my Patron supporters I will be posting the introductory summary and the first draft of one of my strongest chapters so far on my page as a “thank you!”) growing food, particularly in urban settings reclaims the beauty of rundown spaces, repairs social bonds by developing interdependence, creates independent markets with the potential for jobs and entrepreneurship, and empowers people to take control of their health and well being. It also gets people back in touch with the rhythms of nature and connects us to our Source in through the soil.

I also think that there are major theological implications. The Bible was written in an agrarian culture and the farther we move away from the land, I believe the farther we move away from a deeper understanding of the Divine. In gardening I have developed a richer understanding of life and death. I have come to understand that natural world does not produce waste in the way that we understand it. In the garden, death can be redeemed, new life struggles to be born, and the miraculous is all around us. This is our birthright as spiritual beings, to be able to see the hand of the Creator in the midst of the creation and so often we deny ourselves of that birthright. That is truly tragic.

In the midst of my reading and exploration, I came across Farminary. Farminary is a program of Princeton Theological Seminary that connects (or reconnects) theological education with agrarian practice. I formed an instant friendship with the director Nate Stuckey. It’s not everyday that you meet someone who shares your love of compost! Next weekend I will be leading a workshop at the Just Food conference hosted by Farminary. I’m humbled that I was invited. I feel like I have so much less to offer than the other presenters. What I do hope to offer is a vision for the future of ministry that includes repurposing the assets that many of our churches have, namely land and large buildings, for sake of growing food and serving our communities. I also hope to paint a picture of spiritual health being restored by remembering that we are “Adam” created from “adamah”. (And with that, I have exhausted by Hebrew). I’m excited to share ideas with people and to learn more myself.

Last night’s dinner included tomato sauce made mostly with ingredients that I grew and green beans from my garden. As much as I love supporting restaurants that are “farm to table”, there is an extra piece of satisfaction having something come from my garden and having it go to my table. Despite the energy and money that I’ve put into my garden this year, I didn’t grow nearly enough to live off of. That would be a massive undertaking. And yet the more I think about it, the more that I want to move into that direction. I would love to get to a place where I am producing my own produce or if I don’t produce it, I know who did. I would love to know the animals that I am going to eat. I know that sounds weird, but I think the moral imperative for those of us who continue to eat meat is to have gratitude and reverence for the life sacrificed for our own. I want to have more homemade things. I want to brew my own beer from hops that I’ve grown. And I want to be able to share all of these things with my family, friends, and neighbors. That’s what community looks like to me. And that’s how we fight back against the forces of empire that continue to consolidate all of our resources.

On the night that he was arrested, Jesus gathered around the table and broke bread grown from the grain of the earth and poured wine made from the soil’s grapes. There is something sacred about these things that come from the ground to sustain our lives. I pray that we will not lose our reverence for these things by simply letting them be commodified. Food is too sacred to be taken lightly…

 

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A Prayer for Hijackers and Terrorists

Matthew 5: 43-47:  ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

How dark do things have to be in your world to plot a terrorist attack? How angry do you have to be to justify hijacking a plane and flying it into a building? How hopeless must you feel for joy in this life that you will sacrifice it in hopes for the life to come? I’ve been suicidal. I know how dark I was in those moments. I’ve never thought of taking anyone with me.

Lord, I pray for those who see no alternative but violence.

I pray for those who have been raised in ideologies of hatred.

I pray for those who have suffered under imperialism and oppression and have learned only violence.

I pray for those with legitimate grievances who turn to illegitimate solutions.

I pray for those who cease to value life.

I pray for the loved ones and families who were bombed, tortured, detained, and arrested because of their associations.

I pray for those who see the empire for what it is and choose to use the empire’s methods against it.

I pray for those “radicalized” by poverty and oppression.

I pray for those lead astray by false religion, religion that does not seek out love of God through love of neighbor.

I pray for those whose hearts have grown cold and calloused.

I pray for the Davids who go against Goliaths only to have more Goliaths appear.

I pray for those who can see no other road to justice.

Lord, in your mercy, forgive those who have chosen violence and terror as a means of making war. Forgive those who push others to the brink of hopelessness. Forgive our ending cycles of killing and hatred. Help us all to see that violence creates no winners, only survivors. May those who would give themselves up to be used as bombs, instead give their lives to be balm for the wounded of this world. May those who have heard only a message of hatred, look deeper to see that the heart of their faith is love. May the world become such that the weapons of protest and organizing become more effective than explosives, knives, and guns.

For Mohamed Atta, Abdul Aziz al Omari, Wail al Shehri, Waleed al Shehri, Satam al Suqami, Fayez Banihammad, Ahmed al Ghamdi, Hamza al Ghamdi,Marwan al Shehhi,
Mohand al Shehri, Hani Hanjour, Nawaf al Hazmi, Salem al Hazmi, Khalid al Mihdhar, Majed Moqed, Saeed al Ghamdi, Ahmad al Haznawi, Ziad Jarrah, andAhmed al Nami, all between the ages of 20-33, we ask for your mercy and forgiveness.

Amen.

Comic-Con is better than church

This morning I read an article, the title of which I have literally said verbatim: Brunch is Better than Church. The author argues that the sense of community and fellowship that we experience over eggs and mimosas with our friends is the depth of relationship that is often missing at church. “We need spaces for fellowship. We need churches in which we can explore our faith as safely and as openly as we can at a table over a meal. Where we don’t have to put on the best version of ourselves because we are already known and loved. In the spirit of this sort of authenticity, church can be a safer space. One that we can return to if it’s burned us, or maybe one we can walk into more confidently if we have no prior experience with it at all”.

Amen! I couldn’t agree more! Where churches so often miss the boat is on the experience of creating meaningful and lasting connections with fellow wanderers. I’m more likely to find that level of connection having beer with my neighbors than I am in most congregations.

And not to kick church while it’s down, and it clearly is, I have to add another to the list of things that is better than church: comic-con.

This past weekend, me, Shannon, and my besties from Pittsburgh went to Baltimore Comic-Con. It may surprise some of you to know that this was my first “con” experience, but I’m fairly sure it won’t be my last. As we walked through the entry way, surrounded by cos-players, geek humored t-shirts, and collectibles of all kinds, I heard a man who entered behind us say to his friend, “Dude! We’re home!”

I’m sure comic book conventions have a different flavor to them now than they did even ten years ago. Geek culture has become far more mainstream. Among the cosplayers were at least a half dozen Deadpools and equally as many Harley Quinns. Blockbuster movies will do that. Still, no matter how mainstream the properties may become, there is still a sense that those fanatically dive into the deep waters of these properties are still outliers. This is a gathering place for nerds and geeks, a giant locker that we’ve all voluntarily stuffed ourselves in. It’s a place for artists, the adult versions of the drama club and marching band. The fact that this place was attracting people who may otherwise be ostracized already gives it the nod over church.

One of the things that really impressed me was the diversity. There was gender diversity and there was racial diversity and it just wasn’t a big deal. Now… I will say that the comic book industry still has a way to go with the extent to which it fetishizes the female body, and both male and female creators seem to fall into that trap (I’d be interested to talk to female creators as to why they feel the need to sexualize their characters)… and I would also say that I couldn’t discern a wide representation of people of color in the panels. Still, both in terms of the convention attendance and the artists represented, comic-con is doing way better than the average mainline church.

We attended the panel for the IDW, the publisher of my beloved Transformers as well as the distributor for John Lewis’ stunning civil rights series “March”. I’ll admit, I have a love/hate relationship with hearing artists talk about their art. Sometimes it can sound incredibly self involved. That is not what was on display during this panel. There was an appreciation for the art form on display and a joy that they got to be a part of the a grand tradition. The comic book industry, like every niche, has its own heroes and legends. I am not nearly initiated enough to know all the names, but hearing the passion for the art made me want to learn more. When they talked about Jack Kirby, a name I do know as the creator of the Fantastic Four and many other iconic characters, the reverence was unmistakable. We were being drawn into a larger story by people who had found love, meaning, and belonging in the midst of story. If that’s not what church is supposed to do then maybe I just don’t get church.

Obviously I don’t actually believe that we should go to comic-con instead of going to church, but in an age of church decline, we should be paying attention to those places where people find meaning, whether that be at brunch with friends or in a convention hall surrounded by women dressed as Squirrel Girl (I saw three). Where church is missing the mark is connecting with the deep longings for community and belonging that are so hard to find in a fractured world. When people find those places to which they can belong without judgment and without having to leave part of themselves at home, they become enthusiastic devotees. I think it’s time for churches to deeply examine whether what they are offering speaks to those deepest needs, because Jesus most certainly did.

 

 

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