Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Two Stories

But first…
Today I turned in my first paper ever that I can officially say I’m not proud of. At some point last week, while I was either sorting garbage or putting up drywall or walking through the French Quarter, I decided I was going to turn in a “good enough” paper for once in my life. Didn’t feel great turning it in – and sure didn’t feel great to be such a dumbass during the discussion time – but it was definitely the best decision for me.
Also I wore my I [heart] NOLA shirt today and what I’d hoped for happened – somebody at a bus stop said he was from New Orleans! So I got to talk to him about the hurricane and my trip and his living out here. It was so cool!

OK, now on to my two stories. These will be my first stories from the trip and certainly not the last, but I haven’t written these down so I want to make sure they get written before I forget them. Also, I think you’ll enjoy them – they pretty much are typical me.

First, I threw down with the Billy Graham people. That was super fun. They showed up at the distribution tent where we were giving away supplies & food to residents. They wore shirts saying, “Billy Graham Rapid Response Team” (I can only assume they swoop down following natural disasters in helicopters or by parachute, a crack team of experts who mobilize to blanket an area with tracts and grill victims on where they’d have gone if they’d died in said disaster. Billy Graham himself was a helluva guy, but I’m not crazy about the direction of his org). So they showed up and were just talking to lots of people, not being too obnoxious, but I was watching them like a hawk to make sure they didn’t harass any of my Jewish or agnostic students. I finally decided it would be best to just say hi and see what their deal was.

So I got to chatting with one of the men (seemed to be a leader) about our group and told him what a great team we had and how it was interfaith and I was there to be the Christian scholar. And he asked me how I handled the “agnostics” in the group, “knowing that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life and no one comes to the Father but by him.” And I replied first that I probably had a slightly different interpretation of that verse than he did, and I began to tell him about the beauty of interfaith work and how great it is to find the similarities between religions and how we’re on the same page with justice and all that spiel. I could see he didn’t understand why I wasn’t intent to convert them all, so I explained that I consider faith more of a lifelong journey than a moment of conversion, and that I am not particularly concerned about bringing any of these students to a decision on the trip because first of all, if they make any decision for God, it’s going to be God’s work, not mine; and secondly, I have this idea of the faith journey.

So then he said, “But how can you say that when Jesus says, ‘Today is the day of salvation?’” (which by the way wasn’t Jesus, it was Paul, but I didn’t realize that at the moment). And I said, “Where does he say that?” And he started explaining it to me, and I said no, don’t tell me what it means, tell me where Jesus says it. What gospel, what chapter, so I know what’s going on. And he asks, “You mean quote it line by line?” and I replied that I didn’t need that, I just needed to know the context. That is, I need to know if Jesus is speaking to Jews or Gentiles, to disciples or Romans, if he’s answering a question or teaching, what’s going on before and after the statement, and so on. You know, just generally trying to get at what’s going on around that one verse.

And then I explained that Jesus says a lot of different things to different people in different situations. Sometimes he says things people don’t like and then lets them walk away from him. He doesn’t pursue them trying to change their mind, as with the rich young ruler. And sometimes he flat out refuses to help people, such as with the Syro-Phoenecian woman who requested a healing and was told, “I’m not here for you, I’m here for Israel.” But she convinced him to help her. And sometimes he does offer good news, but it’s frequently quite challenging and most of the people who hear it don’t follow him for long.

You see, I said, I’m just trying to find out the situation, because Jesus always responded very specifically to a given situation, and me, I’m just trying to be like Jesus.

Yeah, I rock.

This woman who was also from the org was standing there and she was like, “That’s really good! That’s sounds so smart!” like she’d never heard of contextual exegesis before. But the guy was the best: he just said in a monotone, “It’s been a blessing talking to you” and walked away. Boo-yeah!

I gotta say, it was awfully fun. And I’m never that clever so I like to think it was spiritually inspired. At any rate, my students were super impressed. They made me tell the story again and again to everyone. And I should say that they were impressed that I’d known Jesus so well and known the Bible. They weren’t like, “Down with Billy Graham!” They were intimidated by those people, but when they saw that I could beat them at their own game, they felt so much better. Especially because they already knew that I was safe, that I loved them. So they were happy when “their Christian” could hold her own. Which felt awesome. I actually had one student tell me I “just might have” changed her mind about Christians, and another tell me that the week changed her “internal image of Jesus from a man associated with a religion I feel distant from to a great man who lived his life selflessly and honorably.” Score!!

That’s all I ever want to do, is make Jesus look good. That’s like the best thing ever!!

So the second story hasn’t got as happy of an ending but I also need to tell it because it’s important too. And it was extremely formative and has been haunting me since I left, and may have an impact on whether I ever return (which is sad because until this happened I was so gung-ho about getting the world down to help).

So a little context: the church where we stayed was a plant by a “visionary” man who quite clearly had control over everything. The woman who helped us with our meals wouldn’t answer most of our questions (questions about our meals, I mean, and she ran the kitchen!) but would refer us to the pastor. Most of the folks who went there very nearly worshiped the man. They definitely saw him as having a divine calling and as a holy person. And I myself spoke about how much I admired him and admonished the students not to poke fun at him (he had some “southern ticks” that they found amusing) because he so obviously loved his people and his parish (that’s the county) and did tons of work for them. But basically I could tell by about ½ way through the week that this guy was running his place like a kingdom, and I was thinking how burned out he must be getting because every little last thing had to go through him. And when he wasn’t around, things would fall apart. It was definitely unhealthy. Not dangerous, just not a great way to run a church. Especially because I believe so strongly in the entire community of God being empowered.

Anyway, he would have meetings every morning. I went to one, and he told some really heart-wrenching stories about the parish and the people, and then he gave a little sermonette, and finally closed us in prayer. He did not talk about logistics or scheduling for our group or the church, which is important to note. In fact, most of the week we had no idea when anything was happening, including when we were supposed to eat or hold meetings or whatever. So we wound up eating dinner too late one night and making people mad, and trying to hold our footwashing/Seder during worship band practice which did not work. A general schedule would have been so nice. But I digress.

So because these meetings were primarily about context (which we were doing in our own group sessions, that’s why I was there and the other rabbinical student) and about listening to a biblical sermon (which was inappropriate for a non-religious trip from a state school), we declined to participate. We went the day we were working for the church, the 7 of us who were working. But otherwise, our leaders politely explained that it wouldn’t be right to require the students to attend, and in fact it would set us back an hour or more getting to our job sites, and that’s really why we were all there anyway.

But every day, he would complain to our organizing org that we weren’t attending, and he would get mad at our leaders, and anytime we made a mistake he’d blame it on our not coming to the meetings (where, recall, he wasn’t doing logistics anyway, but you couldn’t tell him that). By our third day he was threatening to kick us out of his church. We told him we had nowhere to go and it was getting really cold and rainy, so could he please let us sleep there one more night. That was Easter Eve. He agreed, on the condition that our guys leave their beds and sleep in the hall (to make room for another group he’d forgotten was arriving – yet another reason to hire more help!) and that we leave the church from 10-2 so as not to interfere with Easter church (which was fine, except some of the students who’d wanted to go to church now could not). We agreed to these terms and all seemed fine.

On Easter Sunday we were having breakfast in our usual place but there was also a bible study meeting in there. The worship band was playing again, which was loud enough to drown out any conversation we could be having. The bible study group eventually went to another room – I would say as much for the band noise as anything. But this got the pastor riled up again, and he told our group leader that we had to leave the breakfast room (which unfortunately they thought meant we had to leave entirely, we were being kicked out). Because I could see that all the people in my group were getting really peeved at him, and really feeling like he was being inhospitable and just mean, I wanted to alert him that his witness wasn’t all that stellar at the moment. I just didn’t know if he realized he was harming these folks’ ideas about Christians.

So I went to find him and I asked him to please remember that he’s being Jesus to our group, and right now our group is feeling bad about being asked to leave and feeling like Christians aren’t very nice people. I told him that I know how much he loves his own people, but also that these students were here to help because they loved them too, so please just remember that he’s representing Christ.

Well he gave me some excuses and told me that he’s been wanting to kick us out for a while, and that he was mad that we got in the way of the bible study (which again we didn’t know was meeting in our breakfast room), and other stuff I can’t really recall. [I’m starting to shake again just writing this.] I just kept reminding him that he was a witness to our faith. He said, “Ma’am, get out.”

So I did. I left. But first I told him Jesus loved him and so did I.

Anyway we were all packing up and trying to get out, and then he came outside and found me, and in front of the students and my rabbi partner he reamed me for about 15 minutes. I kept telling him that I was just trying to convince these students that Christians are good people and he was making my job hard, and he told me that we were the worst group he’d ever had, and our relief org was awful and he was going to tell everyone so. He said our students were wonderful but our leaders were terrible people. I asked why. It was because they wouldn’t come to his meeting. All this drama – on Easter Sunday, 15 mins prior to the service he’s supposed to run! – because we wouldn’t do what he wanted. And because we’d “made” the bible study move (I pointed out the band’s noise earlier – that’s when he’d told me to “get out”). He asked the rabbi what he’d do if people showed up to Seder and started eating cereal, and sweet Dean, he said, “We open the doors and say whoever is hungry has a place at the table.”

But anyway, I realized that he’s never told no. He’s used to everyone doing exactly as they are told. And no matter how good our reasons were, our not doing what we were told made us bad people. He said we were “in rebellion” against him and then he actually said that “the bible says rebellion is witchcraft. You are committing the sin of witchcraft.”

Well, friends, I tried to get him to explain that one to me, but he just told me to go look it up myself, and I said I really didn’t think I could find it, and he told me to get a concordance. OK, whatever. I don’t know if he meant that because we had Jews on our team we were witches or what. Who can know. All I know for sure is that our rebelling against him was definitely a sin in his eyes.

Oh yeah, I’d been talking about Jesus and being like him, and he said, “You know what Jesus didn’t stand for? Rebellion. And that’s what you are doing.” [later I thought of the perfect retort: “If that’s true, why did Jesus let Judas rebel and betray him, and let the people who crucified him rebel against him? Seems like Jesus endured an awful lot of rebellion and without a lot of complaining about it!”] And that’s when he launched into the witchcraft diatribe, so I knew I’d lost him.

I honestly can’t remember most of the conversation. I remember feeling very centered and I kept speaking Jesus’ words or referring to Jesus’ actions. I didn’t even try to defend our leaders or our reasons, I just kept bringing him back to being a Christian. That’s the only thing I could say. He said he never would have us back or any non-Christian group. I said that was his prerogative but he should think about whether his hospitality should only include those of our faith. That was up to him, but it was something to think about.

Eventually he got so mad that he screamed I had nothing to say to him, about how he’d lost so many family members who’d drowned like pigs and he’s been there 19 months working and I have not one thing to say that he has to listen to. And I told him I was so sorry for his loss. [I didn’t think to tell him I was there because I was sorry for it and wanted to help.] He told me I’d ruined his Resurrection Sunday [I didn’t think to say he’d ruined mine too.] He told me he didn’t know how he was going to preach now, that he was probably going to get up and have to say he wasn’t in the right spirit and sit back down [I did think, but didn’t say, that that was probably exactly the right thing to do. I’m sure he preached anyway, but I pray he didn’t. His people didn’t need a diatribe against strangers on their Easter.]

Finally, after going back and forth a while longer, I just had to resort to saying, “Well, I guess I can only tell you that we need to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I know you don’t like us right now, but we have to love one another.” He said, “Don’t preach at me!”

In the end, he stomped off. I turned to Dean, who’d stood by me the whole time, and he hugged me and I cried and cried. The spirit of calm lifted (I honestly believe God was with me speaking through me because I came down so hard after) and I shook and cried. Then the students lined up to hug me, but I had to escape. I went to my room and I knelt and prayed as hard as I could, with sobs, for him and especially for all the people who were coming to that service, and for God’s spirit to be there in special measure, and for my own heart that I could love him. I just kept praying and praying for him, because I knew if I let myself think about it I would get angry.

Then I called J and asked him to pray for me, and I got up and went and cleaned that man’s toilets. I kid you not. We were leaving, but we’d been there a week and the bathrooms were dirty. The group was already outside. But I didn’t want to leave it a pigsty. So without anybody knowing (until now, I guess), I went and I cleaned the toilets. And the reason I’m telling you is not to say I’m so holy, but rather to let you know that it really helped. By humbling myself to the nastiest possible thing I felt I could do for him, I found I just felt really sorry for him, and I found myself praying for him and especially his church, and I found I could go out and face the group again. I found a strength in that work, but more than that, I found myself. I found an identity of myself as a servant. I found the person I want to be, which is someone who stands up for what’s right, takes her lumps, and keeps serving anyway. Thanks be to God.

Well the students and the leaders all went on about my being brave and such. I kept telling them it wasn’t me, that I had special strength because I was saying what I knew God wanted to be said. But I could tell it was a good witness to show them that we stand up for what’s right, even when it’s to correct our own people. It’s important to bring everyone to Jesus, even and especially our leaders! How could I possibly ever tell a student she needed Christ when I couldn’t even point out when a Christian didn’t act like Christ!

Whew. Just telling that story takes a lot out of me. I’ve been reliving it a lot. It’s painful. Mostly I feel such a gut pain for that broken man and those people – not his people, they are God’s people. And he is too. And my fervent prayer and hope is that one day, maybe next week and maybe in 10 years, but one day, he will hear what I said. I know he didn’t hear it that day. He couldn’t. But I hope that God will bring it back one day when the time is right, when his heart can change. Because he is doing so much good, and so many wonderful acts, and he says all the right things, and he has mercy on those around him – but his heart just doesn’t have love in it. He couldn’t love us, because we wouldn’t submit. And that’s not real love. Jesus doesn’t say love those who obey you. He expressly says love those who don’t.

So anyway, those were the two biggest stories, as far as my own personal spiritual development, from the trip. There’s tons more that went on – amazing talks students about religion and faith, and prayer and sharing with the residents, and gutting houses and building, too. And seeing so much devastation and realizing how ignorant I was about how bad it is. It’s obscene. It’s so bad, still. And if nothing else, if I could get every reader of this blog to just go there, even better take a group, and work for a day or a week, even just knock on doors (people are starving to death in their FEMA trailers because they are immobile or don’t realize there’s help for them)…it would make such a difference.

You’re going to hear about this a lot right now. My heart broke there. My mind cannot grasp what they’ve been through. They need us. They need our bodies to help, but they really need our prayers and our trained counselors and whatever supplies we can get them. Do you know I didn’t eat a vegetable the whole time? These people don’t get vegetables. They get completely crappy hydrogenated cornsyrup products that I normally wouldn’t touch because that’s what people will donate. I mean, let’s have a veggie drive! Apples are $2 a pound there. It’s obscene.

And the government is waiting for the insurance companies to pay out, and vice versa, so nobody’s getting any financial relief. And the people who’d normally be in construction have either moved away or are fixing their own places, so there’s nobody to build (remember, if you think they should just hire someone, that not only did they lose everything – including all their equity – but we’re talking 180 miles of destruction so you’d have to have someone from 180 miles away come fix your house). Basically, all the relief that is going on – the gutting, the building, mowing lawns, passing out donations – is ALL ENTIRELY from the volunteers who go. And that’s why we’ve all got to get our asses down there.

It’s not as glamorous as Africa. It’s not as fun as Europe. But damn it, it’s our backyard. And it’s good people, thankful people. Broken people. They need us as much as anybody. And it’s awfully easy for us to get there. We really have no excuse.

So I guess I should send you to the org we worked with, who were wonderful: www.nrn.org. They run trips specifically for student groups (high school and mostly college) but I’m sure could put you in touch with groups that do families or individuals, or append you to a team. If you watch the videos, check out the one called “Dreams,” which shows the parish I worked in (St. Bernard, 100% homes destroyed, 100% businesses destroyed, we’re talking a whole county wiped out! Oh, plus 1 million gallons of oil spilled in their residential neighborhood, because the refinery refused to follow the rules of dumping it to save a buck).

OK I’ve got to go. The work was bad for my carpal tunnel so obviously typing isn’t good. This is just the beginning, I have a lot of stories to tell. It was amazing and awful. It was wonderful and terrible. I guess it was the best and worst of times! But I loved loved loved the students, they were amazing, and I loved the staff, and I met so many wonderful people and heard so many stories, and I even did a healing prayer on a person!! I did my best. And I am eternally grateful that this opportunity came up, and I will be a good steward of what I have learned. I promise.

7 comments:

A deacon, by the grace of God, said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent post! You get a flatout A+ on this, even if you're not totally happy with the seminary paper you just handed in. And you know what? Not to take a thing away from seminary studies or your paper, but I'm bettin' that the subject/s about which you've written here are probably more important than those you wrote about there!

Ally said...

Wow...you can preach to me anytime, sister!

Thanks so much for taking the time to write all this down and share it..

weirdbird said...

Hey, Feminarian! I haven't been reading, but I enjoyed these posts so maybe I'll start. :-) This is powerful stuff. We think and talk about how to be a clear and consistent progressive Christian voice to the larger culture, but the issue of how to be that voice for other Christians is a pressing one, too. Thanks for your convictions and your ministry.

Nebo said...

I am glad you went, and sorry you struggled with some local leadership.

I have been down four times and took a group (50 High School Students & adults) last summer. We have family down there so it is close to home for us. I have been struck each time by how tired, stressed and stretched every person down there has been. Some of the pastors resistance to reasonable practice and honest theology can be attributed to that.

As a slight counterpoint to your experience I worked with the lutheran/episcopal relief sponsored "Camp Coast Care" in Mississippi and St. Anna's Episcopal Church in New Orleans - along with the diocese's staff help. Each of my experiences have been fantastic, if heart-wrenching. Thanks for your work and your post.

Nebo

The Feminarian said...

Thanks, Nebo. You reminded me of two great orgs that I can send the smaller groups to (National Relief Network, our org, only takes student groups - high school & college - of 35 or more). I just found the Diocese of Louisana's relief page: http://www.edola.org/odr_volunteer_main.php
And Camp Coast Care: http://www.campcoastcare.com/
So I shall start recommending them to smaller groups. Cool!

Tom said...

Feminarian,

Thank you for this very important (to me) post. Now, maybe I can begin to understand why God so often tells us "no" and it's not because He can't or doesn't want to say "yes". Obviously, like that 'pastor', I need to hear "no" quite often.
And also, you've helped me to begin to explore my own rage. What's it about and of what am I afraid? (Perfect Love casts that sort of bull OUT) Thank you for blogging. You are a mighty blessing and I'm just glad to get to read you again. THANKS!!

Mother Laura said...

Powerful story of your interaction with the pastor. Thank you for sharing that.

Also for the call to respond to the devastation there, though I don't know how I will do that except for prayer, for starters.