During the lead up to Indiana’s Gov. Pence signing SEA 101 (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — RFRA), some of the national leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) sent a letter to the governor that implored him to veto the bill. (See full text of that letter here – scroll to bottom of page for the original letter) In that letter, Sharon Watkins, Julia Brown Karimu and Ronald Degges expressed their belief that though “religious freedom” is used in the title and language of the bill, the heart of the bill is really about the freedom to discriminate against people who believe, live and love differently than any given business owner in the state of Indiana. They then went on to explain that the potential effects of the bill go against both the values of our democracy and the values of Jesus, who “sat at table with people from all walks of life, and loved them all.” The letter ended with a statement indicating that if RFRA was signed into law, the CC(DOC) might choose to move their 2017 General Assembly (slated for Indianapolis) to a different location.
As we know, the following day Gov. Pence signed SEA 101 into law. A media storm ensued, punctuated by a number of businesses and organizations that began pulling their conferences out of the state or publicly denouncing the RFRA. In the midst of that storm, Disciples leaders began working on how to follow through with the statement they had made. Should they move the General Assembly? If so, then to what new location? Research began in earnest to see which other states have laws similar to Indiana’s RFRA, so as not to jump from the frying pan into the fire (or another frying pan, at the very least). Ultimately, the General Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) came together for a special meeting — during Holy Week! — and made the official decision to seek a new location for GA 2017. (You can read the official announcement here)
Already the talk has begun among Disciples on social media. Some see this move as a victory — a moment when our Church has taken a public stand both for people who are routinely forced to the margins of society and for the values we have affirmed and claimed at past General Assemblies. Some don’t think the move goes far enough — how can pulling a small to medium sized conference that won’t happen until 2017 actually affect anything? Others agree with the idea, but believe the method is wrong — wouldn’t it be better to flood the state with events and organizations that welcome all people? Still others see the move as divisive — a moment when “all means all” does not apply to our more theologically conservative brothers and sisters.
For the sake of full disclosure, I land squarely among those who are proud of this decision and I am thankful that our leaders have been bold enough to publicly articulate a lesser-known kind of Christian witness in a time when Christian belief is perceived as tantamount to bigotry. That being said, I’m not surprised that some Disciples are troubled by this action. As a denomination, we’ve frequently struggled with the tension that exists between a desire to be prophetic and a desire to honor and cultivate Christian unity, and this is a moment where we stand in the middle of the weave, wondering whether warp and woof of the fabric will hold.
Here’s what does surprise me. In various comment threads, I’ve heard a sentiment that goes something like this: the decision to pull GA 2017 from Indiana doesn’t mean or accomplish anything — it is only a symbolic gesture.
Only symbolic. Only a symbol. Huh.
On the one hand, yes. Moving GA 2017 to a state that does not have such a law in place is a symbolic gesture. It makes a statement, but doesn’t force change in Indiana.
But on the other hand, is it only a symbol? No. Hell no. As Christians, we are a symbol-driven people. Every Sunday when we gather around a table set with bread and cup, every time we gaze at a cross or stained glass window with reverence, every time we look at our gathered congregations and see the body of Christ, we live in the power of symbols.
Symbols are vehicles for truth. They communicate things of value in ways that go deeper than words.
This action made by our General Board communicates a truth — several truths, really:
- There are Christians who, because of their faith and their study of the bible, believe passionately that because God loves all people we are called to live lives and build societies that reflect that radical love.
- The people who are most negatively affected by the RFRA are, in fact, people. They are beloved by God and we are called by Christ to treat them as such. That call is non-negotiable.
- Discrimination couched as religious freedom is still discrimination, and discrimination should never be legal.
- Using the language of religious freedom to legalize discrimination is an insult to religious groups of all kinds.
- While we aren’t perfect, and while there is no perfect place to hold GA 2017 (because discrimination, bigotry and hatred take place in every corner of the world), we can still use the power that we have to make a better choice than staying in a place that legally permits discrimination.
Some of these messages are communicated less clearly than others, to be sure. But to say it is only a symbol is to dismiss not just the hard work and prayer of every General Board member, but also to dismiss the power of symbol in our faith and in our life.
The other thing about symbols is this: powerful symbols might not change the circumstances and injustice that we face, but they do change us. An open communion table changes the way we view hospitality and grace, and asks us to offer those gifts differently. The vision of Christian community as the body of Christ changes the way that we see and value the people who sit next to us during worship, and asks us to love and work with those people differently. Symbols ask us to change in response to the truth(s) they convey.
As a symbol, the decision to move GA 2017 out of Indiana might not change the circumstances on the ground in that state, but it does force us to change. We now have to do the hard work of finding a new place, researching other state laws, and communicating the hows and whys of the decision. We have to talk about how the One we follow and the faith we affirm do or do not (and will or will not) shape the practical decisions of our life together. We’re forced into a new place and a perhaps a new way of being.
So is it a symbolic gesture? Yes. But is it “just” a symbol? No.
A symbol is never just a symbol.
When I reached the bathroom at Target, I was in rush. Book club was in less than three hours, the dogs needed to be let out, and I still needed to finish the stinkin’ book. All I could afford was a quick potty break and then a dash towards the baked goods so I could grab dessert for the meeting — in, out, and on the run! In other words, it was a Sunday afternoon.
But when I walked in, something caught my attention. Across the mirrors above the sinks was a line of bright neon green post it notes, their color demanding notice. Written neatly on each note was the same message: “Has anyone told you today that you are beautiful?”
Before I could think, a sigh escaped my lips, followed by a smile. No. No one had told me.
Catching motion to my right, I realized I wasn’t alone. A young girl, maybe nine or ten years old, stood on tiptoes to see the post it on her mirror. Slowly, mouthing each word, she read the message and flushed a deep red that matched her hair. Then she looked at me, smiled broadly, and skipped out of the restroom, nearly knocking over the Target employee who pushed past the door.
The employee, clearly unhappy with bathroom duty, stalked into the restroom, scanning floors for trash. When she looked up and saw the post its, her eyes widened and then narrowed, and she began to mutter about people messing things up and giving her extra work. Then she saw the message and stopped in her tracks.
“Wow,” she whispered.
“I know, right? It’s really something,” I responded.
She looked in the mirror and straightened up, a smile tugging at her mouth.
“Yes. It sure is.”
Apparently, no one had told her either.
Some days it’s the little things that make all the difference in the world.
Today we said one last goodbye to Chacraseca before heading back to Managua. Leslie, refers to this day of the trip as “gringo day”, because it is the leg of the trip that moves us back to the airport hotel via a few shopping excursions. It is common knowledge that gringos/gringas come to Nicaragua to shop.
While the marketplace in Masaya was beautiful, the real joy of the day came in a small potters’ village — a place where Leslie has built relationships with a family of artisans over a number of years. We watched a demonstration of how their pottery is designed, crafted and fired using the traditional methods passed down through the family. In the midst of the demonstration, we paused for a wonderful meal served by the matriarch of the family, and we watched a young man use his architectural training to etch exquisite and precise geometric designs into a piece of pottery (he went to several years of university but couldn’t continue because of a lack of resources, so he has found a way to use his education to add to the family business). When the demonstration was finished, we went to their shop and purchased many a piece. After all, gringas shop…
Tonight, we are nestled into the hotel, savoring air conditioning and wrestling with the question: what now? How do you take a life-changing, perspective-shifting experience like this and translate it into action when you get home? How do you honor the people of Chacraseca in your day to day life? Next week, in the classroom, we will chew on those questions together.
For now, I give thanks to God for the people of Chacraseca — for their perseverance and hospitality. I lift up their dreams and challenges, their need for the rains to finally come, their desire for their young people to succeed. I ask you to pray these things with me now and in the days to come. And, in the midst of these prayers for the people, I also thank God for an experience that has inspired me to write again. Thank you, Chacraseca, for helping me rediscover my voice.
Today was our final day in Chacraseca, and frankly, I’m sad. Our time here seems to have flown by, yet was also slow in the moment — and that activity of being present in the moment, hour after hour, has been tiring work. It takes considerable effort to truly listen, truly see, and truly feel what you feel in any given moment. That has been our task this week.
In these final hours here we have met with various small groups (young adults, elders, women who receive micro loans). We have met with excited stitchers who’ve already begun work on the first stole based on yesterday’s design. We’ve honored the women who cooked for us all week and said goodbye to Padre Tomas. We’ve said goodbye to the translators who made this deep listening possible, and who became our friends along the way
After those goodbyes, we headed west for an evening on the beach. The Pacific rushed and swirled across dark volcanic sand, refreshing us and stirring reflections on our time here. Stories surged with the roar of the ocean, bringing with them names and faces we hope to never forget.
This community has changed us as individuals and as a group in ways we likely won’t understand until after we’ve returned home. And now the hardest part begins: figuring out how to let those changes live and breathe in us, so that they take on life in our homes, our churches, and our hearts.
Throughout our time here in Chacraseca we’ve been reminded of an African proverb that goes something like this: if you want to go fast, go alone…but if you want to go far, go together.
This is one of the ways you could describe the term “accompaniment,” a concept and way of being/doing about which our D.min course revolves. We are here in Chacraseca to witness and to learn accompaniment as a way of living our ministry, living our prayer, and living our struggle for justice. It is a core value and method for Just Hope, and it is a way of life for the people here — they survive and continue La Lucha (the struggle) because they walk the road together.
Today we met with some of the women of Stitching Hope, a group of women who create beautiful stoles, purses and other textile arts using fabrics that they paint and dye in brilliant hues. These pieces are sold in the United States, and their sale allows the women to receive fair wages for their work — wages that make it possible for their children to eat and to attend school.
Rather than merely supporting the women of Stitching Hope by purchasing their work, we spent most of the day together. First, we heard each other’s stories and ate a meal together. Then we began the work of designing a special stole together — one that represents the practice of accompaniment.
It was that creative process that touched me most deeply: women from two cultures, speaking two different languages, who (through translators, hand gestures, and laughter) first described their understandings of accompaniment and then created shared symbols to paint a picture of that reality in colorful fabric.
It was difficult. It was frustrating. It was funny. And it was also holy.
By the end of the afternoon, we not only had the basic design for a stole that will be produced both for us and for the Stitching Hope product line, but we also had experienced the power of working together in a manner that allows all voices to be heard and values all experiences on even footing. We dipped our toes into accompaniment, and it was cool water for our spirits.
When we left the Stitching Hope workshop, purchases in hand (because we did buy some of their gorgeous work), hugs were shared all around. We are partners now, yoked together on the same journey. We are sisters, and together (though language and cultural barriers may slow us down), we will walk far.
When you go on a trip to a poor community and your purpose is not to “do mission” but to listen to the people, you end up hearing lots of stories about mission groups behaving badly.
-the groups who come and build things so poorly that they must be fixed almost immediately
-the groups who don’t bother to ask what actually needs to be built, and instead create more problems by building what they assume is needed
-the groups who don’t think about local logistics and build things (or bring things) that the people can’t use (or can’t afford to use)
-the groups that don’t allow the people to help in their projects — they are only allowed to receive, not share in the accomplishment and improvement of their own communities.
The list goes on and on… And ultimately, the problem isn’t that people come to do the work. The problem is that many folks who “do mission” don’t bother working with local leaders because they think they know better than those leaders, and because they are more concerned with accomplishments than with building relationships.
Today, we were allowed to sit in on a meeting of the local pastoral comité here in Chacraseca. In that meeting we listened to representatives of each sector discuss challenges and reach consensus on a number of issues that affect the people here. It was a little messy, a little chaotic, and deeply faithful to the community. These leaders sacrifice a great deal in order to attend the weekly meeting, with some representatives walking up to 18 kilometers one way in order to get here. Yet they come and serve because they love their people.
After the comité meeting, we met with their smaller board (similar to a cabinet or executive committee). During our conversation, Leslie (a leader of Just Hope) asked them to share the troubles they have had with some “gringo groups” who come to Chacraseca and refuse to work with the board. After pointing out some of the situations listed above, one leader summarized the situation by saying, “sometimes they come here and work by themselves…we’re just on the side somewhere…. We are the face of the community and I believe we deserve respect.”
I believe he is right. These leaders remind those of us who do mission work that it isn’t our job to swoop in and “save” people from situations we don’t even understand. Instead, it is our job to show up and listen first. If our work is grounded in relationship and respect, then we build more than only houses or latrines — we slowly begin to build the kind of just community that hints at the kingdom of God.
The leaders of Chacraseca’s pastoral comité want us to visit for relationship building and work projects. They believe it is better for us to come and see than it is for us to just send the money. But when we come, we need to acknowledge their lives, their commitment, their knowledge…their dignity. For, as Dr. Elmer Zelaya says: Just because you’re doing a good thing, doesn’t mean you’re doing good.”
Mission work can be a good thing. The people of Chacraseca are teaching us how to do good while we’re at it, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be one of their students.
The bulk of today was spent in a sector of Chacraseca called La Bolsa. We gathered at a family’s home with women from the community, went through a round of introductions (using our excellent translators), and then spent a couple of hours cooking together. Nicaraguan women taught us how to cook their special dishes, supervising us as we made their family favorites — and we taught them how to make a few of our favorites, supervising them in the same way.
When the feast was ready, we ate. And ate. And ate some more. Fried plantains, rice, beef, tomato & cucumber salad, and tortillas came together with green bean casserole, biscuits & gravy, and crunchy cole slaw with ramen noodles. It was the meeting of cultures, spread across one long table, and it was beautiful.
As we ate together, Elba (director of women’s projects at Just Hope) facilitated a conversation in which we all shared stories of the women who have inspired us. Those stories were funny, heartbreaking, relatable, foreign…and sacred. In the telling and hearing of those stories, we became a part of one another’s lives. All were able to give, all were able to receive, all had dignity and respect.
Tonight, as I lay in bed I replay those conversations and faces in my mind’s eye and I’m struck by the difference between charity and social justice. By allowing these women to give of themselves rather than passively receive things from us, we honored their full humanity. Each woman is my sister, and she is worthy of that respect. I will remember their faces and their stories for a long time to come.