February 15, 2012
Love Gets Smaller
As I type these words, I can’t help feeling like some Christian Carrie Bradshaw, inviting readers into the details of my day-to-day existence as it relates to love. With Valentine’s Day just on our heels, please don’t assume I’m talking about romantic love. No, this episode of “Justice In the City” (or the Suburbs or Wherever You Find Yourself) concerns itself with something much broader, and in many ways more difficult, than eros.
In the almost two years we’ve been in our condo, my husband and I have gotten to know our three neighbors pretty well. There’s Judy, an elderly woman who lives with her miniature poodle and sometimes shares her small space with her divorced son and his two children. And there’s Jon, who’s in his fifties and has cerebral palsy. Despite his disability he lives a very independent life, working for the county convalescence home and creating elaborate landscapes for his extensive model train collection. And then there’s Christa. She’s also living alone (her faithful dog, Joey, died last fall) and in her seventies. She still loves to paint and sculpt, and she’s full of fascinating stories of her youth in Germany, where she played in the Black Forest, took boat cruises down the Rhine river and lost her brother in World War II (he fought on the German side).
Lately I’ve been reading two books that have been shaping the way I view my relationship to these neighbors: The Wisdom of Stability by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Small Things with Great Love by Margot Starbuck. The first asks us to consider the power of staying in one place. The second challenges us to consider the power of doing small, manageable things to show God’s love. Here’s a video of Margot talking about the concept.
So what does that look like in my life? I work full time, and currently my husband is working out of town and coming home on the weekends, so I have my hands full taking care of my nine-month-old son (you single parents out there deserve a medal for what you do each day!), doing laundry, paying bills, making food, shopping for groceries and generally keeping the home fires burning. In this busy season of life, it’s easy to get bogged down by all my responsibilities and feel as though doing anything to show God’s love to a world in need is simply beyond my abilities, much less my inclinations. How can I possibly show love to anyone, and does anything I can do really matter?
As I’ve prayed over these questions, Margot’s encouragement has been so refreshing. Instead of making me feel guilty because I can’t run off and solve all the world’s problems, she has empowered me to look for ways I can give to those around me in the life he’s given me. God has reminded me that I don’t have to go far to find people who need his love—in fact there are three of them living less than twenty feet from me who I see on an almost daily basis. Together we’ve already gone through a major flooding of our neighborhood, losing power and huddling by an emergency lamp under the staircase during a storm and fighting three feet of snow last winter.
In these times and smaller daily interactions, God has already been bringing along opportunities to do small things to show love like:
• Hugging Christa and praying with her when we met in the hall on the day after her sister died in Germany. She was so sad that she couldn’t afford to return home for the funeral.
Sometimes I wonder what impact these small things have on our neighbors’ lives, really. I mean, I’m not helping Christa with her financial stresses. I can’t pay for her to go back to Germany. I don’t have more room to offer Judy when she’s got her son and his kids crammed into her place with her. I can’t do any heavy lifting for Jon or somehow take away his disability.
Recently we thought we might have to move again, and we let our “community” know about our impending change. That’s when I realized that all these little things do add up to something. Christa’s eyes filled with tears at the news. “Oh, I really wish you didn’t have to move,” she said looking away. “It means so much to me, knowing you’re here …”
I will admit that there are plenty of times I don’t feel like even doing small things for these folks. I have a lot on my plate, and it takes energy to think of others after I’ve already thought of myself, much less to put them first! But when I remember the look on Christa’s face, I know why I do it. Because showing her love is a way of communicating the love I receive from Christ. Because being a friend to an older person who is lonely is one way I can give just a bit of that love back to Jesus. Because maybe one day I’ll have built enough trust and relationship capital to share directly with Jon, Judy or Christa about the God I know and love, and invite them to come further into his agape. It’s my small way of working to bring about God’s kingdom of love on earth.
It looks like we won’t be moving anytime soon after all, thankfully, so there’s still time to cultivate these relationships. I think I’ll take a bowl of chili down to Christa tonight. In one way it’s not much. In another, it’s everything.
What about you? How can you do a small thing with great love for those God has placed in your life?
October 7, 2011
Welcoming the Stranger: Matt Soerens on Hospitality
As is appropriate during "Hospitality Month" at Strangely Dim, we welcome Matthew Soerens as our guest-blogger for this post. Matthew is the coauthor, with Jenny Hwang, of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (IVP, 2009). He serves as the U.S. Church Training Specialist with World Relief. He blogs on a regular basis at UnDocumented.tv. -----------------------------------------------------------------------
In recent years, God has been teaching me that this Martha Stewart-inspired ideal misses the heart of the biblical command to "practice hospitality" (Romans 12:13). Real hospitality, if we look to the etymology of the word, is loving strangers (from the Greek xenophilia). There's nothing wrong with entertaining friends and family, of course, but doing so doesn't necessarily touch the heart of hospitality. "If you do good to those who are good to you," Jesus asks his disciples, "what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that" (Luke 6:33). Christ's call is to go beyond the obvious, to welcome those who are strangers--in fact, even those who are enemies (Luke 6:35). When we host a banquet, Jesus tells us, "do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors" but rather "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" (Luke 14:12-13).
Jesus' commands sound pretty radical in our American culture. We teach our kids to be afraid of strangers--and while it is prudent to protect children, many of us carry this "stranger danger" mentality into adulthood. If an unknown person showed up at the door of a typical American home late at night, I imagine most people would be more likely to call the police than to offer them a guest room. By welcoming in a stranger, though, Jesus told his disciples that they were welcoming him--and that by turning away the stranger, they had turned him away also (Matthew 25:35). Scripture also juxtaposes the idea that strangers are a threat with the idea that by welcoming strangers, "some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2). Maybe the stranger to whom we extend God's compassion might end up blessing us more than we could imagine.
That's been the experience of many churches in the United States. Our society as a whole increasingly seems to favor xenophobia (the fear of strangers) to xenophilia (the love of strangers). In contrast, as immigrants arrive from various countries, some churches have sought to extend welcome. These immigrant strangers have become, in the words of Asbury Theological Seminary President Tim Tennent, "the greatest hope for Christian renewal in North America," as immigrant congregations fuel the fastest growth in American evangelicalism. That growth is happening despite that fact that most churches have yet to recognize the opportunity presented by the arrival of immigrants to their communities. In fact, the results of the Faith Communities Today survey suggest that just one in ten evangelical churches has any ministry oriented toward immigrants.
The arrival of immigrants to the United States gives American churches--and the society that we influence--the opportunity to put into practice the biblical value of hospitality. As we do, we can expect to see God bless the church in this country through these potential angels-in-disguise.
Posted by Christa Countryman at 8:42 AM
September 30, 2011
Sex Trafficking at the 7-Eleven
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine wrote a novel about sex trafficking that was set in the southern United States. I remember reading the rough draft and struggling to digest the idea of sexual slavery in America. In fact, I thought it might be a bit of a stretch.
Global sex trafficking . . . now that's a more likely story. Villages with dirt roads, one-room shanties with tin roofs, girls who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS, corrupted government officials with black-stained teeth who slip foreign money between the robes of their donkeys--seemingly more compatible images with terms as atrocious as "human trafficking" and "modern-day slavery."
It's funny how comfortably we think of America as a "global super power" yet how troublesome it is to think of it as a "participant in global sex trafficking." But there's no getting around it.
Between 2001 and 2005 there were an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 sex slaves in the United States (according to the Department of Justice)--a significant percentage of the nearly two million children exploited in the global commercial sex trade each year (UNICEF).
Sadly, the global sex trade, a 32 billion dollar a year industry, is thriving in the same country that officially ended slavery almost 150 years ago. In a Huffington Post article, Dan Rather diagnosed this pervasive inability to imagine sexual slavery in the United States with one word: denial.
It's a hard concept to get our minds wrapped around.
Last week I was at the Religious Newswriters' Association conference--a gathering of journalists who were some of the most culturally aware folks I'd ever been around--when a gentleman from a national research firm asked me what I was working on. I gave him my elevator pitch for our recently released book God in a Brothel by Daniel Walker: "It's the story of an undercover investigator who spent four years rescuing victims of sex trafficking all over the world," I said. Then I added, "including within the United States."
"Huh. In the United States?" he said, nodding. Then, after a slightly awkward pause. "Really? The U.S.? Is that right? Huh."
And so I told him about the image I can't get out of my head, the one from the book where Daniel poses as an interested customer, gets picked up by a Lexus-driving pimp at a 7-Eleven and is escorted only a few blocks to a modern single-story home where he purchases a young Asian girl. I told him I think about it every time I pass my local 7-Eleven, the one that sits just a few blocks from my house, where hundreds of meaningless and impulsive transactions take place every day.
Then I told him about the recent Chicago Sun Times article following an eighteen-month investigation that led to a major bust right here in Chicago. The girls who were rescued weren't from Central America or Southeast Asia; they were from Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, in some cases trafficked from the city bus stop or their local grocery store.
Even with organizations like International Justice Mission and The Polaris Project increasing their platforms, with campaigns like End Slavery Now and Stop Human Trafficking gaining momentum, with stories of arrests and rescues in major cities splashed across the news, and, yes, even with celebrities like Demi and Ashton getting involved, conversations like the one above and the ones inside my own head, remind me that we still have a long way to go. Fortunately, one of the privileges of working in publishing is that we get to nudge people just a little further down the road.
This fall (October 20-November 10) Daniel Walker will be traveling to the United States from New Zealand where he serves on the local police force. He'll be speaking at churches and college campuses from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in partnership with Compassion International and Hagar International to raise awareness about the global sex trade.
If you're close, stop by. If not, share this post. Or pick up a copy of the book and continue to learn. And when you tell your friend or your colleague or your pastor or your aunt what you're reading and they say, "Sex trafficking? In this country? Really?" Tell them that America is as global as they come.
November 29, 2010
Remembering Dorothy Day
Thirty years ago today the great Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, breathed her last. I was ten and Catholic when she died; now I'm forty and evangelical. I miss her, and I never knew her.
Born into the middle class and indoctrinated in her early adulthood into a radical bohemian lifestyle, Day put off Catholicism till the birth of her daughter introduced her to the transcendent. Long an advocate of the labor movement, her conversion only strengthened her passion for the needs of exploited and marginalized people. Thanks to her gravitas and candor, she perplexed and intrigued people of various political, religious and social convictions throughout the turbulent mid-twentieth century. If the 1900s had any legitimate American candidates for sainthood (and I'm sure it did), she's certainly in the running.
Brian Mahan, in his book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, describes what he calls Dorothy's "epiphany of recruitment"--that moment when she knew, viscerally, that her life had to be about people in need. She was enjoying, of all things, a doughnut, when her mother offhandedly observed that not everyone in the world has enough food to eat. Dorothy was stunned and moved to tears, half-eaten doughnut in hand. Think about that the next time you find yourself doing something inconsequential: God may be recruiting you in that very moment to something profound, something lasting, something great.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:18 PM
November 15, 2010
Editing as Community Organizing
My job puts me in touch with a lot of crazy people--crazy enough to try to change entrenched patterns of behavior and societal standards. Likewise publishes a lot of activists; in fact some of the most notable books in our history have been the sustained reflections of people who spend most of their days pushing hard for more justice, more mercy, more shalom in their given contexts. I get a little envious sometimes, I can admit: while they're saving people, I'm condemning commas.
When I'm feeling particularly inadequate--usually after a phone conversation with one of these people (I should add that not once has one of my authors told me anything like "Why don't you get off your butt and do something significant for a change?"--even the ones who are well aware of the enormous amounts of free time I spend on my butt doing something insignificant)--I try to console myself by imagining the role of publishing in the greater effort of what I suppose we could call "cultural discipleship": how does what I do join with what they do to better represent the kingdom of God throughout the earth?
Or something like that. It's a self-serving exercise, to be sure, but I think generally it's helpful to me and to our authors; and really, what's wrong with imagining yourself in the kingdom of God?
The bible of most activists at a grass-roots level (apart from the actual Bible, for the folks I work with) is Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, published in 1971 as an attempt to channel the chaotic rage of 1960s revolutionaries into more effective, sustainable social change. In this book Alinsky lays out some of the essential qualities of a community organizer, the things he needs to see in a person before he will trust them with the real needs of a community. You can train on tactics, but these are temperamental values that can only be acknowledged and encouraged. I'd say we look for them in authors too, as well as in publishing professionals such as myself. Ahem.
That strikes me as a pretty good description of a good book: "power for others to use." A book--particularly the type of book we publish--is an author's proxy, a way for the author's insights to be present when the author herself (see what I did there?) can't be present. It's a distillation of a person's embodied ideas and ideals, to be considered and adapted for another context. Maybe it's my ego talking, but that makes publishing a creative process--which makes me, as a publishing professional, a creative person.
Ahem. How you like me now, activists?
September 24, 2010
Checking in from the Story Conference
Conferences in Chicago, where I live (OK, you got me, the suburbs of Chicago), are a mixed blessing. No flight costs? Blessing. No hotel costs (not to mention no roommates from the office blurring your boundaries)? Blessing. Some sense of confidence about where you're going and how to get there? Blessing. However, I'm finding that conference schedules don't mesh well with office- or homelife schedules; meanwhile, guilt sensations have an easier time finding me in Chicago than, say, in St. Louis, so I agonize more acutely over the work left undone at the office, and the life left unlived (and chores left unchored) at my house.
On balance, though, the right conference on the home front is worth the guilt feelings and complex coordination. I've been to three such right conferences lately: a retreat for editors; the twentieth annual conference of the Christian Community Development Association; and this week, the Story Conference--a conference for the creative class. (One more next week, then I'll mow the lawn. I promise.)
The Story Conference pulls together people in arts ministry, innovative church planters and leaders, and lay Christians in arts industries for encouragement and expansion of the imagination. The speakers have ranged from wildly successful novelists and filmmakers, to culture leaders among right-brained evangelicals, to pastors and activists. Two of our authors--Sean Gladding (The Story of God, the Story of Us) and Princess Kasune Zulu (Warrior Princess) are on the bill.
I'm struck by how often arts and justice work among evangelicals are commingled. The exhibitors here oscillate, almost booth by booth, between creative expression and justice/mercy ministry. IVP, as usual, sits somewhere in the middle: Princess is an AIDS activist; Sean is a storyteller. Each of them regularly feeds and acts on both their creative and their justice impulses. Out of everyone at this conference (I include myself in this) they're probably the two people easiest to pick out of a crowd.
I don't have much insight into this apparent collusion of the arts and social conscience. Maybe you do. I do know that as I look around at Story, I think we came to the right place, and there are probably folks here who appreciate that we came. Almost makes me forget that I owe my boss some paperwork.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:11 AM