Rise Above My Enemy Upon the Smoke

by Holly Haile Thompson

This September I dedicate my writing to the loving memory of Miss Ann Margaret Wing, 1965 – 2013, a Ute Mountain Ute woman, a September baby, who was my friend; and to the 772,000+ people who have died around the earth due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Each day rise and give thanks. Pray while the sun rises in the Eastern Sky… Waapenai Kumatwaenu” – A Shinnecock Prayer 

It is well documented how and when Christianity has been – and continues to be – weaponized. If the so-called “Bearer of Christ” (i)  truly cared only for the immortal souls of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the Indigenous Peoples of Africa, then Doctrine of Discovery would have been neither desired nor imagined.

“That woman is a Christian?!?” erupted aloud from the visibly shaken woman standing in front and a little to the right of me in the crowd.  The Annual Shinnecock Indian Pow Wow held each Labor Day weekend since 1946 has hosted crowds numbering as many as 20,000.  As Chee Chee Thunder Bird began her prayer dance as part of the opening ceremonies, following the Emcee and the local pastor – both of whom were Native men – and for whom no one gasped in consternation, the distressed woman looked around to try and find affirmation or denial of her preposterous conclusion.  Sounding like the victim of a dirty trick she seemed to need some sort of explanation for this happening. I leaned over and asked her why it should surprise her to witness a Shinnecock woman offering the Lord’s Prayer through an expression of her Native Culture? 

“The epitome of this blithe ignorance is the work of the Presbyterian Church among the Shinnecocks on Long Island… [a]t a missionary conference”,  Dr. Vine Deloria Jr. wrote, following a presentation by the denomination’s representative in charge of Indian work, Dr. Deloria asked how long the Presbyterians planned to continue mission activities among a tribe that had lived as Christians for over 350 years – to which the presenter said, “Until the job is done.”  Dr. Deloria’s reaction to that pompous and presumptuous answer, “Christianity, which had laid the ancient world prostrate in less than 300 years and conquered the mighty Roman Empire, had not been able in the same time period to subdue one hundred Indians huddled on Long Island.” (ii) 

As a Shinnecock theologian, I wonder at the abilities of the missionizers, I am suspicious of their objectives and the efficacy of a brand of Christianity that, apparently, won’t consider their job done until my people cease to be Shinnecock Indians.  One of my own conclusions is that Indigenous Peoples’ spiritual capacities are anathema to the Church.  A concerted effort attempting to ‘undo’ what Creator has done necessitates centuries of brazen greed and arrogance; and yet the Church and State (or Church and Crown) (iii) are still teamed up to intensify their ill-conceived enterprise.  Until the job is done” surely didn’t mean that ‘Presby-Mission-man’ was aware that many Native People continued traditional spiritual ways without Church sanction; he meant that the Indians are still Indians, so, therefore, can’t be Christian. 

This month’s lections from Matthew’s Gospel are quite concerned with ‘authority’ – over unpopular individuals who won’t ‘get with the program’ in the Church; ‘authority’ by which some are forgiven and others are not eligible for the same liberty; ‘authority’ whose focused justice is resented by their ‘entitled’ underlings; and ‘authority’ not so much from those who wield religion, but ‘authority’ over one’s own words, deeds and commitment to the well-being of other people.

Young Native hunters take deer and caribou meat to the Elders in their community, just as Natives who fish or clam take their catch to the ‘old folks’ because our spiritual practices – so heathen and non-capitalistic – protect and nourish ‘community’.  No Church and no Governmental authority tells Cousin Greg to bring around a jar of clams, he was raised knowing that it is the proper thing to do.  And contemporary American Christianity thinks it is ok to imagine having a red, white and blue’ beer with Jesus; and lustily singing God and Guns; while demanding that everybody else (a.k.a. “you people”) just get over our violent and deadly past, present and future.  Ignoring something – racism, poverty, militarism, ecological devastation (iv), patriarchy, Covid-19, injustice – will not make it go away, and it won’t simply disappear one day… 

Picking up the weapons of one’s enemy can be dangerous and deadly; we must take care when we encounter a religion which is still justifying the genocide of Indigenous Peoples and cultures.  Why would I willingly take part in my own oppression?  Why would I accept or employ methods or weapons that I don’t want used on anyone I love? 

Was it rough-rider cowboys and war-whooping Indians with horses and six guns in stereotypical boilerplate fashion that our ‘powwow visitor’ both feared and expected?  Did the experience of a peaceful, graceful, deerskin-clad, wampum-wearing Native Elder become too real or too human or too sacred in that moment? 

A Shinnecock woman prays in dance; I remember my grandfather burning tobacco – yet as incongruous as these holy practices are to the religious establishment, there will always be a sacred and eternal relationship between our Indigenous Peoples and the Land given us by the Great Spirit, the Land of which we are Caretakers.  No misappropriated piety or perceived Christian religious authority can make our prayers unworthy.


i. Christopher Columbus whose first name means “Christ-bearer” 

ii. Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins, 1969; Chapter 5 

iii. Mitzi J. Smith, Resisting the Great Co-mission, Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization, Ed. Steve Heinrichs, Mennonite Church Canada, p. 185

iv. Poor Peoples Campaign’s re-stating of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Evil Triplets” to which has been added Ecological Devastation as the dangers of climate change are now upon us

The Rev Holly Haile Thompson, DD is a blood member of the Shinnecock Nation, Long Island, NY, studied at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, IA, was graduated in 1985, ordained by the Presbytery of Western Colorado in 1986 becoming the first Native American Woman to become Minister of Word and Sacrament/Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Holly served congregations in Colorado and in New York state, is a member of several churchwide committees including the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), the Native American Consulting Committee (NACC), and serves on the Doctrine of Discovery Speakers Bureau, all of the PCUSA denomination. Currently, Holly volunteers with the United Methodist Church’s northeast Native American Ministries Committee – supporting the UMC ongoing ‘Act of Repentance’. Holly most recently concluded her service with 1st Presbyterian Church Potsdam, NY as Transitional/Supply Pastor to explore what an “Anti-Racist Church” might look like. She works with the Poor Peoples’ Campaigns of Northern New York and of Long Island. Holly is married to Kahetakeron Harry Thompson of Akwesasne, and together they share 7 children, 16 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. “May our paths lead us to a time when we shall live together in Peace on Good Mother Earth.”

Holly is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on indigenous theology and the lectionary.

Do Not Forget That You Are In A Holy Place

by Holly Haile Thompson

In Memoriam – Covid-19 has claimed the life of the Rev. Dr. Cecil Corbett, Nez Perce; father, PCUSA pastor, former President and Chancellor of Cook College and Theological School, AZ.  Visionary, Educator, Inspiration; Tabutne my Elder.  I honor, too, the 959,000+ around the world whose families grieve at the loss of their beloved relatives to the Covid-19 virus.   

“Nutah auwepun ut keshke ketahanit nuketoohomun”  (my heart is calm, the ocean sings while I pray my morning song)   – a Shinnecock Prayer

The following is a re-stating of my testimony to the Southampton Town Board, August 22, 2009.  11 years later almost to the day this same political body has finally agreed to observe a 6 month moratorium on construction, and to enact legal protocols when human remains are unearthed; which hardly resembles NYS Penal Law pertaining to cemetery desecration.  Justice by its nature cannot be divine to one group while denied to another. 

“There are many HOLY PLACES in this beautiful world we are blessed to call home.

  • When one travels to England to visit Holy Island, one finds Lindisfarne, an ancient place of prayer, reflection, contemplation, veneration, a sacred burial place of saints.

    Photo by Caroline Hall on Unsplash

  • If one journeys to Scotland’s tiny Isle of Iona, one finds a very old place of prayer, meditation, rumination, reverence, the sacred burial place of kings.
  • People from all over the world make pilgrimages to Mount Sinai in order to behold the ancient St. Catherine’s Monastery, respected by Muslim, Jew, Christian, and which is to this day protected, because there are people committed to safeguarding that hallowed place, believing it important for as long as possible.

“At St. Catherine’s there is a sign posted plainly for all the world to read in Arabic, and in Greek and in English these words:


“Many of our non-Shinnecock neighbors have forgotten YOU ARE IN A HOLY PLACE, and that the Shinnecock Hills – all of the Shinnecock Hills, is a HOLY PLACE an ancient burial for our people.

“We have asked you to not desecrate our HOLY PLACES; we have asked repeatedly for our Hills to be preserved, we ask continually for this land and our spiritual beliefs and our sacred connection to this land be respected. Yet time and time again you ignore what we say; over and over you draw lines on your paper, trace boundaries on your maps, sign checks in your checkbooks and record deeds in your deed books.  You think that your inadequate attempts to truly protect and care for this HOLY PLACE worthy of our gratitude.  To allow any further construction on this land is to miss the point.

“But I am not without hope – it is my hope that even now you might begin to think with your heart, and you might think a new thought about respecting your neighbors, and about regarding our HOLY PLACE, what there is left to protect of the Shinnecock Hills…”

“If, however, past behavior is the best indication of future behavior, I ought not place trust in this Board.  If there be found one human or funerary artifact, if there is found as few as one ancient relic or even as many as 10 human bodies – as was recently the case on Shelter Island – I am sadly certain that you would continue with your plans to completely dominate the sacred lands of my people, and to commence with your vision of dangerous overdevelopment, destruction and pollution to our HOLY PLACE.

“There have been human burials found on the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course and, even so, it is not held in reverence by those who now occupy that land or by those whose play and commerce continues on those hills.

“There have been human burials disturbed on the campus of the Southampton College and it is not ‘held apart’ or ‘set aside’ in reverence as a HOLY PLACE by those who currently occupy that land, business continues on those hills, too.

“It appears that the human remains unearthed on the Golf Course and on the College Campus and in other places in the Shinnecock Hills are not respected because they are remains of Native People; it seems because they are not the remains of White people whose local graves and holy places are regarded as worthy of respect, construction (as you call it) and destruction (as we call it) in Shinnecock Hills  – a place called even by non-Natives ‘archeologically sensitive’ – is continued with impunity.

“It is my observation that the concern of this Township and its government is to, along with its current legal action against the Shinnecock Nation claiming that we do not exist, and that we do not have the right to exist, continue to do with our sacred land precisely what you wish, and to do exactly what makes the most money for those who deal in money, and to do whatever translates into the greatest ‘political profit’ for those who deal in power, votes and public opinion.

“Where are the HOLY PLACES OF THE SHINNECOCK?  The HOLY PLACES OF THE SHINNECOCK lie beneath the grand homes and palaces and golf courses and tennis courts of our neighbors who have yet to understand that this land is more than merely their passing property investment – it is our life – and you care very little for the life of my Shinnecock People as demonstrated daily here in the ‘heart of the Hamptons at the height of the season’.  It is my hope that you will show me something new tonight.”

The Rev Holly Haile Thompson, DD is a blood member of the Shinnecock Nation, Long Island, NY, studied at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, IA, was graduated in 1985, ordained by the Presbytery of Western Colorado in 1986 becoming the first Native American Woman to become Minister of Word and Sacrament/Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Holly served congregations in Colorado and in New York state, is a member of several churchwide committees including the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), the Native American Consulting Committee (NACC), and serves on the Doctrine of Discovery Speakers Bureau, all of the PCUSA denomination. Currently, Holly volunteers with the United Methodist Church’s northeast Native American Ministries Committee – supporting the UMC ongoing ‘Act of Repentance’. Holly most recently concluded her service with 1st Presbyterian Church Potsdam, NY as Transitional/Supply Pastor to explore what an “Anti-Racist Church” might look like. She works with the Poor Peoples’ Campaigns of Northern New York and of Long Island. Holly is married to Kahetakeron Harry Thompson of Akwesasne, and together they share 7 children, 16 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. “May our paths lead us to a time when we shall live together in Peace on Good Mother Earth.”

Holly is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on indigenous theology and the lectionary.

Deep Rural

by Catherine Neelly Burton

“Deep Rural” is a phrase I learned from the Reverend Charles Ayers. Raised outside of NYC and in New England, seminary educated on the West Coast, Charles has lived in the deep rural for nearly 50 years.  He describes deep rural as a community that is at least 60 miles removed from a city.  Deep rural is the kind of place no one in the U.S. pays attention to unless there’s a disruption in the food supply chain.

Charles and his wife (now deceased) moved to western Kansas to her family’s farm.  As Charles learned to be a farmer he connected with the small churches in western Kansas.  

As far back as the 1970’s (when there was the staff and means to do so) the presbytery paid little attention to these congregations.  Some of them could still afford pastors.  Charles moderated sessions for those who couldn’t and filled pulpits.  Charles was strongly connected to the national tent makers group within the denomination.  He can tell stories of attempts made and challenges faced by tent makers for decades.  

Today there is not a single installed pastor in the western half of the Presbytery of Southern Kansas.  Garden City Presbyterian is in transition and hopes to eventually call a pastor.  Garden City has a population between 25,000-30,000.  It is a hub for commerce and medicine and provides services that might normally be found in a much bigger community.  If you need something Garden City can’t provide, your biggest cities are four hours west (Colorado Springs, CO), four hours east (Wichita, KS), and three-and-a-half hours south (Amarillo, TX).

Photo by Mary Hammel on Unsplash

Ten years ago, Charles invited the PCUSA churches in Lakin, Leoti, and Tribune, Kansas, into a conversation.  These three churches now function as a virtual single congregation with three sites.  This virtual church created a steering committee and put together a preaching pool.  They gather when there is a 5th Sunday for a meal, fellowship, sometimes worship, and sometimes study.  Their goal is to affirm each other’s ministry and help each become better at what they are able to do.  They support and pray for each other. 

Early on in their partnership, the three churches invited the Reverend Bob Wade to come work with them.  Bob is retired and lives in Ohio, but his first call was in Tribune, KS.  The churches came up with things they wanted to be trained in, and Bob served as their ministry coach.  For ten weeks they focused on communion training for elders, learning to pray better publicly, and how to be intentional in pastoral care when visiting and calling.  

The church members were empowered to lead their churches in ways they hadn’t before.  They realized that they didn’t need to wait for a pastor, that they could be the church.  In time, Charles connected with the Reverend Terry Woodbury.  Terry lives outside of Kansas City but had farmland in western Kansas.  Charles got Terry hooked on this vision, and when he spent time out west, he offered his skills in planning to the three churches.  

The churches got more involved in their communities, too.  The Leoti church will likely be the first to close, and as one step in preparing for that, they created a non-profit called Agora.  Agora is intended to strengthen the community.  

The church building is already used by groups like 4H and community theatre.  In time, Agora will take over the building.  This means that the community keeps it, and it is cared for.  Leoti still has a manse which it rents, and they give that income to Agora.  The church in Lakin has income from an endowment and gives to Agora.  

Churches in the deep rural were decades ahead of what churches in larger towns and cities are experiencing now (numerical decline and struggles with building maintenance), and they may be decades ahead of us in how to be church.  The discipleship coach model of congregational empowerment is one that we need to consider as a creative possibility and not a sign of defeat.  

Charles likes to use exile and remnant language regarding these deep rural churches; they are the remnant and don’t know in what form the church will rise up in the future.  We should pay attention because it may very well be the deep rural that shows us the way forward. 

Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas. 

Reconnecting with Self, Nature, and the Planet

by Jojo Gabuya

George Floyd cried, “I can’t breathe,” when three police officers knelt on his neck and pinned him down to the ground, which caused his death. His heartbreaking cry propelled thousands of people to protest and rally against police brutality that killed Floyd. Hundreds of families in Northern California also exclaimed that they can’t breathe when the wildfires destroyed their houses and farms. My fellow Climate Reality Leaders around the world and I expressed that we can’t breathe because of the low air quality in most states in this country.

The police brutality and systemic racism that Floyd suffered, the wildfires in Northern California, and the low air quality in this country are just some of the harsh impacts of the climate crisis that have affected the planet even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This climate crisis illustrates our disconnection from our Self, from Nature, and from the planet Earth. Regarding this, we must foster our relationship with our Self, Nature, and the Earth, where both living and non-living things co-exist. We can begin our journey through Selena Fox’s Nature Ritual:

“Journey into Nature. Journey into Self. Journey into Divine Interconnectedness.

Find a place in Nature that you feel special — the woods,  a meadow, a lakeshore, a babbling brook, the ocean, a mountain, a hilltop, a rock shelter. Find a place where you can be with plants, animals, and the Elements, yet away from human company.

Journey there to commune with Nature. Journey there to shift your focus from being human-centric to being Nature aware. Journey there to remind yourself that you are part of the whole of Nature. Journey there to nurture your inner Spirit and strengthen your relationships with other life forms and the biosphere.

 Arrive at the chosen place and then be still. Be seated. Relax in the area. Take deep, slow breaths to aid in your relaxation. Then become aware of yourself resting on this place on the planet. Experience the planet as Mother Earth holding you lovingly to Her. Feel the Sky caressing you. Feel the Earth and Sky energizing each other. Express appreciation for the Planet and the Cosmos for nurturing you and other life forms. Drink of Nature’s life energy that surrounds you and let it bring into greater awareness within you. This is Divine Communion.

Become aware of the plants around you and their aliveness. Focus your awareness on a particular tree or herb near you. Do not just look at it — instead, merge with it, touch it, become it. Imagine you are that plant. Imagine experiencing the world as it experiences the world. Then, as you focus on yourself being in your human form again, give thanks to the plant you have worked with as a friend, a teacher, a relative. Reflect for a time on your experience.

Now, breathe deeply and shift your awareness from the specific plant to the general perception of the environment in which you currently are. Experience yourself as being part of this tapestry of Nature. You are one of many forms on this Nature scene tapestry. Increase your awareness of this tapestry. 

Pay attention to Sound. Listen to the Wind, to the Birds, to other sounds of Nature.

Pay attention to the Sights. See the Beauty of Nature in the shapes, colors, and patterns of the life forms around you. 

Feel Nature’s rhythms. Smell, Taste, Touch Nature. As you expand your awareness of your physical senses, allow yourself to experience this place with your sixth sense and intuition, where there is neither space nor time, only Being.

Open your mouth and let a sacred sound vibration flow through you. Let the sound be borne from deep within your being, not only from your throat but also from your diaphragm, heart, and whole body. Flow with your sound. Become the sound, and then move with it.

Rise up and dance ecstatically with Nature. As you move, celebrate. Celebrate Nature. Celebrate Living. Celebrate the spiraling Circle of Change and Transformation — Release and Rebirth.

Then be quiet and still again. Take the time you sense you need to reflect upon and assimilate your experience. Then, before departing, give thanks to this place and the Divine that flows through you and Nature.

Doing this rite lets you connect with Wisdom — the Wisdom that is within you and around you in all of Nature. You connect with Spirit that is part of Self and more than Self. You connect with Nature Spirituality.”

Continue this connection by inviting your congregation and friends to do “Scavenging and Sculpturing,” that Caroline S. Fairless suggests in her book, The Space Between Church and Not-Church: A Sacramental Vision for the Healing of our Planet:

“Bring to the gathering a tangible item/object that represents the plight of the planet and a reflection about their particular contribution to it. Some examples are a bottle filled with dirt or water, plastic wrap from food and others, cigarette butts, plastic water bottle, can of tuna, can of motor oil, bullet, gun, and other symbols of war.

Each person can tell the story of their item/object—what it represents, how their particular engagement with it has had a negative impact within the earth community, and what behavioral adaptations and service to the Earth they commit to creating/developing. At the end of their stories, encourage them to lead a confession prayer in unison, which includes the sentence, “We repent of the wrongdoing that enslaves us, and the damage we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” Do this process of repentance several times before you move on.  

Create a semi-permanent sculpture depending on where you hold this gathering and requisite permissions. The sculpture will be composed of all the items that people have brought for this gathering. Invite each person/group to add their piece as they see fit. This sculpture will reveal evidence of shocking behavior to the wind, which can carry any confession throughout the cosmos. The Earth must be vibrating, pulsating with joy when we recognize all the harm we have inflicted her. Let the group/participants pour water over the sculpture, as a cleansing ritual, to free regret and remorse through the rivers, streams, oceans, and rain. Then, encourage the group/participants to think of these as the waters that carry all life’s good and the bad hopes, joys, deaths, and births. The entire system then takes the insult and the way forward.  

In the second part of the ritual, invite participants to know themselves as belonging naturally to the planet, essential to all creation’s 14-billion-year story. When you see your sculpture, regardless of its form and shape—you will remember. You will remember the damage you have done to your own home and the people around you. You will remember your promise of service to right the wrong.”

We are nearing the autumnal equinox on September 22, when the Sun will cross the celestial equator from north to south. Call the musicians, the poets, and other group artists, especially the Asian, Latinx, queers, transgender persons, and those with disabilities (both visible and invisible). 

Let the reconnections with your Self, with Nature, and with planet Earth continue.   

Jojo received their M.Div from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. Before coming to California in 2016, they worked with the United Nations Development Programmes, as Regional Coordinator for its Bottom-up Budgeting Project in Mindanao, Philippines. Prior to this, they worked as VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) Volunteer, as Results-based Management Advisor for the Ministry of Gender in Zambia, Southern Africa.

Jojo is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and their writing focuses on how Jesus would respond to the racism, xenophobia, microaggressions, and gender. 

Self-Help Individualism Helps. It Cannot Stop the State From Murdering Black People.

by Chris Dela Cruz

At the end of August, the New York Times published a lengthy article on Breonna Taylor piecing together her biography, relationships, and the events of the police shooting. The second half of the article presents biographical details of Taylor’s life favorable to her character as a “new arc that the young woman’s life had taken” that the police spying on her had missed, an “oversight that would have calamitous consequences.” 

According to family and friends, Taylor was always the “responsible one.” She was a “go-getter,” always on time, a “motivator” who inspired the people around her to do better. A friend remembers Taylor sending a screenshot of a money saving system she found on social media.

“At home, Ms. Taylor began writing goals on every scrap of paper – junk mail, napkins, envelopes – her mother said. ‘She would just make these bullet points – I want to have this done by this time – she recalled.”

These reported details jumped out at me because they exemplify the sort of self-help, go-getter individualism taught and embedded in American life as intuitive, conventional wisdom. Regardless of ideology, most Americans hold in high regard these sort of self-help mantras and attitudes.

This is particularly true in the American church. If you looked at a random page from a popular American Christian book and a popular American self-help book, I suspect they might read very similarly. 

The reason I bring all this up is that, by the characterization of the article, Breonna Taylor was doing everything in her self-actualization journey to live the American dream, to earn the American living, to use self-help techniques to empower herself. And, by all accounts, she was doing them well and always had that hard-working, American self-empowerment ethic. Which is great.

But none of that stopped at least eight police officers from smashing a battering ram into Taylor’s residence without a warrant or the proper verbal warning that they were law enforcement. None of that stopped officers from firing bullets both inside and outside her own apartment indiscriminately. None of that prevented her dying in her own apartment in her boyfriend’s arms, a boyfriend who had to call 911 because the police that shot her didn’t give her any medical care for many critical minutes.

I titled this post “Self-Help Individualism Helps. It Cannot Stop the State From Murdering Black People.” A reasonable reader could respond, “Of course, self-help never promises to fix everything.”

But that’s not how we teach it or live it out in America.

We evangelize self-help as salvation. The much quoted/much maligned “pick-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps” is the end result of a culture that places heavy expectations on what you can do on your own, and specifically as a means to explicitly call against systemic change that may dare to entitle someone to something they may or may not deserve. 

Here’s a self-help meets systemic failure parable: Chase Bank’s Twitter account tweeted some #MondayMotivation self-help chastising customers to grow their bank accounts by making their coffee at home and not eating out. Meanwhile, many critics noted, Chase received billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded bailout money while everyday workers struggle with living costs up while wages stay stagnant. 

In the American church, this self-help means-of-grace leads us down a path where our preaching and teaching becomes so narrow that it carries no real power or risk. 

I’ve sat through multiple sermons about how the power of Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega, Lord and Savior, helps you not yell at drivers on the road. I mean, road rage is real, and our lives would better if we learned self-help techniques concerning this. But why do our sermons concentrate on these moments, and specifically on these moments in lieu of speaking to our gravest, relevant problems on earth, in ways beyond echoing our preferred news talking heads? Or does the One To Whom Every Knee Shall Bend have nothing unique to say about this? Can our churches offer more than glorified self-help seminars to make sure we become well-balanced good middle-class consumers who know how to make good motivational lists?

I want to be clear. I’m not against self-help motivation or financial literacy or focusing on individual self-help. I as a pastor have preached as such, and helped build programs in churches that do as much. I know people who aspire to teach, for example, financial literacy in black and brown neighborhoods as part of their calling. 

And certainly, none of this is at all a knock on Breonna Taylor herself and her use and execution of these self-help, self-motivating techniques. It is great she made those lists, they do help your mind focus, they do empower her to make good choices in her life. But Breonna Taylor should also be alive because the people and leaders around her were “motivated” enough to see her as a human being not deserving of a death sentence for sleeping in her own bedroom.

And, as Anand Giridharadas points out, when you read the Times article in full, you see that it “details the way multiple system failures – in policing but also in our economy, drug laws, and beyond – conspire to constrict and steal Black lives.” Any self-help guru could try to sell the Breonna Taylors of the world that if only they made lists on their napkins, they could finally defeat the war on drugs and mass incarceration and the complexities of gentrification that engulfed her father and her mother and her ex-boyfriend and her neighborhood, all while being an EMT essential worker. But just read the article itself, which literally depicts Taylor’s brave, noble self-help efforts being met by the battering ram of the failing, oppressive systems around her.

Now, it is possible some of the white progressive Next Church audience may have been nodding their heads up to this point saying to themselves, “yeah! No individualized preaching! Systemic structural problems! We don’t preach and teach like that! Woo!”

So, first off, it’s not as simple as that. I suspect some of you could actually use some “Jesus helps you with road rage” individualistic sermons, because the church language you swim in is so generalized and so out of touch with the lives of ordinary, real, suffering lives that all you can do is be “political” – not in the true holistic sense of the word, but political in the sense of “this sermon sounds like you listened to NPR last night” or, perhaps more radically, “a nice paraphrase of the one paragraph of the Ibram X. Kendi article not behind The Atlantic paywall.”

More importantly, it is possible to do all this and still end up offering a pseudo-antiracist form of self-help individualism, where people have enough knowledge to self-actualize into a not-too-racist buzzword-wielding woke individual, but not enough wisdom to actually equip churches and congregants to make a communal impact and change racist policies and systems.

It turns out, then, we may all need a little self-help. But not in the ways we have been taught.

Reverend Chris Dela Cruz is the new Associate Pastor of Youth, Young Adults, and Community Engagement at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon. He has written for Next Church, Presbyterian Outlook, and other outlets. Prior to being an ordained pastor, he was a journalist for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

Chris writes about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life.

A Gracious and Tenacious Spirit Amidst My Cloud of Witnesses

by Rob Hammock

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, … consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. – Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV)

Coronatime’s weariness marches on into the fall and advances into the most polarizing presidential campaign I recall experiencing. There is so much noise to sift through on a day-to-day basis, it is exhausting to know where to focus and listen.

For those who can hear, listening ought to be as simple and reflexive as breathing. But in our current world, with enough auditory, visual, and other sensory inputs to easily overload us, discerning to whom or what we should listen is no easy task. Although written over 60 years ago, the words from the French sociologist and Christian, Jacques Ellul, ring no less true today:

“The individual can no longer live except in a climate of tension and overexcitement. [The individual] can no longer be a smiling skeptical spectator. [That person] is indeed ‘engaged,’ but involuntarily so, since [he/she] has ceased to dominate his own thoughts and actions.” ― The Technological Society

Whether it’s navigating emails, phone calls, texts, push notifications, news channels, or web sites, involuntary over-excitement sums up the challenge I feel the need to lean into today. But where do I start? I have to make conscious, consistent decisions, otherwise the “cares of the world” in the Parable of the Sower will too easily “choke the word” as I am overwhelmed with the scope of voices vying for my attention. Thinking of the above verses from Hebrews, I am struck with the notion of being “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”. Who are the witnesses I can listen to and learn from?

I was struck most recently about this at the death of U.S. Representative John Lewis. I cannot remember the last time I teared up at the loss of a political leader, but upon hearing of his passing due to cancer, my lip began to quiver, and my eyes began to water. I had not expected this. Losing Chadwick Boseman in a similar manner just over a month later also hurts. Both African American men died of cancer in a time when their grace and dignity was greatly needed.

But I had only ever met John Lewis.

Over the years my work in affordable housing and community development finance has given me opportunity to visit Selma, Alabama. The first time I went, almost 20 years ago, was to be part of an event to support the Jonathan Daniels Community Development Corporation. Jonathan Daniels was a white, Episcopal seminarian who had been working on registering Black voters when he was gunned down by a local deputy in the adjacent Lowndes County. I had not known the story of him before that visit, but I was inspired by his sacrifice and grateful for his willingness to be proximate and risk his life. I was only a few years out of seminary myself, and I wondered whether I would have been so brave.

While in Selma for that event, I took the time to visit the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. I knew the broad history of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and I knew of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March to Montgomery that had started on March 21, 1965. But I had not yet known about John Lewis and Bloody Sunday, which occurred two weeks prior to that march and was five months before the death of Daniels.

The first march across Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 was led by Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and John Lewis, the 25-year old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). With 600 others they marched through Selma and across the bridge only to be met by state troopers and local law enforcement. When they would not disperse, the peaceful marchers were met with a merciless onslaught of billy clubs and tear gas. John Lewis was among the wounded with a fractured skull. Although “Bloody Sunday” was a shock that helped propel the nation to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, that was not the first time that John Lewis had willingly put himself in harm’s way. By the time of that march he had already been arrested dozens of times and beaten on multiple occasions.

I lived in Atlanta for almost 10 years after my first trip to Selma. And I was proud and honored that I had the opportunity to cast my vote for John Lewis as my representative, but it was not until 2019, after I had moved away, that I met him. My 16-year old son and I were on a trip to Atlanta for a weekend of sporting events. In between the football and baseball, we went to the Decatur Book Festival. Strolling along Ponce de Leon Avenue on a Sunday afternoon, I see two older African American men slowly walking in front of us in suits on a hot September day. I see them stop and talk to a couple of other festival attendees, when I realized that the slighter of the men was John Lewis. I quickly told my son and told him I wanted to go talk to him. With a giddiness for the opportunity, I walked up and introduced us and thanked him for his service. Then, I did the most touristy of things – I asked for a selfie. He obliged. I don’t know what I expected beforehand, but I was struck by how utterly gracious and friendly he was in our brief encounter. His gentle, humble spirit belied the fierce tenacious spirit that had endured imprisonment and beatings. From whatever deep reservoir of faith he drew upon, I walked away thinking and feeling that this was a man I need to know and understand better, even more so than I had before.

Amidst the voices that clamor for my attention, I know I need to intentionally focus on those people that bear witness to the work of God. And when I am confused as to whose faithful voice I should listen, I look for those who have demonstrated in practice what it means to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God as my own “cloud of witnesses”. And when I think of John Lewis and the hostility he drew and bore; it gives me hope and courage to “not grow weary or lose heart”. May I listen to his story and learn better so that I may indeed be present and available for “good trouble”.

Robert Hammock recently rolled off of the Session after a 3-year term at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Although trained at Princeton Theological Seminary (MDIV), the last 20 years of his career have been focused on affordable housing and community development efforts, primarily in urban contexts. He remains active in a leadership role through his church’s development of affordable housing through the re-purposing of part of its campus.

Rob is also a part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and his writing focuses on faith, ministry, and community development.