For a People Mourning Anticipating Advent

by Rob Hammock

As I thought about ways to wrap up my contribution to this blogging series, it seemed ironic to me that the liturgical calendar would bring us back again to a season of anticipation. My first blog post was anticipating the spirit’s coming at Pentecost, and now we enter the season of Advent and the anticipation of the coming Christ child. Six months ago, I desired to share stories of encounter with Jesus that told of my own experiences of growth, understanding, and humility. With Advent as a bookend to my blogs, the liturgical calendar seemed to be setting up serendipitously as we moved into the season of lighted candles representing the anticipation of hope, faith, joy, and peace. The opportunity to place a nice bow on my series of blogs would make for a neat Christmas present into what is often a season of pageantry. And, as wonderful as it would be to have a nice “Hallmark” moment in this year that feels like a decade, I can’t wrap that bow. I can’t enter into a season of false sentimentality of easy hope, faith, joy, and peace. 2020 just won’t let me.

Here in the United States, with the seeming end of the presidential election season and the promise of multiple vaccines, I was more than ready to be a drum major for hope into 2021 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic we have all been enduring. But another unexpected moment in the life of my home congregation in 2020 makes easy sentimentality impossible. As I write today, we lost another one of our own. He was an elder, a choir member, a faithful follower, and my brother in Christ. And we do not yet know why. Under any circumstances, this would be a blow and a terrible loss. But, for our congregation of nearly 300, which intentionally desires to be a diverse body of faithful believers, this one was especially hard. This marked the third African American member of our community we have lost this year. All have been thoroughly beloved and important parts of our congregation that have helped us understand who we are and who we yet need to be as the people of God. We lost one to cancer, one to a senseless murder, and one to as of yet unknown causes. My grief is heavy and angry.

The words of Psalm 13:1-2 are on my heart and mind, and I imagine on those of my fellow church members:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

With every ounce of my being I want to jump to the end of the Psalm and share the hope and promise of God’s goodness (verses 5-6):

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

But I’m just not there. The anger, the bitterness, the frustration – they are all too palpable. How can I look forward to Advent?

For the moment I take solace in the words of a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would later come to know what faithfulness meant in the face of great evil when killed by Hitler’s regime:

The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. (Preached on 12/2/1928 and found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons.)

In the face of uncertainty of COVID-19, fears of job loss, fears of eviction, and now another untimely and tragic death, “troubled in soul” fits quite well right now for me and my fellow congregants. We long, plead, and cry for “something greater to come”. Knowing the suffering and challenges that have been with us all this year surrounding COVID-19 and racial injustice, I know we are not alone.

So, as I enter into this anticipatory season of Advent, I am yearning once again for encounter with Jesus. I am longing not for false sentimentality. I am desiring of an intentional living into hope, faith, joy, and peace amidst a world that seems to fight against them. And I take some strength from what may come in the words of the African American theologian Howard Thurman as I long for Jesus:

Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes
And the heart consumes itself as if it would live,
Where children age before their time
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
In you, in me, in all [human]kind.
(Christmas is Waiting to be Born, The Mood of Christmas &
Other Celebrations, 1985)

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.

Refugees and the Practice of Everyday Resistance

by Rafael Vallejo, Ph.D.

“We are here because you destroy our countries!”
– Caravan for Rights of Refugees and Migrants, Germany 2007

James Scott proposed the idea of “everyday resistance” in his book Weapons of the Weak (1985). He used the term to refer to subtle, informal acts of personal and collective resistance, that is different from large-scale, formal organized efforts. Since then, there has been an abundance of scholarship devoted to conceptualizing resistance and creating typologies for it. Most of the definitions suggest that resistance is relational, as well as oppositional. It is carried out in relation to power (Hollander and Einwohner, 2004).

In previous blogs, I have argued that relations of power are inscribed in the liminal spaces where refugees live. Bhabha (1994) refers to these liminal spaces of uncertainty and ambiguity as a “third space” created and populated by the marginalized. (Note: This also describes the USA as I am writing this piece in November 2020.)

In today’s blog we explore how refugees enact everyday resistance in these spaces. I have put together two narratives from the struggle of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and the Saharawis of Western Sahara.

Palestinian refugees and Sumud

The Nakba is how Palestinians describe the great catastrophe of 1948 when the State of Israel was created. This event in their history led to the displacement and creation of Palestinian refugees. Today in the occupied territories and refugee camps in Lebanon, sumud is the word that symbolizes their everyday resistance. The word has been translated into English as steadfastness, resolve, and persistence. To live as a refugee, to assert that one is Palestinian, to endure and sacrifice against all odds is sumud. Refugees singing, dancing and displaying cultural / religious symbols (flag, maps, posters, graffiti) are expressions of sumud.

It is through these acts that Palestinian refugees assert their agency as political actors resisting the stereotype that they are just bodies to be fed and sheltered. Staying alive, remaining in camp, having many children, expressing through one’s actions that refugees are not beings without agency and that life must go on no matter what, are all expressions of sumud. Like the olive trees that grace their landscape, sumud is deeply rooted in the Palestinian struggle against the occupation of their land.

The Saharawis and Frente Polisario

Another example of everyday resistance can be found among Saharawi refugees . After the 1975 occupation of their land by Morocco, the Saharawis fled and set up camps in neighboring Algeria. Morocco annexed their land at the end of the Spanish colonial rule in 1976. The international Court of Justice has ruled that Morocco has no legal rights over Western Sahara but the occupation continues up to the present day.

In spite of the harsh desert environment where the camps are located, the Saharawi have managed to create their own social organizations, schools and hospitals. Women in particular have had a significant role in administration, education and healthcare since most of the men serve in the army with Frente Polisario the national liberation movement that continues the struggle to end Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.

Even with very limited resources the Saharawi have created basic forms of governance, schools, clinics and a justice system with sharia judges. The camps are run by the refugees themselves with little interference from the state. Among the achievements in the last 30 years is literacy that has grown from 5% in the early days to about 90% at the present time. Many of their people can now read and write, and others have gone on to study in universities in Algeria and Cuba.

The resistance continues to this day with Africans and African countries standing in solidarity with the Saharawis and the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) who frame their struggle not just as the liberation of Western Sahara but the liberation of Africa.

Rafael Vallejo started his theological career at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and San Francisco Theological Seminary and from there continued on with a Master in Theological Studies from the University of Waterloo and a Master of Divinity at the University of Toronto. From 2011-2016, he travelled extensively and studied with indigenous communities in Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina as part of his PhD dissertation (2018) on “Faith Perspectives of Mexican Migrant Farm Workers in Canada”. He serves as affiliate faculty at the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Rafael is also part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and his pieces focus on the experience of refugees and mission. 


by Holly Haile Thompson

I honor Green Rainbow, Uncle Louis Mofsie, Ho-Chunk/Hopi; Teacher of Culture to many generations, whose songs and dances echo all around the world and who models for us a dignified Elder. Tabutne… While we mourn 1,160,000 human beings, the number of worldwide deaths caused by Covid-19, November 2020.

“Ken kup-pe-andam-ouch wunnannum-monat neg samp-shanon-cheg wame neetomp eog. I pray that you bless and guide those who lead. A-hau. Tabutne.”

– A Shinnecock prayer

During my final year of seminary we were asked to write our own obituary. I’ve never forgotten that exercise, nor the humbling feeling of seeing one’s own life reduced to 5 or 6 sentences. It was a stark reminder that ‘from dust we have come and to dust we shall return.’ What happens in the meantime, the events themselves and – most meaningfully for me – our response to these things hopefully constitutes a worthy epitaph.

The ways in which we will live out our ministry can be unforeseen in the midst of our training, but I learned from examples set by the likes of Bartolome de Las Casas, The Rev. Samson Occom, Dr. Vine Deloria, Jr. and The Rev Dr. Katie Cannon, what we commit to paper may be the most important thing we can do with the witness that is given us. During the times when I’ve been “between churches” my ministry didn’t strictly reflect that for which I’d been trained, it manifested more copiously and broadly but with much less security and much more uncertainty; that freedom meant I was often unable to feed and house my family, yet that freedom offered me the undeniable opportunity to preach as if I weren’t worried about losing my job – and to do so far and wide.

How blessed are the poor – and the meek? How blessed are those who mourn and who go without? Are they cowered? Or are they emboldened to seek justice for their kindred? Must they be satisfied with a promised grand-reversal theology or might they be empowered to help usher in a divine corrective among the economically and politically disenfranchised? The five ‘wise and pious’ were unwilling to share their oil with the other five devout… yet those who refused to share were rewarded; the enslaved individuals were promoted or penalized by mimicking (or not) the questionable business practices of their Master. The goats’ calculated implementation of mercy has landed them in dire straits, while if a disciple’s understanding of ‘salvation’ doesn’t have them on sentry duty then outer-darkness may be in their future; this month’s lectionary includes Matthew 25, the hope of the PCUSA.

Several of my Native American colleagues suggested that each of us reflect upon Matthew 25 from our Indigenous perspectives, an exercise I enjoyed.

This is the 400th anniversary of the landing of the English refugees on Wampanoag land in what is now Massachusetts; 20 years hence other English arrived in the land of the Shinnecock where they were welcomed, fed, sheltered and provided with a place to live where they could hide from the Dutch who pursued them on the shores of Long Island. Surely this is the kind of discipleship and hospitality of which the Good News speaks, and obviously it wasn’t news to Nowedonah the Chief of the Shinnecocks at that time. In spite of his having traveled to Connecticut in 1637 to see first-hand the result of the massacre of the Pequot village led by Captain John Mason, our people “ministered to” the early strangers who almost immediately penned the first Deed forever dispossessing us of ‘Olde Towne’ in Shinnecock Territory.

So one Native American interpretation of the meaning of Matthew 25 is, and I paraphrase:

  • do what you were doing before the Whites came and stole your land, built fences, outlawed your spiritual practices and your language, polluted your water, began ‘family separation’ by taking children from their relatives and sending them off to Carlisle and Thomas – Residential/Boarding Schools to endure all manner of violence against their bodies, minds and against their culture, and
  • remember that we are Caretakers of our Mother the Earth, continue to practice hospitality and maintain your matrilineal and egalitarian societies wherein everyone eats when the whale is hunted, and
  • every Tribal Nation has woodland and waterfront that hunting and fishing is respected in each territory. and
  • beware of those who would prevent you from, “…being a free [person], free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my [parents], free to talk, think and act for myself”, as Chief Joseph eloquently stated

My Shinnecock reflection on Matthew 25 also requires the smallest observation of the place that punishment and punitive threats seems to play in the whole darn thing – “You did what!?!? Then damn you forever.” “You didn’t do what!?!?” Then damn you forever – again.

It takes nothing from me to declare to all of my siblings, Black Lives Matter; I speak against no one. It takes very little from me to occasionally recommit to walking with the PCUSA – even as they are among the last of the major protestant denominations to study, repudiate and discontinue the deadly, heretical, and inherently violent characteristics of the Doctrine of Discovery. This international doctrine of Christian domination wrongly codifies false religious/spiritual superiority, European and White privilege, justified the enslavement of human beings and murder; justified theft of land, water, timber, minerals, and murder; it justified centuries of family separation and, apparently, provides a lasting license to claim “humble-sheep” status among a world of wicked goats.

How much will engaging the world as a church newly committed to addressing and ending systemic racism, addressing and ending poverty bring a new vitality to our congregations, families and communities? It is exciting to know that we might build a new society that truly remembers how to include, respect and honor all of God’s children. This is all I have to say. Tabutne.

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.

Welcome to the Future

by Catherine Neelly Burton

I began this blog series with a working hypothesis: I live in the future of the PCUSA. What’s happening in southern Kansas is where the national church is headed. My conversations over the last five months haven’t entirely proven this as true, but there’s more data to support my hypothesis.

Between 2014 and 2019, the Presbytery of Southern Kansas declined in total membership by 25%. In that same period these presbyteries based in large metropolitan areas declined as well:

  • Mid-Kentucky (Louisville) – 20% decline
  • Heartland (Kansas City) – 17% decline
  • Charlotte – 11% decline
  • Greater Atlanta – 10% decline

I did not contact every presbytery in the PCUSA, but of the ones I contacted, none are growing. Yet, there is still this myth that success equals growth. This myth is particularly detrimental to our rural communities. We know that every year fewer and fewer Americans go to church. If churches in growing cities are in decline, our small shrinking communities have almost no chance by the metric of growth.

In 2009 the PCUSA launched the “For Such a Time as This Initiative.” This program took applicants through at least 2013. According to PCUSA literature the program was “designed to renew and grow small churches and help them to become healthy, missional congregations. The program pairs small, underserved congregations in rural, small town and urban settings with recent seminary graduates for a two-year pastoral-residency relationship, during which they are supported and guided by a cluster of pastor-mentors.”

On one hand I applaud this initiative because the PCUSA tried something new and creative. On the other hand, anyone who looked at the data for rural churches from the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s could have told you that numerical growth in churches in rural and small towns was nearly impossible. This initiative frustrated me because it set churches and pastors up for failure. I’m sure good things came from this initiative, but in the end, the church in my presbytery that had this program was back where it started and maybe even more defeated.

I appreciate the shift in conversation that our national church has made from growth to vitality with the Vital Congregations Initiative, but we’re way behind. The initiative will benefit the churches that participate, those with presbyteries who could staff the initiative. In general though, I think we’re headed for four distinct church models. My hypothesis continues.

The first model is that of the called and installed pastor. It will continue for churches that can afford it. As more and more urban congregations shrink, they’ll move to part time or bi-vocational models for pastoral leadership but (likely) still expect the same work out of their pastors. Because a lot of pastors choose to live in urban areas (for good reasons such as jobs for spouses and community) they’ll (likely) keep doing the work. The Board of Pensions recognizes this and is doing more for part-time pastors. This part-time or bi-vocational structure is model two and is what we’ll continue to see in big cities where there are more pastors than available calls.

In smaller cities, like Wichita, those churches that might get a part time pastor in a larger city like Atlanta, will close. We closed five churches in the city of Wichita between 2014 and 2019. This is model three, let the churches die. It happens in cities, towns, and rural communities.

My hope is that other cities and towns like Wichita, without seminaries or big draws for pastors, will fall into model four. Model four is let the people lead the churches. Several of the churches I got to know in this blog series are doing model four.

There aren’t a lot of pastors interested in moving to small Midwestern towns to be, perhaps, a congregation’s last full-time installed pastor. I don’t blame them. I don’t want that. I serve a church with an amazing staff in a lovely small city. My husband’s vocation means we’ll never live in a rural community. I’m not pointing fingers.

If these small and/or rural churches won’t have full-time installed pastors, what’s left? What’s left are the people, the people of God. What’s left are the people in Chase, KS, who supplement monthly food for 20% of their town. What’s left are commissioned ruling elders who figure out how to get trained despite no guidance and manage to capably lead congregations. What’s left are churches who band together to share resources and serve their communities. What’s left are the people who pray for one another and learn to preach and lead worship.

We don’t lack motivated, called people who love Jesus. We lack care about God’s people who live in small towns and rural communities. Fortunately, many of them haven’t waited for permission from the PCUSA, or presbyteries, or big churches. They’ve gone forward to be the church. With a little help, more could do the same and could teach the rest of us. Otherwise, we are the ones who get left behind.

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. 

Refugees in Liminal Spaces

by Rafael Vallejo, Ph.D.

Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it – Gen 28:16

In this blog we shall unpack the concept of liminality as it relates to mission and migration. Liminality is a concept first developed by Arnold Van Gennep in his book Les Rites de Passage in 1908. In 1969, Victor Turner expanded it and attached the idea of communitas to it. Turner believed that religion was key to understanding culture as ritual is key to understanding religion.

Liminal spaces according to these authors are generally marked by uncertainty and instability. In this series of blogs, I argue that liminality describes the experience of refugees living in camps, detention centers, and border-crossings. Here, they navigate between “what was” and “what is,” and struggle between “what is” and “what will be.” For refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers, resistance is bound up with place as well as time.

I write this piece at a liminal time when the world continues to wrestle with the impacts of the Covid-19 Global Health Pandemic. I am guessing that Van Gennep, were he alive today, would have described this liminal time as a global “rite of passage.”

Victor Turner associated liminality with communitas which he described as a feeling of kinship with others that comes from shared experiences. Refugees feel it in their common experience of loss, suffering, fragility, and violence (eg war, conflict) while in search of a better life. All of these liminal experiences happen within the context of displacement, diaspora, and for some, the constant threat of incarceration/deportation. I have therefore found liminality as a useful theoretical framework for describing the migrant/refugee experience.

I propose that in these liminal spaces marked by insecurity, uncertainty, and vulnerability refugees as “liminars” are performing what theologians refer to as Missio Dei or “The Mission of God.” Our understanding of Mission will not be complete without listening to the experiences of refugees and the many challenges they face in their communities of origin, transit and destination. I believe that the God is involved, connected and present among them in these liminal spaces.

Living in Liminal Spaces

Some scholars today challenge stereotypical portrayals of refugees as passive bodies, lacking political voice and agency (Nyers, 2006) while dependent on humanitarian groups to sustain their bodies. Let me share some examples of how refugees resist this kind of representation and how mission is enacted in some of these liminal spaces. Jonathan from DR Congo started his own community radio station in Nyarugusu, the largest refugee camp in the world located in Tanzania. Starting from just a small transmitter, he goes around the camp and then has a daily broadcast of what he hears from residents. Today he works out of a radio station (Radio Umoja : which means “unity” in Swahili) and his broadcasts reach places from Norway to the Americas. “Radio Umoja is independent. It belongs to the refugees,” says Jonathan.

Another example. In the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the biggest camp in the world for Syrian refugees, everyday Ali Jibrail and his staff serve up to 7,500 falafels on the main street that refugees have renamed Hamadiyah to remind them of their largest market back home in Damascus. Everyday, Muhamad works from early morning till 9:00 in the evening mashing chickpeas and carefully weighing and mixing spices to make these delicious falafels.

In these liminal spaces, everyday resistance is one of the ways refugees reclaim agency and engage oppression. These acts of resistance have been described as “world-making” (Tsianos and Papadopoulos). They need not necessarily take the form of mass protests and civil uprisings. James Scott (1984) calls them “the weapons of the weak.” Etienne Balibar categorizes the migrants struggle as the new apartheid.

A cartography of migrant struggles worldwide includes movements for “the right to flee,” “the right to stay,” and “move freely.” In Sept 2016, hundreds of thousands of migrants demanded the right to cross borders. According to one report they came with “unexpected numbers and unbelievable strength.” Blocked in Budapest, many of them marched for days to reach Austria and then Germany by foot. Others went all the way to Sweden. They boarded trains and braved razor-wire fences and camped on city squares.

These collective, leaderless uprisings raised their voices and visibility around the world. They became a “multitude,” collectives of social subjects who gesture us towards counter-empire, an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 15) In the future, as more people listen and act, maybe new perspectives and structures will begin to emerge.

Excluded from citizenship, they enact citizenship rights and prefigure post-national visions on their own on a daily basis. They offer new knowledge and practices that subvert our neo-liberal politics. They offer “common sense” (Gramsci) a form of everyday thinking that offers us frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of our world.

Borders along with high-tech surveillance systems have not stopped migrants from looking for a better life for themselves and their families. Along with the rest of us, they believe that another world is coming our way. For me their struggle continues to be a sign of the “already present” and “not yet here” realm of God.

Rafael Vallejo started his theological career at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and San Francisco Theological Seminary and from there continued on with a Master in Theological Studies from the University of Waterloo and a Master of Divinity at the University of Toronto. From 2011-2016, he travelled extensively and studied with indigenous communities in Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina as part of his PhD dissertation (2018) on “Faith Perspectives of Mexican Migrant Farm Workers in Canada”. He serves as affiliate faculty at the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Rafael is also part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and his pieces focus on the experience of refugees and mission.