From My Neighborhood in Minneapolis

by Heidi Vardeman

I am writing this from my home in Minneapolis, half a mile from the Third Precinct police station that burned on Tuesday night and a block from a neighborhood bar that is still smoldering.  Military helicopters fly close overhead.  The air smells of tear gas and smoke. Images swirl in my head.  Guilt weighs heavily on my heart.   I worry about where we go from here.  

Images, sounds, smells—Day #1 The horrible video of George Floyd’s murder.  His black body face down on the pavement, his neck crushed by a white cop’s knee.  For eight minutes and 46 seconds. The policeman stares at the camera with a terrifying calm. Other cops press down on his body.  We watch George Floyd die. 

Day #2:   The Third Precinct building goes up in fire. Protesters heave shopping carts into the conflagration.  The crowd chants, “No justice.  No peace.” Over and over again.  Sirens, shouts, smoke, teargas, gunshots. 

Day #3:   Looted buildings, including a public library, health clinic, charter school, a Wendy’s and a Target, two grocery stores, countless small minority-owned businesses on Lake Street.   Sirens and helicopters. 

Day #4: In the daytime, people wearing masks walk by our house with brooms and garbage cans to help with the cleanup.  Late at night a car without license plates drives slowly down the same street. White supremacist websites have called for people to come to Minneapolis.

Feelings–I am tired, teary and have a strong sense of guilt. I and my fellow white Minneapolitans know that the Minneapolis Police Department is racist. We have known for years that there are white supremacist elements in the police, but since it did not inconvenience us, we did little if anything at all.  Despite Minneapolis’ liberal reputation and self-congratulatory self-image, there is a terrible racial gap in education, health care and home ownership. My neighbor, who is African-American and about my age, tells me he is bone weary of this bullshit that has gone on and on and on.

As my emotions swirl about, today I recognize a new element in the mix of things: a feeling of fear.  Late last night I watched a car stripped of license plates drive slowly down my street. Authorities tell us that bottles with accelerant are being stashed in alleys in order to set fires.  As I note this feeling of fear for  my personal safety, I wonder:  is this how my black and brown neighbors feel whenever the police drive slowly down their streets? 

Where do we go from here?  One police officer has been  arrested and charged with the murder of George Floyd, but what of the others?   No justice, no peace: no peace in the irenic sense of peace and quiet nor in the biblical sense of justice and well-being.  Jesus wept over Jerusalem.  Today we weep over Minneapolis.  

I don’t know where we go from here, but I do know that we can begin to make a start with prayer.  

Gracious God, help us white people in Minneapolis to go beyond superficial clean ups and food drives to pause, to ponder, to examine our political and economic structures and our complicity in their brutality and inequality.  Help us not to be distracted by fear for our personal safety and selfish interests, for you are our refuge and strength, our very present help in trouble.  Keep us focused on what started this mess:  the sin of racism in both its systemic and individual manifestations.  Deliver us from our blindness to white privilege and our easy toleration of discrimination and inequality. Wipe us clean of our sin so that we may be made fresh and new—today, and then again tomorrow, and again and again. we have left undone so many things that we ought to have done.  Ever cognizant that we will again fall into easy racism, strengthen us in our endeavors, inspire us with your spirit and gird us with your hope. 

Forgive us for our complicity in the death of George Floyd and the murderous brutality of the Minneapolis police.  

In the name of Jesus Christ we pray.

Amen. 


Over the course of her 40+ years in ministry, Heidi Vardeman has served Latino, African-American, and white congregations in the Northeast, South, and Midwest, ranging widely in size and economic standing. She has also done faith-based justice work both in D.C. where she was a national executive for United Methodists lobbying for peace during the Reagan administration and in Tampa, where she helped found the Tampa AIDS Network during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Additionally, she has done doctoral work both in speech communications and theology. She currently serves a tiny church in the suburbs of Minneapolis that nearly closed due to conflict prior to her arrival. The grandmother of three and the mother of two grown daughters, Heidi lives with her husband Frank and his service dog Zest in a diverse urban neighborhood of Minneapolis in a very old house that is always falling apart. Her hair is often highlighted with grout, plumbers putty or paint.

Heidi is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and her writing generally focuses on how our religious tradition (Reformed Christianity) is relevant in a postmodern/post-Constantinian world. 

In the merry month of May…

by Holly Haile Thompson

“Wunneshauwanitoomoh – to all that is beautiful – Spirit of God” – Shinnecock Prayer

Mrs. Vicky Tarrant, Hidatsa from Fort Berthold; mother, grandmother, beloved; our hearts are broken. She and more than 200,000 people around the world have recently died from the Covid-19 virus. As our minds try to accept all that is going on in our world, in our families and in our lives – it is not the ‘merry month of May’ we might have anticipated 6
months ago.

The Revised Common Lectionary shows us the Gospel of John – with readings from chapters 10, 14, 17 and 20 – calling for an exclusive and excluding Divine Care? No, that would not only paint a narrow-sighted manifestation of the
Holy, and it too easily lends itself to misappropriation by the likes of Crusaders, anti-Semites, religious zealots – and those who see nothing wrong with cultivating what Dr. John Dominic Crossan identifies as the “genocidal germ” inherent in fundamentalism – and in other modes of ferocious self-righteousness.

A pandemic seems to be an ideal time to broaden our reflection; an ideal time to seek and to share in promoting various ways to care for one another. Sadly, it is also crucially necessary in this time to share ways in which to mourn all whom we must surrender to a most unexpected death – there has been and shall yet be lives and dear ones lost to this disease. Although John’s gospel expresses ‘farewell’ discourses this month, we do well to remember that we are not alone – in this world, even in this time of sickness or weakness. Making phone calls, writing letters and e-mails to ‘visit’
with those from whom we are separated; enabling young people to be OK even in the midst of the unknown, and to be OK with envisioning more than one alternative plan for their immediate future while showing them appreciation for
helping the elders in their families and in their neighborhoods. Continuing our justice work – by serving those whose suffering is due to – and is increased manifold by – this virus.

The John passages will show us cowering disciples, and we might well see ourselves trembling at what-all goes on round about us just now – but ‘fear not’ the divinity and holiness of Spirit is with those who tremble, not fearful but
empowering us to be creative beings, in the self-same image of our loving Creator.

Memorial Day – I’m aged enough to have grown up with old-folk who called the national holiday at the close of May “Decoration Day” – it is always a remembrance, the reading of the Honor Roll, decorating graves with flags and flowers, and generally honoring those who have, mostly, died too soon amid the conflicts and war zones that patriotism demanded. But this year, might we broaden our focus, and create a Memorial Day – dedicated to those now gone due to this illness, and strongly representing our commitment to caring for the living who are hurting, by caring for and remembering all those who have in these months lost their dearest loved ones, and who are grieving so deeply. Might we memorialize – not for embattlements, national or political enlistment, but to allow for all of us together to reclaim this ‘In Memoriam 2020’ and create a way to truly honor also those whom we could not memorialize with wakes and funerals – for it was not within our reach to do so. Strength, hope and honoring those now gone – and those now surviving – that is within our reach.

Inasmuch as we are not ‘waiting’ for the world to return to what it was several months ago, let us find ourselves ‘creating’ for newness; not waiting but creating mutuality in the struggles of societal division, of poverty, of racism, of classism, of ‘war-ism’, of the violence that has now visited millions of our neighbors in new and fierce circumstances. May we humbly recognize ourselves in each other, and take steps to walk new roads of love, and peace, and
health.


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.

Longing for Stories of Encounter

by Rob Hammock

“They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” – Luke 24:32 (NRSV)

In a time beset by social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and one too many Zoom meetings, I long for stories. Not just on Netflix or Amazon Prime as I search for yet another show to binge watch to fill up the time. Even my 4th trip through the series “The Wire” feels stale, despite how much I love its depth and complexity! No, I long for times of the not too distant past calling me back to a sense of humanity that now lays dormant. I mourn our inability to come together and laugh, love, grieve, and comfort each other as we are hampered by this insidious invisible virus.

Certainly, we can come together via social media, conference calls, and appropriately distanced in-person encounters. And yet, this virus, hanging in the air, lingering, waiting for an opportunity, is there to keep us separate. We can attempt to overcome the gap, but prudence and our medical professionals say only so far. There is a “not yet” quality present as we patiently, fearfully, and hopefully wait for what’s next. The fullness of our humanity longs to regroup and reconnect.

As this blogging cohort begins in a season of Eastertide, I am struck by our present reality of a “not yet” time. Just as Luke tells us that Jesus appeared first to the women, then those along the Emmaus Road, and then to the Twelve, they are told to wait for the Spirit.

I think of the disciples and followers gathered in those pre-Pentecost days with a budding sense of the life-altering importance of the resurrection. What did they wonder, experience, fear, and hope in that “not yet” place”? What do we wonder, experience, fear, and hope in our “not yet” place?

In our own time of expectant uncertainty, I know I long for a concrete reminder of my own past for fear that I forget who I am in this upended world. I look back in the archives of my own life for those inspiring and energizing events that point to a path of hope. But I know I often feel that I am the disciple whose seed was sown amongst the thorns and the cares of the world come choking (Matthew 13:7 & 22).

As they waited, I imagine Jesus’ followers looked back too for some further understanding. Sure, they looked back to the prophets and scriptures for clarity, just as Jesus had taught them. But what I imagine they desired and longed for were stories of encounter like when their hearts beat expectantly within along the Emmaus Road as Jesus walked with them.

In this time of stay-at-home distancing in the season of Eastertide, as we knowingly await the spirit to be unleashed at Pentecost, I ask you to journey along with me as I explore my own stories of encounter that energize me, remind me who I am, and solidify whose I am. My stories and path have led me on a life-long journey to work on community development and affordable housing issues, and the stories I intend to share will revolve around those themes. However, more than that, what I want to explore are the faith-forming memories that have shaped my journey as I seek “…to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly ….” (Micah 6:8). As I journey along my hope is that you may identify your own stories of encounter to hold close, gird you up, and bring you strength and hope. And, as we share and chew on our encounter stories together, may we be willing to use them as guideposts to see if we are still aligned today with the one who encountered us and longs to encounter us still as we emerge from our “not yet” world.


Robert Hammock is Ruling Elder at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Although seminary-trained, the last 20 years of his career have primarily have been focused on affordable housing and community development efforts, primarily in urban contexts. He recently rolled off of his Session after a 3 year term, but during his time on the Session, he chaired the Christian Formation Committee and Co-Chaired our Discovery and Engagement Committee. The former was focused primarily on child and youth faith development whereas the latter was focused on congregational innovation to better engage people at the church. He remains currently active in a leadership role through his church’s development of affordable housing through the re-purposing of part of their campus.

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

God and My Journey

by Victoria Barner

Question: Can you find yourself in my story?

I was nine years old when I first got acquainted with the term “Christian.” Used to going to a cathedral for a church, attending church in an ordinary old building with a married white woman serving as the “priest,” was very novel to me. People joyfully singing worship songs and telling stories about how the Lord Jesus had helped them in their daily lives were all alien to me, yet got me curious and interested. It was also the first time that I heard about Jesus and that He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life (whatever that meant). My mother and I had always been devotees of the Mother of Perpetual Help. It was to her that we came whenever we needed help. This new church taught us that it was to Jesus that we should come because He is God. And, very important to my young mind, was the lesson to say “in Jesus’ name,” whenever I was afraid.

My favorite new experience was Sunday School. I liked our very animated teacher, so I always looked forward to Sunday School. The biblical characters excited me like they were my new kind of superheroes.

Unfortunately, not too long afterwards, my father bought a piece of land and transplanted us from a metropolitan city to a virgin forest. Our little hut was in a little clearing and there were lots of big monkeys, big birds, and huge trees. There were no neighbors, and there were no other children to play with. My siblings and I (all seven of us) learned to play with one another.

Photo by Jenny Caywood on Unsplash

Our father was scarcely home as he was a local businessman who traveled a lot. We had no house help, so, despite my young age, I became the housemaid. Mother was not the loving mother like those portrayed on TV. She was very strict and very mean – verbally and physically.

Early in life, I thirsted for love. I thirsted for the God that that new church cared for us. But I didn’t know how I could reach Him. My exposure to that strange church was very short. I longed to find Him and wished that I knew where to start my quest. But, alas, I was just a little girl, and a pushover at that.

Tragedy came early. My parents separated and a 12-year-old sibling died. My mother left us taking only her youngest child with her. Father took us back to the big city.

Fast forward – I was 16 years old and was now about to graduate from high school. High school was no fun, as far as my social life was concerned. Extremely shy and easily intimated, I was an easy prey for bullies, even in the Christian school I was attending. My parents’ separation was a big scandal. People in church talked about us even within our hearing distance. As a result, I had no close friends. I buried myself in books and always turned to God for comfort. Early on, my father had asked me to memorize Psalm 23 and to this day, it is my favorite passage.

“I would like to be a lawyer or a journalist,” I told my teachers, who, by the way, were very nice to me. But God seemed to have another plan. One night, Jesus visited me in a dream. I did not see His face, but for some strange reason, I knew it was Him. I was lying on my bed when He came and told me to follow Him. I did. We came to a hill teeming with people coming from different nations. Then He gestured towards them and said to me, “Preach the Word!”

I woke up pondering the dream in my heart. It was more because Jesus visited me in my dream that I felt some kind of awe, but I did not share it with anyone. I worried they might think I’m being “holier-than-thou.” And I did not put any weight on what He said. It was just a dream, after all.

“Your dad told us you’re going to be a pastor! You’d make a good pastor,” many of my dad’s church friends started telling me.

My dad wanted my older brother to be an electrical engineer, but he wanted me to be just a pastor without even asking me if I wanted to be one. I was so mad! It was favoritism at its worst, was how I looked at it.

What do you think?


Victoria Barner is a Commissioned Lay Pastor. She graduated with her M.Div from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2014, but because she still works full time, she has not been able to complete the Clinical Pastoral Education requirement for ordination in the PC(USA). She says that that’s okay because it keeps her humble. Currently, she works as an Executive Assistant to the Director of Information Technology Department of the City of Costa Mesa, California.

Victoria is also a part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on the personal God. 

Apologia III: a prose poem on the very nature of faith

by Gary Swaim

I am pleased to briefly introduce myself, one of several newly selected bloggers for NEXT Church. Sadly, I have been able to attend only one NEXT Church National Gathering, in Minneapolis. I was greatly impressed with the spirit and content of the meeting, immediately locked into later activities of the organization and am hopeful I can present evocative thinking for your consideration. That is my role. I will do my best, knowing that I should not expect complete agreement. We are many in number, each different than the other, yet one (I trust) in essential purpose. My theme addresses one of my significant interests and experiences: The Arts and Their Insufficient Recognition/Utilization. And, by the way, I am Gary D. Swaim, Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Philosophy, 85 years of age still teaching currently at S.M.U. in Dallas and a Ruling Elder at the Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church of Dallas. And, I prefer to be called Gary. Below, please join me in the careful reading of a fantasy I have written for the first of my blogs, in the form of a Prose Poem and one of my paintings of years past (but painted for the ever-present).


Prelude

No pretenses. No veil draping my face to separate me from you, you from me. Each word spoken, seen or heard by you, will be more than merely a word. It will be the stumbling of my Self, trying to weave threads, strand by strand, word by word, into the fabric of whole cloth, a shawl worthy to be worn about the shoulders of any who might need warmth. No pretenses, only bumbling efforts to braid difficult syllables together, for your understanding and mine.

 

Of God

I feel the fool speaking of God, and yet, I breathe this one I’ve learned to call God, every day. You see, I am a Job and a Thomas, a Peter and a Paul. I am, no doubt, a doubter, and I am doubtless a believer. I find myself lying in the philosophical bed next to Kierkegaard, and as I toss about sleeplessly, I hear him saying out of his depth of sleep, “It’s foolish to speak of God. No one can speak of the Wholly Other.” And, yet, he continues through the night, talking of this God, using the only thoughts available to him –human thoughts, struggling to place arms around a being untouched, untouchable, yet whom he loves. In the darkness of his sleep, he both lifts his arms to the sky where he thinks his God must reside and laughs aloud at his foolishness for the gesture. I am Job. I am Thomas. I am Peter. I am Paul.

I don’t think I can speak of God knowingly. I do not know God’s gender or if there is such a thing as gender in the place of God. I don’t know God’s latitude or longitude or if my God is a spatial being. I’m sailing a sea, expecting to fall from the earth’s surface when I reach the horizon. I’m lost. I cannot speak of God knowingly.

The shawl I weave as I sail unravels. And, so, I speak of the Wholly Other in faith, assigning to God’s being — Love, Mercy, and Justice, attributes I want my God to have in a world too often filled with Hate, Reprisal, and Injustice. I cannot speak of God knowingly, but I can and do believe.

 

“Crux”, original painting by Gary Swaim

Of Jesus

As I quietly begin reweaving my shawl, I see Jesus. It is He who offers me calmness and increased understanding, as should be so. The weaving, after all, takes a more substantive shape, one I begin to recognize. It has the face of a child which grows into the face of a man, a complexion most unlike my own, and it (he?) speaks a language I cannot comprehend. Yet, I understand, and though I have only suggestive evidence of his walking this earth, I believe – even as I believe in a Sophocles I have never seen.

Of the numerous stories I know, it is the stories of Jesus touching the lives of those surrounding him, touching those whom no one else dared touch, those at the very edges of both life and death – it is these stories that have caused me to be whoever I am.

It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that he takes my unfinished shawl from my hands and places it around his shoulders, telling me, in his own moment of sorrow that it is enough that I believe. And as he returns to his disciples, I see him in the dark of night remove the shawl and place it over a shivering, fast-asleep Peter who would later deny Him. Jesus knew. I believe.

 

Of the Spirit (spiritus)

I begin a weaving again, this time for the sail on my little craft. It has navigated about this world for 72 years now and has grown old and thin, not unlike myself. As I weave each strand, one into or through the other, each seems to go its own uncharted way rather than the way I might have it go, as do my words when I speak of spiritus.

I am told that to name Spirit is to name the breath of God. And now, I must capture, with aimless words, the masked breath of a formless God. I continue weaving but tire, as I know no words and stop my weaving. Perhaps something to eat. I’ll try. The day is extraordinary. Large and small billowy clouds shape themselves into bananas and fish and monsters as my little skiff of a ship rides low in the waters. No wind blows, and my old sail flags itself in weariness about its diminutive mast. I will eat and rest and will not worry about the horizon, still in the distance. I will not worry today. The horizon will be there tomorrow.

My craft is motionless in the waters except for the lightest swells that push and pull me into sleep gently. I dream of the horizon. The sun is setting, and my matted eyes cannot entertain its beauty or horror. What is just beyond the horizon? As my dream asks the question, I awaken, startled by a grand breath of fresh air, shaping my sail into the fullness of a sail made for an enormous frigate.

The sail seems young again, almost newborn, and the wind I cannot see pushes me away from the horizon, if only for moments. I do not see spiritus. I feel a breath on my shoulder I do not understand, pushing me toward the safety of the shore. I believe.

 

Of Scriptures

It’s under the slightest of lights, candles I’m almost sure, that I see a group of men (and women, too, but I’ll not say so if you won’t) writing with rapidly flourishing quills. They see what they write as through some glass darkly. Their hurried writing attests to the fires in their grain-filled bellies. “Write about Moses and the mountain,”
one almost shouts. “No, tell about how he separated the waters,” another says. “Jaweh separated the waters” a woman says. And they write into the depths of the night. Each writes from his or her own perspective, and on occasion, I think a breeze brushes over their shoulders.

I’m reminded of the breath of wind that filled the sail of my little ship and am made to think it is spiritus calling on them this night. Name it as you wish: God’s breath, the night-sharpened mind of a man or woman writing a story of what is loved, stories remembered and held close to the breast for the memory of a nation.

The words come from a specific time and place and throw only shadows against darkened glass, unable to seize, in spite of all the love and passion with which they are written, God, Jesus, the Spirit, or humankind. Words cannot capture the ephemeral. All is interpretation, even when loving and so wonderfully profound.

I hold in my library some twelve or fourteen Bibles, multiples of concordances on the Bible, books written from literary perspectives (novels, plays, and poetry) filled with allusions to the Bible. So much of my own writing, both serious and comic, takes its seeds from the Bible. Scripture (both Hebrew and Christian) feed the fire in my belly with questions to pursue and answers to embody.

 

Of the Church

As I sail rough seas, I find I am weeping, not from fear but from bitter disappointment. I have allowed my mind’s eye to drift over heaving waves to distant lands I have ever known (there is so much I do not and cannot know). My thoughts have traveled, as well, to the land from which I’ve sailed, my own home. In all these lands I see rifts deeper than the deepest swells in the sea that tosses me about. I cry out for smoothness of waters as I plead for peace among those who would worship their God.

I am not at all certain that Jesus sought to establish a church, not a church, surely, as we know it. The Kingdom of His life and love was to be in the hearts of individuals. I put away my weaving for now, as my old sail no longer requires replacement. It has life, the life that Jesus wanted for His followers, each stepping alongside Him and toward Jaweh with the surest steps possible. It is enough, and each person is God’s church, ekklesia, called out for service to the world.

As I think about taking up my weaving again, I contemplate the possibility of only one person on this earth, serving (or trying to serve) God and Jaweh’s saying, “It is enough. You are my church. We need no candles or choirs. We need only you and me in quiet union.”

Then, I think of the many who light candles across the world and sing Handel’s The Hallelujah Chorus or lift unknowing but believing prayers above the dark clouds that now throw shadows over the tiny speck of my helpless skiff, and my soul rises. Yes, my soul that I cannot see, but that I believe drives my Being. I take time to pray with thanks for the church and start weaving once again, hoping for a completed fabric that, with color and form, will give unity to the church across all the lands I have seen, great distances from where I now sail and in my own loved land.

 

Of a Sense of Personal Call

I believe I have been called to sail the waters of our world in trying times. To explore, to question, to bring newness to those who are about me (with the limited abilities I might possess). To seek healing where there is pain. To be present in all of life.

I cannot know specifically what God would have me do or be, so I must be open to possibilities, even as I must be true with those whom I encounter. I must understand also that all these things I seek to be or experience might not be found, that I will know my own short falls and seek reconciliations. Jaweh’s net is wide and strong. I must sail the seas, oblivious to the dangers of the horizon, oblivious to mystery. Oblivious, as Job knew so well, that we cannot know, but we can believe.


Gary D. Swaim holds a Ph.D.in Comparative Literature and Philosophy and a post-doctoral M.S. in Counseling Education/Therapy, but he prefers to be called Gary. He is a Ruling Elder and has served two churches as Pulpit Minister, sales representative for I.B.M. and over 55 years as a professor and two-time Dean, including his last 10 years at S.M.U. He is a widely published writer and painter with 5 solo exhibits.

Gary is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and his writing focuses on the intersection of faith and the arts. 

Death and the Life of Ministry

by Holly Clark-Porter

A little over a week ago, my wife Kaci (also my co-pastor) and I opened up our daily quarantine news from the El Paso Times to find not the daily Covid count, but the announcement of the death of the 23rd victim of the El Paso Walmart Shooting. After being shot and in the hospital for almost 9 months, Guillermo “Memo” Garcia died. 

In that moment, two crises collided in our community and it felt almost unbearable. It made me feel useless and angry. It made me want to scream and cry all over again like that August 3rd day when a bigot (and other words) killed moms and dads, sisters and brothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, and babies because of the color of their skin. And now, the girl’s soccer team that Memo coached won’t be able to surround his family. The community won’t be able to gather like we did 9 months ago in vigil and pray together in two languages. This community and all of Memo’s friends and extended family won’t get to weep the way we need to—together. 

That day, August 3rd, carved its own Rio Grande in the history of our country, but it also creaked and seeped into my own ever-morphing understanding of ministry. Kaci and I had just moved from Wilmington, Delaware to El Paso, Texas to be the co-pastors of Grace Presbyterian.

Photo by Anton Darius via Unsplash

Our very first Sunday was the day after the Walmart Shooting. 

Our funny sermon written weeks ago would be scrapped for a sermon written in the early morning hours of Sunday, written with an impetus and energy only pain, injustice, fury, and Christ’s hope can create. Our new congregation, many of whom are Latinx, did not greet us with the smiles and cheerful hugs we had imagined just days before. Instead we were met with snot and wounded tears. People tried to still have some of that “fiesta” spirit for their new pastors, and we so appreciated that act of love, but we were all in a state of undoing and the only thing that would do, was the reality of what was before us, death and dying.  

That morning Kaci and I felt overwhelmed, honored, beloved; we felt strength and weakness; we felt sure and unsure. This shared grief allowed us to be their pastors immediately. And that is how we began our pastorhood at Grace, which is funny because death and grief have ordained much of my life and career. 

You see, I accidently and perhaps begrudgingly found myself working as a funeral director and a funeral chaplain for several years. This was unplanned and depending on how you look at it, a total deviation from my pastoral career or an absolute necessity. I did about 5 funerals a week as a pastor, while picking up dead bodies from homes and morgues and tending to their families and funerals. It was weird. And, I’ll tell you about that more later, but it was also wonderful. That’s I want to share with you in this time of NEXT Church blogging—the intricacies of seeing the embalming table so to speak—the behind the death scenes—through a theological, reformed lens and how this lens can inform the everyday life and living of the Church. 

If death isn’t your thing, re-think that. Because death and grief is all of our thing. In life and in death, we belong to God but in belonging to God, we belong to the realities of life and death. Those realities are present constantly, not just at bodily death, but death/grief of expectations, careers, ideas, understanding of society and one another. My time at the funeral home and other death experiences wasn’t just about death—they were about how we live, love, and have our being. 

So, yes, this blog will talk about the kind of death that comes with funeral homes and pastoring, but it will also speak to the universality of death and what it does to us. It will be funny, because OMG, death’s antics can be hilarious. It will be gut-wrenching and heartwarming. It will be honest. It will be a season for every purpose under heaven, a time to plant and a time to pluck up, a time to live and a time to die, a time to break down and a time to build up, a time to mourn and a time to dance. 

I hope you’ll join me in life’s juxtapositions as we lift candles to life, as we sit vigil in the darkness of death, and as we find empty tombs telling us to get back on the road, there’s work to do. 


The Reverend Holly Clark-Porter is an irreverent revered who adores people, even the annoying ones. In her work, she hopes to bring people back to Church by uplifting the importance of a joyful community, the strength of working together for justice, and by giving voice to the relevancy of faithful love over hate and destruction. She has a passion for preaching, writing, and nerdy church things. Holly received her B.A. in English at Schreiner University and her M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where she was a recipient of the Charles L. King Preaching Award and a member of the Scotch Council. She has served as pastor of Big Gay Church and Calvary Presbyterian, both of Wilmington, DE. She was also a funeral director and funeral chaplain at McCrery & Harra Funeral Homes (DE). Holly and her wife, The Reverend Kaci Clark-Porter, recently moved from Delaware to El Paso, Texas, where they serve as Co-Pastors of Grace Presbyterian. They love camping, travelling the world in search of food and wine, and spoiling their pitbull, Hazel.

Holly is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on how death shows up in the life of faith. 

I’m an Asian-American pastor in a Black immigrant church in Queens, NY, sick with COVID-19 and family working in healthcare. Here’s what that’s like.

by Christopher De La Cruz

The ritual starts in the garage.

Sometimes it begins with my mother, an ICU nurse, spending a few minutes doing breathing exercises and collecting herself from a near panic attack. Other times, she just wipes the sweat off her palms. Either way, it then leads to my father, an ER nurse, watching at the door, wearing a mask and waving his gloved hand, as my mother walks to her car for the nightshift.

Both my parents came to America in their early 20s, when the country in the 1980s turned to Filipino immigrants during a mass nurse shortage. Now, naturalized citizens like my parents are once again serving America in a time of need. I wonder if, dealing with racism their entire lives and now witnessing Asian-American racism spread across the country, they feel bitter about a country they’ve given their lives to turning on them again and again. I feel bitter, but that feels self-indulgent.

My dad was able to retire at the beginning of this month, because of a heart condition that made him too vulnerable to work. That doesn’t make the garage ritual any easier. 

My mom knows she’s heading into a hellish crisis zone of overcrowded hospital rooms echoing with the sound of ventilators and the crushing rhythm of beeps and alarms – a place where my mom told me she “has gotten used to wrapping bodies.” 

My dad knows this is probably the closest they physically allow themselves to be. They have to sleep in different beds and spend most of the days they have together in different rooms so my dad doesn’t get infected.

The ritual ends with the car driving off, my dad lingering at the door just a little too long.

. . .

I have my own ritual, but it’s much shorter. Whenever my cell phone vibrates, I stop and take a breath.

I’m mostly worried about a phone call informing me one of my immediate family members has it.  In addition to my parents, my brother and sister-in-law both work in hospitals.

There have been a few times I’m actually yearning for the buzz, mainly waiting for more help from my doctor. At the end of March I was diagnosed with presumed-COVID-19 – presumed because in NYC if you don’t have serious symptoms you’re told it’s less risky to just stay inside than to get a test, and presumed because my chest tightness, body aches, and breathing discomfort made it obvious I have it. As of this writing, April 30, I am still experiencing symptoms. I suppose taking ritualized breaths is required for me to get better.

Other times, I have to take some breaths before picking up my phone not because of the call, but because I was just trying to help one young child do her math schoolwork remotely as my other child does somersaults off our couch again. Wait, did he finish his preschool Science video on the iPad yet? When do we get to play Netflix kids shows for hours? My wife and I exchange sighs throughout the day.

I experience pretty much every human feeling as I pick up the phone for congregants. I am the Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, a diverse black congregation with over 30 nations represented and residing in one of the epicenters of the epicenters of this pandemic.

As with many other black and brown communities in the country, our neighborhoods are feeling the crushing weight of systems that had already been stacked against them prior to the crisis. Here we have a disproportionate amount of essential workers – healthcare workers, government workers, home health aides, grocers. (A quick shoutout, by the way, to the mom and pop stores off Jamaica Avenue waiting anxiously for PPP funds as Shake Shack received its now-returned bailout.)

And so there are the deluge of calls about someone being sick. Everybody in our community knows somebody. Over the phone, I’ve heard about a daughter who has not been able to hear from her elderly mother in a nursing home for months. I’ve listened to multiple people with family members that were starting to get better, but then died a few days later. I talked to a husband who had COVID-19 but stayed home while his wife, critically sick, was shuffled between hospitals and a makeshift center, cherishing the few Facetime calls he was able to have with her. 

I’ve learned about people dying though many different platforms: across Zoom, over text, in emails.

I would feel irresponsible if the only impression you got of our community was death and despair. We have a care team, officially and unofficially, that spend hours a week calling other church members to make sure they are alright. We have dedicated volunteers, decked out with face masks and gloves, who still come out for weekly food pantry and soup kitchen. I can’t tell you how many texts, calls and messages I alone have received from community members supporting me in my illness.

I am so proud of our church, and of our head pastor, Rev. Patrick O’Connor, for working with New York State and Community Healthcare Network to host a walkable COVID-19 testing site, the first in the city. Many folks in our neighborhoods rely much more on public transit and walkable communities than others.

Our church and the community we live in have always come together, have always risen above and not allowed ourselves to be defined by our circumstances; I wouldn’t expect now to be any different.

. . . 

I suppose as a pastor this is the point where I should make some grand statement about God and providence and salvation, or something. To be honest, though, I have had almost no time to reflect. I’m too in-the-moment and too wired in crisis-brain to have any profound, theologically-robust insight.

Mostly, I just have one more ritual to share with you. On days when I can, I wake up early, close my eyes, and then just sit with God. In silence. 

Just a little too long.


Photo credit: Cliff Mason

Rev. Christopher De La Cruz is the Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, a diverse, immigrant Queens, NYC congregation with over 30+ nations represented. His role includes building a co-working space for young adult entrepreneurs, coordinating kids and family ministries, and helping in community organizing efforts. 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 is a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and writes about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life.

Introducing the New NEXT Church Blogging Cohort!

by Layton E. Williams

For the past several years, the NEXT Church blog has operated on a system of recruiting monthly volunteers to curate a series of blog posts from writers they have in turn recruited focused around a central monthly theme. This model has served us well and given us countless fascinating and powerful pieces from a lot of different faith leaders. But over the past several months we have been discerning a call to try out a new model. In considering what new model we should try, I was reminded of a blogging project that I participated in several years ago for Presbyterians Today. A group of us were organized into cohort and charged with each developing an ongoing theme or framework through which lens we would write a piece once a month. Each of us had our own focus, but we were encouraged to read, support, and engage each other’s work. It was a powerful experience for me and I’m excited to try out a similar project structure through NEXT Church.

After receiving an overwhelming number of very compelling applications, we have selected twelve faith leaders from all over the country and beyond who each have a unique voice and perspective to offer on the church of today and the church yet to come. This is a bit of an experiment for us, but we hope this group will be the first in an ongoing rotation of cohorts. For the next six months, we’ll be hearing from each of these writers as they offer their own stories and wisdom through their individual contexts and lenses. In the meantime, I ‘m excited to introduce them to all of you. Where I could, I’ve also included their brief summary of their particular focus. Our initial round of blogs, which will begin being published next week, will also allow them to offer an introduction to their ongoing theme. Without further ago, meet the inaugural NEXT Church blogging cohort!


Heidi Vardeman:

Over the course of her 40+ years in ministry, Heidi has served Latino, African-American, and white congregations in the Northeast, South, and Midwest, ranging widely in size and economic standing. She has also done faith-based justice work both in D.C. where she was a national executive for United Methodists lobbying for peace during the Reagan administration and in Tampa, where she helped found the Tampa AIDS Network during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Additionally, she has done doctoral work both in speech communications and theology. She currently serves a tiny church in the suburbs of Minneapolis that nearly closed due to conflict prior to her arrival. The grandmother of three and the mother of two grown daughters, Heidi lives with her husband Frank and his service dog Zest in a diverse urban neighborhood of Minneapolis in a very old house that is always falling apart. Her hair is often highlighted with grout, plumbers putty or paint.

Heidi’s focus: I write about how our religious tradition (Reformed Christianity) is relevant in a postmodern/post-Constantinian world. It takes guts to embrace a faith built on ancient documents that are often sexist, violent and even genocidal. (“Unaccommodating and odd,” as Brueggemann puts it.) It is a challenge to serve a church that too often kowtows to the rich and powerful and too often tells us to sit down, be quiet and behave. In the same way that Jesus could not be confined to the tomb, the Good News cannot be confined by bad theology or weak church leaders.
To quote the old hymn, “Although the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”


Holly Clark-Porter:

The Reverend Holly Clark-Porter is an irreverent revered who adores people, even the annoying ones. In her work, she hopes to bring people back to Church by uplifting the importance of a joyful community, the strength of working together for justice, and by giving voice to the relevancy of faithful love over hate and destruction. She has a passion for preaching, writing, and nerdy church things. Holly received her B.A. in English at Schreiner University and her M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where she was a recipient of the Charles L. King Preaching Award and a member of the Scotch Council. She has served as pastor of Big Gay Church and Calvary Presbyterian, both of Wilmington, DE. She was also a funeral director and funeral chaplain at McCrery & Harra Funeral Homes (DE). Holly and her wife, The Reverend Kaci Clark-Porter, recently moved from Delaware to El Paso, Texas, where they serve as Co-Pastors of Grace Presbyterian. They love camping, travelling the world in search of food and wine, and spoiling their pitbull, Hazel.

Holly’s focus: Because of my past and accidental expertise, I’d like to write about death and grief and the many ways we experience it. Through death, I learned and experienced ways the Church has hurt people and how we, the Church, can counter that simply through enacting good theology. If I do this blogging correctly, I will hopefully be writing an epitaph, so to speak, to the ways we’ve dealt with death and grief and then balancing it with ways we can lift up hope.


Christopher De La Cruz:

Rev. Christopher De La Cruz is the Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, a diverse, immigrant Queens, NYC congregation with over 30+ nations represented. His role includes building a co-working space for young adult entrepreneurs, coordinating kids and family ministries, and helping in community organizing efforts. 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’s focus: Chris will be writing about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life in a blog called “Seven Minutes in Heaven and Hell”/”This Christian American Life” (precise title to be determined…)


Rafael Vallejo:

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’s focus: Refugees and Resistance: Enacting God’s Mission in Liminal Spaces. This blog explores the role of refugees in enacting God’s mission in the world. The dominant neo-liberal narrative portrays refugees as illegals that, if allowed entry can potentially bring in with them disease, criminality and threats to national security and the dominant culture. Refugees resist these practices that are based on oppressive ideas around sovereignty and power of nation-states. The author argues that this resistance is theologically significant. It resonates with resistance literature in the Hebrew Bible and in the stories of Christian origins. The category “resistance” will be discussed using both social scientific studies and biblical narratives. This will be done alongside stories of how refugees perform their faith on the ground through acts of everyday resistance. The author concludes with the proposal that the refugee crisis of 2015-2016 will mark the trajectories of major world religions like Islam and the next christianities in traditional and post-secular societies in years to come.


JoJo Gabuya:

JoJo is a soon to recieve 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’s focus: During my almost four-year stint in this country, I have experienced multiple layers of oppression, such as color on color violence, discrimination based on gender, microaggression, racism, and xenophobia, which has intensified during this pandemic. So, I have been wondering what Jesus – the Crucified People and the boundary crosser, would do and say about these oppressive acts if he were alive today. Thus, I’ll be blogging along this theme, if given the opportunity to do so.


Robert Hammock:

Robert Hammock is Ruling Elder at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Although seminary-trained, the last 20 years of his career have primarily have been focused on affordable housing and community development efforts, primarily in urban contexts. He recently rolled off of his Session after a 3 year term, but during his time on the Session, he chaired the Christian Formation Committee and Co-Chaired our Discovery and Engagement Committee. The former was focused primarily on child and youth faith development whereas the latter was focused on congregational innovation to better engage people at the church. He remains currently active in a leadership role through his church’s development of affordable housing through the re-purposing of part of their campus.

Robert’s focus: I haven’t figured out what I’m writing about yet, but it will certainly include the intersection of the church as it seeks to do justice around community development and affordable housing issues.


Whitney Fauntleroy:

Whitney is a North Carolina native. Now in her sixth year of ordained ministry, Whitney is grateful to have experienced ministry in many contexts. Whitney has served as Director of Youth Ministry at University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, a Designated Solo Pastor at Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, NC. In the Spring of 2017, she began serving as Associate Pastor of Youth and Young Adults at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

Whitney’s focus: Whitney hopes to write at the intersection of popular culture, identity, and theology.


Freda Marie S. Brown:

The Rev. Freda Marie Brown is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland currently serving as Associate Rector at The Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore. She formerly served as the Executive Director of St. Vincent’s House in Galveston, a 501(c)3 non-profit and Jubilee Ministry of the Diocese of Texas. Prior to coming to the Diocese of Texas, she was the Associate Rector at the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation in the Diocese of Dallas. She received her undergraduate degree from Xavier University of Louisiana and was employed as a clinical laboratory director for 21 years at St. Paul Medical Center in Dallas before saying “yes” to God’s call to be ordained priest in His Church. She earned a Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, Dallas and a Master of Arts in Religion (with a concentration in Anglican Studies) from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX. For 7 years she served as a Palliative Care chaplain in hospice and hospital settings and has spent many hours serving the dying and those who love them.

She loves her work among God’s people and is constantly amazed by the many disguises of Jesus Christ —especially among the marginalized. She enjoys yoga, gardening, cooking, hiking, reading, writing, and listening to jazz. She loves good food, good wine, and good conversation. She is Crystal’s Mom.

Freda’s focus: At this time, I believe we are called to shift into a new paradigm for LIFE and the Church already has the foundation for that paradigm as do many others who are seekers of Truth. I plan to pursue the intersectionality of Christian spirituality with what may commonly be called energetics or specifically energy medicine.


Catherine Neelly Burton:

Catherine 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’s focus: I’m writing about churches in the Presbytery of Southern Kansas. Wichita is a city with about 1/2 a million people. Most of the presbytery is rural. Most of our congregations don’t have paid pastors. There is only one installed associate pastor in the presbytery. It’s not just churches that are dying, it’s towns. Still, the work of the church goes on, and some of the churches are quite resilient and do amazing ministry in their communities. I want to tell some of their stories. I’ll write about a different community in Kansas each month and share their church story.


Holly Haile Thompson:

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’s focus: I shall follow the gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary Year A. Sometimes I land on theological points that preachers might wish to consider from a Native perspective – and so when I use the framework of the lectionary – it can be all the more relevant. My last congregation and I enjoyed a focused year of specifically anti-racist sermons as each gospel lesson has – historically – not been something that is Good News for People of Color in this (and in other) nations. Being able to center one’s weekly sermon prep can help provide a more familiar framework to share what is mostly lacking in our PCUSA churches’ spiritual life.


Gary Swaim:

Gary D. Swaim holds a Ph.D.in Comparative Literature and Philosophy and a post-doctoral M.S. in Counseling Education/Therapy, but he prefers to be called Gary. He is a Ruling Elder and has served two churches as Pulpit Minister, sales representative for I.B.M. and over 55 years as a professor and two-time Dean, including his last 10 years at S.M.U. He is a widely published writer and painter with 5 solo exhibits.

Gary’s focus: The Arts as Glorification to God and Edification for Humanity: Analysis and exploration of a widely accepted premise with consideration of what this means as to possible applications in the church of changing times.

 


NOTE: This cohort previously included Commission Lay Pastor Victoria Barner, but she had to step down due to time constraints. We appreciate her contributions!


Rev. Layton E. Williams is the NEXT Church Communications Specialist. She will serve as editor, coordinator, facilitator, and liaison for the NEXT Church Blogging Cohort. 

Talking Membership… in a Join-Averse World

by Mark Davis

About four times a year I lead a “New Members Inquiry.” Once upon a time it was called “New Members Workshop,” but we had to adjust the language because many people were interested in the content but wary of being committed if they attended. The name change was a small concession to a large challenge. It’s just the case that many people are not “joiners.” I suspect that wariness is a symptom of a larger suspicion of institutionalization in general. Curiously, I am finding that many people are not commitment-avoidant when it comes to showing up, pitching in, and even supporting with time or money. But, becoming a “member” seems to be another matter.

While I share many (not all) of the concerns that people have regarding institutions, I am a strong advocate for church membership for two reasons – one of which is theological and the other of which is biblical.

The theological reason I strongly push membership is because I do not want to see the church reduced to yet another cog in the wheel of capitalism, where every decision is predicated on passing the muster of “What’s in it for me?” The church is not a vendor, at which we shop as long as we like the products it carries and the service it provides. It may be the case that this is exactly how people will approach the church regardless of my theological convictions, because we are surely steeped in capitalist rationalization. And, while many people whom I admire argue that we should de-institutionalize the church, starting with eliminating the notion of membership itself, I worry that we would lose something extremely valuable in the process. What we might lose falls under the biblical reason that I strongly push for church membership.

When the apostle Paul addresses church membership, his ongoing analogy is to speak of the church as a “body.” Indeed, one meaning of the English term “member” is “body part.” Most of us have lost this association in our language, except for the term “dismember,” which we still use to speak of losing a body part. Likewise, the term “remember” carries the connotation of being re-attached to something that is part of us. In Paul’s language – which I believe we should strive hard to recover – “membership” is an organic term, not an organizational one.

My favorite illustration of what membership means is a story I once read about Ben Franklin. He was writing a letter to a friend and asked the friend to excuse his handwriting, because the gout in his large right toe was being particularly bothersome. The very idea that swelling in the large right toe could make writing with his left hand shaky is a perfect example of what it means when Paul speaks of being “members one of another.” We weep because another is hurting; we rejoice because another is dancing; we tremble because another has gout. Becoming a member is not simply a matter of joining an organization until it no longer suits us. Members take the risk of being vulnerable to each others’ joys and concerns.

This organic use of the word “member” is richer and more authentic than our typical, organizational approach to the term – whether we consider ourselves for or against it. While I do not want to discard the word “member” because it seems to be overly institutional, I am not suggesting that we simply chug along, using “membership” a metric for measuring success. What a wonderful moment it could be if we lean into our aversion to “membership,” explore what it is that we find untenable about it, and express a vision of what an authentic church would look like if we were organically “members” of one another.

Throughout this month we will reflect on membership, with many of the challenges and promises that come with it. Stay tuned.


Mark Davis is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

Re-post: A Theology of Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on April 23, 2018. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Cristina Paglinauan

A few weeks ago when a wicked nor’easter blew through town, “Do you have power?” was a common refrain.

Thinking about power is something I find myself doing a lot these days. Perhaps it’s because of the seemingly never-ending examples of abuses of power, rampant in the news. Perhaps because, as a parent and as clergy, knowing how to responsibly and appropriately use the power I have is paramount. Perhaps it’s simply because power, as a theological concept, is both interesting, relevant and important to noodle over and wrestle with.

The passage from scripture that first comes to my mind when reflecting on a theology of power grounded in the Christian tradition is from the second chapter of the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

This idea/concept/image, of the fullness and power of God, the Source of all things seen and unseen, emptying Godself into human form — the limitless, infinite God becoming limited, finite, human — in the service and for the sake of humankind, lies at the heart of traditional Christian theology.

Alongside this central image arise other images of power associated with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit: the power that flows through Jesus to cure the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years (Luke 8:43-48); the power Jesus commands to silence the wind and the waves (Mark 4:35-41, Matthew 8:23-27, Luke 8:22-25), to restore sight to the blind (Mark 8:22-26, Luke 18:35-43, John 9:1-41), to raise people from the dead (Jairus’ daughter: Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26; Lazarus: John 11:1-44); the power of the Holy Spirit that alights on Jesus’ followers on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), to inspire them to spread the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection; indeed, the very power of God to raise Jesus from the dead and to conquer death for all time.

It feels important to note that in performing healing miracles, Jesus acts in response to requests put forth to him by others, or only after having asked someone, “What is it that you would like me to do for you?” and listening to the response. In other words, Jesus uses his God-given power to heal in respect of and in accordance with the free will and free choice of a human being; Jesus’ power is relational.

Flickr photo by Dallas Epperson

Today’s most popular contemporary myths and stories centering around power, and the right use vs. the abuse of power, mirror a similar theology of power presented in scripture: power used in the service of and for the benefit of others, to heal, uplift, and empower them, in harmony with their own desires, free will, free choices, and self-identified needs, is “good”; whereas power used to control, manipulate, harm, take advantage of, abuse or oppress others, against their own free will and self-determination, is “evil.” Darth Vader and the Emperor in Star Wars mythology, and Voldemort in Harry Potter lore, are evil precisely because they view and use power as a tool to dominate and control others for their own self-aggrandizement, against individuals’ free will.

Power that empowers and uplifts others, to be able to “love one’s neighbor as oneself”, is Godly and goodly power; power that is accumulated for the purpose of being shared, given away and multiplied, for the healing of individuals and communities, likewise, is Godly and goodly power. Power that is accumulated, hoarded, and centralized in the service of a select individual or an elite group, at the expense of and against the free will of others, is not of God.

Lately, I have enjoyed learning and thinking about power through a new lens: the lens of community organizing. Thanks to a week-long training last fall co-sponsored by Metro IAF, NEXT Church, and Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and the work I’ve been engaged with through BUILD, the Metro IAF affiliate in Baltimore, I have come to understand an additional perspective of power. Power “in the world as it is” (as opposed to the world “as it should be”) = “organized people” and “organized money.” Further, the accumulation of power around people’s shared values and common self-interests — “self-interest” having to do with the true “essence” of each human being — and where these interests align, can lead to effective action, moving the “world as it is” bit by bit towards the realization of “the world as it should be.” In my view, this new understanding of power complements and helps to “ground” and “bring down to earth” the theology of power that I understand through the lens of Christian scripture. It provides a practical “how to” approach, to help realize more pockets and places of “heaven on earth” for all of God’s people.


Cristina Paglinauan serves as Associate Rector for Community Engagement at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore, MD. She enjoys spending time with her husband David Warner, their two children Grace and Ben, and their feline child, Olmsted the cat.