The Suffering that Lingers

(Note: Some identifying details of those mentioned in this piece have been changed to protect their privacy.)

by Holly Clark Porter

I remember the first murder victim whose body and family I helped care for after her death.

While working for a funeral home, you learn that people die constantly. I won’t say you “get used to it”, because that isn’t quite right. You become familiar to the oddness, the smells, the sadness. You get comfortable. You’re comfortable with death at 10:00am or 3:00am. You’re comfortable because most of the time, the bodies who you take into your care are bodies ravaged by age or sickness. You can see that their body needed to die. As a pastor, it was easy to quote the Christian commendation and say in my head, “they rest from their labor, their suffering has ended, and they have found peace.”

But then there are deaths, faces, families, for whom those words were empty, empty to the family, but also empty to me, even though my theology, my faith tells me better. Sometimes, I’m not even sure I understand the commendation until I have heard and taken on the charge and benediction.

As I looked at this young woman, maybe 20 years old, on our embalming table, I didn’t know from what she rested. Her body hadn’t been suffering. She was an innocent victim of a gas station robbery. And, I looked in disbelief at her body, her body which seemed so normal, so healthy. Her face, perfect. Her face looked just like the pictures her family brought us; a graduation party and hanging out at Rehoboth Beach, smiling big. Other than the two marks in her torso made by a knife, her body didn’t look like it needed to rest.

Her suffering ended. But her suffering also lingered.

I cannot help but think of the funeral home who will take George Floyd’s body into their care—the people who will wash his body, stitch up his skin, who will put makeup on his bruising, and try to give his family and friends a glimpse of the life now taken. I wonder if they will step back and look at Mr. Floyd’s well-maintained muscles and striking jawline and wonder why he had to die.

His suffering ended. But his suffering also lingers.

Photo source:

In the lingering suffering, we have commended him with protests and signs of “I can’t breathe” and anger and sermons and posts—a commendation not everyone is sure what to do with. But, now it’s time we give power and understanding to the commendation by hearing our charge and our benediction.

One of our very own youth at my church, a 15 year old young man, gave me that charge and benediction. With anger, questions, yearning, he took to Instagram decrying the horrific murder of George Floyd and he lifted up so many other names of black people who have died at the hands of racism, but what he said that called to me was: “someone please.” “please” he said over and over. “Please someone.”

In this pandemic caused by Covid, we have been willing to completely change the way we do everything. In a matter of months, we have changed our eating habits, how we shop, re-imagined our rituals, we’ve taken Communion with Dr. Pepper and Doritos, and we were willing to endure a tanked economy all for the sake of people’s lives.

We’ve had years, decades, centuries to change the virus of racism and yet, because it’s uncomfortable or maybe unimaginable or too scary or there’s too much risk or there’s too many unknowns, we’ve just let it infect every cell in our social bodies.

In my more cynical moments, I think we’ve adapted so quickly to the Corona virus because “all lives matter” and this virus threatens the lives of all people, white people, black people, Asians, but that racism only threatens the lives of people of color. In my more whole, more realistic moments, I think it’s because you can’t put a mask on racism or socially distance ourselves from prejudice language and hope to end racism. It’s more difficult than that. It isn’t as simple as choosing to wash your hands; it’s choosing to notice the things we don’t notice. It’s choosing to hear the stories of people of color. It’s choosing to realize your heart just leaped because a black man is jogging behind you. It’s choosing to wonder why white people names are seen as normal and black people names are seen as strange. It’s choosing to notice who fills our TV screens, our town halls, our best schools.

Someone, please. Let us hear this charge to put an understanding around the difficult commendation that often ended in looting. Let us hear this charge as a way to grapple with that which we can only see as destruction instead of a release. Let us hear this charge and take it up with God who calls us, Jesus who walks with us, and the Holy Spirit who gives us breath so that before breath gets taken, we are the someone’s who act when we hear “please.”

And until all lives really do matter, may we take on the labor, the work, and suffering from which George Floyd rests.

(Author’s note: As a queer, white woman I know some forms of discrimination, but it pales in comparison to systemic, prolonged racism. Rather than write about Pride for June’s Pride celebrations, I felt it was necessary to continue to write about black lives. I hope that my words help rather than harm. May we continue to see the stories that are ignored, stories about black trans lives, stories about queer POC, stories that don’t make the news and may we never forget how each story is a part of our story, if we bother to hear them.)

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.

The SHIFT: It’s Time to Make That Change

by Freda Marie S. Brown

I was both mad and sad when I first became aware of the public murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “Here we go again, I thought. No justice for injustice, no rest for the weary; how long must we endure this, O Lord, how long?” I am quite aware of the cries of my ancestral lineage that goes back almost 400 years. I will never get over the fact that THIS, is the place at which America has arrived; the place where her enduring ethos of white supremacy and racist hatred can now be seen and called what it is in the light of day. For most of the people who look like me, we have known all along the insidious cancer that has fed upon this soil. As an African-American Episcopal priest and mom I will NEVER get over the fact that the list of names has grown longer and not shorter in the past 4 or 5 years. Say their names: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor. Four-hundred years and this s—continues? My heart literally hurts.

Besides all of this, I have been unable to get over the fact that the vast majority of my non-POC “brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus” in the Church have been reticent to speak with a single voice about this enormous and ongoing SIN of racism in America. Because I love Jesus Christ and his body deeply on this planet, I have a bone to pick with the Church in its whiteness. I am both mad and sad.

Governments come and go, but the Kin(g)dom of God—that governance which we claim rules forever— is given nary a thought in the minds and hearts of many of you professing Christians. Your submission to the ONE whom we call GOD is often lower than the recovering alcoholics to their higher power of the Big Book. It is simply amazing. Could this be because you are using a limited map of reality, one that no longer fits the current state of growing in spiritual (not necessarily, religious) awareness?

Albert Einstein is famously quoted to have said, “the mind that got us here, will not be the mind that gets us out.” You need a BIG PARADIGM SHIFT; indeed, we all do. A new cosmology is required to accommodate the work of the Holy Spirit at this time in creation. Along with that new map of reality, comes the practice of continuing repentance, instead of some one-shot deal that you have played with oh, these many years. The old mechanistic, predictive, hierarchical, anthropocentric, competitive cosmology will no longer do. It is time for new wine in new wine skins. A dynamic state of self-awareness, mindfulness, and readiness to change must take root within you.

The overwhelming masculine energies of the ages that have given us our current state of affairs, is no longer holding. Witness the state of the nation and of the world.

I want to be clear in my use of the term “masculine energy” though, as opposed to males or men. I am a woman who loves men. No problem there. But the grip of patriarchy has devasted both the world and the Church. For me, the Church’s influence has often been in death-dealing ways that fail to reflect the LIFE of Christ so that others want to live that life. Besides males and females are comprised of both masculine and feminine energies. The imbalance in these energies is expressed in the woundedness, anger, and outright hatred we are observing all around us and in the suffering of oh, so many. I often wonder, “do non-POC Christians really believe a ‘new life’ in Christ exists? No? Is that why so many of them can easily accept the status quo?”

The rise of compassion, collaboration, mercy, and kindness, generosity, and hopefulness are all feminine energies. (Again, not female) and are needed to balance the overly masculine-energized reality that has been created—primarily by you, I am sad to say. You have forgotten who you are.

Repentance, like conversion, is a returning repeatedly to Holy Mystery, whom we call GOD. I commend to you Jim Wallis’ very timely book, A CALL TO CONVERSION, written more than 30 years ago. It is the only way the mind of Christ might truly be formed in ALL of us. I am sorry to inform you that the concept of autonomy has no place in the Kin(g)dom of God. Let me know if you find it in the bible, please. We can remain in a state of continuing repentance by asking the Holy Spirit (with thanksgiving) for it. We pray for all sorts of things. Why not something that really matters?
The entire world, but America in particular, is on a highly desirable path of human evolution. So, discreetly discern when you judge what your eyes are seeing, or your ears are hearing. Human evolution is the telos for which we, POC and non-POC were all created; to be a paradise for the Beloved Community.

That evolution will hurt and be inconvenient to you. It will require the death of many dreams, hopes and most certainly ideologies. But it will not kill you; not if we hold faithfully to the truth of Ultimate Reality—that we are already ONE. As much as you like to feel comfortable and hate being inconvenienced, the Church in America can no longer remain as it is and go with G-D. G-D is on the move. LIFE is dynamic and changes abound. It is time for divinization. It is time to take on Christ-consciousness for the sake of the world.

I and so many other siblings of color can no longer tolerate your apathy, Church. Each one of us must become the change we wish to see in the world. We need you to step up. God grant you the grace to receive this gift and to live into it with us.

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 is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on the intersectionality of Christian spirituality with what may commonly be called energetics or specifically energy medicine.

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.


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. 

We The People

by Whitney Fauntleroy

We the people.
We the hidden
We the haunted
We the strong
We the suffering
We your muse.
We you abuse.
We black as night
and yellow as sun.
We you fight and
shoot with gun.
We the enslaved.
We the saved.
We the weary.
We the tired.
We the DJ.
We the MC.
We the people
not as seen on TV.
We who wear da mask.
We the stripped down.
We who rise up.
We who challenge.
We who write.
We who pray.
We who slay.
We the invisible.
We the unimaginable.
We who bother to be unbothered.
We whose magic scares those with power.
We who grow amidst rubble like a beautiful flower.
We the brown.
We the crown.
We the dark.
We who spark.
We the love.
We your hate.
We who get shot down and still dare to be great.
We who you imitate.
We who never get a clean slate.
We who create.
We who are never safe.
We who toil.
Skin the colors of beautiful soil.
We who rise and we who fall.
We expected to smile and forgive through it all.
We the freedom.
We the light.
We the people.

Photo by Smash The Iron Cage on Wikimedia

Whitney Fauntleroy 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 is also part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and writes at the intersection of popular culture, identity, and theology.

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

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).


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 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. 

Relevance of The Early Christian Movement’s Diverse Trajectories in the Time of COVID-19

by Jojo Gabuya

Christians living today in America, especially during this time of the pandemic, might find relevant the diverse trajectories of the early Christian movement, which Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist describe in their book, History of the World Christian Movement. Christianity entered at a time when various other religions were already in the world. So, significant social and cultural diversity influenced the early Christians’ households of faith. Some of these diverse trajectories that seemed to have drawn people of different cultural and social backgrounds to early Christianity were the stories of miracles that the followers of Jesus performed in his name, the social inversion (equality between the rich and the poor exists, and social justice reigns) the Jesus movement proclaimed, and the gospel message’s appeal to those desiring for women’s more significant inclusion in the community.

Spiritual but not religious Christians, who are more interested in Christ-like praxis than with Christian theology might appreciate the miracle stories in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Those who are desperate and physically weak, during this COVID-19 pandemic, might revive their hope in Jesus’ “earth-bound theology and not a heaven-bound theology,” as C.S. Song emphasizes in his book, Jesus, the Crucified People. In Mark 4:35-41, Jesus calms the storm, instead of preaching about how to calm the storm. Also, in Mark 6:30-44, Jesus feeds five thousand people rather than teaching how to feed them. In short, Jesus walks his talk. His theology is a theology of God’s word that becomes heard in the pain and suffering of both humans and non-humans today.

Jesus’ earth-bound theology apparently encouraged the early Christian movement to proclaim social inversion. In The Forging of Christian Identity, Judith M. Lieu posits, “the subjects of ‘theology’ become the structural components of a social world; the reversal of values epitomized by Jesus’ humiliation in incarnation and death becomes the norm for Christian social experience and its value system.” Today’s Christians might appreciate reading the Synoptic Gospels, which contained stories of Jesus, who disrupted the political rhetoric in the Roman empire, to promote social change. Matthew 22: 15-21, The Question About Paying Taxes, fearlessly emphasized Jesus’ values of equality, honesty, justice, love, and truth, to those who questioned his humanity and divinity.

The social inversion that the movement proclaimed attracted women to Christianity. So, women have been included and played significant leadership roles among Jesus’ disciples, since the beginning of Christianity. Among them are women leaders of house churches – Junia, Phoebe, and Prisca; the martyrs – Martha, Perpetua, and Felicity; Paul’s devotee Thecla; the gender-bender Joan of Arc; and the ascetics – Macrina and Susan. However, some of these women’s outstanding contributions to the movement have been suppressed. Interestingly, fragments of the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene” have survived along with the “Gospel of Peter,” but her Gospel is nowhere in the Bible, as Irvin and Sunquist wrote. Nevertheless, some feminists and LGBTQIA theologians and writers have been untiringly unearthing the exemplary work of the early Christian women, reclaiming their rightful places in society, and restoring their voices in Christian Churches. Having said this, may we practice the early Christian movement’s diverse trajectories, which are still relevant during these trying times.

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

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