Thursday, April 26, 2007

RGBP Friday Five (on Thursday night)

I never play this anymore. This week, I don't have to think about the answers. So...

What are you:

1. Wearing
PJ pants and a purple T-shirt

2. Pondering
How I'm going to get through the next three weeks

3. Reading
Dear God, don't ask

4. Dreaming
Of running around the Ranch this summer

5. Eating
Had chicken, potatoes, asparagus, and chocolate cake for dinner


Everyday Buddhism


If I worked any slower, I'd soon be a slug. But I can remember to breathe.

(Pen courtesy of the City of Stockton Traffic Management department--which tells me who I got it from, but not how that friend came by it. I saw it in a different light, in class this morning.)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Summer job

Look where I get to be this summer! I'm really excited.

I met the director's daughter two years ago, at the food co-op in Olympia, when I was volunteer-cashiering and she came through my line. (She's at Evergreen; I'm an alum.) Apparently neither of us knows how we got talking, but we did. I was on my way to CDSP. She told me to write to her dad for a job, when I got to California. I didn't do it last year, because I was missing the Northwest. I ended up interning at a parish in Seattle, and I had a great time there. But then I went to the Ranch with my parish last October, and saw how beautiful it is. I spent yesterday and Friday walking in the rain and talking with the people who run the place, and got an e-mail this morning inviting me to work there.

I don't know anything about dates or compensation or actual tasks yet, but I'm thrilled about this. It's wonderful when the things you want, want you.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech

I feel like I ought to speak about what happened yesterday. My blog has been all New Orleans, all the time for weeks, and one of the things I found there was a deeper compassion for all suffering.

But I just can't wrap my head around it. How did this happen? What tortured the killer so much, that he sought relief in taking 32 lives, plus his own? How did he think that would save him? And why wasn't he stopped sooner?

God be with the survivors, and all who love those who have died.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


The following is a talk I gave at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Lodi, CA this morning. They are sending a group to New Orleans in June. The rector, an old friend, asked me to speak of my experiences there.

I went to New Orleans because my friend Michael invited me. What I found there changed me forever. I met God, and God’s people, there.

I went with three other seminary students, over our Spring Break, during the last week of March. We worked with a local grassroots nonprofit. Michael gutted houses, which is still the most needed physical task there, as taking people’s houses apart from the inside, down to the studs, preserves people’s property rights should they want to return. Judy, Vivian, and I divided our time between a women’s shelter and a distribution center, in the 9th Ward. We met people whose stories will stay with us forever.

We met Joanne, a cargo worker at the Port of New Orleans. She was staying in a three-bedroom house with 16 other women. Her second home since Katrina was condemned, two weeks before I met her. The storm pushed sea water underneath the city. 19 months later, the water is still underground. The water corrodes the pipes, ultimately destroying the plumbing. The problem is too extensive, and costly, to fix. Joanne has been all over the world. New Orleans is her favorite place. She loves the city—but she is finding it impossible to live there.

Joanne led us to Bill, the rector of St. Anna’s Episcopal Church. Joanne had told us that she was drunk for a year after Katrina, and that this church had led her back to God. We attended Eucharist on a Wednesday night, drawn both by her witness and by the Mission to Musicians benefit potluck they host every week. Bill said that he, along with most other New Orleanians, simmered with anger underneath the surface. But when I asked him what he would have me take back to California, the first things he said were peace and hope.

We took a day to play, and had lunch in the French Quarter at the New Orleans School of Cooking. When they found out what we’d been doing, wealthy locals out touristing thanked us just as whole-heartedly as the residents of the 9th Ward had, just for noticing them. The chef thanked the out-of-town tourists as deeply as he thanked us. It’s important that you go and witness to the devastation in that city. It is also important to go and have fun there. There’s a lot to make you think, in New Orleans. There’s also a lot to love there. The Quarter is a really fun place. Tourism has always been important, and that’s even more true now. Putting money into their economy helps them survive, and it will help them rebuild.

I thought I knew what poverty was. I didn’t. No amount of reading, or seeing photographs, could have prepared me for block after block after block after block of empty, flood-damaged houses. Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of standing in someone’s kitchen, and coming to really understand the geographic, economic, and political causes of this flood that took six weeks to pump dry. Nothing could have prepared me for meeting so many people who were so poor and yet so faithful, who lived with their souls almost visible. They were so grateful to be seen, to be spoken to, to be helped, to be remembered. We were a sign of hope to them; a sign of God’s presence. They were a sign of God’s presence to us.

Going to New Orleans changed me forever. I have a new commitment to mission, a new understanding of the political and economic forces in my own country, and a new empathy for people in all third-world situations. I know that I’ll go back; I’m already planning to. I urge you to go, to help out, to meet the people, to experience the place. I’ll be at the back table. I have more stories, and I have pictures. Please come talk to me.

Thank you.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Stringfellow: Challenge and Hope in an Alien Land

I wrote this paper two weeks ago, the day before I went to New Orleans. I'm still processing that trip, and thinking about the question of how to live responsibly in this world as I experience it. I see the world differently, since returning from there. But these questions are still relevant, and so I share them with you.

Creation is fallen, asserts William Stringfellow, all of it; the humans, the animals, everything. Further, America is the Babylon of the Book of Revelation. Identity with the biblical Jerusalem is completely beyond us. There is no hope for our warlike, greed-driven society and culture. So, whatever shall we do?

Stringfellow opens An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land with the whole of Psalm 37. This is the famous lament of the exile in Babylon, which begins in remembrance and weeping, and ends with the image of dashing a Babylonian child’s head against a rock. In his preface, he asserts the error in conceiving of the US as Zion, and a similar error in reading the Bible as if it were an apolitical document (14). He invokes the authority of Revelation (16), of which he will extensively use the Babylon passages later. He recalls the principalities and powers, discussed in depth in Free in Obedience, and states his intention to inform Americans about the reality of the Fall (19).

Why is Babylon relevant? Because it is cursed; the once-great city crashes down. “The violent disintegration of this most rich and most powerful of all nations: Babylon—should incite jubilation in heaven.” (25) This most powerful nation is our own, and we have failed to comprehend its future; we are demoralized, impoverished, incapacitated (27). Where we need moral wisdom, it is absent (28). Our hearts are hardened; we cannot see or hear outside of ourselves (29). We are morally asleep (31). Babylon is the city of death; Jerusalem is the city of life. We are awash in what makes a Babylon: “alienation, babel, slavery, war.” (34) We know what peace is; Stringfellow’s implication is that we never choose it. He writes this book “for the exorcism of that vain spirit.” (34)

How that exorcism will happen is a little bit vague. The biblical topic is politics (42), being, as it is, a story of God’s relationship to God’s people. You can’t have community without politics; you can’t have God without community. (56) But “the ethics of biblical politics offer no basis for divining specific… solutions for any social issue.” (54) The Bible won’t tell you the will of God for any situation particular to your experience. There are no simple answers. You have to ask a broader question: “How to live humanly during the Fall?” (55)

For we live both in earthly and spiritual contexts; both in Berkeley and in Babylon. Stringfellow continues, “A Christian lives politically within time, on the scene of the Fall, as an alien in Babylon, in the midst of apocalyptic reality.” We are members of “Christ’s church, [citizens] of Jerusalem, the holy nation which is already and which is vouchsafed, during the eschatological event.” (63) We are not here only on behalf of ourselves; we are here as emissaries of God. We have to practice “saying no and yes simultaneously;” denying sovereignty to the power of death, affirming “the authority of life.” (63) The “no” we say to death is simultaneously a celebration of life. (64)

What is this “death” he speaks of? Death is far more than physical demise; it is a moral power, a “social purpose.” (70) Stringfellow, writing in 1973, uses the Vietnam War as his example. Here we have racism, in counting the deaths of Asians less important than those of Americans (71); tactical strategies equating high body counts with victory, and euphemizing “massacre” into “search and destroy”, and genocide as a matter of principle (72). “Smart bombs” meant that soldiers didn’t see their victims dying. Napalm meant poisoning the earth, so people couldn’t hide.

But before Vietnam, there was Hiroshima. Stringfellow asserts that before that August 6, “that war… strategically and technically already had been won.” Therefore, the nation bombed two Japanese cities, just because it could. (75) The spirit of death was victorious there, as it had been before, and continued to be. The existence of war is a sign of the Fall. The difficulty we have in acknowledging that, is even more so.

The principalities and powers, created by God, are also fallen. Stringfellow offers a rare taste of wry humor, here, when identifying other creatures identified with them: “the bear is Russia, the tiger represents Princeton, the donkey the Democratic Party, the pig the police.” (78) Legion, they are, and though created for humankind, they have come to dominate us. None are benign. Even those which can serve well may be aggressive, if you are an African-American male on the wrong side of the legal system. We serve them both in power and in ignorance, and all of us are victims (77-94 passim). Their favorite trick is deception (98-101). The Antichrist, that which is against both God and human life, is in our midst (111).

We appear to be inescapably, thoroughly besieged by demonic powers. What can we do about it? Stringfellow sticks a toe in the waters of hope, by setting this question against the backdrop of the resistance against the Nazis in World War II. Our choice, he says, is to risk the equivalent of capture, imprisonment, torture, and death. The act of resistance to evil is the only way to the preservation of sanity or conscience (118). Not to risk everything, by implication, is to give in to the power of death.

Here, the Bible re-enters the discussion; apparently, a large contingent of the Resistance had been comprised of evangelical Christians. Scripture study had been practiced widely not only by them, but by Jewish participants also. Reading the Bible had been, in itself, “a primary, practical, and essential tactic of resistance.” (120) They read these scriptures together, they talked and thought about them, and the stories became a part of their story as well.
But, alas, not the American churches (121). We have not resisted demonic power; we have enthusiastically participated in it. We are degraded; we were founded by pagans, and we don’t respect our scripture. Our hope, should we have any, can be found in the confessing churches. It is they who appreciate the gifts they have; they, who are “spontaneous, episodic, radically ecumenical, irregular in polity, zealous in living, extemporaneous in action, new and renewed, conscientious, meek, poor,” who can truly live the Gospel (122).

Presumably it is they who best use their spiritual gifts; the character of those gifts would seem to lend itself to Stringfellow’s description of the confessing church. Here, finally, are the tools to resist the power of death. He begins this chapter with a discussion of discernment, of the importance of noticing and appreciating “the remarkable in common happenings,” (138) the power that is given us to speak prophetically and to know the Word of God. Glossolalia is more than what we call “speaking in tongues.” It is ecstatic, spontaneous, truthful, joyful speech. Here is how to construct integrity in worship; this is the gift to use when we are called to rebuke demonic powers. This “liberated witness” is for Stringfellow “the sound of revolution.” (148) The gift of healing is treated with descriptions of the raising of Lazarus. We are called to heal, and thus to witness to the power of Christ to overcome death (148-49). Exorcism has nothing to do with horror movies, and everything to do with burning draft cards, with “exposing the death idolatry of a nation.” (150)

For we live, as Americans, in Babylon. Is there hope for America? No. Is there hope in Christ? Always; in fact, Christ is our only hope. A “no” to America, Stringfellow contends, is a yes to God, and to life (155).

This book appeals to the cynic in me, as it leaves the hopeful idealist searching. I am always one who wants action alerts, postcards to sign, rallies to attend. I didn’t find them here. While I appreciate and agree with Stringfellow’s position on American depravity, I get a little too tired of my own cynicism to comfortably say so. I didn’t feel picked on, for my nationality; I felt frustrated by the depth of greed in our culture. I also wonder, though, if that’s a fact of humanity, and that our particular sin is that we flaunt our consumerism, greed, and militarism without thinking about it. I am flying to New Orleans tomorrow. People have raised money for the four of us to go; a week in the Big Easy is not going to end up costing me very much, materially. I am also very aware that I am going to a city famous for its culture, to work in a disaster zone. I have never been homeless. I have never lost all of my possessions, and the people I most loved, let alone in a single water-logged day. I have never had to take refuge in a crowded, filthy sports stadium. I have not been forgotten by the governmental agencies and insurance companies whose charge it is to protect me. I’ll be there for a week, helping out at a women’s shelter, listening to people’s stories, doing my best to stay clear enough to bring a piece of the presence of God. I’ll fly back here eight days later, to my comfortable grad-student life, where my biggest worry of the moment is one late paper.

This book gave me something to think about, vis-a-vis living humanly, being a truthful, healing presence, in a disaster zone. As a white, middle-class American graduate student, I can’t. As a Christian, maybe I can.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Easter fun

Heaven help me, I'm supposed to be working. But this is too glorious not to share.

Thank you, Mark Harris!

Updated NOLA photo page

I uploaded the pictures Judy took in New Orleans, and added them to mine. Some are similar; some are from drives around the city by herself. I haven't captioned hers, though I may try to later. Most don't need it.

Go here to see.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Christos Aneste!

Aleithos aneste!

Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen, indeed!

All you saints in heaven and on earth,
Come rejoice with us!

What You Can Do to Help New Orleans

Nineteen months after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, there is still tremendous need for financial donations and volunteer labor. This resource list will be updated periodically. Please click these links, learn what is out there, and give in the ways that are best for you.

Please continue to pray for the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We saw conditions there that shook us to the core. There are rebuilding efforts, and many signs of hope, but they cannot do it alone. Please pray for strength, healing, and wise leadership. Pray for the healing of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual wounds. Pray for strong communities. I am writing this on Easter morning; please pray for resurrection.

If you can, please go to New Orleans. I can’t stress this strongly enough. Go for a day, a week, a semester, a season. Go and see the city; if you can, volunteer. You may not think that your brief presence makes a difference—but we found out that it does. Even if you can’t stay long enough to see the fruits of your labor, the experience of serving in this city will change you. You will not see the world, or your place in it, the same way again.

Educational Resources

Indymedia, Katrina page

National Geographic, Katrina Photo Page

National Geographic Special Edition: Katrina (includes "How You Can Help" list of resources)

New Orleans Times-Picayune, Katrina Archive

NPR: Six Months After Katrina

NPR: Katrina, One Year Later

NPR: Katrina and Recovery

Think Progress, Katrina Timeline

This American Life, Katrina Stories

"Immigrants and Hurricane Katrina," ImmigrationProf Blog 4-12-07

"New Orleans Rebirth Depends on Marshes," Dallas Morning News 12/10/05

Donation information and volunteer resources
Many of these organizations welcome volunteers. All welcome financial contributions.

Tulane University School of Social Work, Hurricane Assistance Links

The NOAH Project (Loyola New Orleans Alliance for Hope)

Mercy Corps, Gulf Coast Recovery page (also click the tabs on the left)

Oxfam America, Hurricane Katrina Page

Habitat for Humanity, New Orleans

Episcopal Relief and Development, Hurricane Response Center

Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, volunteer page

St. Anna’s Episcopal Church, New Orleans
St. Anna's Mission to Musicians, Summary and Outcomes Statement (2006)
We visited while we were there. This church hosts a benefit for musicians every Wednesday night, and has several other free services, including legal and crisis counseling. When I asked the rector what he would have me take back to California, he said, "Peace. Hope. And send us money."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Thank you, Elizabeth Kaeton

…for publishing this photograph of an Easter ad run by the Bay Area Reporter (local LGBT rag). I already had a paper copy; now I get to share.

My church is on the lower left. If this is "making trouble," I am proud to do it.

You might want to swallow whatever you’re drinking, before you click on the link!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

New Orleans Pictures

I’ve finished uploading and organizing my pictures from New Orleans. You can see them here. The set labeled “NOLA” is mainly focused on hurricane and flood damage. The pictures in “NOLA Fun” are mostly of the swamp tour that Judy, Vivian, and I took on Saturday morning.

I think we’re all still processing the trip; I know I am. I went out to lunch with friends after church on Sunday. We were driving through the neighborhood, and I was looking out the window. Suddenly it hit me: no spray paint on the houses! No water marks! The strong foundations and intact houses appeared to be completely out of place. Then I remembered, “Oh yeah. I’m in San Francisco.”

I picked up something called “barotrauma” from the flight home; it’s what happens when you fly when you’re sick, one or both of your eustacian tubes don’t open, and you end up with fluid trapped behind your eardrum. It’s in my left ear, and doesn’t hurt now, but it’s uncomfortable. I’m hearing half-underwater. I called the advice nurse at Kaiser, because this had never happened to me before. She asked how I got it. I answered, “I was in New Orleans….”

She was way more interested in that experience than in my gunky ear, and kept thanking me for going. She said it made her night. I appreciate her thanks; I really do, but it’s kind of surreal. Everyone we met in NOLA thanked us as well. Going down there seemed like an adventure to me before we left; now I’m grateful that I could go, and I wish everyone would. That experience changed me forever. And every little bit of attention or caring helps, whether you’re gutting houses, distributing clothes, or just sitting with people. Praying for them helps. Sending money helps. I think that presence is the best gift of all. If all you can do is witness to the fact that these people exist in these conditions, that is tremendous. They will tell you.

I saw the doctor this morning; my ear is supposed to heal on its own, in “a few weeks.” Meanwhile, I’m developing empathy for hearing-challenged people, and praying that the Sudafed I’m taking works soon.

A blessed Holy Week to all.

Sunday, April 01, 2007


Michael flew back to Berkeley last night; Vivian and I flew together, and have just gotten home. Judy is visiting family and friends, and will be back at Eastertime.

Thank you all for your thoughts, your prayers, and your love. Your support has meant more to us than you will ever know.

I've got church in a few hours. Goodnight, and peace be with you.