GCR: Julie Clawson and Ryan Kemp-Pappan

Where does that coffee come from? What does that chocolate bar have to do with slavery? How do our everyday choices affect the global economy and human rights? Julie Clawson wrote a book on these very things.

Carol Howard Merritt talks to Julie Clawson about her unique perspective on the Emergent Church as well as her book, Everyday Justice. Then Carol talks with Ryan Kemp-Pappan about what Julie had to say.

SBNR

Presbyterian News Services issued a report about Spiritual But Not Religious (shortened to SBNR) people, based on the research of Linda Mercandante, a minister who teaches at a Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

There are three points that I would like to discuss. First, the article states:

One of the common assumptions — that many spiritual but not religious people had bad experiences in the church — is simply not true, Mercandante said. “I was surprised, but there was very minimal reporting by people that they had been hurt in or by the church.”

I’m a person who has written about the pain that church has caused, and I do hope that this point is not completely disregarded. As a pastor, I have heard story after story of mistreatment in congregations. It is there and I hope that we don’t ignore it.

Second, Mercandante points out that people react against stereotypes of the church like:

• churches claim to “exclusive truthfulness — that they have a corner on the truth market”;
• churches demand that personal beliefs be abdicated;
• churches demand conformity to a “corporate mentality”;
• joining a church means a loss of personal integrity;
• churches demand commitment “to things that have no meaning”’
• churches demand commitment to disagreeable codes of conduct; and
• churches profess arbitrary or implausible beliefs.

“I heard the same arguments over and over again,” Mercadante said of her research. “I don’t know where this script comes from — no one knows any real churches that fit this profile or stereotype.”

Let me explain where the script comes from. They are describing many Evangelical/ conservative congregations in our country. Since the WASPs left power forty years ago, our political power and media coverage has highlighted Evangelical congregations as the norm in our society. And many of them (not all, of course) live up to the stereotype perfectly.

It does not describe many mainline congregations, but that has not been the predominate religious voice in our country for a couple of decades now.

Third, Mercandante highlights Wuthnow’s important research, highlighting our assumption that people will join the church after they get married and have children. But then showing the realities of many Americans:

• delayed marriage (Americans are marrying at a later age, on average) and increased divorce rates;
• fewer children born later in their parents life;
• less job security, therefore greater financial insecurity, making commitment less likely;
• higher levels of education, which decreases “unquestioned belief”;
• “loosening relationships,” resulting in less community involvement;
• Globalization, producing less homogeneity and greater diversity; and
• the “information explosion,” which creates “broader spiritual horizons and therefore looser religious identification.”

“I think it’s clear that much of the problem organized religion faces today is not really the church’s fault,” Mercadente said.

This is the most important piece I think that we need to look at.

Of course it is our fault. We have expected people to become married, with children, secure, financially stable, and (sometimes even) white before they can be welcome in our churches. We have not reached out to the world around us, we have expected people to become something that they are not before they enter our doors.

That’s like saying it’s not GM’s fault that they are going under, even though they kept pushing SUVs when our planet was clearly in trouble. It’s like saying it’s not the McCain campaign’s fault that they lost the election, even though they were talking about the “real America” when most Americans are urban and diverse. That’s like saying it’s not the mortgage companies fault, even though they were lending huge amounts of money, with ballooning payments to people they knew could not pay it back.

When we cannot face the realities around us, it is our fault.

I have great hope for our congregations. But…let’s not let ourselves off the hook too easily. We have much to confess before we can change our ways.

What do you think? Do you agree with Mercandante’s research? Would you want her to know about people who are SBNR?

Faith formation and food

Here is a portion of an article I wrote for the LifeLong Faith Journal. It was inspired by a visit that Gus and Susan Schumacher made to our Sunday Night Coffehouse.

As we gather to worship on Sunday morning at Western Church, we have a sense that God empowers us to work for a just and compassionate society, and we try to imagine small ways in which we can help. Much of what Western has done has been in the area of food. It makes sense. After all, the good feast is central to our service, and we gather to receive the Eucharist in the sanctuary, we often remind ourselves that the Communion table is connected to the tables in our church basement, where homeless men and women receive a hot, nutritious breakfast.

Our worship often leads us to think about big issues in our congregation, for example:

•Soaring oil prices mean escalating food costs. A strain on our resources has contributed to rising costs of petroleum and petroleum-based fertilizers. The gas hike has exacerbated the escalating cost of food nationally and the food crisis globally.

•Transporting food contributes to environmental damage. With the environmental harm that carbon emissions cause and the growing scarcity of resources due to the economic development of China and India, we realize that we will need to think differently about how we grow and transport food. We will need to develop markets for diverse, local food.

•People in poverty often do not have access to healthier food. People who are in difficult financial situations (for example, the elderly, the homeless, those on food stamps and WIC) often buy calorie dense food, because it is cheaper and it satisfies hunger quickly. Food pantries are filled with unhealthy alternatives; in contrast, fruit and organic meat is expensive to purchase.

•Eating poorly affects our health, as a nation. The low cost and availability of calorie dense food presents an incentive to eat more junk food, and it causes more health problems in our country in the long run, such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. The risk of diabetes is a particular danger for children.

These are major issues of our time, giant forces that affect our global environment, national landscape, and personal health. Yet these global issues often have local solutions, and innovative communities of faith are in a perfect position to take on some of these sizeable problems, in very small ways.

At Western, the table is central to our worship and our work, so feeding people is at the core of our spiritual practice, and we have been open to innovation as we do it. There are many things that we have done to educate and form our congregation around the importance of food, and they involve two initiatives: we organized a farmers market in our neighborhood and started a feeding program for the homeless.

•We helped to revive the farmers’ market in our neighborhood. Churches and other faith communities are often in the perfect situation to begin farmers’ markets because we often have the available parking lots and space. The Fresh Farm Market in Foggy Bottom relies on our parking garage to store tents and signs.

How could something as simple as a farmer’s market affect big issues like the environment, the food shortage, and our health?

Farmer’s markets will be crucial in the years to come, as they allow for a space where local agriculture can be bought and sold. When we nurture our relationships with local food sources, we help to give farmers a market and an impetus to diversify their crops, and we decrease our dependence on petroleum.

Furthermore, many farmers’ markets can become participants with government programs so that recipients of food stamps and WIC can receive checks to use to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition, seniors who need assistance also have incentives to shop at the markets.

In these tough economic times, fruits and vegetables are often the first thing that a financially-strapped family has to cross off of their grocery list, but farmer’s markets create a place where they can receive fresh produce, that has been picked that morning, creating a possibility and even incentives for buying healthy food.

All of this brings us to another innovative thing that Western did, twenty-five years ago: we helped to create Miriam’s Kitchen.

•We started a feeding program for the homeless men and women in our city. Miriam’s Kitchen is housed in the basement of our church, and our services have grown so that we now feed over 200 clients each weekday morning. We not only serve them breakfast, but the staff at Miriam’s is committed to assisting their guests with a wide array of social services.

It is not like any other feeding program in which I have been involved, because the chef at Miriam’s, Steve Badt, is committed to providing the most nutritious meals that we can. Each morning, the menu includes vegetables that are not often seen on the average American’s breakfast table, but they are essential to a healthy diet. Steve knows that a meal at Miriam’s may be the only one a client might receive that day, so he makes sure that it has the nutritional value that will get that guest through the next twenty-four hours.

Just as the cost of food increases on our grocery shelves, the food line item in Miriam’s budget also rises. In the last couple of years, the food costs at Miriam’s have increased by 50 percent. That is where the two initiatives, the farmers’ market and the breakfast program, work together.

Not only do farmers’ markets help women, infants, children, and the elderly have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but many farmers are committed to helping the homeless as well. One farmer told me, “It only makes sense to give the left-over produce to people who need it. If I sell at a market that isn’t contributing to a soup kitchen or a food bank, then I make sure I find an agency that we can contribute to.”

At Western, we have seen the generosity of farmers first-hand. Each Wednesday evening, when the farmers are packing up, members of our congregation go gleaning. Participating in a spiritual tradition as old as the days of Ruth and Boaz, they fill their baskets with leftover items that the farmers will not be able to sell at the next market. The members then take those items to Miriam’s Kitchen. Through the generosity of the farmers, our members collected about $15,000 worth of produce last year.

Gleaning after markets is not the only way that this works. Families of all ages also drive out to farms in Virginia and glean the orchards and fields, so they can carry the produce back to Miriam’s.

It’s clear in our spiritual community that most people do not attend Western in order to worship for one hour. We are reminded that our service extends beyond our walls. We are called by God to look at big issues and to find innovate, local ways to address them.

Photo by Monitorpop

Sabbath keeping

I was back in action yesterday, leading worship at Western. And it was great to be there. I had not been to a service all month, so it felt really, really good.  

After the service, we ended up going out to eat. And for dinner, my husband and I were still too tired to cook and clean, so we grabbed a couple of sandwiches. This is how it often goes on Sundays (and on Easter, and on Christmas Eve), with two pastors in the family. There’s no one at home, making sure the roast comes out of the oven on time. We get so busy preparing for services, then we get the house, and realize that we have nothing to eat. As an introvert, I love people, but it’s exhausting for me to be in a crowd. On Sunday, I usually just want to (1) read and (2) nap.

I’m making this public confession because I realized this morning that my Sabbath-keeping is all messed up. Taking that particular, holy time has always meant worshiping and resting, but it’s also supposed to mean refraining from consumption. It’s not just rest for us, but rest for the earth.

But the truth is, I probably consume more on Sunday than any other day. It’s a practice that I have neglected, and yet we know that it would be quite good for the environment if all the Christian in our country began to refrain from consumption on our day of rest.

Sadly, for me, rest often means consumption. If my husband and I are not consuming, we’re cooking and doing dishes. I wonder if women in traditional family roles have always had this problem…. But aside from gender, it’s often that way, isn’t it? When we want to go on vacation, when we want to rest from our work, we want to be in a place where we can be waited on, and our rest leads us to consume stuff. 

So, my question is, for pastors, when you celebrate the Sabbath, do you do it on Sunday, or does that feel too much like work? I have one day off, of course, but that’s usually reserved for laundry and cleaning…. And for everyone, do you think about your consumption as a part of keeping that holy day? How do you do it? Crock pots and leaving the dirty dishes? Am I just being too literalistic? Or are dishes and cooking not considered work?

Vege-pastor?

In our home, we’ve been talking about becoming vegetarians for a while now. We did it for a couple of years, but then we became pastors. In Louisiana, there was no getting away from the roast at the Sunday afternoon potluck, and so I slid back into my carnivorous ways.

But, for some health and environmental reasons, I’m thinking about it again. It would be much, much easier in the D.C. area, because there are always vegetarian options on every menu–even at the church potluck. Although, I would hate to get rid of my grill. I have a serious bond with my grill.

Are there any vegetarians out there? What has your experience been? Have you been able to handle it as a church leader? What about parents? Any advice on the kids?

Happiness and community

We are a country of rugged individuals. We raise our sons and daughters to be independent. Self-sufficiency is the ultimate goal of parenting, and we would like for them to achieve it at age eighteen. As young adults, we won’t think of getting married until we are financially independent, even though we often need two incomes to sustain one household. And when we do get married, even in our own families, we are seeking a secluded life.

The Wall Street Journal observed this as it reported new trends in architecture. We are designing homes to make sure that people stay to themselves. “Major builders and top architects are walling off space. They’re touting one-person ‘Internet alcoves,’ locked-door ‘away rooms,’ and his-and her-offices on opposite ends of the house. In fact, the showcase of the Ultimate Family Home hardly had a family room. The boy’s personal playroom had its own forty-two-inch plasma TV, and the girl’s bedroom had a secret mirrored door leading to a ‘hideaway karaoke room.’”

We live in a society where ultimate happiness is portrayed by a man, in an expensive car, with leather seats, with a blasting stereo, driving as fast as he can, making smooth corners on a road somewhere, completely isolated, completely alone.

Of course, after driving in traffic gridlock of D.C., I do understand this fantasy a bit more… but the problem with this advertising fairytale is that the isolation, even in with great wealth, is not making us any happier. This era of independence, of self, does not bring us contentment.

Bill McKibben writes about all of this in his book, Deep Economy. As wealth has grown in the last couple of decades in our country, happiness has declined. Americans who said they visited with their neighbors fell from one-third to one-fifth, and it keeps falling. We’ve been working too hard. We’ve been entertaining ourselves in our own personal playrooms.

Our sense of independence has affected American religion, where a personal, privatized faith in Jesus Christ has become much more important than the faith community. I know of some churches have difficulty maintaining their budgets because people give so much to televangelists. What they receive in the privacy of their own homes is more important than being a part of a body of believers.

We have based so much of our economy on individual gain, even though our communities suffer. Wal-Mart is a good example of this. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law work for Sam’s, so I know a lot about Wal-Mart and their employment practices. People shop there because the prices are so low for the individual customer. And yet, as the superstores have multiplied, we know that they are bad for our communities.

In the few years that Wal-Mart was expanding in Iowa, “the state lost 555 grocery stores, 298 hardware stores, 293 building supply stores, 161 variety shops, 158 women’s clothing stores, and 116 pharmacies.” A new Wal-Mart eliminates a job and a half for every job it creates. Comprehensive studies have shown that counties with Wal-Marts have grown poorer than surrounding counties, and the more Wal-Marts stores in the county, the faster they grew poorer. Communities suffered but the individual benefits, from lower prices.

The other problem with putting individual gain over the community is that humans seem to be genetically wired for community. People who have good friends or who are close to their families are happier than those who are not. People who participate in religious communities are happier than those who are not. Joining a club, a society, a church of some kind cuts in half the risk that you will die in the next year.

And the activity that makes Americans happy, that produced all kinds of joy? Volunteer work. People make friends through it. They see results. It broadens their experience of life. It gets people out of themselves.

(Speaking of volunteering, here is the latest news on Miriam’s Kitchen, the homeless program in our church. The photo is also of our happy volunteers.)

Now, how do we convince our culture? How do we let people who have grown up in an onslaught of “buy this and you’ll be happy and independent” messages know that it doesn’t actually work that way?

The whole world in God’s hands

So, as I write, I always like to bite off a little bit more than I can chew. And while working on my next book, I’m thinking a bit about globalization. Definitely a bigger subject than I can digest, but interesting nonetheless.

To get a handle on it, I’m sharpening the focus. I’m wondering how globalization affects church leaders in a new generation. (Generation here is not referring to a person’s age, but a time frame.)

There is an idea of global discontent that influences us. For example, as technology becomes available, people around the world see how we live in the West. Not only does resentment fester with these images of wealth, but it also triggers different economic models in other countries.

China is seeing a mass migration from the farming lands to the city, a place of industry. It’s because people are learning how much more money they can make by leaving their farms.

Of course, the problem with this is if all the people of China begin to live like we do in the United States, then we will need the resources of more than one planet to sustain us. Globally, tensions are rising around our natural resources: oil, water, lumber, soil, food. And as China and India change economic models, the tensions will get worse. The earth simply cannot sustain if everyone has two cars and a suburban home. (Interesting aside: my father, with this concern in mind, invented the way to grow plants in space. All due respect to my dad, I doubt that will be the answer….)

I wonder how all of this affects the church. The church has always been very global. We typically think about things “unto the ends of the earth.” And in the last couple of decades, with short-term mission trips, our faith has been formed as we ditch ditches, run sewer lines, and try to help people all over the world.

And so I wonder if the reverse is happening as well. I mean, we know there is discontentment among developing nations as they see our wealth, but do we also have discontentment as we go back to our wealth? We know that we have so much. And we have been face-to-face with people who have so little. How does this affect us? Spiritually, emotionally, ethically, how do we deal with it?

I spoke to Don Richter about this. And he said that we’re suffering from a gluttony hang-over. “Gluttony. One of the seven deadly sins. It’s not just about what we eat. It’s about everything we consume.” He explained when we see the global inequities, we cannot help but realize how gluttonous we are.

So what do you think? Certainly the recent food crisis and the spike in petroleum prices is causing us to rethink our place in the world. How does all of this affect you, as a church leader? How does it affect your spiritual community? Have you spent time overseas? What impact has that had on your faith formation? Do you sense gluttony? Or is it something else?

the photo’s by thiagokunz