Alisa Harris: Raised Right

I’m a pastor in Washington, D.C. The job is not at all what I supposed it would be. When I lived outside of the beltway and looked in, I saw a group of power-hungry, egomaniac talking heads, yelling at television cameras or rabid crowds.

I didn’t expect what I encountered—a group of idealistic individuals, who love God and love their neighbors. They have allowed their dreams of what the world ought to be seep into what they do each day. They work for nonprofits (or as they say around here, NGOs, non-governmental organizations). They lobby for the environment, lead with teachers unions, and work on the Hill. I don’t serve one of those congregations where the superstar politicians go (there are those churches), but I serve the one where people might be hanging out with a guest at Miriam’s Kitchen on one day and affecting policy on the next.

Of course, we have a thread of ego-driven power-mongering in all of us as well. We are a church, after all. But for the most part, after pastoring this congregation, I’ve learned a bit more about day-to-day politics and the people who are rightly known as “civil servants.”

I had a chance to think about this a lot this weekend. Not only was it the 10th anniversary of September 11, but I’m also participating in the Patheos Book Club Round Table discussion on Alisa Harris’ book, Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics. I loved reading how Harris went from Hillary bashing at a goat pageant to burning thrift-store bras as a feminist protest at her conservative college. So much of her story resonated with my own.

As I sat, consuming the pages, I wondered, What now? I may be over-reaching in my analysis, but I dare say that we are watching the coming of power of many women who learned the ways of politics through the pro-life movement.

Think about it… we’ve got Sarah Palin. We’ve got Michelle Bachmann. We’ve got a whole bevy of Mama Grizzlies. You may scoff, but they became solid political figures as a result of their activism. Liberals scratch their heads, wondering why so many Republican candidates are wearing power skirts, while those who fought for women’s rights still seems to be overwhelmed with old white guys. But those of us who grew up in the Religious Right hotbed know exactly why (and if you’re wondering, read Harris’s book).

I’m a full-grown, full-blown progressive now. Palin and Bachmann make me feel like I gulped down a glass of milk before realizing it was six-months out of date. But I was raised looking up to women like them, and I often wonder, If I were still conservative, would I be running for Congress right now? The truth is… conservatives are better at developing young leadership than progressives…. They’re even better at developing their young women.

Which brings me to my earlier point about my congregation, about the everyday work. Harris’s book didn’t make me want to give up on politics, or even completely untangle my faith from politics (even though they are now woven together in a different way now). But it did make me realize that if we represent a new generation of political creatures, then we need to roll up our sleeves and get on with the daily grind. Not just in rallies and protests, not just in posters and sound-bytes, but also in day-to-day justice. In being honest journalists and courageous pastors. In making sure that our daughters hear a different message.

One bit of the book keeps rolling around in my mind, and I find myself wrestling with Harris’s words:

Unless you are smuggling soup to the Jews in your attic, I think a political act can’t be an act of love. It can be a good act, even a noble and heroic, but love is something that takes place behind a barricade; it happened in the breaking of bread and the passing of cups. Political love is theoretical, directed at some vague “humanity,” and Jesus didn’t say to love humanity but to love your neighbor.

I suppose that I agree more with what Cornel West famously said: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” I know that politics is messy, but I also believe that individual acts of love are only going to go so far. As one hand feeds the hungry, the other needs to be working on the larger scale.

Putting energy into helping one homeless person does not keep you from defending the poor in the political sphere. Loving my daughter does not keep me from fighting for women’s rights. Recycling one can does not keep me from working to make sure regulations are in place so that environmental degradation does not consume our planet. One action informs the other, and we need to keep doing both.

It is a profound moment for a new generation of politics, especially as we learn to engage our faith in the public sphere. And reading Harris’s story is a good reminder that our faith should never be tightly wound up into one political party. And as we engage our faith in different ways, we can remember that being involved in politics means that we must keep thinking for ourselves.


If Only You Were More Educated, Then You Would Agree With Me

I was sitting with a woman—a Mainline Christian woman—and we were chatting about my background. I explained to her that my family is politically and theologically conservative but that I had changed many of the views that I grew up with as a young adult. She shook her head, sighed, and said, “Well, people just need more education, that’s all.”

It’s a common mistake that progressives make, but I really wish we would stop it. More education did, indeed, make me become a more progressive Christian. But I always cringe when I hear progressives say, “Well, they just need more education” when it comes to political, sexual, or theological issues. Why?

•We are assuming that conservatives are uneducated, and that is not true. We are way past the point in our country when we can make those assumptions, and it’s naïve to do so. In D.C., there are plenty of conservative religious think tanks, with highly skilled and educated men and women who have been pumping out articles for decades. But I cannot think of many progressive religious think tanks. Only a few come to mind. Please correct me if I’m wrong about this…but religious progressives seem to be woefully inadequate in this area.

•When we assume conservatives are uneducated, that makes us arrogant and unattractive. I write for the Huffington Post, and often, when I put up a positive article about religion, inevitably a rash of atheists will break out to tell me how unintellectual I am. The logic is that if I were educated or if I were an intellectual, then I would think like they do.

Does this make me want to run out and join the Dawkins book group? No, it does not. It just makes me roll my eyes and think rather poorly of atheists. Which is too bad, because I rather like the atheists that I know in real life. I am not anti-intellectual, anti-science, or anti-education, and false assumptions that I am are annoying.

We do the same thing as progressives. Imagine a Midwesterner who went to work as a car mechanic instead of going to college, because he realized that he could make a whole lot more money as a mechanic in his town, and come out with a whole lot less debt. Would it be attractive to him if we said to him, “If you had an education, you would think like us”? No, it would not. We need to begin to accept people for who and what they are. We don’t need to go around imagining that if they would better themselves than they would look like us.

•If we really believed it then we would be better at resourcing education. If you’re a church professional who has been to seminary, it’s easy to find wonderful, scholarly work on all sorts of areas that are important to progressive ideals.

If you want to hand something to your members, if you want to educate them, you’re out of luck. I often hear people on Twitter asking, “Does anyone know of a progressive resource for (fill in the blank—marriages, same-sex partners, parenting, finances, devotions)?” And then the only response is “if you find out anything, can you let me know?” When I bring this up to people who might provide the resources (scholars, publishers, etc.), they say that they don’t want to “dumb down” their material. They are providing resources for a scholarly audience.

The problem with this idea is that the people in our pews are not dumb, they are just not educated in the same things that we are. I could not pick up a biology textbook and get much out of it. Why do we expect that the biologist in our pews should have to pick up a theological text, written for a handful of people at AAR and expect to understand it? Why do we expect that mechanic–who can fix my car when I have a difficult time finding the dipstick–to understand it? Sometimes the books only seem to be written so that other scholars can check the index to find out if their names appear in it.

When I met a representative from a denominational publisher, the first thing he told me was, “We would never publish one of your books.” It was a strange thing for him to say, since I had never sent in a proposal or even made an inquiry. I mean, to get a rejection out-of-hand like that seemed odd.

I laughed and said, “Why?”

He answered, “Because we only publish scholarly work.”

On one hand, it felt like a personal rejection that I’m still reeling from a couple years later (I’ve told the story countless times to others who have received rejections). But on the other hand, it was a clear statement of strategy on behalf of denominational publishing that had nothing to do with me, personally.  And so it also made me wonder a deeper “why.”

If we believe so much in education, if we believe that it is transformative, why aren’t we providing education for anyone but those who are already highly educated?

GCR 3.2 Brian McLaren and Phil Shepherd: Navigating the Shifts in the Church

What do we do with dying churches? Is the emerging church male-dominated? Why? Which is more likely to reform, denominations or evangelicalism? Does Brian McLaren still claim the title “evangelical”?

These are some questions we asked Brian McLaren. Brian is an author, speaker, and activist. Most recently, he wrote the book A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith.

Listen Here!

Another death certificate for the emerging church

So the Wall Street Journal has proclaimed that Emerging Church has fizzled out. Brett McCracken has declared it a hipster trend and we’re moving on, because the hipsters were never about Jesus.

I don’t really want to talk about whether it’s dead or not. I don’t know. I know a lot of intelligent people who are still involved, and I think that it will have a huge impact on American religion for many years to come. My sense is that what died was “emerging” as an evangelical re-branding effort. The evangelical movement could not control the Gen Xers, so they will declare them dead. But the people who were writing interesting things are still writing. Those reeling from the after-effects of evangelicalism have not gone away. People who struggle to respond faithfully to postmodernism have not gone away. Whatever is happening, it’s clear that a transition is occurring and there are things that we can learn right now.

I say “we” with discomfort. I have felt shut out of the “Emergent” movement. I am a pastor in a historic, intergenerational congregation with traditional liturgy. A few years ago, when I asked an Emergent writer and leader if there was room for me, if the conversation could be about both/and (both innovation and tradition), he told me clearly and emphatically, “No.” Denominations were going to die at any moment, and I was holding onto a lumbering dinosaur. I was not part of a denominational church so that I could live out the fullness of my calling in a community of faith, but in order to gain power for myself.

As someone who grew up in a church that systematically oppressed women, who was constantly told that my calling into ministry was a sin and the only reason I felt a longing to minister was because I could not accept my God-given role of submission, and I was all about power, the soundtrack sounded the same…even though the intent was different. I feared that people in the movement did not understand the difference between abusive power and spiritual empowerment. I bolted.

(And, yes, for anyone who doesn’t believe me, I’ll be happy to give anyone the name, place, date and precise time of the conversation. I will email it to you though. I won’t do it publicly. But, remember, if you keep questioning the validity of people who complain because your experience has been different, then you just might be contributing to the problem.)

Many people wonder why I often make a distinction that I am not a part of the capital “E” “Emergent” movement, even though I write about being faithful in the midst of postmodernism and cultural shifts. Not to mention the fact that I dearly love many who are in the heart of the movement. It’s because that was one of many conversations that I’ve had. In spite of this, I have found friends among the loyal radicals—those who are in the midst of denominations, understand the shifts in culture, and are working to respond faithfully to them.

The Emergent movement might be dead. Denominations might die. But God’s not dead. I guess the question is, what we can learn in all this? How can we retool? How can we keep being the hands and feet of Christ in the midst of the shifts and changes? What is God calling us to become? Here are a couple of things that I have learned from this larger conversation.

First, we need each other. We need the tradition and wisdom of the generations who have come before us. We need the Boomers and the Builders. And we need the church movements of the past. We need the wisdom that comes from church structures and we need the passion that breeds in the postevangelical movement. There is no way that we can shut out all evangelicals and all denominational Christians and expect that a movement will survive.

Second, we will need to be kind with each other when it comes to financial security. Often times, in our new church movements, we can heap shame on each other for not starting new churches, or guilt one another for not giving everything up and living with the poor. If a person receives a pension then she’s a sell-out. If he receives book royalties then he’s a sell-out. Shoot… if a person runs ads on her blog and gets a monthly check for $1.27, she’s a sell-out. If he blogs for Beliefnet, he’s a sell-out.

If we continue this sort of hardcore attitude, it may be difficult for us to sustain in the long run. Many of us have families. We have student loans and mortgage payments. We love Jesus, but our kids need backpacks to go back to school. Many of us hope that we will not be eating dog food when we retire. We will keep having difficulty planting churches and working for social justice if we don’t have some realization that sometimes we need money. Our ministries need money. That doesn’t make us greedy capitalists. That doesn’t make us all about power. It’s just reality.

Third (and I have been clumsy as I’ve talked about this in the past, but I still think there’s more to say), when people complain that they are being left out (women, LGBTs, different ethnicities), there has been an assumption in the Emergent movement that there is no power structure, so there is no way that people can be left out.

It’s important to understand when we have power. And it’s vital that we use it to empower others in their ministries. If we want a diverse conversation, we will need to make sure that it happens. There are many people who have been historically left out of church leadership. Some have been ill-treated blatantly or discreetly. As a result, they just don’t have sharp elbows. They will not push themselves up to the table and make a place with ease. Those of us who are people of privilege will need to understand this. We will need to keep making spaces and extending invitations.

The Importance of Community

I was at a party, holding my plastic cup of beer and talking to a stranger in a crowded house. She was in thirties, like I was. “So, what do you do?” she asked. “Where to do you work?”

I smiled because this part of the conversation can become really interesting. I’m a five-foot tall woman, who’s part of a generation that considers itself “spiritual but not religious,” so people don’t usually expect my answer: “I’m a pastor.”

“Oh my God,” she responded. “I never knew why anyone would go to church. But last year, my mom got sick. She’s divorced, and I’m living hundreds of miles away from her, so I didn’t know what we were going to do. And her church totally took care of her. They brought her meals. They drove her to the doctor. They called me when anything out of the ordinary happened.”

“Yeah. That’s what the good churches do.”

“Really?” She looked completely confused as she continued, “I had no idea. You should really advertise that.” I laughed, and we talked for a bit more about her career. But, her initial comments stuck with me as I snagged a rare empty space on the couch. I looked at the crowd of mingling people, and the loud music triggered my thoughts. It never occurred to me that people would not know that churches care for the sick. What had church become in the minds of most people?

I wondered as I traced the condensation drops on the side of my cup. Do people only know our faith by what they see on Fox News? Has church become synonymous with the Religious Right? Has Christianity become known as a “pull yourself up by your boostraps” kind of religion? What about our progressive congregations who are serving the poor, caring for the environment, and helping each other out? What about those who love our neighbors, even when they’re going through difficulties? Do people even know we exist? And how would we advertise that anyway? It’s not like we are an elderly care service—someplace where you can drop your parents off so that we can take care of them and you don’t have to worry. No, it’s different than that. We’re a community. Which, I suppose, can be an alien concept in itself these days.

Our society rewards autonomy. In our educational system, the most important tests are the ones we take alone. We move away from our hometowns in order to get an education or a job. Then we keep relocating for every career opportunity. People would rather rely on high-interest credit cards than borrow money from their own family. Young men and women, who are trying to enter an extremely difficult job market, are considered losers if they live with their parents while they pay off their student loans. People put off marriage and parenthood, because there is a societal expectation that we must be financially independent before we become married (which is increasingly difficult when it takes two incomes to maintain household stability). In these days of economic turmoil, the young have been hit with student loans, high housing costs, and stagnant salaries. Older people have been smacked with increased medical costs, prolonged retirement plans, and diminished savings. As we realize how threadbare our societal safety net has become, it is becoming clear how faulty our notions of financial and emotional independence are. We need each other. We need communities.

While many civic organizations have become relics of the past, faith communities still thrive in our society, as a place of solidarity in all stages in life. In our sanctuary, there is a space where CEOs and homeless people sit together in the same pew. We’re a gathering where people from diverse ethnicities work with one another. It is a setting where the young and the old support each other when we’re in spiritual, emotional, or physical need. It is a place I can go to, in times of faith or in doubt. When I’m too weak to hold any belief in God or myself, I know that a community holds it for me. And I can be strong for others, when they falter. It is a sanctuary, in a broad sense of the term, where people can question and work to make the world a better place.

I don’t mean to say that our community of faith is perfect in any sense. None of them are. We can fight over silly things, and we have expectations that far exceed our human capacities. There are some churches where people can just be downright nasty to one another. But, in the right space, it is a place to build community, with all of our human messiness. It is a place where we can struggle alongside one another, helping one another in times of strength and weakness.

In this society where we are becoming weary, anxious and depressed with our struggle for autonomy and independence, there is a place where we still gather. We take each other to the doctor. We make food for one another. We care for each other. We see each other as neighbors and we still create community.

Born Again

I was teenager, standing in front of the mirror, hating every bit of the reflection. I was born in the seventies and grew up along a beach town in Florida. It’s a place where–sometimes by necessity–people don’t wear many clothes. The beach dominated our recreation and businesses, and it was so hot that a lot of clothing didn’t make sense. Many restaurants had to instruct their customers to wear shoes and shirts in order to receive service. I never wanted to wear a bathing suit in public. I had a less than perfect body, and never got over my self-consciousness enough to venture out without full covering. And as I stared into that mirror, my body consciousness turned into shame, and then hatred began to take root, until I loathed what I saw. Every imperfection, every curve, I treated with a disgust that haunted me throughout the day. It came out in subtle ways, mostly with an eating disorder that never allowed me to consume food without guilt.

Sadly, my Christian faith didn’t help matters much. As a teen, we attended a conservative mega-church. I was a “born-again Christian,” fashioned in a tradition where I was always taught to “take up my cross” and to “die to self.” There was a dichotomy between the flesh and the spirit, they told me. As a Christian, I was caught in an internal warfare, where I was trying to contain the flesh and discipline it. This hatred of the body fit in well with the emotional and hormonal turmoil I went going through as a teenager, as I began to develop in strange and unusual ways, and I could no longer quite squeeze myself into a bathing suit. Our church constantly encouraged us to fast as a spiritual discipline. Our pastor went thirty days without food, and preached about the experience constantly. So I fasted. I learned to ignore the cravings for which my body yearned. I turned away from the hunger, pain, and stress, all in the belief that I, as a good Christian, ought to keep any cravings of my body under spiritual control.

I didn’t come into a full understanding of my folly until fifteen years later, when my body began quickly and drastically changing again. I was pregnant, and each day I would stand in front the mirror, just like before. Yet, the experience was completely different. This time, it was with pure wonder at what was happening, as each part of my body swelled. I could no longer ignore my cravings. I had to listen closely to them, because they told me exactly what my body needed—leafy greens on one day and dairy products on the next. If I shunned my hunger and skipped a meal, I would vomit. My body let me know when the stress of my job was becoming too much and I needed to slow down, or when I needed to sleep more.

During this second time of profound physical change, I no longer had the same spiritual teachers. My theology had also evolved radically, as I read more feminists in my tradition, and the voices of those women reminded me that I needed to love my neighbor and I needed to love myself. They lifted up the fact that God said creation is good, and we need to take care of it. As I looked down at my enlarged flesh, I realized that I was not only a part of creation, but I was a partner in creation. As my body morphed into new shapes, my faith took on a new form as well, as I read theologians who shunned the idea that every sin begins with pride, while lifting up the fact that often people live with the violation of self-hatred. When I looked into the mirror, my new teachers whispered to me that I must great respect for that reflection. Because what I was looking at was imago dei–I was made in the image of God.

Feeling those first kicks made me experience my spirituality much differently. So much of what I had been taught had been focused on death, especially Jesus’ death on the cross, and that act of human cruelty had become central to my faith in unhealthy ways.  And yet, through those nine months, and the years that followed, I began to see my spirituality through the lens of birth and life. I became “born again,” as I understood that the Spirit was giving birth to me anew. God was using me in the act of creation, and I learned the importance of deeply-loved flesh.

How to Become a Speaker

This is the second half of my last post that got way too long. I love speaking. I especially love the reports two years later, when a congregation has studied Tribal Church, and then they started doing new ministries as a result. But when I talk to friends, I don’t think I have the hunger for public speaking that many people do. It’s hard work. It’s not like a rockstar glam life. There are times when you’re stranded without transportation or left without meals. Oftentimes people see it as part of my church ministry, and they don’t know why I should be paid. In short, it’s a calling that I love, but it’s hard work. I prepare, write, and think a lot before the presentation. Just know that, and I’ll let you know how I got started.

Prepare your CV. After you’ve produced some work, you will want to get a CV. The CV should not be your last pastor resume, but something up-to-date that highlights your recent accomplishments and writings.

Get a photo taken. I’m really bad about this, but it must be done. Don’t edit your last family vacation photo, or have your 8-year-old take a mug shot against a white wall. Your picture should be high resolution and professional, or as close to professional as you can get. A professional photo says… well… that you’re a professional. I don’t know why Evangelicals are so much better at glossy photos than Mainliners are, but there is a huge cultural difference there. Break the stodgy photo mold. (Yeah.. I’m not as cool as these people either, but you get the point. You actually want to spend some time with these speakers after seeing those pictures.) Give the organizers something that they are going to be proud to put on a conference brochure. If you are a person of color, a woman, pierced, tattoed, or young—then definitely send a good photo. We all know who populates these conferences speaker slots, and any decent organizer is going to be looking for someone who can bring a bit of diversity to the mix.

Write a description of what you’re going to present. You will want a long description (I still write a script, but I don’t read it), and a short 3-5 sentence description. The long one is for you and the 3-5 sentence one is for the organizer. In your presentation, you want to include

  • A chance for people to get to know one another. I’m not talking about a youth group mixer. I mean, ask a question that will help create community in the space and get people thinking about the material.
  • Present substantive information. You can do this with Power Point, but I don’t usually use PP, unless I know that the conference organizers are really into it (sometimes it’s disappointing if they’ve spent a lot of time setting up PP and I don’t use it). I don’t like it as much, because I’m less focused on people and more on slides when I use it.
  • Something that allows people to imagine the information in their own context and gives them something substantive to do.

Set up presentations. Again, as I said about publishing, start at the bottom. Ask your friends if you can lead a church retreat or Wednesday night Bible study for them (actually, it’s not really the “bottom.” I still love doing church retreats as much as big conferences. You get more accomplished having so many lay people on board.) Ask if you can lead something at your clergy group. Do church basement gigs. Ask your local governing body if you can lead a workshop for area churches. You may not get paid much for these, but it will build your resume and give you an opportunity to get comfortable with your material in a small setting.

Pitch to conference organizers. My calendar usually goes out about one to two years in advance. So, if there’s an annual conference, you can start contacting the organizers right after the last event. Include a query email, introduce yourself, say a word about your accomplishments, tell them what you would like to speak about and why, indicate that you know someone involved in the organization, say why you would like to speak at the conference (this is where you can tell them that you like the work that the organization is doing), and let them know what else is on your schedule. It helps if you have a catchy workshop title and enticing description. Usually, this should be a page. Attach a photo, your CV, a short bio and a short conference description (photo, bio and description can be on one page, so they only have to open two attachments).

Figure out your honorarium. As an author, I was looking at conferences as a way to do some good work, sell my book, and get my name out there, so I have been laissez-faire about honorariums. But… after a couple of years, I realized that I needed to start getting more serious. I was paying travel expenses and not getting reimbursed until months later. I would show up at a conference and realize that an older guy was getting paid two to three times more that I was, even though I was more accomplished. Or, that a much less qualified younger guy was getting paid two to three times more than I was…. Anyways, just like many areas in life, I had to come to the realization that I’m a thirty-something, five-foot-tall nice Southern woman, who is very accessible and may not look like she deserves as much as that other guy. Injustice is everywhere, and I don’t need to be perpetuating it just because I’m afraid to be seen as a Diva who’s a bit too big for my britches…

I needed to have a set payment and a contract. I don’t need to be presenting workshops at conferences where the keynote is much less qualified than I am. I have, in the past, gone down on my honorarium, but I sometimes resent the indelicate way it is presented and have gotten a lot better at saying “no” when it is handled poorly. (Basically, if you’re an organizer, don’t try to humiliate the speaker into thinking she is charging too much. It’s not a flea market, and that’s just tacky.) My time away from my family is becoming far too precious for me, so I’ve had to become a thirty-something, five-foot-tall Southern woman with a backbone.

Set a schedule. If business picks up, then you might want to decide how much travel you and your family can handle. Since I have a full-time pastorate that doesn’t recognize my writing or travel time as part of the job, I have to limit myself to two (and sometimes three) speaking engagements a month. I also try to take a couple of months where I have no engagements.

But I have not been on the organizing side of things.  Organizers and other speakers, what advice would you add?