On World Vision - Voices of Reason

Many are likely unaware of this week's news regarding World Vision USA's policy change and then reversal of that changed policy in regards to the employment of individuals in same-sex marriage. To those who are aware, you've likely witnessed the public debate battle/war/fight (mostly through the media and the internet - this sure says something, doesn't it!?!).

You can read about it here:
Through the twitter-wars and entrenched polarization, I'm glad to have encountered a few voices of reason, people who recognize the dangers of politicized theological/ethical debate and who are attempting an alternative path in addressing such issues.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Jamie Arpin-Ricci, "World Vision & A Different Possibility"
...the witness this event has displayed to a watching world is not that Christians are uncompromisingly committed to morality, but that we are reactionary, graceless people, filled with anger, unwilling to follow our own principles of correction and grace, even when the consequences fall on the shoulder of some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable children.
David Fitch, "World Vision and The Public Sport of Evangelical In-Fighting"
World Vision is not a local church. It is a large organization that really acts like a public service corporation. It is alot like a large university that once had a church behind it but now has lost that direct affiliation. It now is beholden to a huge donor base for its continued existence. It should act like that. If it makes a public statement that statement should be made for the sake of its ‘business interests.” If this is true, then in my opinion, World Vision should have very limited statements about the moral behavior of its employees.
Ryan Dueck, "How Things Work in the World of (Mostly) Rich Western Christians"
...wouldn’t it get very complicated to keep pulling their money whenever a sinner is discovered in the ranks of those offering relief? How will anybody in the world be helped if the (mostly) rich western Christians redirect their money every time someone ignores the Bible’s clear teaching?
And then I would say…“Um…Er… 
Well, you see things just work a bit differently in the world of (mostly) rich, western Christians negotiating the weighty burden of how to allocate their discretionary spending in an adversarial and noisy church culture that has little patience for nuanced reflection or measured responses. 
Derek Rishmawy, "Keller, Evangelical Polarization, and the Folly of Measuring Coffins"
What seems to be getting lost is the Evangelical middle. Why? Well, probably a lot of reasons, but in view of the last week’s “dialogue”, in the technologically-amplified Argument Culture, centrist voices tend to get marginalized and the loudest mouths dominate the air/screen-time...
...Not that it’s right, but more American Evangelicals probably know about Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow breaking up than they do about the World Vision (non-)decision this week. Every once in a while, it’s good to step back and take a breathe on this stuff.

Exclusion Without Words

The doors slid open and there was the usual rush of bodies all vying for space on the crowded subway car. In New York, the dash from platform to subway car requires special attention.

As a visitor, I quickly learned to adapt to the rhythm of riding the New York subway. There are certain norms to follow to successfully (and safely!) join of experience of commuting in new York. The clash of people and space requires focus and attention (don’t step on toes!) along with just the right social distance (avoid eye contact). The pace and pulse of people is both invigorating and exhausting. Yet somehow, through the chaos, there is a sense of connection in this community of commuters.

But on this one day, as I joined the human funnel into the subway car, I was surprised to be met by empty space once inside. Here I was confronted with another subway norm. Actually, to be more specific, I was confronted by a person, a lone man illustrating this other norm.

He had nearly half the car to himself. It quickly became apparent why. Filthy clothes. Visibly intoxicated. Warbled phrases mixing obscenity and absurdity could be heard. Wafts of odor unknown and unwanted. The spaciousness around him wasn’t surprising. But it did say something.

My sense of connection was met with visible exclusion. Exclusion, whether intentional or not, came in different forms.

Locals were mostly indifferent. Not a glance or comment, just a shuffle to the other side of the car. A few locals, however, were visibly disgusted. Quick glances and whispering signaled judgment. Exclusion doesn’t have to be said to be heard.

A tourist, pushing a stroller, blindly rolled up right beside the man, only to heed the frantic waves of his partner to wheel his child to safety. Here exclusion came through fear.

I felt stuck. Who was I as a visitor to try and rectify this experiment in exclusion? I decided to take a stand. Literally. I stood firmly beside this man. I tried to catch his eyes, but his gaze was cloudy and disturbed. A conversation clearly wasn’t an option. So I just stood. It was an uncomfortable 5 minutes. But I stood.

And nothing happened.

Indifference. Disgust. Fear. I’ll admit, I felt a bit of each one. And how many times each day do I tend towards judgment and labeling of those who don’t fit in? But that day I realized indifference, disgust and fear weren’t my only options. For 5 minutes beneath New York, I stood.

Inclusion can be said without words too.

Pacifism, Violence and Force

One the main obstacles to people’s acceptance of a pacifist view towards human participation in violence is the lack of clarity in the pacifist approach. In directing energy towards decrying all forms of violent injustice, pacifists often fail to distinguish between a positive use of force and the negative use of violence. As a result, the pacifist=passive assumption is only exacerbated.

As a pacifist myself, I think we can do better.

I recently had my friend and Mennonite pastor/historian/theologian, Jonathan Janzen, discuss this issue in my Ethical Reasoning class. Too often, he suggests, folks like John Howard Yoder lack the nuance to provide a compelling vision and description of how active nonviolent peacemaking actually works. There is much rhetoric, but little reality. As a pacifist influenced by Yoder, and more directly Stanley Hauerwas, I take Janzen’s critique seriously. Working off suggestions from Duane K. Friesen, Janzen offers this critique:

Yoder [and other pacifists] tends to assume that force and violence are one and the same thing. They are not. Violence describes the violation or destruction of the dignity or integrity of a person. Violence can be physical or bodily harm. It can include an attack on a person’s emotional, spiritual or psychological well-being. It can also include the omission of acts necessary for life. For example, choosing not to feed your children will damage them.
       Furthermore, all violence is not “equally harmful.” One may heal from a broken arm, but one does not recover from death; one may recover from the financial losses suffered as a result of a boycott, but one may never recover confidence from the verbal abuse of one’s employer.
        The key question then, is not whether one uses power or force. We’re always using power or force. The real issue is what kind of force are we using and how are we using it. Do we strive to exercise power—to be persuasive, apply pressure, or compel certain behaviour—without necessarily inflicting injury or damage on others?*

Essentially, Janzen challenges for a more realistic and pragmatic pacifism. Not one that capitulates to the accepted use of violence in pursuit of justice, such as in a Just War perspective, but an exploration into the possibility of nonviolent force. As pacifists, we need to move beyond protest and rhetoric and actively live out the gospel of peace. As a result, to quote Janzen once more, “the force we use is that of forgiveness, love, generosity, and the story of Christ’s resurrection.”

*Unpublished lecture titled, “Why John Howard Yoder was Wrong and My Mom is Right.”

Consuming Authenticity

One of the things I’ve noticed in my work and research on urban culture is a renewed interest in place. People are becoming attune to the various ways in which our surroundings, both physical and social, impact our lives. In Vancouver, trends like eating local and bicycle commuting reflect a deeper sense of how we experience the places we inhabit. A big part of this shift in awareness is a dissatisfaction with modern conceptions of success and fulfillment, often driven by an impersonal consumption of our surroundings as a way to reach our own goals. We commute to get to work, not to connect with our neighborhood. We eat because we are hungry (regardless of where our food came from), not because we are participants in a local ecosystem. In this sense, we experience place only as a means to an end. And we’re tired of it.
I’m currently reading a book titled Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places in which author Sharon Zukin uses New York City to illustrate how we interact with the cities we live in. As her title suggests, the desire to acknowledge how places shape us reflects our human quest for authenticity, an experience of belonging in where we live. Whether it’s in the fight to resist change in city neighborhoods or in the process of endorsing developments that alter the urban landscape, how our communities live and die influence our experience of authenticity. As Zukin asserts, “The idea of authenticity is important because it connects our individual yearning to root ourselves in a singular time and place to a cosmic grasp of larger social forces that remake our world from many small and often invisible actions.” We engage place and seek authenticity in order to realize we belong to something bigger than ourselves.

But there’s a problem: we risk only consuming authenticity.

A place like New York City, with it’s endless streets, countless people, and diverse neighborhoods, gets idealized as an experience of authentic connection. But such is the view from outside those very neighborhoods. The city and its neighborhoods are treated as an object. Zukin points out a shift: “We are eyewitnesses to a paradigm shift from a city of production to a city of consumption.” On my recent trip to New York, one person described it as the place people only go to get something. And even in our best intentions to connect with place, we can idealize these places and only consume authenticity rather than actually produce it. Zukin explains:  

We can see ‘authentic’ spaces only from outside them. Mobility gives us the distance to view a neighborhood as connoisseurs, to compare it to an absolute standard of urban experience, to judge its character apart from our personal history or intimate social relationships. If we are connected to a neighborhood’s longtime social life, especially if we grew up there, we are likely to recall how it was back in the day; we are less likely, though, to call it authentic. Just thinking of authenticity in this way recalls its usual meaning, according to which an expert objectively evaluates the origins of a piece of art, an antique rug, or any other object we can isolate like a specimen, examine, and compare with other examples of its category.  In contrast to the subjectivity that comes from really living in a neighborhood, walking its streets, shopping local stores, and sending children to local schools, the other kind of authenticity allows us to see an inhabited space in aesthetic terms. Especially when we look at a rundown neighborhood we ask, Is it interesting? Is it gritty? Is it ‘real’? Like the criteria we use while shopping for consumer products, these standards objectify the authenticity we desire.

I’m convinced culture is something we both shape and are shaped by. The same goes for the places we inhabit. If we only consume our culture and idealize a sense of authentic places, we objectify our surroundings and fail to experience what’s really motivating our consumption - authenticity.

Protest and Advocacy

There are times that promoting a cause or working on a specific social issue can be overwhelming. Conflict, misunderstanding, and disappointment can quell the passion to continually engage. This has certainly been the case for many in my town with ongoing debates and discussion about how to address homelessness.
Feb. 24/14 rally at Abbotsford City Hall showing solidarity with Abbotsford's homeless population following the city council's rejection of a proposed housing project.
It’s interesting how we often think of people who are vocal about social issues as activists or protesters. An activist is someone who promotes or opposes a specific cause or issue. A protester, similarly, is someone who publicly declares objection or dissent regarding a social issue. This is certainly how those of us vocal about addressing homelessness have been perceived in Abbotsford.

This is fine and good. But it’s incomplete.

Yes, we need activism and protest to raise awareness on important social issues. There are moments when opposition requires a clear (and at times loud!) voice. By itself, however, protest can leave us only fighting issues. This is why I think it’s important to place protest within the broader task of advocacy. Advocacy focuses on the people impacted by social issues, offering necessary support or defense to people. As a Mae Elise Cannon summarizes, “advocates are change agents who work on behalf of others who might not [be heard] or have the power to change their unfortunate circumstances. Advocates are people who help secure justice for those who are experiencing injustice.” Towards issues, protest is appropriate some of the time. Towards people, advocacy is appropriate all of the time.
It’s been inspiring to participate in a movement in my community towards advocacy. Ministries like 5and2 have been at this for a long time. But for many, myself included, relational investment with all our neighbors is a more recent development. There is a collaboration called “Voices for Dignity” that has given space to inspire and encourage advocating for the dignity of all people. In Abbotsford, we’ve come to see our city not as a place with “issues” but as a place with people.

Issues or Relationships?

In New York City, what does homelessness advocacy, church planting, hurricane relief, and the UN have in common? Well, besides each area offering all sorts of complexity, it's people.

Our time in New York was one of the most diverse and rewarding trips I've gotten to be a part of. And while something as complex as addressing social justice, church/church planting, arts/culture, and faith in the marketplace is a tad ambitious for a 10-day trip, there was a common thread throughout our experience that brought some clarity: Within all the issues, we found relationships.

Key to the work of the Coalition for the Homeless was getting to know the people they work with, finding ways to humanize all people in New York despite the unbelievable figures and countless challenges of addressing homelessness (homeless counts are over 52,000 people each night, including over 22,000 kids - most are living in shelters). Without personal relationships across social boundaries, the issue of homelessness remains an issue. Yet for the workers at the coalition, they shared that it's all about the people. Relationships.

David Louw leading Praxis on a neighbourhood tour.
Churches are always attempting to connect the to culture around them and oftentimes New York churches and church plants are seen as exemplary models. For example, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, led by Tim Keller, has planted churches all across New York City and are recognized as a leader in engaging urban culture (we got to hear Tim keller preach one Sunday). We also toured different neighbourhoods with David Louw, pastor and leader with Trinity Grace Church, a movement of parish (i.e. neighbourhood) churches across New York City. We also attended one of their parish churches, Parkslope. Again, while there was much to observe and learn with both churches, it was the stories of peoples’ lives that brought them to life. At-risk youth are finding community in the East Village, even at the expense of immediate success as one church plant seeks to address the needs of their area. Seeing people passionate about their literal neighbours and not just the idea of planting a church was inspiring. Again, relationships.

Our MDS work crew with the homeowner (in the middle)
As I've already written, it was eye-opening to work on houses and help with hurricane recovery on Staten Island. But beyond the houses themselves, it was all about the people. One day while we worked, one homeowner walked through her home, pausing every few feet and exclaiming, "Wow...(tearful pause). Wow...(tearful pause). Wow...(tearful pause)." To hear her story brought our work to life. Rebuilding homes is all about relationships.

In our encounter with the arts, one student remarked on how the theme of storytelling left a strong impression on her. Whether it was paintings and photos at the MOMA, buskers on the subway, or watching Wicked on Broadway, each encounter with art told a story, creatively reflecting the honesty and beauty of human life and longing. Art and storytelling is inherently relational, a bond between the observers, but also the creators and performers. To experience the relationship of art was a pleasure for our group.

The "Freedom Tower"
Just being in New York City and walking amidst the towers of wealth and power forces one to reflect on how faith can even begin to find a home in that marketplace. New York is built on money, so to heed Jesus’ teaching on the matter inevitably raises all sorts of tensions. We were encouraged, however, with one church that is located in one of the more wealthy neighbourhoods, Tribeca. Through their relational connections and simple presence in that area, they are constantly exploring how to faithfully "steward privilege” together as Christians and as a church. Their relationships together and in their community inform their focus and mission. Not surprising, but very encouraging nonetheless, is a church seeking faithfulness in their relationships to their neighbours.  

People keep asking me how my time in New York City was. I’ll be honest, it can be hard to easily summarize. The issues we encountered seem insurmountable. But it’s not hard to remember people. We learned a lot, yes. But we got to know people a lot as well. Learning about issues led to directly to learning about and gaining relationships. The hope in the issues comes from the hope in relationships. This is what I’ll remember most about New York City.

Our Praxis crew!

"My home died" - surviving a hurricane in New York City

I've only ever seen the reality of hurricanes through the media. Intense wind. Driving rain. Torrents of flooding water. People stranded one roofs. This was knowledge gained from images and reports from miles away.

Not so anymore.

One of the houses we worked on.
This week on our trip to New York with Praxis part of our time has been spent working with Mennonite Disaster Service helping with the ongoing recovery efforts following hurricane Sandy. Yes, you read right: Sandy, the hurricane that ravaged New York nearly a year and a half ago. Until being here, I had no idea how damaging the storm was, and how long lasting the destruction has been.

After the initial hurricane - and many of the images and stories we heard around the world - many have endured ongoing trauma ranging from physical house issues such as mold infestation or rotted foundations, to bureaucratic nightmares trying to gather funds to pay for something as simple having the water turned back on (some homes still don't have running water). On TV we saw the immediate dramatic reality, but this week I've seen the ongoing dramatic reality of a hurricane such as Sandy.

One evening we had the chance to hear from a survivor of the hurricane. Thea, a single retired woman, shared about her encounter with Sandy, which included floating on a piece of wood with her cat for four hours since her house had water to the ceilings. But that wasn't what touched me most. Describing the return to her home the week following the hurricane, Thea bluntly described the situation: "my home died." It was like losing a family member she lamented. She had her life but no home.

Thea then went on to describe the emotional journey of salvaging only a few of her belongings and entering a months-long journey of rebuilding her home. Through the help of several individuals and organizations, Thea only recently moved back into her home. Upon receiving her toilet (after living in the house for months already), Thea could finally say "I was home again." Hers was a journey of death (her home) but also life (her home once more!). To be able to participate in these types of stories while volunteering to rebuild homes has been humbling and inspiring.

In terms of our trip to New York, working with MDS as only further strengthened my appreciation for the people in this city. Like all cities, there is much brokenness and hurt, yet in each story we've seen glimpses of hope.

*this is just one story of several our group heard during our time on Staten Island.