Thoughts On Brexit

I spent a year going to school in London. At the University of London, I was surrounded by people from all over Europe and the world. The amazing diversity of London has always been one of its best assets, and I can’t reconcile my memory of London as a place of unity and diversity with the reality that is Brexit.

Turning in seems to be the majority sentiment for a county that once ruled much of the world. I am in no position to judge the British on how they rule themselves, but I am confident that focusing only on one’s own self-interest is never a good plan. Any time decisions are made based on how one party – whether that be a person, a group, or even an entire country – can get more for itself, the result is rarely a strategy that works well in the long term.
I believe that finding ways to be generous to neighbors and engaging with people who are different from ourselves has been the most effective business and social strategy for hundreds of years, and I hope that Britain will find a way to avoid isolating themselves while at the same time exercising their autonomy. Obviously, that’s a hard balance to strike.

Like many Americans, I pray that the British exit from the EU does not lead Americans to say we should follow the same path. We live in a complex world and it is critical that we find ways to better engage the rest of the world, not isolate ourselves from it. I am confident that the Christian path is to welcome strangers into our midst and to go into all the world. Anything short of that is not following the path Jesus set before us. Sadly, too many people who claim to follow Jesus would rather we circle the wagons and only share our abundant resources with those who look just like us.

My experience living in London opened my eyes to remarkable people and powerful ways that others around the world live out their lives of faith. None of us are able to love God fully by just following our own understanding of how God created the world. We truly need each other. If America is to be a great nation, we must open our hearts and arms to all who would want to be in relationship to us. It says it on the Statue of Liberty, but Jesus also says it in the Sermon on the Mount.

I pray we will listen closely to God’s desire for us to engage the whole world in acts of love, justice, and joy. Anything other than that is a path that no Christian should be willing to take.

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Our Already-Great America

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has said a great deal about making America great again. I had a conversation with one of our clinic interpreters who showed me why America is great now.

Our Already-Great America

Image credit: “Unity Amidst Diversity” by eddypau

Ambar was born in Mexico. When she was a young child, her father came on a visa to work in Los Angeles. Because he was worried about issues of gang violence in LA, he moved his family to Memphis, where Ambar and her sister grew up. Four years ago Ambar married a young man from Mississippi.

From here on, this story gets complicated. You may need to pull out your atlas.

Ambar’s husband grew up in Mississippi, but his parents did not. His father is from Morocco and his grandmother is from Spain. Ambar’s husband’s mother is from Korea. His mother’s sister married an African-American US soldier who moved the whole family from Korea to Mississippi.

Ambar’s Mexican-born sister recently married an Indian man who grew up in England. At their wedding, there was a traditional Indian service, the bride was painted in henna, and there was also a Mariachi band.

So to recap: Mexican, Moroccan, Korean, Spanish, Indian, and British heritages all mingled together to make up your average family living in north Mississippi and Memphis.

No matter how you look at it, surely that is what makes America great.

Religiously, we have mixed Catholic, Muslim, Hindi, Sikh, Protestant Christian, and Buddhist.
I am guessing that makes God smile. I am not so naive as to think this family does not have cultural challenges. Questions about how to raise their children are certain to abound. But the richness of their lives from the amazing diversity is certain to bring a fullness to life that is not easy to come by.

America truly is a country of immigrants. I know that my life is made richer by my experience of other points of view both culturally and when it comes to how God is made known.

America does not need to be made great again. It already is.

Planting Apple Trees While Bullets Fly By

Memphis’ recent mayoral election in many ways turned on the issue of safety in America. Much of the national presidential debate is on the same topic. People seem to be afraid for their personal safety. It is no longer just war in the Middle East but war just down the street from where I live.

This has become much more real for me through events that have happened at or near Perea, the preschool the Church Health Center has run for 16 years in Memphis’ Klondike neighborhood. Four times since the school year began, our preschool, along with the elementary school where we are housed, has gone on lockdown due to a shooting on or near the school’s playground. I didn’t know about the first two occurrences, but then six weeks ago it happened again.

Planting Trees

I rushed to the school as though there was something I could do. John Wayne, I am not. When I arrived, Perea’s principal Alicia Norman calmly explained what had happened. A city-run community center sits right behind the school. During a basketball game, two rival gang members had a disagreement on the court. To settle the dispute, one chased the other out the door firing at him as he ran through the school playground. She then told me about the last episode a few weeks ago when she and another teacher were outside and the bullets went flying past her.

We walked down to the community center and found the one full-time employee. He was nice enough and seemed to fully understand our concern. He then explained to us all the reasons there was nothing he could do.

“If they are not playing basketball, they will be out in the streets taking it out on each other.”

This occurred right after the recent election for mayor. I called my longtime friend AC Wharton, who had just lost his bid to be re-elected mayor. He immediately took my call and swung into action. There were police everywhere. The next day, the chief of police was at the school. A plan was made to erect a chain link fence so that the gang members would be forced to run away from the school, not toward it, if they were trying to escape the community center. We all felt that we had been heard. For a couple of days there were extra police patrols in the neighborhood.

The day after the incident, I bought lasagna for the teachers and took it to them for lunch. Everyone seemed to appreciate the effort and understood there was little else that could be done.

Last week, there was another shooting.

Again, it started at the community center. This time it began with a craps game that went bad. The fence kept those involved from running toward the school, but the shooters got in their car and drove multiple times through our parking lot looking for the person they had shot. When the police arrived, Alicia showed them the bullet casings and drops of blood on the pavement. An hour later, they found the man who had been shot.

I called one of the Church Health Center’s board members, who is now working closely with the new mayor. She listened closely and understood my concern. She pointed out that the police department is woefully understaffed with police officers.

Nevertheless, the next day, an all-seeing police eye-in-the-sky camera appeared in our parking lot. The chief of police was again at Perea. Surely this will be a deterrent to anyone who might be afraid of getting caught. Won’t it? Don’t you think? I wonder how long they will keep it there.

Since the first of the year, there have been 12 murders in Memphis.

I stand behind what we are doing at Perea, and I know our parents are committed to seeing their children grow up to live long, happy, productive lives. Through our work at Perea, we are trying to reverse the statistics that tell us that many of our boys will end up in gangs and in jail. One or more of them could be the target of a shooting or the one holding the gun.

Last Friday, a dozen volunteers from the Memphis Empty Bowls Project packed a mountain of food so that our Perea children and their families could be sent home with healthy meals for the weekend.


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The volunteers were so excited about what they were doing for the children. It brought a tear to my eye and I truly had nothing to do with causing it to happen. Our children are so worth loving and they quickly return that love. I doubt the volunteers know about the shootings. If they did, what would they think?

When asked what he would do if he learned that the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther famously said, “I would still plant my apple tree.”

I intend to stay on top of my friend in the mayor’s office to keep the camera in place. I probably need to bring something other than lasagna for lunch the next time. I also need to find an hour to help with packing the weekend lunches.

When his disciples asked who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus was clear when he placed a child in the center and called all of us who chose to follow him to be like that child.

The name Perea comes from the place where Jesus was when he said, “Let the little children come unto me”.

I think that place could have just as well been named “Memphis”.

 

On Paris

I was 17 years old when I first visited Paris on a high school choir trip. Before we left, I was told over and over that the Parisians did not like Americans. I was told to be prepared for them to be rude and mean.

That wasn’t my experience. In fact, it was just the opposite of what I experienced there.

Everywhere I went, Parisians went out of their way to help me. They were kind. They were warm. They were compassionate.

Sure, the city was beautiful and historically rich, but it wasn’t the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame Cathedral that made me want to return to the city. It was the people who treated me as though I was one of them.

They were Paris.

It was not the tourist attractions that ISIS attacked: it was Parisians themselves. Folks eating dinner. Music-lovers taking in a concert. Fans attending a soccer match. ISIS wanted to instill fear, and that goal was accomplished.

Now, the retaliation has begun. New airstrikes. Blind anger at any Muslim. Fear of the unknown has replaced any attempt to embrace the other. None of it will make us safer.

Religious violence has been with us since the time the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. We seem to not know how to love God without killing each other. The terrorists cried, “God is great” as they killed the innocent. It is a cry we have come to expect. I just hope we are not prone to respond, “Our God is greater.”

Surely the God we worship can help us find a path to peace. Embracing those who are not like me gives me a chance to see the full richness of God.

I pray we will not retreat to “an eye for an eye.” We know already that will make the whole world blind.

Conservation and Christianity Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

My brother in law, John, is a world-renowned nuclear physicist. He is the Chief Technical Officer and former CEO of TerraPower, a company owned by Bill Gates that is developing a safe, small nuclear reactor being built in China. It will supply power for 200,000 people without creating weapons-grade plutonium. Only the Chinese are interested in the technology because it is expensive to build and the US believes we have an abundance of energy in the form of natural gas and shale. While this is true, these are the exact fossil fuels that are leading to climate change and that have long-term adverse implications for the environment.

Will we ever learn? While I’m pleased that the Keystone XL oil pipeline won’t be built, we still have a long way to go until we take consistent, active steps to being good stewards of our planet. As Christians, we are called to care for God’s creation and treat it with sanctity.

John has never openly believed in God. He is, at best, an agnostic. He loves to discuss issues of the universe but has never seen the need to believe in God.

Recently, he and I were talking while overlooking San Francisco bay. We were discussing the short sightedness of the American energy policy when he began to wax poetically about the uniqueness of our planet, how Earth possesses every single thing needed to support life. He then described the number of planets in our galaxy and pointed out that even if there is a “Goldilocks planet” – a planet with the exact conditions needed to support life – out there, it is not remotely close to us and without changing the dynamics of physics we would never be able to reach it. He continued to speak about how special our planet is and how we must care for it at all cost because we can never replace it. The unique qualities could never be replaced.

So I asked him, “How do you think it came to be?”

Smiling wryly, he said, “I guess an old man with a white beard and a cocked head must have made it.”

He didn’t exactly come to claim he believed that we are here because we are creatures of God, but his smile made clear his willingness to consider the possibility. Pure chance does not seem a reasonable answer to the question of how we came to be.

I find it remarkable that one of the most religious countries in the world, America, is a leader in harming our truly irreplaceable Earth. We are unwilling to do what it takes to care for the planet despite the fact that in Genesis, it is one of the first things God commands us to do (Genesis 2:15). As Christians, we are mandated to be good stewards of this place that sustains us.

My agnostic, physicist brother sees it. Why can’t our God-fearing leaders?

The Long Road to True Collaboration

I recently spent two days in Houston at the US Health Forum for the United Methodist Church. The point of the meeting was to gather church leaders engaged in health ministry from across the country. Historically, the denomination has supported health programs internationally, but it has done little in America. The greatest effort has come from, of all places, the Board of Pensions which has focused on clergy health.

Over the last ten years, the Board has uncovered disturbing facts related to the health of those leading congregations. For example, in the midst of the obesity epidemic in America, United Methodist clergy are 20 percent heavier than the rest of the country.

This meeting was intended to outline the ministries the denomination is already involved in and offer a venue for sharing. Hospitals, seminaries, primary care clinics, and a wide variety of programs were represented, including the Church Health Center.

I met some fascinating people. Many of our faith community nurse leaders were there, and I had great conversations with them about ways to grow the effectiveness of our work. I was also excited about meeting and learning about work going on at Duke Divinity School. The large hospitals that carry the name “Methodist” were there: Houston, Columbus, Dallas, San Antonio, and of course Memphis. Various agencies of the church also presented their work.

What was sadly clear is that none of these groups are working together. While they all have small projects that overlap, most seemed unaware of what the others are doing. Unlike the Catholics, the UMC has no pope. No one entity is in charge.

I saw great potential for how various ministries could work together. One light bulb that went on in my head was how effective it would be if the Board of Global Ministries moved its health department to Memphis to be based at Crosstown Concourse. Why not put the small team working on health within the work we are doing, along with Methodist Healthcare? The young Nigerian doctor who leads the department is feisty, and I’m convinced her work would bear great fruit if she were with us in Memphis. But the wheels are already turning to move from New York to Atlanta, and it seems unlikely the plans will shift.

For now, the work will continue to be done church by church, through individual agencies, or through parachurch organizations like the Church Health Center. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t work together if we started the conversations that would lead us there. “Where do we go from here together?”

We did talk a lot about John Wesley and his book Primitive Physick, which I often mention. I learned that Wesley had no tolerance for clergy who were not willing to walk five or six miles every day. I also learned he had a wooden horse, an early version of a treadmill, that he would ride for two hours if he did not have a chance to ride outdoors during the day.

Wesley was committed to health and was strong in creating connections between congregations. I think the Methodists still have a great deal to learn from the leader we trace our heritage to. We can do better at working together.

At the same time, I suspect we are not so different from most Protestant denominations—or many cities with various groups working in their corners of the health world but not weaving the connections that would make the fabric stronger as a whole.

Maybe we all need to remember to raise our eyes beyond the horizon and look at something bigger than ourselves.

How Will You Say “Welcome”?

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.

These words from Emma Lazarus’s poem “New Colossus” appear on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus’s words have inspired generations of people who have come to America seeking a new life, safety, the opportunity to flourish.

But I have to ask: How do these words jive with the position of the United States on the refugees coming out of Syria and Iraq today?

How Will You Say Welcome

Our government has made clear there will be no increase in our current quota for immigrants. While the US has said it will accept 10,000 Syrians in the next year, that number is part of a total of 75,000 immigrants slated to be accepted for the year—from the entire world. A few years ago, Antony Sheehan, the Church Health Center’s president, had to win a lottery to get a visa to enter the US from the UK, which is not a major source of terrorists the last time I checked.

In contrast, Germany just agreed to admit 500,000 Middle Eastern immigrants this year.

But the number of people fleeing ISIS brutalities is in the millions.

Last summer, the immigrants fleeing war and torture in Central America caught our attention because they were on our southern border. This summer, Syrian refugees have been pouring into Eastern Europe. That’s far enough away that since the refugees are no longer camped out at the Budapest train station, their story is not leading the news. And whatever happened to all of the children who came alone across the Texas border last year?

How can we turn our backs?

In the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph flee at night to Egypt because of their fear of a despotic ruler. As Christians, how do we not see the parallel in our own time? We worship Jesus, but would we turn him away at our borders if he wanted to be a part of our community? This cannot be what the adult Jesus would expect from us.

The #1 message of hope the New Testament offers us is to “Fear not.”

But what could be more fearful than leaving your home and all you know to become a stranger in a strange land—especially when a treacherous journey with your small children seems like the safest option, your best hope of keeping them alive?

It is clear that the followers of Jesus are expected to offer hospitality to strangers. I am betting that at the end of time, we will be judged not on how we responded to the issues we face in our very wealthy society, but on what we did when those who had nothing came knocking at our door.

When that day comes, may we all confidently know that we did all we could to say, “Welcome.”

Until then, keep the image of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in your mind. How will you welcome them?