Monday, January 27, 2014

Detroit

And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Matthew 4:19-20

Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art.
Maya Angelou

After much spirited dialogue & spiritual direction, Lindsay and I have discerned a move to Detroit after the current school year is over. I will be retiring from teaching high school and we will dive into new Work. We’ve felt something stirring in our hearts for quite some time now. We’ve known that a change in vocation and location is imminent and finally we set out on a 75-day roadtrip this past summer to meet Christian pastors and activists who are following Jesus into soup kitchens and intentional communities and protests. These prophetic communities have pledged themselves to spiritual disciplines (prayer, Scripture study, song, meal-sharing, etc), but also have been committed to a ruthless solidarity with the poor and marginalized…no matter what the cost. These are some of the most interesting people we've ever met: treasuring both the prayer closet and political activism, proclaiming a God who is most clearly known in the dual vocation of confronting the hoarders of power, privilege & possessions while comforting the masses whom they exploit.

When we visited Detroit in early July, we met people like Jim Perkinson & Lily Mendoza who are seminary professors and political activists. He is a 60-something white dude who committed himself to African-American culture four decades ago and writes theologically about white supremacy (he got his PhD from University of Chicago Divinity School) and other urban theological challenges. He is a well-known spoken word artist in the city. Lily, a native of the Philippines, is the master of intercultural and indigenous studies. She earned her PhD at Arizona State and teaches at Oakland University in the Detroit suburbs. They live in Black Bottom, a historic African-American neighborhood decimated by the construction of the freeways in the 60s.

We also met Bill Wylie-Kellermann and the members of the Jeanie-Wylie Community on Larkins Street, in West Detroit. Bill is a long-time United Methodist pastor, author & nonviolent community activist in the city. He did his theological work at Union Seminary with Walter Wink and William Stringfellow and coined the phrase “public liturgy,” a compelling concept that spills theology & worship out of the sanctuary & seminary and into the streets. The Jeanie-Wylie community is a network of households on Larkins Street that gathers for meals, prayer, Scripture study, urban gardening and community organizing.

Before our road trip, our journey into “Movement Christianity” had been largely facilitated by a lot of reading (and writing) and dialogue with our cherished mentors Ched Myers & Elaine Enns of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in Oak View, CA. These post-seminary years (since 2008) have been intensified by more learning and discerning. Reading the works of Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Elsa Tamez, James Cone, Jon Sobrino, Cornel West, Wes Howard-Brook, Walter Wink and, of course, Myers/Enns have opened our eyes to a radical (from the Latin meaning “roots”) form of Christian discipleship engaged not only with the redemption of our selves, but also the social, economic and political systems that determine the winners & losers of our world.

Meanwhile, we have felt a tension in our souls. No doubt, after 17 years of teaching adolescents subjects like Economics, AP World History & American Government, I have a deep respect for how vital and challenging the teaching vocation is. This semester, I have 150 students in my classes. They bring a lot of energy & diversity into my room: a dizzying blend of apathy, anxiety, attitude and amazement. I continue to love the art of teaching and the relationships I make with these students and, some days, I can literally feel the breath of God coming out of my mouth as I speak. Many days though, I feel a bit flat and overwhelmed with the enormity of the Task.

I transitioned into teaching and coaching immediately after I graduated from the University of Kansas in 1996. I was 22 years old—still an adolescent myself. I was thrilled & honored to come back to the high school I graduated from in ’92: Capistrano Valley HS. I got to coach with Brian Mulligan, a man whose unique blend of professionalism & playfulness has had a huge influence on my work with young people. I eventually got to be the Athletic Director and then Social Science department chair, in addition to coaching a variety of sports and hosting lunch-time workout sessions in the weight room.

Being a 3 on the Enneagram personality typing (“The Achiever”), I’ve spent my “free” time participating in a wide array of Christian ministry endeavors. In short, I've been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. Over the past 7 years, during our slow exodus out of the popular conservative Evangelicalism of South Orange County, I’ve had the great pleasure of working as a “free agent” pastor: mentoring & counseling young adults, advocating for young undocumented DREAMers (a “people’s prayer breakfast,” legislative visits, rallies/protests, etc), blogging at EasyYolk, hosting married couples groups, giving occasional sermons & talks to churches and non-profits, performing wedding ceremonies and I even officiated the funeral of my college basketball coach, the legendary Bill Mulligan. These adventures have combined with “my day job” to amount to consistent 60-80 hour weeks.

No doubt, it’s been a labor of love. But it has been laborious. I’m tired, but also I’m a bit terrified of what my identity will be in this next season of life. There are plenty of question marks about the year that awaits us, but there are some periods and exclamation points too: more reading & writing, more political organizing & advocacy, more solidarity with the poor & marginalized, more time being mentored. I’m also looking forward to joining Lindsay in more pyscho-educational work with married couples. The more we get to do this, the more I am humbled by my own painful patterns & counterfeit copings.

We hear Detroit calling us to participate in a different kind of Campaign. This Divine whisper has been beckoning us to drop our frayed nets and familiar networks. We have felt this sacred, subtle call during this season of life, and have stuttered and staggered away from making a change. We are finally ready to leave what is secure & safe for a strange land afar. Change, as always, will bring challenges which will create change in our selves. Detroit will, indeed, be a laboratory for transformation. As we work for a whole new world it will work Something ever new in us. Our hope is that this socio-economic downward mobility will infuse a deeper sensitivity to the left out & the lost of our society.

We, in no way, are looking to save the city or even come bearing solutions (we wouldn’t even know where to start). We are looking to learn and be led. We are pledging, initially, a year to this work in Detroit. At the end of next summer, we may feel God percolating us to stay in Motown. Or, perhaps, we will feel a Gust blowing us elsewhere. We eagerly anticipate the coming months of preparation and covet your prayers & support. Thank you for being on this Journey with us.

2 comments:

  1. The ride is the reason. :) I like this saying, it's not my favorite and I don't entirely agree with it, but it's nice.

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  2. Tom, my prayers are for you in your leap of faith. I'm sure you will do much good and I'm eager to read about your journey. I hope the next gust of wind brings you out further east to Baltimore!

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