12 February 2012
The 6th Sunday after Epiphany
Lord, take my thoughts and make them your thoughts. Take my words and make them your words. Make me speak the truth, even when it makes me look small and foolish.
A few weeks ago I had a dream that startled and amazed me. I was in a plane with some other people. There was a kind of military drill instructor in the plane who told us that when the plane had reached a height of 14 hundred feet that we would jump out. I was a little nervous about this as I had no training or experience of sky-diving, I became still more concerned when he informed us that we would do this without the aid of a parachute.
I remember thinking that it would have been better if we had received some kind of instruction on the best practices for jumping out of a plane without a parachute, but fortunately, my time came quickly and I didn’t have time to dwell on the tragic absurdity of what I was about to do. I threw myself out of the plane. Airborne at 1,400 feet I needed a quick plan and immediately decided that I would try and land on a tree in order to break my fall. On cue a tree appeared. I grabbed a hold of it as easily as one would grab hold of a ladder, and eased myself down to the ground.
When I woke up and pondered what this dream could mean, it occurred to me that this expressed precisely my experience of divine Call in the world. Everything is turned upside down. Although I try and control my life to put myself in the most advantageous situation, suddenly I find myself in a spot that I never planned for. Instead of making a well thought out choice based on the logic of cost/benefit analysis, I find myself compelled to do something completely absurd. Instead of working from a detailed plan of action which takes all contingencies into account, I find myself thrown into chaos and the best I can do is just wing it. And hope for the best. And yet despite all this, and probably because of it, grace steps in and makes the absurdly impossible, inevitable.
Failure to Failure
Now life is not as simple as dreams. Folly sometimes dresses itself up to look like a Call and magical thinking more than once convinced me that its name was Grace. Winston Churchill is supposed to have said that, “success consists of moving from failure to failure with great enthusiasm.” Consider that the word enthusiasm comes from the Greek compound, en theos, God inside, or a kind of spirit possession. I think the phrase “moving from failure to failure with enthusiasm,” pretty much sums up my lifelong quest to discover my calling. And this is what I would like to talk about today.
I was living in Florida with my wife and children working as the Director of a local Habitat for Humanity. I had followed the Sojourners community through their magazine for a number of years and was very attracted to their mix of God-centered yet progressive politics. And so in the fall of 1986, when I got an offer to be the Director of a tenant-organizing project that was founded by the Sojourner Community, I eagerly jumped out of the plane and moved to Washington, DC with my wife and two children. 1986 was a tough year in Washington an epidemic of crack cocaine was driving the murder rate through the roof and from our apartment that overlooked the notorious Clifton Terrace apartments we had a front row seat.
I was prepared for the sirens, gunshots, and junkies and was charmed by the ingenuous hospitality my African American neighbors. But I was not prepared for the contentious board of directors that governed the tenant union. It turned out that they had a deep mistrust of Sojourners and a deep mistrust of one another. In this atmosphere of mutual contention it seemed impossible to move in any direction at all. So, in my youthful arrogance, and being completely ignorant of the most basic tenets of community organizing— that is that one leads by encouraging others to take the lead— I instead tried to break the log jam by ramming through a particular plan of action that only succeeded in setting me at implacable odds with the president of the board. And so, after only six months on the job, I again jumped out of the airplane feeling profoundly defeated.
I began to look for work as a carpenter and by grace found my way to the company of Johann Zimmermann, one of the most remarkable people I have ever known and himself worthy of a complete sermon. As it turns out Johann had persuaded Jim Dickerson, the director of Manna to start up a job-training program for at-risk men and women, and it just so happened that he was in need of another carpenter-trainer. I said yes without a moment’s hesitation.
My years at Skill Builders were some of the most fulfilling of my life. Johann had grown up in the Bruderhoff in upstate New York and from them he inherited an unshakeable attachment to community and hard work. Our band of black and white misfits began each day with a prayer and this was followed by a long day of backbreaking work in the heat and the cold and the satisfaction that comes from doing good physical work. We were renovating run down houses and making them homes again for Manna, but more importantly we were renovating run down lives and giving them new pride and hope.
Johann was a mission group member for Hope and a Home and it was he, who introduced me to the Church of the Savior. Over the years I would take classes at the Festival Center where I became deeply influenced by the teaching Gordon Cosby and Elizabeth O’Connor. I was introduced to the vocabulary of Call, and mission groups, and journeys both inward and outward.
After a few years Johann moved away to Charlottesville and I was left to running Skill Builders, our construction-training program. New people came to help and they were very good, but no one had the same God-crazed spirit as Johann. We managed to refine our program and become more efficient and yet my energy was running down. Our young trainees came from prisons and broken homes and for four months while they were enrolled with us at Skill Builders, they would thrive like desert plants who found water. But after they graduation they returned to the world and the world ate them alive. Two men were shot dead.
One died of AIDS. Several went back to jail. Others failed to find jobs in a contracting economy. I grew despondent. I was trying to change lives and it wasn’t working. I didn’t fully realize it at the time I was frustrated because I was trying to fix people without awareness of my own brokenness. And so after five years at Manna, I jumped out of the plane.
I was tired of other people depending on me. I was tired of basing my happiness on other people. I needed inner healing and so I decided to make my living as woodworker building furniture and bookshelves. Financially it was a disaster but therapeutically it was just what I needed. I spent thousands of hours sanding, and planing and edgebanding and performing many other repetitive tasks that allowed my mind to wander the regions of my soul and regain its balance. After four years of wood dust and a sizeable negative balance on my credit card, I was ready to return to the world again and so I jumped out of the plane.
For Love of Children
At that time I was taking classes at the Festival Center as part of my reentry strategy. I took a class taught by Gordon that connected economics with Christian living and some how determined that my next act was to start up a computer center for low income people in Washington DC. The only problem was that I didn’t know much about computers. Luckily the dot com boom created such a demand for technicians at that time that I found a company that was willing to take a chance on a middle aged carpenter. One of my clients was For Love of Children.
In 2000 Fred Taylor was moving the whole operation into the newly renovated Anthony Bowen YMCA. I pitched a proposal to Fred for creating a technology center in one of the rooms. He liked the idea and offered me a job to run it.
The FLOC New Technology Center was a time of great innovation. Community technology centers were a new phenomenon. There purpose was to close the “digital divide” by giving access to low income people but no one was sure what to do after access. Digital cameras and camcorders were just becoming affordable, so I bought one of each and quickly discovered that media production had a tremendous draw for teens. I hired two first rate youth developers and we began to build the first youth media organizations in the Washington region, and one of a handful in the entire country. We attracted a large following of very enthusiastic teens who were thrilled to become media creators. They built web pages, made movies, hammered out beats and created flash animations. It was sensational.
In hindsight it was also a time of cluelessness on my part. Although everyone seemed impressed with the innovation our development team had no idea how to raise money for this sort of thing and I had no idea how to demonstrate the value of its outcomes. For the first three years it didn’t seem to matter. FLOC funded us from discretionary funds and I simply ignored the whole issue of funding. Everything changed in 2002 when Fred left. For Love of Children began to experience a perfect storm of financial stress starting with the 2002 recession compounded by the simultaneous loss of its founder and long time development director.
The new director responded to the crisis, quite correctly, by cutting underfunded programs. Our budget was cut in half and I had to lay off my entire staff. I thought about jumping out of the plane but decided to stick it out. I managed to raise some money but it was too little, too late and six months later my program was cut completely and the plane I didn’t jump out of, crashed with me in it.
This was a dark time in my life. My whole sense of purpose was turned upside down and the darkness within was magnified by the darkness without as my country, fear-crazed by September 11, determined to strike out preemptively at enemies both real and imagined. I began to read the writings of Gandhi. I was very impressed with his unflinching commitment to following God and yet he accepted other religious traditions as equals to his own Hinduism. He saw religions as rivers that begin in very different places they all, eventually, empty into a single sea. I was also impressed that his well-known commitment to nonviolence was not at all passive but was yoked to an unflinching and very active refusal to make peace with any kind of injustice. I was especially taken with his prescription for a Peace Brigade of belivers who would be trained like soldiers to become active peace workers.
Gradually these thoughts of Gandhi began to congeal with my own experience moving from failure to failure and began to form something like a Call. Now Call is a difficult notion: first of all because it is easily misunderstood by others in a secular age and secondly because it is easily confused by the afflicted individual for unconscious desire. On the first count I am grateful that here, in the fold of the Church of the Savior, Call is a part of your vocabulary and not a strange notion. On the second count, I certainly did not experience this Call in a burning bush or here mysterious voices. I experienced this Call more as a subtle pull, something like gravity or a current of water. It is something I perceive only when I pay attention and in my busyness I am likely to miss it. In fact, like the story of Nå-aman, it was only in my time of trouble— my dis-ease— that I was distracted from my busy-ness enough to be open to an awareness of the subtle pull of Call.
Moreover I am not so sure that this call is entirely unique and personal but is perhaps general and collective so that we all experience this subtle pull at some level. It may be that, initially, only a few sensitive souls, people like Gandhi, can detect the pull but by their example others become aware and follow the example and so what began as a small trickle becomes a mighty human flood rushing towards God. Or at least that is how it seemed to me. I am especially fond of Howard Thurman’s counsel: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”
Now experiencing a Call and answering that Call are two very different things. I was averse to talking about this to anyone because it was so unclear to me just what I should do, and frankly I didn’t want people to think that having lost my job I was going insane. However one day I expressed all this to Jim Todhunter, the former pastor at Christ Congregational Church and to my relief instead of changing the subject he began to ask me questions. On his advice I assembled a small group of people whose opinion I trusted, explained this call as best I could and asked them to help me discern what it meant.
We met monthly at my house for almost a year. I explained to them what was clear to me: the influence of Gandhi’s thought and the need to prepare a new generation of leaders for a more spiritual way of acting in the world. This was an extremely vulnerable experience for me; although I felt a crystal clear call to action but my understanding of the action was very half-baked. What took shape eventually was by no means a plan. It was simply a next step.
We decided that I should continue to build on my experience of training young people in media because this could be a tool for moving people to transform patterns of injustice. Without a lot of thought, I picked a Saturday, borrowed a few cameras, prepared a curriculum, and asked some film producers to come help me do a training, and then went out to beat the bushes looking for any teen agers who would join us. Only six showed up that first day and two of them were my own children. It was a very humble beginning but the Call was answered and the seed that was planted that would grow day and night I know not how, but it grew.
Our small group began to meet weekly at the Long Branch Recreation Center. We called ourselves the Gandhi Brigade. We finished our first film, screened it at the church and drew in more people. We were asked to be part of a youth collaborative and made a film about the Turf in downtown Silver Spring. This led to a small grant, which gave me the courage to quit my day job at Howard University and throw myself full time into the work of the Gandhi Brigade. We attracted more grants, I hired a small staff, and we rented a storefront space at City Place Mall. We attracted more youth, created curriculum that taught social justice and film making, and moved into a bigger space. In our media center a core group of 25 very diverse young people now creates social justice videos, organizes workshops, trains middle school students, and hosts an annual youth media festival. Last year we served a total of 247 youth.
I have spent the last five years trying to translate my personal Call into a collective Call that was inspired by Gandhi’s Call for a Peace Brigade. From the beginning we moved on faith that if we took the next step somehow the resources and clarity for the next, next step would come. And in this we have never been disappointed. People of great talent have brought their gifts to Gandhi Brigade and shaped us in ways I could never have foreseen. As an organization we are in a good place and moving forward as we ought.
And yet there is one part of the vision that remains unrealized, one aspect of the Call that remains unanswered. Gandhi’s life was from top to bottom a spiritual movement to draw closer to God. My own sense of Calling, as I have just related was driven by a quest to put my outer journey in harmony with my inner journey. From the beginning it was my hope to help young people do the same, but oddly this is the least developed part of our program. To be sure, at Gandhi Brigade we teach our young people to think about justice in the world and in their actions with each express all the values that I most hoped for: inclusion, courage, and love. We hold workshops on Gandhi’s teaching as well as introductions to the great faith traditions. But we have yet to include personal spiritual development as an explicit element of our youth development curriculum.
I don’t feel the least bit ready to begin doing this but I must if I am to be true to what led me here in the first place. I can’t wait until I become spiritually whole, I can’t hold back for fear of offending adults or boring youth with the language of the spirit. As vulnerable as it makes me feel, I must take the next step and in this I need allies who will help me.
For either the world is infused with the unfolding spirit of God or it is not. And if it is, then there is simply nothing more important to the development of young people— and by inference the future of the earth— than to help them grow their spiritual dimension. As a society we do a good job of supporting young people in their physical and intellectual development but when it comes to spiritual development we tend to either prescribe doctrines or leave them to figure it out on their own. It seems to me a much better approach would be a kind of partnership between youth and adults in which we share from our traditions and experiences while creating space that invites young people to evolve a spiritual life that is authentic to their lives and, by grace, moves the earth a little closer to God. But I don’t know how to do this.
And so I conclude by leaving you pretty much where we started out: fourteen hundred feet above the earth and looking down without a parachute. If I don’t think about it too much I am ready to make my jump, but it sure would help if I could find a few partners to join me in my leap of faith.