Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Countercultural "Urban" Plunge

Below is a paper I wrote ten years ago to satisfy the counter cultural experience requirement for a Masters Degree at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS).  I decided against a trip to the jungles of South America and chose a relatively simple visit to the African American community in nearby Atlanta.  Something had led me to expect progressive Atlanta to be a model of good race relations and racial equality.  As you will see, if you read the paper, I was disappointed.

I did follow through on the intent expressed at the end of the paper and volunteered at The Cooperative Ministry in Columbia for about seven years, early 2003 through 2009.  In 2006 I began volunteering also at Home Works of America, an organization which serves primarily the elderly low income community in Columbia.  In 2010 I opted out of the mostly food and clothing voucher ministry of The Cooperative Ministry in favor of more attention to the hands-on home repairs needed in pretty much the same dominantly African American community.  I am very thankful for the opportunities, as a Home Works of America volunteer, to learn and use new skills in service to those in need.

Another interesting thing about the paper is that it foreshadows and explains some of the rationale for our move eight years later to the Catholic Church.  I was pretty staunchly Lutheran at the time but interest in the Catholic Church was clearly blooming.

And finally, I am not pleased with the writing below but conquered the desire to get into editor mode and have published it just as written and submitted to the professor in January 2003.

Reflections on the January, 2003, Urban Plunge
Darryl K. Williams
January 23, 2003

This Cross-Cultural experience consisted of nine days in the South Atlanta African-American community.  Issues explored and studied were housing affordability, gentrification and the resulting displacement of the poor, homelessness, community disintegration, community building, health care, and juvenile law enforcement.  The experience included a meeting of Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta,[1] a meeting with ELCA Synod of the Southeast Bishop Ron Warren, and visits to The Carter Center, the King Center, a social service organization, and to some communities under redevelopment.  It included attendance at a Muslim worship service, four worship services in African-American churches, and one combined Black Methodist - Reformed Jewish Synagogue service.  For the most part, the worship services were in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the weekend of the national holiday established in his honor.

In general, the Plunge was a discouraging experience.  There are glimmers of hope, mostly reflections off the faces of loving persons dedicated to improvement and progress, but the breakdown of the family, failure of public education, increase in juvenile delinquency and involuntary prostitution, and segregation of the races are all major problems in Martin Luther King, Jr., Country where the scars of the gross and shameful injustices resulting from the sins of slavery and involuntary segregation and racial discrimination, both blatant and subtle, are daily visible reminders that all is not well.  And when those scars are ineffective reminders, leaders in the community and in the churches, where religion and politics are as connected as husband and wife, seem ready to fill the gap and to say that the solutions to the problems of the individuals and the community are in City Hall, the State House, and the National Capitol.  The limited sample of messages I heard in the churches we visited suggests that the predominant message is a paternalistic, "Behave yourselves, remember the past, and vote Democratic."  It may be that the messages are less political on weekends other than the King Holiday weekend.  It seems worth noting that the message in the mosque we visited was about personal responsibility.  The speaker said that it is an individual’s first responsibility to take care of himself so that others do not need to take care of him.  Then, from that basis, others can be helped.  It is a message that seems to be resonating in the Black community, resulting in growth of the Muslim population.

I was reminded that, while Blacks, along with other races, have prospered, on average, in Atlanta and other major cities over the past few decades, averages mean very little.  The distribution of prosperity is bimodal rather than normal.  Many have prospered, but many are trapped at the bottom.  They have been "left behind," but not in the sense of the currently popular "rapture" theology.  They have been left far behind the economic and social and educational progress of which Atlanta boasts.  As a result they have deficient job skills, deficient social skills, insufficient money, little family or community support, and, often, no warm, safe, and comfortable place to lay their heads at night.  And the future does not look good because their children are at risk and are disproportionately involved in behavior which brings them before judges in Fulton County Juvenile Court.  Some are involuntarily prostituted and put to work on the streets or in hotels and motels. 
I was reminded that, even for Blacks who are doing well socially, economically, and educationally, there remains a heightened sensitivity to racial discrimination because they have been and continue to be the victims of it.  It helps me understand if I think of my own sensitivity to persons making fun of people with Appalachian mountain accents, because that is where I grew up and learned to talk.  It has become clear to me that many from other regions of the country make assumptions about persons with such accents just as some make assumptions about Blacks because of the color of their skin, their names, or their accents.  I was surprised to learn that some Blacks see even LTSS as a racist community.  How could that be?  Well if the most visible Black employed on a campus is a janitor, the concerned Black person wants to know why that is so.  If there are no Black Lutheran full-time MDiv students on a Lutheran Seminary campus, the concerned Black person wants to know why that is so.  A few days after the Atlanta trip, back at LTSS, I learned that a Black graduate of LTSS had been unable to get a call to a South Carolina pastorate.  No wonder the supply of students has dried up.  The eyes of the sensitive Black person easily recognize racial issues that the rest of us miss.

What is to be the response of the "one holy catholic and apostolic church" to these problems?  What portion of our energy and resources should go toward a solution to it?  During the Plunge I was reading a novel (How Firm a Foundation by Marcus Grodi) about a Protestant Congregational pastor struggling to defend his own church’s theology, which he had promised to preach and teach, vs. the theologies of other Protestant churches and the Catholic Church.  I was struck by how much Church energy is consumed as a result of the proliferation of theological positions.  I found myself wondering to what extent such theological issues distract the Church from fulfillment of the Great Commandments[2] and the Great Commission.[3]  The splintered "Church" is a dominant presence in South Atlanta with hundreds of congregations and tens of denominations.  Jesus, the founder of the Church, went about touching persons and solving their problems.  Why then, are there not faith-based solutions, led by the multitude of Christian Churches in the community, touching and solving the problems of the people who live even in the shadow of Georgia’s gold-domed state capital?  That seems to me to be a particularly pertinent question to us Lutherans, who are at the forefront of one of the greatest splits in the history of the Christian Church and have a well defined, well thought out, and well defended theology, but are in a small minority, and are almost certainly wrong, in at least some of the details.  Has that emphasis on theology distracted us from obedience to the Great Commandments and the Great Commission?  A principle I was taught as a manager in industry is that people don't care how much we know until they know how much we care.  Is it possible that we have focused too much on what we know and not enough on how much we care?

But despair and discouragement are counter-productive.  We know that much about our faith will remain a divine mystery that we can only struggle to understand.  The critical thing is that we should not devote so much of our corporate and personal energy to that struggle to understand and reconcile the mysterious that we fail to act on those things that are clear: That we are to love God and our neighbors and are to baptize and teach.  I'm reminded of a quote from, I believe, Mark Twain: "It's not the things in the Bible that I don't understand that bother me; It's the things I do understand." 

The glimmers of hope I mentioned earlier included the inspiring story of Dr. Robert Lupton, a man who charges the mainline churches with jumping right over the Great Commandments to emphasize the Great Commission and with being willing to send money to help the poor but not to get personally involved.  A Vietnam War veteran, Bob’s commitment to serve juveniles evolved into a commitment to families and, finally, into a commitment to build communities.  His wife bought into Bob’s vision, and they sold their home in the North Atlanta suburbs and moved into a “bad” neighborhood in South Atlanta 17 years ago.  The organization they built is called FCS Urban Ministries, and the neighborhood they built is called Tapestry.  Bob has written two inspiring books[4]  about the wonderful things that happened as a result of his family’s act of obedience.  Also inspirational were the individuals we met in the Juvenile Justice System.  A program coordinator, a judge, a facilities manager, and a person specializing in a fight against involuntary prostituting of juveniles all showed sincere love and concern for the young persons with whom they were dealing. 

Another hopeful event occurred after the official Plunge had ended.  An article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution during the King Holiday weekend had reported on the state of integration of churches in Atlanta.  Only two were mentioned as being well integrated, and one of those was Our Lady of Lourdes (OLL) Catholic Church in the heart of Martin Luther King country, just across the street from King’s burial place.  The next weekend after the Plunge, my wife and I were back in Atlanta to celebrate the first birthday of our youngest grandchild.  On Sunday morning we visited OLL.   There we found an economically and racially mixed congregation, packed with joyful worshipers  focused on worship and celebration of the Eucharist and talking about the ways that particular congregation tries to serve the community in which it worships and lives.  I guess the Catholic Parish system has contributed to the mix of the congregation and to its ability to focus on worship and on love of neighbors.  

Finally, what is to be my personal response to the challenge of the Plunge?  I chose this particular experience because of membership in Ebenezer Lutheran Church, a downtown church challenged by many of the same problems as Atlanta churches, though on a much smaller scale.  I guess the Black community of South Atlanta is bigger than all of greater Columbia.  The Plunge experience will help me play an educated role in determination of the future mission and programs of Ebenezer, but it also challenged me to get personally involved.  As a first step, I am taking the counselor training at The Cooperative Ministry and plan to volunteer there at least a half day per week.
I want to express my appreciation to Dr. Arthur Lewis, Director of the Lutheran Theological Center in Atlanta, and Reverend Michael Wilson, Director of the Urban Training Organization of Atlanta, for organizing and leading the 2003 Atlanta Urban Plunge experience.  May that experience result in greater and more effective ministry of all who participated in it.

[1] A joke the members tell on themselves is that they are not all clergy, not all Black, and not all concerned.
[2] Mark 12:28-31
[3] Matthew 28:19
[4] (Return Flight and Theirs Is the Kingdom)

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