It was a conversation a few weeks ago at Beer + Theology, a pub-style open dialogue on theological topics I facilitate, where students and myself spent an hour discussing a topic which is a question a lot of Americans have right now.
“How can I welcome the outsiders and those who seek refuge?”
In the past few weeks, our country has seen heated responses over President Donald Trump’s attempt to impose a travel ban of those seeking to come to the United States from other countries. Particularly if those individuals come from countries where Islam is the predominant faith tradition.
This attempt at imposing a travel ban by the president, including those who are seeking refuge from Syria, has created a lot of public backlash, protests, and has illustrated the majority of Americans who disagree with this travel ban policy citing it not as an attempt at protecting American security, but to wrongfully target those of Muslim faith.
The president’s attempt at imposing a travel ban has also unified different Christian churches and faith traditions who have released statements and taken action to stand in solidarity not only with those seeking refuge and the Muslim community in opposition to this ban. But to also stand in opposition to this proposed policy which contradicts what Christians read about in scripture.
People often forget that Christ himself was a refugee,” one of our students at our Beer + Theology meeting expressed during our discussion. “He [Jesus] spoke about not only welcoming those from foreign lands because he was also a stranger from another land as well.”
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” says Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46.
Welcoming the strangers and those seeking refugee is the main tenant of our Christian faith and the main tenant of all Abrahamic faith traditions. For it was not only Mary and Joseph who fled from King Herod to protect their newborn son (Jesus), but it was also the Israelites who fled from the oppression of an Egyptian rule seeking refugee in the Promise Land.
While it can be hard for many Americans to find commonality with the nearly 12 million Syrians who are seeking refuge from their own country stemming from the Syrian Civil War, seeking refuge was the story for many who has ancestors from Europe.
In the late 1800s, my great-great grandparents, Joseph and Eva Balavge, came to the United States from Lithuania seeking refuge after their country was taken over by the Russian Empire and the Lithuanian press, educational and cultural institutions were closed and great famines began to spread.
Additionally, for many Americans with European ancestry, it was escaping famine, oppression, and extreme poverty which led their ancestors to come to the United States seeking new job opportunities and to create a future for their themselves and their children.
“Give me your tired your poor your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” en-scripted on the bottom of the Statue of Liberty.
The proposed ban targeting particular individuals of the Muslim faith under the pretenses of a need for national security or the proposed construction of a wall between Mexico and the United States under the pretense of keeping drugs and criminals from Mexico out of our own country not only is an ineffective method of national security. But they are proposals which are un-American that run contradictory to who we are as a nation.
And for us as Christians, these proposed bans and the building of walls contradicts what scripture teaches us to do.
“Extend hospitality to strangers…” – Romans 12:13
While being vocal about the opposition to such proposed policies by urging our elected officials to reject these policies, we also must seek to be advocates for immigrants and refugees and must mobilize our faith communities to work as advocates together in order to educate our elected leaders and our communities about the importance of showing compassion to those seeking refugee.
While a wall built between the United States and Mexico and a ban on immigrants from predominate countries where individuals are predominately Muslim is contradictory to our American beliefs and our Christian faith, it’s important now more than ever for Christian faith communities to unify with one another and those of various faiths to not only bring hope to those in need but for us, particularly for us as Christians, to practice what we preach.
If there is one aspect that all of us as Americans can agree on is that we are ready to put 2016 behind us.
From the divisive presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. To the shooting at a night club in Orlando which targeted LGBTQ Americans. To the unjust deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile which illustrated the continued racism in our country and in our American judicial system. From the continued strain on Americans when it comes to the shrinking middle class. To the overall distrust, Americans have in their political and community leaders. 2016 has been a year of hardship and social injustice for many Americans. And the divisions in our country over our ethnicity, political affiliation, religion, and social class have added to this struggle.
A few months ago, I visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Il. While I have studied a great deal about Lincoln, I found myself really taken back by the struggle Lincoln, a simple country lawyer from Illinois, faced immediately after taking office on March 4, 1861. From a country deeply divided over slavery to the lack of opportunities faced by Americans, Lincoln’s presidency was focused primarily on keeping our country unified as the framework for our American democracy began to unravel.
It’s been suggested by many people that our country is as equally divided now as it was prior to the Civil War. While I don’t believe our country is as divided as it was in 1861, what we are experiencing now is a familiarity to what many Americans faced over 150 years ago, a brutal presidential election of personal attacks and an overall distrust in our country’s governance with a growing frustration that nothing is been done to address the problems we face.
While it’s not the purpose of this blog to discuss the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, I will share that I do have concerns about the social injustices many Americans are facing today and worry about them not being addressed by our next president.
But what also concerns me is the divisions which exist in our country over ethnicity, political affiliation, religion, and social class backgrounds. And it’s those divisions which we as not only Americans but those who are spiritual and civic leaders, must address.
Recently, my congregation hosted a “storytelling” event where individuals from the Champaign-Urbana community and members of our church shared true stories from their personal lives. Some of these stories were humorous and dealt with the discoveries of hidden gifts. Others were more personal and dealt with issues such as heartbreak and the struggle of identity.
However, regardless of what the story was shared, what I and many of those in the audience experienced listening to these 8 to 9-minute stories was a better understanding of the person who was speaking–even if we could not relate to them or their struggle. Because while we may not have been able to relate to their struggle, it was listening to these monologues that allowed us to experience life in the shoes of the storyteller, no matter how much our life was contrast different from their own, and find some commonality with their struggle with our own struggle even if it was vastly different.
Concern over the ongoing social injustices and inequalities American are dealing with right now is the cause faith communities and civic organizations must dedicate themselves to addressing coming out of this election. But what is also needed in our country is an effort made by our faith communities and social organizations to provide spaces and opportunities for Americans to tell their stories of pain and struggle in an effort to allow Americans to hear what their fellow citizens are experiencing and perhaps find commonality and empathy in that struggle.
For the pick-up truck driving, white male country boys like myself, it’s listening to the stories of people who are people of color about their experience of racism and discrimination that we need to hear. At the same time, it’s the stories from blue collar workers and the struggle it is for those in the manufacturing and service industry which need to be told, particularly upper-middle white class liberals and conservatives. For the person who identifies as LGBTQ+, it’s their story of struggle which needs to be shared to those who identify as being straight. And for the twenty-something American veteran just coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s their story which needed to be heard by all of us.
All of us as Americans have a story to share. And while all of us come from differentiating backgrounds, identities, and opinions, we need safe spaces for us to share our stories and a place where others can listen to them with the hopes that we can find commonality in our shared struggle regardless of what that struggle may be.
For those of us in the faith communities, it’s opening our doors a little wider and allowing people to share their stories while proclaiming a gospel of reconciliation and inclusive love for all people which needs to be done. Additionally, for those of us in Christian churches, we are called s not only to reach out to faith communities from Muslim and Buddhist traditions to have dialogue and create opportunities for sharing stories with one another. But we are also called to reach out to other Christian churches with differentiating theologies than us in an effort to find common ground.
The issues which our country faces right now and the divisions which have divided our country will not be resolved by any governmental program or congressional act. Nor will they be resolved within the next four years. And regardless of who had won the presidency last month, these divisions would have still existed.
But one thing is certain, we as a country and more importantly we as the American people, have an ability to begin the healing process in our country by taking the initiative in creating safe spaces for stories to be shared by those who are different from us and we have an obligation to listen to them.
For it’s through the sharing of stories that allows us, as Robert Kennedy once said, “to see each other as brothers (and sisters) and as fellow Americans once again.”
About ten years ago I found myself sitting in the chapel at Geneva College, a small, conservative Presbyterian college in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. The speaker during the chapel service was a man from Harvest Christian Fellowship, a non-profit organization which claims to “help individuals struggling with homosexuality.”
During the sermon, the speaker discussed how he struggled with “homosexual thoughts” since he was a teenager. However, after intensive therapy and support from Harvest Christian Fellowship, he had been “cured” of his homosexuality.
As I think back to that sermon and other conversations and teachings from professors at Geneva College, I can see why I not only left Geneva College after a year. But I also can see why I left “the church” altogether because of my struggles to identify as a Christian when I greatly disagreed in what I thought “the church” was teaching.
Last month, I was invited to speak at a local LGBTQ bar during a vigil to honor those who lost their lives following the attack in Orlando at the Pulse Night Club as a local clergy.
While my words were brief, I wanted to express to those attending the support of those of us who are allies and the support of many of us clergy and local churches who working to bring LGBTQ equality in the United States. But more importantly, I wanted to express a message that all of us are loved by God and accepted by God no matter whom we are or how we may sexually identify ourselves.
The theological ideology of acceptance from God regardless of our sexuality is something that many evangelical Christians would argue and dispute with me. For them, homosexuality is considered sinful behavior as they point to particular elements in scripture to highlight their viewpoint.
My counterargument and that of many progressive Christians is that scripture was written in a different time and culture where sexuality had a different meaning that it does today. While I and many progressive Christians believe scripture was inspired by God, we don’t believe that all scripture should be taken literally. If we did, we would also be saying that we should not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material ( Leviticus 19:19) nor shall we not round the corners of our heads.(Leviticus 19:27)
After I spoke at the vigil, I took some time and lingered around the bar where I had the opportunity not to speak, but to listen to the stories from many of those who sexuality identify as a member of the LGBTQ community. For about an hour, I listened to their struggle with “the church” and with many Christians.
Through their stories, many of which were painful to hear, many things became clear to me.
The first is that while as an ally, I still cannot understand or relate to what it feels like to be condemned, discriminated, and even hated because of my sexuality. Just like my friends who are people of color, I can stand in solidarity for racial equality, but I cannot understand what it’s like to be discriminated because of it.
But another aspect which became clear to me was the surprise by many at the vigil to know there were churches which not only were open and welcome to those who sexually identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, but there were churches which didn’t believe their sexuality was viewed as a sin nor believed their sexuality prohibited in their ability to receive love and grace of God.
“You got to understand, it’s easy for churches to say they are welcoming of us in the LGBTQ community,” one woman said to me. “But unfortunately, many still cannot accept our sexuality.”
As an (almost ordained) minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, I am glad to be part of a denomination which not only is open to those in the LGBTQ community but also affirms sexuality of individuals no matter how they identify themselves. Additionally, along with other denominations such as the United Church of Christ, The Presbyterian Church USA, The Episcopalian Church, and many other “mainline denominations,” many of our clergy sexually identify as being a member of the LGBTQ community and work to promote sexual equality while sharing the message that one’s sexuality does not conflict from receiving love and acceptance from God through Jesus Christ.
For many of these pioneers, they are evangelizing who are not only helping reclaim the word “evangelical” from conservative Christians, but they are also sharing a message which needs to be shared far and loud. A message that says you are created by God just as you are and are loved by God just as you are.
Even though I come from a church and come from a seminary (San Francisco Theological Seminary) which seeks to promote the acceptance and inclusiveness of all people regardless of their sexuality while emboldening church leaders to be advocates for equality, the realistic truth is we as “inclusive evangelicals” need to share this message more boldly and loudly.
By reclaiming the evangelical spirit of the early apostles, we as a church are called to not only welcome those regardless of their sexuality by having simple phrases such as “all are welcome” on church signs. But more importantly, we are called to evangelize the message of Christ’s inclusive love for all people boldly and loudly.
After all, haven’t we have been called proclaim to the all-inclusive love found through Jesus Christ?”
One of the elements of my childhood which I cherish to this day was growing up in rural Western Pennsylvania. From memories of running through the lush green woods and climbing trees. To memories of waking up every summer to the sounds of cows and horses in my backyard. I really enjoyed growing up in rural America as a child. And now that I am slowly becoming a middle-aged adult, I find myself being called back to it.
However, besides the friendless of neighbors and the rural serenity which still is within my soul, I find myself now looking back into my childhood and seeing elements of my cherished rural upbringing that were also disillusioned from reality.
These past few weeks have been difficult for our country. Earlier this month, we learned of the deaths of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, two African American men who lost their lives by two police officers without any provocation or reasoning. And these past few weeks we also saw the deaths of five police officers, two in Dallas and three this morning in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The deaths of these police officers as well as the deaths of Philandro Castile and Alron Sterling highlight not only the unjust judicial system in our country towards black men in the United States and the tensions because of it. But these past few weeks also acknowledge the racial tensions which exist in within out country which has always existed yet is seldom noticed by those who struggle to see it.
While I found myself being blessed to grow up in a rural community, one of the disadvantages I had, when I was younger, was not knowing any children who were any other ethnicity other than my own. As I recall my days of being a student at South Side High School in Hookstown, Pennsylvania, out of the 400 students between 9th and 12 grade, I only recall two youth who were students of color at our school. Additionally, what we were being taught in school relating to the history and social studies came from a white, European perspective. This educational experience, along with the lack of opportunity to form relationships with students of different ethnic backgrounds than ourselves, made it difficult for a lot of us growing up in our community to be aware of not only the intercultural presence beyond our own white community. But it also made us unaware of the social injustices towards people of color in our country.
Despite the lack of diversity that was in my rural community growing up, my mother believed in the need for my sister and me to form relationships with people outside our own color while also be aware of the social injustices many people of color faced in our country. While I was not familiar with the term “white privilege” at the time, essentially this is what my mother was seeking to teach us.
One such experience I can remember was my mother taking my sister and me to an all black church where her friend served as a pastor. Through these experiences along with conversations my mother and her friend would have with us about issues relating to race and culture in America, I was able to begin to see past my own white privilege while also become aware of the responsibilities I had as a white person to stand up for racial injustices against my fellow Americans.
As someone who is white, I am fortunate enough not only to have these early experiences and conversations relating to race and being aware of my white privilege. But I am also fortunate to have friendships with people of color where we can discuss issues relating to race and culture.
However, regardless of these early experiences and relationships, I have today, I still cannot understand what its like to be a person of color in the United States. As a white person, I especially cannot understand what it’s like to be black in America.
Yet while this is something that we as white Americans cannot understand, we as white Americans can learn what its like to be a person of color in America from forming relationships and engaging in conversations with others we meet and those already in our lives.
I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to be part of many conversations on race and multiculturalism in different academic and social forms in my time in college, seminary, and through my work in ministry. However, what I have found the most beneficial for me as a white person is to learn about the experiences of those who are people of color in the United States comes from private conversations I have with friends, co-workers, and those in my own community.
With individuals who know me in atmospheres which are relaxed and informal, I have felt more comfortable asking my friends who are people of color, particularly those who are African-Americans, about their experiences being a non-white person in America.
From experiences of relationships with those who are white and their struggles with many white Americans to acknowledge their white privilege. To their experiences of prejudice and racism experienced not only from law enforcement, but in the workplace, academia, and other communities, being able to listen to black Americans about their struggles in America helped me not only become aware of my privilege as a white person. But it also helped me understand the role I have to stand up against the injustices in our country against my friends and fellow Americans.
It is a realistic truth that a lot of work needs to be done in our country in terms of addressing the injustices in our country when it comes to people of color. From addressing the unjust judicial system and the often targeting of black men by law enforcement to the discrimination and systemic racism which still exists in our country, we as Americans, particularly those of us who are white, need to work along with our friends, neighbors, family members and all people of color in our country to bring about solutions to address what many Americans struggle with on a daily basis.
At the same time, it’s also important for white Americans to not just converse with people color about the issues that face as Americans in terms of racism and discrimination while being aware of their own white privilege. But it’s also important for white Americans to educate other white Americans about the social injustices towards people of color in our country and their social responsibility to stand up against it and the racism which still exists in our country today.
Black people don’t need to be convinced that anti-black racism, structural inequity, and skin privilege are facts; white people do,” says Darnell Moore, editor of Mic Magazine.
From educating other whites in their community, particularly in our rural white communities and in our rural white faith communities, about white privilege and the social injustices towards people of color in the United States. To speaking up and standing up against racism comments and jokes we hear spoken from other whites. We as white Americans who see racism and social injustices, have to do more than acknowledge its existence. We have a social responsibility to stand against it.
Racism, which stems from the slavery of which has been woven into our American history and our democracy and judicial system cannot be removed overnight. And if there is anything which the present situation can illuminate for us is our country is still racially divided and much work needs to be done.
However, by being aware of our own white privilege and working to help other white Americans acknowledge the social injustices towards people of color in the United States and the need to stand with our fellow Americans against it are ways we can slowly work to someday eradicate racism and close the racial divide in our country. And at the same time, for us, as white people to learn about the lives and communities of our friends, co-workers, family members, and most of all, our fellow Americans.
Last month, I spent a Saturday volunteering a shift at my church’s thrift shop located in the basement of our church building. While I primary work with volunteers as a district executive with the Boy Scouts of America, spending time just being a volunteer for my church or other local non-profit organizations has been rewarding for me.
For any church or non-profit organization, it’s the volunteers who truly make a difference in their communities. And what has amazed me through my work with the Boy Scouts of America and through my work in ministry is not only the volunteers I have met who’ve spent decades volunteering for organizations which are most dear to them. But older adult volunteers who devote themselves to making a difference in their community.
One of the volunteers at my church whom I got to know last month was an older woman who has been a member in my congregation for many years. While in her late 70s, I was amazed by not only the hours she spends collecting donations of household and clothing items which our church then sells to help fund our different ministries. But I was amazed that despite her health challenges, she still had a passion for making a difference in the lives of others.
“For me, volunteering is what keeps my spirits up,” she told me as we spent a shift working in our church thrift store together pricing items. “As a widow, I would just find myself feeling lonely if I am home alone all day. That is why I just try to keep active as much as I can.”
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), 1 in 3 volunteers are 55 years or older. And in 2012, 20 million seniors volunteered nearly 3 billion hours that year. CNCS also found the percentage of volunteers who are seniors has steadily increased over the last decade (up six points – from 25.1% in 2002 to 31.2% in 2011). Nearly three-quarters (72.4%) are volunteering informally by doing favors for and helping out their neighbors, seven points higher than the national average.
While volunteering gives older adults the ability to give back to their community, there are also numerous other benefits for older adults who decide to volunteer.
First, volunteering allows older adults to bridge gaps with younger adults. This is something which is particularly important and needed in our faith communities. Younger adults often volunteer to build resumes and fulfill community hours and this gives older adults the opportunity to find common interests with their younger counterparts.
One of the ways I had the opportunity to see this done is through my work while in AmeriCorps. One of the outreach programs our AmeriCorps program operated was a community house in New Castle, Pennsylvania, a town which struggled with poverty due to the fall of the steel industry in the 1980s. While our community house (called the I-Care House) had a multitude of college students from Slippery Rock University (where our AmeriCorps program was based) we also had a lot of older adults who were seeking to give back to their community by volunteering at the I-Care House. What was a remarkable experience was seeing college students working side by side older adults as they read stories, served meals, and tutored local children after school. This provided older adults the opportunity to be engaged with younger generations while giving young adults the opportunity to learn and share passions with older adults.
The second benefit for seniors to volunteer is that it prevents isolation and promotes physical activity. This is an issue with a lot of older congregants.
A few years ago while serving as a church intern, I had the opportunity to not only learn preaching and pastoral care skills, but I also had the opportunity to work with that congregation’s many older adult volunteers. What amazed me was the effort and energy they gave to the church and its various ministries. From serving as deacons to serving meals to those who struggled with homelessness, most of the older adult volunteers served well over 25 hours a week. For these older adults, volunteering allowed them to be engaged while giving them the opportunity to have a social community—something which is especially needed for older adults who live alone and struggle with feeling isolated.
The third and final benefit for seniors to volunteer is that it gives seniors the opportunity to make a difference in their community and in their world.
“As our nation’s older population rapidly grows, we have a tremendous opportunity to unleash the power of older volunteers on our most pressing problems,” says Dr. Erwin Tan, Director of Senior Corps at CNCS.
When I was a district executive for the Boy Scouts of America, I found myself amazed at the talents and skills older adults gained in their former careers. From volunteers who spent their lives working in finance, business, social work, ministry and teaching, the skills and knowledge older adults have can be a tremendous impact for non-profit organizations and ministries. And most importantly, volunteering allows older adults to have a feeling of worthiness and meaning in retirement.
This past summer I had the opportunity to work with a volunteer during our summer camp program who happens to be a retired school teacher. While this particular woman has been retired for over ten years, she told me that being able to work with kids fulfills her passion in making a difference in the lives of youth now that she is outside the classroom.
“Children is what drove my career for over 20 years as a teacher,” she told me. “And for me to continue to make a difference in their lives of kids gives me passion and meaning as a retiree.” For those of us in non-profit, community, and ministerial leadership, there is a great need to seek older adults who can be part of our organizations as volunteers. There is a tremendous great deal of skills, gifts, and passions older adults have that can help fulfill our organization’s mission.
However, more importantly, reaching out to older adults to become volunteers gives them the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others in their community and in their neighborhoods. While this opportunity will make a difference in the lives of those we serve, it also makes a difference in the lives of those who are volunteering—giving older adults meaning, value, and purpose. Like young adults, older adults need to feel valued and needed. And for anyone, regardless of whether there are older or younger adults, volunteering provides feelings of self-worth and value.
“I am here for God to use me,” this member of my church told me as we marked donated items to sell. “Being given the opportunity to serve gives me the opportunity to have a purpose.”
“Aren’t you a little old to be wearing a Boy Scout uniform?” a smiling, brown-eyed seven-year-old boy named Carlos asked me as I stood in his classroom surrounded by his peers.
“What makes you think I’m too old to be wearing a Boy Scout uniform?” I said to him smiling back.
“Boy Scouts don’t have beards,” he said while giggling. “Unless you’re a really old Boy Scout.”
For the past three weeks, I have spent my mornings in classrooms throughout Monterey County, California promoting “Cub Scouts” a scouting program for boys in grades 1st through 5th within the Boy Scouts of America organization.
Since I became a “professional scout” in April, I’ve had the opportunity to not only work with an amazing group of volunteers, youth, and community leaders, but I’ve also been able to see how Scouting is different than when I was growing up in the early 2000s.
As a district executive for the Boy Scouts of America where I serve as the liaison for the Scouting program in Monterey County, it’s my job to not only help support scout leaders in the district I serve. But it’s also my job to create new Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops, and Venturing crews (a co-ed high adventure program for high schoolers) within my district which spans over 3,281 square miles ranging from the California coastline of Monterey to the agriculture regions of Salinas, California.
Even though I lived in Northern California when I was a student at San Francisco Theological Seminary between 2009 to 2013, I only visited the Monterey area once in four years during that time. What amazed me about this unique area then is what amazes me about this area now; the vast shorelines which are home to a variety of sea-based wildlife in the Monterey Bay to the endless agriculture fields in the Salinas Valley which have dubbed this region as the “salad bowl of America.”
“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool,” once wrote American author and Salinas Valley native John Steinbeck.
Ever since I was a child, Scouting has been a part of my life. From when I was in the third grade all the way through being a senior in high school, I lived and breathed Scouting. While I was not into sports as a child and struggled with being shy, Scouting allowed me to do activities after school in the outdoors while also gaining character development through learning the tenants of the scout law as being the moral code for boyhood: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
For me, the proudest moment was earning the rank of Eagle, the highest award a boy can earn in Scouting. This is something I could not have accomplished without my scout leaders and my parents guiding me along the way.
After high school, I was not as involved in Scouting like I was as a youth. Going from high school to college and later to seminary, I didn’t have the opportunity to give back to the program what it gave me to me. That is, until now.
Last year after I finished my chaplaincy residency and while still working through the church ordination process, Scouting became an important part of my life again as I became a district executive in Pittsburgh and now as a district executive in Northern California.
Being a district executive involves wearing a lot of hats through the course of the day. From working to help manage fundraising and recruitment campaigns, to helping scout leaders get the learning skills they need to become effective leaders, I work with a multitude of parents, teachers, community organizers, business leaders, and clergy to help them run effective and independent Scout programs in their churches, neighborhoods, and communities.
And yes, I sometimes wear a Scout uniform to work.
As I work with schools and teachers to start new Cub Scout programs, I also get to see Scouting grow into new communities.
From Muslim based Scout units to Chinese based Scout units to its expansion into other non-white communities, Scouting is growing to become more than how it has been depicted in the Norman Rockwell picture of being an activity for white boys in the 1950s. And along with the change in its membership policy to allow those who are openly gay to be scout leaders, this is long overdue. But it’s still a wonderful thing.
However, working to help Scouting grow can be difficult.
In the Salinas Valley where I serve, 75 percent of residents are Hispanic or Latino with Spanish being the preferred and the most familiar language for many in the valley. For me, this has been a learning experience. Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, I have only been familiar with the English language. This comes as being a disadvantage for me, not just because I need a translator when I speak with many parents who live in the Salinas Valley. But because my lack of knowledge of the Hispanic and Latino culture can be a barrier between me and many of the Scouters I seek to serve.
However, despite my regrets of not learning Spanish (or other languages than my own) while in school, I find myself reminded of what one of my co-workers (who identifies as being Latino) told me when I asked him how I can overcome this barrier.
“It’s important to recognize that we as Hispanics and Latinos have a different culture than you and it will take awhile for us to be familiar and embrace programs like Scouting which came from the Anglo community,” he said. “However, don’t get discouraged by that. Just be sincere when you talk to parents about the importance of Scouting. When you have sincerity in your heart and a soul to help their kids, that will help breaks through those barriers.”
For me, it’s my heart that I try to get in touch with when I find myself trying to help an experienced Scout leader register new kids for his Boy Scout troop or I find myself speaking in front of a group of new Scout parents through a Spanish translator when I talk about the importance of Scouting. For me, it’s conveying what Scouting meant to me as a child and how the program can impact their children like it did for me.
“Scouting is much more than making campfires and learning how to tie knots,” one of my Scout leaders recently told me. “It’s about instilling values in the lives of boys that they will carry into adulthood.”
And that is what I support Scouting. It gives boys (and girls) not just the opportunity to learn knots and go on outdoor camping trips. But it gives them the opportunity to help develop confidence, leadership skills, and follow their calling to make a difference in their world and community. This is something that Scouting has been teaching youth for over 100 years. And for it to grow, it will need to continue to reach out to the youth of different ethnicity, culture, and religious backgrounds to maintain itself as the largest youth organization in America for another 100 years.
I must admit that being a professional scout is not as fun as actually being a youth in scouts. But when I talk directly with youth during my school visits or when I help lead Scout meetings, it’s seeing the excitement from the kids I serve for Scouting that gives me excitement about Scouting too. Like the Scout leaders I had, it’s my hope the youth I work with having the same great experience I had in Scouting growing up.
This week is my last week working as a resident hospital chaplain at Bon Secours Maryview Hospital in Portsmouth, VA. Since August of last year, I have been working at Maryview and for the Bon Secours Health System as a resident chaplain as part of a Clinical Pastoral Education program which is a requirement for most individuals seeking to become ordained ministers. While my denomination only requires one to serve 10 weeks in a CPE program, I decided to do an entire year for the full experience of what it would be like to work in a hospital providing spiritual care to patients and families.
When I began to discern doing a CPE residency, I was in my final year of graduate school at San Francisco Theological Seminary. While in seminary I spent a year as an intern at First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo and enjoyed learning in a parish setting, I also wanted to gain a year working in the hospital environment to learn about hospital chaplaincy.
The problem was that as someone who grew up outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and moved to Northern California, (where my seminary was located) and saw California as my new home, I felt it would be a struggle for me to leave the area. However, after I found a chaplain residency program in Hampton Roads, Virginia at a hospital which I felt called to serve, I knew I had to say goodbye to the West Coast (at least for a year) for this new opportunity. And to be honest, this was one of the hardest things I had ever decided to do. Especially since I had to say goodbye to my friends who had become my family.
What also was difficult was that the first few weeks of living in Hampton Roads,
Virginia (which encompasses the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and four more cities) were really tough. For weeks I stayed in cheap motel rooms and stayed in church people’s homes feeling as if I was a traveler with no real home. But through God’s grace, I later found a room to rent in Norfolk, made a friendship with my new housemate, and began to adjust to my new surroundings.
One of the first things which come to people’s minds when I tell them I am a resident hospital chaplain is they think it’s my job to go into hospital rooms and evangelize to people. This is far from the truth. And if it was my job—I wouldn’t want any part of it because I don’t believe God’s love should be shared through words—but rather through actions of love. As a hospital chaplain, it’s not my job to push my faith beliefs or theologies onto others. Rather, it’s my job to meet people where they are at, respect their spiritual or non-spiritual beliefs, and through my presence being in their hospital room and listening to them, be with them where ever they may be emotional, physically, or spiritually.
One of the greatest opportunities I’ve had in my program was to work with not only patients from various backgrounds, but to work alongside various chaplains and chaplain residents from various faith backgrounds. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Non-Denominational—just to name a few. Despite our differences in how we pray to God, all of us provided the same level of not just pastoral care, but emotional care to patients in their time of need.
But while many people may think chaplaincy is a laid back ministry, the truth is that it can be really difficult. Because while people are in the hospital for health issues, like all of us, they are dealing so many personal issues and have so many struggles. Especially for many in the Hampton Roads—an area where people deal with so many injustices every day ranging from poverty, racism, crime, drugs, and lack of opportunities.
“When you enter a room you are not having a light conversation with a patient over a cup of tea,” one of my chaplain mentors told me on my first day. “You are on the front lines: hearing about personal pains about addictions, family issues, depression, loneliness, alienation, and loss of hope.”
Even though the majority of the patients I would visit came through initial walk-in visits into their hospital rooms, some of the patients I would visit would come through moments of crisis. From hospital codes where a patient would be brought in and unresponsive and family members would be in shock. To having to do crisis care with young mothers who lost their newborn babies to fetal demises or due to child protective services taking their baby away. To sometimes being called in to help with family interventions—a chaplain always has a pager going off with a patient or family member in need of help.
For me, the emotional intensity of having attended 43 deaths in this past year, spending six months doing pastoral care in the psychiatric unit with patients who are often ignored and neglected by society, and working in a hospital environment all took a great toll on me psychically, emotionally, and spiritually. Getting lack of sleep, not eating right, skipping times to exercise, all wore me down very quickly to where I felt disconnected from myself and disconnected from God.
What added to the difficulty I had this past year was not having my friends and family nearby to spend time with when I wasn’t at work. With my family in Pittsburgh and my seminary community and friends back in Northern California, I felt a sense of isolation, depression, and at times, struggled with loneliness.
However, what was a saving grace for me was having a few special friends who took my phone calls and text messages when I needed it the most. And along with the help of my committee for preparation of ministry in California, I was able to recognize the need to take care of myself before I could be a presence to others.
What also was a blessing was the arrival of four chaplain students who came to our hospital from various parts of the country this June for our summer program. Their excitement to create a social circle with all of us who worked in spiritual care through Bon Secours allowed me to engage in a social life I hadn’t experienced since leaving seminary through beach trips, happy-hour specials, and many trips to the movie theater.
Most of all, what helped the most was being able to reconnect with God. While seeing so many suffering people caused me to question God (and still question God every day), a colleague friend of mine told me to find ways to look for God when I was trying to be a spiritual presence during someone’s difficult moment.
“It will come through things we may not notice at first, but look for it in the prayers we lead, the hugs we share, and the care and compassion you see the nurses and the doctors have for their patients,” she said. “When one person suffers, others in the hospital help by sharing in that suffering. And that is a glimpse of God’s presence.”
“A God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers,” theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff, writes in his book “Lament for a Son”.
As I find myself preparing to begin my final week of my residency and my final Sunday at Park View Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Chesapeake, VA where I have been working as a temporary pastor this summer, I will struggle to say goodbye to a lot of meaningful relationships I have made this past year in the hospital, in the church, and in the community. And while this past year has been one of the most challenging years in my life, it also the most trans-formative and affirming years of my life as well.
The first thing I will take away is how much I have changed, matured, and been transformed by the entire experience of hospital chaplaincy. Despite the struggles of getting used to living in an area which is drastically different than that of Northern California and even that of my home state of Pennsylvania, I have been able to stretch myself by not only being able to find confidence in places I didn’t have before, but also see my weaknesses in my life in places I couldn’t recognize it before. Just as it as my job as a resident chaplain to hold up a mirror and let others see things about themselves they could not see about their own lives, this program has done that for me too.
This program has also allowed me to challenge myself to step out of my introverted shell and engage people. While I am perhaps known for my sense of humor, I am indeed terribly shy and it takes me a lot of energy to share myself with others even if it is through this blog. This program has been able to teach me how to step out and how to connect with others.
This program has also taught me a lot about culture and diversity too. My hospital, where the majority of our patients are African-American and belong to Baptist and Pentecostal faith traditions, has allowed me for the first time experience what it’s like being in the minority and the unfair privilege I, as a white, straight, protestant male, had (and have) in ministry and in life.
My residency also taught me a lot about the health issues which are facing our communities and our country–particularly the struggle surrounding affordable healthcare. From patients in our psychiatric unit who are forced back on the
streets and cannot afford their medications to seeing people die of manageable health issues such as diabetes and obesity, I have seen the crisis many Americans are facing when it comes to their health and the crisis we as a country are facing in our health system today.
And while I enjoy working with people of different faith traditions, I learned the need to work with those whose beliefs are different than mine—particularly those in my same religion. As a progressive mainline Christian, I had the opportunity to work with many Christians who considered themselves fundamental and conservative when it came to their religious ideologies. While we may have our differences, I am blessed to have learned and be mentored by many who have different Christian theologies than mine and have great discussions–and sometimes disagreements too.
But the most important aspect which I have taken away from this past year is the sacred moments I had with others. The sacred moments not just coming from many conversations and prayers, but also sacred moments of being with family members after they lost loved ones. Because despite the anxieties and insecurities I have about myself and the ministry I tried to provide to patients this year, I have blessed in the ability of the Holy Spirit to show up and minister to my patients (and myself) through deep confessions, heartache stories, and often tears coming not just from patients, but between myself and my other chaplains during the time we took to minister to each other.
While often it can be a perception that ministers—or those of us going into ministry, always have confidence in the existence of the divine and are confident in what God’s purpose for us may be, I like to echo Anne Lamott by saying “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.” In fact, as Paul Tillich writes, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” And to be honest, even after this residency, I still not only have doubt but now have more doubts about God than when I started!
One of the things people have been asking me is what I am going to do next. For me, while I would like to have an answer to that question, the truth is, I don’t have one…..right now. One thing which I am certain about is on Sunday after my last service, I will be going home back to Pittsburgh. For me, not only have I been away from Pennsylvania this past year, but I have been gone from home since I left for seminary five years ago. It’s my hope to someday (in the near future) return to the West Coast. And someday when I get ordained, find opportunities not only in hospital chaplaincy but also in church ministry–no matter where in the world those opportunities may be. But first, I want to take the time to myself while also work on a few remaining requirements for me to be eligible to be ordained. And more importantly, I want to catch up with some friends from high school and family members whom I haven’t been good at keeping in touch with these past five years. This is something which I want to change.
If there is one thing I do know beyond my own doubts about God and the insecurities and anxieties that I had I still have about myself even after this residency, it is that despite the differences all of us have when it comes to our ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or life stories, all of us share one thing in common; we seek to be respected, accepted, and loved.
And if all of us are able to recognize the delicacies of life that we share together and are able to take a moment and be a spiritual presence with others through compassionate listening, then I think we can discover not just the own commonality we all share as individuals. But together, we can discover what it truly means to be human.