Tag Archives: advocacy

INVITATION TO LISTEN by Marlow Carrels, Final-year M. Div.

I am a white male who tries my best to be an ally for those who do not have a voice in our society. I am also a raconteur, a weaver of stories, and have enough anecdotes to fill many conversations. By contributing to The Persistent Voice, I have hoped to bring light to some issues that I have seen in my military career. This article is to remind all readers that there is still work to do, and a white male can help or hinder the voices of others.

It is important to remember the very beginnings of The Persistent Voice. In its first issue, the voices of female theological seminary graduates having to wait a long time for first call due to societal and ecclesial hesitancy were heard loud and clear. There was also a “Sign of Hope” about a seminary intern ministering to the Roman Catholic woman in the hospital. The woman said to the hospital’s priest, “Father, I want you to tell your sisters that they can do this [work] too!” A poem spoke to the oppression that challenges us and the liberation we can experience together. In its second issue, one article lifted up questions asked of a female candidate at a call committee interview: “How do you reconcile what the Bible says about a woman being subordinate to a man?” and “Are you concerned about legitimate social justice issues, or that silly women’s lib stuff?”

Some people think these issues no longer exist. No person has an issue with their voice being silenced; never would a call committee ask a candidate about their gender, race, sexual orientation, or immigration status. In other words, there is an existing illusion of a church in which every voice is heard and no person is afraid.

My friends, these problems still exist, and sadly they will likely persist. So how can I, a white male with military participation and a penchant for storytelling help the church? Perhaps I can interweave my stories with discussions that I have had with people of color, those in the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrants. Even better though, I could invite those whose stories I know to speak for themselves in my context. I could do my best to give them a space where their voice can be heard and where barriers can be broken down, walls can be destroyed, and bridges can be built. I have no specific answers; I simply hope that I am able to continue to use—and silence—my voice so that others may be heard.

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THE POWER CYCLE AND IMMIGRANTS IN THE U.S. by Nicole Garcia, Second-year M.A. Diaconal Ministry

The power cycle, as referenced in the book, Transforming Leadership (Fortress: Everist and Nessan 2008), shows how those in power maintain power over the powerless, and how that cycle can be interrupted at different stages so that people can experience new relationships of  healthy partnership and community. At first the powerful ignore the powerless and the powerless may internalize this deprecation. But when the powerless make their presence known (“Here I am”), or increase in numbers, the powerful notice and may feel threatened. In the power cycle, the powerful systemically move from ignoring to trivializing. If the powerless refuse to accept such trivialization and claim their voice, the power cycle may escalate to ridicule and finally to eliminating the powerless through dismissal, exclusion or even annihilation. Here we will see how this power cycle is currently in use in the United States in regard to immigrants and particularly undocumented immigrants.

People come to the United States from other countries seeking better lives and work to provide for their families. Most of the time these people are completely ignored. Unless one is an immigrant or is directly impacted by their presence in one’s life, one wouldn’t even be aware of them. These are the people picking tomatoes, strawberries, oranges, grapefruit, grapes, and probably just about any other fruit or vegetable that is mass produced in this country. How many people who eat these things actually think about where they come from or who was involved in providing them with that food? Many refugees and immigrants are also able to find work cleaning in hotels or working in restaurants. How many people acknowledge those who clean their rooms? When was the last time any of us thought about who was actually doing the cooking or washing the dishes? These are not glamorous jobs, but the United States would be a very different country without them.

When ignoring the thousands of immigrants who are here is no longer enough, people with power trivialize the powerless. Even the system currently in place to make judgments in immigration trials trivializes people. Often people petitioning to remain in this country are granted 6 more months here without deportation until their next court date, but no work visa. What kind of work can one obtain without a work visa or citizenship? Work that most people born in this country are unable and/or unwilling to do.

When ignoring or trivializing the thousands of immigrants who are here is no longer enough the powerful begin to ridicule them by blaming them for all the problems in our society, such as drugs, murder, and gangs. These things are “all the fault of people born outside of this country.”

In the power cycle, at any point there is opportunity for the powerful to welcome the powerless and to form new healthy relationships. Unfortunately, if that does not happen, fear of the immigrant increases, especially if their numbers grow. Right now, this country is in the midst of an elimination of immigrants. People are being deported and separated from their families every day. Many in this country do not even realize this is happening, but it is. When U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains people, the agents do not even have to tell families where the individuals are being taken. If a name is misspelled when ICE agents enter it into the system, the family may never be able to find their loved one, especially if they do not know the individual’s Alien Registration Number. In 2008, agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security raided a slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa. Some of the children rounded up in this raid were taken to California, and today there are still parents looking for their children.

It terrifies me to think about the many times in history when similar things have happened. No one wants to think that such a thing is possible in their own country, until it happens. At that point, so much damage may have been done that there appears there is nothing one can do to stop it. In the midst of a fearful time such as this, the call to walk with those being oppressed is a challenge—a persistent challenge.

“OTHER” LABELS by Paris Comentino, Second-year M.Div.

Citizens of the United States of America have a propensity to use labels. The assumption seems to be that white people are the only ‘true’ Americans. If one is not white, one is African-American, Asian-American, Native American, Latino-American, and the list goes on and on. In fact, US citizens often don’t recognize that there are many other “Americans” in the countries of North and South America.

People have spent decades coming up with the most appropriate label to place on people of color, especially black citizens, regardless of the fact that all are American. For example, if Euro-American is not a commonly used label in the United States, why is the label African-American so commonly used? Many African-Americans have as many ties to Africa as I, a Caucasian woman, have to Europe – none! White privilege and racism are still alive and well in America today and none of us can afford to deny it any longer.

Over the last few years the Black Lives Matter Movement has emerged and made waves all throughout America. This movement started from the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter after the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for his murder, even though he had no reason for shooting Martin except for the fact that he was a young black male walking around at night in a hooded sweatshirt. Zimmerman claims he thought Martin had a gun, but all he had was some candy and tea. This is just one more tragic story of a black life lost in recent history. Alicia Garza, one creator of the movement, says this movement is “…rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist … dehumanization. #BlackLivesMatter  is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” blacklivesmatter.com/about/

Some media sources portray this movement as starting riots and causing more harm to neighborhoods than good. Many individuals portray this movement as anti-police and insist on picking sides; either one favors the Black Lives Matter movement or the local police force. This is fed through the historical lens of white privilege and the drive to label all non-European-whites as scary, violent, and harmful to society.

Besides the division the media has made between this movement and the police, another counter-argument that has emerged is that all lives matter. Ah, yes. This is beautiful and so very true. But the sad truth is that not all lives have mattered and all lives cannot matter until BLACK lives matter. How long is this country going to deny history, facts, and lived reality? Denial allows people of white privilege to live comfortably in a dream world where nothing is wrong, but this same denial that makes some people comfortable is killing black people. How long, O Lord, can people sit by in silence? How long, O Lord, can people keep these problems out of sight, out of mind?

Christians are called to insure all lives do matter. The Gospel places all of us in the midst of what is broken in this world. As Christ descended into the brokenness of humanity, we, too, are called to these places to walk with each other as brothers and sisters, and to bring the healing and hope of Christ to the world.

“In these trying circumstances, the black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

NCE by Dr. Craig Nessan, Academic Dean, WTS

One persistent voice
Beckons others to bold speech
Hear our choir sing

 

PINE RIDGE CONVOCATION DISCUSSION by Kathryn Kvamme, Second-year M. Div.

Students, faculty, and guests gathered for a convocation this winter to learn more about the Pine Ridge Reservation. Following the presentation by representatives from Pine Ridge, as well as students who traveled there over January-term, round table discussions were held to further explore personal responses to the presentation.

This is the story, not of the entirety of the convocation led by the January-Term group who visited Pine Ridge Reservation, but of simply one table. Our conversation was, perhaps, a bit halting, for none of us are experts on the subject of Native Americans, either in the past or the present. However, we did exhibit a good deal of heart and caring for the subject, showing openness to what others said and being open with our own thoughts.

The first question we were asked to address were the differences between a mission trip, a service project, and cultural immersion. A mission trip, for our group, meant traveling somewhere else for a lengthy period of time. While ideally it will include cultural immersion, too often it instead takes the shape of works based tourism. Many of us have images of buses of youth showing up to a site, doing some work, and leaving again, without ever meeting people or learning about the culture. For many in the group, service projects were similar to mission trips, though locally based and short term. Participating in a service project entails hearing from an organization what they need done and then providing the labor for the task. On the other hand, cultural immersion is being with people and learning about their lives and culture by being in it. It can often happen by accident in an organic way. It is about interacting with people and building relationships, not merely giving and working.

Question two asked us to explore our views on Native Americans and the church. In our table discussion group, we quickly discovered that there were vast differences in our answers to this question based on our ages and where we grew up. Those who went to school in the mid-west learned a different history than did those who grew up on the east coast. However, we all agreed that the lives and stories of Native Americans were never shown in a favorable light or were never shown at all. We who were not Native Americans did not know a good deal about missionary work with Native Americans, but were sure that it did not go well and was not always effective or based on God’s love. Often missionaries entered situations carrying incorrect assumptions about those with whom they were working. Our impression as a group of non-Native Americans was that missionaries were trying to civilize Native Americans and convert them to Christianity in any way possible, claiming it was for their own good.

Our third question focused on how people treat Native American today. One group member noted that non-Native Americans are both responsible and not responsible for the sins of the past. Regardless of how one’s ancestors may have treated Native peoples, guilt should not hinder care of people, for we are called to serve our neighbor. This led to questions about whose land is this? While non-Native Americans or their ancestors may not have been directly responsible for the death of Native Americans, they may still have destroyed livelihoods and uprooted lives. This land non-Native Americans inhabit was not theirs to begin with, so why do they cling to it so tightly now? People are tempted to say that the way things are now has nothing to do with past policies and actions. However, history is one long narrative connected with the present.

When we see the problems and do nothing, we carry blame. We are invited to change our reality. Instead of hiding, we have the privilege of communication, asking questions, listening, and showing hospitality, not because of fear or guilt or blame, but because we truly love each other as God’s beloved children. We are all called to spend quality time with people who are not the same as us, getting to know their real lives, their joys and their sorrows, their pain and their stories. In this way, we can help break the cycle of degradation, displacement, and fear.

“THESE WOMEN ARE JUST LIKE ME, ONLY MORE SO” by Rebecca Goche, Final-year M. Div.

“These women are just like everyone else, only more so.” These are the words that Pastor Paul Witmer, Minister of Congregational Care for Women at the Well told a group of us on the “outside” while at a gathering of people who support Iowan women prisoners. I really had no idea what he meant by these words at the time until I went “inside” and experienced the Women at the Well, a United Methodist congregation located with the walls of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, in Mitchellville, Iowa.

I first heard of Women at the Well when Pastor Lee Schott spoke at the ELCA Southeastern Iowa Synod Assembly about what it is like to pastor a congregation within a prison. I remember her passion and I knew then that I wanted to learn more about ministry with incarcerated persons. I took a group of 10 people from my internship congregation to worship with the Women at the Well congregation. I had no idea of what to expect. I was shocked at how full the Sacred Space (chapel) was with about 70 women worshipping with us that night. I was amazed at what I can only describe as “freedom” which I felt and saw as these incarcerated women worshipped. My brain wondered, “How can this be?” as I had not experienced such a freedom in a congregation outside prison walls. It was my wonderment over this freedom that urged me to go through the prison’s mandatory volunteer training and set up an independent study during J-term 2017 to delve deeper into the ministry of the pastoral staff with the Women at the Well and witness how God is moving in the women within the walls of the prison.

Some of my friends and family were concerned for my safety when they found out that I was going into the prison to work with the women. I had more than one person tell me that prison is “full of bad people.” After watching Pastor Schott interact with the women on my first day in prison, I realized that if I let others’ and my own fears get the best of me, I would be closing myself off to the women and to God’s work in them. As I opened myself up to the women and listened to their stories, I found most to be warm and caring despite what they had been through or what they had done. I still find myself wondering how any of them can be warm and caring knowing some of the statistics of the women who are incarcerated in Mitchellville: 60 percent suffer from mental illness, 80 percent have some type of addiction, and 90 percent have experienced some type of abuse whether domestic violence or sexual assault. For most of these women, the deck was stacked against them long before they ever entered prison. I find it deplorable that for many of these women, it seems that prison is Iowa’s mental health system.

With Pastor Witmer’s words, “These women are just like everyone else, only more so,” echoing inside my head, I quickly learned that pastoral care in prison is much like what I have experienced outside its walls, only the women’s issues seem to be magnified partly because of where they are. The women want someone who will listen to them and not judge them. They want to be able to share their joys and their sorrows just like the people I visited while on internship. Many of the women feel guilty for not being with their families, especially their children. Often times this guilt manifests itself in depression or acting out in an inappropriate manner. I had the opportunity to accompany Pastor Witmer on a visit with a woman who was on suicide watch. She was alone in a solitary cell wearing what I can only describe as a moving blanket-type gown. There was another offender outside her heavy glass and metal door whose sole job was to watch her in the event she tried to hurt herself. There were no moveable chairs near her cell, so both Pastor Witmer and I kneeled on the cold, concrete floor to talk with the woman through the small, 3 ½ inch by 10-inch tray opening in the cell’s door. It was uncomfortable and not ideal for holding a conversation. The woman was highly agitated and her mind and words jumped from one topic to another. She spoke about her mental illness and the difficulties she has had with various medications not working anymore because she has built up a tolerance to them. She talked about the abuse she has experienced from former partners and how she thought that was normal until she met and married her current partner who will not hit her even though she wants him to do so. The woman told us about having to relinquish her parental rights and had found out a few days earlier that her child had been adopted – the “final straw” that caused her to be transferred to the suicide watch unit. We spent just over 10 minutes with her simply listening. As we were walking back to the Sacred Space from her unit, Pastor Witmer said that he is still trying to figure out how to do better pastoral care with the women, especially in situations like we had just experienced.

Women at the Well tries to address some of the women’s needs by offering various pastoral care-type groups. I had an opportunity to sit in on a grief group led by two Methodist pastors/counselors. I listened with an aching heart as a woman in her late twenties shared her story. This woman had been raped at the age of 13 by a relative, became pregnant and gave birth to a baby. Five days later, she watched this same relative smother her child and then place the dead child into a garbage bag to throw away. Her child would have been 16 years old. The woman continues to feel guilty about not stopping her relative from killing her baby and grieves the loss of her child. In an effort to numb her pain, she began using drugs and did whatever she had to do in order to get them. I wanted to give the woman a hug, but touch is not allowed inside the prison. I watched as the other women in the group, who also could not hug the woman, enveloped her with their words of love and comfort. I listened to other women’s stories during the hour-long session. I cannot imagine the grief that many of these women must carry, buried deep inside of them because if they let it show especially in prison, they will be preyed upon by others for being weak. Women at the Well offers these women a safe space to share their grief in a community.

Roughly 10 percent of the population or about 70 women are released from the prison every month. Women at the Well offers a voluntary, faith-based re-entry program to the women for one year after they are released from prison. Volunteers from various denominations make up the re-entry teams located in communities around the state. These teams serve as an important resource to help the women move back into society. I had an opportunity to be a part of two sessions of the women’s preparation course for the re-entry program. Thirty-two women attended the four-week course. Many were looking for resources to help them once they got out of prison. Some were looking for a deeper connection with God. Others were looking for help in finding a church home once they are released. I heard much hope in their discussions sprinkled with a heavy dose of their current realities.

While participating in worship with the Women at the Well congregation, I found it surreal to look out the windows of the Sacred Space and see the orange glow from the security lights reflecting off of the razor wire atop the fence that surrounds the prison grounds. Once again I was mesmerized by the sense of freedom that I felt within the space, worshiping God with these women who could not be on the other side of that fence until society through the courts said they could, if ever (there are currently 39 women who will never get out and will die in prison). I sensed a palpable hope and a strong desire to serve their neighbors outside the walls of prison as evidenced by the congregation’s support of a different organization/charity each month. These women earn anywhere from $0.27 to just over one dollar an hour at their prison jobs which can be used at the prison commissary to buy phone cards to call loved ones, toiletries, and so on. I was humbled by their acts of stewardship as they eagerly shared their money with neighbors whom they may never meet.

Today, prison is big business and many in our society would rather spend money on building more prisons to house more people rather than spending money to help prevent people from being incarcerated or rehabilitate those already incarcerated so that they are not repeat offenders. I was naïve about how racially biased our criminal justice system is, but my eyes have been opened wide after reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and seeing the disproportionately high numbers of people of color within the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women when compared to the population for the state as a whole. I find hope in the ELCA’s Social Statement on The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries, but I wonder how many of our pastors and congregations actually read it and apply it to their lives. After my experience with Women at the Well within the prison walls, I can no longer close my eyes and block my ears to the cries of those who are behind bars and to those who must forever live with the label of criminal, as less than that of a second-class citizen. These women truly are just like you and me – they are beloved children of God.

CHURCH LEADERSHIP AT THE INTERFACE OF CHURCH AND STATE by WTS Prof. Norma Cook Everist

Excerpts from comments given February 2, 2017 at a meeting of the Wartburg Theological Seminary community.

We are called to be leaders of the church in the world at such a time as this.

To speak or not to speak? Not to speak also speaks loudly.

To march, to network, to organize?  In the name of the congregation or agency I serve? In my own name? To not act is also an action.

The ELCA’s approach to church and state is institutional separation and functional interaction.   This is important in a pluralistic society.

Note the First Amendment of U.S. Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” We are free to interact politically.  It is part of our religious calling.

So many issues. The tweet versions, the executive orders, the consequences, and the broader, global implications.

“Alternative facts” of inauguration attendance, sets the stage for justification of even more voter restrictions.

Walls, borders “make a nation.” America always and only first.  The Idolatry of nationhood.

Cabinet nominations. Listen and question, “Does the right of ‘my family’ over-ride concern for my neighbor’s child and public schools?

Climate change. Do we lead the world to save the planet or again deny?

Immigration.  Refugees. What is our theology of sanctuary? Even the “We all came from somewhere else” misses the facts and faces of first peoples.

Affordable health care. Changes that have real life and death consequences here and globally.

People say, “You can’t mix religion and politics.”  We cannot separate them.

My political commitments were formed in confirmation class and in public high school; later shaped through engagement on the streets of inner cities.

So, what do we, as resurrection people inspired by the Spirit, do?

  1. Five million of us gathered for the Women’s March. No guns fired. No one arrested. No one hurt. We moved from despair into action.
  2. Create communities of trust, conversation circles, like this one tonight. Learn to listen to each other so we have the courage to act.
  3. What if we work on different issues? Fine. There are more than enough right now. What if we walk in different directions? We may. But when we return to the Eucharist, we are one.
  4. What if we don’t know enough.  No excuse!  Find out what’s really going on.
  5. What if I get into trouble? You will. I have. When you do, make sure it’s for the sake of the Gospel.
  6. Have a Persistent voice. Those we think are not concerned may find their voices too.
  7. Be wise, centered, in the Word and prayer. Seek strength, support; strategize. God is at work through you.

I was theologically formed by being a community organizer so I quote from a speech by another former community organizer given in Chicago earlier in January. He said, “It was in neighborhoods not far from here where I began working with church groups. There I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.  This is where I learned that change happens only when ordinary people get involved, get engaged.”

He concluded, “Our democracy needs you.  If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try to talk with one in real life.  If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing.  Grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.  Show up.  Dive in.  Persevere.”