Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Dangerous People

Charlotte Delbo and another of the 230, in prison in France before deportation. Credit Courtesy of the Archives Departmentales du Val-deMarne, Pierre Labate, Roger Hommet and L'Association Memoire-Vivre
In the early 1940’s in Nazi occupied Paris, the Parisian police were collaborating with the Germans to round and arrest French citizens who were resisting the occupation.  Many of those arrested were placed in a prison named La Santé, in the 14th arrondisement.  La Santé was known as châteaux de la mort lente, castles of slow death.  There was “little food, no heating, and condensation trickled down the walls.  Fleas and lice were epidemic.  The chance of release was nonexistent [Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter—An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France, pg.105].”  Those imprisoned there were called the “dangerous element.”
Danielle, one of the imprisoned 230 women, wrote to her parents: “We sang every night.  If walking past those filthy walls, you heard singing, it was us. By ‘us’ I mean the dangerous element [pg. 107].”  Through their singing in such desperate conditions, these women showed just how dangerous they really were.  Without guns or clubs, in their resistance these determined women evidenced a power that is only available to those with the conviction they are serving some cause larger than their own lives. 
Singing in the face of abuse is a power that comes to those whose lives serve a more enduring cause than their own personal concerns and wellbeing.  It does, indeed, indicate they are dangerous.
These women were not, of course, the first determined people to sing in prison. 
Paul and Silas seemed to be a threat to the economy in Philippi, so they are beaten and thrown in jail (Acts 16).  They are praying and singing hymns in the night in their jail cell when an earthquake sets all the prisoners free. They do not flee.  The next day when the magistrates wish to send Paul and Silas away quietly, they demand a public acknowledgement of their unjust treatment; and they get it.
Paul and Silas were, indeed, dangerous to the status quo. Persecuting them had no chance of silencing them.  They had found something grander and more compelling than their own wellbeing.
People serving a larger cause are dangerous; they are hard to silence.  When we are gripped by something grander than our own security and comfort, like those women in La Santé and Paul and Silas, we become powerful. There is little to be gained by telling people like that to go home and be quiet.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Remembering and Anticipating

She sat in the pew absorbing the peace of the place before people started filing in for the worship service.  I saw her there and went back to speak to her.  I commented that she had seen a lot of change over the decades.  She was in her late 70’s and had been attending the church for nearly 60 years.
She smiled and said, yes; she had seen a lot of change.  She commented that she sometimes missed some things from the past.  I asked her what she missed.

She reminisced about how the ushers used to wear morning coats; she always like that.  She talked about the limousines idling along the street.  The deacons used to take the waiting chauffeurs hot coffee in the winter.  This was a glimpse into another world for her.

She quickly assured me that she still loved the church.  She said all the changes that had been made were good and necessary.
In her youth the church had been quite large and counted some wealthy, celebrated members among its ranks.  The long-term pastor was well know within the city and throughout the denomination and broader Baptist family.  The old imposing Romanesque sanctuary, which burned in 1972, was a landmark in that part of the city.  Now the congregation worshipped in the original sanctuary, more modest but quite adequate for our needs.

As the neighborhood began to become racially integrated in the early 60’s, so did the congregation.  By my arrival, the church was predominately African American.
She concluded her reminiscing with a smile of contentment and reiterated that she still loved the church; it was just the way it should be, she said.

Michael K. Girlinghouse (Embracing God’s Future without Forgetting the Past—A Conversation about Loss, Grief, and Nostalgia in Congregational Life) draws a distinction between yearning and nostalgia. Girlinghouse defines yearning as “obsessive rumination and a fixation on the past that paralyzes the mourner and makes it difficult to think about the future” (p. 104).  Congregations can yearn for a particular time in the past, a beloved pastor or program.  Pastors can also yearn for a previous church or period of ministry that was rewarding and life giving.  Yearning congregations and ministers try to recreate what they once had.  Often what they are yearning for is the web of relationships and people who filled their lives in that period.  This exercise is sometimes based on fantasies that have little basis in the past reality.  The congregation is prone to turn inward, disengage from the community, and distance themselves from the denomination (p. 105).

 Nostalgic reflection, on the other hand, “can help us see that while much has been lost, the core of who the congregation is remains” (p. 165).   We come to a deeper appreciation of the strengths of our past, which prepares us for the future. 
Nostalgia can open us up to that great cloud of witnesses the writer of Hebrews describes and help us draw from their example as we contemplate our future (p. 36).  Nostalgic memories can remind us of how our forebears adapted to changed realities and help us develop a sense of continuity with the past.  The most nostalgic memory in every congregation should be the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (p. 143-144).

Nostalgia is not about trying to reestablish or preserve the past.  Rather, is it about learning from and giving thanks for our past, which steels us to embrace the future with courage.  Nostalgia coupled with faith does not dishearten us; it makes us brave and bold.

That woman in my congregation did not want the past back.  She was thankful for it but was game for the next new thing God was going to do in us and through us.
I led worship that day heartened by the memory of all God had done in that place and anticipating the next thing God was going to do among us.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, August 23, 2019

I Am Getting Afraid

I am not afraid of the words of the violent, but of the silence of the honest.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I am afraid for my family.  I am afraid for my community. I am afraid for my country.

Several weeks on a Sunday night my wife and I were eating our dinner at the Chinese buffet in our community.  I heard a commotion over by the cash register.  At first I thought it was an overly excited softball team after a big win.  Then I heard “do any of you have jobs,” followed by “you’re all probably on welfare.”  The increasingly loud voice shouted: “Go back where you came from.”  Some racial slurs, the most offensive kind, filled the air.
I went over to the cash register.  Eight young women of color in Muslim garb were standing there, ranging from maybe 8 years of age to 20 or so.  I asked what was going on.  The older woman told me the woman was calling them n****** and telling them to get out of the country.  She then asked me, looking a bit confused, if the woman doing the shouting realized she was in a Chinese restaurant.
I went out to the sidewalk where the restaurant manager was talking with the disruptive woman and her male companion.  I got my phone out in case I needed to call the police; she was quite agitated.  She woman looked at me and asked if I were calling the police.  I replied not yet, that I was there to provide safe passage for any of the young women who wished to leave the restaurant.  Finally the woman and her male companion walked to their SUV.  As she got into her vehicle, she shouted to no one in particular for whom she thought people should vote in the upcoming election.
Why did this scare me?  I was not surprised that there are people like her in my community.  There always have been and always will be; this is nothing new.  This is not what scared me.
I was concerned because she felt free, unprovoked by anything more than the color of these young women’s skin and their religious garb, to shout ugly and foulmouthed things at them in a crowded restaurant on a Sunday evening in my community.  She felt she had license to verbally assault strangers young enough to be her daughters and granddaughters in a restaurant without any consequences.  I found that unsettling.
Reflecting upon this, I realized what really scared me:  she was right.  She was free to do this without any consequences.  No one intervened.  Everyone else sat at their tables, enjoying their meal, doing nothing.  For this woman there were no consequences except a request from the manager that they move outside.
That restaurant should have emptied out.  Everyone should have been on the sidewalk forming a corridor of safety for these young and shaken women. 
The foulmouthed woman did not scared me; the passivity of everyone else scared me. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” That woman had a restaurant full of coconspirators that Sunday evening in August.
William Butler Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity;” and the centre gives way. Jesus was concerned about what happens when the “best lack all conviction.”
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matt 5:13-16).
It is time for some salt and light because I am getting truly concerned.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Monday, July 22, 2019

Influence not Power

They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Mark 1:22). 

This is as much a shot at the scribes as it is an affirmation of Jesus.

What is authority and how is it different from power? 

In my first pastorate I quickly learned the difference.  Apart from the content of my sermons and Bible studies, how I counseled people, and the shape of wedding and funerals, I had little official power in that Baptist church.  I worked from accumulated influence, which was the product of earned authority.
The word used for authority (ξουσία) in this Markan passage often indicates the ability to do something to the extent there are no hindrances. Power (δύναμις), on the other hand, is typically used where one has the intrinsic ability to proceed regardless of any hindrances (TDNT, v. 2, pp. 562ff).

In the New Testament, authority can be used to denote the prerogative to make decisions, connoting the freedom to choose.  It is based upon privilege delegated by God; it is given and not grasped.
Jesus at times demonstrated raw power, the intrinsic ability to proceed with or without cooperation.  In the present passage, however, something else is at work.

The listeners in this Markan passage see something in Jesus that is different from what they see in the scribes.  The scribes could only exegete and interpret what had already been given through the prophets.  Jesus, on the other hand, brings to the table something new and creative and not just a rehashing of what the people had always known.
The fresh and unprecedented way Jesus moved among the people and the choices he made lent to his words authority, which resulted in a level of influence the scribes could not attain through formal power and position.

Authority in the early church followed this pattern set by Jesus.  The person in authority led not by force but by a recognition that the leader’s directives were just and honorable.  Authority distinguishes itself from naked power by its ability to produce acceptable answers to questions (Meeks, The First Urban Christians, pp. 122 &137).
The crowd saw authority in Jesus because his answers were simply better than those of the scribes. Authoritarian religious leaders turn to power as the last refuge of those who have run out of compelling, timely answers.

Church leaders, both ordained and lay, are tempted to resort to raw power when they feel they are not going to get their way.  Leaders can feel that they are going to lose something they value, such as position, control, or what is comfortable and familiar.

In this move to power, we violate the example of Jesus and his teachings about leadership:

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors.  But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:24-27).
Much of the apparent power I had as a pastor was really influence disguised as power.

Christ’s church is to be led by people who have earned influence through the way they move among people, demonstrating humility and a commitment to serving Jesus.  Church leaders are to be as “one who serves.”
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Privilege in a Dangerous World

A More Dangerous Place
I, like many of you, went to worship on Sunday with the shadow of the attack on the synagogue in
Poway, California, on my heart.  When one adds up the cumulative carnage of this attack, the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburg, the attack on the mosque in New Zealand, the driver in California who is charged with eight counts of attempted murder for intentionally targeting Muslims, the hundreds of Christians killed in Sri Lanka, and the bombing of three African-American churches in Louisiana, it can feel as if resurrection hasn’t really taken hold in the rest of the creation.

Although we all carry grief for these outrages spawned by prejudice and white supremacy, many of us—being European-Americans participating in the majority faith of our nation—perhaps do not feel directly threatened. 

This struck me as I sat in one of our churches this past Sunday, a church of fellow ABC/NYS brothers and sisters from the Burmese Diaspora.  These new Americans are the type of people who become the target of animus born of nationalism and racism.  (Nationalism and patriotism are not the same thing.  These words grew to carry different baggage in the 20th century.)  To sit in that church this past Sunday was more dangerous than it used to be.
We have a variety of ABC/NYS churches where the majority of worshippers are people of color.   Sunday morning, the threat felt among them was not abstract or hypothetical; they were sitting in places that are more dangerous than they used to be.

Power-intoxicated white supremacy, self-centered nationalism, and fearful racism are a threat to many of our ABC/NYS brothers and sister.
People of Privilege
So what about those of us who live with the privilege granted to white Christians in America?  We often hear the timely admonition “if you see something, say something.”  Maybe it is time to start practicing “if you hear something, say something.” 
We cannot shed our privilege like a coat.  We can, however, use it.  When we hear something ugly and dangerous, we can speak up on behalf of people who do not move through life with our unearned privilege.  We can listen to what is going on around us, and we can intervene.  We can demand that the dignity due those who bear within them the image of the Creator of the universe be acknowledged and honored.

I do not think it a stretch to see this as a Christian duty.  The author of 2 Timothy writes: "I solemnly urge you:  proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching [4:1b-2]."  We can be mindful of the time in which we live and our opportunities to teach about what it means to honor the one who created us all.
Giving the Dignity Due
I was waiting in line at the Rite Aid recently, in a hurry to get home to dinner.  I stood behind two Hispanic men whose English was not yet fluent.  They wore dusty work clothes and dirt-encrusted boots; they obviously had spent the day working hard.  One of them was buying left-over Easter candy, all of it 50% off but without the prices clearly marked.  The clerk was trying to explain the various prices.  One of the men kept putting back one item after another; apparently he had a spending limit.  It was quite a process to complete this transaction.  The clerk was incredibly patient and kind and warm, smiling through the whole encounter.  He even tried speaking some Italian to them, thinking that it might be easier for them to understand than English.  I was proud of this man using his position and privilege to make these men feel comfortable and of value.  It was a small thing to do, but it was a powerful expression of kindness and character.

None of us can compel the creation to embrace resurrection, but we can speak out when those around us treat people as if they do not carry within them the image of the Creator of all things who raised Jesus from the dead. 

We, who were undeniably privileged by our culture at birth, can use that privilege for the benefit of those who do not move through the world as easily as we do.  We can at least be kind and loving and affirming to those who among are not so treated all the time, and in that moment resurrection breaks out.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State.


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Hope of Lent: We Can Change

The hope of Lent is that we will come out of it a bit different than when we entered, having changed in some way for the better.  When I think of people changing, I think of the pastor of a church I once attended.
First Baptist Church, with its tall white columns and pipe organ and church suppers with real plates, sat just off the town square and was an institution of influence in that southern county-seat town. I joined the Second Baptist Church, with is low slung one-story red brick building and wood paneled sanctuary; it sat on the edge of town and was not a place of power.

I was serving as an intern campus minister at the nearby university.  People assumed I would join First Baptist.  I don’t clearly remember why I joined the other church.  Maybe I wanted to enter fully into the cross-cultural experience of living in a small southern town; I was from the urban north.  Perhaps it was an amateurish attempt at ethnography.  In any case, I joined Second Baptist and parked among Chevrolet pickups instead of Buick sedans.

I began taking several of my male African-American students with me to church on Sunday; they could not afford to go home on the weekend.  The young men were treated politely. They were most likely the first people of color to worship in that church.
One day the pastor took me aside and shared that it was OK for these young men to worship at Second; they were students and would be gone at the end of the year, as would I. He went on to say, however, there would be a problem if one them ever tried to join. So I needed to share that with them or stop bringing them. I told the pastor that I would do neither of those things.  In response he shared that if one of these young men were to present himself for membership, well that would “not be good for me or for you.”

I had moved south with a robust sense of self-satisfied superiority when it came to issues of race.  I believed the south was way behind the north in this arena. My first pastorate in Philadelphia years later disabused me of any naiveté I might have had about the north as the land of enlightenment and justice when it came to racism; but back then in that small town, I was still clothed in my arrogance-producing naiveté.  I went home from that conversation feeling pretty good about myself.
Several months later I was daydreaming my way through one of the pastor’s sermons.  He always ended up preaching about the same three things: gambling; the liquor dealers; and “liberal” politicians.  I already knew he was against all three.  Besides, the closest place to gamble legally was a 150 miles away; it was dry for 80 miles in every direction; and I was not registered to vote in that State. 

I came awake when in the middle of a sermon one Sunday this pastor said the words  “racial prejudice.” He said it was wrong.  He went on to say, and I will never forget the words:  “Don’t look at me like that.  I come from the same place you all come from, but something happened to me.”  He went on to say that the love of God in Jesus changed him; he wasn’t like that anymore.  I was stunned at the risk he was taking in that moment.

As I reflected upon his words later in the day, I engaged in what ethnographers call “reflexivity.”  That is where ethnographers, while studying another group of people, also study themselves.  We grow in self-understanding as we grow in our understanding of others.  I realized I carried a pack of stereotypes and prejudices in my own soul.  I also wondered, “How much was I willing to risk to do the right thing?”

Not long after that, two of these students joined the church.  I am sure there were some in the church who did not like it; but that day as the two young men stood at the front of the sanctuary, they were swamped by people welcoming them.  Change was gaining the upper hand.

Lent is about change, about coming out of it a bit different than we went into it.
People can change.  I saw it in a pastor, while sitting six rows back, center pew, during a sermon to which I was not really listening.  I saw it among pick-up driving folks at a red brick church at the edge of a southern county seat town.  I experienced it as I saw some things about myself through the lens of another’s courage.

We really can change.  That is the hope of Lent.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, February 1, 2019

Loving Our Neighbor and Neuroscience

Our neurology predisposes us to love our neighbor. When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, he is challenging us to nurture our innate, neurological capacity for empathy.

Our brains are wired for empathy argues David Eagleman in his book The Brain-The Story of You.  Our neural circuitry connects with that of others and monitors their pain, judges their intentions, and reads their emotions (p. 151).  An experiment showed that babies less than a year old intuitively show empathy and prefer a kind puppet over a mean puppet, in this case a helpful bear and an unhelpful bear of a different color.

Empathy is the capacity to have your brain stimulated by the experiences of others.  Another person’s pain or grief or fear matrix activates a parallel matrix in your brain. Jeremy Rifkin describes empathy in this way:

To empathize is to cross over and experience, in the most profound way, the very being of another—especially the other’s struggle to endure and prevail in his or her own life journey…Empathy is the ultimate expression of communication between beings (Jeremy Rifkin, The European Dream—How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, p. 271).

Empathy is a survival instinct.  Although natural selection or “survival of the fittest” plays a role in our survival, there is more to the story.  Without an intuitive empathic connection with others, humans would not have been able to live together in peace, cooperate, and flourish—given that we are slow and weak compared to other creatures closest to us in the food chain.  We help one another be safe, productive, and overcome challenges (Eagleman, pp. 163-164).

Additional research shows, however, that we are prone--unconsciously and unintentionally--to experience greater empathy toward people who are like us and less empathy toward people who are different (Eagleman, pp. 169-170).  It is not a choice we make. Herein lies our struggle: our brain chemistry does not recognize all of those around us as equal.  As one of the pigs says in George Orwell’s Animal Farm:  all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Human empathy is an imperfect survival mechanism.  It helps us to survive, but gives preference to people of our own tribe.

This defect operates most clearly through the process of dehumanization.  If we can shut down the empathic link between us and the homeless person, for example, we avoid feeling bad about not being charitable (Eagleman, p. 171). We experience them as less human than we are.

Language is a common stratagem humans employ to dehumanize others and dull our intuitive sense of connection.  By weaponizing language through derisive and demeaning terms, we can dehumanize others and give free reign to egocentricity.  Insult is the refuge of those who cannot tolerate the common humanity of others.

So when Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, he is challenging us to nurture our innate, neurological capacity for empathy (Matt. 22:37-40).  More stunningly, he commands us to love our enemies as well (Matt. 5:43-44).  There is a part of us that battles against this innate capacity for loving connection, particularly with those who are not like us, those who are not members of our political, social, ethnic, religious, national, or cultural tribe.

We live in a balkanized country, where demeaning and dismissing those who are not a member of our “tribe” has become almost a patriotic duty.  This is a denial of who God created us to be.  This is not an option for followers of Jesus; it just isn’t. 

God instilled within us an instinct for empathy.  Somehow—ask Augustine I guess—that got perverted into a preference for our “own people.”  Jesus challenges us to nurture a purer, Godlier, form of empathy: the capacity to love our neighbor and our enemy simply because they, like us, are made in the image of God.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State