Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Lenten Journey of Restoration*

During the first Wednesday dinner in Lent, a freshmen reported his excitement about hosting his first "kickback" (defined as a laid back, relaxed party). The report sounded benign to most people present, but I curiously inquired with the student about the planned location for his event. When the young man didn't have a clear answer, my internal alarms immediately went off. I knew that most kickbacks involve drinking alcoholic beverages (thus helping people more easily "kickback"), and I also knew that he had access to the student center after hours. Suspecting that the freshmen had plans to host his kickback in the Center, I gave him clear instructions, "Wade**, do not have a party in this building. Again, do not have a party here." I then turned to my graduate intern and said, "Please swing by here on Friday night if you have time. If there is a party happening call Atlanta Police Department and then call me."

That Friday night, Wade did indeed host a kickback in the Center, and the Atlanta police were summoned. While experiencing a confluence of conflicting emotions, I authorized the arrest of two students. Wade, the primary offender, spent 5 nights in jail for criminal trespassing and underage possession of alcohol.

A few days after Wade's release from the City detention center, I took Wade out for lunch. Over gyros and lemonade I invited Wade to share with me his experiences in jail, and to talk about why he disobeyed my instructions. Wade was humble and sincere. Contrite in heart, he expressed deep sorrow for his actions and shared stories of his encounters with other young black men in the Atlanta City jail. He asked me to pray for his cellmate, and he expressed gratitude for his freedom. Our conversation continued as Wade struggled to explain that he really just wanted to host a party. It was important to him and to his emerging adult identity to host his friends, and to show off the Absalom Jones Center - a place that he considered "home."

Then came the hard part of the conversation - the part where I said, "We are all deeply grieved and frustrated by your actions. The image of the two of you leaving our Center in handcuffs continues to haunt us. I honestly don't know how we are going to be reconciled to one another, but I want us to figure this out." The silence that ensued was filled with grief and angst. Finally Wade blurted out, "I don't know how to make this better! Can't you just punish me? Just ban me from the Center forever!"

The word forever hung in the air between us, and my heart broke as I heard the shame and guilt reverberate in his voice. The pain, his and mine, was so palpable that I had to resist the urge to leave the conversation. With a deep and prayerful sigh, I explained to Wade that he is always welcome to worship at the Center. He is always welcome in God’s house.

Not quite sure how to continue, I invited Wade to spend a few days thinking and praying about how we might walk together down a path of reconciliation. In preparation for our next meeting, I read several works about restorative discipline and the rite of reconciliation. Perhaps because we were in the midst of Lent, I had a very clear sense of the importance of creating space for Wade to be restored to the fellowship. Additionally, since the party and subsequent arrests were witnessed by several students, I was clear that certain elements of this healing process would necessarily involve the entire Absalom Jones community.

Still visibly guilt-ridden, Wade met me in my office two weeks after the incident. In response to my invitation to offer ideas for our next steps, Wade accused me of pulling a “Bill Cosby,” because of my refusal to explore more conventional methods of punishment. He was clearly thrown off by my language of restorative justice, and he didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t sure either, so we just started talking. He told me stories about his childhood and we exchanged stories about getting into trouble during elementary school. As we shared our stories, the tension and nervousness that we both felt began to melt away. Then, suddenly, in a God-inspired moment of clarity, I asked Wade, “Would you host a party here for our confirmands? Would you share with us your gifts and skills in party planning and hosting?”

Wade spent the remainder of Lent planning and preparing for what became known as the Confirmation/Reconciliation Kickback. We were transparent with the Absalom Jones community about why Wade was hosting the party, and I took time during Eucharist to teach them about models of restorative justice. Wade also did the important work of rebuilding relationships with students at the Center. So on the first Friday of Easter, Wade, with the help of many students from the Center, hosted an “authorized” and alcohol-free kickback. We had a great time together as we celebrated our confirmands and welcomed Wade back into the fellowship of the Church.

“Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”
(Ash Wednesday, Book of Common Prayer, 264)

* This story was written with permission and in consultation with the student involved in this incident.

** The names have been changed.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Living Church

In the summer of 2006 I got one of the strangest requests that I can remember. I had just been ordained to the priesthood and was preparing for my first semester as a campus minister at the University of Missouri when a Canon from the Diocese called me and asked if I could drive 60 miles to a small town where the diocese had just sold an old abandoned church. In my new and earnest priestly voice I agreed and the next day my wife and I took a little road trip.

After a quick and uneventful trip on Missouri’s high plain we arrived in the lazy and tired town. A town that surely thrived 50 years ago had turned into a slow and empty one not unlike most small towns in Missouri. With its fair share of beautiful historic buildings one remembers that life was once grand and that towns like this one were once prominent.

I’m sure there was abundant life at some point but today the greater community is left with a faint pulse and memories of promise past. Midwestern sensibilities and hospitality are still prevalent even if just a fraction of what they once were. But when the factories closed, mills dried up, and the train no longer stopped, a deflated community unfit for heath and growth remained.

The Episcopal Church in town really had no chance of surviving. There were a number of issues at play including the town’s size and demographics that made it nearly impossible to sustain an active and vibrant worshipping community. So I was sent to stand in the sanctuary and read to the open air a letter of deconsecrating the building on the bishop’s behalf.

The letter was short with big words and big meaning. It felt impossible to read. It was so heavy and sad and dead. I wasn’t called to be a priest so that I could bury churches, so doing this so soon into my ministry was a reality check of what happens when the life of a community slows down to an unrecoverable snail’s pace.

I’m constantly reminded about this day in my life when the wider church talks about its death. The lifeless, empty and dusty church that sat empty for so many years is finally closed and sold. A move that makes sense and one that I certainly support.

But when we talk death and the church dying my first response is that my church is not dead nor is it dying.

Campus Ministry is the antithesis of a dusty and empty church. And the college campus couldn’t be any different than an old and sleeping farm town on the Missouri plain.

I get that some places are slowing down and losing members. Interest might not be waning, but maybe an economy is and therefore people aren’t around as much. I get that there are other things in play besides a lack of evangelism or a great Sunday school. Things happen, places change, and just like the small town, sometimes it’s appropriate to close shop and move on.

But there is one place that moving on and closing shop or making cuts would be a great misstep in our work in the world, and that’s the college campus. Life is abundant. Life is full and real. Life is busy and active and amazing. The energy is unreal. I couldn’t think of a better place to do church and I couldn't think of a better place to put our resources and invest.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Moneyball & The Budget

In November, I attended the Provincial Coordinator for Campus Ministry meeting at "815" (Episcopal Church headquarters in NYC).  There, among other things, we got to meet with Sam McDonald, who works closely with Bp. Sauls, the COO of the Church.  He talked about Bp. Saul's plans to restructure the church, and what that may or may not do to campus and young adult ministry funding.  He spoke about Bp. Sauls taking the staff the see the movie "Moneyball."  The Bishop's theory is that the Church is looking at the wrong numbers.  Several times during the meeting, Sam talked about how they wanted to look at these numbers in a new way.  Now, full disclaimer: I haven't had time to actually see the movie, but I'll assume that this is the premise of the movie - looking at "the numbers" differently.

A few days ago, the proposed budget for the next triennium of the Episcopal Church was released.  Many bloggers have written about it, namely due to the fact that it nearly eliminates funding for all formation ministries, meaning: children, youth, young adult, campus, etc.  That currently constitutes about $3 million of the total budget.  Now I am not an accountant.  In fact, budgets make my head spin a little.  But when I look at the figure that states what TEC plans to spend - in total - over the next three years, we see that number is over $104 million (down from $109 million in the past three year time frame).  Let that sink in.  So to date, out of $109 million dollars, only $3 million was allocated to these ministries?!?!  That's like 3%.  And people wonder why - WHY - these populations are absent from our churches.  Hmmmm...

So looking at these numbers differently, we see that in a budget of $109 million, only $3 million goes to these ministries.  And that dropping down to $104 million means that measly $3 million has to go away.  Again, I wasn't a math major in college, but seriously?  Didn't Jesus say something about where your treasure is, your heart is there too...

People have been asking what this will mean for us at the Belfry.  Truthfully, nothing immediately.  TEC stopped directly funding campus ministries many years ago (unlike the ELCA which is just now starting to yank that funding).  How it will affect us is that this cut will eliminate the big events that draw students together like "PROV" (our Province VIII annual student conference), the young adult festival at General Convention, the Chaplain's Conference, etc.  Why do these ministries matter?  Well, while the argument is that these ministries should be done at the local level (and I mostly agree with that statement), the reality is that with a handful of exceptions (like here at UC Davis) by and large they are not being done at all, period.  There are many students who attend universities, colleges, or community colleges that don't have a campus ministry at all (other than the pervasive options of CCC or IV, etc.), and while they may try to connect with the local parish, sometimes that's not a viable fit either (see my blog post from last month).  So this is a problem.  Having conferences like "PROV" allows those students to stay connected to and active in their church.  (Notice: I said THEIR church).  So losing funding for these ministries will constitute an important loss indeed.

It has been heartening to read passionate blog posts and comments on them about how important these ministries have been to themselves and their children.  It's clear that people are really shocked and outraged by this budget and wondering what TPTB are thinking.  While God did not grant me omniscience when I was ordained (darn it!), it seems like they are very much in panic/survival mode.  It looks to me like this $104 million dollars is going inward - is going to bolster the church administration solely.  I get that.  On a sinking ship you want to make sure your life boat is air tight and seaworthy with a seat on board for you.  But every expert analysis I've ever come across, every observer, every bit of advice directed to a dying church says: if you want to turn things around, turn OUTWARD.  Become missionally focused.  Look outside yourself.  And you will live.  And in truth, anecdotally at least, that analysis seems to be true.

And yet, instead of looking outside itself, TEC is turning inward with this budget, cutting out those who are invisible to them ("they're not here anyway, so why spend $3 million on them?" perhaps is the thinking).  But what I'd want to say to TPTB is they ARE here!  50 some-odd of them will be gathering for PROV next month.  And those 50 students are just the ones who have the resources to go to the conference (subsidies are lower than normal due to, oh yes, budget cuts!).  There are many more college students in Province VIII that would like to go than these 50.

So are they looking at the wrong numbers?

Just for fun, last night I googled the operating budgets for Intervarsity and CCC.  It's not surprising to see that IV's budget in 2010 (the latest on their website) was over $85 million.  CCC was over $500 million.  Those are the numbers spent in the US alone.  And, if your campus is like mine, those groups are probably rather large.  Looking at these numbers begins to tell us why.  On my campus, those ministries have multiple full time staff and money to fund retreats and events, etc., things that are prohibitive on my budget and with just me on staff.  One day a few years ago, it hit me that proportionally speaking, my numbers - actually - are on par with those groups, when you look at it that way.

So let's shift some numbers: what if TEC allocated $85 million to campus ministry?  What if they provided the resources and support that IV and CCC provided to their ministries?  Still not having the power of omniscience, I don't know for sure, but my hunch is that young adults would no longer be absent from our churches.  I know people right now are mostly just wanting the $3 million to be put back in (and of that like $500,000 goes for campus ministry in particular), and that is a crucial start.  But what if even 10% of the total budget could go to these formation ministries?  Even if all it did was flow back to the local level?  Or Provincial level?  I know in Province VIII, there are dioceses that send nothing to the Province, so those funds are rapidly drying up (again: is it because dioceses are doing all this ministry themselves?  Usually - no.  They aren't doing these ministries because they don't have the funds, and so they don't give to the Province either.  So at the end of the day, these ministries aren't happening, period).

I know this is a little bit of the 'what if' game.  But having $104 million to spend is not an insignificant amount.  It seems what we need now is a courageous vision, leaders who will look at those resources and ask: how can we invest in mission?  In spreading the Gospel and reaching out to all in love as Jesus has asked us to do?  I know for sure that defunding these already woefully underfunded ministries does not do that.  My prayer is that we will come together to oppose this budget and encourage our Church to take a different course. 

There is so much living that we have left to do, and can do, if we have the courage to do it.