Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Lutheran Seminarian @ OccupyPhilly

This past Friday I took the commuter rail down to City Hall, making my first visit to OccupyPhilly.  On my way there I generally thought I supported what was going on, but my main purpose was to get some postcards signed...  Philadelphia is one of the hungriest large cities in America... 1 in 4 folks face food insecurity here.  Despite such an alarming statistic the city of Philadelphia also doesn't currently have an official hunger plan.  City Soup recently launched a campaign to change all that.  Over the coming weeks, members of faith communities throughout the city will sign postcards to advocate for the development of a hunger plan.  And they're going to sign a whole lot of postcards... 30,000 of them, to be exact.  As part of my field assignment with Lutheran Advocacy Ministries of PA, I was asked to support the campaign by getting the Occupy folks to sign as well.

Upon exiting Suburban Station I quickly realized Occupy was something I had never before experienced.  I've been to protests before, marching against the Iraq War in NYC and Washington, but this was completely different.  It wasn't a protest at all really, but rather a fully functioning community organized around fighting economic injustice.  There was strong infrastructure in place... a welcome tent, a medical tent, a media tent, a legal tent and food tent were only a few of the many ways the community supported it's members.  Despite a week-long occupation, the park was amazingly clean.. cleaner than many parks I've visited in Philly.  Finally, there were people not only talking, but really listening to each other all around me.

Most impressively, the folks over at OccupyPhilly were doing exactly what the city hasn't succeeded in doing: feeding hungry people.  For days police have been directing people who are homeless to City Hall in the hope of overwhelming the occupiers.  Instead of being overwhelmed, the community is simply feeding hungry people... a whole lot of hungry people.  In fact, over 1000 people are being served each meal.  That's right... Occupy has become a huge feeding operation right in front of City Hall.  Right after I learned about the feeding operation over a hundred students came marching down (I think) Market St. from Temple University... they had staged a walkout in support of the protest.  The community grew to embrace the Temple students, and continues to grow each day.

The sad part though was that people of faith were almost nowhere to be seen at OccupyPhilly, at least in an official capacity.  There was a Society of Friends tent and a Unitarian/ Universalist tent, but that was about it.  Despite Christ's work feeding the hungry, supporting the poor and serving the marginalized, Christians weren't really around.  Even if the church can't support the Occupy movement itself, it surely can minister to the community there.  I heard from one of the folks at the Society of Friends tent that pastoral care needs were overwhelming and that help was needed.  I heard from community leaders how desperately more food is needed as well.

OccupyPhilly was a truly amazing experience, an experience of the Spirit working in a community organized around fighting economic injustice.  The people there (whether they knew it or not) were living out a vocation to feed hungry people and give a powerful voice to those who have never had one before.

Hiking the Wissahickon with Dr. Gordon Lathrop

Thanks to Tommy Richter for all the amazing pictures.

The Baptisteron
A couple Sundays ago, six members of the LTSP community spent an absolutely beautiful autumn afternoon hiking around the Wissahickon Creek with Dr. Gordon Lathrop.  The event was organized by LTSP's Green Team, and boy, we had a great time and learned a lot as well!  The Wissahickon Creek runs twenty-three miles from Montgomery County, flows through Philadelphia's Fairmount Park system and eventually empties into the Schuylkill River.  Despite the creek's short length, it has a very storied past.  From the late 17th century onward, many mills and damns were built along the creek, including some which can still be seen today.  The area attracted a variety of religious groups, including the monastic-like followers of Johannes Kelpius.  Authors such as Edgar Allen Poe and John Greenleaf Whittier wrote of the area's beauty.

The Devil's Pool
During our four mile hike Dr. Lathrop (being the Liturgy Professor Emeritus that he is) put particular emphasis on the liturgical history of Wissahickon Creek.  In fact, the creek has long served as Philadelphia's baptismal font.  One of our stops was at the Baptisteron, an area of the stream where the first Church of the Brethern baptism took place on Christmas Day in 1723.  An absolutely gorgeous spot called the Devil's Pool may have served as a sacred space for the Lenape American Indian tribe.  Despite it's unfortunate naming, a sort of peace does permeate the area, and local children still often use it as a swimming hole.  Dr. Lathrop has seen more recent congregations baptizing new believers in the creek as well.  Wissahickon Creek was even used once by Dr. Lathrop's own liturgy class for practice baptisms.

The sacred character of the Wissahickon's waters is indisputable, but Dr. Lathrop took this even further by reminding us that all the waters of the world are sacred.  In fact, Martin Luther wrote that when Jesus was baptized, all the waters of the world became a holy flood.  As people of faith, it is important to realize our connection to the waters all around us... the LTSP campus in fact sits in the Wissahickon's watershed.  Moreover, as people drowned and reborn in the waters of baptism everyday, as people of the water, we should profoundly care for our lakes, rivers and streams.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Greening of LTSP Continues

For a number of years now the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia's Green Team and Environmental Stewardship Committee have worked to ensure that future church leaders know about and have experience in caring for creation.  This year, we've been focusing on supporting our learning community in caring for creation "from a free and merry spirit," and boy, we've had a lot of success!

To get new students interested right from the start, we organized a service project at Philly's Morris Arboretum during orientation week.  Despite the hot weather, six folks from our community showed up, and we had a pretty epic time.  Since the arboretum was still cleaning up after Hurricane Irene, we spent most of the day clearing out plants that had been damaging by flood waters.  We finished up by taking a few minutes to haul out a couple tree stumps, we got a "behind the scenes" tour of the arboretum's maintenance and office buildings.  The buildings all had a number of innovative green friendly features, of which the green roof was most notable (check out the picture).  After the tour was over, we were able to head back to LTSP with a stack of free arboretum tickets for our efforts.

We've been organizing a number of other fun events as well to gain interest, like touring the fully wind powered Yards Brewery and hiking around Fairmount Park with LTSP's Professor Emeritus of Liturgy, Dr. Gordon Lathrop (that event deserves it's own forthcoming blog post).  Outside of the events we've been doing a lot more behind the scenes work to green the LTSP campus.  Most notably, we've expanded our compost program to serve not only the refectory but also the Holy Grounds Cafe.  We're also in conversation with GreenFaith about how their "green congregation" certification process could be adopted to fit a seminary.  If it's work out, the certification process will provide us with a solid framework to continue green LTSP for years to come!  If you're interested in hearing more about what the the LTSP Green Team and Environmental Stewardship Committee are up to in the coming months, please 'Like' our Facebook Page or check out our website.  Thanks so much!

God's peace,

Saturday, October 15, 2011

You Always Have the Poor With You... But They Need Not Be Hungry!

So here's part two of my ongoing series "catching up on what I've been doing the last couple months" posts.  Thanks to Mikka McCracken for all the pictures.  Enjoy!

It's always a hard quote talk about... Jesus says something similar to "the poor will always be with you" in every gospel except for Luke, and it's a passage that some folks have used to argue against social justice initiatives.  On one level, I'd like to point those folks to how Jesus' quote parallels Deuteronomy 15:11: "There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land."  Yet on another level, while the poor may always be with us, they need not be hungry.

Tour of the Rodale Institute.
The poor may always be with us, but they need to be hungry... this became abundantly clear for me  couple weeks ago while participating in an ELCA World Hunger "Ethics of Eating" retreat.  From September 29th to October 2nd folks from synods all over the ELCA's Region 7 gathered at Camp Men-O-Lan in Quakertown, PA to find out more about world hunger and what people of faith can do about it.  And boy... it was a powerful event!  First of all, it was great to part of such a diverse group.  While there were a number of seminarians and pastors, there were farmers and business folks too.  There were younger folks in attendance, but there were others who had been working on hunger issues long before I was born.  Most encouragingly, there seemed to be a diversity of political opinion in the group... feeding the hungry need not be a liberal or conservative issue, and it was great to see Lutherans from diverse backgrounds and experiences working together towards that goal.

The only nice cow at Living Hope Farm.
Over the course of four days, we had a number of amazing education opportunities.  We heard more about ELCA World Hunger, learned how the ELCA does advocacy on both the federal and statewide levels and visited Living Hope Farm, a Mennonite community-supported agriculture project.  We also heard about both sides of the GMO/ organic farming debate from the perspective of two dairy farmers and even got to tour the Rodale Institute, a research farm that's been pioneering organic farming for well over fifty years.  While I came away from the event with many learnings and new ideas, there's five specific points that need sharing.

A greenhouse at Living Hope Farm.
First, (and most importantly) we can solve hunger as a systemic problem in this world.  We are blessed to live in a time where we have the means to feed the hungry, and it's just a matter of will and proper coordination to do so.  There will be difficulties posed by a continually rising population for at least a few more decades and many negatives effects from climate change, but still, feeding the hungry is possible.  In many areas, it's actually happened... hunger in America was nearly eliminated under the Nixon administration, although since then we've backtracked to now one in six of our citizens being hungry.  There are similar stories on the global front... David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World has written that if we continue on a similar trajectory, from 1990 to 2015 we would have cut the number of people in extreme poverty in half.  It's true friends, feeding the hungry can happen... and imagine if it did.  What would happen for instance if your church no longer had to operate a food-bank because it simply wasn't needed?  Imagine what other important ministries all those resources could go to!

Discussing future projects.
My second learning was that while hunger is solvable, people of faith can't do it alone.  We're called in the waters of baptism to not only directly feed the hungry, but to accompany them in advocacy as well.  That of course might look different for different folks.  It might mean signing up for the ELCA's e-Advocacy Network or writing a letter to your local newspaper.  Bread for the World also provides great advocacy resources, particularly in this critical time of budget cuts and the upcoming debate over the Farm Bill.  It's a empowering experience to visit either your state rep's office or even your congressman's office in Washington to advocate on full support of hunger programs... and thank them while you're there!  Once again, hunger is solvable problem, but it's going to take collective action that only government entities can bring to bear to do so.

The group at Living Hope Farm.
Third, I learned that advocacy and organizing go hand in hand.  Advocacy does not need to be done alone, and of course is particularly enjoyable while working with others.  From my experience, advocacy is pretty contagious, especially when you know your efforts have paid off in a big way.  People of faith bear a lot of political weight with their opinions... politicians listen to us, particularly when we're in large numbers.  Ethics of Eating was particularly effective because it gave all of us participants the tools to be leaders back home in our local congregations and communities.  Hopefully, with the Spirit's help, all that education and energy will spread and foster even more leaders and open ears.  That's sort of related to my fourth point in a way... feeding the hungry is going to take a lot of listening.  Oftentimes it's so easy to think we're doing good while in fact we're only making the matter worse.  For instance, oftentimes sending food to foreign countries depresses local food prices so farmers can't make a living.  In advocating and building community around solving world hunger, we need to listen to all interested parties.  The genetically-modified organism/ organic farming debate particularly can vilify one side or the other.  I came out of the retreat a little unsure about where to stand on this one.  Organic practices and CSA's were certainly great when possible, but it seemed unclear to me as to whether or not such farming continue indeed feed all our hungry planet.

Finally, as we discussed in the first night of the retreat, feeding the hungry is all about good discipleship.  Check out this well known passage from Matthew 25:
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25: 34 - 40).
That's what discipleship is all about folks!  Seeing Christ in others and doing our best serve them as Christ.  From a Lutheran perspective, this is done not out of a need to justify ourselves, but rather in response to God's love and saving grace.  As second generation Lutheran theologian Andreas Musculus puts it, we serve others "out of a free and merry spirit."  Whether we are directly feeding the hungry, making sure folks have clean drinking water, clothing the naked, caring for the sick or visiting those in prison, all those things at least indirectly contribute to making sure all of God's children have access to good quality food.  Feeding the hungry is at center of Christian hospitality, central to good discipleship, and a central part of who we are as people of faith.  Thanks for reading!

God's peace,

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Preaching on Hunger... for the First Time

So here's my first attempt at including blogging as part of my sermon prep process... and thanks so much for the help ahead of time.  What follows is a very rough manuscript (which I'll later boil down into an outline so I can preach w/o notes) of hunger sermon I'll give on October 23rd.  Having never preached on hunger before, in particular I'm finding it difficult to preach what is essentially a topical sermon while not diving too far into eisegesis on the lectionary text for that day (the gospel reading is Matthew 22: 34 - 46).  Preaching the gospel while also encouraging the congregation to a specific action is also a chief concern.  I'd greatly appreciate all of your suggestions.  Thanks again!

A few weeks ago I attended an absolutely amazing retreat organized by the ELCA’s World Hunger office. While I learned a lot about ending hunger from the various presenters, forums, tours of organic farms and the like, my greatest learning came from a simple response to the question, “Why do we advocate for feeding the hungry?” Folks in our group offered a variety of very good answers: “We’re called to serve in baptism,” one person exclaimed. “Christians can’t bear the full burden of feeding the hungry on their own” said another. Near the end of our discussion however a close friend sitting next to me a gave a simple, one word answer, “Jesus!” We advocate for feeding the hungry and we serve our neighbor because of Jesus… I didn’t say anything out loud, but I reacted to her answer with judgment. After a whole weekend talking about hunger, I thought she should be able come up with something with a little more detail.

Boy was I being silly though, because my friend was absolutely correct… she was in one word articulating the same response Jesus gives to the Pharisees in today’s gospel reading: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself… On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets…” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Friends, whether you have ever felt physical hunger or not, as people of faith we all feel a different sort of hunger. Not to earn God’s favor but rather out of a spontaneous love for God, out of a spontaneous love for God’s saving grace through Christ, we are all hungry to love and serve our neighbor.

There are a wide variety of ways we serve our neighbor as Christians, and feeding the hungry is only one of them. Up until quite recently hunger wasn’t really my thing… I had done an Eagle Scout project about the ELCA’s World Hunger Appeal back in high school, but since then, outside of occasionally donating a can of tuna or throwing a few dollars into a collection plate, I choose to focus on other issues for a couple reasons. First, I was sick of the guilt trips. So often when talking about hunger we’re bombarded by statistics to make us feel bad… 1 in 6 folks are hungry right now in America, and in my city of Philadelphia, that number changes to 1 in 4. Those numbers might make us feel bad, they might guilt us into giving a donation, but they don’t empower us to action. The same thing goes for all those children with distended bellies and flies on TV. On one level, that sort of thing can be an important reminder, but it never empowers us. On another level, as it did for me, all that guilt simply freezes us… we panic, we think that hunger is too big a problem to tackle… we begin translating “you will always have the poor among you” into “you will always have the poor among you, and whole lot of them will go hungry…”

That brings me to the second reason hunger was never really my thing… all that guilt, all those news stories had turned feeding the hungry into a cliché. Could I feed individual folks who needed a meal? Yeah, but I thought that no matter what I did, no matter how many meals I paid for, there would always be more. I felt my spiritual hunger to serve others could be used a lot more effectively in other areas than well, hunger. It was only in the last couple months as I began learning more about the issue because of my field placement with Lutheran Advocacy Ministries of PA… LAMPa that I realized with God’s help, hunger could be eradicated in our world. There of course will always be a few individual cases, but as a wider societal problem, hunger is solvable. Not only is hunger solvable, but in a number of places, it’s already been solved. While it was a bit before my time, I’ve learned that under the Nixon administration actually, a number of federal programs were tweaked enough to make sure nearly everyone was fed in America… in our country at least, it’s already happened. If hunger has already been solved in America, surely we can do it again. On the international level, despite the economic downturn, we’ve made enormous progress… Under the Bush administration foreign aid to Africa was nearly quadrupled. If we continue on current trends, by 2015 there will be half as many people in extreme poverty worldwide as there was in 1990. Hunger is solvable… empowered by the Spirit’s work in past successes, we can feed the hungry, we can love our neighbors as ourselves… and we do it all not out of guilt. Rather, as my friend put it, we do it because of Jesus.

What then, does feeding the hungry look like? How can we make it happen? First of all, celebrate how far you’ve already come. I heard from Pastor that through your support of a local food pantry, fifty kids had lunches all summer that wouldn’t have otherwise. I heard St. Michael’s also participates in the local CROP walk, in the Souperbowl of Caring and donates homegrown tomatoes. All those things are absolutely amazing, and need to be rightfully celebrated. Second, though, we need to realize that as people of faith we cannot eradicate hunger on our own. Even if every church member in the US gave a full additional tithe towards feeding the hungry, it wouldn’t be enough. We can eradicate hunger, but it takes collective action… and as people of faith, we need to advocate for that action. It would never, ever be appropriate to officially support one political candidate or another as a church, but we can advocate for specific policies that help feed hungry people.

As Lutherans, we already have social statements and organizations like LAMPa to help guide our advocacy efforts. Signing up for alert emails from LAMPa might be a good start, and if the internet isn’t your thing, join an organization like Bread for the World to find out what issues you could lend your voice to. I might even dare to guess that Pastor Bergdahl might be able to help get you started. Then, take a few minutes to send an email, handwrite a letter, make a phone call, or as you gain confidence, visit your state or federal representative’s office. Equally important, begin talking to others in your community about hunger or write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.

In the second half of today’s gospel reading, Jesus asks Pharisees who the messiah is… and they don’t realize that in fact, the messiah is standing right in front of them. They don’t realize that Jesus Christ in fact has come to save us all from our sins. Thankfully, we don’t need to save ourselves by serving our neighbor, and we couldn’t if we tried anyway… Christ takes care of it for us. Rather we serve our neighbor out of love for God… we serve our neighbor, we feed the hungry, because of Jesus.
God's peace,

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Philly's Got the POWER!

Wow... I've had a real busy start to my second year at seminary.  Now that things have slowed down (a bit), I hope to write a few posts about what I've been up to.  What follows is the first and it will also be published in LTSP's The Seminarian.  Thanks for reading!

Early in the twentieth century, around 1901, Methodist pastor and composer Charles Albert Tindley wrote a hymn that would later evolve into one of the organizing songs of the American civil rights movement.  You may have heard of it... it was “We Shall Overcome.”  Over a hundred years later on September 25, 2011 the same organizing spirit was alive and well at Rev. Tindley’s old church at the founding convention of POWER (Philadelphians Organizing to Witness, Power and Rebuild).

As part of my field site placement with Lutheran Advocacy Ministries of PA I was lucky enough to attend the POWER convention that afternoon, and I’m very grateful I did.  On my way down to Tindley Temple United Methodist Church I expected a typical sort of organizing meeting with a typical sized crowd, but boy was I wrong!  Nearly two thousand believers from churches, mosques and synagogues all over Philadelphia were present.  Scanning from the upper balcony of Tindley Temple I saw folks of every age, race and economic class in community together, organizing for economic justice in the city of Philadelphia.

As I learned throughout that evening, Philadelphia is in desperate need of such justice.  As you read this article a quarter of our city’s residents face food insecurity.  Philadelphia has a 10.8% unemployment rate with over 40% of its adults no longer even in the work force.  Of those who have jobs a further 40% have incomes that fall below the federal poverty level.  At the POWER convention one woman, Kathleen Elmasry, spoke of her struggles to find a job in such a difficult environment.  Kathleen was laid off over sixteen months ago after working at the same orthopedics office for thirty-four years.  Since then she’s applied for over 1,200 jobs and hasn’t even been offered a single interview.  Now nearing the end of unemployment insurance, she recently began selling jewelry to make ends meet.

That night, I was blessed to witness the fruitful efforts of many different faiths coming together to organize in support of people just like Kathleen. POWER has made a specific goal of bringing 10,000 new jobs to Philadelphia by 2016.  Councilman Bill Green spoke at the event and put forward one idea to meet that objective. The city is planning a multi-billion airport renovation and Councilman Green suggested that at least half of the jobs coming from that project should go to Philadelphians.  Mayor Nutter, not willing to make any specific commitments, gave a less encouraging speech.

Regardless, it was a great privilege to see the Spirit at work amongst the people gathered for the POWER founding convention.  Inspired by word, prayer and song, I left knowing so much more about how advocacy and organizing are important aspects of the baptismal call to serve one’s neighbor.  It is also important to mention that many LTSP students, faculty and alumni were at the event.  If you’re interested in finding out more about POWER, check out their Facebook Page or their national affiliate’s website at

God's peace,