Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Embarking on our Lenten Journey

Before 2006, I had never connected the term “social justice” with my faith as a Christian. Yet today, Christ's model of exemplifying ministry with the poor and the 'other' and God's call to work towards achieving justice here on earth shapes the framework with which I view the world, how I interact with others, and who I am. I love that the United Methodist Church places justice at the foundation of our call to ministry as Christians, and that the church is filled with individuals, young and old, fueled by and committed to this quest for justice.

However, being committed to and called to such work is a job that demands a great deal of energy, can be frustrating, and often requires years of commitment - let's be honest, completing the jobs of super heroes can be tough. And sometimes we are so consumed informing ourselves about the injustices occurring in the world, organizing and strategizing the next action or planning the next protest, that our connect with God can get lost in all of it.

In a global world, in which we have access to new information every second, and in which time is of the essence, it is easy to glance at our overflowing to-do list and simply feel overwhelmed. Oftentimes, in such cases, seeing that list drives me begrudingly back to action, which is good. But such work should be done with passion and when not a burden.

And sometimes we also just need to take a break.

Today’s celebration of Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season of penitential preparation. For many of us, it might mark the end of Mardi Gras celebrations. For some, the beginning of a ‘fast’ of some sorts – whether from sweets or from Facebook – or the beginning of trying to be more intentional in spending time in prayer, of reading the daily lectionary, or of consciously working to be more positive in our outlook on the world and on life.

For others, Ash Wednesday this year marks the intensification of the count down to General Conference at the end of April, and although it may seem more appropriate that Lent take-on the Advent-tide emotion of ‘waiting’ and 'preparation,' Lent should mark a different emotion for us as Christians.

No, we should not accept the injustices that our church proclaims through specific statements in our Books of Discipline and Resolution.

No, we should not passively stand and watch the rights of women being taken away, or ignore the cries of the homeless and hungry woman, man, or child who we pass on the streets.

No, we should not stop fighting for justice.

But we should aim to take a moment each day during this Lenten journey for ourselves. Time to stop. To breathe. To pray. And to prepare ourselves.

Might we remember that on this Lenten journey, this journey in search of justice, we do not travel alone. Instead, we are guided by the example of Jesus in his ministry with others and we are accompanied by people around the world working to achieve the same ends. Let this communal commitment to social justice not be a burden to us, but instead strengthen us in our journey and ease the cross that we bear.

As we begin this journey together, I lift up this excerpt from T.S. Eliot's poem, “Ash Wednesday”:

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not

On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here

No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate

Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

Michelle Dromgold is a Mission Intern of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. She is currently serving at the Kindertreff Delbrücke at the Salem Gemeinde in Berlin, Germany. There, she works as a social worker with an emphasis on intercultural and interreligious dialogue amongst the children and youth at the after-school program and with local United Methodist Congregations.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Seeing God within the Khaki Uniforms of Incarcerated Women

This semester I was to be taking my second PREP course at Drew Theological School. PREP stants for Partnership in Religion and Education in Prisons. It is a class taken, for women, at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, the only women's prison in New Jersey, in which half of the students are "outside" students from Drew and half of the students are "inside" students, inmates at the prison. I had hoped to write more about the class I took last year, Race, Ethics, and Women's Lives with Dr. Traci West. What follows is a reflection on my experience last year in observance of Black History Month and in honor of the the class I was supposed to take this semester, Our Earth/Land is God's (Property, Nation, Environment) with Dr. Otto Maduro, which has been canceled due to Dr. Maduro's health. I pray for blessings on him and those women at Edna Mahan who I will miss this semester.

These are my first impressions from my first day at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility:
beautiful women. So welcoming and warm. Dark, sure, but in a khaki kind of way. Ok, so that may not make sense: I just mean I was expecting dim lighting and heavy gates and stuff, not a minimum security, mundane-looking sort of education building, and these khaki uniforms. Dark in a sterile, beige kind of way.

A woman at the gate saying, "Sharing isn't caring here," reminding one of the women not to share her skittles. My fear that I had forgotten to wear a bra without underwire that they would make me leave in the car during class.

And then sitting in this room, going around the circle, getting to know one another. Just feeling so overwhelmed with the feeling of awe of these women, and pain that I would be leaving to go outside and they wouldn't. They told us how they do work but usually don't get paid more than eighty some cents a day, and they have to pay for shampoo, and even good quality pads and tampons (they are given pads, but they are so bad that instead of Always, they call them Nevers). And then going to sit down next to one of the women and seeing pictures of her children. Oh God.

This kind of random journal entry is the one I keep coming back to when I try to articulate my experience taking a class in Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. The words are scattered, but the entry is followed by a list of names I cannot include here for confidentiality. And those names make me remember the faces of those women, the sound of their voices, their jokes, the taste of the juice boxes and off-brand cookies (the kinds your find in senior centers, hospitals, and food banks)they would share with the "outside" students.

One week, we talked about breast cancer and heard a story from an inside woman about her friend. In Edna Mahan, there is a maximum side and a minimum side secuirty to the prison. Our class was in minimum security, but each woman serves almost half her sentence, no matter what she has been convicted of, in max. This particular woman had already served her time in max, but heard one of her friends had cancer. She cried when she told us. She wondered if anyone was taking care of her friend, and revealed a plan to do something bad so she would get sent back to max. Her mother begged her not to, she said, but you could hear the desperation in her voice, the pain. The helplessness.

We talked about intimate partner violence and heard story after story from inside and outside women about violence they had faced. And then the woman sitting next to me spoke up. She was the first woman in New Jersey to use the battered woman's defense in court, having killed her partner when he threatened her son. She must have been pregnant at the time of her trial, given the age of her daughter and the amount of time she had been imprisoned. And again, there was pain, helplessness, violent frustration in her voice. But there was also survival there, too: the firece strength of being alive.

There is so much emotion that comes up for me when I try to write about this experience, which is why it has taken me almost a year to write about it, and even now I would not, not yet, but I want to be a part of this conversation on the prison system in the USA. The church does not talk about it enough, despite the fact that so many of our communities, particularly poor communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color, are torn apart by it. One in three black men will be incarcerated. Prisons are built based on the number of third grade-age boys of color in particular communities. We live in a country in which bankers can steal people's homes from them with impunity but people can get life in prison for nonviolent drug crimes (see this Democracy Now! interview focusing on a new documentary about the so-called war on drugs). And these women who I sat next to in class, these beautiful people...

At the beginning of January, The United Methodist Board of Pensions and Health Benefits announced it would divest from "companies that derive more than 10 percent of revenue from the management and operation of prison facilities" (which OnFire and UM Kairos Response's Emily McNeill touched on in an important blog post here). This is an important start to the conversation around the prison industrial complex, but it falls short. We need a critical United Methodist voice for prison abolition, for alternatives to caging women like those I met in class in whose faces I saw Christ as they shared their orange juice boxes and cookies as though they were serving communion.

So, the first step in raising this voice is educating yourselves and your faith communities. For more information on the Prison Industrial Complex, start at Critical Resistance, "a national grassroots organizion committed to ending society's use of prisons and policing as an answer to social problems." And important books to start with are Angela Davis' classic Are Prisons Obsolete? and Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.


Shannon Sullivan is a seminary student at Drew in Madison, New Jersey, and is pursuing ordination in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. She is also a member of the OnFire leadership team. She blogs at You'll Never Guess What the Heathens Did Today.

Friday, February 3, 2012


9 months ago, I was asked to take part in a vision-casting “Design Team” put together per request of the Leadership Table. I spent my first full day living in DC at this gathering of strangers with no idea what to expect. It wasn't long before these strangers became friends, though, and our energy was contagious as we shared visions and dreams of what a new, exciting, and innovative opportunity for young adults might look like.

Lots of long, difficult days and a couple of meetings later, we had an outline of something new. A few months later and it was suddenly 2012 as I found myself flying into Nashville to meet with the team that will carry forward this project. I am really excited about how this project has taken shape. Somehow, this end project simultaneously looks nothing like what we expected, and yet it is full of everything we hoped for. This end project is what is now being called “Spark 12.”

I couldn’t be more excited about Spark12. It feels like the church could finally be doing something right here! How so? For starters: it is young adult led. Not just led, but it is actually being implemented by young adults on staff at multiple general boards and agencies. Who knew: Methodists can play nice AND trust young people to carry it through! (jokes, jokes)

So what exactly is Spark 12? In short, it is being described as a social justice “incubator.” It is a short (12-week) opportunity for young adults to take their own innovative ideas and receive funding to run with them. These ideas are lived out and given a running start with the support of community and the feedback of mentors and experts in a related field. My favorite part of all of it? That we are finally building something new that is, by design, intended to not be US-centric. We are a global church, and its time we start acting like it. That was one of the many clear, non-negotiable themes we had throughout all of our discussions. I for one can’t wait to see what that looks like when the applications start rolling in and the current Design team gets to help the fellows implement it. Watch out, world: Spark12 is about to catch onfire. (sorry, I couldn’t resist)

One last thing: it is never too early to start thinking about being a part of something new. Applications open up on April 1, so I invite you to spend time thinking about how your idea could be launched with Spark 12!

For more information on Spark12, be sure to check out their website, follow them on Twitter, and “like” their Facebook page. You can also check out other articles such as this one by UMNS.

Jen Tyler is a co-facilitator for OnFire as a part of her role as the Associate for Movement Building at MFSA. Jen is appointed to MSFA as a General Board of Global Ministries Mission Intern. She has a Master of Divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and is a member of the Dakotas Annual Conference, where she is pursuing ordination as an Elder in The United Methodist Church.