Home for the holidays

Headed Home for the Holidays And Need More Than Table Talk Tips?

How Grief, Gratitude, and a Triangle Sandwich Surprise Made Me Fall in Love with Family after a Decade of Difference and Division

by Kimberly Hunter

December 19, 2018

Basketball Dreams at Sunset

On the Irish New Year (November 1) I experienced a healing so unexpected I sometimes refer to it as miraculous, or mystical. And the people who facilitated this transformation surprised me as much as the miracle itself. Because the change was internal, I recognized it by how it felt in my gut – light, joyful, complete, irreversible, and beyond my control. Almost like falling in love. The last time I’d felt that, it signaled my heart shifting away from fundamentalist* Christianity. This time – 12 years later – it signaled my heart shifting back toward understanding, accepting, and appreciating the fundamentalists I call family.

The process began a few days before November 1. Early on October 29, I drove from Kansas City to North Newton, Kansas for another class with the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Bethel College. Since the course would last through October 31, I’d asked my aunt and uncle in Whitewater if I could stay overnight with them, and they’d agreed to host me. I felt grateful because their hospitality would be free and familiar, for as a child I’d visited cousins, chased chickens, swam in cattle tanks, and caught chiggers and lightning bugs on their farm.

But I also felt much of the family systems anxiety about which Pastor Keith Harder recently preached. I felt nervous my Whitewater family might receive me with skepticism or even hostility, since I’ve been vocal about leaving the fundamentalism upon which they’ve built their lives. I also felt much of the responsibility and little of the curiosity Pastor Harder mentioned. Since midterm elections were near, I felt duty-bound to help my aunt and uncle understand how Kobach had harmed me and people I love. So I’d intended to spend much time in prayer and reflection, preparing to be my best self during what felt like a high-stakes visit.

Alas, I did no such thing. Instead, I departed Kansas City exhausted from over-work; angry and wounded from a painful breakup; and in need of basic care. Almost like a refugee seeking solace from the violent pace of modern life. Though I felt ashamed of my ill-preparedness, arriving that way jumpstarted my healing. Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” describes why: “Ring the bells that still can ring… Forget your perfect offering… There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in… Every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.” In Matthew 18:3, Jesus says something similar: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” By requesting and receiving care, I allowed my family to be Jesus to me.

During the drive, however, I did manage to prepare a little by listening to NPR’s My Fellow Kansans podcast, which Rainbow congregant Sammy Stayton recommended to me since I enjoy Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas. Both the podcast and the book recount the socio-political history of my family, of how fundamentalist Christians and the Republican party became one over the issues of abortion, gay rights and whether or not public schools permit prayer and teach evolution. But what stunned me was how Kansas Christians organized that national movement in 1991. We won widely and quickly with tools like civil disobedience, stadium rallies, and running activists as candidates on ballots across the state. Though fascinated and full of questions, after class I was so tired I determined not to discuss our most divisive disagreements. Instead, I hoped to hear what my aunt and uncle thought about the intersections between faith, farming and immigration. But they had other plans.

As I pulled into their gravel driveway, my aunt waved from atop a riding lawnmower, motioning where I should park. A few minutes later, I placed my bags in my cousin’s old bedroom. Though the beautiful quilt on the bed was new, old childhood memories filled the air, and I laughed, recalling how mad I’d been when my mother once made me nap in that room while my cousins romped outside. My aunt laughed, too, then invited me to walk with her – after she finished baking two bundt cakes for the crisis care pregnancy center. And so it began.

We walked, talked, and laughed along the gravel road — and later around pot roast dinner, over dirty dishes, on a flying four-wheeler, in deer stand darkness, and while slurping Braum’s milkshakes. As we shared these activities, our awkwardness gave way to familiarity, but also to questions and stories hidden from me as a child. We discussed politics as personal, recounting family histories ranging from when my Christian musician celebrity uncle-in-law came out as gay a month before my cousin married his daughter, to how another uncle sexually assaulted multiple female family members and how sad and hurt I felt when our family helped elect a President not only dismissive but also suspected of abusing women. But most impactful to me were the stories where I mostly listened. These included my aunt’s run for office and Mennonite journey, my uncle’s gun control convictions, and hearing how their faith intersects with their daughter’s choice to be a foster parent.

During our first conversation, my aunt surprised me with the news she had been serving as her township’s treasurer for the past three years. Slightly incredulous, I teased her about being the first politician in our family. She blushed. When I pressed her for more details, she shared a male friend had asked her to run for office and only three people had voted against her. She beamed. “But Kimberly!” she gasped, shaking her head. “When I went to the first meeting, I was shocked to see I was the only woman in a room full of men!” For a moment, I thought my aunt may have become a feminist. But she continued, “Since I’m no Women’s Lib, I was horrified, thinking I had taken a man’s job! So now I just let the men make the decisions and type up what they decide.” This time I gasped – first with shock, then with humor. I nodded my head, knowing my aunt’s sincerity and Biblical interpretation required her to respond this way.

Harder FamilyThough I knew my aunt and uncle were Mennonite, learning the depth of my aunt’s Anabaptist roots amazed me. They stretched far beyond her peppernut recipes and intricate quiltmaking. Her ancestors founded Emmaus Mennonite Church, which she still attends today, and include Bernhard Harder, the pastor famous for defusing an angry, nationalist mob with his zestful rendition of “My Country ‘tis of Thee.” They also include her father’s conscientious objector papers, which she still treasures. Like me, her faith has also shifted over the years, but in different ways than mine. She no longer identifies as a pacifist, and after her church leaders found Mennonite seminary professors teaching inclusivity toward LGBTQIA folks, Emmaus withdrew from the General Conference and now hesitates to identify as Mennonite at all.

During most of these stories, I asked questions and listened more than I spoke. But when the conversation turned toward guns and hunting, I decided to explain my concerns about Kris Kobach’s campaign for Kansas governor, since the midterm elections were just around the corner. To begin, I said I was uncomfortable with Kobach’s habit of parading through small towns with an assault rifle mounted to his jeep. To which my uncle replied, “What do you mean by assault rifle? There is no such thing. That term is a liberal media invention. Whether a gun is used for assault depends on who holds it and how they use it.” Since I’d never thought of the term “assault rifle” that way and guns are like a foreign language to me, I invited him to explain further. So he opened his hunting catalogue, pointed to two rifles, and asked which looked scarier. I pointed to one. He then pointed to the fine print, which showed they were exactly the same. We looked up a photo of Kobach’s gun, and my uncle exclaimed, “Oh! That’s a machine gun!” He paused, then rationalized, “Well, if Kobach supports the military, I guess that could be a gesture of support.” We went on to discuss what effective gun control measures and a consistent pro-life ethic might look like. No one “won” the discussion; instead, our understandings of one another grew.

As I watched and listened, I also realized, despite our differences, we share much in common. This stretches beyond simple lifestyle choices like growing gardens, using clotheslines, and shooting hoops at sunset to issues like Christians’ responsibility toward those in need of care – especially children. For years, my aunt and uncle’s eldest daughter has been a foster mom. She did this even when she was single, teaching full time, and lacking family support. But since then, her parents have come to respect and even be inspired by her choice – so much so that at one point my aunt exclaimed, “My brother crunched some numbers and found that for every one church in the state of Kansas, there are two kids in need of a foster home. So if the Church was doing its job, there would be no foster care crisis.” My jaw dropped in shock and joy. Imagine if we could work together around something like that?!

But what most melted my heart was not how much we agree. It was how tenderly my aunt and uncle cared for me, and how they reciprocated my vulnerability. Imagining their kindness now still puts a lump in my throat. They not only opened their home to give me a place to sleep; my uncle opened his heart after a long day of work, and my aunt cooked me three meals a day. When I woke up before the sun to get ready, she was already in the kitchen cooking me breakfast. And when I left for class, she handed me a sack lunch. Again, I was speechless before I could muster words of thanks. How many years had it been since someone packed me a lunch? I fought back tears. Hours later, I opened it to discover she’d cut the sandwich into diagonals for me. When I texted and thanked her for making a lunch that was both tasty and beautiful, she wrote back, “My grandkids call those “triangle sandwiches 🙂.” I grinned.

During our final meal together, I felt safe enough to dive deep and be vulnerable, so I shared the story about my recent heartbreak asked them how they’d fallen in love and decided to get married. Their story wasn’t as simple as I’d imagined. Later my aunt also shared the story of the quilt on my bed; she had stitched her wedding blues into it – the sadness she felt after her daughter got married and left home. This melted me, too. Change is hard for all of us.

As I drove home Halloween night, my heart felt different – softer, kinder, more open. Back at work on Día de Muertos, I received heart wrenching news from a friend that his father had completed suicide to avoid going to prison for a DUI. The world stopped. Witnessing such profound sorrow on the heels of experiencing profound kindness brought the miracle full circle. Spirit moved, and my heart no longer had space for anger and resentment. Suddenly I was ready to forgive. To begin, that night I wrote kind messages to two people from whom I’d been estranged. I searched for resources to let go and start anew. Since I’m part Irish, I Googled “Irish letting go rituals.” Astonished, I discovered November 1 is the Irish New Year, during which they sweep out the old to make space for the new. I meditated on that for a moment; then, before going to bed, I emailed the ritual to an Irish congregant I’d met recently. When I awoke November 2, I had not only an email back from him – the beginning of a new friendship – but also an email from a New York friend I’d been trying to reach for years. I was dumbfounded.

So what is going on? I still don’t know exactly. Mostly, I feel grateful and amazed. But I think it has something to do with love – the huggable kind. In Exclusion and Embrace, theologian Miroslav Volf says an embrace has three steps. First you must open your arms (be willing to embrace). Then, if the other person is also open, you wrap your arms around each other (an encounter which touches both people). And finally, you let go and return home a little different than before you left. For a long time now, I’ve known I needed to hug my family like this if I want to effectively work for social change. In The Fire This Time, James Baldwin explains why this is necessary: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and will not be today and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” But I didn’t know how to do that sincerely, with no agenda. Now I know. We are all in need of being changed by God’s love – even (especially?) those of us who want to change the world. So wherever the holidays find you, I pray for you as Pastor Ruth prayed for us on November 18: “Your love is not done with any of us… May your love meet our needs and calm our fears.

 

Disclaimer:  

Arriving to family gatherings vulnerable may not be safe or appropriate for all families. This story applies most to situations where “we” feel a responsibility to change “them.” You know yourself and your family best. So be safe. Be well. And if you can, be kind, honest, curious, courageous, and huggable, too.

Click here to reflect on a wonderful prayer for families, as well as a few other links.

A Prayer for All Families by Carol Penner

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Oh the drama of it all

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I hope everyone has a chance to see these incredible puppets in action this coming Sunday! It has been a creative collaboration between Kathryn Kreider, Rosi Penner Kaufman, local hardware stores,  and many, many others! 

 

With our annual Rainbow Christmas program quickly approaching (December 16 at 5 pm), I thought I’d share these lovely reflections from Rehearsing Scripture by Anna Carter Florence. (I took the liberty to add a few of my own remarks in parenthesis.) 

“If you’re a child, and your grown-ups have anything to do with church, sooner or later someone is going to draft you into the Christmas pageant. It will probably happen multiple times over the years, because Christmas pageants have plenty of parts for every age group. The good news about this is that you’ll rarely play the same role twice (unless you’re a diva like Renee Reimer who always got to play Mary).

Eventually you’ll age out of the sheep and cows in the stable, and move up to shepherds or angels or wise men. You might even be Mary or Joseph, one year, if the pageant director thinks you won’t be embarrassed by it, and can sit still for that long (or if the pageant director isn’t your mother).

Even babies can be in the Christmas pageant in the starring role; they won’t remember it, but they’ll grow up hearing about it, knowing they had a turn in the spotlighted manger. Adults who have long since graduated from Christmas pageant eligibility will tell you, in an offhand way, that they were baby Jesus in 1954.

I don’t remember every Christmas pageant I was ever in, but I do remember some. Does anyone remember the year Riley Long took the baby Jesus out of the manger by his feet and held him upside down while the kids sang? As Rosi said, ‘Early juggling skills.’)

I remember having to stand with the barn animals, in fuzzy pajamas, and wishing I were old enough to be in the junior choir, so I could wear a red robe with a white cassock and sing with the heavenly host. I remember being thrilled the year I was chosen to play the angel Gabriel, who had real lines and got to sit behind the pulpit and make a grand entrance. I remember being startled and secretly pleased, as a thirteen-year-old, the year I was asked to be Mary—until I heard my younger brother was going to be Joseph.

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Here I am as Mary, with my brother Scott as Joseph in a rad 80s sports duo. I distinctly remember pretending the doll or “Jesus” was a football. And I’m pretty sure my brother is still experiencing trauma from the drama of it all. 

 

Back to Anna Carter Florence:

As an older teenager, I remember singing with the adult shepherds’ chorus the year our Christmas pageant was a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors. And as a parent, I remember the year I had to sneak up front to sit in the chancel with my younger song, who was most reluctant to join the other three-year-old angels in their tinsel crowns, singing Away in a Manger.

Christmas pageants are annual celebrations for the community, showcases for the education program, and a ton of work for the adults in charge—but they’re so much more than that. They are the first place, and perhaps the only place, where we’ll learn what it’s like to switch roles in our sacred story, and so experience its verbs from another point of view. A child who plays a donkey one year, carefully guiding Mary to the  manger and then nestling down in the straw to watch, will have very different verbs than the year she plays an angel in the balcony, bubbling with excitement and shouting to shepherds about good tidings of great joy. From her perspective in each role, what she hears, what she sees, and what she knows in her body will be different. Next year, maybe she’ll be a dove in the rafters. Or a shepherd in a field. Or a wise man from afar. Or an innkeeper with no more room. Eventually, she may play all those roles, each with its own set of verbs. And every one will show her something new about what it means for us that God came into the world as a tiny child to a poor family that was far from home, with nowhere to stay.”

Anna Carter Florence ends her chapter (p. 58) by encouraging us to tap into this Christmas pageant mode of being and doing whenever we read Scripture together.

“Switch roles in the text to try out new verbs. Be intentional about it. Begin with the characters that seem most natural to play, and then pick a new role. Audition for another part that goes against type. Try reading from the point of view of the prodigal son, then the older brother, then the father: what do you notice? Try standing with Pharaoh, then Pharaoh’s daughter, then Moses: What do you hear? Be a disciple and then a Pharisee, a leper and then a priest, a prophet and then the wayward people, a slave and then a landowner. There are so many parts to play in the text, with so many verbs, and each part is worth playing more than once.”

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Protected: A meditation to remember

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From Hanna

Hanna Hochstetler has written an open letter to the Rainbow congregation. In this letter she reflects on her sermon from October 21, whereby she addressed the difficult realities of sexual violence. Her sharing triggered an unexpected response from someone listening that day, which she describes in her letter below.

If you haven’t listened to her sermon from October 21, you can do so by clicking here: http://rainbowmennonite.org/media-presenter/hanna-hochstetler

From Hanna:

On Sunday October 21st, at Rainbow, I preached on the difficult realities of sexual violence, sexism and misogyny (Reclaiming Jesus document). Partway through my sharing, a man stood up and shared his experience of abuse. Up until this point, my attempts at discussing the pervasiveness of sexual violence in our communities focused on naming major events in our society that were highlighted by the media. Most of these examples involved female victims and male perpetrators. I also read a part of the Reclaiming Jesus statement that focuses on the need to recognize and respond appropriately to sexual violence. The language in that statement only identified women as victims of sexual violence. While it was not my intention to exclude the experiences of men or individuals who do not identify in the gender binary from the narrative, I had not yet voiced that there are survivors of all genders in our society.

The interaction between this man and I was difficult. I was not expecting anyone to speak up as I spoke, nor did I anticipate the response I would have to in that kind of situation. I felt an immediate sense of empathy for this man as he shared about his experiences from the past. I wanted this man to feel like he was heard and to validate his experience. In my attempts to do so, I responded to his sharing by saying, “Thank you for sharing. I’m sorry this happened to you.”

As I have reflected on that morning and my interaction with that man, in retrospect, there are multiple responses I wish I would have been able to share with him. I wanted him to know that I heard him; that I was so sorry that he had experienced abuse as a kid; that I had intentionally written into my sermon that we needed to acknowledge sexual violence affects people of all genders; and that I was sorry he felt as though his experience was not being heard or validated in that space. In addition to the love and sadness I felt as this man shared, I also found myself feeling vulnerable. It took a few long pauses, silence and some tears, but I was able to compose myself and carry on. There were some complex dynamics during our interaction that Sunday, but I believe that he did not intend to upset me while I was feeling vulnerable, just as I did not intend for him to feel as though his story was excluded from what I was sharing. I hope that others were able to recognize his pain instead of just focusing on the disruption he caused.

I also want to thank everyone who has reached out to me over the past month. I have felt tremendous support and care from many of you. I have had many meaningful conversations and hope that this letter can provide some context and thoughts to the rest of the congregation. ​I would like to share some of the key themes I spoke about that Sunday that I have applied to my interaction with this man, and our church’s response to that interaction.​​ Note: The normal print is text directly from my sermon, and the bold print is additional thoughts I have added.

● “We need to believe all survivors. While women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, men too, as well as LGBTQ+ individuals, are also affected. Ignoring survivors’ voices or invalidating their experiences are examples of supportive attitudes and behaviors that encourage a rape supportive culture.” ​This includes believing men who come forward and speak their truths. There is no single story that encompasses the complex feelings survivors experience. While I tried to be inclusive in my language and intentional about what I shared, the impact of what I said elicited a response that was rooted in pain that needed to be heard and validated. ​​We need to recognize the impact that we have in either perpetuating this culture or resisting it by standing with survivors.”

● “As a society we are so quick to question or silence the voices of survivors rather than to show them empathy, compassion and support. As one body in Christ, we should affirm those who speak out against oppression.” ​I believe that the man who interrupted me during the sermon needed to speak his truth. Rather than making the interaction between him and I an “either/or” scenario where the congregation feels as though they have to choose between my well-being and his, I think we should consider the “both/and” scenario where the congregation can offer care and compassion to both of us.

● As someone who was part of the interaction, I have no way of understanding what each of you experienced as bystanders that morning. I do not know what experiences you brought with you prior to our interactions or what emotions you felt in that space. I want to acknowledge that each of your responses to the interaction, as well as my sharing as a whole, are valid. Thank you for being in that sacred space and for bearing witness to the impact sexual violence has on individuals. Engaging in conversations such as these are difficult, but I believe they are the first step in creating an equitable and safe community.

So just as I ended that Sunday, I invite each of us to continue to “disrupt the norm, stand with survivors and support each other in our efforts.” It is a constant effort to understand the complexities of these issues but taking the time to listen and reflect allows us to gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the resilience of survivors.

 

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Sail on…

On November 4 (All Saints’ Sunday),  we will gather in the Rainbow Remembrance Garden around 11:45 am in order to place an engraved brick in honor of Frank Ward, long-time Rainbow pastor.  It’s a beautiful time to be in the garden, and placing bricks is a beautiful way of remembering our very own “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).

Last time we were in the Remembrance Garden, someone asked me about this sculpture (pictured above). This led me to do some research, and lo and behold, I found this lovely piece of writing by Leo Goertz.

“Plants change and grow. A sculpture is a fixed physical presence but it too changes, by the brightness of the sun, by shadow, by being wet or covered with snow. I enjoy Arlie Regier’s sculpture as an abstract art piece, created from found and modified found materials. If one enjoys art more with an accompanying narrative, the obvious narrative is that it could represent a sail boat. This, in turn, implies motion or time. In a setting of a memorial garden this could represent ashes to ashes, birth to death, or more broadly, setting or attaining goals. Its direction, pointing to the church might even suggest the church as a haven. The sculpture might also be the object of exploration, and with that as transition, we move to exploration.”

So there you have it. We may be the stewards of the only KS garden with a sail boat sculpture in the middle of it. I’m ok with that because I love this image of the church being a haven for all of us out on the choppy, sometimes chaotic seas of life. May this sailboat help us remember those who sailed before us, who pointed the way for us. And may we who are still living, sail on, building the kind of church that truly provides a haven for all who seek it.

 

 

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Our shared work

IMG_2754In preparation for Frank Ward’s funeral service this coming Saturday, I’ve been looking through church archives. (Frank was Rainbow’s pastor  1975-1998.) I was pleased to find two statements shared at two different times of pastoral transition at Rainbow. Neither of them were read/prepared with Frank in mind. Still, they seem worthy of our reflection and consideration today as we give thanks not only for Frank’s leadership, but for the many leaders and congregational members who have and continue to exercise their gifts–limitations and all. I am so very grateful to be part of this shared work, in this time and place.

Statement #1 read by Leo Goertz at the installation of Kenn Rupp.

In large measure the congregation has been and will be speaking for itself in this order of worship which was planned for congregational involvement and for reaffirmation of the purpose of the church. We began with praising God for the joy of human love. We trusted God to raise us to a new quality of life as he raised Jesus from the dead. And we declared that we may share in a common life; a life shared with God and his Son Jesus Christ. As part of this shared life we are free, for the Lord will take our burdens. Being free we can have kindled in us love’s compassion so that everyone may see in our fellowship the promise of the new humanity. Certainly this is idealistic and perhaps we can’t reach this goal very often. But this is what we keep saying being a Christian is all about. So, in a tradition that has stressed the priesthood of all believers it is fitting that the charge of leadership be given to all.

In a special way, though, we call to our work a special leader who is our pastor.

Each of us might have some different activity or goal that relates to our own needs and that is one of the joys and difficulties of being a minister. These differences also make my listing incomplete. But in broad outlines, these are some of the things we ask:

We want you to be as sensitive to God and to people so you can so you can sharpen our consciences.

We’d like you to preach a gospel which is the good news and to educate us to appreciate the good news when we hear it.

Would you see religious education in long-term perspectives and help us discard tradition if need be and make religious education a real discipline if need be?

We want you to be able to accept our limitations and your limitations and to help all of us to live in a world where being limited need not mean being ineffective or in despair.

We wish you to develop your own talents and pursue your own interests so that you may become more human and so that you may excite us to develop our own talents.

We want you to be an administrator by intent and not by default because the skillful working toward worthwhile goals is a part of the good news.

Statement #2 read by Leo Goertz on the occasion of Gary Schrag’s ordination 51 years ago on October 8, 1967

While we were without a pastor we met. We met and questioned each other. We asked, “What do we want in a pastor?” “What do we expect of each member?”

We made up our pastor’s job description. We hoped he would be our teacher. We said he should be able to preach. We wished he could help us witness to our neighbors. Our list grew long. We shortened our list. We laughingly said even St. Paul couldn’t please us. But what did we say we would do when a new pastor came?

We agreed he’d be made of the same clay we were made. We said we’d avoid the temptation of making him our agent. We hoped we would be less complacent and not let the preacher do it all. We said we’d try harder to make our faith relevant. But we found it hard to program a relevant faith. Someone wondered if our difficulty was due to having so little faith. Another asked if we’d really tried prayer. We said, in one way or another, we were not all the same and the same program would not fit all. We agreed we needed a pastor’s help. We said we would try again.

What did we say about money? We said we were stewards of money as of time and of talents. We said we expected a minister to have a salary which permitted him to live in a manner similar to most of his people. We were a bit concerned about the fact that we never quite met our budget. We never actually said to ourselves, “We will commit ‘x’ time and ‘x’ dollars.” We probably didn’t talk about money as much as Jesus did.

What did we say about God? We said we wanted to know as much about God as reason and study could teach us. We said we were willing to seek and try new ways of worshipping God. We said we wanted to search out God’s workings in our lives. We asked if we should remain a congregation or disband. We thought God told us he still had work for us as this congregation.

What then do we commit? We have brought to this service our doubts and our failures, our dreams and our deeds, our promise and performance. We have brought love for our pastor and family, also love for each other. We have trust that our God has continuing work for us here in this city. These things we commit. We must do no other.

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Second-hand racism

Imagine volunteering at a second-hand store, sorting through donation bins. One day you find a marionette of a Mexican man in a sombrero or a board game called “Challenge the Chief,” with Indian caricatures on the box.

What do you do?

Or let’s say you’re like me, a frequent shopper at second-hand stores, and you come across a racially offensive depiction of a black man as a criminal, or—we’ve all seen this one—an African-American woman as someone’s cheerful domestic servant.

Even today, thrift stores routinely receive donations of knick-knacks, posters, and other items that were once popular but now are seen as embarrassing or repugnant. Worse, many are donated after being purchased from second-hand shops in the past.

Does the reselling of these objects perpetuate negative stereotypes that lie behind so much of the systematic racism today? If so, who decides which items should be taken out of circulation?

A few years ago, a local thrift store manager came to the Kauffman Museum in North Newton, KS, with these very questions. The result was a traveling educational exhibit using racially offensive objects, found in actual resale shops and at estate sales, showing the persistence of stereotypes and their relation to racism in American society.

I am honored that this exhibit, “Sorting Out Race,” is now set up at Rainbow and open to the public.

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Here it is, all set up in Rainbow’s Fellowship Hall!

The exhibit entrance is designed to resemble the front door and display window of a typical second hand store.  All who enter are cautioned: “This exhibition explores controversial themes and displays racially offensive images with the goal of stimulating a healthy community conversation about our ongoing struggles with race.”

Inside guests will find themselves in a colorful thrift store with a variety of objects—antique advertising cards, vintage children’s books, collectibles—each one projecting an offensive stereotype of someone who does not look like the shopper. Miniatures of a “savage warrior” and a “sleeping Mexican.” Knick-knacks featuring beloved advertising characters Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Team souvenirs featuring racially insensitive sports mascots and costuming. Walking through this carefully curated store of jaw-dropping kitsch, I had to remind myself that all of these disturbing images were commercially acceptable once (and perhaps in some areas, still are).

Now more than ever, we need to have honest conversations about the impact of the past on our values and priorities today. Our hope and prayer for “Sorting Out Race” is that visitors will use this nostalgic, if unsettling, stroll down retail’s Memory Lane to review their own historical inventories of racialized mementos and cultural memories.

“Sorting Out Race: Examining Racial Identity and Stereotypes in Thrift Store Donations” will be on display at the church from now until October 11. Free, with financial donations accepted. Groups welcome.

 

Click here for more information: Sorting Out Race
And special thanks to our underwriters who made it possible for us to host this exhibit at Rainbow,  including Hoa Kim Vo’s memorial fund and Cross-Lines Community Outreach. If you haven’t shopped at Cross-Lines Thrift store, be sure to check it out: Cross-Lines Thrift
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A seedy business

I interrupt this regularly scheduled program for this important story about watermelons.

“I feel like the Queen of the Winter Prom,” wrote my mother-in-law Diana, “or the drum majorette, or at least Vanna White. If nothing good ever happens to me again, this will have been enough.” 

What on earth, I wondered, has provoked my mother-in-law to begin an email like this? The answer: Crimson Sweet watermelons and a (now deceased) man named Dr. Charles V Hall. 

Anyone who knows Diana and her son (my husband) Jesse, knows that watermelons are a frequent topic of discussion. They grew and sold watermelons as a family, with all profits going toward my husband’s college education, for which I’m eternally grateful. 

When Diana was just 15 years old, she remembers paying a “fortune” to buy just a few seeds of the new-at-the-time watermelon variety called Crimson Sweet. These succeeded (or just seeded) beyond her wildest dreams. They were, in her words, “sweet as honey, with tiny, tiny seeds, a uniform size of 25 pounds, high production, block round, much easier to pick than all the older varieties.”

This is where Dr. Charles V Hall comes into the picture. He’s the one at Kansas State University who worked a decade to cross three different varieties to develop his Crimson Sweet melon. “I wanted a melon that was wilt resistant, and I like its general appearance (a striped, refrigerator sized melton) and its sweetness,” Hall said.

 

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Charles V Hall holding his famous Crimson Sweet watermelon

So naturally in 1971, when Diana was a student at KSU in need of a summer job, she wanted to work for Dr. Hall breeding watermelons. She got the job, after much persistence. Here is her description of that memorable summer.

It was the year that Dr. Hall released the Allsweet watermelon variety— a long-striped  melon with even higher sugar content than the Crimson Sweet. We had a long process of fermentation and what-not when we collected seeds and dried them. The day we had all of them ready, Dr. Hall put them in a leather bag. He had all of the people present, and some other professors had come out. And he told us that we were holding all of the seeds that would go forth and dominate the whole commercial and gardening varieties in America in a few years time. It was a holy moment. The hairs on my forearms stood straight up.

The story doesn’t end there.

Once out of college and as far back as the late 1980’s, when the Graber family was “famously in the watermelon business,” Diana began to notice that the Crimson Sweet variety had kind of deteriorated, including wide variations in size and in rind thickness, and the color was not as bright green in the stripes. So who you gonna call? Why Dr. Hall of course!

Here is the story, again in Diana’s words:

In 1971 I learned that every 4 or 5 years, Dr. Hall would take some of the original Crimson Sweets seeds from cold storage, grow a big patch of them, and send them out to the growers so that their product line would be more like the original. So I wanted to see if I could get some of the purer seeds to plant in my little patch next summer.  I wrote a general shout-out to the Horticulture  department at KSU, and got an email with Dr. Hall’s contact information…The minute he said hello, I knew it was his voice.I started by telling him my whole history and life in the watermelon business, and the summer of 1971. And then he said he remembered me, and I had the best fertility rate of anyone that summer, better than the Doctoral students, and that’s true, I did. He confirmed that he would release new seeds to the growers every 4 to 5 years. But he also said that project remained the property of K-State, and they did not continue that release program. I had at least hoped that he could tell me which growers were getting the new seeds. So my hopes were dashed.

Then, he said, ‘But I had some of those seeds in cold storage, and a few years ago I had a guy I know, my doctor, raise a bunch of those in isolation, and got half of those seeds, put them back into storage. I’d be glad to give you some of those if you send me an addressed envelope.’  Wow. Wow. Wow.

We talked about the old varieties and he asked what my experiences with them had been, and I got to say, over and over again, ‘Dr. Hall, the Crimson Sweets came along and just revolutionized the whole market’, and he would titter.

I told Dr. Hall that when I spot an Allsweet out in the stores or farmers’ markets, I pat one on the head and say, ‘I knew your Grandmother.’ And he laughed like crazy, and said, ‘oh, that’s great.’

You can read more about Dr. Hall here: https://www.areawidenews.com/story/1991972.html

And lucky for us, we have a watermelon seed to plant next summer!

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Racial response ability

Recently I attended a preaching workshop led by Carolyn Helsel called “Anxious to Preach about Racism: Guidance for White Pastors.” Among her many helpful comments, she said that her goal as a white preacher was to increase her racial response ability. This is different than taking responsibility for racism writ large. Instead, it is about becoming more attune to the ways she has been racially shaped as a white person, and how she in turn, racially shapes the world around her.

Following this workshop, I have felt renewed in this work of responding to and identifying how my own whiteness informs so much of what I do and say.  The work is ongoing and much needed. And it’s work we will embark on together as a church this coming September as we prepare for ongoing church-wide conversations on how we might grow our ability to consider, confront and change the white supremacy of our everyday lives. Click here to learn more and register for this symposium September 28-30: http://rainbowmennonite.org/symposium/

Please also consider reading this reflection below by Joshua Chittum.

The nature of our national conversation on race, assuming we can call it a true conversation, often reaches a layer of angst well before we are deep enough to uncover any truths, partial or whole. The pulsating truism of what has occurred throughout our nation’s history and what we now witness, a teaspoon of racial progress, followed by a cupful of fear driven, White backlash, remains a source of anxiety, resistant to enlightened analysis.

Some of that anxiety is rooted in the natural human uneasiness to change and uncertainty, not unique to a particular race. But this alone is not sufficient to explain it all. The peculiarity of anxiety is that while it is designed to keep us alive, it can also distort reality. There are instances when it actually makes the world look far more dangerous than it is. And when thought leaders and elected politicians manipulate this distortion with skill, responses from the dominant masses grow less and less removed from the full potential of our sacred humanity.

It is then that complexities are ignored. Determination to confront our hardest challenges grows weak. Blaming and fearing the other, the outsider, and the least among us seals the cognitive loop that must remain open if we are to explore deeper. But, with regret, deeper truths are not a universal motivator. Simplistic truths allow for sleep to come sooner.

Thus, we have White brothers and sisters delusionally equating legal, cultural, and political progress for those historically denied access to power with denial of access for Whites. Thus, we have large numbers of White people seeing themselves as among the most discriminated groups in America. And we have torches lifted beneath the stars in the sky with declarations that “we” will not be replaced.

Lest we throw our stones of judgment at those rightly deemed as lost, foolish, and dangerous, those of us who consider ourselves racially progressive, and more specifically White and progressive, have our own struggle with distorted worries as well.

There are concerns regarding how to discuss the issue or if we even should. There are concerns that redressing the harms of yesterday and today will impact our hearts and minds in ways too painful for us to cope. There are suspicions that discussion of race is designed only to make us, as White people, feel beat up and guilty. There is disbelief or even defensiveness at the notion that racism is not only something that happens to others via the hands of others, but that all White people, no matter ideology, are central actors in the story. And, while this is far from an exhaustive list, there is the ubiquitous panic and helplessness in determining what, if anything, can be done to make it all better.

If we want to create a tomorrow that is more human than today, it is not enough to finger point and shout at the backward and so-called redneck. We must also heed the challenge that is growing in mind and spirit ourselves. This requires an ongoing process of discovering who we have been, who we are, and who will become as individuals, as a community, and as a nation.

It is a process convoluted, electric and raw.  But without intentional disruption, our worries are likely to grow larger. Our avoidance of tough truths stronger. The broader hurt of yesterday and today all the less likely to heal.

*****

I am not able to provide words that fully dissolve or resolve the range of emotional responses to the topic of White supremacy and its related concepts. But I do feel compelled to offer a response to the concerns of our moment. A moment, once again, directly tied to the centuries long conditions and structures of a race conscious society, first built on the legal idea and then perpetuated by the stubbornness of the human heart, that some of us are more human than others.

I offer a hand not as a sage, but as a fellow explorer. As one with a unique combination of experiences and perspectives that include a decades long diagnosis of chronic anxiety and more than a decade of formally and informally studying the wounds caused by me and my people.

Per the former, I not only know what it feels like to be afraid, I know what it feels like to think fear will never end. For the latter, yes, there have been moments of discomfort in the midst of discovery. But I learned early in the process that I have never been and never will be in any true danger. White Supremacy is a topic I am able to walk away from and never think about again if I so choose. But when I do engage, I receive with consistency more grace and guidance from friends as well as strangers.

Just as I practice with my own personal anxieties, when we have a more realistic view of the task before us, rather than seeing shadows as monsters, we can begin accepting reality. That acceptance leads to assuming responsibility. In the context of White Supremacy, this means setting aside our ego, guilt, and worry when confronting the truth of our Nation’s Original Sin and its lingering hurt.

My hope is that the strategies I have used and continue using in order to maneuver through my own anxious mind can be utilized in this process. And that those who want to engage, but are held back by concern and doubt, have a few extra tools in their pocket to accompany them in the journey. Tools that are simple to hold, but difficult to use.

The first of these is the tool of radical love.

Now, discussing love for White selves is controversial among some. I am conflicted about it myself. Because one truth is that love for Whiteness can grow too large and become a disdain for anyone deemed not white. Another truth is that we can end up coddling each other and ourselves, or even expecting our emotional safety to trump the emotional and physical safety of others.

These are truths with which I agree. But there is another truth I cannot avoid. And that is the reality that we will not make progress with shrinking circles of good people amid expanding circles of bad people. If anxiety is distorting the message in the audience’s ears and all they hear is that anti-racism or White supremacy are vague concepts meant to make white people feel bad, guilty, shameful, or if anxiety distorts the danger people see themselves in and they think they are losing access to goods and services they have enjoyed their entire life, and they think the White race is threatened, and they think equality equals oppression, we have a problem. We have a major problem.

A recalibration is needed. It is akin to my own mental adjustments when I begin feeling shame and regret at my propensity for worry. Shame and regret does nothing to calm an overactive mind.  Instead, it is when I love myself and give myself grace, when I treat myself with the tenderness I treat a friend in a difficult time, that I am able to ride the waves of worry. I am able to see this rise and fall of water as a natural part of the human condition, even if my waves are more exaggerated than others.

A similar re-calibration is needed in the White community. And that recalibration hinges on radical love. It is the love that James Baldwin identified when he wrote:

“White people…have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

And:

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of  grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

I receive both quotes as challenges and encouragements. I want to prove Baldwin wrong. I want to show him, that as White people, we are capable. That we can dare to grow. Yes, we are broken and imperfect. Yes, we may grow uncertain about the operation of our moral compass. But as Will Campbell, the White southern minister and a grassroots leader in the Civil Rights movement, once said, “We’re all bastards. God loves us anyway.”

If God loves us, we can love ourselves too.

*****

The second tool of value I have found in countering the distortion of worry is vision and creativity. When I want to curl up and crawl into a corner, afraid of the dangers of the world, I talk to myself about the life I want to live. I imagine a life not bound to an ever shrinking radius of safety. I imagine seeking new sights and new smells. New experiences and new relationships.

One of my frustrations attempting to organize tangible institutional change in response to our insidious White supremacy, a frustration I admit I could handle much better, is the sense that far too often we become stuck in the minutiae. Too myopic to see the entire forest. Too afraid to imagine and explore. Clinging to a smaller and smaller corner of supposed safety. Waiting for someone to provide the answers. To tell us exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to start.

As best I can tell we do not have a complex plan which gives society as a whole, step by step instructions on how to repent and be forgiven and rebuild after the past. Or rebuild after the present. This fact itself can create more anxiety. It is easy to grow apathetic and see no point in trying.

But in addition to love as antidote to worry, vision is needed to motivate us and give us a destination to work toward. In order for this to occur, we have to think bigger than perhaps we have ever thought before. Then multiply our scale by ten. And then by another ten.

When I think of examples of this kind of large scale thinking, one that is prominent in my mind is the imaginative marine biologists in the late 1970’s that discovered hydrothermal vents deep on the ocean floor. Despite the harsh conditions of 700 hundred degree water, immense water pressure and no sunlight, new lifeforms were found. New species of tube worms, fish, shrimp, and more.

When these scientists engaged in that process of discovery, they could not bog themselves down with arguments over what name to give to their subterranean exploration vehicle. They could not indefinitely delay the project because they had philosophical disagreements over the nature of water. They had to tackle each challenge as best they could and  move to the next one.

In many ways we are like those scientists. Trying to discover new life. A new tomorrow. A new idea of what Whiteness is. Or could be. Or should be.

We are trying to make a new nation. Trying to do our part to heal wounds from the last 400 years. All in the hope that the next 400 years will not be the same. Yes, there are things we have to get as precise as possible or the endeavor will not succeed. Yes, there can be and should be pressure on our shoulders. Lives are at stake. Livelihoods are at stake. Our nation’s health is at stake. Peace is at stake.

But how blessed and fortunate are we to do be able to do something.

And with each act of doing, of pushing the rock before us, the hope is – my faith proclaims that –  we grow closer to God’s ideal. It is not an ideal we will realize in our lifetime. But this need not diminish our efforts. We are here now and we are a link between the past and the future. And so we work. Because we are obliged.

*****

The upcoming church symposium (September 28-30) is the next effort before us. Not a culminating event. But a continuation to take us further. As we confront and change White Supremacy not just in the lives of our White brothers and sisters waving Rebel flags, but in our own lives, and in our own community, things may grow messy or tense at times. We may have a hard time understanding each other because of the different language we use. We will have disagreements about tangible actions to take. Some of us will get stuck. Some of us will set out on our own, too fast for anyone else to keep up.

It is my request that during this process we refrain from allowing our anxiety to dictate the course. Because if we do, chances increase that our distortions of reality will lead to maladaptive behaviors. Where we will spend most of time finger pointing and blaming. Where we will we compete about which of us,  as White individuals, has hands that are the cleanest. Where an atmosphere of rigid group think, snufs out creative and original thought. Where we bemoan how others do not understand, never bothering to explain things differently so that they can.

I am guilty of committing all of these transgressions above. I do so when I am not in a place of balance. When I allow my ego to become more important than healing. When I allow anxiety to edge out my need to face who I have been and who I am. And with the bitter taste of worry in my mouth, there is little capacity to love all of myself, broken and beautiful, and envision who it is I have not yet become.

Together in community, may we find the radical love and necessary imagination needed to disrupt our individual and collective distorted worry. May we envision who we, as a faith community and pluralistic society have yet to become. And then may we engage in the gritty work of pushing a rock toward God’s ideal of a more human tomorrow. One in which words of equality are not aspirational, but descriptive of reality.

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Little reflections on the prairie

I decided to do some field research this week. Literally. I did sermon and Bible research (Ephesians 4:1-16) while sitting in a Flint Hills field. In the process, I reflected on this prairie piece written by my dad, Keith Harder.

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A prairie reflection by Keith Harder

The Flint Hills prairie has always been an important landscape for me. But returning to central Kansas in 1985 from a more hemmed-in environment, fostered a deeper appreciation.

I have come to appreciate how little it has changed over thousands of years. Where the prairie has remained untilled, it is probably much like it was since the recession of the great inland sea. Human inhabitants are very recent.

The prairie is sustained by its deep roots. There is much more activity below the surface than above it. Left to its own resources and devices, the prairie endures.

Prairie plant life is a perfect match for its habitat. Dozens of native types of grass and flowering plants seem to get along and make space for each other without any one species dominating or taking over. They seem to care for and feed each other.

As I have become more appreciative of the prairie I have found myself more interested in the names of my new found friends and so deepen my relationship with them. So to identify some of the grasses—Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, Switch Grass and a few of the flowers seems like a small gesture of dignity and respect. Walking on the prairie and identifying its inhabitants by name feels like an act of friendship. The understated beauty of the prairie is invisible from the road at seventy miles per hour.

With the advent of humans, the original invasive species, other invasives now threaten the natural balance of the prairie. Hedge trees, cedar trees, musk thistle, sericea lespedeza threaten to reduce its natural bio-diversity. Should we try to control the invasives? Have there been other invasives in times past that were eventually tamed and brought into the prairie community?

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Is it hubris to want to take care of the prairie, to preserve it? It did fine for thousands of years without us humans. But now that we have introduced our roads and fences and towers and turbines and oil wells and over-grazing and invasives, what is our responsibility?

The open horizon of the prairie landscape unimpeded by trees, mountains or tall buildings still nurtures new ideas and possibilities.

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To be continued on Sunday, especially the part about musk thistles….

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