Friday, September 27, 2013

The Good Lord Bird

Am laid up with ankle surgery. Time on my hands ...

Curious that the two books I am reading now have to do with John Brown. In Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, the narrator’s grandfather was a preacher in the John Brown ilk – rode with Brown through Bloody Kansas, turned his tiny Kansas congregation into a preaching post for abolition and judgment – and grace. By the end of his life, his concern was to care for those in need, by stealing from family and friends, if anyone else needed things. Near the beginning of the book, we read how the narrator, then age 12 or so, and his father, traveled from Iowa to Kansas, finally trudging the prairie in near starvation, to find the grandfather’s grave. He had gone back in late age to preach once more, to find God’s solace, judgment, mercy, calling in the empty spaces of a nearly abandoned Kansas town.
I heard about The Good Lord Bird on the radio a couple of weeks ago. I was captivated by James McBride, with his talking about growing up poor in a family of 12 children, in Brooklyn. He’s a writer, musician, teacher, and before I got The Good Lord Bird, I started reading The Color of Water, his memoir of his white, Jewish mother, who never let her children know she was not African American – and who never let her children do anything with their lives other than succeed in school and succeed in life.

John Brown, abolitionist and fanatic evangelical, also figures largely in The Good Lord Bird, in this book in the foreground. The narrator is a slave boy, captured by Brown in one of his bloody raids, and whom Brown mistakes for a girl. As a girl, “Henrietta” is part of Brown’s gang, along with Brown’s sons and a multicultural assortment of Free Staters. Brown is a scary evangelical – McBride admitted to the radio interviewer that he deliberately exaggerated Brown’s style, his looks, his fervor, using satire even as he portrays Brown as the hero. John Brown is what happens when religious conviction about God’s justice and a deep consciousness-change about racism as America’s original sin, move to their inevitable end. The power unleashed is like those of anti-abortion activists. Murder is justified when it is vengeance for a sin so profound.


The Good Lord Bird of the title is “the Lord God Bird” -- that rare creature ornithologists thought they spotted in an Arkansas swamp a few years ago. This Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, with a wingspan of 30 inches. It has a huge head and a thin neck, a white streak that looks elegant in flight but like a lightning scar when the bird is standing. It does probably look like some of those images of John Brown: larger than life, elusive. The Ivory-Billed, if there truly are any living, is headed toward extinction, due to the destruction of its habitat in the southern, swampy woodlands, and the fad of killing birds for their “exotic” feathers. John Brown, in The Good Lord Bird is headed for extinction himself, driven their by his own passions and by the inevitability that a society built on slavery will push back with more violence and the force of law to bring an end to that “exotic” bird’s prophetic and terrifying cry.

Just finished that remarkable book. It did start out humorous, or satirical, at least, and much of the satire poked at “Negroes” and John Brown. But it was all most loving. The narrator character came not only to love but also admire John Brown, and compellingly makes the case about his being the catalyst for the final push against slavery.

When I heard the interview with James McBride, he talked about being a church-goer, a believer – one who acknowledges the power and sustenance of the Biblical faith – even if, like Brown’s, it has crazy parts. At the end of the book, after the disastrous Harper’s Ferry raid, the narrator acknowledges that when Brown was in jail, “writing letters and getting visitors … he was a star all over again. … the last six weeks of his life the Old Man got more folks moved ‘bout the slavery question than he ever did spilling blood back in Kansas, or in all them speeches he gived up in New England. … John Brown was a Christian man. A bit off his biscuit, but a better Christian you never saw.” (p. 410)

What makes John Brown a Christian - that "better Christian"? He was murderous and brutal, and yet was loving and kind to all the Negroes he met. Was it that he acted out of love? Yet he left his family for this cause, and put his own children in harm's way -- caused their violent deaths, even. 

What is it with fanatics? Do we approve of them if their cause is right, their end justifies their means? Do present-day abolitionists, taking on human trafficking and the modern versions of slavery, take their inspiration from Brown? What about anti-abortion activists, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals convinced innocents are being slaughtered? The reproductive rights debate is a bit like the abolition one: it is a battle fought on and over and through the bodies of others.

The Good Lord Bird, the narrator says at the end, flies lone and wild, and seeks out dead trees in which to roost and peck. He sees one circling around, looking for that "bad tree, I expect, so he could alight upon it and get busy, so that it would someday fall and feed the others." Does that mean violence is inevitable, in the cause of one righteous man's quest for justice? Or is it that rotten institutions must inevitably crumble and fall, and that those peck away at them are hastening the Good Lord's plan?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

January Thaw: can the violence of our win-lose society be transformed?

Just to set the record straight: I do like winter, snow, cold. The light is beautiful, the landscapes new and clean.

BUT I am relieved today for the respite of a January thaw. Despite the grubby-looking ground, driveways and sidewalks without the danger of ice and cold are a blessing.

In such an unsettled world, I find myself searching the sky and the weather for signs: is aberrant weather now the new normal, or only a wider swing?

I woke up to read Charles Blow telling us, once again, that since the election of Barack Obama as President, the number of newly armed “Patriot” groups have multiplied ten-fold.

To the right of Blow’s startling graph, Joe Nocera wrote, “The combination of President Obama’s re-election and the Newtown massacre has caused gun proponents to stock up, fearing, against all available evidence, that the federal government was about to crack down on gun ownership.”

David Rubin, of the Newhouse school, praised SU coach Jim Boeheim’s comments after the deaths in Connecticut, urging more social leaders to echo Boeheim: ‘‘If we in this country, as Americans, can’t get the people who represent us to do something about firearms, we are a sad, sad society.’’

Certainly these reports seem to indicate a polarized, alienated society, desperately without hope, without any imagination that anything could ever be different in the future.

I found a hopeful reading of Matthew’s story about the visit of the wise men “from the East.” (see Community Parson.) Amazing, really, that Matthew would use the example of Israel’s enemies to proclaim the universal power of God. These Babylonians or Persians were Israel’s conquerors and captors, and here they are: marching across deserts, bringing exotic gifts. They are so attuned to the signs of these times that they recognize the enemies of God right in the midst of the Jewish people: Herod the conniver, Herod the violent, Herod the amasser of weapons of mass destruction and the soldiers who wield them.

Even more hopefully, I was moved this morning to read of the work of Rita Nakashima Brock, the theologian who was challenged to moderate her hard-line, take-no-prisoners pacifism. Not until long after her soldier-father’s death was she able to envision a future without the hard lines of polarizing opinions, of win and lose. Brock now works with military chaplains and veterans in the “Soul Repair Center,” a “vision of spiritual therapy” that resists “both finger-pointing at veterans and ‘premature forgiveness’ for the blood they have shed.”

“Everything is connected,” the eco-feminists used to say. Desperation and violence connect all too frequently in our world. Let’s connect the other dots, the points of true light. Let’s take risks to admit the wrong-headedness of our formerly hard-line positions, whatever they may have been. The signs of the times are all around us that this is the journey we must take.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

GC Deputies, young AND old: not now and never have been agents of change

OK. We are getting some peculiar cheerleading going on about this Convention.

Here is an excerpt from Scott Pomerank’s piece, entitled, Among the Dying. The title caught my eye because I thought it might give some more perceptive commentary on Convention. But alas, it was full of the usual kind of “all these impassioned people taking stands on all these important global issues,” and ended up with the usual, fairly smarmy comments about how the earnest youth will be the salvation of this decrepit but glorious old institution:

… Several full-fledged deputies are in their 20s, and at least one deputy—who has expressed herself impressively on the floor multiple times—is a college student.  Without exception, every one of these young people has spoken intelligently, articulately and passionately; several of them have spoken prophetically.

So is the Episcopal Church a sinking dinosaur?  Not if the young people here at Convention are any indication.  They, after all, presumably have many General Conventions ahead of them.  Many of you have heard me lament that calling youth "the future of the church" can deprive them of the right to be the present of the church.  Here in Indianapolis, the youth are seizing that right.  I trust them to help guide the church into the future.

Many General Conventions ahead of them? Oh, my God. Are you insane? Having BEEN one of those “youth who will change the future of the church” many years ago (in the go-go 1970s, when the Episcopal Church completely dismantled its entire New York office and gave the money to community organizations – I certainly don’t hear any talk of “revisiting” General Convention Special Program as a model of decentralization), and having spent decades promoting more of those many youth who will change the future of the church, let me tell you, little has changed. Plenty of those former youth are doing terrific things – they may even be going to church! They may even pledge! – but it is less and less likely that the terrific things they are doing are represented at General Convention. If the deputies who are in the 20s are still going to General Convention many years hence, then God bless them, but they are not agents of change.

General Convention: the cry goes up, how long?


I have been casually reading comments on the General Convention going on now, and the comments from  George Clifford, on Episcopal CafĂ©  follow along with the more reasonable ones. He hammers home the point that much of the discussion at church conventions (all denominations) rates barely a blip in the rest of the country, and that all the various “reforms” do little or nothing to stop the numerical and financial decline of the denomination. He made a few ho-hum, re-hashed suggestions about what to do about all this.

Near the end of his commentary, he made real progress though. This makes sense:

… formal denominational efforts to influence national and international policies and legislation have achieved proportionately few results for the resources invested. Single-issue ecumenical organizations, such as Interfaith Power and Light, have enlisted greater support, received larger resources, and produced greater results.

Successfully re-visioning and re-creating TEC will produce an organization focused on its strength (building local communities of God's people who join in worship, caring for one another, and offer hospitality to strangers) that networks with other Christian organizations to achieve other aspects of the gospel mandate. The end of Christendom suggests that a strategy loosely linked multiple organizations may be more effective than the monolithic church of the past. The Church’s unity will be seen in relationships rather than structures.

The central organization of the Episcopal Church (using that stupid abbreviation “TEC” or even worse “ECUSA” is a major PART of this whole problem! So fucking in-groupy) can do whatever it wants to. It doesn’t matter to the mission of the church. People can go to Convention and work out governance matters, and we clergy can follow the rules. Fine.

Meanwhile, the real church happens, as Clifford says, in de-centralized relational organizations, groups which rise up as occasions demand, and then fall away – if those who organized them have the good sense to get out of the way when the purposes for which they were organized no longer exist.

Enlightenment/entitlement theology has a death grip on the institutional church. Every fractured interest group wants a seat at the Table – but guess what: there is no Table any more, no one place where all the important decisions are made. There are many, multiple tables, and the ones which offer the most effective hospitality are the ones on local levels – some Christian, some interfaith, some post-Christian.

In 1919, the churches developed the strategy that the best way to influence American society was to imitate it – to develop its own corporate structure that mirrored the most successful models of American life, the corporation. This strategy became fully incarnate with the establishment of the Church Center at 815 Second Avenue. Church as corporation worked for a while, but it has calcified. Even big American corporations are more flexible than the Episcopal Church. Management schools have for quite some time developed more decentralized models, sensitive and able to change and adapt to changing environments. Business, which we imitated, changed – even Mad Men, by the 5th season, wasn’t Mad Men in the same way. The church, however, remains wedded to what it looked like in 1960. There are thousands of people who like it that way – all those people who love going to church meetings. It is fun. It can be exhausting. You can come to believe that it is important.

Meanwhile, whole new webs, relationships, projects, plans, organizations grow and shrink around us. In many cases, they ARE us, and in many more cases we can find common mission in ways that have nothing to do with institutional structures.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Thanks, Dory Previn

When I was in college, in the rush of feminist consciousness, in 1974, in the year 11 women in Philadelphia smashed through the sound barrier of the Episcopal Church by getting ordained to the priesthood, Dory Previn released this song. I wrote for the student newspaper, and if you were lucky you were in the newsroom when the free albums came in the mail. I snatched this one. It became the anthem of our little group of chapel-goers, pushing boundaries on our own, sassy, slightly irreverent, or reverent toward things that really counted.


We'd memorize this song, belt it out, thrilled to shout the line, "save your breath" at all those men who didn't think women had a place, a voice, a role to play.

I read in her obituary in today's New York Times that Dory Previn had a particular kind of working-class Catholic girlhood, with a father suffering the effects of shell shock from the first World War. She had survived, and thrived, through public divorce, with a husband leaving her for a younger woman. She wrote this song, tucked in among the more popular and romantic, and for women in our 20s, trying to find our God-given place in a world that was shattering and being remade right before our eyes, Dory Previn gave our struggle a satisfying kick.

Thanks, Dory Previn.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The closing of Hull House: social change? or social work?

The closing of Hull House hit the national airwaves with the story on today's Morning Edition that marked today, Friday, January 27, as the last day for the organization begun by Jane Addams in 1889. Since I have thought, read and written about the social settlements, their long-lasting achievements and their shortcomings, I picked up my ears.
This demise, which is wreaking havoc in the lives of thousands of families in Chicago who need the services that the Hull House Association has provided, is, I think, part of a century-long debate about just what the social settlements can and should do. The inherent tension in the movement came when the settlements were at the height of their success. Questions then arose about institutionalization, funding, professionalization and mission. Boards of directors, increasingly concerned with the bottom line, with keeping the much-needed programs going, made decisions that fit the increasingly corporatization of 20th century life. One hundred years ago -- roughly 25 years into the life of the social settlement movement -- decisions were being made that move the settlements away from the original mission and on the path toward the dissolution that we see happening today in the still struggling neighborhoods of Chicago.

The settlements were founded by young college graduates -- in this country, with Hull House in Chicago and the College Settlement Association on the eastern seaboard, mostly women -- who burned with desire to DO SOMETHING to help the teeming masses of factory workers, immigrants and sweatshop laborers who flooded into American industrial cities. These young women had no idea what they were doing. They found houses to move into, and then they waited. They wanted to help, but they didn't know how. The work of Hull House began when neighborhood women knocked on the door of the genteel, middle-class home Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr had set up, and asked them to watch their small children while they went to work. The cruel irony of today's news story on NPR was its focus on a much-needed, high-quality day care center in Lincoln Square. One mother, who told the reporter she had been promised help finding a new place for her child, seemed skeptical. "In my case it will be very difficult because my son has autism," she said.

It was not so original that 19th century, middle class women wanted to help the poor. What was astounding was that they started this helping project by desiring to become neighbors to the poor, by living right next door to people their families would consider dirty and dangerous. The settlement workers were rank amateurs, but they had eyes, ears, hearts and education. They came to know and love their neighbors, and they came to know from the point of view of "the working class" that something was very wrong with industrial America. Their fathers and uncles, the men who went to church with them and who funded their pioneering women's colleges, were getting very, very rich exploiting the labor of the very people the settlement workers knew as neighbors and friends. The settlement workers started out as distant do-gooders; they ended up in social solidarity, working together for deep and lasting social change. If your milk is safe to drink, if your garbage is collected regularly, if your child goes to elementary school and not to work, then you have the settlement workers to thank.

How to sustain success? Non-profits even today struggle with the same dilemmas. An organization starts out with passion and commitment, and when you grow, and find you have to hire staff, and buy buildings, and please donors, who might not agree with your vision of radical social solidarity, then you begin to make decisions which take you farther from that original passion and commitment. Jane Addams, over her long and extraordinary life, moved away from the direct service she engaged in as a young woman. In Boston, the pro-union activities of the long-time head worker of the Denison House social settlement made the upper-middle class women who funded the organization too uncomfortable to keep her in the work that was the definition of her life. As that first generation of settlement house workers moved on, something of their passion and their commitment to social solidarity left with them.

Environments change, and certainly the years since the founding of Hull House have been tumultuous, socially and economically. Social service agencies have become increasingly dependent on state and federal contracts for the services they provide, and counting on one big donor leaves an organization vulnerable to collapse. Hull House is not at fault for being successful at bringing vast social needs to the attention of the wider society. There are likely to be other places the Lincoln Square families can find to replace the Hull House school, although with the additional cost to them of stress and disruption. The publicity surrounding the end of Hull House may cause other activists to rise up and work for new solutions.

But what is the nature of social service? Even 100 years ago this was hotly debated in places like Hull House, for the social settlements were also places of inquiry and debate. How could a movement like the settlements maintain their passion and the transformative power of people living as neighbors, working together to improve their communities? The magnetic pull of the corporate 20th century -- the professionalization of social work, the bureaucratization of funding, the institutionalization of "meeting needs" -- proved too strong to resist.

One of the lessons of the end of the Hull House Association is to look back at its origins, at its founding passions, and at the remarkable women of the social settlements who cast aside the comforts of their middle class lives. They went the cities to help, and yet came out transformed, neighbors and allies with the immigrants and working people who became the citizens of 20th century America.