Friday, March 25, 2011

Seat's Taken: When Public Space becomes Private Space

One evening, I went with a group to Times Square to watch a Broadway show. We only had an hour before the start of the show, so we decided to buy food and then find somewhere to sit down and eat. Because it was St. Patrick's Day, Times Square was filled to the brim with people-We couldn't find a place to sit, so we found a nice piece of sidewalk and had a concrete picnic. I was surprised when an employee of the building we were sitting next to came out and told us that it was a residential building and reminded us to leave and pick up our trash when we were done eating. This reminded me of discussions of public and private space in some of my college courses. In an effort to "clean up" urban environments gated communities and parks restrict who can come in, homeless people are cleared from the streets where tourists and business people pass, and benches are increasingly made with dividers so that one can only sit upright to prevent people from sleeping on them. Public areas are now sights of restriction allowing some and denying others access. This was very apparent in Manhattan. I saw very few homeless people on the streets, yet there were many eating at the soup kitchens we served at. These clean up efforts are just moving homeless people to the periphery, they do not actually address the structural problems in society that lead to homelessness. Making signs of poverty "disappear" is a very disingenuous effort to address issues of poverty. In thinking about the ministry of Jesus, he took a much different approach. Jesus spent time with and cared for those who were marginalized in society and spoke out against getting caught up in obtaining earthly possessions. I think this, especially in the US with the "American dream" of success being equated to what you can buy, is a message that we need to hear more often and take seriously. When we focus on what we "need" to enjoy life, we are blinded from the reality of this capitalist world we live in where there are many who struggle every day to provide the basic necessities for themselves and their famililies.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


A day of epiphany: like most other Sundays, I moseyed to my parents’ house after church to have lunch. I exclaimed my frustration that the sermon on Constantine was simplistic, unsubstantiated by history, and overtly conservative. In response, my mother half-joked that I should go to Luther Seminary because it was “cranking out liberal pastors.” At the time, I didn’t think about it further. It wasn’t compatible with my other interests: engineering, climate change, and sustainability—or so I thought.

Maybe it was the experience of serving in New York City with Muslims and engaging in interfaith dialogue. Or maybe it was the realization that I could help people on a personal, meaningful level by engineering climate adaptations and infrastructure improvements. But whatever the reason, the Spirit moved that night as I walked along the Mississippi. I understood that I could be a pastor, an engineer, and an activist simultaneously. I realized that I could merge my servant heart with my intellectual capabilities and interdisciplinary experience. I discerned a missing link, a link that could motivate religious forces in America to demand environmental sustainability and stewardship: ethics.

Ethics is seldom mentioned in climate change circles, but it should be. It is wrong for senators to bicker about short term economic losses resulting from climate policy without pausing to thinking of the burden imposed on undeveloped nations from the status quo. It is wrong to leave future generations with a bankrupt planet because of our delusional concept of perpetual economic growth on limited resources. So why is the religious zeal of this great nation focused on abortion, marriage, taxes, and deregulation when the world is broken and crying out for help? What happened to the servant leader inspired by Christ? I am called. This is my story.

Growing up in with a prominent Lutheran tradition, I have always had a servant heart. I counseled junior high and high school students for nearly seven years. I participated in several mission trips to Mexico to build houses, traveled to New Orleans to help with the Katrina cleanup, and volunteered extensively in the local community throughout high school and college. But these themes took a back seat to my academic ambitions as I became passionate about climate change and environmental sustainability.

Curious by nature, I have always striven to understand the intricate order of natural and socioeconomic systems. I became particularly interested in environmental issues when I read Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman. A rational thinker, I was incensed when I realized that society was ignoring the warning signs. I was frustrated because the powerful elite were spreading a massive misinformation campaign to disguise the truth, and the media was complicit in the fraud. How could I bring this complex, convoluted injustice to the foreground of public discourse? How could I make a difference in my religious community? My mission trip to New York helped illuminate the answer: the power of interfaith unity in confronting a challenge.

In New York, I was particularly moved by the interfaith dialogue. The discipline and awareness of my Muslim friends were inspiring. I saw Ground Zero. I saw Park 51, the proposed Muslim community center in lower Manhattan. Consequently, I realized how unfounded the pervasive negativity and fear toward Islam truly were and how damaging strident evangelical proselytizing could be. Doug Hostetter, an interfaith Mennonite minister, put it best when he said, "It is an amazing sight to behold when people stop talking about their God and start acting the way their God would act." I am ready to act. This is my song.

I will be a proponent for peace and justice, especially in the realm of environmental sustainability and stewardship. I desire to attend Farm the Land, Grow the Spirit this summer at Stony Point Center with other Christian, Muslim, and Jewish young adults. I will attend Power Shift, an activist rally in Washington DC empowering youth to rise up and take power back from elite corporate interests. After graduation, I hope to intern in Latin America to refine my Spanish skills and nurture my servant heart. I will now consider attending seminary to prepare my soul to work in cooperation with other faiths; I love helping others. The road ahead is long and arduous, but fulfilling and exciting. My plans could change, but where the Spirit leads, I will follow.

I am reminded of the seed planted by Paul Schultz, my youth director growing up, when he said, "Andrew, one day you could be a pastor." I now realize the truth in those words. I can be a pastor. I can be an engineer. I can be an activist. I can be a servant, a father, and a friend. And I can do all these things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me. In the words of the popular Christian hymn, “Blessed Assurance”:

This is my story, this is my song,

praising my Savior, all the day long;

this is my story, this is my song,

praising my Savior, all the day long.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


We have seen the strife, hurt and injustice that fear has caused in our world but I was reminded this week that no matter how powerful fear can be, love is stronger. I was reminded how easy it is to love, how natural, how human. All one needs is the opportunity. This week our hearts were opened by the service we did, the people we met, and the very real conversations we had. I am left with the realization that in the end only love can conquer fear, and this gives me hope.

Thank you so much to everyone from the trip for sharing so much love.

Lastly, I would like to reiterate what Pastor Tom Duke said at an interfaith dialogue series in Minneapolis. “If we don’t know what we have in common our differences can divide us. If we do know what we have in common our differences can enrich us.”

I believe we have all been enriched by our time together this past week. We have not only found commonalities in tradition, scripture, and belief but also in a shared sense and display of compassion, generosity, enthusiasm and love for humanity.

Monday, March 21, 2011

On Freedom...

Almost a week ago (last Tuesday), we were at Ground Zero.  This site, full of so much trauma and death and destruction, also holds stories of bravery, compassion and honor.  I’ve always cocked my head a little bit at the word “freedom” when it’s used in a political context.  

Still, as that word made its appearance multiple times on signs, in proposed names of memorials, and in slogans found throughout the World Trade Center site, its use felt particularly profane to me.  The political appropriation seemed to dishonor the stories that were so powerful.  

The national narrative that includes stories of persecution, attack, and revenge (and my own reaction to that particular telling) over-rode stories of firefighters rushing up stairs with 90 pound packs on to rescue workers.  It over-rode stories of Muslims and Christians and Hindis and Jews dying side by side, jumping out of top storied windows.  It overrode stories of pieces of bodies being found within 16 blocks of the World Trade Centers.  This particular national narrative subsumes the particularity of individual stories of suffering and loss, of bravery and loyalty.  And in that, it somehow denies the courage, honor, bravery shown that day – courage that is rooted in another sort of freedom. 

A freedom that comes from knowing who you are, and Whose you are.

Now this is decidedly theistic language, but I am an ELCA pastor, and that is the lens through which I see the world.

Upon reflecting on this experience, it seems as if the political use of the word “freedom” bugs me so much because it has such deep and rich theological connotations. 

As Lutheran Christians, we believe in a God who leads with mercy and love, and that is our starting point.  Because our salvation is secure in Christ, we are freed by this love to love the world.  We are freed to be curious about the world.  We are freed to learn and serve and love alongside people of other faiths.  We are freed to look around us for signs of God in the here and now fleshiness of this world.  And we are freed to acknowledge that we may not know all of the answers to how God might be showing up.  This is freedom, brothers and sisters.  And it is a wonderful thing. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Hopeful Reflection

I’d like to begin this reflection by sharing a little bit about two people that truly touched my heart on this incredible trip.

I, along with my Muslim and Christian friends, volunteered at St. John’s. I was there Wednesday and Friday. Basically all I did was wash dishes, and part of me felt useless at times because there were so many volunteers that we had two people doing a one-person job. Yet, it was all worthwhile because of one man (as intense as that may sound, but I mean it sincerely). On Wednesday, a man coming into St. John’s to eat came dressed in a fedora and a vest with the look of a jazz saxophone player from another era (to me anyway). He immediately caught my attention from the many people in the room having their meals because of this eccentric outfit. But more than that, it was his smile and presence that made my heart melt. Wednesday was a dreary New York day. The clouds were dark and rain was showering the city. People all around seemed grumpy and displeased. Yet, there in Brooklyn was a man who was still smiling at everyone, and continuously thanked us in the kitchen for our work. He said ‘God bless you’ to anyone that crossed his path. I was shocked at this optimistic, bright presence that held on even in the hardships he had to endure. There are moments where I and everyone really lose faith in the good in this world. We see tsunamis wiping away entire cities, we see dictators show no mercy or humanity, and we see everyday people being inconsiderate and rude. Yet, here was a soul so pure and so loving that despite all the reasons he might have to be angry with the world and to be a cynic he held onto this essential part of humanity that we can forget so easily. Friday the day seemed to shine like this man. The city wasn’t bright for us I don’t think. To me, it was lighting up for him.

Doug, a Mennonite Christian now working for the Mennonite Fellowship in the U.N., is the second man I’d like everyone to know a little bit about. He shared stories with us about Vietnam and a little boy who wanted his deceased grandfather’s story to be told - this was forty years ago and to this day Doug still keeps his promise to that child. He shared stories about the genocide in Bosnia – an event so horrible and so black yet so unknown and hidden to the majority of students listening. His stories brought me, and several others, to tears. He was raised to believe that the Mennonite’s were God’s people, and that the rest of us weren’t. Yet somehow, God brought Doug enlightenment through experiences I can only imagine and can only experience through his eloquent words and his striking photographs. Doug found a humanity within himself that has opened his heart and eyes to people of other faiths and of other backgrounds. When he was asked at the end of our meeting if he was still Mennonite he said, “I’m Mennonite Plus.” He has set aside the Heaven/Hell arguments and found a way to do God’s work without having to label the people he served. For that, I truly admire him and can only say this short paragraph with my befuddled thoughts what it meant to me to hear of his stories. He, to me, is the epitome of the hope that this group represents.

I’d like to end with a verse from the Quran that was used in the first devotional of the trip by me and Sara. “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other).” This is what Doug epitomized and this is what we must all strive for. This is what the group of students on this trip (and the people we have met in New York) have given me great hope for. To the other students, to Kate, to Chris and Hafsa, to Zahra and Yasir, to Lisa, to Marshall, to Doug, and to the rest of the people of New York that gave so much, I want to say thank you for a week of love, of enlightenment, and of hope.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Words of Faith

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1) But what is the Word? The Holy Bible? Righteous deeds and service? The embodiment of Christ? As a young Lutheran, I always assumed the latter, but after serving on an interfaith service trip in the diverse megalopolis of New York City, I realize there is more to this passage; these words of faith are not exclusive to Christianity; indeed, I now see the Word in all faiths and all people striving to be more holy and righteous.

So what then of the Christian notion of exclusivity? Of the acrimonious assertion that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life" and that "no one comes to the Father" except by him? (John 14:6) For some Christians, this is it. Jesus leaves no doubt that he is the only way to salvation. And I still believe this to be wholly applicable to my life; faith in Jesus is the only way for me to be saved. But does this apply to my Muslim comrades?

Admittedly, I have struggled with this idea of exclusivity. How can I reconcile this passage with that which I have experienced this week serving hand-in-hand with devout, pure-hearted Muslims. They love God unconditionally. They serve with humility. They worship with sincerity seldom seen in my generation. They are disciplined. They are as much like Christ as I am. Jesus said, "Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him." (John 14:21) God is merciful and just; judgment is not mine to proclaim.

As my generation begins to tackle increasingly global issues, we as Christians need to work with Muslims, not against them. Indeed, we must embrace all peoples of faith, all who are concerned about poverty, about injustice, about equality, and about sustainability. Why must we bicker and posture with pointless animosity while the world cries out for help?

I will close with a passage particularly illuminated by my experiences this week. Jesus said, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me." My Muslim brothers and sisters love Christ. I love Christ. God the Father, the God of Abraham, is the God of Islam whom my Muslim brothers and sisters worship. Our words of faith may be different in theory, but they are the same in action. We have faith in the Word, and together our faith will move mountains.

Where ever there is an ending there is also a new start

Friday. Most students are always looking forward to Friday because it means the beginning of the weekend, but this week I would say most (if not everyone) wished Friday had not quite yet arrived, because it was our last day in New York--we had to leave our Hostel at 4:30 am the following morning.

Ever since the group got to the MSP airport Monday morning there has been so much positive energy that seemed to carry through the week. That energy got us through long days and short nights. And even though everyone was exhausted by Friday night we didn't want to leave each. We weren't quite ready to go back to school yet either.

Anyways, so Friday began like most of the other days with service projects. I could talk more about them, but I think other posts have covered them pretty well. My group finished early so we went to Little Italy for lunch where we are able to sit and have a relaxing lunch (the first time for me on the trip, as we were usually hurrying to our next destination). We went to a Restaurant called La Buena Notte (I think), and the food was amazing. We also had some great entertainment there because of the man who would stand outside and try to draw people in to the restaurant. He definitely caught us and drew us in, partly because he started singing for us in Italian:) All in all it was a delicious lunch (for me anyways...I know there was a little mix up in ordering...but the endless bread was delicious and everyone for sure enjoyed that).

Friday night we all went to a Masjid in Harlem for Maghrib (evening) prayers. All the girls put in Hijabs, and a few fashioned sweaters into Hijabs as well--everyone totally rocked those Hijabs/Sweater hijabs by the way! After prayers we went to a restaurant that I believe the Sheikh of the Masjid owns, and they serve Senegalese food. It was my first time eating Senegalese food, and I was definitely not disappointed. The people at the Masjid and restaurant were very welcoming, and it seemed like everyone had a great time for our last night in NY.

Our NY trip may be over, but our work together is just beginning. This trip has been an amazing and eye opening experience. Not only has it made we want to learn more about my own religion, but also to be a better person, and really respect others for who they are. I feel blessed to have been able to be a part of this trip and make so many new and amazing friends. I am definitely looking forward to seeing everyone again, and continuing to learn from each other.

I could say more, but because I am quite tired after a super exciting and packed week in NYC my brain isn't entirely functioning. So one that note, I would like to say Thank You to EVERYONE who came on this trip, you guys are absolutely amazing, and I mean that from deep in my heart. I think it's already time for a reunion!

Peace and Love, and may Allah (God) bless everyone!

Oh--and rock your way through the end of the semester, you can do it!