About djgrieser

I have been Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, WI since 2009. I'm passionate about Jesus Christ and about connecting our faith and tradition with 21st century culture. I'm also very active in advocating for our homeless neighbors.

Reflections on a decade of shared ministry 4: The Church in the midst of political conflict

I don’t recall any conversations about politics as we were discerning my call to Grace Church in 2009. We were in the throes of the Great Recession, Obama had just become president, but Grace had other, more urgent issues that focused the attention of its lay leadership. As a newcomer to Madison, I recall paying very little attention to either local or state politics in 2009 and 2010. While I voted in the 2010 election, I don’t remember the campaigns even though that was the year that saw Scott Walker elected Governor.

All that changed in February 2011. On February 15, 2011, protesters from UW Madison walked down State St. to the Capitol and begin their sit-in. I could hear the sounds of the marchers as the neared the top of State Street. I didn’t really know what was happening although I knew about Governor’s plans to break the unions and transform the political culture of our state. For the next three weeks as protests grew and subsided and the Democratic senators fled the state to prevent a vote on the “Budget Repair” bill,  Grace Church found itself in the middle of the political conflict and division in our state. In many ways, it was the beginning of the deep division and conflict that has rent our nation over the last years.

I made a decision during the first few days of the protests that would change my ministry and completely transform the ministry and mission of Grace Church. With hundreds, then thousands, even tens of thousands of people protesting at the Capitol in the middle of February, I decided to open the doors of our church, inviting the protesters to come in for respite, warmth, and prayer. Within a few days, Grace became the staging ground for the religious community. We hosted press conferences and served as a gathering space for religious leaders and members of religious communities as they sought to make a public witness.

Ironically, after the Democratic senators finally returned, the Budget Repair bill was passed on Ash Wednesday. Our prayers to God during the Litany of Penitence at our 6 pm service that night were accompanied by the sounds of new protests gathering.

In the years that followed, beginning with Madison’s version of Occupy and “Walkerville,” continuing through the protests around police violence and the Trump presidency, Grace has continued to be a gathering place for religious voices calling for justice and an end to inequality and oppression. Now, when a rally or protest is planned, members come to me to ask if they can help make sure our doors are open and that we offer rest for tired feet and space for reflection and prayer.

Looking back from this vantage point, I’m surprised by the prominent role political witness has come to play in my ministry. I’m sure I’ve attended more protests in the last 10 years of my life than I did in my first fifty, probably ten times more. I’m also somewhat surprised by the ease with which the community at Grace has come to embrace this role. There were some nay-sayers at first, people worried about vandalism or theft, or the sheer toll of hundreds of people coming through our building on a wintry day. But as I point out whenever someone expresses concern, especially over the possibility that we are being partisan, we don’t have a choice in the matter. Whether or not we open our doors, we are making a political statement, or it will be interpreted as such. To offer hospitality to protesters, to offer our restrooms to the attendees at the first Latinx protest against was as necessary as it was the right thing to do.

I’m not particularly comfortable in the role of “activist” priest, if that’s the reputation I’ve developed. I’ve written and preached often about my conviction that our witness as individual Christians and as a church should be rooted in the gospel and communicated with religious language, that we should clearly articulate the theological basis of our position. As a congregation, we have done that in a number of documents, and I hope I have been clear about that in my sermons and posts here. I do believe that the church should be a place where people of different political views can come together to worship, that we ought to be a place where we can give voice to our different opinions and prayerfully discern what God is calling us to do. I also believe that following Jesus means speaking clearly on matters of justice and responding to the deep needs of our fellow human beings. But I worry that too often we lose focus on the centrality of Jesus Christ in our effort to build coalitions and participate in the political process. I also think that too often our political opinions are more important and more deeply-held than our religious commitments, that we don’t allow the Word of God to stand in judgment on us.

I hope, though it seems quite unlikely, that some day soon Grace will no longer need to serve as a gathering place for religious people who are challenging the powers and principalities, that we can return to a quieter time when it didn’t seem that the very Gospel of Jesus Christ was hanging in the balance every day. But such a development seems quite unlikely in our present moment. Instead, it’s much more likely that the cries of injustice will continue to be heard, and that they will come from more people who feel threatened. And as long as the cries rise up, Grace will provide a place of gathering, hope, and respite for people who are suffering and protesting injustice.

 

Reflections on a decade of shared ministry, 3: Homelessness, part 2

The long quest for a day resource center for people experiencing homelessness could serve as a case study of how Madison’s political system, social service providers, and activists have failed the most vulnerable people in our community. It also provides lessons to anyone interested in developing new institutions or services in our city.

Back in 2011, I attended the first of a series of meetings of local political and civic leaders, service providers, and advocates that were convened to seek solutions to the lack of daytime resources for people experiencing homelessness. The problem became apparent because that the two places where many homeless people spent the days while the overnight shelters were closed were no longer available. The Capitol basement had been declared off-limits to homeless people during the protests in February and March, 2011, and the Central Library was about to close for two years of renovations. I was astounded when the meeting began with many of those present complaining about the then governor’s decision to close the Capitol—seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Capitol was a wholly inadequate space for a vulnerable population in need of many services. In other words, the urgency and extent of the need had gone unaddressed for decades. The stop-gap solutions that were in place were judged by many in the community to be perfectly adequate.

I’ve chronicled much of the story and my involvement in the efforts on this blog. Click on the Homelessness link and scroll down. Temporary shelters were funded for the winters of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. The County put money its operating budget to fund operations of a shelter and secured capital funds to purchase and build out a property. There were a number of locations proposed over the years but all of them fell through because of various reasons, including poor planning and community engagement by county staff and elected officials, neighborhood opposition, and simply unsuitable locations. Many of us who were most actively involved in these efforts over the years grew angry, frustrated, and finally abandoned the quest. Fortunately others persisted and other agencies stepped, most notably Catholic Charities, who received the contract to operate the Day Resource Center. Finally, the Beacon opened in 2018 and is currently welcoming as many as 250 people daily for meals, showers, laundry, and to help them connect with services.

I say this is a case study in how Madison has thought about and responded to homelessness over the decades because there was no effort to examine the adequacy of our response to the community’s needs and no effort to seek better solutions. And there’s also the blame game, seeking to deflect responsibility for the problems we face from ourselves to others—whether it be the former governor, Chicago, or some other entity or individual. It was only when the stop-gap solution collapsed that we admitted the problem and began to seek new solutions and better alternatives.

In some respects, we are at the very same place with regard to the overnight shelters. The Salvation Army is developing plans for new facilities at their E. Washington Ave. property that would more adequately address the needs of the groups they serve there: single women and families. It is also becoming more clear by the day that the current Drop-In Shelter housed at Grace with additional space at St. John’s Lutheran Church and First United Methodist Church is inadequate to serve the number of homeless men in our community and to address their needs, providing assistance to help them find housing and connect them with services they need. For example, we lack the facilities to offer comfortable space for the one-on-one conversations with outreach workers and the building is only minimally accessible to people who lack mobility. It lacks air conditioning.

As we think about next steps in our response to the needs of our community, it is clear that the experience with the Day Resource Center will offer us important lessons as we seek to build community-wide support for significant changes in our system of emergency shelter. I, for one, look forward to this process.

God’s faithfulness and our faith: A Sermon for Proper 14C, 2019

The lectionary for the season after Pentecost gives us 2 options for the first reading, the Old or First Testament lesson. One option is called semi-continuous and provides an overview of the stories and texts of the Old Testament, so that, if you came to church every Sunday every summer, over the three years you would get something of a sense of the entire testament. The other option hews more closely to the lectionary of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. In this option, texts from the Old Testament were selected for their relevance to the Gospel reading of the day. Continue reading

Puffs of wind and resurrection hope: A Sermon for Proper 13C, 2019

El Paso. 20 killed, at least 26 wounded, but perhaps more because some of the wounded may have fled the scene fearing that if they sought medical attention they would be deported.

Gilroy Garlic Festival. 3 victims killed, 12 injured. In both cases the perpetrators were white supremacists bent on ridding the US of immigrants and people of color.

Dayton, OH. If you haven’t heard the news this morning, another mass shooting late last night. 9 dead, 16 injured.

These are just the latest in a long list of mass shootings; by some estimates 249 in 2019 alone. We are numb with grief; many of us outraged, angered by the fact that common-sense measures on gun control are blocked by craven politicians beholden to the money from the NRA.

While details on the shooter in Dayton remain sketchy, we know the motives behind the tragedies in El Paso and Gilroy. The shooters were white supremacists, racists, emboldened by a society in which such views have become widespread and unchallenged in the media. Were they Muslims, the full power of law enforcement would be marshaled against them; but as we’ve seen repeatedly, too many of those who wear uniforms in police forces and military share the views, if not the willingness to act on them publicly, of the shooters.

There are no words that can offer comfort; no thoughts and prayers that can ease our mind. The shocking reality of the violence; its seemingly endless recurrence, and the racism and hate that lie behind so much of it lay bare the moral rot in our nation, just as the unwillingness of politicians to address the carnage in any meaningful way, does the same. And we also need to look inside ourselves, to interrogate our deepest emotions and most deeply-held beliefs, to ask whether deep in our hearts we too shelter some of the same hatred and fear that unchecked and stoked lead to such heinous acts.

No words… I would like to stop now for a few minutes; to allow us silently to reflect on the events of the past 24 hours and the last week, to pray for the victims, to pray for our nation, and to listen to ourselves, to our emotions….

 

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

No doubt it was overwhelming for many of you to sit in silence just now. The horrific violence, the deaths of so many, the hate that we see reflected so intensely in social media, at rallies, and in the acts of shooters as in Gilroy and El Paso. We feel impotent, angry, fearful. And we wonder, where is God in all this? We wonder too, how as Christians are we called to respond and to be faithful to our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ?

Hard questions without easy answers.

Our readings, the Psalm, the excerpts from Ecclesiastes, and the gospel all touch on death and on our legacies. From Ecclesiastes: “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?”

From the Psalm:

For we see that the wise die also;
like the dull and stupid they perish *
and leave their wealth to those who come after them.

 

The gospel reading, first a dispute over an inheritance and then the parable of the foolish rich man, who stores up all of his grain so that he can “eat, drink, and be merry.”

I wonder how many of us are like that rich fool. We lead our lives, go to work, accumulate possessions, plan for retirement; look forward to the time, be it tomorrow or ten years from now when we can relax and take it easy.

I wonder how many of us are like that rich man. Do you notice how he thinks?

He’s faced with a problem. For whatever reason, hard work? Favorable weather? He has a bountiful harvest unlike any he’s had before. What will he do with all that grain? And so he says, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

How many times in those few sentences does the word “I” appear? Here is a man blessed with abundance who thinks only of himself. What might he do with that abundance? Share it with the laborers who did all the work, even invite them to a celebration of the bountiful harvest? No, he thinks only of himself.

One could say the same thing of the writer of Ecclesiastes. In our reading, we hear the word “I” repeatedly and when he speaks of others, he speaks only of whether they deserve what he leaves behind, because who knows whether they will be wise or foolish. His response? All is vanity, literally, a puff of wind.

In fact, the rich man’s words, “eat, drink, and be merry” come from Ecclesiastes (8:15):

“So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.”

It’s advice we might like to take, especially on days like today when the news is particularly disheartening. It’s advice we might like to take, to enjoy ourselves, and ignore the suffering and injustice and all the evils in the world. We might like to close ourselves off from all of it, to claim it’s not our problem or there’s nothing we can do about it, that the occasional “thoughts and prayers” in response to radical evil and horrific violence is enough.

Now, I’m not about to disparage eating, drinking, and being merry. I’m as fond of celebrations as anyone. I love good food, fine wine, and don’t ask me how much dancing I’ve done this summer.

But all is not vanity and a puff of wind.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, who was crucified because he preached release to the captive, good news to the poor, because he challenged injustice and oppression, because he turned over the tables of money-changers and proclaimed love of enemies.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, whose life and ministry was vindicated by his resurrection—evidence to us that God is working new things in this world, defeating evil and calling us to imitate Jesus by loving our neighbors, proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captive.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, and as Paul writes in Colossians, whatever we might want for ourselves, whatever goals we might have, whoever we are, we are being remade in Christ, our selves are being transformed, made new creations, “according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

In Christ, may we be remade and renewed, that we lay aside our differences, our anger and despair. Living in the power and hope of resurrection, may we follow him in loving our enemies, proclaiming the good news, and challenging the rising tide of hate and violence that surrounds us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on a decade of shared ministry 2: Homelessness, Part 1

Among the things that attracted me to Grace Church was the presence of the men’s shelter and the possibility of re-engaging with ministry and advocacy around homelessness. Back in the 1980s when I was studying for the MDiv, I did my field education at First Baptist Church of Boston (this was long before I became Episcopalian). Part of my work there was to help the congregation think about how it might engage the growing homeless population in Boston’s Back Bay and to make connections with other churches and social service agencies who were responding to people experiencing homelessness. As my journey took me away from ministry and toward academics, and as we moved away from urban Boston, those experiences faded into the background and I was interested in seeing how things had changed in the 25 years that had passed since my time at First Baptist.

A couple of months after arriving at Grace and after learning about policies and procedures at the shelter and beginning to explore the larger context of homelessness, service providers, and advocacy in Madison, I made a phone call to an old friend back in Boston. Jim had been a classmate of mine at Harvard Divinity School and with another classmate had founded a shelter in the basement of a Harvard Square church while students. 25 years later, he was still running a shelter, this one in another church on the other side of Cambridge Common. I described to him what I had learned and said that it seemed like Madison was in a time-warp, that service providers, government, and advocates were doing and saying the sorts of things that we saw in Boston in the early 80s. Jim confirmed my suspicions and shared with me what he was doing in the shelter he operated and what a more humane system, focused on the dignity and improving the lives of the guests might look like.

In February 2010, 6 months after I arrived at Grace, an article describing conditions in the shelter at Grace was published in Isthmus.It unleashed a storm of controversy at Grace and among supporters and staff of Porchlight and homeless advocates. It caught the eye of people at Epic Software and eventually Epic funded a long-overdue and much-needed renovation of the facility.  They upgraded the kitchen, showers, repainted, replaced the flooring, provided new bunks and storage lockers. It was an transformation.

What it couldn’t was solve the underlying problems of the shelter space. It was and remains a church basement. It is minimally accessible for disabled people (a jerry-rigged system allows access via wheelchair). It isn’t large enough to accommodate the number of men seeking shelter there, so every night, a group walk from there several blocks to St. John’s Lutheran Church on E. Washington Ave., where they sleep on mats on the floor. In the winter, First Methodist Church also serves as an overflow shelter on weeknights. All guests pass through Grace for intake and the evening meal, returning for breakfast as well. When the doors of the shelter open in the evening, the men line up in Grace’s courtyard, where they wait unprotected from the weather.

The shelter came to Grace in the early 1980s on a one-year, temporary basis and has remained there because of complacency and the difficulty of developing alternative solutions. Over the years of my ministry, I have struggled with my own and Grace’s role in all of this. I have made mistakes as I seek to advocate for improved facilities while supporting the important work that takes place here. I have been the target of neighbors’ and community members’ ire because of the presence of the shelter at Grace and also the target of advocates’ anger and criticism because of the conditions in the shelter and the treatment of its guests by Porchlight staff.

But what has been most heartbreaking for me are the memories of the tragedies. One Christmas Eve early on in my ministry, I came out of the early service to find churchgoers standing around a homeless man who had been dropped off from a hospital stay. He was immobile, having seizures on the sidewalk. Shelter staff refused to help because he wasn’t ambulatory. We called 911 and when the ambulance and police came, they told us that while they would take him to the ER, it was very likely he would be brought back here that night.

Then there was the Polar Vortex of 2014, when a man died on the steps of Grace’s tower entry. He had come in to the shelter in -20 temperatures, and with a companion was walking over to one of the overflow shelters. He collapsed and died of heart failure. His death was a tragedy, but it also should have demonstrated to everyone the inadequacy of a system in which necessary and permanent shelters were labeled “overflow.”

You can read all of my blog posts on homelessness by clicking here. They are in reverse chronological order. If you’re interested in how my views have changed (if they have changed, you should start at the very beginning). I will continue my reflections on the last ten years in later posts, including the long struggle for a day resource center and what the future may hold.

Reflecting on a decade of shared ministry 1

As I approach the tenth anniversary of my shared ministry with and at Grace Episcopal Church, I am amazed by what we have accomplished and by how much I have changed and learned over the years. I remember the fear and excitement I felt when I walked through the doors of Grace for the first time as its rector. I remember the challenges we faced, all of the uncertainty, all of the rebuilding of trust that needed to take place in the wake of the previous years’ trauma and conflict. I remember also those leaders who are no longer there, who have moved or passed on to the larger life, such as Sally Phelps who was Senior Warden for the first months of my tenure.

I like to tell people this. When I was working through the ordination process in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina from 2002-2005, if someone had asked me about my dream job, I would have replied, “a downtown historic church with an active homeless ministry in a city with a major university.” On August 1, 2009 I began working in my dream job. Ten years later, it still is. There are constantly new challenges, new people to meet, new opportunities for learning, new opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Days like today remind me of that.

It began with a meeting of the Community Advisory Team of the Beacon, the Day Resource Center operated by Catholic Charities. The effort to site and operate such a facility was a focus of my work for a couple of years as the lack of such a facility put enormous stress on downtown churches and put the lives of people experiencing homelessness at risk. At some point, I finally gave up as it seemed such a facility would never materialize, and then out of the blue, the miracle happened. A site was located, Catholic Charities received the contract to operate it, and now, nearly two years after it opened, it is seeing an average of over 200 guests a day. Supporting it, even if only by attending quarterly meetings of this group, is a blessing. Hearing about its successes and helping in some small to address challenges is incredibly rewarding.

In the office later, as I was working through the email accumulated over the weekend, I received a phone call from my friend and colleague, the chaplain at Capitol Lakes, who requested I come to administer last rites to an Episcopal resident. I walked the two blocks, administered the rite, and returned to the office and to that email inbox that had continued to grow.

Lunch was a lovely conversation with my downtown (Protestant) clergy colleagues. When I arrived in 2009, while I was warmly welcomed by my Episcopal colleagues, I had no contact with my neighbor clergy, except that I initiated. I resolved that I would reach out when new clergy came. Now, I’m the veteran. Of the other three at the table, one is in his fourth year; one started just a few weeks ago. In addition to the simple joy of getting to know each and spending some time together, we talked about the issues that we all share, most significantly, the challenges of ministry with and among people experiencing homelessness.

I’m writing this from a coffee shop on Monroe St., where I am holding open office hours on Tuesday afternoons throughout the summer. One of the emails I sent earlier in the day was to the chair of the Personnel Committee to let her know that I would be working on staff ministry reviews if I was undisturbed by visitors. Fortunately, for that task, I was able to finish the ones I was working on. By the way, the office hours experiment has been a success. Not only have I had visitors and conversations I would not otherwise have had, last week the presence of two newcomers to Madison and Grace, both recently retired, was an opportunity for them to connect with each other as well as with me. And in between visits, I’ve been able to get a lot of work done without the distractions of the office.

One of the things I did before beginning this post was to go back to my blog archives from 2009. I was curious whether I wrote much about the beginning of my ministry. The answer is no, except for in my sermons. The transition to full-time parish ministry wasn’t particularly difficult. What was challenging and unexpected was simply the level of administrative detail, the constant new challenges of ministry in an urban environment. Nothing could have prepared me for that or for the ways in which those challenges, and the changing city itself would affect my ministry.

In some essays over the next few weeks, I hope to reflect on some of the themes I detect in my and Grace’s shared ministry over the last decade: homelessness, our relationship with the political life of city, state, and nation, racism, and the transformation of American Christianity. All of these are themes I’ve preached and written about over the years, but I think it would be helpful for myself and others to reflect on them in light of our past experience as we think about the future.

The last ten years have been exciting and challenging. They have been difficult at times, and there were periods where we weren’t certain that Grace and I were a good fit. I have caused pain to others and have suffered some pain as well. But through it all I have sensed God’s presence in my life and in our common life, ministries, and outreach. We have sought to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, to be his body in this place, and to be a place of healing, hope and witness to Christ’s redemptive love. I pray that we continue to do all of this in the years to come, with God’s help.

Lord, Teach us to pray: A Sermon for Proper 12C, 2019

“Lord, teach us to pray.” Over the years, I have had lots of conversations with people about prayer. Even people who have deep and intense prayer lives often struggle with prayer and seek to become more prayerful. Many others, like myself, feel wholly inadequate in our prayer lives. We struggle to find language to address God, we struggle to be authentic before God; we struggle as we seek to listen to God. It should come as no surprise that I struggle with prayer. One of the first courses I had in Divinity School was “Constructing the Concept of God.” I quickly learned that it was difficult to pray to a concept I had constructed. Continue reading