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.

Faithful Development: Stewardship of property for mission during a real estate boom.

News broke this week that Governor Evers’ proposed capital budget includes funds for a new state historical museum. There is a proposal on the table to redevelop much of the block on which Grace Church is located with a new museum as the anchor tenant. We’ve been in occasional conversation with the developers for almost five years, most recently before the election last fall. At that time, we were told that the project’s future would be determined after the election and its fate might depend on the election’s outcome. That Governor Evers has included it in his capital budget is one more step in a long process. Currently, construction is anticipated to begin in the Fall of 2021 with completion in 2023.

It’s not at all clear whether or how Grace Church might participate in this major development. Early on, it was thought that part of our property might be needed in order to assure adequate parking for the project but as plans have changed, that seems less likely. At the same time, our west wing which currently houses our homeless shelter and food pantry, is underutilized and may be ripe for development.

When I first learned of the proposed redevelopment of our block, I was excited because I saw the possibility of our participation in such development to be a way of securing long-term financial viability for Grace Church and its ministries in the midst of our rapidly changing culture and the decline of mainline Christianity in the US.

During my tenure at Grace, I have become increasingly interested in issues of urban planning, development, sustainability, and how Christian theology and Christian churches intersect with those issues. I spent my sabbatical in 2016 reading widely from Jane Jacobs to Richard Sennett to those few theologians who are thinking about such questions. I also visited cities from Richmond to Boston, as well as Seattle and Portland, to explore how congregations in urban settings were thinking about their property and using it to connect with their neighborhoods.

Recently, I have begun to see that questions of real estate development are not just about financial sustainability, more importantly they are questions that have at their heart theological and ethical dimensions. One reason for this is that this redevelopment is occurring in a city that is among the most segregated in the nation, in which racial inequities are among the highest in the nation. At the same time, our real estate boom is not creating affordable housing.

When I met with the mayor last April about the desperate need for a new men’s shelter, purpose-built and adequate to the needs of our community, he immediately turned the conversation to possible uses for a new development on our property. In a conversation with another elected official, I was asked what I thought the city of Madison’s core value was. My reply came immediately, “real estate development.”

I came across a book that will be published next week: Samuel Stein’s Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State.

the growing centrality of urban real estate to capital’s global growth strategy. Through this process, the price of land becomes a central economic determinate and a dominant political issue. The clunky term “gentrification” becomes a household word and displacement an everyday fact of life. Housing becomes a globally traded financial asset, creating the conditions for synchronized bubbles and crashes. Government, particularly at the municipal level, becomes increasingly obsessed with raising property values and redistributing wealth upward through land and rents. Real estate developer Donald Trump becomes first a celebrity and ultimately a president. Taken together, we witness the rise of the real estate state, a political formation in which real estate capital has inordinate influence over the shape of our cities, the parameters of our politics and the lives we lead.

You can read an excerpt of the book here:

From what little I’ve read, Stein seems to be describing the situation in Madison well.

As property owners, churches participate in this “real estate state.” Diana Butler Bass points out that in many cities, the cumulative property owned by churches and religious organizations is significant, making them among the largest nonprofit landowners. As Christianity declines and demographic shifts take place, churches in urban cores are often seen more as financial assets than as ministry opportunities. Across the country we have seen numerous sales, property developments and the like, often with significant financial windfalls for congregations and denominations. We saw this happen here in Madison with the redevelopment of the St. Francis House Episcopal Campus Ministry. A private student housing development on a portion of the land funds not only UW Madison’s campus ministry, but also supports diocesan campus ministry elsewhere. And yes, I was actively involved in that project.

When Willie James Jennings spoke in Madison recently, he emphasized the importance of place for Christian theology, especially given the ways that our theology has not seen itself as grounded in local and spacial contexts. At one point he said, “planning and zoning meetings are the most important meetings for determining the futures of our communities. Churches and Christians should be present and engaged at these meetings.”

Our churches, especially older churches constructed in traditional religious architectural styles, are increasingly witnesses to an alternative to the glass-clad buildings of contemporary cities. While they are symbols of the sacred and gathering places for the faithful, their very presence in the heart of cities bear witness to an alternative to the neo-liberal, capitalist, and consumerist culture in which we live. When we sell our property, or redevelop it in order to maximize profit, we succumb to the idolatry of the market and abandon our allegiance to the Christ who died as a victim of the imperial system of domination.

Our churches are not only pieces of property, they are outposts of the reign of God. They should model the community and world Jesus proclaimed and that God is bringing forth. In our stewardship of our property, our primary concerns should be to create community, to support and nurture the flourishing of the residents of our neighborhoods. My hope is that as redevelopment plans for our block move forward, Grace Church can be an advocate for a project that values justice, diversity, and a vibrant neighborhood where all residents can flourish, as well as profit.

Being a community of resurrection in an age of fear: Reflections on an Active Shooter Training at Grace Episcopal Church, the Second Sunday after Easter, 2018.

On Sunday afternoon, we had an Active Shooter Training led by members of the Madison Police Department. It took several months to coordinate our calendars, so it was sheer coincidence that it occurred on the Sunday when the gospel reading began, “…the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” (John 20:19) but the contrast between the content of the afternoon’s presentation and the gospel text couldn’t have been more extreme.

To be honest, I was quite uncomfortable with the whole idea. When I heard other clergy discussing such trainings last fall in the aftermath of the Texas mass shooting, I was surprised, shocked, and saddened. I wondered why anyone would do such a thing. Not only do weapons not belong in houses of worship, but as people of peace and love, to discuss what might happen and how to respond to a mass shooting seemed inappropriate, even unfaithful to God and to the witness we are called to be in the world.

But as I continued mulling it over, and as the mass shootings continued to occur, it seemed more and more important that we think the unthinkable. Given our prominent location opposite the State Capitol, the possibility that we might be a random target of such an event is hardly unthinkable.

With a food pantry and men’s homeless shelter on site, in the center of Madison’s downtown, Grace staff and volunteers deal regularly with difficult situations during the week and on Sundays.  It’s easy to imagine someone experiencing substance abuse or mental illness might suddenly pull out a weapon in a confrontation. And as mass shootings have become more commonplace, it seemed to me an unfortunate necessity in contemporary life, especially for churches, the sort of training we need to provide for staff and volunteers.

My uneasy feeling going into the training was deepened when the instructor started out by talking about the importance of visualizing such events in daily life. He suggested that when we enter a restaurant, we should locate emergency exits and escape routes. It struck me then that doing so would require that I reorient my perspective on the world, that I look at my environment as fraught with peril at every turn. I had a visceral, overly negative reaction to that suggestion. To walk through the world with my senses focused on danger seems not only an overreaction to the possibility of catastrophe but would also rewire my brain to avoid risk or new experiences.

As the afternoon progressed, I continued to struggle with the training and with my response to the content that was being presented. There were some useful tips, or, should I say, some helpful suggestions on how to prepare for the possibility of an active shooter. Addressing our likely responses in such situations (duck and cover, run away, or run toward gun shots) and helping us strategize better, more effective responses was really quite helpful. The afternoon also included some first aid tips and self-defense.

I came away from the afternoon feeling like we had made the right decision in offering the training. To have even a few staff members and volunteers who might have learned some things that could help in emergency situations is an important step.. But at the same time, I was both angry and disheartened that such training is increasingly a necessity in our culture. We require volunteers and staff to participate in sexual abuse and sexual harassment training, and if our political culture doesn’t change, it’s likely that active shooter trainings will become commonplace for communities of faith.

But at what cost? Will the message of fear and preparedness inoculate us against the gospel of love and peace? Bible verses ran through my head throughout the afternoon: “Perfect love casts out fear;” “Be wise as serpent and gentle as doves;” “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” What is the appropriate stance for followers of Jesus in our climate of fear and our violent culture?

 

In a way, to prepare for the unthinkable, as our instructor called it, is just further down the continuum from our usual preparedness. We balance our openness to the community with a need to provide safe space and security for our members and visitors. Our doors may be open on Sundays to all, but we have policies and procedures in place to address difficult situations and challenging behaviors. I’ve had to call the police more than once to deal with a disruptive situation. At the same time, we try to welcome anyone who does walk through our doors, offering them respite, whatever food we might have available, a friendly smile or conversation.

To be prepared, but not fearful, aware but not anxious, welcoming, open, and watchful. Perhaps this is the appropriate perspective to maintain when we don’t know whether the next active shooter event will occur inside, or outside of our doors.

 

Walking the Stations of the Cross in Downtown Madison, April 7, 2017

At the entrance of the Dane County Jail

This is the fourth (I think) year we’ve walked the Stations of the Cross in Downtown Madison. It’s a strange, uncomfortable experience in that for me, I’m walking streets I walk nearly every day as I go to and from work or grab lunch or run errands. This year, as in past years, I encountered familiar faces as I walked, among them two elected officials of county and city government.

This year, in addition to the usual distractions of city traffic and people going about their business, we had to compete with construction on Capitol Square and with the Solidarity Singers, who seemed to be a larger group than they had been in recent weeks.

To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to today’s event. For whatever reason, my spiritual focus has been elsewhere, and my energy diverted to other matters. If it hadn’t concluded at Grace, I doubt whether I would have participated.

I was surprised how quickly I was caught up in the experience. It wasn’t just the familiar stations, and the meditations that connected Jesus’ suffering with the suffering on the streets of Madison. It was also about making Christ’s suffering present on these streets, at the door of the Dane County Jail, opposite the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum, and at the steps of Grace where a homeless person died in the winter of 2014, and where so many homeless people have sought refuge over the last thirty years, and hungry people have been fed.

We do so much to protect ourselves from the knowledge and experience of human suffering on the streets of our city. The homeless and panhandlers are harassed and shoved out of sight. The inhumanity of the Dane County Jail is at its worst several stories above the room in the City County building where Madison’s Common Council and the Dane County Board of Supervisors deliberate.

To walk the way of the cross in Downtown Madison is to bear witness to the blood on our streets and in our city. It is also to see in that suffering and pain, the suffering and pain of Jesus Christ.

Today I realized that our little Stations of the Cross, walked as we’ve done it every year on the Friday before Palm Sunday, has become an essential part of my preparation for the drama of Holy Week.

 

For background on the devotion of the Stations of the Cross and how we do it here in Madison, follow this link.

One in Christ, Sent in Christ: A Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter, 2015

Tuesday was a busy, emotional, and exhausting day. It began with a web conference with architects, members of the construction management committee and master plan steering committee, contractors, and subcontractors. In the middle of a three-hour conversation, I stepped out for another meeting. Then I met with representatives from 100 State, a think tank, business incubator that helps individuals and organizations brainstorm. I’m hoping to involve them in our process of imagining our ministry and mission at Grace in our newly-renovated spaces and in our neighborhood. Continue reading

Homelessness in Madison–The Future of Occupy Madison

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about homelessness. Two statistics, one is somewhat anecdotal, the other backed up by a survey. First, Porchlight reports that they saw higher numbers in the men’s shelter this winter than ever before. There were more than 150 guests many nights, which meant men sleeping on the floors of the overflow shelters, with nothing but a blanket. This, in spite of the fact that we had one of the mildest winters on record.

In addition, the current vacancy rate for rentals in Dane County is around 2%, down from 6% in 2006. Why are there homeless people? For one reason, there’s nowhere for them to go. The recession has seen a drop in home ownership, foreclosures, and the like. People who once owned homes or in a better economy might be purchasing one, are renting, putting pressure on the rental market, which means landlords can raise rents.

But there’s been an interesting development. In spite of the huge numbers of people in shelters, and the large numbers being turned away, Occupy Madison, which has been present on a vacant property on East Washington Avenue for the last six months, has become a center for homeless activism and empowerment. They approached the city about finding a new site for their tent city; testified before City Council, and have raised the issue of homelessness in a new way in this city. We’ll see what happens.

The mainstream media’s coverage can be followed here. Pat Schneider’s blog post is here.

Brenda Konkel has been following the story closely, and has offered insight into the mayor’s and alders’ perspectives. She reports on the testimony of Occupy Madison participants before the Common Council as well as other material.

The reality is that the issue is much larger than any one thing. People become homeless for all kinds of reasons–unemployment, substance abuse, family situations, crime, medical conditions–and helping people to regain stability requires intensive support from many sources and directions. The men’s Drop-In Shelter is just that, a temporary place to stay for men who are on the streets. It’s not transitional housing; it can’t provide the intensive services necessary to help men find solutions to their situations.

Just in the last couple of weeks, I’ve talked to guys who came to the shelter directly from prison, from hospitals, or because their family situation had deteriorated to such a degree that the street was a better place for them. Some of them were working, at least part time, some of them were in school; all of them wanted a little help to get them out of their immediate situation into something better. I have also heard time and again, from various sources, that one of the problems of the drop-in shelter is that it doesn’t provide the kind of community necessary to help people get out of their situations.

I’ve not visited the current site of Occupy Madison (I did when they were located closer to the square, earlier last Fall). But from the testimony to Common Council, it sounds like what has developed there is something of a community, a network of support that can sustain people in their current situation. The city, and social service providers, should find ways to support this community and help it thrive.

An interesting week

I saw a side, or sides, of Madison that I hadn’t yet encountered. Wednesday night was the Porchlight Inc annual dinner and awards presentation. Grace Church was very well represented to support our own Russ Boushele who received one of the achievement awards. We met some people, who were often introduced to us, or introduced themselves to us, as former members of Grace. It was a wonderful opportunity to make some connections with people, from across the spectrum. There were people who volunteer at the shelter who made a point of introducing themselves to us.

Thursday night was another banquet, this time Downtown Madison, Incs, annual affair. I went as a guest of Home Savings Bank, our neighbor across W. Washington, and where we do our banking, both as a church and personally. I had a great time getting to know some people and the presentation by the head of Portland, OR’s metro council was very interesting. He focused on the relationship between transportation and urban planning. It reminded me of how very different life is for us here than it was in Greenville. We only have one car, and there are usually several days in the week when it doesn’t leave the garage. Living and working downtown has made an enormous difference in our lives. We have gotten to know other downtown residents as well as people who work and own businesses on Capitol Square. It’s a neighborhood in ways the subdivision we lived in was not.

Friday night, we went to the Symphony concert, thanks to tickets passed on to us by friends. It was great fun, and something of a surprise. We had heard the Nashville Symphony, Spartanburg, and never made it to Greenville’s because, well, we didn’t think it would be worth the trouble. But Madison’s orchestra is quite good and they played a couple of interesting pieces (on the other hand, the concert opened with “The Fountains of Rome”). Afterwards, we went to the cafe on the top floor of the Art Museum for snacks and drinks, and again were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food.

We recognized a few people at all three events, and again, had interesting conversations with random people we met. A vibrant downtown is a wonderful thing, and I keep wondering how we might make Grace an integral part of that vibrant scene, not just scenery that people walk past.