This past weekend brought home to me how very different our life feels up here. Apparently in Shoreline, when the law says that fireworks are illegal in the city, people for the most part comply. The night was a far cry from the Kenwood war zone we encountered during our first Fourth of July in L.A. I remember that first year actually being frightened when Doug went out on our little front porch, and begging him to come back inside. I remember not being able to see the apartment building across the street due to the wall of smoke.
This year, Doug and I packed up the kids and made the very long journey to 178th (we live on 180th) to spend the weekend at my parents’ house. We grilled and played in the yard and took a little day trip to Puyallup to see my cousin and her family. Mercy really wanted to see fireworks, so she and I and my dad drove down into Edmonds and sat perched on a bench next to the beach and watched the city show held in a stadium nearby. Aaron is terrified of fireworks so he opted to stay home and cuddle up with On-Demand TV and his grammy.
As we walked along the beach, we passed a quinceniera that was being held in a beachfront community center. Mercy stopped in her tracks and gazed at the dresses and hats and the sheer volume of brown skin that has already become foreign. The bounce of the music was familiar to her and it made her smile. “Mercy, that was the music you went to sleep to for many, many nights,” I told her, smiling as well. This was a serious quinceniera too. There was a tour bus parked outside of the center and a fleet of very fancy cars in the parking lot.
Mercy still asks me a lot of questions about Los Angeles. It’s almost like she wants to make sure that she keeps a hold of her memories. I think we all miss it more than we know how to say.
One of the Servant Partners interns we had the pleasure of getting to know down in L.A. was a young man named Scott (or Scott Intern as we called him). I just caught this video tonight that shares a bit about his life with our community in South L.A. The video was made by a film crew from Urbana who came out and spent some time in our community filming Scott and his life. I was preaching the Sunday that they were there filming.
The following post was written last year, the Sunday before Martin Luther King day. I thought I would re-post it here today, as I sit in a very different living room in a very different city…
Last night Doug was working on planning the worship service for today while I finished cleaning up the day’s play in the living room when suddenly our apartment was filled with the sound of a helicopter circling overhead. Our living room was shaking, we could hardly hear each other speak, and I went to the front window to see where they were searching. I couldn’t see the helicopter or the light until I was bathed in it.
“What are they looking at?” Doug asked.
“Us.” I answered.
The helicopter continued to hover over our apartment, and the light was shining through our windows when all of a sudden I heard people running right below the window I was looking out, down our driveway to the back of our house. They were shouting and swearing and running very fast. Moments later I could see guys on foot behind them with flashlights: “Drop the gun!” I heard someone screaming, and I realized our apartment was now surrounded by police. I hit the ground, and yelled at Doug to do the same.
“They’re right outside our windows!” I shouted. I crawled closer to Doug and we sat there, huddled in the middle of the living room floor, paralyzed. “Did you lock the back door?” Doug asked me. I had just been finishing laundry and was sure that I had. Our third barrier, a kitchen door that locks between the kitchen and dining room, was open and I told Doug to go and lock it. And then we sat, holding hands, on our floor. I started to cry.
I don’t know how long we sat there. Eventually we could hear mostly police radios and the voices of officers, and we could see their flashlights sweeping all parts of our property. Deciding that the danger had passed, we looked out the front window and saw that they did have a guy in cuffs up against the cruiser, and there were officers walking up and down our driveway, and searching our front and back yards. They took the guy to a different cruiser, and there was a call over the radio and someone said something about “around the corner” and everyone took off.
Maybe fifteen minutes later, there was knocking on our door, and we went, together, to talk to the officer at our door. He wanted to know what we had seen and heard, and he informed us that they had been chasing a gang member with a gun. They had been able to apprehend the guy and it turned out he had dumped the gun around the corner from our house on Raymond.
When he was questioning us, he asked how long we had lived in this apartment. “Six years,” I answered. “Ever had any problems?” he asked? Doug and I both just stood there, looking at him: “Um…yeah. Lots.” I said, wondering if he was ignorant or checking to see if I was. “I mean, here on your property specifically,” he clarified.” “No, not right here.” I answered. He told us he might have to get back in touch later, we thanked him and said goodnight. At some point during our exchange, our landlord drove up into the driveway and stopped when he saw us in the doorway with an officer. He got out of his car to find out what was going on, and I felt better knowing that he was home.
We went back inside and Doug resumed work on his powerpoint and I finished cleaning, but with a distinct heaviness in both our spirits. It was hard to go to bed last night: that tension between wanting to listen for every sound and wanting to stop hearing noise outside long enough at least to fall asleep. Lots of sirens continued throughout the night, and I dreaded my middle of the night feeding with Elijah that would put me out in the living room alone.
Today we are honoring the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. in our worship service. I am at home with the kids, all of us sick, while Doug is there leading. Before all of this happened last night he had asked me: “what should I do for my invocation?” I am wondering what he chose to say to invite our community to enter God’s presence this morning. The words that haven’t left my brain this morning are the title to one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s books: “Why We Can’t Wait”, a theme so poignantly addressed by King in his famous Letter From the Birmingham Jail.
As I think about Doug and me last night, overwhelmed and overcome by fear of gunfire outside our windows, I think of those words: why we can’t wait. As I think of the young man, armed, running through the streets, I think of those words: why we can’t wait. As I think of my kids, sleeping gently in their bedroom while police officers scurry beneath their windows, I think of those words: why we can’t wait. As I think of our church, a church in and for this community, gathered in Jesus name a few blocks from here this morning, I think of those words: why we can’t wait.
In a recent post, David Fitch tackles head-on the issue of why the Missional and Emerging Church movements are so white. I resonated with some of his experiences and observations and thought I would share a few of my stories as well:
I remember being at a justice and compassion conference hosted by my denomination a few years ago, and one speaker shared a series of thoughts about “living simply” or choosing to have less materially for the sake of mission and discipleship. After he had spoken, the mostly white audience nodded approvingly, but a pastor of an inner city church that has significant impact on its urban community stood up. “It’s one thing for all of you to get up here and talk about what you should give up, what nice car you shouldn’t drive, what vacation you should forgo. It’s one thing for you to say this; you’ve had your chance to have these things. My people are still climbing to get to that point. So it’s one thing for you to say that we should give those things up. It’s one thing for you because you’ve had them. We are just now getting that same chance.”
I remember a few people around me cringing at his words; judging him for what seemed like a selfish, stuff-loving orientation. I felt differently that day, though I struggled to assess why.
More recently, within our church community in L.A., there were places where I felt judgment run strong between ethnic groups in the area of money and how it was spent. Our church had some of the most generous, committed givers I have ever known. Many of these people came from families that had money and they themselves made really good money–and they gave a ton of it away. They were committed to supporting the ministry of the church and they valued living without certain things they could afford for the sake of being generous among others. That said, they were also the folks with high-paying careers or home-ownership or investments or whatever that, while not necessarily affecting their daily finances certainly existed as a backdrop of wealth to their simple lifestyles.
Others in the church who came from immigrant backgrounds were certainly inclined toward building wealth that their family had never had; providing for their kids what they had lived without. These were individuals not unfamiliar with hunger, limited opportunities in terms of education, and rarely home ownership. It was more common to see the latest electronics gadget or bigger TV in their homes, while the “simple living” folks had hand-me-downs.
But again, retirement accounts, college funds, families with money, and a home, not to mention career/education assets that could be applied toward earning more money, change the overall picture of those choices a bit.
Doug and I were the “poor folk” among our peer group. We made choices to pursue school and have babies (well, we didn’t always make those choices, but the Lord blessed us) and commit our energies to our community as lay pastors. Our poverty was, in essence, a chosen one, and that made it a bit easier for me to live among peers who were buying and remodeling homes and eating well and, again, giving away A LOT of what they had. But there were times, if I am honest, where I would hear the discussion about simplicity among these peers and know full well that they had not lived on flour and water crepes filled with peanut butter because that was the best they could do. They had the choice about when and how they would go without something; within the broader scope of our “choice”, we did not enjoy that same freedom.
That said, Doug and I were always in the center of people who would not hesitate to give us a financial gift when we were met with two three-hundred dollar deductibles from my hospital stays associated with Mercy’s birth; or help us buy a minivan when we ended up with three little ones with not-so-little carseats that exceeded the capabilities of our Altima’s back seat; or send us a check from afar to cover a car repair that was necessary but totally beyond our means. I am aware that being white and educated and connected makes my “urgent difficulties” or challenges look soft compared to those of so many of our neighbors there.
I recall too Eugene Cho’s reflection on some amount of hesitancy he felt toward “Buy Nothing Day” as a response to the hyper-consumption of Black Friday:
Why my reservations? I’m still moved by a conversation I had with a friend couple years ago that challenged my support for Buy Nothing Day. This friend who is African-American said some interesting stuff [paraphrasing]:
Buy Nothing Day is basically a thing of and for White folks and comfy Middle Class folks who have had the privilege of consumption their whole life. And now, they can afford to start things like Buy Nothing Day. True, it speaks to the issue of overconsumption but how much of it is to appease their guilty consciences. I’m also very skeptical and cynical of Christians who’ve jumped on this bandwagon – the “enlightened evangelicals” who also come from a place of privilege. Stuff like this sickens me because it has completely no idea about the plight of minorities and low income folks that are trying to survive.
The thing that got to me was the story he shared about some of his family and friends who simply NEED to make many of their major purchases on that day. Specifically, he shared about his uncle and aunt. They get in line every year in the frigid cold here hours before the retail store opens at 5 or 6 am because it’s the only way they’re able to get their kids the necessary tech gear to keep up.
I’m not dismissing the cause behind Buy Nothing Day. We need to address this because us Westerners and particularly, Americans [including me] are just gluttonous.
But let’s be real here…Black Friday shopping mean different things for different folks. For many of us, it’s a game, a sport and an event we mark but for others, it’s a matter of necessity. This is why I have reservations about Buy Nothing Day. Perhaps, the majority of us should sincerely adopt Buy Nothing Day and let those who truly need the “doorbusters” be the first in line – for a change.
One final thought: in terms of Fitch’s observations. He speaks of “living beneath one’s means” as a high value for many in self-identified Missional/Emerging groups, and when I think back to so many individuals and families I have known over the years I think of single mothers working one or two or three jobs to support not just her kids but her sisters kids; I think of households made up of generations; and I think of the way those individuals would, without any hesitation take in another mouth to feed or another child to raise. This was a different sort of “living below their means” that considered their wealth and property to belong to a much broader community of individuals than I can ever remember seeing among any of my white peers.
So, I don’t have all the answers as to what is right or faithful or how we can all be in this together. I appreciate David’s discussion and would love to hear more.
I read with interest Dan Kimball’s recent post on Christianity Today’s Out of Ur blog where he posed some questions about whether or not “missional” churches are churches that bear fruit in terms of effectively making disciples. He points to larger “attractional” churches (Willow Creek, for example) whose buildings and impressive gatherings seem to, in his estimation, hold great appeal for many and therefore be more effective in the fruit-bearing department.
A few things came to mind as I read this. I remember taking a van-load of neighborhood kids to attend a worship service at Willow Creek when I was living and ministering in Chicago. They were totally awed by the buildings, the food court, the size, the scope, the big screens that descended from the ceiling, the way the blinds automatically lowered during the service to block out the setting sun. They were engaged, on every level, with the singing, the video clips, and the music. And I can remember so well their reaction when they saw the budget update printed in the bulletin: “Just the amount that they are over budget this week could pay for our program for ten years!”
My kids wanted to go back every week. They loved it. Yes, it ministered to them; it appealed to them. It was impressive and exciting and cool. But would driving there for an hour each-way every week really translate into transformation for them and for their community? As their schools crumbled; as parents abandoned and abused; as gangs walked up to parked cars and opened fire, what difference would video screens and food courts really make? I don’t say that to disparage Willow. I have dear friends involved there, and have no judgment to make about their effectiveness in what they do. But for my kids, an “attractional” church divorced from their community made no sense.
Fast forward to Los Angeles, ten years later. A homeless couple, living in a city park, comes into the park’s rec center one Sunday morning. The hot coffee tasted good after a cold night on the ground, and the people were warm and friendly. Free coffee soon turned into relationships which led to some financial help with first and last month’s rent to get into an apartment. This eventually led to work and sobriety and counseling. And casual Sunday friendships turned into family.
I wrote this about one of these dear friends two years ago, and to this day this memory makes me cry:
I don’t believe Willow should close their doors, nor do I think Church of the Redeemer’s slower growth is any strike against us through kingdom eyes. A widow’s penny was deemed a vast treasure by Jesus, so I am certain that we just can’t look at branches and fruit and harvest the way we do the stock market. The balance sheet can be very confusing…
As we prepare to leave here in a few weeks, my head and heart feel full of thought and sentiment around what we will so deeply miss about our life here. I thought I would share a bit of those things here…
Last night, I sat for a few minutes on our little front porch, appreciating the range of Christmas lights along our street that still feel funny to me in the midst of palm trees and hot-weather days. Doug and I have talked repeatedly about how we will miss the density of our street: the proximity of buildings, the crowding of people, the intimacy if you will of life on Kenwood. While this density can be annoying when trying to find a place to park on the street, it offers something vibrant and honest to the day-to-day.
On Kenwood, there is not a lot of hiding that can take place: people for the most part are seen and known and heard by one another, both when that is desirable and when it is not. That’s where the honesty part comes in. When I yell at my kids? The neighbors hear me. When we sit on our porch at night to enjoy a scotch or a glass of wine? Our time is punctuated with hello’s and waves as life crawls on beneath us. When Aaron runs out to greet his Auntie in his underwear? Everyone knows that I’m that mom who can’t keep three children consistently dressed.
Then there is the proximity of our landlord who lives beneath us. Recently retired from teaching high school, Paul is home a lot and he is often an hourly part of our every-day. He raises animals in the area behind our house, and I told someone last week that I never bothered getting a Zoo membership here in L.A.: if you came to our backyard, you would understand why. My kids have held and fed these animals; they have seen their eggs, held their newborns. Paul has been like a really cool Uncle to them, and it’s hard to imagine living in a house with no one else sharing the space. My kids are not allowed to jump off things in our apartment because it is “like elephants on Paul’s head”. While I look forward to seeing my kids jump freely in their space, it actually feels like more loss than gain in some ways.
The other piece of proximity that feels so significant is that on our street alone, there are five church families. I am not embarrassed to say that on more than one occasion I have pulled into my driveway with some impossible scenario of more babies sleeping than arms on my body, and I have called Elliot or Lauren or Arthur to come over and help me sherpa my family up the stairs. One of the joys of playing out front on the sidewalk in the late afternoon is welcoming everyone home from work. As our friends all park and get out of their cars after long work days, they will come over, set down their bags and say hello, run a few races with the big kids or chase Elijah down the driveway. Our play-space is a public walkway, and while that can cause me to tear my hair out on some days (especially now that Elijah is on a daily death wish about running into the street), it is also a very practical way we share our lives with our church family.
Yesterday I stood in front of our church family and tried to speak through my sobs as I announced that our family would be moving at the end of this month. Doug and I have accepted calls to serve my home church in Shoreline, Washington and we begin there on January first of the coming year. This decision was slow and in many ways brutal to make: we do not want to leave our life here. But we also recognize the need for a pretty major shift in how our family functions so that Doug can be freed up to finish his MDiv in the next three years, and the job opportunities in Seattle provide that for us in the midst of a wonderful faith community we know and love.
I could write volumes here about this decision. We are leaving people and a place we dearly love and nothing about that is easy. And it is painful to us when the well-intentioned say things about being happy or glad for us because we will be “getting out” of our community here.
I wish that I could somehow do justice in describing the beauty and overwhelming joy we have known here in this place. While I do not wish to glamorize our life here in any way (and certainly my writing here has been honest about the struggles and pains), I am saddened by the very quick conclusion that life among the poor is one to be despised, avoided, or shunned. Over the years, people have been quick to challenge our decision to be here on account of our responsibility to our children, and yet we have found the opposite inclination in our own hearts: we are currently mourning for our kids the things they, and we, will soon leave behind.
I am reminded of Doug’s response a few years back to a Fuller student asking us about raising our kids in South Central. Doug spoke for us both when he answered that they are the first thing to cause us to want to leave. But they are also the thing that makes us stay. In Doug’s words, “I want my kids to grow up not thinking twice about giving away a car.”
Just the other day, Mercy and I sat on the floor by the coffee table and had an extended conversation about why we have peach skin and why other people have light brown skin and dark brown skin. We got to talking about how the mommy’s and daddy’s skins blend to become the color of their babies, so then we had to talk through all the different color combinations that could be made with different colors of skin. Mercy has four years of a worldview under her belt that I think would be the envy of any parent.The handful of “Mercy stories” I have shared here perhaps give a small glimpse of this.
While we feel great heartache over our leaving, we do rejoice at “the new thing” that God is doing in our life, and we are enthusiastic and eager about our new roles of service in our new faith family up north. I am already looking forward to the teaching and preaching opportunities I will have there, as well as the challenge of discerning with that community what it looks like to be “in the community and for the community” (to shamelessly steal from our Church of the Redeemer mission statement).
It is humbling as well to consider returning to the church that raised me to serve as a pastor there. I have preached, given lectures, and spoken for retreats there already, and at every step have been overjoyed at the response of my older and wiser faith companions in that body. It is pure privilege to consider leading the same people who nurtured my faith from childhood, and I rejoice at the relationships we will enjoy as a family. As Mercy and Aaron and Elijah have thrived here in the midst of a community committed to caring for them, so too will they be surrounded there by a community that knows well how to nurture and serve and guide even the very young.
Doug will begin studies immediately at Fuller’s regional campus in Seattle. Doug has one of the sharpest minds I know and I am so thrilled that he will finally have space to deeply engage his studies with both time and focus: Doug’s schooling has so often taken the backseat to our family’s other needs these last few years, and he has been exceptionally slow to complain about or resent this. Doug has also been increasingly pressed by all of the demands of his commitments outside of our family, and in this new season of our life together, we will fully share the role of primary caregiver for our kids. I am certain the he will be a better fort-building adviser, train-track constructor (his tracks always connect while I can never get them to join in the end!), and soccer coach than I have been (though Lauren’s football and basketball coaching will be sorely missed!).
One significant factor for us as well throughout this decision-making process was our desire to be near the rest of our families for at least a season of our children’s childhoods. From our home in Seattle, there will be six grandparents within three driving hours, and we are thrilled to give that gift of proximity to our parents and to our children (and to ourselves–apparently when you have small kids and live near grandparents you can actually go out on dates once in a while!).
Doug and I moved to Los Angeles right after we got married six and a half years ago (today!), and as I prepared to speak to our congregation yesterday, I was reminded of the blessing our pastor gave to us at the end of our wedding. After serving communion, Pastor Henry looked at us and gave us this charge:
“So now I release you, Doug and Erika. I release you to service, for the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many. And I also release you to struggle, for he also said in this world we will have trouble but be of good cheer, for I will come. And I release you to satisfaction, for he said “If any man come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross” and anyone who follows after Christ willfully, obediently, will receive satisfaction and joy. And so now in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I dedicate you and release you to dance…dance…dance. Amen.”
As I stood in front of our congregation yesterday, Pastor Henry’s words came flooding back through my mind. How true his dedication of us was: how rightly he spoke to us on that day. For we have served, and been served more powerfully than we could have anticipated or even desired; we have struggled, reaching points of pain and despair and fear and sadness that I have never before known; and we leave here as people who have been so deeply satisfied by our God. And throughout the serving and struggling, in the midst of the satisfaction, (and at some cost to our landlord living beneath us!), we have danced.
Another line from our wedding stands out to me today, and this one came from the sweet voice of our beloved songwriter friend, Annemarie Russel. Her words made me cry that June afternoon as I stood next to Doug in a white dress with our future in Los Angeles spread before us as the great unknown. They feel as true now as they did then as I sit here surrounded by the marks of a family of five.
“So walk with me tenderly out from this place and into the stretches of sky. Trusting that he who began a good work will carry us home by and by…”
A few weeks ago there was a shooting around the corner from our apartment, and in the chaos of the aftermath, one of our youth was nabbed by the police as he ran down Kenwood to go and check on some friends. The officers grabbed him, threw him to the ground, twisted his arm badly enough to hurt his wrist, and kept him in the back of a cruiser for a fair amount of time.
As this friend shared with us about his experience of being detained and trying to speak in his own defense to the officers involved, he told us that the thing he kept repeating to the officers was this: “I am a youth leader at Church of the Redeemer. Please, just go talk to Elliot, or Lauren, or Doug and Erika. Call Pastor Danny. Talk to the church, please. They can vouch for me.”
As unfortunate as this young man’s experience was, it made my heart glad to hear how much stock he placed in his identity with us. As frustrated as I was by the injury to his hand, I was impressed by his sense of belonging to us, and that in his mind that was such a powerful and persuasive thing. That by proclaiming his association with us, he was declaring that he was set apart; different. And in that moment of pain and fear and crisis, we were the ones he expected to come to his aid; to draw near and fight on his behalf.
I also laughed at my own memory of sitting in the back of a police car on Kedzie Avenue in Chicago, muttering mostly to myself at that point: “But I am Senior Par Excellance…”
Last night I taught the second session of our church membership class in our living room after the kids had gone to bed. The seven people gathered heard stories about who we are as a family of faith, and what it means to join this family. We talked about our commitment to proximity to one another as valuable, perhaps necessary, in terms of a common life and witness as well as the practical outworking of our discipleship together.
The exchange between the police and one of our youth the other night is a good example of why this kind of life together matters. For all of us.
Erika Carney Haub’s musings on life and God from South Central, L.A.