Archive for May, 2011

In the fall of 2001, I encountered Jesuit priest Father Greg Boyle for the first time and am ashamed to admit I was not impressed. Father Boyle was speaking as part of the Pepperdine University convocation series and told how founded the nonprofit Homeboy Industries in inner city Los Angeles, the largest gang intervention and re-entry program in the country. He talked about serving gang involved youth with criminal records by inviting them from criminality into community and creating employment opportunities for them in a bakery and silk screen shop. Father Boyle, better known as “Father G” in his neighborhood of Boyle Heights, reported from the front lines how the light was stepping into the darkness, but I could not comprehend it.

Under Father Greg Boyle's guidance, former gang members and prison inmates find work, community and healing at Homeboy Industries in inner city Los Angeles

“Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” is the Homeboy mantra. “Jobs, not jail,” Boyle said of his social justice entrepreneurial endeavor. But in recounting his interactions with the gang members, Father Boyle also cursed up a storm, speaking like the young people he was working with and arguing that doing so had been an effective means of building rapport. Only 18 years old and in fierce protection of my heirloom faith, I could not see past his riling rhetoric to the incredible significance of his work pulling kids out of gang violence through love. I appreciated that young men and women were giving up gang allegiances to work side by side in reconciliation, but I did not understand why Father Boyle would “stoop to their level” by speaking so profanely. I felt his message was lost in translation. I was a Protestant who didn’t cuss, he was a Catholic who did. It seemed a bridge too far. Never mind that this man was practicing much of what he was preaching and that I was just a child attempting to play Border Patrol on behalf of the church.

I didn’t begin to understand what Father Boyle was about until God placed me in the gang neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles almost immediately thereafter. Many students find work study jobs on campus, mine brought me on weekends to Raymond Street, a boundary line separating the Crip and Blood neighborhoods in South Central. I’m certain the only reason they entrusted the job to an 18 year old first semester freshman is because everybody else had already said no.

But it was in South Central that for the first time I witnessed injustice in person and was given eyes to see. It was on Raymond Street that for the first time, someone I knew was murdered; a 14 year old whose death attracted no outrage or even a raised eyebrow from society. It was in these streets that I realized you can’t pull yourself up by your boot straps if you weren’t given boots. Perhaps my greatest realization was acknowledging that had I grown up in the neighborhood I was working in, I would have chosen a life of gangs and drugs and that it could have been my body in the outline at the end of the taped off street. God created all men equal we say, but we sure don’t act accordingly.

A decade has now passed since those first Pepperdine days, and wouldn’t you know it, I again encountered Father Greg Boyle this week. Only instead of walking away upset this time, I felt privileged to listen to a humble servant summarize rather succinctly and eloquently what has taken me ten years to begin to learn and process.

Boyle was interviewed, along with two former gang members and current Homeboy employees, by Tom Ashbrook for the NPR’s “On Point” which aired on Monday May 16, 2011. Ashbrook asked Father Boyle about changes he would like to see in society and here’s how he responded:

“Well, I think in the end it’s about creating a community of kinship, such that God in fact might recognize it. So, there’s an idea that’s taken root in the world, it’s at the root of all that’s wrong with it, and the idea is this, that there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives. And how do we together stand against that idea? And, so, what I think Homeboy seeks to do is to stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop.”

Boyle continued, “In the end if we want justice and we want peace, those things can’t happen without an undergirding sense of kinship where we recognize that it’s an illusion when we talk about them. There’s just us. And you want to seek to bridge anything that separates us or creates the distance. Once you have kinship, you can get to justice and you can get to peace. But if you think there’s an us and a them, we’ve got too far to go. And so that’s the task, the task is to remember that we belong to each other.”

Father G ended by expounding on Acts 2:43 where “awe came upon everyone” upon the founding of the church. “In the end, (awe) is the opposite of judgment, you know? We seek a compassion that can stand in awe at what Loretta and Robin (the former gang members alongside him) have had to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carried it. And so the measure of our compassion really lies not in our service of people, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with folks who are different. And who have had to carry more than I ever was asked to carry. And I grew up just like them in the gang capital of the world. But because I grew up in a certain part of town with two wonderful parents, a trauma free childhood, and wonderful siblings, and opportunities and education, that doesn’t make me morally superior to Loretta and Robin. Quite the opposite. I stand in awe at what they had to carry. And awe came upon everyone. That’s sort of the measure of the quality of our communal life it seems to me, when we can move from judgment to awe.”

Amen.

A lot can change in a decade, thank God. Father Boyle joked that during the first ten years of his gang ministry that times were so turbulent he considered changing the after hours voice mail to say, “Thank you for calling Homeboy Industries, your bomb threat is important to us.” Thankfully, over the past ten years, the organization no longer receives death threats or hate mail and Homeboy Industries stands as a beacon of proof that things can improve, even if hope is built slowly and incrementally.

This sentiment is echoed in “Follow Me to Freedom”, a collaborative effort between civil rights leader John Perkins and modern day prophet Shane Claiborne. In the book, Shane records his first meeting with Mr. Perkins when he shared his frustration that after three years of ministry in North Philadelphia, things did not seem to be improving much. Claiborne writes, “John looked me dead in the eye and, with the gentleness of a father, plainly and sincerely explained the way things work: ‘Oh, Shane, you’ll start to see some things change. You’ll start to see signs of transformation – in about 10 years. Or maybe 12.’ And he didn’t flinch… I gulped… yet somehow I knew he spoke the truth, and it gave me hope.” Now ten years after that first conversation, The Simple Way and other New Monastic communities are providing hope to all of us by pointing to the possibility of another world.

I’m not sure where I’ll be ten years from now, but I am extremely grateful for where God has faithfully led me over the past decade. From Pepperdine and the neighborhoods of South Central, to an amazing woman I am blessed to call my wife and a great adventure in the Big Sky Country of Montana, to this present time in the Northeast enjoying our three beautiful children and preparing to live intentionally in community and plotting a missional church plant on God’s time.

The progress will continue to be slow and incremental I’m sure, but we will continue to pray that we can be led by the Spirit. In the words of Homeboy employee Loretta Andrews, we must not “fear to change.” When we allow change to occur by God’s hand, I believe He will lead us across the bridges of racism, classism, poverty and injustice until we come to a fuller understanding that there really is no them, only us, despite differences in our upbringings, cultures, and language. Jaime and I look forward to committing to a community long term and perhaps a decade from now, we too will be able to say that awe has come upon us.

In mid-March 2011, I traveled to Lower Manhattan for work purposes and decided to walk over to Ground Zero during my lunch break. I had last visited the former site of the Twin Towers in 2004; when the “Freedom Tower” design had recently been unveiled, but clean up was still underway. As I walked down Vessey Street with St. Paul’s Chapel on my left, I stopped in my tracks and reached for my camera. The construction of the “Freedom Tower”, known officially as One World Trade Center, was already reaching into the heavens at approximately 700 feet with 58 stories completed and the beginnings of the building’s glass curtain starting to take shape.

The Freedom Tower takes shape in March 2011

Though far from the planned 105 stories, I already sensed the city’s proud buzz over the tower’s progress, an already but not yet phoenix rising from the ashes of 9/11. The new structure, even unfinished, radiates attitude and strength. The scene begs and bleeds emotion. I sat down in front of the Millenium Hilton and ate my turkey and cheese watching as history unfolded, contemplating the ascent of the new towers and imagining what the old must have looked like.

I walked over to St. Paul’s, erected in 1776, standing less than a hundred yards from Ground Zero. The chapel miraculously remained standing in the midst of the 9/11 attacks. It was on these church fences that the New York City firefighters hung their street shoes before entering the towers, but never returned to them. It was here that first responders organized to provide assistance in recovering victims, before they too would fall ill from inhaling the toxic debris. Inside the church was an exhibit displaying badges from various first responder units. There had representatives from Santa Monica and Los Angeles County, near my location at the time of the attacks. Officers had been present from now familiar Connecticut communities such as Bridgeport and Stratford and units from as far off as Tokyo and Germany. There was a badge from my mother’s hometown in Santa Ana, California and from my paternal grandfather’s childhood home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A national tragedy had summoned a global response.

From the churchyard, I spotted the 9/11 Memorial Preview site and headed over to gather more information. The gallery boasted a timeline of significant events in regard to the World Trade Center site and digital renderings of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (NS11MM) and the four structures which will comprise the new World Trade Center. None of the new buildings will be constructed where the Twin Towers stood. The footprints of the Towers are being transformed into large recessed pools with streams of water flowing into an abyss below and the pools are to be surrounded by a continuous ribbon of named victims.

3D Model of the new WTC featuring the footprints of the Twin Towers to be utilized as memorial pools

I picked up a couple WTC Progress flyers, while an attendant employed at the Preview site confidently announced the NS11MM would be ready to open this September on the 10th anniversary 9/11. The memorial is expected to be the most visited site in America with nearly 1,500 visitors per hour. Passes reportedly will become available for reservation as soon as this July.

Digital artist rendering of One World Trade Center and Four World Trade Center

For any Tower Glass folks who may be reading, get this. Upon completion, One World Trade Center will boast an exterior cladding consisting of over one million square feet of prismatic glass. Over 12,000 glass panels, larger than 5’x13’, will be incorporated. The building was designed so that the “façade panels will form eight tall triangles of glass and steel, which will grow alternately wider and narrower as they approach the top of the building.” The tower’s exterior will “refract light and change its appearance depending on the weather and the viewer’s position.” Heavy.

New York is certainly no stranger to pushing architectural limits. The Chrysler Building (1,046 feet) was the tallest freestanding land structure on the globe for two years after it was built in 1930, before its record height was eclipsed by the Empire State Building (1,250 feet) which held the world record for nearly four decades. The original twin towers surpassed both the Chrysler and Empire State buildings with the North Tower standing at 1,368 feet (1,728 feet antenna included) and the South Tower at 1,362 feet. The colloquial Freedom Tower’s spire will stand at a symbolic 1,776 feet making it the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and the fourth tallest in the world.

As I walked back toward City Hall, I discovered the One World Trade Center structure is already visible on the New York city skyline as viewed from the Brooklyn Bridge. I stared in wonder at this work of man and felt perhaps I could now better relate to this passage from Mark 13:1-2:

“As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.”

The Temple, the pride of the people and center of worship, had already been destroyed once in 586 BC by a “terrorist attack” when Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians. The Temple was rebuilt in approximately 515 BC after 70 years of captivity and in Jesus’ time was in the midst of a decades long renovation and expansion project under Herod.

The historian Josephus records that the rebuilt and renovated Temple was constructed of white limestone blocks measuring 37.5’ long, 12’ high, 18’ wide, each weighing nearly 400 tons. No small architectural feat for the time. In fact, Josephus himself, appears to be have been smitten by the Temple’s grandeur, writing in his Antiquities of the height of the Temple’s Pinnacle contrasted against the depth of the Kidron Valley which it overlooked:

“This cloister deserves to be mentioned better than any other under the sun; for, while the valley was very deep, and its bottom could not be seen if you looked from above into the depth, this farther vastly high elevation of the cloister stood upon that height, insomuch that if any one looked down from the top of the battlements, or down both those altitudes, he would be giddy, while his sight could not reach to such an immense depth.”

Some believe the altitude referred to was in the range of 700 feet, the same height as the partially constructed One World Trade Center in the photos I took in mid-March. This Pinnacle is where Jesus was taken by Satan in Matthew Chapter 4 and in the Midrash is reported to be the place the Jewish people believed that Messiah would manifest himself.

From other Gospel reports we know Jesus was not anti-Temple, most notably in John 2:13-16, Jesus drives out the money changers from the Temple grounds and rebukes those who are “making my Father’s house a place of business.” Jesus probably had some fond memories of the Temple. Our only glimpse into His childhood (Luke 2:45-50) records that at age 12, Jesus spent three days at the Temple in the midst of its teachers, listening and asking questions. When his clearly upset parents ask him why he had decided of his own accord to stay in Jerusalem unbeknownst to them, he replied, “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” The text states that His parents did not understand the statement which He had made to them. It wouldn’t be the last time that Jesus’ words were not understood (check out Mark 9:30-32).

Looking back to the John 2 passage, immediately following Jesus clearing the Temple of the profiteers, He is asked by what authority He is doing these things. “Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.” (John 2:19-22)

It seems everyone is consumed with their own finite life, including the current construction projects and cultural icons, but Jesus appears to be consistently dwelling on his death and the sacrifice that would be required in order to reconcile us back to Him. A Creator Himself, He may well have appreciated the craftsmanship of the building and its beauty. The Temple had long been a house for God, but Jesus knew that for all its lofty architecture it would not stand the test of time (it was destroyed again in 70 AD). Alas, something infinitely more impressive was in their presence, but went unrecognized. The Temple had clearly become less a place of worship and more an icon of identity.

Today marks the 160th anniversary of the first World’s Fair. It was the during the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, 72 years ago, that the “world trade center” pavilion was first dedicated to “world peace through trade” paving the way for the Twin Towers which were finished in 1970 and 1971. While a nice slogan, global trade in a capitalist market has not accomplished world peace but in many respects has contributed to further oppression of the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Whenever we seek glory for ourselves in place of contributing to God’s design of shalom, we are bound for eventual destruction, regardless of how much prismatic glass or pristine limestone on our façade. This was the lesson of another famous skyscraper, The Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11.

With a common language and purpose, mankind had set out to “make a name for ourselves” and laid plans for a “tower with its top in the sky.” Perhaps Jesus remembered the Tower of Babel when he looked at what the Temple had become, and certainly the continual rising of towers in New York warrants our reconsideration of the story.

Will O’Brien of the Alternative Seminary in Philadelphia points out that the Tower of Babel was likely a ziggurat with a wide base structure that ascended in smaller bases until a pyramid-like point was reached. The ziggurat’s pyramid structure is also symbolic of the typical human power structure in which the wide base of society is made up of the powerless supporting a small point of elite and the ruling class. The ziggurat, much like our current skyscrapers and other famous phallic symbols was a structure constructed to attract awe.

O’Brien also notes that the Tower of Babel story can be viewed as an anti-imperial text. The phrase “make a name” indicates mankind was interested in creating their own glory. As such, God came down and thwarted the effort. In contrast, Acts 2 presents an alternative power structure in which the architecture of the Tower is reversed and instead the Holy Spirit descends from above and then disperses equally among the wide base of the people, the symbolically and traditionally powerless, led by uneducated fisherman with the equivalent of a thick Southern drawl. O’Brien suggests that the Holy Spirit, which Christ came to send, is literally the inverse of imperialism and Empire building. It is at Pentecost in Acts 2 that we see the dawn of God’s church, where language and communication is restored not confused, and people are reunited not scattered.

There is no denying that the new World Trade Center will be impressive from man’s vantage point. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum was thoughtfully designed and will powerfully remember all those who were lost. But perhaps we as the church would do well to remember our Builder and set the rising structures of awe aside. To dwell in the true beauty found among the poor in spirit and the mourners. To recognize that true power is witnessed in the resurrected Christ.

“This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do You not answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said* to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Matthew 26:61-64