Wednesday, April 29, 2009

forum on youth ministry, day 3

Today was more of a laid-back day at the youth ministry forum. We just had a plenary lecture in the morning and then worship, then the afternoon off for exploring the area (for the visitors), or, in my case, studying German and working at the coffee shop where I work once a week. Since I have a German exam tomorrow morning I can't write much, but I'd like to at least talk about the speaker this morning, briefly.

The lecturer was Obery Hendricks, and he was great! He teaches at a seminary in New York, I think. He wrote a book with a title that sounds very familiar to many of us as Friends (or especially any who read this blog who are Mennonite...), "The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Character of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted." He presented a lot of the same types of things I've been writing about here lately, regarding privilege, Jesus' radical call to break down social/political/economic/religious systems of domination, and the American "church's" complete complicity in that domination system.

One thing I found particularly good from his talk was a comment he made that was something like this: "I'm not talking a prosperity gospel, where only my situation within the same system is changed, but I'm talking about good news to the poor, which can only happen through changing the whole system, including the way we live our lives." I think this is so important for us to hear. It's not just that, as middle class American Christians, we want to make it so that everyone can live like we do. Instead, we have to be willing to change the system in which we live. The way we live automatically oppresses other people, so a) it isn't possible for everyone to live like we do because there have to be two classes of people--the oppressed and the oppressors--in the system we live in; and b) we wouldn't want everyone to be forced to live this way.

The question, again, is, "How do we start to implement this?" Yes, this is great advice, a prophetic word. But how do we go about doing the work of breaking down the systems in which we live? How do we go about refusing to cooperate with these systems on a large scale, or even on a small scale that is actually faithful (not just a token giving up of a privilege here and there)? How much giving up of privilege is necessary? Can I, as a white, middle class American, begin this work, or do I need to follow the lead of someone who is "oppressed"? (Do I count, since I'm female?) I don't know the answers to these questions, and neither does Hendricks, as he stated himself. But it seems to me like we need to start doing something, something big, as a Society of Friends. Something that will address the divide between "us" and "them," us who give and are so generous to those needy people, who are only needy because the way I live and earn money and buy things cheaply is because they are not paid adequately or treated justly.

What's our form of Quaker gray today? How can we rally for "fixed prices," as Friends did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? How can we stand up against the oppression that happens every day in our country and because of our country, because of the way we live? How much letting go of privilege is enough? Even the way I framed that question shows my unwillingness to start down this road...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

forum on youth ministry, day 2

Today I spent another day at the youth ministry forum. I think it was a day well-spent!

First I returned to my extended seminar on "What Christianity is Not." The teacher, Douglas John Hall, suggested that what it is not is a religion. Instead, it is a faith. Religion is something that is aligned with a culture, with specific rules for living, taboos, etc. "Jesus didn't come to start a new religion, but to end religions once and for all." He talked fairly extensively about "established" religion as against everything Jesus stood for. I thought he was fairly "Quakerly," until I realized on the back of one of his books I've read, it says, "Hall is Karl Barth's type of theologian, with the Scripture in one hand and a daily newspaper in the other." I'm definitely not a Barthian, but I do appreciate that about Barth, and I like Hall. (I think I probably would have liked Barth if I met him, too, but I just don't like all of his theology.) Anyway, so I appreciated this lecture, although it still was not explicitly connected to youth ministry. I guess that's what the rest of our brains are for. (What, you mean we have to actually think???!) I've been thinking a lot lately about how to get someone to pay me to do ministry that breaks down the establishment who's paying the bills...something about not biting the hand that feeds me keeps coming to mind directly after, for some reason...

But as Friends, or at least as Friends who pay some of our ministers, how do we walk that fine line between "releasing" people to be ministers, and paying people to do what we want them to do? How do we ensure that the people we're paying are serving a prophetic role rather than being false prophets who tell us what we want to hear? I see this critique that early Friends warned against, and would be really nice to do ministry and get paid for it adequately. We'll see what happens.

Then I went to an elective workshop called, "Saying No is Not Enough: sexuality, teens and religion." It was led by Kate Ott, who works for the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing. She spoke practically and helpfully about how to present sexuality education in youth groups. She suggested helpful resources, gave us good statistics, and presented important insights. One of these insights is that we need to be careful about even our implicit sexuality education. An example she gave was prayers that focus completely on God transforming our minds and/or spirits. Do we neglect the body completely in our prayers? Do we think God is present in our physical beings as well as in the parts of ourselves that we call "mind" and "spirit"? Or are we basically Gnostic, thinking that it is only through transcending evil physical existence that we can come close to God? Another important insight, which I've heard before but was helpful to be reminded of, is that sexuality is more than just "who does what to whom." It is a part of our whole selves: our desire for intimacy, our senses, our identity, our health, and the way we act toward others. In the church if we either treat it as only an issue of learning about "plumbing," or just tell youth to "say no" without providing ways to meet needs in all those areas, we are not really being helpful.

After lunch I went to an elective workshop called "Youth Ministry Amidst the Culture of Youth Violence." I thought that sounded interesting in light of my views on the way violence is portrayed in our culture, and the way it is emulated. But unfortunately the teacher spent about an hour convincing us that violence is on the rise in the world, the United States, and youth (we probably don't have to be convinced of that if we're at the workshop--or at least we don't have to be convinced that violence is a problem that needs to be addressed), and then the last half hour trying to fly through PowerPoint on some ways to pick up on violent tendencies in youth, and Bible verses that help us address those issues. There wasn't much about how to actually go about addressing these issues in the context of youth ministry.

I think one of the main reasons there is so much violence in youth culture today (besides violent movies and video games, etc.) is the systems of domination and hierarchy that are in place, and a simultaneous undermining of authority. It's funny, because I think the fact that authority is being undermined is contributing to people feeling less accountable for their actions and therefore they can justify violence more easily; but at the same time, the systems of domination and oppression create a space where people see no choice but to enact violence against those more vulnerable. Also, the situation of being in high school often leaves youth feeling powerless and oppressed, low on the pecking order, and therefore some lash out with violence (through anything from bullying to mutual fights to school shootings). I would have liked to have gotten into more of this systemic stuff and how the church can be a countercultural force for youth, providing meaning and identity, and refusing to live within and put others under a system that oppresses them.

Then we had small groups and a break, and then we heard Andy Root, the keynote speaker. For my youth ministry class we read his book, "Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry." It's excellent. Did I already write about it? It doesn't look like it. Anyway, it was excellent, although I would take it even further. He says the traditional way youth ministry has been done is through "relational youth ministry," where the youth minister tries to build a relationship with a young person for the purpose of getting them to become a Christian. Although this is usually done with good intentions (wanting to share the joy/hope they've found), it ends up being manipulative, so that the relationship is a means to another end. Instead of delighting in being with that young person, the youth worker is really just using that relationship to coerce the youth to perform in a certain way. Therefore it is not a real relationship, but a tool to try to get kids to do what we want. In this kind of ministry we actually don't need a living God. All we need is a model. We look at the life and ministry of Jesus and try to do ministry from that model: using the tools we think he used to achieve our ends (or the ends we think Jesus wants us to get to).

But what if it is the relationship itself that is the place where we meet God? What if it is only in that willingness to act as a "place-sharer," as Root puts it, that we are able to participate in the incarnation, the fleshiness of God in Christ? By place-sharer he means one who is present, listening, loving, challenging, reflecting, hurting and acknowledging the other's short, being truly human. Instead of just following a pattern, we are participating with the living Christ in the lives, especially the suffering, of adolescents (and sometimes the suffering FROM adolescents). We can't do this with every kid in our youth group (unless there are only about 2-4 kids), but we can foster an environment where everyone in the worshiping community takes part in this ministry--mentoring as well as learning from youth, being real humans together who are struggling to encounter Christ in the midst of mundane and/or painful life circumstances.

Root will speak again on Thursday, and I have to get some sleep now, but that's a very brief synopsis of my experiences in the forum today.

Monday, April 27, 2009

forum on youth ministry

This week I'm attending the forum on youth ministry held here at my seminary. It happens ever year, but previously it's been in the middle of finals week so I haven't been able to go. This year it's the week after finals, AND we now get a credit for going (and writing a little reflection paper). So it started today and goes through Thursday night. This is my last seminary credit!!!

Today we had opening worship, an "extended seminar," small groups and a workshop/elective. The sermon focused on our favorite passage as Friends, John 15 about us being Jesus' friends, and greater love has no one than to lay down one's life for a friend. It was a good sermon, emphasizing the need for community--real, live community--in this age of social fragmentation where so many people from the US say they have only a couple people they can actually talk to, and 25% say they have no one they ca really talk to.

I went to an "extended seminar" about "What Christianity is Not," emphasizing the "apophatic" side of theology. That means that although we can't know and describe who God IS, we can say some things about who God is not, label false gods that we try to set up in our lives and doctrines, and in that way clear off the junk that gets in the way of what faith is truly about. This way of doing theology is more common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but I think it is also why Quakers tend to have a lot in common theologically with Eastern Orthodox thought, as well as mystics of all stripes. (E.g. Meister Eckhart and his "cloud of unknowing," etc.) This was a good lecture, but it didn't really connect with anything about youth ministry. It's the one I'll be going to all week, so hopefully as it develops, the connections will become more apparent.

Then I went to a workshop on "the empowering mosaic," meaning encouraging diversity in our faith communities. This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, and unfortunately in an hour we couldn't get to a whole lot of the nitty-gritty stuff, but it was still helpful. For me, I think it's really important for us to think about "diversity" not only in terms of the color of the skin of people in our meetings for worship, but to think about ethnic diversity, and socio-economic diversity. I don't think most Friends are racist, but I think we tend to be rather classist. Anyone is welcome to come to our meetings for worship, but they need to be part of the culture we're part of--the middle class, English-speaking, interested-in-helping-other-people culture. These things are not bad, but when they become the defining factors between who's "in" and who's "out," that's a problem. And when the people we're "helping" start coming to worship and they don't fit that criteria (because they're not middle class and they don't help people, in our definition, but are the ones being "helped"), then we inadvertently exclude them by the way we unconsciously define ourselves as communities.

Anyway, this workshop was about helping shape the culture of our communities so they are ready for more diversity of all these kinds. So it was interesting and productive, I think.

Well, that's my day. At the same time I'm also still working on German, so I have a test on Thursday, with of course tons of time to study this week, between that and the forum...which is why I'm sitting here blogging...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

pedagogy of the oppressed

Finals approaches...which is not why I haven't been posting lately--I've just been lazy. I've thought about writing blog entries, but haven't gotten around to it. So I thought I'd just post some short little snippets in the coming days regarding things I'm working on.

Today I started reading "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" by Paulo Freire, first published in 1970. He's a Brazilian writer, theologian and educator. This is a great book so far! His basic point is that if we're serious about anything to do with helping the oppressed, we need to allow ourselves (meaning those of us in power, therefore those of us participating in the group of "oppressors," whether we like it or not) to be taught by the oppressed. This does not mean a simple role reversal--this would just continue oppression. What it means is listening to the oppressed, being willing to let go of the things about being oppressors that we benefit from, and actually work on changing the structure of things. The oppressors can't do this. It has to come from "below."

Here's a great quote from his introduction: "From these pages I hope at least ht following will endure: my trust in the people, and my faith in men and women, and in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love" (1999 edition, p. 22).

This is the kind of book I could just sit and read and meditate on. I find myself reading a sentence, thinking about it, reading it again, and allowing it to open and unlock doors in my mind and heart. I don't want to be an oppressor, but here I find myself in this country, living a "normal" life--a good life--in the richest nation in the world (well, maybe not richest, but the one with most resources and power, at least for now). I can't escape the fact that I'm part of the problem. And so this book is challenging and powerful, and I hope I can rise to its challenge.

One more important thing: he talks about how both the oppressed and oppressors suffer under a fear of freedom, because it would mean a change in the status quo. For the oppressor this is obvious: we have a stake in the status quo, because it benefits us. But the oppressed live under this same fear for a couple of reasons. First, because if they don't live under the status quo, it could get worse. Second, because they themselves have learned the domination system, so what they often want more than a change in the status quo is a change in their status quo, to become rich and powerful--to oppress others. So true liberation is not only a change of perspective for the oppressors, but also for the oppressed: to see the another option.

In my opinion, although Freire hasn't said it (yet), this option is what many people call Jesus' "third way." Not the way of violence and revenge; not the way of passivity and cowardice--but the way of courage and freedom that lifts up the humanity of all.

OK, just one more thing. He also talks about "false charity," which is when we give hand-outs, when we give stuff to people that makes us look generous but keeps them in a position where they must "extend their trembling hands." Instead, "true generosity lies in striving so that these hands...need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world" (p. 27). How do we get at the root of problems, so that rather than keeping people in subjection so that we can look good through our "generosity," we actually help people live decent lives?