Release vs. Reject

In 2012 I went from working primarily in a marginalized church to working primarily in a marginalized school. Church on the Island of misfit toys to School on the Island of Misfit Toys. My real mission didn’t change at all.  Before it was “Preach the good news to the poor, bind wounds and set captives free.”   Now it is “Teach truth to the poor, make amends to the educationally abused and jumpstart the underclass.”  It is good work.

I am fortunate, I work in a secular setting that does not make me pretend that I am not called to ministry.  I use the words redemption and grace all the time and no one questions it. I am allowed and even encouraged to care. 

The largest piece of my job is to be the vice principal for discipline to 350 really challenged 16-20 year olds.  That’s right; I am in charge of making them behave and giving them consequences when they don’t.  (Those that know me may now take a giggle break)  Back? Ok.  We work for the local community college. So our programs are voluntary in both directions, they don’t have to stay and we don’t have to keep them.  We are under no legal obligation to serve any particular student.  Yet our mission is to lose as few as possible, and we have a success rate triple the college as a whole.
By a process of consensus between admin and faculty we have a set of expectations, they are not set in stone, but they guide us. It is my job to apply them.  And that means that sometimes we send students away.  Never without process and never without them knowing why.  In Africa they call this chasing the students away, I didn’t like it there and I don’t like it here, but it is my job.  If we send them away, they are not prevented in any way from returning to their home districts or any other school, so we do not use the word expulsion.  We call it “Releasing them.”   Sometimes we say “It just wasn’t a good fit” or “It just wasn’t the right time.”

Our student body is incredibly diverse. You can be as weird as you need to be. Your race, religion, orientation, mental health status, and lots of other intersecting differences do not matter to your standing.  What you gotta do is show up and be safe.  When we release someone for not showing up, they usually understand. The disagreements comes over the safety expectations.  My students’ lives have often been lived in seriously Hellish places. Their idea of safe may be divergent from ours.  You can be gang affiliated, you just can’t bring your business to school – they will claim that the business followed them. They have to trust us to keep them safe and leave their weapons in their vehicles. Trust is not their best thing. They have learned to use strong words to keep safe zones around them. We require them to use words in very different ways.  We require them to act as if they have fully developed pre-frontal cortexes when they simply do not.  

When they act outside the expectations of the group they get attention. They get second chances, opportunities to change their behavior within a certain time. We will move them from one program to another.  I sheepdog their steps. I call them by their names and call them to their better selves. I try and describe to them the truth of who they really are and what they can do and be.  I keep the bad ones close and the worse ones closer.  But sometimes, they just turn around and look at me and step over that line and wait and see what I am going to do about it. Then I am left with the expectations. And part of the truth is doing what you said you were going to do.
The faculty needs safe and sane classrooms. My job is also to support them, and they count on me to implement our group consensus.  Sometimes I come back to them with a plea to change the consensus. But sometimes I just have to face the student and say “You are done here. We tried and it didn’t work. We still think you can make it, but it is not going to be here. This is what your options out there look like.” I tell them the truth, and I don’t sugarcoat it or molly-coddle them.
Sometimes they curse at me. Sometimes they cry. They almost always argue their side. Sometimes they quote our grandest, highest aspirational statements back at me. Sometimes they own their part – sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they just walk away.  But they never thank me.  They don’t feel released to better fitting opportunities.  They feel rejected. Because we have rejected their membership in our community based on their behavior.  I don’t expect them to like me, whatever our relationship was before. Because I have divorced them from the community. They do not go out into the world and say nice things about me or the program.  Most of them have more experience with rejection than I do, but they hurt.

Both sides sustain a moral injury when this happens.  I have failed in my mission. I try not to deny it or justify it. It just is. Between us, we did not find a way to complete our goals.  The ninety and nine safe in their classroom and in their graduation gowns do not salve the wounds of the ones I lost. They take a chunk out of me. I keep a list and I say their names, especially on graduation day. I remember the fallen, and my part in their fall.

But there is one way in which school on the island of misfit toys is better to work in than the church on the island of misfit toys. The school, in all its aspiration talk, never says that it is trying to imitate Jesus.

When we say that we are the hands and voice of Jesus and then we put people out, the moral injury is going to be a lot bigger – both ways.  They will fell rejected because they have been rejected.  So if we do this, we had better say up front “This is not Jesus and we know it. – We just can’t figure out how to do Jesus here.” We will feel like failures because we have failed.  Others who trusted us will feel betrayed, because the principles of “Whosoever will, may come” have been betrayed.
And it may be unavoidable.  We are all misfits.  But everyone will heal faster if there is honesty, without the attempt to nice it up.

But maybe, just maybe, in the 11th hour, we can find a way to do Jesus, who has been patient with us these 2000 years, and has not put us out even when our behaviors are outside the expectations of the Gospel.  


Flashback 2002 - Berkeley and Ramallah

By Request

So There I was……

In Berkeley California, 2002. There was a war going on, so the Mecca of non-conformity seemed like a good place to be; but that was not why Alivia Biko and I were there that weekend. We had another quest. We were expecting. Pregnant with that of God.  Gestating a miracle, and we were looking for a stable where we could bring it forth.
We were carrying within our hearts a new creature named Freedom Friends Church - the culmination of everything our God had been teaching us to this point in our lives. A place where Christ the present teacher is passionately worshiped and radically obeyed. A place where the precious truths of Quakerism are explained and lived out in a new millennium.  A place of intentional inclusivity where God’s marginalized children of all stripes are welcomed and given a place of service.

However, the sad truth of Quakerism at the turn of the 21st century is that we are polarized and fragmented.  Our larger groups and organizations tend to be Christ-centered and non-inclusive (a thing we find to be contradictory), or inclusive and theologically muddy, (a thing we find to be lacking in unction and power). We needed another option. It seemed unlikely that our home, Northwest Yearly Meeting, was going to be able to give us such an option or claim us as their own if we created it. So we were in Berkeley investigating an option.

It was a “tender and broken meeting,” as the Quakers of old would say. We listened to a Quaker leader describe Friends work around the world; hospitals in Kenya, oppressed but vibrant faith in Cuba, and heartbreaking tales of Palestine. She gave us the unforgettable picture of an old Palestinian man and his wife, separated for thirty five years by an Israeli fence, meeting daily to entwine their fingers in chain link, whispering of faithful love kept apart by institutional violence.

We listened to the leader of our hoped for option describe how she had once considered her own ministry unacceptable, because she was a divorced woman, and how God had surprised her by calling and empowering her to serve in spite of this. She described her joy at being found acceptable.

And again and again through the day we heard the call for workers - help was needed. The fields were white. There was no heart there that did not feel the tug

I sat on the back bench and watched two brilliant, gifted friends - our hosts for the weekend. Two women - committed to the Light and to each other. One whose gentle heart was broken by the reality of an evil that would put a fence up, careless of the separation of love. The other, deeply gifted with insight, knowledge and the ability to empower others - who has been begging God for a clear commission to the work. I watched my friends’ hearts respond to the call. I watched the spiritual struggle and the surrender. I saw my friend stand and ask if her service would be accepted.  And then I saw the Christ-centered Quaker fence go up. “Policy” did not permit the service of Christ’s gay and lesbian servants we were told. 

I slipped away and into a bit of a vision. I saw the work of Christ on one side of an endless fence, desperately in need of help, and on the other side, a Christ-called worker, fingers entwined through the fence straining to be of use. And I knew in that moment, that it was my people who had erected this fence. Well meaning, Jesus loving, but fear based people.  And I saw that I was searching for a group of fence-builders to join. And then I saw Jesus, the lover of my soul, on both sides of the fence, and the Jesus nearest me handed me a pair of boltcutters.




Hero of the Faith

I have always loved Jimmy Carter. He has been the best ex-president I have ever seen. He is 90 years old and still taking up the cause of righteousness.

This is an article well worth reading.
Jimmy Carter on Women's Rights



Sweet Relief

I like relief. It is one of my favorite feelings.

It is all floody and warm. It  moves from chest to head to hands. It is indeed sweet in the mouth. It makes you want to laugh. (laughing like you just got away with something is not advised within earshot of the TSA)

Pulling the bike into a hamlet that ought not to be there, with gas you really need, is a nice flood of relief. The thing about relief is that you can only get it if there was the chance that something might go wrong. I think it is meant to be occasional. If you are afraid all the time, then the relief when the bad thing doesn't happen is dampened by the immediacy of the next possible ill.

I might, maybe, as I age, be losing my taste for the deluge of relief. The big relief after the big dangers makes your knees weak and your head swim. Niyonzima just talked us out of the hands of the rebels... again... I used to like that quite a bit.

But, sincerely and truly, here is what I wish. That I will continue to live a life where bad stuff can happen, big and little. That at the end of my days I will face a big danger for a good cause, and then the supposedly bad thing will happen. And as I fall, I will call out His name, and He will catch me in His arms, and my knees will be weak and my head will swim with the biggest relief ever.

And we will laugh!

So may it be.



When Extroverts Grieve

When Extroverts Grieve

Grieving is hard. It is good to have some friends to help. Extroverts are people who are neurologically wired to aggregate energy through human social contact. They then spend that energy on tasks that require focus and solitary work. Some parts of grieving are solitary. No one can do it for you, and because your loss is as unique as the relationship you had with your loved one, no one can truly be with you in your personal pain. But extroverts need accompaniment. They need a steady stream of energy producing contact. And some of what they need is counter to our expectations.
Here are some suggestions and tips for helping your extroverted friend or family member grieve. Remember, the default instruction is always ASK them what you can do to help, and then do that thing.
  •  Extroverts will want to see and be seen sooner than some people expect. Open the house or the church up, and make a gathering place. Bring food.
  •   Extroverts will want to tell their stories of their loved one. They will not get tired of this. Listening is the greatest gift you can give them.
  •  Extroverts want you to share your memories. They will not get tired of this.
  •  Extroverts desire feedback. They want active listening. Your silent presence is not enough, although it helps. They need you to interact with them around their grief.
  •  Extroverts will appreciate the public rituals of grief. They may take on roles that others consider heroic, or even unseemly. They need to be actively involved.
  •  If the extrovert is despondent, do not leave them alone. Work with others to keep them accompanied. This will require teamwork.
  •  They will appreciate it if people are willing to carry their story with them. The shared experience is what makes it seem real to them.
  • Ask them if they want a care committee or grief support group to meet with them. Let them set the time schedule. Do not put too many introverts on this committee. Have a plan for switching people in and out as needed. The griever will often need it to last longer than people can commit to.
  •   As the weeks and months go by, continue to call and email and visit your friend. They understand that the world must go on, but they will FEEL abandoned, when everyone else seems to have moved on.
  •  Use social media. Where the introvert will use it as a buffer, the extrovert will use it as a lifeline. Share pictures. Memories. Whatever you have.
  •   If you are a pray-er – call them up and pray with them on the phone.
  •   As the months go by, have play dates. Fun times of re-engagement. It is ok for people who are grieving to have fun. They will use the energy they gain from this to do their hard work of personal grieving.
  •   Group therapy may be better for the extrovert than one on one counseling, although they will like that too.
  •   Church, AA, hobby groups, all groups will be safe places for the extroverted griever.
  •   They may need to be reminded to rest and do self-care.
  •   If the extrovert has an introverted – focused and solitary -  job,  they may have severely decreased productivity.
  •   Extroverts may seem to be doing better than their introverted counter-parts – because our culture applauds the social and the busy. But know that they are hurting just as much and for just as long.


When Introverts Grieve

“Whatever you would want done to you, do so unto others” – Jesus, according to Matthew

OK, I could go out on a heretical limb here and say that Jesus was wrong, but I am more comfortable blaming Matthew, or whoever wrote down Matthew’s recollection. In either case, I think this rule is more gold plate than golden.

Because here is a true thing. Other people aren’t just like you - sometimes they want different things than you do. What I think we ought to do is find out what they want, and try and help them with that if we can.

Grief is very individual; no one can grieve for you. Ultimately, we all grieve solo. Culturally, it is also very corporate. Our rituals and our training tell us to huddle when we are hurt. This is a paradox, and it is likely that one side of it or the other is hard for you.

There is a neurological reality that expresses itself as a personality trait. It is the spectrum of introversion to extroversion.  Extremely simplified, it can be defined thusly:

                Extroverts recharge their emotional batteries in the presence of others. They then spend that energy on activities that require focus and involve individual concentration.

                Introverts recharge their emotional batteries during solitude. They then spend that energy on activities that involve others.
About two thirds of Americans are on the extrovert end of the scale. In churches that percentage will be higher, because many introverts will not be drawn to larger communities. Extroverted church members who are trying to follow the golden rule have a hard time ministering the grieving introverts.

So I am going to lay out some general guidelines, the application will need to be individualized. These suggestions apply to the care of a HEALTHY introvert.
  •   Isolation is not bad for introverts unless they are suicidal. Introverts call isolation solitude – as in Fortress of Solitude – they need to go there – a lot. That is where they heal.
  •   A grieving introvert will have depleted emotional batteries. The public rituals of grieving drain them even more. They need outs, and limits. This doesn’t mean that they don’t appreciate the rituals – they do.
  •   They want to hear from you. But write – don’t call. Don’t be afraid of saying something stupid – they understand better than anyone how hard it is to find words.
  •   Don’t expect a response - at all. Extroverts like and need feedback, your gift during this time is to forgo your need for a response. Their silence does not mean that you did anything wrong.
  •   Don’t just show up, because that is what you would want people to do. Ask if they want a visit; be willing to be take “no thank you” gracefully and not personally.  If they want to see you, make an appointment, with a start and end time, and leave at that time. Keep it brief.
  •   It is good to send food, use the internet to set this up. Bringing food does not give you permission to stay and talk.
  •  They probably don’t want hugs except from their true intimates. If they have not been a hugger before, they aren’t likely to become one now.  If they surprise you and initiate a hug – then ok.
  •   They will not have the capacity to fulfill many or most of their previous efforts to care for anyone else. They have lost the capacity. There is no money in that bank. They feel bad about this, but they will just need to bail. If the introvert has been performing an extroverted job, they may not come back for a while, or at all.
  •   They will probably avoid church for a while, and when they do come back, they may want to come in late, sit in the back, and leave early. This doesn’t mean that they have lost their faith.
  •   They will seek out help in one on one situations like a therapist or spiritual director. They will not likely benefit from a support group.
  •   They probably have a good friend (or even two) to lean on. If you are that person, you will know it. If you aren’t, you probably don’t know who they are.  If the introvert just lost their only, or best, friend, they are indeed in a hard place. But they will want to decide who they are going to move up the roster into that position. It may take a while.
  •   A healthy introvert can ask for what they need, or the person nearest them can ask for them.
  •   If they designate a spokesperson, that is a good sign. Talk to that person about what is needed.

Take these suggestion and extrapolate. Identify the other introverts in your group and let them lead your care of this individual. Love them, and pray for them, and give them space and time. They will revive. It is what humans – all kinds of humans – do.

With love and respectful concern for my friend Mike.