Mission Part 3: Hope

This is part three of a three-part series which can also be found on the Greater Indy Habitat website

 

Mission Part 3:

“Hope”

 

When someone does not know how to start writing about something, a common trick is to Google the subject on which they are writing, and use the first thing they see as an opening line. That is a cheap trick though, and I believe that the people reading this post deserve something different. If not something better, at least something unique. Anything other than just another Google quote.

A brief Bing search of the word “hope” yields the definition, “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” When we use that definition of hope in conjunction with Habitat’s mission of “building hope,” we are brought to an interesting question:

When we build hope, what is that hope for? What are we expecting? What is the “certain thing” which we desire to happen?

There are plenty of great surface level ways to answer this question. “Hope for a better tomorrow,” for instance, is a fun cliché to throw around. But it hardly means anything. By itself, it is too vague to help unite people into actually creating a tomorrow that is any different from today. If we want to give people hope for a better tomorrow, we need a real vision of what that tomorrow will look like.

So what is Habitat’s vision? “A world where everyone has a decent place to live.”

That is what our hope is for. That is what our better tomorrow will look like. Habitat exists to build homes, communities, and hope for a world where everyone has a decent place to live.

It sounds a little too grand. Not a lot of people think something like that is possible. If they did, we wouldn’t have to build that hope. Our mission statement would be two-thirds of its current length, and we would probably never have any difficulty recruiting volunteers ever again. It seems that the people who first described Habitat’s vision were either delusional, or they had much better eyesight than most of the rest of us.

When I first started here, I certainly wouldn’t have been likely to piece together something so distant from our current reality. However, after almost a year of peeking at the all ways in which Habitat tackles their mission, I am no longer convinced of the impossibility of their vision. I’ve witnessed people from different faith backgrounds smile as they served alongside one another, listening to and learning from one another. I’ve seen children run across their new bedroom floors, all the while grinning from ear to ear. I’ve listened to brand new homeowners tearfully describe the joy they never thought they would be able to experience which has now become a reality. After seeing Habitat’s work change so many lives right in front of me, it is hard not to be hopeful for their vision.

Because we build homes, we have hope that we can change the lives of families who need a hand up.  Because we build communities, we have hope that we can change the way people look at one another, and we empower people to love their neighbors in meaningful ways. Because we have seen these homes and communities blossom beyond even our expectations, and because of the incredible opportunity we’ve been given to change so many people’s lives in our 30-year existence, we have hope for a world where everyone has a decent place to live. That is why hope is the final piece, and total sum, of everything Habitat builds.

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Good Works Working

Brace your dopamine-related brain bits folks, because boy have I got an encouraging blog post for you today.

About two weeks ago, I had a meeting at the mayor’s office. I know what you’re thinking- “Jonathan. You’ve only been in Indy for ten months and you’re already having meetings with the mayor’s officials?”  Yes. I really Veni Vidi Vici’d this town.

But in all honesty, this meeting wasn’t about my meteoric rise to prominence, nor fortunate lack thereof. In fact, I wasn’t even aware the meeting was taking place, or that I would be invited to attend, until the evening before. My role was to be another warm body, present in support of an important cause. It was a minor role, but not an unimportant one, and I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to play it.

Avid readers of this blog (my parents) are already familiar with my frustration at the political and cultural trajectory of this nation over the past year or so. As a result, I’ve been eager for chances to make positive impacts in whatever small ways I can, and during my time here as a YAV, one of those chances has been my involvement with the organization IndyCAN (Indianapolis Congregation Action Network). IndyCAN is a “catalyst for marginalized peoples and faith communities to act collectively for racial and economic equity in Indiana,” to quote their mission statement. Most recently, a lot of their efforts have been focused on ending city compliance with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention requests.

For those unfamiliar with ICE, or unsure why we would want to prevent our elected officials from letting ICE use our public funds and facilities, this may seem like a quabble over a relatively unimportant issue. After all, it is ICE’s job to detain undocumented immigrants.  Why should we interfere with federal agencies who are just trying to keep us safe?  We should just let them do their work, and focus on being good citizens in our own right. Right?
Allow me to begin to answer that question via a somewhat lengthy anecdote from my personal archive.

Toward the end of my semester studying abroad in Germany a few years ago, I went on a solo trip to a village in Austria.  On the way back when my trip was over, our train got stopped at the Germany-Austria border so the Grenzpolizei (border police) could check the documents of the passengers. I opened my backpack to retrieve my passport and German student visa, but quickly started panicking when I realized I couldn’t find them. As the Grenzpolizei neared my seat, I wondered what I would do if they detained me for being undocumented.  I hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye to any of my friends in Germany yet.  I wouldn’t be allowed to finish my semester and earn the credits I’d worked so hard for.  On top of that, I was already dreading the shame and embarrassment I would undergo if I had to explain to people why I got deported.

While I was wondering all this, I noticed the Grenzpolizei had actually stopped a few rows behind me, and were talking to a woman and her family, who seemed to be of middle-eastern ancestry. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but it looked like she had already handed them her document, and for whatever reason they were still talking to her for quite a while. The woman looked panicked, and her children looked frightened. After about ten minutes, they escorted them all off the train. When that was done, one of the officers came up to my row, glanced at my face, and, in German, told me I was fine.

Though I had no documents at the time to prove that I belonged (which I did fortunately find later, smooshed in the bottom of my backpack), they determined solely by the way that I looked that I was no threat to Germany.  They even assumed I spoke German, even though I was an American, unbeknownst to them.

I don’t know what happened to the family, but I know that because they had darker skin than I, they were not allowed to come to Germany.  And I know that they were afraid.

 

I have friends here in the US who are afraid for the exact same reason.  ICE does not detain people because they are a threat to our society; they detain people because they look different.  Twice already, in the short time I’ve been involved with IndyCAN’s Rapid Response program, I’ve been asked to help organize support for one of our neighbors who has been taken from their family by ICE, and threatened with deportation.  Neither of these people had any criminal record.  Neither of them were doing anything wrong when they were detained.  They had families who needed them, and communities who valued their talents.  But they were detained because of the color of their skin and where they were from.  There is a real and valid fear being experienced by may of our neighbors in this nation, and its being perpetuated harshly and unjustly by our federal government.  That’s why we struggle to limit ICE’s interference in our city.

At this point, you might be more than a little perturbed by the fact that I promised a post of good news in regards to some mayoral meeting and then took a sharp nosedive into the pestilential state of affairs in our nation.  Well, here comes the good bit:

The meeting we had with the mayor’s office was the latest in a series of meetings wherein we discussed the importance of our efforts to remove ICE’s influence in our communities.  At the end of that meeting, it was unclear what actions would actually be taken by the city.  However, about two weeks ago (which was only a day ago when I first started writing this post- sorry), I got a call from a friend of mine/the up-and-coming hero of this city, Sister Tracey Horan, saying that the meetings had worked, and the city of Indianapolis had filed an injunction to end unconstitutional practice of holding people in our jails without probable cause on behalf of ICE.

It’s not the end of all federal corruption and social injustice in our nation.  I’m sure it’s not even the end of ICE action in Indianapolis.  But it is a real and major step towards removing the heavy air of xenophobia and racism in our communities.  It is a small turn toward a more hopeful future for our nation and our world, and a it is foothold gained for the Kingdom of God.

 

“The arc of the moral universe is long. But it bends toward justice.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.

Mission Part 2: Communities

This is part two of a three-part series which can also be found on the Greater Indy Habitat website

 

Mission Part 2:

“Communities”

 

Community lies at the very foundation of what Habitat is.  To be more specific, the foundation of Habitat actually took place at “Community.”

Habitat was founded at a place called Koinonia Farms. Koinonia is the Greek word for authentic Christian fellowship or communion. So when I say, “community lies at the very foundation of what Habitat is,” I mean it literally as much as figuratively.  Habitat was founded at Community, in Community, and for Community.  It is an integral aspect of who we are, where we’re from, and where we hope to go, and for that reason, Community is an incredibly crucial part of our mission.

From the very first steps we take with our homeowners, to the home dedications and beyond, the process we facilitate is oriented so that it constantly builds communities.  We strive to make sure our homeowners are supported throughout their journeys, and we do everything we can to guarantee each homeowner knows they won’t be doing this alone. The staff, the mentors, the fellow homeowners, the volunteers, the board, and the sponsors all come together to make our mission possible.  Every group and every individual is appreciated, and every group and every individual is vital to the journey of homeownership.

When the poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island,” he was referencing the preponderancy of communities.  When we succeed, we succeed because of the support of those who worked alongside us.  Our lives and our actions are intrinsically woven with the lives of everyone we meet, as well as those of others we will never know.  Communities enable us to experience joy, triumph, compassion, and love, in ways unimaginable in solitude.  In order to do everything we can to ensure the meaningful success of our homeowners, we build communities.

But the communities we build don’t just benefit the homeowners.  Ask anybody who has ever had the privilege of working alongside one of our homeowners on their future home.  To witness firsthand the motivation, resilience, endeavor, and joy of someone building their own home, and especially to step alongside them in that missional cocktail, can be an eye-opening and life-altering experience.  Not only is it true that together we are greater than the sum of our parts, but I believe that each of our parts becomes incontrovertibly and interminably greater as a result of recognizing our combined greatness.

This significance gets particularly emphasized in builds such as our Interfaith Build, wherein people from an abundance of backgrounds, and with a plethora of perspectives come together in a combined act of service. It proves that these builds aren’t just about houses, or about helping one person, though that alone would be spectacular enough.  In perhaps the most commendable display of “E Pluribus Unum” I’ve had the honor to experience in my life, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and more, all came together to build one magnificent, impactful, loving community.

The good life is a product of good communities, and communities are the product of lives well-lived.  Nothing good is attainable alone, and the best things in life become better when shared.  Habitat builds homes that change lives, but it is the communities that make all of that possible.  The foundation of every home we build is laid in the communities that built it, and that is why Habitat builds communities.

Mission Part 1: Homes

The following is another blog post I wrote for the Greater Indy Habitat website

 

Mission Part 1

“Homes”

 
I’ve been here for ten months now.  In a “year-long” volunteer program that actually only lasts eleven months, being here for ten months means I only have one month left.  Obvious though that may be to anyone capable of doing arithmetic on or above a kindergarten level, it’s still something about which I can’t stop thinking. I already have ten elevenths of what is meant to be a life-altering program on which to reflect, and I’m not sure where to start.  So, in trying to begin to reflect on how my experience here has influenced my understanding of service, I recently asked a few friends how they would describe Habitat’s work.

“Helps habitate humans?” my brother, who studied linguistics, suggested.  My friend Mikey, responding in a group chat in which I’d posed the question, said that they “build houses for low-income families.”  Moments later, another friend in that group posted, “I second Mikey,” so obviously that must have been a pretty good answer.

If I had asked myself the same question a year ago, (a clichéd premise, I know), I probably would have seconded Mikey as well. In my mind, at that time, Habitat was just a particularly generous construction crew. That was before I’d ever heard their mission statement, and more significantly, before I became a small part of the mission in that statement.

That mission is this:

“Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities, and hope.”

It seems like a simple enough statement. I don’t think most people with a passing familiarity with Habitat would be surprised by anything in it, at least. But if one really takes the time to dissect and consider the pieces of it, they may realize there’s more to it than would initially appear to be the case.

So with my final three blog posts as this year’s Greater Indy Habitat YAV, that’s precisely what I want to do. This being the first installment in the series, I want to start by looking at the first object of Habitat’s missional building: “homes.”

Perhaps Bill Withers put it best when he sang, “And this house just ain’t no home, anytime she goes away.”  There is a distinct difference between a house and a home. For the esteemed Mr. Withers, a house is where he lives, but a home is where he and this woman who brought sunshine to his life could be together. For many of our homeowners, the structure we build together is a place where their families can be safe.  It’s a place where they can find respite and revitalization.  It’s a place where they can find fellowship and freedom.  It’s a place where love can thrive.

Habitat forms relationships with their homeowners. They take the time to understand the needs of the homeowner, and demonstrate the necessary investment to care for those needs. It’s not that difficult to build houses; to run a blueprint through a conveyor belt and give people four walls and a roof. It’s not cheap, but it’s available almost everywhere today. What makes them homes, and what Habitat takes the utmost care to do, is the compassionate attention given to each family in the system, and each structure they build.

The homes these families build change their lives. They provide a brand new foundation from which things seem possible which may not have even been considerable before. A house cannot do that on its own.  It needs to be made into a home, and that’s why homes are the first thing Habitat builds.

Losing Your Faith

When I was considering which YAV site I wanted to be placed at, I was somewhat torn.  I didn’t doubt that my experience at any of them would be immense and life-changing in some way, or even that I would be glad I decided to go there.  Each of the options I looked at provided some incredible opportunities.  But I knew that the specific reasons I would be glad I went, and the specific ways in which my life would change, would be vastly different depending on which site I went to.  The task I had at that time was to try to predict what kind of specifically improved person I was going be glad to have become, before I began to become that person- and then to figure out which site would most help make that happen.

At some point during my discernment, I was on the phone with my older sister, and we ended up discussing some of my options.  When she asked me why I was potentially interested in Indy, I said, “Well I really like that the focus is interfaith.  But I don’t know if that’s a reason to go there.  I already know interfaith work is important. I don’t need to spend a year learning that.”

She responded with something along the lines of: “If interfaith work is so important to you, then why don’t you do it?”

Looking back, the real issue was probably more that the idea of living in Indianapolis for a year paled in comparison to the idea of living somewhere like South Korea for a year, and I was just making excuses.  But I couldn’t deny that my sister had a good point.  My YAV year wasn’t just going to be about learning about new issues (though that’s still a major and important aspect); it was going to be about doing work that matters to me, and exploring into causes I care about personally.

So I came here to learn about and engage in interfaith work.  Though my service at Habitat branches out to other things as well, that’s still the foremost part of my answer whenever somebody asks me why I’m doing a year of service in Indy.  And not everybody reacts to that answer the same way.

Early on in my year, my boss took one of my coworkers and me to a prayer breakfast downtown, with a lot of movers and shakers of the Christian Church in Indianapolis.  For those of you who, like me up until that point, have never been to a prayer breakfast- I can’t say whether or not they’re all like this one was, but here’s what they’re like if they are:

Essentially, a prayer breakfast is when a bunch of rich Christians get dressed up all nice, and meet in a big fancy room.  There, they eat a big fancy breakfast, and at some point, start lifting up big fancy prayers about the needs of the city.  These prayers then allow all the big fancy people there to feel good about helping out with all the dirty and/or complicated things going on in the world.  It’s a really great system, because, since they can now feel good about themselves, they no longer have to take any concrete action to help out with the dirty and/or complicated things, as a group which considers themselves the hands and feet of Christ might do.  Hooray.

In fairness, not all the people there were disconnected sycophants.  I know at least some of the people there would go on to do real, helpful things in the world.  And I believe even the majority of the people whom I rudely labelled sycophants just moments ago had to have been at least partially, if not mostly, well-intentioned.  Either way, none of that is really the point; that’s all just to describe where I was when this next bit took place.

The lady who was sitting next to me and I struck up a conversation before all the praying started, and over the course of that conversation, as is the way with such things, it was revealed that I was in Indy for interfaith work.  Moments later, I found out that this lady happened to be of the variety of person I mentioned earlier who doesn’t react very positively toward hearing about interfaith work.  Initially, she just seemed confused.  Then, there was a little back-and-forth, wherein it became clear she didn’t think I should be so reckless as to listen to the perspectives and experiences of people from other religions, particularly when it came to matters of religion.  I don’t remember a lot of what we discussed, but I do remember at one point she asked the question: “Aren’t you worried you’ll lose your faith?”

I had no answer for that.  Not in an “I’m so angry; I’m speechless!” way, but simply because I had never really considered it that way before.  At the time, I was only able to fumble out something along the lines of, “Umm… no.  Not really.”  But months later, this incident came back to mind, and I realized what my answer to her question really was.

I’m not afraid I’ll lost my faith as a result of interfaith involvement.  I’m afraid that, without it, I have no faith.

My faith teaches me that all people bear the Image of God.  My faith teaches me that the greatest commandment we ever received was to love God, and love one another.  My faith teaches me that God is infinite, and that God extends God’s grace to all people, through that unimaginable and insurmountably loving infinity. These are not just little quirks about my faith that I made up; they are part of the foundation of who God is, and who we are, according to the Christian tradition.  If I discount, avoid, or neglect the experiences and understandings of another person simply because they are not my own, I am running away from the Image of God as it’s been presented to me.

I could point to endless scripture, doctrine, and personal experiences that back me up on this, and even carry that point further still, but that’s not the purpose of this blog.  In a pathetically egotistical way with which I’m still coming to terms, this blog is just supposed to be about how I’ve grown over the course of my YAV year.

Before I came here, I knew interfaith work was important, and I almost left it at that.  When I started out here, I was eager to get involved, but I had no idea how to describe that to strangers.  As I move forward here, the experiences I’m having are slowly giving me the understanding and the words necessary to describe the imperative I believe God has for us to work together, for one another, regardless of our backgrounds.  And that’s why I’m here.

Let Us Work

Hey, I know it’s been a while since I posted here, but I promise I’ve got some stuff in the works.  In the meantime, here’s the latest post I wrote for the Habitat Interfaith Build blog-

 

We cannot stop.

We have worked hard, and accomplished something great.  The homes we built last year are a testament to the beauty of diversity, the sanctity of humanity, and the unfathomable, infinitely delightful, and irrefutable worth of our efforts when we come together for the good of one another.

At the same time, the world in which we performed that work has fractured.  The fear-borne divisiveness of our society has reached extreme highs, and the importance of our efforts to build community has subsequently skyrocketed.

Now, more than ever, we need people to start coming together in humility.

Now, more than ever, we need to be willing, able, and eager to learn from one another, and to serve one another.

Now, more than ever, our work is at its beginning.

That is not to say that the work we’ve already done is null and void, by any means.  On the contrary, what we’ve managed to accomplish so far shows us just how significant that work is.  It shows us how effective and meaningful this type of service is in combatting the trouble that seems to surround us in ever-increasing magnitude.

And yet there is so much yet to do, so much yet to begin fully.  When we consider that the entirety of humanity suffers or thrives as one, that the Image of God exists in the unity of all people, we have no course of action but to come together in action.  We are compelled to begin the restorative work of service.  And this service is not merely done for those we serve, nor for our own pride.  We serve one another for the greater good of every single one of us.

The artist Lilla Watson once said, “If you have come to help, then you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

If there is one thing Habitat is good at, it is “working together.”  The journey we embark on with each and every homeowner is a testament to the value of cooperation, human dignity, and the potential within all of us to build great things together.  We emphasize that what we do is a “hand up,” not a “handout.”  The work done at these Interfaith Builds especially, brings all people of different backgrounds together, to walk alongside a homeowner in the incredible work they do.  It is not the work of some, presented as a gift to others.  It is an act of supreme equality and togetherness.  It is the efforts of many, for the good of many.

And it is as hard as it sounds.  The efforts of many (as you may have already guessed) cannot be done alone.  In order to make these builds possible, we need the support of many different faith groups, coming together for one cause.  Currently, we are striving to attain the funding necessary for this year’s Interfaith Build.  It does not happen overnight, and it does not come easily, but we invest in it persistently.  We commit to this work, because we trust that accomplishing it together is glorious.  We commit to this work, knowing that despite our diverse religious backgrounds, our religious conviction to serve and to love one another can still unite us.  We commit to this work because it is worth every bead of sweat, every dollar spent, and every difficult moment, to see this work done.

So let us work together, all of us.  Let us work together to show love and kindness to our fellow human.  Let us work together to become better people together, and heal our hurting world.  Let us work together to build homes for families, hope for tomorrow, and community for everybody.

 

Peace, Salaam, Shalom.

 

Ps- If you are interested in supporting this year’s Interfaith Build financially, or getting your faith community involved, please contact Joel Reichenbach.  You can call him at 317.777.6070, or email him at jreichenbach@indyhabitat.org

Perspectivizing Defeat

Every weekday morning, I wake up and read the Skimm.

Sidenote- For those of you who don’t know, the Skimm is a daily news outlet that sends a brief email to all of its subscribers every weekday morning between six and seven.  It’s always concise, always contains perspectives from advocates as well as adversaries on any issue, always addresses news both domestic and international, and always contains links to more information if you’re interested.  It’s the best news source conceivable for less than ten minutes a day.
If that got you interested in subscribing to the Skimm, let me know and I’ll send you an invite!  When I invite people to subscribe, I get “Skimmpoints,” which I think I can trade in for a hat or something eventually.

Normally, reading the Skimm is a relatively enjoyable way to start the day. I appreciate the often-clever writing, and I particularly appreciate being well-informed.  Lately, however, these morning informings have been torning more alorming *cough cough* I mean turning more alarming.  The content I read in those daily emails has started affecting me somewhat more profoundly, and certainly more painfully.

I read about cabinet appointments who are more than just unqualified, getting confirmed.
I read about refugees being denied refuge at every turn.
I read about sacred land and essential water being forsaken by the government.
More each day, I read about the lives of millions of human beings being compromised by our congressional custodians in a cornucopia of increasingly calamitous ways, and I’m beginning to find myself utterly stupefied at how bad things can seem.

I feel like we’ve lost.

Feeling lost in a such a way can produce a variety of reactions.  It can and does make me want to fight.  It can and does make me want to hate the people who beat us.  It can and does make me want to ignore the issues that make me care whether I “win” or “lose” in the first place.  It can and does elicit anger, confusion, and despair.

But it is also a gift.  It helps me understand something which I feel I need to understand.

The devastation and defeat that I’m experiencing now is not unlike the defeat people who disagree with me experienced when I was rejoicing.  When Obama said that we’d take in 10,000 refugees, I rejoiced at the defeat of others.  When the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal across all fifty states, I rejoiced at the defeat of others.  In my adult life, I have had many occasions to rejoice at the defeat of others, and I have rarely bothered to consider the reality of their despair in relationship to the reality of my jubilance.

The first thing most children are taught from the very first time they ever win at anything is to respect their opponents who lost.  Nobody likes a sore winner.  And yet in the political arena, we get so infatuated with the justice we purport to serve, that we fail to acknowledge this basic principle.

I want to be perfectly clear here, that the point of this post is not to suggest that we even begin to let up on that infatuation with justice.  To do that would be to sacrifice everything, and accomplish nothing.  At the same time, I find myself convinced that as we continue to pursue justice, to fight for the rights of the dispossessed, and to support the marginalized people in our communities, we must also make every effort to show humanizing sympathy to those who disagree with us.

Whether they are right or wrong is not the point.  Whether they are good or bad is not the point.  Even as we continue to struggle against harmful values which they might hold dear, the point we must consider is that they too, are bearers of the Imago Dei.  Whatever atrocities they may support, I find it hard to believe that we’ll be able to instigate any long-term change until we change the way we relate to our enemy.  As long as we continue to disregard their emotions, and polarize their thinking (as well as our own), it will continue to be a fight.  The pendulum of partisan control and revilification of one another will continue to swing. There will continue to be defeat on both ends.

As I and those of you who hold similar opinions to my own sit in that defeat right now, I pray that it will help us learn how to love one another.  I pray that it will teach us to love our enemy as well as we love our other neighbors.  I pray that we might someday be able to defeat defeat itself, and work together for the good of all.

I pray also that that conclusion doesn’t sound too schmaltzy, and that the point I’m trying to convey, however ineloquently, can still reach you through the syrupy goo of my uncharacteristic idealism.