“Show Us the Church Is for Real”


FreeImages.com/David Ritter

On a hot July morning, we trudged across a blank courtyard and up unadorned cement steps to a stark upstairs room. Some thirty of us outsiders found seats in clumps, waiting, until eighteen men in blue streamed into the room, our hosts, residents there at the men’s state prison in Chillicothe, Ohio. They circulated among us as we stood to greet them, with handshakes and some (initially) tentative hugs. So began three days of truth-telling and vision-casting, wreathed by razor wire.

What was the truth that we heard again and again, from these incarcerated men? The church has failed us.

A man I’ll call Bing described the city neighborhood he had known. “There was a big church on the corner. People would come there and look over at me like I was the scum of the earth.” Not one of them ever had anything to say. They’d just go quickly and silently on inside that church building. Next to the church was a parsonage, but the pastor didn’t live there. “He rented it out to a guy who sold drugs. He knew that’s what was going on there. He didn’t care.”

Another man whom I’ll call Ray had been, before his incarceration, a long-time member of a church. Looking back, he doesn’t remember ever hearing Matthew 25 and the idea of serving the least of these. Church was “just a dog and pony show,” Ray said. “Grease the palm; pay the tithe.” When he got locked up, “not one member of the church came to see about me.” No one has made contact in the seven years he’s been in prison.

Ray told his truth, face downcast. Then he looked around and issued the call that reverberated within those aging concrete walls, and around our heads and hearts: “Show me and the guys here that the church is for real.”

He raised a crucial question. Is the church for real?

Hearing these men’s stories made me think about the church I have known and loved. I grew up in my grandparents’ church, in the town their grandparents had helped to settle. I never doubted the watchful eye and positive regard of that loving community. It’s no wonder church has always been family to me. It’s no wonder I could so freely enter into the life of other churches in different times and places across my years, without a shred of fear that I would be unwelcome.

It isn’t this way for the women I meet at the Iowa prison where I serve as pastor. Some of them have found supportive community through their churches. Most have not. When I surveyed dozens of them about serious life circumstances like homelessness, rape, addiction, mental illness, and deaths in the family, they reported experiencing these challenges with striking frequency. It is rare, though, for them to have confided in any church leader or church friend about those circumstances. “It was made very clear to me that I made the choice to use,” said M. “There wasn’t a place for me in the church.” Women who confide in a pastor or faith leader about the abuse they’re experiencing at home likely meet a brick wall of disbelief, inaction or platitudes about submission. A young woman looking forward to joining in the recovery program at her grandmother’s church heard these words from Grandma: “You can come; I hope you will. But you mustn’t mention your addiction, or talk about being locked up.”

I meet a lot of women in Mitchellville who are asking, in one way or another, “Is the church real?”

That bunch of us in Chillicothe, Ohio last summer:  we were a bunch of church people. We had been invited by the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church to join in this gathering. We came from a half-dozen states and with a wide range of experiences in prison ministries. It was hard to hear that the church, so dear to so many of us, had so failed these men who became, over the course of three days together, our “brothers in blue.”

At one point we were invited to sit in silence and entertain a vision to which God was leading us in these conversations. When we gathered to share, I described seeing a vital stream of people, talking and laughing, working and sharing, moving in and out of a church whose doors and walls were thrown wide open. A colleague from Iowa shared the vision that had come to him:  he had walked up to the women’s prison in Mitchellville, empty now and overgrown, no longer needed. He heard a child ask what this place was, and the answer came, “This used to be a place where we locked people up.”

My favorite vision, though, surfaced later in our time together. And it’s not for the faint of heart. But I share it here because it says something of the earnestness of the men we met in Chillicothe, and of their sincere hope for the church, and for their own potential. Read on, if you dare:

One of the men was speaking of the need for mentoring men like him, within the church. Another, whom I’ll call Clint, picked up this theme and described the “payoff” that the church would receive. “Remember Bing,” he said, “how he’d stand on the street across from that big church on the corner?  You might want to say something to him, but you don’t know what to say. One of us who’s been mentored? We’d know what to say. And we’d bring those people in.” Clint went on: “Once you’ve got a strong foundation in your church, with some sex offenders and some drug addicts and some murderers, then we can begin to have those real conversations in your churches. You give us some space, and once we get on our feet, we can give back.”

I can imagine that some of you, reading this, are startled—horrified, even—by this vision. Sex offenders and drug addicts and murderers? In my church? It’s a vision that highlights the need for good boundaries and excellent communication and careful community-building. But it’s a vision that also demands our prayerful attention. What couldn’t the church do, thrown open in that way? I’m pretty certain Jesus would be in that place, with those people, having those real conversations. Will we?

I want to be part of a church that real.


If you’re intrigued by this conversation and would like to join in, check out the conference we’re hosting for this purpose in Ankeny, Iowa on October 16-17, 2015. It’s called Right Next Door:  Beyond the Walls of Church and Neighbor. That experience in Chillicothe helped give birth to this conference. You can learn more and register at rightnextdoor2015.org. 

Time Travel

This afternoon, FullSizeRender (5)totally out of the blue, I bumped into my eight-year-old self. Suddenly she was where I was, right there, so real I could touch her. (“Me”?)

We were moving our son into an apartment in Pella. There are parts of Pella that I know as well as my hometown. Mom took me there every week for years—first for dance lessons and then for piano. We had family reunions there. I love the square, and the tulips, and Jaarsma Bakery.

But today, as GPS directed us to my son’s apartment, I found myself in a part of Pella I would have said I didn’t know. We went straight east of the town square. “I’ve never been this way before,” I thought to myself, watching the streets as they slipped by.

Until I came to a corner so familiar my breath caught. Abruptly I was in the passenger seat while my mom, driving our old sedan, turned left there, then right, into a driveway where we would take the eggs. We kept hens that produced more eggs than we could use.  In the back room of our old farmhouse, at the top of the stairs to the basement, Dad would arrange those excess eggs onto square brownish-gray molded paper trays—and sometimes I got to help. He would set those trays carefully down, layer upon layer, in a box designed to carry them securely. He would set them in the back seat of the car before my dance lesson and, while we were in Pella, Mom would drive east to this exact street, to deliver them to a local buyer.

The egg money probably helped to pay for my dance lessons. The eight-year-old who sat next to her mother all those years ago didn’t think about things like that. But with time travel, you see old things through older eyes.

And that’s what this was. Time travel. They say we don’t have that technology yet, but I’m here to tell you otherwise. I was suddenly there, or she (“I”!) was here. Completely in a moment that passed more than 40 years ago. I could smell the mustiness of autumn, see the porch lights that punctuated the gathering evening. I watched Mom set the box for next week’s eggs onto the back seat, and close the door. Heard her start the engine, ready to head home. Back down that route I was sure I didn’t know.

Becoming Lee

The day I moved into my college dorm, I changed my name. It wasn’t some carefully planned strategy. It was, I think, the expression of something deep inside me that I hadn’t said even to myself up until that moment.

The flurry of recent news around the white girl Rachel Dolezal who became the black girl Rachel Dolezal brings this experience back to me. I have some inkling of the itch that might generate such a shift. “I identify as black,” she says,even though her parents are white and her childhood photos depict a white girl. She claims, though, that she would draw herself using brown crayons and with black curly hair, from very early on.

Lee Ann at the end of 8th grade, May 1977

Lee Ann at the end of 8th grade, May 1977

I grew up as Lee Ann. “You are named after your two grandmas,” Mom would tell me as I cuddled on her lap in the big rocker in the dining room. That connection to Irma Lee and Anna Mae shaped me. Lee Ann was the responsible one, the goody-two-shoes, the talented but plain girl.

Renaming myself “Lee” changed my identity in ways that have both overtly and surreptitiously affected every day for me, ever since.

I don’t recall that I had any plan to do this. But that day already marked a decided shift in my life. Mom and Dad delivered my stuff and me to a dorm room in Burge Hall, which housed more people than my entire hometown. I didn’t know a soul there. I spent a desultory hour arranging things in my closet and drawers and then made myself walk down the hall to see who I would meet. Halfway down that corridor, just inside a room where I could hear two girls talking, and in the split second between that first “Hi, I’m” and speaking my name, I chose to say just “Lee.” It was a moment of brilliance, an unrepeatable opportunity that I am so glad I seized.

I’m not certain what “Lee” represented then, or now. I’m still the responsible one, still that “good girl,” the talented but plain one. But Lee is more independent than Lee Ann was. She’s a little less predictable. Stronger. More her own person. Creative, and a leader. Lee Ann might have been able to be all those things. But I’m not certain she would have been.

In my re-naming there was no fabricating, no speaking for persons whose experiences I do not share. Still there was some push-back. It took my mother a long time to call me just Lee. She worried that dropping the “Ann” in some ways dishonored my Grandma Roorda. I did, too, a little. Some long-ago friends and cousins still call me “Lee Ann.” But the changing (claiming?) of my identity as Lee didn’t involve the dislocation and, in some ways, deception that it did for Rachel Dolezal. I’m glad for that. It’s hard enough to figure out and be who we are without the world questioning our authenticity.


I wonder if I am the only one lamenting how I failed today. Again. Yes, we failed, but that includes I. Our collective failure is my failure.

Conference artI speak of our Annual Conference gathering, the annual meeting of Iowa United Methodists. It’s a time of reunion and learning, decision and disagreement. Our Sunday was marked by great joy as we celebrated, commissioned and ordained those progressing into ministry and those retiring. We focused together through the teaching of Rev. Adam Hamilton. We shared meals and books and stories and hugs and good, nourishing conversations.

Yet a pall lies over our gathering, as we labor under the divisive issues of human sexuality and Biblical interpretation. Our Conference Artist, Rev. Ted Lyddon-Hatten, has created an art installation at the back of our meeting hall that renders visible this division. Arid, rocky circles separately claim yet admit of no entrance to the baptismal font, which stands—empty, I believe—on a cracked base. Every time I pass it, I want to brave the rocks and reach the font, fill it, meet others there, bask together in cool, healing waters.

Yet I walk on by. I find I don’t know how to be the catalyst toward peace where there is no peace that I would like to be. I find myself impotent. Feeble. Shaken by my utter failure to know or take the slightest move toward resolution.

All this is a reminder of the great lie I have so wanted to believe. I so want to think that, if only I speak or write or do things well enough, you will understand my position. That position being the right one, you will naturally come over to it, and what seemed to be an unbridgeable abyss between us will vanish. This great lie encourages me to develop and place a great deal of faith, if I’m honest, in my intelligence and capability and creativity. It’s my “go-to” modality in interpersonal relations and ministry challenges.  I’ll express my position (=the truth!) with stunning clarity, and of course you will fall in line.

The fact that it works a fair amount of the time encourages me to believe that I am exceptionally good at this. On reflection, I think it means I generally choose battles that are exceptionally winnable.  It seems I am quite effective at persuading people who already are mostly of one mind with me.

When I come upon deep divisions like the issues hanging over us this week, my strategies are unmasked. My usual tools—and those others employ–including earnest discussion, cogent argument, personal witness, civil disobedience, lament, re-imagined parables, creative liturgy, prophetic art and pithy writing have not yet availed against these chasms. Nor–dare I say it?–love.

And so that sense of unaccustomed failure becomes part of the pall that lies over our time together. If only I had the right words…. If only I knew which conversation to initiate…. If only my prayers were more effective…. If only I knew what to do with that mustard seed…. If only….

(photo courtesy of Iowa Conference Communications)

And Who Is My Neighbor?

But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus told her a story.

A man was going down to Des Moines,* and found himself surrounded by bullies, who taunted him with words like “bigot” and “fundamentalist” and “out of touch.” They couldn’t hear, or didn’t believe, the real struggle he had undergone, the real relationships he had tended, the hurt he had experienced in being misunderstood and marginalized. They walled him off, shut him down and went away, leaving him feeling half dead.

A woman was going up to Des Moines, and found herself surrounded by haters who questioned her right to be who she was, the way she was, her place among them, her very existence. They struck her with words like “Biblical” and “tradition” and stripped her of the sense of self, and the sense of call, that she was wearing. Then they went away, leaving her feeling half dead.

Now by chance a pastor appointed to an extension ministry passed by this man and this woman, and saw them both. But she walked on by, fearful of getting involved with either one of them. Who might be watching? Whose support could be forfeited?

So likewise a leadership development minister, when he came to the place and saw this woman and this man, passed by without stopping to talk or offer support. This dispute was outside his job description. He had people waiting to talk to him.

But a ___________________ came near these two souls, and upon seeing them, was moved with love. This individual came close to the one and then to the other, looking deeply upon who they were, at their integrity, at their efforts to be faithful. “Come and sit at my table,” said this stranger, making room, and pouring out wine and setting out bread that they might share at their table and beyond. As they ventured to eat a morsel, followed by a sip, a bit of conversation began among them. They began to be clothed with the stories they shared, of where they had been and what had shaped them, what they had been through and where they had seen God. “Take care of these friends,” said their host to those nearby. “Join in this conversation. And you will be repaid.”

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man and the woman who fell into injustice?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed them mercy.” Jesus said to her, “Go, and do likewise.” (adapted from Luke 10.29-37)

Who might you place in that blank? A candidate at the early steps toward ordination? A brand new lay member? One of the young people serving as a page? More important than who fills that blank is Jesus’ charge to the rest of us, who will almost certainly find ourselves tempted to walk right past pain and division, as if it isn’t our place to respond. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus said. This week.


*Perhaps these travels were to attend Annual Conference, the gathering of United Methodists that happens each June in Iowa.  This year it starts on Saturday, June 6 and concludes on Tuesday, June 9.  More than a thousand clergy and lay members will come together, from every United Methodist Church around the state.