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Occupying the Church (and a New Home) – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #39

Dear friends,
This has been the month of the big move. Faith and I, after years of living together at the William Penn House, took up residence in our new home, four miles directly east on East Capitol Street. Things are very different now. Before, we lived together in a single room, shared a bathroom and shower with a WPH intern, and shared a kitchen with the entire Penn House staff. Now, we have a whole house all to ourselves. We are still getting used to the idea that we have multiplerooms for our exclusive use, not to mention that dinner will not be interrupted by guests from the hostel asking us to tend to their needs.
Moving day was the second of February, and the biggest change so far is definitely the sense of distance from the hustle and bustle of the William Penn House. I am only now beginning to appreciate what an intense experience it was to live full-time in a hostel with up to thirty guests at a time. The sheer energy of the place could be overwhelming, especially when groups rented the entire house. This took a toll on me, and I did not even work there. In Faith’s case, her job, living and social scene were all combined at the Penn House. For her, our new home represents an opportunity for genuine retreat, and to develop a life away from work.

The transition to the new house has been exciting and exhausting. There has been so much to do – hauling, unpacking, setting up our utilities, gathering furniture, and beginning to think about how to decorate. Soon, we will begin getting around to the exterior maintainance that needs doing. In spite of all of the work to do, I suspect that our move has been easier than most. We have had a lot of support from our friends here in the city, especially folks at the William Penn House. Even after the move, Faith spends much of her time back at William Penn House (she works there, after all!), and I visit on a regular basis. We both continue to be part of that community, though the form of our participation is changing. Our relationship with William Penn House is a source of strength.

Besides all the preparations for moving into our new house, the other major focus of my life this past month has been the emerging Occupy Church movement. From the very beginning of Occupy DC, there has been a strong faith component. Folks from a variety of religious traditions have come together to highlight the moral failure of a country in which the vast majority of resources are controlled by an increasingly tiny percentage of our citizens. During the first weeks of Occupy DC, it became clear to several Christian occupiers that we needed an explicitly Christian voice within the Occupy movement, in addition to the wider interfaith network. One night in mid-October, Brian Merritt, Jeremy John and I set up the Prayer Tent in McPherson Square, and Occupy Church was born.

Through the end of 2011, Occupy Church was primarily a solidarity effort within the McPherson Square camp. However, with the dawn of the new year, Occupy Church has begun to move in new directions. As the camping aspect of the Occupy movement has become increasingly marginal, Occupy Church has started to focus its efforts beyond the encampments. We are now holding regular organizing meetings on Saturday mornings, as well as larger, monthly gatherings for everyone who is interested in seeing what a broad-based, ecumenical Christian effort towards economic justice might look like.

The name “Occupy Church” is intentionally ambiguous. First and foremost, it represents our identity as Christians in solidarity with the Occupy movement. We are Christians from a variety of denominations and communions who feel the Holy Spirit calling us to bear prophetic witness to the plight of the poor, and God’s anger with the fact that there are more than forty-five million people living in poverty in this, the wealthiest nation the world has ever known. We feel God calling us to join with the Lord Jesus Christ in proclaiming his good news to the poor – release for the oppressed, sight to the blind, and a Jubilee year of debt cancellation(1).

In this sense, “Occupy Church” represents our sense that God is calling us to embody Kingdom values in the world. Far from blessing the insatiable greed of Wall Street and K Street, we believe that God is calling us into a life of selfless giving. Imitating the prophetic life of our crucified Savior, we feel compelled to draw attention to the idolatry of a country where Money and Market are worshiped as gods, and the self-denying love of Jesus is mocked as foolish idealism, at best.

There is, however, another sense in which the name “Occupy Church” can be understood. In addition to the calling we sense to embody Christ’s love for the poor and prophetic witness against idolatrous greed, we cannot help but notice that the Christian community has itself been colonized by the demonic values of Empire. Despite our half-hearted confessions on Sunday morning, the Christian Church as a whole does not bear fruit of genuine repentance. We, too, have been seduced by promises of power and prosperity. As a practical matter, we too have come to worship money as our only absolute.

For this reason, Occupy Church cannot only be a witness by the Church to the world. On the contrary, the Church itself must be re-occupied by the gospel of Jesus Christ, whose place in our community has been usurped by false idols of gold, silver and bronze. Occupy Church represents a call for radical reformation within the Church, as well as in the wider society. Both within the Church and beyond it, we feel called to carry the good news that Jesus has for the poor, and the hard work of repentance that will be necessary to change our worldview from one ruled by money to one in which we are embraced by the power of Love.

Please pray for those of us in Washington, DC who are gathering together in the name of Jesus to confront the principalities and powers that have taken hostage our entire society, including much of the Church. Pray that we might grow in spiritual maturity and dedication as we live into the radical call that we are hearing from the Holy Spirit in these days. Also, I would ask that you prayerfully consider whether God is calling you to get involved in the Occupy Church movement. This is only the beginning, and it will take far more than a small band of brothers and sisters in Washington, DC to effect a reformation of the ecumenical Christian Church.
As I have become fond of saying, we are on a Fifty Year Plan. We have no illusions about easy victories or quick fixes. We are in this struggle for the long haul, and we pray that you will join us in the long march towards an economy based in love rather than greed.
Your friend in the love and light of our Savior,
Micah Bales
1. Luke 4:18-19

Time to Occupy the Church

Ever since becoming a Christian, I have read in the Book of Acts about the radical fearlessness of the early Church, and I have long been inspired by the witness of the early Quaker movement, which cast aside comfort and privilege to shine a light on all the forces that held women and men in misery. Yet, I had never myself seen this kind of communal faithfulness in action. It took an apparently secular movement like Occupy Wall Street to help me really understand, on an experiential level, what an authentic movement for justice and righteousness could actually look like.

The Occupy movement is based in a sense of indignation that a tiny elite of our wealthiest citizens and their corporations have virtually monopolized the political discourse in this country. Elections have devolved into auctions, with the candidate who is able to raise the most money from corporate sponsors almost always emerging victorious. As public opinion is increasingly swayed by massive corporate propaganda campaigns, all semblance of real democracy is slipping away. The Occupy movement names these truths, revealing them in bold acts of street theater. It creatively disrupts the careful choreography of the wealthy elites and their servants.

The Occupy movement is playing a prophetic role in our society. It has ripped away the thin veneer of legitimacy that previously masked the criminal actions of the corporate powers and their bought-and-paid-for politicians. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the occupiers have revealed the true condition of our nation.

It is amazing to see how God is using the most unlikely of characters – anarchists and homeless people, young idealists and unemployed construction workers – to call our attention to the truth. Those whom our society has rejected have been chosen to serve as the national conscience.

This has Jesus’ fingerprints all over it. Jesus always got push-back from the respectable people of his day – religious and community leaders – for spending his time with tax collectors and sinners, lepers and prostitutes. Jesus not only mixed with people whom his socity deemed dirty and worthless, he called them his friends. Jesus invited the lowest of the low to become friends of God. He empowered society’s outcasts to reveal God’s love, mercy and justice to the world.
The Occupy movement is not made up of the “important” people of our day. Religious leaders in particular have been cautious about getting too close to this risky group of people who are speaking truth to power. It is one thing to preach a sermon on peace from the safety of the pulpit – it is another thing entirely to put our bodies and reputations on the line to advance the cause of truth and mercy in our communities. So far, most church people have not been ready to take the plunge.
I do believe, however, that God is calling the Christian community to get out of our comfort zone, to invest ourselves in the struggle for economic justice and genuine democracy. We can no longer hide behind a false neutrality that only emboldens the predatory behavior of the wealthiest and their corporations. When a bully is hurting your friends, you cannot be neutral. There are villains in this story, and they must be confronted.

Far too often, we ourselves have been the villains. Through selfishness and cowardice, we have participated in the systems of injustice that are choking the dignity of millions. Perhaps this is one reason that we are so reluctant to commit ourselves in this new movement. If we are to stand up for truth and righteousness, we will be forced to acknowledge the ways in which we have fallen short. We will be forced to change.

This is hard. It is a process that will take years and decades. But I am convinced that we must start now. We, the ecumenical Christian Church in the United States, must take up the frightening responsibility of living and proclaiming the uncompromising love and prophetic justice of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is only by participating in his mission to liberate the poor and oppressed(1) that we can ever hope to be his disciples.

This Thursday evening, at 7:00pm, some of us who desire to become more faithful disciples of our homeless Savior(2) will be gathering at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. We call on Christians of all denominations and communions to join with us in issuing a call to repentance and renewal of faith in the God who stands with the poor and the powerless. Together, we will seek to embody the love, strength and courage of Jesus Christ through positive action for justice, reconciliation and peace.

If you are in the DC area, please join us. If you are in another region, please pray for us, and consider holding a similar gathering in your area. As followers of the crucified Messiah, we can no longer be silent. The time has come to Occupy the Church.

1. Luke 4:18-19
2. Luke 9:58

2011 in Review – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #38

Dear friends,
This has been a year of major transition and growth for me. Some of the change has been personal – such as my involvement in the Occupy movement, and Faith’s and my decision to purchase a house in DC. Other change has been more corporate, such as the increasing maturation of Capitol Hill Friends, and developments within Rockingham Meeting, Stillwater Quarterly Meeting, and Ohio Yearly Meeting as a whole. For me, 2011 was a year of reality checks. At many points, I have been brought low. I pray that these experiences will produce a lasting groundedness in me.
The big adventure this year was my summer travels to England, Kenya and Rwanda. The voyage began with a week-long layover in London, which allowed me to visit a number of British Friends connected with Ohio Yearly Meeting, as well as some others whom I knew through the 2010 Quaker Youth Pilgrimage. I believe that these opportunities were a blessing both for me and for those who welcomed me, and I was grateful for the chance to become better acquainted with the context of Friends in the UK.
Following this, I joined my colleagues from ESR on a tour through East Africa. We saw Nairobi, went on safari, and visited Friends in Kenya’s Western Provence. Then, we flew to Rwanda, where we were able to meet Friends from Rwanda Yearly Meeting. I was very impressed with the faith of African Quakers, and saw how Friends there hold many pieces of the radical Quaker faith that we in the United States often miss.
At the same time, I witnessed some of the effects that poverty and a history of colonialism have had on our African brothers and sisters. Above all, I was convicted of my own society’s ingratitude for the wealth and privilege that we possess. How do we as citizens of post-colonialist nations take responsibility for our luxury, which to a great extent has been purchased with the blood of non-European peoples? This is a question first and foremost for the Church, which claims faith in Jesus Christ, who proclaimed good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed.
I brought these concerns back home to DC, realizing that our spiritual barrenness in the developed world is perhaps an even greater burden than the material poverty of those in the global south. Together with Friends at Capitol Hill Friends, I feel called to be a light in the darkness, an embodiment of Christ’s love in a culture that has largely turned away from him.
A big part of this calling has found expression through the continued development of Capitol Hill Friends. In February, we had a major shake up when two of our five core people felt the need – for a variety of reasons – to withdraw from the community. This was a major blow, which knocked the wind out of us for a little while. It forced the three remaining core people to get even more serious about the direction our group was headed in. It was at about this time that we made the decision to switch our worship time from the 2nd and 4th Wednesday evenings to Sunday nights.
Along with a new meeting time, we also began to gather much more regularly as a core group. Starting in the fall, the core group has been meeting once or twice a month for prayer, discernment, decision-making and mutual support. As the year went on, we became clear that Capitol Hill Friends is actually a little church, not just a worship opportunity. We recorded three members, and incorporated Capitol Hill Friends as a legal entity. In the fall, Lily Rockwell of Stillwater Monthly Meeting (Ohio Yearly Meeting) came and joined us as a sojourning member of our fellowship. She has been invaluable in helping to nurture the church, and we are very grateful for God having sent her to us.
At this point, Capitol Hill Friends has three regular members, one sojourning member, and approximately a dozen attenders. Our normal attendance on Sunday nights is about eight. While these are not huge numbers, we have experienced a remarkable shift from 2010, when Capitol Hill Friends was primarily a worship opportunity but had no real core or sense of identity. Now, Capitol Hill Friends is an independent church in the Quaker tradition, albeit a small one.
As such a tiny group, relationships with a wider fellowship of believers is crucial. We have found most support in our relationship with New City Friends, another new Quaker church in Detroit, Michigan. Late last year, we adopted a shared set of Advices and Queries with them, and each of our communities has been answering them on a monthly basis. Also, we met twice this year for joint retreats; the first taking place in Washington, DC in April, and the second occuring in Detroit, in November.
At our November meeting, Friends from New City Friends and Capitol Hill Friends felt clear to continue to deepen our relationship as an extended fellowship. We agreed to make slight revisions to our Queries (to render them more straightforward to answer), and we were in unity to hold two joint retreats in 2012. The exact dates have not yet been set, but we plan to gather together in a central location in the spring and early fall. We hope that other Friends, worship groups and Meetings of like mind will join with us and explore what it means to live a faith of radical discipleship to Christ Jesus in the early 21st century.
There is, however, a sad subtext to these exciting developments. I feel very pleased with the growth in relationship between New City Friends, Capitol Hill Friends, and others Friends of like mind; and I believe that this new association has the potential to offer a vibrant alternative for Friends in North America. However, we had hoped that we would not be forced to go independent.
Both New City Friends and Capitol Hill Friends were turned away by pre-existing Friends bodies. Some Friends are uncomfortable with our uncompromising commitment to shared Christian faith. Others are put off by our clear affirmation of our gay, lesbian and transgender brothers and sisters. Despite our best attempts, there seems to be no existing body that has room for all of who we are. This has been a source of great sadness for us; however, we must be faithful to the witness of the Holy Spirit in our midst, even if our sister Yearly Meetings cannot embrace us.
Please pray for Capitol Hill Friends, New City Friends, and for the many Friends today that find nowhere to fit in within existing Yearly Meetings. Pray that God will strengthen us in our faith and in our fellowship, and that the Spirit will draw together other individuals and groups who are being called into this new thing that Christ is doing today.
Before I conclude, I cannot fail to mention the immense impact that the Occupy movement has had on me these last few months. I got involved early in this movement, because I felt the Lord’s hand on me, urging me forward. I was in New York during the second week of Occupy Wall Street, and I was one of the original organizers of Occupy DC. Now, I feel that the movement has reached a turning point. Phase one is over, and something new must emerge for us to continue to have an impact. I do not know what exactly this next phase will look like, but I am praying that it might have the effect of empowering ordinary working Americans to re-assert their rights and responsibilities as citizens, taking power back from the corporations and monied interests that have so undermined our democracy.
The experience of being and organizer for the Occupy movement has changed me. During college, I became totally disillusioned with activism, and since that time have not thought of myself in those terms. It was a great surprise when I sensed God calling me to participate in this movement. Much more so when I realized that God was leading me to be one of the main people to get things going in DC!
This movement has radicalized me. I can no longer sit on the sidelines while billionaires and their servants transform our democracy into a corporate state. I can no longer keep silent while the rich grow richer at the expense of the most vulnerable. I can no longer maintain neutrality while the middle class is obliterated. In recent months, I have been awakened to the radical implications of Jesus’ jubilee proclamation(1). I must stand with the poor and oppressed. I must witness to the damage being done to women and men – and to the whole of creation – to satisfy our greed and idolatry. I can no longer preach a spiritualized gospel, reduced to personal spiritual growth. God’s justice and salvation must be embodied among the poor, in our prisons, in the oil-soaked Gulf of Mexico, and in the halls of power.
Thank you for walking beside me in this journey. This year has been a wild ride, and I have no doubt that 2012 will be at least as full of surprises. Just before Faith and I left DC for the holidays, we bought our first house, located in Northeast DC. Please pray that we be blessed in our new home and that our affordable movers will not break any of our stuff; and for our life together as we deepen our commitment to our city, our church and our extended community of friends.
Your friend in Truth,
Micah Bales
1. See Luke 4:14-28

A Golden Calf for Congress

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ – Exodus 32:7-8

Yesterday morning, I helped deliver a golden calf to Congress. Starting off at the Occupy DC encampment in McPherson Square, we bore a shining paper-maché bull approximately two miles to the US Capitol Building as a sign of our spiritual condition as a nation that worships greed rather than God; a society that values profits over people. This demonstration brought together people of faith – especially Christians and Jews – who bore witness against the unjust economic systems that have taken root in our nation.

The image of the golden calf is an ancient one, shared by the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It represents the fearful worship of money; the denial of God in the rush for man-made security and prosperity. Human society is always a struggle between our tendency to worship the golden calf of our own frightened selfishness and our true calling as children of the God of mercy, justice and truth.

Unfortunately, our nation is caught in a downward spiral of Wealth-worship. We live in a country where billionaires and giant corporations pay little or no taxes; yet this same nation is cutting social services for the mentally ill, homeless, disabled, and working poor. We live in a society where working families are being evicted from their homes while the banks that dreamed up their bad loans have been rewarded – bailed out from a mess that the poor and middle classes have been left to clean up.

Today, as we stood before the halls of power in the wealthiest country in human history, we proclaimed God’s righteous anger; anger against an economy and government that oppresses the poor so that the rich can inflate their already obscene wealth. We sought to remind lawmakers of God’s judgment against those who abuse their positions of authority, abandoning the most vulnerable in our society and instead taking sides with those who have the most.

For me, this public witness was an outgrowth of my faith in the Lord Jesus, who began his ministry with a sermon from the sixty-first chapter of the prophet Isaiah. As we stood before the Capitol Building in prayer for our nation, I read aloud a portion of that passage of Scripture:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, 
   because the LORD has anointed me 
   to proclaim good news to the poor. 
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, 
   to proclaim freedom for the captives 
   and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a] 
  to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor 
   and the day of vengeance of our God, 
to comfort all who mourn, 
   and provide for those who grieve in Zion— 
to bestow on them a crown of beauty 
   instead of ashes, 
the oil of joy 
   instead of mourning, 
and a garment of praise 
   instead of a spirit of despair. 
They will be called oaks of righteousness, 
   a planting of the LORD 
   for the display of his splendor.
   They will rebuild the ancient ruins 
   and restore the places long devastated; 
they will renew the ruined cities 
   that have been devastated for generations. – Isaiah 61:1-4

 

I pray that this Scripture will be fulfilled in your hearing. I pray that we as a nation will receive the grace that the Lord gave to Nineveh. I pray for God to fill our hearts with the spirit of repentance, inspiring us to put the needs of the poor and marginalized first. Let us imitate the Lord Jesus, who laid aside all honor and glory so that he could become a servant to all.

Time To Choose

Since the early days of the Occupy Movement, I and many other scattered believers have been calling on the Church to throw our support behind the call for economic justice and global repentance. Some Christians have been openly involved from the very beginning, and more of us become involved every day.

The Occupy Movement continues to gain momentum, a month and a half later. There is now widespread support for the sentiment expressed by the hundreds of occupations in cities around the world: That corporate greed and the hoarded wealth of the richest 1% are unjust, and that the world needs a new, sustainable economic model that is based in the needs of all people, not just the wealthy few.
Anyone who read the Sermon on the Mount could have told you that. So why has the Church remained silent for so long? The followers of Jesus should be at the forefront of movements for economic justice and sustainability; yet, the Church has largely remained on the sidelines.

In London, the Occupation is taking place on the grounds of St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of the crown jewels of the Anglican Church. Though this presented an opportunity for the Church to provide both material and moral support to the occupiers, St. Paul’s Cathedral has instead joined in a lawsuit to remove demonstrators from church grounds. The result of the lawsuit could be the forceable removal of the occupiers. This decision has percipitated a serious split among cathedral officials, with several resigning in protest.

The public division within the Church in London is emblematic of the dilemma facing the entire Body of Christ. In the face of rising poverty, systematic injustice and a corporate takeover of the political system, how are we as Christians called to respond? Will we cling to the imagined security of this present order, or will we stand openly with the thousands of women and men who are putting their bodies on the line to call for a more just society?
So far, most of us have yet to make a clear choice. Much of the Church stands on the sidelines, waiting to see which way the wind will turn. God hates this. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus speaks to the fence-riding Church, saying: “…because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.”(1)
How long will we remain a Laodicean Church? How long will we sit comfortably on the sidelines while the poor are oppressed and the needs of ordinary people are trampled upon by faceless powers and principalities? Will we keep our hands clean from the messy business of social justice when this is precisely the work that our Lord Jesus calls us to?
God is calling us to make a decision. There is still time to stand on the side of the outcast, the homeless, the working poor and the tightly-squeezed middle class. There is still time to add our voices to those who have already raised theirs, calling for a changed heart in this land.
But time is running out. As my friend Noah writes, “…this opening to choose won’t last forever. In faithfulness, timing matters as much as showing up.” Our day of visitation is here. Will we respond in faith, or will we shrink back and take the wide, easy path that leads to destruction?
1. Revelation 3:16-17

Encountering the Face of Christ in Africa – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #32

Dear Children of Light,

Air travel is an amazing thing, and it took me only about forty-eight hours to get from Gisenyi, Rwanda back to my home in Washington, DC. The ride from Gisenyi to Kigali, and the flightsKisumu Airport from Kigali to Nairobi to London to Washington were very tiring, however. By the time I arrived home on Sunday afternoon, I was ready to sleep for a week. Nevertheless, in the couple of days since I have been home, I have been trying to maintain a regular schedule so as to re-adjust to the US Eastern time zone.

As I sit down to write this letter, I am still loopy from jetlag. I am also feeling rather intimidated at the prospect of encapsulating this month’s experiences into a brief missive. So much has happened in the last three weeks. I hope you will forgive me for being a little longer than usual.

It started in England. On 10 June, I arrived in London and spent the night with Friends in Greenwich. I stayed with Simon Watson and his family. I was grateful for the generosity of their hospitality, as they were kind enough to host me for several nights during my trip. I sense that my visit was encouraging for Simon, and I was gratefulRipley Friends for the time that we were able to share together.

The next day, I took the train up to Derbyshire (the English pronounce it “darby-sheer”) and visited Friends connected with the Ripley Quaker Meeting, which meets weekly at a local community center. It was a blessing to be with these faithful Friends. I had connected with many of them already through Facebook and Skype, but it was a real gift to spend time in the home of the Lomax family, and to see them face-to-face for the first time. On Sunday morning, we had a favored meeting for worship, with the power of the Lord Jesus being felt clearly in our midst.

This is the way I would describe the whole of my time in England: covered with a profound sense of the presence and power of Jesus Christ. I had many doubts about taking this trip, primarily due to concerns about the ecological damage caused by air travel. Nevertheless, I could not deny the way the Lord’s hand was
QYPers and John Punshon at Friends Library in London present in my visits among Friends in the UK. Where the Lord sends his servants, he makes the rocky paths smooth and the way straight!

While in England, I was able to link up with the two British leaders from last Year’s Quaker Youth Pilgrimage, as well as several of the pilgrims who live in the London area. It was great to catch up with these Friends and see them in their “natural habitat.” I was also able to visit Ben Gosling – another affiliate of Rockingham Meeting – and his wife Libertad at their home in Lavenham (in Suffolk). It was lovely to spend time with these Friends, and to get a tour of the historic village they live in, which preserves many buildings from the medieval period.

Overall, I believe that my travels in the United Kingdom were a blessing, both to me and to those whom I was able to visit. For my own part, I feel better informed about the situation that our affiliates in England are facing at this time. The last years have been very hard for the community of Conservative Friends in the UK, and I feel great sympathy for them as they struggle to be faithful in trying circumstances. More than sympathy, I feel conviction that I must examine how God might be calling me to lend support and encouragement to British Conservative Quakers. I sense that this may be a question that Friends in my Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meeting may wish to continue to consider together.

Feeling very blessed by the opportunities the Lord had opened for me in England, I took my leave of British Friends to continue on to Africa. Earlham School of Religion, where I work as Coordinator of Young Adult Engagement, was holding a faculty retreat in Kenya and Rwanda. As member of the administrative faculty, I was invited to participate. In addition to the opportunity to spend more time with my colleagues at ESR, I was grateful for the chance to become acquainted with Friends in East Africa. Kenya is home to the largest population of Friends in the world, and I was excited to learn more Lionabout the breadth and diversity of cultural expressions that exist in the modern-day Friends Church.

The first few days of the trip were not business-like at all. We flew into Nairobi and, after a night at the Mennonite Guest House, rode down to the Masai Mara game reserve to spend a couple of days on safari. The safari was a good way to begin the trip, and it was impressive to observe in their native habitat so many animals that I had only ever seen in zoos. Lions, cheetahs, elephants, hippos, and many other species were present in abundance. I took lots of pictures.

As fun as all this was, my own personal priority was to connect with the people of East Africa – especially Quakers. I was elated when we flew out to Kisumu (Western Kenya) and began to visit Friends there. They were not hard to find. In Western Kenya, Quakers are the largest single denomination and ESR Visits Kaimosi Hospitalhave a larger membership than all the Yearly Meetings in North America put together. It was quite an experience to be in a place where the Quaker Church is normative.

While in the area, we visited several important locations. We were able to see the famous Kaimosi Hospital, which I had been hearing about for years as a member of the Friends United Meeting General Board. We also spent several days at Friends Theological College, which is the single most important center of theological education for Friends in East Africa. I greatly enjoyed my time at the school and would like to return some day, as the Lord permits. I was particularly impacted by a visit the house where the first Friends missionaries to Kenya came and began preaching the gospel in 1902. It was amazing and inspiring to stand in the historical epicenter of African Quakerism.

When we had completed our visits in Western Kenya, we flew to Kigali, Rwanda. Rwanda surprised me with how different it felt from Kenya. In Kenya, there were unavoidable signs of intense poverty everywhere; in Rwanda, however, it was a little bit less obvious. The city of Kigali, in particular, felt very developed. Clean, orderly, and apparently relatively prosperous, Rwanda’s capital felt similar in Genocide Memorial, Kigali, Rwandamany ways to what I had experienced in the urban areas of Mexico (which is quite a developed country by world standards).

During the week we spent in Rwanda, however, I began to learn about the dark side of Rwanda’s apparent prosperity. When I started asking prying questions about the government, I learned that all is not as idyllic as is immediately apparent. One citizen informed me that she felt afraid to make any statement about the government that might be considered negative. However, because we were not in the company of other Rwandans, she helped explain why things look so nice in the cities and along the major roads in the countryside.

Apparently, the Rwandan government requires that buildings be made in a certain style using certain materials. Tile roofs, brick and cement walls – solid, high-quality construction. Expensive construction. I learned that apparently the government not only requires this for new construction, but also has an active program that requires homeowners to upgrade their houses to the new code, especially if their homes are along major thoroughfares that might be seen by tourists. I was told that those who are unable to upgrade their houses to meet government criteria are evicted and have their land confiscated (frequently without any compensation). Jay and EmanuelThe properties are re-sold to those who can afford to improve the land.

The strong hand of the Rwandan government is felt in the life of the Church, as well. Rwanda Yearly Meeting is perhaps the only Friends body in the world that requires water baptism for membership. They do this because the central government will not recognize (or, it seems, tolerate) any church that does not meet certain criteria. One of those criteria is performing water baptism. As an outsider, and a very uninformed one at that, it would have felt wrong to criticize the Friends Church in Rwanda for ceding Friends testimony on this point. However, it is clear that religious freedom is limited in Rwanda in ways that I find difficult to accept.

Our time with the brothers and sisters in Rwanda Yearly Meeting was lovely. They are an amazing group of Friends, who in only a couple of decades have developed a network of sixty churches across Rwanda, as well as an impressive system of schools and programs to give relief to widows and orphans. We were blessed and humbled by Friends’ warm hospitality to us. Despite Rwanda’s apparent national wealth in comparison to Kenya, it is clear that the common people of Rwanda still live in extreme poverty by most standards. In spite of this, we were welcomed with open arms and treated to lavish hospitality. It was a humbling Friends Meeting House in Rural Rwanda (near Gisenyi)experience to see Friends in Rwanda minister to us out of their material poverty.

By the end of this trip, I was coming to see that it was I who was impoverished. I have had the luxury of so many material and educational advantages by virtue of my family of birth and country of origin. I live at a standard that would be almost unbelievable to most people in East Africa. And yet, I see that I and the society that I live in are poor in the things that matter most. I see more clearly than ever that my own spiritual condition has been that of the church at Laodicea, of which Jesus said, “…you say ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor blind and naked.”(1)

Guilty as charged. I pray for God’s mercy, knowing that I have lived so long in material comfort and luxury that I have become blinded to the needs of the poor, marginalized and oppressed. Living in urban North America, it is hard to conceive of what material wealth truly is. Material wealth is having running water and electricity. It is having an educational system that is available to all. It is eating protein every day and having access to a variety of foods. Being rich is owning a cookbook and being able to purchase the ingredients forRural Village Meeting Near Gisenyi, Rwanda any recipe. I have often failed to realize what amazing blessings these truly are. These are things that should not be taken for granted.

I have also seen more clearly what spiritual wealth is. Spiritual wealth is cooking up the best food that you have – even if it is just feed corn, casava bread, rice and beans – and serving it to guests who have traveled from far away to see you. It is only the spiritually wealthy who can show true love by giving generously, wrecklessly – not out of their own abundance, but out of poverty. True, spiritual wealth is welcoming guests, caring for orphans and widows, and seeing that the next generation gets a decent education.

On this trip, I saw the face of Jesus Christ in his Church. I saw the way that our brothers and sisters in East Africa love the Lord, not just through words and easy gestures, but through self-sacrifice Etienneand hospitality that costs something. I saw the radiant joy that comes from holding nothing back, from acknowledging that life is a gift from God that we can never own, only hold in trust.

I have seen so much in the past weeks that has convicted me of my own spiritual shallowness and of the failure of the North American Church to take seriously Christ’s call to take up the cross. I am still processing these experiences. I am unsure of where this all leads. One thing is for certain: I am a lot less far along in my walk with the Lord than I would prefer to imagine.

Yet, I also feel a great sense of hope. Among Friends in East Africa, I have seen that the yoke of our Lord Jesus is truly easy, his burden light. If only we here in the North American Church would surrender our own privilege and sense of control, we could share in the easy burden of Jesus. I see more clearly now that I must lay down the burden of control, of self-protection, and of “having David Johns with Childrenenough.” I want to follow Jesus, and now more than ever I see that I cannot serve two masters.

Clearly, though this letter has been much longer than usual, there is a lot left to process. I do suspect that I will do a lot of this processing in the coming weeks on my blog, The Lamb’s War. I encourage you to subscribe to my blog if you have not already, or just check in from time to time. These experiences will definitely take some time to sort through, and I would welcome your accompaniment on this journey.

Thank you so much for all your prayers as I have been traveling. I have felt safe in my journeys, knowing that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ watches over me and has a plan for my life. I am unutterably grateful for the way God has provided for me thus far, and for the way God continues to teach and guide me. I pray that each of you may experience this same blessing.

Blessings and peace to you in the Lord Jesus,

Micah Bales

1. Revelation 3:17

When Do We Have Enough?

I recently read a sermon entitled, How Much Is Enough?, by Gordon Cosby, founder of the Church of the Saviour here in Washington, DC. The sermon, which dates from 1990, talks about the ways in which our lack of trust in God for our daily needs creates a barrier between us and other people in our lives – particularly between us and those in our society that are living on the margins – the homeless, the very poor, the outlaw. How can we, he asks, expect to imitate Jesus in his love for the poor and the outcast when our privilege makes us so uncomfortable around the very people that Jesus spent the most time with?

Crutches near Eastern Market, DCCosby’s questions convict me. Here in DC, I regularly encounter homeless citizens who linger in the places I frequent – on street corners and in parks, in front of the pharmacy and near the market. These folks serve as constant reminders of the material, social and other advantages that I have received, through no merit of my own. They also remind me of the injustice that my privilege props up; they, by their very presence, reveal my own complicity in the systems of oppression that allow our civilization to function.

And I avoid them. When I see someone begging on the street, I walk quickly and avoid eye contact. If they do manage to break through my defenses, I am quick to say, “no, sorry.” I put on a smile, a facsimile of compassion, and I keep walking. To some extent, I avoid homeless and marginalized people because of the way they reveal my own privilege and complicity in oppressive systems; but my deepest reason for avoiding contact is that I fear that if I make myself vulnerable to the poor, they will take advantage of me.

I remember when I lived in Mexico, I quickly learned to shut the beggars out. Only in the most extreme cases would I be moved to give money to any of the hundreds of pordioseros I saw every day. Even when I did occasionally give money, it was a false act of compassion: IMicah with a homeless child sought to assuage my guilt and disgust by buying an indulgence. I never felt I could really get close to the poor of Mexico for the same reason that I now feel so alienated from the poor of Washington, DC: I did not know how to have a real relationship with someone of such a vastly different social and economic class than me. I struggle to believe that I could ever have a relationship with a street person that was not ultimately based in the question of how much money or other assistance I might give. I want to be loved and respected for who I am, and I do not like the idea of being seen by others primarily as a source of income, rather than as a person.

Could I possibly develop a true friendship with a homeless or very poor person if we remained so starkly different in our financial and social situations? Would I not have a responsibility to share out of my relative abundance, lowering my standard of living to help my brother or sister who has unmet needs? As Jesus is quick to point out: My own fear of losing wealth, status and security is an almost insurmountable barrier to living in the Kingdom.

The Kingdom, after all, consists in loving God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. I do not truly love God if I am unwilling to lay down everything that gets in the way of total obedience to Jesus; and I do not truly love my neighbor if I am not willing to surrender anything that presents a stumbling block to loving relationship.

DC MetroWhat is the next step for me as I seek to live more fearlessly into the reality of Jesus’ Kingdom? How am I to connect with Christ’s presence within myself, and within all of those whom I share life with? I think it will be important to open myself to relationship with street people, and others who make me nervous. I think that God calls me to make eye contact, to stop and speak with those who ask me for money, to get to know each person on a human level.

I believe God calls me to step beyond the fear of being used, of being seen only as a pay day. Just as disparities of wealth make it hard for me to relate to the poor as brothers and sisters, I must see how these disparities make it hard for them to do the same. I cannot expect others to break through the social consequences of injustice if I am not willing to take the first step of treating others as if they were the Lord Jesus himself. If this means being treated like a meal ticket by those I am called to love, so be it – what is that suffering compared with what Jesus himself has carried?

All of us, rich and poor, are suffering from the alienation that comes when we try to be self-sufficient. In our lack of faith, we try to play God, storing up the resources we need for the future, not trusting that God will provide for our daily needs. If we are to break out of the spirit of defensiveness and scarcity, we must truly believe that God will stand with us no matter what happens – we must believe that we are truly safe, in the most profound sense, in our Father’s world.

Natividad and meIt is only from this sense of deep safety that we can be empowered to challenge the powers of darkness and oppression that keep us separated from our brothers and sisters. It is only through very tangible trust in the Lord that we can take the risks necessary to live in the Kingdom and invite others in. It is only through deep trust in the power of God that we can say with Peter, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”(1)

1. Acts 3:6