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Restarting A Quaker Church Plant

Do you remember blowing on Nintendo cartridges? Most folks who are around my age will remember the original NES game system. I spent hours playing Nintendo, and I can still hum pretty much the entire soundtrack from Mario Brothers. As much fun as those games were, the thing I remember best is the physical experience of Nintendo. I remember the feel of the controls and the clap of the plastic hood. Above all, I remember the cartridges.

They did not always work. The longer you owned a Nintendo, the more likely it was you were going to have issues with dust collecting on the sensitive electronics at the opening of the cartridge. If the sensors were not clean, the game was liable to have errors that made it unplayable. Blank, white screens and garbled text were common. In order to get games working right, we often resorted to blowing across the sensors. Most of the time, that did the trick. We re-inserted the game and things worked as they were supposed to.
Though we did not realize it at the time, this process of cartridge cleaning taught an important lesson. In Nintendo and in the rest of life, there are moments that call for blowing on the cartridge and starting over. Sometimes, there is nothing we can do but clean the sensor and restart the game.

At Capitol Hill Friends, we have been noticing dust in our system for some time now. Despite a serious and energetic effort over a period of three years, Capitol Hill Friends has not gained the critical mass it needs to ignite a self-sustaining congregation. We have gotten quite good at putting on a weekly event that nurtures those who attend, but we have failed to develop an expanding circle of community.

After an extended period of prayer and corporate discernment, we feel that our present model is no longer an adequate container for the work that God is calling us to do in our city. We sense that our most faithful move at this point is to take a step back and re-evaluate of our entire way of operating as a community. It is time to take the cartridge out and blow on it.
We have been meeting in roughly the same format for almost three years now: We have gathered for Bible reading, singing, worship and a potluck meal. These meetings have generally been very deep, spiritually, and have provided a lot of nurture to those who have come. Yet, the core group of CHF has not substantially changed in the last two years. Probably for a variety of reasons, we have not grown in the way that we need to in order to be a sustainable community.
It feels clear that our present model is not working. The lack of growth over the last few years is equivalent to the White Screen of Death on the old Nintendo. It is time to pull out the cartridge and restart the system. The big question is, what does it look like for Capitol Hill Friends to restart?
Here is what we know right now: The last regular meeting of Capitol Hill Friends for 2012 will be this Sunday, November 4th. For the rest of November and December, the members of Capitol Hill Friends will be doing some intensive visioning and strategizing for the next phase of our life together as a community. We will be doing a lot of praying, and we will continue to listen together to how the Holy Spirit wants to guide and shape us as a community of disciples.
We have a great awareness right now of our deep need for Christ’s life and power in our midst, and we are asking God to clarify our calling, vision and structure as a fellowship. Who are we called to serve? What are we called to teach, and how are we called to teach it? What structures are we called to adopt in order to facilitate the spiritual, emotional and physical thriving of our community, and of the city where we live as a whole? With great awareness of our own weakness and failings, we are seeking God’s way forward for us.

In many ways, the past three years has been a course in what not to do. For my own part, I see that there is a lot of dust on my own sensors – all the illusions that I live in; all the denial that I indulge in. I desperately need the Holy Spirit to blow away the dust so that I can see clearly, and be a faithful vessel of Christ’s love and justice. I have learned a lot in the past three years, both about myself and about some of the realities of organizing a new Christian fellowship in Washington, DC. In many ways, the past three years have been “Seminary: Part 2.” This second dose of ministerial education, though, has been entirely focused on practice, and sometimes the theory has gotten in the way.

Moving forward, I hope to find out what it means for us to be a community of Christian practitioners. What does it mean to practice our faith in ways that tangibly bless the communities where we live? All the teaching in the world is of little use if we are not learning how to live as Christ’s body in the world.
As we continue to engage in this process of discernment, we do have some clarity about how God is calling us to reorganize our meeting format in the coming year. Beginning in January, Capitol Hill Friends plans to adopt a new model that we hope will encourage the development of more bonded community and deeper spiritual practice. Our new format will feature two main components: A weekly small group, and a monthly gathering.
The small group will be a place where each of us can be nurtured in our walk with Jesus, and get equipped for the work that Christ is calling each of us to. This group will be a fellowship for nurturing the spiritual gifts of each person, and developing our capacity to share the good news of Jesus with others in our communities. We will seek to make this an intimate space, where each individual can feel safe bringing their full selves and find support for the journey that Jesus is calling each of us into.
Our monthly gatherings will be creative and energetic programs that engage people from a wide variety of backgrounds and invites them to experience the power of Christ’s living presence in our midst. Each month’s program will be different, and we hope to invite outside presenters to lead our time together. We hope that these monthly gatherings will be a time of edification for our broader community – including Quakers from other Meetings in the area; Christians from other churches; seekers without a faith community; and secular people who are curious about encountering a spiritual faith that is directly dependent on God’s power.
We still have a lot of discernment to do, but these are the basic contours of what our restart looks like: Creating a space for our broader community to creatively explore spiritual teaching and worship, while at the same time nurturing the ongoing development of a smaller core that wants to be part of a mutually supportive community, rooted in Jesus Christ.

As we embark on this next stage of our journey together, please pray for us. If you are living in the DC area, consider whether the small group or our monthly gatherings might be a place for you to plug in and get the support you need for your walk in faith.

Holy Spirit, come blow on us. Clear away all the dust that holds us back from growing in you.

Growing and Adapting – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #46

Dear friends,
This week, Faith and I are out in Wichita, Kansas visiting my family. Since I moved out East, Faith and I have typically made a trip back to Kansas in the early summer and then again for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. This year, however, we are making the holiday trip early so that we can see my grandmother who is visiting from Newberg, Oregon. She turns ninety this year, but she has the energy and focus of a much younger person. I just hope those longevity genes got passed along to me!

Though we are out of town now, for most of the last month I have been able to stay put in DC. After a summer of constant travel, it has been nice to settle into a routine of work, home life and participation in my local communities. I feel like I have made more human connections in the past year than in the two that went before. This is due in large part to my involvement in the Occupy movement, which introduced me to hundreds of wonderful people and plugged me into the DC-area justice community.

Much of my activity this month has been organizing with Occupy Our Homes DC. We are partnering with two homeowners right now, Deborah Harris and Michael Vanzant, both of whom are struggling to stay in their homes after becoming disabled. Both Deborah and Michael have been pillars of their communities, with Deborah working as an EMT/Paramedic with the DC Fire Department and Michael serving Faith Temple Church – DC’s first African-American, LGBT-affirming church – as a pastor.
Since becoming disabled, each of them has been forced into early retirement. Unfortunately, their disability payments are far lower than their salary was. Even more unfortunately, the banks – JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America – showed no interest in working with either of them. As we have seen time and again in this work, the banks are more interested in making a little extra profit than they are in ensuring that good, hard-working people can stay in the homes where they have lived for decades.
As we move forward, Occupy Our Homes DC is doing a lot of learning and growing. Our organization has only been in existence since January, and much of our work has had to do with developing the capacity to sustain long-term campaigns. Given that our efforts are entirely on a volunteer basis, this is a great challenge indeed. How can we expand our base and nurture the communications, relationships and expertise that we will need to truly challenge “business as usual”? As we labor slowly through this process, I am very grateful for your prayers, words of encouragement and support.
It has been a blessing to be consistently present in DC this past month. I am feeling increasingly grounded in all of the work that I do – including my grassroots organizing with Occupy Our Homes, my ministry with Capitol Hill Friends, and my employment with Friends United Meeting. Being in town week in and week out has allowed me to develop a somewhat regular routine, setting schedules for writing, web development and coordination with co-workers around the world. Working remotely has huge advantages, and with the help of web-based tools I am feeling increasingly integrated into the “virtual office” that I share with my colleagues in Richmond, Indiana; Kisumu, Kenya; and throughout the worldwide community of Friends United Meeting.

My complete job description with FUM encompasses electronic communications, web development and social media strategy. In these early months, however, my work is almost entirely focused on doing web development. I have been putting a lot of time into FUM’s new website, which is scheduled for launch this month. It never ceases to amaze me what a protracted process web development is! Tasks that seem simple can often take hours to complete. For a big-picture person like me, building websites is a process of developing my own attention to detail.

Despite my natural tendency to shy away from this sort of detail-oriented work, I seem to be doing a lot of it. In addition to my paid work with FUM, I’ve designed and launched a new website for Ohio Yearly Meeting. It has sort of snuck up on me, but I seem to be developing a growing portfolio of web work. Maybe websites are a modern version of tents.
Capitol Hill Friends continues to gather for regular worship on Sunday evenings at the William Penn House. Attendance has been very low this month, which is predictable given the ebb and flow of the seasons. August is probably the worst month out of the year for any group, as far as attendance is concerned. Yet, at the same time we have been challenged by the loss of several dedicated members of our community. Lily Rockwell, an intern at the William Penn House this past year, left for graduate school in mid-July. Over the course of the last year, she brought so much quiet strength and depth to our fellowship, and it has been a major blow to lose her. Just weeks later, we said goodbye to two summer interns, Sammy and Ceress Sanders, who had been very active at Capitol Hill Friends. In a group as small as ours, the absence of these three is very keenly felt.
In the midst of all of this transition, the core membership that remains at CHF has been considering how the Lord might be leading us as we move forward. Faith, John Smallwood and I have been carrying this group for the last two and a half years, and the burden is becoming increasingly heavy. It has become increasingly clear that we may need to change in order for us to be faithful as a community.
This past week, Faith and I met with many of Capitol Hill Friends’ regular attenders to gauge where people were at in terms of their relationship with the group. During these meetings, we considered several questions together, such as: What is working well at Capitol Hill Friends? What has life, and what might we consider dropping? Is Capitol Hill Friends a community where we feel God calling us to commit ourselves, or is CHF still primarily an “event” rather than a congregation?
As a result of our conversations, it does seem like some of our attenders feel a deep connection with Capitol Hill Friends, considering it their primary spiritual home. Many others get a lot out of attending CHF, but consider other congregations (whether Quaker or non-Quaker) to be their primary community. At this stage, it does feel like there is a core group emerging that desires to take responsibility for the life of our fellowship, as well as a number of others who feel less committed but who do want to participate on an occasional basis.
This feels hopeful for Faith and me. Though we started Capitol Hill Friends on our own, it was never our intention for the group to be simply an “event” that we hosted. We are encouraged to see that others may be feeling called to share the responsibilities of nurture, care and decision-making for the community.
In the months ahead, there are definitely some decisions to be made. There is a growing sense that we probably need to change the format and timing of our meetings. We also have continuing questions about who we are called to serve, and how to do so. It has been less than three years since Faith and I first invited Friends to join us for worship in the conference room of the William Penn House, and Capitol Hill Friends is still in its infancy. It feels like we are just at the beginning of the journey, discovering who God is calling us to be together.
As we continue this process of exploration, discernment and deepening in the way of Jesus, I am so grateful for the prayers that our wider community offers up to God for us. Please do not stop interceding on our behalf. We could never sustain this work without the daily guidance, strengthening and conviction of the Holy Spirit.
In the coming month, please continue to pray for Capitol Hill Friends, Occupy Our Homes DC, and Friends United Meeting. Pray that God’s hand be on me, guiding and preparing me so that I may be a faithful servant of the Lord Jesus Christ in each of these communities where I serve.
May the love and peace of our Lord be with all of you.
Micah Bales

A Deeper Unity – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #45

Dear friends,

Every year, I imagine that this time around my summer will be a little less crazy. And every year, Yearly Meeting season makes that an impossibility. This month, I spent most of my days out of town, attending Quaker gatherings in New York, Maryland and Ohio. These Yearly Meeting sessions have taken most of my time and attention, leaving me feeling a bit disconnected from my community in DC. The balance between local work and the wider fellowship is delicate, and I anticipate that the coming month will be a time for me to pivot and refocus on local concerns and more sedentary work. Though it has been enriching to dive deeply into the wider world of Friends, I am looking forward to being home for a while.

My first trip out of town was to New York Yearly Meeting, at the Silver Bay YMCA camp on Lake George in upstate New York. Gathering on Lake George meant that when we were not engaged in Yearly Meeting business, we were free to go kayaking or sailing, or to go hiking in the surrounding woods. Though I had attended Yearly Meeting sessions in a variety of beautiful locations, this resort atmosphere was something new!

I felt particularly blessed that Faith and I were able to be present with a number of other visiting Friends, including Jon Watts and Maggie Harrision, who are engaged in a sustained ministry of calling Friends to spiritual nakedness. Jon and Maggie really challenged New York Yearly Meeting during an evening plenary session, urging Friends to set aside the suffocating comfort of respectability and to dive boldly into God’s love. In one particularly intense moment, Maggie asked Friends why the reports from New York Yearly Meeting’s local congregations rarely mentioned God. Isn’t that what this is all about? You could have heard a pin drop as Friends took in what Maggie was saying. And then, someone yelled Amen!

After New York Yearly Meeting, Faith and I drove down to Virginia for a wedding. I had a day back in DC before I was on the road again, this time to Baltimore Yearly Meeting – a fellowship of Quakers in Virginia, Pennsylvania, DC and Maryland. BYM holds it annual gatherings at Frostburg State University, out in the western panhandle of Maryland. Getting there was easy, though, since I routinely travel out that way en route to Ohio and points further west.
Baltimore Yearly Meeting felt familiar. Because I live within the geographical territory of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, I run into BYM Friends a lot – whether visiting their local Meetings, attending their events, or welcoming them at Capitol Hill Friends. Though I am not a member of BYM, visiting their annual sessions did feel like something of a homecoming to me.
The theme of BYM’s gathering this year was “Spirit-led Social Action,” and I had the opportunity to speak with Friends about my experience of God’s leading me to participate in the Occupy movement when it first erupted in the fall of 2011. I spoke as part of a two-person panel during BYM’s Tuesday-night plenary session, sharing what it felt like to be led by the Holy Spirit into social witness that is outside my comfort zone. I would never have chosen to become an organizer for the Occupy movement on my own, but I am so grateful that I was obedient to the promptings of Christ within!

Because I yielded to the quiet but persistent nudges of God in my heart, I am now connected to a broader community of those who are working for economic justice. I have met so many amazing people who have changed my life for the better, and I am hopeful that my presence has a positive influence. During the plenary, I shared how God opens opportunities for me to bear witness to Christ’s love and power within the economic justice community. Most crucially, I spoke about the spiritual dynamics of activism and community organizing, and about the need to stay rooted in the Spirit of God. There are so many other forces that would shake us from our Foundation; if we do not take great care, it is easy to get caught up in a spirit of chaos rather than the Spirit of love, order and peace that Christ sends.

I hope that I was faithful in communicating to Friends that our social witness must be, first and foremost, a testimony to the love, life and power that we experience in the Spirit of Jesus. Specific outcomes are important – sometimes we are called to “win” – but the highest objective must always be to remain faithful to the witness that God desires to bear through our lives. This takes great discernment, a practice that we as Friends of Jesus can bring to these movements.

Following my visit to Baltimore Yearly Meeting, I was only home for a few days before Faith and I were back on the road. Once again, we drove out through western Maryland, but this time our destination was Barnesville, Ohio – the gathering place of Ohio Yearly Meeting. After visiting so many gatherings this summer, it was a blessing to finally come home to the Yearly Meeting where we are members. Visiting among other bodies of Friends is wonderful, but there is a particular joy that comes when we gather with our particular covenanted community. Our care and responsibility for one another guides and sustains me in a special way.

I was really struck this year by the way in which my Yearly Meeting handles disagreement. We had several opportunities to engage in prayerful discernment around hard issues this year, and I felt like we were generally able to keep our conversation grounded in prayer and loving concern for one another. There is a sense in Ohio Yearly Meeting that our unity runs deeper than opinions about particular issues. While outward agreement is ultimately important, I am grateful to experience an inward, spiritual unity that allows us to wrestle with disagreements in a manner that ultimately draws us closer to God in Jesus Christ.

I envision Ohio Yearly Meeting as a circle with Jesus Christ standing at the center. Individuals in our Yearly Meeting stand at various points around the circle; we emphasize different things, and there are places where we are not in full agreement. There were several explicit points of tension this year – including our relationship with Olney Friends School; our testimony against the consumption of alcoholic beverages; and our shared understanding of human sexuality. Each of these are places where we could fall into destructive division and mistrust. But God is teaching us a better way.

As we gather around Jesus and draw nearer to him, we come closer to one another. Submitting ourselves to Christ’s light, we find our individual perspectives relativized (though not invalidated), and we are able to see how God is speaking through those with whom we strongly disagree. There is a deep faith present in Ohio Yearly Meeting that, if we wait together in the light of the Holy Spirit, we will be shown the way forward together.

It is probably safe to assume that all of us will be surprised by what “way forward” looks like. I am learning that having a variety of perspectives in my community can be a sign of good health, despite the fact that, at first glance, it may seem like chaos and disunity. We read in Scripture that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Yet, we know that we ourselves do change, and that our individual human viewpoints are often too limited to embrace the truth that Christ desires to reveal to us.
When we come together as a community in prayer, seeking after the Lord’s will, I experience the Spirit guiding us into greater understanding and unity as a body. We continue to have our own individual perspectives, but they are tempered and refined in the fire of Christ’s light. When we hold our disagreements in loving prayer, the Spirit intercedes within us and binds us together in a deeper unity that surpasses opinions.

At the conclusion of our time together in Barnesville, I felt hopeful for the future of Ohio Yearly Meeting. I had a strong sense that Christ is at work in our midst, and that we are being invited into the new (yet ancient) way of Jesus. God is giving us an opportunity to embrace Jesus’ example, laying down our lives for one another and surrendering our need to be correct. I am learning that the true meaning of strength is to bear the burdens of others – not only physically, but spiritually.

I pray that my life will serve to lighten the burden of those around me, that I may lay aside my own need to be vindicated, remembering that Jesus lay aside every honor and privilege that were rightfully his, bearing the cross for his friends. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name. I pray that we in Ohio Yearly Meeting will find this scripture fulfilled in our hearing, that through our shared submission to Jesus we be brought into the fullness of his truth, unity and love.

I anticipate that the next few weeks will allow me to stay closer to home. After so much time away, it will be good to re-connect with my community here in DC. I am also looking forward to making progress on the new Friends United Meeting website, which we plan to roll out around the end of the summer. I must say that although there are many benefits to travel in the service of the gospel, it is not particularly conducive to web development!

One last item before I close: You may recall that this June I was arrested by the US Capitol Police for accompanying my friend Deborah Harris to speak to Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase, during his visit to the Senate Banking Committee. I did not expect to be arrested, much less to be jailed for most of the day and accused of falsifying my identity! It also came as a surprise when I learned that my arrest could theoretically be punished by up to six months in prison. But I give praise to God that my co-defendents and I accepted a deal on Monday which will allow the charges against us to be dropped, assuming we do not get re-arrested in the next six months!

I have no idea how prayer works, but it is my experience that there is nothing more powerful than the prayerful petitions of God’s faithful people. I know for a fact that I have a small army of prayer warriors who are interceding on my behalf. Thank you so, so much. Your prayers are making a huge impact on my life. Please do not stop!

In the month ahead, please pray that I be grounded more deeply in the Holy Spirit as I seek to be a faithful worker in my roles with Friends United Meeting, Capitol Hill Friends and Occupy Our Homes DC. I would also ask for you to pray specifically that our community at Capitol Hill Friends be built up in Christ’s power this month. In recent weeks, several active members of our fellowship have moved away to pursue educational opportunities; we need God’s strength and guidance as we continue to serve as a spiritual sanctuary in the midst of our city.
May the grace and peace of Jesus Christ be with you all.
In his light and love,
Micah Bales

Clearing the Ground – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #43

To my brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Faith and I arrived home in DC late last Thursday after spending a little more than a week in Nebraska and Kansas. During our trip, we attended Great Plains Yearly Meeting and visited family and friends in Wichita. GPYM was held this year in Central City, Nebraska – which was surprising, since just a few years ago it seemed as if the Meeting in Central City would cease to exist. Instead, Friends there seem to be gaining in strength, and they enthusiastically hosted yearly meeting sessions. I give thanks to God for the new life that the Spirit is breathing into Friends in the Great Plains region!

Besides the rather miraculous revitalization of Central City Friends Meeting, there were other signs of growth. To begin with, the Yearly Meeting is beginning a process of re-allocating funds towards local outreach. For decades, the GPYM Home Missions Fund has been used as a source of funding for distant Quaker organizations. Now, however, there is a movement within GPYM to begin spending the Home Missions fund on… home missions! After decades of mostly writing checks to Quaker organizations on the East Coast, money may soon flow to local projects that advance the gospel in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Another encouraging sign a proposal brought by Laura Dungan of University Friends Meeting (Wichita, Kansas). Laura would like to be financially released to work half-time for the Yearly Meeting. She would provide leadership development within the Yearly Meeting, especially encouraging Friends to see the big picture of God’s mission for Friends in the region. Laura’s work would seek to encourage local churches and leaders as the Yearly Meeting works to develop a vision and a plan for the future.

With all of these positive developments emerging in my former Yearly Meeting, I feel sad that I am unable to be of any direct assistance. With my commitment to ministry in the DC area, there is not much I can do for Friends in GPYM except pray and remain available for electronic correspondence. Yet, I dare to imagine that perhaps my earlier ministry had some positive impact on the Yearly Meeting. I planted, and Laura Dungan is watering – but it is God who gives the growth. To him be all glory, honor and praise!

Growth and change are not limited to Great Plains Yearly Meeting. This month has been a time of professional transition for me. After three years working for Earlham School of Religion coordinating communications and web strategy, I am transitioning to a new job with Friends United Meeting – a worldwide association of Friends congregations in North America, the Caribbean, Central America, the Middle East and Africa. Starting in July, I will serve as Interim Communications and Web Specialist,overseeing FUM’s web and social media strategy. I am especially looking forward to exploring ways to make FUM’s electronic content more accessible to our brothers and sisters in East Africa, who represent the majority of Quakers worldwide.
FUM’s central office is located in Richmond, Indiana, but most of my work will be done remotely from DC. This is critical, since Faith and I continue to feel God clearly calling us to long-term residence in the capital. The ministry that we are engaged in here continues to be blessed, though we are learning that God’s blessing is rarely the same as our own grandiose visions. The ground is hard, and there is a lot of tilling to do before we can hope for more obvious growth. Once again, I am reminded that it is God who gives the growth. I am not in control.
At Capitol Hill Friends, God has been teaching us what our collective mission is to be. During worship several weeks ago, we felt an especially powerful sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and in the midst of the Spirit’s ministry to us, I received something that felt like a mission statement for our community. My mind was drawn to Jesus’ parable of the sower, and I was shown that our city is full of “weeds” – the cares of the world and the lure of wealth – that choke out the Seed, which is God’s presence in our lives. The Lord made clear to me that our role as a radical community of disciples is to clear ground where the seed of God can grow. Our job is to prepare and hold a space of resistance and hope where individuals can sink their roots deep into this good earth and become part of a sustaining community in Jesus.

In recent weeks I have had an increasingly urgent sense that the Body of Christ is much bigger than our traditional ideas of what a “congregation” looks like. I am realizing that the old model of church does not necessarily work in our post-modern, urban context. Regular gatherings for worship are necessary, of course, but I am seeing that there are many other things that are equally crucial if we are to strengthen the Body. For example, teaching everyday spiritual practices that individuals can grow into, whether they “go to church” or not. Community is a complicated thing in this city, and the formal, weekly gatherings of the traditional congregation are not necessarily the best thing to lead with. I am becoming convinced at a heart level that I must meet others where they are at. I must let nothing – not even the beautiful traditions of the church – present a barrier to sharing the good news that we have found in Jesus.

Please continue to pray for us! I cannot repeat often enough how much your prayers matter, how much we feel them as we seek to be faithful to God’s call in our city. We have experienced so many blessings that can only be the result of the prayerful intercession of God’s people. We give thanks for the faithful presence of Lily Rockwell, of Stillwater Monthly Meeting (Ohio Yearly Meeting), who has been an elder to us since last fall. Her internship is ending in late July, at which time she will be moving to New Mexico to pursue graduate studies. We are sad that she must leave us, but we give thanks to God for all of the prayer and love that she has invested in our community.

We also give praise for Sammy and Ceress Sanders, missions students at Barclay College who are summer interns at the William Penn House. They are actively participants in Capitol Hill Friends, and they have added greatly to our fellowship – not only through their joyful presence and enthusiasm, but also through their helpfulness in set-up and clean-up, and their excellent cooking skills! With all the work that the Lord has given us to do and all the helpers that he has provided, we are truly blessed.

It is my hope that you, too, are living in awareness of Christ’s presence in your lives. Thank you for your faithfulness in prayer and encouragement.
Your friend in Jesus,
Micah Bales

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