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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

Organizing the Church

My involvement with the Occupy movement this year has given me a lot of insight into the way groups of people unite around a common set of concerns. In my work with Occupy Our Homes, I have seen the power that can be unleashed when a small group of people focus their passion to work together for justice. And in recent months I have spent time studying and testing models of community organizing that could forge our organization into a more effective instrument of empowerment for the 99%.

As I have begun to explore the practice of community organizing, a whole new world has opened up for me. I am particularly inspired by the pioneering strategic philosophy of Saul Alinsky and his successors. While by no means do I agree with the whole of Alinsky’s ideology (especially his abysmally cynical view of human nature), I know in my gut that his model, which has been refined and enriched by successive generations of organizers, is of great value. I feel the need to integrate the wisdom of this tradition into my own life and work.
This will involve integrating my “religious” concern as a gospel minister and my “social” concern as a budding organizer for economic justice. Looking to Jesus, I see that his “spiritual” mission was never separated from his “social” mission. Spiritual liberty and material emancipation from social and economic bondage have always been two sides of the same coin. I serve the Savior who brings not merely an invisible, “spiritual” rebirth, but a genuine refashioning of the whole human community. As Jesus revealed when he was nailed to a cross for sedition against the Roman state, the gospel is dangerously practical!
Is my own faith similarly practical? Does the life of my community reveal the messianic Kingdom of Jesus – the visible, redeemed network of social relationships that God created us for? Does the life of the Church bear witness to the wholeness, justice, mercy and love of the God of Isaiah?

As a Christian in the United States, these questions challenge me. I see how many of our Christian communities have far too little to do with the living power of Jesus’ gospel. So often, we fail to combine the inward work of spiritual transformation with the outward labor of making the Kingdom of God visible.

Rather than dividing the work of spiritual transformation and social justice between religious and secular institutions, how could we embody the dynamic inward/outward tension that Jesus demonstrates? What might the practice of community organizing teach us about building healthy congregations that exist to serve our neighbors?

Community Organizing and the Gospel

As I get excited about community-based organizing here in DC, I cannot help but notice the parallels between the work of the organizer and the labor of the gospel minister. When I reflect on the work of Paul, Margaret Fell, George Fox and so many other servants of the gospel, it seems clear that their ministry did not consist of simply delivering a verbal proclamation about Jesus and demanding intellectual assent to certain propositions.
Nor did they limit their ministry to individuals. Christ’s apostles throughout the ages have clearly seen their role as being to challenge and nurture entire communities. The gospel is not merely limited to some sort of interior heart-change; everywhere that the good news of Jesus is authentically proclaimed and received, the Holy Spirit unleashes a wave of counter-cultural activity, transforming communities in the very practical details of their lives – spiritual, social and economic.
Throughout the Scripturesand the history of the Christian Church, there is a strong connection between sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and empowering local communities to work for justice. Faith without works is dead and, in the grand scheme of things, works without community are limited, at best.
When I recognize that Jesus founded his ministry on a proclamation of debt forgiveness and human liberation, the implications are clear. No longer can I let myself off the hook, imagining that the purpose of faith is to make me feel good, or even to make me personally righteous. Instead, I must face the reality that my own salvation is bound up in the groaning of all creation, and that I have a role to play in the story of cosmic liberation.
At the same time, my role in this grand narrative usually does not seem “cosmic” at all. Organizing for justice is some of the most brutally earthy work I know. What could be more tangible than walking into a neighborhood where you do not live, knocking on the door of someone you do not know, and asking whoever answers, “What are your deepest concerns? What do you and others in your community feel passionate about? What is the change that you wish to see?” Community organizing is all about particular, personal relationships. We often only see the transcendent once we have taken the plunge into the terrifying work of being human.
What is the connection between gospel ministry and community organizing? When I go canvassing in DC neighborhoods, my goal is not to convince those whom I meet to accept the gospel as I understand it. Instead, I am focused on practical human needs, obstacles that have been placed in the way, and the tools that we need to get our community’s needs met. The immediacy of the human precedes the transcendent. If we see God, it is only from behind.
But that does not mean that there is no divine connection. As I understand it, the goal of community organizing is to draw out the hidden creativity, passion, energy and thirst for justice that lies latent in all human communities. For me, that hints at something even deeper. Where does that hidden power come from? Who is the source of our hunger and thirst for structural justice and personal righteousness? Who inspires the love that allows a community to unite around its weakest members and see an aggression against one as an attack on everyone?

I believe that this Source Jesus Christ. If I can be an instrument to call out the secret power that lies waiting in every human community, I believe that I am nurturing the life of the gospel. If I can help equip a community to draw nearer to the source of all justice, righteousness and love, I know that I am participating in the process of drawing people to Jesus through the power of his Holy Spirit. I trust that, through this process, the Lord will provide me openings to share about the source of my passion and joy. If I am ready to give an account of the hope that is within me, some may be encouraged to explore a deeper, more explicit relationship with Jesus.

How have you seen God at work in your community? What has been your experience of being part of a community that is lovingly challenged and nurtured – whether by explicit gospel ministry, Spirit-led eldership, or apparently secular community organizing? How have you experienced God calling you to organize in your community, to lift up the hidden life and power of God?

Hitting the Streets with Occupy Our Homes

In the last eight months, I have become deeply involved in the work of Occupy Our Homes DC (OOHDC). Our goal is to prevent unjust foreclosures and evictions of homeowners and tenants in our area. We have taken a multifaceted approach that brings pressure to bear on the people and structures that are bullying our friends: We engage public officials, conventional news reporters, social media campaigns, and – of course – the banks themselves. These are areas where we are strong, and getting stronger.
But our toolbox is still missing a screwdriver or two. In my view, our most critical “growing edge” is the way we engage with the neighborhoods where our homeowners and tenants live. Our media campaign is surging; we are figuring out where the banks’ pressure points are; and we have a strong base in the DC activist community – but so far we have mostly neglected the real source of grassroots power that will make or break us as an organization.
Last week, we had a community barbecue at the home of Deborah Harris. The idea was for Deborah’s neighbors to come have a hot dog and learn about the details of her case. We hoped to develop awareness within the community where the foreclosure is actually taking place, because if this could happen to Deborah, it could happen to any of us.
In preparation for the barbecue, we spent our evenings canvassing the area. We went door to door, asking folks to sign a petition to Freddie Mac; we followed up with an invite to the barbecue. These nights out in the neighborhood were the highlight of my summer! It was so amazing to get into the streets and talk to other DC residents about the issues affecting the neighborhood. By the time the barbecue rolled around, we had collected a lot of signatures and convinced some people to show up for the cook-out. Even more importantly for me, I had gained a much better understanding of the character of Deborah’s neighborhood, and of the concerns that local residents share.
It turns out that foreclosures are not limited to Deborah’s house. When we were canvassing we met other individuals who were being thrown out of their homes by the banks, and many others knew someone who had been foreclosed on. Some of Deborah’s neighbors viewed these foreclosures as being part of a system that is pushing older, African-American residents out of the neighborhood, making way for the next wave of gentrification. There was a lot going on in Deborah’s part of town, and I felt sure that if we dug just a little deeper we would learn even more!
In my mind, getting out into the neighborhood was our first serious step into community organizing. Previously, we had largely been operating out of an advocacymodel, seeking to create change “on behalf of” affected communities. This is not what we wanted of course, but so many of us have professional backgrounds in advocacy work that it is hard to break the habit. But now I see an opportunity for us to explore models that place our local neighborhoods and community networks at the center of the process, encouraging the whole community to express their needs and to determine what is necessary to achieve their goals.
As these developments have unfolded, I have been deeply inspired by conversations with veteran organizer Laura Dungan – founder of Sunflower Community Action in Wichita, Kansas. She has taken time out to take me under her wing, nurturing me with her wealth of experience, as well as acquainting me with the example of her own mentor, Shel Trapp. I am catching a vision for what grassroots, people-centered organizing might look like here in DC.
As I begin to explore what this all means, I have a lot of questions: What is the relationship between my calling to gospel ministry and this new opening to grassroots organizing in an apparently secular setting? How can I bear testimony to the life and power of Jesus Christ, while deeply respecting and working closely with those who do not necessarily profess faith in him? What is the right balance of action and contemplation, engagement with the wider society and grounding within the Church? What steps can I take to be sure that I ask in every moment and situation: “Lord, show me where you are at work. Use my life to reveal your hidden power and love.”