Healing, Organizing, and Faith

By Jenny Sung and Jessica Harren

Jessica writes: #decolonizelutheranism is like breathing for me.  It is the place in the church that feels, looks, hears, and listens the most closely to the ways I imagine the kin-dom of God. — cisgender middle class white woman, bisexual,  lives with disability, Pastor, receptacle for the Holy Spirit (on good days)

Jenny writes: #decolonizelutheranism #decolonizethebase event was not at all what I had anticipated. The experience went deeper than concepts and information sharing. This experience reached down into the guts of healing and somehow. . . made me feel whole.  -intern pastor, Korean adoptee, cisgender woman, and dancer with the triune God.

Why are we sharing together and separately?  

We both recently attended #decolonizethebase by #decolonizelutheranism at LSTC in Chicago.  We come from different social locations, and are working on our own and each other’s liberation in some different ways.  And yet, we came together to learn about healing, trauma, and faith-based organizing.

The Base Christian Community training drew on the work of Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier and Rev. Alexia Salvatierra to teach us how to learn ways of being community, ways of organizing community, and ways of creating community from the perspectives of those most vulnerable and marginalized in the world.  This is what it means to decolonize: that our brains, our emotions, our bodies, our patterns, our worldviews, our structures, our politics, our economies, our churches, our institutions, and even our relationships with the Divine Trinity — find new ways of being, new ways of doing things, ways that are the opposite of supporting the oppression of others.  

So many things we’ve been taught, especially as white people, are rooted in oppressive ways of doing things.  This process is so sneaky that we often do not recognize it, or know that we are operating in that way. We are taught by the world to think in terms of oppressor and oppressed, even if we’ve never named it or realized it before.  We all have behavior and thought patterns that we think are normal and just how the world is supposed to work. We often think of ourselves as good people without realizing that some of what we consider normal might be hurting others.  We do not need to feel guilt or shame about this, but it does help to name it as a reality and to work to find new ways of being that are about hope, love, listening, and healing.

Base Christian Communities offer us hope that once we learn new ways of being and communicating with one another, we can operate in ways that heal and transform, instead of ways that accidentally oppress others, even if we do not mean to do so.  

We learned that trauma happens for many. In faith-rooted organizing, in Base Christian Communities, healing from the oppressive systems of harm happen along with organizing to overwhelm the systems of hate and division with love. They are places where all people are seen, heard, and accepted, and places that offer healing to all.  

That said, sometimes, the work of healing from trauma looks a little different for those in different social locations (that means your gender, class, trauma history, economic reality, religion, and sexuality).   “The journey from ‘I’ to ‘We’ is the journey of liberation for people who have known privilege,” was taught to us by Rev. Dr. Alexia Salvatierra. And yet, she makes more than enough room for that healing to happen.  For those who already live under oppression, the journey is from object to subject.

It is important to note that in a decolonized space, attention is paid to different details then in most white middle class communities, such as the majority of the ELCA.  In white spaces, we have observed that there is attention to time, schedules, perfection, and lack of errors. These are normal traits of whiteness. (If you want to learn more, read here.)   In this space, a space that was run by Latina women and attended by mostly People of Color, people who are LGBTQIA+, and those with disabilities, different things mattered.  

Attention to healing matters.

Attention to space matters.

The reason this training felt so different from others we have attended is that there is room for our entire beings in this space, and we don’t have to all be the same.

For those of us with disabilities, the space was made as accessible as possible.  There were lounge chairs in the back for those who needed to be in different physical positions to participate.  There was a low sensory room so those who needed a break had a quiet space.

The attention to space translated to emotional and physical space as well.  In the very opening activity, as amazing music was being led by the musicians, we were given flowers, chocolate, and apples/oranges and told “You are welcome here.”  There were also spaces designated around the room for various things: The Wall of Life was a place where ivy hung, and a place to go to pray, meditate, to be prayed for, and to pray for others.  The River of Life was in the baptismal font, where one could go to be washed and remember their baptism. It also provided a nice sensory experience, as many people ended up in the pool barefoot by the end.  The Altar was the place of release — the place to leave things behind that are hurting us.

Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazer invited us into groups to make human sculptures of healing with our bodies. She set the scene by sharing a story about chickens who were tied up together waiting to be slaughtered. A person came by and purchased the chickens so they could wander and be free, however once the animals were free they chose to stay exactly as they were because it was all they ever knew.

They kept walking circles around the pole, even when they were no longer tied to it.

Our bodies hold trauma and pain in ways that are sometimes hard to access. Having a space where we could give our bodies a new story was healing, to receive healing from one another was powerful. Many of the groups used images of connectedness, of being known, being open, and touch.

Within my group (Jenny) there were three of us. From a circular shape we wrapped one arm around one another and used our other arm to open and close, extending farther beyond the circle each time. Healing happens in waves crashing from one expansion of growth to the next in community with others and our triune God.

I (Jessica) was in a group with two others.  After talking, we discovered that each of us have different things that need healing.  For example, I can not carry anything heavy because of back issues, but I help can carry the grief of others to God.  Our sculpture assumed that healing was careful and circular. You can heal parts of me, and I can heal parts of you, and together, we are beautiful.

Over the course of the training, we also learned that being #decolonized often means letting ourselves be uncomfortable.  To make room for those who operate best in a right brain way (creative, visual, artistic, nonlinear) and a left brain way (organized, linear, often academic learning) sometimes we have to be uncomfortable.  To make room for both introverts and extroverts sometimes we had to sit in silence, and other times we were invited to share. There was truly room for everyone, and it is was somehow ok and even healing to allow ourselves that time to be uncomfortable for the sake of our siblings in Christ.  There was great freedom in knowing that we all belonged and that there was room for all of us.

Rev. Alexia Salvatierra taught us tools to build authentic base communities. One tool offered was the echo chamber. The process begins by someone sharing their story of unnecessary and unjust suffering. Before they tell the story, the listeners are instructed to listen with their whole hearts. In each of us whenever we are made to feel small our “cry” grows. The echo chambers give space for us to release some of our cry.  She was very careful to say that people need to have time to build trust with one another, and that the training did not offer enough time. However, due to some great relationships made during the training, and our learning to trust one another, several women agreed to try it at night after the training. We agreed that we trusted one another, had built relationships, and shared our #metoo stories using some of what Rev. Salvatierra taught us.  

Often times when sharing stories of trauma or unjust suffering the person sharing laughs. This usually signals there is denial and instead of leaning away and laughing with the person, the group is taught to lean in. This deep listening, and refusal to lean away gives the sharer space to process and let out some of their cry.

Given the amount of material we were covering during the seminar we were not able to practice the echo chamber with one another. To do this well, it requires the space of time so that those sharing can take as much time needed to let their cry out.  We ended up organically doing some of this the evening after the training had ended. It was powerful, connecting, and wonderful.

Once we have experienced this liberating group work our hearts begin to do something brave. We begin to hope. That is a very fragile moment in the process. We begin to encounter hope in our inner life, our intimate life, and our mission in the world. We begin to feel a stirring and desire to leap forward. As we do, we hear a whisper in our minds and hearts. The whisper echos the words said to us, or read that caused a lie to form in our spirit. These curses make it hard to go where God is calling.

It is said the rain-forest holds the antidote to every disease. With each curse God gives us a blessing, a divine word. We were then given space to write the curse we hear most often, and then on a separate piece of paper we wrote out the antidote, the truth that tells you the curse is a lie. We entered into our small groups. Everyone was encouraged to share their curse. After their curse was read out loud, the person sharing had to tear up the curse. This was critically important. Then they read their blessing.

In my (Jenny) small group I shared my curse. I am too much, and at the same time, I am not enough. As I shared this I realized this lie invites me into living small. Don’t be brave because you are already too much, and even if you did choose to be brave you wouldn’t have enough of what it takes to make a difference.

Rip…Tear…Throw…

“I have all I need. I am enough. I am whole. I am healed.” To have space to be this honest, and brave turned that flicker of hope into a holy unleashing of liberation!

#decolonizelutheranism gave us an experience of what is at stake if we do not #decolonizelutheranism. If we do not give voice to the architecture of who we fully are as Lutherans.

One of our final activities involved Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier laying on the floor while the outline of her body was traced.  She then invited each of us to put our initials onto the body outline. We were instructed to share why we chose the two spots we did, which part of the Body of Christ we use for the church.  Jessica chose bone marrow and kidneys. She is ready to filter the oppressiveness out of Lutheranism, and hopes to help create more red blood cells to breath new life and oxygen into the ELCA.  She said she thought she could help raise up other leaders, especially those on the margins, by supporting them. Having more leaders (red blood cells) from many different social locations is important to the kin-dom of God, and also important for the future of the ELCA.  

Overall, the training was inspiring and healing.  We learned so much more than we can put down in just one article.  We would like to encourage everyone to attend Base Community training if it is offered again.  There was so much room for all of us. We had a model whereby some people journey from “I” to “we” and others journey from “object” to “subject”.  We healed one another, honored one another, and made space for every kind of person. Please consider learning more in the resources below.

More Resources  — While you can learn much from books and articles, there is something so powerful about being at an event like this in person.  Please consider attending #decolonize18, as the written word will never help you experience being surrounded by healing love with room for everyone.

Base Communities: A Vessel for Healing and Decolonization – Francisco Herrera, M. Div., PhD student, LSTC

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Communion Of Saints by Elise Ritter

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9)

To give a brief overview of what a base community is, you have to go back all the way to 1956 in Rio de Janeiro – all the way between the ear and the soul of Roman Catholic Bishop Dom Agnelo Rossi, in the impoverished district of Barra do Pirai, as he listened to the frustrations of “a humble old woman.” Since her local parish couldn’t pay for a priest for Christmas services, it stayed “cold and dark,” whereas local Protestant parishes were “lit up and full of people”(Boff, 3). So these laments provoked the newly-minted bishop to action

With help from his deacons and some Jesuits, then, they created a lay-education program that soon took over all of Latin America. Grounded in the reading and interpretation of Scripture through each community’s context, that community’s joys and burdens, these new outposts for God’s kingdom were called comunidades eclesial de base or “base Christian communities.”

Quickly, however, they would evolve into something far more glorious.

Because the roots they sprouted went so deep into the soil, their first green shoots of growth were shelters to protect abused women and food banks to feed their children.

Because the love they inspired had such potency and flavor, their blossoms and fruit included legal aid societies, literacy programs, and labor unions.

And because their fragrance and seeds were so luscious  and fertile, they scattered through all of Latin America, bringing forth 30, 60, and 100-fold servants of Jesus, the community having such good soil.

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Demonstration in favor of land reform in Brazil, ca. 1970’s – supported and lead by base communities.

And as the 1950’s and 1960’s became the 1970’s and 1980’s they were ruthlessly persecuted, as one oppressive regime after the other – often with full support from the government of the United States – brutally tore up as many of these communities as they could, grinding their leaves and petals into the earth and turning root beds into mass graves.

But in the end the love of the base communities won, sustaining a vital solidarity and hope among the persecuted as dictatorship after dictatorship stomped and burned and raged itself to ash.

When #decolonizeLutheranism had its first official face-to-face programming meeting after our inaugural revival in 2016 we agreed, then, that this would be the model for organizing and mission that we should try. Our would-be reforming partners all over the country were looking for solidarity and direction, and the base community model seemed a good beginning.

Because workshops hadn’t made our churches more welcoming, not many.

Because ‘hard conversations’ had cracked some doors open, but few had taken the next step and walked through.

So we decided to appeal directly to the Holy Spirit and the power of God and wait to see what She did.

But since we didn’t really know how to create a base community, and after a few failed attempts at doing so, the Spirit finally intervened, carrying me into a random house in south central Los Angeles (last March) to share a potluck and lecture with some-time hero, Pastor Alexia Salvatierra. And how did I know la pastora had been given to us by the Spirit to lead us?

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Rev. Alexia Salvatierra (ELCA) at an immigration rally in Los Angeles.

Because sometime during her lesson, after mentioning that she had done her CPE among base communities, in the Philippines in the 1980’s (then under the thumb of another US-proxy dictator, Ferdinand Marcos), she said this:

“When we are very young, we usually receive some kind of curse – often it is said by someone very close to us, even family. What I want to do now is talk about what those curses are – and to share as you’re comfortable – as well as find a line of Scripture that we can use to counter them when we feel their power working on us.”

This made it clear that spiritual direction was crucial to her community organizing work.

Two weeks later I asked Alexia if she would teach #decolonizeLutheranism about forming base communities, and she said yes, but quickly added, “Call Elizabeth Conde-Frazier and ask if she could help out, too. You need someone who can truly lead someone to experience the Spirit and she does that better than anyone I know.”

After some conversation and email ping pong, (Rev. Dr.) Elizabeth agreed. Pastor Alexia wasn’t kidding when she said that Dr. Conde-Frazier was a master of bringing people into the Spirit’s presence. And how did I know, on top of Pastor Alexia’s recommendation, that the Spirit had roped her in too? When she said this:

“It’s a glorious moment when we get our liberation, but we have to be careful.  we carry a lot of anger after we get and if we’re not careful, it will spoil everything we touch.”

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Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier – Dean of Esperanza College, Philadelphia.

And she was right to point this out – because thanks to the grace of God #decolonizeLutheranism had received a grant to pay the full cost of attendance to every person of color, every trans and non-binary attendee, and every person with a disability that qualified them for public benefits. And these leaders – beautiful and perfect and devoted to the Gospel – for all their power, likely would need healing before doing or talking about anything else.

And that’s how our base community training – #decolonizeTheBase– would begin.

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So on the first night of the training Pastor Alexia and Dr. Conde-Frazier greeted every attendee with a flower, a piece of chocolate, a small bottle of water, and a choice of fruit – delivered from baskets on their arms – walking throughout the meeting space and giving blessing.

It was at that point then, that I realized that my heart’s image of this day (Revelation 7:9) was incomplete. For though a multitude did come – from every tribe and nation, of every gender and sexuality and ability and disability – as the weekend progressed, right there in the middle of Augustana Chapel, Tree of Life itself sprouted and bloomed before all of us (Revelation 22:1-3) “with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” – and the gifts of chocolate, water, flowers, and fruit – were the very first fruits of that tree.

But the Scripture of the weekend? John 10:10 – The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (NRSV)

And it was upon this truth – not the colonizing lashes of racism, the colonizing echo of being mis-gendered, the ominous rumble of the colonizer’s institutions and apathy and violence – that we built a community and welcomed the Holy Spirit among us that weekend, both as liberator and healer. And all-together, with nothing but longing for the power of God in our lives to lead us, the Spirit grafted us all unto Jesus, the true Vine, the Liberator, and his promise of abundant life.

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Helping hands – remembering a friend.

For me, as the chief coordinator of the weekend, this abundant life showed itself most powerfully in the way chapel staff (especially Morgan Gates, bless you friend) taught us how to run the sound-board along with printing, folding, and stapling bulletins – and the way random attendees would help fill in the holes in my planning. The music and worship team provided abundant life too – in the form of last minute changes and shifts, learning four new songs that weren’t in our original hymn booklet, and regularly meeting with the Pastor Alexia and Professor Conde-Frazier to make sure that every bit of information was shared in an atmosphere of constant intercessory prayer – like the smell of charcoal that always filigrees Frankincense. They, too, showed abundance in the fact that our leaders regularly met with attendees to make sure that each part of the training tailor-fit their needs – often shortening or lengthening, or even cutting out, entire parts of the day to make sure that no one left overwhelmed, confused, or lost.

And the gathered community, too, showed abundance to each other. In the way we loved each other, carried one another’s pain, challenged each other’s weaknesses, and prayed and sang and embraced each part of us into this abundant life.

“Your experience of this transformation, this change, will be what teaches you more than anything,” Dr. Conde-Frazier mentioned more than once that weekend, “and these are things you can’t put on paper and take away with you. And it is this that you take home with you, and this is how you will begin your communities and your ministries.”

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Hermanas en la lucha – sisters in the struggle, Prof. Conde-Frazier and Pastor Salvatierra.

And from all of this a marvelously gentle and beautiful vine sprung forth, both connecting all assembled more completely to each other as well as to the world around us. For our teachers, our tias, knew that if we wanted to create community that could change the church – let alone the country, or our hearts – we had to do it right there and then, too, experience it right there and then. So much so that by the end of the day, it seemed that all we cared about doing – all we could do, was find more ways to love each other.

And that’s pretty much it.

And I know this post doesn’t give a lot of information about the training itself, because in the end, it wasn’t the most important lesson.

And yes, we did things – we made plans, shared visions, wrote things down and affirmed ourselves, but everything we did essentially had one main goal and everything orbited this goal: to teach each other how to heal and love each other.

To grow those roots like our kin in Latin America in the darkest days of the last century’s tyranny, living water bursting forth from the baptismal fonts in all of our hearts, with richly green leaves for the healing of the nations, with fruit fertile and fragrant as to feed the soul and bring forth a rich harvest, with shade to provide rest and strength for the weary and determined.

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Getting ready for the Eucharist, Jaffa Castañeda Carrera working his pipes and Putting a Praise On It (Tasha Cobbs).

Because when you’ve been healed by the love of God, well, the devil might tempt and try you, but he’ll be hard pressed to stop you – and this is what we need if we’re going to decolonize our church.

And this may sound naïve and sentimental, even foolish, but it isn’t.

For didn’t someone say something about fools for Christ and what that entails (1 Corinthians 4:10-13) – how those most despised by the world were the key to its salvation? Because when you spend your whole life fighting the church you’ve been called to serve, you need all the love you can get. And therefore, praise be praise be for this, God will GIVE you all the love that you need and more.

And if you’re curious to see what it’s all about? Come next year.

Come and see what it is like to have a heart where “nothing accursed will be found… anymore,” to be so filled with the love of God that you “need no light of lamp or sun” since “the Lord God [is your] light” (Revelation 22:3, 5) – and then to be blessed to go forth in service of the body of Christ, knowing that you have just that many new friends praying for you, working with you, helping you to solidify and guide your call and your mission.

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“Because they say that communion is perfect and eternal, but we know communion to be messy and awesome.” Rev. Joseph Castañeda Carrera, from Los Angeles mission start ADORE-LA.

Come see what that multitude of every tribe and nation, gender and sexuality, ability and disability, height and size and woof and warp looks like.

From their bounty, come and take some of their healing leaves for your soul, your body…

…and taste the sweet fruit that is the love of God, given to you from their loving, faithful hands.

RESOURCES

If you’d like more info about future base community trainings, are interested in donating to our work, or just want to chat with #decolonizeLutheranismand see what we’re about, email us at decolonizelutheranism@gmail.comand let’s start talking!

The Gospel in Solentiname – Ernesto Cardenal “In Solentiname, a remote archipelago in Lake Nicaragua, the people gathered each Sunday to reflect together on the gospel reading. From recordings of their dialogue, this extraordinary document of faith in the midst of struggle was composed.” An excellent read into the inner workings of a base community in Nicaragua during some of the darkest days of their struggles in the 1970s.

Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World – Rev. Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel A wonderful mix of reflection and praxis, much of what Pastor Salvatierra talked about during the training was also mentioned in this book. So if you want to get a bit more insight into how she leads base community trainings, and the kinds of things base communities do, this text is a good place to begin.

A Many Colored Kingdom: Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation – Elizabeth Conde-Frazier and S. Steve Kang A popular work co-authored by Dr. Conde-Frazier’s, it mixes research and data with personal stories about working in and creating multicultural spaces. Both her and S. Steve Kang have much to share.

CITATIONS

[1] Dr. Angela Cowser, professor of sociology of religion at Garrett Evangelical Theological School in Evanston, IL lectured on congregationally-based community organizing in the Methods for a Public Church l course on Tuesday afternoon and introduced this concept using Nehemiah, 1-8.

[2] I Cor 3:6.

 


11062145_10152973497325213_4921417369076653093_nBefore coming to Chicago Francisco Herrera studied classical music (viola and orchestra conducting) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and then Geneva, Switzerland. After feeling the call to ministry at his home church in Geneva, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, he returned to the US to enter seminary in 2005, completing his M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2012. Since beginning his Ph.D studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC)  in Fall of 2013, he has also been developing his skills as a seminary instructor, both at LSTC and the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest. And when he isn’t doing any of those things, polymath and scatterbrain that he is, Francisco likes to write worship and devotional music, blogs at www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com, tweets at @PolyglotEvangel, and travels the country as one of the central leaders of #decolonizeLutheranism.