Finding Life in Detention

(Finding Life in Detention was originally written for the BeZine, an online “e-zine” produced by the Bardo Group. Please check out the other amazing writing found in this and other issues of the BeZine!)

SEC Logo copyI’ve only been working as a chaplain with youth in detention for a month. I could have chosen a number of different seminarian internships; campus ministry, church administration, advocacy. But I chose chaplaincy on purpose because I felt a “call.” It is why I’m studying an MDiv; it’s why I stopped running away from ministry.

In this month I’ve heard stories of rape, assault, grand theft, vandalism and trafficking in narcotics. There is something fundamentally disturbing to hear the voice of a child talk about getting so drunk and high that carjacking an elderly woman sounded like a way to “have fun.” All this from the mouths of youths who should be worried about their SATs rather than their next court date. So I’ve been asked the question, “How do you do this?” My answer is, “Because my faith demands it of me.”

fhouseAs a Unitarian Universalist, I believe that salvation is IN my life. My faith as I choose it requires me to work towards the inherent worth and dignity of all people and all creation, not for heavenly reward but for humanity. Which means pushing myself to be in places and meet with people which make me uncomfortable. To speak truth to power. To give witness. To expand beloved community. To be where the Spirit of life needs me to be.

Yes, it is hard to sit in active listening, asking questions, attempting to sift through the psychic refuse to find the innocent child underneath. But let me be clear; there is an innocent child underneath! Because I have also heard these same children’s voices ask for mercy, beg for forgiveness and plead for a fifth, sixth or seventh chance to turn away from the paths well worn by their incarcerated fathers and addicted mothers and economically and educationally depressed neighborhoods. These children’s eyes reflect back at me; “Help me! Heal me! Love me! Save me!” And my faith and my humanity will not let me say “no!”

seedEven though a minister’s trade is in miracles, I expect none here. My ministry is to listen. To be present. To plant seeds of hope. To challenge my world to change for the sake of it’s children. And to push and pull with all my might to bend that arc of history just a little bit further toward justice. It is in this hard work that I find the Spirit of life seeking reconciliation and my own salvation.

In this way, working with youth who are incarcerated is life giving! It reminds me of who I should be. It wakes me up from the soma of my off-white middle class American social location. The work allows me to be so filled with gratitude for my family and baby boy that I have to respond in thanksgiving. And because I did very little to deserve my blessings and privilege, I must pay it forward. Which is where I am confronted by mystery and miracle! The more I give, the more I find that I am being transformed by these youth into a better human being.

Walking in their Footsteps: A Call to Solidarity

(This post was originally written for the Faith & Family Homelessness Project. I highly recommend checking out their resources and learning more about how to experience and volunteer with their Poverty Immersion program.)

I’ve never personally experienced poverty. It’s an obstacle that inherently separates me from people living on the margins. I’d like to think I’m in solidarity with the poor because of the way I vote, the money I donate and the time I volunteer. I’ve built houses in Mexico, volunteered at food banks, and even served two and a half years in the Peace Corps in Romania. I’ve spoken with people living with dirt floors and tin roofs and have shared meals with families with no running water or electricity. I even work at a peace and justice non-profit organization. But I’ve never lived on the margins.

poverty-mandela

Which is why participation in the poverty simulation offered by Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry made a difference. It brought me one step closer to personally understanding the stigma, barriers, and hurdles people on the margins face on a daily basis just to have access to food, shelter and healthcare. I was reminded that our “welfare” system is a punitive one, punishing people for needing help.

I played a small part; a day care provider. However, I was forced to turn people away because of overcrowding, funding, and health issues. Participants needed a safe place for their children in order to go to work and pay their bills. I wasn’t able to help everybody, even though I wanted to. I watched as participants became increasingly frustrated with their experience. In the end, everyone had a small glimpse into what daily life is like for our brothers and sisters without food, shelter or resources.

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Afterwards, we unpacked the experience. There were plenty of opinions on how to “fix” the welfare system. Two comments stood out. One participant mentioned that when we give to the poor, we should ask their forgiveness. It is the poor and marginalized who have been failed by our society and system and we’re all part of the problem. Another person said we need to stop judging people for being poor; we need to change our system to make it easier for people to get the help they need. As much as possible, we should eliminate the piles of paperwork, agency signatures, hoops and rules we make people go through. Sure, some people might take advantage of the system, but how many more people would be helped and brought back into self-sufficiency.

These opinions made me rethink my behavior. I’ve never thought of asking a person for forgiveness when I hand them a dollar outside a supermarket. But it makes sense. By asking for their forgiveness and blessing, I’m reaffirming their inherent worth and dignity by treating them with respect; I’m asking them for something only they can give. And I need to stop caring how they ended up being homeless. It’s not my place to judge and I’m not qualified to ask.

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All I know is that as a man of faith, it’s my responsibility to respond with compassion. This is the hard truth of faith; this is where conversion of the heart takes place. When we stop punishing and start forgiving. When we stop blaming and start helping. When we treat our neighbor as ourselves. This is why I’m grateful for having been able to participate in the poverty simulation. It reminded me yet again of the humanity of the poor, allowing me, if only for a brief moment, to walk in their footsteps. That is where solidarity begins.

Why I go to church…

collapse-michael-ceraWorking at a peace and justice non-profit is an emotional double-edged sword plowshare. It is emotionally fulfilling to have a small part in making the world a better place. It is emotionally crippling because every day I am confronted with the injustice and inhumanity of human trafficking, war, ecological destruction, greed and corrupt power. Compassion fatigue is real; I can only watch/read/research so much before the pictures/videos/stories become numbers/statistics/calculations instead of real people.

My symptoms include bypassing petitions instead of filling them out; deleting email action-alerts instead of reading them; turning the radio station from KUOW to KEXP when a challenging story comes on; binging on Netflix instead of keeping up with current events. If I let the fatigue persist it would be easy to just give up. Heck, sometimes giving up looks pretty damn attractive. It would be much easier to just give in and become just another consumer who doesn’t give a f*#k about anybody but myself. But I don’t want to be this person. I choose to fight the good fight. Therefore, I go to church.

giphyWhen I announced I was becoming a Unitarian Universalist, some of my atheist friends questioned why I just didn’t give up on religion all together. They all have very good reasons; as an institution religion has been as much a problem of the world as a solution to the world’s problems. Why would an atheist or agnostic attend a church service? Those are places for believers. My answer is simple: To stay a sane, healthy man of peace, I need religion.

Religion provides me with a community, sanctuary and covenant that is focused on peacemaking. It reminds me that I am not alone in working to build a more just world. It cures my compassion fatigue because it restores my faith in people. When peace and justice work becomes too heavy, it is my church that lightens the load. In a space filled with atheists, believers, agnostics, questioners and religious refugees, our attendance shouts to the universe: “We will continue the work! We will not give up! We crave peace!”

rocky-training-oIn order to do the work I do, to continue to read the stories, watch the videos, and look at the pictures; to keep on filling out the petitions, contacting the representatives, and raising awareness; I have to feel like I’m not alone. And every Sunday, along with other justice-seekers, it is in singing our doxology that I am spiritually renewed to keep on fighting the good fight:

“From all that dwell below the skies,
let songs of hope and faith arise!
Let peace, goodwill on earth be sung
through every land, by every tongue.”

May it be so. Amen.

You Can Do It (too)!

Just add water...
Just add water…

I’ve lived in Seattle a little more than 2 years now. In that time I’ve learned how to brew beer, make wine and roast coffee. I only have two more skills I’d like to add: curing tea and distilling spirits. I lived in Las Vegas for 30 years and never came close to making my own anything. It could be because I’m in my late 30’s and that’s what you do. As I got older I began to appreciate finer tastes in everything from cooking oils to cheese. However, I feel it’s more than my age; Las Vegas just didn’t have a DYI culture like Seattle.

Vegas does have some awesome tattoo artists though...
Vegas does have some awesome tattoo artists though…

Las Vegas is all about what other people can do for you. The service industry is king. This is not surprising for a town that depends on tourism. Unfortunately, this means that any DYI crafting is basically unheard of. I’m sure that there are a few people with chicken coops or brewing kettles; but it’s not part of the zeitgeist. I never thought about home brewing or coffee roasting because nobody I knew and nobody I met did it either.

I do believe Portland beat us...
I do believe Portland beat us…

Seattle lives and breathes crafty. We have numerous groups dedicated to making cool shizzle. Want to learn blacksmithing? Check out the Ballard Forge. Home brewing? We have 6 dedicated stores and our own state association. Urban farming? Got that too. Everywhere you go in this city, you are surrounded by people who make awesome things. Hipsters may very well make up a much larger percent of the population, but they were doing it first, right? In a very short time, the Pacific Northwest inspired me to learn and invent.

Important! DO THIS OUTSIDE!
Important! DO THIS OUTSIDE!

I’ve found that my time spent crafting has paid off in a few ways. When I brew beer, my price ends up being about $1-ish per 12oz bottle… which is an awesome price for craft beer! Hell, a good craft beer bomber (22oz) can run you anywhere from $4 to $20. I buy green coffee beans for half the price of store coffee ($5 per lb) and can roast them as dark (or light) as I want. Plus, the taste is amazing! You have not had coffee until you’ve had fresh roasted coffee. Not only am I saving money, but I am making items that are just as good (if not better) than what I could find at a commercial store.

Just do it.
Just do it.

The cool part is none of these skills are hard. It looked daunting at first, but once I was committed it took very little training and just a little research to get going. No matter where you live, the internet provides all the knowledge and materials needed. If I’ve learned anything, it’s not to let ignorance or fear get in the way of making something delicious!

It’s a new year. Embrace the power of the interwebs and MAKE ALL THE THINGS! You will not be disappointed.

The very good and the very (little) bad…

how did we ever live?!
how did we ever live?!

The last three weeks have been a whirlwind of excitement and experience! It seems like the whole month of August went by in a hazy blur. Somebody must have clicked the fast forward button on the VCR. Go figure; time passes by quickly when you’re not paying attention. Now summer is almost at an end.

A few weeks ago, my parents came to visit. We hadn’t seen them for over a year. I try to call every week or so, though it usually ends up being every other week. I’m a bad son in that regard. I just lose track of time. However, seeing them was wonderful! Their visit reminded me of how much I really do miss (and love) them.

This is my father. He is the BEST man you will ever meet. Period.
This is my father. He is the BEST man you will ever meet. Period.

One of the hardest parts of moving away from Vegas was being separated from friends and family by thousands of miles. This is pretty normal for families in the United States; as soon as we’re able we’re encouraged to leave the nest. My experiences in Eastern Europe taught me that many parts of the world feel that moving far away from your family is an insane (and stupid) idea. I mean, who’s going to take care of the kids when you get pregnant?

Seriously. Run. for. your. life.
Seriously. Run. for. your. life.

Second, I ran my very first extreme 5k. “Run for Your Lives” is a zombie themed race meant to challenge you physically, mentally, and emotionally. The race organizers did a great job of making the zombies as realistic as possible. The race included obstacles, steep hills, off road terrain, ravenous zombies and plenty of ways to be electrically shocked. I made a video of the experience.

This is Maria. Destroyer of livers.
This is Maria. Destroyer of livers.

Then Heather’s and my friends from Vegas arrived for a few days. Maria was my roommate before Heather and I were married. Her and her husband Brock are some of the coolest people we know. They are into food and drink. Having them visit gave me an excuse to eat and drink my way around Puget Sound: chicken & waffles at Burgundian, pizza from Zeeks, ALL the beer at Red Hook Brewery, bacon cheese maple braised pork loin biscuit sandwich at The Commons, wine from Chateau Ste Michelle, whiskey & vodka from Woodinville Whiskey Company, grappa from Soft Tail Spirits, mead from Sky River Brewing, bacon tater tot poutine and shepherd pies from Pies and Pints, spicy chorizo quesadillas at the Ballard Farmers Market, ALL the beer from Reuben’s Brews, and finally chocolate from Theo’s.

I will need to exercise for 3 months to recover from this one weekend. Well done friends… well done.

This is Dominic Taylor. If you see him, please alert police. He is a little bitch.
This is Dominic Taylor. If you see him, please alert police. He is a little bitch.

Then the bad. Last Friday I got home from work to find our house was almost broken into. Which is much better than actually being broken into. Our front door had almost been knocked off its hinges and the doorframe cracked beyond repair. One of our front windows had been cut in a very similar fashion to how our home was broken into last May. Yes, I suspect Mr. Dominic Taylor had returned to our home to see what else he could steal from us.

After the first break in, we installed some extra lights around the home and yard. This time I broke down and bought a camera security system. It has 720p HD video, nightvision, motion-sensors and will email me anytime it’s activated. Hopefully this will be the last time our home is violated for quite a while. Because twice in three months is unacceptable. This transgression will not stand, man.

Chris says "Drink beer."
Chris says “Drink beer.”

Then more good. Today is my birthday! I have so far survived 37 solar rotations. I marked this achievement yesterday by spending 4 hours with friends at the LivingSocial Beer Fest at the Seattle Center. Then four more hours at Pies and Pints for more friends, whiskey, poutine and shepherd pies. Today Heather and I went to church, ate at Zaina for lunch (Mediterranean street food), I finished my latest book while lounging in our hammock, we took a walk around the neighborhood to visit our local Little Free Library and as I finish this blog post, Heather is finishing her famous homemade satay chicken pizza.

Friends, I learned something valuable today. Those who are not grateful in the truest sense of the word for everything they have in life are doomed for misery. For they will never get as much goodness as they think they deserve, and will always feel like they get more evil than they feel they are warranted. Today I am completely and utterly grateful for my life, good and the bad. Today I am breathing and I am immensely happy.

The Grass is (Not) Always Greener…

It's really not THIS bad...
It’s really not THIS bad…

The rain came back today. Not surprising since I live in Seattle. However, according to the locals summer came a whole month early this year. June gloom is the way of the Pacific Northwest, but not this year. June was gorgeous, and July was downright toasty (by Seattle standard). In fact, no rain fell at all. For the whole month.

This shouldn’t phase me in the slightest. I’m from Las Vegas, where (as a friend pointed out earlier) a drop of rain causes all TV news crews to declare an extreme weather emergency. This isn’t as far fetched as it sounds. Vegas soil is not very absorbent so a tiny bit of rain is usually enough to cause a flash flood, with cars floating their way down to the Las Vegas Wash.

Ahh... a nice clear Seattle day.
Ahh… a nice clear Seattle day.

In Seattle, prolonged lack of rain makes people uneasy. As if mother nature is getting ready to pull something crazy. The reason this place is called the Emerald City is because the rain keeps everything green. It drizzles for 10 months out of the year. It’s peaceful and relaxing and helps us sustain our coffee consumption.

Not that the sunny skies have been unwelcome. We usually treat warm sunny weather like a unicorn. A rare mythical beast that must be worshipped and adored. Schools will have “sun days” instead of snow days, and it is not uncommon for people to call out from work to enjoy solar activity. But a whole month… nobody wants a unicorn to hang out that long. Rainbow crap piles everything, not to mention the horn just knocking stuff over.

Poop happens.
Poop happens.

Then there’s my garden. In Spring, it was awesome. We planted things, they grew. We thought we had magic seeds the way they took off. Some good soil, a raised bed, a little NW rain… instant garden veggies! And we never had to water. Mother nature took care of it all. I’ll  be honest, it made us lazy.

Then July came and mother nature said “Enough of this, I’m going on vacation. Water your own garden.” Heather and I used our rain barrels until they ran dry. Then we started watering from the hose. Everything just keeps on drinking! They are like water zombies; their ravenous thirst will never be sated!

Public water?!?! Socialism!!!!
Public water?!?! Socialism!!!!

We weren’t prepared for this. We hadn’t set up any drip irrigation or water lines. Our rain barrels were horribly inadequate. We believed wholeheartedly in nature providing for us. It’s a good thing we live in a city; if we were subsistence farmers we would have starved to death. Well played nature… well played.

This brings up the issues of water as a human right. Access to water is a worldwide concern. Communities in the desert southwest fight over water. Global climate change causes horrible drought conditions in which affects food supplies that impact the poor the most. Water is by far the most precious commodity the earth has (along with clean air) and I take it for granted.

Mr. Water says "Do it!"
Mr. Water says “Do it!”

Heather and I have been trying to steward our water more efficiently. She’s much better at it than I am. She captures gray water, only takes a shower every other day, and set up our rain barrel system. We made the decision to take out all of our grass and replace it with garden beds and native plant life. I just try to run the faucet less. But I’m learning.

Since moving to Seattle, I’ve experienced more rain than I’ve ever had before. As a result I respect it now more than I ever have. I suppose the grass is always greener, especially when you have enough water to keep it that way.

Learning how to share all over again…

Share all the tools!
Share all the tools!

One of my goals for owning my first home is to keep it free of stuff. This includes the garage. Unfortunately, the garage is already filling up with things. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, living spaces seem to follow the same rules. However, Heather and I found a remedy for our unnecessary accumulation: The NE Seattle Tool Library!

I didn’t know what a tool library was until my wife enlightened me. It’s a common place where people donate tools for public use. Not just hammers and hand saws, but power tools and plumbing supplies and electrical equipment. A whole garage full of crafty goodness, plus a bike repair station and in house large equipment woodworking area. All for a yearly membership fee of $20!

It's like a free hardware store!
It’s like a free hardware store!

It’s based off of the premise of shared resources. Home improvement equipment can cost on the upwards of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the amount of space tools take up gathering dust when not being used. Let’s be honest, unless you’re a hard core manly-man who lives and breathes Home Depot, you might pull out a cordless drill twice a year to do an odd project. Or an emergency comes up and you run down to Ace Hardware for $400 worth of supplies that you may never use again. Very inefficient and wasteful!

Work on your bike at the bike station.
Work on your bike at the bike station.
Shelves of crafty items!
Plenty to choose from at the tool library…

If the community comes together and pools its resources, suddenly you have a plethora of equipment that can be checked out and returned with a common storage space. No more cluttered garage and unused items. Beyond just things to use, there are instruction classes and an information library. Everything you need to repair your sink, sand your deck, or build that brand new arcade cabinet you always wanted! Everyone wins!

This is a big push towards a shared resource economy. Another similar idea (and one that may be implemented at the tool library) is time banking, where people make agreements to share skills. A doctor trades 1 hour of medical service to a family for 1 hour of childcare. A plumber trades 1 hour of plumbing service to a carpenter for 1 hour of carpentry. The importance isn’t on profit but connection.

Ridesharing, couchsurfing, and community gardening are all ways that people across the U.S. are coming together to form closer, more sustainable relationships. It’s an extension of the commons… a public space that is a resource for the whole community and is taken care of by the whole community. A reverse on the trend of resource hoarding; taking as much as you can as fast as you can before someone else can take it.

Come visit the NE Tool Library today!

Heather and I recognize that we have more space than any two people really need. In order to be responsible stewards for this space, we’ve decided to make our space productive. By converting our yard into a growing area, we can produce food not only for ourselves but friends and neighbors. We are constantly on the lookout for ways to be more sustainable and sharing oriented in our new home ownership!

If any of this sounds awesome, look around to see if there are groups and organizations nearby engaging in resource sharing. If not, start one! All it takes is a few people deciding to share with each other to get the idea off the ground.