I didn’t watch the presidential debate even though I tweeted #JesusIsMyCandidate until twitter kicked me off. I’m really not interested in whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is a smoother talker because smooth talking involves a completely different skill set than having a conscience or a heart. I love people who will vote on each side and I don’t ever want politics to compromise the unity of the body of Christ which is my number one desire. Still I needed to confess that I am completely biased and impractical and irrational when it comes to how I make political decisions. I’m not trying to tell anybody else what they should decide, but I make my decisions based on some kids God gave me to love who are not my flesh and blood. I love my flesh and blood Matthew and Isaiah. The older they get, the more I know that our whole lives together are going to be a blast. And I’m also very proud of how they were forever shaped by the Lopez cousins and their friends in the mostly-Mexican-with-some-Salvadoran-and-Honduran youth group that I led from 2008 to 2010. My not flesh and blood kids held my sons in church. They babysat them. When we visit, they treat them like out of town cousins, because they are cousins.
I’m not worried about what will happen to Matthew and Isaiah because I will take care of them. Even if the United Methodist Church were to disappear off the face of the Earth before they graduated high school, I would find a way. But as for my other kids whom I miss so terribly, I need to know that they’re safe. I need to know that Medicaid will pay for April’s braces as well as Karla’s knee surgery and the physical therapy afterwards. Will all these things be cut as “non-essentials” when the budget knives come out? I realize I should be more “objective,” but April’s braces will make a difference in her job interviews in a decade and Karla’s “elective” knee surgery will determine whether she has a shot at a college soccer scholarship since she did play varsity her freshman high school year.
I also need to know that when Karla’s sister Favi gets to high school, the AVID program will still exist to mentor kids who have a lot stacked against them — kids who have siblings that they’ve seen in handcuffs, kids who move houses several times within a single year, kids who share a bedroom with their five siblings and have no private, quiet space to do their homework because their younger siblings are screaming at the TV which is also blaring, kids who have to feed and bathe and pajama their younger siblings because their mother is at work until after they go to bed, kids who are exhausted most of the time because they have to help their moms make tamales and clean houses in order to supplement her minimum wage income. Will AVID get cut too? Will they be allowed to have a Hispanic student club like the one I started at Graham High School in 2006 or will that be seen as inappropriate racial discrimination against non-Hispanics like they’re trying to say in Arizona these days?
What about Karla, April, and Favi’s friends who were born south of a river in the desert before they crossed when they were too little to remember instead of being born north of that river after their mothers crossed? They’re every bit as smart, every bit as funny, every bit as hard-working as the lucky kids who were born on the right side. But they know they can’t go to college, so I can’t play the college card with them when I plead with them to avoid gang-banging and smoking weed. A river! Seriously? If you’re born north of it, you “deserve” to have a completely different life than if you’re born south of it. Over and over again, we say the words of Cain to God: “I am not my brother’s keeper.” I just can’t take the bird’s eye, objective point of view on this question. I understand that there’s a limit to how many people can get crammed into this country, but I can’t say, “Oh well” about the people who are born south of the river. God gave me kids to love and march with. Everyone gets a different set of kids to love and march with, but I’m sure as hell going to love and march with mine.
We used to have a beat up old church van that the kids tore up completely on the inside. I’m not going to tell you how many it seated and how many riders we maxed out at. But when things got rowdy, I would pull over and pull out the keys and sit up on the dashboard facing the back, and we would have a van sermon. I want for what I said to my kids not to be a lie. I want to live in a world where they really can “do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens them.” When I quote that scripture myself, I view it partly as my promise to be part of how Jesus makes it true for the kids he gave me to love even though I have to trust them to other shepherds now.
One of the most difficult things that has ever happened to me was when I had to miss watching April and Karla get confirmed in our church. We had twenty or so kids in that confirmation class. It was hell and pandemonium most of the time. But I did get them to do a rap about the 23rd psalm and a hip-hop remix of “This is my Father’s World” with lyrics more suitable to urban 21st century life (e.g. “Walking on the streets, it’s easy to forget that God made all the ground underneath where we step and the rocks and the trees and the skies and the seas that we fill with our trash and our waste and disease”). Anyhow at the end of the year, only April and Karla said yes to Jesus. It wasn’t like in the suburbs where I now live where 25 kids come to confirmation, are mostly well-behaved and engaged, all get confirmed, and three of them still come to church the following year. These kids chose to get in the van to go to confirmation every week (though not always for the right reasons). But there was no social expectation for them to say yes. Joining the church was a genuine choice of whether they wanted to accept Christ or not. Everyone else said they weren’t ready, but April and Karla said yes.
I couldn’t be there for April and Karla’s confirmation because I had licensing school to become a pastor in Virginia. I remember going out to ice cream with some fellow new pastors when Karla called me to ask for help writing the testimony she wanted to share in church so I stood outside on the phone with her the entire time and didn’t eat any ice cream and probably made the other new pastors think I was extraordinarily rude. But Karla was getting confirmed and it was the most important thing in my life at that moment. Most of you will never understand what pastors and teachers experience when they see a kid grow and change. It’s different when the kid is yours because you have been there all along and you have always laid the smack down or you haven’t. When you inherit the pain and struggles of another family and you get cussed out and disrespected and taken advantage of the first six months of knowing a kid, but then the shell comes off and their beauty shines forth like the first rays of sunlight after a heavy rain, it’s completely different. When you witness God’s work like that, especially if you see a kid say yes to Jesus, then you’re gonna fight for that kid for the rest of your life, no matter where you move to or what other responsibilities, loyalties, and considerations have entered the picture.
So that’s where I am. I got adopted into a Mexican family. They told me I was the arroz in their frijoles and that I had a brown heart on the inside. Every time I visit Durham, NC, I see my flesh and blood family and my Mexican family. I’m not too worried about how my flesh and blood family is going to do because we’re part of the relevant middle class that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama both care about supporting. I just want my Mexican family to be all right. And I needed you to know what’s going on inside my head when I walk into a conversation in which people are talking about how “government programs” create a “culture of dependency.” I’m not going to argue because I’m a pastor and loving everyone is my number one priority, but you’ll probably see my face get a little hot. Also I am going to try in the future to have the integrity not to say or affirm things I don’t really believe. Because I guarantee you that April’s braces are not holding her back for busting her butt in school so she can get into some AP classes next year. And I’m confident that Karla will be better able to stay focused with a repaired knee instead of a throbbing one.
On an abstract existential level, I get and completely sympathize with the sentiments behind the Tea Party perspective. It sucks to live in a technocratic world in which we mindlessly trudge along in our compartmentalized, single-serving careers and ranch houses while experts and heroes elsewhere actually “do something.” There’s a Carpe Diem “We can do it” ethos that says our churches need to be the answer, not some massive politically correct, red-tape-oozing behemoth called the federal government. No government agency can give a van sermon, though inside of government agencies are real hard-working, underpaid social workers who make a difference, many of whom do what they do because they love Jesus. I worked with some of these social workers as a chaplain at the Durham VA in the summer of 2009. They aren’t creating dependency; we spent hours every Thursday talking through the nuances of helping drug-addicted homeless vets get back on their feet without enabling them.
In any case, I am relentlessly committed to the pursuit of global change through Christian discipleship as my primary means of activism. That’s why I’m a pastor and not a bullhorn yeller. When Jesus’ disciples said the people are hungry, He said, “You give them something to eat,” not “Go and collect signatures for a petition to send to Caesar to airdrop several tons of loaves and fishes on a nearby hill.” (I realize the analogy doesn’t work for many real-life scenarios which is actually the point of this piece; I’m just saying it’s way too easy to advocate for somebody else to change the world). The more that we are liberated from the tyrannical “You can’t do that because…” chorus that defines modern life, which Jesus called the “world” and Paul called the “powers and principalities,” the more we will be able to live with the imagination of the Methodist women who started the concept of modern social work in the late 19th century in Chicago when there was little sense that the government had any responsibility to the poor. I’m all for creating free church health clinics where orthodontists and orthopedic surgeons take care of kids who otherwise wouldn’t have braces or knee surgery. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. I don’t think my not flesh and blood kids should have to suffer because the body of Christ has abandoned its vocation in the world for a comfortable suburbianity and now they don’t want to pay taxes either.
I don’t know if any of my youth will ever read this, but in case you do, know that I love all of you guys, and I only talked about April and Karla because they were the first two faces in the picture I wanted to use at the top, they got confirmed that summer before I left, and the braces and the knee surgery were good examples of details that people don’t think about when they’re talking about “government programs.” Also I want to say that I’m so grateful to Laura and Toby and anyone else I don’t know about who is loving on my youth right now and helping them to stay out of trouble. And Paco Campos, my hero, who took over the Sangre de Cristo soccer team that some clumsy white guy who was tripping over his shoelaces tried to start and made them into champions. I’ll be back in Durham a week from Sunday so I’ll see y’all at the taco truck. Peace.