Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Fostering Creation

My household is fostering a puppy. A big, happy, goofy puppy. Here’s a photo:

His name is Presley, and he is about a year old. He has been with my family since March, when a local rescue worker found him wandering in a park. This was him when she coaxed him into her car and put out the call for a foster home.

He was skinny and insecure. It looked like he was abandoned, and had to spend too much of his puppy life walking outside. He hates the rain, and is terrified of the sound of traffic.

The deal with fostering is that the foster home cares for the dog until he gets adopted. He’s going to his new family on Saturday.

The funny thing about this is how much better a dog he is than our own dogs. Here are A.J. (left) and Xena (right). They are Shih Tzu rescues.

Our dogs have it great. But because they are our dogs, we don’t have to worry about making them adoptable. They're just good enough to bring to a friend's house, go to daycare, and ride in the car without any drama. We're stuck with each other.

Shih Tzus have attitudes and big personalities (so yes, they will try to attack the neighborhood Great Danes). Once Xena walked over to a ball thrown to her to fetch, peed on it, and then sat next to it and stared at the person who dared to ask her to do something so demeaning as fetch a ball. And now they’re middle-aged, so they mostly sleep, and growl at Presley when he gets too close.

We had to worry about making Presley adoptable. Presley is a pit bull mix, and because pit bulls face so much discrimination, particularly in this area of the country where they are very common, the task we faced as a foster home was to make him the best dog ever. The pit bull breed is friendly, cuddly, and very driven by treats, approval, and affection. Without proper training or care, pitties can act out just like any other dog or human that is mistreated. He’s a big strong boy, so we had to make sure he has good self-control and is responsive to commands. He got better training (obedience classes), more socialization (doggie daycare and socialization classes galore), firmer boundaries, more exercise than A.J. and Xena. He has gained almost 20 pounds, and has enough confidence to give him some swagger.

Here he is at obedience class, focusing on the treat in my hand.

At some point, tired out from dealing with all that puppy energy, I thought, “Well, can’t stop now. We are raising someone’s else’s dog.”

It’s funny that what is mine, I don’t worry too much about (and our dogs could totally use more training). I worry about what is not mine: I pick up campsites quite nicely, try to return borrowed kitchenware washed and dried (or return cast iron skillets nicely cured), don’t fold the corners of pages in borrowed books, and spend time and energy (and money) on a puppy who’s about to leave.

I consider it a responsibility and a privilege to foster creation. Isn’t that what we are all doing? We live here, on this planet, with these people and these animals. This place isn’t ours forever. We’re about to leave. Wouldn’t it be an amazing legacy to leave everything just a little bit better than it was when we arrived?

That might mean a big puppy who can sit, lay down, wait, come, catch, touch, heel, stop, crate up, and do his business. It might mean making sure we make a little bit of effort to wash and fill up the tank in a friend’s car. It could even mean we plant a little garden, so there is something fresh for neighbors to eat. Perhaps we might even work to end fracking so the groundwater in a community has safe drinking water for the future, or prevent politicians from slashing public benefits meant to help people through a rough patch until they can get back on their feet.

What was it that is said in the Scriptures? Care for the widow and the orphan.

Ok. I’ll do my best. Starting with a puppy named Presley.

1) Yes, I’m aware there are lots of people who could really benefit from homes, food, health care, etc. I am aware that fostering one dog at a time will never meet the vast needs of the world. I consider it my duty as a citizen of the planet to work for a world that treats its vulnerable members better. And when it comes to opening my home, I just do what I can.  
3) Yes, I know what really needs to happen for there to be no more need to foster animals or have animal shelters. One dog at a time won’t really solve anything. We’re talking cultural and legal shifts that ensure there are no more irresponsible breeders, careless or cruel owners, or people who refuse to spay/neuter their animals.
4) Please adopt. Quit buying dogs. If there were no more demand, maybe every dog and cat would have a home instead of getting dumped off in parks or kicked out of moving cars or abandoned in empty houses without food or water.
5) Fostering is a great option. The rescue paid for the food and medical care. The socialization and obedience classes were donated. And his doggie daycare in Decatur gave us a great deal.

Here are a few resources on creation. Are there others to post? Please add them in the comments.

Stewardship of Creation Study Participant’s Book and Leader’s Guide (Being Reformed Series)

Water: Precious Gift and Endangered Resource (The Thoughtful Christian downloadable study)

God’s Creation (Faith Questions Youth curriculum)

An Inconvenient Truth: Facts About Global Warming (The Thoughtful Christian downloadable study)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Communities of Accountability

In my last blog I referred to communities of accountability. I am guessing most of you are familiar with these types of communities.

I report to various communities of accountability. “Report” is too strong a word for some of these communities, but right on target for communities that certify me [i.e. the Presbyterian Church (USA)]. I remember the shock some of my ecumenical colleagues expressed that I have to a) participate in my presbytery, b) fill out paperwork annually, and c) behave according to the standards I promised at my ordination, all in order to be in a validated ministry (and claim a housing allowance, too). Of course, as a grown-up and as a professional, sometimes it annoys me, this layer of accountability. But it is both a choice and a joy.

I could operate all by myself as an individual, but that would be a lie. I am who I am because of the communities that form(ed) me, support(ed) me, and make my life and work possible.  I believe in accountability because I know I didn’t get to be a citizen or a child of a legal marriage (bans on interracial marriage were on the books until 1967, with the Loving v. Virginia decision), or educated and hold a fancy job all by myself without cost to others; there had to be a first for everything, and I wasn’t the first. The system opened doors for people like me because a community of advocates and change-makers worked to open those doors.

One of those communities of accountability is my denomination and its subgroups: the church I attend, my presbytery, youngish people serving the church, women I know from the National Network of Presbyterian College Women and Racial/Ethnic Young Women Together, Asian Pacific Americans, Presbyterian Women, the crowd of those who serve its seminaries, etc. I report in regularly. I show up when they tell me to and I do what they tell me to do, within reason. Preach on my thirteenth consecutive day of work without a break? Sure! Lead a round of Siyahamba in Indonesian? Of course! Not because I’m obedient, but because I understand that sometimes being in community means I respect the spirit of the Christian community, and challenge that community in love.

Another community of accountability is my family. This is not one cohesive unit, much like most other families. I try to report in to my elders, and keep an eye on my younger cousins. I try to check in with each branch of the family, at least every few years (it’s a big and diverse family). And I let them lecture me when I don’t call/move anywhere but California-Oregon-Washington/don’t eat right/don’t exercise enough/wear glasses/wear contacts/look too thin/look not thin enough/don’t stand up straight/act too Christian/don’t act Christian enough/anything else they don’t like. I let them do this because I don’t really have a choice. Also because they love me.

Another community of accountability is a group of antiracist people of color and white people. While I’m pretty invested in anti-oppression work in general (because I’m a Christian, and that’s what Jesus taught me to do), this is the community in which I’m most invested. The nice thing about antiracism work is that this community acknowledges and works to end the ways in which we perpetuate inequality along class, gender and sexuality lines. This community also reminds me of two important things: a) change is a very long process, so buckle up and pace yourself; and b) being antiracist is a way of addressing the ways in which everyone is impacted by inequality (not just me, not just my friends… everyone).

Another community is where I live. Let me be clear I frequently do not like where I live. But where I live becomes important because county and state laws and practices have a great deal to do with the quality of life of my community. I pay city and county taxes that I want to be spent a certain way. My representatives in the state legislature and the U.S. Congress matter to me because they make (or block) laws with real consequences to my community. So I try to show up.

I was thumbing through a Westminster John Knox book the other day, for my nerd fun, and came across a statement on accountability by Stacey Floyd-Thomas and Miguel de la Torre in their introduction to Beyond the Pale: Reading Ethics from the Margins. Their work of liberation ethics is intended to raise as viable sources the lives and work of the marginalized, which will “further the real work of human flourishing and communal accountability” (p. xxii). Reading the work of ethicists from historically marginalized social locations will begin to address the historically oppressive work of theological ethics. I believe they are making an effort to hold their own field accountable for its marginalizing habits.

However difficult it is to be accountable to communities we may or may not love, I believe this work of holding one another accountable is undeniably Christian. I bring my own Presbyterian angle to it, as our polity is very much about layers (and layers and more layers) of accountability.

I use a few passages from the Bible as accountability guides. (And I’m really hoping my Baptist/Pentecostal seminary classmates are proud of me right about now.) Matthew 18:15-17.  If y’all aren’t getting along, address it! Bring along some community members if you need to! I Corinthians 8:13. If it is will really be a problem for someone else, I shouldn’t do it. Because community is sometimes more important than what I personally want to do.  

What are your communities of accountability? Your church? Your neighborhood? How do you stay accountable to them?

Beyond the Pale: Reading Ethics from the Margins, eds Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas & Miguel de la Torre. 2011. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press

*My friend/colleague/fellow blogger/birthday buddy Mark Koenig posted a thoughtful piece in response to my questions here:

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

My Asian Pacific American Presbyterian Community of Accountability - Reporting In

I report to various communities of accountability. “Report” is too strong a word for some of these communities, but right on target for communities that certify me [i.e. the Presbyterian Church (USA)]. I could operate all by myself as an individual, but that would be a lie. I am who I am because of the communities that form(ed) me and support(ed) me.  

One of my communities of accountability is a group of Asian Pacific American Presbyterians.

For those of you who don’t know, last week the Presbyterians had a big conference that is actually 10 smaller conferences in one gathering. In addition to the smaller conferences were multiple gatherings of various constituencies. One of these, the National Asian Presbyterian Council (NAPC), invited me to serve on a panel about the future of NAPC with three other Asian American leaders in the Presbyterian Church (USA). This is a community of Asian Americans and immigrants of Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian descent. I used to serve on the Steering Committee of NAPC, and am proud to claim and be claimed by this community.

Here is a paraphrase of my remarks from last week’s event.


Thank you for inviting me. I am honored to be here.

I’m here to talk a bit about us.

Asian Pacific Americans are the fastest-growing racial demographic in the U.S. We are the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S. Almost half of all immigrants in the U.S. are from Asia. We are also largely invisible in most significant discourse in society and church.

The Pew research center recently did a study of Asian Pacific Americans and religion, and it was done so poorly, with a cultural lens not meant for our communities’ unique characteristics, that a group of Asian Pacific American scholars of religion stepped in, protested, and helped Pew re-write the report.

Yes, the best research group in the U.S. couldn’t study us without their own cultural imperialism getting in the way.

Whether it be in state or national politics, we are underrepresented. Our group is the most underrepresented racial minority in corporate boardrooms when compared to the representation in the corporate world, and is largely absent as a community from significant policy-shaping work at the presbytery and national levels of the church.

NAPC is important because we can speak in Asian humor, and understand one another. I am always worried, out there, that someone will make fun of someone’s accent, and I’m going to have to tell that person they’re ignorant. But in here, it is a safe place to mispronounce, to apologize, to have awesome cross-cultural moments, because this is what it means to be us.

NAPC is important because it gives us a vehicle to organize. It gives us a vehicle to work with other communities of color in order to make change.

And it gives us a home to come back to after going out into the church and being misunderstood, dismissed, or patronized for being so exotic, or having such good English, or being fetishized for our food and our languages.  

NAPC sees what’s coming down the road. We know about generational struggles and strengths. We know about ministry with multiracial families. We are experts in what it means to do new church starts and handle immigration challenges and leadership shortages.

And the real truth:

God made us. God didn’t make any mistakes. We are meant to be who we are, because God loves us, too.

I think that means God doesn’t want us to be made invisible, or be the church’s cute exotic tokens.

Racism is real.

Racism makes us invisible.

We can fight invisibility by being in solidarity with other groups of people of color. We can fight invisibility by working to develop the leadership of young people, not just for NAPC leadership, but for leadership in the wider church, and in society.
We can demand the church do more for comprehensive immigration reform. Not just church offices – they are all working really hard already, but church people.

Current proposed immigration reform would eliminate the family reunification policy covering siblings, and would put a cap on the age of adult married children of citizens. Family reunification is particularly important to our community.

My comments are not meant to put all the emphasis on us. Our actions are on not the only problem here. But since racism is still around, we will have to go ahead and do what we do.