Act like you have been there before

When I was a younger man, I was often starstruck.

I had the good fortune early in my career to meet people who, in their circle, were famous or at least respected. And because I was insecure as hell, I would try to show them how much I knew and that I wasn’t just a punk kid who had bluffed his way into the room. (Despite my being a punk kid who had often bluffed himself into the room.)

Maybe you have seen people like that – eager to show their worth, eager to show they belong, and so they hog the space and generally look desperate.

That was before I learned that relationships are more important than fame and that relationships take time to develop and nurture. I would try to tell the person everything I knew, and I would end up verbally vomiting on them.

One day somebody took me aside and told me what I was doing. Then they gave me a powerful piece of advice.

“If there is someone you know well, you don’t worry about telling them everything you ever want to tell them, because you will see them again. Your problem is that you are afraid you will never see this famous person again, so you have to tell them everything, and instead of looking wise, you just look desperate. So don’t tell them everything the first time you meet them. Act like you have been there before, and like you assume you will be coming back. This increases the odds that you actually will be.”

Eat the meat, spit out the bones

Since I have been in Jackson, I have been trying to intentionally place myself in situations and circles I would not normally be in. I am seeking out unlikely friendships and attempting to avoid homogeneity in my relationships.

Which is why at 5:30 on a Tuesday morning I am in a living room in a part of town I don’t live in, surrounded by people who are much more conservative than me in any way you can think of – theologically, politically, socially – and we are there to study the sacred text we are all committed to, although we often derive different precepts from it.

It’s hard for me.

There, I said it. It’s hard to wake up at 4:30 AM to go sit with people who think very differently than you do about issues that matter to you a great deal. But what I have consistently found is that no one person (or even ideology) has a corner on all the wisdom there is in the world, and so I find myself taking notes and jotting down ideas that I hear in that room that I would never have considered otherwise.

I had a mentor once who told me that you could learn anywhere and from anyone.

“Take what is useful, and ignore what is not. Eat the meat, and spit out the bones,” he said.

An old school way to circumvent Facebook’s algorithm

Having just moved to a new city, I am meeting lots of new people, and some of them I add as friends on Facebook. But since I have never interacted with them before, I seldom see them in my news feed. Thanks, Facebook (not).

In addition, I have some relatives who seldom post anything to Facebook, and since the algorithm is focused on engagement, I never see their posts either.

Neither of these scenarios makes me happy. So I developed an old-school workaround.

Here is how I do it.

Basically, I just pull up the page for anyone I want to stay on top of, and then bookmark it to a folder in my bookmark bar that I creatively called “Facebook.” Then, whenever I want to check on folks (I do this once a week or so) I right click on the folder and then click “Open all”, which then opens all of those pages in new tabs. I look at each page briefly to see what, if anything, has been updated. I also make it a point to click “like” or comment on their recent posts, which will, theoretically, over time teach Facebook that I want to see their stuff.

You could also use this to keep track of family, or old high school friends whose updates you never see, etc.

The most Mississippi story ever

On the night of June 11, 1963, Dr. James Hardy performed the first successful lung transplant from one human to another. That happened at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, in Jackson, MS. Because of that doctor’s work, and that surgery, and his transplantation of a chimpanzee heart to a human (also at the University Medical Center, in Jackson MS) the following year, there are many, many thousands of people – including my wife – who are alive today who otherwise would have died.

About twenty-four hours later, on a quiet street in Jackson MS, a civil rights worker named Medgar Evers was shot down in his driveway by Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist. He was taken by ambulance to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which according to some reports, initially would not admit him to the emergency room because of his race until it was explained who he was. He died of his injuries. His murderer would be free for more than 30 years before being convicted.

And that 24 hours is the most goddamned emblematic story of Mississippi I know. Horror and hope, death and resurrection, terror and triumph – all in the same 24 hours, in the same city, at the same damned hospital, even. Mississippi is the best place I know. And the worst place I know. It will suck you in with its charms. And it will break your heart.

The comma

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day, he rose again from the dead…

Those words are found in The Apostle’s Creed, an early statement of belief from the Christian tradition. In some circles, agreement with it is regarded as the minimum test for orthodoxy.

And that’s OK, I guess, if you are into that sort of thing.

But where I find life and want to invest my energy isn’t in long flowery statements based on Greek philosophy, but rather in a comma.

Stay with me here. Look back at the statement above. See where it says, “…born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…”? Two phrases, separated by a comma, and by more than 30 years in time.

Between being born and being judged by Pilate, Jesus of Nazareth lived some 30 odd years. The story goes that during that time, he fed hungry folks. He healed sick folks. He gave dignity back to people. He loved those no one loved. He lifted up those who had been trodden down. He affirmed women, he flouted oppressive religious laws, he confronted the Powers That Be and made a mockery of them. And less than 12 hours before he would be judged by Pilate, he ate dinner with his betrayer and gave him a second chance to do the right thing.

All of that and more is behind that comma.

The creeds relegate the life of Jesus to a mere comma as if it did not matter that he ate, drank, sweated, loved, belched, cried, pooped, lamented, ate with his friends, loved his mother and knew what it meant to be betrayed by people he loved.

And to be honest? All of that is far more interesting to me than whatever is alleged to have happened on the third day after they killed him. The life that was rejected by the creeds and replaced by a comma is, to me, worth imitating, worth learning from, worth aspiring to, and worth following.

I get asked sometimes why I stay in the Jesus tradition. It’s simple, really. It’s because I am fascinated with life that got replaced with a comma.

When your routine is off.

I am a creature of routine. This shocks people, but it’s true.
I wear the same four shirts over and over. I have two pairs of pants I wear almost every day, unless I wear shorts that day, when I will wear one of two pairs, or if I have to dress up, in which case I wear that nicer pair of pants I own. I alternate between two pairs of shoes, no matter the clothes I have on.
I drink my coffee from the same mug nearly every morning, wake up at the same time nearly every morning, eat one of three things for breakfast, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, to quote the king.
Flaubert said to “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I like that a lot.
But sometimes things throw the routine off. Like right now, Renee is out of town to visit her family, so three cats and I are living the bachelor life here in this tiny apartment.
Which is fine – I lived by myself for a long time before I got married, and I do all the cooking anyway, and while I struggled a bit with wondering what sort of cat food we buy for the cats and where we keep the trash bags, I am doing fine.
Except that the routine is off, and things fall through the cracks, all of which makes me feel mega uncomfortable, like I am wearing someone else’s clothes.
So this morning when I woke up feeling off, I just put it down to the routine and the changes and got up to make my coffee the same way I do every morning. And in making the coffee I moved something on the counter and saw my pillbox – the one with the daily little boxes for each day of the week that I use to track the medication that keeps my depression at bay – and that it was amazingly full.
It seems I had not taken a single pill since Monday morning. In other words, I missed three doses. No wonder I am off.
Before you ask – I’m fine, and in a good place and not really depressed, just off – again, like I am wearing someone else’s clothes. But it does feel a bit disorienting. It’s the most doses I have missed in a year.
But one side effect of all of the mess that is my head – the ADHD, the chronic depression, the learning disabilities I have and all of that – is that you tend to blame yourself when things like this happen. Instead of thinking, “Of course you are disoriented – your life is a bit chaotic right now”, which is what my counsel would be to anyone else in this situation, you tend to see it as a personal failing. Like you don’t want to be healthy enough, or you are not trying hard enough, or maybe you just are not enough.
All of that to say, I cannot wait for my wife to return. I cannot wait to move into our permanent home, and I cannot wait to have a regular routine again. For me, it really is a matter of life or death.

Liberation for everyone

The other night I argued fiercely and publicly at length with an agent of the Federal government whose job it is to create and enact policies that are designed to destroy economically poor communities.

After the event, we spoke again, and I handed him my card and told him he should remember my name, as I had committed his to memory, and we would no doubt see each other again. He laughed, and said he would, and then thanked me for my courtesy in our exchange. People later were concerned about why I was so “polite” to him after the event.

Here is the deal: The last 11 years of ministry for me have been a ministry of rehumanization – working to recognize and promote the humanity of those society has sought to dehumanize. Folk who are poor. Folk who are queer. Folk who are trans. Folk who are without homes. Folk of color.

The Powers That Be seek to dehumanize us and the Jesus story is all about how we recognize and restore humanity to the other.

Because of this, I won’t dehumanize people. I won’t call people names. I won’t make fun of The President’s body shape or skin tone. I won’t call his followers idiots. It is possible to disagree with a person while still recognizing their humanity. In fact, I think if we are to survive as a species, it shall be essential.

(I am sure someone out there is making a list of all the times I have failed at this. I assure you, my own list of those failures is far more complete than yours. Yet and still, I strive to be better than I am.)

I can disagree with what the US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi said and stands for and yet have a cordial conversation and not call him dehumanizing names. Because the truth is, he is not his policies or his ideas but a human being, and thus, as we believe in my faith tradition, made in the image of God.

My decision to not dehumanize people who disagree with me doesn’t mean I don’t take those disagreements seriously, and it doesn’t signal any lack of commitment on my part to the cause of justice, and, as US Attorney Hurst found out, it doesn’t mean I won’t call you out. Rather, it is *because* of my commitment to the liberation of all people that I am committed to this – because we all need liberation from the forces that hold us hostage and seek to destroy us.

Processing celebrity death

I was sitting at Waffle House, looking at my email while eating my breakfast, when The Huffington Post announced that Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul herself, had passed away.

We all knew it was coming. She had been in Hospice care for a few days and the internet gossip machines had her at death’s door for most of the last week. Her death wasn’t a surprise at all – in fact, we had all been expecting it.

But when I found out, sitting in that Waffle House on a sunny day, in good spirits, grief and pain washed over me like a wave. I literally felt pain and mourning for someone I did not know, had never met and who has had minimal impact on my life.

I loved me some Aretha, don’t get me wrong. Her genius and mark on the industry are undeniable, and even people like me who are not huge music people know who she was and can name at least a couple of her songs. But I don’t really understand my profound sense of grief over her death and it changing the entire tenor of my day.

I guess the thing I am wondering is, does the way I get the news affect how I process the news? If I had read it in the paper tomorrow instead of having it shared by a dozen of my friends, would it have changed my emotional response? As a depressive person, I know the least thing can set off a wave of emotional response – is there something about social media and how it functions that change the way we process our emotional response to things? And if so, is social media inherently bad for our mental health?


Being willing

I have been in Jackson since the end of June. During that time, I have been in at least 30 or 35 meetings. If it was an open meeting, I showed up.

As such, I have sat in meetings of the school board, various neighborhood associations, people’s assemblies, businessmen’s network meetings, liberal groups, conservative groups. I have sat with white supremacists and black nationalists. Queer folks as well as people who think they don’t know any queer folks. I have talked to people experiencing homelessness and “social entrepreneurs.”

And I listened, and I took notes, confident that the intersection of my gifts and the world’s needs would intersect, as they do for each of us. I have almost filled two composition books with notes.

Why? Because I am trying to figure out what is mine to do here. Because the easy thing to do would have been to use my white and male privilege to swoop in as The Great Hughsis and launch my six-point plan to fix whatever, but the right thing to do is to see what is already happening and see how I can bring my gifts to bear there*.

Basically, my whole theory of ministry is that it is about looking and listening, and then, when a need shows up, being willing.

In the movie The Shootist, John Wayne plays an aged gunfighter, John Books, who is eaten up with cancer. The movie is all the more poignant because while he was filming this movie, Wayne himself was eaten up with cancer.

My favorite scene in the movie comes when the young boy, an aspiring gunfighter himself, remarks about how fast a draw Books must have been when he was younger. Wayne looks at the boy and tells him,

“It’s not always being fast or even accurate that counts, it’s being willing. I found out early that most men, regardless of cause or need, aren’t willing. They blink an eye or draw a breath before they pull the trigger–and I won’t.”

More and more, my prayer is less that I am good, and more that I am willing.

*41 days after we got here, I think it hit. It’s early days yet so I won’t say more, but this week three separate threads all came together and said, “Hey, whatcha think of this? And more importantly, whatcha gonna do with it, now that you know?”

What I am doing in Jackson

As of this evening, Renee and I have been in Jackson MS for 35 days. We are living in a tiny, temporary apartment downtown just a block or so from the capitol building, where us and three cats are trying to make the best of it while we wait for our house in Raleigh to close so we can buy a house here.

Since our moving here, people have been asking what, exactly, it is we are up to down here, professionally. So I wanted to give you an update.

Thanks to the generosity of a donor who agreed to cover my salary, I was recruited by Open Door Mennonite Church to start a Peace and Justice Center here in Jackson. If you are familiar with my work around homelessness in Raleigh, nothing we will be up to here should surprise you, except there are amazing folks working around homelessness here, and the pressing needs in Jackson center around hunger and education.

But while the emphasis is different, the core problem is not – the solution to the world’s issues is, and always will be, community. Our community contains everything we need to live a good life. Whether what we need is housing, food, an adequate education or just a life worth living, we can find all of it in our community. So, it makes sense to me that the only way to work for justice long term is to build communities.

So the Peace and Justice Center here will be a place where unlikely relationships can happen, and where meals can be shared and where people can experience their own power as they exercise agency and choice over their lives. (Sounds familiar, yes?)

My core competency for the last 11 years has been community building among diverse populations. I was made for this.

It is early days yet. I have a building of sorts – it is a Quonset hut with a broken air conditioner, but I have a window unit in the room I am using for an office. The floor is scattered with books I brought, but there isn’t a budget for bookshelves yet, and the internet hasn’t been installed yet, anyway.

The building was, the last time it was used 8 years ago, a daycare, so there is a timeout closet and tiny toilets and primary colors to go with the leaky roof. But it is a start and will be a place to hold meetings and if we ever get the budget to fix the AC, a place to hold weekly community building meals and after-school programs and local community-building educational programs.  It may surprise you to learn this, but an all metal building in the middle of a Mississippi summer is just unbearably hot to be in if the air conditioning doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, I am meeting lots of folks already doing good work down here, and I am trying to figure out where the gaps are and how a Peace and Justice Center can be useful. In a place as historically troubled as Jackson, it is not a question of finding work to be done, but rather discerning what of the overwhelming amount of work there is to be done is mine to do.

I am partnering with Open Door Mennonite to do this. They are acting as fiscal sponsor for donations while we get things off the ground, they donated the use of the building, and they have called me to be their (unpaid) Community Pastor, which is something like a combination of the roles of associate pastor and parish priest. Basically, it is my job to help them engage the neighborhood, and city, around them.  I preach once a month or so, and there are potlucks and diversity and lots of hugs. Renee and I feel loved and welcomed.

So that is our story. We are trying to build a new life here, with a new organization, a new faith community, and tackle new problems.

Here is how you can stay in touch, help, and know what’s up.

If you want to keep up with me personally, and know what is going on in our lives, what I am thinking about, reading, working on and generally have access to my inner life, I suggest you sign up for my weekly newsletter (I call it The Hughsletter. I know, cute, right?).

If you want to know more about the work of The Southern Peace and Justice Center (most ambitious name ever!) you can go to our website in progress and give us your email address. The site will be launched at the end of August.

By the way – the Southern Peace and Justice Center already has a Facebook account. Do me a solid and “like” that page, would you?

Someone asked if I am still doing my speaking and consulting work – I am, but it has slowed down a lot as I am getting things here off the ground. If you have something amazing we should work together on, send me an email to hughlh at gmail.

And lastly – we are going to need money to make it all work. Like I said, because of a donor’s generosity my salary is covered, but that is all that is covered. We have zero budget right now, and I fronted the web hosting fees out of my own pocket as we prepare to launch. If you want to be part of our early support team and help us get this thing off the ground, please go here and make a one-time or recurring donation. Your donations are tax deductible as a donation to Open Door Mennonite Church, who is managing our money for us as we get the paperwork ready to launch the new nonprofit.

As I get ready to build another thing from scratch, someone the other day asked me if I was afraid. “No. Just excited. And grateful.”

I am excited I get to do this work, and grateful I get to do Justice work in my native state of Mississippi. I am grateful for that, and grateful for your love, prayers and financial support that makes all that happen.

Thank you for that.