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.

The architecture of hospitality

This past Saturday, Renee and I spent Saturday with a Realtor, looking at houses. The hardest part was explaining exactly what we were looking for because it isn’t as simple as “We need a three bedroom with two baths in a good neighborhood.”

No, our descriptions always revolve around large yards, shade trees, guest rooms, large dining rooms, guest bathrooms, room for bookshelves and a central kitchen. We will, when we see a house, remark on traffic flow patterns, the suitability fo porch sitting and neighbor conversations, whether a house is in a real neighborhood, or whether these people just happen to live next to each other.

In fact, one of the reasons we picked Jackson to move to rather than Nashville or Atlanta or Memphis had to do with the large amount of affordable housing inventory available here, so we could afford a house that would let us live the way we want to live – hospitably.

See, hospitality is not just a matter of inviting people to dinner – it is having room for a table big enough to have them over for dinner. It is easier to have guests spend the night when they can have their own room (or at least a room that can be repurposed on short notice) and don’t have to fight the three cats for a slice of the couch. If you have a pantry, you can store food for the times your friends are doing without, and if you have room for a garden, you can grow some of that food yourself.

And it isn’t just about being able to, but being likely to. You are more likely to meet your neighbors when there is not a large fence or hedge between your front yard and theirs. You are more likely to invite your friends from church over for dinner if it won’t be cramped, and if you have room to cook for 12 folks. You are more likely to be the house where your kid’s friends hang out if you have room for the hanging out.

It’s about having values and then finding a house that meets those values. And while every house is a compromise, when there are literally a hundred options at any given time, you can pretty much find something that fits.

Keys

When I was a boy, my dad worked for a local propane company, where he was the branch manager. And with the job came many keys – the keys to the building, the tool room, his office, the shed out back, the garage where they repaired the trucks… so many keys.

He had a giant keyring he carried on a clip on his belt that jangled when he walked and had another, larger keyring with more seldom used keys on a ring clipped to the emergency brake handle on his truck. One of the strongest sounds I associate with my dad was us in the truck and him pulling the brake handle to release it, and the keys jangling.

One day when I was maybe eight or nine, I asked Dad why he had so many keys. He told me that each key represented a responsibility he had.

That answer was almost throw away, but over the last five years as a homeowner, it came home to me. I had the keys to the front door, to the basement, to the tool shed, to the car, the office, the church, the chicken coop. With every new responsibility came another key., until my keyring was full.

Then we moved to another city. I turned over my house keys and my work keys until all I had on my keychain was the key to a 12-year-old, paid-for car and an apartment we rent, that someone else is responsible for. Two keys, virtually no responsibilities.

Sunday I got my set of work keys – four of them. I am up to six now, as responsibilities come creeping back.

 

Two weeks in Jackson

Today marks the 14th day I have been in Jackson, MS, and already, at 8:00 AM, the day is filled with promise.  It was in the low 70’s with low humidity as I went on my walk this morning, and despite my deliberately unplanned route, I did not need the GPS to get me home at the end.

It is easy to romanticize a new place, especially a place as storied as the Deep South, and so I will try to not do that, but there are many things about being here we have already fallen in love with, and most of them are part of the reason we moved here in the first place.

Life is slower here. When you ask Google to navigate you someplace, she replies with the time to get you there, and then often says, “Traffic is light, as usual”. It has become a running gag with Renee and me, but it’s true – traffic is seldom a problem here.

But it isn’t just slower in that sense. There is just a slower pace. Monday morning I turned on the local NPR affiliate while driving to my office, and the local show was interviewing a woman about her garden. During prime radio time, in the Capitol city, on the NPR affiliate. I loved that, actually.

The other day I went to open the new business account at the bank, and I was in the woman’s office for an hour and a half. The actual work of opening the account took perhaps 20 minutes, but there were long discussions about who has the good soul food, the revitalization of downtown, east coast vs gulf coast, and which coffee shops were bougie and which ones were for normal people like us. It was unhurried, filled with laughter and joy, and frankly, the best banking experience I have ever had.

Despite my knowing by sight less than 20 people in the whole city, everybody waves. The man who may or may not be experiencing homelessness holding the sign by the roadside, the blue-haired lady with the big purse walking downtown, the urban teenagers when we get lost in the rougher side of town, the person who passes me in their car in the parking lot. If you make eye contact here, you wave.

People here like to talk on the phone, and while they will use text, will more likely than not call you back when you send them a text message. I have spoken more on the phone here in two weeks than I did in six months in Raleigh.

Part of this is coming to work with a church, so you sort of inherit a community, but long slow dinners with lots of people at the table have been a thing here, as has random invites to things. It has really made us aware of how isolated we were feeling in Raleigh the last few years, a combination of lots of our friends moving away and my depression.

Our apartment is unpacked and we are just living now, trying to establish routines. We often go in the evenings to look at houses we found online, and discovering new restaurants is a joy for us.

The city has its issues. The southern half of town is devoid of large retail stores, and we drive a good 10 minutes to get to a grocery store. The infrastructure is struggling, with unexpected potholes you can lose your car in, and not all the traffic lights work. The humidity is more oppressive than the heat, but the air conditioning works and is everywhere you go. You learn to adapt to the rhythms of the day – exploring outdoors happens in the mornings and after supper, while indoor work hasppens in the middle of the day.

In short, we are doing well here, and are happy we made the move.

Don’t Be Afraid

Open Door Mennonite Church
July 1, 2018
Mark 4:35-41 (NRSV)

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing ?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

When I was a little boy, there was a swimming hole we all went to. It was just a small pond, really, but there was a big tree with a rope hanging from it, and when the weather was as hot as it is right now, we would take turns swinging from it and dropping into the pond.

Nothing ever felt as good as crashing into that cool water on a hot day like today.

I probably swam in that pond 50 times, at least. Everybody I knew did. It was a thing you did if you grew up where I did, when I did.

One day when I wasn’t there, a boy whose family was known to us went swimming, and this time when he let go of the rope and went crashing in the water, he landed in a nest of water moccasins. He got bit more than a dozen times, and he died before anybody could get him help.

Nobody went to the swimming hole after that.

It was still pretty to look at. The water was still cool to your skin, and the weather was still just as hot as it ever was. But the problem was, you couldn’t see what was under the surface. You didn’t know if the water was safe and refreshing, or full of water moccasins. It no longer felt safe, and you couldn’t tell if it was safe.

The safest thing was to just stay out of the water. To this day, I won’t swim in a pond of any sort.

We always have fears about the things we can’t see, and people in the ancient world were no different. The sea, the water, was a wild, unpredictable place, where sailors went off in boats and never came back. It was a place inhabited by strange creatures that lived hidden under the surface and would suddenly grab you and pull you under. The sea was calm and beautiful, but a storm could suddenly come up that would destroy your village, or crash your boat, or take your family from you.

The sea was a wild and dangerous place in the ancient world, and it was often used by ancient authors to represent chaos.

In the book of Genesis, when the author is trying to explain the chaos that existed before God created the world, they used the image of the sea:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

It was so chaotic before God put order to it, the author tells us, it was all water. All sea. All unpredictable. All scary. All unknown.

In the story today, Jesus and the disciples head out to cross the sea, and sure enough, a storm came up out of nowhere. It was a fierce storm, full of fury, and it threatened to sink the boat.

One of the things about this story that stands out to me isn’t that there is a storm – storms happened on the water. It’s that the disciples are so scared. I mean, these guys were fishermen, who made their living on the water. They had seen storms, had survived many storms. And this storm scared them. It must have been a serious storm to have scared such men as that.

Back in the late 90’s, I had a chance to go deep sea fishing off the coast of Florida with some people I knew. It was a beautiful day, and I had never been deep sea fishing before. But we hadn’t been out there but a few hours before the wind picked up and the waves started. First they were little waves, but they kept getting bigger and bigger until they were six feet tall or more, and the little boat was rocking hard, and we had to head back to the port.

But we were several hours out when the storm hit, and so it was a rough trip getting back. At first I was scared, seeing as I know nothing about boats, but the crew seemed calm, and that had a calming effect on me. After all, these were guys who did this sort of work every day, and they were not scared.

No, I wasn’t scared at all until the moment I saw the first mate throw down his pole, shout out a curse word and run to grab a hold of the mast to keep from being swept over the side. If he was scared, this must be serious!

But in the storm in the story, Jesus is calm – so calm, in fact, that he falls asleep. And when in desperation the disciples cry out to him, he rebukes the storm, and it stops.

How is it, they wonder, that this man can calm the storms with his commands?

Today in 2018, the world seems like a pretty chaotic place. Like the sea in the ancient world, dangers are everywhere. Young black men get killed at alarming rates by police officers. The opioid epidemic is, well, an epidemic.  Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you can’t say it is all calm there, either.

If you turn on the news, or talk to your friends, or even just open up Facebook, it seems like everything is going bad all at once.

It seems like chaos rules the day.

And sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by the chaos, when the storms are raging all around us and it seems like we just are not capable of surviving this one, it can sometimes feel like Jesus is asleep and we are left to handle this all by ourselves. Sometimes, it feels like he is not even there at all.

You know, when you read the story of Jesus and the storm, it seems like the important thing is that Jesus can stop the storm and save you from it. But to me, that is not the most remarkable thing. To me, the thing that stands out is this: In the midst of the storm, Jesus is right there beside you, enduring the storm with you. And what’s more, he has been there the whole time. Even when you were losing it. Even when you were terrified. Even when you didn’t know what to do, or how to do it. In the midst of all of that, Jesus was there, right beside you.

Don’t be afraid, dear ones. Don’t be afraid. The storms are bad – bad enough to scare seasoned fishermen who have survived many storms. But don’t be afraid. God has not forsaken us, and even in the midst of the storm, we are not forgotten nor are we alone.

And we never were.

The one who can command the storms and have them obey him is in the boat with us, and we will ride through the storm, together, to the other side.

Two Kinds of People

There is an old joke that says there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who do not.

I didn’t say it was a funny joke, just an old one.

Recently I explained to a person I am mentoring that a key to leading people is to understand how they view the world and that generally speaking, there are two kinds of people – those who move toward pleasure, and those who move away from pain. Neither is wrong, per se, as much as it is just different ways of gaining motivation.

One woman will work crazy hours because she grew up poor and never wants to be poor again (moving away from pain) and another will work crazy hours because she dreams of a magnificent retirement in the future, and needs the funds to do that (moving toward pleasure).

I am a move toward sort of person. This is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because my work in this world is to help create a world that does not exist yet, so I have to be able to imagine it, to see it already, and to move towards it bit by bit.

But it can be a curse if I do not have a clear short-term goal, without something to move towards.

One consequence of this is that I do not rest well. I have a really hard time taking time off. Not because I am a workaholic, as much as I need to have something to move toward, something to structure my life around.

I basically took the month of June off to get ready for the move. It wasn’t a complete vacation as I had several meetings scheduled and some paperwork I needed to get done, but I only had maybe twenty hours of work to do in a four-week period, so it was as close to vacation time as I have had in years.

And I have been pretty miserable. My only real goal has been to get the house packed up, and that is happening, but it doesn’t take four weeks, and it doesn’t have to happen on a given day at a given time.

So my sleep cycle is off without a clear time I need to do something.  I forget to take my meds for depression, which makes my life more stressful. I don’t know what day it is, and sometimes wake up at 3 AM, wide awake and other times end up sleeping until 9 and wake up confused and lost.

All that is to say, I hate the time off and am actually looking forward to going back to work. Not because I need to work, but because I need a schedule.

Notes from the dead

I didn’t know him.

Not really, anyway. We were Facebook friends, but only in the technical sense of the word. He would occasionally comment on a post I had written or shared. He did it often enough that I knew his name, but I doubt I ever reciprocated. I certainly don’t remember doing it.

So when the Facebook message came through, it took me by surprise.

“Dear Pastor Hugh, I have followed you for some time and benefit from your blogs and comments and thoughts and photos. I am 76 YO who is winding down on the cancer clock, currently in [the hospital]. In the next couple of weeks or so I will be going home under hospice care until the end comes at home.

I am Jewish with a broad spectrum of ecumenical interests – to me, good loving hearted people are what they are not by organized religion but because our G-d intended it to be so. Once I am home… I would like you to drop by for a chat and a coffee if you can work it into your schedule.”

I replied almost immediately, and told him that I was leaving town soon, but that I would love to come to visit him, and to please let me know when he gets home.

I never heard from him.

Yesterday his daughter posted on his profile that he passed away, at home, surrounded by his family. The last thing he posted on Facebook was a YouTube video of the song Hallelujah, covered by Pentatonix.

I have been thinking about this a lot over the last 24 hours. I don’t know what would make an observant Jew who had friends and family who obviously cared for him reach out to me, a street-scarred Mennonite minister who is often the pastor of last resort for folks who can’t do religion anymore, but whatever it was, I hope he found it before he transitioned over.

And whatever it was that I did that signaled to him I was safe to reach out to?

I hope I do more of that.