You Are Not Alone / You Are Not A Loan

Benjamin Franklin, as depicted on the $100 bill

Benjamin Franklin, as depicted on the $100 bill

I have had my struggles with the church, and, like Jacob, I have wrestled with God. One point of difficulty I often return to is the intersection of church and economy. To tithe in support of your local community is an imperative, yes, but what God would ask us to put money in the plate though it would put us in debt or require us to deny ourselves some basic need? I have all of these problems with church finances and yet this Sunday, as I returned to church for the first time in months, I felt the desire to give. After clocking in 92 hours of labor during the past two weeks, I received the largest paycheck I’ve ever seen from any job I’ve ever worked at this Friday. I won’t go into detail, but a proper 10% of this check would be over $100. That means that I could have put a Benjamin into the offering plate if it weren’t the case that every cent from that paycheck was already earmarked for some basic need or payment on debt.

I say this as an introduction to a bigger revelation I had this week. In the past, I have been quick to latch on to some truly righteous causes. I thought it right to “come out” as an ally to those in the LGBTQ community about six years ago, and when my black friends and colleagues on Twitter and Facebook begged others not to be silent about the injustice that was taking place in Ferguson MO I made my position clear. However, my wife made an important point clear to me, namely that however much concern I felt for issues such as these, none of these struggles are my struggle. In other words, it is inauthentic and sometimes damaging to proclaim myself, a cisgender heterosexual white male, to declare myself as any kind of champion of LGBTQ, POC, or women’s rights. It is not wrong for me to show concern for what is going on in the world of the underprivileged – in fact, I believe it is true that an injustice anywhere is felt everywhere – but the world doesn’t need white knights. The world needs people speaking from their experience of suffering while actively listening to others as they do the same.

The revelation came last night, though it was probably obvious to everyone else. My struggle is with debt. When I was young, my parents took on debt just to raise us kids. I had my first credit card when I was just a teenager, and before I bid farewell to credit cards for the rest of my life I had to pay off a significant balance that had built up. I took on more in debt than I would like to admit publicly to fund my education, debt that I cannot currently see an end to paying. In addition to all of this, many of my loved ones have taken on massive debt just to treat illness, some facing bankruptcy in the process.

Debt is my story. I have plenty of it, I’m currently working to rid myself of it once and for all (and that involves not taking out more debt, which is difficult when you want to have a house some day), and if I’m worth any of the ethical training I’ve accumulated from old family sayings to degrees in philosophy and theology, I am going to have to work for the rest of my life to tackle this horrible worldwide system of debt through education and action. This does not mean that I have to abandon my concerns for other issues, not by a long shot – if you think that the issue of debt has nothing to do with the struggles of minority groups in America, then you haven’t done your research – but I am certainly going to stop attempting to speak for others. It is not that the oppressed are voiceless; it is just that few people are listening.

I look forward to the day where I don’t have to worry about paying off debts, so I can put my 10% in the offering plate. At Fountain Street Church, all unmarked cash goes to their Social Action Grand Program, after all, which means my money would be working for the same cause as my writing – economic justice. I know this sounds like some naval gazing right now, like I am just honking my own horn for the fact that I am pointing in the right direction despite not having done any real good, but I have been spending weeks in contemplation trying to find the fastest way out of my own personal debt situation. You cannot imagine how liberating it is to imagine a world where that is behind me and all I have to worry about is where to aim my generosity.

I welcome any of you to take this walk with me and share your stories. In fact, I’d be happy to publish your thoughts on the blog as a guest post if that’s something that you’re interested in. Otherwise, just leave some good words on the topic of debt, labor, income inequality, or whatever. To quote a couple important voices on the topic:

You are not alone.
– Michael Jackson

You are not a loan.
  – Strike Debt!

The Dirty Liturgy of Tom Waits

Believe it or not, I heard this song at church today. If you’re not hip to it – just as I wasn’t hip to it mere hours ago – this is a song called “Come On Up To the House” by Tom Waits. It is nice to know that there are churches who embrace songs of suffering and liberation regardless of their source, because this is not a song that you’re likely to find in a standard hymnal. Tom Waits clearly has an interesting relationship with religion.

As an added bonus, the concept and delivery of this music video by Anders Lovgren is really neat. We could burn all the books and the truth would still be written on us and written with our actions. This song makes me want to welcome people into my house, regardless of whether or not they wipe the mud off their boots before they come in.

ArtPrize 2015 – Fountain Street Church

I had a chance to check out ArtPrize 2015 today. For those of you who are not familiar with ArtPrize, it is a festival that lasts from September 23 through October 11 this year in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During this time various acts of art are displayed both inside and outside and visitors have the option to vote for which pieces they like the most.

Because Amy and I live downtown now, every day is ArtPrize. Wherever you go, you see some kind of art. In fact, it kind of reminds me of living in New York. Whenever I would walk from any one point to any other point, I had this high probability of stumbling across some nationally- or world-renowned landmark that I had never seen before. Obviously, ArtPrize is not quite as big as New York City, but it is definitely interesting here at this time of year.

I attended Fountain Street Church this morning and took time to peruse some of the art displayed inside the historical building where they hold services.

Lee Kronenberg, "World Peace - The Hope"

Lee Kronenberg, “World Peace – The Hope”

The first piece that stood out for me was a sculpture titled, “World Peace – The Hope” by Lee Kronenberg. You can call me a sucker, but the simplicity of the message is enough to win me over. On the table nearby this installation there is even an interactive post card which reads

The Word to the Language?

and then lists “Fred,” “PAZ,” “ειρηνη,” etc., on one side and “French,” “German,” “Arabic,” etc. on the other. I’m a nut for world languages and a hippy at heart, so “World Peace – The Hope” was a shoe-in for my vote.

While I was certainly inspired by this homage to peace, my current forerunner (after viewing the pieces displayed at only one venue) is “200+” by Candace Compton Pappas.

Candace Compton Pappas - 200+

Candace Compton Pappas – 200+

This painting of a wide variety of birds caught my eye immediately, but when I read the placard next to it I was nearly brought to tears. Another simply piece, “200+” is Pappas’s meditation on the mass kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria by the terrorist group Boka Haram that was announced in the news in April of 2014. To date, there are still over 200 girls unaccounted for, so Pappas got up one day and decided she was going to paint a bird for each missing girl.

It is hard to give an idea of how enormous this painting is and how grave its message. Make sure to add Fountain Street Church to your itinerary as you plan out your next week of ArtPrize viewing. For those of you who are not religious, Fountain Street Church has dedicated their interior viewing areas to works of art that tackle difficult issues of social justice from war to economic inequality to violence in the name of religion. In fact, some of you may have recently read about Nabil Mousa’s piece titled “Paradise Built on the Bones of the Slaughtered,” a piece that was to be displayed at Grand Rapids City Hall but which was pulled from ArtPrize before anyone could see it because it depicted burnt holy scriptures attached to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Mousa had originally petitioned to have his fourteen-foot indoor sculpture displayed at Fountain Street before he was offered the space at City Hall, and returned to the church once City Hall revoked him. Ultimately, the church board decided that they couldn’t afford to hire private security contractors to guard the controversial piece, so it looks like it is going to remain with Mousa in Atlanta instead of being displayed at Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize. I can understand Fountain Street’s concerns. I still find the City’s motives suspect.

Finally, I was sad to learn that a sculpture by Ella Faktorovich titled, “Unholy,” could not be displayed at Fountain Street Church because it was damaged during shipment from San Francisco. From the image I was able to see in the ArtPrize App this piece certainly looked like something I would be interested in.

Ella Faktorovich - Unholy

Ella Faktorovich – Unholy

Ella, if you’re reading this, I have little doubt that I would have voted for “Unholy.” I want to express my condolences. As someone who has taken on his fair share of creative enterprises, though none quite as beautiful as this, I know that the work can take on a life of its own. As such, I mourn with you in the loss of this breathtaking piece. I have had the privilege to see this photo, but I would have been happy to see it in person.

Enjoy ArtPrize, visitors and residents of Grand Rapids. This is my first year to seriously take it in, and I’ve already come across some pieces that have really made me think, feel, and bask in awe. I expect there will be more to come.