September 2009


A stranger hugged me the other day in front of my house. This wasn’t the kind of thing I’d come to expect on the streets of Houston. So I’m still soaking it all in.

After a day on the town, I was giving our one year old his favorite snack. He was squeaking and giggling while I sliced away, and didn’t notice a thing as my wife said, “there’s someone screaming outside.” Not sure what was going on, I headed to the front door to see for myself.

Just outside our door, I saw a young woman clawing her way out the passenger door of a car, a man inside violently restraining her with screams and shouts loud enough to be heard up and down our street. I threw open the door and sprinted across to the car. Not knowing what I would find (guns, drugs, etc…?) I ran with my thumb already on the 9-button of my cell, and memorized the license plate. I knew only that something needed to be done by someone.

Approaching the car I saw a Hispanic man wrestling with a lady who kept saying over and over, “Let me out! Let me out!” Spittle was all over his face and hair, rage in his eyes, and hate dripped from his lips. I was not a welcome presence… for him. But for her my presence meant salvation, and freedom. I made it clear that I was there to help, and was prepared to call 911 if needed to protect the young lady.

Then he came at me yelling, arms raised and chest puffed up, “I don’t even care anymore…. Get lost!” ready to destroy me. I noticed for the first time how huge he was, 6’5, 270 lbs, and able to do major damage. Not praying exactly, but knowing that violence towards me would too easily be transferred to his girl-friend, I tried calmly to talk him down. Nothing worked until I pointed out to him how much God loved his girl-friend, and how much God loved him, and how terrible it is to do violence to one of God’s beloved children. There was nothing strategic about this! No training equipped me with how to respond.

But with those words, he almost instantly calmed down and backed down. Then he broke down in tears. He began to tell me their story, and she chimed in. I told them both I was a pastor at a local church, repeated that I was there to help them, and made it quite clear that no violence would be accepted in front of my house. All the while I wondered to myself what my neighbors were thinking as the peaked through their blinds at this scene before them.

Over the next 20 minutes I spent time hearing their stories, repairing their lost sense of hope, and working towards some solutions to their problems: Violence is bad, God is good, and people who care for you will help you journey with both those realities. In the shadows of Houston’s flickering street lights, I shared the way of peace and relationship with two young people I came to deeply appreciate.

Before it was all over, while tears of mercy streamed down his shame and now hope stained checks. He set aside his machismo, reached over to pull me in tight, and held me for over a minute. “Thank you, thank you, thank you… I love you man,” was the new language falling from his lips.  Funny, but while he was hugging me, I noticed for the first time he was about my size, 5’9, 180 lbs or so.

I don’t know what became of them. Perhaps they repeated the story the next night on another street not far from where I live. If so her victimization falls at the feet of my pastoral naiveté. Or, perhaps it’s true that out of the depths of pain and sorrow comes new life. And if so, there is hope for my new friends. And hope for us all. And there is hope too, that next time my neighbors will join me in working nonviolently for hugs on our streets.

In Mark 8:22-26 the author introduces the idea of seeing with the eyes of God. In this story sight clearly plays a metaphorical role for spiritual vision and understanding. He portrays Jesus needing two touches to heal a blind man. After his first touch he asks the man, “Can you see anything?” and the man responds, “I can see people but they look like trees walking.” Obviously the man still had fuzzy vision, both literally and figuratively.

And so it remains with me, as I look out over the urban Houston landscape and 21st century world events. I see things, but like the blind man in the story, I don’t always know what I’m seeing, I have fuzzy vision. But with the help of the faith community, and of gospel stories like Mark, I am learning to see more clearly.

 For the last 6+ months Santos Omar Madrid and Yane Castro were two workers who did remodeling in two apartment complexes in Southeast Houston (Rustic Village and Bennington Square Apartments). They went to work on time, worked hard, paid their bills, and tried to make life better for themselves and for their families. And they did too, until they stopped being paid.

Zeeba management, the company they worked for, suddenly stopped paying them the wages they were due. They were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars between them. Turns out this is not the first time Zeeba has stopped paying employees without warning. Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center (HIWJC) contacted Zeeba many times regarding the lapse, provided documentation of work done and wages earned, etc… All to no avail. They would not listen. They did not pay.

And so I decided my faith required me to use my social capital (white, male, clergy, outspoken) on behalf of these men who deserved but were not receiving pay. On September 1, 2009 I joined Judy Hoffhien, several other Houston faith leaders, representatives from HIWJC, Santos Omar and Yane in confronting Zeeba regarding the loss of pay. After minutes of misdirection (“We’re not Zeeba.” [mail and signage said they were!] “The man you are looking for works upstairs.” [the upstairs suite they led us to was occupied by another business entirely] Etc…) our appointed spokesperson connected with a Zeeba employee, who was visibly shaken by our calm presence. In this exchange two realities stood out to me: First, the absolute non-anxious way our rep handled herself, though clearly she stood in the right. Second, the instant fear and anger that characterized the Zeeba rep. After refusing to look at documentation that would either clear Zeeba or help them obey the law, she threatened to call the police (she did) then barricaded herself into her office.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed in the office, and a second employee promised to look over our documentation and follow through on their behalf. As of Wednesday September 9, 2009 Zeeba has agreed that Santos Omar is due money (though they will not say how much) and declined to discuss Yane’s case. A second meeting (between one HIWJC rep) and Zeeba is Friday Sep 11 at noon. It is yet to be seen if Zeeba’s vision is cleared up and justice served.

This was a fascinating learning experience for me, if for no other reason than to see a large corporation shuttling responsibility from one employee to another. But I also experienced this in a deeper way. Like the blind man in Mark, I find my vision being cleared in stages. I see apartments and workers, beautiful buildings and successful companies, but I don’t yet have eyes to always see injustice where it lurks. I’m still learning to see our landscape in all its complexity, and to know injustice when I see it. Cases like this are teaching me not only to see injustice, but to work for justice and dignity for all.

When Jesus touched the blind man a second time, “he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” I pray that my time in Houston will include that second touch, and that one day soon my sight will be restored, and I too will see justice clearly.

Every now and again things come into sharp focus.

It happened to me this morning. Tears instantly poured down my cheeks.

I’ve been following several news stories that tugged my heart strings, and, like I’ve told you before, I try to read the news not as information but as calling and discernment. The first story is the horrific abuse of developmentally disabled students at the Corpus Christi State School. Going back at least two years, staffers have pitted students against each other in hand to hand combat – for fun. In a world where guns, bombs, invasions, WWE, Ultimate Fighting, and Hockey brawls are seen as acceptable, why not?

Second are the two stories of mass shooting in Alabama and Germany. These are even worse, though at least not as systemic. Sylvia alerted me to a school shooting in Southern Germany where a 17 year old student shot and killed 15 people, then turned the gun on himself.  Southern Alabama also witnessed the grisly murder of 9 people before he also killed himself. Stories like these are as tragic as they are terrifying.

In both cases, my anger boiled, my heart broke, and my mind struggled to comprehend. Why God why? And, how do we respond?

Then I opened my devotional book Thursday morning, Take Our Moments and Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book for Advent through Pentecost. In only 10 words of scripture, things snapped into clear focus. “When he was insulted, he did not insult in return.” I felt like I was sitting in the chair at the eye doctor when they ask you, “Can you read the bottom line?” Yes! Throughout the New Testament we are confronted with the story of a man whose soul was so deep he could absorb the anxiety, anger, and hatred around him, without continuing the cycle of violence and pain. Jesus, the Son of God, took upon himself the insults of the entire world, and yet, though justified, did not respond in kind. He took violence of the physical, verbal, social, and spiritual kind upon himself and let it die with him on the cross.

“When he was insulted, he did not insult in return. When he was threatened, he did not threaten.” “Return evil with good.” “Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.” This is the witness of Jesus.

These powerful words, overlaid upon the stories of violence in our world, become a lens through which we can see rightly. First we see our world as it really is: broken, insulted, in pain, suffering alone with little hope, disconnected from true community, and feeling backed into a wall. The reason these words about Christ stand out so starkly, is because the obverse is so plainly normal. Standard procedure is to lash out when we feel insulted and alone. We threaten others when our sense of identity is itself threatened. This is basic human nature, writ large. This is modern political policy, embodied worldwide. No story illustrates this better than Jesus story, the story of a man caught in the normal cogs of fear and hatred. This too, is the story of Tim Kretschmer of Germany and Michael McLendon of Alabama, who both claimed insult and neglect as motive. Kretschmer, who before his wild shooting spree, told various acquaintances he was suffering, how tired of being persecuted and mocked he was, how out of options he felt he was, and how ready he was to make the world stand up and take notice. McLendon, likewise, left behind a long list of people he felt had wronged him. Threatened, their only known response was to threaten in return. How terribly tragic. How painfully normal.

Second, these words begin to show how we might navigate our faithful response through the landscape of brokenness that is planet earth. Our text goes on to remind us Jesus “left an example for you that you should follow in his footsteps.” How can we respond? We respond by proclaiming, modeling, and teaching the gospel of peace. Peace, nonviolence, conflict restoration, compassionate communication, these are the way forward in a world gone mad. Followers of Christ today must be committed to stopping the cycles of violence in our world, and to teaching others to do likewise. This needs to happen at the individual level, the group level, the local level, the international level, and the environmental level. And the church must lead the way. We are, after all, people who claim not only to “believe in” Jesus, but people who actually believe him when he lays out for us this strategy for the healing of both the human heart and the world community. Perhaps we begin such a campaign through our loving prayerful response for both victim and perpetrator in the above stories.

Our world desperately needs the gospel of peace. This is the only Truth that makes sense of our world, the only story that brings into stark focus the realities of our world. How can we, as a peace church, be a part of a campaign for peace on earth? I believe it’s time we stop sitting on our most treasured prize, and embrace this Anabaptist distinctive for the healing of the nations.

Finally, our bold vision for ourselves as a congregation is that we would participate in the Transformation of the world. We’ve acknowledged this is only possible through the transformation of ourselves first and foremost. Thus my prayer is for us to embrace the gospel of peace, and, like Jesus, when insulted, to not insult in return. When threatened, let us not threaten in return.

The Peace of the Lord is with you!

We are Houston Mennonite Church.
And this is what we value.