Our Eyes Were Opened


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A Coat Named Mr. Spot

ImageAfter eating Papa’s yummy waffles for breakfast, Mimi told the children to put on shorts and tee shirts because it was going to be a hot day. While Betsy was looking for her sandals, she told Mimi, “There’s a boy in my class named Frankie. He always wears his coat–even when it is very hot. He never takes it off. I bet he’s wearing his coat today–even thought it’s not a school day.” 

Betsy finally found her sandals and began putting them on. Mimi said, “Frankie may need his coat to help him feel safe. If his family has moved a lot, he may not have his favorite old stuffed puppy like you do. Remember Mr. Spot that you sleep with at home? You used to carry Mr. Spot everywhere you went. Well, if you didn’t have Mr. Spot, you might decide that you wanted to keep your coat with you all the time. Frankie’s coat may be Mr. Spot for him.”

Betsy giggled, “Mr. Spot is a funny name for a coat.”

Mimi continued. “Frankie may think his clothes are not good enough for school. He might be afraid that other children will make fun of him. He figures that if no one sees what he has on under his coat, then they cannot tease him.” 

Betsy said, “I don’t want kids to make fun of him.”

Mimi said, “Sweetie, I hope not.”

Excerpt from A Coat Named Mr. Spot, available at http://www.avenidabooks.com, at online retailers, and at Ten Thousand Villages store in Greenville. 

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Conversations on the Porch

ImageThe screen porch addition to my house was my gift to myself. All the furniture is shabby. The cushions in the rocking chairs are flat in places. The current green color of the chairs is not original–obviously. Begonias, hostas, and ivy are exuberant in their variety of pots. Wind chimes sing as the breeze tickles the pipes. The three-story magnolia tree just beyond the steps embraces the porch with its wide, old branches. Dinner-plate-size white flowers release their lemony fragrance for all to enjoy.

I created the porch as a sanctuary for me. I realized that I might not always be able to leave town for a getaway, but I could always go to the porch and rock. Friends joined me and commented about what a special place it was for them as well. Some admitted that it was the only place in the world where they could truly relax. The porch became, for many who visited, a sacred place that nurtured their spirits. They found, if not answers, at least signposts for their journeys in life.

It was on this porch that conversations with women from the Bible took place. One summer afternoon, I was sitting there dozing in the warm sun that shone through the screen. As I rocked gently and hummed along with the bees flitting about the magnolia flowers, I realized that I was not alone. A woman sat in the other chair, rocking in rhythm with me. I was shocked at first and thought that perhaps I was hallucinating from the heat. I found my voice and demanded to know know who she was. We simply rocked a while longer. Then, somehow, I knew that Eve had come to the porch to share her life and be a guide for my journey. After Eve’s visit, others came. I recorded the conversations of the first thirty women in Conversations on the Porch. After a while, even more women came. These are their stories in More Conversations on the Porch

Sometimes I would go to the porch having been overwhelmed with the day. Over and over again, the women came to me, sharing their lives, offering their insights, and challenging me with new visions for how to live, what to care about, and how to use my passion and energy.

The women came from their places of power or powerlessness, with their strengths or vulnerabilities, and their successes and failures. Some of the women are considered saints. Others are vilified. They came to the porch to share their insights and guidance. These visitors embraced me with their wisdom, their love, and their passion. They rocked in the chairs and asked that whoever would hear their stories would listen. They are depending on us to hear their ancient voices as we move into our own renewed and expanded visions of life as people of God. They challenge us to embrace living as they did and to continue the conversations. I’ve been asked if the women appeared “bodily as with flesh and blood.” That’s a difficult question. To me, each woman was real. Whether she was visible to the eye or only to my heart and mind is inconsequential to the wisdom she shared. You can determine from yourself the answer to this question. 

–From the introduction to More Conversations on the Porch. Both Conversations books are available at http://www.iuniverse.com, at online retailers, and at Ten Thousand Villages in Greenville, SC. 


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Permanent Change is Slow and Gradual

Permanent change is slow and gradual.

This concept is extremely frustrating for those of us who like quick fixes. We want a magic wand to make the world a better place (as we define it) with one wave of our wrist. Unfortunately, change just does not work that way.

Think about your own situation. How many New Year’s resolutions have you managed to keep more than a couple of weeks? Now think about a change that requires lots of players to be involved: governmental entities, laws, businesses, ordinary citizens, and educational systems. Then add changes in perceptions, prejudices, and myths, not to mention increases in understanding about how others think and believe?

No wonder change is slow and gradual. There’s also a reason not to push change too fast. When change happens quickly, it may not last. People will not have the time to incorporate the reasons for change into their deepest ways of thinking. When change happens too quickly, it is very easy for people to revert to the “old way of doing things” as soon as the outside change agents are no longer around. However, when the changes are being guided and nurtured from the inside, then true change can happen. But that’s a very hard thing to do.

An example of the difficulty of making changes:  Until the late 1940s and early 1950s, a lot of people, especially in the South, still used outhouses for their hygiene needs. The law was changed so that bathrooms now had to be attached to the house. Many neighborhoods ended up with little rooms attached to the back of their houses. These appendages enclosed a sink and a toilet. The door to the room opened to the outside. The bathroom did not have a door that opened right into the house.

Why was that? If you think about it, the reason is extremely practical and reasonable. Think. Why would families want their bathrooms to open to the outside?

Because they were used to going to the outside to go to the bathroom. The thought of having their bathroom as part of their house was just nasty.

Today, having bathrooms in a house is standard operating procedure. And unlike in the 1950s when most families had one bathroom, now houses have multiple bathrooms, sometimes more bathrooms than there are people living there.  What a change.

But that change took many years before what is “normal” became what we define as “normal” today.                


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Angelika’s Journal: What You Can Do About Poverty

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Introduction

Some people from a congregation decided to take a walking tour through a blighted neighborhood so they could see, smell, and feel for themselves some of the poverty in their own community. They asked me to go with them so I could talk about their experiences as we walked around. We came to a pile of household items and trash on the side of the road. I commented that someone had just been evicted since all their possessions were now put out as garbage.

I happened to notice a notebook lying to one side of the pile. It looked as if it had been thrown aside when someone was going through the items to find what seemed useable or valuable. The book’s cover was decorated with flowers and pastel colors. Something about it said to pick it up. So I did.

When I opened it, I read on the inside front cover: “This is the journal of Precious Angelika Johnson. In it I will write my truest feelings. DO NOT TOUCH!!! This is private.”

I decided that this journal did not deserve to be left lying on the side of the road where it could get rained on or torn up. I put it in my backpack and continued our walking tour.

I forgot about the journal for several weeks. One rainy afternoon, I decided to clean out my backpack and came across the journal. I began reading and knew that this was something to share with anyone who was interested. Are you curious and want to read it? I hope so.
Each journal entry is followed by Study Notes, Questions for Discussion, and What Can You Do. You can order books at http://www.avenidabooks.com, from me, or at online retailers.


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How We Think About Work

Because we have different funds of knowledge based on our age, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomics, education, experiences, etc., we often ascribe to others the solutions to a situation that would work for us. This often does not play out very well for us or for those we are trying to “help” because our funds of knowledge are different. Our assets, strengths, and experiences may be very different. What works for me, then, would not work for the other person. What works for her will not work for me.

For example, our work ethic grew out of our own personal history. Lee Schore from Center for Working Life in Oakland, California, developed questions that I adapted.

What work did your grandparents and parents do? Was there a work difference between the two generations? Did their work affect your own development?

What were the stated and unstated assumptions about work in your family?  Did your family talk about work? Did you understand what kind(s) of work your parent(s) did? How did this affect your own work development?

What kinds of work did the parents of your friends do? What kinds of work did members of your extended family do?  Did you experience pride or shame when comparing the different jobs that people you knew had. How did this affect your work development?   

How did your parents’ jobs affect the structure of your family? If things had been different, would your childhood have been affected? How did this affect your work development?

What is your own work history? What jobs did you like? What jobs did you hate? Why?

What are your attitudes about work? If you had an absolute choice, not related to earning money, what you most want to do? When you think of “worker,” what is your image?  

Before we resort to the comment, “If they’d just get a job, everything would be okay,” we might want to think about how our own ideas about work came about.                                                    


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Strangers among us

Have you ever thought about the appearances of Jesus after the resurrection? To Mary Magdalene, he appeared as a gardener; to the men on their way to Emmaus, he was a stranger on the road; to the disciples who were fishing, he was a lone unknown person offering advice.  Jesus was alive and in the world but… but…as the kind of person we often overlook.

We walk past gardeners working in other’s parks or gardens. We ignore the strangers among us… homeless people, those who are disabled, those who alone. We roll our eyes at those who give us unsolicited advice.  Maybe if we were able to encounter “those others” as people who have value in the sight of God, we, too, might discover that the gardener, the stranger on the road, and the person offering advice is indeed Jesus. Jesus is in our world. Will we able to see him?


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Love is not optional

Do we reach out to others because we want to change them or because we love them as they are? What a question. Of course, we want people to improve their lives. Why else would we offer services and provide opportunities?  We want them to be different than they are. We want to help them change. Occasionally, when we’re honest, we want to change them ourselves!

What an arrogant and ignorant thought. It’s hard to change ourselves, much less anyone else. But sometimes …sometimes…when we work with someone, that person becomes our personal project. We work to help them plan better, be more responsible, quit doing harmful activities, buck up, become educated, get a job. And we do all these things with the best of intentions. We truly want to help. We want others to enjoy some of the rewards we claim because we know how to plan, be responsible, buck up, and the rest. Yeah, right.  Goodness knows, I’ve spent much of my adult life providing life changing opportunities to others through my work at United Ministries. And now I’m helping people understand more about people who live in poverty through Our Eyes Were Opened, Inc.

All these thoughts stirred up in me when I read Simone Weil’s words from Waiting for God. She said, “I have the essential need, and I think I can say the vocation, to move among men[sic] of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook, so far that is to say as conscience allows, merging into the crowd and disappearing among them, so that they show themselves as they are, putting off all disguises with me. It is because I long to know them so as to love them just as they are. For if I do not love them as they are, it will not be they whom I love, and my love will be unreal.”  (Emphasis mine.)

When we start with genuine love with no agenda beyond that, who knows what may happen. Hopefully, all of us find the joy of a mutual relationship where we each care for the other.

People who are called to move into low income neighborhoods, not because they have to but because they want to, do so because they choose to become intentional neighbors. They move in order to help build community. They move into the area to love their neighbors just as they are. Then there’s the possibility of new life for all. Love is amazing like that!