“PrayerGrounds are an act of Christian hospitality, invitational, and deeply open and affirming of our youngest church participants.”
Today, I showed up for my Papa who immigrated in the late sixties to this country a few years before I was born to him as an American. I would forever be a first generation Italian. I showed up for his Papa who came to America, twice at the turn of the twentieth century to make some money and then return to the old country. Today, I showed up for the Africans, ripped from their land, to unknown hospitality. I showed up for the Italian and Irish immigrants, who only wanted to work. Work with their hands, work with their strong backs, just work. Today, I showed up for the Japanese, the Mexicans, the El Salvadorians. Today, I showed up for the children who lay in tents and detention centers this very week. This is not new, my friends. I know this because I am the child of an immigrant.
I showed up, and it rained, it really rained. I did not want to leave my space on the steps of the City Hall. I wanted to stand, grounded in witness and strength of character while the cold Colorado rain drenched our hair and clothes. I did not want to leave. Two of my children came close in, crouched in the cold summer rain, "let's go, mom, come on!" I did not want to leave. I wanted to bare witness to the discomfort of the migrants, the mamas, the papas, the familias that came to us. Refugees of poverty and gang wars. I wanted to bare witness to their discomfort by standing in my discomfort if only for an hour. One of my church people finally handed me a sign to cover my head that said: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good (wo)men to do nothing. So, there I stood.
None of this is new. We can talk about the greater of marginalizations in this country. Which groups are more effected than the other. The problem with this, is that generational trauma is alive and well. The children of those Italian immigrants and their children are still living and know what it is like to live in a country where the "Americans" (the ones that have already forgotten they they once came from immigrants too), treat them as less than. Therefore creating a culture where the brown skinned are not as worthy. Papa was the child of World War II, rural Italy, no indoor plumbing and the last child of eight. Papa's, Papa died in that war, in his small town, on his front stoop. Papa's brother's died also.
I am small very olive skinned women with curly black hair. Here is what you need to know...despite the fact that my mother is light-skinned, mid-western, tall American, I am first generation Italian first. And, this is why: I am the small women that people say: "all I want to do is speak Spanish to you..," I am the women that men are shocked when they experience my quick tongue and strong voice (it's confusing for small brown women to be strong), I am the women that was raised with insecurities because my parent was vulnerable and therefore, I am too. I am the women, in professional settings that hot irons my curly hair to be straight because it will be more acceptable- more American. I am the women that others say: "wow, you speak such good English." Even though I am not bi-lingual. I am the women that was told, maybe you will do better in a state like Texas because everyone there will look like you. This is the country that we live in. It's scary and hard and narrow. It is also the country that is "free." This is confusing.
So, don't for minute think those children are going to be okay. That is why I stood today. Grounded in witness for my Papa and all the other Papa's and Mama's and all the bambini that lay in tents under foil blankets. I stood to bare witness to their trauma and the trauma that they will hold as they do this free land we call America.
I am not an expert on change, although I coin myself a change agent. Someone
this week asked me, “What do you know about change management?” I am pretty
sure he asked me because he sees and experiences the change in the congregation
I serve right now. My response, knowing that it was a political way to engage me about all
the changes I have made, was, “Well, here is what I think about certain changes that I
have made.” Really, I don’t know anything about change management. Nonetheless,
here is what I said: If what I change can be reversed, then I go ahead and make the change
as an act of experiment. I tend to not quickly change something that is not irreversible--
especially in the early months of ministry. And that is what I know about change management.
Mostly, I just like to switch things up, bring creativity, make something new,
challenge folks, because if I know anything about faith formation and faith deepening,
those things only happen when we are challenged or have the courage to engage the unknown.
What I also know about the church universal is that what existed:
Before women worked full time
Before media took flight
Before schedules went like wildfire
Before busy was super cool
Before kids became smarter than adults
Before school expected child-experts
Before vacations became the new product to consume
Before the gap between the rich and the poor was not ocean wide
Before we heard the voices of the marginalized
Before underground cultures and communities were resurrected
provided a church that worked. What exists now in our culture means that we must change
the way church engages our culture. We could stay the same.
We could be that family or couple that gets dressed up on a Sunday morning.
The wife makes a hot breakfast, everyone goes to church because, literally
everyone is going to church- so there are no other competing activities. We could
be the family that comes, sits together- while children go to the Sunday school room with
volunteer mothers and a Sunday School superintendent. We could be the family that
comes and sings and everyone is perfectly well behaved. We could be that. The problem
is that such a family does not exist anymore, particularly in the progressive Christian traditions.
Women have been liberated
Consumerism is at an all time high
Academic and professional success is more important than community
The world wide web has all the answers
Every child is gifted
Traveling is more important than game night and roasting marshmallows all summer
The middle class is disappearing
We are actually hearing the stories of the marginalized and people are listening,
and that is scary and hard.
I know that change can be hard, but sometimes it is necessary. It is necessary to live a life of
authenticity and it is especially necessary for the church to begin to live authentically. I am
passionate about living an authentic faith and particularly in the church. Living a faith that is true
to who the individuals are and who and what the community is. Black Forest Community Church (BFCC)
made the hard journey to be an Open and Affirming Church of the United Church of Christ.
They lost pastors and they lost ⅔ of their members, which meant they lost resources, a lot of resources.
They lead in a way that was courageous and with strength of faith. And, they did this in northern
El Paso County, Colorado Springs, one of the most conservative counties in the country often known
as one of the Bible belts. They did this thing that was not sexy or consumer or flashy.
They did this Jesus thing. They got on the lowliest donkey and paraded through the wrong side of
town amongst the most marginalized of people and said, “here we are, God is love, this will save,
And, then they called a small, Italian, East Coast, women pastor that was excited to continue to
ride the donkey with them. To continue to parade with palms in hand and rainbow clothes
(or just maybe a flag) on the ground shouting “hosanna in the highest” or “here we are, we are
So, in response the BFCC’s Open and Affirming statement, I want to honor every piece of that
really hard and courageous decision. I want to honor the sacrifice of this little congregation.
I want to say: you made the choice, you held some space, now let’s do this. Because what existed
before can no longer exist.
In response, the flags in the sanctuary have come out, there new home is in the Old Log Church
In response, we have done a deployment blessing for our transgender friend going off to Afghanistan.
In response, we have provided a space for teens to liturgical dance as an act of “faith statement,”
instead of requiring the written word.
In response, we have lifted a rainbow banner above our front doors.
In response, we have created a space in our sanctuary for young children.
In response, we have posted signs on all our doors that say: This is a safe place…
In response, we have changed our prayers and other liturgies to inclusive language.
In response, we have put our pews in a sacred circle.
In response, we have put a rainbow flag on our website and change our logo to match those colors.
This June morning, we gathered for the first time in that sacred circle. The altar was in the center,
adorned with a cross made out of 100+ year wood from a member’s ranch and by that rancher,
t-candles and singing bowl. Children’s spirits made home in our prayer-ground and at times
their spirits over-flowed into the circle. The music was heard and embodied as we were facing
each other with voices shared in conversation. The sermon was spoken from our Associate
Conference Minister with stories and dialogue. We gathered in small groups and asked questions
like: why do you come to church, why this church and why do we exist? The energy was intoxicating.
Eighty of us engaged, some confused, some too loud, some overwhelmed, some with excitement,
some experiencing us for the first time (I wonder what they thought?!). What I know is that was church.
That was the church of the donkey and rainbow clothes and hosanna voices.
That was the church that the apostle Paul was called to create at times with fear and anxiety.
That was church, deeply human, deeply authentic, deeply real and very much what we need right
now in our culture. Absent of consumerism, absent of facts, absent of performance,
absent of segregation, absent of perfection.
This is what I believe the church is called to, in times such as these.
This 2017-2018 school year has been hard.
In 2008, we began the journey of putting our three children through thirteen years of school.
We are not done. Our first born, began at a small private Montessori school in Davenport, IA.
Then, in 2009 we moved to Colorado Springs to the funky westside of town and enrolled kid #1
and kid #2 in the public Montessori School. Our youngest was only two years old at the time.
We were thrilled. Our children would be educated with cultural-creatives and other families
that did not buy cable and purchased reusable sandwich bags for their lunches. We were that
type of family. We also wanted our children to be educated with families that wanted their
children to learn how to be innovative and self-starters. This would build strong self-esteems
and an inner core that would last them a lifetime. The Montessori model seemed to offer all of
that with the absence of paper worksheets and rote memorization.
We also went to church on Sundays, where our children heard that God’s love was so big. They
should have had no doubt in their minds that they were loved, not only by God but by huge
communities of open and affirming people. As young children it was fun for them to go to
church. They would sit on the chancel steps, hear a story, be blessed and then run around
large open spaces where most of the church members were grateful to have their bodies
and spirits present.
I worked in all of the churches my children attended. During their growing up years, I was
passionate about Faith Formation for young people. I crafted at home rituals for families.
Rituals that invited families to gather around a table with a candle, a bible scripture and an
opportunity for everyone to share something of themselves. Often the activity that would
coincide with the ritual would be a prayer in the form of words or images. The rituals invited
families to talk about God, faith, joys and sorrows. Our family engaged in all of them. We
practiced these sacred times together. Every high holy day and season included the liturgical
cloth and a candle. Home is where young people know and learn about God the most. This is
what I had been taught in college where I was a Christian Education major and in seminary.
This is what I was committed to teaching others.
I recall so distinctly when my kids were in elementary school that the parents of teens in
my church would complain to me about church. I had been working in the church for 10
plus years by that time. Parents of teens, “Our kids are too old to force them to come to church
on Sunday morning. They are too tired from high school. It’s too much of a commitment.
They need to decide for themselves. They think it is boring. We can’t get our teenagers to
church.” I could not argue with these more experienced parents. I still had very controllable
little ones. At the time, I had no idea what it was like to have teenagers.
It became clear that our progressive theology in no way guilts teens (or anyone) to go to church.
There is no incentive. These kids knew that they were neither going to hell or heaven - because
they were already living both. They also knew that there is a ton of grace and that they are loved,
despite their attendance in church. Why go to church if I am already forgiven? If there is grace
for my mistakes? If God loves me no matter what? This is what I had taught them, of course.
This is what the church taught them. And, it was true within my theological tradition.
As my children got older, I became involved with the youth retreats in outdoor ministry.
I worked with teams of other colleagues to craft whole retreats for teenagers to engage faith in
a creative and outside-the-box way. In the woods, surrounded by rustic cabins and majestic
mountains, God was everywhere and I was so thankful my teenagers were experiencing it.
And, just so my kids knew how to connect their faith to justice/peace issues, we began to attend
rallies. We made signs, so many signs, of love and peace. We made them out of broken up boxes
in our garage with thick black markers and headed to downtown Colorado Springs, a city that is
mostly conservative. It was important for my children to stand with the hundreds of minority
groups raising their signs and shouting things like: Black Lives Matter, #metoo, refugees
welcome, love wins.
My children’s faith foundation should have been strong and unwavering. They knew we were
doing these things because Jesus taught us to do these things and we were followers of Jesus.
Our faith called us to gather in safe communities. Our faith called us to do at-home rituals
around our kitchen table. Our faith called us to peace rallies. Our faith called us to inclusive,
heartfelt camps in the Aspens and the pines out in the woods. They were set, or so I thought.
Do you know what is stronger than our Christian faith, though? Stronger than Jesus’ story?
Stronger than our core family? Stronger than the church? Stronger than the years of prayers
during all the high holy days? What is all powerful? What trumps all faith, all love, all
community? The smartphone.
I can’t remember a time in my life when there has been a cultural idol stronger than the
smartphone. We might as well paint it gold, make a statue and mount it in our central parks all
over the world. We might as well call it the golden calf of the twenty-first century. Or better yet
set up rituals that require tribes and rituals that are so strong (like daily snapchat streaks or
one-line twitter statements) that maybe, just maybe, there will be a Jesus that comes into that
temple and turns over all the tables and breaks this golden calf we call the smartphone. Maybe
then, after all the crying, pain, hospitalization, anti-anxiety medications and suicides, a new
movement will be birthed. Then, the one that caused the turning over of the tables will be a
martyr. Will be hung to die. Then there will be resurrection, a new day without that smartphone.
A culture where we all hang out together, face to face and say the things that are real, say the
things that are in the moment, say the things that actually matter. Our teenagers will be saved.
This has been a hard year. Kid #1 entered high school. Kid #2 in eighth grade and kid #3 in fifth.
We purchased our teenagers smartphones. We gave them access to data and the world-wide
web. We gave them access to texting and social media. Our kids are extroverted. We even live
in an intentional neighborhood community- more like a community than a neighborhood- where
our door is revolving with children and teens. It seems idyllic and counter cultural. My kids had
access to real people, in real time, next door to them--two blocks over. They were not isolated in
their rooms. Our kids love their friend groups. But, what they could see on their smartphones
was more enticing. What they could see meant they might be left out. Left out of whatever image
was not all the way true. Was not all the way real. Except it seemed real to them.
What we did not know about the smartphone was the impact of how easy all of it is. How easy
it is to say the things you want to say, no matter the impact. How easy it is to portray a life that
may or may not be real. How easy it is to share only parts of your world but not the whole thing.
How easy it is to feel so good about yourself- with only one selfie. We did not know they were
addictive, like drugs and alcohol and shopping. We did not know any of this. And, we thought,
our kids have a strong foundation, an unwavering core, a family and communities that are
binded with love. The smartphone was stronger though.
One day in the middle of November we got a call that kid #2 had posted suicidal ideation on
Instagram. We rushed to the school, where Nicholas sat in shock. Where we sat in shock.
We knew he was not happy with his time at this particular school. We did not know the whole
impact. He was lonely. He spent hours on his phone, trying to connect with a cyber community.
One girlfriend break up, lead to one post, that lead to a million inappropriate comments, that
lead to a sense of failure that lead to online conversations that are not productive because
nobody is in the same room. This all spread like wildfire, without a moment to process.
Marijuana was tested. Depression deepened. It was a disaster. He switched schools a month
later. The thing about pain, though, is that it follows you unless you really get to the root of the
issue. He started therapy and we put restrictions on that smartphone.
One night in the middle of April, kid #1 came to my room with streams of tears and razor
scratches on her wrist. I want to die. I have been in the tub for the past hour. I can’t handle
this mom, I can’t handle this. I jump out of bed. She explains that a friend had been bullying
her to stay away from some boy. She did not follow suit as any fifteen year old would not.
Within days the girl texts and says: “I am not comfortable with you sitting with our friend group.
Please do not come near us.” What was she going to do? How was she going to survive the social
humiliation at school the next day? There had already been underlying messages in the past few
days that she was not accepted or wanted. Nothing verbal of course, why talk about it, when you
have a smartphone, it’s so much safer to be brutally honest- or not honest, just brutal.
She spent the weekend in a behavioral health facility. She too, is in therapy and has restrictions
on her smartphone. Because with any addiction, taking it away cold turkey would mean death.
In this case, social death. The golden cafe prevails.
In March I started a new call at a small but mighty, open and affirming church in the Black
Forest of Colorado Springs. We call it the “heart of the forest” and it truly is. The members of
the church say it’s like “coming home.” This is first time I am in a solo pastor role. It’s not the
best stage of life to begin a solo pastorate, but God often calls at inopportune times.
I bring my broken kids to church on Sunday mornings because this is what we do. The church
is small, so programs are not robust or heavily resourced. It’s not flashy. Ordinary liturgy and
music, ordinary fellowship. There is a small, ordinary Sunday School and a not so flashy building
with a basketball hoop surrounded by sweet smelling ponderosa pines. What’s not ordinary is
the amazing embrace of the people. What’s not ordinary is that they speak to my teenagers,
engage them in conversation, smile at them and laugh with them. And, accept them in the pew
every single Sunday. There are some Sundays that my children are not well manicured, don’t
have the best etiquette or even acknowledge another human being. They have ratty hair, torn
jeans and bags under their eyes. Some days we say, “let's just keep them home, it’s easier to keep
them home. My job will be simple and easy if we do.”
But, one day at the end of May, school was almost over (thank goodness). The children thought
maybe they could end church too. I said: “Nope, you are going to church. You will leave your
phones at home and you will sit in worship. We will take friends with us and they will leave their
phones at home too. You will be in direct contact with a community that loves you and will take
care of you and accepts you no matter what. Nope, you are not staying home, get dressed.”
And, just like the parents in my early years of church work would say about their kids, my
teenagers say: it’s boring, I’m too tired, I have homework to do, I don’t have time. Like those
parents in my early years, it was tempting to not relinquish to their pleas. I didn’t, and I loaded
my three kids and three other kids into a minivan without smartphones and we headed to church.
We were not going to worship that idol on this Sunday morning.
This is why, I force my children (especially my teenagers) as a progressive Christian, to go to
church, sans phones:
1. They need to continue to hear God’s word. We cannot stop, despite the underdeveloped frontal
lobe and their particular and unique faith-development stage of “questioning,” they need to hear
God’s word, Jesus’ life story and feel the movement of the Holy Spirit without
the distractions of idols.
2. They need to experience God’s love through other people, in real-life.
3.They need to do this without the a golden calf, without the smartphone.
4.They need to sit in a pew with their close friends and make jokes, laugh out-loud at the
traditional hymns and play hangman. One day they will appreciate it.
5.They need to know that there are adults outside of their family that care. Because, this is true
hospitality, not an invitation via their phone to a party.
6. They need a place that is safe to experience non-entertainment; to just be. It does not have to be
7. They need a place that is ordinary, not flashy and not full of consumerism.
8. They need a people that have shared values around direct communication and community.
9. They need direct contact with other humans that are vulnerable and open and also living in the
age of the golden calf and want a break too. They need to hear prayers of laments and joys from
all the people of the church.
10. They need to know that going to church is not to merely to know that God loves them and
thatthere is grace but that there will be continued love, overflowing love despite what life offers
What other place in our culture can provide a space like this?
A space where you enter the sanctuary and it is like a cave of hope, decorated with simple
wood carvings and beautiful stained glass windows. A place where people just come to sit, pray,
listen and sing. A place where you light candles because you want to be reminded of God’s
presence. A place where you offer your gifts of music and dance and writing and art.
A place where all are invited no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey.
Bring your teenagers to church, because life is hard and lonely.
The incentive in progressive Christianity is deepened, real-life, safe community.
This is what church is for. This is how progressive Christians can save.