Saturday, June 18, 2011

Four hours of service and sweat in the Lower Ninth Ward

On Thursday afternoon, I spent four hours doing some basic clean-up, beautification and restoration work in the Lower Ninth Ward with the FTE group. (If you are confused about what FTE is or what I am doing in NOLA this week, read my previous post here.)

You are probably asking yourself, what difference could I possibly make doing four measly hours of community service in the city of NOLA. Don't worry, I asked the question myself! I am still not sure if I have an answer to that question, but I am going to try anyway.

We worked with a group called the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. These guys are doing some great work in NOLA, addressing problems of poverty, racism and oppression at a grassroots and systemic level. They work with residents on their houses and do neighborhood clean-ups, but they are also working at a systemic level trying to break the cycle of poverty by getting the city involved, creating sustainable housing projects, and doing lots of other great things. You can read more about this organization by clicking here.

We met up with them in the sanctuary of a tiny Baptist church in the Lower Ninth Ward. They explained to our group of fifty volunteers that we would be helping to clean up the streets a bit, work that the city just doesn't have the resources or manpower to do. We were issued saws, hedge-trimmers, grass clippers, work gloves and lots of sturdy garbage bags. The team of 50 FTE volunteers was being led by some employees of the the organization as well as some residents of the Lower Ninth who just have a heart and passion for seeing their neighborhood transformed and rebuilt. Both groups had some pretty powerful stories to share.

We hit the streets and started cleaning, picking up trash, trimming trees and hedges, and cutting overgrown grass in the medians and around the sidewalks. We walked down a divided boulevard that had two lanes of traffic and a 30 foot wide median down the middle with trees and shrubs that needed some help. Keep in mind the temperature was 98 degrees and the humidity was over 80 percent, so the heat index was about 110 degrees!

As I was working, hacking some dead limbs off of a tree, a woman drove up next to me and started to talk to me. She told me that her name is Angela and she lives in the neighborhood and said that a block down there is a huge bush in the median that blocks the view of the oncoming traffic. Angela said she had called the city four times and asked them to trim it. She asked me if I could go down there and trim it for her so that she can see the traffic in the mornings as she is turning out on the street to drive to work. I wandered down there and took out a large portion of the bush to open up the view for traffic. Angela was so grateful for the help, she drove by an hour later and thanked me.

Here you encounter a form of systemic oppression. The City of New Orleans is continuing to suffer following Katrina and the flooding. Their tax base is way down and city services just aren't what they used to be. However if you drive through some of the nicer sections of the city, the streets are kept up very well, the trees are trimmed, and there are no bushes blocking the view of traffic. As the residents told us, “The city just doesn't come down here.” It is amazing to see very real examples of this happening.

Another group a few blocks down was asked to clear out a vacant lot. They worked hard for a few hours hacking away weeds that were over six feet tall. It was a lot where a house had been that was literally ripped off of its foundation during Katrina. After a few hours they discovered a sidewalk beneath them. There was something deeply theological about working hard and uncovering a “safe passage” for the residents that was hidden beneath the weeds and overgrowth.

The experience was not without its frustration. Many of our volunteers were walking down the street picking up trash in the medians, on the sidewalk and in the gutters, only to have a resident walk by and throw down more trash. It definitely caused the group to pause and ponder if the work that we were doing had any real impact. If the local residents don't seem to care enough about keeping their own neighborhood clean, what good are we doing by walking through and helping to clean up?

I look at some of the residents who are so despondent because of the conditions, so trapped in the cycle of poverty that they have lost nearly all of their hope. Does my presence there make a difference for those residents? Do they get any hope out of walking out of their houses and seeing a cleaner street with trimmed trees? Does this kind of work have any sort of a lasting impact? I don't know that I have answers to those questions. I do know that Angela will be able to get to work more safely in the morning because I trimmed back that bush. You have to start somewhere.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Hanging out in New Orleans with a bunch of aspiring pastors. . .

I arrived in New Orleans (NOLA) on Wednesday afternoon for the Fund for Theological Education (FTE) Ministry Fellowship conference. I haven't been to NOLA since I was 12 years old, very “pre-Katrina,” and that was a visit with my family.

As we left the airport and boarded the bus to go from the airport to Dillard University where the conference is being hosted, I was assaulted with the heat and humidity of the Southern summer. Riding through the traffic on the freeway, I looked out the window wondering if I would catch glimpses of the damage and recovery from Hurricane Katrina. We exited the freeway and were stopped at a red light and I saw a person on the side of the road “panhandling.” He had written some illegible words on a sign he was holding that I couldn't read. But I caught a glimpse of the back of the sign which used to hang at an apartment complex and read “The American Dream, for rent now!” I was struck by the completely contradictory message, this guy was definitely not experiencing the American Dream standing on that corner in the oppressive heat and humidity.

We are staying at Dillard University in the Gentilly District, which was flooded out following Katrina. The area is not totally recovered and you can still see vestiges of the damage and destruction that happened six years ago.

I wasn't too sure what to expect with the conference or with my time in New Orleans. The FTE is designed to call young leaders to renew the church. I am one of 100 fellowship recipients who is here for a week to pause, reflect, learn some new skills and put together an action plan regarding what my role is in renewing the church.

Our first full day here we started with a meeting with three faith-based community leaders in NOLA who are working, each in their own way, to empower the residents and rebuild the city. We got to hear about each of their own experiences, each of their call stories that brought them to NOLA post-Katrina, and the work that they are doing with their respective organizations. After their talk, we all loaded into buses to tour the city.

I was initially concerned about the city tour, it felt a little bit like poverty and disaster tourism. Here we were, sitting comfortably in our padded seats on an air-conditioned bus, driving around a city that is still recovering from the hurricane and flooding that hit the city 70 months ago. In many of the neighborhood we visited houses are still abandoned and there are many slab foundations where the houses just floated away. There is still a great deal of poverty effecting the city, and the unemployment rate is still very high, so there are a lot of residents who are sitting outside on their porches or in the empty lots, watching the tour buses pass by. Some wave and smile, some ignore, and some are appropriately frustrated by these tour buses.

So I was a bit uncomfortable with what we were doing. But then we stopped at a Baptist church where four pastors from across the city were waiting for us. They shared with us each of their experiences, what state of recovery their churches were in, and what they continue to do to serve their city and the people of their city. Then we headed over to a Methodist church and heard their story, which was inspiring and amazing. You see, this church was two churches before Katrina, a historically black church a historically white church. Following the storm, both churches had been flooded and lost members and both were struggling and no longer viable. They were forced to come together and join forces, and from it has emerged one of the highest functioning, authentic, multi-cultural churches I have encountered, very powerful stuff. It is a living and vibrant church that is serving God is a profound way.

After that we drove to another neighborhood and saw a predominantly Korean Catholic church that has been instrumental in the rebuilding process. We heard about how quickly they were able to get organized following the storm, providing space and logistical support for FEMA and other non-profits that were assisting in disaster relief. Finally we ended our tour at a church in the Lower 9th Ward that is in a converted Walgreens drugstore. Apparently after the store flooded following the storm, Walgreens decided it was not viable to rebuild their store and serve the residents. So the store sat empty but the parking lot became a hub of activity for the Episcopalian church, serving residents with a medical van, food pantry, distribution of cleaning supplies, and other very basic services. Finally the church inquired about the property and was able to clean it up and convert it into a church.

Powerful story after powerful story was washing over me and the other fellows, immersing us, flooding us with stories of hope emerging from the disaster. THIS is the work of the church in the world. THIS is being the hands and feet of Jesus. THIS is ministry. And this must be why we are here, developing our leadership skills and contemplating what our roles are in renewing the church.

We spent the afternoon working in the Lower 9th Ward, but I will save that for the next blog post. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Prayer for strength in providing comfort and healing

Just found a great prayer in a book of prayers at the hospital library. This is perfect for anyone working to provide comfort and healing and especially poignant for my job this summer as a hospital chaplain:

May I reach that purest heaven,
Be to other souls the cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense!
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

-George Eliot, English Novelist, 1880

Sunday, June 12, 2011

What is CPE? Where are Greg, Jessica and Esther this summer?

I just completed my first week of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). What that means is that I am spending the summer serving as a hospital chaplain.

Jessica, Esther and I packed up our bags and moved to Olympia, WA for the summer where I am doing my CPE at St. Peter Hospital, which is the hospital where Jessica was born 30-something years ago. Life has a strange way of coming full circle.

We could have stayed in Austin, TX for the summer where I could have done my CPE at a local hospital, or taken Greek at the seminary, but when the opportunity presented itself to get out of the Texas heat and humidity for the summer, we couldn't get here fast enough. We are staying with Jessica's mom and Jessica and Esther are spending lots of quality time with her mom and dad.

CPE is a bizarre experience. After one year of seminary education, and 33 years of life experience, I am being thrust into some of the most painful, grief-filled, life-altering moments of the lives of patients and their families.

I am one of four students who are doing this chaplaincy internship this summer. One of the students is a first-year seminary student like me from an Episcopalian seminary, one student is a lay pastor in the Lutheran church, and the fourth student is an Air Force chaplain. There are two women and two men in our group and we range in age from mid 20s to mid 50s with each decade represented.

Our first week has consisted mostly of orientation. It is kind of like drinking from a fire hose, I am absorbing some of the information (getting my thirst quenched), but there is also a lot flying past me and I am getting drenched. The orientation to the hospital environment has been interesting. I have not spent a lot of time in hospitals in the past, so I am getting used to the sterile, clinical environment with the tile floors and bright lighting. St. Peters, like most hospitals, has been added on to over the years which makes it like a giant labyrinth. By Friday I pretty much had my bearings and could navigate around.

As Chaplain interns we have a strange, dual role. We are unpaid volunteers, but at the same time we are treated like staff. This hospital has been running the internship program for over 10 years, so the hospital staff is accustomed to the CPE students and generally treats them like the staff chaplains.

The hospital has a core of four full-time chaplains on staff, which is unusual and shows a strong commitment from the hospital administration for spiritual care of its patients, their families and the employees. Between the four staff chaplains, they have more than 100 years of combined experience as hospital chaplains, and they embrace the CPE students and take them under their wings. I feel so blessed to be working a hospital with such a seasoned chaplain core that is excited to share their wisdom and experience with us.

We have toured each of the units of the hospital with the staff chaplains and have tried to get a sense of what kinds of calls the chaplains get and what we might be able to expect. Starting next week, they turn us loose in the hospital and we start to field calls from the units. Monday night, I will be on call so if there are any requests for a chaplain from a patient, a family, or the nurses or staff of the hospital, I will be the one taking the call and responding. Am I ready for that? Can you ever be ready to meet a family who has lost or is losing a child, a mother, father, brother, sister or sit with a patient who is dying or be present when a trauma comes in to the emergency room? I think the answer to that question is no.

I am anxious, nervous, but also feeling a strong desire to do this. It is such a unique privilege to be with families and patients at these times, and I feel honored to share those moments, work to provide comfort, and acknowledge the presence of God in those situations.

Last night (Thursday), I attended a support group of parents who had lost children at birth. I sat around a table with couples who had experienced a loss that I could not even fathom. One couple had lost a child just a week and a half earlier, one had lost a child six months ago, and two couples were grieving the loss of children ten years ago. The grief in the room was palpable, tears were flowing, and people were actively mourning. This group is led by one of the grieving parents who serves as a facilitator. I probably learned more about grieving in this 2 hour session than I could have reading thousands of pages in a book or spending months in a classroom setting. The parents were so generous and kind by letting my observe and learn. They offered me advice as a chaplain, what had been said to them that was helpful, what had been said to them that was not helpful, and what had been said to them that was downright hurtful. They told me how much they appreciated my presence there and my desire to work as a pastor and chaplain, but I was the one who felt truly honored to be there and for them to let me participate and learn.

I have been riding my bike to and from the hospital, it is about 7 miles away from where I am staying. My bike ride home was a great opportunity for me to reflect and start to process my own reactions and feelings after spending time with these parents. I am told that much of the CPE experience involves a lot of introspection, digging deep and figuring out why I am responding the way that I am, what experiences in my own life I am drawing from to offer comfort, and doing a lot of self and soul searching. After last night, I am starting to understand why that is important.

Providing comfort to people at critical moments in their lives is something I am really looking forward to learning about. The strength of the parents who I met last night comes from sources that I cannot begin to comprehend. I pray that I will be able to do things to help people in their grieving process, whether that is providing comfort, an outlet for anger, or an acknowledgment of hope.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Praying for peace and unity in the Presbyterian church. . .

For those who haven't heard by now, the Presbyterian Church PC(USA), has passed an ammendment to our constitution called 10-A. It opens the doors for Presbyteries (at their discretion) to ordain homosexual pastors as well as pastors who are single and in a relationship but not married. At the highest level, the change in language is: ‘Submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ’ which replaced ‘fidelity and chastity’. If you want to learn more about this, there are some links below:
Article from the PC(USA) Website:
Article from the New York Times:
Article from NPR:

This has created some difficult and sometimes divisive conversations within the PC(USA). As most of you know, I am attending a Presbyterian seminary, so these conversations are happening here too, in our classrooms, in our chapel, in our cafeterian and common areas, and on-line.

A few weeks before this passed, I co-wrote an article in our student newspaper with one of my classmates calling for unity, civility, and recognition of our shared humanity. Below is the article. I welcome your feedback:

Civility, dialogue and listening: Reflections on the first year experience

by: Greg Allen-Pickett and Barrett Abernethy

We were reflecting on our first year at APTS and one word came to mind: blessed. We are blessed to be at an institution that upholds civility and dialogue and teaches us how to be active listeners. We have experienced this both inside and outside the classroom.

We are also blessed to be part of a unique and diverse junior class that contributes to a unique and diverse dialogue both in and out of the classroom. Just last week in Systematic Theology 2, Dave Jensen implored us to break bread with someone we don't like. He said in principle and in practice it is important to break bread with those who irritate us. Through breaking bread, sharing a meal, we are able to see the underlying humanity of even our strongest ideological foe. We are able to recognize that we are connected through that humanity and through our faith and despite our differences, we can learn and grow together. We may never come to agreement on a particular issue, but we can hear each other out, engage in civil dialogue, and learn from one another.

We feel blessed to be learning at a seminary that started the Queer Alliance just a few short months ago and are excited to see the traction that the group has gained through argyle day, the shower of stoles, the Kairos last week, and the service we celebrated on Wednesday. As Amendment 10a is working its way through the Presbyteries, and our denomination along with many other denominations and churches are debating and struggling with these issues, we feel blessed to be at a place where we can share a civil dialogue about it and actively listen to all voices.

We feel blessed to be at an institution with students that don't agree with Amendment 10a or gay marriage, that our collective shoulders are broad enough to support people on both sides of this issue. It is through difference of opinion and belief and through open and honest dialogue that we can learn, grow and flourish. Even if our differences don't always end in agreement, the dialogue itself, and the people engaged in the dialogue have intrinsic value.

We feel blessed because we are learning how God works through the multi-faceted expressions of faith by people who have opinions or viewpoints that are different from our own. We are learning that someone reading the same Bible as us can come to a different conclusion, and while we may not agree with that conclusion, we are still brothers and sisters in Christ and ultimately we are doing our best to live out what that means individually and collectively. Though we may fundamentally disagree at times, a monologue of thought only leads to fideism, and we at APTS proudly stand and shout Fides Quaerens Intelectum!

Austin Seminary prides itself in preparing its students for parish ministry. What better reflection of parish ministry is there than an environment that has diverse viewpoints, and what better skills to learn while we are here than learning how to navigate those viewpoints with the civility, dialogue and active listening that we are learning right here and right now.

We issue a plea to the APTS community to acknowledge these blessings and to ground their agreements and disagreements in love and recognition of our shared humanity and faith.