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Spiritual Abuse and Natural Disasters

With Florence about to make landfall in South Carolina, people have been preparing for power outages and damages. In the midst of all of us trying to anticipate the uncertain, bad theology has come to the surface. This theology invites judgment about who deserves God’s protection and who doesn’t deserve God’s protection. This week Pat Robertson called on God and his people to pray a “hedge of protection” around their church and their properties. This is spiritual abuse.

Fundamentalism can’t thrive in uncertainties and so leaders of fundamentalism have to depend on predicting the unpredictable and trying to bring order out of the chaos that occurs during a natural disaster. These theological claims distract us from confronting the stark realities that natural disasters reveal. Over the course of the last week, I’ve heard many people asking condescendingly why people aren’t evacuating during the mandatory evacuations issued by the Governor in South Carolina. From the outside looking in, it would be easy to conclude that those not evacuating are people who are stubborn or who think the storm won’t be as bad as predicted. This conclusion allows us to turn a blind eye to the socioeconomic divisions that continue to segregate our state.

In reality, many can’t evacuate because they don’t have the resources to evacuate. Many can’t evacuate because of disability, economic restrictions, and responsibility to care for family members who are physically unable to travel. None of these reasons talks about the cost of evacuation: supplies, gas, hotels. For people who were born and raised in the community, evacuation is leaving their whole network. These are people who depend on every shift of work to make ends meet and having their jobs closed means they won’t be able to buy what they need. Evacuation is a privilege.

If there’s still a doubt as to whether evacuation reveals the divisions among citizens, recent reports reveal that the Governor of South Carolina did not make plans to evacuate the prisoners in the mandatory evacuate zones. When asked about those who couldn’t afford to evacuate, the FEMA Coordinator explained that FEMA doesn’t pay for evacuation expenses.

Our eyes are opened as we prepare for a natural disaster to the realities that separate us economically, racially, and socially. The question is will we see these uncomfortable realities or hide behind a hedge of protection laced with spiritual abuse?

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Holy Week has always reminded me of the best and the worst that resides within me. To walk this road is to walk through the agony of realizing all the ways we could be better to each other and all the ways we could use our talents to cause good. But like the disciples, the closer we get to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday the more we are overcome by our fears.

I lived in fear for a long time. Fear of voicing a call to preach. Fear of finding a place to pastor. Fear of being myself. It’s a terrible place to live full of restless existence and dark nights of the soul.

My biggest fear as a pastor has been to make any kind of political statement. To be sure, my sermons and teachings include calls to help those who are helpless and comfort those who are grieving, but never a statement about the state of our democracy or a statement about political candidates or their views. The discussion and debates are too divisive and too dehumanizing that I haven’t even wanted to wade into the water.

This year I’ve commiteed to speaking to power and privilge in a more conscientious way because the more I have researched and the more I have come to understand, the more I am certain that we are not living in a democracy. We are not a country established and run by the people and for the people. We have become a country dictated by unchecked power and unchallenged privilege. We are not living in a democracy. We are living in a meritocracy.

In this country, children are starving and dying at schools and at churches. This is not a country for the people of the people. This is a country controlled and abused by those in power and those in privilege who are sacrificing themsleves and indeed our children to the god of greed.

And so I must speak up and speak out about systemic abuses of power and privilege.

“I’m disappointed in Sen. Graham’s sponsorship of the CRA, especially as he knows how many people in South Carolina are caught in the payday lending debt-trap. The negative impacts of payday lending have multiple consequences: local businesses have been forced to close, individuals are struggling with depression from financial stress and families have broken up as a result of these unjust products. We desperately need stricter regulations and voices from South Carolina standing up for our families.” Rev. Merianna Harrelson, Pastor New Hope
Christian Fellowship.

South Carolinian Leaders Oppose Repeal of Payday Rule

It’s time for us to be a country for the people and of the people again.

Where I Come From

This December, I have been immersing myself in local authors. Most of these authors have written and recorded what it was like to grow up in a mill village. I didn’t know my hometown was so centered around mill life until I started working as a second-grade teacher. My principal took the time to take all new employees through the apartment complexes and neighborhoods where our students lived.

I remember when he drove through the mill village and how all the houses looked the same. He told us that since the mill closed down 5 years prior, the demographics changed from 80% white and 20% African Amerian and Hispanic to 80% African American and Hispanic to 20% white. He also explained that because the mill owners moved out from the area, the mill village became low-income housing, owned by someone outside of the state and very rarely maintained. In other parts of the city, mills were being renovated to office buildings or restaurants or commercial buildings, but in this part of the city, there was no renovation planned.

It matters where we came from both in our family history and in the culture and heritage of the place we reside.

Here are the stories I read:

Read about where you came from. Learn about the stories your city, your family and you are built upon.

The Difference Between Persecution and Accountability

I’ve heard the cries of some U.S.  evangelicals claiming that they are in the midst of persecution. I don’t pretend to know exactly what another person is going through, but I wonder if perhaps what they are experiencing is not persecution but accountability. There is not one of us who revels in being held accountable for our actions when we know what we’ve done is wrong. I see it in the face of our ten-year-old and hear it in the fierce defense of our seven-year-old.

But we must be held accountable when our actions, our decisions, our theology harm children. Our most important calling here on earth is to protect and foster our children. We aren’t doing this well. 1 and 6 children live in food insecure environments in which adequate food supplies cannot be obtained at some point in the year, resulting in food quality or quantity being greatly reduced. 1 in 10 children will experience sexual abuse before their 18th birthday.

When I read stories of people supporting men who have abused children for political office and the attempt to use theology to justify child abuse, I know we have a long way to go. We cannot divert attention or responsibility by calling accountability for our actions “religious persecution.” Religious persecution is what the pilgrims were experiencing when they feared for their lives, took a harrowing journey across the sea, and tried to build a life with next to nothing in a new world they had never seen. Religious persecution is NOT being told that you should not harm a child or that you will be held legally responsible because you have harmed a child.

The number of people who attend a weekly worship experience has steadily declined according to Pew Research Center and not just for the people who identify as “nones.” Church attendance has declined for those who still claim to be Christians and this has left a serious gap in accountability. In the absence of weekly teaching and worship, a do-it-yourself theology has arisen that allows an individual to find justification for his or her actions without the accountability of living in community with other people.  My decisions and my interactions are different because I know the stories of the people in our community of faith who are suffering loss and serious illness. My decisions and my interactions are different because I know the couple who was homeless who come to our church for food, prayer and comfort. My decisions and my interactions with children are different because of our policies about how to keep our children safe in our church community.

We need more accountability, not less. We need more people who are willing to engage in communities, and who will challenge them and remind them how much work we still need to do to create safer communities for our children. To be certain, as our children grow and mature, they will be the ones who hold us accountable for what we have and haven’t done to protect them.

A New Kind of Economy

I’ve been struggling with how to express the importance in revisualizing the economy and those who are struggling to make a living and find a home within the confines of the stilted economy we find ourselves in. But any conversation about the economy inevitably falls on deaf ears of those who entered the working world in a different economy. Those who entered the working world before the 2008 Recession are convinced that if you work hard enough, you will find a job that can sustain you and support your family. Those who entered the working world before the 2008 Recession are convinced that education can provide you opportunity and advancement in the professional realm.

Those of us who entered the working world after the 2008 Recession know these things aren’t true.

We know that there is a constant and consistent threat to having your job being cut, reduced in the number of hours and that benefits are not a guarantee of any job anymore. We know that working full-time doesn’t cut it and know that working 40 + hours at a regular job is just the beginning of your work. We know that you also have to develop and maintain a side hustle, something that isn’t in addition to your job, but absolutely necessary to make ends meet.

And we know, if you entered the working world before the 2008 Recession, that you don’t get it. You don’t understand the amount of financial pressure and burden we’ve born for the entirety of our working lives.

There’s no way we can imagine a new economy until we are able to see where our economy truly is. There’s no way we can combat poverty, homelessness, and debt until we understand the reality of how little wealth the majority of Americans have access to. There’s no way we can stop blaming those who are struggling for not working hard enough and not trying hard enough until our eyes are opened to where we are.

And where we are is in desperate need of a new economy. A change. A different way of working and living in relation to one another.

“What are you doing all the way out here?”

“What are you doing all the way out here?” I asked her as we both shirked from the cold wind.

She started to tell me and then stopped, “Hey, wait I know you. You’re the lady who gave me that bread that you dip into that juice in that tall cup.”

“That’s right,” I smiled realizing I had recognized her before she had recognized me. “You know the cold weather shelter is open tonight. Don’t you want to go there where it’s warm?”

“There’s too much drama there,” she explained.

I hesitated not knowing at all what to say. Wasn’t it worth enduring drama to be warm? It was below freezing outside, surely it was worth dealing with people so that you didn’t have to sleep outside.

“There’s always someone who is looking for a fight and it’s just not worth it,” she continued.

I was trying really hard to understand where she was coming from, to understand the world as she saw it, knowing that privilege was hindering a connection. I was trying to respect her voice and choice, knowing that telling her what she should do would disrespect her humanity in ways she had experienced over and over again.

I had seen first hand what she was talking about, people in desperate situations guarding their reputations and their identities fiercely. I knew she was speaking truth, but I also knew there was no way I’d ever completely understand.

A humbling realization.

She had seen more death than I had seen. She had felt more desperation than I had seen. She had felt more hunger than I had. There was a gap that divided us, a gap I’ve been working for eight month not to eliminate or justify or defend, but simply understand.

But maybe on Wednesday I would see her again and that gap would be bridged for just a moment as we worshipped and fellowshipped and celebrated the Lord’s supper together, side by side.