What if faith-based organizations focused on being kinder this Lent?
Each year during the liturgical season of Lent, I intentionally engage in spiritual practices that strengthen my devotion to God and God’s people. Typically, I have chosen to give up something so that I might better focus on wrestling with the deep questions challenging my faith. Sacrifice can minimize distractions.
But I have come to recognize that Lent isn’t just about taking something away. It can be about adding something too. You can be more attentive to your relationship with God by praying, reading the Bible or serving others, growing your faith through thought-filled actions.
With that in mind, I decided last year to cultivate my relationship with God’s people further by intentionally engaging in acts of kindness as my Lenten practice. These actions ranged from buying someone lunch to putting change in a vending machine to leaving a letter in a library book to share a kind word. While seeking to learn more about Christ, I was hoping that these acts would also show me more about myself and my role in building the kingdom of God.
I was inspired by the narrative of Paul and his accompanying party sailing toward Rome, as recorded in Acts. After a perilous storm ending in shipwreck, they reach safety on the shores of Malta, where, Luke records, “the local people showed us unusual kindness” (Acts 28:2 NOAB). Describing the Gentiles on Malta, Luke uses philanthrōpia, which can be translated as the “love of human beings” but also, in Hellenistic Greek, was commonly used for “hospitality.” The Maltese people’s acts of unusual kindness were an expression of love and hospitality; these acts were so impactful that they were included in the biblical text.
My kind acts during the Lenten season do not rate addition to the biblical canon, but I do know that they had an impact; if not on the recipients, they had an impact on me. I enjoyed the level of intentionality that it took to try to be a person of unusual kindness. Were there days when I missed an opportunity? Yes. But in those moments when I was able to engage in expressions of unexpected love and hospitality, I knew joy.
Having experienced transformation myself, I enter this Lent wondering what such a practice might mean for our institutions. What if they were committed to greeting people with unusual kindness? With the possibility of an impending recession and rising costs, what if our organizations were committed to expressing love and hospitality in extraordinary ways, even in the face of scarcity?
F.S. Michaels, argues in “Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything” that a master story enthralls our culture. This master story argues that the human actor is a rational, self-interested individual who, given a choice, will always opt for what brings happiness and avoids pain. But what happens when our self-interest is in direct conflict with what is communally good?
Because the master story shapes not only our imagination but our organizations’ imagination of what is possible, it impacts our ability to imagine what supporting our communities could look like. In these times of increasing division and polarization, and of limited resources, it is easy for the master story to create narratives of exclusion and scarcity in our organizations, which in turn create limits on our kindness.
As leaders, we often confront the related narrative that institutions and organizations are in competition with each other. This narrative also alters our imagination.
Shannon Hopkins and Mark Sampson, in their essay “Seeing Our Rooted Good,” write: “In the midst of the challenges of meeting urgent needs, changing patterns of work, and supporting vulnerable congregations, it can easily get lost that the most important question is not ‘What do we do next?’ Instead, we suggest the defining question is always ‘What do we see?’”
Do we see images of unusual kindness?
I recently have come across several organizations that are helping faith-based institutions think through ways to open their buildings to others who need space for public benefit programs, such as community kitchens, co-working spaces and even affordable housing. Other organizations are intentionally developing co-ops to raise funds to invest in startup ideas that have the potential to lead to transformative outcomes.
When we focus on acts of unusual kindness, we see communities become unburdened by isolation, exclusion and scarcity; indeed, unusual kindness can unlock the door to abundance and generosity.
It’s simply not enough to know and recognize the mindset of scarcity; we as leaders need to be able to strategically offer and embrace kindness, acknowledging all the resources we have in our toolbox.
Unusual kindness can create a new narrative of connectedness. As Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano have argued in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Most social issues dwarf even the most well-resourced, well-managed nonprofit. And so it is wrongheaded for nonprofit leaders simply to build their organizations. Instead, they must build capacity outside of their organizations. This requires them to focus on their mission, not their organization; on trust, not control; and on being a node, not a hub.”
How is your organization building its capacity to be kind? The challenges of these times present our organizations with an opportunity to engage in acts of kindness, and to build trust in our communities.
Trust is equity for more relationships, allowing us to ask the most important question in concert with others: What do we see?
What resources are made available when we look at our communities through a lens of unusual kindness? If we are just willing to be unusually kind to one another, might we see that we have everything we need to address the challenges facing our communities today?
This Lent, I believe, unusual kindness can help our organizations achieve lofty missions even if we have decidedly humble means.
In this photo, we’re somewhere along the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park. The air smells of pine and juniper as we walk and talk and laugh. This particular hike is just about 3 miles long, but we’re up at nearly 8,000 feet, and our breath sometimes needs a minute to catch up to our legs. I keep thinking, “It is so good to be here.”
“Here” is Colorado, and “here” is a long-expected gathering of women from various Christian institutions across the U.S. We are a group of peers, all of us in similar career phases, all of us committed to the work of the church and the ways of Jesus.
As we met in this beautiful place, I felt that these few days together summed up so much of what the past few years have shown us — about the ways we all need each other, and about the many ways, traditional and not, we can show up when needed.
This peer group was very much a product of the pandemic. It came out of an idea I had in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, when I participated in the first-ever virtual cohort of Foundations of Christian Leadership. My idea was to gather a small group of women who had jobs like mine, the kinds of ministry-adjacent roles where it was sometimes difficult to find resources and support.
I’m not a pastor, and I don’t work at a church, but the faith-based work I do means that the usual nonprofit or higher ed resources don’t always seem to speak to my context. I proposed this group as a place for emerging female leaders in Christian institutions to come together and learn from each other. Colleagues recommended various women who fit my description — women who’d advised us on our programming, participated in our grant activities. Ultimately, 10 of them said yes.
We met on Zoom for the first time in July 2021 and continued to meet that way monthly. A virtual setting was the only way these particular participants, scattered across the country, could gather. There were 11 of us in all, spread out over seven states (plus D.C.) and three time zones. (To this day, all 11 of us have not been on one call at the same time!)
For as much talk of (and experience with) “Zoom fatigue” as there has been throughout the COVID-19 era, this online-only group was a boost and a gift each month. I realized fairly early on that we didn’t need much of an agenda for conversation — really profound conversation — to thrive. We saw the promise and wisdom in one another, and more often than not, I was able to just sit back from my screen and drink it all in.
We’d met online for eight months before I even brought up the possibility of gathering in person, an idea my supervisor and co-workers nudged me toward. Ultimately, seven of us found ourselves meeting at the Denver airport in October 2022, 15 months after we’d first met via computer screens. We made our way into the mountains and ate takeout pizza for dinner while sitting on the floor of my hotel room.
The next morning, a member of our group led us through a time of confessional Bible study, where we examined stories of women in the Bible and pondered them and the questions they stirred up in us.
That afternoon, another group member led us in a circle exercise, where each of us would have a few uninterrupted minutes to muse on questions like, “What does a favorite quote of yours mean to you?” and, “Who are you carrying with you this week?” Someone in the group brought out a box of Kleenex — which we would all need over the next hour.
Over a couple of shared days, we spotted elk and watched them through binoculars. We went for walks; we window-shopped; we popped into a bookstore and bought books we’d been recommending to each other (“Braiding Sweetgrass,” “Gilead”). We went out for dinner and split entrees that looked good but that we couldn’t decide on for ourselves. We marveled at the golden brightness of the aspen trees and their quaking leaves. We said we would do this again next year.
At dinner on the last night, we tried to figure out whether any of the seven of us had actually met in person before — had none of us ever run into each other? The answer was no.
The pandemic forced institutions and organizations to be pretty creative when it came to what was being done in person that could also be done online, whether schools or churches or offices. Now, as we emerge from the age of lockdowns and figure out how to live with COVID-19’s ongoing presence, we are rightly relieved that so much of our lives doesn’t have to be lived virtually anymore. But I also wonder what we might lose if, in that relief, we run too quickly away from the possibilities of online fellowship.
This Colorado gathering was so wonderfully embodied — when we all first rendezvoused at the airport, a common refrain was “You have legs! You’re more than just a head and shoulders!” — but the whole reason the gathering even happened was because we had built up connections beforehand, via (dare I say it) Zoom.
While together in person, we talked about how valuable this group was — and how safe it felt — precisely because none of us lived in the same place. We could bring concerns about our day-to-day lives in confidence, knowing that none of us would happen to run across the person or place being discussed. We could offer support in person because we’d built up the proper trust virtually, and that rhythm of support, in person and on screen, will continue.
I wrote in early 2021 about how the pandemic showed us how much we truly needed each other. Nearly two years later, that remains true — and we’ve also seen, in our COVID-era creativity, how we can forge and foster true community in so many ways. I don’t want to look back on the months of Zoom calls and say that it somehow wasn’t as real or as meaningful as it would have been if we could have met in person. I wouldn’t know these women if it weren’t for the tools that provided us a community in COVID-19’s darkest days.
I can’t wait to see them again on my laptop screen — and I can’t wait to go on another hike with them in person next year.
Sometimes, being shot in the back is just another day of living while Black. The case of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is only one example, its visibility heightened through protests, politics and, most recently, professional athletes who stepped away to redirect our focus.
Some strive to see isolated incidents, but in fact they are part of a long, long line of real-life stories revealing anti-Blackness, in our country and in American Christianity. As a Christian minister, I must name this truth. I must also name another truth of the gospel: The incarnation of Jesus shows us a different vision for human life, in which God embraces Black bodies, all bodies, all flesh, so that being for God means being against anti-Black violence.
The torturous terror against Black bodies has roots in the history of this nation through the brutal and inhumane colonial practices of enslavement, humans transported in the belly of slave ships on a bloody trail from Africa to the Americas known as the middle passage. Cargo enrobed in Black flesh bled, moaned and groaned through a ritual of oppression and death.
Upon arrival in the “land of the free,” these Africans were deemed property, not humanity. As Allen Dwight Callahan has noted, “American slavery unleashed an all-out assault on the black body.” Assaulted Black bodies were deemed nobodies, nonbeings and chattel to be sold at auction blocks. They were dehumanized and dishonored. The enslaved were possessions that at the liturgy of the auction block were just bodies. Their humanity erased, their bodies were wounded, broken and even murdered by such heinous acts as lynching. Today, we see that this story of Black torture is not just past history but present reality.
The horrific heritage of slavery, dehumanization and corporeal devaluation is interwoven with religious practice, particularly Christianity. Christian slave masters prioritized the soul over the body, and the Black body was especially purported to signify evil and the demonic, worthless for the life of faith, valued only for what it could perform; thus, anything could be done to it.
Neoplatonic philosophy has influenced Christianity for centuries with its emphasis on the immortal, spiritual realm and discount of the material, bodily realm as “less than” and not a part of the spiritual life. The goal becomes to escape bodily reality as a path to a deeper spirituality. Historically, this disembodied Christian legacy has viewed the body as threatening and dangerous if not controlled — a perspective that opened the door for nations to torture, exploit, shoot and murder bodies, particularly dark bodies, because they were deemed irrelevant to faith.
Yet despite the hurtful legacy of Christianity that denigrates the body’s potential, at the heart of the Christian faith is the incarnation of the divine into a human physical body, signifying the divine embrace of the human body.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in “An Altar in the World,” explores the incarnation’s claim “that God trusted flesh and blood to bring divine love to earth,” revealing that if one wants to become more spiritual, one should become more embodied as a human and person of faith. Religious faith is a material one, not just a spiritual or a virtual one on Twitter. It takes place in and through bodies. Thus, bodies are vital to the practice of faith, and how we treat Black bodies, and every body, matters.
Whether wounded or whole, the incarnation of Jesus is the affirmation and embrace of all bodies, all flesh, all Blacks. Our bodies have been graced with the presence of God; indeed, human beings are created in the image of God.
This is the power in symbolic actions by athletes, especially Black athletes. By interrupting the entertainment provided by sports, they are using their hearts and minds to make the point that Black bodies are valuable beyond their labor. In their way, the athletes are reminding us that Black bodies are image bearers of God.
As a Christian, I recognize that Jesus was flogged, crowned with thorns and struck in the face. He carried the cross by himself, was crucified and was pierced in his side with a spear, blood and water flowing out. The Gospel writings reveal that his body was tortured on crucified lockdown and that he died gangsta style, like all the crucified peoples of the world.
In many ways, the heart of the Christian faith is a tortured, bruised and wounded body of God, which is an aspect of theological memory that interweaves with Black cultural memory, such that theologian James Cone calls the tortured Christ a lynched Black body. A tortured Black body ignites the cultural spiritual song — “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Were you there in Kenosha? Were you there in Minneapolis?
The death and torture of the Christ is neither a glorification of violence and torture against bodies nor a promotion of it. It is an indictment against the way we live, the way we promote violence, even state-sanctioned violence, and the way we perpetuate death. Jesus’ death is supposed to put an end to death altogether, representing the death of death and the end of violence ultimately. Modern-day police brutality is a modern-day form of crucifixion, and it says that nobody matters, which is antithetical to the life of faith.
Every time we enact violence against another human being — like Jacob Blake — we destroy the beautiful image of God found in the human collective body, and we reveal a distorted, immature and anorexic spirituality. Any move toward the destruction of a body is a gesture in the direction of the destruction of God; to embrace a human body is to embrace an enfleshed God.
To embrace and love a Black body is to embrace and love God. To be human is to have a body, and to be a person of faith is to affirm the body as vital to the spiritual life. Thus, to be anti-Black body is to be anti-human and anti-God, because within the Christian tradition at least, God became a human body to redeem and heal bodies and claim them as vital for life in the Spirit.
You can’t be pro humanitate, pro-human, and be for anti-Black violence. You can’t be for God and be for anti-Black violence, regardless of the source of the brutal violence, because all human bodies are temples of the Spirit, and what we do with them and to them should matter for people of faith. Every body matters, and any body is a somebody to God.
Growing up in the Black church, we used to say, “This joy I have; the world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.” Joy is unspoken hope that floods your being. It’s that “it is well with my soul” that resonates deeply within your spirit.
It took becoming an adult for me to understand the subversive power of a mantra that held joy as personally sacrosanct. What we were saying was that the conditions of this world didn’t produce joy for us; rather, something within us created the joy that the world continually tried to steal. Time and time again, systems of this world tried to steal our joy, our dignity, our hope and our future.
We fought as a community to get back what those systems took while keeping ourselves from internalizing what they said about us. We began to define ourselves. And out of defining ourselves came our ability to value ourselves. Out of defining and valuing ourselves came our ability to believe in ourselves. Out of defining, valuing and believing in ourselves came our ability to create joy. Hard, gritty, sustainable — our joy that the world didn’t give.
It is with that communal formation as my spiritual and sociocultural backdrop that I have renewed my commitment to being on the lookout for joy, even in the midst of a pandemic. As a New York City pastor, I have been proximate to such widespread sorrow and grief that they have made joy seem like a luxury, not a right.
I found myself so weighed down by the realities of this crisis that joy was the furthest thing from my mind. Black Americans are three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans. My heart broke as I saw the economic and residential insecurity that the pandemic exposed, as well as the preexisting medical conditions of folks in my community that it exacerbated. As is said, when the nation gets a cold, marginalized folks get pneumonia.
Our community had to find a way to protect ourselves from an unseen virus, mind the preexisting socioeconomic inequalities, monitor our own pre-COVID health issues, and be on the lookout for potential exposure to a new disease that none of us had ever experienced.
On top of that, in the midst of the pandemic, fatal encounters with police or just everyday citizens made Black people’s names into viral hashtags — Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop. It seemed that joy was hiding. I knew that I needed to access some form of joy for my own well-being, but bad news was all around me. I pushed myself to preach and teach about the very thing I was in search of: Black joy.
Barbara Holmes’ book “Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church” has helped me. Holmes calls our attention to the concept that the most powerful response to Black death is Black joy, and she reminds us that we cannot live in an ongoing state of resistance. The joy that she speaks of is a kind of resilience that refuses to be dictated to despite the horrific conditions it is forced to transcend.
Among the practices Holmes encourages is being mindful of our breath — particularly powerful in a moment when our ability to breathe feels endangered on multiple levels. She writes: “Breath is the sustainer of life and also the vehicle for entry into the contemplative center. We take deep breaths to still our thoughts, center our being and connect to a wisdom that permeates the universe. We breathe together individually and communally to invoke the spiritual strength to withstand and resist injustice.”
In this difficult season, I am intentionally looking for unexpected joy, mindful of the quote attributed to Dinos Christianopoulos, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
People are buried under the pressures of life. They’re buried under the weight of having to say goodbye to loved ones taken by COVID-19. They’re buried under job loss and under health disparities, under foreclosure and landlord disputes. They’re buried under the inability to home-school their children, as well as a lack of child care. They’re buried under fear — hoping that their names aren’t the next ones converted into hashtags.
But I find joy by asking the “what if” questions. What if this societal burial is of seeds in the ground? What if, while buried under job loss, we discover new vocational purpose? What if, while buried under health disparities, we find natural ways to heal our bodies? What if, while buried under foreclosure, we spread our wealth by moving two or three families under one roof to ensure that we have what we need?
What if, while buried under home schooling and a lack of child care, we discover new things about our children and begin to teach them according to their own personalities and needs versus what the school system says they need?
The possibilities of “what if” connect to where my joy lies. This is the joy that the world didn’t give. It lies in our ability to redefine what these conditions might be able to produce.
The lesson from the seed is that it may have been dropped into the ground and forgotten, but it is going to live again. The seed is going to live into its possibilities and sprout into its best hopes and dreams. But seeds don’t sprout on their own. They need water, sunlight and external support.
Likewise, for us to make it, we all need a little support while we are buried. We need unjust systems to be overturned. We need ways out of no ways to be made. And we need joy. We need a counternarrative. We need to be reminded that joy is our right. And we need to be reminded, as Nehemiah 8:10 proclaims, that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
Take a lesson from the seed. Find your joy. In that discovery you will also find your strength.