Tag Archives: Austin

“Entertaining Angels” . . . from Syria

Thanks to colleague Brian Peterson for another guest blog post. Read his previous post, A Flame of Hopelinked here. (This post was originally published August 2016.)

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13: 1-2

 

What does an angel look like? For some, an angel is a super human-like creature who looks out for you; a gauzy, ethereal presence that makes you feel good. For others, an angel is a cute, adoring cherub in a fifteenth-century painting. A case could be made for each, but I’m skeptical of both.

The Bible speaks of angels, but without much detail. In Greek the word “angel” is rendered άγγελος and refers less to physical appearance and attributes as to function. They are by definition bearers of some sort of message. The word is related to another familiar biblical word, evangelism, Ευαγγέλιο, which translated literally means “good news,” encompassing a lot more than some sort of prefabricated Christian sales pitch. The mere presence of angels holds the possibility of seeing and hearing something completely new and unexpected, something good and even holy. If that’s what angels are all about then I must confess that I’ve encountered more than a few in my lifetime. Truth be told: angels are all around hidden only by our lack of imagination.

I want to tell you about five angels who recently showed up in my life. Late one night this past April, Adna, her husband Ahmed (not their real names), and their three young boys aged 13, 10 and 5 arrived on a flight from Iman, Jordan via Paris and Houston. Jordan had been their home for the past four years where they had fled the increasing violence of their hometown of Damascus, Syria. And as these five Syrian angels descended the airport escalator in Austin to the baggage claim, something profound began to occur.

We’d been preparing for them, of course; we being the gifted folks of AustinLutheranWelcome, the welcome team comprised of my congregation, three other local Lutheran congregations, a couple of progressive Baptists and a friend of forty years, all of them angels in their own right. Our journey had begun a couple of months earlier when we signed up with Refugee Services of Texas to assist in resettling a refugee family in the Austin area. Trained and vetted, but anxious like first-time parents, we waited for our family to arrive.

The folks at Refugee Services of Texas assured us that we’d have three weeks to get things together: locate furniture and household items to set up an apartment, arrange for airport pickup, prepare a first meal and help them get to various appointments those first few weeks of their arrival. So, imagine our surprise when we learned that it wouldn’t be three weeks of prep time, but one! With no time to waste, our team of angels got to work. A few other angels got in the act—my nephew and his best friend brought a pickup truck and picked up and delivered a leather couch and a bed.

Monday afternoon of our Syrian family’s evening arrival came and not surprisingly, we were frantically still getting things together. I found myself in IKEA-hell, knee-deep in slats, grommets, and hardware, hopelessly attempting to assemble a queen-sized bed for the mom and dad. As my frustration began to boil over, Jeff, one of our intrepid welcome team members called to check in. Before I could get too far venting about my predicament, he interrupted to say he had a friend who assembles IKEA furniture for a living. Yes! Jeff made a phone call and before I knew it, an angel named David was there ready to pitch in. Then there was just enough time for me to rush home for a shower. I stood in the living room and took time to say a prayer of thanks for the company of angels who had pitched in and that the five angels who would soon arrive would find joy and happiness in a new life in their new home. I then rushed to the airport.

Which brings me back to where I started, standing at the bottom of the escalator watching Ahmed, Adna, and their precious cargo make their way to greet us for the first time. We were told to watch for their white United Nations tote bags. Sure enough, they were the last ones to come down the escalator. Their long journey had left them exhausted, so we ferried them and their small bags home where a traditional hot meal, a pantry full of food and soft, clean beds awaited them.

In days to come team members got them to the Social Security office, doctor visits, job interviews, grocery stores and even provided a bus riding tutorial. More importantly though, we got to know them, a beautiful family, eager to begin a new life in the United States and who continue to be grateful beyond measure for a new life full of opportunity.

Impromptu English lessons were a blast and left all of us laughing until our sides ached. Over time, we learned their story, leaving everything behind as their Damascus neighborhood became increasingly dangerous, making a difficult journey to Iman, Jordan where they lived for four years applying for refugee status, vetted by both the UN and US State Department, until finally they boarded a plane headed for Austin, Texas.

All these angels have reminded me once again about how in the giving and receiving of hospitality we are all transformed. Early on we found out that a visit with Ahmed, Adna, and the boys involved the ritual of drinking tea, savoring sweet fruit and delicious homemade pastries, and sharing in conversation. Impromptu English lessons were a delight as we learned to understand each other more and more with each passing week.

In early June we all headed to the first annual Austin Refugee Festival where the boys experienced the wonder of the Velcro Wall and a jump castle for the first times in their lives. A couple of us showed the boys how to toss a football and a baseball. Even Adna got in on the act, tying her abaya in a knot at her feet so she could jump rope. Joy and laughter abounded even if we couldn’t completely understand each other. We’ve shared many other great experiences with our family of angels, most recently helping the boys get off to their first day of school. A picture of one of the boys boarding the school bus, backpack in place and thumbs up almost brought tears to my eyes.

I’ve thought often these past few months about these beautiful angels who have profoundly impacted our lives. They are Syrian—they are Muslim—they are refugees. Before all that, however, they are human beings looking to make their way in the world. I want to try to protect them from the kind of hateful rhetoric that demeans and diminishes them and the thousands of others like them who have endured so much. Certainly, they will face difficult challenges, but our lives shared together—Christian and Muslim, neighbors in the same human family—serve as a witness, a testimony, and as good news in angry and fear-filled times.

Maybe in our own small way, all of these angels point us to a path paved not with suspicion and resentment, but with the hope, joy, and love that God wants for us all.

 

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Brian Peterson (pictured) is pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Austin, Texas. Along with pastoring, he plays and teaches clarinet. He is the proud parent of two adult sons, Max and Luke. Brian regularly travels to Honduras and Nicaragua to brush up on his Spanish and make connections within the wider human family. Contact him at brianpeterson1965@gmail.com.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

 

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Monday Matters Book Club Studies “Just a Little Bit More”

The Monday Matters book club, based at Triumphant Love Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas, has been gathering for discussion and shared insight more than twenty years. The group originally met in the house of Ted and Velma Ziehe; the first book studied was Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, its debut conveniently coinciding with the group’s formation in 1994. The initial group, consisting of Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists, liked Borg’s depth of critical scholarship within a faith perspective. Borg’s journey from a naïve, unquestioning faith to one of maturity and authenticity was a positive struggle shared by many in the group. The group decided to keep meeting. The lure of Velma’s cookies and the conversation promised by the study of other good books guaranteed the group’s viability for many more years.

Five years ago, the group started to meet at Triumphant Love. Engineers, pastors, teachers, nurses, and entrepreneurs comprise the group. While neither diverse ethnically nor socioeconomically, the group colors the political map blue, red, and purple. It’s good for Democrats, Republicans and independents to be in conversation with one another in a religious setting: all are reminded that theology is to inform politics, and not the other way around. We might not see eye to eye politically, but we can be in conversation with one another on how best to love and serve our neighbor in God’s name – together.

monday matters

Monday Matters book club – Triumphant Love Lutheran, Austin, TX

Thanks to Norb Firnhaber and Leroy Haverlah who suggested that the group study Just a Little Bit More. Group convener Doug Nelson graciously told me more about the group and helped distribute copies of JaLBM. I introduced JaLBM themes to the group on February 16 – including the dominant religion in America as represented by the Caddy Man (you need to get to know him if you don’t already) – and they took it from there. They convened five sessions to discuss chapters one through eight and invited me back for a closing session on April 6. It was good to meet new folks and see others that I already knew – Ralph and Ellie Erchinger, Dorothy Kraemer, Jim and Kris Carlson – and to be in meaningful conversation with them. Doug Nelson says JaLBM brought out “the most vibrant discussions” the group has had for some time.

If you have a group at church, synagogue, or temple that appreciates meaningful discussion on the important social and economic issues of the day – without falling into well-worn blue and red ruts – take on a study of JaLBM. The book challenges readers with a perspective that cuts against the grain of today’s accepted conventional wisdom of money as highest good. As Peter Steinke says in the book’s foreword, JaLBM benefits its readers by showing “how we have shaped the system we are a part of and what can lead to a new way of doing economics that embraces the common good.”

The summary version of JaLBM with study guide questions is now available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. The study guide version summarizes JaLBM‘s eight chapters and poses questions for discussion at the end of each chapter. Whether reading the full length book or the summary version, all present in a group setting can enter into meaningful discussion and conversation, just like the Monday Matters group at Triumphant Love did for seven sessions.

For those groups in Austin and its vicinity, I am available for presentations to lead JaLBM discussions on the topics of egalitarianism, social mobility, economic democracy, and common good – all from a faith perspective. I’m confident the discussions will be worthwhile and influential.

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“Anderson’s book is an extensive chronicling of the people, movements, and streams of thought that have led us on the quest to want just a little bit more. In the role of a theologically aware social critic, he reminds me of Niebuhr. He is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, but has listened carefully to many other voices and thus speaks a reasonable, balanced, and authoritative public word. Anderson shows us the way back toward a commitment to egalitarianism that has become lost over the last century.”
Dr. Phil Ruge-Jones, Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Texas Lutheran University

 

Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook. JaLBM Summary Version and Study Guide is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

 

 

 

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Austin is #1! . . . in Economic Segregation

john yancey

University of Texas professor John Yancey’s depiction – broken tile mosaic – of old East Austin, “Rhapsody,” located just east of I-35 in downtown Austin.

Austin, Texas – self-proclaimed live music capital of the world, home of the Longhorns and SXSW – is the most economically segregated large metro area in the United States, according to a new report from the Martin Prosperity Institute. Three other Texas cities/metro areas joined Austin in the top ten ranking: San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth. Economic segregation means someone at or below the poverty line doesn’t live in the vicinity of someone making $200,000/yr. or more. These two persons might live in the same city, but they live miles apart, literally and figuratively. Austin is #1 – the wealthy increasingly wall themselves off from their poorer city-mates, making for a hard-set segregation of economic classes, not unlike the racial segregation of generations past.

As a matter of fact, Austin’s economic segregation is distinctly based upon the racial divisions of years past. Interstate 35 – running from Laredo to Duluth – splits Austin right down its middle. Generally, the west side is mostly white and well-off and the east side is not. In the 1880s, Austin had a reputation for being a refuge city for freed slaves – a rarity for the South. At this time, African-Americans lived in various geographic pockets all over town. In 1928, Austin created “Negro districts” (in part, ostensibly) to facilitate access to city parks and schools for African-Americans. Austin’s African-American population at this time was just under 20 percent of its total. The 1920s, like the current era, was a time of economic segregation when the gap between America’s wealthiest and poorest increased significantly. During the Depression, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a New Deal-inspired agency created to help struggling homeowners with mortgages, sanctioned the infamous red-lined districts of many American cities, essentially quarantining “the threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population” from more desirable parts of cities. By the 1940s, Austin was racially segregated with blacks and Hispanics living east of downtown. The 1962 completed construction of I-35, walling off the east side toward the west with a 100-foot wide concrete canyon, sealed the deal.

Austin has the distinction of being the only city in the country with double-digit population growth in the first decade of the 2000s to experience a decrease in African-American population. Gentrification happens, yes; but it’s deeply ironic that many of Austin’s black residents are now being forced out of an area of town that their ancestors were forced into. Furthermore, Austin maintains its “#1 ranking” of economic segregation even as some of its economically disadvantaged residents leave to live beyond its city limits. African-American population in the United States has been stable for years at 12 percent; additionally, 3 percent of Americans self-identify as bi- or multi-racial (President Obama, Tiger Woods, Beyoncé Knowles). Austin’s black population is now only 8 percent of its total (70,000 of 885,000).

What’s the rub? Extreme economic segregation, just like racial segregation, denigrates the overall health and well-being of a community. This blog consistently trumpets two related and unfortunate current realities of American life: the cultural and geographic clustering of folks in the same socio-economic class, and the disconnect between those who are well-off economically and those who are not.

In the months since my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good has been published, I’ve had many good conversations with individuals and groups on important topics such as poverty, economic inequality, and social mobility – all covered in JaLBM. I frequently ask fellow well-off Americans the following: Do you actually know anyone who lives in poverty? Oftentimes, the honest answer is “no.” There’s a lot of partisan bickering in today’s America about the social problems – many related to poverty – that confront us. What’s not easy in today’s America is to actually have a relationship on equal terms with someone in a different socio-economic class. And because of that, our society consists of many who, lacking insight into another’s plight, are quick to judge the others that they simply don’t know. Just read (for as long as you can take it) the “Comments” portion on articles of newspaper websites dealing with the above mentioned topics.

Working together for a shared common good is a hard task. It takes a commitment to making relationships (especially with those who are “different”), compassion, and smarts. It also understands that present and future realities are related to past ones. Austin’s childhood poverty rate is close to 30 percent – not good. It’s over 50 percent for African-American and Latino children – even worse. “Their” problem? Not a chance – it’s a community issue that needs communal response, resolve, and interaction from those who live in Rosewood Courts to those residing on the thirty-first floor (from where one can see into East Austin) of the new and swanky high rise, The 555.

 

Click here for link describing in detail John Yancey’s strong and beautiful mosaic “Rhapsody.”

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