Thursday, May 06, 2021

Police and Prisons, Our Kids and Ourselves

I got a new picture book this week: Milo Imagines the World, a collaboration between two of my favorites: author Matt de la Pena and illustrator Christian Robinson. In it, a kid named Milo and his sister are on a long ride on the subway. It's an opportunity for Milo to imagine and draw the lives of all the people he sees, including a boy about his own age. Readers discover that Milo and his sister - and the other boy - are on their way to a correctional facility, where they are going to visit their mom. The way that de la Pena gives language to the emotions that Milo is feeling is poetry ("These monthly subway rides are never ending, and as usual, Milo is a shook-up soda.) And Robinson brings life and not only to Milo, but to Milo's imagination.

Milo's journey to the prison is also a journey of realization. When he sees that the other little boy, who he had imagined as someone who's experience was very different from his own, is heading for the same destination he is, Milo understands that the way he imagines the people in the subway might be way off and the pictures he made of them might have been all wrong! Readers begin to see that the ideas that we have about people - including people in prison - might also be based on biases or false narratives. You can read more about Milo at Social Justice Books, or listen to Christian Robinson talk about the book and illustrations on Vimeo (4:33-10:28 are particularly relevant).

At the same time as I'm enjoying Milo, I'm also reading We Do This Till we Free Us, essays on abolition by Miriam Kaba (much more slowly than the rest of the church book group, though I'm grateful they still let me listen in). Kaba writes about seeking justice beyond prison and punishment, building community as an alternative to policing, and transforming how we deal with harm and accountability. I'm not the only adult right now who's beginning to get on board with the idea of police and prison abolition. This awakening in our country is also happening in our denomination. Y'all may already have heard of the curriculum on abolition that MCUSA has created to help churches explore this idea.

But what about kids? The prevailing narrative in dominant culture is that police are the 'good guys.' They are here to help and keep everyone safe. From Paw Patrol to Brooklyn 99 (two programs popular with the young people in my family) media reinforces this narrative. Cops might be goofy or bumbling but are ultimately well intentioned and uphold justice with care. White children especially, who may rarely have had an encounter with police, don't have this narrative interrupted.

We know, though, that not every child does have life-experience to backs up the cultural narrative. Garfield Highschool teacher Jesse Hagopian tweeted last year about an assignment that his first grade son was asked to complete. The assignment invited students to read a page entitled "Police Protect Us" and then answer questions about the reading:

What are some of the things that police officers do? They pepper spray people like when they sprayed my dad.
Why do you think a police officer’s job is important? Nurses, doctors and ambulances are important, but not police!
What would be another good title for this story? Police don’t protect us.

In fact police had not protected this boy and his family. He and many other children have the experience that police threaten and/or do violence and harm to them and their communities.

In parallel to the dominant narrative about police being good, the narrative about prisons and the people in them is that the only reason people go to jail or to prison is that they're bad. Books like Milo make it clear that people in prison are loved and love others, have families, like to read stories and have dreams. They might be there because of limited choices, because they didn't have money to pay for representation or to pay bail, because of complications related to addiction - like illustrator Christian Robinson's own mom.

Milo Imagines the World is one of very few books that give children like Milo a mirror in which to see themselves and children like mine a window through which they can experience understanding and empathy. In addition to her writing and advocacy for and with adults, Kaba also wrote the picture book Missing Daddy because of her frustration finding materials that can help children deal with the “loss, grief, and trauma” of having a parent incarcerated. And there's a list of more books that address policing and prison at Social Justice Books which includes books for children as well as teens and adults.

Though I've been fumbling through attempting to interrupt the narrative about police in myself and my kids for awhile, I still find it helpful to hear new ideas. For example I found a post from the Oakland Public Library on Evaluating Children's Books about Police very helpful and applicable beyond just book and beyond just children. It offers language and questions to test when watching, reading or encountering other media. I also found the teaching guide created by Penguin Classroom helpful; the questions it asks of the books (it includes the author/illustrators other two collaborations as well) are questions we could ask of our own experiences and assumptions as well.

My learning curve now with myself and my family is in trying on ideas about alternatives to police and punishment. It's continuing to build alternatives to policing by creating stronger communities and connections, building empathy and resilience, practicing alternatives to punishment and adopting transformative practices in my own life. I look forward to our congregation continuing to deepen our understanding of the movement to abolish prison and policing.

I will certainly be engaging with the MCUSA curriculum and will likely adapt it to use with youth in fall or winter. I'd be curious if there are parents interested in working through it together with an eye toward how we talk to our children.If you are interested in practical alternatives to police and punishment you can use right now, check out Seattle Area Alternatives to Calling 911 and If You See Something, DO Something: 12 Things to do instead of calling the cops . May we all work together for a just peace!

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

We voted! Now what?

One of the fascinating things about having the classroom in my living room has been the window into what teachers and students talk about and how teachers are building a classroom culture and community. It's also been a huge learning experience for me in pedagogy. How do you respond to questions? How do you encourage taking turns? How do affirm ideas and encourage critical thinking.

This week and last, I've been listening in on the Southshore kindergarteners talking about voting and the election. They started with the book Grace for President, in which Grace notices that there are no women in the row of pictures of presidents, decides to run for president of her class and then shows her leadership ability through her contributions to her school and community.

The kindergarteners were encouraged to notice in the words and pictures the kind of person Grace is, what good leadership looks like, how her words matched her actions. In subsequent days their class moved on to comparing real life candidates. First for Washington's 37th district and then for president. She presented points of the candidates platforms and then the children were invited to think about who they would vote for. I appreciate the respect that our schools teachers have for children's opinions and the way they encourage them to say more, ask questions and challenge each other - even in kindergarten.

Two years ago I wrote about voting and the election with annoyance. I was annoyed both because at the time I couldn't vote and because I was frustrated with what I felt was the implication that voting is the only way one can participate in democracy or enact change. My opinion has changed somewhat - at least a little and at least in part because I can vote now - but I stand by a few of the things I said then.

What has changed in 2020 is that, yes I can vote now but also there truly is much more at stake. What hasn't changed is my understanding how much more there is to engaging in change for justice than voting. I think this is a message particularly important for children and youth to hear. After all, they can't vote. And yet their voices are so important to our communities. Even kindergarteners have opinions about what's important. And they can march and make signs and write reps and get educated and post to social media.

The other thing that hasn't changed and that will never change is that nationhood is not what defines us as followers of Jesus. And it's our desire for a just peace is rooted in the Biblical call to justice. And that something that none of our kids aren't going to get in their classrooms, no matter how well they're being formed as citizens.

It's up to us as families and as a church family to tell the stories of Jesus and other biblical characters who interrupted for the sake of justice: Jesus' crossing boundaries to sit with the woman at the well and telling stories of good Samaritans. Peter sharing God's love with the Ethiopian eunuch. The prophets demanding justice that rolls like water. Whatever this week brings, our work as citizens and as disciples continues in our families and in our communities. May God bless us in this holy calling.

Just Enough for Today

You know, having said it so often, that we don't choose our preaching texts, and that the Narrative Lectionary really throws us some curveballs sometimes. This Sunday, when we're readying to celebrate a baptism, is no exception. The symbolic receiving of renewed life through an outpouring of water on the same day when our scripture is rooted in the arid dryness of water withheld. God's anger has been raised at the king Abah, worshiper of foreign gods - in particular Baal, the god of thunder, rain and fertility - and God has caused the land and sky to dry up.

Baptism or no, we begin our story in drought and famine. An international crisis of epic proportion. Death is every present. Anxiety and fear are the norm. Now this sounds pretty familiar. We don't choose our texts, but there is something about this story that feels very real. In the midst of this drough we meet a woman in Zarephath. She seems to be the head of her household, so once she may have been wealthy or at least self-sufficient but at the point when we meet her she is beyond hope. She is very matter of fact about it: "I am going to make a meal for myself and my child." She says. "We will eat it - and then we will die."

This is a mother who is at the end of her rope. She is trying to weather a drought, she is responsible for a household, she is caring for her child. She is weary and fearful. She is ready to die. And Elijah the prophet comes along with the gall to make another demand of her - two demands! First, give me some water! Now, give me something to eat!

The mom in me wants to ask him, "Now, how to ask for something politely??" I do hear the weariness and exasperation in this mom's voice. The defeatism: I literally have a handful of flour and enough oil for a meager meal for myself and my child before we starve to death. Seriously?

Now I am a person of relatively stable mental health. And I have good resources and pretty reasonable practices of self care. But even I have days during this famine of COVID where I am at the point of collapse. And I know that there are those among us who are truly struggling with diagnosed mental illness and feeling hopeless. For y'all, I pray that you will find the resources that you need.

Though that is not me, there are days when it feels like there is so little left in me to give, that all I'm experiencing is a string of demands (some of you may identify) - meetings, newsletters and sermons to write, of course. But also kindergarten to supervise and homework to help with, meals to provide and care to offer, the constant stream of demands, "Mom, look at this." "Mom, I need…" "Mom, can I have…" "Mom, give me…" If Elijah had come along to me, when I'm down to the last of my emotional and physical resources I might have answered something like the widow did: I'm already starving to death! And if he'd said - as he did to her, "Do not fear, just make me a cake." I might have laughed like loon.

On this All Saints Day, truly, I recognize this woman as a Saint. Because she does not laugh like a wild thing. She believes him. A stranger to her and a foreigner. She believes him when he says, when you help me, God will provide enough for all of us each day. Today, and tomorrow, and then the day after, and the day after and the day after, until this drought is at an end. She believes him. And she offers hospitality from the last of her supplies.

Though I may have a hard time hearing the words, "Do not fear," there actually is something comforting about the idea of just having to make it through today and then tomorrow will have enough for tomorrow. And the next day, enough for that day. Between Elijah and the widow and her son and household, they create a little famine bubble - a bubble in which each day they make it until the next day.

Part of what helps them make it to the end of the day is that tiny community they've formed. And I have absolutely found a way to make it each day when I've been in community with some of y'all - whether that's a corn maze with some jr youth and their families, or talking to children in Sunday school or dropping by with meals for families. Some days it's a choice for baptism and community in the middle of a pandemic. It's the joy of seeing someone choose hope and new life. It doesn't fill me up. None of it will completely satisfy. I know it doesn't fill y'all up either. But it gets me through today.

Friends, I had a really good day or two this week. And I had tears this week. That's the way our days go now. This week especially, when our hopes and our anxieties are especially heightened, I truly pray that you will find each day the meal that you need to live through that day. That you will reach out to people and that people you need will reach out to you. May your flour jar and jug of oil have enough - just enough to make it to the end of this famine that we're all in together. Amen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Troublemaker Saints


As someone who regularly uses picture books in my roles as parent and pastor, I follow multiple social media accounts that help me find books for children. I look for books that marry themes of justice and God's love, diversity in characters and inspiring stories.  So a couple years ago when I came across a Kickstarter to support an author who was trying to publish a book about unconventional saints, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Often the way we think about a saint is that it's someone who's larger than life, holier than your average human and with an extra-ordinary connection to the divine.  Someone who's golden halo reflects the soft light of candles or the fire of their zeal.  A saint is definitely dead.

Daneen Akers' book, Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints redefines - or maybe reclaims - the notion of saints as those who "are people of faith who have worked for love, compassion and justice in their corners of the world and eras, even when that meant rocking the religious boat…[T]hey used their faith to work for the good of everyone."  With this re-claimed definition, sainthood is bestowed upon those whose lives help us connect to God and to the world with our hearts more open.

Akers' book is a thick anthology of such saints.  Though some, like Francis of Assisi or Fred Rogers or Rachel Held Evans are dead, many of the people in Holy Troublemakers are still living and (in their saintly human way) leading their communities with wisdom and compassion.  Potawatomi theologian and writer Kaitlin Curtis grounds her faith in her identity as an indigenous person, the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney's scholarship is known for its womanist interpretations of scripture, Lisbeth MelĂ©ndez Rivera has been an activist for the LGBTQ folks for almost 40 years and is active in the Rainbow Catholics organization, seeking welcome and affirmation for the people in her community.

This Sunday is All Saints Day. On this day we remember and name those beloved who have died.  All Saints is also the time to reflect on those people past and present who help point our way to the love, justice and compassion of God.  Those people whose lives inspire us to love justice and compassion ourselves.  We all have holy troublemakers in our lives, unconventional saints who have influenced us for the better and strengthened our faith. 

My hope is that we can share the stories of saints in this book and those like them with our kids.  Stories of family saints, saints of our communities.  Akers notes that since she ditched conservative Christianity, it's been hard to find stories and devotional literature for kids that help point them toward God's desire for them.  In this book she fills that gap.  But we can also fill the gap, at least a little, with our own creativity and narratives. In this All Saints week, may we tell stories of unconventional saints, share their work and follow in their footsteps.

A Hot Holy Mess

When Megan talked in her sermon this past Sunday about Hannah's hot, holy mess of a life, which she brings before God in prayer, I thought, "Yup, sounds about right." The hot mess part, anyway. It doesn't much feel holy. 
Last week you didn't get a Midweek Message from me because of the hot mess of the Epp Hamilton household, including: very noisy window construction/replacement (also a literal mess), two full-time working adults and children doing online school, one of whom needs constant oversight, a COVID scare, which turned out to probably be Norovirus, but which was still very unpleasant, and the increasingly dark and stormy weather. I'm not trying to complain or seek sympathy, I just want to say: Folks, I'm right there with you in the very messy middle of this pandemic.

At our recent meeting of the 'Discerning Returning Team' (increasingly this seems like a misnomer, since we're definitely not returning to gathered in-person worship any time soon) we acknowledged how difficult the labor of families with young children is at this time. Even when things are going pretty well, there is emotional labor we parents are doing constantly in caring for our own mental health and the mental health of your kids.

But even though last week was a really big bummer, I've had some lovely highlights in the past few weeks. Every year we gift our 3rd grade students with Bibles, recognizing that by this age they're good readers and critical thinkers and ready to have a Bible of their own. I visited with the 3rd grade families on front porches and in backyards and got to see what's up in their families and say hello to their pets. It was so lovely.

So yes, life is messy. So messy that it makes me want to (and sometimes causes me to) scream in frustration and helplessness. But in my more grounded moments I realize that God is right there with me. And you are there with me. And there are these beautiful bright spots in the midst of it: the brilliant red leaves on my neighbor's maple tree outside my new windows, long walks - with my kids and without them, finding I might be a dog person after all, and the hope of seeing more of your faces in the coming weeks.

All that is very holy - just filled with the Divine. I pray that you too find the holy in the mess of each day. I hope to see a few of your kids in Sunday school this Sunday for a story and game and to see how they're doing. If not, I look forward to seeing your faces in person.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Mennonites: The OG Anti-Racist Heroes

Three hundred and thirty seven years ago this week (1683, in case that math takes too long) the first Mennonites arrived in what's now the United States and founded Germantown - now a neighborhood in Philadelphia. After sharing a meal with the local indigenous people (probably Lenape) Francis Daniel Pastorius, a German Mennonite lawyer and teacher wrote, "they have never in their lives heard the teaching of Jesus concerning temperance and contentment, yet they far excel the Christians in carrying it out.”

Anniversaries are natural times to tell stories. We use birthdays to tell our children about when they were born, wedding anniversaries to tell the stories of meeting and getting married, the anniversary of our church to tell stories of its founding and its first families. For some of us white folks, though, telling our immigration stories has become a little cringe-y. Our histories include colonization, enslavement of other humans, intentional and internalized bias based on white supremacist notions. So, when I read the quote above on the Salt Project's Theologian's Almanac, and shortly afterward the following quote about those first Mennonites in Jason Reynolds YA book Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism and You, (a "remix" of Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning) I was psyched!

Mennonites didn't want to leave behind one place of oppression to build another in America, so they circulated an antislavery petition on April, 1688, denouncing oppression due to skin color by equating it with oppression due to religion. Both oppressions were wrong. This petition - the 1688 Germantown Petition Against Slavery - was the first piece of writing that was antiracist among European settlers in colonial America.

Yes! Mennonites, recognized as the OG anti-racists! And they did it based on the teaching of Jesus. Patting myself on the back over here for coming from such enlightened and woke white folks. Well, sort of. My own Mennonite ancestors immigrated to Canada in the late 19th century also fleeing oppression in southern Russia, also seeking religious freedom and opportunity to thrive in a new environment. And, of course, using the advantages of whiteness to cheaply purchase land that had been stolen from indigenous people.

The theme this month for children's and youth spiritual formation is "Making Sense of Our Stories" and our stories are complicated. When we're building our storytelling repertoire, it's really important to be able to understand our story from all perspectives, so that we don't repeat mistakes of oppression and injustice - and so that we can participate in repair. Authors like Jennifer Harvey and Anastasia Higginbotham, who write about talking with white kids about race, talk about the importance for developing a white identity that's grounded in more than just stories of hate, destruction and oppression. We also need to find stories of ancestors and heroes (Mennonite and otherwise) who were active in interrupting patterns of oppressions like racism and white supremacy. Those are stories we can embrace and seek to identify with.

Reynolds writes about the history of race and racial inequity in Stamped but he's insistent that it isn't a history book. "This book, this not history history book, this present book, is meant to take you on a race journey from then to now, to show why we feel how we feel, why we live how we live, and why this poison, whether recognizable or unrecognizable, whether it's a scream or a whisper, just won't go away." And then he tells stories - stories of wrongness and stories of people getting in the way of that wrong.

All that to say: tell your stories. Look for the stories that are hidden and find out why. Look for the stories that haven't been told and tell them. Look at the stories of the country and community and think about where and how your people intersected with them. Amplify the stories of justice and learn from them. And may we be the ancestors whose stories our children will tell with pride.

A final note, speaking of stories, here are a couple book related links I've come across recently. Of course, everyone should read Stamped and everything else that Jason Reynolds has written. And that Ibram X. Kendi has written (I'm still working on that myself.) Also, UW Bookstore has created anti-racist book kits for kids and adults of all ages. And The Conscious Kid has a reading list for kids from 0-18 on confronting anti-blackness and on how to support conversations on race, antiracism and resistance.
image: Thones Kunder's house, 5109 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia PA, where the 688 Petition Against Slavery was written

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Sex, Teens and Teens-to-be

Three years ago I taught the Our Whole Lives curriculum with our high school youth for the first time. OWL is the wholistic sexuality curriculum from the UCC and Unitarian traditions. It's one of the most fun times I've had with teens in our congregation. I was looking forward to having that experience again this year, but COVID got in the way of those plans. However, it's had thinking about teens and sexuality and I thought I'd share some resources for folks with teens or teens-to-be. It's never to early to start conversations about sexuality, bodies and relationships.

In my family we've always been pretty open about talking about sex and bodies with our kids. Sure it leads to slightly embarrassing moments when kids ask openly about body parts or share facts they know about genitals at the wrong time or with the wrong people. But for the most part, the more knowledge, vocabulary and self-awareness a child has the greater their safety and confidence in navigating relationships of all kinds and their ability to protect themself.

Communicating the right names for body parts helps children explain accurately when they've been hurt or are in pain. Communicating without shame or secrecy about body parts can protect children from predators. Communicating the facts about sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, and the importance of how to have safer sex helps teens make informed decisions about their own bodies and well-being. Communicating to kids and teens the importance of consent and what it is and isn't, as well as the value and beauty of their bodies, creations of a loving God, we hope will help them see themselves as worthy of care and compassion.

You see how often I used the word 'communicating?' That really indicates how key communication is - in an ongoing way, no just as "the talk." So here are some resources. I tried to include a variety of resources that cover littles and middles and also stuff for teens and parents of teens.

The Birds and the Bees for Little Kids - This one is TOMORROW! so act fast if you're interested. There are also many other resources about talking to kids and teens about sexuality at the Birds and Bees and Kids website. Another very cool site with tips and videos and fun animations to help parents process how to talk about sex with kids is Amaze (older kids) and Amaze Junior (little kids)

NPR's Life Kit podcast has a couple of episodes about kids and sex. How to Talk to Children about Sex addresses conversations with kids before the onset of puberty. My biggest take-away (among many) was be brief, factual and loving when talking about sex with kids. What Your Teen Wishes You Knew About Sex Education is (as the title suggests) about the teens in your life. That one features sex educator and advocate Heather Corinna.

Corinna is the author of a couple of books. One is a graphic non-novel called Wait, What? features a group of friends talking to each other and the audience about bodies, sex and sexuality. She also wrote S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties. I haven't read this one yet, but based on the introduction and table of contents alone I'm looking forward to it. (I linked to Amazon so you can look inside, but I got my copy from

Since you really don't want your tween or teen googling a sex thing they've heard about, I suggest showing them Scarleteen, the website developed by Corinna. It's very teen friendly with tons of articles and FAQ's on a huge variety of topics. Another good one is Sex Etc. I Wanna Know is another that's not quite as visually fun but does have a section specifically for parents. Honestly, as an old person, these websites are helpful just to keep up with what's important to teens and to see what kinds of questions they're asking.

The Great Conversations series of workshops for parents and their tweens about their changing bodies and what to expect from puberty are in person. But they're offered online for now. I found this really helpful a couple of years ago and I look forward to another round with my second kid. There are other great resources on this site as well.

God loves you and your kids and all of the bodies that God made. Whatever these conversations look like for you, may you experience God's presence with you and your children. Good luck!