Old news but still the good news.

This is from March 2013.  It’s an address I gave to the Association of Episcopal Deacons (AED), during their churchwide gathering of archdeacons and diaconal formation directors.  Please pardon the funny bits where I ask some rhetorical but very audience-specific questions.

Excerpt: “A deacon’s job (among other things) is to say to the church, ‘It’s not all about you. It’s about God’s liberation of this entire broken and beautiful world.’ At the same time, the church’s tools of ritual, remembrance, ancient tradition and prayerful discipline are indispensable for building a world-changing social movement led by the poor. I know this is true because I have witnessed it again and again. People who have gathered together to face down death (from hunger, from homelessness, from violence) have usually caught the Spirit regardless of whether they’ve ever set foot in a church. In my experience, sharing even basic theological tools with those folks catches fire every time. It is often a slow start, if you’re just starting out– we do a thorough job of grinding down the spirits of the poor. But once people have arrived at the collective decision to stand and defend their God-given right to survive and thrive, there is a profound spiritual shift that occurs. I don’t even know what to call it, but I think that’s the shift that Christ was referring to when he said, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am with them.’  Where poor youth have gathered, even under threat of arrest and police brutality, to protest the erasure of public education in their communities; where the homeless have collectively and illegally taken over abandoned buildings rather than freeze to death in the streets; where undocumented immigrant nannies have rallied outside the home of an employer who has beaten one of their fellow workers– Jesus is there.  And Jesus is not waiting for The Episcopal Church to show up before he makes his next move.”

Link also here: http://www.ecww.org/sites/default/files/AARONSCOTTPRESENTATION.pdf

Full text after the jump.

Hi. My name is Aaron Scott. Kyle said I should share a little about myself and my journey, so: I’m a recovering Methodist preacher’s kid. At age 15 I was a rural, gay, teenage church drop-out with a substance abuse problem. At age 20 I started coming back to faith through liberation theology, in communities living it out from New York City to Managua. I might have become a Catholic had I not, as a student at Union Theological Seminary, met and fallen in love with my partner who was seeking ordination to the priesthood in The Episcopal Church. That worked out well on multiple fronts, so here I am. I’m 27 now, and an aspirant to Holy Orders in the Diocese of Olympia WA. I’m discerning a call to the diaconate, participating in The Seven, and taking full advantage of the resources and mentoring that program has offered me. I want to thank each of you for the work this group has done to make The Seven possible. I especially want to thank Kyle, Susanne and Gen for bringing me out to Baltimore so I can eavesdrop on so many good conversations.

So first, I have some questions and reflections for you all. Just shout your answers out.
First: Why do you want young deacons?
Second: What have been your successes in engaging young leaders in diaconal formation so far?
Third: What have been your challenges?

Thank you. It’s helpful for me to hear all of that, especially as a young discerner standing on the shoulders of so many people who have come before me. So here are some of my thoughts, and we can do questions at the end.

One of the great blessings of my life in general (and of my discernment process in particular) is that I got involved young in the grassroots movement to end poverty in this country. When I say “grassroots” I mean: a movement led by the poor themselves, the poor fighting for themselves on their own terms. And even as I came into that work young myself, in my late teens and early twenties, I felt old compared to a lot of the leaders I met. I met public high school students in Philadelphia who had unionized themselves to resist the privatization their struggling school system. I met teenage mothers in Washington State working together to teach their communities and their legislators that they were human beings who deserved to be treated with support and respect, instead of being treated like statistics of moral decay.

The most talented leaders I’ve met have been young.

The most talented leaders I’ve met have been poor.

If you want to engage the leadership of the young, you are going to have to engage the  leadership of the poor.

Let me say that one more time: If you want to engage the leadership of the young, you are going to have to engage the leadership of the poor.

The young are the poor. The young are disproportionately poor– disproportionately
and increasingly locked out of the basic support systems that offer people a chance of thriving. Every day, the outreach worker at my church receives more calls from young families with children who have lost their housing and are living in their cars. Last week in Philadelphia, in a closed-door meeting, 23 public schools were shut down. Permanently. The dream of college and continuing education– even at public institutions– is rapidly falling out of reach for all young people except those from well-off families. This is personal for me; my cousin turned eighteen on Sunday. He is enlisting in the military and will ship out in August because he got the “talk” this year, that there is no money for him to go to college. On top of praying for his safety abroad during his deployment, I will continually be praying for his safety when he returns home to this nation, which has gutted its services for veterans. I see his future when I look into the eyes of every homeless vet lining the sidewalks and overpasses near the VA hospital in Vancouver, where I live.

So here is the greatest piece of advice I think I can offer you, when it comes to young diaconal leadership development: if you want to find young leaders with diaconal spirit, go to the shelters. Go to the tent cities. Recruit them at the welfare office, at the VA. Recruit them as you are out in the community, organizing with low-wage workers or labor unions. Leaders are people who both know how to make a stand on their own, and also know they can’t do it all on their own. Both of these points are old news to poor folks engaged in the struggle to defend their basic human rights. Daily survival requires a poor person to stand up for her own life in both big and small ways, and also requires her to lean into the goodness of others. Some people might call this an unasked-for spiritual discipline– or, more condescendingly, “a blessing in disguise.” But I think Johnnie Tillmon, former head of the National Welfare Rights Union, said it best when she talked about what she learned about poverty as a welfare mother. She said, “There’s one good thing about welfare. It kills your illusions about yourself, and about where this society is really at.  It’s laid out for you straight. You have to learn to fight, to be aggressive, or you just don’t make it. If you can survive long enough on welfare, you can survive anything. It gives you a kind of freedom, a sense of your own power and togetherness with other women.”

Don’t we need deacons who can survive anything? Don’t we need deacons who share this sense of freedom and power– not the kind that makes you act like a lone ranger but the kind that radically deepens your sense of accountability to, and togetherness with, the rest of God’s children? For too long, those of us in the church who care about justice have believed and perpetuated the lie that we must be become “a voice for the voiceless.” That’s a lie. When you start to take the leadership and talent of the poor seriously– of the young seriously– you will be forced to confront and up-end this lie. It’s like Arundhati Roy said, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” In a living, spirit-filled diaconal ministry, you do not get to speak “for” anybody.  You get to 1) speak for yourself, and 2) amplify the voices of others in the world whom the powers and principalities seek to silence. Even when the church itself acts as one of those silencers.

So: how? How can we pull this off? There’s always that tension, right, when we talk about the diaconate as an ordained “labor of love” (which is the nicest, churchiest, most insidious way of saying “unpaid”). I struggle with this myself, as a young discerner working full-time with a crushing burden of student debt that I will be paying off for the next 20 years. A full-time volunteer ministry sounds lovely– if you are retired with a comfortable pension. But one of the gifts given to me by my mentor Gen, Archdeacon of the Diocese of Olympia, has been the consistent reminder that a deacon’s ministry is whatever work the deacon is doing out in the world. I wrestled with that for a long time. Given my own experience and training, my first thought was, “Well, what does that mean for someone who feels a diaconal calling and works at McDonald’s? What does it mean for someone who is called and is living on a disability income?” And as I wrestled with that a bit longer, I was reminded of the countless places like McDonalds and like the DHS office where I’ve seen leaders step up– unpaid, but choosing to lead and choosing to fight for a better world because their lives and families and communities depend on them fighting. And I realized then that our diaconate might just be a key place where the very best of the church can intersect with the courageous, resurrection-inspiring, empire-leveling spirit of the organized poor.

A deacon’s job (among other things) is to say to the church, “It’s not all about you. It’s about God’s liberation of this entire broken and beautiful world.” At the same time, the church’s tools of ritual, remembrance, ancient tradition and prayerful discipline are indispensible for building a world-changing social movement led by the poor. I know this is true because I have witnessed it again and again. People who have gathered together to face down death (from hunger, from homelessness, from violence) have usually caught the Spirit regardless of whether they’ve ever set foot in a church. In my experience, sharing even basic theological tools with those folks catches fire every time. It is often a slow start, if  you’re just starting out– we do a thorough job of grinding down the spirits of the poor. But once people have arrived at the collective decision to stand and defend their God-given right to survive and thrive, there is a profound spiritual shift that occurs. I don’t even know what to call it, but I think that’s the shift that Christ was referring to when he said “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am with them.”  Where poor youth have gathered, even under threat of arrest and police brutality, to protest the erasure of public education in their communities; where the homeless have collectively and illegally taken over abandoned buildings rather than freeze to death in the streets; where undocumented immigrant nannies have rallied outside the home of an employer who has beaten one of their fellow workers– Jesus is there.  And Jesus is not waiting for The Episcopal Church to show up before he makes his next move. Diaconal calls are already being lived out by young people everywhere– our job is to see if we can help the church keep up with all of them, to see if we can do a better job of recognizing and supporting them as they arise in these “unexpected” places (and seriously—CHECK YOUR BIBLES, THESE PLACES SHOULD NOT BE UNEXPECTED).

If you’re looking for young deacons, it’s time to stop waiting for them to show up at church and eagerly tell you, “I’m interested in becoming an aspirant to Holy Orders.” One thing we all know about young people is that they are overwhelmingly NOT in church. Which is great for potential future deacons– they shouldn’t be spending too much time there anyway! Go instead out into your communities, find the places where young people are making a stand. Find the places where young people are asking the hardest, most unsettling questions, like: “Why does this society think I am disposable? Why do I work so hard and still struggle to survive? Where the hell is God in this terrible mess?” That agitation, that dissatisfaction, that love-fueled anger is precisely one of the things we should be looking for as we discern the presence of a diaconal calling. Think back to the Exodus, to the moment things really kicked off:

During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. (Ex 2:23-25)

If you want young deacons, find the groaners. Find the young people crying out around you and crying out to one another in their suffering. God is working there. Church is already happening there. If we want this church to matter, we need to be there, too– not just handing out food and blankets and prayers. We need to be there looking for leaders– not just for the future of our church, but for the future of a free world for all God’s children.

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About aaron

Catechist at Chaplains on the Harbor.
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