I grew up conservative in every way—theologically, socially, and politically. But things change. Circumstances change. Perspectives change. People change. I changed. And here, as succinctly as I can make it, is an example of how and why.
As a faculty member in my eleventh year of teaching at a small, conservative, Bible college in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, I taught a course called Peace, Justice, and Simplicity. Prior to that, I had preached several series of sermons on the text of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). When I taught that course, however, in the spring of 2005, I read that passage as I had never seen it before, and I heard Jesus saying things I had not previously understood.
In 2008, I taught the course again, and all the changes in perspective that I had experienced three years before were reinforced. I was (and am) not prepared to wear the label or wave the banner for any particular political ideology, but I am definitely not the conservative I used to be.
Politically speaking, concepts such as injustice and inequality and the least of these entered my consciousness and my vocabulary. As for my religion, terms such as compassion and grace and tolerance became as important to my understanding of spirituality as truth and prayer and devotion. In the spirit of historical Anabaptism (and Anabaptist is a label I do not shun), I renewed my commitment to the principle that genuine faith issues in words of sympathy and works of mercy.
Something else happened in 2008, however, that has helped to shape my current perspective, both spiritually and politically. At age 58, I lost my job. I have told the story of how that came about in earlier blog posts as well as in my book, The Long Road from Highland Springs. I hope you’ll take the time to read it there. For today, however, I simply want to note how that experience and its consequences have changed the way I see the world.
I am ashamed to say that I have no close friends within the African American community, and only a few personal acquaintances. That is the result of the particular sociological trajectory my life has taken. I fervently hope that situation will change in the future. In the meantime, I feel that my appreciation for the situation faced by many blacks and other minorities has increased, if only minimally, owing to my own circumstances.
I know something about what it is like to be a minority. I have no Mennonite or Anabaptist family history. As much as I love that tradition and had a meaningful ministry there, in the end I still believe it helps to have the right surname and the right family connections. I came to Anglicanism with no network of contacts and no history of involvement in that tradition. Either would have helped me experience greater security and stability there. In both of these ventures, I have felt the sting that comes from being in the minority, albeit infinitesimal by comparison to the experience of my black brothers and sisters.
Additionally, my lack of employment has left me completely broke. After nearly forty years of vocational Christian ministry, I have not been gainfully employed in more than six years. That is not for want of trying. In addition to completing job applications and writing letters of inquiry, I undertook, at considerable personal expense, a two-year program of preparation leading to my ordination as an Anglican priest. That did not result in employment (read the book for details). I then spent a year writing and publishing a book which cost ten times more to produce than it has earned so far.
Living expenses, the costs associated with preparation for Anglican Holy Orders, and expenses related to publishing the book (over and above designated gifts for that project) have burned through the retirement savings I had hoped to use to supplement Social Security. Humanly speaking, our retirement years look increasingly bleak. Not a backhanded plea for sympathy; just the facts.
I know what it means to worry about money. I know what it means to calculate whether a trip into town will leave me with enough gas to do other things I need to do later in the week. I know what it means to figure out the date in the not-too-distant future when our resources, as careful as we try to be, simply won’t be sufficient to meet our most basic expenses.
I’ve never been tempted to resort to crime, not even petty crime, as a way to meet my needs. But more than I ever thought possible, I understand why some people, confronted with loss and obstacles and injustices and a playing field that is far from level, would do that.
I am not poor, but if my circumstances do not change, I soon will be, at least by the standards established by the federal government. It makes me angry sometimes, but at least I am fairly confident that I will not be accosted by a police officer and interrogated like a criminal suspect just for walking down the street. Too many of my brothers in the black community cannot even take comfort in that.