Passing the Torch

Reflections on the Journey

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To His Family and Church: “These Stories Need to Be Told!”

Recently, Tommy Moreno took his mother and grandchildren to Poteet, the Strawberry Strawberry newCapital of Texas. There, in the sun-drenched fields of a friend named Donovan Garcia, they picked fresh berries together.

More importantly, Teresa Villalobos Moreno sat with her great-grandchildren and recreated the days of her youth, growing up as a Mexican-American near the border. She arose at 4:00 a.m. to harvest crops alongside her family and friends. She would then proceed to school, attend to her studies, and return in the afternoon to labor once again in the furrows. At night, she slept on dirt floors under a tent her father made by throwing a piece of canvas over the side of his truck and a tree.

“Were you poor, Nana?” asked one of her great-granddaughters. “Yes, but we didn’t know it because we were happy and our family was full of love.”

As Tommy watched his grandchildren soak up their great-grandmother’s wisdom, as he saw them stoop to gather fruit with her, he prayed that the purpose of the trip would endure. “I hope these memories live with them forever,” he says. “They learned so much today about our history and how blessed our family truly is. These are stories that need to be told!”

A fourth generation Presbyterian Ruling Elder, Tommy believes there are stories that also need to be told to our denomination. Both his great-grandfather and grandfather were deeply involved in the Texas-Mexican Presbytery of the old PCUS. Founded in 1908, it established Mexican-Presbyterian churches, placed ministers, disbursed support funds, and launched two schools: The Texas Mexican Industrial Institute for Boys in 1912, and the Presbyterian School for Mexican Girls in 1924. It also initiated a Spanish-speaking department at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Tommy himself is a graduate of Pan American Presbyterian School (Class of 1979), one of the PC(USA) racial-ethnic schools.

We can debate the wisdom of separate governing bodies. We can scrutinize whether they are separate and equal, or just divisive. But there is no doubt that Presbyterian energy for Hispanic ministry in Texas was strong during those years. Tommy wonders what happened to that initiative and vision? Despite our denomination’s talk about inclusion—even mandating Committees on Representation—change has been glacial, almost non-existent. While the culture continues to become more richly diverse, the PC(USA) remains over 90% white.

Perhaps, in reality, we have gone in reverse. Tommy points to the fact that in San Antonio alone, there used to be seven Hispanic Presbyterian Churches. Today, there are only two.

Tommy recently joined Northwood Presbyterian Church, San Antonio, one of a handful of Hispanic members. He sings in the choir and acts as the congregation’s liaison to Habitat for Humanity.  At a recent Men’s Breakfast, the guys were discussing a Presbyterians Today article about the interplay of faith and sports. Their dialogue veered to Colin Kaepernicks’s NFL protest actions, a conversation that led naturally to race relations in America. Tommy asked the all-white gathering some pointed questions about realities that he has personally experienced.

“Have you ever been profiled and pulled over for driving a nice car? Have you ever been refused service at a restaurant because of your skin color? Have you ever been followed in a store because they thought you might shoplift? Have people ever crossed the street because they saw you coming towards them?”

“I continue to be a hopeful presence,” Tommy says, “even though sometimes I feel like a stone in the river that others flow around. But, like that rock disrupting the course of the stream, I hope I will create a current that carves out a new landscape. One of God’s greatest creations, the Grand Canyon, formed from the rolling waters of the Colorado River. Change is inevitable and constant. Rather than fight it, let’s embrace a new future, one where humankind can see the Majesty in others that are not like them. A time when we truly realize that beauty comes in many colors and forms.”


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The Gunshots that Changed a Church (and Its Pastor!)

September, 2017. A typically busy morning on the campus of Divine Redeemer

Una Mesa Para La Gente, a mural of inclusive community partially painted by youth from Divine Redeemer

Presbyterian Church, San Antonio (DR), a congregation that has ministered to one of the poorest neighborhoods of its city for 100 years.

Pastor Rob Mueller and a church elder were clearing a stump to make way for a donated trailer. On the sidewalk, scores of people stood in line to receive a weekly donation of food.

Suddenly, kitty corner to all of them, shots rang out in the front yard of a home notorious for drug dealing. A gang leader from a nearby housing project fell dead with 15 bullet wounds. His assailant fled. All of it in broad daylight at 11 a.m.

“I had listened to neighbors’ descriptions of other shooting incidents,” says Mueller. “I had talked with youth about the pressure to join gangs. But when I became a witness to murder, something flipped in me.  I could no longer stay on the sidelines.  I had to figure out how to stop this.”

Mueller began to converse more intentionally with the church’s neighbors about drug trafficking in their midst. These residents knew the players—what they sold, when they sold it, and who was buying. But they hadn’t spoken up for fear of reprisal.

Experience is the greatest teacher. As Mueller thought about the statement he had given the police, fearful questions crept into his own mind and heart. What if the gang members returned to ambush him late at night as he left the church? What if they targeted the congregation in a coordinated attack?

Listening to their community has been a mainstay of DR’s ministry, but this was a new and gut-wrenching level of awareness. “I empathized with the fear that my neighbors feel all the time!” says Mueller.And yet we knew we had to find a solution together.”

The church and its neighbors agreed on a goal of shutting down a handful of known drug-dealing homes nearby. They began a process of engagement with local authorities. What they discovered was an array of resources they didn’t know existed. This was especially true with the city police department, which provided support through its San Antonio Fear Free Environment program, as well as two experts whose community organizing influence has helped other neighborhoods plagued by similar violence.

Together, DR and its neighbors have learned what it takes to build a case for change, not only marshaling available resources, but truly coming together as a community of witness. They are now in the process of vigilance, watching and cataloging the evidence they need to move forward. Their strategy is to collect information via neighbors, channel it through the church to protect them, and then slowly and deliberately, one by one, remove drug dealers from their area.

As for the murder? The victim, a young African-American man, becomes a grim statistic. According to detectives, the perpetrator fled to Mexico and may never be apprehended.

Yet the legacy of their violent altercation will live on in a positive, unexpected way. A sense of hope is rising in the neighborhood around DR. They are feeling their united strength, dreaming of a future when community children will not have to resist appeals to buy or sell drugs. A future when they will be free from bullying.

“We have finally begun to feel the power we actually have to transform what we previously considered an impenetrable force of evil,” says Mueller. “We now believe that together we can turn the tide from death to life.”

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Slaying the Two Goliaths

Did he write the words himself? Did he riff them from another source?istock_000001115184small_man_with_arms_raised

Some still wrangle these questions, but this much is true. In 1943, during some of the darkest days of WWII, Reinhold Niebuhr – pastor, theologian, seminary professor—concluded his sermon at a church in Heath, Massachusetts with these words. “God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Slightly altered…forever immortalized…this became The Serenity Prayer, one of the most recognized petitions on our planet.

We who find strength in Twelve Step fellowships will tell you this: putting flesh on this prayer is a daily discipline. We especially need courage to change our thinking about the two greatest killers of serenity: fear and resentment.

Meet the two Goliaths that threaten to undo us.

Fear, worry, anxiety: it’s a form of insanity too many of us indulge, whether it be fears about our health, our families, our finances, or any other shadows from the future. These fears range from irritants nibbling at the fringe of our consciousness to full blown obsessions. And if we are the fortunate ones who shoulder responsibility, we may justify our stress with the adage that “it’s a dirty job but somebody’s gotta do it.”

“Worry” comes from the Old English wyrgan, meaning “to strangle.” Could it be any clearer? The abundant flow of life, fully streaming in this moment, choked to a miserable dribble.

There’s a simple but eternal sentence spoken by Jesus in what we call his Sermon on the Mount. “Which one of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” The genius is in that word “hour.” Not years, months, even days. Our futile anxiety cannot add a single hour! As Jesus said, “Let those who have ears really hear.”

RESENTMENT, ANGER, UN-FORGIVENESS: they infuse our world with poison. “Resentment” comes from the Latin sentire, meaning “to feel.” So, at its root, resentment means to re-feel, re-experience, negative emotions from a prior wound. That injury may have come from a real transgression against us. It may simply be self-scarring from our prideful egos. It may be aimed at ourselves for chances missed, mistakes made. Whatever the object of this re-feeling, the result is cancerous.

HERE’S THE REASON FOR THIS POST. We must find ways to slay these two Goliaths on a daily basis. If you think of life (I HOPE YOU DO!) as learning to treasure every day, our fullness of life depends on this.

In Twelve Step groups, we speak of “a daily reprieve based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.” How do we claim this Cinderella liberty? DISCIPLINE. Mental, physical, and spiritual practices that help us banish fear and resentment. There are so many! Find one that works for you, like:

  • Meditation that allows this blessed moment to wash over us and cleanse us.
  • Daily gratitude, especially for past evidence that our Creator has brought us through trial after trial.
  • A crisp walk surrounded by the beauty of nature, glimpsing eternity and our humble place within it.
  • An act of love that transforms our self-indulgence into a blessing for others.
  • Forgiving and asking for forgiveness.

Do you have a discipline? If not, please find one. I am a man who squandered far too many years on fear and resentment. Let’s whisper this prayer together on our daily journeys…

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”


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Super Bowl Ad a Warning?

That damn Ram ad! Using some of MLK, Jr.’s most inspiring words about selflessness—borrowedRAM, MLK from Jesus—for promoting trucks “built to serve.”

I was immediately offended. And I wasn’t the only one. Angry tweets circled the globe.

“Black people can’t kneel and play football but MLK should be used to sell trucks during the Super Bowl? Unbelievable.” –  writer and comedian Akilah Hughes.

“MLK who died striking with workers decrying militarism & imperial war makers – used to sell shiny trucks with marching soldiers – corporate America NBC NFL should be ashamed.” -actor John Cusack

There were other shameless examples during the Super Bowl.

  • Toyota vaunting interfaith understanding by piling Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim clerics into one of their cars.
  • Monster headphones like a “Savior” that will turn your world from B&W to Technicolor.
  • Budweiser truly caring about clean water supplies in developing nations.
  • Hyundai so deeply concerned about victims of cancer.

Folks, this is nothing new.

27 years ago, in his book Wake Up, America, Tony Campolo warned of this trend—the selling of goods that supposedly satisfy our deepest needs. He mentioned ads that promised spiritual fulfillment, like one shot from an aerial view, panning across a throng of people gathered on a hill. They represent all races and colors of the world, joining hands and singing in a unity this planet has never seen. Was it a symbol of the Kingdom of God? Was it a call for racial reconciliation? No, it was a commercial for the Pepsi Generation. Similar soda ads ran during Super Bowl LII.

Corporate encroachment like this is so insidious. Campolo put it this way. “In our TV ads, it is as though the ecstasy of spirit experienced by a Saint Theresa or a St. Francis can be reduced to the gratification coming from a particular car, and the kind of love that Christ compared to His love for His church can be expressed by buying the right kind of wristwatch ‘for that special person in your life.’ In all this media hype, things are sold to us on the basis that our deepest emotional and psychological needs will be met by having the right consumer goods.”

The ultimate result of these ads is the tragic reverse of their promises. Materialism causes a decay of spiritual contentment. It increases our alienation from God and each other. Jesus knew this. It is why he said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Matthew 6:19-21

Maybe we really are living in that “inverted totalitarianism” that Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Presbyterian minister has pointed to for years. In his book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, written with Joe Sacco, he defines the term as “a system where corporations have corrupted and subverted democracy, and where economics trumps politics. Every natural resource and living being is commodified and exploited to the point of collapse, as the citizenry is lulled and manipulated into surrendering their liberties and their participation in government through excess consumerism and sensationalism.”

Wake up, America!

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When Sarah, Liz, and Their Daughter Joined Our Church…

When Sarah and Elizabeth Clapp considered joining Northwood Presbyterian Church Clapps(NPC) in San Antonio, Texas, Pastor Traci Smith knew the congregation would welcome them. The question was “how deeply?”

She decided to employ a simple exercise as the elders gathered for their monthly meeting. Share a story, she asked, about one person you know who is gay, and specifically tell us—if you know—about how other churches received them. The stories were diverse, and throughout all of them it became obvious that NPC’s leaders wanted to extend an unconditional welcome. It was a sacramental moment, illuminating the truth that listening is hospitality made flesh.

When the Clapps joined, they immediately experienced this inclusion. It was especially gratifying for Sarah, who grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition and attended a conservative non-denominational Christian school for 13 years. She looks back on that time with mixed emotions.

“There are so many negative things I could say. They were hypocritical, judgmental, rich, white, ‘know-it-all’ Christians. But there were also many positives. That school grounded me in my faith. I received an in-depth micro-seminary education. They gave me questions without easy answers. They taught me to think for myself and to have my own relationship with our Creator.  They showed me how to incorporate spirituality into my daily life.  All this was extremely important during a formative period in my life, ensuring that I had a solid foundation for my faith.”

Those benefits, however, were ultimately outweighed by the fact that Sarah could never fully be herself. Further, she saw the tragedy of students expelled for openly declaring their sexual orientation. Later, she and Elizabeth experienced this same exclusivity at other churches, where they were barred from working with children and found closed doors when it came to positions of meaningful leadership.

In a testimony to the strength of her spirit, Sarah says, “All that judgment and rejection didn’t shake my faith, just my faith in people.”

Everything changed when they came to NPC.

“Everyone here was willing to listen to the fullness of our stories, and the acceptance has been like coming home. We have had people say to us, ‘I wasn’t sure about where I stood on marriage equality, but after experiencing it with you and Elizabeth, I have come to embrace it, and now I am sharing the message with my friends.’”

Since joining NPC, the Clapps have celebrated the baptism of their daughter, Samantha, and Sarah’s ordination as a Ruling Elder. She is now leading the Membership and Evangelism Team, strategizing ways to welcome all people into a community of love and acceptance. She is spearheading the effort to bring Jennifer Knapp to NPC, the Christian recording artist who came out as lesbian and now has a touring ministry called Inside Out Faith. Its mission is to “actively engage faith communities in order to educate, affirm and foster support of LGBTQ persons and their allies.”

Sarah remains grateful for the community of faith their family has found at NPC, and the ministry of witness it provides.

“The longer we are here,” she says, “the more we see how our continual presence is working its way through the hearts of so many people.”

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My Faith Boiled down to One Word

Excuse my simplicity, but this is what I believe.

After all the clashing of religious truths, after the endless verbiage of theologians, and at the end of every spiritual quest, there are three immortal words spoken by the Apostle John: “God is love.”

Could it really be this simple? Yes! Love. But what kind of love? We see romantic love, 26993637_1752941528069796_2062889683675727005_n love of Self, love of money, love of power, love of our own family, tribe, or political party at the exclusion of others. In February, a month equated with love, it behooves us to recall some words from the New Testament, that collection of writings that rise like a hymn of God’s love sung to all of us.

The first were spoken by Jesus, part of the accumulated sayings we call The Sermon on the Mount. I have chosen Eugene Peterson’s The Message version because of its bold freshness.

       You’re familiar with the old written law, “Love your friend,” and its unwritten companion, “Hate your enemy.” I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
           In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” – Matthew 5:43-48

The second selection is from the Apostle Paul, a man who “breathed hatred” towards Jesus’ followers, then had a conversion so dramatic that he climbed what I call the Everest of Love. From that lofty vantage point, he wrote the timeless words of I Corinthians 13, a Himalayan peak of world literature. Here are a few of its verses, again from The Messageso applicable to our lives today!

     If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.  If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
      Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “Me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel. Love takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best. Love never looks back, but keeps going to the end.

I pray that the depth and quality of our love for all people will grow, not only this month of February 2018, but throughout our allotted days. God is love and love is our highest calling.











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Danger or Opportunity? You Decide…

A jailhouse tattoo on the forearm of a San Quentin inmate: that’s when I first saw theChineseSymbol word. We were in a visiting room, seated under harsh fluorescent light as I interviewed him for an article.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It’s the Chinese character for crisis,” he said, “but it’s made up of two symbols, one meaning danger, the other opportunity.”

“Why did you put it there?” I asked.

His smile said, I was hoping you’d ask.

“Because the events that led to my incarceration, along with the danger in a place like this, actually gave me the opportunity to turn my life around.”

Since then I’ve learned that this translation of  危机, wēijī, is incorrect. But the cultural trope remains, especially in America, popularized in speeches by John F. Kennedy, Condoleeza Rice, Al Gore, and scores of motivational speakers.

On New Year’s Eve, 2017, I thought of wēijī as a loved one said to me, “Krin, I want to talk with you about my crisis of faith.”

Nothing stirs me more than discussing spiritual matters. These are messages from the deepest fronts of our Selves, struggles that reflect the essence of why we are created. I was all ears.

She told me that she is increasingly skeptical of her traditional Christianity. It began with simple questions about other religions. How could she claim that hers was the only valid path, especially when she saw that happenstance of birth and culture clearly mold our beliefs?

Her thinking crystallized after she saw The Book of Mormon. She considered the fantasies of that faith: a soothsayer translating golden plates, Jesus appearing to Mesoamericans after his resurrection, a lost tribe of Israel that flourished in North America but left no shred of archaeological evidence.

“How can people believe such bizarre events?” she said with a laugh. “Then I thought about my own tradition with Jesus: a virgin birth, miracles like walking on water, the supposed need for blood shedding, resurrection from the dead.”

When I asked why she used the word crisis, she talked about the shifting ground beneath her feet, the potential judgement of others, her anxiety about the future. Would faith remain in any form at all?

When she was finished, I recalled some words from the late James Fowler: “When we are grasped by the vision of a center of value and power more luminous, more inclusive and truer than that to which we are devoted, we initially experience the new as the enemy or the slayer—that which destroys our ‘god.’”

Then I shared my journey, one human being to another. I talked about my grasp of Fowler’s Stages of Faith, especially the movement from 3 to 4. It’s a time to emerge from the spoon-fed acculturation of family and nation. A time to step outside our boxes and see the beauty of other beliefs. A time of both/and, not either/or. A time of release from the creeds and doctrines that too often calcify our brains and spiritual development. A time to join the pilgrimage of all people in our common humanity. This is the ancient way mentioned in Psalm 139:24 of the Hebrews.

“I deeply admire your courage,” I told her. “And I believe that what you label a crisis is actually a beautiful opportunity. It’s a calling to experience the universal love that lights the path of all our journeys. Let’s keep talking. I, and countless others, are with you!”

On the cusp of a new year, what a joy to be part of this birthing!