Reimagining Religious Spaces

I had the privilege of facilitating a virtual convening of over 20 clergy last week on the topic of “Reimagining Religious Spaces” (RRS). The culmination of the event was to brainstorm and further elaborate potential solutions that could help churches overcome barriers to the opportunities of RRS. The focus was to identify missing tools, processes, or technologies that could elevate the entire RRS field to be more effective and efficient. Ideas included: Trusted Resource Guide, Process/Field Guide, Shared Resource Pool, Streamlined Process for Pre-development, and the development of a Metropolitan/Regional-level Planning Model.  For a summary of the event, including general findings, opportunities, barriers, and potential solutions, see:   Posted Today, April 21

The Power of Data to Understand Your City

It is exciting to see God moving through the Church and fanning the flames of city transformation. Historians have documented many Church movements throughout the last 2000 years, so what makes this time special? Perhaps most obvious is that WE are called to participate in THIS movement. Now is our time to answer God’s call to participate in his restoration and redemption of that which was lost. Second, for better or worse, we live in the information age where electrons are overflowing on webpages, social media sites, emails, and databases. How can we tap into the electronic feast we have at our disposal to participate in God’s movement of city transformation?

Read full article at: 

Gun debate lies, damned lies, and statistics

After another horrendous mass shooting I am taking time to pray and send “thoughts and prayers”. I have mourned. As a Christian, I believe in the power and necessity of these responses. However, many people are seeing through the smoke screen that politicians and others are throwing up when they project  their private “thoughts and prayers” and turn them into a public excuse for the status quo when it comes to mass shootings and gun policy in general.

I’ve been living and breathing statistics and data for several years, so my initial inclination with any debate is to look at the data. There is plenty of data that points to probable root causes for mass shootings, but I want to address a specific counter-argument that you will likely hear from gun-proponents. The argument is simple but flawed: “Yes, the U.S has more mass shootings, but that is because our population is higher. If you look at the per capita statistics, we actually have LESS mass shootings!”  The New York Times article referenced above points out a 2016 study that presents the argument in a book-length treatment.

I’m not a statistics expert, so I won’t even try for a technical discussion of the flaws in this counter-argument. Instead, I offer a simple explanation and an analogy:

  1. The per captia statistics show that Norway has the highest per capita death rate due to mass shootings. Numerous other predominately small countries (like Switzerland and Finland) also have higher per capita death rates than the US.  However, those who throw these statistics around are ignoring important statistical concepts like sample size and outliers. For the most part, these small countries only have had one mass shooting event during the study period and should probably be considered outliers since they do not fit into a pattern consistent with the rest of the data (which would be zero mass shooting deaths). In other words, these are isolated events that throw off the statistics, not statistics that point to a pattern. Even if you don’t buy my simplistic statistical explanation above, think about an analogy instead:
  2. Imagine two companies: Company A has 10,000 employees, but has a layoff every year in which 100 employees (give or take) are let go. They have done this every year for 10 years.  Company B has only 100 employees, almost never has layoffs, but had to lay off 20 people once about 5 year ago because of hard economic times. Company B has since recovered and both companies are actually doing fine, even though Company A continues its yearly layoff to “right-size” and “realign” to changing market condition. Over a 10 year period, Company A’s lay off rate is only 0.1 layoffs per employee. Company B on the other hand, has had 0.2 layoffs per employee during the same time period. Obviously, Company B has more layoffs (“per capita”) than Company A, right?  NOT SO FAST YOU SAY? Which company would you feel “safer” at? Which company has a culture that includes regular layoffs? Which company would you expect to try harder to protect your job? Which company appears to treat its employees more like expendable human “capital” than people?

We can see through this analogy that “per capita” gun statistics may actually be misleading because they obfuscate patterns of behavior (what some may term “culture”) that may point to the real source of the problem.




Portland’s Ring of Affluent Whiteness – The Stories that Data Tell

As I’ve been preparing for my workshop at the CCDA conference this October in Detroit (“How Boring Data can be Exciting, Troubling, and Action-oriented”), I’m reminded again of the importance of searching and digging for truth. Sure, I can keep my blinders on and just enjoy the trendy coffee shops, restaurants, bike share bikes, and public transportation of my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I sort of fit in: I make my own kombucha and abhor Starbucks, but lack the requisite long beard and tattoos. What is missing as I bike and walk and take the light-rail through Portland enjoying the summer neighborhood scenes? What is missing if I simply hang out with people who look and act like me? What is missing as I run into fewer and fewer Portlanders who have lived here longer than 5 or 10 years?  Story and context are missing, and without this, we can’t truly engage with our community.

Of course, looking at data doesn’t replace the need for relationship and personal connection. The data isn’t the story, but it can uncover and illuminate a story. And often that story is hidden from the collective consciousness of current residents, so even walking the streets and talking to people (a valuable and irreplaceable activity) won’t uncover the story that may be lurking below the surface.

For example, take a look at figure 1 below which shows the dispersal of those in poverty from the central city of Portland in 1990 to East Portland in 2015 (darker colors indicate higher levels of poverty). What is going on?

figure 1

Figure 1: Dispersal of those in poverty from central city to deep east Portland, 1990 to 2015

Figure 2 below provides more clues as we see that Portland’s already small African-American population in 1990 was displaced from inner Portland neighborhoods, with no majority black neighborhoods remaining in 2015 (darker colors indicate higher percentage of Black residents).

figure 2

Figure 2: Displacement of Portland’s African American population from 1990 to 2015

And finally, figure 3 below shows us that since 1990, immigrants have been coming to Portland, but settling in the outer suburbs (darker colors indicate higher percentages of immigrant residents).

figure 3

Figure 3: Immigrants forced to settle in Portland’s outer suburbs 1990 – 2015.

Portland’s Ring of Affluent Whiteness

The result? A literal “ring of affluent whiteness” in Portland’s most popular, geographically central, amenity-rich neighborhoods.  However, the changes you can literally see in the maps above are hidden from the casual observer. Some may ask, “so what”? Perhaps people are just living where they want to live, and who’s to say living in a central neighborhood is more desirable than living in an outer suburb?  One way to approach this question of desirability is to look at relative access to amenities such as public transportation, grocery stores, and parks.  Figure 4 below shows the loss of amenities very clearly as you move from central Portland (the “ring of affluent whiteness”) to East Portland.

figure 4

Figure 4: The loss of amenities from Central Portland to East Portland.

Do your own research!

The good news is that data is plentiful and with a little bit of work, you can start putting your city’s story together. For an overview of a variety of data bases, including those used above, check out the database summaries I’ve prepared to help you do your own detective work. As mentioned above, the data isn’t the whole story, but it can help provide context and uncover trends that remain hidden from those who don’t dig.

Sinister calls for unity?

During times of turmoil, calls for unity are predictable, laudable, and sometimes sinister. The ugly specter of white supremacy in Charlottesville, protests and counter-protests that have turned violent, violence by and against police, a bitter presidential election, an increasingly polarized nation…we all say “ENOUGH!” People of good faith are understandably yearning for peace and unity. However, calls for unity are at times simply a lazy response to evil that we refuse to address. Even worse, these seemingly holy calls for unity could be tools to perpetuate and further obscure injustice.

Two examples occurred at a recent presidential campaign rally in Arizona. Court evangelical Franklin Graham opened the rally with a prayer in which he asked God to shut the mouths of those who look to divide with calls for unity. Who was he referring to? The response of the crowd at this point in his prayer (cheering and applause) leads me to believe he was referring not only to the white supremacists but to the hated “leftist” counter-protesters. The President has certainly made it clear that he considers both sides guilty of causing division and violence, so it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume the same sentiment in Mr. Graham’s prayer. Ben Carson’s speech at the same rally is even more direct: “The purveyors of hatred and division, they want to divide us on the basis of race, income, age and religion. But you know what? We are much too smart to fall for that garbage!”

Both Graham and Carson are engaging in a covert attack on what the right has labeled as “identity politics”, the source, presumably, of increasing division in America. I am not interested in defending identity politics, which like all political positions, is flawed and needs to be transcended. The problem with these attacks and simplistic pleas for unity is that they fail to acknowledge the injustices that are somewhere at the bottom of the pile*. It is like blaming researchers for discovering new diseases that we keep catching, blaming doctors for diagnosing those diseases, instead of wondering what is causing the diseases in the first place.

We’ve seen this many times throughout history, from those more interested in preserving or restoring a privileged status rather than addressing evil head on.  In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. expressed his greatest disappointment not towards KKK members, but the white moderate “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Indeed, labeled a “rabble-rouser” and “outside agitator”, MLK was certainly not considered by these white moderates as a purveyor of unity.  One can imagine earthly prayers in many a church during this time against “rabble-rousers who look to divide”, rather than heavenly prayers against the endemic racism and discrimination of the time.

In similar manner, many thousands of years ago the prophet Jeremiah witnessed the establishment prophets ignore evil and “dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious” and proclaim “‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14). The prophets and the king at this time were far more interested in preserving national unity than in confronting injustice. They attacked Jeremiah the messenger and accused him of fomenting division and confusion, completely missing the real source of trouble. Sound familiar?  

We can’t give up on peace and unity, but let’s stop waving it around like a magical wand, hoping that the real sources of conflict will just evaporate. We must also completely oppose any form of violence in protests or counter-protests.  However, instead of labeling people or groups as discontents and dividers, let’s do the hard work of addressing the rampant inequality and inequity that still plagues our great, but beleaguered country.


* note that evangelicals typically point to “sin in the human heart” as the ultimate cause for what ails our country. I cautiously agree with this, but not to the point of ignoring structural/systematic sin and simply pinning the blame on corrupt individuals.


What drives your opinions and views?

I’ve been grappling with what is just and right in today’s politically charged, polarizing environment. On what basis do I judge laws, policies, or political leaders? In other words, what value do I hold highest? Safety and prosperity for me, my family, my country? Tolerance and diversity? Protection of my way of life and my beliefs?  Maximizing personal choice and liberty? Protecting the environment? Equality of outcomes or equality of opportunity? America first or one world? Well-meaning people can and do hold all of the above as supremely important. Reflecting on values can help us understand our own positions better and engage in more constructive dialog with others. Perhaps you’ll even come to change your positions when you uncover the values beneath them!

Based on my interpretation of my own faith tradition (the way of Jesus), the most important question I can ask of a law or policy is “What is the effect on the most vulnerable, the marginalized, the poor? Are they more likely to thrive, or more likely to suffer?” This is how I’m called to determine what is just and right. This “preferential option for the poor” has its modern roots in Latin American liberation theology, with deeper theological roots, but I would contend that simply looking at the life of Jesus reveals his special concern for the poor. Evangelicals typically react by spiritualizing poverty with theological debate on the nature of the gospel. However, my argument here is not theological. Instead, I view a preferential option for the poor as a value-driven approach to think about and engage in debate on national policies such as health care, welfare, and immigration, as well as local issues from school bonds to economic development.

For example, the ongoing debate on health care in the U.S raises a host of issues, but beneath the health care debate are values that drive people in one direction or another. Regardless of your political affiliation, what concerns do you have with the various legislative proposals to fix our health care system, and what values do you hold that are driving those concerns? You’ll almost never see this level of reflection in Facebook debate, and it is often missing from published articles.  For example, if my highest value is freedom of choice, I will support a drastically different health care fix than if my supreme value is improving the lot of the poor and vulnerable.

Another example: publicly funded college tuition for the poor. Is your first thought “who pays for this?” or “is it fair and who loses out by giving the poor easier access?” Or do you view it as a good way to give the poor access to something they otherwise wouldn’t have? Again, your core values will dictate your response and how you analyze the implications.

What core value do you use to judge what is just and right? You may even be surprised to find that what value you THOUGHT was important to you, really isn’t, based on your actual positions…


Sunset at the end of the world

Tonight I experienced the beauty of a sunset at the end of the world (well, at the end of Oregon Hwy 131 in Oceanside). It wasn’t the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen, but I was drawn to leave my comfortable room and experience it nonetheless. People from all walks of life were scurrying to gain a view, some alone, others with lovers or friends, some with children in tow. Why are we drawn to sunsets and other things of beauty? Sure, sometimes it may be for self-serving reasons: to boast or post about what we’ve seen, or maybe a nervous chap looking for that perfect moment to pop the big question. But we’ve all felt that draw, if we slow down enough, to just BE in the presence of beauty. And this is a good thing, something that I believe God put into our hearts which is a marker of His nature.

sunset at end of the world

I  found myself thinking about other things that humans seem drawn to – some good, but others not so good. We all love peace, and comfort, and security.  Things like fairness and justice also draw us – but here we find that others may not agree with us on  exactly what is fair or just in a particular circumstance. And we are drawn to dark things as well: slowing down for an accident to witness tragedy at a safe distance, or greed, envy, lust, and a thousand other things that may lift us up at the expense of others. I can be drawn just as easily to the beauty of a sunset or a desire for revenge.

The moral of my musings at the end of the world? Nothing grand or book-worthy, but simply a reminder to myself that I am in need of restoration. We can’t trust all of our desires and longings (some would say we can’t trust any of them, but I’m not that pessimistic). I need to be reminded that there is good, and there is evil, and without God leading and continually remaking me, I can be drawn to one just as easily as the other.

Proud to be an American (in an age of mass migration)?

What does it mean to be an American when over one quarter of our population comprise immigrants and their U.S-born children? Is it still American to follow the Statue of Liberty’s call to provide shelter and comfort to “the homeless and tempest-tossed” in a world with record numbers of over 50 million displaced peoples? In the immigration debate, some focus on the economic impact, national security concerns, cultural unity and integrity, or humanitarian/theological arguments. My concern in this post is with the American identity and its relationship to the ethnic identities of US immigrants. Do we need to defend “American identity” against change and encroachment? Is our identity already sullied and in need of restoration to some purer past?

In contrast to such nativist positions, I argue that the American identity does not have a singular historical source, but has emerged as a complex convergence of many characteristics, with two-way flows between “American” and “ethnic” identities. In this convergence view, immigrants are not simply Americanized. Instead they help produce an ever evolving set of identifies from existing parts of current American culture, some positive, some negative, that together are rightfully called “American”.

For those who bemoan the current modern resurgence of nativist views, a look back at US immigration history shows that this is unfortunately not a unique occurrence. Examples of racist protectionist policies from our past include: 1) The self-explanatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, passed just four years before the Statue of Liberty become our most famous immigrant. 2) Country quotas passed in 1924 to limit immigration from “undesirables” such as the Jews and Italians. 3) The deportation of Mexican-Americans in the early 1930s when the Great Depression meant their labor was no longer needed. 4) Various English-only ordinances in more modern times including a 1980 Dade Country, Florida anti-bilingual ordinance that was later repealed.

Further examination of American immigration history quickly dispels the myths behind the nativist position. First, there is no “pure American” past to draw on. The closest may be Protestants from the British Isles, but this ignores the ethnic and national variety of early colonists, not to mention the Native Americans and African slaves that are conveniently left out of traditional conceptions of the “pure American.”

Second, the concept of “American” has shifted over time as previously excluded groups are now accepted as Americans. For example, the great wave of immigration in the 19th and early 20th century brought Jews and Italians, and various Eastern and Southern Europeans who at the time were considered distinct races, but through boundary shifting are now considered “white Americans.”

If there is no pure American past to reclaim, and the boundaries of what is considered American have changed, our original question of “what does it mean to be American in an age of mass migration”, becomes even more perplexing.

The convergence view rejects traditional views of immigrant assimilation that view it as a one-way process of change in which the minority culture disappears and immigrants are mainstreamed into white, middle-class America. Instead, the “new assimilation” view recognizes the socially constructed nature of race and ethnicity that changes over time as well as variations within mainstream American culture that make identifying a core culture impossible. Further, the new assimilation view recognizes that both immigrant and host cultures interact as boundaries between what is considered “American” and “ethnic” blur or shift.

This view has significant implications for our identity as Americans and the role of immigration in group identity formation. First, language is often used as a metric to gauge how quickly an immigrant or immigrant community is Americanizing. Nativists fear that without adequate pressure, growing numbers of immigrants will continue to use their native languages and somehow dilute the unity and strength of America.  Calls for English-only laws do not recognize the significant socio-economic barriers immigrants experience due to their lack of English-language skills, barriers that immigrants are well aware of. The reality is that most first generation adult immigrants will struggle to learn a new language and never achieve proficiency.  However, research indicates that their children achieve very high levels of English language proficiency, and that by the third-generation the vast majority are in English-only households. We must continue to encourage English-language instruction, but rather than foment unfounded fears of a bi-lingual or multi-lingual country, we should actually provide select information and services in immigrant-languages to enable adult immigrants to achieve higher socio-economic status, accelerating their economic contributions and participation in civic life.

Second, the convergence view does not fear the presence of strong ethnic communities and immigrant culture within America, and in fact encourages it. Researchers have shown immigrant social mobility can actually be sped up in the presence of strong co-ethnic communities, by providing connections to jobs, housing and various services, as well as general support and encouragement in the face of prejudice and discrimination. Given that immigrants are generally more religious than native-born Americans, their co-ethnic communities are often centered around faith-communities. By continuing to celebrate their ethnicity within a familiar religious context, recent immigrants can not only more quickly heal from the shock of being transplanted, but experience increase civic engagement within the institutional cover of their church or faith-community.

Finally, while nativists often lambast critical views of America as “unpatriotic”, honest assessments of American culture will quickly identify negative elements that immigrants, particularly immigrant parents, view as something to protect their children from. For example, researchers have identified “selective acculturation” behaviors whereby immigrant parents seek to balance expanded opportunities for their children in education and the labor market with what they consider negative aspects of American culture such as disrespect for authority and intense sexualization. A study of immigrant youth in Miami revealed that as immigrants are “socialized” to the US, they become less committed to church, more like the native-born population in this regards.

Research has shown that children of immigrants who maintain a strong desire to please their parents and focus on education are more likely to succeed than those children who embrace “American” values of individual freedom and self-satisfaction.

So perhaps what we really want is for these children of immigrants to be less American!

Delving further, we begin to scrape at the dark underbelly of American mythology, the American Dream. This cherished narrative tells us that anybody can make it with hard work and determination. There are enough examples of immigrants and native minorities who have “made it” to fuel the fiction that there are no longer structural barriers such as racism, discrimination, and segregation that in fact relegate most immigrants and native minorities to “second class” status. Particularly in cases where strong co-ethnic communities are not available, darker-skinned immigrants often assimilate not into middle-class white America, but into working class or impoverished minority status. These immigrants experience segregation and discrimination, along with lower educational and economic outcomes in contrast to the “America” we believe everybody can achieve. Latinos join African Americans, as well, in being disproportionately captured by the American criminal justice system.  It should be obvious that these are systemic barriers that need to be expunged from the “America” we are expecting immigrants to assimilate into.

This article has uncovered the complexity in the concept of “Americanization”, exposing the fallacies of nativists views that call for rapid assimilation into a presumed static, “pure American” identity.  Ethnic identities have become part of what it means to be American, with two-way flows between the “ethnic” and the “American”. In many cases, this interaction exposes weaknesses and flaws in American culture, offering America with much needed perspective and insight. Rather than fearing immigrants and the cultures they bring with them, we see them as a positive, strengthening force that should be welcomed and encouraged. In this way, the notion of the American identity will be refined and improved, and yes, changed over time.

A Lame Biblical Excuse to Ignore Poverty

I have heard it, and so have you. Maybe you’ve thought it or said it: “Didn’t Jesus say that the poor will always be with us? So why try so hard to fight against poverty? Isn’t it just a loosing battle?” I’ve been chewing on this for a couple of days, and just found an excellent article by Bryant Myers (author of “Walking with the Poor” a highly recommended book) on this very topic. I encourage you to read it, but I’ll summarize it here and offer a couple of comments.

First, yes Jesus said something along these lines in Mark 14:7 (as well as John 12:8 and Matthew 26:11). In context, the disciples set-up a false dichotomy: they were upset at an extravagant offering of perfume which was related to Jesus’ imminent death and burial. They felt that the money would have been better used to help feed the poor. From Jesus’ reaction, it looks like the disciples were more interested in shaming the women than they were in really helping the poor.

But Jesus took their sinful attitudes and turned it into a teaching moment. He said that the woman’s act of extravagant worship was a good thing because it was offered with pure motives in a genuine attitude of worship. So Jesus was setting priorities straight: God first, everything else second. Even our dedication to social justice and healing the hurts of the poor can become an idol, if we forget about God in the process. It is said that somebody asked Mother Theresa why she was called to serve the poor. She replied that she was not following the poor. She was called to follow Jesus, and she was simply following Him to the poor.

Another important element of these words of Jesus is that they are quoted from Deuteronomy 15:11. If you read that chapter, you will see that the whole point is that we need to be generous and open-handed toward the poor, because poverty is not something in God’s original design. There is no indication in this passage that God is somehow reducing the pressure on His people to care for the poor. Quite the opposite!

So will the poor always be with us like Jesus said? Unfortunately, because of sin in the world, I think the answer to this is “yes”. But there is coming a day when God’s Kingdom will be fully here, and on that day I can confidently say that there will be no more poverty. Until then, we are called to follow God, and follow His leading in caring for the poor and working with Him in redeeming and restoring all of creation to God’s ultimate, perfect design.

Am I willing to hug?

From a few years back…

Yesterday I had a chance to join a friend here in Portland who goes out every Saturday with a homemade lunch and feeds some of the many homeless in Portland. His operation is mobile, they go where some of the more destitute and immobile are encamped in parks, on sidewalks, in cul-de-sacs. Some would say that simply giving food to the homeless perpetuates and creates dependency. In general I agree with this view.

However, I saw how homemade sloppy joes, chips, oranges, cookies, and water can create and sustain connection. These are people who have lost all connection with the mainstream world, and the connections that are nurtured with food and drink are life sustaining and generative (for both the “givers” and the “receivers”). In some cases these relationships have developed to the point of walking alongside people into rehab and church.

I was most struck by seeing my friend vigorously hug some of the folks that he’s seen for many, many months. Not an awkward handshake or man-hug, but a full on hug of joy at seeing one another. I’m reminded of Jesus who also was not afraid to touch and reach out to people, even those with horrible skin diseases. I was ashamed.

I’m willing to serve the poor, and study poverty, and work on dismantling systems of oppression, but am I willing to HUG?