Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Theology & North Tulsa sermon: Into a Wilderness

This past Sunday I preached a surprising second time, filling in for a sick colleague at the last minute. I decided rather than using a "canned" sermon, or doing a general call and response question and answer sermon box sermon which I have used on such occasions, I decided to keep to the already arrived upon sermon title and the responsive reading, and preach on what they stirred in me, on what another colleague calls 'the burr under your saddle" which in recent days due to a surge in drive by killings in north Tulsa has been our area and the calling to live and serve here. Again what follows after you click below is the text from which the sermon was preached, not the actual delivery itself.

Into a Wilderness, Rev. Ron Robinson
Reading: The parable of the mustard seed, commentary by Brandon Scott---
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
According to the custom and law of the time, when the mustard seed is planted, it is important that is not be commingled; that it be in its proper place. The basic rule is simple; maintain order and separation, keep plants in their proper place. and do not mix them. Keep like things separate. Normally mustard is to be sown in small patches and at the edges of a field. In addition, since mustard tends to run wild when sown, it would soon move into the wheat and even more confuse what should be distinct. By planting the seed in a garden, the person has risked breaking the (Deuteronomic) law of diverse kinds by mixing what should not be mixed, creating the garden as an unclean spirit. (For Jesus) the kingdom is associated with uncleanness just as Jesus himself associates with the unclean, the outcast. (From excerpts from Hear Then The Parable). The Responsive Reading was from Walt Whitman's Song of the Open Road.

Sermon: Into A Wilderness

I get the sentiment behind Walt Whitman’s song of the open road, the call of the wild, the urging not to live lives of complacency and conformity, but I admit it strikes a tone a bit too idealistic, a little too optimistic about the beckoning wilderness for my soul these days. Maybe it comes from being a native and returning resident these past few years of the wilderness known as North Tulsa. Lately these past few weeks we have been in one of those drive-by surges of shootings and killings that give our general area its bad rep, Living in the Turley part of North Tulsa, outside the political boundaries of the city limits but contiguous with it, sometimes we are at pains to talk about how different we are from North Tulsa, and how safe we feel, how we are rural and small town as well as urban, and this is true; and yet it is a pretty unbroken line that connects us whatever the politically drawn lines of incorporation are; the school includes city and non-city parts; we shop, work, go to church in the area together. So, at times when some folks in Turley like to distinquish themselves from north Tulsa, especially at times such as these, I tend to go the opposite direction and talk about our commonalities, our unified destiny.

And sometimes I think too I feel sort of how the indigenous American Indian people must have felt who made their home, happily, for generations, in what others, from outside the area, called “the wilderness.” It is just home to us. Where the shootings happen isn’t north Tulsa as much as where so-and-so lives, or so-and-so sends their kids to day camp.

Wilderness, like the frontier, is a powerful word, powerful symbol. Traditionally, it has been connected with individualism; man vs. nature, one of the great plots I was taught, and like Huck Finn at the end “lighting out for the territory ahead’ leaving civilization and the Aunt Sallys of the world behind. Our Unitarian church historian Conrad Wright, professor emeritus at Harvard, has even written of how the second-and-third generation movement of colonials out of their Puritan compounds, say in the 1670s, out to their own plots of land, actually created the sense of the rugged individual that became known as the American; and in fact, he says, it was this sense of the individual that gave rise to the religious liberal spirit, and a century later, to political liberalism and democracy.

In some sense, wilderness as seen as that kind of place that is a little chaotic, where people don’t settle or feel settled but uprooted, like the ancient Hebrews wandering in the desert wilderness in the biblical story, that kind of sense is all about us today, and it too isn’t something that one yearns for, goes in search of. It’s not like we have to be on the move to feel unsettled; life will do that on its own.

We have a love-hate relationship with wild places; we are taming them as fast as we can, or keeping them in set-aside spaces, but we are finding that even as we destroy our actual wild places, so that the wild animals don’t have a natural place to be, that they are, lo and behold, coming back into our cul-de-sacs. So it is with all of life’s wilderness. What we turn our backs on will turn us around to face it.

It reminds me of how the transformative Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. was changed from a sanctuary into a place of mission after a gangfight spilled over into its church aisles one Sunday morning. You can’t segregate wilderness of any kind. If it is the natural world, or if it is a wilderness of crime, or sickness of the mind, heart, body, and soul, especially addictions and materialism; whatever you seek to ignore or repress will find you and your communities.

Again, I wonder if calling something wilderness doesn’t allow us to put it out of sight and mind.
I’ve been thinking of this as we have had a year full of community forums and partnerships in our area of north Tulsa with the aid of the OU Dept. of Social Work. One of the things we have learned is that if we let a place such as north Tulsa be known in the public’s mind as only a kind of wilderness, then others tend to leave it alone and let it be, perhaps from not knowing how to interact comfortably with other cultures, but all which is still a convenient excuse especially given the historical ways of abuse and neglect by others that caused it to be considered wild in the first place. Anxious and uncomfortable connecting with others is better than nothing.

This past year in our work together since we opened our A Third Place community center, we discovered the great power that comes not in focusing on statistics, which are dire indeed, or on focusing on the stereotypes, of which there are many, but instead focusing on the strengths inherent in the people and the place, all people, anyone, and focusing on the stories and the spirit that sustain the people and give them hope and pull them into community and a spirit of abundance despite their own skepticism.

A glance at a few of our statistics for the area in a two mile radius of our center, our service area, can get people into despair and a scarcity sense, feeling as if we don’t have enough of this or that and never will, Here are a few of the statistics about the place we live and work and do church, from a study done a few months ago:
Within a two mile radius, live 12,464 persons, a decrease of 3.6 percent since 1990--at the same time the national average grew by 21 percent. We are projected to continue decreasing between now and 2013 by another 4.5 percent while the national population is projected to grow another 4.6 percent. 52.9 percent women; 47.1 percent men.

(But if gas prices soar, if the real estate market busts, if younger families decide to live in areas of high diversity and greater neighborhood density and get out of or stay out of debt instead of sinking into more debt, and if the yearning for a little land without the kind of city restrictions on it, and if cultural creatives look for ways to make moral investments with their money and lives and create workplaces inexpensively…..)

Racial/Ethnic Diversity (High): We have a very higher than national average racial/ethnic diversity with whites at 21.4 percent, and African Americans at 66.6 percent and all others at another 12 percent (Native American 4.1, other races and multiple races 4.3, Hispanic 2.7). Hispanics are projected to be the fastest growing group in our area between now and 2013, increasing their numbers by 20.3 percent to be 3.5 percent.

(wonderful to see our church building turned into a community building reflect this diversity, with friendships being made across racial and ethnic lines in ways that wasn’t being done when we had a typical church space…always more to be done; we think more partnering with Restoration will help us both, and working even more with the elementary school and the local park center which also reflects this diversity…)

Family structures: Defined as “extremely non-traditional” due to small number of married and two-parent families. We have much higher than the national average of singles who have never married, and of divorced and widowed. Marital status of all persons over 15--45.2 percent married, 32.9 percent never married, 21.9 percent divorced/widowed. Of households with children 0-18, 49.3 percent have female head of household, 41.9 percent married couple head of household, 7.7 percent male head of household, and 1 percent non-family head of household.

Education Attained (Low): College graduates account for 7.1 percent of those over 25 years old, compared to 24.4 percent in the nation. High School graduate 37.4, some college 21.7, some high school 21.2, less than 9th grade 6.8, associate degree 5.7, bachelors 5.0, graduate, 2.1.


Household Concerns That show Up Higher than National Average: finding spiritual teaching, neighborhood gangs, racial/ethnic prejudice, finding a good church, neighborhood crime and safety, and alcohol/drug abuse.

Income: The average household income (roughly half national average): Now $35,233 per year, compared to national average of $66,670. Per capita income (and remember that our area has an unusually high number of singles and single-parent families) is $12,229. Households by Poverty Status (in 2000 for family of 4 this was $17,603): 21.7% of those under 65 below poverty line, 2.8% above 65yo below poverty line. Totals 24.5% or nearly a quarter of residents in two mile radius.

Employment (unemployment double national average): We have a much higher than the national average of blue collar workers, especially of laborers, and we have an unemployment rate of 7.2 percent compared to the 3.7 percent national average--we have in our two mile area 9,200 people over age 15, and of those 53.9 percent are employed, 7.2 percent are unemployed, and 38.9 percent are not in the labor force. Of the unemployed who have children, we have 1.5 percent compared to the national average in this situation of 0.3 percent.

Vacant Units by Type: A much higher than national average presence of vacant housing units (not including vacant business units). 40.5 percent of vacant housing units are not for rent or sale, 32.7% for rent, 26.8% for sale.

Owner-occupied Property Values: 22.4% under $25,000 (compared to national average of 2.4%), 53.5% between $25-49,999 (7.5 national). So almost 80 percent of housing under $50,000 value (10% national). 16.9 percent 50-74,999, 4.0 75-99,999, 2.1 100-149,000, 1.0 150-199,999. Median property value $41,617 compared to national $158,934.

Social “Lifestyle” analysis: We have three main lifestyle segments living within our two mile radius: “metro multi-ethnic diversity” group at 35.7 percent (Areas 6bcdef, Tulsa); “struggling black households at 23.7 percent” (Areas 1,2, 6a, Tulsa & Turley); “laboring country families” at 11.3 percent (Areas 3,4, 5, outside Tulsa, in Turley) all of which in these categories are way over the national average. (The bringing together and breaking down barriers between these groups is a mission itself.)



Focusing on Statistics, though, are like drawing a map of a wilderness—it shows you what and where the challenges might be, but is not much use in getting through them. What we have experienced have been moments of surprising grace where people form relationships and move from a place of first looking to see what they can get from our center and programs, into taking ownership and helping others, a give-away and a give-back center, in a place where people often think they have nothing to give. One of my favorite recent examples is how we have partnered this summer, while I have been away working and on vacation, with some people who have no electricity at home and come to the center as a shelter of cool, as in the winter they do for warmth, and they end up being hosts with a key to the place, a key to the kingdom…you might say.

In the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part, nothing can be contained forever; what besets north Tulsa will affect downtown, which will affect the riverside and which will affect all of Tulsa, and to the suburbs as well; if it is voting for needed projects, if it is creating good schools, if it is transforming images of ourselves so we can attract healthy industries; in all of this, north Tulsa (and it is emblematic of what is happening in other sections of the city too, of course, with their own unique histories and struggles) North Tulsa and its issues, stereotypes, and wilderness will not be contained by Admiral Street. The wolf displaced by the new subdivision will find a way to hunt there still, and its prey this time will not be jackrabbits, but jack and jill, because the rabbits have been displaced too in the rush to have pure safe uniform places.

There are different ways too for trying to separate out wilderness. It doesn’t help, for example, when the Home Depot on S. 11th Street and Elgin puts up a big sign thanking people for shopping in north Tulsa. If people think that South 11th Street is north Tulsa, then we will be able to ignore the real North Tulsa still, Where, and you may think it is a small matter but it has deep resonance particularly with youth, but where you still can’t go see a movie, or get a pizza delivery if you are among the thousands of us living north of Archer, and in some places north of Pine, just a mile from downtown, You can’t get a pizza delivered to home, church, work. And it’s not because of crime; pizza deliveries are made to areas in Tulsa that actually have the highest crime rate, not just the stereotypical one. I may have preached on this before….

But In a world with a perspective where investments and decisions are made based on morality of being in one community, one family, people and companies and churches would be rushing to be a part of our wilderness, because so much transformation is going on that it is transforming the lives of everyone who comes into contact with it; not only would we have pizza delivery, but we would have the best grocery stores too instead of mostly having high priced convenience stores within the reach of many folks without transportation, or having grocery stores where only the unhealthiest and least organic of food items is available—no wonder poverty and obesity go together; we would have Whole Foods in north Tulsa precisely because of our demographics, not in spite of them, and the same is true for new shopping centers and new housing starts, because people who have the means to get across town would be able to get to north Tulsa still to take advantage of them, and those without the means would be able to access them more easily in their own midst, and in my ideal, kingdom of God economy, people would be better able to afford the good food because there wouldn’t be a sales tax on food or medicine, and we would have public support of community gardens which is better than any grocery store no matter how fancy, and gasoline prices would be raised to reflect the finite nature of their resource, and the gas tax would go toward providing better public transportation system for the least of these; and North Tulsa would have the best schools because property taxes across the state would go into the places historically the least funded, and you wouldn’t have situations like where an all white suburban place like Fort Gibson gets all the money while the high-minority district like neighboring Muskogee struggles; and while I am at it, you would know that it takes a community to raise a school, and so you wouldn’t destroy communities in the name of building magnet schools, and where you have one of the best public high schools in the nation, in Booker T. Washington, in North Tulsa, you would have one of the best communities surrounding it, because new rooftops really would follow good schools, and good retail would follow the new rooftops, instead of being content at creating a little island of wonderful diversity and education for kids in large measure from outside north Tulsa in the midst of a community that struggles to survive. It is great that all of the high schools in Tulsa are getting some kind of special magnet school designation, but it is almost 30 years too late for the public schools in North Tulsa where dedicated people commit everyday to undoing one child at a time the damage of the communities.

People eager for meaning in their lives would rush to live in north Tulsa, rebuking the realtors who try to steer them away, because they know what a gift they will receive from being a living part of something bigger than themselves, and the value of that is so much greater to pass on to their children than the value of property ever could be. (Reminds me of one OU student who started out her time with us by saying she had been warned by friends and family not to come be with us, even as part of a class; only, after being with our residents and hearing them talk about their love of the area, to talk about wanting to find a way to live here if possible).

But then again, in my ideal world, the world wouldn’t need handicapped designated parking spaces because people who are able to walk into buildings just naturally park away from the doors so that those who can’t, whether permanently so or just because they have a temporary injury, would be able too.

It’s actually a practical perspective, though, for that’s how you live in the wilderness, you know. Really. Not by being a rugged individual all on your own, and not by joining a gang of bandits—the wilderness will get both of those kinds—but by becoming a people, building a covenant with one another, carrying your tabernacle with you wherever you go,as the ancient Hebrews taught us well. In some ways, I’ve often thought, those years wandering in the wilderness, learning and shaping themselves and their relationship to one another, the earth, and God, those could be seen as the best years; once they reached the safety of the so-called promised land,in many ways, the biblical accounts say, it was all down-hill.

So I am pleased to see that a recent study began to indicate that people all over Tulsa see the primary need for focusing on, and I hope, listening to north Tulsa. I am hopeful of the decision on where to put the Drillers stadium. I am excited about what I understand will be a new county heath department building created in north Tulsa, and I of course am thrilled with the efforts OU-Tulsa has made not only working with us in Turley on the new clinic, but the plans to build a new specialty clinic our way too. But, like all north Tulsa natives, I am not holding my breath, or waiting on others to fix us. We do too much speaking of ‘they” when we need to focus more on the grassroots “we”. And there are many collaborations underway to do that too.

What we are doing is working in small ways, small ways with great love, to do what we can with what and who we have, and inviting others to partner with us. One of the great things about the interdependent web of all existence is that a people with few resources can make big effects, particularly in the wildernesses of the abandoned places of the American Empire.

And so, on that note, I end with Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. All over the world today, Christians who follow what’s called the common lectionary, or series of readings, will be lifting up this parable as part of their worship. In some ways I never have to worry about a topic to preach on, because I always have my lectionary study that guides my weekly reflection…helpful for a frequent guest preacher. But this day, for this topic, this parable is particularly apt.

Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Here Jesus breaks down the barriers between the wild and safe spaces. Mustard is an invasive plant, and was illegal to plant in gardens in first century Israel. It would take over the carefully guarded places in our lives. But so, according to Jesus, is God’s spirit, God’s world. God is on the side of the wild. Of mixing things up.


Following the unconventional wisdom of the parable today and in our context would be like taking the presence and concerns of North Tulsa right into Woodland Hills Mall, or bringing them up in the Owasso City Council; or, as I once envisioned, it would be like not building the memorial to the Greenwood Race Massacre in Greenwood or North Tulsa, where people remember it in their bones, but instead building it at the Riverwalk in Jenks, where people would be confronted with the memory of the once thriving commercial area of Greenwood and how it was lost, and who gained. Just let the memorial, like the parable, stand and speak for itself.

May we come to know and enter into the wild places and people around us, and even the unsettling places within us, and receive there the many blessings that will come to what Whitman called the travelling souls who go there, and there find and share healing.