As many of you know, I’m part of a church replant in the West Adams district of Los Angeles, overseen by Rev. Dominic Rivkin of LINC L.A. We call ourselves HOPE L.A. and for the better part of the last three years we have been doing the painful, messy work of letting go of our preferences, getting out of our comfort zones, and preparing our hearts and minds for whatever Jesus has in store for us. HOPE L.A.—formerly Hope Memorial—has a proud history in this community. It was the birthplace of Head Start in America and a place where the overwhelmingly African-American neighborhood could gather around the sturdy foundation of Lutheran theology. In a denomination that is 98% white, we are a rarity: a historically black church.
On any given Sunday, we worship about 15-20 people. Despite the fact that we seem to be moving in the right direction, our numbers have not been increasing. Even as new people come in, aging members move out-of-state to be closer to family. Usually numbers don’t bother me–I consider “narrative” metrics to be a far better indicator of the life of a church. But on this one particular Sunday in early February, as we entered to set up for worship, I was mindful of growth. I started feeling the itch to do something. And then a very unlikely question popped into my head: how much money did we have in the bank, anyway? I never think about money. Never look to money to solve a problem that a good idea and a prayed-up heart could solve better.
Elder Pose Banks was in the office going over some paperwork when I entered, “Pose, I’ve been here almost 4 years now and I’ve never even asked how much money we have in the bank.” He gave me a number. It was ten times higher than I would have guessed for a church our size in the inner city.
“Wow,” I said. “We need to start giving that money away. We are not here to accumulate cash.”
In an instant I began to see our church in a whole new light. Suddenly I could see all the ways that grace had been moving through our small body in the past year alone, as we started contributing both space and talent to many ministries in the city: Artists United to End Homelessness, Two Wings, Christian Community Development Association, Skid Row ministries, and our own House of Common Thread travelling music ministry led by Ernie “Chico” Perez. We also housed a pre-school in our parish hall so that neighborhood kids would have a safe, affordable place to learn and grow, and had begun making relational inroads with some of those families. And now this! We had money to share as well.
Then a word came to me: Outpost. That’s what we were. An Outpost for the Lord in the City of Angels, with grace flowing through us, love flowing through us, and now, apparently, cash, flowing through us. Then and there, we started making a list of the groups we were already helping and wondering about dollar amounts for donations. We taped the list to the dais to remind ourselves of who we might be called to support. And then, as we always did, we closed our worship in a circle, holding hands, and singing “God be with you, until we meet again.”
The next day I saw the alarming news that Concordia College Alabama—the only Historically Black College in the Lutheran Church—was at risk of closing its doors. My friend Ken Chitwood had shared it on Twitter and I replied to him that we really needed to get going on this conversation. His response cut me to the quick: Heather, it’s way past the point of talking. It was time to do something.
He was right, of course. But what could I possible do? I didn’t have that kind of money; I didn’t even have a job. Then I knew. I sent the article about the dire future of Concordia Alabama out to the members of my little HOPE family and asked if we might play some role. If we might be able to send a message that historically black churches care about historically black colleges. I got several enthusiastic responses and then, just as quickly as inspiration had come, my bubble burst: The money we had was a lot for us, but it was not “save a college from closing” money. My grand gesture was well-intentioned but naive. Oh, well. By Tuesday I’d moved onto other things.
The following Sunday, Reverend Dominic was scheduled to preach and he decided to bring Blake Flattley, the founder of Communion Arts, with him to lead worship that day. We had all sorts of technical problems. Attendance was low. But the service was beautiful and, in the end, we gathered as we always do to hold hands, have announcements, sing Happy Birthday to friends and close with our HOPE song. I grabbed the note that I’d taped to the dais the week before and read off some names. “So let’s be praying about the different ministries we want to send donations to,” I said, “I’m serious. This money needs to go out.” Across the circle Stephanie, the worship leader, spoke up. “What about that college in Alabama?”
“Oh,” I said. “I forgot all about that.” I shared that at some point I realized that there really wasn’t much we could do. “Whatever we might be able to send could, what–maybe pay a single professor for a month?”
Next thing I knew I heard Blake’s voice from the other side of the circle. “Um,” he said, “I was there at the Edmund Pettus bridge for the 50th anniversary of the marches. I got to visit the college and lead worship there and ever since the news came out it’s really been on my heart to go back to Selma and tell the story.” Blake and I first met at OSNY Midtown three years ago. He had told me about his trip to Selma that night. I can still remember the look in his eyes when he talked about it. Now, standing in a circle at HOPE L.A., his story continued, “I’ve been talking to two friends, Kelsi and Doug Klembara about making a documentary. Maybe it’s a hail Mary pass to find a big donor. Or maybe it’s just to capture the stories before they’re all gone.”
There was an electric silence. Then Dominic said what we all were thinking. “If we gave you $5000 would that cover it?”
“I think so,” Blake said.
“Ok,” I said. “Get us a proposal this week. We’ll vote on it.”
Blake’s plan was this: he would fly from California to Texas to meet up with the Klembaras and they would drive to Selma together. The project would be called Stories from Selma. They already had the url. They’d make it work for $5000.
There was no need for more detail: God had already told us everything we needed to know. I had met Kelsi and Doug a few months before at the 1517 Here We Still Stand conference. On the train ride down I read a blog Kelsi had written: she was good. And now she was now getting her MA in Theology at Concordia, Irvine—my alma mater. I met her husband Doug, a photographer/videographer/designer, that weekend, too. He had that rarest of gifts: a great eye. Already, I began to sense a flutter of hope that this little effort—born of the Spirit of the Living God through this highly unlikely alliance—might just be the thing that saves the day.
It was not to be. That same week the announcement came that all hope was lost: Concordia College Alabama would close at the end of the year. Still, that Sunday—one week from the day when the inspiration was first given voice— we wrote out the check and said, Go. Get the stories. Ask the hard questions. In the words of that great Ragtime song, “Make them hear you.”
Stories from Selma officially launched this morning. I was spellbound by the beauty and simplicity of the message. And dumbstruck to hear one woman say that the College had a plea letter all printed up and ready to go out to every LCMS church in the U.S. All they would have needed was $500 from each of us. Five hundred dollars per LCMS church. That’s what it would have cost to keep their doors open. But they were told they could not send the letter. Of the many hard questions this mini-documentary poses, that is the one that, for me, needs to be answered first.
As I write this final line, Stories from Selma has been live for 12 hours. The video has already been viewed 3.5 thousand times. I shouldn’t be surprised. God makes his truth known to us through stories. He always has.
This is the story of how a tiny historically black church in L.A. tried to save a historically black college in Selma and failed. What we do with that truth, is up to all of us who care about the love of Christ for all people. We hope you’ll join in the conversation.
Over the past five months or so, I’ve been in something of a transition. First there was an intentional Wadi Cherith season, rooted in the just-rest-and-wait- and-stay-out-of-view example of the prophet Elijah. Then there was the nudge, on Christmas night, to plan a pilrimage to the Isle of Iona, Scotland this Easter. Then there was the gift of music, as my friend Blake Flattley invited me to work on a new liturgy and I—who cannot sing or play an instrument—begin hearing/writing/composing hymns. Then, after a new season of working with a Spiritual Director for the first time, a totally unexpected Call to begin a 2-year program in Christian Formation and Spiritual Direction. This program has already blessed me with the gift of a community of like-minded souls. More pointedly, it forced me to write a 10-page spiritual autobiography on “how I saw God working at every age and stage of my life.” This assignment, which I did grudgingly, led me to the answer I’d been struggling to find over what my next book would be. I longed to write another heart book, a memoir, but could not envision the scope, the framework, the timeline. This assignment gave me just the container I needed and set me back to the steady rhythm of prayer and reflection and writing. My office is now filled with stacks of old treasure–advertising memories, and screenplays, and unsold novels, and datebooks, and journals filled with notes and names and faces and big visions for stories, for the Church, and for speaking to those who don’t want anything to do with the Church. In all that, I unearthed a single DVD from my first big interview when Baptism by Fire was released. As it happens—really, as it happens?—it was filmed 20 years to the day that I will be leaving for Iona. That’s what life is like in the hands of the Master Storyteller.
It was just supposed to be a quick grab and go. Fridays can be tricky at Trader Joe’s, so I was prepared for an aisle or two of three-lane traffic. What I was not prepared for was the gaggle of senior citizens mingling in every entry aisle and passageway as if they’d rented out the bread & muffin section for an octogenarian birthday party.
In the place where impatience usually rises up in me I found myself instead leaning in. Their wizened faces were alight with joy as they chatted in thick accents. “Russian Jews,” I thought to myself. Russian Jews at the end of life telling stories and smiling and entitled in the best possible way to be clogging the aisles of the neighborhood store.
What could they teach me about slowing down? About recognizing that, in the end, when all the suffering is behind you, that there is nothing else but this: to delight in the company of one another.
Just this morning I had read in the Benedictine devotional Always We Begin Again these words: “Every day carries the potential to bring the experience of heaven; have the courage to expect good from it.”
For a moment they were like icons to me: windows into the realm of the sacred, the holy. Although depression, anxiety, and isolation is epidemic in this country, there were no shadows on these faces. Some were in wheelchairs. Others had walkers. By virtue of their advanced ages, all would have known heartache and illness and loss. The fact that they were all together told me that they had arrived that way, likely a field trip from a local senior center. I reached for a loaf of Ezekiel bread.
“What is that?” one of the ladies asked. She was 5′ tops with a cropped shock of red hair. In a brief conversation, she had confirmed that they were, in fact, all Russian Jews from a local day care.
“Oh, it’s very healthy,” I told her. “No flour. See here. Ezekiel 4:9. It’s the same recipe one of your prophets gave us.”
“Ah,” she said, and smiled.
I continued on with my shopping, carrying inside me a new shade of meaning for “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4).
I was loading up my trunk when the seniors finally began heading out to a large van. Driving away, I looked in my rearview mirror. On the side of their shared vehicle I saw the words Nazareth House. And smiled.
One of my favorite promises from Jesus is this: “In my father’s house there are many rooms,” (John 14:2). Today I’m grateful to have had a glimpse of this one.