Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Love With the Whole Cookie

Today's children's sermon was about cookies. Oreo cookies to be exact. I brought a pound of oreos and offered them to the children. A couple of adults came forward and pretended to be children. Oreo cookies have great power.

This is something of how the conversation went:
"Would you like a cookie? Yes? Great! Let me take a bite out of it first."
"Do you want the rest? No? Oh. Okay. I'll just eat it then."
chomp chomp
"How about now? Would you like a cookie? Yes? Great!"
I pulled the bag away
"Just kidding!"
This child wasn't having my nonsense

"Hey! That's MEAN!" she said.
"How about this cookie?"
I turned to another child.
"Yes? Great! Let me just lick the frosting off first."
Everybody said "ew!" at once.
And then I gave them all cookies.
We prayed about loving with our whole hearts, not just half.
Let us love with the whole cookie.

Sunday, May 3, 2014
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

It has been an odd week for me. I suppose that's not saying much--since I work for three churches and a university, most weeks are odd weeks. It's very difficult, when pulled in so many different directions, by so many different people, to establish any kind of regular routine. But this last week my heart has been pulled into the city of Trenton and the violence and death facing our community. My heart has been pulled into recognizing that Trenton is OUR community, no matter how we draw the city lines. I have been sitting for the last week with the death of 11 men in Trenton in just this last year.

I had intended this morning to preach about "genuine mutual love", as the 1 Peter letter puts it. I had intended to put it into the context of our own church here, knowing that we are challenged in this congregation, at this point in our history, to love one another deeply from the heart. No matter that we have been born anew, no matter that Christ's blood has already been shed. It is just difficult to love deeply in a church where there has been betrayal and anger for such a sustained period of time. I thought I might preach on that--although in this congregation that is always a risky endeavor.

But just as I was settling in to write this sermon on the dangers of feuding like the Hatfields and the McCoys, I received an invitation to attend a meeting in Trenton for clergy, focused on the recent murders and shootings in Trenton. Just a day or two before the meeting there had been a funeral for a young man shot dead too early. Nearly 1,000 people showed up for the funeral and in the middle of the service several others were shot. Can you imagine that? You're sitting at a funeral for a young person shot dead and all of a sudden bullets are flying, people are ducking under pews. Holes in people, holes in stained glass windows, holes in your heart that are hard to fill. How do you love deeply from the heart when your heart isn't whole?

We sat as clergy and thought about that. A lot of people had questions.  A lot of people had answers. Some clergy will continue to hold funerals in their buildings. Others will not risk their congregations. Some of us were angry, others sorrowful, most of us a mixture of both. 

A week later, on Thursday, I was invited to participate in a prayer walk through Trenton, marking the names, faces, and places of each of the 11 murders in Trenton this year. We began on the steps of Shiloh Baptist Church, where church mothers prayed fervently for the families, for the community, for the government. They rebuked the evil forces at work in our community. They called on God to be present as God always is. They prayed prayers of protection and supplication and praise. They said "No more!" to death in the community.

We went out from there, and this morning I am going to take you along with me through that walk. I blogged that journey, so you do not have to memorize or take notes or be anxious that you can't remember the details. Just close your eyes a minute and listen to what has been happening a few miles away from our church. And by a few miles, I mean 3 miles at most to the Island district, 5 miles at most to the rest of the city. No reason to think this violence will not cross borders into Ewing--Trenton is our community too. If you don't believe me, ask your students who go to Ewing High. What is happening in Trenton is part of Ewing--we are connected to this.

The blog has pictures of the people and places we prayed over. But for now, close your eyes and imagine 11 men, their families, our community. Open your hearts to the grief of their deaths. Let us love deeply by remembering.

Yesterday, May 1, was the National Day of Prayer. I am a member of UMIO (United Mercer Interfaith Organization), an organization focused on gathering with people of faith around justice and peace in Mercer County. Last night we gathered with Shiloh Baptist Church to pray on their steps for the victims of violence in Trenton. There have been 11 murders this year within the city limits--4 alone in April.

After our communal prayer, several of us went out into the community to visit the sites where all 11 men were murdered in Trenton this year so far. It took 3 hours to make our way, stopping to pray at each location, to remember the name of each man who died, to pour out oil and anoint these spaces of violence, praying for peace and reconciliation and love and joy and safety for the people who live and work in those spaces.

Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, Organizer for UMIO, guided us through all 11 sites, gathering names and faces and whatever information we could gather. I took a few pictures as we walked and prayed. I'm combining Lukata's prayer sheet with my photos and some additional information from Homicide Watch Trenton. The pictures are not a documentation of where the murders took place, but are pictures of the community in and around those sites. I suppose I just want you to know that these are ordinary spaces that most of us find ourselves in: homes, liquor stores, corner stores, clubs, laundromats, and out in nature. Violence touches all of us, no matter where we spend our time. We are none of us exempt.

We walked and prayed for these 11 men, their families and friends, our beloved Trenton community, and yes, for the people who murdered them. We invite you to walk along with us through these photos and descriptions. Pray for our people. Pray for our community. Pray for yourselves. We are all connected--their blood is our blood; the voice of our brothers' blood is crying out to the Lord from the ground.

At our first stop, two men were murdered within feet of each other.

Charles "X" White, who was 43 years old, was shot in the head on March 8 and died that day. Several others were shot at the same time during an altercation in a club.

Joseph "Power God" Gaines, who was 44 years old, was shot nearby the same club while sitting in his car on March 9. He died a month later on April 3.

We prayed for both men with love, without reservation, without judgment.

Rev. Darrell Armstrong, from Shiloh Baptist Church, poured out oil on the ground, and we gathered back into vans to go to the next site.

As I walked back to the van, I noticed several murals on a corner store:

At the bottom of the mural was the name Tamrah Leonard, with the dates of her life. She wasn't part of our prayer walk, but she was one of several murals on the store walls. Tamrah was 13 when she was killed in 2009 by a spray of bullets. The man who killed her was only 18 himself. 

We wandered on to the home of Dwelle Jerome "Snub" Clark, who was 55 years old. He was stabbed by his partner on February 18 in a domestic violence dispute and died three days later.

We stopped and prayed in front of his home. I listened to the pieces of Snubs' story that Rev. Atchison was able to share, having known the family. I winced, knowing that intimate violence has been a strong feature in my own life. There is no reason to think my story will end differently than his--so many of us share this narrative. He left behind children who cared for him. And he left behind a partner who killed him in anger. How do we not weep all day long with the sorrows of this world?

As we walked along, a woman in our group knew the family of Cagney Roberts, a 19 year old man shot outside of a mini market on April 9. She told them we were here and what we were doing, and the child's parents came out to join us with neighbors. We prayed with them. We wept with them. We sang with them. 

A beautiful child. So much grief. Only 5 years older than my own son.

His mother met us at the mini market where we prayed a prayer of protection over that space, the owners, the employees, and all those who come in and out of those doors.

And now it was late, just with 4 men. The sun had gone down, and the air gone chill.

We drove on to the 100 block of another street. Only there was no 100 block on this dead end street, just a row of mostly abandoned houses and a creek. 

Chevin Burgess was killed on January 4, shot and then set on fire in a burning car. We didn't have a photo last night of Chevin, and we weren't sure how to pronounce his name even. But I found an obituary that says he was a talented baseball player, and that he leaves behind his mother and a son who loved him dearly, and 14 other people who left condolences. He was 22 years old.

And now we moved on through the city to a liquor store, where Keyon Wade was killed on January 18. We went, not in chronological order, but in a route through the city that you could easily walk. A quarter mile here. A half mile there. Trenton is not a large city.

Keyon Shontel Wade was 39 years old and killed in front of a liquor store. Of all the places we went, this was the loudest. Most of the rest of the city was quiet last night. We took turns praying in the different sites, and here I prayed for Keyon. Rev. Armstrong poured out oil. People were surprised to see us here. More than one person nearly dropped their purchases coming out the door.

And now they started to blur together, the streets, the faces, the names. I was grateful this morning that I had taken pictures and a few notes. I don't want these men to blur together--each life had meaning and worth, joy and love and sorrows aplenty. I am sorry I did not know them.

It was so dark on this corner where Jahmir Hall was shot on April 19. He was 24 years old. How do we reconcile a neighborhood full of front porches where the people are afraid to sit on them? How do we explain to our children why this happens? And trust me, they know it happens. Our youth are afraid.

So much light and life on this block. How does one of our children end up shot and dying underneath a pickup truck?

And then on to another food mart where Julio Cesar Cruz was beaten outside his home and then thrown to the ground. His head hit a cement wall, and he died on February 15. He was 18 years old.

The men who killed him were robbing him for groceries it seems. He had been in the United States for 45 days, coming here to live with family from Guatemala, looking for work. 

Julio was 18 years old.

Across the street was a dress shop. Normal, everyday places with normal, everyday people.

And then on, terribly on, because that was only 8. Only 8! When one is too many.

Another store where Rahiem Hayes was shot on April 9.

It seems he was shot near the store and then ran into a nearby home, where he later died. A woman found him in the house at noon the next day and called the police. How do you go back home after that? All of these beautiful men, lost to us. How do we go on after this? Rahiem was 34.

Then off to the Island section of town, where the houses come up against the river. It's a bit of a distance between Rahiem and Keyaan--we took the highway to the other side of town. If we had tried to walk, it would have taken 2 hours. Not all of us could have walked that far easily. But still, Trenton is not a large town. A few minutes later we came to the Island.

It floods easily there, so what is a few more tears?

Keyaan Lee Young, 25 years old, found shot to death on a street corner filled with graceful old homes and beautiful landscape. Right near the river. By now I can barely take it all in, and I think that's how we should feel. January 6, the second murder of the year. The second to last man we pray for now on May 1.

I wonder who loves this man with the eyes that stare out of the photo. I wonder who lives in this house, cares for this tree. Did they know each other? What can we do if we do not know each other?

A short drive up the street to the place where Aaron Lewis was murdered on April 24. He is the last on our journey, and the most recent to be killed in Trenton.

23 years old, this barely grown man. I want to ask him about his tattoos. I want to know why he was sad in this picture. The papers said his body was found behind a liquor store, but he was behind a laundromat. And not behind, like in an alley, no he was found shot to death up an unlit path to the canal that runs behind this neighborhood.

I ride my bike through this canal path often. A different section, a few miles away, but no less isolated. And connected all the same. I can't quite get my mind wrapped around dying in this way, taken into the woods and left to die alone. My thoughts approach it and shy away. How do we live after we know this is possible? 23 years old.

We prayed here and poured oil. We prayed for ourselves too and how we might be part of the healing in our community. I prayed, as I stood there, for those who come to wash their clothes. I prayed for the owners, just trying to keep afloat. I prayed for those who do this violence, because they do not come away unscathed either. 

I don't know where we go from here, or how to be useful, or if we have the courage to change ourselves and our community. I hope so. For our children, I hope so.

With this as our context, I want to share with you some thoughts from students about what it is like to be a young person. I've asked a couple of people to help me read these stories. Last week as I was preparing for today I asked some of our young people to write a paragraph on what it is like to be a young person. I've taken out their names--it doesn't matter which one of our youth said these things. But given the backdrop of violence and dysfunction in our community--and no matter a city border drawn on a map, 5 miles away IS our community--listen to what young people are saying about their inner lives.

It's kind of hard being a child because people judge you and you will have to make a lot of friends and if u don't like somebody and they are in a gang then they will jump you.sometimes I feel safe and sometimes I don't because people be shooting and I don't like shooting because people get hurt go to jail or even kill each other and that is not the right thing to do and sometimes I feel safe because I know god is watching over me and is helping me stay away from trouble.its kind of fun being a child because u can have fun with your friends and playaround and we can have fun and have play dates 

Living in a life as a teenager can be stressful, wonderful, & challenging at the same time. In our teenager years, we struggle to find ourselves. In our teenage years, we know college is on our way, and we know one day it is going to be there, and we wonder what path it is that we take for the rest of our lives. In our teenage lives, we are clueless on what is next to come. It is also the happy years of our lives. It's the time we make most of our memories. We make memories with our loved ones and friends. We also have that memory when it is our turn to start driving. It's also a time where we complete our high school and move on with our lives. Our teenage years, are the time when we explore and find who we become who we are meant to be. 

I'm a very shy person. It takes alot for me to trust people simply because i have trust issues. Who doesn't though, right? As a young adult life couldnt be more complicated. Im all about being responsible but sometimes it begins to be a serious "stress test". Between that and the fact that my love interest (she dates women) that some people couldnt possibly understand because of how judgemental and narrow minded people can be. Its a little hard to live my life if i cant fully be who i am. It sucks but i guess thats life that i cant control at this point. It kinda scares me of what my future holds. Then again i can only encourage myself that everything will be fine as long as i have him (god) by my side anythings possible.

So you have these three voices in front of you. You have testimony as to the murders of 11 members of our community this year. There is, all around us, love, joy, fear, sorrow, terror, grief, hope, scarcity, and abundance. We are caught up in an interconnected web, and every action we take here in this church affects the wider community around  us. Every word of strife or love we share here has impact.

Suppose, for instance, that on this morning, we sit as a congregation split into two sides. I'm not saying it's like this, but let's suppose that the center aisle marks a divide on most issues in the congregation. I'm not saying it's like this, but let's suppose that I could predict how people will react to conflict in the church  based on which side off the sanctuary they sit. Let's suppose the two sides rarely greet one another anymore.

Let's suppose that on a given Sunday a congregation member named, let's say, Matlida (there are no Matilda's here, right?), comes to church, hoping to hear a word from The Lord. She has had a tough week, but she's holding it in until she can get to church. On that Sunday she walks in the door and sees across the room someone who has disagreed with her before. She thinks that person is glaring at her, and indeed they have had hard words in the past. Not always straight on--no conflict sometimes goes underground, and Matilda has heard that this other person is angry with her. Matilda's heart hardens, and she doesn't greet anyone at church after all. She sits on her side, nods at the few people she knows do not despise her. she hears a message of love and reconciliation and snorts a little--we are talking about our congregation, after all. Our feuds go back years. I was sitting in the heritage room the other day and noticed our church started somewhere about 1700. I bet we could trace a line of conflict back through our congregation 300 years and we'd find a story about how one congregant cheated another congregant out of 6 buckets of milk and a dozen eggs. And here we are 300 years later.

Matilda leaves church angrier and sadder than when she came. She goes out to carry not the good news of Jesus Christ, but the bitter news that even in Christ Jesus we are divided. 

Friends, that kind of conflict spreads well beyond these walls. I entreat you for the sake of our community, for the sake of our children, to learn to love one another deeply.  The letter in 1 Peter says "Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart."

The truth is we are all one in Christ Jesus. The truth is we are called to love. The truth is that if we are in obedience to Christ and love our neighbor as we love ourself, if we love our neighbor as a child of God, that kind of love will spread beyond these walls, irresistably. 

It would be tempting to stand up here and tell you that the solution to violence in our community is that the congregation goes out and DOES something to solve the problems. Go join a commission or walk the streets. We could throw open our doors to the community (and please note, I am not saying we SHOULDN'T do these things!). But if I preached that, I know what would happen. A lot of you would write me off and walk away sadly. You would say to me "I am old, I am busy, I am tired, I am grieving." You would say, "We do not have the money. Those are not our children. When my son grows up. When my daughter comes home. Then, THEN I will have the time, the resources, the desire to help." You would say to me, "What can I possibly do, just little old me?"

So I don't want to overwhelm you with impractical, absurd requests. I don't propose that we en masse march on Trenton--we are not the savior of Trenton or Ewing or even ourselves.

But I do propose this: Fall in love with one another again. Make things right with one another here. Take the risk to open your hearts to each other fully. Let down your walls and know that you will be wounded by one another, and understand those wounds as sacred and holy.  Our Lord Jesus sat at table with his disciples, most of whom would betray him. Knowing that he washed their feet with care, fed them, poured them wine. He gave his body and his life for them and for us. And all he asked in return was genuine mutual love. All he asked in return was that we love one another deeply from the heart. From our whole hearts. From our wounded hearts.

And if we do that--if we truly love one another--our children will know it. The community will know it. We will be known as people who love deeply from the heart. And it will spread from here like wildfire. Because, my friends, people are hungry for that kind of love. People are STARVING for that kind of love. Let us find some way to do this and overflow our walls so that God's love pours out into the streets.

That is my request of you. That is how you can love our students best. That is how you can help the community. Remember how to love.

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