Sweaty, joyous, and intense. What a week it was with over 5,000 Presbyterian senior high students! It might have remained just that if it hadn’t been for the closing worship service. Those three adjectives would have been enough. More than enough. But gratefully, the planning team knew that teens need more.
I write this to share some thoughts about the closing keynote shared by Rev. Dr. Claudio Carvalhaes. http://www.claudiocarvalhaes.com/ and it’s relationship to my work.
Since I took the position of “Reconciliation Catalyst” with the PC(USA), some 4 months ago, I have not heard a better articulation of the path to reconciliation. And I have heard some fantastic, inspirational, beautiful, and challenging messages over the past 4 months. But the good Dr. has articulated the most important prophetic words about reconciliation in violent cultures I have heard.
First, some context of the 2013 Triennium conference. Much of the conference was about was about identity: asking questions like, “Who is God? and Who am I? and How does my faith affect my choices each day? and “Do we really need each other?” and “How connected are we, really?” Important questions. Central questions to anyone who takes their faith seriously.
With the daunting task of tying up the week’s experiences and sending 5000 youth high on the connection of new friends, shared faith experiences, and delightful romps through Purdue’s fountains, Dr. Carvalhaes (Claudio) hit the missing piece with: what is this whole faith and identity thing all about when the rubber hits the road and why does it matter.
At the proper moment, Claudio walked in with sunny yellow pants and a white hoodie with a string of plastic-cased Christmas lights in tow. With his back to the crowd, he became the ghost of Trayvon Martin… asking questions about violence, justice, and identity. His bent frame slowly made it’s way to center stage and then the refrain, “Who is gonna be there for me, with me, all the way?”
He became the poor, the person of color, the gay person, the Muslim…. “Who is gonna be there for me, with me all the way?”
Then he asks, “Are you gonna be there for me?”claudio
Off went his hoodie to reveal … a “lucha libre wrestler” a (some background there for those of us who are uninformed). This peculiar-looking character sported a brilliant blue head, white mask and blue cape. He would take on the injustice of the world – and be there for us. Jesus, we infer, is the ultimate lucha libre wrestler.
There was drama. Oh yes, there was drama. Until the end of the sermon, Claudio kept his mask on.
An aside: I must admit that at first I thought the mask and cape was cool and very provocative. There are few photos from that opening scene, I think because everyone was a bit mesmerized … wondering what this whole “thing” was about. However, after 10 minutes had passed and he was still styling the royal blue, I began to feel irritated. I wanted to SEE him! I wanted to get acquainted with what was really going on in his eyes and face. I wanted to know when he was smiling. Every nuance relied on his voice and his body to punctuate his words. But by the end, something fascinating had happened. I no longer saw the mask. The mask was no longer a barrier. And wasn’t that just the point? Smile.
And so Claudio preached taking as full advantage of the space as he could with a string of lights tied around his leg. Sadly I don’t have a photo to share because I think everyone was perched on the edge of their seats, wondering what might be happening.
This is not the “frozen chosen” preaching many Presbyterians sit comfortably in their pews for, attempting to keep themselves awake til the end. Some criticized this, were put out by it, and perhaps would have preferred to float in a placid lake of familiarity than be challenged.
The responsive litanies woven through were physical, responsive, tweeted, enacted. What a fantastic educator!
Truly, the content of his message was not lost in the delivery. The art he directed throughout his sermon embodied the words. The content of his sermon was prophetic, inspired, and potentially life-changing for every person in the room if they took to heart even one piece of it.
The toughest word? Students were encouraged to create the day when there would be “no poor and no rich”. I don’t know about you, but I have never heard the second part of that statement articulated quite like that. Ouch! Isn’t it possible to continue to try to make a chunk of change, build up that retirement and spend exorbitant prices on a latte and still love my neighbor? Love is more than sentiment. It is not pity or sentimentality. It has feet, legs, and arms and it loves with action.
Claudio encouraged the students to be creators of the day when all children could walk to the corner store to buy Skittles and tea without fear. He exhorted them to read their Bibles every day; to stay connected to the “Jesus tree”; to get their fingers in the earth every day, to make the Gospel “viral”.
This, friends, is the Gospel of peace. The Gospel of reconciliation. The Gospel of Christ.
For me, although it’s hard to choose, one of the most memorable parts of the sermon was around the theme of “we”; of “us” and of being “there” for each other. Three teens were brought up to the stage and together 5000 teens told these youth, You are a branch in the Jesus tree! You are worthy! You are precious! You are God’s beloved child!
Claudio reminded them that they are the church NOW. “Make mistakes!!” he cried jubilantly! And forget having to over-achieve yourself into making a ton of money to achieve the American dream. That, and being put down because you are young, was “shit”.
Yes, he said, shit. At a Christian youth conference. Horror of horrors!! Seriously, it interests me that some seemed more offended by a common word than the vulgarity of the injustice of the world.
This was not an easy sermon to hear. It was not gentle. It did not pacify. It was not neutral. It did not seek approval from any institution. It was spoken in the language of youth. And it was deeply theological and Trinitarian.
The lyric of a Cold Play song that was woven into the sermon sparked some criticism:Lights will guide you home And ignite your bones And I will try to fix you
Although the word “fix” feels a bit off-putting, it frames in accessible language and art what we know is true: we are broken and we need each other to heal and be whole. We can be the menders of each other’s souls, bodies, injustices, poverty, and violence — if we take this call seriously.
From where I stand, peace, justice, and reconciliation in cultures of violence will be catalyzed by authentic, honest voices like this. The Good News is not necessarily good news to the offenders, to those who hold onto their money like it will make them complete, to those who are not willing to sacrifice for community, to those who are more interested in protecting their egos and standing in society than sharing what they have.
Reconciliation in cultures of violence means accompanying survivors of violent people and societies – and singing their songs of rage and hope with them; it builds peace-full capacity through education in partnership and community; it interrupts and prevents violence by advocating for change with all the heart we have.
This is exactly what Claudio’s words and enactment proclaimed and did.
So where do we start? Loving each other demands that we love not only those who mirror us in some way. We also have the privilege of loving our enemies. We cannot do this without the strength that God gives. We open ourselves to find our deepest love and the pain and regret and injustice we cling to can be poured out in forgiveness and reconciliation. Bit by bit.
It ain’t easy. In fact, it may be impossible without relying on something much bigger than us.
And I say to you, friends,
You are a branch in my tree! You are worthy! You are precious! You are a beloved child of God!
Let’s get to work.