Reflections: Discipleship Group Sharing

This two reflections were given on Sunday, June 10, by members of our San Francisco and East Bay Discipleship Groups. Our Discipleship Groups are small groups that meet monthly to learn about and practice following in the way of Jesus.

San Francisco Discipleship Group Reflection

By Amy Bolaños

I called the patient’s name in the waiting room. A man in his mid-50s, unshaven, in tattered hat and clothes, stood up abruptly and walked brusquely toward me, barely acknowledging me as I greeted him and led him back to the exam room where I would take his blood pressure, review his medications and prepare him for his visit with the doctor. The tough, guarded look in his eyes, as well as his agitated body language, warned me to keep my voice and body language calm and to notice my safe and quick exit route from the room. As soon as I asked him how he was doing today, he launched into a barrage of threats to the stranger on the street who had just stolen his belongings. He hadn’t planned to come to the clinic today, but 30 minutes ago he was mugged by another man.

He had just picked up his medications from the pharmacy a few days ago, and they were in the bag that was stolen. “The meds aren’t going to do him any good! They’re for my heart! I hope he eats them all and it kills him!” The patient then began a 5-10 minute loud, angry monologue listing ways in which he planned to carry out revenge on this man. “I’ll find him, and when I do I’ll rip his face off! I’ll smash his head in!” etc. I just sat and listened to him vent his anger. When I could get a word in, I validated his pain and anger, trying to imagine experiencing such violence myself and the emotions it would bring up for me. I also reassured him that we would be able to help him replace his medications.

As the volume of his voice began to drop to a normal conversational tone, his train of thought shifted to his current living situation. The reason his bag was stolen was because he drifted off briefly while sitting on the sidewalk because he didn’t have a place to sleep the night before and hated staying in the shelters. Although he had a bed at one of the shelters in the neighborhood, he felt just as threatened there as on the street. “I hate being around all these people.” Then, with a sort of wistfulness, he began to tell me of his favorite place to camp. “I’ve got a nest at Land’s End, tucked into the cliff, behind the trees, away from the path. Nobody can see me there. Nobody bothers me there. It’s just me … and the racoons. The mama racoon always comes in looking for some food. The others are too shy, but she’s not afraid of me. She comes in for some of the food I share with her. Greets me every time. She’s probably wondering where I am.”

I couldn’t help but think of a concept we had just explored in our Discipleship Group of “What does it mean or matter to be interdependentwith all Earthly life?”1  This concept is called Deep Ecology, which challenges our Christian beliefs of humans as the ultimate valuable beings on Earth who are responsible for the stewardship of all other beings. Instead, humans, according to this theory, are simply a part of the whole and are interconnected with all of Earth. This shift is important because, as caretakers of this Earth, we are morally responsible for its well-being and are asked to sacrifice, to be better people, to show more concern. But as a part of the whole, such as an arm or a leg, the Earth is our body, and in caring for it, we are caring for ourselves. Joanna Macy summarizes it well, “What humankind is capable of loving from mere duty or moral exhortation is, unfortunately, very limited…[But] the requisite care flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves.”2 This does not mean that we are only selfish and not compassionate. On the contrary, compassion, which literally means “‘to suffer with’ … is evidence of our interconnectedness with all life.”3

Back in the room with this patient … One second, I felt threatened by this man and could’ve called the clinic IP (institutional police) due to his murderous threats to another human being; and the next, I felt such a kinship with this stranger who was recognizing the beauty of the nature around him and engaging with it in such a loving way. I said something like, “Wow, it sounds like these raccoons are like family. That’s beautiful! It’s interesting how interconnected we are! Even connected to our fellow humans. It seems like carrying out those threats on that person who hurt you would only perpetuate the violence and harm that was done to you. As interconnected as we are, wouldn’t that just be shooting yourself in the foot?” My new comrade, nodded his head thoughtfully, “Yeah, I’d probably just get myself in trouble.”

As I walked out of the room, I was reminded of another theme that our Discipleship Group focused on this year, which was recognizing both the beauty and the pain in life. “Active hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world….Active hope is a readiness to discover the reasons for hope and the occasions for love.”4  I recognized that the pain that I felt for this man, who had been wronged in so many ways, grew from this interconnectedness that we shared. He and the racoons helped me to discover more reasons for hope and occasions for love.

1. Joanna Macy, Molly Brown. Coming Back to Life. New Society, 2014, p.43.

2. John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming, Arne Naess. Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings.  New Society, 1988, p.20.

3. Joanna Macy, Chris Johnstone. Active Hope. New Society, 2012, p.67.

4. Joanna Macy, Chris Johnstone. Active Hope. New Society, 2012, p. 35.



East Bay Discipleship Group Reflection

By Eric Lawrence

Luke 12:54-56

Less than a year ago, David Brazil, a Bay Area activist, disciple, poet, and pastor, brought a message to our congregation: Must Antifa bear the cross alone?  His message was similar to a message that Vincent Harding brought a gathering of Mennonite leaders decades earlier.  How does a universalising criteria of non-violence actually function in a world where power and privilege are unequally distributed, where some people live under the direct repression of the state or paramilitary and white-supremacist vigilante violence and others do not?  In other words, is a commitment to non-violence and peace really just a way for rich and privileged peoples to maintain their status with a clean conscience while materially oppressed peoples actively take up the fight for the own self-determination?  In such a reality, pacifists are a smug hinderance to the Kingdom of God and passive preservationists of the kingdom of the world

David’s sermon was just published in the most recent Mennonite, and in it he draws on Dietrich Bonhoffer’s distinction between cheap and costly grace and concludes — and I’m taking some liberty in being both more direct and less thoughtful than he is — that a pacifism within a socially/economcially privileged group such as ours that judges the actions of left-wing antifascist activists as morally blameworthy or naively wrongheaded, when it is they who are physically protecting vulnerable people from fascist forces and directly engaging these forces, is a pacifism that has denied the costly grace of Jesus’ admonition to pick up our crosses and follow him.

Moved by David’s message, Anne Blackwood and Joanna Shenk crafted the East Bay Discipleship Group to respond to this challenge.  How are we to maintain our peace witness in a way that builds solidarity and God’s peace, rather than insulating us from engagement and connection with others pursuing these goals?

Once a month, for 9 months we gathered at Dave and Heidi’s over shared food, meditation, journaling, singing and discussion.  Every meeting was opened with journaling about either a prompt, or homework from the previous meeting, or a “checking in” with our bodies in order to facilitate a discussion that was both self-aware and spirit-led.  I appreciated the tone that this practice set for our time together.  There was a peaceful seriousness of the discussions that followed.  

And we did have some discussions.  Looking back, I’m fascinated by the thread of the topics and homework we did.  We started with a daunting, exhaustive topical list of research into the history of social justice issues for each month’s meeting.  We scrapped this syllabus in favor of a month-by month approach  and began with an inquiry into local social justice organizations that we could partner with, and a discussion of the possibility and feasibility of creating our own autonomous chapter of Christian Peacemaker Teams that could be a ready peace force to show up when needed.  From there we got into the Poor People’s Campaign, prayer walks, a discussion of Capitalist Realism and neo-liberalism, and a debrief/analysis of the hymn-singing action.  We were always able to generate enough discussion for homework and a topic for our next meeting.

Frequently fomenting in our discussions was the tension between thought and action.  The sentiment that we’ve done enough thinking, talking, studying, etc., and now it’s time to take action, was frequently voiced, only to be quickly followed by a contentious discussion of all the possible actions that we could take, the myriad pros and cons, over which little to no agreement emerged, thus leading to more study, followed by dis-ease with not taking action and so on.  That is not to say that we did not engage in collective efforts to realize First Mennonite’s unique contribution to our world or that certain important themes did not emerge.  

In fact, we generated a lot of enthusiasm for the Poor People’s Campaign.  We looked into the history of the movement and found ourselves, despite our varying theological commitments, impressed and moved by the both the depth of the analysis and the witness of the spiritual audacity of the movement and its leaders.  Many of us attended the worship service/rally in Oakland and have since put sustained effort into the 40 days of action, of which we are in the middle.

On another evening ,we realized that a well-resourced congregation, with respect to finances and education, is an asset that can be leveraged to, for example, provide bail for politically targeted and vulnerable immigrants.  Or that our connectedness and peace-oriented family-rearing allows us to take in and care for children of those targeted by ICE.

One last theme to mention is the sustained interest in developing the resources for generative dialogue with our more conservative families and friends and the desire to be in unity and accountable with the larger church.   

Three take-aways for me from our group were the need for more prayer, the need for further study, and the need for more collective discipline and coordination. 

We continue to struggle with our wealth and the protection and security that affords us.  We also struggle with how our education is a deterrent to poor people.  We want everyone to feel invited and welcomed and to have meaningful dialogues. 

In my reflection and prayer, I see a danger to our discipleship in the belief that we’re too educated and need to act or that our education is a deterrent to the poor or to meaningful unity and dialogue with Christians on the other end of the theological/political spectrum.  

And now speaking for myself and the convictions placed on my heart, in all humility and acknowledgement of my lack of faith and commitment — The time with the East Bay Discipleship Group has instilled in me the necessity of deepening our collective analysis.  We need to think more, not less.  Without an understanding of how capitalism functions and infects us in this time and this place and how we are formed by principalities and powers, we will engage in token actions, or find ourselves frustrated and stymied both subjectively and objectively.  

We need to be able to read the signs of the time.  To read the signs of the time requires study and prayer.  Deep, strident prayer.  Our tradition and faith offers us prayer as a way to find our collective humanity, where our unity actually comes from, and I’m convicted to spend more time in active deliberate prayer.  I encourage and challenge myself and others to eschew unity with Mennonite USA or our parents or other conservative congregations and find our unity and accountablity with the poor, the oppressed, and each other.  The reactionaries and conservatives have no qualms dismissing the cries of the vulnerable and coalescing power for their perverted and self-serving ends.  we don’t need to waste precious energy trying to find lowest common denominators with other congregations or translating our analysis to appease those on the right.

 We stand at a potential turning or crisis point in humanity’s collective history or destiny: ecological disaster looms, white-supremacist/proto-fascist forces are gripping the global West, economic disparity is at an all-time high, universal alienation and a legacy of white-supremacy results in an epidemic of school/public shootings and killings.  We need prayer, study, and discipline to be disciples today.

In our final meeting, we wanted to move forward with a discipleship group based in experimenting.  It seems that experiments in congregation-wide costly discipleship can build the discipline and infrastructure that will be required as we move into an uncertain future, always focused on the love of God and the common inheritance of the Holy Spirit.