Building a Healthy Community, One Person at a Time

At Reconciliation Services I often witness great philanthropy, or loving of mankind, being offered up by those in our community--a mother giving up her food so her children have enough; a father working a third job to save for a deposit on a safer apartment; a homeless man giving away his gloves to warm another’s cold hands; a volunteer dashing onto a city bus outside our building to give away hot take-home meals to the hungry. These seemingly small acts, these sacrifices, remind me of our great mission to reconcile the distance between us.

Last week, an elderly woman came in desperately in need of new eyeglasses and suffering terrible pain in her teeth. She lives on her modest social security income but recently began caring for her three grandchildren as well, which made it very difficult to tend to her own health needs. The children’s needs came first. By providing her with new eyeglasses and the emergency dental work she needed, we enabled her to both care for herself and her grandchildren better.

Thanks to our partnership with KC Medicine Cabinet and by leveraging your generous support through our on-site counseling and case management, RS was able to provide $35,776 in vouchers for dental services, medical equipment, prescriptions, vision care, eyeglasses and more in January 2017. That is our highest amount of monthly Medicine Cabinet assistance offered to date!

Often people are faced with the tough decision to buy groceries or medicine, to pay their rent or seek care for painful dental issues. Medicine Cabinet funds distributed by RS caseworkers help cover additional medical supplies or optical and dental services that remain out of reach for many families living below the poverty line in our city--things like dentures, crutches, shower chairs, hearing aids, nebulizers, eyeglasses, compression socks, emergency dental work, prescriptions, dentures, or other necessary procedures or supplies.  

“We cherish our relationship with Reconciliation Services,” said Jodi Wilson, Program Director of KC Medicine Cabinet. “Every day they work closely with clients to ensure each of them receive the necessary Emergency Medical assistance.”  

Here’s how we leveraged KC Medicine Cabinet vouchers in January 2017:

  • Provided eyeglasses for 52 individuals, including 25 children
  • Gave more than $7,000 to provide hearing aids
  • Secured emergency dental care and more advanced dental services, like dentures and partials, for 34 individuals
  • Gave vouchers for over $1,200 in medical supplies
  • Offered much needed prescription vouchers to 35 individuals

Every day, hour by hour, moment by moment, at RS we see how acts of love and service lead to health and stability spreading throughout our community, reconciling the distance between us and revealing the strengths of those we serve. That grandma that got new eyeglasses and emergency dental care can now focus more fully on caring for her grandchildren, pouring her time and energy into loving them well. This is the kind of philanthropy that strengthens communities.

By Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director

Your Giving Has Changed the lives of Thousands in 2016!

Each year I am amazed at what our staff, generous donors and dedicated volunteers accomplish in partnership with our clients and neighbors on Troost. It is no small thing day in and day out to walk alongside our most vulnerable community members to reveal their strengths. And yet, each morning our doors open and people come in for help, for warmth, and for hope.

You have made a difference in the lives of so many by enabling RS to care for over 5,150 unduplicated individuals this year!

This year also brought new staff, a newly remodeled RS Cafe and commercial kitchen, an improved Troost Jazz and Soul Experience fundraiser, and renewed vision for our work.

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Hospitality Services
The RS Cafe is where neighbors first receive hospitality like hot, nutritious food at our Friday Night Meal, and enjoy coffee in our Internet Cafe. Now, with our remodeled RS Cafe space, we have a more uplifting and safe environment to complement our work. Upgrading our kitchen and pantry to meet commercial standards further supports our efforts to grow the RS Internet Café into a “Pay What You Can” RS Cafe at 31st and Troost, opening in 2017.

Your gifts to RS in support of our Hospitality Services

  • helped feed over 3,000 individuals and 1,700 households through our pantry, including 600 children
  • served over 12,500 meals through Friday night meal program
  • provided free gigabit speed internet and the only public computers on Troost
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Emergency Social Services
Our work to reveal the strengths of those we serve often begins with some form of emergency social services, whether people are in need of an ID and birth certificate, rent and utilities assistance, medicine or medical supplies, urgent dental or vision care, or in-depth case management. Triaging immediate needs helps lower barriers to self-sufficiency and connects clients with trained caseworkers.

Your gifts to RS in support of our Emergency Social Services

  • provided medical assistance to over 1,000 totalling over $200,000 in care
  • helped launch our I’D BE Campaign to raise awareness about the many reasons people need an ID
  • helped us secure over 1,200 IDs, birth certificates and work permits to help people get jobs, housing, education and other public services.

Therapeutic Services
Beyond working to address immediate challenges our neighbors face every day, is the ongoing, deep healing from trauma that must happen. Through our Therapeutic Services, we have adopted what we call our “stealth mental health” program that uses group and individual therapy as well as intensive case management to create a supportive and encouraging network of people to promote healing and reconciliation for themselves.

Your gifts to RS in support of our Therapeutic Services

  • gave 75 men and women suffering from trauma access to our caring therapists and case managers
  • provided 800 hours of group therapy and 500 hours of individual therapy to those who would have gone untreated otherwise
  • helped bring these neighbors together to support each other in creating an ecosystem of healing in Kansas City’s most challenging neighborhoods.

Economic Community Building Services
Finding sustainable income and meaningful work is critical for revealing the community’s strength and stopping the cycle of poverty. Our Economic Community Building Services are aimed at creating opportunities for growth and stability by offering digital survival classes, self-sufficiency workshops, deepening community involvement for our seniors, and creating jobs.

Your gifts in support of the RS Economic Community Building Services

  • helped 106 low-income senior citizens share their hearts and wisdom with over 350 children in 31 schools, hospitals and civic agencies across Jackson, Clay and Platte Counties
  • provided jobs for over 285 people through Resolve Staffing, an RS Social Ventures company
  • created 31,000+ billable hours, paying $9-$12.50/hr to neighbors (mostly east of Troost) in various food service, hospitality, packaging and maintenance jobs in KC

With your very generous support in 2016 RS walked alongside our most vulnerable neighbors and provided social, therapeutic and economic community building services to more people than ever before. We are deepening our collaboration with the 12+ neighborhoods east of Troost and their resident leaders. We are even reaching further east and south in KCMO to places where help is harder to find. Thank you!

You helped us take the next steps in our vision of transforming Troost from a dividing line to a gathering place of hope and reconciliation. Please join with us in making 2017 a year of reconciliation and hope again by continuing to support RS generously at year-end.  

For those we serve
Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services

Give the Gift of Self-Sufficiency this Holiday Season

Getting an ID can help people take crucial first steps towards self-sufficiency. Without it, you can’t get food stamps, apply for a job or housing, secure healthcare, enroll kids in school, visit a sick child in the hospital, get a library card, or even vote.

Recently a man came to RS who desperately wanted to work but didn’t have the ID required to complete a job application. He had so much he wanted to be … but without his ID he was trapped. He had been living out of his car, trying to start over again. But when his car was stolen so was nearly everything he owned, including his ID.

“Without an ID people are left vulnerable, unable to prove who they are, and are cut-off from privileges, services, and even rights,” Fr. Justin Mathews pointed out in his recent blog, “Beyond the Vote: Why You Should Care About Access to IDs.

It only costs about $25 to pay for an ID. However, for many of our clients, the cost and the lack of understanding of the process puts that ID just out of their reach.

This year RS launched the “I’D BE Campaign” and helped over 800 people secure ID’s and take that first step towards self-sufficiency. Your generous gifts enabled caring RS staff to evaluate needs, work together with clients to navigate the complicated application process, secure needed documentation, and provide a voucher to pay for their IDs.

Please consider giving a gift this holiday season that could change the course of someone’s life.

Will you donate $25, $50, $100 or even more to help at least one person get their ID? Join the I’D BE Campaign today and sponsor someone’s chance to be employed, educated, housed, healthy, involved.

Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.

BEYOND THE VOTE: Why you should care about access to IDs

On Nov. 8th, 2016, Missouri joined 17 other states that have put legal restrictions on voting by adding a constitutional amendment requiring government issued photo IDs, in order to vote.

Voting is a critical right for all citizens and legal and reasonable access to voting should be a priority. However, there remains a gap between the law and reality, between the intent and actualization. An ID offers access to a deep well of possibilities for self-sufficiency and dignity and we should care about everyone having access to that. The need for an ID goes beyond being able to vote. It is important for our survival!

Did you know that without an ID you can’t get food assistance, apply for a job or housing, secure healthcare, enroll your kids in school, visit a sick child in the hospital, or even get a library card? Without an ID people are left vulnerable, unable to prove who they are, and are cut-off from privileges, services, and even rights.

In our daily work at 31st and Troost, we have seen first hand the hardship imposed on the poor, the handicapped, and the elderly in trying to obtain an ID. Since our inception in 2005, we have made it a priority to help our clients secure IDs and birth certificates. RS is now one of the largest providers of ID assistance in KC. We know that with an ID, people are able to take those first steps towards self-sufficiency.

A friend told me recently that his elderly mother was facing serious challenges getting access to her elder care and housing. It had been years since his mother needed a driver’s license and no one in the family could find her birth certificate. It took two months and the tenacious advocacy of her adult children to navigate the complex bureaucracy of interstate clerical offices and hospital record archives before she received her birth certificate. Only then was his mother able to obtain a photo ID and the services she so desperately needed.

How does one access and verify their own history and identity if they are born out of state or legally immigrated from a war torn country but don’t understand the language and process? Maybe they don’t know their birth parents, or were raised in foster care and moved excessively. Maybe they lost everything because of fleeing abuse or due to theft, and may not even have an address to receive an ID or birth certificate in the mail. Having a caring and knowledgeable advocate is essential during the process of securing an ID and that is why RS is here.

Last week a man came to RS who desperately wanted to work but didn’t have the ID required to complete a job application. He was referred to RS for help obtaining his ID and stayed for a hot, nutritious meal and to use our RS Internet Café. He had been living out of his car, trying to get his life back on track but when his car was stolen, so was nearly everything he owned, including his ID. He had so much he wanted to be, but without his ID he was trapped.

This year RS launched the “I’D BE Campaign” and has helped over 800 people secure their ID and take their first steps towards self-sufficiency. In 2017, we want to help even more people get their ID and start living a life of stability and dignity. With an ID they have the opportunity to be housed, employed, educated, healthy, and involved. Through the generous support of donors, RS staff is able to evaluate individual needs, work together with clients to navigate the complicated application process, secure additional needed documentation, and provide a voucher to pay for the IDs.

It costs about $25 to pay for an ID. For many of our clients, the cost and the lack of understanding of the process puts that ID just out of their reach. It may only cost $25 for the ID but the support and services RS offers along the way are also vital.

At times our country has revealed itself to be deeply divided over pressing issues such as immigration, economic policy, education, health care, public benefits, and ease of voting. Perhaps where we will find common ground is in working together to ensure that all of our neighbors, especially the poor, can secure the ID they need to access privileges, services, and rights without complication or undue burden. It might be just the right place to start.

Join with us as we continue to advocate for our most vulnerable neighbors. Become a monthly sponsor of the I’D BE Campaign today.

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Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.
 

Happiness is a Little Boy with a Pitcher of Lemonade

“What do you like about going to Reconciliation Services and helping serve the Friday night meal?” I asked my nine-year-old son.

“I like making people smile,” he answered.

Who can resist smiling at a cute little boy with glasses working the room with his lemonade pitcher in hand? Some of the guests at RS have even offered him a few coins or a small tip, to which he always refuses, gratefully.

I have been taking my three sons to serve the Friday night meal for many years. When my oldest son was a baby—he’s 14 now—I would wear him in a carrier on my back so I could help out on Friday nights at RS. 

Now, each of my boys fall into their familiar duties when we arrive to serve. My oldest son likes to run out trays full of plates of food. My middle son bounces between back-of-house food prep and serving plates to guests. And then there is my youngest, my nine-year-old, too small to carry the trays, too distracted to prep the meals, too social to stay in the back. 

In the midst of these bustling Friday night gatherings, my nine-year-old serves with joy and zeal. He fills up pitchers of lemonade as he walks around the first floor dining area. He offers refills. He smiles. And often the mood of the room begins to change. 

RS offers an alternative to the “soup kitchen” model that moves folks through a line as they collect their meal on a tray. Guests arrive for the Friday night meal and find a place to sit around common tables with other friends and neighbors from the community. As they are sitting and enjoying conversation, volunteers serve them dinner. No lines, no balancing trays, but a simple meal served in a dignified way by volunteers who care, like my kids.

I am finding that cultivating a zeal for service and a love of neighbor bears fruit with consistent and persistent work. For me, that means I often take my kids along with me to serve. I can talk about serving others and caring for my neighbor, but I also need to show them what that might look like and they need to have opportunities to practice it. 

I don’t shelter my kids from the challenges of serving others. Sometimes the bus stop outside the RS front door is thick with tension, angry voices, sad faces, and desperate pleas. Sometimes it is a welcoming hub of smiles and hellos. We don’t always know what is waiting when we set out, but if we hesitated because of fear or discomfort, we would also miss the joy. It is good to gather items to give, but the lessons that are born from the giving of oneself, cannot be underestimated. Holding the arm of an elderly homeless man while he takes his seat, seeing the faces of young kids come through the door to have dinner, and hearing the strange murmurings of a mentally ill young woman, remind us that there are real people on the other end of our giving and that our time and attention are our most treasured gifts.

I try not to squelch their joy and zeal. One time my boys wanted to bring their Halloween candy to RS to hand out at the Friday night meal. It was hard to resist the urge to talk them out of doling out their artificial, sugary treats, but I did. As they shared their candy, people smiled and remarked about how generous they were to give up their candy. It may have just been candy, but it was their candy and they wanted to give it away. Why would I say NO to them giving their own stuff away? All of my boys play the piano, each to a varying degree of ability and complexity. Whether it is a clunky attempt at Christmas carols or the opening theme to Star Wars, each time they sit at the old, out-of-tune piano on the first floor of RS they offer up their talents, their joy, for everyone present. I need to allow them the freedom to be joyful and to offer whatever they have to give. 

I want to cultivate a love for people, not merely a habit of serving people. If we merely approach acts of service as part of a checklist for our holiday generosity or a way of fulfilling community service hours for school or club recognition, then we miss out on the deep well of relationship and community that comes from regular involvement in serving others. When I point my children back to the people they are surrounded by, the faces they see each time they are there, I can help them create stronger connections with the people they are serving, not merely the act of serving. They begin putting a name with a face and giving high fives when they enter the building. They become regular participants in the lives of others, not distant benefactors supporting a generic cause.

So whether it’s passing along Halloween treats, playing an off-beat and out-of-tune carol, or walking through the room filling up glasses of lemonade, let loose the joy and zeal of the youth. We have much to learn from them and they have much to offer. 

Article by Jodi Mathews

Give, Do, Be: My Kids Call Me to Action

I remember the first time I really saw homeless people. I was in the backseat of the car riding through downtown San Francisco with my family. As we waited for a stop light to turn green, I pointed out to my Dad all the people just sitting around waiting for the bus.

“Honey, they aren’t waiting for the bus,” he said. “They live there.” My heart sank. The weight of his words were too heavy. I didn’t say anything else about it. I simply cried, quietly.

At the time, we lived in a huge Southern California city. I had seen many families and individuals come to the church where my Dad was a pastor and ask for assistance. People who needed help with utilities, food, gas money to continue on their way, would come through the doors of the church. My Dad would take time and listen and try and discern how to best help. The concept of caring for those in need had always been deeply foundational to my worldview. But it had also been very abstract to me until that day in San Francisco, that drive.

Now I am a mother and my three sons are growing up in a diverse urban community. They are confronted daily with people in need, homelessness, and panhandling.

My kids often see things so simply, so concretely. A few years ago, our Sunday drive to church took us past the same corner each week. There was almost always someone standing and asking for money. The faces changed from week to week but the presence of someone with a cardboard sign had become a familiar sight. When my oldest son started to see that this was a regular encounter he decided to put a cup with change next to his seat in the car. That way when we rolled up to the intersection he could give his coins to whomever happened to be standing there that Sunday. He would reach his little hand out the very back window of our minivan and offer his few coins.

Now our morning and afternoon drive to and from school takes us past several busy intersections where men and women are standing on the corner with their signs in hand. As the weather turned milder, we noticed more folks on more corners. My youngest son is usually the first to ask, “Mom, don't we have anything we can give him?”

Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. And when we pass six to eight different folks each day on our commute it can be hard not to become desensitized to the fact that they are even there. Sometimes I’ve found myself rolling up just far enough so the person is out of my periphery. Or, I’ve been tempted to hit the gas and zoom through the yellow light so I won’t have to wait out the next light right next to a smiling sign holder.

These encounters have made for interesting points of conversation and learning for my children and for me. They are a reminder to me that how we respond matters.

In their innocence and curiosity, my kids are the ones that brought to light this need to consider our response to the guy standing on the corner asking for money. Their pleading for me to give something, their questions about why I can’t help, showed me that we needed to do something. We needed to consider ways we could honor the panhandler on the street corner. We needed a plan. Here’s what we came up with:

First, be kind. Sometimes we have something practical to offer and sometimes all we have is a prayer in our hearts and a smile on our faces. Smiles have this amazing ability to diffuse and disarm. When we roll to a stop and there is someone asking for food or money and we have neither to give, we can still honor them with a kind face and a smile. I think it may be worse to be ignored or disdained than to be without money or a home.

Next, we planned ahead to give. When the weather is hot, we keep a small cooler with water bottles inside it to offer folks standing outside. When the weather turns colder, we pack ziploc bags with hand warmers, socks, granola bars, nuts, etc., to hand out. One time, we even put a small chocolate bar in with some winter essentials to give away. I remember the look on one guy’s face when he took the bag and then noticed the chocolate. He smiled and kept waving to us long after I had started driving off. His response warmed our hearts.

Lastly, we planned ahead to serve. Places like Reconciliation Services put in hour after hour, day after day, year after year serving and caring for people in need. Helping serve the Friday night meal, volunteering to help with food pantry, organizing a donation drive or a cleaning project, are practical and meaningful ways for us to care for others. My boys and I try and serve or volunteer at RS regularly, knowing that although we may not always have money or food to give, we can offer our time. We would love you to join us. You will discover that there are many ways to serve!

Having a plan for how to respond, whether through giving, serving, or our kindness, has softened my heart towards the folks I see standing on the corner. I don’t want to ignore or avoid them. That’s why I’ve taken cues from my boys. I want to see the person standing there and strive to honor them, at the very least, with my kindness.

Article by Jodi Mathews

Thank you—together we have achieved incredible things!

As we near the last couple months of 2016, it strikes me how exceptional last year was and so I'm so excited to share all that you made possible!

With the launch of this new website, thousands have joined our cause and subscribed to ‘Venerate’, our compelling bi-monthly e-newsletter. In 2015, your support helped expand Emergency Services staff to include a full-time intake specialist and two new full-time case managers; Self-Sufficiency Services grew too and helped reveal the strengths of our vibrant community by providing group therapy to 62 women and individual therapy to 24 women. We also launched our RS Internet Café, transforming Troost from a dividing line into a gathering place where 687 people found a place to belong while participating in our "digital survival" classes, enjoying coffee, computers and gigabit internet. 

A SnAP Women's Therapy Class with Program Manager Sylvia Goodloe, LMSW pictured top center.

A SnAP Women's Therapy Class with Program Manager Sylvia Goodloe, LMSW pictured top center.

Our economic community building programs connected hundreds to stable income and meaningful work. The Foster Grandparents program mobilized an army of 100 low-income senior citizens who volunteered over 91,000 hours in 30 schools to mentor at-risk children. For the 12th year, RS served as fiscal sponsor for the Troost Festival to foster friendships and dialogue across Troost Avenue. In November, RS Social Ventures, Inc.—a C-Corporation and wholly-owned subsidiary of RS—was established to create new jobs for our community and to enhance our sustainability. 

On behalf of those we serve, thank you for your generosity, prayers and encouragement as you have so faithfully given to support our work! If you'd like to read our 2015 Annual Report in its entirety you can do so here.

Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.
 

Digital Survival

Potential. Possibility. Progress. These are three words that can describe the modern world we live in. The advent of faster, stronger technology has touched every facet of our American lives. We have the ability to travel thousands of miles in a matter of hours. We can heal illnesses that in the past would have wiped out whole populations and we can access information at a speed faster than we can process it. Just a few generations ago, these things would have been considered nothing short of magic.

Our Digital Survival class might be described as ‘nothing short of magic’ by many we serve in our RS community. It is a class that teaches digital literacy to a community that is impacted profoundly by the digital divide. A recent survey done by Google Fiber found that 17 percent of Kansas City (roughly 80,000) do not have access to the Internet. Of that number, 41 think the Internet is irrelevant and 28 percent lack access. Demographically, 44 percent are seniors, 46 percent are African-American, 42 percent make less than $25,000 a year and 64 percent have a high school education or less. These numbers are directly representative of the community that RS serves.

Many of our neighbors live in a world where they see great opportunity in the form of tools for technology and information, yet they can't move forward. Many experience feelings of frustration and confusion, but they are often too intimidated or embarrassed to ask why this is the case. More importantly, the majority of our neighbors don’t know how to change their situation. They can see the potential, possibility and progress all around them, but they are painfully aware of their inability to access it. This inability has several root causes: for some it's the lack of education, for some it's an ignorance of computer technology that borders on superstition, but for the majority it is a simple lack of access to the technology itself.

At RS cafe, we offer free Wi-Fi to the neighborhood. This allows those who have the technology such as a smartphone to get online. Once there, they may look for housing, find a loved one, or as you may have read in our Venerate article about Fr. Chris they can find employment through Resolve Staffing. Many however, have the technology, such as a low-grade smart phone, but they don’t know how to use it. That’s where our Digital Survival Class comes in. We help them discover the tools that are already at their fingertips. At RS addressing the digital divide is an important aspect of advocacy because it represents a means by which the community we serve can find dignity and solutions to become community sufficient.

Poverty isn't something that is easily solved and digital literacy is only one piece of the puzzle, but in this modern world it is an important piece. For that young woman who desperately needs a job, getting an email set up and having a computer to help sign up for daycare is the very thing that can make or break her life situation.

Article by Fr. Deacon Turbo Qualls, RS

Reconciliation Starts With Me

I knew when she shoved me off the sidewalk into my car that things had gotten out of hand. How did we go from good friends to this? We went to school together. We ran on the same track team. We were even in the same youth group.

She had cut off our friendship unexpectedly and without explanation and now it seemed that she couldn’t stand the sight of me. I was utterly confused. I truly had no idea what I had done or said that caused her to end our friendship so abruptly and painfully.

I remember talking to my Mom about this severed relationship. Why was this former friend being so rude? Why wouldn’t she talk to me? What had I done?

My mom encouraged me to be vulnerable and to be open to this friend, to seek her out and try and understand what I had done. She told me that I may have to be the one to take the first steps to restoring our friendship and that meant I may need to ask this friend’s forgiveness.

It didn’t matter what, if anything, I had done. What mattered was what I would do with the realization that my friend was hurting and angry and, that I may have played some unknown role in that.

I wanted to be reconciled, to have our relationship restored. Was I willing to make the first move?

Reconciliation can be defined as restoring friendly relations, bringing together again, fence-mending. The Greek word for reconciliation is katallasso, which literally means “to change; to restore to favor.” When we effect a change we cause something to happen, we act. But what if there is conflict and tension without the clear understanding of our role in it? What if that conflict and tension goes deeper than a simple offense or act of insensitivity?

Many people in my community and several who come through Reconciliation Services carry the heavy burdens of trauma and injustice. I have found myself in situations where my very presence seemed offensive and produced discomfort. What I represent, what I have, what I don’t have to deal with--may be reminders of another person’s disappointments, disadvantages, and struggles.

Fr. Justin Mathews’ recent insightful and honest article about white privilege garnered many heated remarks from readers, some declaring that “we don’t have to apologize for who we are.” The danger of this attitude can be that when we encounter conflict and offense we inevitably respond by shoring up walls and building a stronger defense of who we are. I’m suggesting that reconciliation requires something different. Reconciliation requires restoration and change, not justification. Reconciliation calls us out from behind those walls and invites us to a place of common ground, to build fences and “to restore favor.”

On our better days, we might readily apologize for something we did that was wrong or something we said that was hurtful. What about asking forgiveness for something we didn’t personally participate in, like redlining, slavery or segregation? Can we stand with those who have been degraded, abused and forgotten, striving to see what they see and feel what they feel? If we are seeking true reconciliation does it really matter whether or not we can pinpoint our specific role in an offense or injustice?

In the Orthodox Christian Church we begin the season of Lent by asking forgiveness of one another. It is a fresh start to a season of deep prayer and contemplation. We literally ask forgiveness of and embrace each member of our church, those we know well and those we don’t. We ask forgiveness of the children and the adults, those we may truly have offended and those whom we know we have not. We do this because we understand that in order to be reconciled to God we must first be reconciled with one another.  We seek to be aware of our role in reconciliation, our struggle to take first steps. For those things known and unknown, realizing that although we may not have wronged the individual standing in front of us, our separation from or offense against anyone hurts our whole community.

“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see God,” it charges in Hebrews 12:14. Pursuing peace, striving for reconciliation, is hard work. It is an active working to restore favor, not a hope that someday it may come.

I wish I could say that when I tried to talk with my old high school friend about the dissonance between us that she opened her heart, that she wanted reconciliation too. Unfortunately, she remained distant until I left for college. It was a great sadness for me at the time. I learned through that struggle though, that reconciliation is first and foremost my own personal journey towards restoration. We may not know how our heart’s desire for reconciliation will be received, but the best way to find out is to take the first step.

Article by Jodi Mathews

Deconstructing Dominant Narratives as an Act of Veneration

White actors in blackface, depictions of slaves as grotesque beasts, and justifications of the KKK as a peace-keeping institution are among the many controversial features of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation. The film hit the silver screen as one of Hollywood’s first major motion pictures with an unprecedented budget for its time. A cinematic marvel, it featured some of the earliest uses of panoramic long shots and night photography, as well as impressive large-scale battle scenes and sets. It was a commercial success and was even shown at the White House under President Woodrow Wilson. The film’s impact cannot be underestimated.

For all its innovations, The Birth of a Nation is equally laden with negative racial stereotypes. These stereotypes supported racially prejudiced dominant narratives–commonly held understandings about history or culture that gave preference to the dominant class. The film features white actors in blackface, and depicts black slaves as unruly, savage and subhuman. The film climaxes with a scene depicting an all-white heavenly multitude assembled around a fair-skinned Jesus. Aside from the racist images, the most influential ideas communicated in the film are that the Civil War was not about slavery; black participation in politics created anarchy in government and the KKK used reasonable methods to restore order to the South.

Like today’s entertainment, The Birth of a Nation channelled common interpretations of current events and solidified these ideas in popular culture. Racist conceptions of slave life and inaccurate understandings about the war were perpetuated in both entertainment and historical scholarship, and they have continued into the present day. In fact, I was taught that the Civil War was not about slavery in an American History class I took at a Texas community college. One of my professors once said that the Civil War was one of those rare instances when history was written by the loser (the former Confederacy).

The Birth of a Nation embodies several examples of dominant narratives. The most prominent narrative running throughout the film is the idea that institutional slavery and the establishment of the KKK were justified because blacks are somehow prone to violent behavior and need to be controlled. These are not simply out-dated prejudices, but are still very much alive. Consider the recent attempt to downplay the severity of slavery in response to the First Lady’s comments about the White House having been built by slaves or a recent police video in which an officer voiced the opinion that black people may have “violent tendencies.”  These stereotypes feed dominant narratives that not only omit other voices, but fail to recognize each person as a unique living icon worthy of veneration. In this case, veneration looks like honoring someone by listening to a story that may run counter to popular prejudices or a dominant narrative.

I am guilty of participating in these negative dominant narratives. Some of these narratives I’ve mentioned in my blog, Approaching the Homeless as Icons of Christ or Problems to be Fixed. I often make assumptions about others and create caricatures out of them. When someone asks me for money, I judge their character or assume the worst about their situation. Like The Birth of a Nation, I allow my prejudices to influence my opinions about people and I distance myself because of it. Some of these narratives are rooted in white privilege - social benefits I have not earned yet nevertheless enjoy by virtue of my racial and social background.

Someone recently pointed out to me that while I can choose to not think about race or issues surrounding skin color, people of color do not have that privilege. I can choose to live in a “post-racial society” by surrounding myself with people for whom race is not a significant factor. I can construct a dominant narrative about the world that is free of racial tension. I can choose to close my ears to the experiences of those who have been disenfranchised or who have suffered because of institutional racism, simply because it does not affect me on a personal level. I am working to deconstruct this narrative nearly every day and I need grace to be open enough to listen to the stories of others.

St. Paul instructs his first century multi-cultural church, “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:9). This is done—as he later says—when we “mourn with those who mourn,” and in my case, when I listen to other narratives.

This year, another film is being released titled The Birth of a Nation. It is set over thirty years before the Civil War and tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion of 1831. Will this version receive as warm a welcome as the 1915 film? Unlike the original Birth of a Nation, Nat Turner’s story is not one of victory, and it did not result in the permanent liberation of slaves. Turner’s rebellion was bloody, wrought with complicated ethical questions and problems. Will those questions be probed, or will the film catch criticism for glorifying racially-motivated violence and sedition?

I believe the film will be an opportunity to listen to another story, one that runs counter to the dominant narrative. The Birth of a Nation tells a story defending the legitimacy of slavery and racism, and Nat Turner’s story challenges us to look at our history and the conditions of slavery that pushed people to revolution. For me, it will be yet another chance to deconstruct a dominant narrative. It will be an opportunity to mourn with those who have mourned throughout our history. It will be an opportunity to listen.

Further reading:

Redefining Black Film, Mark A. Reid
Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Ed Guerrero
“Arts of the Contact Zone,” Mary Louise Pratt
“The Social Construction of Race,” Ian Haney Lopez

Article by Jonathan Reavis

Acknowledging White Privilege: An Act of Veneration

Ed, a middle aged white man from North Carolina, took the microphone and said, “I frequently observe in myself a lot of racism. I flee it by fleeing social media and internet usage ... but it comes up anyway, over and over. It comes up especially when I hear the term ‘white privilege.’ I ask you, how can I combat this?” Giving up the microphone, Ed, sat down. We were both attending the annual St. Moses the Black Brotherhood conference.

I first met Ed a few years ago when he visited my church. He stayed long after others left the sanctuary. Ed loves to polish brass for the churches he visits and he’s meticulous. He even carries with him a kit of soft bristle brushes, homemade paste and scraps of rag. As he polished the furrows of a single candlestick from the altar, he revealed beauty hidden under the wax, the soot and the stain. The vulnerability and thoughtfulness of Ed’s question at the conference was as thoughtful and as revealing as his work on our church brass!

I have thought about that moment at the conference for some time now. What impacted me the most was Ed’s vulnerably in exposing his heart in front of a large group of primarily African American people. Ed broke the silence and took a risk. He began by saying, “I frequently observe in myself a lot of racism.” I remember thinking, “What would our world be like if more of us white people were willing to be this vulnerable?”

Like most white kids raised to be “Midwest nice,” my parents would not tolerate racism in our home. I don’t remember a single instance when my parents spoke in a racist way. In fact, I thought little about racism until about a decade ago when I read an essay by Dr. Peggy McIntosh entitled, “White Privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack.”  It was then that I began to understand more clearly how racism works and how it relates to me.

Dr. McIntosh writes,

“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects— white privilege—which puts me at an advantage.”

As a white man I had no problem acknowledging that racism was a real struggle for many. However, I had never considered my participation in the perpetuation of racism by default, by not acknowledging how I benefit from it. Dr. McIntosh helped me to realize that racism is not only individual acts of meanness but an invisible system conferring dominance and preference on my group. This is white privilege!

I benefit from a society that is still entangled in racial bias - a society where my skin color does not put me at a disadvantage. I don’t get tailed by police when I drive through nice neighborhoods in my rusty Ford. I don’t get followed around while I shop. My name on a letter or resume does not provoke questions about my race or intelligence. When people engage me, I am automatically perceived as financially stable.

My white privilege became especially real to me recently. My friend and I both have teenage sons. I’m white and he’s black. I’ve never had to teach my son how to act if police see him playing with a toy gun. He has. I’ve never had to caution my son that people may assume he is up to no good when out with his friends. He has. I’ve never had to explain to my son that no matter how smart he is or how hard he works, he will always be seen as inferior by some people because of his skin color. He has!

Dr. McIntosh writes,

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

My personal knapsack came with economic, educational, gender and racial privileges. Acknowledging this privilege is not about feeling guilty or disavowing my heritage. Being born a white male doesn’t automatically mean I am a racist! Rather, in acknowledging my white privilege I am choosing to use this privilege to help others who unjustly bear burdens I do not.

St. Paul wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). To acknowledge my white privilege is to engage the faith that was given by a Savior whose first public sermon began by proclaiming ‘liberty to those who are oppressed' (Luke 4:18). Racism is a heresy, a rejection of the idea that every person is made in God’s image and likeness and worthy of veneration. As a Christian I am compelled by the Gospel to acknowledge racism, to reject its every form, and to repent for it in my life and, where I discover it, in the life of my forefathers.

Ed’s vulnerability at the conference reminded me of things I had read and seen through my work at RS. Breaking silence and taking risks to talk about the impact of racism and white privilege is an act of veneration and love. Like Ed, I desire to be meticulous about cleaning away the wax, the soot and the stain left from the legacy of slavery, racism and segregation on the furrows of my heart. When I acknowledge that I have white privilege it leaves me with the question of, “What do I do with it?” For, “to whom much is given, much is expected" (Luke 12:48).

Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.

The Gift of Veneration

The day I met Fana she was slowly walking down the middle of Troost Avenue. I stopped and asked her if she was okay and suggested she move to the sidewalk. I’m not sure she understood me then. 

After many months of seeing her on the street and in and out of our church and at Reconciliation Services, she seemed like she had become more comfortable with me. In her broken English she would ask me questions. She always asked me about my “babies.” Mostly she was quiet. I learned that she had emigrated from east Africa. She lived in a group home and had lost custody of her children due to her mental illness and instability. 

One Sunday after church I noticed how badly worn her shoes were. I asked her what size she wore. I had collected some donation items earlier in the week and I had a great pair of shoes in my car that had never been worn. They were even her size. What a wonderful coincidence I thought. 

When I took her out to the car and showed them to her she said she didn’t want them. Here I was trying to help her, to give her what she needed! I didn’t understand. But then again, I never asked her if she needed (or even wanted) new shoes. I saw her torn and dirty shoes and I thought I could fix that for her. 

The following week a friend and I asked Fana if she wanted to go to the store with us and pick out a pair of shoes. She seemed excited to go with us. It was fall and with winter on its way I tried to steer her towards some sensible options. She didn’t like what I picked out. She kept returning again and again to a pair of flashy and impractical wedge slip-on sandals. 

Against my better judgement we got the sandals. Fana seemed happy. 

The next time I saw her she wasn’t wearing the sandals. She was wearing her old tattered shoes. Didn’t she like them? Had she lost them? Had she sold them? I didn’t ask her about them because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer. 

C.S. Lewis wrote, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” 

I saw someone who needed shoes and I gave her shoes. I saw a need and honed in on a practical solution. That’s a good thing, right? But giving Fana a pair of shoes was well within the realm of what I could spare. It didn’t stretch me or challenge me. It didn’t necessitate time or attention—things that are much harder for me to part with.

I have written a quote on a chalkboard in my house by French philosopher Simone Weil. It reads, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” My giving was more of a knee-jerk-reaction to a need than an act of generosity. 

Over the course of many months of driving her to and from church and talking with her on the phone I did have more time with Fana. I learned of her sadness in losing her children. I heard her story of how she traded one world of suffering for another. I saw her frustration with her inability to understand the language and the place she now found herself in. I saw that in her tattered old purse that carried bits of plastic bags, random found objects, and what seemed like trash, she also carried the beautifully intricate beaded jewelry she made. 

St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:3 that “though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor … but have not love, it profits me nothing.” 

Fana needed so much—a home, a job, her family restored, her mind restored, and even some new shoes. But what I failed to understand till much later was that what she enjoyed about going to the store to pick out those shoes was the attentiveness that was offered to her then. 

Giving that is separated from love is empty. And generosity without attention is common and limited.

Fana is not unlike others I have met through Reconciliation Services. Trauma, displacement, abuse, poverty, mental illness, sickness, and addiction rob people of their dignity and so much more. By honoring and deeply respecting people, Reconciliation Services labors to cultivate true veneration for the people it serves. It is a generosity that is born out of attentiveness and it goes far beyond a quick fix for an immediate need. 

Fana has moved to another state. We have talked on the phone a few times since she moved. I never did see her wear those silly sandals. But in the end it wasn’t about me giving her the shoes I thought she needed—the quick fix. In the end, I needed to see that the most generous gift I could offer her was attention.

Article by Jodi Mathews

Guilt, Empathy and Veneration

I have never suffered discrimination because of my racial identity. My mother was adopted from Korea as a young child and my father was born into a white American and English family. For the most part, I have identified as white for all my life. Growing up, most of my peers were white and I didn’t really have any exposure to Korean culture. My Asian ancestry has never really been a source of discomfort for me, and my Asian physical features have only seldom been pointed out as indicators of difference. The one exception to my life of racial anonymity comes from a time when I worked at Starbucks.

It was during a slow block of time during my shift—around 2 or 3pm—when a semi-regular approached the register. He was a middle-aged white man, generally chummy with the baristas, and typically ordered a plain black coffee. I normally spent my entire shift working the bar, but on this day, I was manning the register. As the man approached the counter, I greeted him and asked what he would like to order. The man’s brow furrowed as he silently gazed through the top of my head and fixated upon the menu behind me. Assuming he had not heard me, I repeated my question, to which he responded with a grunt and crossed arms, his eyes still refusing to acknowledge me. When a few seconds had passed, a co-worker stepped in and took the man’s order without any trouble. I was later informed that the man refused to be served by me because he thought I was Vietnamese. Apparently, he had fought in the Vietnam war and was known to make derogatory remarks about Asians generally.

My gut reaction was one of confusion, but I didn’t want to react with offense. Perhaps this man had experienced trauma from his war experience. Perhaps I represented what he perceived was the source of his pain. I didn’t feel personally responsible for his trauma, and likewise I didn’t feel it right that he held a single racial group responsible for it. The experience did, however, provide me with a brief glimpse into what pain the man might be carrying, in the light of which any personal offense I held quickly faded.

Dostoyevsky says in Brothers Karamazov that “everyone is guilty for everyone else.” In the brief interaction in Starbucks the man projected blame upon me for actions that I didn’t commit. Momentarily I felt guilty for something beyond my control and initially it felt unjust. However, once the initial offense faded, I was able to see a fellow struggling human being instead of an instigator of aggression. Perhaps I would have felt similarly if I were in his shoes, I began to experience a sense of compassion.

In our culture guilt is usually utilized to demarcate the limits of moral responsibility rather than to be in solidarity with the human race, as Dostoyevsky seems to suggest. We tend to use personal guilt to confine blame to an individual person or situation. Initially I didn’t want to be held responsible for this man’s pain, especially when I hadn’t personally done anything to contribute to it (to my knowledge). Patience, forbearance and empathy for another are perhaps foreign to a common understanding about guilt and blame. However, such traits of compassion are at the core of what it means to belong to a family, and more, the human family. This image of familial responsibility is laid out in the Lord’s prayer.

St Cyprian of Carthage, a Christian bishop in the third century, wrote of the Our Father:

Before all things, the Teacher of peace and the Master of unity would not have prayer to be made singly and individually, as for one who prays to pray for himself alone. For we say not My Father, which art in heaven, nor Give me this day my daily bread; nor does each one ask that only his own debt should be forgiven him; nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation, and delivered from evil. Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one. The God of peace and the Teacher of concord, who taught unity, willed that one should thus pray for all, even as He Himself bore us all in one.

The Biblical model for asking forgiveness then, is not one of individual guilt alone. In the case of my story with the Vietnam veteran, I was held responsible for things that I personally had nothing to do with. I came to symbolize an unjust war, the lack of care for war veterans and the trauma of combat. However this man is a part of God’s family and therefore a part of mine. So the question I had to ask myself was, “could I share in his guilt and pain?” There was very little I could do in the moment, but instead of rejecting this man and his pain, I experienced grace to resonate with his suffering. I experienced grace to reflect upon ways in which I could repent of a culture of indifference .

In response to the immense suffering in this world, and the guilt that we all share, I cannot simply bow my head in detached sorrow. I want to find ways to begin to think differently and to act differently. Thinking differently about guilt will affect how I pray and how I live. As St. Cyprian suggests, I can ask for forgiveness for the pain and the guilt of the whole world. Accepting responsibility for my culture and for my history is not meant to cripple me with unproductive guilt. It is meant to remind me that I am not an individual unto myself and that I am a part of the ills and cures of this world.

Veneration is the essence of our work at RS. Veneration describes the attitude and the act of respect for “living icons” – people made in the image of God and therefore worthy of profound honor. By implication we all partake of that image, and so share in the pain and guilt of this world. Veneration, then, can also include acts of solidarity and empathy. In the last few months, there have been a number of tragic events circulating the news with plenty of pain and guilt to go around. Instead of distancing myself from the pain in an attempt to exonerate myself of any responsibility, I am striving to turn away from any of the ways in which I participate in a culture of hate and fear. I am connected not only to countless suffering people, I am also connected to those structures and histories that have perpetuated suffering. So, as I pray for the forgiveness of our debts, I also pray for the wisdom to know how to act in ways that heal the wounds inflicted by our sins.

Article by Jonathan Reavis

Veneration and the Hidden Redline

When I was a child my siblings and I used to divide our playroom with masking tape to keep each other out. Now as a father of three boys I see my children doing the same thing. Why is the instinct to separate and divide ourselves from each other so strong? You've likely heard of a form of legal division in real estate development in the US called “redlining” which began in the 1930’s. At that time, literal red lines were drawn on city maps. Development proposals and home appraisals divided our cities into so-called desirable and undesirable investment zones. The real purpose was to limit investment to artificial boundaries so minority communities and the white majority could live legally integrated while functionally hyper-segregated. The practice of redlining may no longer be legal, but we are still finding ways to separate from each other.

The by-product of redlined investment was sharp disinvestment that cut deep social and economic divisions into the heart of our city, the scars of which can still be seen along Troost and in our community today. While beautiful new plazas, suburbs and public amenities were developed on one side, the other side of the redline saw development of a whole other kind, hidden from the view of the majority. Redlining built communities where traumatic life events are so common they are considered a rite of passage for some children. Redlining paved financial dead end roads that led to sweeping economic stagnation when businesses closed and jobs went south, figuratively and literally in KC. Redlining landscaped a built-environment of social instability that eventually fractured the pillars of traditional community foundations from the internal and external pressures caused by poverty, fear and hyper-segregation.

Born in the late 70’s it's hard for me to imagine a society where this all made sense. In my work at RS I have tried to distinguish my perspective and my belief about people who are different from me from the beliefs of previous generations. In all honesty however, as I have worked in struggling low-income communities, I have come to recognize there is much inherited partiality in my heart still needing to be healed. In tense moments I catch myself wanting to find a way to control others or push people away. I am tempted to treat people as though they are an interruption rather than a neighbor. There is a hidden redline in my heart. I do not intend to draw it, but it is there, inky and bold. Maybe you have seen this hidden redline in your heart too?

The redline in my heart doesn’t appear as classic racism or focus attention on certain people; its boundaries frequently surprise me. Sometimes the redline has to do with issues related to someone’s religion, cultural values, dress, speech, attitude, etc. I will attest, when the redline appears it is demanding and dogmatic. It is as if a person’s mere presence threatens what I believe, my sense of self and what I know to be true. Sometimes it feels like the ground would quake if the tremor of emotion could escape the laces of my shoes. Sometimes I want to lash out and make the redline loud and clear - you and I are different! Why is this instinct to separate from each other so strong?

I recently finished a book by a modern Orthodox Christian monk, Elder Thaddeus, who said, “Everything, both good and evil, comes from our thoughts. Our thoughts become our reality.”  While reading this book I was reminded that it is not actually an instinct that compels me to want to separate from others who are unlike me - the tendency to redline is not a part of my God-given nature - but the redline is a product of entertaining a whirlpool of negative thoughts, conscious and unconscious, about another person or their community. The redline in my heart is a result of the sinful thoughts I cultivate and these thoughts have the power to shape my reality. 

I have asked myself what to do about this problem. Can I erase the redline in my heart? Can I really change the way I think about the complex and difficult people or places I encounter? If so, how? I have come to believe that this side of heaven only the greatest saints erase the redline - people like Mother Teresa, St. Maria of Paris, St. John of Kronstadt are a few modern examples. I know from these Holy ones that there is more I can do to erase this sinful division between myself and the other, but it takes real work and intentionality.

A prominent architectural feature of Orthodox Christian churches, the iconostasis, is a contrasting type of division to the division created by the redline, but the iconostasis has helped me understand what to do about the hidden redline in my heart. 

The Iconostasis is a wall of sorts that partitions the sanctuary, where the priest stands before the altar, from the nave, where the faithful stand to sing and pray. On the iconostasis hangs icons of Christ, Mary, St. John the Baptist and other holy men and women. I remember the first time I attended an Orthodox church service how troubled I was by the iconostasis. I saw it as a dividing line separating the clergy and the laity, like a redline in the church. When I spoke to my priest about the iconostasis he challenged me to change my thinking. 

He said, “try not to see it as a dividing line but as an acknowledgement of the division between God and man that was created by man’s sin. Face the iconostasis,” he continued, “and pray deeply ...The icons adorning the iconostasis, those holy men and women, are the proof of the possibility of real transformation and reconciliation with God, and with others.” He was saying that the iconostasis does not function to divide us but to make present the possibility of our ultimate reconciliation through acknowledging and facing the division that exists.

I was totally blown away by this explanation! Over the years as I’ve prayed in church facing the iconostasis I have discovered how this holy partition functions just as he said, as a place of meeting, transformation and reconciliation.

Although the iconostasis is a holy symbol of reconciliation and the hidden redline in my heart is a sinful symbol of division, the idea that I have taken away from the iconostasis is this: I will only be transformed by acknowledging and facing the redline in my heart and praying to Christ for healing grace. I can’t simply ignore it or think cultural diversity training or some other program will erase it. It is a human stain too deeply imbedded within my thoughts for simple solutions. I must acknowledge and face the division that exists within. That is what RS is all about for me, a place where the dividing line is acknowledged and faced, prayed before and transformed by grace so that the true strength in each person can be revealed. With every gift given, every act of service delivered, every job created, I am given the opportunity to acknowledge and face the redline in my heart and to love the other in front of me, whoever they are. I want to be more like the saints on the iconostasis. Their witness encourages me to press on towards the goal.

So when I meet that difficult person and my thoughts begin to race as the redline is drawn, I pray for help to seize the opportunity, to see the person in front of me as a living icon, someone to venerate not someone to push away.  And in choosing not to redline the other by acknowledging and facing the division in my heart on a daily basis I believe we can find real healing and transformation together.

Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.

Venerating People Over Place

When we said goodbye to the suburbs a few years ago and bought a house east of Troost in KC the irony was not lost on me. We might have looked like one of those families that was sloughing off the confines of suburbia with its immaculate lawns, cul de sacs, and conformity. People may have thought we were on a mission to snatch up an old home for a steal and buy into the increasingly popular urban lifestyle.

This resurgence of city living is very much fixed on the place, the location, the older homes, and interesting architecture in the city scape, or even nearby pubs and artsy shops.

But my family—my husband, three young boys and myself—didn’t move to Hyde Park or Westport where the cool factor is significantly greater. We chose east of Troost, what seemed to many like an identity-less, rougher part of town that was more of a passageway to other places rather than a desirable destination in its own right.

We moved because we wanted to be close to our church and the community we had been growing to love through ministry work at Reconciliation Services at 31st and Troost. It wasn’t about the place or the location. It was about entering into a community where our hearts were called to struggle and to love others.

I didn’t want to be some outsider family that was moving east of Troost to fix things, fix people. I wanted to blend in, to really enter in and to be a part, to be authentic. This is where I wanted to build community afterall.

The fact is however, that I don’t blend in very well. I’m a middle-class, white woman who moved to a predominantly African American community that is economically stressed. I am like the poster woman for gentrification. I move to a depressed part of town and I bring my ideas of community—what that looks like and who belongs there—with me. I want to restore my old house and beautify my garden. I also want safer streets and better quality shops nearby. I want a place that feels good, beautiful and safe.

In the midst of this struggle and tension I have this little mantra: People over place. When I am daydreaming about the mountains or the ocean, when I fantasize about some beautiful paradise or an amazing new house, I remind myself that my deepest desire is always to put people over place. It has so little to do with me impacting someone else and so much more to do with me striving to see beauty and truth in others, in myself even.

The core mission of Reconciliation Services is to reveal the strengths of those we serve, to restore dignity. This mission can bring the kind of development and restoration that really offers lasting change - it is the development and restoration of people. It isn’t some underground initiative to fix or change people but rather a sincere working together to bring to light what is good and true and beautiful - what is already there waiting to be revealed.

Restoration can’t help but alter things. When you move into an old house and labor over renovating and restoring it, you alter it. When we move to a different part of town, where people have different backgrounds and different struggles to us, when we get to know the people around us—us sharing with them and them sharing with us—we alter one another.

I’ve decided that this idea of blending into my neighborhood is not really possible for me. I  want to be light, to love. Light and love alter things. They spill over onto the people around them and they permeate the places they inhabit. But I also want to find ways to see light and love in my neighbor, understand better who they are and what makes them precious.

These connections are so much easier to make with people who are like me. There are some neighbors around me with similar values and backgrounds who have proven to be easy company. But what about the man named John who walks down my street daily to the gas station to get a beer? What about Tamika, who lost her dog recently and lives alone? What about Charles who seems to drink the day away on his front porch? What about the older ladies in the nice house that rarely come outside? What about the family that rents “that” house at the end of the block?

These folks are every bit a part of my community yet so unknown to me. They are more important than the old houses and the latest city plan to better the neighborhood. But man, it sure is easier to hone in on those measurable initiatives, to change the look and feel of the neighborhood than it is to discover the inherent beauty of the people who occupy the neighborhood and to honor their history and struggle.  

It doesn’t really matter if our heart’s path leads us through the wilderness or the urban landscape. The place is just the place. But the people, the people are everything.

Article by Jodi Mathews

Veneration and Holy Fools!

If you walk into any church with ties to ancient Christian history, you may be struck by the beauty of the icons that line the walls and the saints depicted gazing outward invitingly. The interesting thing about saints is that we often think of them as having always occupied this place of honor in our houses of worship. Once they’ve been canonized, saints are commemorated for their holy life and their stories serve to encourage and remind us to continue to struggle in pursuit of holiness. But for the majority of these venerable ones, their time on earth was not spent saturated with laudation. Quite the contrary, in fact. Many were fiercely hated, even by their own churches. It is only in retrospect that we call them holy and admire their faith.

Perhaps the saints that illustrate this fact most profoundly are those that fall into the category of “holy fools.” In the ancient Christian tradition, holy fools are those individuals that feigned insanity to combat vanity, both personal and societal. These saints are some of my favorites, not because they encourage me, but because they terrify me. The lives of the holy fools are filled with acts that defy social norms, often bringing the need for repentance into sharp focus. Much like the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, who performed such acts as cooking his food over dung to call attention to the sin of Israel, the holy fools lived in such a way as to prick the conscience of a society. The most emblematic of the holy fools was the seventh century saint, Simeon of Edessa. This man masked his piety with acts of absurdity, upsetting conventional definitions of holiness. It is said that he often disrupted church services by throwing nuts at attendees and blew out candles, provoking the wrath of the seemingly pious. He would at times eat meat on fast days and walked around the city gate with a dead dog tied to his belt. He was known to preach against excess and neglecting the poor. He challenged those that would define holiness according to mere institutional conformity rather than acts of truth religion – the care of widows and orphans, as the book of James says.

What terrifies me about St. Simeon is the fact that he could very well have been someone that I have met on the streets of Kansas City. His behavior certainly corresponds to that of someone I might normally consider “mentally disturbed,” a “menace to society,” or simply anyone that makes me feel awkward or uncomfortable. I would have hated being around St. Simeon, and I know this because I don’t like being around anyone that upsets my normal schedule or asks me to give of my time or energy. Figures like St. Simeon, and to some degree, the stereotypical vagrant, make me uncomfortable because they remind me that something is wrong—in my heart and in my society. St. Simeon called attention to the failure of dead religion to care for the poor, and the raving beggar on the street calls to attention the failure of our society to care for those that are abandoned and marginalized. Holy fools disturb the peace – the false peace of indifference and spiritual stagnation.

I often find myself romanticising figures like the holy fool or the prophetic voice because I like the idea of someone who goes against the grain of society. Before I aspire to holy foolishness, however, I remember that these types are often hated because they disturb the “peace” – they also disturb my “peace.” That false peace is often my own complacency, my dead religious piety and refusal to give of myself. When I ignore the voice of those that prick my conscience, I find myself often ignoring the voice of God. It is, after all, the foolishness of God that these holy fools are emulating. The prophecy of Isaiah says of the Messiah that “He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” God often shows up anonymously and speaks through the most unlikely of characters. If I listen to the cries of the holy fools, I become sensitive to the presence of God in those people and situations that disturb my “peace.” Those that upset my life may not be simple inconveniences, they may be the way that God seizes my attention and makes me aware of his heart for the poor. In doing so, He invites me into veneration, to recognizing everyone around me as the presence of God.

I’m no holy fool (just a regular one) and I don’t know how to live prophetically; but I am trying to treat everyone I meet as a potential saint. To do this, I ask for God’s grace to listen and to be attentive to hear His cries for justice in the mouths of fools.

Article by Jonathan Reavis

Charity and Veneration!

“Charity is so called because we give it even to the unworthy.” —St. John Chrysostom

Before coming to Kansas City and working at RS, I was a professional artist and lover of interesting and obscure music. The thing that any artist or lover of obscure music begins to understand is that there is tension that happens when opposing aspects of a piece of art, work with each other. This is a concept that someone has to grasp in order to appreciate any work of art; not just for what makes that work of art intriguing, but to understand its maker's intention in creating it. Surprisingly, I have found that this same concept is the key to an understanding of the work that we do on 31st and Troost.

When my family and I first arrived in Kansas City, I was asked by a good friend who was visiting us from California, “what is success going to look like?” This seemingly simple question was in fact a multi-faceted inquiry that consisted of several months of deep conversation between the two of us on issues such as class, race, the distinction between religion and spirituality, and if there was purpose in poverty. Needless to say, I could only answer with a long pause and an honest, “I don’t know!” At the moment those three words left my lips, I realized something that was simultaneously painful and yet liberating. Everything that I thought I knew about ‘poverty,’ everything that I thought I knew about the ‘poor,’ and everything that I thought were the ‘answers’ were really just speculation and theory. All of the theories and speculations I came to Kansas City with were undone and proven inadequate in the presence of the flesh and blood icons of Christ that I was now face to face with in my work at RS!

At this point allow me to state the obvious. The Icons I see on the walls in my parish and in my home don’t display the effects of generational poverty. They don’t suffer from the fallout of years of addiction or even worse being born with developmental issues due to the addiction of the mother who gave them birth. They don’t fail to say, “please” or “thank you” when we provide them with the help they have asked for. The Icons I see in church show me what the Kingdom of Heaven is, but the icons of flesh and blood in midtown KC show me who the Kingdom of Heaven is for. 

When I began to understand that the issues of the community we serve at RS are the fruit of generational poverty, and what that really is, I began to understand why the bible speaks so much on the service and protection of the poor. Generational poverty rips at the fabric of society by placing families and individuals in systemic and prolonged crisis. This perpetual state of crisis is often the catalyst and sustaining agent for trauma for both these groups and the communities they constitute. 

Lets be clear; when talking about the life of trauma that characterizes generational poverty, we are not talking about a few bad choices here or there, some bad luck or the results of laziness, we are talking about horrors and tragedies that are consistent, prevalent and soul destroying on a community level. Ultimately, when I look at the individual stories and issues facing the community we serve, what is common for all of them is not so much a level of need, or that they may or may not be of agreeable disposition; rather, it is the harsh fact that they all recognize that they are human beings in need which goes beyond their ability to help themselves. The thing I have begun to understand is that charity given to those who I find pleasant isn’t charity. Often the real work is learning how to help those who by their behavior don’t seem to deserve help. This is exactly where tension comes into play.

For many in the modern world, the cross has become a symbol of oppression, bigotry and injustice; moreover, one could say that the association of these terrible acts with the cross of Christ is valid. I for one am actually inclined to agree. The caveat I would offer though, is that it is precisely these acts of hatred and injustice that make the cross so powerful. It is in the command given by Christ to those who would be his disciples to actually love those who would spitefully use you, to forgive those who would treat you as an enemy, and to give to those who ask, that reveals the transformative power in charity. Anything else simply serves to make someone feel good about themselves. 

If there is a solution to generational poverty, it lies in the understanding that we must see the tension that is necessary to produce real change, and that tension is the commitment to help the individual, not according to whether they are worthy or not, or whether they were pleasant and polite. Dr. Martin Luther King profoundly stated, that hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can do that. Initially I was driven by a desire to see a large, sweeping change. It’s the idea that one at a time will not cut it. But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and each person we serve is a link in a larger chain. I see now that the right idea is to focus on the link and not the chain.

Whether it is through direct services or simply being present with them, by being a healing presence for those who have been cut off by society at large and even their own families, we seek to affect a larger change by focusing on the person, where they’re at and as they are. These are the very people we are committed to serve. These are the people falling through the cracks. It’s never easy, but we believe this is the key to helping the community. 

Article by Fr. Deacon Turbo Qualls, Reconciliation Services

Violence or Veneration?

“And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, ‘Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.’” (Zechariah 13:6 KJV)

What is true reconciliation? Some think of it as balancing a checkbook, others a husband and wife making up, still others overcoming the issues of discrimination and prejudice in our culture. While all of these reflect pieces of reconciliation, the Messianic prophecy above causes us to go deeper. It carries with it a sense of deep suffering to restore a friendship. The Messiah considered the wounds He received to have been received from His friends.

  • Many New Testament references convey this idea:
  • “Greater love has no man … than to lay down his life for his friends (Jn. 15:13);
  • “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God…” (Rom. 5:10);
  • “in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both in one body to God through the cross” (Eph. 2:15b-16a).
  • And, St. Paul says that “God, …  reconciled us to HImself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of  reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-19).

In times of war, terrorism, family traumas, pressures over competition to keep or find a job, temptations abound to blame the “other” as the problem in order to secure ourselves. Instead of seeing an enemy as a friend who doesn’t realize this yet, social and political solutions are often presented as the rationale for demonizing the other and excusing ourselves. Fr. Seraphim Rose often reduced the choice of a Christian as “saving our soul or saving our skin.”

As Christians, we follow the Messiah Jesus in seeing the other as our friend. Like St. Paul taking the debts of Onesimus as his own in Philemon, v. 18; or the Good Samaritan assuming the debt of the robbed and wounded man in Luke 10:35, so, we that are “strong ought to bear the weaknesses of them without strength and not just please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1 NAS).

Such a way is reflected in an event in the life of an early Christian, Paulinus the Merciful, Bishop of Nola, Italy. The only son of a widow under his care was taken as a slave by pirates. Having nothing with which to pay the ransom, he traded himself as a slave for the boy. He worked as a gardener for the pirates and eventually won their favor and was able to restore as well all the captives from Nola!

The refusal to pay back evil for evil, to turn the other cheek, to exhibit long-suffering are signs of the Christian on the Cross. There we are invited to join our Lord in His prayer, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Of the Cross, it is written, “Thou hast stretched out Thy most pure hands upon the Cross, and gathered all the nations, as they cry: O Lord, glory to Thee!” (Troparion, Sixth Hour of Royal Hours for Holy Friday).

Seeing the end from the beginning enables us to overlook and forgive much. We see the other as they are in Christ: an icon of God, an eternal brother or sister, a co-heir of peace, joy and the communion of love for ages to come. For this reason, we respond to violence with veneration, to slander with silence, and to crushing words with creative love. Why? Because we are followers of Him that declared, “he that does not gather with Me, scatters” (Mt. 12:30).

On the corner of 31st and Troost Avenue, people are gathering … to Christ and one another. May He that stretched out His arms on the Cross to gather us all into One enable us to share with Him in this ministry of gathering, of reconciliation, of venerating the other we encounter each day as the friend of Christ, the icon of God.

Article by Fr. Alexii Altschul, Reconciliation Services Founder

Blessed Are Those Who Reconcile

When my family moved to the urban core of KC over three years ago, friends and family cautioned us, “It is more dangerous over there!” Some said, “It isn’t safe!” The narrative of our part of the City had been told in terms of its crime and instability.

The neighborhood alerts on our community boards do sometimes reach a fever pitch, announcing another suspicious person, another break in, or worse. But it’s the city. We expect that, right?

Violent acts and violent rhetoric seem to dominate our landscape. From suicide bombings in far off places to murderous rampages and vehement speech closer to home, violence presses in on us. We turn on the news or browse the headlines expecting it, even looking for it. It seems inevitable to us that certain places or certain people would be violent.

But violence is as close as our own hearts.

I have cringed at the sound of a mother berating her child at the bus stop. I have called the police when the argument heard coming from a nearby house sounded like it was turning dangerous or if I heard gun shots closer than I’d like. I have taken an alternate route on my walk when I encountered two women shouting and degrading one another. Yes, violence is pressing in, but it is also pressing out.

In 1 John 3:15 it says that, “anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” That isn’t some flowery metaphor or shocking image. It is fact. An act of hate is murder.

So what makes me different from the mother berating her child at the bus stop? Nothing, really. I despise her behavior. I despise what she represents. I despise how she treats her child. Therefore, I despise her, hate her, murder her in my heart.

In the end I put myself in the place of judgement over these violent “others” and assume that they are just degenerates and perpetrators, forgetting that their story is most definitely one of victimhood as well, with complicated and traumatic stories that have played out time and time again.

So how do we battle violence?

Reconciliation.

Gentleness, forgiveness and reconciliation. These are the weapons we must use.

We see examples not only in the Bible but in Christian saints, modern day activists, and mystical teachers—of how peace can disarm violence. St. Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian saint entreated, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” We see in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:9 in the Bible, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Peace is this thing that we must acquire, hunt down, work for, struggle to maintain. We are urged to close the gap between ourselves and others in peace and reconciliation. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who reconcile.

It seems an overwhelming proposition to me to take on a violent culture, the vehement rhetoric of today’s warmongers, the institutions and religions that perpetrate violence. That is why I must make my most strategic battlefield my own heart. This is where I begin my struggle to overcome violence. From there, who knows what may come!

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Article by Jodi Mathews