Abundant Life: Defying Powerlessness

John Helmiere

It was the first time I had ever seen security guards posted in front of the Bank of America in my south Seattle neighborhood. Apparently they knew we were coming. It was Holy Week of 2011 and Valley & Mountain Fellowship, the church that had started six months earlier in my living room, was about to inaugurate “Holy Table Turning Monday.”

Though the descriptive name we chose for this new holiday felt verbose, we hoped to avoid the confusion that accompanies a designation like Maundy Thursday. The median age of our congregation is about 30, and nearly half have little or no experience with church. So we are naive and brazen enough to attempt to correct the church’s historic neglect to set aside a day of remembrance for Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. We believe his action in the Temple was a pivotal part of the Holy Week narrative along with the Triumphal Entry, Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Marching Past Security

On this cool April afternoon we gathered outside the closest Bank of America, marched past the security guards, and demanded an audience with the manager. We presented a letter of grievances that included the bank’s role in the mortgage crisis and its financing of mountaintop removal and rainforest clear-cutting projects.

We closed personal checking accounts and returned outside to hand out fliers that described neighborhood credit unions and a local community bank that supports socially and environmentally responsible enterprises. The fliers also explained why we were there.

The Gospel of Mark explicitly puts the Temple action on the Monday between Palm Sunday and Easter. At Valley & Mountain, we interpret the turning of the tables as the trigger that led the Roman authorities to arrest, torture, and execute Jesus. The Cross was an instrument reserved for insurrectionists: those who would defy established authorities. Jesus’ action at the Temple shined a light on the oppression that took place at this nexus of religious and political power. Debt and tax records, the instruments of debt enslavement and funding for the Roman military, were kept in the Temple. His action intended to subvert a debilitating social experience – powerlessness – and show people a new way to freedom.

Four Anxieties

Amidst the countless blogs, books, and conferences offering guidance to church planters, no resource has proven more helpful to my work of engaging young people outside the traditional church’s sphere of influence than Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be (Yale, 1952). In this work, Tillich describes three core anxieties at the heart of human behavior that religion must address – death, condemnation, and meaninglessness. His framework has helped me understand much of the interior struggle that besieges the young adults I serve in their search for abundant life. Yet among them I have witnessed an existential challenge that Tillich did not describe and which the church should confront: the anxiety of powerlessness.

This is not to dismiss the presence of the other three anxieties in my generation. Anxiety of death is at the heart of all human behavior, but it is buried deep in the subconscious of people my age. It is now being altered in a historically novel way by the emergence of genuinely conceivable, non-metaphorical, non-spiritual efforts to conquer death by socio-technological juggernauts like Google. Even the whisper of possibility that we may be able to download our psyches into new bodies or trans-physical networks is fundamentally changing how the anxiety of death is felt by my generation.

The anxiety of condemnation, traditionally manifested as the fear of hell, is not a vivid force in the world I inhabit. However, the possibility that we are condemned to a hellish environmental Armageddon is a widespread worry. This is rooted less in an experience of personal unworthiness than in an individual ineffectiveness to stave off the collapse of earth’s life-supporting systems.

When I got started with church planting, I assumed meaninglessness would be the primary existential struggle I’d encounter. I was wrong. In Tillich’s day, the public loss of confidence in traditional institutions and religious authorities triggered a crisis of identity and orientation. My generation is not troubled, much less existentially terrified, by a perceived lack of institutional trustworthiness. Governmental, religious, educational, media, and corporate bodies are presumed to be corrupt, and young people are finding their own deep wellsprings of meaning that require no sanction and approval from authorities for their value.

Crisis of Powerlessness

We experience meaning in friendships and community, in creative and collaborative endeavors, in social entrepreneurship, in living passionately and contributing something to the world. We do not lack for meaning. We lack for strategies that protect and promote what we know is meaningful. My generation does not ask, “Does anything matter?” We ask, “Does anything I do matter?”

Various Christianities are addressing this crisis of powerlessness in their own familiar ways. Popular Neocalvinist congregations provide a swift and psychologically satisfying answer. They promote a monarchic theology confirming our fear that we have no power to produce change. God is sovereign and nothing you do makes a difference, so just toe the line until you die and be grateful you’ve been elected to go to heaven.

The charismatic movement offers another response. A feeling of powerlessness is channeled into a drive toward individual transformation through miraculous healings and exorcisms. It is also funneled into prophetic participation in the “unleashing” of the Spirit’s redeeming power into the public sphere.

Neither of these approaches is especially well suited to a congregation informed by the eco-feminist, mystical, and liberationist Christian traditions that we embrace. My work at Valley & Mountain has largely been an effort to enact an ecclesiology rooted in these traditions in order to address this formidable experience of many in my generation, the existential anxiety of powerlessness.

Creative Liberation

It has been almost three years since our first celebration of Holy Table Turning Monday. Since then Valley & Mountain has devised other approaches to resist oppressive structures and generate loving alternatives. We call it “creative liberation.”

A previous generation did the hard work of questioning dominant culture systems and values. However, acts of questioning and critiquing no longer pose the radical challenge they once did. Our generational calling is to find more potent strategies for confronting contemporary powerlessness. Otherwise, we experience the same helplessness that the Israelites knew when they gained liberation from Egypt and found themselves in the desert asking: What are we supposed to do now?

At Valley & Mountain, we have co-founded a new center for creative liberation work, focusing on eco-ecclesiology. Over the past year we have worked with an organization called Community Arts Create and many neighborhood volunteers to transform a dilapidated building and vacant lot into an “incubator for community and social change.” We call it the Collaboratory and it includes several spaces:

• Mixing Chamber, a multi-purpose room that hosts a drop-in center offering hot meals and companionship, free yoga classes, arts programs, musician jam sessions, dances, and our worship services.

• Coworking Office, an open-seating cooperative workspace for small organizations and individuals.

• Learning Kitchen, which hosts nutrition and culinary programs and community meal preparation.

• Park & Garden, a public green space that includes the Learning Kitchen’s urban farm, gathering places, performance space, public art and freewalls, and a chicken coop for the neighborhood’s retired laying hens.

Eco-ecclesiology combines the hyper-local focus of parish theology, or place-based ecclesiology, with an ecological-systems view of a neighborhood. The church is not seen as a divine institution acting upon a profane culture and place but as one manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s liberating, creative, communifying activity in a given location. We are no longer an institution imposing itself on a place to redeem, direct, or inform it. Rather, we are an evolving organism that exists interdependently within a habitat. Our explicit evolutionary telos is toward God’s shalom.

Spirit and Subversion

Eco-ecclesiology subverts the myths of individualism and exceptionalism that pervade American public discourse and that shape the experience of privileged young people who repeatedly hear the message “you can and will save the world.” Eco-ecclesiology replaces competition with collaboration. It substitutes the impulse of intervention with the practice of companionship. The uneasy scaffolding of the lone ego is exposed and may begin to yield to a sense of belonging, grace, and collaborative identity. The work of courageously confronting the anxiety of powerlessness can begin.

Another element that addresses this anxiety is through our participatory and co-creative worship. Today’s entertainment, media, education, and advertising sectors have developed highly interactive formats that appeal to a generation yearning for power through participation. Yet so many churches continue to worship through scripted performances and liturgies designed for passive spectators by outside agents. At Valley & Mountain we aim to provide just enough structure to empower participants to co-create the worship experience as a community.

The weekly celebration takes place in three movements, each lasting about 30 minutes. The first includes a congregational song, quiet time for prayer, a short reflection that ends with questions, then communal reflection on what was said, followed by an opportunity to participate in community life through offering money and time.

For the second movement, we silently break into spiritual practice groups. These Encounter Groups, so called because they suggest different ways to encounter the Spirit, are always a mix of contemplative, artistic, and activist practices – such as poetry writing, yoga, prayer circles, Zen sits, lectio divina and creative liberation action planning sessions. The first Encounter Group to finish their practice gathers around the Table and sings a song calling the other groups to join them. When all are present, we consecrate the meal.

This Eucharistic Love Feast, a full meal that we share around tables, is our third movement. We end with community announcements – usually invitations to upcoming musical performances, birthday parties, and political demonstrations – and a benediction.

The traditional view regards liturgy as an experience of faith formation. Similarly, I believe the practice of co-creative, liberated worship can and must undergird the work of the Body of Christ in this era of powerlessness.

As we approach our fourth year of celebrating Holy Table Turning Monday, we are now reaching out to other communities who are interested in collaborative Christian responses to the anxiety of powerlessness in the face of interlocking structures of oppression.

We do not presume to save the church or the world through a day of creative liberation, a community center, or innovative worship services. But we do hope to inspire others to extract themselves from mainstream anxieties and embrace the economic-ecological call of the gospel and the abundant life it promises.

The Rev. John Helmiere ’10 M.Div. is the convener of Valley & Mountain Fellowship (United Methodist Church) and co-founder of the Collaboratory, a social change incubator in Seattle. Learn more about Valley & Mountain’s work, including Holy Table Turning Monday, by visiting www.valleyandmountain.org.