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Beholding Ground

June 22, 2021

“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked. The disciples said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

—Matthew 13:51–52

I have found the most compelling repairs are the ones that make themselves visible, that leave evidence of the breakage and also of the imagination by which the breakage becomes transformed. Such repairs are always provisional, imperfect, and ongoing. Like a nest, they involve continual mending. They ask for a willingness to keep remaking what is perpetually at risk of falling apart. It is this remaking by which a home, and a life, may come: not in spite of what has gone before, but because of it.

—Jan Richardson, Sparrow: A Book of Life and Death and Life

**

This entire project was born out of an ache.

It was an ache of wanting birth to stanch the flow of death.

It was an ache of watching institutions that I love shudder in dread of shuttering as the lockdowns took their early swipes.

It was an ache of sensing that my own nation was at its weakest physiological state in its brief yet storied history, weakened in all the things that allow a collective to endure a global wallop and stay standing: social trust and goodwill, respect for authority (with that authority then stewarding its legitimacy with honor and an eye for service), a shared identity and agreed-on origin story, civic maturity that puts the life of the whole ahead of oneself. It was an ache of doom before still further fragmentation, a doom of dread that a common vision of reality itself was evaporating.

I suppose at some instinctive level Breaking Ground was born also from the ache of an artistic brain trained to pay attention to the currents that run beneath the surface of shock and havoc, and to find there hints of revelation. I knew early that I needed multitudes of others smarter and differently skilled than I for this sort of societal scuba dive to come up clear (thank you, Susannah Black! thank you, contributors!); the question was how to gather when “scatter!” was the order of the day.

Thanks to the agility of digital tools, and to the awakened sense among many institutional leaders that the old way of doing things on one’s own would not cut it in the face of the interconnected social earthquake that was steamrolling our days, gather we did, albeit with fewer gigabytes blessing our communion. This platform publicly launched just hours after the first memorial service was held for George Floyd one year ago, and as I said in the gray twilight of what would become the violent summer of 2020, “Breaking Ground is first and foremost an act of hope.”

It was an act of hope that the church might yet prove itself agile in the fact of widespread suffering, and that a public space for reflection, conversation, and yes, skilled disagreement, too, could hasten helpful action. It was an act of hope that amid our society-wide need for energy and creativity, the technocratic and utilitarian would be tutored by the moral and the humane. It was an act of hope that today’s Christian minds might be prepared to light the kind of candle for vigil and next steps that a post-Christian society like ours might still recognize in the vestiges of buried longing. And it was an act of hope that a still-potent, still-faithful God was working and shifting and creating in our global upheaval, if only we could develop the patience to see.

But how to see, exactly? And with whom? How could we be confident that what we were seeing and naming was real, and not simply our own glass?

The central task facing our society as we exit the COVID-19 pandemic is to build a common vision of reality.

I have neither the philosophical nor neuroscientific chops to dissect the nature of reality: Is it a question? Is it subjective? But answering the above triad with care has been Breaking Ground’s high calling and, in a year of epistemological rupture, our thorny task. For it turns out that reality, like suffering, is iconoclastic: Each new drama shatters our preconceived notions of what’s actually going on, what works and what’s effective, what the categories for our understanding should be, what the questions are that we should be asking, and, most painfully for so many this last year, who our tribe actually is (or ever was). This shattering builds into a redefining process that can be as exhausting as it is indiscriminate, challenging individuals, institutions, whole nations, a generation.

It turns out that reality, like suffering, is iconoclastic: Each new drama shatters our preconceived notions.

What we tried to do here, in this pilot year of a conversational exploration and, hopefully, longer-term community, was dive into these trenches with you and trace in real time the contours of those shards so sharply lacerating our common life. We looked at the abject failure of our politics to stop mass death, a failure superseded only by the failure of our own Christian community to meet the moral opportunity presented by the nation’s awakening to the realities of ongoing racial injustice—a failure of clarity, unity, and grace that ceded the floor to the pagan poles. We reflected on the renewed attendance so many of us have found ourselves paying to proximate goods: the household, the family, the neighbor, the village. We named the weakening authority of expertise and sought a more capacious understanding of wisdom worth following, and how to cultivate cultural receptivity to such wisdom. We debated justice’s relationship to peace and vice versa as our streets shook, and revisited what unity in a polis even is. And so much more.

Woven through all the unmaskings of this year, of course, was the final crumbling of a narrative of self-sufficiency that has proved to be as false to the way we are wired as it is destructive to the tomorrow we need to build. Somehow, in the very paradox of social isolation, I think we’ve all finally realized that we cannot secure ourselves. As Walter Brueggemann said so softly in the first of six contemplations that set the tone for this whole endeavor, we can only be secured by someone who is faithful to us. We need someone to hear us, which in turn demands that we continually train to become the kinds of people worthy of another’s need to be heard and seen. This includes our neighbor. This includes God.

We need someone to hear us, which in turn demands that we continually train to become the kinds of people worthy of another’s need to be heard and seen. This includes our neighbor. This includes God.

And this is where we land. The central task facing our society as we exit the COVID-19 pandemic and return to some semblance of physical normalcy is to build a common vision of reality. We happen to be living through an institutionally neutered moment, when people are choosing totalizing explanations based on the psychic rewards of belonging to a particular group. It’s increasingly yielding extremists, but—and here’s my hope—it’s also squeezing out a chastened remnant. And it’s this remnant I’d like to speak to as we close.

It may be too late to build a common vision of reality, and it may never have existed in the first place; but without it, the system of relationships that we know as “society” will continue to disintegrate. “Common” does not mean complete; it is God, the ultimate iconoclast, who alone has that perch. But my hope is that those tethered to his love might yet be moved to create spaces like this one, on and off the page, for honest reflection, dialogue, imagination, and especially grace. For it is in the neighbor’s face that we behold God’s face, it is in the neighbor’s pain that we find our assumptions softened and our numbness dispelled, and it is in the neighbor’s story that our own story is tutored, shaping, as we perceive and listen and learn to love, the ground for us to stand on, and for us to build once more.

This piece was originally published as the coda to the year-long publishing venture of Breaking Ground, a collaborative web commons Anne created in June of 2020 to engage a year of layered crisis with patient, probing site, ingenuity in re-imagining the future, and, crucially, hope. You can find the specific contours of the fractures alluded to here at BreakingGround.us, where dozens of thought leaders and moral exemplars reflected in real-time on a world being remade.

Love is a Neural Highway

March 16, 2021

What happens when the best of science is sandwiched by the best of love?

This is the question that Jacob’s Ladder school has been answering for 27 years as it has helped guide more than 4,000 children with neurobiological disorders toward hope and a future.

Amy O’Dell founded the school in Roswell, Georgia, as a way of making a better life for her youngest child. Jacob had been “born with such a sweet and beautiful spirit, but such a broken body and mind,” she says. Pervasive developmental delay was the diagnosis, a life sentence handed down with piles of documents at once condemning and disaggregated.

“I was told to adjust to the reality of the disability and to try to get pregnant again and hope for a ‘better child,’” she recalled. “It’s still really painful to remember those words.” Where medical experts declared little hope for any kind of change in her son, Amy saw a soul fighting to be seen.

“There was something in his eyes,” she says. “I couldn’t let it go.”

Amy had learned in the years before Jacob’s birth never to give up on a person deemed a lost cause by the accepted systems. She had worked in both adolescent and adult psychiatric care at Woodridge Hospital in Clayton, Georgia, using her degrees in activity therapy and counseling.

But home life was becoming a struggle, as her husband’s job was bringing in an annual income of just $3,000, and she, only able to work part time, wasn’t adding much more. They were borrowing more and more from Amy’s parents while credit card debt compounded. Meanwhile, Jacob’s needs were demanding more attention, and rural Appalachia didn’t have the infrastructure she felt he needed.

Things came to a head one day when Amy dropped off 15-month-old Jacob at a daycare center. As she paused outside the window, she watched as he struggled to hold himself upright. Each time Jacob turned his head upon being released by a caregiver, he toppled over.

Something twisted inside Amy. She watched as the workers moved on and Jacob ceased crying. Perhaps, she suspected, Jacob had decided that if his mother was leaving him, and the cry didn’t work, he was going to sit and be quiet until she came back. “He’d gone into a shell,” she says, shuddering at the memory.

She turned around and picked Jacob up then and there. Placing him on her hip and leaving, Amy drove to Woodridge and quit her job. She then dedicated herself to figuring out how to care for Jacob—pursuing certification in neurodevelopmental growth and intervention, studying programs around the country, working with Jacob eight hours a day, and reading all she could about brain injury and rehabilitation.

When Jacob was five, Amy and her husband decided they could no longer keep their marriage together, and with that finality, she moved with Jacob and his younger sister to Atlanta. Amy knew no one in the big city; she just sensed that hope for her son could be built here.

“I just remember waking up one day and saying, ‘No more. No more information. It’s not going to be information that changes my son’s life. It’s going to be me picking a path and then giving myself to it fully.’”

Photo by: Matthew Odom
Amy and her son Jacob
Love is a method

“Who was I to do a seminar on anything?” Amy says, chuckling at the memory of her early chutzpah as a stranger in Atlanta. “But I hung up some flyers, and people came.”

Amy had decided to offer free seminars at night for families who had kids with special needs. One of the first parents who attended was a wealthy real estate investor. After asking Amy if she could work with his daughter, he gave her an empty nail salon at a shopping center and helped her re-furnish the space. She continued offering the free seminars, but as more families participated, she decided to start charging for evaluations.

These evaluations were novel at the time, pairing an intensive interview with a quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG) brain scan. Using a noninvasive cap on the patient’s head, the scan maps the brain by measuring electrical activity in the form of brainwave patterns associated with impulsivity, cognitive inflexibility, anxiety, and other symptoms. Using this data, Amy could design custom programming.

Each case was unique. One family thought their son was blind and deaf, only to learn through Amy’s evaluation that he was dealing with a cortical deficiency, which the brain could be trained to overcome. Other kids would come in wheelchairs, unable to walk. Amy would focus heavily on mobility, encouraging at least six hours a day out of the wheelchair, and for many, a new mental map would form.

“In the early years,” Amy says, “no scientist thought I should be running something like this.” Amy didn’t have the right credentials or a PhD. She hadn’t prepped her hands-on work by spending years in a lab. “The common refrain from the experts was, ‘Wait, you?’

It was the 1990s, and the reigning neuroscience was cautious about the capacity of compromised brains to grow new pathways. Attachment theory—the idea that a secure relationship with a loving authority figure was the necessary basis for healthy development and eventual individuation—was just beginning to be explored as not only psychological in orientation, but possibly physical too.

Amy wanted to explore the possibility that love might not simply be a posture but could define an entire methodology. When paired with recent discoveries in neuroplasticity—the ability of brains to form and reorganize synaptic connections after a traumatic experience or physical injury—could love make the difference between surviving and thriving?

Parents found something hopeful in a leader who believed their children had the capacity to change. Word began spreading that Amy was a different kind of neurodevelopmental clinician, and soon a few children became dozens, and dozens became hundreds.

Amy’s fees became her salary, with a growing surplus that enabled her to hire her first three employees. Jacob’s Ladder hung up its sign in 1999.

When paired with recent discoveries in neuroplasticity, could love make the difference between surviving and thriving?

“We do two trainings for staff at Jacob’s Ladder,” Amy says. “Training in the hope, truth, and love methodology, and training in the science methodology. When you apply both, and you do so very consistently, the brain responds and stretches into new terrain.”

The name Jacob’s Ladder reflects this philosophy. While it honors the inspiration of her son, as well as Amy’s identification with the story of Jacob wrestling with God, there is also a notion of steps, of linkages built one on the next to heal neural connections in the brain. Amy doesn’t believe in dead ends, not for children, not for the human brain.

“Our ethos has always been, ‘Let’s just meet each child where he or she is at, right here, right now, and not worry about 20 years in the future,’” Amy says. “When the child gains that momentum, and covers that ground, [our task is] to be acutely aware of the next step.”

The interpersonal whole-brain approach

With a curriculum customized to each child and a 1.6-to-1 teacher-to-student ratio, Jacob’s Ladder welcomes those with conditions as varied as autism, Down syndrome, attention deficit disorder, anxiety disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, and bipolar disorders, among others.

“We promise families that their child will have a very specialized approach to their learning and developmental needs,” Amy says. “But each carefully designed day will be wrapped within the constants of heavy psychological safety, security, relationship, compassion, and unconditional positive regard, no matter how difficult someone’s behavior becomes.”

Kids arrive to teachers wearing “Choose Love” shirts and are ushered into one of three learning environments: the Ladder, which serves students needing intensive one-on-one care; The Hope School for students with emotional, behavioral, and relational challenges; or COMPASS, which works with young adults in need of job training and community-based instruction. Bolstering the three pods are various licensed specialists: occupational, physical, speech, and mental health counselors, as well as a consulting clinical psychologist who specializes in neurofeedback and brain mapping.

“We don’t waste a moment of a child’s day,” Amy says. “We take every opportunity we can to integrate each lesson with one another—from their language base to their relational skills to their conflict resolution skills to their self-regulation skills when stress hits them. It may look like this fast-moving river to the visitor, but it’s all very intentional.” Children are taught to be growers and nurturers, tending to gardens, raising goats. Outdoor play happens daily.

“I was skeptical at first,” says Rachel Pereira, “and then I saw the school.” Her son had been physically abused to the point of suffocation by a teacher in kindergarten. As he would lose self-restraint and increasingly lash out in violence as he grew, his elementary school years were, in Rachel’s words, “a nightmare.” She and her husband felt they had no choice but to confine him at home.

At their wits’ end when their son was ten, the couple was told about an “oasis of angels” not four miles from their house.

“You feel the love as soon as you walk on campus,” Rachel says of what is now a 13-acre property complete with butterflies, birds, walking paths, and gardens. “My son wanted to be a normal kid, but he simply couldn’t. Amy told me that Jacob’s Ladder was never going to give up on him, and I decided to believe her.”

After a first few tough months, Rachel’s son ceased having fits and breakouts. Amy’s own son Jacob—then 26 and a teacher at the school—built a trusted bond with him. “It’s a miracle,” Rachel says. “The school is a godsend.”

An invisible yet fierce circle of norms protects the Jacob’s Ladder experience. Phones and iPads are nowhere to be seen. Staff work to leave behind their life stresses on their commutes in.

“We expect our staff to learn what it means to be a vessel and pour into another human being, whatever the self-sacrifice,” Amy says. “We may not hit it every day all day, but just trying to do it daily makes a difference.”

Students are respected as those who pick up on the smallest signals of mental presence or absence. Regardless of neural condition, Amy believes, human beings intuitively know when they are treasured and when they are a burden.

“In the early years,” Amy says, “when I was working with Jacob, it quickly became clear that as much as I gave of my own thought and energy to the moment, that’s the amount he received. If I was trying to teach him to read the alphabet, he would learn the letters if I was 100 percent with him. But if I got distracted and would start thinking about my grocery shopping list … I could be physically right there, turned towards him, same everything on the outside, but he would falter.”

The school’s success with each student depends on many factors: the severity of the child’s condition, the child’s age, and the family’s degree of support toward the efforts. For some parents, a child just learning to use a hand that couldn’t be used before could be a giant gift of hope.

“When you undertake this work diligently, consistently, and with integrity, you will always see growth and change,” Amy says. “It could be slow and in very small ways for one child, and quick and dramatic for another.

Photo by: Matthew Odom
Amy O’Dell and Ross Mason
The power of naming

Chris Hatcher and his wife had tried everything for their son: public school, private school, therapeutic programs, homeschooling. The boy had also experienced trauma early in his elementary education, and he now dealt with ADHD, emotional dysregulation issues, dyslexia, and more. He was breaking pencils, dumping desks over, threatening other students, and in one fourth-grade year was restrained 27 times.

A consulting firm mentioned The Hope School at Jacob’s Ladder. Chris looked at the website and read, “kids with complex problems … conduct disorder … high-functioning autism …” “It described our kid,” Chris says. He took the 11-year-old in for an assessment.

“From the brain scan, we learned that the fear center was all lit up in his brain, shutting down the speech center,” Chris says. “We learned that when he’s under a lot of stress, he goes quiet and can’t communicate.” Rife fear, it turns out, was drowning out the healthy development of other neural pathways.

This identification was a comfort all on its own. “Then Amy and her colleagues went through a very thorough set of questions to find out who at the school would be the right people for [him], customizing a program specifically to him,” Chris says. They learned that he liked to work with his hands, so they assigned him to help with maintenance on campus.

Two years after entering the program at a first-grade reading level, he’s catapulted to a seventh-grade level. He’s also in better control of his emotions when stresses occur. “We have seen his toolbox grow greatly for how he can deal with things,” Chris says. “Particularly the emotional dysregulation—the stuff that used to be explosive is just not there anymore.”

“I think other schools had an understanding of what we were going through,” Chris says, “but they still had their program, their way of doing things. And the one thing we always came back to was that they couldn’t handle the behavior. Jacob’s Ladder can handle the behavior.” All staff who work with kids with severe track records are trained and certified in crisis intervention, and the school keeps strict safety protocols.

But equally noteworthy? “Amy always tells us, ‘You’re the parents, you understand your child better than anyone,’” Chris says. “That is something that you rarely hear.”

Can love scale?

As success stories have multiplied and Amy’s public credibility has grown, so has demand from parents outside Atlanta to take the methodology global. As happened to many, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Amy to experiment with different ways of packaging the methodology for national—even international—use.

But can something so high-touch and communal in nature go global without losing its distinctive magic?

One figure in the Atlanta health tech scene thinks so.

Ross Mason has been a serial entrepreneur, a civic leader, and a triathlete. In 2007, he had a vision to make Atlanta the Silicon Valley of health, to inject market excellence and incentives into a system he thought was too self-satisfied. He founded HINRI (the High Impact Network of Responsible Innovators), a venture philanthropy group that “mirrors how angel investors help entrepreneurs build companies that can scale effectively and reduce risk for investors and donors,” according to its website.

Around this time, Ross and Amy met up for lunch. They had gone to Sunday school together while growing up in Madison, Georgia. Ross found in Amy exactly the sort of social entrepreneur HINRI existed to help. The two of them pledged to collaborate when, just weeks later, Ross’s life took a dramatic turn.

He was biking his normal training route when a bee snuck inside his helmet. As he tried to swat it out, he swerved sharply. He crashed, breaking his neck and enduring a C6 spinal cord injury.

Amy visited Ross many times in the hospital, praying with him and accompanying him through terrain she knew from her own journey. Their friendship blossomed, and in 2010, Ross began to approach foundations to launch the first capital campaign for Jacob’s Ladder. He put together a formal board of directors that he would chair.

Ross’s experience convinced him that health care experts exclude all but a narrow range of credentials tied to industry and prestige. Amy, by contrast, embodies qualities Ross believes could turn American health care around: personalism, holistic paradigms, praxis before theory,
no shortcuts.

“Amy is focused on ‘What does this child need?’ Not, ‘How do you fit into the research paper that I just wrote?’” Ross says. “She’s the kindest person you’ll ever meet, but she threatens the status quo.”

Ross is challenging Amy to put her methodology online and make it open source. He wants to turn the center in Roswell into “a mothership training center”—like a demonstration city—which would spawn replicas in Geneva, Jerusalem, San Francisco, and elsewhere. He wants, in short, to change the way the world treats human potential.


Eternity begins in the proximate

“As truth is revealed in the day-to-day moments of life,” Amy says, “and in the interchanges and relationships that surround me, I’m always awestruck at how the grace of God works.”

This attitude is not for lack of suffering.

“One of the greatest gifts about having Jacob was that it completely crushed the illusion that I have control in my life. … I was completely brought to my knees in the midst of that fear to see that, for me and my life personally, it was an opening to knowing there is a power much greater than myself that I can rely on. So rather than seeing my fear, I put the fear into action, and the action is called love.”

That love has worked itself out through steps, one at a time, in brains, hearts, and households. “Families will come in so despairing,” Amy says, “and by the time they leave, they are just so thankful that someone is believing in their child.” She coaches parents in principles of truth-telling, choosing joy, focusing on a child’s strengths, and, to borrow from Eugene Peterson, a long obedience in the same direction.

“This is the story God gave me,” Amy says. “He authored it, and I’ve done my best to walk it out.”

This story was originally published in the April 2021 issue of Christianity Today.

Building our Commons

January 25, 2021

Embracing the call of solidarity and repair.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For the full experience, and to hear the heart behind the words, we encourage you to listen to the podcast episode here, from The Whole Person Revolution.

Anne Snyder: Greetings and welcome back. It’s January 2021, and we’re beginning a new season of The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast of Breaking Ground. I’m your host, Anne Snyder, and, where the first eight episodes last year took us to some of the more prescient community shepherds working in the crevices of a bruised and snapped-open landscape, THIS season, in the context of a new if wildly alert year, we’re going to build on the wisdom and witness of those heroes to ask: How might we imagine and actually each play a role in building a more woven, widely shared commons, a commons committed to solidarity and humbly receptive to repair, one that keeps human dignity front and center and sees all of life as gift? How could each of us – and each of the societal sectors that touch our lives, shift, perhaps softly, perhaps more dramatically, to sow this better normal?

To get us out of the gate this second season are two illuminated souls who have been laboring among some of the poorest of the poor in the United States. Fr. Jack Wall and Joe Boland come to us from Catholic Extension, a movement of the church that daily, intentionally walks in solidarity with those in our poorest regions to build up vibrant and transformative communities of faith. Every time I speak with Fr. Jack and Joe, I walk away with eyes alight. You’re in for a treat.

Fr. Jack, Joe, Thanks for joining me today.

Fr. Jack Wall: We’re delighted to be with you, Anne. It’s a very special honor to be with you and all that you’re trying to do in terms of weaving our country together.

Joe Boland: Happy to be here. Thank you for having us.

Anne Snyder: My pleasure. Could you each take a moment to describe the work of Catholic Extension? To give our listeners a sense of who you all are and what you do? What wakes you up in the morning?

Fr. Jack Wall: Well, maybe I could start by just saying that we are a movement of the church. You described many movements going on that build up the culture and build up the human family, and we’re a faith movement. And our purpose is quite simple but very profound, and that is to—as you described it—build up vibrant and transformative Catholic faith communities. Faith communities that are among the poor and in the poorest regions of the United States. And it’s out of a conviction that faith communities are one of the most beautiful things that our country has, that our world has, and it’s clearly the work of God from the very beginning when he says, “Form me a people. Form me a people.” And so what we do is try to continue that great mandate to build up vibrant and transformative Catholic faith communities, but in the poorest places and among the poorest people in the United States.

Joe Boland: And I think our core conviction then is that church becomes an important staging ground where unbelievable transformation can happen. It’s where a lot of community building happens. It’s where peace-building can happen. It’s where mercy-making can happen. So every church community that we support in these poor regions throughout the United States really does become a hub of so much life and hope. Every single one of them. We’ve been around for 115 years, and we’ve helped build and repair 12,500 churches throughout the United States and even a few abroad. And as I like to tell people, that’s more churches than there are Dunkin’ Donuts stores. So it’s a profound impact that we have, but also just a great reach. And as we’ll I’m sure talk about, the people in the communities we work with are such a blessing to all of us.

How might we imagine and actually each play a role in building a more woven, widely shared commons, a commons committed to solidarity and humbly receptive to repair, one that keeps human dignity front and center and sees all of life as gift? How could each of us – and each of the societal sectors that touch our lives, shift, perhaps softly, perhaps more dramatically, to sow this better normal?

Anne Snyder: What’s your personal story in this work? Your annunciation moment that catapulted you into Catholic Extension?

Fr. Jack Wall: I was a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago. All my work up until coming to the Extension has been in the archdiocese of Chicago, and I was in the unique opportunity to be a pastor of a church for twenty-four years. I served at Old St. Patrick’s, which is a center city church in the heart of Chicago. But when I came there, there were only four members of the church. I had the great privilege to work with wonderful people and create this vibrant and transformative Catholic faith community. And as I was doing a succession, I was asked to consider maybe taking that vision to a larger reality, which would be a national effort. Catholic Extension is about working in the United States as well as where the American flag flies across our world to build up these faith communities. I was asked to do that fourteen years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Anne Snyder: How about you, Joe?

Joe Boland: My fundamental identity is, I’m a father. I have three elementary-school-aged children right now. My wife is a teacher. I have been working in the nonprofit sector my entire career and most of that with the Catholic church. I met Jack Wall many years ago at a restaurant appropriately named Jack’s, and we hit it off. And as he stepped into Catholic Extension as president, he knew I was working over at Catholic Charities in Chicago. I was doing a lot of work with the immigrant community. I’ve been doing work with mostly Latino immigrants my whole life and career and have enjoyed that so much. And as he was looking at this organization that would touch so much of the country—and in fact 45 percent of the population it touches at Catholic Extension is the Hispanic community—he came to me, and we had a conversation about [my] coming in and joining this new venture at Catholic Extension. Well, really a hundred-year-old venture. But to do something new and build upon this tremendous legacy that exists here. So I’ve been with Jack now at Catholic Extension for twelve and a half years. And it is, as I said before, such a life-giving experience.

Anne Snyder: I have been thinking the last few years, and perhaps especially this last year where disease has rocked the world and for most of us, if not all of us, forced social distance and a lot of physical isolation. And in that, I think there was an awakening for many people, myself included, to how interdependent we are and notions of what it is to be part of the human family. What it is to be interconnected globally, and then of course within a bounded nation. Partly because some of us have had more time to think in solitude, but also because certain things were revealed in terms of on whose backs so much of our society is functioning. And in all of that I felt like the word “solidarity” was used with much wider fluency than you normally hear it.

And I’ve always felt that solidarity is one of those concepts that is among the most beautiful things to emerge out of Catholic social thought. But when words become widely used, they can also lose their richness — and also their reality. So I’m wondering if, given that in many ways you all embody solidarity by mission, if you could define it a bit. What does it actually require in real time? What does it actually look like?

Joe Boland: It’s a word that’s built into our own mission statement, so it’s a word that we have to give a lot of thought to. But the way we understand it in our Catholic tradition is that it’s a virtue, which means it’s something that is a habituation toward the good. And when we talk about it in the church context, solidarity is about working for justice. It is about peacemaking. But it’s really based on this idea that we’re all made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore we’re all children of God. We’re all sons and daughters of God. And I think where solidarity begins to come alive, where we experience a coming alive in our work, is that it’s premised on this idea of an encounter. That we meet someone, that we know someone. Maybe we don’t necessarily have something in common with them on the surface. But nonetheless, there’s a way for us to dialogue with them. To know them, to carry their joys and sorrows and glories in our own heart. And when we do that, I believe that we really affirm people’s dignity. And that is truly the essence of the mission of Catholic Extension, to work in solidarity with people.

I think where solidarity begins to come alive, where we experience a coming alive in our work, is that it’s premised on this idea of an encounter. That we meet someone, that we know someone. Maybe we don’t necessarily have something in common with them on the surface. But nonetheless, there’s a way for us to dialogue with them. To know them, to carry their joys and sorrows and glories in our own heart. And when we do that, I believe that we really affirm people’s dignity.

Joe Boland: It is so beautiful when we’ve accomplished that. And oftentimes it happens in very small ways. For instance, just this past summer: We work with a small, African American, Catholic community in rural Mississippi. We have been in partnership with them for many, many years. Beautiful community. So vibrant, so wonderful, so transformative. And they did a wonderful oral history of their community, because many of the elders have lived through this Jim Crow era in Mississippi and had a story to tell. We published a lot of those stories in one of our most recent magazines and did a little digital showcase on it, and I got a nice letter. I brought this letter. It’s from the sister that organized that oral history. And I thought she really summed up what solidarity means. She says, “We live in a time when the loud and the powerful try to make us less open to one another’s gifts.” And I think that’s the essence of solidarity—that we be open to one another’s gifts.

Anne Snyder: Wow.

Joe Boland: “Thank God,” she said, “for Extension and others like you who are willing to find the goodness in each of us and empower the gifts of those who might otherwise feel discounted and forgotten.” That was a small act of solidarity, and we’re hoping to multiply those acts of solidarity constantly.

Anne Snyder: Yeah. That’s beautifully said. Father Jack?

Fr. Jack Wall: I think the other thing too, just in terms of all of us, the consciousness of solidarity is important. When you think about what we’re grounded in, it’s this mystery of God loving all of us into life. Each one of us is a gift of God. We come from the divine reality. We’re immersed in that divine reality. We’re called in terms of our destiny to become one with the mystery of God’s life-giving love forever. And it’s our deepest truth that we are one with God. And if we’re one with God, then we’re one with God’s mission. And that is to bring the world into life. In all of creation, the creative God who’s calling us to be co-creative in the world. So this mission of solidarity is a deeply spiritual awareness that I think drives Catholic Extension. We’re just so aware of the presence and the mystery of God in every community that we enter into. We’re not bringing anything into it. We’re opening our hearts to the mystery of God’s love that’s going on and being revealed in God’s blessing in the communities that we serve.

So essentially it’s a consciousness that turns into a concern. And I think that that’s what Joe was trying to describe. If you are aware that this is your deepest truth, that we’re not monads, we’re not in a solipsistic kind of world, but we’re people that belong to each other. We have a social identity. We literally belong to each other because we belong to God. And I think the beauty of Catholic Extension is it’s a very concrete expression of that mystery of God’s love at work for us and its particularities in the United States, in our American community. But we’re so conscious of that and we’re trying to bring, in a very concrete way, people together from different places, different ideologies and all that, and say, “Forget about all this. This is the deepest truth. The mystery is our oneness. The challenge is building community.” And that’s where the mess occurs. But the mystery is in the mess.

We live in a time when the loud and the powerful try to make us less open to one another’s gifts.

Anne Snyder: Reflecting on your many years committed to this consciousness that becomes concern, as you put it, how would you describe the usual obstacles for attaining true solidarity? What are the things that keep us closed?

Joe Boland: Certainly a lot has been said about the fracturing of our society and the fact that we exist within our own bubbles and don’t move outside of those. And certainly that’s true. I think another thing though, is the failure to see the God-given goodness that exists in everybody in the midst of that. How did you frame it, Jack? The mystery of the mess that is where life happens. And I think where I’ve seen that most powerfully is where people shed those preconceptions about the other. They shed the jump toward a conclusion of judgment, of demonization of the other. One of the things we do at Extension besides build churches, as I referenced before, is also just support ministries in places where they couldn’t happen otherwise because of financial reasons. And one of the places that takes place is in prisons and this whole idea of restorative justice.

So here you have a group of people in prisons that have obviously, many of them, done very serious things and committed crimes. And yet, as I have gone in with prison chaplains and met with them as they do this work of restorative justice, what amazes me about their work is in spite of what that human being’s history might be, they refuse to overlook the God-given goodness and the dignity of those people. There’s one priest I know in Arkansas that we support. Wonderful gentleman. On his days off, he’ll drive a hundred miles to go to the supermax prison so he can work with the inmates on death row. Just because he believes in the potential of these folks. And some of the most powerful things that I’ve seen in terms of conversion of the human heart, transformation of a person, has been often behind those closed walls in the prison where this work of human restoration is happening. And to me it’s a great example, again, of solidarity expressed, the fruits of it, and also overcoming the normal obstacles that I think prevent solidarity from happening—which is just the jump to judgment and preconceived notions about who this person is and what their worth is.

Fr. Jack Wall: Another dimension is that sometimes we put words together that really don’t belong together. And one of them for me is “gated communities.” Joe was talking about prisons, which are also gated places, but I think it’s in all of us. There’s an innate fear of the other. I think that Pope Francis’s call toward encounter is so critical. This is not to toss blame on anybody. It’s part of the human condition. But I think what he’s calling us to, and what I think Catholic Extension is trying to be an instrument of is this effort of breaking out into this fabulous mission that each one of us has in our hearts. And that is to embody this mystery of God’s all inclusive, all-embracing love. And we all have to do it in our own clumsy human fashion, but we’re not ourselves. So often I think [about] when we think about our identities, and I think really now in America we’re trying to figure out our identity as a people. And it can’t be a fractured identity. It’s built on a dream, a vision of life. And to have that sense that each one of us is called vocationally to embody the mystery of becoming God’s blessing to one another and receiving that blessing.

And I think Catholic Extension is just trying to, in a very beautiful way, in a very intentional way, say we belong to each other. And that faith communities are powerful witnesses of the larger mystery of becoming a human family. And you don’t become a human family without a bit of risk. The first time you hold a baby in your arms, you’re taking a risk. It’s changing you. All of the sudden I’m becoming a mother, becoming a father. I’m going to be giving myself. But the power of being able to do that . . . the pope’s other great message. The world’s about a revolution of tenderness. How to tenderly love and care for one another and receive that love and care. But it’s risky. And we have gated communities because people are fearful of the other being a source of danger to them. And it’s a legitimate fear because that’s part of the human condition. But the other side of it is it’s also an invitation to break out of this and really discover the beauty of being in this world of mutual blessing.

Some of the most powerful things that I’ve seen in terms of conversion of the human heart, transformation of a person, has been often behind those closed walls in the prison where this work of human restoration is happening.

Anne Snyder: Speaking of risk, this is being recorded one week and one day after the US Capitol was sieged, by a crowd that became a mob of protesters. And of course the whole country continues to reel about this in up-ways, sideways, backward, forward as we head into an inauguration and hopefully a peaceful, or what has historically been a peaceful, transfer of power. And insofar as among other things this latest event is kind of a very physical and visceral manifestation of just a deeply, deeply divided era in the US specifically. I think there are a lot of people, whether you’re talking about conscious communities of Christian faith insofar as Christian symbols were visible last week in this sort of violence, as well as just as Americans within families, within old groups of friends that are now fractured. There are a lot of people very earnestly and urgently asking what is it to love one’s neighbor and how to love their enemies too. So as we talk about solidarity and the messiness of actually building community, could you maybe tease out some of the moral underpinnings here and complexities and criteria for keeping peace and seeking peace?

Fr. Jack Wall: One of the great things we do at Catholic Extension is to give an award every year. It’s called the Lumen Christi award. The light of Christ. And this past year we’re honoring a wonderful priest, Father Ron Foshage, in the little town of Jasper, Texas, that experienced one of the great horrors of the twentieth century. That was the terrorist murder of a black man by a few white men. And it just ripped apart the community—this very small community of people. This one man just had a different vision. And I think when you talk about what needs to be done, his vision was—how do we pull this back together? One of the mysteries of the divine is reconciliation. It’s healing. It’s forgiveness. It’s pushing people down to a deeper level. And for decades he’s been doing this. And with some very remarkable results from it. First of all, the healing in the community itself. But all of the sudden that message from this place got exploded across the country and actually ended up with kind of national-level law around hate crimes. So I think it’s a mystery of the courage and the fortitude and the perseverance to realize that it takes time. And who’s in it for the long haul?

I think one of the things we witness in our work is people who are really in it for the long haul and trying to create a different vision of what humanity means and breaking through the divisiveness. There’s always that temptation to exclude and all the other things. It’s a real challenge. But you need courageous people, people with a vision of solidarity, people who see the possibility of people converting their lives. That underneath it all the mystery of God’s at work in every one of us. And everybody gets upset about religion being twisted and convoluted and turning into cults that exclude, when you know that the heart of good religion is about a servant God who is trying to build up the whole human family and bring us to justice, peace, reconciliation, compassion, concern. By their fruits you will know them. And are those fruits happening and how can we continue to be creative about building those signs of that?

But you need courageous people, people with a vision of solidarity, people who see the possibility of people converting their lives.

Joe Boland: We work on the US-Mexico border very intensely. It’s actually one of the most densely Catholic areas of the country. It’s also one of the poorest. And so Catholic Extension for 115 years has been working with faith communities there. In fact, we helped organize Pope Francis’s binational Mass that he held on the US-Mexico border in February 2016. Very proud that we were part of that. And one thing that they always teach us is in these border communities where it’s so heavily militarized, there’s the constant presence reminding you that there’s that side and then there’s this side of it. And what so many of the people in those communities will say is, “That’s just an imaginary line. Over on that other side I’ve got friends. I’ve got cousins and family. I’ve got people who I know, people who I trust and I believe in. And they’re my community.” El Paso’s a good example of that because literally they think of themselves with Juarez as one city just with an international border running through them.

Joe Boland: So I think that’s a great mindset for all of us to have—that sometimes there is more than meets the eye. And though on the surface it looks like there’s unbelievable, impenetrable division, sometimes it’s just a figment of our imagination and the constructs that we create. Do we have it in us to see past those imaginary lines? By the way, when the Capitol riots were happening last week, I was in a snowy wood on vacation, and I was walking by myself. I did not see another human soul except for one moment I had to come upon a road to cross over. A man stopped me, and it was the only human interaction I had for four hours. He rolled down his window and said, “Man, are you okay?” He probably thought I was nuts walking out in the woods by myself. I probably looked pretty rough. But he was obviously availing himself to me, this guy walking along the road. And I thought to myself, “What a guy to roll down his window and offer help to this complete stranger who could have been anybody.”

Then I got back to my car and turned on the radio and heard everything that was happening at the Capitol. It was all the narrative that we’re all falling apart and we have nothing in common. And I think at that very moment when that was happening, where seemingly humanity was coming apart, I was the recipient of an unbelievable gesture of goodwill that I believe still exists as the fundamentals of this country, of the people who want to do good. Again, so I would take my cues from the communities we support who say remember, oftentimes those points of division are kind of figments of our imagination. We need to look beyond those to see the common humanity and beliefs that we share together.

Anne Snyder: That’s a powerful story. Thank you.

Tacking a little here, you all work, as you’ve said now, in some of the poorest parts of the US and yet you also strike me—even the way you describe quite a few of your communities that you work with—you strike me as just some of the most contagiously hopeful people. So I’m just curious if you can explain to our listeners that seeming paradox. At least paradox to American listeners.

Joe Boland: I think we get to see the human spirit, human creativity, at its best. And why do we see it in the poorest communities? Wouldn’t it be natural to think that they’re just miserable and that horrible things are going on in these communities? I think so often what we encounter are people who don’t have anything to take for granted. So what happens is they end up focusing on the essential. The essentials of their security, of the future of their families, their children. They take nothing for granted. And that’s very refreshing to meet people who have nothing else in life to keep them distracted. They’re very focused on that which is most essential. And then I think too in some of the poorest communities where they lack many resources and opportunities, what people like me might enjoy is seeing unbelievable ingenuity, creativity, innovation. Again, something very powerful happening in the human spirit. And that changes you. That makes you hopeful that the people who have the least are oftentimes showing you the sheer power of the human spirit, which we as people of faith would attribute obviously to the Holy Spirit. But there’s something powerful going on in us and in our humanity. So that’s how I would respond to that. I think they just give us a million reasons every year, the communities we work with, to remain hopeful.

You don’t become a human family without a bit of risk.

Fr. Jack Wall: And hope is at the heart, I think, of believing communities. This conviction that we experience over and over and over again that people see themselves as more than their circumstances. And we experience that in the concrete day by day of people in really dire poverty, in places in the United States that are almost Third World–ish in their realities. And it’s there. It’s a tremendous challenge. It’s a great difficultly. But you experience people of great aspiration. And I’ve just been blown away in a very personal way by the aspiration of good, good people who just happen to be poor. And to experience them taking that gift of their own life and doing all they can to build a life for themselves and for their families in very dire situations is just . . . it’s a profound experience. It serves a great encouragement, I think, for all of us to witness people in these situations Joe’s describing. And these are not places you go to for your vacation, but they’re part of the American experience. And it’s something I think we should be very proud of as Americans that within our country in some of the poorest communities are just wonderfully good people whose hearts are filled with hope. They’re bound to build a better world for themselves and for their children and for the larger community.

Anne Snyder: In the context of probably so many beautiful and probably layered, complex stories that you all get to witness, hear, and be in relationship with the people in those stories of transformation—individual and communal—how have you thought about the relationship between local and national?

Joe Boland: I think we’ve seen that some of the best things happening in the country or in the Catholic Church, which we work with, oftentimes happen as a very small movement—a very small expression that’s got the right inspiration and the right passion and turns into something enormous. And we’ve witnessed that in our work all over the place. Part of our job is to help to shine a light on it. But one example, just to take you back to the border for one more second, is—I can distinctly remember in 2014 getting a call from the bishop in the diocese of Brownsville, Texas, which is the very southern tip of south Texas. He was talking to us about a new surge of asylum seekers coming in and how there was no place to shelter them, so the Catholic Church was sheltering them. They needed some assistance and didn’t have any formal shelters. They would just open up a parish hall of a church that we were supporting and said, “We’re going to house the people in this church hall.”

And then they pulled a sister into doing that work. That sister was none other than the now very famous, known as the pope’s favorite nun, Sister Norma Pimentel. Many people know her as the Mother Teresa of the Rio Grande valley, and she’s done so much work to raise awareness of—not just what’s happening in her diocese, in her neck of the woods—but this global phenomenon of migration. And for us, it was such a privilege to be there at the beginning of that whole thing. It really did morph into this small movement of a local diocese and a local parish opening up their parish hall. And then soon every diocese across the border was doing it, and then there were subsequent migrant surges. It was a great expression of hospitality and solidarity with the poor and those who had no other place to go. So to me that’s a great example. And I think there are other examples I could give to you of that. Oftentimes it starts as a very small movement or thing and then grows into something very powerful and very special.

And for us as Catholic Extension, our hope and dream is that so many of these communities will transform not only their communities but [their] societies. They’ll transform hearts. They’ll transform our world. And that’s what we look to and want to have happen.

Fr. Jack Wall: And I think the other reality in terms of making that happen is why we’re involved in this movement called Catholic Extension. It’s not just in one place, but it’s literally thousands of places, thousands of these communities across the country. And we’re doing a simple thing. Just trying to build community. I keep on reaching back historically to Tocqueville when he talked about the United States. His big thing was the genius of the American experience was just doing this: creating these vibrant, transformative communities. And they’re intertwined and interconnected. And not only that, for us it’s also connecting affluent communities with the poorest communities. So I think this kind of movement across the world is . . . we hope it’s a sign. We think we’re an instrument of doing something that is both powerful in terms of building the faith communities and what those faith communities can be. As Pope Francis keeps on saying, we’re not self-referential. It’s about transforming the world. It’s transforming the communities and making a society that is better.

So we see ourselves as involved in something that’s not just in one place. I mean, we’re talking about thousands of places that are doing this. And I think you just trust. Those lights all of the sudden are experienced in broader and broader ways during very troubling times. My big faith story in this has always been the scriptural story of Philip and Nathanael talking to each other. One of them says, “I found the Messiah.” “You found what? The messiah? The future? The dream of God? You found it? Where?” And he says, “In Nazareth of Galilee.” And he throws back, “What good can ever come out of Nazareth?” And that’s what we live on. We’re going to these seemingly godforsaken places. And I think that’s what Pope Francis is saying. That the periphery might be the place where the biggest energy is going on, and if you can do this you’re really creating—I think—human solidarity by going to the edges, you know?

…the periphery might be the place where the biggest energy is going on…

Anne Snyder: Yes. Could you talk a bit about the relationship or the yin and yang between individual transformation and community transformation?

Joe Boland: Well, during this moment of pandemic, I guess the way to describe it is that it becomes contagious. What can happen in terms of transformation when one person becomes committed to something is that you can see it take root and really become contagious in a community. And we see that happen. By the way, I should mention that the main thrust of what we do at Catholic Extension is try to invest in the leadership in these communities. It’s giving them educational and training opportunities to deepen themselves so that they can serve their community. What we’re not trying to do is impose on them a certain way of thinking. We want to make sure that they can be leaders within the context of their own community. Which, as we mentioned before, it’s very diverse. We’re working everywhere from Alaska down to Puerto Rico. How leadership is expressed in a remote, native village of Alaska versus a small mission in the rural mountains of Puerto Rico is very different.

Joe Boland: But one of the people I always think about and think is an example of a person going viral in terms of how they’re able to move the community is migrant farm workers. Talk about a group of people who fall between the cracks. These beautiful, essential workers who are so critical to our own survival and comfort in this country who, thank God, this past year we’ve started to pay attention to. But Catholic Extension for many years has been working with migrant farm workers, and there’s a woman who’s an indigenous woman out in the Coachella Valley. Sadly right now the [COVID-19] infection rate’s about 40 percent to 50 percent, and most of them are migrant farm workers. And she just started rallying her community together. They speak a different language that most others in the immigrant community don’t recognize. And she said, “I need to pull this community together.” And so they’re living in this unincorporated trailer park, and she decided that she was going to advocate for street lights and then paved roads and a local park for all the children who are living there. And she was able to make that happen.

And lo and behold, other people start coming, and they say, “Yes, let’s build a community here.” And this is where they came to Catholic Extension. They said, “We need a church here. And if we had a church here and a firm presence, we’d be able to come together with greater regularity and really form deep bonds with the community.” We’re working on this project with them right now. But to me it’s a great example on a very micro level of someone who is deeply convicted—who has this experience that moves others into action—and it sort of rolls on from there. And I could speak a lot more about that, but I think that’s a great example of the contagiousness of leadership that we see in these communities.

Anne Snyder: I love that. A contagion of care.

Joe Boland: Very well put.

Anne Snyder: Father Jack, do you have anything to add?

Fr. Jack Wall: One of the things I was thinking of was that so many of the people that we are working with are in leadership positions, but forming leaders are Women Religious. They really are a remarkable experience in our country. It’s one of the great gifts I think that the Catholic community has given to the American experience. And I think any Catholic would think about the ways that Women Religious who are teachers and work among in the impoverished and what that has meant, et cetera. But one of the things that we experience is a sister that’s a missioner and going into these very, very impoverished places. And what they’re finding is a lot of people are just very isolated from one another and have very little self-confidence. They’re missing a lot of the tools that would bring people together. But they’ve been able to bring women whose husbands maybe are out working somewhere and they’re locked in a trailer somewhere and bringing them together. And all of the sudden you see this tremendous, as you describe, individual change or transformation occur. Very impoverished people, isolated people, primarily women themselves who all of a sudden discover their own power and their creativity and their own giftedness.

And then all of the sudden you find these people not going off individually, but forming community that then begins transforming all kinds of other things. Discovering new ways to work and different ways to be married, different ways to raise families, different ways to feed their children. So things that start out as individuals isolated all of the sudden discovering community together empower themselves and then also empowering each other.

Anne Snyder: That’s wonderfully said. Going back to this theme of these local micro manifestations of hope and how they trickle upward, I’ve been reading quite a bit of Pope Francis more recently in the context of reflecting on these times of crisis, and he wrote a wonderful little book that you all may have read that came out I think toward the end of last year just called Let Us Dream. And I was struck once again by this notion that when you go to the edge, as Jesus’s whole life actually, including his very birth, was. Not only in the sense of “therein is the Kingdom,” if you believe in the Sermon on the Mount, but therein also are some answers I think for how we understand even what happened last week at the Capitol. Or maybe not understand it, but how we understand . . . as things come to the so-called center, whether that be a capital city where I live or a lot of people in some of the worlds I’m in. To be an intellectual class is to be invited into a noble responsibility, but there can be a default mindset of, “How do we figure everything out from top down?” and the bevy of assumptions that go along with that.

And I think there’s something in the charism, particularly of Pope Francis’s emphases on encounter and personalism and accompaniment, that suggests that sometimes quite beyond our own expectation we find the compass for the powers that be, for the center. Because I do think you need top down as well as bottom up. But you find that north pole in these unexpected, hidden, off-the-beaten-path places. And my instincts are speaking more than my experiences right now, but I just was curious if any of that resonates, or if you could phrase it more articulately than I just did?

Joe Boland: I think absolutely. I think it’s clear from the Scriptures that the heart of the kingdom are the poor and the meek. And that’s where we discover the face of God. So if you’re on this quest to find God, as some people are, at least for me personally, and I believe this was the case for Pope Francis too and I think that’s why he talks about the periphery so much because I know that he’s had a personal experience of encountering the poor and understanding that he finds the face of God there so vividly manifested. And that to me has always been the case. I happen to be working in an organization that keeps the poor front and center and obviously keeps the reality of where God is present very vivid to me every day as we work with these folks. And to be in solidarity with them is a great privilege.

Again, going back to Scripture, Jesus places a child in our midst and says, “Unless you can become like this child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” I think in a special way in a lot of the work that we do, in a lot of the communities we are [in], they’re very young communities. Extremely young communities. There are kids everywhere. You walk into some of these trailer parks that we go into or some of these villages and you just see the face of youth everywhere. You encounter in those faces God’s face. And what Pope Francis has been writing about young people is they’re not only our future, but they’re also our present. And I think for us to be able to invest in that future potential, in many of these families, in many of these programs that benefit these young-adult leaders coming out of these communities, which is part of the scope of our work, is very powerful.

Joe Boland: So yeah, at the end of the day working with children, supporting children and families, supporting the poor, to me takes us right into the heart of the kingdom. It transforms us completely to have those kind of experiences and to work so deeply with these communities. That’s why Pope Francis keeps telling us, “Go back to the peripheries. Get out of the sacristies, go into the streets. And that’s where you’ll find the face of God.”

Fr. Jack Wall: Another kind of image that’s a metaphor shared by a poet and a theologian friend of mine describes Jesus as a border walker. And if you think about the larger vision of what the Christian story is, it’s about a new creation, a new way of being human. So we’re crossing a border. We’re going into a whole different consciousness [or] awareness of what it is. And part of that, to go back to your original thing, is solidarity. We’re building the future of the human family. And it’s all-inclusive. So you’ve got to go to those places where you’re on the edge. When you’re on the border of the future of humanity, you sense the spiritual bonding of people for meaning in their life, for purposefulness, and consider that we’re on this great beautiful journey to do God’s work in the world. And the way you’re going to sense the future is by going to the edges, to the borders, to the peripheries, that’s going to create a new way of being human that’s all-inclusive. We’re all in this thing together. And I think the church work is to be at the edge of that, to be the forefront of what the new humanity is going to look like. And I think it’s about justice, peace, reconciliation, creativity.

How do you create new ways of being together? How do you take advantage of the creative giftedness of everybody? And to trust the mystery that sometimes in the poorest places, there is genius. There’s brilliance. And you can’t leave anything on the table. That’s the other thing I love about the pope when he says we’re the “throwaway” society. Don’t throw away the potential genius and goodness and beauty and creativity that’s found in the refuse places of the world. And clearly there are places in the United States where we’re sitting on brilliant talent.

I have one more example. It was a community of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. This priest there of many years formed together a people, and the people wanted to know what they were going to do about their kids. They didn’t feel like they were getting an education, and to make a long story short, they ended up creating a school there. But in the first graduating classes of that school, they get one of these Native American kids who gets a scholarship to Stanford University in pre-med. That’s sitting in this community.

Anne Snyder: Wow.

Fr. Jack Wall: And what’s the potential that we are leaving on the table? I think that’s part of his genius, the pope’s spiritual genius, is saying, “If you go to the periphery, all you have to do is let people know they’re important.” We’re not doing anything for people. We’re just helping them come together and grow their own goodness and beauty and potential creativity for the world. We can’t let anybody by.

Anne Snyder: On that note, as we all find ourselves, certainly right now in the US, I think the whole country wherever you stand is shaken and worried. And I know a lot of people who are usually people of hope and steadfastness are having trouble sleeping, and there’s just a sense of foreboding in the air. So in that context, given that most of our listeners are in the States, how would you encourage the people right now in this moment of national fragility?

Joe Boland: I think the first order of business is make sure we don’t lose hope. To me, hope is that one theological virtue that really makes everything hang together. We know charity is the most important according to St. Paul, faith among those virtues. But hope to me is the one that really brings it all together. And as long as we have kernels of hope, I think there’s a way forward. When people have lost that sense of hope and have been dispirited, that’s when you really see things start to fall apart. So I would just encourage anybody to not lose hope, as easy as it is to lose it in times like these. We work with so many people who have just gone through epical crises. I mean, that’s part of the nature of our work. We’re not a disaster relief organization, but we oftentimes are in communities that are just going through unbelievable moments. I just think back on our experience with the Puerto Ricans. We’ve been working with Puerto Rico for 115 years, but after Hurricane Maria just rocked every corner of the island and the millions of people who live there, the first phone call that many of them made was to Catholic Extension asking for our solidarity.

As long as we have kernels of hope, I think there’s a way forward.

But the thing that was so beautiful to us is again, go back to that moment. They were without electricity for six months. Many of them didn’t have running water. Our government agencies couldn’t get bottles of water out to these communities. So the church realized it was incumbent upon them to do something. They were to be the bearers of light in a community that was literally sitting in darkness. And they did. The rallying cry that came out through all of Puerto Rico with a little Christian spin on it from our church communities was “Puerto Rico will rise.” And they said in the Christian community, “With God, Puerto Rico rises.” And it really became a rallying cry.

Anne Snyder: Wow.

Joe Boland: Quite frankly, we’re working with them now. They still haven’t fully recovered. But they haven’t lost hope either. So they’ve been doing that important work of finding a way forward, finding that one little thing that they can do every day that is to be a bearer of God’s light and joy. They’re doing it in very small ways and also very large scale and profound ways throughout the island. And again, when we talk about solidarity, they’re teaching us what we need to do in moments of just epical crisis. So I’m following the instruction of the Puerto Ricans. I have been since the beginning of this pandemic. [I’m noticing] what kind of attitude is going to be required for us to be able to move forward. And knowing that we’re in pretty choppy waters, but if we don’t lose hope we still have a chance.

Anne Snyder: Thank you.

Fr. Jack Wall: And I would echo what Joe is saying about hope. It’s the critical thing we need right now. I’m the oldest of the three of us talking here, and you reach back historically and think there’s been so many moments of crisis in our country. So often in the DC discussions of this past week, they’ve reached back to other moments of crisis. And when I first got ordained, I had somebody give me a little card with a quote from a British author and poet and playwright called Christopher Fry. And the words are so filled with hope. He says, “Thank God our time is now. When wrong comes up to greet us everywhere, never to leave us until humankind, the human family, the human soul takes the greatest stride of soul that we’ve ever taken.” And he says, “Affairs are now soul-sized.” I think that’s a powerful . . . Affairs now are soul-sized. “And the enterprise is exploration into God.” And I think with all of our conversation about solidarity and everything like that, where is the divine? Where is God?

If we’re to explore the mystery of God, where does God say he is? And he basically . . . Beautiful words of the Beatitudes. Go to the poor, go to the hungry, go to the naked, go to the suffering, the imprisoned, the lost. Going into those places builds this revolution of tenderness, connectedness, solidarity. And as Joe was saying earlier, the American story is bigger than what we’re going through. The idealism around it. And so much of that idealism and dreams were built around this saying that life is a gift of God, and what we’re called to do is become God’s blessing to others. So that’s what we’re about.

Anne Snyder: Thank you so much. Both of you genuinely have been, in the short time I’ve known you, one of God’s great blessings to me. So I just want to thank you for this conversation today. It takes actually in some ways wicked trust to become like a little child again and to have faith like a child but also have the humility and wonder of one. And I just think both of you in the way you see and the fragrance that brushes off on you from working with all these people in the US, I just want to thank you for sharing it with me today and sharing that with our listeners.

Joe Boland: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.


Feature Photo: At Holy Angels Parish in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Sister Daysis Evangelista Uriarte Benavidez played music in front of photos of parishioners taped to pews in a service streamed online. Although she was alone in the church, she says she was connected in spirit to the community she serves. Sister Benavidez is part of Catholic Extension’s U.S.-Latin American Sisters Exchange Program, which funds religious sisters from Latin American congregations to minister among Latino immigrant populations in Extension dioceses across the United States. The program is made possible in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

Race, Relationships, and Repentance

July 31, 2020

This interview with Dwan Dandridge and Chris Lambert was originally recorded as part of Season One of The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast I created in the fires of 2020 to learn from those whose life callings had already taken them to the crevices of our various crises, now exposed for all to see. The transcript was originally published on Breaking Ground.

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For the full experience, and to hear the heart behind the words, we encourage you to listen to the podcast episode here.

Anne Snyder: Welcome back to The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast of Breaking Ground. Today I’m honored to get to introduce you to Dwan Dandridge and Chris Lambert, two guys from Detroit, Michigan, who together work daily toward breaking down barriers and building bridges in a city riven by decades of racially charged neglect, government control and whiplash, and layers of earned mistrust—between black folks and white folks, between black residents and the state and federal powers that be, between neighborhoods, between urban dwellers and suburban dwellers, between newcoming do-gooders and longtime residents who’ve earned a right to deep skepticism, one betrayal and repeated tear at their hope and love of place at a time.

Life Remodeled is the organization that Chris founded back in 2011, and it tries to carve out some fresh turf in this fraught minefield. Every year Life Remodeled identifies a key community asset in a given neighborhood and remodels it, repairs owner-occupied homes throughout that chosen neighborhood, and mobilizes at least ten thousand volunteers in an annual cleanup project that spans six days and three hundred city blocks. The primary goal is not to salvage Detroit, nice by-product though that would be, but rather to create opportunities for the transformation of people—both those served and those who are serving.

Part of Life Remodeled’s mission is to mobilize volunteers to clean up residential blocks that have an advanced level of decay. Photograph by Stephen Smith, courtesy of Bittersweet Monthly.

There are some beautiful stories, and some really messy ones. We’re getting together today to talk about both. Chris and Dwan, it’s really great to see you both today.

Chris Lambert: Great to be with you, Anne.

Dwan Dandridge: Anne, thank you so much for having us. It’s always a pleasure when we can connect.

Anne: My pleasure. So I invited both of you on the show in part because I find your friendship and working relationship both striking and instructive. I’m sure that it’s probably had its fair share of tensions and bruises and learning curves, and maybe even some battles over the years, but there seems to be a perseverance about it and a very deep and mutual honoring of one another. Could you tell us a bit about how you two met and what’s nourished and sustained your relationship to date?

Chris: I think we met through a mutual friend and it was just kind of an acquaintance thing. We said hi to each other, but then there was a time in our organization’s history when we were looking at possibly doing some work around mentorship that involved engaging a contractor. Dwan knew that world.

That program actually never ended up taking off, but then there was another opportunity where we needed a project manager for this six-day project back in 2016. I reached back out to Dwan. We ended up sitting down for lunch. We were having a great conversation before he said something that really intrigued me.

I asked him, “What is it about Life Remodeled that interests you in possibly joining our team?” And the first thing that he said was, “I’m actually excited about what I can bring to the table to help point out some blind spots in the organization.”

Dwan Dandridge. Photograph by Stephen Smith, courtesy of Bittersweet Monthly.

Well, I didn’t think we really had many blind spots. I’m thinking to myself, who is this guy? We’ve only talked a couple of times and he’s already telling me in a job interview about blind spots. And then I’m thinking to myself, well, now I want to know exactly what they are, right now. So that’s how we got started.

Dwan: Yeah. I’m huge on power dynamics. So as Chris, in his mind, was interviewing me, I was actually interviewing him.

The first time we met, he had reached out looking for someone to come and help with some mentoring programming as it intersected with Life Remodeled’s construction component. And I remember my business partner at the time—Steve Kato, a White man—and I were sitting in that room with Chris. At a certain point while we were having this discussion about how to make this work, I paused and said, “We’re talking about doing a program that is geared toward mentoring black men in Detroit, ages eighteen to twenty-four. I’m the only black man in the room. And if Steve didn’t invite me here, I wouldn’t be in the room. Am I the only person who sees a problem with that?”

I think that for many Detroiters who work to love and care for Detroit, and I’m talking about black Detroiters now, we saw the momentum that Life Remodeled had, and we saw the impact that it would have on the community. Chris is a get-stuff-done type of person. So am I.

And often, when you’re a get-stuff-done type of person, you move really quickly and you have to make decisions and you have to be able to improvise and move. Nobody felt like they knew who he was or could get a feel for who he was. I still get that question sometimes today. I still remember watching Chris at a function we were at together. It always seemed like he was in a meeting that had to get something done, where he was either making an ask, or someone was making an ask of him. I was like, man, that just looks unhealthy if all of his relationships are like that.

Chris Lambert. Photograph by Stephen Smith, courtesy of Bittersweet Monthly.

I just asked him, “Do you have any relationships or friendships that aren’t transactional, where you aren’t trying to accomplish something?” He and I weren’t really even thinking or talking about working together at this time. My heart just went out to him, because his whole MO just seemed like a lonely way to live.

“Do you have any relationships or friendships that aren’t transactional, where you aren’t trying to accomplish something?”

At the interview he’s talking about, I definitely went in knowing that Life Remodeled had some blind spots. They were just that; it’s not a surprise to me that he wasn’t aware that they were there. That’s why they’re blind spots. And I spoke up because I didn’t want to see Life Remodeled fail, just because of something that it may not have understood about Detroit, about the people you work alongside of and partner with.

But reflecting now on the relationship as it’s developed, for me, it really started to turn into a friendship when I saw Chris’s resilience, and I saw a humility in him. Often, humility doesn’t come along with somebody who’s that focused, who can get a lot of stuff done. . . . I think part of the humility you now see in Chris he actually owes to the community that we work in, because they were not going to take anything less.

But seeing him be able to hit some challenges that he didn’t prepare for and still be willing to come to the table and continue to pursue the mission in a way where the community felt respected, I started to grow a deeper level of love for him as a person. He became not just somebody that I worked with, but a friend.

Often, humility doesn’t come along with somebody who’s that focused, who can get a lot of stuff done.

Anne: That’s a real grace. We’ll get into that in a bit, some of the cross-cultural dynamics and the tensions between getting stuff done and [the more inconvenient] relational pieces, but just stepping back a bit, what fundamentally is the work of Life Remodeled, and how do you go about fulfilling the mission of it?

Chris: At the heart of our mission is a desire to bridge people across divides and to help transform each other’s lives. Because we all recognize right now how polarized our country is . . . I’ve found that if you try to get two people who are polar opposites on issues of race, religion, or politics to sit down at a table, look each other in the eye, have a conversation, and work it out, nine times out of ten that’s not a very productive conversation.

But we found that if you can invite the same two people to work shoulder to shoulder on an action-oriented project, something magical happens, where they begin to develop foundations of respect for one another. Foundations that are transformational for everyone who’s involved.

Chris Lambert greets high school volunteers who are helping clean up residential blocks affected by overgrown vegetation and decay. Photograph by Stephen Smith, courtesy of Bittersweet Monthly.

The narrative of philanthropy is often that the benefactors are the heroes and have all the goods, and that the beneficiaries just need to receive and maybe move up a couple notches. And what we’re saying is, no, we all have a lot to offer, and we all have a lot to learn.

I’ve found that if you try to get two people who are polar opposites on issues of race, religion, or politics to sit down at a table, look each other in the eye, have a conversation, and work it out, nine times out of ten that’s not a very productive conversation.

Anne: This has been a disruptive year for those organizations who work on the ground that don’t have the luxury of sitting behind a computer screen. How has Life Remodeled’s work been affected, first, by COVID-19 and then the racial wake-up alarm that’s hit the country?

Chris: So COVID-19 was big, obviously, for all nonprofits and still has the potential to have a massive impact. Immediately we started preparing for what could potentially become a greater depression than the Great Depression.

We began to reimagine our organization’s programs, our positions, and even our people in those positions. And it was actually a very fruitful exercise that I think made us a stronger organization; we began to try to predict what the new normal would look like, while holding those predictions fluidly. But we also realized that we needed to make some pretty significant financial decisions, because giving is going to be a lot lower than what it would be.

And then what happened to George Floyd, his murder, began to change some of that positioning that we ran into as an organization, because our work became more relevant. Dwan, I’d love to hear your perspective.

Dwan: There are some real sensitive ears in Detroit right now. Many are wondering about the authenticity of some of the organizations that seem to be paying more attention to issues of race. I’m very proud that when I get questions from people who may be suspicious along these lines, I get to say that this is not something new for us at Life Remodeled. This is not something where we are suddenly responding to what happened with Ahmaud Arbery and then George Floyd.

We’ve long identified race as an issue, especially as it affects the relationships between the suburban community, business community, and the inner city. And before this year’s events even started rolling we’d begun talking about having some race programming at Life Remodeled.

For instance, at this year’s Super Bowl, we hosted a big party where 160 people showed up. And we had a discussion before the game about Kaepernick and peacefully protesting during the anthem. We had people from very, very different perspectives there to sit on a panel, and it went really well. We had a good turnout. Everybody’s voice was respected. And we started to realize that we really have something to offer in this space as an organization. Chris and I get calls like this often, people wanting to know. I think really what they’re not saying, but what they want to know is like, “How the heck did you pull this off? We saw where you were in 2017.” How did you get to this space where somebody is posting a picture with Chris on their social media thread who back in 2017 was sitting in opposition to Life Remodeled? Having them share a meal or drink or having them over to his house . . . real genuine relationships [had formed after a long, messy road].

So, when I’ve gotten questions about “Is this really real?” it’s an easy answer for me. This is not something that we’re just responding to. But I think that we have a pretty unique voice to speak to some of the people who are waking up, and we’re able to say things that they wouldn’t say before because of the social pressure. “We want to support black organizations.” Or: “Can you connect us with black organizations?” And we have already positioned ourselves to be a conduit to help facilitate some of those discussions and some of those relationships.

There are some real sensitive ears in Detroit right now. Many are wondering about the authenticity of some of the organizations that seem to be paying more attention to issues of race.

Anne: Yeah. On that subject, Dwan, to be a bit personally transparent: I think we’re all on different journeys in our contexts. And in my own, which is the magazine world, I pitched a vision for Comment magazine last October 2019, sincerely and out of the fruit of some of my own life experience. And the basic message was, “We need to widen the table of voices speaking into the various pains of our common life, to actually represent the household of faith as it exists. The table needs to be so much wider.” And I used that metaphor of “the table,” which I’ve since learned is a frustrating metaphor for many people of color, but at the time all I conceived was the hospitality embedded in the image. And I was saying sentences like, “There needs to be an alliance” [between the historic gatekeepers of theological conversation in the US and all those who are equal members of the household of Christian faith].

. . . So here I was using words like “alliance” and “bridge-building,” and I still believe in those tasks, but I’ve come to understand how naïve I was, how I hadn’t thought through the underlying issues of long-standing distrust when those kinds of overtures are made from someone who looks like me. I received some pushback of, “Well, how are you going to atone for ways in which these kinds of invitations to come to the table have been dishonored?” So, that’s in the publishing and magazine context, but I think those kinds of dynamics are happening in lots of different places and sectors.

And I’m curious: As an organization that is built on this premise of breaking down barriers and bridge-building, how would both of you reflect on lessons learned? For example, it’s not always just about bringing people together to encounter difference that they wouldn’t otherwise; sometimes there are some real apologies that need to be made. How do you demonstrate that with your life? And institutionally, how do you scaffold that sort of moral process?

Denise Lyles, a community leader in Detroit. Photograph by Stephen Smith, courtesy of Bittersweet Monthly.

Dwan: Well one of the things I said to Chris early on in our experience is that you’re entering into a relationship with people who have been in very abusive relationships in the past. And when you’re dealing with people who have been in abusive relationships, there’s all kinds of baggage that they bring to the table from those relationships. And I said to Chris, “There will be times when you’ll be accused of something.” I think I also told him, “You have a five- or six-year history of doing some amazing things in the city of Detroit. You’re up against the four-hundred-year history of people who look like you doing some very damnable things to people who live in Detroit.”

When you’re [entering into a relationship] with people who have been in abusive relationships, there’s all kinds of baggage that they bring to the table from those relationships.

Chris: Dwan, I just want to highlight something you said about the abusive relationships, because I think some listeners may take that in the sense that we normally think of abusive relationships—between just a spouse or a boyfriend and girlfriend—but maybe if you want to provide a little more context to the broader view that you hold about the nature of the abusive relationships.

Dwan: Yeah. That is the example that probably comes to mind immediately. But when you are talking about relationships, we have a wide range. And to give historical context—Anne was speaking of coming to the table and whatnot, and things of that nature have been tried before—but you have things like the , and similar things have happened in Philadelphia.

If you hear me say those things and you’re listening and you’re not aware of what they are, just look at the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacre, where there were thriving communities of black folk that were taken advantage of, and they actually got slaughtered by the surrounding community of White people. And the thing that doesn’t get told when we simply tell the story like that is that many of the people who participated in the looting, the crime, and whatnot were God-fearing, churchgoing believers.

What you need to understand is that we have learned that not trusting could be the very thing that saves your life. So, that’s kind of the lens and the context through which we view those types of offers oftentimes.

So someone like Chris coming, saying that they’re going to do an amazing project in your community . . . I was trying to get Chris to understand that this is who you’re talking to. And this is who you’re looking to partner with. I said to him, if you are accused of being something that you’re not, of something you haven’t done, you have to be able to say, “Look, I’m sorry, but that’s not me. That’s not what I’m about. That’s not what I did.”

We have learned that not trusting could be the very thing that saves your life.

And when you do something that reminds people of or resembles those abusive relationships, you’ve got to own that. You have to figure out what repentance looks like. There was a long process where Chris had to continue to apologize to the community, but not just apologize: show that he was willing to move differently.

There were people who were tired of hearing him apologize. It was like, “You need to stop apologizing.” They thought that they were giving him really sound advice—and this was Black people and White people telling him that. I was like, “No.”

There was a long process where Chris had to continue to apologize to the community, but not just apologize: show that he was willing to move differently.

In the faith [world], when we talk about race, we have a really unhealthy balance to the way that we apply biblical teaching. We want to talk about the forgiveness part. And we have not as a nation repented. So if we’re not talking repentance, it winds up being the faithful asking those who have been on the losing side of the sin to do all of the heavy lifting. And I don’t think that that’s a complete, accurate, or even a healthy biblical approach, for anybody on either side.

In the faith [world], when we talk about race, we have a really unhealthy balance to the way that we apply biblical teaching. We want to talk about the forgiveness part. And we have not as a nation repented.

Anne: Yeah.

Chris: I want to jump in and say, one of the things that really attracted me to Dwan when I first met him was our shared worldview, and that comes from a place of faith at the deepest level for both of us. Just like Dwan described me, I’m a roll-up-my-sleeves kind of guy. Let’s get it done. That’s who Dwan is. For me, as someone who lived in the suburbs and wanted to move into the city, I was attracted to finding people who I thought were similar, but yet very different in terms of their experience on race and other life experiences. That’s one of the things that initially drew me to ask Dwan to join our team.

But when I asked Dwan to join our team, I was really thinking of Dwan from the perspective of what he brought to the table in terms of the job description that would help the table. And reforming Life Remodeled’s perspective of race and my perspective of race wasn’t in the job description.

At that time when we met, I would have said—and I probably did say to Dwan—that I believed that people in the neighborhoods we’d worked in had just as much to offer me and the White donors and the White volunteers from the suburbs. I believed that in my head, but I’m going to be honest with you: As I look back now, I don’t think I believed it very much in my heart. What has happened since 2017 has radically changed that idea for me and become something I actually believe in my heart. I can now give experience and testimony to how much my life needed remodeling. And a lot of that remodeling requires demolition of false beliefs, false expectations, and wrong perspectives. Dwan has helped me more than any person I know to really have a greater understanding of how black and white America can love one another. And Dwan didn’t just do that himself. Dwan served as a bridge-builder between many other people who I needed to learn from and love and learn to love.

I can now give experience and testimony to how much my life needed remodeling. And a lot of that remodeling requires demolition of false beliefs, false expectations, and wrong perspectives. Dwan has helped me more than any person I know to really have a greater understanding of how black and white America can love one another.

Anne: Thank you both. Could you provide a little more context as to what you mean in terms of this shift? Particularly for you, Chris, and your own leadership of Life Remodeled and your own personal demolition?

Chris: Prior to 2017, we were renovating existing school buildings. At the end of 2016, the school district said, “We want to give you a school building that’s currently a school, because we’re going to move all the kids from this building into the next building, and we want you to repurpose it.” We thought, “Okay, great. Let’s do it.”

The school building that Life Remodeled was given. Photograph by Stephen Smith, courtesy of Bittersweet Monthly.

We shared the vision with the community. The community seemed to be favorable toward it, but what we weren’t allowed to tell the community was that we were acquiring the building, and acquiring it for one dollar a year for fifty years. I actually thought that people were going to be excited about that because we were getting such a great deal, which meant we could use so much more of the philanthropic money to invest in the kids and the community.

This all happened right before Dwan joined our team. Dwan joined our team, and I told him what we’d done and how now we were going to share it with the community. I think he was thinking to himself, wow, I wish I would have known that before I said yes to the job. Dwan predicted everything that would unfold. So I think maybe it’d be best for Dwan to summarize.

Dwan: I still remember that moment. I still remember that moment when I found out that the community had not been informed. And I just explained to Chris, “No. That’s a no-no.” In that situation, if you’re asked not to communicate to the team, to the community that you’re looking to partner with, that’s got to be deal-breaker. I said, “You have to represent them at the table. And that’s not fair, because nobody elected you to represent them, but you have to speak for them and say, ‘I can’t take this deal unless I’m able to communicate it with them beforehand.’”

That speaks to the trust component, earning trust, that we’re going to get into later in the conversation, but that’s what we’re talking about when you hear us talk about 2017.

Chris: People reacted, saying, “I lost my house, and here comes this guy.” The organization is led by many people, but I was associated with it as a white guy, so it’s clearly a white organization. “This white guy gets a building for a dollar a year. What other real estate is going to be given to him? He’s going to gentrify the area. He’s going to displace us.” I was called a white mother-effer from the stage, and Dwan was called worse. And here we were.

New lacquered floors in the school building. Photograph by Stephen Smith, courtesy of Bittersweet Monthly.

Anne: The real deal.

Dwan, earlier you were talking about what people of faith in the American Christian context often miss about notions of reconciliation and forgiveness—the missing emphasis on all the focus on forgiveness being repentance. And when I hear you say that, I do think we’re probably entering a period where both “the church,” as well as the country at large, are going to be entering a series of much more mainstream discussions around reparations.

 I do think we’re probably entering a period where both “the church,” as well as the country at large, are going to be entering a series of much more mainstream discussions around reparations.

There are a million ways we could get at that, and we’re not going to tackle it in this hour, but you guys no doubt have thought about this seriously. As you think about Life Remodeled and where you all are at now in your work and in your relationships in the city of Detroit, is it doing a form of reparations, or is that still ahead?

Dwan: That’s still ahead. I think there’s potential there. And I think there are moments when we do something that feels like reparations. We may call it something a little bit different. At the end of the day, if we have to call it something different and it still ends up being reparations, I’m still for that, personally.

But I do believe that there’s potential as an organization to lean in and even lead by example with some creative ways to actually do reparations.

If we talk about some of the things we’ve done during the pandemic and show the difference between Life Remodeled before and after 2017—the lessons the organization has learned from the community that we’ve worked in and partnered with—there were some people who wanted to provide some resources to Life Remodeled to actually get meals for the community. Chris and I met with the Life Remodeled community advisory council, a list of community leaders who advise us on some different ways that they think resources can be best used. When people started to cut checks to provide meals, one of the things we would do was spend this money to buy gift certificates for some of the black-owned restaurants in the city of Detroit that were really suffering and struggling during the pandemic.

The Life Remodeled community advisory council members came together with us to actually pass out those meals and pass out the gift certificates for people to go and use them at those restaurants. So those are some ways, and we’re still constantly trying to figure out other ways.

Dwan Dandridge walks volunteers through traffic assignments during a volunteer clean-up project. Photograph by Stephen Smith, courtesy of Bittersweet Monthly.

The way I view it is that the community understands and is really aware of many of its own needs, but they don’t necessarily have the dollars. But understanding is a resource in itself. Like Chris was saying when he talked about the philanthropic community, the way we view those resources is out of balance. The philanthropic community understands that the dollars are needed. But those dollars by themselves are of no good without the understanding that the community has. So if we can figure out a way to continue to be a conduit and bring them together, that’s a form of reparations—but I think there has to be a lot more, because there’s definitely a significant debt owed, when you talk about reparations.

The way I view it is that the community understands and is really aware of many of its own needs, but they don’t necessarily have the dollars. But understanding is a resource in itself. 

Chris: Prior to moving to Detroit, I’d traveled in or lived on every continent in the world, except for Antarctica, including living in Africa for nine months. I was a missionary there, and I thought I really understood contextualization. I thought Life Remodeled was doing such a great job around race. At that time in my life, and even in 2016, I definitely didn’t believe in reparations. I’d only heard it talked about a few times, and it was just a concept to me. I immediately thought of the political implications. I was like, “No, it’ll never work.” And I only thought about reparations in the context of handing out cash.

When Dwan joined our team, I asked him if he wanted to come with me into a few different circles of all white men who were all Republican. I said, “How do you feel about working with some guys who probably—a lot of them—are going to have very, very racist views, spoken or unspoken?” He was like, “Well, I believe in reparations. So I’m all good with it.”

When he said that, a part of me was like, I don’t know about that. Reparations. But over time, my perspective has changed dramatically to where I do believe in reparations. I don’t know what it should look like. I don’t think it should be handing out cash, but I do believe in it.

The philanthropic community understands that the dollars are needed. But those dollars by themselves are of no good without the understanding that the community has. 

Anne: Thank you both. Earlier, Dwan, you talked about this issue of earned trust, and also earned mistrust. You all have learned a lot about the uphill battle that is subverting the patterns of history. How do you re-earn trust in communities that have never been served well by trusting? What would you say are the key ingredients in earning trust in a given community? Especially when part of Life Remodeled’s chosen approach is not to stay in a community forever but to serve as an outside catalyst. When we think about trust, we think about the long term, about consistency, et cetera. How have you figured this out?

How do you re-earn trust in communities that have never been served well by trusting? What would you say are the key ingredients in earning trust in a given community?

Dwan: My personal take on trust is that I don’t believe in asking for it. I just don’t think it’s necessary. Stepping into and embracing the lack of trust is a great space to find yourself in.

One of the things I said early on in Life Remodeled was, we shouldn’t ask anybody to blindly give us trust at all. If we are who we say we are, we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do. I believe in inviting people to watch me or watch us as an organization. If we step away from the vision and the mission that we said we were on, we need somebody watching us to call us out. That, I think, is a more healthy approach.

Long-time resident Mrs. Alvis Brown. Photograph by Stephen Smith, courtesy of Bittersweet Monthly.

The lack of trust is this really sweet spot for organizations working in spaces like the communities that we work in. Because if you’re constantly looking to earn trust, that’s a level of accountability that will keep you honest when you feel the need to deviate or an opportunity to deviate from who you said you are.

My personal take on trust is that I don’t believe in asking for it. I just don’t think it’s necessary. Stepping into and embracing the lack of trust is a great space to find yourself in.

Anne: Thanks. Chris, do you have anything to add?

Chris: Amen.

Anne: Most of us inhabit multiple worlds. You’ve got your family; if you’re a churchgoer you’ve got that; you’ve got your neighborhood; you’ve got other communities you’re a part of. And then you’ve got this work together, which spreads into so many different parts of Detroit. And I’m sure there’s a lot of overlap also with the lives you lead and where you live them.

But one of you is black, and one of you is white. How do you navigate the many different worlds you each inhabit, especially in this national moment when there is more of a racial emphasis and a lot of conversations and questions about what is owed and inequality and all those things?

As you walk in overlapping and different spaces—like Chris, for instance, part of the Praxis community—and different networks of different levels of perceived influence and assumptions, do you find yourself doing a lot of code-switching? And if so, who, ultimately, are you seeking always to honor? Or what are you always trying to honor and protect as you’re navigating different kinds of people?

Chris: I would use the word “contextualizing.” I do a lot of that. And I do have a priority for who I want my life to be about and what hill I want to die on. That became really, really, really clear for me when I became a Jesus follower at the age of twenty-two. And eventually my wife and I ended up moving to Africa together and doing a lot of work with people living in very impoverished situations. Reading about the life of Jesus in that context, it became extremely apparent to me that he spent the majority of his life with the people who are most marginalized in society.

Nature reclaims dormant alleyways, and coyotes have taken up residence. Photograph by Stephen Smith, courtesy of Bittersweet Monthly.

I believe that our lives as Jesus followers really ought to look like his. So I decided at that young age that that was what my life was going to be about. And as more and more time goes by, that begins to be my priority.

Now, that said, I know that Jesus loves everybody and works with everybody, and I do too. That requires a tremendous amount of contextualization though, because a lot of the donors who I’ve met who are giving money to urban revitalization around the country have very little knowledge or wisdom or experience with the realities of the marginalization that black Americans face on a regular basis.

 a lot of the donors who I’ve met who are giving money to urban revitalization around the country have very little knowledge or wisdom or experience with the realities of the marginalization that black Americans face on a regular basis.

I’ll use another word that I wouldn’t use on the first “date” with a donor: ignorance. Ignorance breeds racism. I would go so far as to say, even right now, I know I still have many racial prejudices in me. Because I have that, that gives me a love for people who are operating out of a place of ignorance when it comes to their understanding of marginalization, even though they’re being philanthropic. I am definitely trying to help move them toward understanding what that marginalization looks like—and that marginalization is the result of racism in America that’s systemic, and systems are made by people, and we’re people, and we’re contributing to those systems. I have to take a different approach with everybody I meet.

Ignorance breeds racism.

Dwan: I have a mantra that I try to live by. And that is: If the real, authentic Dwan is not welcome in these spaces, I want to find out as soon as possible. I want to be uninvited quickly so that we’re not wasting each other’s time.

With that being said, I have learned how to speak my mind very clearly in a way that’s palatable in different circles, but I’ve taken different things that have normally been used to silence the strong black person when they come into this space—to make them feel uncomfortable or not welcome in those spaces—and I’ve owned those things.

One of the things I say is that I don’t have to become loud when I’m saying something because of the fear of being labeled the angry black man. What I like to say is, I’m always angry. I am an angry black man. I have things to be angry about. But I’m also always happy. And I’m always hopeful. I’m always sad. You know what I mean? I’m always all those things. I just try not to let one of them run me and make all the decisions. I let all of them influence me, but don’t let any one of them run me.

As Chris pointed out, I see race and racism as the problem that we are starting to accept it to be. At least right now we are . . . I don’t know how long it will last.

What I like to say is, I’m always angry. I am an angry black man. I have things to be angry about. But I’m also always happy. And I’m always hopeful. I’m always sad. You know what I mean? I’m always all those things. I just try not to let one of them run me and make all the decisions. 

I see that ignorance as a form of poverty in some of the circles that Chris talks about being in, where we go to pursue funding for some of the things that we want to do. I feel called to that space. I do one-on-one coaching with a few White men that some of my black friends, who are even Christians, are like, “Man, why do you even bother putting yourself through that? Why do you?” And I’m sure that some of my white friends have had people ask them, “Why do you go and serve in Detroit? Why would you even stay, why would you move to Detroit?”

I see that as a form of poverty. And I see that as a space that I’m called to, and I do feel like serving with the least of these when I’m in that space, on this subject matter, particularly.

Anne: That’s really beautifully put, Dwan. Thank you.

This is a riskier, almost foreboding kind of question. But I do want to ask it because the few times I’ve been in Detroit, I’ve heard a lot of locals of both races say, “Black folks and white folks can work together. We’ll do that, but I don’t think they can ever live together. At least not here.” I have heard that more than a few times. How true do you think that is?

Chris: I’ll start with a statement that Dwan told me early on when he joined our team, because we work with all different types of people. We’re not a religious organization, but I talk about my faith a lot publicly, and therefore we end up working with a lot of churches. Dwan said, “We Christians, we’re really good at sharing resources, but we are terrible at sharing power.”

We Christians, we’re really good at sharing resources, but we are terrible at sharing power.

Over the last four years, I thought I knew black Americans because I literally had hundreds of relationships with black Americans. But in the last four years I’ve been hearing a much more authentic voice of pain and fear and anger that I wasn’t privy to before I started entering in the way I am entering in.

I can be honest and say that a lot of my white friends have no idea just how deep a lot of that fear and anger really, really is. I mean, they can kind of smell it, but they’ve kept it at arm’s distance so well by creating communities where they don’t have to deal with African Americans, and by not having to deal with African Americans in business through the way that the system is structured. Some of my white friends are now hearing very deep levels of pain being spoken, because people are . . . African Americans have just been pushed too far in this time. It’s just too obvious now for White people to not believe how serious this problem is.

Over the last four years, I thought I knew black Americans because I literally had hundreds of relationships with black Americans. But in the last four years I’ve been hearing a much more authentic voice of pain and fear and anger that I wasn’t privy to before I started entering in the way I am entering in.

A lot of African Americans in Detroit are being a lot more vocal, and it’s caused a lot of my white friends to freak out, especially my Christian friends who are saying, “Oh, wow, they have a lot of resentments.” These Christian friends say, “Well, I don’t wake up every day thinking to myself about a black person being in my way.” I said, “Yeah, because they’re not. They’re not in your way. And if they were, you would be thinking about it and you’d be upset.”

We talk about repentance and I say, “You can’t repent for what you don’t know that you’re a part of.” “Okay. I didn’t own slaves. I didn’t directly participate in Jim Crow. But I’m a part of the problem right now.”

You can’t repent for what you don’t know that you’re a part of.

I try to lead by being very vulnerable myself, sharing my own failures, and I find that disarms a lot of people. People aren’t used to that kind of vulnerability, especially when it comes to race because—I don’t know if it’s appropriate to say, but I would say this—in America right now to call someone a racist is almost like calling them a rapist. That is the tone that we have created around this word “racist.” Unfortunately, I think that just clouds the discussion that much more.

Chris Lambert. Photograph by Stephen Smith, courtesy of Bittersweet Monthly.

Dwan: I believe that we can live together, and I would love to see us do it in a way where we’re not just putting up with each other though. Because I think that’s the concern. If we’re not being honest and we’re not dealing with what’s really there, then you have a powder keg just waiting to go off.

People are living in situations and they’re not even aware of what their next-door neighbor is thinking. That’s the concern that I have. It’s a real honest conversation that I have with people often, because the way that Detroit has been developed is much like other cities. Lots of money and focus have been in the downtown and midtown area. If you go through on a Saturday or during the evening, those faces look a lot different than they did ten years ago in a city that’s 80 percent black. Now in the prime real estate where everything’s happening, you’ll go through there and you’ll see mostly white people. You’ll see the black people maybe working there.

In America right now to call someone a racist is almost like calling them a rapist. That is the tone that we have created around this word “racist.” Unfortunately, I think that just clouds the discussion that much more.

I tell people, we’ve done away with the blacks- and whites-only signs. But you can create a space that sends that same message to me, where I realize that you didn’t create this space with me in mind. I’m really not welcome here. You don’t need to put the signs up.

We have to have real honest, deep discussion on this. When you’re developing a space, and you make it this really beautiful, well-developed space where the people who are in the city don’t feel welcome or even just can’t afford to go, that’s not beautiful to me. As a black Detroiter, that is not beautiful at all.

we’ve done away with the blacks- and whites-only signs. But you can create a space that sends that same message to me, where I realize that you didn’t create this space with me in mind. I’m really not welcome here.

Now, we also have leftover devastation from the ’67 uprising, rebellion, riots, whatever you choose to call it. That’s not beautiful either. But one of them is more valuable to you. If I can roll to and fro as I like to in this place that looks desolate, underdeveloped, poverty-stricken, that’s of more value to me.

Another example of the advanced level of decay in many places in Detroit. Photograph by Stephen Smith, courtesy of Bittersweet Monthly.

Though black people may not collectively have the money it takes to renovate a full city . . . Black people do have enough money—and this is very controversial to say, but it’s the truth and we need to talk in a truthful way—we do have enough money to buy gasoline and burn a city down, and we’ve seen historically that if you push people too far, and you continue to violate people in different ways, they see that as the only option.

I don’t think that that’s being said in boardrooms enough. If we start to realize that and say that neither one of these spaces that we’re talking about is beautiful, but there is a place that’s in between—we have enough intelligent people to figure out how to create a space that’s inviting and welcoming to all and doesn’t feel like a takeover.

When you’re developing a space, and you make it this really beautiful, well-developed space where the people who are in the city don’t feel welcome or even just can’t afford to go, that’s not beautiful to me. As a black Detroiter, that is not beautiful at all.

Chris: Jesus says to whom much is given much is required. Because white people predominantly have more political power and financial power in the United States of America than black people do, it is on white people to create the environment where black people and white people want to live together.

Anne: One final question for you guys. This podcast, and the broader Breaking Ground project, has come from a sense that there’s a lot happening this year. Some people have used the phrase “This is a Kairos year,” or “Kairos moment,” which is that old Greek concept of something opening up, opportune, and it could either be really cleansing, as people look back historically on this moment, or really corroding.

Maybe there’s something in between that, given that we’re a fallen world and things are usually messier than just those two options. But with the broader national reckoning and what COVID-19 is revealing about long-standing vulnerabilities in the society, do you see any hope coming out of this? Both for the nation, and then more specifically as it affects Detroit? Do you see hope, and how would you define it? Or do you see some real potential dangers?

Chris: I’m not excited about the future of America as a nation. I’m very concerned about it. I don’t see political leadership likely to unite our country for a very long time. But I do have tremendous hope for what can happen at the local level in various parts of America.

I’m not excited about the future of America as a nation. I’m very concerned about it. I don’t see political leadership likely to unite our country for a very long time. But I do have tremendous hope for what can happen at the local level in various parts of America.

Look at Detroit. We have not seen the level of violence that so many other cities have seen because our police force has taken steps for several years to do such a phenomenal job with neighborhood policing to set a stage where Detroit was able to avoid that kind of violence. Now, could it still come back up at any time? Yes, at any point. But I’m concentrated. I’m hyper-local, and when I think about impact, I’m thinking about our region: Detroit, Metro Detroit, the city, the suburbs, and how we need to unite. Then I’m hoping that there are leaders all over this country who are going to do that on a local level where that’s going to then spill into the national scene. Really a bottom-up influence rather than a top-down.

Dwan: I’m interested to see what the suburban churches’ response is going to be. We are having conversations locally with some suburban churches. There are some folks who are really wanting to not leave this issue for the next generation to tackle. They’re getting some resistance. They’re getting some pushback, and we’re praying for them, and we’re trying to figure out how to come alongside them and support them in whatever way we can.

That is where I’m hopeful, but I’m hopeful in probably a relieved kind of way where I always make myself have hope. I also understand that we’re not able, but God is able, at the end of the day. It’s not too big for him, and he’s not less concerned about this than we are. But I think there is a really great opportunity for the church to push into repentance and also have a seat at the table.

The suburban church has lost its voice to speak as a leader, and that’s disorienting for the church—to enter into a space and have to sit at someone’s foot. But that’s where they have to start at, and I’m interested to see if they’re going to accept that position and that posture, and hopefully do some of the learning that Chris has described personally, that I’ve been experiencing personally and really represent our Messiah in a proud way.

The suburban church has lost its voice to speak as a leader, and that’s disorienting for the church—to enter into a space and have to sit at someone’s foot. But that’s where they have to start at, and I’m interested to see if they’re going to accept that position and that posture, and hopefully do some of the learning that Chris has described personally, that I’ve been experiencing personally and really represent our Messiah in a proud way.

We’ve had prophetic voices speak to us. Normally after the prophet speaks, as we resist, there’s hell to pay. We’ll see how we respond with prophetic voices.

Anne: Thank you to both of you. I really appreciate your time and your earned wisdom. Keep on keeping on. Thank you.

Dwan: Thank you.

Chris: Thank you.

Detroit Remodeled

January 23, 2019

A makers’ commons strives for openness, egalitarianism, and catalytic impact.  The local environs has to reckon with it first.

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