Do you have anything to declare?
Good morning. My name is Jessica Wright and I’m very happy to be sharing with you today. You’ll hear a little bit today about my experiences in the sacred place of community. Over the last few weeks, people from this SMC community have been sharing their stories and the scriptures that influence them. I appreciate the opportunity to add mine to the mix. It comes to you in a time of transition after graduating from Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry in their Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership Program. I then embarked on a West Coast road trip on behalf of the School of Theology and Ministry and the Center for Faith and Service in Chicago called the New Faces of Ministry Tour. I had the opportunity to meet with people engaged in service and justice work about the benefit of theological education, and also dream big about the future of ministry with anyone who would talk to me about it. Now that I have been home for a couple of weeks and am processing, while shifting to the somewhat discouraging process of job searching, I keep coming back to the concept of justice—hence the scriptures we just heard.
One of my stops on the New Faces of Ministry Tour was the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship’s Annual Conference. While there, Dr. Raymond Reyes from Gonzaga University shared in his keynote address a tip for structuring times such as this, which I’m going to take advantage of. For those of you who have traveled to another country, think of your time when you’re going through the line at Customs. You show your passport and they typically ask you 3 things- 1) Who Are You? 2) Where are you going? 3) Do you have anything to declare? It’s not a bad way to get to know someone, don’t you think? So here we go. Who am I?
I grew up on a farm in Northwest Ohio. My mom stayed at home with me and my dad farmed as well as worked full time at a factory. We attended a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church which was where I spent most of my time outside of home or school and where my social life was centered. Family, faith, and farm life were central to my early development.
After graduating from high school, I decided to attend Bluffton University because they have a great Music department and I had completed a lot of credits there during my junior and senior year as a post-secondary student. Bluffton is only 20 minutes away from where I grew up. I wanted to be a high school band director and live in Ohio forever. Bluffton University was where I first learned about Mennonites, and pacifism, and felt a bit shaken that all Christians didn’t believe the same things I did. I had lived in such a small bubble…it’s a bit embarrassing to admit how clueless I was. And the Mennonite game made me so mad. I felt a bit excluded when my friends started in, making connections about who came from this town or that town and who was 3rd cousins with who. Of course now I have a few connections of my own and love it.
Before my last year of college, I traveled to Israel and Palestine for my cross cultural requirement. We had a Palestinian guide that we spent most of our time with, and it was shocking to hear his story. We met with Israelis and Palestinians, Christians/Jews/Muslims, I stayed on a kibbutz and also with a Palestinian family that was kind enough to take my friend and I to a wedding in the community. On another instance we arrived at a Palestinian university 2 hours after there had been an Israeli raid and saw people with gunshot wounds being treated. I watched from my air conditioned bus as a woman was beaten at a checkpoint for spilling garbanzo beans from her car, and then saw what the knowledge that Americans were watching did to that scene. Everything stopped and they pretended nothing had happened. But that trip was when I very intentionally examined my life and realized that what I said I believed is not actually how I viewed the world anymore. I could no longer listen to the stories of marginalized, hurting people and view them as less than or too different from me to care. My faith either had to morph into something that could help me process these issues or it would die, but I knew I could not ignore the bigger picture anymore.
What I needed 9 years ago was a safe space to ask questions and have difficult conversations. The question from my cross cultural experience in Israel and Palestine was “I believe in God, now what? So what?” Being in a Mennonite context helped me learn about and process issues of social justice in a way that considered multiple perspectives in a respectful way. God could be a mystery and everything would be okay. I started to think that maybe God didn’t even want me to understand everything, but simply love God, God’s people, and the rest of God’s creation.
After working for four years as Bluffton University’s Campus Visit Coordinator, I decided to apply for Mennonite Voluntary Service. There were a lot of reasons I pursued MVS- I wanted a career change, I wanted to live in a city, I wanted intentional community, and I decided this was the right time to do service. I had no idea I would end up in Seattle…I had actually hoped to be in Chicago working at a theatre that connected with low income youth…but this was where I landed. While in the program I worked at the University District Food Bank and lived with some of the best human beings on the planet. I think those two years brought the most personal growth I’ve ever experienced. It was difficult and it was beautiful. At the end of the experience, I had a lot of concerns about the broken food system we live in and wanted to be an effective leader in changing that system. So, I found the School of Theology and Ministry and its Transformational Leadership Program and dove in. This leads us to the second portion of our traveling through the customs themed structure- Where am I going?
My experience as a Transformational Leadership student at the School of Theology and Ministry has been one of humility– learning to listen in a deeper way that honors the other person’s story and pushes me further into reflection of my own. There is a constant tug between speaking what I know and being quiet so others can do the same. Being in a room with such a variety of faith traditions, preparing ourselves to lead in a world that at times feels broken beyond repair, was at times painful, mostly joyful, and always enriching.
Much of the first year of the Transformational Leadership program was spent learning how to effectively weave together those seemingly loose and unconnected threads of my life into sacred wholeness. Then, once I could do that for myself I had to learn how to help others figure out how to do that. Leaders that I have looked up to and admired throughout my life have been capable of gently moving organizations or other groups of people into success. They help people affect positive change in their communities or organizations. It might be tempting to want to use your power as a leader to steer an organization in the direction that works best for you, however, meaningful and lasting change happens only with the input of everyone on the team and the input of those affected by the change.
So, what is next for me? Simply put, I want to see everyone be able to grow, prepare, and eat the healthy food that they want to, and I don’t want to do it alone. Food insecurity that stems from poverty and a deep misunderstanding of how to welcome those who have immigrated or come to America for refuge contributes heavily to the disconnected food system we see on a local level. But this concept of a broken food system is reflected at a national level, too. Our agricultural policies support crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans that primarily go towards feeding beef, cage-bound chickens, dairy cows or filling out processed foods. As a result, we can find these foods at a grocery store for less money than fresh produce and grains that are more supportive of our health and the environment. In addition, it has become less expensive to purchase grapes from Chile in the spring than pesticide-free apples from Washington in the fall. The entire system is affected by what our government decides to value, and that shows up at a local level as well as on the national level. It is estimated that most developed countries produce at least 3,000 calories a day per resident of that country. That holds true in America, yet we have close to 47 million people experiencing hunger- over 12 million of those people being children and 7 million being senior citizens.
I believe that we are not only called to feed the hungry, but we are challenged to think about why the hungry are without food in the first place and then fix that systemic issue. I read about Jesus as a political leader who thought about power, people, and how to heal all of the brokenness. My role as a human is to pick up that work as best I can and continue to restore the broken-hearted and the broken bodies. This role causes me to continue questioning systems and their inequality. Harm has come to the residents of the world via the component that should be most nourishing to one’s body and spirit- food.
And the final question on our journey together this morning- Do I have anything to declare? Well, I have done a lot declaration already. But first, a quick story about my nephew who just turned 17. This kid is one of the funniest people I have ever met. But he tends to get himself into situations that aren’t serious, but still sort of dumbfounding. And especially when he was little, he would often cry this is so unfair! He was the youngest twin who was and is much smaller. He has the biggest sports aspirations and the most sports related injuries. There are plenty more examples. After yet another incident when he angrily cried—this is so unfair! His dad snapped back—Life is unfair! Needless to say, that didn’t comfort my nephew.
I have thought of that story often throughout my time in MVS and graduate school. For any of us engaged in working for justice, or living a life entrenched in injustice, we learn the depths of how unfair things really are pretty quickly. As much as I love my brother and appreciate what I think he was trying to teach his child—Life isn’t fair doesn’t sit well with me as a principle to live by. We often hear about justice as an effort to balance the scale. Take a little bit away from here, add some more here. But many of us know that justice and peacebuilding work is not something that you do for quick results. There are so many layers—and one can spend a lifetime trying to get to the bottom of an issue. This is why I love Amos 5:24 as a different image for justice than the scale.
“But let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Working for justice is an ever-flowing process that changes the terrain little by little. Pushing back the earth little by little and cutting through seemingly immoveable mountains. I want to make sure that the water stays healthy and flowing. I’d like to close with a short poem by John O’Donohue called “Fluent”:
I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.