Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Washing Feet

"AS I HAVE DONE FOR YOU."  Off and on over the years, I have participated in the Maundy Thursday liturgy at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Breckenridge, Colorado.  Typically, the little church is half-full and it is likely a quarter of us are out-of-towners.  No matter.  Not used to the turnings, citings and readings of formal liturgy, we may fumble our way through the service.  The part in which I feel particularly connected is the foot washing. The liturgy invites us to do for another what Jesus did for his disciples that night of their last meal together.  After the pastoral team, we are invited to wash each other's feet at the front of the sanctuary.  During the foot washing, the congregation sings:

Brother, sister, let me serve you,
Let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I might have the grace to
Let you be my servant, too.

HOMELESS NEIGHBORS' FEET.  The radical humiliation of washing another's feet first struck me in 1989, when a nurse asked me to help with the foot soaks and foot massages she weekly offered the homeless men who visited Horizon House.  I initially volunteered to assist, but when the hour came, I found myself strangely resistant and made excuses not to be available to wash their feet.  The next week, Nurse Anne wouldn't let me off the hook.  I found myself kneeling before the dirty, gnarly, swollen, smelly feet of a homeless man.  Still resistant but yielded, I gave myself to the task, pushing inner protests aside.  One after another, I washed and massaged feet until there were no more feet to wash.  I felt relieved and released and somehow strangely at peace.  From that point on, I have always viewed people without homes as neighbors, recognizing and accepting my connection, complicity, and challenge in their condition.

LEADING PARADIGM.  During my 2,000-mile bicycle ride through India in 2007, we were honored in Bangalore by foot washing.  The Free Methodist Bishops of India knelt down and washed each cyclist's feet in front of all their pastors, parishioners, and non-christian friends and community members who gathered to welcome us to that city (we, in turn, washed their feet).  Knowing the strong sense of caste and social role that pervade the various Indian cultures, I can only begin to imagine the radical--even offensive--action of a leader washing anyone's feet.  But this is likely close to the context of Jesus' action on what we now call Maundy Thursday.  He is the servant leader and this is the primary image for Christian leadership.  The towel and basin stands alongside the cross.  Those who dismiss or stray from this central paradigm mislead.

IT'S NOT ABOUT FEET.  I have not fully identified the points of my resistance to wash either the feet of homeless neighbors in homeless center or the feet of a friend in a Holy Week foot-washing liturgy. I'm not nearly as interested in analyzing my resistance as in simply recognizing it and overcoming it. It's really not about foot washing, anyway.  It's about doing the necessary, menial, and helpful things for one another without reference to "who's who," social role, or fear. I want to continue to move in that direction in my life, breaking resistances and hesitancies and excuses with helpful actions for whomever they are needed.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

When I Pray

When I pray...

I am not bowing down to a potentate. I am not cowering before an easily-offended ruler. I am not worshiping a king. I am not rehearsing a formula. I am not groveling in front of a much-owed rescuer.

I am communing with a friend, companion, guide.

I am taking in all I am aware of about life, relationships, community, and the world, and I am reflecting on it in light of all I am aware of regarding grace, Word, Spirit, faith, hope, and love.

I am still, but not. I pray on the go and in the flow as readily as alone and motionless.

My eyes are more likely to be open, though I may close them from time to time. In protest to coercion and conformity, and in reflection of many of the Psalms, I more likely lift my head than bow it. "Watch and pray."

I am listening critically. I am speaking carefully. I am receiving, discerning.

Sometimes I am crying out--protesting or questioning.

Sometimes I am full of gratitude and considering ways to express it throughout the coming days.

Awe, if it is experienced, comes not from anything demanded, assumed, conjured up, or rehearsed, but from something that emerges from within in contemplation of grace in life.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Sunday, March 2, 2014

It's Time to Ban 'The Box' for Good

Let's end a bad public and private industry policy that sabotages lives and communities 

Kudos to the Indianapolis City-County Council for recently passing a proposal to ban “the box” indicating felony conviction on all city- and county-related job applications. Mayor Greg Ballard should readily affirm the ordinance and begin to lead our region and state in re-entry reform. In fact, now is the time for all employers to drop “the box.”

“The box,” found on most standard employment applications, has served as a major barrier to employment opportunities, and, thereby, to self-support, stability, and full post-incarceration reintegration into community life for thousands of ex-felons for decades.

Inserted on job applications at the insistence of insurance companies as a way to reduce risk, “the box” has sabotaged the recovery of individuals, destabilized families, and undermined safety and development in communities. “The box” has a punishing impact that has no end.

When ex-offenders are released from incarceration, it is imperative that they soon find employment. If they do not, the trajectory of rotten outcomes is predictable. No work means no money for housing and self-support. This often leads to desperation, return to criminal activity (recidivism), and community burden and risk.

Because of “the box,” taxpayers get stuck with the bill at every turn. First, citizens pay exorbitant amounts to lock up felons in what has become a private industry feeding frenzy and the largest outlay of State public funds. Then, we pay the multi-layered prices of recidivism locally when ex-felons are locked out of work: social service system dependency, family poverty, crime, public safety, courts, etc.

Two of our toughest social issues are driven, in part, by “the box.” Recidivism is fueled by the desperation and frustration of unemployment. Locked out of work opportunities, many ex-felons succumb to past criminal patterns in order to survive. Likewise, “the box” is implicated in the homelessness that many ex-felons find as their unwanted condition when denial of work prevents them from paying for a roof over their heads.

Banning "the box" does not mean that employers should ignore felony records. Every employer can--and should--require background checks on job applicants after a conditional offer of employment. If the background check reveals an offense that would prevent an otherwise qualified applicant from fulfilling the job requirements, the offer can be rescinded. But, without "the box," an employer first sees a human being, not merely a criminal record. 

If its original intention was to reduce business risk, “the box” itself has become the greater risk to individuals, communities, and industry. The costs in resultant criminal activity, re-incarceration, social service system drag, community liabilities, and moral incoherency heavily tip the scales. Locking out people who have paid their debt makes it insanely tough on everyone.

There is a better bottom line for the business and government sectors as “the box” is banned. Crime and recidivism rates—and their related costs—will drop when those who are released from prison can get the jobs current policies are denying them. If we want different outcomes, we must think and act differently.

Now that the City-County Council has led the way, nonprofits and for-profit businesses of our city and region should join in. Nonprofit Boards of Directors should consider, deliberate, and affirm a “ban the box” policy for the organizations they steward. It will take challenging foregone conclusions and appealing to their insurance underwriters for changed policies. Likewise, for-profit business leaders and managers can, in fact, actually lead instead of wringing hands, making excuses, and passing the buck.

Banning “the box” is just one of many needed reforms in public and private industry policies regarding re-entry. Numerous practical recommendations emerged from the City-County Council’s 2013 Re-entry Study Commission. Read the final report of the commission and related documents at this link:

At this point, what is needed most is leadership. Who are the faithful stewards of community integrity who are ready to restore sanity to re-entry policies?  Who are the aspiring leaders who see reentry as everyone's problem and everyone's opportunity and will lead courageously with common sense? It’s time to step up to the plate and ban “the box” for good.

Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In a Month

February comes and goes; invested, not spent

A bit like my resolution to commute to and from work on my bicycle at least 100 days in 2014, I also resolved to blog more frequently. My excuse for not commuting via cycling is pretty sound: lots of snow and ice and zero-range temperatures. My excuse for not blogging? I have none.

I've started a few rants since my last blog post, but they lost steam before I could arrange a coherent post. That's typically a good sign to me that the rant was more steam than substance. But, just as likely, it could mean that I'm either too busy or not disciplined enough to complete the thought and make the post.

I intend to return to the rants about barriers to reentry, income inequality, and worker justice. They deserve more than passing rants. I care deeply about the issues, and they relate directly both to community building and faith living.

It's been a busy month. Beyond my day-to-day work of guiding a nonprofit community development corporation (CDC) that works to restore abandoned houses and build community opportunities in an urban Indianapolis neighborhood, I invest volunteer energies in Freewheelin' Community Bikes and Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ).

This month, as Chair of the Board of Directors for Freewheelin' Community Bikes, I facilitated a new board member orientation and board retreat, as well as participated in interviews for a new bike shop manager/mechanic.  Related to IWJ, I am helping to form a local Worker Justice Center and planning a 600-mile fundraising and awareness raising bike tour.

Additionally, this month I prepared and presented a one-hour presentation of my 600-mile bike ride through Kenya for the Speaker Series of Central Indiana Bicycling Association (CIBA) in the downtown Central Library. That was fun, but took good chunk of spare time.

In lieu of cycling to work, I've picked up running 5 K's on a treadmill at LA Fitness every other evening or so. Becky and I go there together for the sake of fitness. It's also a good way to beat the physical inertia of midwinter.

And then, there was (were?) the Winter Olympics. That was enjoyable and inspiring to take in over two weeks.

So, that's how a month has been invested. Not spent--invested. I'm privileged to have these capacities,  opportunities, and relationships. I intend to steward them and this time as creatively and renewingly as possible.

Here's to March!

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sochi: Beyond Politics

I will be looking for my Russian neighbor in the eyes and faces of the crowd during the Sochi Olympics

Before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, begin, let me just way that I’m looking forward not only to an awesome festival of international sport, but to learning something—beyond typical, shallow, divisive political rhetoric—of the heart, soul, and wonder of Russia and it’s people.

I read what the American mainstream news media is saying, I know their storylines and the predicable trajectories of their storylines. Yes, we’re all cynically primed to filter and discount Vladimir Putin’s propaganda. Yes, we know there is always wool that is attempted to be pulled over the viewing world’s eyes. Yes, we are aware of persistent obfuscations and justifications and rationalizations. Give us some credit and give us a break.

In the face of this, NBC and other news media sources have the opportunity--and responsibility, it seems to me—to go beyond the Olympic Village perimeter, to drill beneath the propaganda--their own and Russia’s--to explore further than what is expected in order to give the world a fresh insight into the lives of Russians and into a land much of the world has been conditioned to suspect and disregard.

Many of us were raised to despise and fear the Soviet Union. We are children of the Cold War and the constant specter of nuclear holocaust. We readily recall fallout shelter drills, Bay of Pigs brinksmanship, and President Ronald Reagan calling the USSR the “evil empire.” Reagan ramped up an arms race with the USSR, sending our federal budget into deficit with massive defense spending on falsely hyped-up fears.

It was during Reagan’s rhetoric on the Soviet Union that I had something of a mystical experience that changed my perspective on the USSR and what has since become Russia and the cluster of nations in its orbit.

A married young adult with small children, one day in contemplation after one of Reagan’s tough-guy speeches, had a palpable sense that there was in the Soviet Union a young father just like me—a young man who cared for his family and this country and who wondered about the truthfulness of what his leaders were saying about America, just as I wondered about my leaders’ truthfulness about the Soviet Union.

Without seeing him or having a name, I instantly recognized his reality. He was not evil, no more than I was evil. He did not desire my obliteration any more than I desired his. He loved his family as I loved mine. He suspected his government’s version of the story just as I did mine. He was human as I was human. While I knew then—and know now—that I will never meet this man, whom I have come to refer to as my Russian neighbor, his reality changed forever how I regard Russians—and people of any culture outside my own.

Two decades since the breathtaking breakup of the Soviet Union and the emergence of fledgling democratic-style leadership in numerous nation states in the East, it seems that old patterns are being reasserted. Putin’s reign is widely considered little more than a dictatorship—with the Sochi Winter Olympics a choreographed grandstand for his desire to be regarded as legitimate. Predictably, cynicism and stereotyping now prevail in the West’s perspectives about Russia.

But, as I watch the Winter Olympics, I won't be analyzing Putin and the politics of it. I will be looking for my Russian neighbor. Maybe he is in the crowd at an Olympic venue. Maybe her child is an Olympian. Perhaps he is in a village on which NBC will shine its light for a human interest story. She may be in the Olympic protest zone, or far away in Moscow or St. Petersburg. I will be scanning the eyes and faces of the Russians the news media choose to show us, looking for him--trying to see, to understand, to connect, to believe that, despite all who would divide us, we really are one.

I hope you, too, will be making such a search during the weeks ahead.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Monday, February 3, 2014

Listen to Your Life

Frederick Buechner encourages us to pay close attention and anticipate the holy in each moment 

“By examining as closely and as candidly as I could the life that had come to seem to me in many ways a kind of trap or dead-end street, I discovered that it really wasn't that at all. I discovered that if you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even such a limited and limiting life as the one I was living on Rupert Mountain opened up onto extraordinary vistas..."

"Taking your children to school and kissing your wife good-bye. Eating lunch with a friend. Trying to do a decent day's work. Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly..."

"Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

 -- Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Thursday, January 30, 2014

City Call

"Find your own Calcutta." -- Mother Teresa

Young people go
around the world
to be in mission,
and yet it is 

around the corner.

Is there not a cry
for love here?
Is there not a plea
for real relationship here?

Is there not injustice and poverty
amid privilege and wealth?
Is there not a dearth of advocates 

and bearers of grace?
Is there not enough heartache
on this block to move us
to our knees?

Then why seek to
the ends of the earth?
Look near!
Hear the call of the city,
the beckon to these 

urban neighborhoods.

Go! Cross the street!
Find Christ.

Find mission.
Find life
in this city.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Monday, January 20, 2014


Inspiring, admired pulpit orator or street-level change agent?

OUT OF THE PULPIT. Most images of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday the nation observes today, depict the pastor/civil rights leader behind a pulpit or before a great throng of adoring people. The monument to him in Washington, D.C., depicts him in a suit with his arms folded. But I prefer the more rare pictures of this Christian minister being manhandled, hand-cuffed, or intimidated by local government authorities serving vested, bigoted white interests.

POWER IN THE STREETS. King's witness and power come as much from his stand in the streets with unnamed people with whom he identified and for whom he gave his life as from his pen and pulpit. My favorite photo of King was taken in 1958 in Montgomery, Alabama. In it, sheriffs are twisting the minister’s arm behind his back and forcing his head down onto a counter while his wife, Coretta, looks on. He was arrested for "loitering"; the charge was later changed to "failure to obey an officer."

PASTOR [GASP!] ARRESTED. This image of King and others like it were intended to scandalize him, to discredit him in the eyes of most people who do not think a pastor should stoop to disobeying governmental authorities. Instead, such photos called attention to unjust authority and corruption. Question: when was the last time we read of a Christian minister being arrested for any issue of peace and justice? Plenty of ministers have been arrested for fraud or other immoral behavior. But help me recall those who have so irked the powers that be regarding peace and justice that the fallen principality we call "government" has had the audacity to lay hands on them? I know of only one: Darren Cushman-Wood, a United Methodist Pastor in Indianapolis who works with labor initiatives in Indianapolis. I applaud his efforts. He has inspired me to lay aside my own reticence for the sake of justice for all.

STATE OF THE DREAM. King’s dream of a nation of races reconciled, diversity embraced, and poverty rolled back gets mixed reviews today, at best. True, Americans who voted in 2008 elected Barack Obama as President. Still, fear, hatred and "tolerable" levels of oppression fester beneath a relatively smoother social surface. Civil rights and equal opportunity still do not come voluntarily. They must be articulated, demonstrated, and enforced--particularly in the face of a conservative Supreme Court that continues to bleed away their power. Those who voted for George W. Bush, who promised to install judges to uphold “conservative moral values,” unwittingly voted to install jurists who have proven records of rolling back civil rights and civil liberties for people of color. As if that is not a moral value?

VIETNAM AND IRAQ. Each MLK Day since George W. Bush attacked Iraq under false pretenses, the thought occurred to me that King would have not been silent about or acquiesced to the Iraq War. Based on his outspoken perspective on the Vietnam War (a perspective largely based on that war’s impact on poverty and economics), I doubt many would want to hear what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have had to say about the Iraq War. King’s stand against Vietnam was very unpopular. Some of his close associates felt he should not speak out against it. But his last speech on April 3, 1968 was a vow to stand solo, if need be, as a black civil rights leader against war. I know of only handful of pastors who have spoken against the Iraq War or any other. Fewer still who take it to the streets.

WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR? The image of a pastor--white, black, Latino, etc.--in American society is too closely associated with a suit in the pulpit. Let us not mistake our call to interpret and articulate prophesies with being prophetic. Let us not think we have delivered our soul when we have delivered our sermons. Let us not accept a generous paycheck from a congregation that buys clergy silence and keeps pastors on the sidelines of unjust and pressing local, national and world events. Let us put our words into action. Let our calling be expressed fully--in action, in solidarity, in the messiness of community conflict, in speaking truth to power (and not just from behind the pulpit). Jesus points the way. Martin contemporized Jesus' precedent. What are we waiting for?

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Thursday, January 16, 2014

How My Cycling Has Evolved

I ride three bicycles, but now ride one much more than the others. What's happening to me?

Three bikes hang in my garage. I use all of them. But I use one more than the other two these days. It’s not the one I imagined riding the most. Five years ago, I would have been embarrassed to be seen riding a bike like it, much less own one.

First, there’s my road bike. It used to be an aluminum Cannondale--a classic beauty from 1989. I rode several wheelsets off that thing. I suppose that blue Cannondale represents my entrance into serious bicycling. I’ll call it my Lycra-wearing, wanna-be-racer stage. Or, my Tour de France mania stage. I’m not completely over it.

In what now appears to be the waning years of my road cycling enthusiasm, I gave my Cannondale to a relative and purchased a carbon fiber frame. My Orbea Orca is light as feather, stiff as a board (beats me to death), and flies up hills. It’s a thrill to ride, but I just don’t ride it much anymore.

Second, there’s my mountain bike. Right in the middle of my road bike romance, mountain bikes emerged. At first, I scoffed at them; they were beneath me. Then, I rode one. On a dirt trail. In the woods. Up steep hills. Over small drop-offs. On the edge of cliffs. Into and out of places a road bike would never go. I was in love. After I bought a Raleigh M-80 in 1997, I didn’t get back to my road bike for nearly a year. It was on my Raleigh that I took a big tumble and ended up with 19 fractures…but was back on the same bike and trail within four months!

For about fifteen years, I switched back and forth between road cycling and mountain biking. Annually, I strapped both road bike and MTB to the top of my VW and headed to West Virginia for a week. Half the time, I’d seek out curvy, hilly roads for my road bike. The other half of my days in the Mountain State, I’d wrestle my mountain bike through some of the most challenging and breathtaking trails I’ve ever encountered. I was a happy camper.

Then, in 2007, I got the opportunity to join small group on a cross-country ride through India. For the 2,000-mile trek, I picked up a used Cannondale touring bike. It was my first experience of riding at anything other than breakneck speeds on the open road. With my traveling companions, we loaded our bikes down with fenders, racks, and panniers. International riding called for a bell and a mirror. And Lycra was just too hot for India (and, later, Vietnam and Kenya).

In India, it took me three weeks and 1000 miles before I got used to riding slower—and not wanting to curse it. My internal road-biking engine was set for riding at 18-24 mph, but the day-long, 70-100 miles-a-day touring pace was closer to 12-16 mph. I still wince at my rude protestations to my traveling companions about their turtle-like pace. My companions included several Indian riders who all seemed locked into a 12 mph cadence, no matter what the terrain or which way the wind was blowing.

I finally let go of my need to ride fast. And, when I did, I began to enjoy other aspects of riding my bicycle. I noticed more about the country, the people, my companions, and what was going on inside me. I relaxed a bit and stopped being such an intense nutcase (or less of one). I started to enjoy the ride for the ride. That was my breakthrough. I still can and do ride fast on my road bike. But, more frequently, I ride a bit slower and with a different mindset and heart-set on another kind of bike.

Enter my touring bike stage. That’s the third bike that hangs in my garage—though it hangs less and is ridden more.  After I returned from my third international bike ride, my local bike shop guru, Chris Wiggins, suggested I might want to try a Surly Trucker Deluxe for my next chapter of cycling.

I took his advice. I was less interested in the Surly culture (yes, there IS a distinctive Surly culture!) and more interested in the fact that the Deluxe frame unbolts in half and the whole bike can be carried in a suitcase to be checked as baggage—the end of exorbitant fees for bike cases on flights. Chris also talked me into a leather Brooks saddle, which, at the time, seemed like an unnecessary luxury, but has become the best component decision I ever made.

My Trucker, for its extra weight, is a smooth, comfortable ride. I commute with it as often as possible—a 30-mile round-trip ride. I commuted 86 days in 2013. I've also taken the Surly with me on flights to California and Florida. I’ve added fenders, racks, panniers, a bell, lights, and—God forbid—a kickstand. I’ve shed tight Lycra for more common clothing. I care less now whether or not I’m wearing technically correct or brand-flashing gear. I’m going for functional. Is it warm enough? Is it comfortable? Is it suitable for transitioning at work?

What’s happened to me? My biking preferences and habits are evolving. Maybe I’m just getting older. Maybe my values are changing. Maybe I’m looking for a different experience or outcome in cycling. Maybe all of the above. All I know is, I still enjoy riding my road bike fast, still like galloping my mountain bike through wooded trails, but I love cranking my touring bike along an urban bike lane or on a cross-country excursion.

Above all, I can’t wait to get on one of these bikes again tomorrow.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA