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Chevrolet Heaven

Thoughts From the Porch: Sometimes I wonder if my memories of childhood are mine or they were my father’s. His recall of the past was beyond my understanding. Heck, I find it difficult to remember what I had for breakfast a couple of hours ago, but Dad – he remembered everything. On more than one occasion I’d wish his recall didn’t work so well. Embarrassment is one emotion I’d rather not deal with.

I sat on the porch this morning, drinking my coffee, watching the rain fall, and letting my mind wander across my memory landscape. It always seems cloudy the farther back I walk. The mental pictures become blurred and I don’t know if the memory is real or a story my father told me. They must be real. Dad would never had lied to me about anything. Still, everything in my experience seems just out of reach.

The one thing I’m sure is real is the green pickup truck my father had. The picture is crystal clear. It was a ’52 Chevrolet Apache, hunter green with high sideboards my father had made and put on. He had a second job delivering a Sunday paper called “The Shopper” and the sideboards were to hold all the newspapers. The papers would come off the press around two o’clock in the morning on Sunday. He’d fill the truck bed with papers and two assistants and off they go to throw the paper on their assigned route.

I was almost always asleep when Dad went to work so I don’t recall his absence, I remember the truck. I loved that truck. It always seemed to me that the truck didn’t belong in the city. It belonged on a farm – a big farm with wide, open meadows, horses, cows, and chickens – the kind my uncles and cousins had.

Suddenly remembering that truck this morning seemed so random, but little in life is random. Experience has shown that there’s usually some pattern, some order to life that can only be understood in hindsight. To quote Soren Kirkegaard, “Life can only be understood looking backward, but it must be lived forwards.”

I miss Dad. He passed away in 2002. Eighteen years later I find myself thinking of him regularly. It’s happy thoughts most days – he was quite special – but sometimes it’s a deep sadness that he’s no longer here. Today is one of those days.

When Dad passed, my life was total chaos – in and out of jail, unemployment, and degradation. It was a downhill slide for the next three years, until I hit bottom. I hurt my father in so many ways. He only wanted the very best for me and it was gut-wrenching to watch his son self-destruct. I know. I hurt when my kids hurt. Call it co-dependent if you’d like. I call it parenting…

Life changed for me on December 1st, 2005, and with it came the sadness that Dad wasn’t here to see it. He, above all people, deserved to see the change. I would give anything to hear his embarrassing and oft repeated stories one more time. I’d give anything to have him enjoy the peace that life offers today.

Thinking about that truck doesn’t seem so random anymore. It was always meant to be on a farm. Today I know Dad and I would be driving down to Opal’s Farm, working side by side, and telling stories. We’d laugh together and maybe he’d sing one of his silly songs. The dogs would be piled in the back. It’d be a gorgeous Spring morning. Life would be how it was meant to be.

It’s funny that old green Chevrolet shows a glimpse of the promised “new heaven and a new earth”. Sadness has turned to joy today thinking about that truck and Dad. I’m pretty sure he’s got her gassed up and ready. We’ll hop in and take for a spin around the farm. Life how it’s meant to be…

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Start to See the Bigger Picture

Down On the Farm…

The official start of Spring is still a couple of weeks away, but Spring planting is well under way. The onions (both Texas 1015 and bunching varieties), potatoes, some herbs, and radishes went in the ground before this morning’s rain came. Tomato and pepper beds are prepped and waiting. They’ll go in a couple from now. One of our fantastic volunteers worked over the weekend on getting our compost piles in order and wood chip borders and walkways are almost finished (Thank you Jay! It looks great on is working quite well).

Thanks for the pic Jay!

We were also privileged to have the “Circle of Winners” from the Northside Inter-Community Agency. The “circle of Winners” are high schooler kids who will be first generation college students. They came a week ago as part of the community service they give all around Fort Worth. They did a great job!

True Winners!

It’s far too easy to get focused on the immediate work at hand (the field work) when Spring is rapidly approaching. Nature provides a seemingly brief window for preparation and planting. We’re blessed to have temperate climate and longer growing seasons. Our pool of volunteers, our “farmer’s”, is growing. New expansion into our second acre is beginning. Opal’s Farm is on the move, and in more ways than simply addressing food insecurity and lack of access.

On February 26th, I had the honor and the privilege of meeting Malik Yakini from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. He toured Opal’s Farm and spent some time with the growers from Grow SE before speaking at TCU on Wednesday evening. I can only speak for myself, but I was left with desire to see the bigger picture of what we’re doing.

Malik told of meeting a village elder, or chief, in Mali, West Africa. When it came time to leave, his party was told to go across the road and greet the farmers. The elder told him, “Those who work in the sun make it possible for those who work in the shade”. Farmers provide the real fuel for all of us.

When I meet people, they often ask what I do. When I tell them I’m the Farm Manger for Opal’s Farm they either don’t stare at me with a deer in the headlights look or they look at me condescendingly as “just a farmer”. That response is typical of most urban populations lacking access to fresh produce or knowledge of where their food comes from or how it’s processed. When I tell them it’s an urban farm near downtown, I can see their doubt and disbelief.

Moreover, they’ve lost their connection to the world around them. That lack of connection, of harmony, causes a myriad of physical, mental, and most importantly, spiritual problems. That’s one reason I always refer to Opal’s Farm as a great place for “dirt therapy” – something happens to us when our hands get dirty and a plant grows as a result. We have a little less anxiety and a little more peace. The problems that seemed so pressing before shrink in size. We begin connecting to the world around us.

Farming isn’t always easy. We’re in one of the busiest times of the year. It’s a lot of hard work getting the Spring crops in, but there’s quite as rewarding. If you’d like to volunteer or donate to Opal’ Farm, please go to our website, www.unityunlimited.org and click on the Opal’s Farm page. You can choose either and we’d love to see you at the farm.

Shane Claiborne, in The Irresistible Revolution, tells of asking Mother Teresa about her work in the poorest parts of Calcutta. Her response was two words – “Come see”. I would urge each of you, whether volunteering or simply donating to Opal’s Farm to come see our work; to join us in our mission of ending food insecurity and building real community. Maybe you will want to be a farmer alongside us…

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Running In the Dark

Thoughts From the Porch

It’s a beautiful late winter morning here in North Texas. After a few days of rain and cold the sun slowly warms the day as it rises higher in the sky. There’s much to be done today and I’d love to take time to pass on deep spiritual thoughts from the porch but truthfully, such thoughts are elusive over the last few days. I struggle to write, to put thoughts to paper, and a cloud hangs over me even on a bright, sunny morning. I get frustrated, I pray, and try to listen, but it feels like God has put me on hold while He’s busy attending to other things…

My wife likes to remind me that there are times when no amount of spiritual awareness will take our pain or fear. My friend Jim used to say that “in the meantime, it’s a mean time”. There are times when God seems silent and I need to act as if He’s not. It’s the old “fake it ‘til you make” thing. I’m thinking I might be going through one of those times.

I don’t hesitate to tell of God’s unfailing love and grace in my life. Hindsight tells me that God has always, one hundred percent of the time, taken care of me (even when I was far from Him doing my own, self-destructive thing). Unfortunately, the lens through which I look forward can be awfully opaque at times (we walk by faith, not by sight, right?). I speak the truth when I share about God’s provision and care, but I’m surprised at how quickly I forget that when life feels overwhelming.

Margaret and I are going through some difficult financial times right now. Almost two years ago, I made a commitment to the mission of Opal’s Farm and made it my full-time endeavor. We knew this would be difficult because we’re dependent on donations for my salary. Unfortunately, winter is a slow time for both the growing season and for contributions to our non-profit. Although Spring brings a wealth of opportunity for market sales and donations that doesn’t pay this month’s bills.

I mention this is not to whine about it – we took this on after prayerful consideration and eyes wide open – but to say that finances are one of the toughest areas in my life to turn over to God. Margaret is far better able to do that than I am. It may be because as a man, I sometimes feel I’m not doing my part to take care of my family. To Margaret’s credit, she’s my biggest cheerleader and reminds me I’m on the right path.

I begin to doubt I’m where God would have me be and think I should throw up and hands and go find something else. The little committee inside my head begins to tell me how foolish I am. Negative self-talk and doubt of God’s blessing fill my days. Honestly, I feel like a hypocrite at times. I’ll tell everyone of God’s faithfulness while my mind tells me I’m a fraud, that God isn’t really taking care of me.

That being said…

You might notice that the word feel is in italics. There’s a reason for that. You see, it took me years to learn to separate my feelings from my reality. That lesson may have come much easier for others, but it was a long, painful, and often frustrating journey for me. When I began to see what was going on around me for what it is rather than what it feels like it is, I began to understand that doubt was an essential part of my faith journey.

That may sound a bit oxymoronic – doubt and faith are mutually exclusive terms, right. Still, it’s possible to doubt and still be faithful. It’s a painful process to walk in faith through doubt and darkness. We can’t see in the darkness. St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic and Carmelite priest, called this “the dark night of the soul”.

The journey through the darkness leads us to shed all our preconceptions about God. We begin to let go of our ego, our perception of our self, and rest in “unknowing”: the unfathomable spirit of God. The journey can be long or short. For me, it’s often been a case of “two steps forward, three steps back”. In the darkness I find my union with the Father deeper each time. My petty worries and struggles seem a tad easier. Trust begins to return. I just keep walking…

St. John of the Cross

Sharing the journey, the struggles, the fear, and “the dark night of the soul” is frowned upon in many churches. We don’t like to talk about it. We write off what we fear or don’t understand so it won’t “wash off” on us. It’s dangerous to around a “doubter”.

Honest lament is frequently met by simple answers and platitudes. Things like “we’re praying for you” just have faith”, don’t doubt God’s promises” – that do little to illuminate the path.  

Some give up, retreating to the relative safety of sameness. Others throw up their hands, utter “what’s the use?” and leave behind the very community that God created for us. I don’t think that’s what Abba intended…

A Few Days Later…

I began writing this last Saturday. Yesterday was a great day at the farm – a special visit by Mailik Yakini from the Detroit Food Policy Council, getting to spend time with other local farmers, and getting a lot of planting done. The financial worries slipped away, replaced with feelings of fellowship and connectedness. At the end of the gathering, Ms. Opal pulled me aside. She whispered, “the Lord is so good, and He’s provided again. We received a check from a donor and there’s a check for you at the office.”

We’re able to pay all our bills for this month. One more time, like countless other times before, Abba has provided for all our needs. I used to beat myself up for doubting God. Today my doubts are merely one more opportunity to demonstrate God’s goodness and care. Hindsight reveals even my darkest periods, those which God felt so absent, have been the greatest blessings in my life.

What I thought was bad turned out good. What I thought was good wasn’t always so great (if you know what I mean). It reminds me that I don’t know what’s best for me, but Abba does.

We will encounter difficulties once again (especially financial ones) and I’ll begin to question God about His sense of timing. I’ll have some fear, but it seems to be a little less each time life shows up. God’s promises always hold true, even when my faith wavers so I’m just not going to worry about the process anymore. In the darkness I discovered a light that never goes out. I don’t always see it, but my vision is becoming clear with each step in the journey.

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Those of us who live in the West and experience the privilege of being white tend to gloss over the important fact that Jesus lived in an occupied territory. He was not part of the dominant culture. – Fr. Richard Rohr

Thoughts From the Porch

Like many people, I probably fall into the “spiritual, not religious” polling category these days. I still claim membership to a large non-denominational church that used to wear the name “Church of Christ”, but I rarely attend anymore. Even though there are many things I love about my faith tradition, I find myself uncomfortable in a place where “white, suburban, middle-class” continues to be the dominant member demographic.

To be fair, my church tries to be inclusive and has always been welcoming of everyone. They serve both the local and global community. It’s just that for the most part, most of the congregants are white. That’s what happens when you’re located in a predominantly white suburb. It’s the whole “birds of a feather” thing. It’s not intentional, or is it?

The issue of race and racism in my church began to rise to the surface last year. Although it saddens me that it took so long to come up, the minister took a bold leap and preached a series on race. For most of those of the Caucasian persuasion this meant having to discuss racism and race, particularly in the church, for the first time. I applaud their efforts. Quite frankly, white people are extremely uncomfortable talking about such subjects. They deny the problem like an alcoholic denies their alcoholism. It requires a level of honest appraisal that most folks shy away from. Ripping off the intellectual bandages to reveal an ugly, festering wound is painful, but necessary to heal properly. That’s why I was excited to see them offer a seminar “Let’s Start Talking About Race”. At least they’re talking, right?

Excellent Resource @ http://www.tonycaldwell.com

“In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. that is, we are all in a common relationship with Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s ‘descendant’, heirs according to the covenant promises”. Galatians 3.28-29 – The Message

My biggest fear is that my church will stop at ‘talking’ about the problem. My friend, Jim, always told me that “when all was said and done, more would be said than done”. Like the alcoholic who sees the reality of their alcoholism, the church is left with a choice: either continue the destructive behavior or take an active part in the healing process. Action is often simple, but far from easy. Honestly, most of us choose an easier way. That’s scary and a bit hopeless. The good news is we don’t have to do it alone.

I don’t pretend to have the answers. I know however, that relationships are the key, especially ones with people of color. Several years ago, I was working for a local ministry on a community garden on the heart of Como, a predominantly African American and neglected, low income community here in Fort Worth.

During the first days of tilling, building beds, and planting, a guy who rode his bike past the garden each day, stopped and asked why we were tearing up the vacant lot where old downtown Como used to be. I explained to him what we were doing – building a garden that would serve the community. His response was unexpected.

“You white folks come down here and tell us what’s good for our neighborhood as if you know better than us. Your white church comes down here for a few days to help us poor black folk so you can feel better about yourselves and tell everyone to look and see what you did. Then you go back to your nice comfy suburbs and leave us to clean up the mess”.

I thought for a moment, looked him in the eye, and said, “You’re right, but I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here tomorrow and the day after that.” He grunted and rode off down the street.

What the gentleman passing by didn’t know was that I was working for a neighborhood ministry. Still, I learned something that day. Good intentions hide the fact that we’re still a part of the systemic racism that plagues our society. We don’t listen to communities of color because we think we know better. We think know better because of our implicit bias that says the dominant white culture is ‘normal’ so it must be right. What is that but white supremacy. Ouch…

Several days later, the same guy began to say hello as he rode past each morning. This continued for a few mornings until one day he stopped to ask what “that was coming up over there?” We began a conversation and he introduced himself as Stephen. I introduced myself and we talked about what else was coming up. A couple of days after that his stops became more frequent.

He spoke of the rich history of the land I’d planted, how the neighborhood movie house had been there and how the old downtown had been a vibrant gathering place for the community. He began to stop regularly and chat, asking how things were going. His initial combative attitude changed to one of neighborliness.

The lesson I learned from all of this is that we begin to see each other differently when we spend time with each other. People cease to be ‘them’ and divisions begin to break down. That’s hard to do in a place, especially a church, that lacks diversity – diversity of thought, color, and culture. Unfortunately, Dr. King was right – “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” That lesson has been reinforced many times over the years. I’ve had to take a long, hard, honest look at myself in the process.

I’ve had to identify the old tapes and the old ways of thinking I grew up with. I had to be honest enough to admit my shortcomings and ask God to remove them. I had to repent, or rethink, my old ideas and actions.

I love the word repent. Acknowledging the problem is the first step to a solution, whether it be in spiritual or worldly matters. Jim always told me that once I identify the problem I’m halfway to the solution. Repentance is full of hope and possibility – for all of us.

As I have said, I don’t know all the answers and I’m certainly no expert on racial issues However, I know everything has a beginning. Honest conversation (and listening is the key to conversation) is a great place to start. Just don’t stop there and start walking…

Image credit The Angelus (detail), Jean-François Millet, 18571859, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.
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Are You in the Nineteen Percent…

I found this in my inbox over the weekend and wanted to share it. Too often, “Christian” music lacks substance. My friend Jim once told me the difference between a hymn and a worship song was that a hymn tells a story. A praise song simply repeats the same refrain and hallelujah over and over.

This was different. I’m often embarrassed to say I’m a “evangelical” Christian (I prefer “Jesus follower” anyway…). It usually conjures images of ultra-conservative, right-wing Christians that are more interested in one’s sexual preferences than loving others. That’s one of the major reasons I despise labels. I definitely don’t fit the stereotype.

I am evangelical in the dictionary definition of the word; “to be zealous in advocating something”. I’ve found some good news I pass on to others. According to Jesus, “loving God and loving others” pretty much sums up the Good News.

I guess the other 81% are equally evangelical as well, just in a different and extremely unappealing way. I guess that’s why this song hit home. Give it a listen, think about the words, and know there’s a lot of people out there who simply love God and love others. I guess church is where we find each other…

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The Best Sermons I Ever Heard…

I’ve been taking a personal writing hiatus for the last couple of weeks. It’s been quite busy with Opal’s Farm and client requests. When life gets a bit too hectic I’ve learned the value of a Sabbath rest…

Fortunately, it’s been gloomy and rainy here for the past two days. Thursday’s downpour and yesterday’s off-and-on showers allowed me to complete many of the projects I have going. I woke up this morning to a glorious sunrise, bright skies, warmer temperatures, and a brain worm…

Jonathan Edward’s “Sunshine (Go Away Today)” kept echoing through my head even though the last thing I want is for the sun to leave. It’s a great song from my younger days though. It led me to look it up on You Tube. I couldn’t help but listen to the subsequent playlist – Greg Allman, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffet – and my favorite from the morning, Arlo.

Now I know some of you have no idea who Arlo is. I know I’m dating myself, but Arlo and his father, Woody (as in Guthrie) shared a musical wisdom few possess. (Aside: I still follow the ritual I started some forty years ago by playing “Alice’s Restaurant” each Thanksgiving Day at Noon!).

As I was watching the video from one of Arlo’s more recent performances I was struck by the fact that some of the best sermons I’ve ever heard of not come from preachers and pastors, but from artists. There’s a spirituality in art, particularly music, that I’ve never found in a church service.

I hope you enjoy the clip. It’s rather long. Then again, most preachers go on a lot longer. (Another aside: When I was a kid we always found on preachers who went past the allotted twenty-minute sermon time – the Baptists would beat us to Luby’s…)

Anyway, I found it particularly meaningful on a bright, sunny day. By the way, Sunshine don’t run off…

Have a great weekend!
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Fighting Hunger One Meal at a Time

We are incredibly grateful for Noelle Walker at NBC 5 DFW for her series on “Fighting Hunger” and for the segment on our work at Opal’s Farm. The story aired yesterday on NBC 5: First at Four. The link to the story is at https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/fighting-hunger-urban-farming-in-fort-worths-food-desert/2292808/

I love the opportunity to tell a wider audience about Opal’s Farm. The farm is my personal passion. Ending food insecurity is my reason for getting up in the morning. I know what it’s like to be hungry. No one, especially a child, should have to go to bed hungry.

While I’m well aware of the statistics: one in seven children in Tarrant County face food insecurity. There are over forty food deserts in Tarrant County. Neighborhoods that rely on dollar stores or convenience marts for their groceries often face higher rates of obesity, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a myriad of other health problems. I know those statistics, but I learned a new one from Ms. Walker’s news story today: Tarrant County is one of the top ten most food insecure counties in America.

Let that sink in for a moment…

Tarrant Country is in the top ten most food insecure counties in the country. Not in the state, not in the region. In the country!

I’m angry about that. Fort Worth is my home. I grew up here and fell in love with the history and the culture of Cowtown. Whether it’s the 136th edition of the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo or an art exhibit at the Kimball my hometown has something to offer to everyone. Well, almost everyone…

I’m angry because, quite frankly, we’re better than that. I’m upset and maybe you are, too…

Since the NBC 5 story ran I’ve received dozens of emails and social media messages from people who believe in the mission of Opal’s Farm; who believe that an urban farm is just what is needed today. I’ve heard from older folks who remember the old “Greek” farm that was where Opal’s Farm is today. I’ve heard from young folks that want to be a part of a food “revolution” right here in Cowtown.

Opal’s Farm is a hands on way to address the needs of our neighbors. Not only those who struggle with poverty but those families that often work multiple jobs and still face hunger. That’s the reality many of our neighbors live with.

This first year has been tremendously exciting and, to be honest, a little scary. I remember the first time I walked around the levee after the Tarrant Regional Water District had disked and cleared the entire acreage for us. I couldn’t help but feel like I was wa-a-a-y in over my head. It was so big; much bigger than the community gardens I’d built before. What had I committed to?

According to the ancient Taoist proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”, so that’s just what we did. We took it one step at a time. There were many missteps along the way. The learning curve was steep and the work overwhelming at times. Still, step by step, bed by bed, seed by seed, Opal’s Farm began to take shape and seeds turned into a harvest that surprised all of us. Talk about starting on a wing and a prayer…

Our second year promises an even more bountiful harvest than our first. We will feed more people than last year, but we need your help. Opal’s Farm is in desperate need of donations to fund the coming year. We are expanding into our second acre. This will allow us to offer a wider variety of produce to the neighborhoods we serve.

The thing I love the most about Fort Worth is the people. We’re a big city (16th largest in the country!) but we haven’t lost that “small town” feel. We’re neighbors here. Neighbors help each other out. Help us help your neighbors with a donation to Opal’s Farm today.

Go to www.unityunlimited.org right now! Click on Opal’s Farm and you’ll find a “donate now” button to make your safe and secure donation to Opal’s Farm. You’ll also find a “Sign Up” button if you’d like to be a farmer right along beside us. We love working beside our volunteers!

Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one”. Your donation today will ensure that one person, one child goes to be with a full tummy because your dollar went to the produce we grew and brought to their neighborhood. That’s not just neighborly, it’s the right thing to do.