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Pastor finds community in local coffee shops

By Contributor Eric Blauer

Pastor Eric Blauer

The Shop’ is one of my most favorite neighborhood hangouts and it’s undergoing another transformation due to the new owners re-imagining the space. I’ve been visiting off and on over the last few weeks, anxiously awaiting the ‘shoe to drop’ and see what they do with the space. Granted, it wasn’t the most artistically or aesthetically loved spot before, had more of a guy living in his mom’s basement feel, but it had a certain post-garage band vibe to it that I could manage. I love this business so much, I actually painted this picture and gave it as a gift to the previous owner, capturing it forever in colorful memory (see below).

Painting by Eric Blauer

I’ve spent more money than I dare examine at The Shop over the last six years and a lot of living has taken place in this small den of delight. When I moved out of my suburban ministry role and moved into this part of town, I left the church-as my-office rhythm,  bought a laptop and married my ministry life to my day-to-day life in various third places around town.

To the chagrin of a few business owners I’ve ended up hijacking The Shop and other coffee caves and made them my office, counseling couch, writer’s desk, telecommunications center and often needed urban recreational reprieves. These days, I’ve made friends with people who in my old pastoral context, I wouldn’t of been able to meet because of this change. I’ve realized that I had allowed a ‘come and see me’ method of mission to dominate my ministry mind instead of a ‘go and meet them’ missional ethos. Now with my iPhone and my secretary Siri, I am fully capable of living a business life out and among the very people God has called me to be in relationship with in my community, and the coffee is way better too.

Rockwood Bakery/by Eric Blauer

Earlier this week was judgement day. I walked into The Shop and the apocalypse fell upon my man-mind as I gazed upon the old lady purple colored walls and the mauve high back grandma chairs and a piano crammed into an overcrowded space, an assorted menagerie of mix-matched tables and chairs. I turned around and walked out. I couldn’t do it, it was too much. It felt like my best friend had showed up in drag. I left with an odd goodbye to my buddy behind the counter, his puzzled farewell matched my disoriented thoughts as I pondered the fearful possibility that we might be breaking up.

I ended up at my better looking, but far more boisterous and never a smile, third choice: The Rockwood Bakery. This is a ‘no-sweatpants’ kinda coffee bar; pretty good coffee, get lost in the noise hunker-downability and  beautiful, but like the supermodel in a magazine, not the girl next door kind. I did my work, drowned my sorrow in drip and contemplated my coffee shop future. I was productive but persnickety.
I hope that The Shop is in a phase and will work out it’s wardrobe issues. My serenity depends on it. I dare not think of the possible tragic loss of yet another favorite barrista. I barely survived the dismissal of my last frothy foam fairy.

But whatever happens, I now know in this day place matters and that’s a gift I am grateful to have rediscovered through local coffeeshops.
As for tomorrow, Indaba, here I come, you better not be wearing any bauble jewelry.

Dealing with death

By Contributor Eric Blauer

Pastor Eric Blauer

Facing death in a faith community is always a difficult experience, especially in a culture where death is both trivialized and avoided with a false sense of reality. People today are flooded with a commercialization of death avoidance that oppresses the aging and lies to the young. This multibillion dollar business machine is promulgating empty promises that leave individuals ill-equipped to manage the passing of someone they love.

As a culture we have too few rituals that help us walk through death. Our funeral services are modern attempts to deal with it, built on traditions passed down for generations. In the faith community it’s a struggle to practically deal with these moments that touch the soul and fabric of the community one lives within.
The Bible calls the community to:, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn,” (Romans 12:15). But we are not given many ways within our modern lives to practically do this.
Cards, sentiments and services help to a certain degree but I find it hard to process this within the faith community. To help with this, recently I put together a simple candle ritual for the recognition of the passing of a loved one within the congregation.

Photo by Eric Blauer

I lit one large candle to represent the life of the loved one. Then I had the congregants who have recently lost loved ones light their own candles from the flame of the single candle. I shared how the light of their life has impacted them and they can carry the light of that influence from this moment on into the future. We then extinguished the single candle to represent their loved one’s death and as the smoke ascended, I read  Hebrews 12:1, “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” and talked about that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ our loved ones have taken their place within and how we all will be reunited in the age to come. We then placed the lit candles on the altar for the rest of the service and prayed over the grieving members.

It was short ceremony, but the presence of the holy spirit was tangible within the heart of the moment. Their pain wasn’t taken away but it was shared in a simple ritual that we all could experience. It felt good and right to create a time and space to mourn together  in the church and I pray a measure of healing for those grieving.  We are working at ways to express our shared journey, even through the valley of the shadow of death.
 “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die,” Ecclesiastes 3:1

Art bridges social, cultural, generational gaps

By Contributor Eric Blauer

Pastor Eric Blauer

In East Central Spokane I’m discovering how art has the power to bring different cultures, generations, backgrounds and social classes together.

Over the last six years working in this neighborhood my church has hosted numerous artistic events designed to celebrate, educate and nurture artistry and beauty here in this community.

Poverty can often produce a chronic underlying depression, a subconscious drain on motivation, the  great “whatever” of disempowerment and hopelessness.

One of the dead fruits of such debilitating vision is ugliness.

Ugliness manifests itself in many ways around my neighborhood. Graffiti, trash accumulation and careless distribution, overgrown or uncared for vacant houses decaying from years of absent out-of-state landlords, over worked single parent homes, fear based need for guard dogs that result in destroyed yards, a tapestry of tarps draped on countless roofs, cars and buildings — cheap fixes for welfare budgets. Boarded, barred, fenced, and darkened drug dens, broken down Jalopy land are the results of little cash, no repairs and purchasing habits that reflect low-income realities and predatory auto sellers.

Then there’s ‘Pajama Pant Syndrome;’ one of the ills of welfare, unemployment and neighborhood violence. Many people live ‘inside lives’ and hardly come out into public. When they do it’s from necessity, not pleasure. Many folks around here  live isolated, lonely, nervous and secluded lives all because of poverty’s power.

On and on I could go. Lack produces an environment and mentality of disbelief and despair.

Group works on community art project/contributed by Eric Blauer

Art is one way to awaken hope and joy in communities where seeing beauty is often an act and practice of faith.

We do a lot of work with refugees, who in struggling economies and with limited education and english skills, are often living in the center or the margins of poverty.

We’ve found that creating art together is one way to develop friendship, teach conversational English, tell life stories and give back the gift of beauty to one another.

Creating art becomes a potent weapon in the fight against poverty. Teaching and learning to see goodness worth retelling in different artistic mediums is an empowering skill for those who often feel like they are imprisoned.

Last night I attended our “English Language Experience Group” for refugee kids run by three awesome women volunteers. During this quarter they are focusing on art. I was invited to come and share my art, answer prepared questions from the kids and join them in creating something together.

I talked about the ins and outs of ‘Impressionism‘, explained its impact on me and the freedom I think it gives budding artists. We viewed work from various famous and then  created our own masterpieces.

A group of refugees work on art project together/contributed by Eric Blauer

I’m reminded of the artist Robert Henri‘s scathing, but often true, critique of religious leaning souls as I think about sitting there talking, laughing, making messes, exploring new skills, practicing communicating and nurturing creative minds and hearts.

“I am always sorry for the Puritan, for he has guided his life against desire and against nature, he found what he thought was comfort, for he believed the spirit’s safety was in negation, but he has never given the world one minute’s joy or produced one symbol of the beautiful order of nature. He sought peace in bondage and his spirit became a prisoner,” he wrote in his book, “The Art Spirit.”

Last night, and through our the last six years we’ve been proving Henri wrong. Faith and purity are powerful sources of transformation.

In East Central Spokane, I’m seeing art change lives picture after picture, painting after painting, poem upon poem and song upon song.

Finding new meaning in The Lord’s Prayer

By Contributor Pastor Eric Blauer

Pastor Eric Blauer

I have made an unsuspected friend in my missional journey of planting a church in the East Central Neighborhood in Spokane. The Lord’s Prayer has become a stable trellis to attach, support and sustain my soul in this ongoing experience.

Word’s that used to seem trite and simplistic have opened up like blooming petals and a fragrance has been released for me, which seemed to only come about through the trials and tribulations of life, work and worship in this neighborhood.

Last week I spent some time down the street where a suspected gang shooting took place, which ended up wounding a young child and young man. In the face of such violence and the complex social-economic-political-moral-spiritual realities behind these type of events, I found refugee and purpose in this prayer.

“Deliver us from evil,” was a phrase that took on newer meaning by the alley where these victims could have died as fear tried to get its grip my heart as I reflected on my own kids, wife and our home down the street.

“Forgive us,” resonated as I thought about all the brokenness and failure of our community and families and the repercussions upon the emerging generations.

“Thy kingdom come,” and “Hallowed be thy name,” became prophetic words of invocation sought to confront and transform the spiritual conflicts taking place in unseen realms in and among the streets and homes I passed.

Over these last six years I have grown quieter and smaller in prayer as I am faced with problems and possibilities that are so much bigger than I am in this part of Spokane. These situations have shaped my spirituality, or should I say whittled it down from the gregarious verbosity type of Charismatic triumphalism I had before to a more monkish contemplative posture. What I use to think represented power in prayer has been altered by the suffering of place and reborn into a form of prayer that is less in content but  has a potency unforeseen by me before.

When the noise of police sirens, conflict and cursing, speeding cars and community congestion dominate the atmosphere of neighborhood, I find myself longing to bring simplicity and silence to the battle more than ever before.

Now when I close the Lord’s Prayer with, “Amen (so be it, let it be so),” I find myself exhaling it like Noah releasing the dove, an act of hope and fait with a slight tinge of fear of the unknown world being born, yet, I continue to pray.

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come. 
Thy will be done in earth, 
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us. 
And lead us not into temptation, 
But deliver us from evil. 
For thine is the kingdom,

The power, and the glory,

For ever and ever.

Amen.

Church will have to step up, help the poor

By Contributor Eric Blauer

Pastor Eric Blauer

“You will have to talk to the state.”

That’s what an Iraqi woman was told Thursday afternoon after she was informed the State of Washington no longer covers eye glasses for adults on state assistance. We had spent an hour at the optometrist’s office, after being referred there by the woman’s doctor. She was assured that insurance would cover the visit. Turns out the state would only pay for determining what was wrong, not for the actual care.

This woman has been trying to get a job for the past couple of years and so far has been unsuccessful. She attends English classes at night via the public transportation system and is a mother of two teenage children. She has diabetes and a medical problem with one of her legs.

She came here from Iraq during our military’s campaign there. She had to choose between staying as a refugee in a country outside of Iraq, which wouldn’t allow her residency, or she could move to the U.S. Her journey has been tough, leaving family and friends and struggling to adjust to life in America.

She looked at me as I tried to explain she would have to pay $100 for the glasses she needed. I know she lives on less than $500 cash a month and didn’t have the money. It was an awkward moment as we stood at the counter looking at the glasses, the bill and the financial distance between. I told the lady behind the counter that our church would pay for the glasses. The church gets donations for situations like this.

I want this woman to be well, to see correctly and to be able to succeed at finding a job and providing for her family. Our nation and state are facing deep budget cuts. I pay a lot of taxes and that money pays for all kinds of stuff I would never spend it on (like wars). On Thursday I felt the impact of those budget cuts as I was looked straight into the eyes of this woman.

I know the church is going to be called upon to step into the gap that is growing between the state and the poor. That will probably please some politically right leaning types of people, until they realize that the church is us.

So in the days ahead, the question will be — what are we going to do about it?

Dehumanizing the outsiders, elderly, disabled and poor

By Contributor Pastor Eric Blauer

Pastor Eric Blauer

I have been working with refugees since October of 2006, when our family agreed to host a family of five Karen refugees from Burma through World Relief, an  international refugee resettlement organization with a great office in Spokane. These were the first Karen people to come to Spokane and because of that we worked to move them right around the corner from our house. We hosted the next two families as well and then began partnering with World Relief in building a small community of Karen people here in East Central. That first year I was exposed to the opportunities and challenges refugees face.

Through my friendships with these people I began to see my faith, church and city in a new light. Some of that was so encouraging, and a lot was discouraging. I quickly became aware of the underlying racism that was present in our community, something I hadn’t experienced since most of my relationships were with fellow middle-class white people. I saw discrimination and witnessed the powerlessness of the poor and marginalized. I’ve seen the vulnerability and the victimization of those who do not understand our American life. I’ve helped them deal with shady employers who work them overtime without pay, salesmen trying to scam them, navigating schools systems, medical providers, an unsympathetic legal system and countless other challenges these new arrivals face in Spokane.

But, I think one of the most frustrating spheres of life we deal with is the medical system. The poor, elderly, disabled and refugee community face discrimination and lack of access and service in ways that often infuriate me and break my heart. Lack of information for low-English speaking people is part of the problem. The culture of liability, paper overload, disconnected systems, for-profit business and a sprawled out city that places access to medical services out of reach of many people are at the root of a lot of needless suffering. I know people who have done their own dental work, suffered with chronic health problems from lack of quality care, been denied treatment and died because of the way our systems dehumanize, isolate and put profit before people.

Photo contributed by Eric Blauer

Last week I received a call from an Iraqi refugee friend. He’s an elderly man with heart problems and high blood pressure, poor English skills and suffers partial paralysis from a stroke. He came to America as the only other option than returning to bombed-out Baghdad where he faced danger due to the political and ethnic changes in Iraq. He went from a good and prosperous life, with a beautiful home and extended family and friends to a refugee camp and then to a two-bedroom apartment in Spokane. The changes and challenges he has faced in hopes of providing a better future for his two teenage children has been both heartbreaking and inspiring to me.

He called me in a panic because his nose had been bleeding for two hours and it wasn’t stopping. He asked if I would come and help him. When I got to his house, he was dressed in sweats and had blood down the front of his shirt, on his head and was clutching a blood-soaked rag to his face. He was visibly scared and asked me to take him to the urgency care center where he had taken his daughter when she was sick. I took him there and was turned away because he didn’t have the type of insurance that covered their services. The woman at the desk advised us to go up to 57th and Regal to another urgent care she said took his state insurance.

At the next office I started filling out forms and then I was told that they wouldn’t see him either because he had to have a referral from his primary doctor. I argued with the staff with him on my arm, still bleeding and confused as to why I couldn’t seem to get him help. I was informed that I could just call 911 if I had a problem with the situation.

We left.

My friend’s nose had stopped bleeding, so as I drove him to the emergency room and called his primary doctor’s office. I had to argue a bit with someone to get a nurse on the phone to discuss what I should do. Finally I got some advice on the situation. She gave us some guidance and said if he continued to have any episodes of bleeding that day to take him across town to their urgent care.

I took him home and helped him take his blood pressure and then we prayed together.

As I reflect on this situation, which isn’t an uncommon type of experience in this town, I was deeply frustrated about how the care of people in our communities has become such a politicized issue. While people argue and debate about profits and policies, people suffer.

One nurse told me about the policies and the fear of being fined by the state if they provided services. But not once did any staff or nurse offer a clean and sanitary rag. All we got was cold, clinical care. No compassion; or action, just dead-end procedures. I was ashamed of our system.

We can argue about the debt, freedoms, liability and host of other reasons why things are as they are, but when you are standing there in an office with an old bleeding man in sweats clutching your arm and you are denied service, the problem becomes personal; more than political.

The dehumanization of the individual in our culture is chronic and at the root of much of it is the love of money. I hope young and emerging medical professionals will catch a vision for returning to urban centers to practice medicine among the poor, the elderly, the marginalized and the disabled. Our neighborhoods need doctors and access to medical services. Until we rethink the way we are living life as a community these types of ridiculous experiences will increase.

SOPA stinks…the Internet, Economics and Freedom

By Blogger Pastor Eric Blauer

Pastor Eric Blauer

This postponed SOPA Internet legislation is bogus in my opinion. Copyright infringement is a bygone era issue. It’s the irrational fear of a business system built on faulty mercantile based economic thinking.

Posting links, clips, pics and songs online are like Costco samples: do a lot of people browse and nibble for a meal? Probably. But more people taste and see that it’s good and go purchase the product.

The Internet baiting is like chumming for consumers, it creates more appetite than it fills. It sets more hooks than any coupon, print ad or billboard ever did.

The net is advertiser heaven – a perpetual buffet of goods at the fingertips of potentially millions of customers. Instead of a teetotaler mindset producers and providers need to embrace the evolution of the marketplace.

Artists and sellers benefit from visionary capitalists like Apple and Amazon. These companies in turn benefit from the blogosphere and every other online angler’s media bait. The consumer is rewarded with a new shopping universe  based on greater access through sampling, test driving and deep discounts.

These are able to be provided by the Internet’s little overhead, the miracle of consumer-proliferated free advertising and the omnipresent reality of the online peddler of 24/7 goods.

Instead of reverting into backward-thinking Prohibitionists, Congress should embrace a true libertarian business ethos and maintain and protect the economic powerhouse the freedom of the Internet has unleashed.