as told to Ann Karp
I met Ms. Georgia Solomon one rainy day when I was working in the Koinonia welcome center and gift store. The phone wasn’t ringing, and nobody was coming by—I was bored! Then Georgia walked in, took a seat in one of the chairs and, almost unbidden, began telling me about her life. She blew me away—I certainly wasn’t bored anymore. I tried to remember all that I could, and later wrote it down. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of conversing with Georgia several times more. She is a warm-hearted woman with a strong faith, and when we talk about the past, I get the feeling that she is trying to express to me the spirit of love that she felt in the eyes, words, and deeds of the Koinonians she knew in those days, and the necessity of continuing to act in that spirit.
For many, many years, Georgia has been our neighbor and, at times, has worked at Koinonia. Sometimes she still likes to come help cook lunch and share the noon meal. “It gives me something to do to get out of the house, and I wanted to eat some more healthy food,” she told me. Georgia still lives just a ten-minute walk away, in a house built by the Koinonia Housing Ministry in the early 1970s.
I was born in 1942, just like Koinonia. But we couldn’t go to Koinonia. Black people were threatened by mean white people who said, ‘You can’t go around there.’ One man got to the point where he said, ‘I don’t care, they need a worker and I can do it so I’m going to apply.’ [And he was OK.]
My mother said to my sister, ‘Don’t you go up there to Koinonia, they [the mean white people] will kill you.’ My sister said, ‘They’re not going to catch me to kill me,’ and she went in on the back road. And she’d come back and tell us how nice it was there. Oh, we wanted to go! Well, we did go sometimes, to get pecans. Clarence would give us pecans. Such a sweet man, he was sweet. It was a pleasure just to look at him, because he looked at you different than other people did.
Debra Mosley and Jan [Jordan–two Koinonia community members] found me and my kids alone [in a state of need]. They slept in the bed with me to keep me company. ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ they asked. I said, ‘I was trying to do on my own.’ I was ashamed to show what I had. I had no food, no diapers… ‘You’ve got three babies and one in the belly, you can’t do on your own!’ they said. And they brought diapers, slips, dresses, sweaters… And I stayed right there in that house.
They [Koinonia] asked me, ‘Do you want a house built?’ I said, ‘Are you crazy? I have six children.’ But they built me a house.
[I worked twenty years in the Koinonia kitchen and with the pecans.] They didn’t work you like a slave. They treated you like an equal.
Me and two other people, we still pray for Koinonia. That Koinonia will reach out and help people, help neighbors. But the work is slow! Clarence—I would call him Brother Clarence—he was here a long time. His work was hard, and slow. You have to walk and not stop, you have to run and not faint. And his work spoke for him.
All of my seven children are still living, all grown. Worrying about your children doesn’t ever end, but I made it through my trials and tribulations, and now I’m striving for eternal life. I know my work will speak for me.
Sunday Gathered Worship, October 30, 2016
By Elizabeth Dede
Things happen fast in this story.
Jesus plans to pass through Jericho. He’s not going to stop for a sermon, or do some healing. He’s got another destination in mind.
Zaccheus gets wind of Jesus’ trip through town, and because he is small, he runs ahead to climb up in a tree to see the Lord. I remember when I was a little kid, we had a big tree in our backyard, and I could climb up to the top and look all the way across the tops of the houses to the next neighborhood over the highway. It was exciting to be up that high. Now I’m afraid of heights. I get sick just watching movies about mountain climbing. But Zaccheus didn’t have any fear of heights. He ran ahead and climbed up that tree.
I don’t much care for sycamore trees. They’re kind of trashy. They have big leaves, and they’re the last to get their leaves in the spring. In the fall, they are the first to turn brown and drop their big old leaves. They make a mess. But I’m thankful for sycamore trees because we might not have this story without them. What if there hadn’t been a tree for Zaccheus to climb? He would have stood up on his toes, stretching and straining, but he wouldn’t have seen the Lord.
The interns and I did some reading about the South African term Ubuntu, which means I see you, and I am seen by you. This was used after apartheid in the Truth and Reconciliation to help people find the humanity in each other, even after terrible atrocities had been committed.
Zaccheus climbs up in the sycamore tree, and he sees Jesus, but the story doesn’t end there. He is also seen by Jesus. Jesus tells him to come down quickly. The pace of the story is rapid. Zaccheus doesn’t take his time. He quickly comes down. He must have wondered why Jesus singled him out. After all, the only thing that made him unique was how despised he was. He was a tax collector. He must have had a “Who me?” and a “Why me?” moment.
I hope Zaccheus had his house in order because Jesus tells him that he must stay with him. You never know when you might have guests.
And so, off they go to Zaccheus’ house. He is joyful. You can feel his excitement in this story. But as happens in all stories, there are other characters who don’t share the joy. They grumble and complain. You’d think by this time that they would have figured out that Jesus came for people like Zaccheus. He isn’t your everyday, run-of- the-mill preacher.
Zaccheus isn’t afraid, or cowed, by these grouches. He is moved by Jesus’ acceptance of him and seeks reconciliation with all those whom he has wronged. And since he was a tax collector, that was probably a lot of people. It makes you wonder if he had anything left by the time he had paid off all those people. But I don’t think he would have cared. He found the Lord. He had been in a hurry, and he found what made for Justice and Peace in his life.
It seems that perhaps because of Zaccheus’ enthusiasm, Jesus welcomes him into the family. He is no longer the outcast. Salvation comes to him. He is a son of Abraham.
So let us be in a hurry to see Jesus. And as we are welcomed into the family, let us also be in a hurry to seek reconciliation, to make it right, to find peace and joy in our lives.
Gathered Worship, Sunday, October 23, 2016
Reflection on Luke 18:9-14
By Elizabeth Dede
Jesus’ teaching here is a hard one. It seems simple, but who really wants to be humbled?
I looked up the verb in the dictionary. To Humble means to humiliate, to put to shame, to disgrace. We’re not taught to do these things. I guess we’re pretty clear that we shouldn’t exult ourselves either, but to humiliate ourselves? That seems a bit much.
I have a struggle with this because I don’t know how to value myself. Once when I was a kid I told a friend of the family that I went to two schools. One was for gifted kids. My mom was mortified. I guess you could say she was humiliated. She took me aside and told me that I shouldn’t brag about myself that way. Then I was humiliated. I thought I was just telling the simple truth, but apparently I was being proud.
After that experience I had a hard time with being smart. School was easy for me, but that embarrassed me.
So who wants to be humiliated? I say, “Not me.”
Actually, it seems like this is a situation where telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is called for. The tax collector told the truth about himself. He was a sinner. The Pharisee left out that crucial description. He saw himself as perfect. He did all the right things, and he was happy to catalogue that for God.
The tax collector knew that he was far from perfect. He told God about that too, and asked for mercy.
So we all need to rely on God’s mercy, whether we feel like we’re doing the right thing, or whether we are readily aware of our sins.
My sister helped me with this. I struggled all of my life to be perfect. Of course you can’t attain perfection. For Christmas one year she gave me a necklace that spelled perfect, except that the T was crooked.
That’s about the way we all are. God has made us close to perfect, almost like the angels. But we’ve also got a taste of sin—a crooked T.
That’s not something we want to be proud of. Rather we need to acknowledge it, to recognize our need for God’s mercy.
That recognition will be like an invitation to Jesus to enter into our hearts because he ate with tax collectors and sinners.
So let us humble ourselves, not so that we will be ashamed, but so that Jesus will be with us. Amen.
Monday, December 5, 2016, Morning Chapel
By Elizabeth Dede
I think we sort of overuse this word “incredible.” After all, it means unbelievable. What is it that we don’t believe when we say, “That’s incredible?”
For instance, if we were part of this Gospel scene, we might very well say that the people who went up on the roof with their paralyzed friend, took off the roof tiles, and lowered him down to Jesus, were incredible. It’s hard for us to imagine getting up on a roof, much less carrying a paralyzed friend. So we might say, “That’s incredible!” But back in Jesus’ day people spent their evenings and nights up on the roof, so it’s not so unbelievable after all that they went up on the roof.
But they must have gone prepared. After all, where would they find ropes to tie onto the stretcher, to lower their friend down? And imagine how strong they would have to be to accomplish that feat. We might very well say, that’s incredible!
Then think of the faith these people had. They believed that Jesus could, and would, heal their friend. They went through all that work to get the paralyzed man in front of Jesus. They must have heard about his healing power, and then they had to believe. Was that so incredible?
Which is harder to believe, that Jesus can heal a paralyzed man, or that he can forgive sins? Apparently, the scribes and Pharisees thought it was pretty incredible that Jesus would acknowledge the faith of these men, and then forgive their sins. Do we find it hard to believe that Jesus can forgive our sins? Do we say, “That’s incredible?” Do we believe that our sins are so terrible that no one can forgive them?
Jesus can, and does, even in the midst of unbelief.
And then to prove that he has authority, Jesus does the most incredible thing, he tells the paralyzed man to rise, take up his bed, and walk. And guess what? The man does just that. Now I know a little bit about paralysis. My sister Jocelyn had a terrible accident many years ago. She fell down the stairs at home and broke her neck. She can’t use her legs and doesn’t have much use of her arms. Her boys were three-years-old and two at the time of the accident. If I could, I would take her up on the roof and lower her down to Jesus. That would be incredible!
We know that Jesus can heal. Perhaps some day there will be a medical miracle—some surgery, or some stem cell procedure, and my sister will walk again.
But what we do believe now is that Jesus forgives our sins, that Jesus even increases our faith. I hope the scribes and Pharisees were able to have faith, too.
During this Advent, may Jesus come into our hearts, forgive us, fill us with faith, help us to rise up and walk in the light. Now that’s not so incredible!
Sunday Gathered Worship Lesson, January 8, 2017
By Elizabeth Dede
When I lived at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, we practiced Liberation Theology, studied the Bible from the point of view of the poor, and saw Jesus in the homeless and imprisoned among us.
One of our favorite stories came from the early days of the Sojourners Community, which Jim Wallis tells: “One of our first activities was to find every verse of scripture about the poor, wealth and poverty, and social justice. We found more than 2,000 texts that we then cut out of an old Bible. We were left with a Bible full of holes, [a hole-ly Bible], which I used to take out with me to preach.”
One evening, Ed Loring and Ron Jackson went to a speaking engagement in Buckhead, a well-to-do neighborhood of Atlanta. They were speaking to a rather wealthy group about seeing Jesus in the poor, when Ron proclaimed, “You won’t find Jesus in Buckhead.” Of course, this disturbed the group. Isn’t Jesus among all of his believers, even those who have access to goods?
In addition, the Open Door, and so many other non-profits, including Koinonia Farm, depend on those very people to survive in this world and to do our ministry.
Nevertheless, we do know of God’s preferential option for the poor. Mary sings it in her song: “He has put down the mighty from their throne and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
However, today’s Gospel lesson helps us to understand that Jesus came for everyone, even the rich. You see, these wise men from afar were not poor. They came with expensive gifts. Traditionally, we call them kings, although they probably weren’t. Also, they were not part of God’s chosen family. They were not the children of Israel, yet this star of wonder appeared to them, and they came to bow down to Jesus.
The invitation is made to everyone—the poor shepherds, the rich kings, even King Herod is told of the baby Jesus.
And so this message also comes to us. We live a blessed life here at Koinonia with more than enough to share. Let us offer our thanks and praise to God for the gift of Jesus. Let us offer our thanks and praise to Jesus for the gift of his salvation that comes to all of us—rich and poor alike. Let us offer our thanks and praise for the gift of life together, full of so many good blessings.
Sunday Gathered Worship, January 15, 2017
Grace to You and Peace
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
By Elizabeth Dede
I grew up a Lutheran pastor’s kid. My dad, who is now 85 years old, is also a Lutheran pastor’s kid. His mom and dad grew up speaking German, so they always went to German church. My dad grew up speaking English, so he always went to English church.
My dad is by far the youngest in his family. His two older brothers were old enough to be his father, and his sister and next brother were gone from home by the time my dad was going to school. So he grew up like an only child, which meant he went to church on his own. In order to make sure that my dad actually went to church, his dad always quizzed him on the sermon at Sunday evening dinner.
My dad followed the same practice with us kids, even though we all went to church together. And we were not allowed to say, “That was a good sermon, Dad.” We had to be prepared to give some examples from the sermon to show that we really were paying attention.
Well, it’s been years now since I heard my dad preach, but I still remember that every sermon began this way, “My dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
So hearing those words, over and over again, makes me wonder, “What do they really mean?”
Grace, I learned as a good Lutheran kid, is what saves us: “By grace you have been saved, and this is not your own doing, but a gift of God, lest anyone should boast.” Grace is that gift from God that we don’t deserve, that we cannot earn. Grace is the vast lovingkindness of God. Grace fills us with hope. The darkness of the world around us is changed into the light of Christ by grace.
Peace is also a word that I heard many times in church growing up. Several times throughout worship, my dad would say, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” and we would chant back, “And with thy spirit.” Peace is not just the absence of war and violence, it is a state in which all is made whole, where there is justice, where all relationships are reconciled. Here at Koinonia, peace is part of our vision statement: we look for “peace through reconciliation.” So we try to be at peace with all of God’s creation. If we have wronged a person, we go to them to seek forgiveness. If we feel wronged, we go to the person to speak directly to them in love. We try to be at peace with our environment—grazing our cattle on fresh grass, letting our chickens roam, and treating our pecans and fruits and vegetables biologically rather than with chemicals.
“Grace to you and peace.” These are gifts that we have to offer to each other. We hope to live our lives in a way that demonstrates these gifts. We pray that Koinonia is a place full of grace and peace. We ask God that our whole world be filled with grace and peace so that the goodwill promised by the angels will reign here and now.
So, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.
Sunday, September 4, 2016, Reflection on Luke 14:25-33
by Elizabeth Dede
I’m getting tired of these hard teachings from Jesus. Can’t we just have something simple like “Follow me?”
In this Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us to hate our families and to renounce everything that we have. What does he really mean?
I learned this morning at my other church that in the original Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, there were no gradations of love and hate. There were no words to talk about dislike or like. So our little Judah sitting over there couldn’t say, “I don’t like Steve. I love Steve.” There was only love for Steve. Or hate for Steve, but, of course, Judah doesn’t hate Steve. So, perhaps Jesus didn’t really mean that we are supposed to hate our families. Maybe we’re just supposed to love Jesus more. I don’t know how I feel about these language games, though. And how am I, not a Bible scholar, and not knowledgeable in Biblical languages, supposed to know these things as I read the Gospel?
One clue I guess comes from other places in the Gospel. For instance, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me more than these? Feed my lambs.” So there is a qualification to love. We are to love Jesus more than anyone or anything.
Even renouncing all of our possessions is a difficult thing. I find in life in community that it is easier to give things up. All of our needs are provided for. So I don’t have to own my own washer and dryer because the community provides a laundry house. I don’t have to cook my own meals because we eat together. I don’t even have to wash my own dishes all the time because we all share in that work.
But not everyone is called to live in community. So how can people working at a job, living in a house, needing to drive to work renounce everything to follow Jesus? I don’t know. I don’t have a satisfactory answer.
I can only guess that for many Christians, Jesus means that you should keep a light hold on possessions—don’t let them run your life. Be faithful to Jesus. Pray regularly. Worship with others. Serve the poor. It seems to me that it’s a delicate balance. As Henry David Thoreau said, “Simplify! Simplify!” Have only what you need. Be aware of the difference between needs and desires.
And love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Sunday, August 28, 2016, Reflection on Luke 14:1, 7-14
by Elizabeth Dede
Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Jesus is clear here that we are to be on the side of the poor, the outcast, the ones who are more often than not turned away.
There’s an old labor song called, “Which Side Are You On?” It asks that question repeatedly, and, of course, the answer is that you should be on the side of the laborer and not the boss.
It could be Jesus is singing that song to us. Koinonia has a long, rich history of being on the side of the poor. We were founded to live along side, be in relationship to the outsider in Americus—the African American people, the sharecropper both White and Black, those who lived in shacks.
We must always look for ways to stand with the poor because it is easy to overlook them. Our society, which is so caught up in materialism, puts the poor out of the way. They can be invisible.
Prisons are an example of the invisible poor. Prisons are built, for the most part, in the middle of nowhere. The Stewart Detention Center is one of those. It stands outside of the town of Lumpkin, a tiny place with nothing to recommend it, except, perhaps, El Refugio—a hospitality house for the families of prisoners.
The Stewart Detention Center is a private, for-profit prison. It was built on speculation. The Corrections Corporation of America thought it could sell the State of Georgia on another private prison. But Georgia had no interest, so the building stood empty and unfinished for a number of years, as CCA looked for a customer. They actually asked the State of Hawaii if it wanted to put a state prison in the middle of nowhere in Georgia.
Finally, the Federal Government contracted with CCA for an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prison. The men who are locked away there have, for the most part, not committed any crimes, except that they are in the US without the proper paperwork. Most likely, they have been caught up in an ICE sweep. They are awaiting a hearing and deportation. I heard on NPR recently that the judges are so unfair that more than 90% of the men held there are deported. From visits and letters we know that many are facing violence and repression in their countries of origin. They are not just economic refugees.
Not too long ago I received a letter from a man who wrote to us in perfect English. He was in his forties and had come to this country when he was five years old. He was born in a Central American country, but he had not lived there since he was five. He spoke no Spanish and had no relatives or connections to his country of birth. He was set to be deported—considered an alien in this country (Illegal at that), and he was an alien to his country of birth.
Here at Koinonia, we stand with the men in the Stewart Detention Center by visiting them and by receiving their letters and packing bags of clothes for them to have when they return to their country. I am learning Spanish so that I can talk and write to our friends who are locked up there.
Why stand with the poor? Why be on their side? Our culture values money and material possessions. It says there must be something wrong with a person who has little. They must be lazy or crazy or disabled in some way.
We choose the side of the poor because Jesus does. He tells us to invite the poor to our feasts. He makes it clear that we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, and visit the sick and the prisoner.
Sunday, August 21, 2016 Reflections on Luke 13:22-30
by Elizabeth Dede
Luke wrote his Gospel especially for the Gentiles. They were Christians who had not come to the faith through the teachings, beliefs and traditions of the Jewish faith. They were often looked down on and left out because of they were outsiders. So Luke has Jesus teaching and talking to these outsiders, as well as giving a warning to the good Jewish people of the day.
The Jewish Christians believed that they had the way into the Kingdom of God because of their history. Jesus, here, admonishes the Jews, and warns them that they may very well be on the outside looking in to the Kingdom of God. Their belief in the prophets will not be enough to get them a seat next to the prophets in the Kingdom. They need to go through a transformation, just like the Gentiles that Luke is writing to.
This is a Gospel lesson for us, too. We can’t simply rely on our backgrounds, on the faith of our fathers and mothers, on the tradition of our families. We, too, are called to a transformation of our lives because the new order, as Clarence Jordan says, is impinging upon our lives.
What does that new order look like? We live in a world where material things grab all our attention. We are especially caught up by technology, and many of us feel that we need to have the latest gadget—smart phones, tablets, laptops. My materialism compels me to collect more and more musical instruments. I have more than I can ever hope to play well.
Fortunately, in community we have a way to transform our lives. We live together and share all things in common. We live on an allowance that the rest of the United States would define as poverty wages. We share meals together. We have common computers. We share housing. We have a common closet for clothes. We even share our children so that they are raised by many, rather than just by two parents. All of this brings us great joy. We find that we do not miss the things that the world tells us are necessary for the good life.
Some would say that we are among the last. We have fallen behind in what the world calls the good life. But we are making an attempt at solidarity with those who are considered last in this world. And so we look for ways to enter by the narrow gate. We are constantly trying to live a life more dedicated to each other, and less to the self-serving bent of our society.
Jesus teaches here that many who are last will be first. I have a long way to go, but I am trying to enter by the narrow gate. I hope that my life here in community at Koinonia is a step in that direction. Amen.
Sunday, August 14, 2016 Reflections on Luke 12:49-53
by Elizabeth Dede
These are difficult words from Jesus—a hard prophecy about family relationships. But to follow Jesus is often difficult.
I have experienced this division first hand in my family. As a young adult I made decisions that were painful to my family. Until I turned 24, I had been an obedient child, doing everything I could to please my family.
When I finished my Masters degree, I made a decision to follow Jesus’ call in my life, rather than the duties and obligations that my family called me to. I was expected to become a teacher, but I didn’t hear the Holy Spirit asking me to do that.
Instead, I heard a call to life in community. When I told my mom that I was going to live at the Open Door in Atlanta, Georgia, she said, “Well, don’t expect me to ever come visit you.” My oldest sister Susan actually called my favorite college professor and asked her to convince me that life at the Open Door was crazy and a waste of my God-given talents. I know that I was a disappointment to my father, even though he didn’t say that directly. Once when I visited Susan, she had her husband Doug take me to downtown Indianapolis to his law office to show me around. He took me to his office way up high and showed me the view from it. He practically said, “All this can be yours.” I felt like I was being tempted like Jesus in the wilderness. I wanted to say, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” But I knew that wouldn’t go over well.
So I was a daughter set against her mother, a sister set against her sister. My family was divided by Jesus’ teaching. There was a time in my life when I thought that life in community was the only way to live. I alienated a lot of my family and friends because they were turned off by my life that was so different from theirs. I wasn’t interested in making money. I didn’t want to live in my own house with my own car. The sad thing about all that was that I thought everyone should live that way. So I threw up barriers against my family and friends. I couldn’t see how I was being just like them in insisting that my way was the only right way.
Fortunately, I grew up and matured. I learned that there are many ways to live a life that is faithful to the call of Jesus. I learned that my way was only one of the ways. Now I try to live in such a way that reconciles my differences with others. I don’t try to force others to live and work like me, but I try to be faithful to the call that I hear for my life.
This has led me down different paths. I’ve just finished reading a book about the Imperial Hotel takeover in downtown Atlanta and how that event led to affordable housing for hundreds of formerly homeless people. I was part of that takeover and was full of self-righteousness at that time. It was exciting and daring, but it wasn’t the only way to get affordable housing. I thought it was. The book was helpful in pointing out that many people worked for affordable housing in Atlanta. Without a plan from the mayor, without progressive developers, without the Task Force for the Homeless, none of it would have happened.
So I learned that we are a many colored garden, growing side by side. Sometimes Jesus’ call divides us into rows of different kinds of flowers and vegetables, but still we are one garden. Even though my sister Jocelyn is going to vote for Donald Trump, I can still love her. I have to admit that it’s difficult at times, but I still love her.
So, yes, the life following Jesus brings divisions, but we can learn to live peacefully together. Amen.