Thursday, May 22, 2014

Guest Blog: The Rev. Christina Vance - From the Defendant's Chair

This week I have the Rev. Christina Vance as my guest blogger. She is a cassock wearing, coffee drinking, theology talking, gospel preaching lover of the Lord. She, also, co-runs a ministry, “Oaks of Righteousness,” to the urban poor in Troy, New York.

 Her work is an excellent example of cross-cultural ministry right here in the United States – something that is so needed. I think this post demonstrates that although ministry to the poor and powerless can be uncomfortable, it is reflects the love of Jesus in a tangible way. Blessing to all, Lilly.

Reflections from the Defendant’s Chair

Rev. Christina Vance

Today, I accompanied one of my parishioners to court for an eviction hearing. Wore full black clericals and my collar and Franciscan crucifix. Got lots of stares.

My parishioner wasn't especially upset about going to court. She wanted to be evicted -- in the dizzying world of social services, she said eviction is one of the most effective methods to bring about a move to a different part of town that isn't an emergency. She went to court today quite willing to meet her landlord's request to get out -- she just asked to stay where she was for two weeks.

For her and her three kids, two weeks would make the difference between moving straight into her new place or moving temporarily into a shelter. She wanted to spare her kids that. So did I, so I went with her.

The landlord, who eyed me somewhat nervously, seemed like a decent guy who had no problems helping my parishioner out. He simply wanted legal backing to protect himself in case she stuck around past her grace period. I can't blame him.

Sitting in court today, watching case after case go before a straight-shooting, wise-cracking judge, several things occurred to me:

First, most of the folks sitting in the defendants' chairs were black, and most of the folks in the plaintiffs' chairs were white. At least half of those white people were attorneys.

Second, it was clear from the way the cases proceeded that some of the tenants were taking advantage of their landlords. In other cases, it seemed likely the landlords were allowing their tenants to live in lousy conditions. Some landlords extended a great deal of grace. Some wanted their tenants tossed out by the city marshal asap.

Third, as I anticipated sitting beside my parishioner in a defendant's chair, it occurred to me that I didn't want to. I even felt scared and embarrassed to sit there, although neither my comfort nor my good name were at stake. Why? Because the defendant's chair had a strong aura of guilt and powerlessness. And, I didn't want to sit in a seat with no power.

Fourth, I noticed, in a different way than I ever have, that my collar gave me a weird kind of power. The landlord was intimidated by me. The judge greeted me. People stared at me. And, my parishioner assured me, my silent presence helped make it possible for her kids to avoid the homeless shelter.

So, when the case was called, I marched my pious-looking self over to the seat with no power. And I thought, "This is the seat you deserved years ago, Christina. You drove drunk so many times in the past. You deserve the worst this seat can throw at you, and sheer mercy saved you."

And then I thought about Jesus. Sitting in the defendant's seat. Sitting in the seat with no power. Taking the worst it could throw at him.

The judge greeted me. "What church are you with, Reverend?"

"Jesus' church, sir."

"Well, yes. Which one?"

"The Episcopal Church, sir."

"One of many."

"Yes, your honor."

The thing a priest can't escape is -- no matter where we go -- we represent the church. And today, I got to represent the church by sitting in the seat with no power, and that was used for good. That gives me joy and satisfaction.

But -- more than anything -- sitting in that seat today made me love Jesus more.

For More on Christina and her ministry:

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