Archive for the ‘pueblo’ Category

Do we even need religion any more?

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Do we even need religion any more?
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

It’s no secret that organized religion in America has slipped dramatically in the public eye during the past several decades. Though just as many people claim to have some sort of faith in a higher power, since the 1970s we’ve witnessed a steady decline in church attendance.

This isn’t exactly the case across the board. Large churches, with membership over 500 people, are still pretty strong overall, and the more conservative evangelical churches tend to maintain their bases of folks more than the moderate, so-called
“mainline” churches.

There are a handful of reasons why this downward trend has continued for nearly two generations. First, an increasingly mobile population, held together more by technology than by geography, has dissolved many of the physical, social centers that helped make up communities in the past. After all, why go through the painstaking effort of getting the whole family out of bed and dressed when you can just hit folks up on Facebook, or Skype grandma, who now lives more than a thousand miles away?

Second, there’s been a pervasive suspicion of all things institutional that took hold particularly around the Watergate/Vietnam era. Prior to this, most people held something of an inherent trust of the systems of governance and authority, assuming they had the best interests of the general public at heart. But with the scandals, protests and violence of the ’60s and early ’70 came a cynicism about powerful institutions that we’ve never shaken since, and, perhaps, with good reason.

Add to this the breakneck speed of the distribution of information and the lack of filters to contain and/or verify what’s true and what’s garbage before it reaches consumers. On one hand, this explosion of the information age has democratized the information-sharing process; on the other, it’s created more opportunities for gossip, scandal exposes and even outright slander.

The all-seeing eye of the interconnected world misses little these days, and there few things that it loves than watching the mighty fall, especially when there’s also sex involved. So when ministers are caught getting a massage with benefits or predatory priests are found to be molesting boys, it’s sure to make headlines.

Some folks assume that early Christianity was all about establishing churches, but the institution we now see as organized religion didn’t come along until much later. Jesus himself didn’t spend much time in the synagogues, opting instead for small gatherings in homes and traveling the countryside to talk with whomever he came across.
It wasn’t until three centuries later when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the official religion of the empire that the community of believers began to seriously get both organized and powerful. Though Constantine’s motives for converting to Christianity are arguable, most historians believe the move was more about consolidating power than it was about his faith.

Over the following centuries, the powerful combination of church and state helped spread Christianity to all corners of the world – often at the point of a sword – while the church willingly sanctioned the conquest of nations by rulers who claimed fidelity to the church. It was a convenient, if unsavory, marriage.

So, given the fact that the earliest church was more of a movement than an institution, and considering that, later, the real strength of the institutional church was built upon the backs of millions it forced into claiming loyalty, perhaps the institutional church as it stands actually is a bastardized version of what an otherwise peaceful and life-giving community of faith had to offer.

What if, after all the time, money and effort that’s gone into propping up our religious institutions, it’s actually those very institutions that are keeping communities of faith from doing the real work of positive social change to which they’re called?

In the end, every faith community has to continually take its own pulse, asking if the effort and resources being expended are primarily intent on keeping a building or power structure in place, or if those institutions and systems are, as they ideally should be, simply a means to a greater end.

Meanwhile, house churches and loosely networked faith groups continue to spring up, much like the seeds of early Christianity before religious barons ever thought about buildings, polity, conquest or empire. Many would see the collapse of the institutional church as we now know it as a failure of faith and humanity. But what if, after all the dust settled, we were left with something more genuinely focused on mission rather than on institutionality?

It’s hard to comprehend now, but perhaps we’re witnessing an evolution of human faith, shedding one older, rigid skin for a more pliable, adaptable one. Regardless, humanity’s resolve to maintain belief in something greater than itself has endured far worse than a weakened system of authority and some crumbling buildings. We’ll continue to seek an understanding of the divine, with or without the church.

Going out of our way to be uncomfortable

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Going out of the way to be uncomfortable (Smells Like Spirit column)
(Originally published in PULP)

I’m a sucker for nearly any reality show in which participants undergo a radical transformation. I love the big payoff at the end of the Biggest Loser season; I watch American Idol like a tweenie fan; and I’m man enough to admit I’m a total sucker for a makeover.

That’s why, when Morgan Spurlock, creator and star of the documentary film Super Size Me, started a new TV series called 30 Days, I was hooked before I even saw the pilot.

The show follows the same sort of immersive, autobiographical documentary style as his film, placing people in situations unlike their typical environment for a month and watching how they respond, generally with some thread of social commentary at the core. In the first show, he and his girlfriend got minimum wage jobs and tried to live below the poverty line, with very sobering results.

But we pulled up on Netflix two more recent shows from the first season, both of which I think should be required viewing in all Christian churches. The first placed a traditional evangelical in Dearborn, Mich., to live with a Muslim family in a heavily Muslim neighborhood for 30 days. The second sent a good ol’ boy from the Nebraska farmland to live in the Castro district in San Francisco, commonly known as “the gayest place on the planet.”

In both cases, the men came in with strong preconceptions about — or against — the groups with which they were to cohabitate, judgments generally originating from the media, popular stereotypes in culture and of course, their churches. By the end, both men, though not divested of their original faith, were radically reoriented in the way they thought about people they thought they understood.

No, the farm boy didn’t come home in leather chaps or with a suitcase full of sex toys, and the evangelical didn’t toss out his Bible to make room for his Quran (but he did put them on the shelf next to each other). Both seemed to fear as much would happen, simply by opening themselves up to a different experience.

What the show demonstrates most importantly is twofold: Most of the most painful divisions between us as individuals and groups originate in fear, and direct personal relationship is bigger than that same fear in most cases.

So how do we go about allowing for such important transformation to take place out front in front of a camera? It seems that we have to go out of our way to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. Not a natural inclination, and certainly not a popular angle for churches desperate to fill their pews and coffers with happy congregants, but if we’re seriously about the business of social healing and reconciliation, what other choice do we have?

Sure, lots of churches offer mission trips to help out in places unlike our home towns, but, often, those sorts of service projects – where we feel we have something of value to bring to those we’re helping, and not the other way around – are an inherent setup for an imbalance of power.

Also, the sort of change we’re talking about doesn’t seem to take place in a weekend, or even in a weeklong trip. It’s been said that it takes doing something 21 times in a new way before old habits are broken. So maybe a minimum of three weeks is required.

Of course few, if any, of us has three weeks to give up in order to travel somewhere with the explicit goal of being changed. It’s against our nature to seek unfamiliarity and to consciously look for things to challenge our worldview, let alone using every bit of vacation we have to do it. So yeah, I’m a bit of an idealist, and there’s potential in the idea.

Every community has its share of diversity, be it economic, cultural, sexual or otherwise. Part of the whole intent is not just to be more willing to seek out direct engagement with different types of people, but to do so in the spirit of openness, acknowledging that perhaps our views could actually benefit from being stretched a little.

Consider yourself a little homophobic? Sit in on a few Equality Alliance or PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meetings, or grab a cold one at the Pirate’s Cove, Pueblo’s only openly gay bar (that I know of, anyway).

Consider yourself to be agnostic or atheist? Go to church for a few months, not to become un-atheist, but to learn more about the thing you supposedly don’t believe in. Love your evangelical church? Check out a pagan festival or a Wiccan gathering, if there’s one open to the public.

The key question is: What can it hurt? Worst case, your preconceptions and objections are confirmed. Best case, you learn something, and maybe so do the folks with whom you engage. And if you’re really so worried about the potential change that may take place in yourself, maybe it’s worth wondering what the basis of your beliefs is in the first place.

After all, if a few encounters with the unfamiliar can bring your house of cards crashing down, it sounds like the raw material may not have had the soundest integrity to begin with.

NewSpin: Noise Pollution, Tax Solutions and a New Infusion

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

NewSpin
Noise Pollution, Tax Solutions and a New Infusion

By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

In a knee-jerk decision, Pueblo City Council established a new sound ordinance based on a woman’s complaint about a neighbor’s garage band practicing nearby. The gist of the ordinance is that, if your neighbors can hear you, it’s too loud.

Though the reaction was particular to bands, some folks are hoping that this will create a blanket under which barking dogs and raucous parties will be included too. But why stop there? Consider some other potential noise pollution we could stanch while we’re at it.

More or less every morning, I’m awakened by a muscled-up diesel truck from down the street that leaves for a construction site not long after the sun creeps up. Guess he’ll be walking from now on, as will all the “crotch rocket” offenders who rev their imported motorcycles to eleventy-seven million RPMs. Oh, and of course there are the choppers and hot rods; I don’t want to leave them out.

And talk about noise – the playground right across the street fills the air with squeaks and squeals I can hear in my living room with the doors and windows closed. Sorry kids, but looks like we’ll be shutting you down too.

Apologies in advance to both the Pride City band, which practices down the street in Mineral Palace Park every summer, and to the church across the street whose bells chime three times a day, seeping insidiously into nearby residences. Things just won’t be the same without you, but hey, at least they’ll be quiet.

My point isn’t necessarily that all homeowners just need to buck up and live with any level of noise, but here’s a mind-blower: Consider going over and talking to your neighbor face-to-face instead of complaining to the government to fix your personal problems.

And as for city council, such a narrow-minded and impulsive reaction certainly will have more negative consequences than anyone took the time to consider. What, do they assume, these young people will do with their free time instead of pouring their energy into music? Should they spend more time on the streets, looking for something quiet to do? And how about the impact on the local culture? Sure, the lady next door may not like Sonic Vomit or whatever band the local musicians are into, but without such freedom to explore, a community’s artistic voice becomes homogenized at best, and at worst, it dries up and moves on.

Further, did anyone consider the economic impact of this ordinance? It’s easy enough to look at young musicians as penniless moochers, siphoning off their parents (I was one of them too), but eventually, we fine-tune our skills to the point that some of us start picking up gigs, maybe drop an album or hit the road for a tour. If nothing else, we buy plenty of new musical equipment and recordings when we have those few precious pennies to rub together. If we are allowed to actually use them, that is.

Time and again, communities that have made a concerted effort to create space for art and music to flourish are rewarded by the fruits of such cultural roots. Consider Santa Fe Street in Denver, Deep Ellum in Dallas, and on and on goes the list in hundreds of forward-thinking cities that understand that original art is the heartbeat of a community’s culture.

As for Pueblo, we pour money into maintaining decaying buildings in every part of town, while telling local bands we have no use for them. But hey, at least the woman who complained can watch “Jeopardy” and do her Sudoku in peace.

On a more positive note, kudos to Pueblo City School’s board for its recent selection of a new interim superintendent, Dr. Margarita Lopez, as Kathy West moves over to manage the growing and successful magnet program at Fountain, Corwin, East High and other schools.

Lopez served most recently as assistant superintendent for learning services in Academy School District 20 just to the north.

“For most of us, this was our third search in five years,” says board president Stephanie Garcia. “This search was for an interim and it is our hope that we can take some time to get to know one another and later make a decision about making the position permanent.”

Given our bi-cultural community, it’s a hopeful sign in itself that we now have someone who is bilingual at the helm of the district. “Dr. Lopez … is a native Spanish-speaker and grew up in a bilingual and bicultural world,” says Garcia. “When she arrived in this country there were no English as a Second Language programs. She credits great teachers for helping her to learn English and learn about the American culture. Her educational experiences were the impetus for her success. Her passion for education is inspirational for all.”

To have someone who not only understands the nuances of bicultural education, but who also has the opportunity to serve as a role model for one of our most at-risk groups of kids – Hispanic girls – speaks more to the board’s current vision for the district than even her training and educational experience.

It’s also a relief that we’re looking locally for talent, with significant cost savings at that, rather than assuming our qualified leadership must come from somewhere else. Here’s hoping the “permanent relationship” Garcia and her colleagues seek becomes a reality.

Finally, there’s the matter of some logic-challenged tax cut proposals being put to a public vote during the forthcoming election cycle. Though on the surface, everyone loves the idea of a tax break, Amendments 60, 60 and Proposition 101 would effectively dismantle – I would argue intentionally and with malice of forethought – many services most of us consider essential.

Amendment 60 proposes to halve our already relatively low property tax . The biggest loser in this case would be our public schools. “Pueblo City Schools may be considering school closures if K-12 funding continues to decline,” says Garcia. “Amendment 60 would make this inevitable.”

The more benign-sounding Amendment 61 champions the Tea Party ethos of eliminating government borrowing. But what many don’t consider is that this removes the ability even to issue government bonds. Because public revenue streams don’t make room for things like capital construction and improvements in most cases, we’d be left with the schools and other buildings we have, hoping nothing happens that would precipitate a facility closure.

Finally, Proposition 101 proposes reducing vehicle registration taxes to their lowest level in 90 years, amounting to around $2.5 million more in cuts to Pueblo City Schools.

So, if the goal is to cut taxes to the point that services like public education, transportation, health care, prevention programs and perhaps even law enforcement cave in upon themselves, I suppose these proposals offer one efficient way to do that. Personally, I find the effort to dismantle state and local governments from the inside out by putting forward obtuse, yet seemingly harmless, cost savings for taxpayers to be disingenuous, bordering on insane.

If you value the basic services our communities depend on for a decent quality of life, you’ll do what you can to ensure these initiatives go nowhere.

Doing Nothing Does Something

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Doing nothing does something

By Christian Piatt

 

I picked up a book recently by Walter Wink, one of my preferred theologians when it comes to putting action behind the rhetoric of faith. I have yet to read anything by Wink that has not rocked my world and caused me to reevaluate pretty much everything from my beliefs to the way I express them in daily life.

 

His book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, was no exception.

 

Deceptively small at a compact 64 pages, every paragraph presents a compelling challenge not only to many common takes on Jesus’ approach to authority, but also to anyone who claims to be a champion of the oppressed, marginalized and neglected.

 

First, Wink quickly goes about dismantling the myth that Jesus was a pacifist. Far from it, actually. Things like turning the other cheek and walking the second mile, in the context of Wink’s nonviolent activist engagement, take on unexpected power, much like a black belt in aikido uses the energy of his attacker to overthrow them.

 

For example, it was legal in the Roman Empire for occupying centurions to force locals to carry their packs up to one mile along the road, but no further. Though taking the soldier’s pack a second mile might seem a meek and nice thing to do, he argues it’s actually a nonviolent act of insurrection. The soldier actually could be jailed or otherwise punished for violating the law banning exploitation of the local people, but how ridiculous does he end up looking, begging for his pack back from a lowly peasant? And if you insist on carrying the burden further, he also runs the risk of appearing weak, empowering yourself with the very weight he once placed upon you as a symbol of his power and authority.

 

The great deception, says Wink, is that we Western-minded folks have bought the idea that we have two choices when faced with violence, injustice or oppression: fight back in kind or do nothing. What is required, he says, is a third option, as modeled by Jesus, one that too often Christians and other people of faith mistake as a call for non-involvement.

 

As Wink claims, doing nothing in response to injustice is to implicitly support the violence already being done.

 

Such creative nonviolent activism is certainly not limited to Christianity, either. Though Martin Luther King is the greatest modern example of this kind of engagement for Christians, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and others have practiced such world-changing commitment to nonviolence over the centuries.

 

Wink also effectively dispels the myth that violence, in any instance, has ever been a more effective tool than a nonviolent response. Ultimately more blood is shed and more people die, even if it’s in our nature to want an eye for an eye.

 

Sound absurd? Hard to imagine? Wink expects that. As he points out, many of us can’t think of the way he understands the teaching and life of Jesus as really a possibility for us. But ultimately, it depends on how you measure success. If we consider the end of Jesus’ ministry to be his moment of crucifixion, alone, vulnerable and betrayed by those he continued to love, then his life’s mission was a failure.

 

If, however, we believe that one life – perhaps even our own – is worth giving up for a change that brings hope to thousands or millions of others, many of whom we may never meet, then Jesus’ third way begins to look like a path worth exploring.

Vehicular Manslaughter=$100 Traffic Ticket: Follow-up story

Monday, July 19th, 2010

NewSpin
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

A couple of months ago I wrote about an investigation I’d done on a case in which Betty Joyce Kuykendall ran a stop sign, collided with a car, and crash that led to the death of the male driver in the other car.

Because of the timing of various steps of the investigation, the only charge brought against Kuykendall was a stop-sign violation, for which she promptly paid a $100 fine. (See the NewSpin column in the May 20 P.U.L/P., online at www.pueblopulp.com, for more about the case).

One reason the case for vehicular manslaughter or any other criminal charges could not be brought against Kuykendall was because St. Mary-Corwin hospital reported that all injuries related to the accident were not serious, even though they ultimately led to William Dorough’s death.

So I wrote to District Attorney Bill Thiebaut, asking whether or not the hospital could be held legally responsible for the death in any way. The following includes excerpts from his response:

“The case is closed,” writes Thiebaut. “The hospital or its medical staff will not be charged. However, a civil action may be filed against the hospital or its medical staff, or other persons or entities.”

“It has been said: There is no crime, there is no punishment, without law (Nullen crimen, nulla poena, sine lege).

“Every crime involves a wrongful act (actus reus) specifically prohibited by the criminal law. In most cases, the law requires that the wrongful act be accompanied by criminal intent (mens rea).

“The actus reus may take the form of an omission or failure to perform an act obliged by law, but the act or duty to act must be specifically required by law; it must have been possible for the person to have performed, and, in some cases, the person must have been aware of his duty to act.

“The mens rea or culpable state of mind accompanying the actus reus can include criminal negligence …. This state of mind is generally sufficient only where there is a conscious disregard of a substantial risk of which a reasonable man would have been aware.

“Finally, there must be a causal relationship between the act and the harm or loss suffered. The act must be both actually and legally the cause of the harm. Actual causation can use the ‘but-for’ test. In other words, would the harm have occurred whether or not the accused had acted? The legal causation is determined by a number of tests. For example, the cause must have played a substantial factor in bringing about the results.”

Within these legal limits, the hospital has not been found to be legally liable for the death. Did they screw up? It seems so, but not with any intent to do harm as outlined above. Did the accident, caused by Kuykendall, lead to Dorough’s death? Most everyone involved seems to be in agreement that it did. However, because of double jeopardy, and since Kuykendall paid the fine for the initial ticket for running the stop sign before charges could be adjusted, she can’t be charged for anything else related to the incident.

So what recourse, if any, does Dorough’s family have?

“A civil wrong…is dealt with under different standards” explains Thiebaut, “and seeks to make whole the injured or aggrieved party through appropriate remedies, including money damages.”

In short, the family can sue everyone from the hospital to Kuykendall herself, provided they have the motivation and resources to do so. And of course, even if they win a civil case (or cases), appeals can drag on for years, costing tens of thousands of dollars in court costs and lawyer fees.

Ultimately, nothing will bring William Dorough back. He’s gone, and no doubt, Ms. Kuykendall grieves the accidental death along with Dorough’s family. Justice, whether it takes the form of civil damages or jail time, are cold comfort for those who have lost someone they love.

Little, if any, legal recourse can bring families the peace and resolution that they seek in such cases. However, when left with nothing other than personal civil suits to seek restitution or some sense of justice, it’s a symptom of a legal system that has failed its people.

It’s Not About You

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

It’s not about you
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

My wife, Amy, and I were driving southbound on Interstate 25 recently when a figure ran across the road, right at the edge of one of the overpasses near downtown Pueblo. Though my first instinct was to slam on the brakes, I slowed down enough to notice it was a police officer whose car was parked on the other side of the highway.

At first, we assumed he was in pursuit of a bad guy, but then Amy notice a little boy, no more than four years old, standing on the outside of the guardrail of the bridge. The point on the overpass where he was had to be at least thirty feet above ground; more than enough to inflict serious – if not fatal – damage if he fell.

The boy wandered along the four-inch ledge, which was the only thing between him and possible death, all the while apparently oblivious to the danger he was in. My first thought was, my God, this kid is going to die.

The officer who ran out into the highway traffic, however, was set on a different outcome to the story. Without regard for his own safety, he sprinted across the lanes of oncoming traffic toward the child, leaning over the guardrail and scooping the boy up tightly in his arms.

I didn’t notice any mention of the officer’s act of bravery in the paper or on the news in the coming days, and of course, that’s not why he did what he did. But for all of the bad press – some well-deserved – that officers of the law get, this guy on this particular day put the life of someone else before his own and did something truly heroic.

So what does this have to do with religion or faith? After all, I have no idea if the officer was a Christian, Pagan, Atheist or whatever. For me, the lesson is that, although organized religion often sets out to impart moral lessons to the greater culture, sometimes there are acts of humanity all around us that could teach religion a thing or two about better living into their claimed missions.

It’s no headline-worthy news these days that many institutions of faith are struggling to keep their doors open. Though at one time, churches, mosques or synagogues may have been the social hubs of their communities, a more distributed, mobile and, frankly, preoccupied American culture finds their sense of community elsewhere, more often than not.

In response, some faith communities have resorted to trying harder to reflect the culture around them, installing coffee houses in their buildings, adding more entertaining activities to their roster of programs, and sometimes even telling people what they want to hear, whether it’s theologically well-founded or not.

Enter phenomena like the best-selling book, The Secret, gospel distortions focusing on prosperity and other “God wants you to be rich” theologies. Implicitly, and in some cases, explicitly, the message becomes, “yes, it really is all about you.”

The problem is, it’s not all about you.

We live in a consumer-driven economy that relies on excess spending on things we can’t afford, let alone need, to fuel the fiscal engine. And now more than ever, targeted media marketing can tell you exactly what you want to hear, and practically custom-design products and services that will not only free you of a few bucks, but will also help confirm the sneaking suspicion that you are, in fact, at the center of the universe.

At its best, faith communities work against such fallacies, helping people get over themselves, deconstructing the narcissism that causes us too often to turn in on our own world rather than noticing that there’s a whole planet of other people out there.

Every major world religion has stories in its history of its leaders getting beyond the trappings of “self” to a more enlightened, liberated and compassionate worldview. Unfortunately sometimes we within the institutions of religion grasp desperately at the next new thing to try and maintain the legacies we’ve inherited from previous generations.

One of my favorite sayings is that true faith means planting trees under whose shade you’ll never sit. But that’s an uncomfortable, sometimes difficult place to be. It’s counter-cultural to work without expectation of reward in kind, and to labor harder for the welfare of others than for our own comfort.

For that one officer in a moment of pure instinct, I saw through a window to the best of what humanity can be. Now, if we can only get the rest of our faith communities to see through that same window, we might actually change the world in ways far greater than we imagine when worried so much about our own survival.

Story about me and my books in the Chieftain

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

WHERE’S THE FAITH ?

New series of books tackles questions, issues that challenge young Christians

CHIEFTAIN PHOTO/JOHN JAQUES Pueblo author Christian Piatt talks about a series of books he is collaborating on with a variety of authors from throughout the country.

BY LORETTA SWORD

Have you ever questioned the believability of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ? Ever wondered why, if Mary conceived as a virgin, the Bible traces Christ’s lineage through Joseph?

Chances are you’ve pondered these questions and many others about the Bible or Jesus, but never discussed them with other Christians — and certainly never in church.

That’s what gave local author/editor Christian Piatt and partner Brandon Gilvin the idea for WTF (Where’s the Faith), a series of books that pose such questions to a wide variety of religious, agnostic, social justice and other leaders and thinkers — some of them well-known in religious and spiritual circles. The books are published by Chalice Press. Gilvin is the associate director of Week of Compassion, an international relief and aid ministry of the national Disciples of Christ organization, based in Kansas City, Mo.

The books are aimed primarily at young adults — a demographic that churches are struggling to hold onto as their congregations dwindle in all age brackets.

The first book in the series, “OH God, Oh GOD, OH GOD! Young Adults Speak Out About Sexuality and Christian Spirituality,” was released earlier this year and provides “honest and open dialogue about the beauty and gift of sexuality while understanding it in a mature way, including the risks and consequences” but without the moral and doctrinal overtones of most Christian books on the topic, Piatt said.

He and Gilvin edited the book, and Piatt contributed an essay about abortion.

Two more books, which address questions that many Christians ponder but rarely explore  in depth or among each other, will be published next year — the first, “Banned Questions about the Bible,” in February and the second, “Banned Questions about Jesus,” in August 2011.

All of the books “take a more emergent-church approach. There’s no focus on denominations or creeds so much as on content and providing a variety of information, including other sources to study, to help people make up their own minds. We’re trying to present multiple perspectives so people can choose for themselves. It’s about seeking your own understanding of various issues through prayerful seeking, and trusting that if you take the first step, God will meet you halfway and help you find the answers you’re seeking,” Piatt said.

“Churches are dying everywhere, and I believe it’s because there’s been a disconnect between the lives of most people and what they hear in church on Sunday.

“These books are intended to break down the taboo of ‘We don’t talk about that in church.’ In a healthy church, there should be no boundaries, no limitations about what is explored. We’re supposed to bring our whole, human selves to the church and to our faith.”

Another book due out this August, “Split Ticket: Independent Faith in a Time of Partisan Politics,” addresses the interconnectedness of faith and politics and explores how Christians can be part of the process without violating their faith or turning their backs on social justice issues and the political process for fear of conflict. Piatt is a contributor as well as co-editor of this volume.

“You People: Faith and Race,” will follow “Split Ticket.” All of the finished books are available through the Chalice Press website or its catalogs, at Amazon.com or through Piatt’s website. Some also are available by special order online from Barnes & Noble and smaller national booksellers, and all are stocked at Cokesbury Christian book stores nationwide. The works in progress will be as well after publication.

Piatt, who founded Pueblo’s Milagro Christian Church six years ago with his wife, Amy, who is pastor there, said the “Oh God” book already has sold more than 1,500 copies — to individuals and to churches that are using them in youth groups and young-adult book-study groups.

“The content is heavy enough that we wouldn’t recommend just throwing these books in a teen’s lap and saying ‘have at it.’ It needs to be navigated with the help of an adult leader,” Piatt said.

Despite brisk sales and many positive reviews in Christian and mainline publications, negative reaction from some conservative Christian groups has surfaced, too, Piatt said, but his response is always the same: “Why is it that sexuality can’t be discussed in the context of faith unless the whole focus is abstinence, which we all know doesn’t work?”

He gets few responses to that question, he said, and doesn’t worry about the criticism because “the people who react that way aren’t the target audience for our books.”

The same critics no doubt will see the “banned questions” books, and “Split Ticket,” as too frank and “not nice,” he predicts.

“But we believe it’s more important to be authentically relevant than it is to be nice. Jesus wasn’t always nice. He challenged the status quo and he didn’t tolerate injustice. He encouraged frank discussion about difficult issues. But some Christians can’t tolerate controversy or confrontation at all, and others only get involved — often in an angry, intolerant way — with all the things they are against.”

Piatt said he and his partner in the WTF series, and authors who contributed responses to questions or essays — despite their widely divergent religious beliefs — “all believe that our responsibility is to get actively involved in these things we’re afraid to talk about” so that younger Christians, especially, will be more inclined to form deeper commitments to their faith and to service than to abandon their church, or religion altogether. They can only do that if they’ve reached their own conclusions rather than having beliefs force-fed to them.

At the end of life, Piatt said, what will matter most is not how many souls someone has “saved” or how many foreign missions were conducted, or how big and beautiful the church is because believers were willing to give cash but not their time.

What Jesus will want to know of every individual, he said, is “What did you do for the poor, for the oppressed, for the imprisoned — for ‘the least among us’?”

Doing nothing, he said, only condones the suffering and injustices that humans inflict upon each other.

“Not getting engaged, not dealing with these issues, is not an option if you consider yourself a person of faith.”

For more information about the WTF series, upcoming books, or past titles by Piatt, go to: www.christianpiatt.com, which also provides links to videos of Piatt and some of the other authors and a link to his blog.

Cesar Chavez: Pueblo Charter School on the Cliff?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

NewSpin
by Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

It seemed, while Cesar Chavez and its affiliates remained in the stratosphere with remarkable results on standardized tests, the administration was untouchable. Though criticized for such unorthodox practices as offering gift cards to new students, and as rumors of test tampering and misogynist treatment of staff bubbled to the surface, it was hard nonetheless to argue with the results Dr. Lawrence Hernandez and company were yielding.

It seems the power went to his head, though.

In a recent press release from the Colorado Department of Education’s communications office, Commissioner of Education Dwight D. Jones “expressed deep concern about the network’s egregious financial practices and dubious leadership” after a formal review of the Cesar Chavez School Network’s organizational and financial systems.

“The report makes clear that the leadership of the network prioritized its needs over the students and disregarded both basic business practices and common sense,” says Jones. “The leaders of Cesar Chavez School Network squandered taxpayer money, ignored basic legal requirements, over-compensated senior staff, engaged in nepotism and failed to provide accountability over the resources entrusted to them. The results demand swift action.”

“I fully encourage Pueblo City Schools to use this analysis in any way it sees fit to hold Cesar Chavez School Network accountable,” says Jones. “Taxpayers, teachers and parents across Colorado will find that reading the report is a deeply troubling experience on many levels. I anticipate that Pueblo City Schools, the authorizers of the original charters, will be even more disturbed.”

Pueblo City Schools’ own news release echoed the scathing criticism from the CDE, detailing “nearly 40 separate findings of fact that support misappropriation and mismanagement of funds and resources at CCA schools primarily by the three principal staff members: Lawrence Hernandez, CEO; his wife Annette Hernandez, COO; and Jason Guerrero, CFO. It also finds that some of the Board of Directors at CCA and DHPH were complicit in conflicts of interest that directly benefited them financially.”

“’The apparent magnitude of egregious misappropriation and mismanagement of the public’s money is shocking,” said Stephanie Garcia, president of the board for Pueblo City Schools, per the release. “’This pervasive and perpetuated abuse of taxpayer funding at the hands of the founders of the CCA schools, explains their years of aggressive and antagonistic efforts to keep Pueblo City Schools and other authorizing agencies from actually seeing what was going on.

“’As the authorizer of the charters for these schools, we take the suggestions of Commissioner Dwight Jones very seriously and will be looking at our options very closely. We will be examining all legal remedies at our disposal to address the inappropriate actions of those responsible for this obscene abuse of tax payer monies.’”

Following these damning statements, I followed up with Ms. Garcia with the questions below, followed by her responses.

Is the district pressing any charges against CCA/DHPH staff? If so, who and what charges? And if not, why?

The district does not have the authority to press charges against CCA/DHPH. We have however contacted the local district attorney, the Internal Revenue Service and the Attorney General’s office. They are the entities that will determine if charges are in order.

Have any civil suits been considered, and again, if so, against who, for how much and on what grounds?

CCA/DHPH has 11 current civil suits pending. They are being sued by former CEO Lawrence Hernandez. I understand the suits are about alleged wrongful termination and acts of discrimination.

How, if at all, do you feel this experience has changed the district’s outlook on Charter schools?

The district has been very pleased with our relationship with our other Charter Schools. YAFA and PSAS have always responded to the district’s requests for information regarding governance, finances and instruction. I believe the audit results clearly uncovered the real reasons why CCA and DHPH continually challenged our request for this information.

I do believe that the Board of Education will have clear qualifications and standards written into future contracts with any new charter and also when we renew existing charters. I believe this will affect charter contracts for all schools across Colorado, if not the Country. There has also been new legislation presented this year that would also tighten controls over Charter conduct.

What do you expect will change about CCA/DHPH governance moving forward?

Clearly, governance will have to change and accountability will need to be in place. That being said, we are still not certain if the two schools are recognized as being nonprofit entities. They were not able to produce their 2008 or 2009 990 (IRS revenue document) or other evidence that they are still recognized by the IRS. Also, given the audit results, if they have not already lost their nonprofit status, they may.

Beyond the over 15 million dollars in bond debt and lack of reserve as required by the State, tax payers may also be owed repayment of other State and federal funds that were clearly misspent. The Board is still meeting with local State and Federal law enforcement entities and representatives with the Colorado Department of Education.

At this point, we do not know if the situation is beyond repair regardless of new leadership.

Finally, I asked District Attorney Bill Thiebaut if they were considering any charges of their own, especially considering the District’s hands were effectively tied with regard pressing legal charges.

“In addition to receiving a copy of the final report (audit) presented to the Colorado Department of Education by MGT of America, Inc.,” says Thiebaut, “over several months we have received voluminous information from a variety of citizens regarding the operation of the Cesar Chavez School Network. Our office has been in communication with, among others, the Attorney General’s Office as well as School District 60 officials (Pueblo City Schools) regarding this information.

“Our staff is reviewing this information,” continues Thiebaut. “For now, that is all I am at liberty to say.”

Priests and Abuse: Misplaced Anger?

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

(Originally published in PULP)

It seems almost cliché to write about religious sexual abuse scandals in a faith-oriented column, but sometimes news stories simply demand a response.

First of all, I want to make clear that, as a leader in a faith community, I’m personally both saddened and outraged every time I hear about another innocent soul falling victim to a sexual predator who uses the context of the ministry to cloak themselves in protective immunity. With every new revelation of such abuses, my question isn’t why these predators aren’t defrocked; it’s why they’re not sitting in a cell somewhere.

That said, I think some of us are focusing our righteous anger in the wrong direction. Yes, priests and other religious leaders who exploit their position to take advantage of anyone in their congregation, be they of age or not, have no business in ministry. And yes, those in positions of greater power who knowingly obfuscate the scale of the problem, making it even worse by moving guilty priests around, should also be removed. But simply to direct our ill feelings toward these individuals is to ignore the deeper, more disturbing reality.

By its very nature, church leadership roles present extraordinary opportunities for abuse. Few other jobs offer such a combination of power, lack of accountability and social pressure to present oneself a certain way. People trust ministers – or at least have done so historically – because of their positions. It’s assumed that it takes a special kind of person to accept a call to act as a servant of a church and its followers.

The problem is that, although this is generally true, it also is an imperfect system. True, some potential predators see ministry as a system waiting to be taken advantage of, but more often than not, I am of the opinion that the systems of religion themselves are guilty of creating these monsters, and not just letting them slip through the cracks.

Imagine being told that, for the rest of your life, people will look at you as if you’re set apart, different. In some ways, they will hold an unnatural admiration for you, but this same perception also will distance you from the rest of the culture. Add to this that, in some cases, you’re expected never to act on your natural sexual impulses, or even the innate craving for emotional and physical intimacy, all sexual acts aside.

Then you’re given a uniform and are afforded authority over people that, by its very nature, places them in a vulnerable state, while also being drawn to you. And though it’s assumed you’re carrying out the duties assigned to you by the higher authorities from day to day, the level of oversight generally doesn’t match up with the level of responsibility you have.

We’ve all heard the stories about how lots of men “turn gay” when sent to prison for long periods of time. It’s not that these guys actually are suddenly more attracted to men than women, but for lack of a woman, a guy will have to do. This is not uncommon throughout the animal kingdom, with same-sex animals pairing off when it’s the only option.

So is it that these priests who molest boys are actually gay? Some may be, and may likely aren’t, in the sense that a homosexual act does not a gay person make. But the system itself places young boys in the trust of male priests all the time, and lo and behold, the combination of personal repression and otherworldly expectations find an outlet, though in a chilling and violent way.

An immediate reaction to such moral tragedies is to clamp down, enacting “zero tolerance” policies and throwing the so-called book at perpetrators. And although such action might make us all feel better for the moment, it’s not likely to change the behavior of a person who is already risking everything they have in the world for what amounts to a licentious thrill.

I believe that the biggest problem is the repression. When we ask people to be something they’re not by nature, those repressed dimensions find a way of seeping through the tiniest of cracks. And when they do, it’s usually not pretty. If we were actually more open about allowing our spiritual leaders to accept that their sexuality is actually a beloved gift from God rather than a dirty thing to be despised, it would go a long way toward allowing them to be what they actually are: human beings.

Not only that, but it also would give those followers within the church permission to accept as much about themselves, hopefully coming to realize that healthy sexuality expressed in mutually consenting relationships is as God meant it to be. Otherwise, none of us would be here!

From the first stories in the Bible, we’re wrongly taught to hate our bodies and to understand our sexuality as detestable and wrong. But as I’ve heard it said many times before, how’s that working out for you?

Couldn’t it be that reading stories like those about Adam and Eve could tell us why we tend to view our bodies with shame, rather than taking from it that we should hate our physical selves? Couldn’t it be that, if we are indeed created in the image of a Creator, our impulses and urges are supposed to be there, to be used and expressed in wonderfully creative ways?

If we can learn anything from history it’s that nature wins over the will of humanity every time. We may like to think that having the appearance of control over our sexuality makes us more highly evolved, or even somehow closer to God. Ironically, it’s those same God-given impulses that, when repressed find other ways into the light.

The problem is that, by then, it’s too late, and the shame continues.

Vehicular Manslaughter = $100 Traffic Ticket (NewSpin)

Friday, May 7th, 2010

(Originally published in PULP)

We are a society whose order is built upon laws. Though there certainly is no guarantee of safety and quality of life, we generally can rest assured that the legal system will provide some recourse for victims and appropriate justice for those causing harm.

But things don’t always work out the way they should.

Last September 30, Betty Joyce Kuykendall, 62-year-old Pueblo resident ran a stop sign on Tejon Avenue, rolling 85-year-old William Dorough’s car with him and his two passengers, Katherine Waller, 75, and Spencer Waller, 19, inside.

Dorough was admitted to Parkview Medical Center the next day, and on October 27 died from complications from injuries related to the accident.

For this, Kuykendall was fined $100 and faces no further criminal charges.

So what happened? A number of things, actually. First, the Sheriff’s deputy handling the accident reported that no one was injured seriously enough at the time, following a medical exam, to warrant any charges related to bodily injury. Instead, Kuykendall was issued a ticket for failing to stop at the stop sign and the rest was left to the insurance companies to deal with.

Kuykendall’s lawyer advised her to plead guilty and to pay the fine. Her check was processed at the Colorado Department of Revenue on October 26, one day before Dorough died from complications related to the wreck.

The Pueblo District Attorney’s Office, which is responsible for determining if the initial charges were sufficient or if she should be charged with something like vehicular manslaughter, didn’t receive the Sheriff’s report of the accident until December 16.  By then it was too late to charge Kuykendall with anything further, as she was protected by the principle of double jeopardy as outlined in both the Colorado and United States constitutions, which ensures that a plaintiff cannot be charged twice for the same crime.

“By the time our office received the full report and evidence,” says Bill Thiebaut, Pueblo District Attorney, “and a copy of the summons and complaint, and the disposition of the traffic case, the defendant had entered a guilty plea to the traffic charge.”

In most cases, explains Thiebaut, “Our office would staff the case and determine if someone committed a chargeable offense. If it was determined that a defendant should be charged, our prosecutors seek justice with a charge or charges equal to the offense.” The problem is, at least in this situation, that it took two-and-a-half months for the paperwork to reach the DA’s office.

I wondered if this is a normal timeframe for processing the materials needed to determine appropriate charges. “It is not unusual that we receive reports after this length of time elapses,” Thiebaut says. “It takes time to put together the case.”

As for the injuries not being reported, Thiebaut states: “Apparently, the deputy sheriff did not know the extent of the injuries to the victim and issued a summons and complaint at the scene for a traffic violation.”

I asked Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor for his assessment of the incident, to which he said, “In reviewing the case, I have found that my deputies responded appropriately given the circumstances that they were faced with. This was a terrible tragedy and atypical when it comes to investigating and prosecuting an offender.”

According to the Sheriff’s report, the lack of reported serious injury is based on medical exams performed at Parkview Medical Center by a doctor and nursing staff. “When the parties from the accident were taken to the hospital,” says Taylor, “my deputy inquired with the hospital personnel whether or not the individuals had sustained injuries that would amount to ‘Serious Bodily Injury’ (SBI) as defined by statute. He was advised on the night of the accident that there was no SBI by both the doctor who examined them as well as several nurses.”

The Sheriff’s report details the nature of Dorough’s injuries, not discovered upon intake at Parkview the day of the accident, but identified the following day when Dorough returned to the hospital and was admitted for complications. His neck was fractured and required surgery that would fuse portions of his cervical spine together.

In the week following the surgery, Dorough’s condition worsened, ultimately requiring him to be intubated. He later had the tube removed but by then had “partial quadriplegia,” according to the report, “which meant William (Dorough) could move his extremities but did not have any strength.”

On October 27, medical staff recommended a second intubation, but Dorough’s family declined, citing quality of life issues. He died at 11:11 am later that morning.

Deputy Jonathan Post, the one reporting on the investigation for the Sheriff’s Department, questioned Dr. Rochelle Elijah, Dorough’s hospital physician, asking why the Sheriff’s Department was not told about Dorough’s injuries when he returned to the hospital the next day. Elijah said “she did not know,” according to the Sheriff’s report.

Asked also if Dorough’s death was directly linked to the accident, Elijah said it was. The report does not list any of the medical staff by name that examined those involved in the accident the day of the wreck.

Following Dorough’s death, Deputy Post and others from the Sheriff’s department returned to the scene of the accident, gathering further information about the scene, which then was forwarded on to the District Attorney. But since Kuykendall had paid her traffic ticket, the DA’s hands were tied.

So the DA’s office did what they could, given the information they were provided when they got it. The Sheriff ‘s Department issued the only reasonable ticket they could, given that attending doctors found no serious physical injury to any of the victims.

I asked Thiebaut if this kind of thing happens elsewhere, or if this was a freakish, isolated incident. “Yes, there is precedent,” he explains, “however, this does not come up as often as you might think. Most bodily injury, serious bodily injury or death cases follow the model procedure [where the person causing harm is charged with inflicting injury or death]. On rare occasions, however, this scenario does play out.”

In these cases, with double jeopardy shielding the would-be plaintiff from further criminal consequences, the only option for victims is to sue. According to Thiebaut, there is a civil case underway.

Incidentally, Betty Kuykendall has since been diagnosed with a neck fracture of her own from the accident and was scheduled to undergo surgery, according to the final report addendum included in the Sheriff’s file.

Parkview Medical Center and staff involved in the case may end up being the subject of civil action before all is said and done, but I was left wondering what kind of legal responsibilities the medical staff may have failed to meet. Could emergency room doctors and nurses face legal fallout for missing two serious injuries in two different people the day of the wreck, one of which was eventually related to a man’s death? And are they legally bound to report the injury to the Sheriff once it was discovered, considering an investigation was underway?

To be continued…