I preached this homily last night at All Souls Unitarian Church, in Tulsa, for our first ever Maundy Thursday Foot Washing Service.
I know many of you aren’t used to seeing me up here during a worship service. I’m usually back there, and moving quickly between services on a Sunday morning. But I have done this before, just not here. I was a ministry intern, at East Side Christian Church here in town, and before that, I preached a few times at College Hill United Methodist in Wichita, and at Northwest Christian Church in OKC. And besides working here at All Souls, I am a full-time student at Phillips Theological Seminary, where I am getting my Masters in Theological Studies, with my area of focus being the development of theology in the early Christian church.
So all that to say, you are in good hands tonight.
And in more ways than one, because I know many folks are nervous about the concept of a foot washing ceremony; so let me also say this: I’ve done this before. Several times, in fact. And usually with youth groups. So never fear.
But that discomfort is what I want to focus on tonight. In the time since Joseph and I committed to doing this service, and began planning and executing it, the main reaction we have gotten from folks is one of discomfort. The idea of either exposing your feet and having them touched by someone else, or of touching someone else’s feet, is something that strikes most of us as something intensely intimate and vulnerable. And it makes us ask ourselves: do I want to be that vulnerable? Do I want to be that intimate with these people? With anyone really, anyone besides maybe our partner, or our children.
I know the answer for me, personally, is often “no.” Vulnerability and intimacy are things I struggle with immensely. Emotional depth, sharing intimately with others, wasn’t something I was brought up with, and so is something I’m inherently, almost to a fault, uncomfortable with. It’s not the fault of my parents; I didn’t have a poor, cold upbringing. On the contrary, my child was happy and I never doubted the love of my parents. But white Midwestern Protestantism isn’t exactly known for its expressiveness, and good rural Midwestern folks like my family aren’t known for talking about their feelings. Especially the men. They don’t call us for the “Frozen Chosen” for no reason after all.
But in a day and age when a striking proportion of white, middle America Christians voted for a politics seemingly of borders and boundaries and separation in our most recent election cycle, in a culture where individuality is often taken to a logical extreme of disengagement with those around us, even those closest to us, maybe we need more vulnerable, intimate, and uncomfortable practices in our lives.
I drew a lot of inspiration from an essay in this wonderful book, called “Christianity, Democracy and the Radical Ordinary.” It is a series of essays, letters and lectures between two men: one being Stanley Hauerwas, considered by some to be the preeminent Protestant theologian alive today, and the other being Romand Coles, a political philosopher and humanist thinker and writer. In this book, they explore the tension between democracy and Christianity, and how they can come together in unexpected and disparate ways.
In the essay I draw from, Coles is discussing the writings and practices of Jean Vanier, the French founder of the L’Arche communities, which are non-hierarchical, dignity-preserving homes for special needs adults, in which there isn’t a sense of “us and them” between the caregivers and the cared for. Instead, all are equal and full participants in the creation of the community, each with unique and wonderful gifts to give. Vanier uses the practice of foot washing in the community as a way of leveling the playing field, so to speak, breaking down any hierarchies and power structures through the radical and vulnerable practice of washing another’s feet. The word Vanier uses to describe the sense one gets from the practice, and I really love this, is “overwhelming.” Not bad overwhelming or good overwhelming, but maybe a bit of both.
And the practice is drawn from the Christian tradition, with Maundy Thursday being the night not just of the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples, but also the night on which Jesus got down on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples during the meal. Needless to say, this was a bit outside of the cultural norms of the time. Coles quotes Rev. Paul D. Duke in the essay, who wrote of the disciples: (pg. 217)
“You can feel them squirming. Their embarrassment is palpable, as enacted by Peter. But the dread is not so much centered in how menial an act Jesus has undertaken for them, as in how painfully intimate it is…The indignity for the disciples resides in their teacher’s disarming initiative to touch them in this way, to bring himself so near and naked to their need, to apply himself to their private rankness, to cleanse for them what they would prefer almost anyone else to cleanse. No wonder Peter resists. He has signed up to follow Jesus, not to have unpleasantness at the foot of his life exposed and handled for him. He prefers the dignity of self-reliance, the fantasy of being heroic…Who can blame him? Who wants to be so powerless, so humbled?””
But Jesus did this that night with intention. It wasn’t just a gesture, a throwaway act of “servant leadership” that we all hear so often about. Instead, what Jesus understood, and showed so often, was that the love that binds a community together, an authentic and full-natured love for your fellow human beings, isn’t found at arm’s length. It isn’t enacted over small talk during coffee hour or in line at dinner. The foundation of authentic community, that intimate love of neighbor that invokes a sense of shared purpose and direction, is only enacted through moments of deeply personal connection amongst members of the community.
Vanier writes, “A community will always need times of intimacy, just as it will always need times of openness. If it has only one or the other it will die.”
And those moments of connection, of intimacy build something; they are cohesive, like a good glue, that enables that community to hold together in times of stress and strain and tension, in order to continue being a group of people, together, doing good in the world as a whole.
Which, as Vanier says, are just as important. It’s a balancing act: a healthy community requires moments of inwardness, in order to feed moments of outwardness. He writes, “A community that isolates itself will wither and die; a community in communion with others will receive and give life.”
We do outward really really well at All Souls. Our justice teams attest to that. And honestly (And this is the Worship Coordinator in me speaking) we do inward really really well too, with beautiful worship and great moments of fellowship and togetherness.
But do we do intimate? Do we do vulnerable? I’m asking that as an honest question, not as a rhetorical one hinting that we don’t. Many people, I know, do in spaces like soulful circles, or ReWire and Shadz.
But sometimes, we need to get down on our knees, and touch the rankness at another’s feet. We need to wash, and be washed, by those in community with us. And in doing so, we break down walls we may have put up. We enter, each time, into a relationship with that other person, that is built on more than handshakes and conversations about local sports teams. And each of those little moments, one by one, build a foundation that our church, our community, sits upon, and which is awfully hard to shake or crack.
So that’s what I want us to get out of this act tonight. We are going to have our feet washed by one another. And its going to be uncomfortably intimate and vulnerable for many of us. And it;s going to also be overwhelming. But let it. Allow those walls to come down for a moment, and be in that close moment with the person sitting across from you, washing or being washed. And know: this is what community feels like.
Trigger Warning: Sexual assault and abuse of children, pedophilia
Note from Justin: One of the many wonderful people I met and worked with in Turley last year was Tori Jameson. Tori moved to Turley from the East Coast, leaving everything behind, because she was excited by and believed in the work being done at A Third Place. Her passion for the people of Turley, for the community and the good work to do, were evident every time I was around her, and few people have been more affected by the recent news that Tori. Late last night, she reached out to me and asked if she could share her thoughts. They are as follows.
Tori Jameson is a graduate of Andover Newton Theological School. She served the Welcome Table from January to December 2016.
What brought me to Welcome Table was an extraordinary ministry of a decade of missional service in the poorest part of Tulsa – a ministry that served the poor and disenfranchised by literally living among and belonging to them. The ministry did food justice work because there was a food desert and people were starving, the ministry ran a community center because there was no free, safe place to hang out and belong, the ministry ran an arts program because people needed an outlet to express themselves and a literal way to counter the decay and devastation around them. Joining Ron at the Welcome Table was an extraordinary opportunity and an affirmation of my own call to contextualized community ministry. Following in the radical way of Jesus, who mostly could be found with the people in the margins and only occasionally in the religious institutions of his day (and when there, usually stirring up trouble), I sought to do the good work of the world in service of creating a community of being and belonging for all people. In Turley, I was welcomed with open arms by a folks who chose to love and claim me as one of them. For any of the kindness I showed, I received ten fold more. My community members, many desperately poor and lacking in access to resources and education, shared meals with me, helped me move in and donated furniture for my house, and invited me into their homes and lives. I cuddled babies, chased toddlers, had deep discussions with young adults, married people on my lawn at near midnight, sat with the elderly, helped ladies find bras in the right sizes from our donation racks, chased people through the farmer’s market, prayed softly and sang loud, pulled out weeds and carrots, buried some folks and so much more.The extraordinary people of Turley showed me what resilience looks like and a deep and fierce love of place and community beyond circumstance.
I left the Welcome Table and Tulsa after only 11 months (in early December 2016) because of financial insolvency. A few months into my service, as I was falling in love with my people and my place, I asked to see the books to work on documentation for a grant. After some resistance, it came to light that the records I needed did not exist and documentation had not been occurring for quite some time. This is also the time when a young family, impacted by the missional vision Ron cast, the deep need in Turley and the ready embrace of our community of them, was set to move into the area in service to the Welcome Table but quickly exited in large part due to the same financial (non)disclosure. I began at that point to reshape my vision and hatch a plan to serve elsewhere, which was a heartbreaking decision. Further, I was bivocational, working for the mental health emergency services team in the county and then in sales for a beverage company, in addition to my work as a pastor. I didn’t mind,for a time, but the intention had not been to do that forever but move into a financially viable ministry role in quick time. Now, not only was that not the reality, but there was a constant campaign to keep the lights from being cut off and no accounting of where the donations, when received, for the light bills were being spent if not on the lights.
I first met Ron when I was in a class at Harvard Divinity on church planting for Unitarian Universalists and he was a guest presenter. I was excited to meet him and hang out with him at general assembly and connect with him further through the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, of which he was completing his term as president. I was asked alongside a few others to interview and discuss different topics in missional ministry for a series he was running on Youtube, and when the opportunity to come to Turley presented itself, I jumped at the chance. Ron had a looming presence in our very particular tributary of religious tradition (a huge fish in the tiny pond that is Christian missional movements utilizing Unitarian Universalist praxis). Ron also had impact all over Tulsa, teaching at the progressive seminary and partnering with social work programs for contextualized studies, with the local food and permaculture movement, as well as preaching and teaching community and faith groups and serving as expert on a number of panels about the needs of North Tulsa. When Ron wasn’t at one or another meeting or at the church, he could be found babysitting his grandchildren.
When I heard Thursday’s news and saw the pictures of his arrest, I could not believe it. Only a month ago, Welcome Table caught fire and I was awoken in the middle of the night by my phone ringing with a frantic call from a community member saying that Ron and his wife couldn’t be reached and that the church was on fire. I wrangled the right community people to get to the church and then contacted the Robinsons until they responded and headed down there. The loss of the majority of the functioning parts of the church building was a blow and though services had resumed (in truth, never really stopped but just relocated), the community was very much still reeling when the news of his betrayal broke. I didn’t really believe it, couldn’t believe it, thought that there was a terrible mistake despite news stories stating that he was confessing, until I read the indictment. The indictment was the single worst thing I have ever read or seen, and that is really saying something. My body stopped shaking just this morning long enough that I could drive, and my sadness has been supplanted by anger.
In theory, as a minister, Ron (and I, and every other clergy and person in a helping profession to some degree) answered a call from the divine into a life of service, giving up anonymity and a lot of personal autonomy to meet the needs of people and to reflect the divine to and in them, to nurture their best selves and love them through the worst moments, and to be present in the mundane and the extraordinary. At least, this is what I thought he was doing, but now I am less than sure. I can tell you that this is what I pledge to the people I serve, with the caveat that I am far from perfect just as they are far from perfect. I can be overbearing and mean, and when my anxiety gets the best of me, I weep and feel despondent and stuck. I am messy, though I try hard not to be, and I have a particular fondness for the f-word and ranting at times when a rant is not called for. In other words, I am human and an ordinary screw-up sometimes. The transgressions for which Ron was arrested for Thursday were an entirely different category than these sort of ordinary human foibles, and one that, I think, negates the above narrative.
The alternate view from this, the scarier view, is that Ron is and was a pedophile for a long time, long enough that the do-gooder life and ministry he created was a costume to hide what he was really about. I don’t propose this lightly- I loved this ministry and believed in this man and his vision so much that i moved across the country to join it- but the indicators seem clear in the indictment that he was deeply entrenched in this kind of pornography such that he was on a live-video-sharing website that required knowledge on how to access, that he commented in vile ways on multiple videos and he was brazen enough to show his face. According to that indictment, the entire time that my involvement at the Welcome Table was being discussed and worked out and the entire year of my service, Ron was under Federal investigation by homeland security and the sheriff’s office. The comments that he said about children (!) in the indictment were about not only sexual assault (heinous in and of itself) but subsequent physical attack and death of those children (an unspeakable horror). Clergy, and especially clergy serving in a community setting like the Welcome Table, are trusted. I was handed people’s babies all the time at the free food store to hold while they shopped, and trusted to entertain the little ones during meetings or at the garden park – and so was Ron. Such trust is a gift but also part of the job and call. It is the biggest violation imaginable for him to hold someone’s child and simultaneously to be struggling with violent and pedophiliac fantasy. Such a contradiction in a person does not fit in my theology- such a contradiction is not possible in a truly called minister, but only in a monster.
I am forced therefore to conclude that none of us knew Ron at all, and that we fell prey to his costume.Some of my community members and folks who worked alongside Ron have been quick to name that he struggled with a sin, but that he was good at the core. I am so repulsed by his repugnant act, and so betrayed by his charade, so violated by the trust given to him that he exploited, that I cannot name him as good. The impulse to call him such comes from a sense that if he is a monster, all the work done through the ministry was in vain – but this simply isn’t true. Though it was often represented as Ron’s ministry (by Ron, perhaps or by outsiders not understanding the loose connectional structure of the organization), Ron was largely not present in the year I served. The food pantry was stocked and staffed by a dedicated team that did not include Ron except for an occasional check-in, the art studio had none of his participation, he served as a figurehead in the garden park but had an allergy to manual labor and so did not work out there, I coordinated the farmers market runs alongside teams from all souls and the market and I ran our sexuality education efforts and condom distribution, a few community members ran a game night and free dinner every few weeks. Volunteers would sweep and mop and do much of the repairs, and an intern this summer ran a beautification project. Ron had access to people, a lot of access to students and volunteer teams and people on retreat and volunteers, but the continuous and diligent work was not his. His big efforts this year at the center was a push to continue dinner church, which was sporadic and poorly attended at best. The work in the past year wasn’t Ron’s, but from the community. Though my argument is that Ron ought not be honored, the work done by others in the place he happened to found still has meaning and value. That does not mean, however, that the ministry he created ought to continue. I am of the strong opinion that it should not. Welcome Table should immediately close and be left to rot with Ron in prison and the energies of the volunteers and community should be redirected to getting a new shepherding group to care for the garden park and a new organization (an extension of one of the large food justice orgs already in Tulsa, perhaps?) to immediately start a new pantry in a new location. I am even of the mind that the rest of the building ought to be razed and leveled so that Turley does not have to see and be constantly reminded of the monster that fed on their best works and greatest needs.
I am a former fundamentalist Christian, and so in my religious vocabulary and imagination is a devil who prowls the earth seeking people to devour (a rather literal reading of 1 Peter 5:8). I was taught that devil was many things – “evolutionists”, spies from the USSR, someone with a tattoo that might be a barcode, a seductive lady who dared to wear a skirt above the knee or a skirt that showed any part of the collarbone or a hint of cleavage. I gave up a literal devil as part of my leaving fundamentalism, and as a Unitarian Universalist, I pretty well gave up the idea that individuals are themselves inherently evil -I’ve written oh so many sermons and papers about that evil lives in our systems and so to eradicate evils we need to address the systems that create the evil. A reconsideration of this systemic view of evil might be in order, given that I served in ministry with a person on the prowl who has confessed to the most disgusting, heinous fantasies and speech and viewing choices one can possibly have accessed.
Ron talked so much about following in the radical way of Jesus, but he seems to have forgotten much of the speech of Jesus surrounding the responsibilities of teachers and preachers.. Matthew chapter 23, in concert with other similar statements throughout the hebrew bible and new testaments, speaks of the especial responsibilities of those given to a religious life to be doubly mindful not to fall after greed and lusts and to teach and facilitate justice and mercy. In particular, verse 27 and 28 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” To be honest, hypocrisy and wickedness are too mild a description for what Ron did.
It has been only about 54 hours since I found out about his arrest and I am far too close in to this to have worked out a fully formed adjusted theology of evil. I have spent a large portion of these hours with crying and angry people, our people, my community, who are betrayed and scared and need someone to listen to them. Ive spent most of the remaining portion ranting and crying to others myself, because I am also feeling betrayed and angry and worried about what else might arise and how Ron knowingly has hurt the people I love and children none of us will ever meet. I, along with the community in Turley and those affected beyond Turley are going to have to relearn to put one foot in front of the other and walk into the good work after evil, deception and betrayal, but it might take us all some time to get there.
Trigger Warning: sexual abuse, pedophilia, pornography addiction. Practice self care.
I remember the first time I met Rev. Ron Robinson. It was almost exactly a year ago, Earth Day weekend, at a Sustainability Fair at Tulsa
Community College’s Northeast Campus. I was there with my then-wife, Arianna, helping her work a table for the non-profit she works for, Tulsa Hub.
The table next to us sat empty most of the morning, and we didn’t think much of it. But finally, a small, bumbling little white haired man with a bushy beard, looking very much unkempt and scatterbrained (in a good way) came in and set up a large poster board and various flyers. And also a very large box of delicious looking fresh apples, of which Ari and I partook quite eagerly. The man introduced himself and the organization he was representing: A Third Place Community Foundation. A light bulb went on for me; I had heard of Ron and Third Place throughout the Tulsa non-profit and justice community quite a few times. We were very excited to finally meet him and hear more about the work being done in Turley. He gave us a flyer of upcoming events, and we promised to drive up and visit soon.
My interest was piqued because of Ron’s association with New Monasticism and missional community, something I have long had a very deep interest in. Ari and I had long wanted to be part of such a community, visiting several examples in OKC and the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The fact that one existed in Tulsa, and that we had the opportunity to get involved, was very, very exciting.
I don’t remember my first visit up to Turley, but it couldn’t have been long after that meeting. Turley is a far northern suburb of Tulsa, and it truly is a forgotten place of empire. Full of blighted buildings and empty lots, Turley exists in a socio-political liminal space. Tulsa has a combined city and county government structure. Turley exists outside the bounds of Tulsa city limits, but still within Tulsa County, and combined with it’s low income, mostly minority population, it gets very little attention from city hall. Services are almost nonexistent. Much of the town is without consistent running water. On top of this, “North Tulsa”, that area north of Highway 412 and of which Turley is a part of, has a distinctly bad reputation in Tulsa. This is supposedly because of high crime and drug problems, but in reality, is more related to the fact that most of the people who live north of 412 have black and brown skin. The same fears, prejudice, and racism that lead to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, the deadliest race-related terrorist activity in American history, still drives the attitudes of those in mid- and south Tulsa towards North Tulsa.
In reality, North Tulsa is a beautiful and diverse place. It certainly has it’s issues, as any place does, but many of these can be traced to structural problems caused by a lack of attention from the powers-that-be. Turley, in particular, despite its blight and poverty, is a beautiful place. Located on and around Turley Hill, it is only 10 minutes from downtown Tulsa, and yet feels rural and alive and like a community.
Ron and A Third Place played a big role in this. A Third Place was founded as an organization in Turley, and of Turley, made up of people from Turley, working to make Turley a beloved community. It embraces the ideal at the center of missionalism, that the job of revitalizing the lost places of empire is with the people in those places. Colonialism – good intentioned white folks from the suburbs coming in on the weekends to build schools and clear brush – doesn’t work to build authentic, organic community. Only the people who live in a place – who know it, and feel it, and experience all it’s aspects and nuances and quirks – can do that. Only the people there know what is needed, and only if they lead and irect the work being done will it be sustainable. Those of us from those suburbs, who want to be involved, must commit to moving to these lost places, and not playing the role of white savior, but instead must listen to the community leaders, follow their lead, and offer our expertise and skills where needed and when asked for.
This flows from a very distinct Christology, focusing on the example of Jesus as someone from a lost place. Jesus didn’t commute to rural, poor Galilee. Jesus lived there, was born and raised. Jesus had an impact because he knew what his people longed for. And he called his disciples to a form of missionalism; he called them to live and work among their people, build them up, make them their own leaders. In this process would they be building the Kingdom of God that Jesus envisioned and spoke so often about.
This work – the work of Kingdom building, of reclaiming a lost place, of empowering human beings to make the change they need – is what attracted me to Turley and Third Place. And at the center of it all was Ron, a pillar of the Turley community he was born and raised in. Third Place was housed in the old Methodist church, built nearly one hundred years ago, abandoned more than once, old, creaky, decrepit, but reclaimed. One of my favorite things was to listen to Ron talk about that old building, how he remembered growing up there, his grandfather’s funeral, his parent’s wedding photos, the choirs and preachers, the predominantly black Baptist church that filled the space for a while, the dreams Ron had for that building when he bought it and started working on it, and made it a semi-usuable space again.
Oh, it was far from finished. The basement, where most of the classrooms were, was still pretty bad, damaged from years of flooding. The bathroom was….interesting. The adjacent south building, a large open space reminiscent of a fellowship hall, was the on-going project, and was only finally made useful late last summer. But the main space – the old sanctuary – was a wonderful and beautiful place to be, with beautiful old stained glass, original to the building, and a large mural on one wall, hand painted by local kids.
Ari and I got quite involved with A Third Place and Ron. We started spending Sunday evenings there, worshiping with Ron and his wife and the few other people who came around, in the form of a shared meal and communion and a capella hymns. We dreamed of starting a real “Dinner Church” model there. We got to know Ron’s co-pastor quite well, and were so excited for the weeks in which a Social Justice Intern, a college student from Minnesota, was there. We rejoiced when the south building was opened. We spent long hours in the garden park, a community garden manned and worked by the locals. It was a full square block of town, up on the hill, formerly the site of abandoned, blighted houses. Ron had raised the money to buy them, then had them all torn down and started the garden. He had just overseen the construction of a beautiful green house, funded by a grant, and had won another grant to begin building a hoop garden. At the back of the lot was beautiful children’s garden, maintained by local youth. On July 4th, we spent the evening with local resident in the garden park, watching fireworks from all over Tulsa from our vantage point up on the hill, and eating grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. Our two children, ages 3 and 1, were loved and welcomed by the community, and had a variety of play mates. It was the authentic, intentional community we had been looking for. It was amazing, and messy, and real, and beautiful.
Ari and I dreamed of moving to Turley and becoming part of the community. We talked with Ron, and he helped us look at a couple of different homes. One in particular, the parsonage of the local Methodist church being rented out, right across the street from the garden park, was especially promising. But the timing fell through, and our lease at our current apartment was up before the house was ready. We settled for a bungalow northwest of downtown, and hoped to stay involved.
But life had other plans. I was in school full time at this point. I was also working two jobs, and Ari was also working and going to school. The kids were growing quickly. And in the midst of it all, Ari and I separated. We disconnected from Turley. I felt guilty about it, knowing Ron had hoped Ari and I could take on more involvement with A Third Place. But I just couldn’t do it all, and so I stopped up to Turley. Part of this was also driven by some concerns about the long-term sustainability of the project. I didn’t want to locate to a place with that kind of uncertainty.
The new year of 2017 brought new intentions of being involved. On my own, I wanted to dedicate a small portion of my free time to going to Turley and getting involved again. Then the fire happened. About a month ago, over night, a electrical fire was sparked. The old church building burned, almost a complete loss. All of the books and furniture, the reclaimed space, the food pantry full of food – all of it gone. It was devastating.
And yet the community rallied. Thousands of dollars were raised, volunteers were at the ready, and Ron carried on with the food pantry and everything else, despite the destruction. The south building escaped most of the damage, and plans were made to move most operations there. The fire also made me resolve to stick to my commitment to get involved again. Help was needed now more than ever, and I was determined to be a part of it.
So yesterday afternoon, my heart dropped when an email arrived in my inbox from a colleague. The title was nondescript, but from the preview on the lock screen of my phone, I could just read part of the first sentence: “I just received new that Rev. Ron Robinson…..” I dropped what I was doing and opened my phone, fearing the news that Ron had passed. In many ways, the news was worse.
Yesterday morning, Ron was arrested at his home in Turley as part of a child pornography sting. The charges were possession with intent to view, and stories of his involvement in an online chat room circulate. According to news reports and the indictment, Ron confessed it all, and much much more. As far as we know, no physical abuse happened. But some really terrible stuff was detailed, in terms of internet viewing and fantasizing. The details are too much to think about, much less write about or even link to.
Needless to say, the progressive Christian community in Tulsa, a tight knit group of wonderful people, is devastated. We are reeling, shell shocked, in total disbelief and grief over the news that this man that we all loved and respected, that we all worked so closely with, could be capable of such evil. I couldn’t believe that this man who I had spent so many hours with, and more importantly, who had spent so many hours around my children, could be at the same time fantasizing about terrible, horrible things. It’s too much to bear. It’s the kind of thing that shakes your trust in people, especially when it concerns your children.
This is a time of grieving. So many vulnerable people put their trust in Ron. So many colleagues looked up to him, and admired the work he was doing. We thought we knew him: unkempt, kind, a little crazy, but in a good way, a man committed to building a better community in his hometown.
But apparently we didn’t know him at all. Or maybe, we didn’t fully know him. Because his terrible acts and thoughts, the hidden side of him, exists fully alongside the good he did in the world. It’s almost incomprehensible to me, and to those who knew him and were involved in Turley, to imagine these two personas existing inside one person.
Part of healing from something like this is finding some measure of understanding. Not understanding in a sense of forgiving or excusing; personally, I feel so betrayed, by a man I trusted, who I brought my kids around, and I don’t know that forgiveness is something I’ll get to. Maybe. Who knows.
But what I said earlier, about having my trust in people shaken, that’s not a good thing. Because I ardently believe that all human beings are made in the image of God, are carriers of the Imago Dei, and thus are imbued with an inherent goodness and worth and dignity, which can never be taken away, no matter what terrible things happen. And all those people out there, who have done nothing wrong, they don’t deserve to lose my trust because of the actions of one sick man. So finding a measure of understanding is important, because it helps us know that things happen like this for specific reasons. They aren’t random. People aren’t just evil.
Pedophilia is a disease. Pornography and sex addiction are diseases. They are diseases in the sense that they aren’t inherent to human beings. Babies aren’t born pedophiles. Something happens, that infects the brain, messes with it’s wiring, and people do terrible things. They suffer from addictions focused on dehumanizing and sexualizing other human beings.
The hard part is that these things are also choices. People with these diseases still have to make the choice, each and every time, to act. And when they do, they put others and themselves at risk. In an age where access to violent and illegal sexual content is easy and impersonal, via the internet, the choices are even easier to make and harder to resist.
Affliction is a good word to use here. Affliction of the soul of these people who act out in these ways. Affliction of those who are victims of the actions. Affliction of those who know both the perpetrators and the victims. It’s a culture of affliction. I don’t know what to do about it. I’ve seen some folks say it’s about early childhood, what the people who grow up into these kinds of actions experience in their earliest years. Maybe. I don’t know how we stop it, how we stop people from getting hurt. Affliction is like that.
But I know it’s not about monsters. I hate seeing that word bandied about. Not because I want sympathy for those being labeled as such, but because it is another act of dehumanization. It comes from an understandable place, one I sympathize with and want to indulge. But more dehumanization is not what we need. It’s not how we overcome this affliction. We don’t overcome it by labeling these perpetrators after the fact as less than human. We need to understand that they are in fact fully human. They are people like you and me. That’s what scary. That’s also one of the keys to addressing this affliction. We have to know that these people are around every corner. They don’t wear black hats or twist their mustaches or live in the back of vans. They are soccer moms and grandparents and roommates, and sometimes, they are bumbling old men who are seemingly trying to make the world a better place.
Compassion and justice aren’t mutually exclusive, or zero sum. We can all stand in the gray area, the nuance, we can see the humanity of Ron, we can grieve with the victims, we can try to understand why this happened. That’s really the only choice we have, if we want to beat this stuff.
We’re doing what we can here in Tulsa to cope. Our community is coming together, grieving together, providing shoulders to cry on and hot soup and hugs and love and shared disbelief. People are grieving, and that grief takes many different forms. Creating a space to grieve is terribly important, and that is something we are working to do in multiple ways.
We are also recognizing that good work is happening in Turley, as a result of A Third Place, and that work is needed now more than ever. We have to make sure that this lost place continues to be reclaimed, that the work of Kingdom building can’t be derailed by the sickness and crime of one man, no matter how central to it he was.
You can help us. A Third Place is in the running for a grant from Seeds of Change for the garden park. It needs your votes to move forward. You can vote for Turley. It’s not just a vote for orchards and hoop gardens and vegetable plots. It’s a vote for the children of Turley, who are the real victims here. It’s a vote to remind them that people love them and care about them and want them to succeed. It’s a vote to remind them that people are good, that they are good and worthy and deserve only the best.
You can come out to Turley and help us. We would love to see you.
You can support the victims of pornography and pedophilia.
You can remind your legislators that funding for mental health services, for schools, for communities, for early childhood education, for health care, all contributes to making sure these things don’t happen, and to making sure we aren’t making more lost places, and lost people.
You can hug your kids tonight. And your partner And your friends and neighbors tomorrow. You can help spread a little love and compassion into the world. That’s what we really need right now.