A Front Porch Take on Church and Culture

bridgeAs the Director of the Front Porch, who also happens to be an Episcopal priest, I’m often asked about the role of The Front Porch in relation to the Church. In fact, the Rt. Rev. Andrew Doyle, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, recently asked me that question! So, here are some of my recent thoughts in response to such questions:

While many of us in the church feel we have much to offer our secular world, including original and enriching ways of naming and dealing with the human condition, many people in Austin nonetheless find themselves in a post-religious, secular world that offers genuine significance, community and fulfillment apart from the church. For many, the role and purpose of faith and religion has gotten confused and become divisive more often than not.

In this new cultural situation, those of us in the church need to carry on with proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, but we need to do so in ways that foster conversation with others outside the church in singularly non-ideological ways through art, music, and a host of other means. Such engagement only deepens the meaning of our own traditions and draw out its resources, but it also builds mutual friendships with different people from other traditions. We have much to learn from each other!

Engaging in honest, open discourse that leads to mutual understanding in the public sphere is increasingly difficult. Our pluralistic, fast-paced, and ever-changing world demands that we be able to categorize each other instantly. Are you liberal or conservative? Are you religious, spiritual, or secular? Are you pro-this or pro-that? In such a climate, opposing sides risk losing their capacity to entertain the perspectives of different others to see how the other usually offers something important and worthwhile to consider. Our increasingly compartmentalized culture makes it difficult to form trusting relationships with other people who believe or live differently. What can we do? We can cultivate a culture of dialogue that promotes ways of interacting that lead to deeper understanding and even collaboration.

The Front Porch came into being, in part, as a response to this new situation. A front porch is the interface between the private world and the community, where friends and strangers alike make time over a cup of coffee or glass of beer to visit and get to know each other. According to Claude Stephens, founder of the Professional Porch Sitters Union, front porches dropped in popularity in the mid-1900s when radio, TV, and automobiles wooed people away. But they’re making a comeback! —63 percent of single-family homes built in the U.S. in 2013 had porches, up from 42 percent in 1993. The front porch is “a way of thinking about the world,” Stephens says. “We use it as a verb: ‘Would you like to come over and do a little porching?’”

As our metaphor, The Front Porch promotes a dialogical way of thinking about the church’s mission that invites people to sit and talk on “the porches” that exist outside the church in the secularized public square. We do this in a number of ways. By skillfully curating programs in festive space in which dialogue, art, and hospitable community happens, the Front Porch offers a practical solution for a widespread malaise wrought by too much isolation and fear and suspicion of the other. We’ve built bridges with those in the creative culture of Austin—those passionately involved in making art, music, gardens, governmental policies, etc. We’ve gathered in multiple venues—restaurants, pubs, churches, non-profit spaces, avant-garde theatres, and front lawns. Since becoming an official mission of the Episcopal Church in 2009, we have been developing this particular practice of hospitality through events we’ve hosted with hundreds of friends and partners ever since.

As a lifelong Episcopalian, I love the Episcopal Church for its well-known via media. This is the theological framework for interpreting God’s presence in the world that provides a deep grounding in the biblical tradition, while also welcoming a wide range of perspectives and practices. The idea and practice of the Front Porch fits perfectly with this approach. In fact, this ministry emerged out of my life and ministry as a priest within the Church, a vocation that has enabled me to engage and connect with all kinds of people in all walks of life. The Latin root of priest as pontifex—one who makes or builds bridges—is meaningful to me as a calling to be open and welcoming to all others.

I now want to go a little deeper and say a few more things about some of the inspiration behind our approach. First of all, our strategy for transformation should be seen as a model for building community and facilitating dialogue in ways that address what we see as the urgent human need for both transcendence and communion. As the late artist and politician Vaclav Havel once put it, “Without an experience of transcendence in the broadest sense of the word, we tend to slide into a frenzied consumerism, a profound crisis of authority, and a demoralizing and destructive spirit.” Without transcendence, there can be no communion.

In the language of our tradition, Christ connects with people across their cultural and religious boundaries through dialogical interaction, not ideological agreement. The idea and practice of dialogue is key; in fact, we believe that the Word, or Logos, became flesh and dwelt among us. We also believe that in and through dialogue (cf., dialogos), the Word continues to be enfleshed between us.

The apostle Paul built bridges between Jewish Christians and non-Jewish residents of the Greco-Roman culture to connect people to Christ in a way that transcended their religious boundaries. Many of those who lived outside the Jewish religious framework were called “god-wonderers” because, like Jews, they sensed a transcendent dimension of life that called for reverence and ethical living. However, they never sought to become religiously Jewish through circumcision—and Paul and those early followers of the way of Christ never insisted they do so.

As a result, many god-wonderers found they were welcomed into a diverse communion of spiritually alive people that included Jews and Greeks, men and women, free citizens and slaves, rich and poor. The gospel of Christ became a bridge that brought a divided humanity together not by assimilating others to a dominant ideology but by setting unique and different individuals free to be who they were through the revelation of love as expressed in the life and death of Christ and brought into being by the Spirit.

The Front Porch provides innovative means for connecting to and partnering with Christ and, through the Spirit of Christ, the many different, caring, and creative god-wonderers of our time who don’t necessarily seek to become Christian. The way of Jesus himself—and how he emptied himself to create space for others—revealed an enjoyment of the other that brought people together in non-defensive ways. This is our model, and we’ve found that when we approach others in this way, the risen Christ continues to emerge through unexpected people in unexpected places and ways.

The dialogical approach to building community involves listening to the voices of different others–differences that enrich rather than divide. We practice an attitude to generating communion that is constituted not by sameness but by otherness and difference. Just as the apostle Paul welcomed different others (i.e., Gentiles) into the community of persons in Christ without insisting they be circumcised into traditional Jewish religion, nor does The Front Porch insist non-Christians become Christian or join the church.

This is difficult, challenging work that is easily misunderstood as too religious on one hand or too liberal on the other. Those outside the church, at least those who have become allergic to God-talk of any kind, are tempted to imagine that the Front Porch is a “bait and switch” operation that uses winsome, hip ways to lure and assimilate.

Yet some within the church, especially folks with a more ideological, less dialogical bent suspect that the Front Porch has compromised or soft-pedaled the gospel truth in order to promote “anything goes” relativism. In fact, the Front Porch eschews the binary oppositions that sort others into easy categories and, instead, participates in the often-messy interactions and relationships that accept others on their own terms and lets others be who they uniquely are.

This is tricky. A focus on communion without otherness devolves into a collective of the likeminded. Yet otherness without communion yields fragmented individualism. We believe, however, that at the heart of our mission is nothing less than the deeply Christian idea of the Trinity. As the distinguished theologian John Zizioulas argues, “There is no model for the proper relation between communion and otherness either for the Church or for the human being other than the Trinitarian God.” This is not the place to develop in detail how Trinitarian theology informs our practice, but we do think that theological thinking about the Trinity over the past few decades offers the church some very exciting ways to build bridges to the post-Christian culture. In a nutshell, by mirroring the communion and otherness that exists in the triune God, we have a fresh way of seeing how otherness is constitutive of unity, how otherness is absolute, how otherness is ontological, and how, therefore, communion does not threaten otherness—it generates and affirms it!

While the Front Porch has made great strides over the past few years, it remains a vulnerable little mustard seed that needs lots of encouragement and support to become a sustainable missional community that can make the world a more loving, compassionate place. In the meantime, we will continue to use the discipline of the Episcopal tradition to engage people of a variety of religious and secular beliefs in conversations that foster intelligent caring and outreach to neighbors in need!

Meet Riley Webb on the Front Porch

Hi, folks!

Some of you may know me, and I’m sure many of you do not, but my name is Riley Webb, and I’ve been working on The Front Porch since July 2014.

Growing up the son of educators in unique Fredericksburg, Texas, I was formed in a close-knit community that placed unique emphases on art and storytelling, and found early in life passions for acting, reading, writing, and playing music. I followed these same passions for storytelling, art and the human connection to Southwestern University, where I enrolled as an English major in 2009.

Out of the Fredericksbur395584_2927287867998_289977874_ng bubble, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Foucault, and hundreds of others opened up a world of ideas. Chipping away at my somewhat provincial perspective, I began to explore the nature of chance human interaction and how agency depends on the dialogues we engage with those around us. This idea—that community is shaped through conversation— opened up my outlook at Southwestern, and gave me the freedom to enter more confidently the world of difference. My undergraduate thesis explored how improvisation in jazz music builds dialogically-based community amongst musicians and audiences, and these ideas about the significance of simple interactions between people continued to occupy my mind as I prepared for life after college.

By the time I graduated, life had become more mysterious. Hungry for things spiritual and intellectual, I moved to Austin with no real plan. I followed my gut and sniffed out a job as a Segway tour guide. This gig of gliding through Austin with strangers-in-tow provides me with endless chances to explore my love of human interaction. But soon, just a year into my life as a Segway man, I was pleasantly interrupted with an opportunity to work on The Front Porch, and I’ve been here ever since.

It’s both fun and stimulating to hang out on The Front Porch and engage so many creative, interesting people on a daily basis. This world that welcomes otherness and celebrates difference inherently allows for constructive community through those same defining features. I am so grateful for the opportunity given me by Steve, our amazing Board of Directors, and all of you who play a role in this inspiring nonprofit. And the message of God’s mysterious role in our ability to impact one anothers’ perceptions through dialogue intrigues me. That’s what keeps me coming back every day for more!

I look forward to getting to know so many new faces as we all sit together on The Front Porch and learn from new perspectives. Don’t be shy if you see me around– introduce yourself! I hope to see you all soon!

A New Look for Unplugged

Just over a week ago, Front Porchers had the chance to once again host Sam Baker in our Unplugged on The Front Porch listening room.

sam bakerIf you want to relive the action, or you missed the amazing conversation between Steve and Sam that night, check out this marvelous write-up from Elizabeth Williams. One of many behind-the-scenes maestros who help make Unplugged a reality each and every month, Liz has conjured up a brand new aesthetic for our special concert series via this brand new website. We’re so thankful to have her on our team! Also, if you haven’t liked Unplugged’s separate facebook page yet, please do so right now! It’s the best way to receive updates about upcoming events in our special listening room.  And don’t miss Eliza Gilkyson on April 30th, our only Unplugged this season that WON’T take place on a third Thursday!

We’re so thankful for all of you, Front Porchers. See you soon!

Amplify Austin This Weekend, March 5th-6th!!!

Ahoy, Front Porchers!

If you’ve been around The Front Porch at all these past few weeks, chances are you’ve witnessed some pretty spectacular stuff. In January, we met Michael Morton, who showed us his take on humanity and forgiveness. Christine Albert and Pittman McGehee have joined us for Parable, and Sam Baker will be on our Unplugged stage on March 19th, the next in a long line of Austin’s best musicians and storytellers. As we continue to host incredible conversations in the heart of Austin, we feel so privileged and honored by the support given us by our friends and fellow dialogue-seekers in order to follow our mission. None of this would be possible without the support of all of you.

amplifylogoAt the end of this week, Amplify Austin will challenge the people of Austin to pour $7,000,000 into local nonprofits, all in just one 24-hour period. Over 500 nonprofits are expected to participate, and we will be just one in a multitude of incredible stories found on Amplify’s webpage. The giving will start at 6:00 PM on Thursday, March 5th, and continue until 6:00 PM on Friday, March 6th. Last year, Amplify Austin was able to raise over $8.5 million dollars for Austin-area nonprofits. If you can, please support The Front Porch at our Amplify page and help contribute on this day of astounding generosity in our Austin community.

In order to celebrate and raise awareness for Amplify Austin, The Front Porch will be hosting an Ampify Watch Party. Teaming up with and featuring another local nonprofit, Truth Be Told, who help out incarcerated women, The Front Porch will host a gathering with conversation, food, drink, and local press, in order to get folks excited about giving this Amplify weekend. The event will take place in Kinsolving Parish Hall at All Saints’ from 5:30 – 8:30 PM on Thursday, March 5th. Please join us, enjoy the free meal, and help join in the celebration.

Again, we are so thankful for the enduring support of all of our Front Porch friends and family. What a gift it is for us to spend our days planning conversations, concerts, pub-churches, lectures, film screenings, and more. We hope we’ll see you on The Front Porch soon!

Is God the Good We Do? (A reflection on last month’s PARABLE)


benedikt book imageWriting, especially poetry and theology, resides deep in my soul. It makes me ache—words make me ache. The finitude and infinitude of language, and the power of that paradox make me ache. Speaking for myself, then, I felt discomfited as our guest seemed to dismiss those things that are much of my lifeblood—poësis and metaphor. And apparently, I was not the only one wondering about God and suffering in Benedikt’s solution to “traditional theology’s problematic issues of theodicy and omniscience.”

To backtrack, our guest for Parable in January was Michael Benedikt, a professor of architecture at the University of Texas. Benedikt wrote a provocative book called God is the Good We Do: Theology of Theopraxy. Theopraxy is Michael Benedikt’s word, meaning God is practiced or performed—God is summoned into being by the practice. He described God as a certain pattern of action—action performed by humans. Benedikt, too, professes fascination with poetry and metaphor, understanding metaphor as poësis (a Greek word meaning production, composition) rather than science. For Benedikt, what ultimately matters is how one carries oneself in the world, not the metaphor. God is good, and only good, and we bring God into being only when we perform good acts.

My discomfort was ameliorated by John Burnett’s comment about how freeing it is to think about God in new ways, but yet not fully agreeing with Benedikt—that his argument limits God, a thought running itself over and over in my head as our guest spoke—gets to the very heart of the evening’s conversation. Benedikt’s parents experienced the Holocaust—surviving barely imaginable suffering. But where is God within that suffering? Is God in suffering? And can our words truly limit God? Is it we who bring God into being when we perform good? Are we imago dei or is God imago hominus?

It’s now a month later, and I hope that it is apparent in my writing that I am still turning this over in my mind, still aching, considering words and action. Humans are creatures of action, of participation, and part of that participation comes in the form of language, of words. And so I invite you to Parable, to be pleasantly and discomfortably stretched in a safe space.

Listen to Pittman McGehee’s Parable Talk Here!

1461219_10152865270355132_5836762344645423943_nIf you were worried that you wouldn’t get a second chance to listen to Pittman McGehee’s incredible words of wisdom from our Parable event on February 8th, fear no more! Here’s the whole thing for you to listen to! Don’t forget that there are still at least two more chances to hear Pittman talk on The Front Porch. Join us the second and fourth Sundays in March at 5:30 PM at Scholz Garten for more of Pittman McGehee’s unique and amazing insight!

                                           Check this out on Chirbit

Thinking Through February

Well, folks, we’re officially 1/12 through 2015. Yesterday, that dastardly groundhog predicted six more weeks of winter, and Mother Nature delivered with harsher temperatures.  Surely, many of you have managed to break your New Year’s resolutions by now, but I would like to think that a few of you have remained strong, holding with fervor on to your newest devotions and routines. But, whether you’re right on track with your new diet or stuffing your face full of pizza and schnitzel, there’s no reason not to celebrate with The Front Porch this month– we’ve just got too many good folks coming around to miss any of it.

If you’ve made it to one of our more recent Parable events, you may have noticed a growing impatience for deeper conversation amongst our growing congregation. In response to this tension, we’ve invented a new position at The Front Porch– thinker-in-residence– and we’ve filled this position with one of our most beloved Parable guests from last year, Pittman McGehee. Priest, poet, Jungian analyst, and more, Pittman’s unique skill set should be innately ideal for him and for our Parable constituents as he guides us toward understanding our multidimensional, psycho-spiritual reality. Pittman will now be leading a second Parable gathering each and every month in efforts to take us on these next steps. Get excited, because it’s going to be a new, deeper, more dialogical approach to Parable that we’ve never tried before. Get in on this experiment on February 8th at Scholz Garten in the usual spot. There will be no music and no communion– this gathering is all about the conversation.

Of course, we wouldn’t cut you off from your regular Parable rush. We’re doubling down each month. While Pittman teaches his class on one Sunday a month, we will occupy another with our usual team of Steve Kinney, John Burnett, and Dave Madden’s band of friends. Our guest this month, Christine Albert, has more awards than we dare to list here. Visit the event to find out more about this amazing humanitarian/musician/producer/Grammy Award’s chairman, and why you won’t want to miss hearing about her nonprofit, Swan Songs, in her interview with John. Christine will join us on February 22nd for our usual Parable hullabaloo.

Walt Wilkins will be our artist for Unplugged on The Front Porch this February. If you’ve never heard Walt before, check out this video. You’ll understand what makes Walt Wilkins a staple contributor in the Austin music scene, and why you should be excited that he’ll be joining us at Unplugged on The Front Porch the third Thursday evening of the month, at 7PM in the sanctuary at All Saints’ Episcopal Church.

Side note about Unplugged and why it works: For me, Unplugged is special for two reasons. The first is that it offers true music appreciators the opportunity to respect the universal language of rhythm and intonation with the same sacred and mystical veneration we might offer the divine. The ambiance in the church inherently helps people understand spatially the power of what music does for us as human beings, together, sharing that moment in that expansive and ancient room. My second reason for loving Unplugged on The Front Porch lies in its ability to tap into an artists’ true motivations and perspectives on the world around them. Whether through the interview or the intimacy of the venue, it always seems like Unplugged turns the artists into real people before our eyes as the wax notions of celebrity and spatial division melt away in the humility of the Front Porch message. End side note.

February will also mark the beginning of our brand new series for Lent, which will focus on dialogically dissecting short films each Friday of the Lenten season. We are calling this series a “Film Church,” bringing in leading film experts to help us delve deeper in understanding this often underappreciated artistic medium. Lars Nilson of Austin Film Society will lead our first meetup on Friday, February 27th, at 7PM, where he will present and lead discussion over the film, The Karman Lane.” We hope you’ll come check this out as we explore a fantastic new idea. We’ll also be revamping our program for high schoolers, The Window, as the month closes out. We’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading my first update. More will surely come. I hope to see you on The Front Porch soon! Also, don’t forget to check out our Amplify Austin Campaign. It should be live in just a few days.

The Gift of Interruptions and Homelessness

We post below the latest musings from Christine Havens on last month’s Parable, The Front Porch’s Pub Church at Scholz Garten.

foundation communitiesADVENT, INTERRUPTED.  Don’t we love it when things come together? Maybe I should better say full circle, or come back around, though I really do not speak of an ending. Maybe a spiral works as a more apt image, but no, that’s not quite right either. I doodle spirals on a page, admiring how smoothly the line flows—I can draw one with no glaring hiccups, no lifting of the pencil off the page, as long as I’m not interrupted. And that’s the key, isn’t it? Do you envy the flow of a spiral on the page? Do you hope for a day or a life similar to that lovely, gently circling line on the paper?

You may find yourself instead having a less than smooth day, as in the story Fr. Steve Kinney told as introduction to Parable on December 14—he’d had an upheaval-ous day of sorts when unexpectedly having to help his daughter, who herself was suffering from the interruption of a feral cat bite. “The whole day was shot,” for both of them. No smooth spiral day; instead, an engendering of frustration.

And all I could do was smile, as Steve spoke of interruptions “as God’s way of getting in” and as he “invited us to be interrupted” with each other in the Parable space. His words took me back to my time as a parish secretary, which was my first true experience of church, Episcopal or otherwise—the beginning of an important stage in my life. My boss, Fr. Mitch, had developed a “theology of interruption” because of all the, well, interruptions in parish office life—rarely did we have an easily drawn spiral day. Mitch’s thought was that most of these breaks, disruptions, stoppages, intervals were Spirit-driven.

Steve’s story serves as an example of a big interruption, but what of those smaller interruptions? What about our drives around Austin—we’re on the way to work or home from work, or off to the mall or running errands and we just want a smooth spiral or circuit or circle. We had a good day and we want to keep that feeling of success or accomplishment. And then—we’re idling at a stoplight, listening to music that we’re enjoying, and a homeless person breaks into our consciousness, standing at the corner with a brown cardboard sign, or even worse, heading over with a squeegee to wash our car window whether we want them to or not—jolting us into frustration quite frequently or shame or sorrow or pity or desire to help. Whatever the feeling provoked, we’ve been interrupted.

Our guest this evening—midway through Advent—was Walter Moreau of the Austin nonprofit, Foundation Communities, the most lauded affordable housing in the country, as John Burnett said as he introduced Walter. The newly built Capital Studios on 11th & Trinity is the first affordable housing in downtown Austin in 45 years! In a city, where sometimes 4,000 “rough sleepers,” to use the British euphemism (the British also gave us the euphemisms “white meat” and “dark meat” as the Victorians couldn’t use “breast” or “leg” to even describe food), are living their interrupted lives, the Foundation Communities serves as a stepping stone for many. Walter brought Leslie Davis, a single mother, who broke into our lives and hearts with her experience in life and how Foundation Communities is helping her with the big interruption in her life—her husband, a drug dealer, whose murder left her homeless.

I could spiral on and on, talking of the evening, but I need to break in on my musings. I am way past my deadline. . .

Just one last thought: perhaps it’s that our lives are really a series of interruptions—dots on a page, so closely placed together that they’re indiscernible as anything but a line as we journey. Just sometimes the Holy Spirit breaks through and things come together.

Michael Morton, Forgiveness, and Developing Daring Culture

225_anunrealdreamOn Martin Luther King Day, January 19th, The Front Porch will host the screening of “An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story” at the Alamo Drafthouse Village, as part of its Elephant in the Room symposia. Michael himself will be there to lead a conversation following the film that will take those of us lucky enough to attend into the deep places where we come face to face with our humanity in all its glory and limitation. (NOTE: in addition to the 7pm screening, KUT’s Ben Philpott will interview Michael in Studio 1A at noon on January 19th.) 

In 1986 Michael Morton’s wife Christine is brutally murdered in front of their only child, and Michael is convicted of the crime.  Locked away in Texas prisons for a quarter century, estranged from his son, he has years to ponder questions of justice and innocence, truth and fate.  Though he is virtually invisible to society, the Innocence Project and Michael’s pro bono attorney spend years fighting for the right to test DNA evidence found at the murder scene.  Their discoveries ultimately reveal that the price of a wrongful conviction goes well beyond one man’s loss of freedom.

Director Al Reinert is a two-time Academy Award nominee, as a documentary filmmaker (For All Mankind, which won the documentary Jury and Audience Awards when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989) and as a screenwriter (Apollo 13).

What a privilege it will be to be with Michael, whose story touches on the miscarriage of justice, resentment, prison culture, human rights, and, most of all, forgiveness. His transformative story transforms all who hear it.

There are a very limited number of tickets left for this event. One way to be guaranteed a seat is to make a tax-deductible donation to the Front Porch’s Indiegogo campaign and claim one of the perks that offers tickets. Not only will you be able to join us that night, but you’ll also help us to reach our $30,000 goal. Right now, with 12 days left in the campaign, we’ve raised over $21,000, which is 72%. This money helps The Front Porch continue to offer inspiring events that create daring culture, to coin Brene Brown’s phrase, in which people feel the spiritual connection that comes from being open to and learning from others. 


A Place Where We Can Be Our Best Selves

There’s a view of the world out there that doesn’t get a lot of press — which is the view not based on scarcity but based on abundance. In an abundance economy, we have things, but the thing we don’t have enough of is connection. And we don’t have enough time. And if people can offer us connection and meaning and a place where we can be our best selves — yes, we will seek that out.                                                (From Seth Godin’s Dec. 4, 2014 interview with Krista Tippet) 

THE FRONT PORCH SEEKS TO OFFER SUCH A PLACE.   So far, we’ve built a good-enough brand that enables us to connect with lots of interesting people. Our vision for engaging different people in dialogue in a way that builds community is catching on. And our track record to date is at least impressive: we’ve got a monthly pub church that packs Scholz Garten each month, a packed concert series every third Thursday of the month that brings great Austin artists to life, a signature quarterly symposia that focuses attention on matters that affect all of us, and a newly created youth gathering that we are very excited about.

BUT…we’ve got to take this mission to the next level! We need to broaden our grass-roots support. We need to expand our staff. We need to develop better infrastructure–i.e., a more sophisticated approach to getting the word out and producing our numerous events. And we need to raise some dough. The point is this: we’re getting close! We have so much to build upon! We’re getting traction!

We’re in the middle of an Indiegogo campaign, which is a crowdfunding approach to help us raise $30,000 in 50 days. Right now, with 27 more days to go, we’ve reached 30% of our goal. Please consider making a year-end, tax-deductible contribution to help us take this mission to another level. You can go to indiegogo.com and search for “The Front Porch” or go directly there by using this link: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-front-porch-2015-season/x/2974017. THANK YOU.