Monday, May 25, 2015

Shadows of War

I grew up, like everyone else in my generation in this country, in the shadow of war. As a child, I remember my parents trying to shield me from the images of war flashing across the TV screens during the First Gulf War. As a teenager, the unforgettable events of 9/11 and the subsequent unending wars loom large. Kids, like the kids I grew up with in a small town, went off to war and not all of them came back alive. If I think through the news I’ve seen in my lifetime, most of it is dominated by war, by reports of body counts and returning bodies, reports of torture in military prisons and large scale offensives. Images of tanks and machine guns, sniper rifles and wounded bodies.

In the shadow of these wars, the world has grown more militarized. Sometimes I’ve seen this firsthand. In southern Mexico, in Oaxaca, I walked through squares full of police gripping AK-47s, all too ready to fire on unarmed civilians. I drove down deserted rural roads full of armored trucks with federal police bristling with weapons. I walked across borders with assault rifles trained at my head and witnessed the desert between the U.S. and Mexico transformed into a war zone with barbed wire and giant fences and fully militarized police.  

But, the whole time I was away from home, away from the harbor, I held it in my heart. I was never naïve; I remembered the harbor as a place with little for me to do as a teenager and a place I could not wait to leave, I remembered how easy people could be with their fists, and how rough parts of town could be. I always remembered the grind of survival and the palpable sense of despair that could descend on us. But I also remembered a place where neighbors knew each other, a place of peaceful lakes and stunning forests, a place of rough neighborliness and fierce independence.

On Friday, though, I was shocked. I know I should not have been. I knew the Aberdeen police had an armored vehicle and that SWAT teams were more militarized everywhere. But knowing is different than seeing. When I walked down by Cherry Street and I saw a MRAP parked outside a little working class house and I walked past young men carrying assault rifles, something in me froze.

This was Aberdeen. This is where I walked as a kid. And a team of military style fatigued local police were pointing military grade weapons at a house I’d passed a million times.

Suddenly, I was aware of a terrible fact. The wars that had haunted my TV screens and loomed large over my life had come home. The shadow of war had found a home on the streets of my childhood. Kids who had grown up here, like me, were carrying assault rifles—not only in far distant lands—but at home too and those rifles were pointing at our own people.  

Its only been a few days but I can’t shake this feeling of dread. Now, I know that police were responding to what seems to have been a shooting. And I know that the woman inside that house was armed. And I am so very glad that no one else was severely hurt or injured.

Its just that I can’t shake this feeling that something has changed terribly in this place where I grew up. That my nieces and nephews are growing up in a world where military sniper rifles are increasingly directed toward civilians. Where the wars I grew up with have come home to roost.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Tenderness of the People

 “We love because he first loved us. Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

The early Jesus movement—a movement of people who were largely forgotten, largely poor, largely outcast— became known as a group that loved each other and cared for each other. In a world that told them they were worthless, in a world that robbed them of rights, in a world that targeted them, they instead created a world where they protected each other and cared for each other.

This is not always a warm, fuzzy thing. It is not always a comfortable thing.

It can involve great risk. It can involve great danger.

Love means fighting for each other. It means standing up for each other. It means taking risks for each other.

Often there is a high cost to love.

In our first reading, we read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. This is the first conversion story in the book of Acts. The first conversion story in the NT. The spirit sends Philip to meet with someone that the world of the Romans had no use for. He was an African man, likely a slave, a man with no rights under political or religious law. He was a eunuch. Sometimes this was physical but sometimes eunuchs were men who would now be considered gay. Queer. Or Transgender. The first conversion story in the NT is of a black man who did not live up to, did not conform to society’s definition of gender or sexuality. An outcast. A transgressor. A queer.

And the early Jesus community took him in as one of their own. And stood with him.

“We love because he first loved us… for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

You have all been following to some extent what has been happening in Aberdeen. The largest encampment of folks who are homeless was given eviction notices in March and have been fighting for a place to stay ever since. We have tried to do anything we can to stand with them—going to city council, petitioning the city, gaining support, trying to work with churches to open up their property for campers to use.  

But the most powerful witness has been the folks in the camp who have stood up for each other. Some of you were there when the mayor and city officials met with campers. A group of campers went to that meeting and stood up for themselves and the people they were in community with.

People took great risk to show up to a meeting like that. People took great risk for their friends.

I don’t think we always realize that to live on the streets in the US is to live in the shadows. It is to live in constant fear of arrest. It is to be called names to your face by people in power.

The streets of the harbor are a rough place, a difficult place, as over half our population struggles to survive. The brightest moments of hope are those moments when people find ways to take care of each other. By checking in on people who are sick. By supporting each other in hard times.

And by taking a stand when people have nowhere else to go. In Aberdeen, people on the streets and in poverty are learning to claim their own leadership.

They tell their stories so that they and their neighbors can have somewhere to live. They risk being called names to speak out to city council and beg city leaders to make sure people are not thrown away. They are my heroes.

There is a saying, used often in Latin America, that “Solidarity is the tenderness of the people”. I like that.

As rough as the streets of the harbor are for people who are struggling, I stand in awe of the tenderness of the people wherever I see it. I consider myself honored beyond measure to witness it.

“We love because he first loved us… for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

If you haven’t noticed, this is a sermon of stories. Stories of love that I have witnessed.

A few weeks ago, I went to a meeting in Olympia, where a group of parents from Guerrero, Mexico were touring.  Last September, at a teacher’s training school for poor students called Ayotzinapa, 43 students were kidnapped and disappeared. Their parents have spent months looking for them. There is little doubt that these students’ disappearance was connected to the Mexican police. Over the past few months, citizens of Guerrero have taken the streets by the thousands to stand with these parents and their disappeared sons. Moms and dads of these disappeared students, most small farmers, have been touring the US, telling their story and issuing their demands that the Mexican government return their children and they know what happened to them.

As they spoke with us, I thought again of the great love, not only of parents for their children, but the great love of the people around them, people who stood with them as they searched for their lost children, often at very great cost. I got a glimpse of a whole city, a whole people coming together. I wondered what that would look like here, on the harbor.

It’s a terrible and a beautiful thing to witness love.

“We love because he first loved us… for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Reading Exodus with Aberdeen's Poor

We have been reading through the story of the Exodus for Easter in Aberdeen. Today, we read Exodus 2, as Moses grows up and God hears the cry of the slaves.

We had a lively discussion:

1.       People were struck by Moses’ courage, both in defending his kinsman from a slave master and for leaving behind the “silver spoon” when the Pharaoh put a price on his head. Working class and poor communities are well acquainted with the reality of self-defense, so there was little moral concern with Moses’ actions. There was a lot more conversation around the violence perpetrated against the Hebrew slaves and the courage it takes to stand against that kind of violence.


2.       People noted what happens when people are not considered people. This was certainly true for the Hebrew slaves. It is also true for people on the streets of Aberdeen. People talked about their experience camping out and how they were stigmatized for doing what it took to survive—be that sex work or building a home by the river. They told stories of how they had been treated by those in authority as less than human, even as they lost everything they owned. “There is nothing like being kicked when you are down.” People were deeply concerned about what was going to happen next as people fought against this eviction.


3.       We talked about the internal conflict within the Hebrew community, as Moses tries to (rather arrogantly) break up a fight. “There is so much stress when you are trying to survive. And all of this anger just builds and builds. You start fighting each other. The stress just becomes too much.” We talked about how real this is for people on the streets in Aberdeen, as people compete for incredibly limited resources.


4.       As we talked about the experience of slaves under their Egyptian masters, the conversation quickly turned to police violence. We talked about the protests in Baltimore and the increasing number of documented cases of police shootings and violence. We talked about people’s own experience of police. And we talked about how people and their bodies (especially female bodies) are policed and controlled through a complex systems of fines, jail time, warrants, and court dates.   


5.       Over and over, people were struck by that phrase; “And God heard their cry.” The group dynamic changed quickly and people began sharing how each had touched the lives of the other. People laid hands on each other and prayed for each other. Suddenly, as I witnessed that moment, I saw God hear people's cry as we listened to each other's cry.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Easter Sermon in Westport

I cannot tell you how blessed I have been by each of you as we start this new ministry here. It has been so exciting to see new life coming into the place. It has been so exciting to see all of the new ideas that you all have for our future. It has been so exciting to see the leadership that you all have taken. I am so very grateful to be here.

This is the time of the year that we celebrate new fire and new life. It comes at the right time, doesn’t it? This is also the time of year that everything starts to grow again. Everything seems to be coming back to life.

It’s a great metaphor for this place, isn’t it? There is a lot of history in this place and in this building. It was a school a long time ago. Then it was a church and a clothing bank and a food bank. Then it was empty for awhile. Now there is something new happening here—and you are all co-creators in it. We are all building this together.

In our gospel today, we have the story of three women who go to the grave of Jesus.

Now, Jesus has spent the last three years building a movement. He has spent almost all of his time where he grew up, in the fishing villages of Galilee.

He has preached things like this; “The kingdom of God is at hand. Turn around—repent—and believe this good news.” He encouraged the poor farmers and fisherfolk of Galilee, people who were suffering under the Roman empire, people who were struggling with deep poverty, he encouraged them to hope. Jesus told them that a better kingdom was possible. Jesus raised up leaders from people like himself—people who were poor, who were craftsfolk, and fisherfolk.

Eventually, the movement Jesus build got so large that the religious and political leaders of the time started to take notice. And they were afraid.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the capital city, he was arrested, tried, and imprisoned. Then the Roman governor sentenced Jesus to death.

I can only imagine that the women who come to the grave of Jesus are sad and they are scared. It seems like everything is crumbling around them. They might have even been losing hope.

And then they see this guy, sitting in the tomb, and he tells them that Jesus is gone and that Jesus is risen from the dead.

As you might know, there are four different versions of the story of Jesus. The one that we read today was from Mark.  And Mark leaves us hanging. The women go to the tomb and they get told by this man in white that Jesus has risen. But they just leave and they don’t tell anyone right away. They are still scared. And they don’t know what is coming next.

They hear about new life. They hear about resurrection. But they are not sure what that means yet. It is still a mystery.

That’s a little like what this is like for us, here, isn’t it?

We don’t know what will come next for our little community as we start this ministry up. We don’t know what kind of new life and new fire will come out of this. We want to build a movement like Jesus did. We want to see new life in our community. We want to sing and eat and pray and hope and dream together.

But we are just at the very beginning. We can’t even imagine what it will look like in the future. We are like the women in our gospel reading today. We are waiting, hoping for new life. Even when we don’t know what is coming next.

I’m pretty sure, whatever does come, as you lead, and you serve, and you dream together—I’m pretty sure its going to be awesome.

What Resurrection Looks Like

There are all sorts of debates about the resurrection. Was there really a resurrection? What do we mean by resurrection? Can someone really come back from the dead?

And, in our gospel this morning, we read about Thomas. We always point to Thomas as the doubter; we call him “Doubting Thomas.” As the man who could not believe unless he actually saw proof. Of course, we forget that none of the disciples believed without seeing Jesus.

Honestly, I am one of those people that likes to see before I believe.

I like the concrete. The real. I want to see the resurrection.

That is why I love our Acts reading today. It says that the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection with great power.  

And then it tells us how.

The apostles didn’t give a powerful testimony to the resurrection with complicated arguments. Or long sermons.

They gave powerful testimony to the resurrection because they lived the resurrection.

They lived new life.

They lived a new way, in the face of empire, in the face of violence, in the face of so much poverty and so much oppression.

The resurrection is not a one time event, not according to this text in Acts. The resurrection keeps happening. Every day. And we get to witness it.

That early community in Jerusalem lived the resurrection. “There was not a needy person among them.” A community was formed, a revolutionary community. In the face of deep poverty, they shared wealth. In the face of repression, they stood together. In the face of a culture of greed, they cared for the common good.

I love this.

I love this because I too get to witness the resurrection. I have witnessed the resurrection in Southern Mexico, where small Oaxacan farmers were banding together to take care of their communities and heal their land. I have witnessed the resurrection on the streets of Boston, where I first worked in street ministry while in seminary, as a whole community of people who had lost everything came together as pilgrims, committed to eating and praying together and helping each other.

This week, in my ministry, I have witnessed the resurrection.

I work in both Aberdeen and Westport.

As you probably all know, and as you probably experience here too, GHC is deeply poor. Almost half of our residents are accessing DSHS services in order to survive, half of our residents are poor and low income.

And, I work with a lot of folks experiencing homelessness. A few weeks ago, Aberdeen’s largest homeless camp was issued an eviction notice. People had a little over two weeks to leave the property.

And we did a lot of things. We went to city council and asked for more time. People told their stories and the news ran articles.

But the miracle, as we reached holy week, was not all of that. It was the community that was formed. It was the folks on the street who came together and discovered their own leadership. They took ownership of their own story. They supported each other. And members of the wider community stepped up to support, to get to know people, to help clean up camps.

This story is not over. We don’t know what will happen with this encampment; the mayor decides this coming week. While we ask for your prayers, I can also say that I have witnessed the resurrection in the courage, the bravery, the community that has been formed.

I also felt like I witnessed the resurrection in Westport with our first Easter service. We’ve been open at the church that used to be St Christopher’s for just two months. On Easter eve, we had a vigil and 55 people showed up for our potluck. 35 people stayed for a bilingual service. It was amazing, not so much because so many people showed up, but because I was really completely unprepared.

It was the folks in our community, the folks who have taken their own leadership who fed each other, who found extra food when so many people showed up, who took care of each other. As we lit the new fire, surrounded by children, as we processed into the church speaking both English and Spanish, we experienced the resurrection in a tiny fishing village in the middle of nowhere.

The resurrection always comes in unlikely places.

A bunch of fishermen and sex workers and women from Galilee are the first witnesses to resurrection.

A bunch of folks experiencing homelessness find community and hope and their own leadership.

A little fishing village celebrates Easter in two languages.

The resurrection is here and now. It is all around us.

For those of us like Thomas, who must see to believe, the resurrection is all around us.

We can see it. Touch it. Experience it. Witness it. Every day.

In little towns and big cities all over this diocese. In the things that are small and week in this world. In the most unlikely places.

Alleluia Christ is Risen! [Christ is Risen indeed, Alleluia]

Alleluia—Christ is risen in you and you and you—in this town of Seaview and in Westport and Aberdeen. Christ is risen as the poor take leadership and as people stand with each other and churches are reborn.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen. Cristo ha resusitado.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Trash, Poverty, and Outrage

Trash in a Refugee Camp
I’ve never lived in a tent on the street or in a camp. But I have definitely spent too much time without permanent or stable housing. I couch surfed and lived out of my car off and on during my college years. Through that time, I had a trash problem. I ate at fast food joints when I had extra cash and accumulated the wrappers, I had piles of dirty clothes, and at times, pretty much all my stuff needed to fit in a small, old Hyundai.

Partly, perhaps, I am just a disorganized person. But I didn’t have a garbage can, though I did frequently bag everything up and stick it in the trunk for the next time I visited a friend where I could toss my garbage in their can. Mostly, the stress of trying to find places to stay or figure out if I could eat or any number of other problems made trash the least of my problems.

I have been hearing a lot about trash lately.

As we have come to the city in protest of the upcoming eviction of a local homeless camp, one of the issues that has become front and center is the issue of trash. There have been moments I have wished that we could be as enraged about the abysmal conditions people are forced to live as we are about trash along our shoreline.

At the same time, we all get trash is a problem.

Trash is, at least in some ways, the creation of an industrial world. And people who are poor always seem to live in the middle of trash in our globalizing world. I was just in Palestine and the mounds of trash on the edges of neighborhoods and towns was immense. The same is true of poor communities everywhere in the modern world. Poor communities in the United States.

There are many reasons and different reasons for every place. No managed landfills, not enough garbage pickup, people dumping either because they can’t afford the dump or are cutting corners. Or people not being allowed to use dumpsters, which happens frequently enough for people who live on the streets in the US. Or the stress of trying to survive.

All of us produce a huge amount of trash. People living in houses in nice neighborhoods likely produce the most trash—we just do not see it, because of a complex system of trash disposal, pickup, and dumping in huge heaps or waterways far out of public eye. And people living in houses in nice neighbors need to put very little effort into trash disposal.

In camps along the river, the folks who live there are constantly fighting a losing battle with trash, as people move in and out, as they look for places to dump it, as they constantly battle the cold and wet to stay dry and more stuff is ruined.

Even as we find better ways to deal with trash, our real outcry ought to be that people are forced to live in these conditions. No one chooses to live in muddy, wet, crappy conditions if there are better options.

Now that I have stable housing and regular garbage pick-up at my rental, I should note that I found I wasn’t such a messy person after all. I really enjoy not having trash laying around.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Unless a Corn of Wheat....

Lent always gives us the happy, cheerful readings, doesn’t it? At least it’s the last Sunday before the passion and Easter! But this Sunday, we sit with Jesus talking about death. In a few days, the church calendar will commemorate the deaths of many Salvadorans during their civil war, including the death of their archbishop. There is a Spanish artist, very popular in Latin America, named Cerrezo Barrado who draws line drawings for each of the gospel texts in the lectionary. The picture for this Sunday is deeply provocative.

It is a drawing of three bodies, lying under the ground. Above ground, the hills are covered in crosses. But over the bodies, flowers and wheat and corn are growing out of them. In typical Latin American art, it focuses on death—people die just like Jesus did every day—they die of poverty, of starvation, they die because they are killed by their governments or shot in the streets.

And yet, as Oscar Romero said before he died; “If I die, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”

“Unless a corn of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it brings much fruit.”

Unlike El Salvador, perhaps, we in the U.S. don’t like to talk much about death in our culture, do we?

Sometimes we don’t even like to mourn, if we can help it. We grin and bear it. We try to hide death away in sterile hospitals and pretty funeral homes and out of the way homeless camps, but we avoid the topic if we can.

I have stood at many deathbeds in my life, personally and in my ministry. Most of us have lost people we love.

And death is a terrifying, mysterious, devastating thing.

And it is made all the harder because, in our culture, we never talk about death. Because we all walk around with this hidden pain and cannot talk about it. Now, I know that this sounds morbid, and I know that I am young and perhaps least qualified to talk about death. But, after all the years that I’ve seen it, I’ve come to a realization.

We never want to believe that death is a part of life. We live in a constant denial of death so often in our culture.

This Lent, one of my practices has been to think about death as holy. This is a holy thing. Death is a holy thing. It is not just terrifying, not just mysterious, not just devastating. It is also holy.

Now, in our text today, in John, Jesus talks about his death. These stories are unique to John and in this text, Jesus compares his death to the natural processes of seeds dying. Only after a seed is dead can it be planted and bring flowers and corn and wheat.

If life is sacred, then death is sacred too.

 If we thought of death as sacred, perhaps we would allow ourselves the time to mourn, because mourning is a sign of our great love for the person who has died. It is how we honor the dead.

If we thought of death as sacred, perhaps we would feel less guilt as our loved ones leave us and we are powerless to stop it.

If we thought of death as sacred, we could allow ourselves to be angry at the dead too, especially at those who once wronged us, because God can hold the person who is gone, and we don’t have to.

If we thought of death as sacred, we could better remember that those we love who die live on in the hearts of those who loved them and in the arms of the great Creator.

If we thought of death as sacred, we could one day welcome death ourselves and ask what it means to die a good death. Maybe we would be less afraid to live.

There is more to this too.

If we thought of death as sacred in our world, we would work to insure that everyone could die a good death. That is why Jesus’ death—an unjust death, a death by execution at 33 years old, was a death that entered into judgment with the powers of the world.

John Steinbeck, in the Grapes of Wrath, tells the story of how poor and hungry migrants, fleeing the dust bowl to work in California, watched all of this food—potatoes and oranges and vegetables— food that could not be sold being destroyed. He wrote; “In the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” God, through the poor, enters into judgment with a society that allows people to die unjustly.

A society that denies the sacredness of death does not prioritize that people live abundantly and die well.

I think about this in Grays Harbor—where, although we do not see death as close and intimately as El Salvador did during that terrible war, we are still struggling. Nearly 50% of our people in this county are poor by DSHS standards. That is quite the crisis— We do struggle far too often with unjust death—

And, yet, the people of this county still hope for and fight for a better life. Flowers bloom from the bodies of our dead and those who have died alone speak to us from beyond the grave. God counts their deaths as sacred even if the powers of the world do not. And their deaths enter into judgment with greed and power and apathy.

In the mountains of Chiapas in Southern Mexico, one of the Zapatista leaders said; “In the mountains of Chiapas, death was a part of daily life… Death becomes a daily fact. It loses its sacredness. ..Death, which is so close, so near, so possible, is less terrifying for us than for others. So, going out and fighting and perhaps meeting death is not as terrible as it seems. For us, at least. In fact, what surprises and amazes us is life itself. The hope of a better life.”

I think about this right now in Aberdeen. Last week, people who camp out by the river were given notice that they had until March 31 to leave their camps. The city has nowhere for these folks to go. It is one more step that displaces people even further. Now, for the growing number of people homeless in this county and in this country, death is very near all the time.

Displacing people like this adds one more layer of complication, one more layer of danger.

The people of the camps in Aberdeen have asked me, have asked us to stand with them. They are struggling for life and for survival in a world that does not see their bodies, their lives as sacred or as holy. This week, I am speaking to city council—and we ask for prayers and even your presence—asking them to either halt the eviction or give people somewhere to go. We are asking for people to be treated as sacred, as human, as people. We are asking that this city, and this county, prioritize the common good.

We want unjust death to end in this county. We want all lives to be valued. We want people have access to abundant life and a good death. We want our towns to come alive again, even in death, and the prophet Isaiah tells us that the only way that that happens is to care for the common good. To end injustice. To end homelessness. To care for each other and rebuild together.

This Lent, for ourselves and in our own lives, and for people struggling in this county….

we pray that all bodies and all people, in life and in death, will be honored as sacred, as holy.