Here is the Massachusetts Conference UCC article about being arrested for the poor people's campaign.
From Dec. 15th, 2010
We read Micah, chapter 1, in Bible study today. Micah is a prophet writing to his community about hope and about doom. We started by asking the question: is the chapter hope or doom? The clear answer: DOOM. Wow, Micah is predicting suffering and loss for everyone. What a bright and cheery advent message!
We went over some of the setting and noted how similar those times were to today: that the rich have the money and the power, their sense of satisfaction and righteousness. That the poor have, well, that the poor have nothing, their sense of dissatisfaction and hopelessness. The poor have peace and religion and family and friends, but the rich don't seem to notice that the poor have no way to get ahead, no work, no supports, not enough food, not enough housing. Micah's message is addressed to those in power: your doom is coming. For the wealthy: doom is coming; for the poor: doom is now.
But Bible study at Worcester Fellowship isn't really about tussling with the setting or about understanding the goals of a prophet, and it really isn't about the predicted destruction of Jerusalem. So we explored the question: "have you ever felt a sense of doom?"
Some days I have the right question!
First we talked about Korea and nuclear war and terrorists. Brian wants to go into the Navy and he's concerned about how the Navy will be involved in a war in Korea. Mark lives with the challenges of paranoia and has to check every floor of his building every evening before he can sleep because of all the news about the threat of terrorists. He describes how media reinforces his fears, even as he knows that his building in Worcester isn't a likely target for terrorism. We heard how Alison worries about her son who is in Iraq, and how much violence Estella saw in her home as a child when her father returned from the war Korea.
And then we moved to the sense of doom we feel in our personal lives. Sandy mentioned how hard it is to have the nights getting longer and longer. Alison described her struggle with depression, Ron how his regular seizures are stealing more and more of his brain. Juan said that his biggest sense of doom comes from his addictions.
There was instant agreement with the doom of addiction and then lots and lots of examples. How you try so hard for days and days and then one day you are late for the food pantry so you don't have food and you get a few bucks and you have another drink. How you try to stay in the house to stay away from others who are using and your mind gets more and more convoluted as you get more and more isolated and you just want to die. How you go to meetings and church and bible study and see your social worker and then your therapist, but then there it is, 2 am and you are awake and you can't remember any of the reasons why you were trying to get sober. And how a long night is followed by waking up in the morning afraid that you won't make it another day.
Brian asked "what is that saying... you know about if you do and if you don't?"
Alison replied quickly "doomed if you do, doomed if you don't."
Mark was sure that wasn't right "No, its damned if you do, damned if you don't. Excuse me pastor, sorry."
There was a pause and the Estella summarized the study. "I think Micah would say Doomed if you do, doomed if you don't."
The one chair, over there, on the left, is broken and alone, almost the same color as the worn out deck, almost invisible under the leaves, almost part of the natural order of decay. It is separated from the stacks of working chairs: chairs that invite us into the cheery, sun-filled, social space. I remember broken chairs I have seen before, sometimes being fixed by an enterprising owner, sometimes hidden in the back of a garage, often with a leg appearing over the top of dumpster.
That chair in the dumpster I remember clearly, because a man without a home, his name is Joel, was pulling it out. He explained to me that grey afternoon how he was going to use it in his tent at the back of the park--how it would be like a table for him, rather than a chair, how he would sit on a rock and put his writing on the chair, how it would fit just fine in the furthest back corner of the tent, and how his writing would stay dry when it rained. How this chair was just perfect for him.
Broken chairs are, in some way, perfect metaphors for my homeless neighbors, I think to myself that evening, sitting in my warm house, writing on a oak desk, noting all of the furniture around me, lots of furniture, all if it unbroken. Broken chairs are set aside so casually at first, just like the people who so casually are set aside when they cross the line from having to home to not having a home. Joel's last straw, after the crack in his leg from the car accident, and after losing his hourly job when the leg couldn't be properly fixed, and after he was turned down for disability, the thing that broke him was casual and small: the landlord raised the rent. And just like a chair with one leg that is loose and unstable, Joel was set aside, out of our thoughts, off there in the corner, out of sight of all of us with homes.
There are people who have tried to fix Joel, just like there are enterprising chair fixers. Some focus on his drinking, others on getting his disability approved, others on simply trying to get him inside. Almost no one asks what is wrong with the system that produces so many broken chairs. Can we change the design, can we change the materials, can we test the product before selling it? Almost no one asks what is wrong with the system that produces people without homes. Can we change our definitions, can we change our supports, can we test new ideas before we impose them on the people who live on the streets?
Perhaps it is not important that chairs, which are things, end up brushed aside, hidden under the leaves, and then end up in the trash. But it is important that people--real people, people named Joel, and named Anna, and named Butch and named Daryl, real people are brushed aside, hidden, trashed. Real people whose brokenness is disability, whose brokenness is addiction, whose brokenness is mental illness, whose brokenness is simply poverty, these real people are treated as trash, and thrown away with as little thought as we throw away a broken chair.
(Names and details are changed to proctect the privacy of those described here.)
"Are you saved?"
"Are you born again?"
"Have you accepted Christ as your personal savior?"
I hear these questions with dread, making up answers in my head, looking for an out, hoping the questioner hasn't noticed I am clergy and praying he won’t be seated next to me on the plane.
Most good liberals Christians never ask these questions, not of people we don't know, not of people we know, and certainly never of ourselves. What would it mean? What would it signify? What would it explain? We vary on our view of Christ’s identity, and what happens after death, and what is the good news we preach. But we don't vary much in our confidence that being "saved" or "born again" or having a "personal savior" is not the point. We whisper to ourselves "saved from what" and "born to what" and "what is this emphasis on personal?”
And yet as I hear stories from people without homes, people living on the edge, people who have nothing but the backpack they carry, being saved is not that complicated a theology.
Christine cries gratefully every time she tells me the story her husband who beat her so badly she worried about her children, about being hospitalized, about being killed. She shares the vivid details of when Jesus appeared to her, late at night, and told her to get out of the house, out of town, out of any place that she could be found. She travels lightly now; she lost her job, then her emergency shelter, and finally her children to foster care. She is paranoid and afraid of people but she trusts God travels with her, she trusts she will be OK, she knows that Jesus Christ saved her from certain death. "Jesus saved me, Jesus saved my children, and Jesus keeps taking care of me" she insists as she accepts a Dunkin' Donuts card and returns to her hiding space next to the railroad tracks.
Josh’s story of salvation is about drinking, and how Jesus got him to the lowest point, and then got him into the emergency room, and then got him into detox. Josh didn’t stay sober that time, but the second time, or maybe the third, or the fourth or fifth, he stopped drinking for good. “If Jesus didn’t get me sober I’d be dead” he explains simply, without apology, without embarrassment, without doubt.
Andrew also has no doubt, no question, no need for complexity. “I tried drugs to clear my mind, I tried all these medications that didn’t work, I tried suicide, and then finally I tried Jesus and now I’m alive.”
Daniel is equally clear: “My family kicked me out and I had nothing until I met Sue who took me to church, got me food stamps, and saved my life. Sue is church to me, she is my savior, she is Jesus for me.”
“Jesus saved me” is a common refrain on the streets, in the SROs, at the food programs. This is not some complicated theology about where we are going when we die, whether we’ve been baptized, and is certainly not tied to whether we believe the right things. This is a simple statement of faith “I was going to be crazy, going to be injured, going to be killed, but instead here I am, alive! I am saved.”
(From 2008. All people's information is changed to protect their privacy.)
For the offering every Sunday Worcester Fellowship has a ceramic vase. We invite everyone to share with one another just after the prayers. Sharing includes "peace" with your neighbor, money in the offering, but also promises for oneself and for each other. Wooden tokens marked with peace, hope, faith, love, confidence, sobriety, prayer, and trust are sitting on the altar. Anyone can pick up a token and use it as offering.
Will is a steady volunteer who comes every week for set-up and walks with us to hand out sandwiches on Main Street. He always has every pocket stuffed full with collected items, including things he's picked up to hand to someone in the congregation who might need it. He always has a coffee mug in a pocket, a bag, or in his left hand, and nearly always a cigarette in right. When we say "thanks for helping, Will" he always replies "I try!"
I was a little surprised one week to see Will pulling tokens out of the offering after worship. As I watched he found the one he wanted and walked over to Jose, who was sitting on a bench, eating a hard-boiled egg. We had met Jose before, out on the street, but this was his first Sunday at worship. Jose was so high or drunk I was afraid he would fall down during worship, so I was glad he'd found a seat. At the prayers he had sobbed, but he wasn't ready to talk. Now he and Will were talking; I returned to packing up lunch.
Later, as we headed out for street ministry, and Mary and Will had gone ahead, I moved over to sit by Jose. He was clutching his hands to his chest.
"Are you Ok?" I asked.
"Oh yes" he assured me. "Will gave me hope."
"Do you need hope?"
"I needed hope so much. But Will gave me hope. I came to church and Will gave me hope."
"Can you keep the hope up this week?"
"Yes!" Jose opened his hands just a bit, like he was holding in something that might escape. He held them toward me so I could see the little wooden token he held. "Will said I could keep it. He said I could take hope with me. I have hope."
"Can you hold it in your heart?" I asked.
"I have hope in my hands and I have hope in my heart. Thank you."
And so now I have hope, too. In my hands and my heart, I have hope.
(The assignment was to write balanced sentences)
I am just like you. I am completely different than you. This is the dilemma of our theology, the question of our faith. I wonder how to develop my own faith story as truth, as important, as complete, and yet to understand your faith story as honest, as significant, as whole. How do I let you have your story when your story conflicts with mine?
I am a main line, liberal (progressive perhaps), and Christian. You are non-denominational, conservative (fundamentalist even), and Christian. You are a philosophical, new age (Wiccan even) and non-Christian. You are a believer, accepting what you’ve been told, and yet uncertain. You are a non-believer, doubting what you’ve been told, and yet certain. You and I are one. You and I are completely different.
This way we are different was on my mind as I headed out to do ministry with the homeless, with the lonely, in Worcester Massachusetts. I was determined to bring a lunch bag to the hungry, a cooler of cold water to those who thirst. I was determined to share a new reading of scripture, to share good news with the captives; I would be a pastoral presence, a listening ear. I knew that people on the streets would teach me about what they needed, I didn’t know how much they would teach me about theology.
It turns out that I needed a more robust theology; I needed to know more about how God works in the world. My theology didn’t actually grapple with real suffering; my theology was dependent on my easy life. It is not that I haven't had hard times. I have had very hard times. But I have not let the darkness in my life change my pretty answers nor my petty beliefs. I wanted a world that was all good and sweet and happily-every-after, I ignored evil and violence and suffering-to-the-end. I wanted to create a world where love could, and love does, overcome all tribulations.
That confidence in love was the foundation of my call to be in ministry on the streets of Worcester, and that confidence in love continues to carry me forward. And yet that confidence in love was not enough to sustain me in the face of violence: violence by the world on my parishioners, and violence by my parishioners on each other. That confidence in love was not enough to bring to a people who had tried again and again and again and again to find Jesus and God, to find peace and wholeness. I believed I was bringing faith to the streets. The faith I brought was not enough.
I did not bring faith to the streets; I went to the streets and found faith. I adapted and adjusted; I listened and I learned. I went out into the streets of Worcester bringing faith to the faithful and they gave me the gift of robust faith. The people on the streets have changed my beliefs and deepened my faith. They have fed me and freed me.
They have shown me that we are completely different, and that we are exactly the same.
The advent study at the white steepled church on the town common had that odd sense of being superb and dull at the same time. They have not done study, of the Bible or anything else, in recorded history--or at least not since the fifty's. Adults simply don't do it. So the expectations were low, the education was low, and the attendance was low.
In fact I expect that some of the older women came simply because I am young and new and they wanted to support me, not because of some interest in Bible study.
And those that came knew little of the bible. They didn't know that Matthew and Luke had different Christmas stories, or that there is debate as to Mary's virginity, or that Jesus has siblings. It isn't that they didn't care about some of the controversies over biblical interpretations, they didn't know there were controversies. So all of what I explained as background was "very interesting".
I believe I have written elsewhere about one of the younger women (as in middle aged) was upset that in the magnifcat Mary is so negative about the rich. "That is not right" she declared. But many in the group were also completely shocked that it was there in the text.
But our study wasn't a study in order to know the deep meaning of the text, or to know the history or to resolve any of these controversies. Our study was about how we feel and how we interact with God.
So we looked at a text, considered some of the meanings, considered some words that stood out for us, and then did meditation, along with some art, in order to think about the way God spoke to us.
And people shared hard stories of people they have lost, of what they love and hate about their homes, of how their family used to be these people, but now it is these different people. They laughed and they cried and they spoke timidly of private, hard to bear challenges. Two women were afraid of losing their independence, several were struggling with letting their now teenage children into the world. Some were over busy, others were over alone. The sharing was deep and special. There was a struggle at putting God language on it, but it was filled with the spirit of God.
And then Sunday, six or eight or twelve weeks later, one of the women came up to me privately, after worship, but also all of coffee hour was done. "I want to tell you that I am a new person and that is because of you!".
"Because of me?"
"That advent study. I am completely new."
"How are you new?"
"I don't know who I was, but I was crying all the time then, crying about everything. And now I am myself again."
"The new you is the same as the you from before your husband died?"
"You know I couldn't talk about James, and all I could think about was how I could not go on without him. And now I can remember him, and I still get sad, and I still cry, but then I'm done crying and I enjoy my grand children and I enjoy my life. That changed after the study. I think it is because of you."
I told her that it was wonderful, that I was pleased for her, and that it was God, not me, that made the change. And I thanked her for the compliment, that I was glad she felt the study helped. And I asked her to come to the next study.
"Oh, I wouldn't miss it!"
(This was written in June 2015)
In some ways my first matriculation was just the writing of my name in a book. In some ways it was the most significant change in my life. I attended Matriculation at EDS yesterday evening, as I did for the first time in 1998, and have many times since, and as always, it filled me with memories, passion; it filled me with the spirit of life starting anew.
Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones pushes us think of life anew, but I have particularly dry bones in my spiritual life right now, and I’ve learned you can get to the place that the bones are so dry you cannot imagine something new. When Ezekiel is asked if the bones can live and replies “Oh Lord, you know” I’ve lately hear that as “of course you know it is impossible.” I’ve been at that impossible, hopeless place for a long time, through many other matriculations, but last night, somehow, I was sitting in St. John’s Chapel imagining what gifts the breath of the spirit bring.
Dr. Angela Bauer-Leveque reminded us that newness and dry bone-ness flow in and out of community; that we have graduations and good-byes and matriculations and hellos. She reminded us that we are forming community, not as one stable, supportive, concrete thing, but rather like breath, coming out and going in, changing in tempo and humidity and shallowness and noise. Sometimes community sounds like the chaos of Pentecost, a jumble of unknown languages from unpronounceable towns, making our neighbors think we are drunk. Sometimes it sounds like the gathering song “I’m Goin’-a Sing”!
Sitting in Chapel yesterday I remembered the feeling of joyful singing that I felt at my graduation, but more than that I remembered the impossible challenges of my life. I remembered the complete fear I had to start school: could I learn this new thing? And I remembered the many struggles this school has faced over the passing years. I remembered the small church I served, and the struggles there, and the closing service, the ministry with people who could not break free from their addictions, the summer five parishioners got housing and then died. And I remembered my individual traumas: my divorce, the death of my ex from her alcoholism, the moving to cheaper and cheaper apartments, the horrible car accident, the suicide of my niece.
I remember sitting at a matriculation, many years after my graduation, and sobbing through the entire service, feeling that the hope expressed in signing this book was all a lie. I was stuck in my individual-ness and in the dry bones.
As schools and as churches and as individuals, we have all had times when the bones are very dry. In school and church and in my life I had reached the point that I could not ask God whether the bones can live again for I could not speak to God, could not speak of God, could not allow space for God. If God were to tell me to prophesy to the breath, I would refuse, I would turn away, I would not hear.
But Angela’s point was that we do not live-again individually, we live-again with each other. When I turn away from God my neighbor beside me turns toward me and toward God. Someone in the crowd can prophesy to the breath. Someone in community understands the language of Pentecost and translates it for us. Someone else has made space for God. Angela reminded us to engage, to tell stories, to check out our assumptions, to ask questions. These are the works of scholars, but are also the works of community.
And so I sat in the EDS community at Matriculation and could see all around me that this is a new day, a new beginning, a new community. It will not stay the same. It will not all work out all right. It is not the start of Kingdom. I have not suddenly become a person full of hope. And yet, at the same time, I could see that in this community the bones will connect, the spirit will be within us, and we shall live. We will know from each other that God is indeed God of life.
(This was written February 2014)
Can you cry at your church? Real crying, I mean, not that little tear of happiness or sadness that barely disturbs your mascara. Not the running streams that redden your eyes, but are hidden with a quick tissue. Not even the quiet crying interrupted by an occasional gasp for air.
I am wondering if it is ok to express those huge wracking sobs that come after a truly devastating loss. I am asking whether it is ok to gasp and moan and sob again and again; whether it is ok to cry out in the pain of loss; whether it is acceptable in your church to express pain that no one can console.
We believe Church is a place to you can go when you cannot be consoled. I have not found a place called Church where that is true. I cannot sit in worship and hear the words of hope, words of promise, or words of a better kingdom at hand.
To be clear, I believe that worship should be full of hope, full of the promise of the Kingdom, full of the image of a life that is better. At the same time, in the immediate moments, hours, weeks, even months of horrific loss, all of those promises are crass parodies that ring horribly untrue during the time of bereavement.
In the aftermath of a tragic accident, a suicide, an unexplainable disaster, in the aftermath of extreme loss, in the aftermath of inconsolable pain, many of us do not want to look ahead to when this loss might be considered ok, a learning experience, just one stop in our life’s journey. Our life is forever changed and the idea that this is might be ok only adds to our pain.
There is a time that it is right to sit in the pain; there is a time it is right to see the brokenness as beyond repair. I am at that time, and I cannot sit in worshipful hope. I can only sit in pain.
Perhaps the answer is that people in that much pain need to be accompanied outside of worship by a component of church: an individual member, a small group, support team. Maybe members should search out pained neighbors and sit with them where they are--outside of worship. Maybe it is too soon to be back in the full circle of community, maybe the care must be intimate, one child of God sitting with another. Maybe the time to be invited back to worship is still to come. Maybe the promise and hope and image of the Kingdom are gifts for a later healing step.
The return to corporate worship may come slowly, or it may come quickly; it will come to each person at their own pace. It will happen after the complete sense of being alone, and after days with people one at a time, after gatherings with two, maybe three others, after we are exhausted by all that time of sitting in pain.
Loving people instinctively want to ease each other's pain. That is why we bring the casserole and send the card and make a visit and attend the funeral and sit with us, filling up an all too empty house. These are all things we need to do to be the people of God with a neighbor in pain.
But loving people also instinctively want to reassure our neighbor that it will be ok, want to quickly jump to hope, and want to pass a tissue in hopes that the unbearable, heart-breaking crying will stop. We want to stop it because we care, yet it is our needs, not those of the sufferer, that are met by our words that insist on looking ahead.
Worship by its very nature must look ahead. We as the church, we as the people of God, are faced with a challenge: can we make a place for those who cannot look ahead? Can we make a place that is not in worship, but is still inside our circle of love? Can we sit with people who are not ready for hope, who are not ready for looking ahead, sit with those who still living with those huge wracking sobs that come after a truly devastating loss?
(This ran in InCityTimes Easter 2005)
Usually Easter coincides with spring, at least if you live north of the equator. But in Worcester this year, Easter is at least a month before spring. If the weather continues at has, Easter might be two months before spring. How can we have Easter without flowers blooming and little baby rabbits and chicks?
Of course, the story of Jesus’ resurrection has never been about the cycle of life, flowers blooming, or babies being born. In fact, resurrection is about breaking the ordinary cycle, recreating the world, recovering the perfection of the Garden of Eden. Resurrection is the start of the new creation.
But believing in the new creation is even harder than trusting spring will come. Two years of war in Iraq, cutting Medicaid and food stamps to fund tax relief for the wealthy, and forgotten refugees in Sudan. Mental illness, addictions, and disabilities are treated like leprosy in the first century—we don’t see the people, touch the people, or care that they are homeless. You can only afford healthcare if you have a job, and you’ll lose the job if you get sick.
It’s hard to see how one man dying and being resurrected in first century Rome has made anything new in the world around us. How can we celebrate Easter?
The trick, I think, is this. In his life, Jesus treated every person as if they were important to God. Jesus could see, care for, even have dinner with those who had mental illness, addictions, and disabilities. Jesus touched people who were unimportant, taught uneducated fishers, was funded by invisible women, and invited children into his circle.
In his life, Jesus spent his time teaching, healing, and eating with those who society had declared were not just unimportant, not just untouchable, not just unloved, but people society had declared invisible. Jesus could SEE what had been declared invisible.
As you struggle to find Easter this spring, look around at the people. Who has been invisible to you? The new creation IS those who cannot be seen.
In the first century, those in government—both in Rome and in all the small countries under Rome’s imperial rule—said that poor people, sick people, women, children, uneducated people, and laborers, just didn’t matter.
In the twenty-first century, we make up our government. And still we say that poor people, sick people, queer people, people with disabilities, just don’t matter.
Jesus insisted on seeing the people that the government declared invisible. Jesus protested the rich and the powerful who insisted that only they could be seen. The Roman authorities killed Jesus because he said God’s way matters more than Rome’s way.
Easter is the celebration that Jesus’ viewpoint could not be defeated by Roman force. The darkness of not-seeing was overcome by the God who sees us all. But to see the new creation we have to believe that God’s way matters more than any Government’s way. And in God’s way, poor people, sick people, women, children, uneducated people, laborers, those living with mental illness, addictions, and disabilities, those who are different in any and every way, yes, even you, and yes, even me, matter. Look out around you for the new creation! Happy Easter.
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