Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New Beginnings

Finding Home (detail), mural by Josh Sarantitis,
photo by Danny Birchall, Creative Commons License
[This was originally delivered as a sermonic exploration on Sunday, January 20, at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia. 
If you would like, you can listen to the podcast.]

“New Beginnings” – that’s the title of this exploration.  And I’ll confess that I almost didn’t have a sermon for you this morning.  Oh, this was one of those weeks where I wrestled with the topic, danced with the topic, and just couldn’t find a handle, couldn’t get a grip.  I knew that whatever tack I took there’d be those of you who’d be disappointed, who’d wish I’d remembered to say something I left out, or who’d wish I’d said what I said differently.  And as I was writing, I was right there with you.
I’d promised, in the monthly bulletin, to tell you about efforts at moving beyond providing temporary, short-term housing for homeless persons – which some are beginning to see as, ironically, “enabling homelessness.”  People are now suggesting that a better plan is to get folks into some kind of stable housing as soon as is possible, rather than making them go through a series of steps to demonstrate their “worthiness,” because that stability is the best platform to build on.  It provides a “new beginning” rather than a temporary respite.
But try as I might to write that sermon it just wouldn’t work.  I sounded pedantic at best; at worst, hypocritical.  I’ll be honest, if you were to divide the world into doers and talkers I’d be a talker hands down.  I’d like to do more, I really would, but my default mode, and my real skills, are in the talking.
And I know that if I were to talk about these things I’d be talking to a room filled with doers.  I mean, seriously, Kip Newland, Lynn King, Elizabeth Breeden, Jen Larimer, Jill Mulligan, Edith Good, Achsah Carrier, Shirley Paul, other folks I’m sure I’ve forgotten, and other folks I don’t even know about . . . these people are up to their armpits in doing something about homelessness in Charlottesville.  They’re the ones to be talking about these things.  (And, in fact, they will be – in the coming months the Social Action Council and the Adult Faith Development Committee will be co-sponsoring a series of three workshops on homelessness that sound really incredible.  I strongly encourage you to keep your eyes open for the details as they’re announced so that you can participate.  I think that they’re going to be amazing.)
But I just couldn’t write a sermon that made it sound like I was one of those doers, because I’m not.  And when I thought about writing a sermon of facts and figures, I remembered that there is a fantastic info-graphic hanging on our Social Action bulletin board, just outside of the social hall and that that picture conveys more than a thousand of my words ever could.
So then I thought I could write a sermon that would encourage you to get involved.  Besides the fact that that’d be a case of a talker encouraging you all to be doers I banged into another problem.  We’re already doing a lot in this congregation.  I’ve already mentioned some of the folks who are kind of big-time players on this stage, but did you realize that when we take our turn to host a week of PACEM – People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry – that around 100 of us are involved in seeing that our guests our fed and sheltered?  That’s about a quarter of our formal members!  (And there’s a chance to be one of that number when we host PACEM early next month.)
On top of that, the TJMC IMPACT team is hoping we’ll have about 200 people at the big Nehemiah Action on April 29th so that we can add our weight to the roughly two dozen other faith communities who this year are trying to find some collaborative solutions to homelessness in our area.  So that’s nearly half of our membership getting involved!
And I’m hoping that a whole lot of us are going to avail ourselves of the opportunity to be more fully and deeply educated about these issues through that Social Action/AFD program I mentioned a moment ago.  And I’d love to know that a goodly number of us take part in the annual “Point In Time” survey that aims to get a fix on just how many unhoused people there are in Charlottesville.  (And there’s information about the training for this effort in the insert to your Order of Service.)
All this to say that I couldn’t figure out a way to write a sermon that exhorted us to get more involved.  I’m sure we could – but I was at a loss.
And then I thought about Mike.  Mike was this wild guy I’d pass on the Boston Common when I was working at UUHQ, our Association’s headquarters near the State House in Boston.  Mike was about my age, or maybe even a little younger, and had been living on the street for a long, long time.  Everyone knew him.  He’d call out to just about every single person who passed him by.  (And since he sat right near the entrance to the T station that was a lot of people.)  He didn’t call out asking for money, usually.  He’d just tell you that you were “lookin’ good.”  Or he’d ask how you were doing.  Or tell you it was good to see you.  He’d shout out, “have a good day!”
Everyone knew Mike – the vendors, the cops, the commuters . . . and nearly everyone who worked at the UUA.  I didn’t usually carry cash on me, but I’d stop and talk with him most mornings.  Sit with him.  I found that beneath the perpetual gregariousness and generosity of spirit with which he greeted the passerbys there was also a weariness of soul that so many people passed him by.  I never learned his whole story, but there was some substance abuse and some unnamed mental illness.  He’d been in and out of shelters, in and out of treatment programs, in and out of the homes of friends and family, but the streets were really what he knew.  He knew which coffee shops would let you nurse a cup of coffee for a couple of hours when it was cold outside, and which ones wouldn’t.  He knew which movie theaters would let you stretch a single ticket into a triple bill when it was raining.  He knew when to be where to increase the likelihood of scraping together enough money to be able to make it through another day.  Another night.
I grew to really like Mike; to look forward to our encounters.  And when several weeks went by without seeing any sign of him I became genuinely worried – I feared discovering that he had been arrested or, worse, had died.  But like I said, everyone knew Mike and when I asked one of the Common’ cops he knew just who I was talking about and was able to assure me that Mike had moved out of downtown because he’d hooked up with a friend who had an apartment and was now spending his days closer to there.
During the three years that I commuted in to Boston from my home on Cape Cod I got to know a couple of other guys I’d pass on my walk to and from my office.  I don’t want to say “a couple of the other homeless guys I’d pass on my walk” because while it is true that none of them had a steady, stable home, to identify them first and foremost as “homeless” would be like talking about my non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma brother, or my bi-polar friend, or one of you talking about your overweight minister.  Labels may be convenient, but there is no person who can be neatly summed up with one.  We are all far more complex than that.
And that brings me to Shaggy.  His spot was in front of the Dunkin Donuts on the corner of Summer and Lincoln Streets.  Thin, scraggly hair, skin like leather, bad teeth . . . he could have been scary.  I bet he did scare some people.  But I came to know him to be one of the sweetest people I’d ever met.  He didn’t engage people the same way Mike did.  He’d just stand there, cup in hand, hoping that the people coming out of D & D’s might drop their change in. 
But as with Mike I usually didn’t have cash on hand.  But it never felt right to just pass Shaggy by.  So many people were already doing that.  So many people were already treating him as if he were invisible; as if he weren’t even really there.  And from somewhere in the recesses of my Presbyterian/Methodist upbringing came the phrase, “And whatever you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done to me.”  And so I’d strike up a conversation.  I’d ask him how things were going, about changes that were going on then in the response of the Boston PD to panhandlers.  We’d talk about the weather and what that’d mean to someone whose entire belongings could fit in a single pack.  He explained to me how he used to try to engage people – he’d had a million stories, most of them lies, about why he needed some help at that moment.  But the dishonesty gnawed at him.  So he gave up the pretense.  This was his life.  He offered no excuses or explanations.  He’d engage with people who’d engage with him, just like most other people do.  Like I’ve said, I didn’t always carry cash, but I did remember to bring him new gloves when a cold spell was settling in.  And whenever I did have cash on me I made sure that I gave some to him.
A year or so previously Shaggy had found an Episcopal church with a real outreach to the unhoused, and he’d really begun to turn his life around.  He’d gotten off drugs and alcohol.  He’d begun going to Capital Hill to speak out about the issues of homelessness in Boston.  He’d begun doing some writing.  As I was getting ready to move from the Cape to . . . well . . . here, Shaggy’s number was finally called up and he was able to move in to an efficiency apartment.  A couple of weeks ago I heard a piece on homelessness on WBUR’s program “Here and Now” and I can’t tell you how incredible it was to hear that familiar voice – Shaggy was one of their guests!   He’s still in his apartment and, while it’s not always easy, he’s continuing to find solid footing.
A block or so up, between the Wendy’s and the CVS on Arch Street, I got to know John.  Brother John, I called him, because he was always praying for me or asking me to pray for him.  Somehow this felt right, this praying for each other, this mutual blessing we would share.  I came to learn that John had family, living not so far outside of town, but he said he made them really uncomfortable.  He never told me his diagnosis – or, maybe, diagnoses – but it was clear that his life had unraveled some time before and he had just never been able to knit the pieces back together.  He didn’t want to be a burden to his family, nor did he even want to inconvenience the other panhandlers on Summer Street who would sometimes fight him for the prime spots.  Brother John was one of the meek.  It was clear to me that he was more than just “a homeless person.”
And maybe that’s the hook for this sermon this morning.  Maybe this is another in my ongoing series that I’ve been preaching for nearly two decades now, the sermon that says “there is no us and them; there is only us.”
But let me tell you about Frank.  I came out of a meeting a couple of weeks back to be told that there was someone here who wanted to talk with the pastor.  (That usually clues me in that it’s not someone from our “flock.”  You guys hardly ever call me “pastor.”)  Frank is a tall man, and from other encounters with him here and in some of the other churches in the area I knew he could be belligerent.  Hostile.  Threatening.  But on this morning he was calm.  So we talked.
He told me that he’d made some mistakes in his life, spent some time incarcerated – “nothing I lose sleep over now,” he assured me – and had had problems with substance abuse.  His family had cut him loose, and he really didn’t have any other kind of support network.  He said he’d tried going to couple of churches, and the people had been real nice, until they learned that he’d spent some time in jail and was currently homeless.  Then they got cold real fast.  It became clear to him that he wasn’t welcome as he was.
And that’s when he said something that’s really struck me.  I think what he said can probably be interpreted in a couple of different ways, and I have to say that I agree with both of them.  After telling me how he’d felt the doors to these other churches close on him when they discovered what was really going on in his life, how he felt that as soon as people found out what his life was really like they instantly began looking down on him, he said, “I always kinda thought churches were supposed to be like hospitals.”
Now he might have meant that like a hospital he’d thought that churches had to take you in.  And I do think that there’s some truth to that.  If South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu is right that the church should be an “audio-visual aid” showing what the world should be like, then there is some truth to that. 
But I prefer to think that what he meant is that, like a hospital, a church is full of sick people.  This might sound surprising to a lot of you . . . shocking even.  And wrong.  I can imagine some of you thinking that that just isn’t right – looking around you right now you don’t any see “sick” people here.  But we are here.  In every pew, if we’d be honest with one another, and ourselves.  Who here isn’t – hasn’t been – wounded in some way?  Who here isn’t – in some way or other – even just a little bit – broken?
I’ve realized that my lifelong sermon was only partially right.  I’ve always said that there is no us and them, that there’s only us.  But in my wrestling this week I’ve come to realize that that still puts usme – in the center of the circle and subsumes those “others” into “my” sphere.  There is no “them,” I’ve said, there is only “us.”  What I’ve realized this week is that there is no “us,” there is only “them.”
The deepest call of religion is not the recognition that “they” are “us” but the realization that “we” are “them.”  We all are wounded.  We all hunger and thirst.  We all know what it’s like to be lost, alone, alienated, homeless . . . if we’re honest with ourselves.
Yes, homelessness is an overwhelming issue; it’s a challenge with too many facets, too many interlocking pieces, an onion with too many layers.  What can you or I do to solve such a thing?
But we can address the separation.  We can address the exile.  We can address the walls within ourselves that serve to maintain the distinctions.  I came to discover that I’m not all that different from Frank, and Brother John, and Shaggy, and Mike.  Not that they’re not all that different from me but that I’m not all that different from them.  This realization makes all the difference.  And that, I suppose, is the “new beginning” I was searching for.

In Gassho,


PS -- all through the preparation of this sermon the song "Just a Bum" by the incredible Greg Brown kept playing in my mind.  I kept trying to find a place to sing it, or at least to quote it, but I guess that's what a blog is for . . .

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