Sunday, December 11, 2011
Is there room in the inn?
Universalist Unitarian Church of Haverhill, Mass
11 December 2011
They arrived at the drop-in center downstairs after a week on the road. I’m not sure when they last showered. Apparently not all shelters and hostels have safe or functioning showers between Texas and here. They both hear voices. Maria says several members of her family hear voices. She says they are the voices of angels sometimes, and sometimes God. A doctor once gave her some medicine, but she can’t afford the prescription and doesn’t like the way it makes her feel, so she stopped taking it. Besides, she doesn’t mind the voices. They tell her she’s special. Jose refused to talk to us about his auditory hallucinations.
This couple triggered a lot of judgments that come naturaly for many of us. She’s young – 16 or 17, and he’s my age – mid 40s. She’s pregnant, he’s not the dad, but they’re devoted to each other and determined to stay together. They’ve been on the road for a week, taking Greyhound bus trips by day and sleeping in hostels and shelters each night, travelling from east Texas, where Jose has work in construction. He’s from this area, originally, and through some kind of nightmare of government bureaucracy, he was required to show up in person to pay some kind of fee and retrieve his identity paperwork. He’s a citizen, but there was some kind of screw-up with his license after his wallet got stolen, so he had to come back in person to handle it. Maria can’t sleep on the moving bus, so they’ve had to ride during the day and find a shelter at night. Her feet and ankles are swollen from the pregnancy, which appears close to the end of its duration, and from the long hours sitting in a cramped bus seat. They’ve been staying with friends in Texas, saving for their own place, so when Jose had to come east to handle things, Maria did not feel comfortable staying in Texas without him.
We took their information, such as it was, and tried to get them hooked up with services while they’re here. Jose knows the area a little, but moved when he was pretty young and no longer has contacts that could help them find a place to stay. They don’t have money to afford a hotel room for the night. Not if they want to be able to get back home to Texas when Jose’s business is concluded.
The area shelters are all full, particularly at this time of year. We called all over, trying to find a place for them, but nothing panned out. Some shelters wouldn’t accept Maria because she is not yet 18, even though she is emancipated from her parents. The other shelters did not have any beds. A shelter for women who have been abused had a bed, but Maria didn’t qualify, was too young, and that would have left Jose out in the cold. We tried everything. Nada. Perhaps on Monday they might be able to get general assistance at the municipal office to get a cheap motel room, but there’s no guarantee, and by then they’re due to be headed south again.
I talked to the drop in center staff on the phone Friday. Someone in the drop in center let the couple stay in a defunct minivan. It doesn’t run, but it doesn’t leak either. It’s not heated, but they’ve got some blankets and each other, so they’re ok.
Baby Jesus was born last night in the back of the minivan.
OK, so that’s not exactly true. In fact, the details of this story have been stitched together from the stories of the dozens of people I have met in the three months I’ve been working at the drop-in center. There is no Maria and Jose, at least not in the exact way I have described them to you today. But the situation I described is not exceptional. People are transient and/or homeless or nearly so every night, right here, in this city. Their circumstances are rarely dignified, and rarely simple. Life is complicated and messy, and life on the edges of society is all that raised to a debilitating degree.
The story I just told you is thousands of years old. It is my 21st-century adaptation of the story told in the Gospel of Luke of Joseph and Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census. Mary is pregnant and they’re travelling by donkey, which can’t be comfortable in the 39th week of pregnancy. But then again neither is walking, and those were the options, so what should have been a four-day journey lasted them at least a week. They arrived tired and dirty to a town that was already full up. Resources were low and the only place they could find to sleep was in a barn with the cows and donkeys.
If that story were to take place today, the players and circumstances might look a lot like I described them. Would any of us recognize them? And more to the point, would any of us let them sleep in our spare room?
I’ve been spending one morning a week at the center since I started in September, and I have to tell you, it is both eye-opening and intensely gratifying work. The drop-in center serves anywhere from 40 to 150 people in a day. Some people come for a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal and leave, while others stay from the moment the doors open at 8 a.m. until they close at noon. All manner of people come through that humble space. Gifted artists, construction workers, parents, grandparents, young adults struggling to make a life, all finding themselves somehow in need of a safe place to be in the morning.
Some of the clients have homes but need a place to be. Some have been staying at one of the area shelters for extended periods of time – I can think of one client who has been at the shelter for over three years.
Many are hamstrung by forces beyond their control. Many are struggling with mental illness, others are battling addiction, some are overwhelmed by the all too often deadly combination of both. Some have criminal records that make it difficult to get housing or employment, some have invisible disabilities that go undiagnosed and untreated and that prevent them from getting the services that would help. Once hooked into the social services network, things can go along relatively smoothly, provided one has some pretty humble expectations around housing, electricity and grocery needs. Addiction and mental illness compound the problems when they affect the behavior and decision-making of clients who are free and independent agents. People refuse assistance sometimes. People accept help, but then reject it later, only to later request it again. There is no point – nor should there be – when a person is simply cut off from assistance programs for such behavior. It just makes it frustrating for the staff who really want to help.
Pat Dennehey is the director of the drop-in center. A formidable woman, she manages miniscule resources and stretches every donation until it squeaks from the stress. She knows every client, their story, their history, their family situation, their drug, their drink, their diagnoses and their chances. She provides advocacy and resource referrals and management. Some clients have asked her to manage their funds, so she is their “payee” and she pays their rent and bills and disburses their money (usually from a disability check) so that they don’t run out before the end of the month. She supervises a small staff of paid workers, volunteers, and two students. She doles out groceries, frozen chickens, tooth brushes and bars of soap. She does what she can to counsel clients to lay off the booze, to put down the crack pipe, to stop buying scratch tickets, and she does so with an amount of grace that leaves none of them humiliated when it’s done. Sometimes she can help people, and sometimes she can’t. And while she’d probably deny it in public, the little victories and moments of tenderness can reduce her to tears. Pat and I get along just fine.
This is the time of year when we talk a lot about sharing what we have, about opening our hearts and our checkbooks to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and I think it is worth asking how open we actually are.
Knowing our boundaries and limitations is valuable. Priorities vary among us. A parent’s first job is to provide for and protect their children. A pastor’s job is to serve and lead their church. Like the flight attendants say, when the cabin pressure drops and the oxygen masks drop out of the ceiling, put yours on your own face before you help your neighbor.
Not everyone has what it takes to bring Jose and Maria into their homes to sleep in the spare room, or even the garage. I get that.
But what might we be doing that we’re not already doing? What could we be giving that might make a difference? Do we give just that portion of our resources that does not really make an impact on our comfort, or do we share things that make us wince just a bit? Do we clean our closets of old clothes we no longer want and donate those, or do we go out and pick up some new things to donate so someone will have a shirt that’s never been worn by anybody else? Giving our trash to someone hardly counts as virtue in my book, save perhaps its relative value as an effort to recycle. But like Hosea Ballou said about intention – if our desires are not pure, our hearts are not pure and we cannot claim virtue from good behavior done for disingenuous or self-serving reasons.
So I challenge us this week to examine our giving habits. Without crossing into the realm of codependent self-abuse, are we giving all that we could? Are we sharing as much of ourselves as we can? Is there room in the inn of our hearts for those less fortunate than us? Can we make welcome those who are difficult to welcome – the unwashed, the mumbling, stumbling masses?
In 1883, New York poet Emma Lazarus composed a sonnet called The New Colossus, inspired by America’s acceptance of immigrants from around the world. The words will be familiar to some, and new to others.
The New Colossus
Not the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Those words were inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty when it was dedicated and unveiled in 1886. This is what the world thought of America then – that we were able to welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We, as Americans, often pride ourselves on our generosity. So now I challenge each of us. In this season of holidays and holy days, let us push ourselves to give as much of ourselves as we can, and to see how it makes us feel, about ourselves and the world around us.
Blessed be and amen.
Monday, November 7, 2011
Friday, November 4, 2011
Thursday, November 3, 2011
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Monday, October 31, 2011
Saturday, October 29, 2011
Friday, October 28, 2011
Friday, October 14, 2011
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Thursday, October 6, 2011
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Sunday, October 2, 2011
What are we called to do?
In seminary, I am surrounded by people who have been called to ministry in a variety of ways. I have friends who are in training to be ministers in a number of faith traditions, from evangelical Christians to Reformed Judaism, and from the pulpit to the classroom.
It is not surprising then, that we seem to spend a lot of time talking about this thing called “call.” What’s yours? When did you get it? What does it look like to you? I have heard as many stories about call as I have met people, and each is as unique as the individual describing it. Some describe their call to ministry as a slow-moving awakening of purpose, a gradual understanding of what they are meant to do with their lives. Others describe a transformative spiritual experience, being touched by the divine. I’ll tell you about my call experience in a moment.
But first some background. In order to know why my call experience was what it was, I need to let you know a little bit about me first. I was born just down the river in Newburyport, at the Anna Jacques Hospital, in the summer of 1965. I was baptized at Saint Louis DeGonzague Catholic Church in the south end, where I also made my first communion.
I received that sacrament in the requisite white frilly dress, clutching the pink plastic beaded rosary (the boys got blue), and thinking holy thoughts about the sacrament and unholy thoughts about the itchy white tights and uncomfortable patent-leather shoes. My grandmother was the guardian of my soul, making sure that I received all of the necessary sacraments before I graduated high school.
I believed the tenets of my Roman Catholic faith until I got into college and began to face some of the serious, scary questions that I had been privileged to not have to answer earlier. Suddenly issues about reproductive choice became important, as did questions about sex and relationships, and when I came out as a lesbian, it was at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the fiercest animosity between the church and the queer community. I knew where I was not welcome, and once I left, I found it much easier to look with a critical eye – indeed, a very critical eye – upon many of the tenets that I had accepted as a matter of faith before.
Years later, I was taking a humanities class that required as a homework assignment that I attend a church that was not of my faith tradition. I had heard things about those Unitarian Universalist folks, that they were liberal and all, so I took a deep breath and went inside to check it out. The UU church in Waterville, Maine is a white clapboard affair with a clock and bell tower and a stained glass window with a picture of Jesus and some sheep. It looked frighteningly traditional to me, and I was braced for the worst as I sat in the hard wooden pew.
Imagine my surprise when I flipped through the hymnal. Readings by Lao-Tse? Marge Piercy? A hymn by Holly Near?! My mind reeled. This could NOT be church, I thought. It made no sense. I don’t remember what the sermon was about that day, but I remember going home and crying. It was all too much. I had never been in church and heard the message that I was OK. I had never been in a church that affirmed me as a human being, as a woman, as a queer person, as a person with left-of-left-of-even-more-left-than-that-leaning politics. It was more than a month before I could go back. And then another month. And then a couple weeks. And then it was summer and you all did what?! Really? You close for the summer? This was the craziest church I’d ever seen. In September, I came back with everyone else, and stayed.
But that’s not about my call. That’s just how I got in the building.
Many years later, I started preaching. Mostly I was raising money for a political campaign, but what I was doing was preaching. I told stories to an assembled crowd of people who were interested in the topic, I made them laugh, I made them cry, and I did my best to make them write big checks. I had some success, and when the campaign headquarters got a call looking for someone to come preach on marriage equality at a UU church, well, a few fingers pointed at me.
Now keep in mind, that although I was a UU, I considered myself a mostly-lapsed UU. I wasn’t attending a church, and was living in a very secular world, where I polished and treasured a moderately scandalous reputation. The thought of me in a pulpit was, and remains, to a number of my friends, more than a little amusing. But I went and I preached and I did a fair job. I was beating a political drum. I signed up the volunteers I needed, and I went home.
People started suggesting that I might make a good minister or preacher over the course of the campaign, but I brushed off such ideas as ridiculous. I was a radical sex educator, a political hack and a writer with strong opinions and a big mouth. I could not see myself in a ministerial role, working with boards and committees, being polite to people I thought really needed a sound thumping, verbal or otherwise. It just didn’t seem reality-based. I was not, as we say in seminary, “a non-anxious presence.”
A month or two later, I did join a church, and in a perfect storm of life experiences over the course of a couple weeks, I became single, started some deep spiritual reflection, joined the church and got a job after more than a year of unemployment. One Sunday morning during this time, I was sitting in my new church home. In the pulpit was our new Director of Religious Education and Lifespan Curriculum, a man of Irish Catholic extraction from eastern Massachusetts. He told us the story that morning of how he came to enter ministry, how he ended up in seminary, and how he experienced his call to serve in our church.
As he spoke, the most amazing thing happened. The sun moved gradually across the sanctuary to where I was sitting. It enveloped me in light and warmth, I felt something I can only describe to this day as a physical presence pressing down on me, but not in an unpleasant way, and words came to my mind unbidden. I hope you will forgive my language, but the words that came to me were “well shit. I’m going to be a minister. I have to go to seminary.” I figure the profanity was the divine’s way of letting me know that this message was specifically for my blue-collar self and not the polite young man to my right. Unable to move, I sat and cried through the rest of the service.
Now I know that this kind of experience is not typical of what we expect in Unitarian Universalist churches, but there it is. It is what happened to me. To tell the story in any other words would be inauthentic to my experience and dishonest to you.
What I have learned about my call is that it is the thing that takes over. My call is the thing that will rearrange my priorities. Studying is my priority now.
Call is the thing that I describe as a seed knowing which way to grow when planted in the dark earth. My call is like that – all else is becoming less and less relevant, as I know that what I am supposed to do is push skyward, somehow trusting that the color and shape of the blossom will make itself known when I have grown enough.
Historically, we have understood call to be something similar to my experience – a lightning bolt from out of the sky. The risen Jesus appears to Saul on the road to Damascus and knocks him blind from his horse; Jesus tells the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew to “come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” We tend to think of call as involving hair shirts, suffering, sacrifice, and discomfort.
I think it is dangerous thinking to believe that a call must mean some sort of brilliant, vaguely unbalanced passion for a thing that causes a person to give up all their earthly belongings and take off into the wilderness to pursue it. That version leaves a lot of us out of the running. Saint Francis of Assisi heard a call from god, renounced his title and wealth, took off all his clothes and walked into the wilderness naked to live on grains and honey that nature provided. Not all of us can do that. Some would argue that not all of us should even try. But I think we are all called to do the work of the divine.
Our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to action in a unique way. We are called to uphold our principles, based upon their own moral value. In our non-creedal, non-doctrinal faith, we do not have the threat of eternal damnation as a motivator. As Universalists, we do not have to worry about being separated from the love of the divine. By definition, we believe in universal salvation. There is no threat of punishment to compel us to right behavior and right relations with the world around us.
We draw our living tradition from Jewish and Christian teachings, but we do not respond well to demands for strict adherence to edicts from long ago. Our Humanist sensitivities require us to pass things through a lens of reason to see if they are relevant and appropriate in our present world. Tradition is good, but it had better have some science to back it up or we resist it. We believe in transcendence and the power of the divine, but we believe in reason, too. In the words of Ronald Reagan, “trust, but verify.”
Our Unitarian Universalist Principles call on us to do lots of things: To affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people, to act with justice and compassion in human relations, to accept one another and encourage spiritual growth, to search for truth and meaning, to use the democratic process, to work for peace and liberty and justice and to respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
That’s no small order. Christians and Jews have the Ten Commandments. You’d think seven principles would not be as challenging as something as very authoritative as The Ten Commandments, but I think our principles call on us to be as vigorous in our moral behavior as those edicts from the Hebrew Bible.
It is not easy to uphold all of our principles every day. We live in a world that makes it singularly inconvenient to practice these principles on a daily basis. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence is jeopardized every time we get coffee at the drive-though, either by the Styrofoam cup with distinctive pink and orange letters or by the mere fact that we’re sitting in our idling automobile, spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
My adherence to the first principle is sorely treated when I see some of the recent political debates and the things people there have said. Inherent worth and dignity of all people? Really? Yes, really. All of them.
This is not a religion for the faint of heart or conviction. There is nothing wishy-washy about believing that there is inherent worth and dignity in people who behave in hurtful ways.
Let me phrase it this way: What is it we do that serves love, justice, grace, and peace?
When we serve on a committee that helps raise money for a shelter for victims of domestic violence, are we not doing god’s work? When we volunteer to help with a church committee, are we not doing the work of the divine? When we speak up when someone tells a racist or sexist or homophobic joke, are we not doing the work of the divine? All of these things are examples of things we do that are part of living in right relationship with each other and the world around us. Is that not what our principles call us to do? To live in right relationship with each other and the world? Is this not where, as Rumi said, we “return to the root of the root” of our own selves?
Sometimes I think we don’t give ourselves enough credit. I think we do what we can, wish we could do more, get frustrated that we are not perfect, and treat ourselves badly as a result. I think it would do us no harm to be as compassionate with ourselves as we are inclined to be with each other. We are called to justice, and freedom, and peace, yes. But we are called to compassion, too. And humanity. And we are human.
I want to challenge you this week. I want us to be mindful of our behavior. What we do, what we say, how we act. Let us notice what of our behavior and words serves what we are called to do. Let us be mindful of the good in ourselves and in others. Let us think, too, directly and with consideration, about what our personal calling might be. How do our personal calls mesh with what the covenants of our faith call us to do and be?
We are all called. In one way or another, we all have a call. To service, to justice, to compassion, to peace, to love, to each other, to ourselves. Let us each answer that call as we are able.
Blessed be. Amen.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
There was no couching phrase, no justification, no "we didn't know it was that bad," no "but we were afraid he'd never let us see you again," none of that. Just "I'm sorry."
Sunday, January 2, 2011
The PTSD is said to be more damaging and difficult to treat it: (1) the traumas occur over a prolonged period of time, e.g., longer than six months; and especially if (2) the traumas are of human origin; and if (3) those around the affected person tend to deny the existence of the stressor or the stress.