Lent 2, St Paul's Episcopal Church, Port Townsend
In the aftermath of school shootings, there is a national conversation about our young people. What is or isn’t wrong with them, what kind of security we need to protect our kids, what kind of security we need to protect ourselves from our kids, and on the list goes.
Much of my work is with young people—teens and young adults who have found themselves poor, homeless, on the wrong side of the law, or dead far too soon.
And while I don’t have any great wisdom to offer the national conversation, what I do have is lived experience in a poor town where young people are thrown away. And what I find, in my work, in Grays Harbor, where my kids are living in a town where 1 in 25 people are homeless and where half the county is on public assistance, what I find is the constant presence of death.
Over and over again, I stand at campsites with kids in their early 20s sobbing over the bodies of friends and loved ones. I know 18 year olds who have found their mothers dead. Over and over again, I hold memorial services for kids who died at 24, at 18, at 35. One young man, the first gang involved kid in jail to ever call me pastor, died of pneumonia after being turned away from two hospitals because he was flagged for drug use. For the poorest among us, even in this the wealthiest country in the world, poverty means the constant presence of death.
And, in that constant presence, kids do daring and foolhardy things, to survive, to escape, to take a chance at one more breath. They run from police and jump into rivers to their death. They overdose. They join a drug cartel and run drugs in exchange for a nasty room in a flop house so their pregnant girlfriend isn’t in the cold.
Father Greg Boyle, who has been a pastor to gang members in east LA for three decades, relates how he was on the Dr Phil Show at one point. And Dr Phil was interviewing a couple of kids in gangs and he had these elaborate setups, pointing out that these kids were headed for death or prison. Fr Greg relates how he interrupts Dr Phil and says; “They already know that. Everyone knows that death or prison is the end result. People join gangs because they have lost hope, not to find it.”
Jesus is talking to people like that in this gospel. He is talking to men and women who have seen death on all sides, who are used to the presence of early and unjust death. He is talking to a people who know what it means to lose hope. And he is telling them that he will die with them, and for them, and he is calling them to fight for life, and to die for each other if necessary.
Lent is a time that calls us to fast, so we can acknowledge the reality of those who have no food. Lent is a time that calls us to die, so we can acknowledge the reality of those who die early and often. Lent reminds us that the gospel centers the people who are hungry. The gospel centers the people who are suffering. The gospel centers the people who are dying. The gospel centers the kids I know and love.
And, in our ministry, surrounded by death and the memory of our lost loved ones, we are learning to find life in death. We are learning to struggle for what counts. For love. Learning to gain our lives, our souls in our willingness to die for each other. To feed each other, to love each other, to keep each other out of the cold.
Tonight, an 18 year old who spent the last several years of her own life homeless, facing impossible odds, facing unimaginable violence, is helping to keep a cold weather shelter open for her friends. Tomorrow, a trans kid who has faced nothing but an uphill battle to even be acknowledged as human in his own community, will cook a meal to feed 30 people. Yesterday, a half dozen young men formed a Bible study in jail and decided that their mission was to, in the words of Isaiah, “restore the streets to live in”, and build resources for the forgotten young people of Grays Harbor.
If gang involvement and all the drugs and violence of the streets in which I work are a sign of the hopelessness of our young people, our community center and our apprenticeship program, still in their infancy, are signs of hope. Signs of life in death. Signs that Jesus’ call to risk everything for a better world, Jesus’ call to die for one another in a place of so much death, still rings true two millennia later.
This past year, we joined the national Poor People’s Campaign, spearheaded by the Rev William Barber. And one of our young people, our first apprentice, spoke at the launch of that campaign in WA DC. She said;
"I volunteered to stay overnight at our church and keep people safe while they slept. … I stayed because my community stepped up to save my life, when the rest of society didn’t care whether I lived or died, and now it was my turn to protect my community. .I’m joining the Poor People’s Campaign because I need a movement that’s as tough as I am."
We might live in a county with devastating unemployment. We might have record suicide rates and the highest overdose rate in the state. Our young people might feel like they are thrown away, as they desperately scrabble to survive while business owners in city hall openly call for their death.
But in that death and despair, a resolve is growing.
A resolve to risk building a better world. A resolve to be part of a movement to make change. A resolve to make the community a better place.
As part of that this year, we are expanding our apprenticeship program and leasing 3 acres of farmland, as a way to both bring fresh food into our community center and provide supportive employment for young people trying to get off the streets and build a better life and world.
Every time one of our people dies, we say these words; “Rest in peace, rise in power.” We imagine, as we do this great work begun in villages in Galilee so many years ago, that all of our beloved dead surround us, as a great cloud of witnesses, demanding with us a better world, demanding with us an end to suffering and unjust death, and celebrating hope and life with us in this struggle.
And we invite you too to this, as part of a holy Lent.