Sunday, February 25, 2018

Centering our Young People

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.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

From the Office

Right now, I sit in a 100+ year old building, in the old offices of the 1930s CIO, in the office of Mr Dick Law, a Finnish lawyer and organizer whose wife Laura would be murdered in the wake of both of their activism over half a century ago. Her murder was never solved. By happenstance, that office is now rented by Chaplains.

I am looking over a tired old town, one of many in these United and divided States. Dozens of people living on the streets are visible, walking up and down the streets. It was a cold night last night. The pharmacy looks almost new and some of the houses of the hill look passable, but the rest of the town is full of gutted buildings and tired projects.

The people here are not really what they are stereotyped to be by the AP newspaper articles and national pundits. They are mostly working class and poor, sons and daughters of union workers, in a blue dog democrat town turning red for lack of better options. They are Native and majority white, but our children are increasingly brown as immigration continues to the area. Our opinions are diverse and often, we are thrown together for survival, whether we like it or not.

We are stubbornly stuck in the crosshairs of global capitalism; abandoned by an extractive industry that still owns the majority of the land, with no replacement economy except for drugs and prisons. The forests are young after years of overharvesting, the coasts have been overfished (although we still bring in sizable harvests), and we are all a little bit tired. Environmentalists love to visit the area to take pictures of its amazing beauty, but care little for the people who also are part of the ecosystem. While a few Seattle based bands mock the town of Aberdeen, not many people think of the place beyond “the city you drive through to get to the beach.”

We have been abandoned by capital; we have been abandoned by politicians; we are mocked by pundits.

We have also been abandoned by organizers.

The left loves to mire itself in constant self reflection. Constant facebook posts about intentions and who did things right. Constant one-upmanship around identity politics. Constant critique of anyone doing anything. Constant arguing around protest: is it good or not, who should lead it, how should you get arrested, and the list goes on. Constant smug comments critiquing every single thing. Everyone is vying to be the expert while everyone agrees that movements should be ‘leaderless.’ Everyone wants autonomy, no one wants to follow. Everyone wants individual expression, everyone needs to be right. We argue endlessly about language and tactic.

And here in the old office above Heron Street, I am tired of listening. To all of it, honestly.

Because while all the pundits and self proclaimed experts and leaderless movement builders are talking and arguing and endlessly extrapolating, my people are dying. I’ve buried 15 people or so in the last year. The oldest was in his 50s. The youngest was 24. Poverty and the drug economy and abandonment have created generations of trauma and death in my community. All of the kids I work with are in and out of jail, and many started their jail career at 10 or 11.  The native nations of this community are mired in deep poverty and camps of the forgotten and addicted grow along our riverbanks. White kids in my generation turned to white power gangs and ran drugs; the next generation are joining well networked gangs to find some sense of survival and way forward on the street. The opiate crisis has slammed this community and too many of those I bury are from overdose; after all, we have twice the state average of overdose death.

So to the white, liberal, urban organizers:
 Do something. Anything.

Don’t pretend that your identity crises and critiques and endless self reflection are helping anything, are building anything.

Ground yourself in a real community; a flesh and blood one, where people make mistakes, where white power gang members and Surenos meet and shake hands, where homophobes go to their daughter’s gay wedding and clap, where Trump voters and anarchists build homes together.

Shut up. Please.

In my community, and in communities like mine all over a nation that is now nearly 50% low income and poor, there are leaders. They are raising kids and they are in jail and they are stocking the supermarket and they are in all the places that no one looks for leaders. Because all those terrible things I listed above are true, but not the whole story. Out of the pain and darkness, leaders are arising and they will change the world.

Listen to them.

They really do have something to say.

Step out of your silos—whether those silos are universities, hipster coffee bars, an institutional church—those places meant to be white and cultured and upper crust. Stop talking to each other. See the world around you. Listen to the people you are used to talking about.

And, and, there are some things we could really use from you.

Remember how the right built up to the moment we are at right now for 35 years? Remember the jail ministries and the protests and the coffee table conversations and the popular books and magazines and the devotionals? (I do) We’ve got some catching up to do.

Start doing some of those things.

We need Bible commentaries—popular ones that can go on the shelf in the local bookstore and in jails—that tell people that Jesus was on the side of poor and struggling people. We need devotionals that address our trauma and our loss and our pain and tell us God is on our side. We need to hear from others who have dealt with trauma, addiction, and homelessness, but we also need Bible scholars to tell us that there are ways to read the Bible that can give us hope. We need to hear that God is against racism, materialism, and militarism. We need to hear about a God who takes sides. We need think tanks, people, think tanks of scholars (ones educated in universities and ones educated by the hard knock life) who can write magazines and who can put out solid web information, who can analyze our political and economic situation. We need some external acknowledgement of our collective trauma.

Sometimes, we need you to show up to let us know we are not alone. Build relationships. Sometimes, we need you to help fundraise for local efforts, or to assist us with your expertise in law or science or economics as we seek to build a better world, as we seek to transfer wealth back into our community, as we seek to end the street to jail pipeline. If you are from a small, abandoned community, consider returning to one, stymying the brain drain poor communities face when all their brilliant lawyers and doctors leave town for better fields.

Protest when you want, but don’t stop there. Continue your internal dialogues on facebook if you need to, but please, please, do something. Listen. Write. Come. Act.

From here in the office on Heron Street, in the long shadow cast by ghosts of radical, murdered organizers, surrounded by poverty and death, surrounded by new leaders and abiding hope, we are asking you to stop talking to each other for a moment, turn and listen, and act.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Redneck Reflection on the Past Week

Ever since the civil rights movement, groups like SNCC and the Black Panthers have been telling white people to look to and take care of their own communities. And, consistently, white, mostly middle class, liberals have marched in the streets, presented themselves as allies of black communities, and signed people up to vote. They are quick to denounce open displays of white supremacy and quick to denounce poor white communities as gun toting, bigoted racists. But they have never been quick to do what they were asked to do: take care of and do the hard work of working in white communities.

I am a redneck. I grew up target shooting with shotguns and rifles, grew up in a majority white rural community—and I grew up reading white power materials and using racial slurs, alongside listening to sermons that said we were all created equal.

I now work very close to where I grew up, as pastor to a very poor, heavily criminalized, majority white community. A lot of the young people I work with have been recruited into white power gangs: everything from the KKK to the Skinheads and Peckerwoods to the newish Thor’s Hammer. They are not the face of the alt-right; most of the folks who gather in places like Charlottesville are middle class armchair racists turned activists who join neo-Nazi, Patriot, and White Nationalist groups for ideological reasons. My kids join white gangs that run drugs, provide protection in prison and on the streets, and give them somewhere to belong.

Because no one answered the call 100 years ago, and again 50 years ago, to organize in white communities, my kids have few alternatives to white power gangs. The left has abandoned white poor communities, time and again, to deepening poverty, to heavy criminalization, to hunger, to police violence—and to the Skinheads.  

Young white kids join white power gangs for similar reasons that black and brown kids join black and Latino gangs: for protection, for belonging, for economic survival. Of course, they have an added, deadly commitment to white supremacy. It is especially easy for young people who have grown up in rural, white communities to join white supremacists: the racist structure of our society insure that many of them have not had much contact with people of color. At least, until they are incarcerated.

Kellan Howell interviewed several former neo-Nazis about how to confront the recent public rise of white power protests. They said, in part:
When it comes to engaging with far-right extremists, Meeink and Angela said it's all about making them feel human again.
"Maybe, a simple kind word, a simple act of compassion, and that is not an easy thing to do," King said, adding that her own transformation came after a Jamaican woman in prison asked her to play a game of cribbage…
…Both Meeink and King say that a rough childhood and feelings of isolation and emptiness led them to seek solace with white power groups, but they say people who have had similar experiences can help show those who are currently struggling that they don't have to turn to hatred to find purpose.
My work centers in part around this work. While our ministry reaches a number of native kids who are frequently the target of racial violence (including a young kid who was just killed in a racially motivated vehicular homicide), the majority of people we work with are white. Many of them are, or have been, members of white power gangs. We focus on “making them feel human again.” None of them are, first and foremost, white supremacists. They are young people who have been beaten time and again by the police, who have been jailed from the time they were around 13, who got their first felonies as teenagers and who have never had a stable life since, who run drugs because there is no other economy in town, who have experienced extreme violence and abuse, who have lost their parents and their children to a system that offers them no first chance, much less a second. They are tired. They are brave. They are angry. In jail, they have native friends and Latino friends who have experienced the same thing and sometimes they have each other’s backs.

But they have never had the opportunity to see that, perhaps, they have more in common with poor communities of color than they have with the wealthy and powerful leaders of organizations like the KKK, the Patriots, and other alt-right groups. The white supremacist plan to divide and conquer the poor has worked. Sometimes, anyway.

These young people are mostly tired. And out of hope. They spend their days surviving for one more day. They want so much more, they deserve so much better. They are hungry for something better. They are hungry for hope. They are hungry for a way out of the violence, the terror, the damning struggle to survive. In the coming struggle for the soul of a nation, we have a choice. We can abandon them to the alt-right. Or we can invite them into a better world.