Just a little over a year ago, I was visiting a group in jail who had decided to form a Bible study. They were all young guys—some white, some Native— and they all came from the streets. They started reading parts of Isaiah until, during Holy Week, they read Isaiah 58. They were fasting that week, looking for guidance, and I believe it came. It was one of those holy spirit moments. That week, one of the guys leading the study came to me during our visiting time, and said; “This is it. This is what we are called to do. To be restorers of streets to live in!” He was thrilled, amazed by this thought that he—who had experienced the streets and all that went with it—the violence, the drugs, the hunger, the cold—could be part of restoring them, restoring the community. This young man is still in prison right now, but we write regularly and this study inspired us to use that phrase—“restoring the streets to live in”—as part of our mission statement.
As I was reading through this and preparing for this sermon, a few things came to mind about this text and how it relates to our own community.
1. Isaiah is writing to people who lived through disaster
First, Isaiah is writing to people who lived through disaster during the Babylonian exile. It is a text that speaks to a generation and their children who witnessed the complete destruction of their homes and livelihoods—and their freedom. They saw war and they lost it; they were carried as slaves and exiles into Babylon, and there they lived and suffered until, 70 years later, a group was allowed to return.
They were a people who had experienced tremendous trauma, people who Louis Stulman says were living pillar to post between disaster and survival. That is, they were stuck between this loss and trauma, this destruction of their community, and their deep need to survive and live to rebuild their lives and dreams.
Our community also lives, in many ways, pillar to post between disaster and survival. We haven’t seen war and destruction in the same ways, but we have lived through our own traumas. We have been hit hard by the economic crisis, we have lost most of our main industries. We are one of many communities across the country with growing poverty and homelessness and a shrinking economic base. We have, in the process, lost ways of life. I grew up farming in this community and yet, coming back, there are so few working farms I feel like I can count them on one hand. Logging once supported this community and now very little of that industry is left.
In our own way, we are in between disaster—the loss of a way of life and the loss of an economic base—and survival—our deep need to find a future for ourselves and our children, our deep need sometimes to simply survive.
Like Isaiah’s community, this looks like growing homelessness, this looks like people who are hungry, this looks like people who don’t have living wage jobs, this looks like a daily struggle to survive.
2. Isaiah is condemning religion without action, judgment and exclusion without mercy
And, Isaiah’s community faced a choice. They could close their doors and hearts, double down on their religious practice, and ignore the struggles of those around them. They could fast and they could judge everyone around them and point fingers.
Because that is the first impulse, I think, of people who are between disaster and survival. “Batten down the hatches.” “Close the doors.” “Protect yourselves.” These are human instincts. Let’s hole up in our new temple and fast and keep those doors shut.
Or, they could follow the prophet’s call. They could follow God’s way, which is ever so much harder than human instincts.
They could see their family, their own, their community struggling out on the streets. They could see the hunger around them. They could turn from greed to generosity. They could undo oppression when they saw it. They could make sure everyone was fairly and justly treated.
3. Isaiah is calling people to restore streets to live in
And, the prophet gives them a promise. If they chose mercy over judgement, if they chose following God instead of empty religious practice,
If they made sure people were taken care of and fed and given a chance and paid fairly
If they removed oppression and injustice
Then, and only then, would they truly be able to rebuild. Only then would they restore the streets to live in. Only then would God pour out his blessing on them and their endeavors. Only then would they move from survival to thriving.
I think, as always, we have the same choices in front of us today, in our own community.
This is why I do the work that I do.
In our county today, at least 2,000 people are homeless and couch surfing. 1 out of 16 people in Aberdeen. 46% of us our on public assistance. Poverty and homelessness and hunger are everywhere and most of us, at least if we are watching, see it all around us. We had a service last year for all the people we’d lost on the streets and we had 17 pictures on the table. The youngest was 24.
And we too are called away from the anger and the vitriol and the hatred that too often we can see in our community. We are called instead to this: to this fast that God chooses—
We are called to rebuild our community.
The people I know who have the deepest vision and the deepest hope to rebuild this community—to restore the streets to live in—are those who have lived closest to disaster and survival. I have had the honor and privilege to know so many brave and courageous people in this place. So many people who have lost absolutely everything and still struggle every day to dig themselves out of a hole that keeps getting deeper, or struggle simply to survive one more day. I have witnessed incredible resilience and hope in the darkest places.
This year, our ministry formed Harbor Roots, a small farming coop, leasing three acres of land out the Wynoochee. Following the vision of those young men in that Bible study in jail, we looked for ways to offer supportive employment and to provide wrap around services and group support.
We’ve hired three people, just getting off the streets, just getting clean, just trying to get on their feet. I have walked with each of them through some pretty awful things, as their pastor.
I have seen a lot of awful things, actually, in my work on the harbor. I have seen people die in the mud. I have buried the 18 year old brother and 45 year old father of a 7 year old girl in the same 12 month period. I have watched moms lose their kids and I have watched young men shrivel away to skin and bones with drugs and hunger. I have sat with women in the aftermath of people taking bats to tents, I have sat by hospital beds with overdoses and exposure deaths and beat downs.
And. And. I got to sit at a table last week with a bunch of kids in recovery, including our apprentices, and talk about ways to rebuild. Talk about what healing looks like. And when I looked at them, I saw all their struggle and pain, but way more than that I saw their hope and their dreams and their vision and I knew that love will always overcome hate
and I knew that healing will always overcome suffering
and I knew that they would lead us.
I knew that they would restore the streets to live in.
I knew that, if we ever heal as a community, if we ever choose life (as the people of Israel were offered so long ago), if we ever have hope, it would be through them.
Isaiah was not lying. We restore life to our community through loving and protecting each other. We rebuild by lifting all of us up together.