Sunday, December 6, 2015

Being a Street Pastor

When I baptize a baby, its never in a embroidered christening gown in the middle of a service at church. It is usually with borrowed water in a hospital room, as a small family snatches the last few moments with their child. I grasp at those few precious moments, seeing a mother with her child, a family together for a brief moment. I baptize knowing that these moments may be the only ones they ever have together. I trace a cross on that baby’s head and I say the name their mother has given them, a name they may not ever know. I seal that baby’s head, marking him as Christ’s own forever, because I know that it will be a long, twisted road. Sometimes I have five minutes before CPS takes custody. And, then, I hold mom in my arms as she sobs; “They took my baby.”

 When I sit down for a pastoral care conversation, I hear about hell. I witness hell. I kneel in the mud with dying men and pray desperately next to suicidal teens. Every day, every hour brings a crisis. A mother who had her child torn out of her arms, a teenager whose boyfriend overdosed in a tent, a drunk woman wailing the loss of her 10th family member in two years. Young men tell me about fathers and friends and officers who beat them, whose bodies are so broken by the time they are 30 that they suffer the health issues and pain of a 60 year old. Foster kids tell me about fingers being cut off by crazy foster moms and young women tell me about being gang raped and gay guys tell about being targets of harassment and gay bashing.

I get calls from elderly women who have lost housing and are facing life on the street, from drunk men who need socks to try to prevent frostbite as the weather worsens. Faces brighten when I visit jail. I hold my hand to fiberglass barriers, willing myself to hold together the young woman crying and babbling in a manic episode for which jail offers no treatment or medication, but only punishment. Twenty-one year old kids celebrate their birthdays in maximum security, alone, unable to make calls out because no one has enough money to put on their accounts. 

When people ask me if I can marry them, it is often a decision born out of desperation. Desperate love, desperate need to survive, desperate attempt to name a baby’s father. We talk about trauma, so much trauma. We talk about the intense stress and the conflict it creates. Most wedding plans fall through. The weddings I do are usually small affairs, as we try to work with tiny budgets and fraying nerves. For better and for worse.

People die all the time. People come up to me and say; “Its not going to be much longer for me.” People on bikes stop and ask; “Did you hear that so and so died?” Sometimes I try and call the coroner to verify. 49 year old male found dead with an IV in his arm in the back alley of a city 40 miles away. 23 year old veteran found dead of an overdose. Into your hands, oh merciful Savior, we commend your servant. I want to stretch out my arms and hold them all. Instead, I sit and I listen, I baptize and I bury, I weep and I get up every morning to do it again.

I do memorial services, but almost never do funerals. The bodies are usually quickly cremated and sitting in little metal boxes in a tent or crumbling apartment. Sometimes there is no memorial. We light candles in borrowed churches and whisper the names of our dead. All of us go down to the dust, but even at the grave we make our song. And then we go out into a harsh world to try and survive another day.

And I keep going back and keep doing what I do, not because I am courageous and not because I am kind, but because I am honored to know the people I love. Because I witness their courage. Because they teach me how to survive in a terrible world. Because they struggle every day for their own liberation. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Call to Boldness

Text: Ephesians 6:10-20

“I am questioning my courage.”

A fellow pastor, who just opened up her church to Aberdeen’s tent city, told me that this week. To be honest, all I could do was say: “I question my courage a lot too.”

The author of Ephesians writes: “Pray that I can proclaim the gospel boldly.” “Pray that I can continue to be faithful, even as I suffer in prison.” “Pray for me, that I have courage.”

The early Christian community—a community of mostly poor, mostly forgotten people who kept ending up in jail—faced down an entire empire. They were up against powers and principalities, against rulers who condemned them and an empire that oppressed them.

The call of the gospel for that early community was a call to boldness.

You all know at least a little about the ministry that we do out in Aberdeen and Westport, on the streets and in the middle of deep poverty. I work as a priest in both places, serving alongside about 250 people, open 5 days a week, eating together, worshipping together, studying the Bible together, and dealing with crisis constantly.

To be perfectly honest, I resonate deeply with the author of Ephesians. I feel the need for courage and faithfulness all the time. I feel the need for prayer all the time.

We face powers and principalities all the time in our work.

The powers and principalities that tell the poor and struggling folks of Grays Harbor county that they are worthless, that they do not deserve good housing, that they do not deserve to survive. The powers and principalities that leave people to die without hope for a better future. 

Courage can be hard to find. We face a lot of opposition in our work. I’ve been called a lot of names as people struggle to understand why I stand with people living in poverty and on the street. Our folks on the street face ordinances that criminalize homelessness and they face repression. People get arrested often, and often simply for sleeping outside or charging their phone in a park, and are faced with fines and fees they cannot pay. They also face the constant scorn of their neighbors. As our tent city is getting ready to move to another church, the mudslinging is beginning again.

When my pastor friend says; “I question my own courage,” I get it. When the author of Ephesians says; “Pray for boldness,” I get it.

And so we in Aberdeen and Westport ask you, as fellow gospel proclaimers, for your prayers.

It can feel like we face powers beyond our imagination.

I know many veterans on the streets, many of them relatively young. They share with me how proud they once were of being trusted to operate millions of dollars of equipment and of being part of something bigger than themselves. They share stories of the horrors of war and their own trauma. And they sometimes talk about the biggest trauma of all: coming back home and being utterly abandoned. Now no one trusts them with a job. Now they can’t take care of those they love. Now they are plagued with nightmares on the streets. Now they can barely get medical care. Now they are routinely arrested by the governments they once served, in and out of jail for minor infractions or for being homeless.

How do you find courage then?

“Pray that I might have boldness,” says the imprisoned apostle. “I doubt my courage.”

And then I take my lead from the prophets among us.

The young women on the streets of Aberdeen who come to community meetings and say; “The city is all of us. Its not just pretty streets and tourists. Its all of us.”

The folks who risk arrest to be visible and to speak truth to power in meetings with city officials or public fundraisers.

The veterans who tell their stories and ask why they can’t get housing or work.

The cannery workers who try to support their Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters when there is an immigration raid.

The courage that I witness every day in the most desperate circumstances gives me courage.

I watch young men and women who are called names every day stand up and put on the belt of truth and speak truths that are hard to hear.

I watch the forgotten of the world put on the shoes of the gospel of peace in Westport, and open up space for food and hospitality in a place where so many are hungry.

I watch folks on the street put up a shield of faith, as they try to organize a tent city in Aberdeen and find a way to live in community and seek for a better future.

I watch the poor of the earth open up the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, and find their own stories there.

I watch my people fasten on the armor of God to struggle for their own liberation. To stand up for themselves. To forge a better life for themselves.

That gives me courage.

All over the world and all over our country, we have young men and women taking hard stands and speaking hard truths. Young undocumented immigrants who dare to dream. Young black folks, in the face of so many murders, saying “Black Lives Matter.” Young men and women on the streets daring to dream of a better life. Fighting for the soul of our country. That takes great courage.

Its that courage that hold up my own as I do the work I am called to do. It’s my people who give me courage.

And we ask for you to join us in this work, by praying for us and with us. Pray for Aberdeen and Westport. Pray for our ministry. Pray for the leaders of our group that are fighting for a better life in a place that is struggling. Pray for our veterans who are abandoned on the streets. Pray for boldness, that we might live and proclaim the gospel. The gospel that says to each of us, in the face of the powers and principalities of the world:
You are beloved.
You are worthy.
You are a child of God.
You are able.
You are the leaders of your own liberation and healing.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Agents of Liberation

Sermon preached at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, Vashon
Mark 6:34

They were like sheep without a shepherd.

Our text this morning says: And Jesus had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

I don’t know if any of you have seen a distraught flock of sheep. I grew up in farm country and, if a flock was not taken care of, if they didn’t have enough food, if they were left to the mercy of predators, sheep or any livestock grew thin, anxious, hungry.

They were like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus spent almost his entire ministry in the backcountry of Galilee. In farming towns and fishing villages. In the middle of nowhere, far from the halls of power. Jesus built his movement in the middle of nowhere.

Among people who had been robbed of their land, of their wealth, and often of their lives and their children by an oppressive Roman empire.

And he looks out over them and sees: they were scattered as sheep without a shepherd.

Now lets be clear. Often, when we read passages like this, we like to talk about how stupid sheep are. Or how they will follow anyone.

That’s not what Jesus is saying at all. Jesus is indicting the leaders who have left his people scattered. The leaders who have charged staggering taxes on poor peasants. The leaders who own all the land, forcing most people into sharecropping or slavery. The leaders who, like our text in Jeremiah says this morning, the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture. The leaders who value profit over people. Leaders who abuse land and people together.

What Jesus is not saying is that the people of Galilee were poor silly sheep. He comes teaching them and healing them, as one of them. He comes believing in them. He comes telling them their worth in the kingdom of God. He comes to make them leaders of their own liberation.

I think a lot about Jesus’ ministry in the rural backwoods of Galilee. I think about it a lot because I too work in the rural backwoods—of WA state. I work on the streets of Aberdeen, with people experiencing homelessness. And I work in our little community in Westport, a little fishing village, with people experiencing deep poverty.

We live in a world, in a country, where people are increasingly scattered. Where our leaders value profit over people. Where fewer and fewer resources are available to the average person. Where 3.5 million people are on the street any given year, and another 7.5 million do not have stable housing.

And those of us who live in rural areas and small towns and suburbs are feeling this keenly. Far from the halls of power, far from the limelight and the media, rural places in the US are experiencing growing poverty.  Often, our lands have been stripped of resources. Often, we have less and less access to the bounty of the earth. We live in some of the richest land in the world and yet people are hungry and houseless. Aberdeen is within 20 miles of some of the richest farmland I’ve seen and yet its nearly a food desert. Rural areas are often denied access to good health care, good food, or decent housing.

Its in places like this that the gospel comes alive for me. 2000 years ago, Jesus was in the same place, under severe oppression, teaching communities to heal, to become leaders in their own liberation. Together, communities in pain come to seek healing and wisdom. Together, communities under empire learn to find freedom. Everywhere Jesus goes, crowds come out to find their leadership and their dignity and their worth as children of God. People told they are nobodies come together and claim their dignity.

That is what we strive for, that is what we witness in Aberdeen and Westport. People refusing to believe what the world tells them: that they are worthless, that they are to blame for their poverty. Instead they keep standing up to seeking healing and wisdom together. To become leaders in their own liberation.

In Aberdeen, our largest homeless encampment received eviction notices in March. With nowhere to go, they went to city council. They spoke with the mayor and city officials. They organized themselves and spoke up for themselves in public meetings. And, when the local Lutheran church opened up their parking lot as a temporary place to go, they started organizing the first ever tent city in Aberdeen. They are learning, these brave, young men and women, to become leaders in their own liberation.

Our little community in Westport is based out of a closed church building. In February, we opened it up again and asked the community to participate in rebuilding the space. Last week, we had 60 people come in our doors. One young homeless couple stopped me and said; “Wow, we’ve never seen a place like this before. Everyone is welcome.” We have rejected any effort to be a charity, to help people in need. Instead, we have opened up space for people to take care of each other, as each has a need.

In a food desert, we get donated fish from fishermen, whoever wants to brings what food they have, and we have fresh vegetables growing in our community garden. In a town that has no social services, various leaders in our group, all poor themselves, distribute donated hygiene supplies and clothing. In a place where poor people have no place to gather, where they are denied access so often to public space, we have space to sit and talk, to watch movies, to drink coffee and charge cell phones.

We are learning together to be leaders in our own liberation. In this tiny fishing town in the middle of nowhere, we are finding healing and liberation. We are learning to live the gospel together.

And Jesus looked out over the crowd and he had compassion on them, because they were as sheep without a shepherd.

But not helpless. Not in need of expert opinions. Not worthless.

Those men and women of Galilee, so long ago, as they followed Jesus, found healing together, in community, as they learned to be leaders in their own liberation.

And, here and now, the gospel lives on in tiny towns across the country. In places where people who are experiencing all the oppression of our modern day greed, people find healing in community. People find liberation in community. People are agents of their own liberation.

In our work, our leaders have not waited for the experts to finish their studies or the leaders of this country to change their ways. They have stood up—poor, oppressed, tired sometimes—stood up and demanded change, lived change. They join people all over the world, from Chiapas to Appalachia, from Ferguson to Aberdeen, not waiting to stand up for their liberation.

This is the call of the gospel, this is the message we preach:
You are beloved.
You are worthy.
You are a child of God.
You are able.

You are the leaders of your own liberation and healing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Maybe Its Time for Us All to Stand Together

“I’ve just been made homeless. The president should come visit. Someone needs to see just how bad it is for us here.” Heard on the streets of Aberdeen

It can be hard to imagine, unless you have experienced the underside of American life lately, just how hard life is becoming for millions of Americans. With 48% of Americans now poor and low income, we are rapidly losing our middle class. And with 3.5 million people on the street, more and more places are experiencing intense desperation. Our rural towns and small cities have been hit especially hard, with a shrinking economic base and loss of manufacturing. And Aberdeen is no exception.

There has been a flurry of controversy lately in Aberdeen with the disbandment of our largest homeless camp and the closing of a seedy hotel rented by the month. Dozens of people have been displaced. As the Thunderbird closes, people have very few alternative places to go. I hear, over and over, people saying that they feel like the city just wants to get rid of them.

It’s a common story across America. We talk a lot about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but these things are getting harder for a lot of us to hang on to. If every person has a right to life, every person has a right to the things that keep us alive and healthy and whole: housing, decent food, the basic necessities of life.  

As it is now, people who helped build this town—carpenters, loggers, fishermen—have found themselves on the streets, many of them disabled in industrial accidents. I am shocked by the number of young people on the street. And veterans—from Vietnam to our more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Those of us who are not on the street are likely struggling. Trying to make ends meet. Trying to take care of our neighbors as best we can, while still putting our own families first. Most of us are only a paycheck or two away from the streets ourselves. We are afraid. There is only so much we can do.

That is why this crisis of poverty, of job loss, of housing belongs to all of us. We are all feeling it. And its not our fault.

It's not our fault that giant timber companies came, made their money, and left. It's not our fault that land is increasingly closed to public access or to any kind of harvesting. It's not our fault that our markets have been opened oversees and it's cheaper to cut trees in Honduras or employ workers in China than employ American workers. It's not our fault that there are fewer and fewer safety nets. It's not our fault that most jobs available don't pay a living wage. It's not our fault that the middle class has all but disappeared. 

This problem is bigger than homelessness or who is using drugs and who is not. It is a crisis that is touching us all. 

Maybe it is time for us all to stand up together—people on the streets and people struggling to pay the mortgage, people getting evicted from an old hotel and people getting foreclosed on, people trying to hang on to what you can and people who have lost everything. In the end, we are all in this together. We live on rich soil around mighty rivers and some of the most spectacular natural resources in the world. We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Its time for things to change. Its time that we stop starving in a land of plenty. Maybe it is possible for us to put our differences behind us, to stop pointing fingers at each other, and to stand together for a better life for all of us.