Monday, August 29, 2016

A God Who Cares

Isaac and the Wells (Genesis 26)

All through the Bible, there is this theme of the refugee. Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and his descendants spend a lot of time wandering. They spend a lot of time moving from place to place. They spend a lot of time as refugees. And sometimes as slaves.

In our story this morning, Isaac finds himself and his family living as strangers and even as refugees in the land of the Philistines, the area now known as Gaza. They are afraid. They eventually get kicked out. And then their water supply gets vandalized.

God is concerned about basic needs

You know, the Bible is almost always about real things. In the Christian tradition, we often talk a lot about spirit and soul. We tend to want to spiritualize things. But, the Bible rarely does that.

God’s promises are usually always about concrete things. Water. Land. Safety.

God promises to give a homeless family land.

God is invested in people and animals having enough water.

God cares that Isaac’s actions put Rebecca in danger.

In my life and in my work, I think a lot about things like land and food and water and a safe place to sleep.

Right now, I’m working with an encampment on the Chehalis River of about 50-60 people. They are camping close to where people camped last year. Some of them have been displaced from hotels that have shut down. Some of them are there just because there is nowhere to go.

A few guys from the camp went to city hall last week and told city council that the hundreds of people who find themselves homeless in Aberdeen had no access to water or sanitation. According to DSHS, about 750 people in Aberdeen (around 70 in Montesano, by the way) are homeless or nearly so. They were asking the city to work with them to find solutions.

"What are you doing right now? Where do we go to the bathroom? Where do we shower? These are the things on our minds every day... Basic needs need to be met."

I am always struck by people’s courage in showing up and fighting for each other for basic human rights. And I am always reminded, that in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, we have millions of people who do not have access to basic needs like water on a very hot day.

But most of all, when I read this passage in light of my week, I think about how God is invested in struggles like these. God cares about whether or not you have water. God cares about whether or not you have food or a place to sleep. Or if you are safe.

God cares if people have safety and dignity

I keep wondering what it must be like for Rebecca. Here she is, a refugee in a strange land. And her husband is so afraid that he puts her at risk and basically is willing to throw her under the bus and trade her safety for his own. This happens to women all over the world pretty often.

I think about so many people when I read this story. I think about the woman I met on the US Mexico border who jumped trains from El Salvador to make it across the border. She was assaulted. She also fell off the train as it was moving at one points, cutting a deep gash through her leg.

I think about the myriad of women I know across the country who have ended up on the streets or couch surfing because they lost a job or they ended up in prison or they just could never find a job in the first place.

I think about the young Palestinians who live—right now—where this story took place, in Gaza, where they are living in tents on piles of rubble.

In the years after the story we are looking at today, God lays down laws for his people. And one of them is this: In Leviticus 19:34
“You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

God has special care for people who are displaced. For refugees. For economic refugees. For the dispossessed. For the scared and the suffering. For the vulnerable and the alone.

This camp that I mentioned earlier: they have been given until today to vacate the property. Bulldozers are supposed to come this afternoon. The people living there are people who once were supervisors at sawmills. The people living there are young women who have been forced out of hotels and are trying to find a little safety in the bushes. The people living there are young men who may have just been released from jail but who can hold a prayer meeting that would bring you to tears.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a few guys from town went down to this camp and starting bashing tents and calling people names. It was a classic case of “bum bashing.” One of the women I know well was sleeping alone in her tent when they came by, in the middle of the night. They broke her tent down, kicked her little puppy, and told her, in language I will not repeat here, that she needed to “get off the river, get out of town.”

We like words like that these days. “Go back where you came from.” “Get off this place or that.”

God, however, says differently. Love the stranger as yourself. Remember you were once refugees.

This is really personal for me right now. I just drove across country and, as I did so, I visited the little town in Alabama where my great grandpa was born. During the great depression, that whole side of the family moved—with thousands of others—from the deep South to California, looking for work, looking for a better life. Some of them found it, some did not. My great grandpa died in an old hotel and no one found his body for days.

God cares that people have somewhere to live and belong

When God meets Isaac as homeless wanderer in a strange land, the promise God gives is the promise of land. The promise of a place to live in peace and safety. Its what every human being longs for.

There is that beautiful verse in Micah 4:4: “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.”

That is what we all long for.

A place to belong. Enough to eat and drink and rest.

We human beings rarely act like it, but the earth, the land is a gift. We think we can own it, we think we can use it however we want to, but we often forget who created it.

The earth is the Lord’s, says the Psalmist, and the fullness thereof.

When God created the earth, God gave it as a gift. There was—and still is—enough for everyone. The land is rich with all the things we need. And, in the end, it belongs to all of us. It is our birthright.

Rebecca and Isaac settled on land and it gave them enough. The dug wells for water and there was enough to drink. Until, of course, angry neighbors decided to fill in the wells.

They is a lot of well filling going on in our world. Whole neighborhoods and communities in Detroit are fighting for water, because, in many poor communities like theirs, if they can’t pay the water bill, no one has water. In Flint, the water is nearly undrinkable in some places. Right now, more Native nations than have ever come together before are on the prairies of North Dakota, protesting an oil pipeline that they believe will permanently pollute their water supply. Right now, on our very own Chehalis river, a few hundred people are begging city council to provide them access to water for drinking and sanitation.

God created enough. There is enough—there is abundance. But people are denied access to it.

Here, in this beautiful amazing place that I love so much, in the middle of fertile farmland, people go hungry. And in the foothills of a rainforest, people go thirsty. And in the middle of the most beautiful timber in the world, people have no housing. And their cries are reaching the ear of God, a God who created all things for all people, a God who stands with the hungry and the poor and the thirsty.

I was at this river camp late one night this week and in the gathering dusk, a young man noticed my collar and asked if we could pray. He brought his friends and a half dozen of us stood and held hands.

His voice echoed through the campsite as he prayed for himself and his friends, for those he loved who were locked up, as he begged for protection and for God’s love and for people’s needs to be met. He prayer brought us to tears. We were on holy ground and holy land, land God created for us all to share.

And of one thing I was absolutely certain. This young man’s prayers reached the ears of a God who cares.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Before You Speak

At Aberdeen’s city council meeting on June 29, 2016, a group of business owners issued a “vote of no confidence” in the mayor and city council members. Their complaint: homeless people. There was the litany of usual complaints: people sleeping in doorways, business owners feeling unsafe, the situation being bad for business.

Last year, a city official publically called people who were homeless a “public nuisance” and a business owner speaking in a public meeting said he wished “druggies would all just die.” Another property owner privately threatened to shoot people camping on his property and “throw them in the river.”

Facebook is usually full of unkind and sometimes very nasty comments on local sites. Here are a few I found from over the past few years:

“They [hotel owners] don't appreciate the riff riff any more than the Court of Public Opinion.”

“How about we send the homeless people to Olympia or Tacoma or seattle, where they have more possibilities for rehab and jobs, why are they our responsibility, just sayin.”

“they need to do something. These people have taken over whole neighborhoods. They harass people, threaten them, steal from them, and throw trash/drug par. all over the place”

“Load them up on a bus and take them on that new highway to "no where", a trip to Wynochee Dam. Last stop, kick off by gun point if need be. leave them 2-2 liters of Mountain Dew and a pack of Paul Malls. then leave, we'll see how many of them know how to read signs....let the Feds take care of them or the wolves.....”

Everyone seems to think it is perfectly ok to call people “tweakers,” “druggies,” “dope fiends,” and worse.

No one seems to notice that the people that are targeted in these comments are, for the most part, sons and daughters of the harbor. That many of the people who find themselves homeless now once helped build the community. Or even that they are simply fellow human beings struggling to survive with the rest of us.

“The Court of Public Opinion” in this small town on the edge of the state has grown tired, jaded, and cruel.

If these were all just people blowing hot air, maybe I’d think better of writing this post. But, there is a problem.

We seem to have forgotten that words have consequences. Real, and sometimes dire, consequences.

Because of words like these—from the mouths of public officials, respected community members, and just your average Joe blowing steam on facebook--people on the street are continually targeted.

Last week, a few local kids decided to go “bum bashing” in the middle of the night. Among others, they terrorized a woman sleeping alone in a tent, calling her cruel names, kicking her little puppy, and breaking her tent down.

While tent city has been in Hoquiam, they have had rocks thrown at them and trucks drive up and shout obscenities and threats. A small vigilante group has stalked women walking alone at night and generally harassed people. 

Last year, Public Health declined to offer naloxone (a drug that reverses the effect of opiate overdose) to the public because they were too afraid of public backlash, even though the rate of opiate overdose in this county is twice the rate of the state. So, we as a community decided we would rather let our young people die than stir the pot.

So, when I read all these nasty comments, I think of the terror, the pain, the death that real people in our community face because "the Court of Public Opinion" calls them riff raff, thinks of them as non human, and sometimes openly calls for their death. Next time, before you speak, know that people’s lives hang in the balance. And maybe remember words spoken a few thousand years ago; "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Matthew 7:2).

Friday, July 15, 2016

State of the Streets

Thursday, July 14, we held an event in Westport, our second State of the Streets, where we invited members of our community to share their stories of struggle and hope. These were my opening remarks:

Welcome to State of the Streets!

So, why are we here? I’d say we are here for three reasons:

First, because we have been talking a lot about Jesus and the Jesus movement. We have been talking a lot of about how, two thousand years ago, Jesus began a movement among poor and homeless people. How he said he had come to bring liberation to the oppressed. How he gathered up the battered and burdened and he built a movement with them. How he told them they would save the world.

In the 21st century, we sometimes think of Jesus like the pictures we see of him on the internet. But the Jesus of the gospels was a man who grew up poor in Galilee, in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Who was friends with tax collectors and sex workers. Who was arrested himself, jailed, and eventually executed, giving his life, as he put it, “for his friends”. In other words, Jesus went through what many of us go through in poor communities.

Second, because movements begin with the telling of untold stories. Last time we held this event, people got up and told powerful stories. They talked about what it was like in this community to experience homelessness, to experience poverty, to struggle with the health care system, to be in jail, to be mistreated by police. Our stories are not usually heard. Too often, these stories are never told. It can be scary to speak up. But tonight, you are here to be heard.
All of you who are here to speak, all of you who have told your stories, all of you who struggle so hard to survive here in Grays Harbor, you are my heroes. I am honored to know you. We see your courage. We see your faith in the hard times. We see your longing for a better world. Thank you for telling your stories. Thank you for believing that another world is possible.

Third, because we want to talk from this place, at this time. We at Chaplains on the Harbor have been open here in Westport for a year and a half. We got permission to use this abandoned church building to open a community center and a worshiping center. In the last year and half, we have come together as a community. We have fed each other, and shared with each other, and learned to love each other. We haven’t done any of that perfectly. But we are learning. Here in Westport, we are taking a stand—in a little town in the middle of nowhere, we are trying to live the Jesus movement. 71% of our people are unemployed or out of the workforce—some of us retired, many of us just unable to find a job, many of us disabled. We are struggling to make ends meet, struggling to survive, and sometimes we are tired of it.

I want to say this and I want to say it loud and clear. What is happening in our communities is not ok. It is not ok for our disabled elders to sleep on the street. It is not ok that there are not enough jobs for our young people. It is not ok that people can barely survive and go hungry. It is not ok that there are immigration raids on our Latino brothers and sisters and families are split up. It is not ok that a young man I know was recently beat up by police and then, yesterday, when police came to arrest him, they threatened to sic dogs on him. This is not ok. It is not ok that we have the highest rate of juvenile detention for non-criminal offences in the country, here in GHC. It is not ok that we are living—in the richest country in the history of the world—we are living in dire poverty. This is a sin against God. It is not ok. 

And you—you who have come to speak, you who live with so much poverty and so much struggle—you can and you will save us. Your courage to tell your stories is a first step toward demanding real change. We really can dream of a better world. We really can come together—if we can find ways to come together as a community—to build a better Grays Harbor, a better nation, a better world. But we can only do it together. We can only do it if we listen to each other across all the lines that divide us—lines of race, lines of politics, lines of hatred, lines of language, lines of religion. Only if we learn to love each other—not in a sappy, emotional way, but in a way that protects each other and cares for each other.

I am so proud of all you. So proud to be your pastor. So proud to be part of this community. So proud to stand with you all today.