It takes so much courage to hope.
When I visited Palestine a year ago, someone had scrawled a message on the concrete wall that divides the West Bank from Israel. It said; “Hope against hope.” When I was there, we met with a young woman from Bethlehem who had been educated in the U.S., but decided that it was her mission to return to her hometown. She works with Dar al-Kalima, a Lutheran program that offers art and education to young Palestinians in the West Bank. She talked about how her role was to hold hope for her people. I was struck, in that room that day, surrounded with the stories of people’s suffering, just how much courage it takes to hope.
That has stuck with me. It stuck with me largely because I feel like that is what I do, what we do, in our ministry. Hold hope.
I started Chaplains on the Harbor in September of 2013, on a hope and a prayer, while I was a deacon assigned in Aberdeen. After being away for the better part of a decade, I started this ministry very close to my own hometown, in the county I grew up. It is the kind of place that none of us who leave ever intend to come back. I didn’t expect to ever return.
But here I am. We split our time between Aberdeen and the little fishing town of Westport, where we have our church building. Grays Harbor County is one of the poorest counties in the state, with about half of our residents accessing social services to survive. We have the highest incarceration rates of minors for non-criminal offences in the country. We have hundreds of people on the streets and hundreds more couch surfing. It’s a place that has been poor and desperate for a very long time.
It is a place that finds it hard to hope. All the time, I hear people say how dark Aberdeen and the harbor feels. How difficult it is to survive there. Most of the folks we work with are in their 20s and 30s. They have grown up on the harbor, as our industries collapsed. Many of them went through the foster care system or through juvie. Most of them have been in and out of jail, on and off the streets, ever since. As I minister with people, as I am their pastor, on the streets, in the jails, in our community meals and services, we talk a lot about hope.
The gospel reading this morning is Luke’s introduction to Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is claiming this beautiful text in Isaiah to explain his mission.
To bring good news to the poor
To release prisoners
To heal the sick
To let the oppressed go free.
And he doesn’t preach this as some kind of glorious future. He stands in Nazareth, a poor village on top of a mountain, preaching to the folks he grew up with, a bunch of poor villagers and farmers. And he is bold enough to say; “Today.” This mission is now. Not in a future heaven. Not in a future kingdom. But now. Today. We can hope today.
The lectionary stops there for this week, but we have to note that the rest of the story doesn’t go so well.
You would think that this news that Jesus brings, this mission that he preaches would go over pretty well in Nazareth. But it doesn’t. When people realize what Jesus is saying, they get scared. And angry. They literally run Jesus out of town and try to throw him off a cliff.
The message is too dangerous, too scary. They live under occupation and if they let Jesus keep preaching, they could be in danger. (And keep in mind: they are not wrong. Jesus is executed only a few years later). I wonder, too, if it is just too hard to hope. Too hard to hope that things can change. That was not the main response to Jesus’ teaching. Great crowds in Galilee follow him everywhere. But, for the folks in the synagogue that day, hope was too much, too dangerous to ask.
There are times that hope can seem too dangerous on the harbor. Poverty pits people against each other. People are afraid to speak out because they could go to jail or get picked up on their warrants or lose their apartment if they complain about how bad things are for them.
But, I have to say, as dark as things can get, most of what I see is courage. It takes so much courage to hope.
I walk with young moms who have been on the streets most of their lives, who fight for their children. They fight to get clean for their kids, they fight to find a place to live for their kids, they fight against impossible odds to try and regain custody and make a family they never had. It takes so much courage to hope.
I walk with young kids in jail—many of them in the their early 20s—kids with felonies for sleeping in abandoned buildings when its cold or self medicating with opiates for chronic pain or shoplifting—whatever it takes to survive-- and they fight to imagine a better life. Like small towns all over the country, there are few legitimate jobs and most of these kids have never had one. They dream of getting out and making a better life for themselves. It takes so much courage to hope.
I walk with elders and young people on the street as, this last year, they created Aberdeen’s first organized tent city. They were called names by the city, they’ve had police raids and giant rocks thrown at them, but they have stayed the course. They believe that the work that they do is important, that they are bringing the crisis of homelessness to the public eye and that they deserve to be part of building a better future. It takes so much courage to hope.
I walk with a community in Westport, a community where nearly 70% of the adult population is out of the workforce. People with disabilities, people who work in the canneries or clean fishing boats, people who live in trailer parks and abandoned buildings and in tents on the beach—all of us together build a community where we eat together and pray together and provide space for each other. We never do it perfectly and sometimes we drive each other crazy, but we are learning to love and care for each other. It takes so much courage to hope.
These are my heroes. These are the men and women who dare to hope. Who dare to imagine a world where the prisoners are free and the oppressed liberated. Who dare to stand up to city councils and public opinion and police raids. Who dare to hope. Who dare to do what the Nazareth community was not ready to do when Jesus first showed up. Who dare to do what Jesus led a whole rabble multitude to do in Galilee.
We dare to hope.
Dr. Raheb, the pastor of that Lutheran community in Bethlehem, said that hope was like planting olive trees. He said; “We plant olive trees so that there will be trees for the children to play in. So that there will be oil to bind up their wounds. So that there will be branches to wave for the prince of peace.”
We hope like that. We eat together in the hope of a world where no one goes hungry. We visit each other in jail in the hope of a world where all our children are free. We worship together in the hope of a world where all are given the dignity and respect they deserve as children of God. We build community in the hope of a better world.