Monday, May 30, 2016

Claiming Sanctuary

Maybe the most popular story of the role of the church in providing sanctuary is the Disney rendition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where several people claim sanctuary within the walls of the great church. At one point in the film, Quasimodo rescues Esmerelda, a young Roma girl targeted for execution by the bigoted Archdeacon Frollo, brings her to the bell tower, and bellows; “Sanctuary.” Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, churches were considered sanctuary space, space where people could not be arrested for alleged crimes and safe harbors for people at risk of lynch mobs (often while awaiting trial). In some ways, churches functioned as some modern states do, as places of refuge or asylum for people fleeing for their lives. 

Throughout history, churches have claimed this in various ways. In Nazi Germany and Europe, many churches and individuals became part of an underground network smuggling Jews out of the country. In the United States, there have been several times in history when churches have claimed sanctuary. This right has never been enshrined into law, but it has been claimed on multiple occasions.

When slaves ran away from southern plantations, during the days of the Fugitive Slave Act, a highly organized network of former black slaves, free-born blacks, congregations, and abolitionist sympathizers offered escaping individuals and families sanctuary. They did it in direct violation of the law, which imposed up to 6 months in prison or a $1,000 fine for anyone harboring a fugitive. Officers who captured runaway slaves were paid bounties. However, churches and leaders like Harriet Tubman still created the “Underground Railroad” to harbor runaways, shepherding over 1,000 people per year into the free states and Canada.

Over one hundred years later, during the civil wars in the 1970s and 80s in Central America, when whole towns were being razed and refugees were fleeing in growing number, the U.S. started closing their borders to war refugees. A number of churches along the border and then throughout the country, as they met refugees and heard their stories, declared themselves sanctuary churches and started what became known as the Sanctuary Movement. Pastors and priests opened up churches as physical refuge, hosting refugees, feeding them, transporting them to safety, and refusing immigration officials entry.  At its peak, 500 churches across denominations had declared themselves sanctuary churches and harbored refugees. In 1986, a number of pastors and priests were arrested for their participation in the Sanctuary Movement and stood trial. They claimed, in their defense, that they were living out the demands of the gospel and could not turn people away.

Recently, several churches across the country have offered physical refuge to undocumented immigrant families, claiming the right of sanctuary.

There is a sense in which the very recent move by churches to open up their doors and parking lots to homeless encampments, car camping, shelters, and refuge, functions in a similar way. Homelessness, while on the rise in the US, is becoming increasingly criminalized. Sleeping outside, camping in city limits, sitting or sleeping on park benches, sitting in front of libraries after hours to charge phones or use WIFI, and any number of other activities necessary for survival can be criminal offenses in most cities.  Further, because of the heavy use of bench warrants in small and mid sized towns and the increased jurisdiction of DOC, many people are already technically on the run from the law for failing to make appointments, court dates, or court ordered programs.

In these church hosted encampments, people are claiming sanctuary in a world where most institutions are working against them. The current dispute in Hoquiam over the city ordinance, where pastors are claiming their right to clergy privilege in not reporting to police, is an important part of this. Churches are meant to be a sanctuary, especially for people most vulnerable in our system. In order to live out the demands of the gospel, to follow a Jesus who was also once on the run from the law, churches and pastors are not simply providing space, but also sanctuary.  

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Pentecost Sermon: Lighting Fires

This sermon has been preached, over the past few weeks, in many versions, but it was first preached at St Aiden's, Camano Island, on Pentecost.

When the leaders of Jerusalem saw the apostles on Pentecost, speaking in different languages, spreading fire, they thought they were just a bunch of drunk, hillbilly Galileans disrupting the public order.

We had Pentecost a little early this week. That is the thing about the Holy Spirit. She is rarely scheduled. Rarely when we expect her.  We had a Pentecost experience in a downtown church hall on Thursday night, with the mingled smells of fried chicken and cigarette smoke.

This past week, we hosted an event we called State of the Streets. We invited the community to come listen to people who were experiencing poverty and homelessness to speak. We invited our congregation, our people to speak about their lives and realities.

We had no idea what to expect. We had no idea if anyone would actually speak. We had no idea if anyone would show up to listen.

What actually happened is that the place was packed to overflowing. We ate 80 lbs of fried chicken. A people started sharing their stories. They told about police beatings and jail stints, they told about losing children, they told about how hard it is to get jobs, they talked about daily assaults on their dignity, they talked about how hard it was to find social services, they talked about losing everything.

We clapped harder than we have ever clapped for the bravery of people telling their stories. We cried and we laughed.  In a community where nearly 50% of our people experience poverty and where almost 1500 are counted as homeless (in a rural county), this is the first time an event has been held like this.

And, just as the Pentecost sermon that Peter first gave did not end with the crucifixion, we also dreamed. We wanted better jobs and better lives. We celebrated the little victories over addiction. We closed, singing together, and lighting candles for lost loved ones and a better future.

You know those tongues of fire in our text. I have no idea what that means or what those fires looked like, but I can tell you what ours look like. They look like Zippos and cheap cigarette lighters.

I always carry a lighter.  

When I think of those flames appear on the heads of those who speak, I think of the fires that we light.

The fires we lit this last Thursday night.

Everyone on the street carries a lighter. It lights candles for warmth on cold nights in tents. It lights cigarettes and pipes. Lights fires, if you are lucky enough not to get caught cooking in the city with open flames.

Sometimes tents burn down and a guy came in our meal program last winter with two of his fingers burned off when he fell asleep next to an open flame on a cold night.

These lighters light our candles as we sing. At our last service in our church in Westport, one of our young kids flipped out his lighter lit everyone’s candle for them.

It lights cigarettes as I hang out with our young people, many of them on the run from the law for some poverty related offense or another, in camps, in alleys, outside the church door.

The story of Acts, of the birth of the church, of the beginning of the Jesus movement, is a story of high drama. It is the story of a bunch of poor people who started a movement. Who vowed to take care of each other.

The story of a bunch of people on fire who caught the world on fire.

The story of a bunch of troublemakers and disrupters of the public order and the status quo.

The story of people who were willing to risk it all to make a difference. Don’t forget, shortly after Pentecost, the apostles get a beat down and jail time.

I started ministry in Aberdeen nearly three years ago. Over the past year and a half, we have supported people organizing for their rights. One of these efforts has been by a group of 15-20 people who are homeless, who have organized Grays Harbor’s first tent city. They wanted people to start talking about homelessness. They wanted something to be done about housing. They wanted to create a little bit of stability.

I’m there often and I’ll tell you about the stories that we tell as we light cigarettes in alleys and camps and in front of the church door. I’ll tell you about the one a young woman from tent city told me as she smoked. Early that morning, while they were sleeping, three officers entered camp and told them to open their tent. They hit her, pushed her out of the way, and jumped on her boyfriend, beating him up and eventually arresting him. Like the majority of people we know and work with, he had a warrant out for his arrest. These warrants might be out for anything—failure to appear or pay fines for poverty related offenses, failure to check in with a probation officer, etc. The church—and we—had just taken a public stand, saying that we would not turn in people for warrants and considered church space sanctuary space.

This young man is still in jail. You can all pray for him, if you would. 

That is what Pentecost is all about for me. Lighting fires together, fires for change, for liberation. Taking care of each other. Risking everything to try to build a better world.

In our corner of the world, we are honored to support courageous people lighting fires, speaking out, struggling for their own liberation.

“‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.

These days are still the days we live in. Pentecost still comes. The Holy Spirit, she still shows up and surprises us.

Living in the Shadows

One of the things I notice most on the streets of Aberdeen or Hoquiam or Westport, is how often people look over their shoulders. For any sign of danger. For someone who has threatened them. And for police. 

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects the rights of citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures” of persons and property. In US legal code, a person can only be arrested if there is “probably cause” of current criminal activity or if a warrant has been issued for that person’s arrest or search of his or her property.

However, in towns across the country, courts and police have been heavily relying on the use of bench warrants. These are arrest warrants issued by a judge for failure to appear in court and, in some municipalities, failure to pay fines or otherwise comply with court orders. In many towns, including our own, the number of warrants issued is large enough to insure that a large number of people can be subject to arrest at any given time, without probable cause.

The number of warrants issued in this county is staggeringly high. Hoquiam, in their 2015 budget, mention about 1,200 municipal warrants issued in a town of about 8,500 people. That is one warrant for every 7 persons (though, it must be noted, that there can be multiple warrants issued for the same person). In Westport, the last time the website was updated in mid 2015, I counted 600 warrants issued and, counting out multiple warrants issued for a single person, roughly 400 people with outstanding warrants. This is in a town of about 2,000 people, meaning that just under ¼ of the population had municipal warrants out for their arrest. County courts, on last check, had about 3600 misdemeanor warrants and about 500 felony warrants.  

This warrant system most heavily targets people who are poor or homeless. Lack of transportation or lack of ways to keep time mean that court dates are missed. Court procedures are long, usually requiring the defendant to sign away their right to a speedy trial and the average public defender (because they are given such a heavy caseload) have very little time to spend on each case. The courts often mandate treatment that the defendant cannot afford, require regular check ins, and impose fees and fines that the defendant often cannot pay. These are some of the reasons a person would fail to appear.

A large number of original offenses—vagrancy, driving without insurance, trespassing, burglary (including breaking into an abandoned building to sleep), petty theft, etc are poverty related offenses in the first place. Drug use and possession is heavily penalized, often resulting in multiple felonies, with almost no access to treatment or a way out of poverty. Many people find it impossible to survive on the streets without some form of self-medication.

If a person wishes to “quash” their warrant (have it lifted), both Aberdeen and Hoquiam charge a $100 fee. In lieu of that, in Hoquiam, a person can show up to a court session and try and get the warrant quashed and a new court date set.

Otherwise, people remain technically “on the run from the law” until they are picked up by police. Obviously, jails do not have enough room to house the number of warrants out at any given time. Periodically, most cities and occasionally the sheriff’s department do “warrant sweeps,” where jails are opened up and large numbers of people with outstanding warrants are picked up.

This system creates an enormous amount of trauma and anxiety. People are always looking over their shoulder, always waiting to be arrested, and if police want to target an individual, they run their name to check on warrant status. This pushes a large number of people into the shadows, in constant fear of arrest.