Nine days until Spring and our third blizzard in ten days is about to hit. In New England we pride ourselves on our ability to endure. But truth be told, this winter is stretching the patience of the most hardy among us.
Yet there are signs of Spring all around. In my backyard the call of newly migrated birds greet me. Even in the midst of the storms, the birds are busy building nests and looking for a mate.
In my garden tulip bulbs planted last Fall are emerging. Tomorrow they’ll be blanketed by up to a foot of snow. The snow however won’t last. The tulips will continue to rise and perhaps in time for Easter, break into bloom.
Spring we know is both a season and a metaphor for what ails us. Watch the news and listen to the most recent political pronouncements and it’s enough to believe that sanity and hope is lost.
Yet Spring is coming despite another snow storm and despite the craziness in Washington D.C. As a person of faith, I believe that the Spirit is always at work, preparing the way for that which is life-giving. Theologians have a term for this prevenient grace, the deep-seated belief that there is more going on than meets the eye.
Underneath the fear mongering of politicians and the seeming complacency of so many, the Spirit is at work. Alison my friend and a rabbi, reminds me that the creative breath, ruach, that brought the cosmos into being continues to be at work. In my Christian tradition we speak of the Holy Spirit, God’s own breath being breathed into creation including regular folk like us.
This is all to say that chaos, injustice and despair will never have the final word. Soon the big storm will come with a forecast of high winds and deep snow. But underneath the snow the tulip grows. Praise be!
My call to Christian ministry came when I was fifteen. I sensed that I was being ‘called’ to become a pastor. That I’ve maintained that sense of call for forty-five years is for me a testament to the working of God’s Spirit.
I have many influences that helped shape my faith. One of those early influences was Billy Graham. Rev. Graham died today at age ninety-nine.
As a boy I remember watching Billy’s evangelistic ‘crusades’ on television. The messages were always straightforward: ‘God loves you and all you need do is confess your sin and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and eternity with God is yours’.
Billy would hold up his Bible and with the warm cadence of a preacher from North Carolina, he’d proclaim ‘the answer to every human longing is to be found in Scripture’. His sermon would always conclude with a choir singing ‘Just As I Am’ as people were invited to profess their faith.
As a kid from stoic New England, I was moved by adults of all ages and races coming forward by the thousands, often with tears, to receive a prayer of forgiveness and acceptance. Many people were then connected with local faith communities within which to continue their life as disciples.
It is estimated that this farmers son from North Carolina preached to 215 million people from more than 185 countries. Throughout it all, Billy maintained a spirit of humility and never succumbed to the scandal of the prosperity gospel with its opulent wealth, nor inappropriate conduct too often found with ego driven evangelists.
It has been a long time since I was fifteen. I remain grateful for the easy cadence of Billy Graham’s preaching, which helped awaken a ‘call to ministry’ within me.
My own theology is broader than that of Rev. Graham and his primary emphasis on a personal faith commitment. With notable exceptions (refusing to preach to segregated audiences and speaking out against the proliferation of nuclear weapons) he avoided social issues.
The impact of my own relationship with Christ, has brought me to picket lines for racial justice, against war, access to health care and for immigration reform. My partners on the line include Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims Unitarians and secular partners.
The older I’ve become the more universal my faith is. I find beauty and truth in other faith traditions too. Yet, my personal relationship with Jesus remains primary to my call. I have Billy to thank.
The essential message that he preached for so many years, remains central: “God loves you”. To this I say ‘Amen’.
For the life of Billy Graham, we give thanks to the Lord. May his message of ‘love’ rooted in faith, continue to be spoken by many languages and by many faiths.
Fabiano de Oliveira, a Brazilian man detained by immigration officials, was allowed to come home. Karah de Oliveira, his wife, found out around 2:30 p.m. Friday that he was being released, when her husband called from the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, the maximum security prison where he’s been for the past month.
The family, who lives in Beverly, MA, were reunited at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Burlington, Massachusetts on Friday night. It was the first time Fabiano was able to hold his wife and their five-year old son. The family is reunited as Fabiano goes through a legal process, hopefully resulting in permanent residency.
The de Oliveira family live in the city I call home. Fabiano’s story is that of countless others. He left poverty in Brazil in 2005 and came with the dream of making a better life. He worked hard to send money back to his family.
He and Karah (a life long resident of Beverly) met in 2010 and married in 2016. They have a child. Fabiano has worked hard, paid taxes, kept out of trouble.
By all accounts he is a loving family man, a good employee. The kind of guy you’d be happy to have as a neighbor.
The only problem is he lacks the proper documents. This makes him illegal in the eyes of the Trump administration and resulted in his arrest and detention for the last month. Arrested ironically when he went to an ICE office to fill out paper work for legal status.
That he was released is great news. But the reality is that tens of thousands of others with similar stories remain incarcerated. Most like Fabiano are loving parents, hard workers, good neighbors. The truth is that the rate of criminal activity is far lower for undocumented immigrants, than those of us who are citizens.
On Saturday a dozen of us gathered at the ICE office in Burlington for a prayer vigil. We had heard that morning that Fabiano had been released. Our vigil continued for those who remained incarcerated.
Imagine our surprise when Fabiano and Karah showed up to say ‘thank you’ for supporting them and ‘thank you’ for continuing to stand with and for other families being torn apart by the current immigration policy.
It has been said that the nation we become is determined by regular citizens like you and me. We stand vigil for those who are most vulnerable. We refuse to be silent. We refuse to be complicit with an unjust immigration system.
America has always been as much an idea as a place. A place where if people work hard and respect others, they find a welcome.
Mr.Trump is putting in place an infrastructure of prisons and an increase of ICE officers, that will result in a more than doubling of those detained or deported by the end of 2018. The capacity for annual arrests and deportations will soon reach 540,000.
Each of these numbers has a face. Each has a story. Each life detained and deported has a ripple effect that affects countless others. That tears at the fabric of a community.
Here in the small city of Beverly, Massachusetts, we got a taste of what this ruthless policy looks like. It was visited upon one of our own families.
That enough of us stood up and said ‘no’, ‘not in my name’ gives me hope.
The nation we become requires constant vigilance and persistence. There are many more families who look for people of conscience to stand with them. To stand up for the American dream.
I spent this week attending a conference on immigration hosted by PICO http://www.piconetwork.org We gathered as a faith-based group of 110 activists from 13 states working for humane immigration reform.
Several workshops were led by Dreamers. The Dreamers I met are educated young people, who move effortlessly between English and Spanish. Each is deeply committed to the values that we as a nation aspire to: Hard work, family, faith, responsibility to community, respect for others.
I heard their stories. Listened to their hopes and dreams. I heard too their fear of being deported, of being separated from family and friends. Of being forced to return to a land they don’t know.
I was inspired by Jennifer who came to this country at thirteen years of age. Her parents crossed the border without papers, fleeing violence and poverty in Honduras. In the eighteen years since, she graduated from college, has a full-time job, pays taxes and is raising two beautiful children who are U.S citizens.
Jennifer is a Dreamer. One of the 800,000 who were brought to the United States by their parents as children.
In 2012 President Obama, as a result of Congress’ inability to act, passed an executive order (DACA) giving them temporary legal status (renewable every two years). DACA allowed these young people to go to college, get a job, serve in the military. They became known as ‘dreamers’.
In September 2017 President Trump rescinded that order. As of March 5th 2018 the Dreamers will lose their protection and be subject to deportation.
In the meantime, the Republican led Congress is playing a cruel game. Dreamers are used as pawns for their political maneuvering.
In recent days Republicans led by President Trump, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have become more hard line. They’ve tied the fate of the young people to further militarization of the border with Mexico, further restrictions on immigration and an increased budget for deportation.
The budget includes adding beds in detention facilities. Their goal is to increase from the current 39,000 beds nationwide to 51, 379 beds by the end of 2018. Each bed on average is used by ten individuals over the course of the year. As a person is detained and then deported it frees up the bed for a new detainee.
Do the math and the goal of ICE is to ramp up to 513, 790 deportations per year (double the average in recent years). Each of these 513, 790 people have a name. Each has a story. Each has a dream.
One of those names at risk, is my friend Jennifer and her two children.
It’s been said that ‘the one who controls the narrative, has the power‘. Mr. Trump and his supporters cast immigrants in the most negative way. He has referred to brown and black immigrants as coming from ‘shithole countries’. He whips up a crowd saying that ‘Mexicans are rapists, murderers and drug dealers’.
This narrative is racist and fear based.
But I believe in a different narrative. That the United States has always been more than a place on the map. We are a country of ideas and ideals to which we aspire. One of those ideals is that we are a nation of immigrants. That we make room for people of all backgrounds, who aspire to work hard, raise a family and contribute to the overall good.
This is the story I believe in. This is the story that makes America truly great. This is the story I will stand up for.
How about you? What story do you believe in? What story will you tell?
Each generation must decide which story we believe in. Which ideals we will live by.
President Trump on Thursday balked at an immigration deal that would include protections for people from Haiti and some nations in Africa, demanding to know at a White House meeting why he should accept immigrants from “shithole countries” rather than from places like Norway, according to people with direct knowledge of the conversation.
Where does such arrogance and callousness come from? Perhaps he has never met people who live in a developing nation or live in poverty here in the States.
If he did he would meet people who work incredibly hard in difficult situations to provide for their family. He’d meet young people of great intelligence, who dream and aspire. He’d meet moms and dads who worry and weep for their children who lack access to clean water and medical care.
If he did perhaps he’d learn some humility and compassion. This man who was born to great wealth and given every opportunity.
To refer to those who struggle and aspire as living in ‘shithole countries’ is an insult to the beautiful people I’ve met and served with in developing countries. His callousness is an insult to my great-great grandmother Sarah, a single woman who gave birth to her son in a work house in Manchester, England in 1867. A place where the poorest of the poor went, when no one else would take them in.
In 1869 Sarah emigrated to the United States with her two year old son. A single mother, dirt poor. She made a way for herself by working in the textile mills of Rhode Island. I am here because she had the strength and courage to make a new life. I am here because the United States said there is a place for people like Sarah and her boy.
For Mr. Trump to disparage those who struggle and strive against overwhelming circumstance, to provide for their family, is a disgrace. A disgrace to what it means to be an American. A disgrace to what it means to be a Christian. A disgrace to what it means to be a human being.
What will we do? As citizens will we allow this callous and shallow man to redefine who we are as a country?
As people of faith, inspired by the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40 ‘whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers you do unto me’… what will we say? What we will do?
In my Christian tradition this is called a ‘come to Jesus moment’. It is time for my fellow Christians, who have so freely embraced Trump, to stand up and say ‘no more’, ‘not in my name’.
We as a nation and as citizens of the world, deserve better than this man who lacks humility and a shred of compassion. The eyes of the world are upon us. What will we do?
People are fascinated by talk of a BIG STORM. The weather professionals heighten our anticipation giving us a step by step breakdown of the storms impending arrival. We rush to the store for milk, bread and batteries.
Those of us with miles on our odometer hearken back to the ‘Great New England Blizzard of 1978’. The ‘Blizzards of 2015’ which dumped nine feet of snow on our coastal town remain a vivid memory.
Storms have a way of bringing people together. In many ways it brings out the best in us. We check in on our neighbors, help out strangers.
Storms also highlight the precariousness of neighbors living on the streets. I’ve been thinking about two friends in particular, Earl and Lyle (not their real names). Earl is an alcoholic active in his addiction. Lyle wrestles with mental illness and self medicates with alcohol and drugs.
Earl and Lyle come to the church I serve for a hot meal, use the rest room or warm up in the hallway. We’ve gotten to know one another. I’ve learned about their past, their struggles, their hopes for the future. I’ve come to see them as brothers, each of us doing our best to get by.
Tonight as I often do, I worry for their safety. We have a limited emergency shelter system here on the North Shore. Most shelters are ‘dry’, which means they won’t accept a person like Earl or Lyle if drunk or high. The one ‘wet’ shelter for the most fragile of the fragile is full.
On this eve of the storm I’ll offer a prayer for my homeless sisters and brothers. I’ll offer a prayer for city workers who plow our streets and first responders who do their best to keep us safe. A prayer too for those who staff our shelters.
Tonight weather experts tell us the BIG STORM will come. In the days following the temperature is forecast to plummet down to the single digits.
My hope is that we will take good care of each other. My hope too is that we will recommit ourselves to strengthening our fragile social service safety net. It will require an ongoing commitment and collaboration of faith communities, non-profits and government.
This storm will pass. The need to take care of each other continues.
In the midst of the deep darkness of December, made complete with the Winter Solstice, is the promise that light follows. Advent, the prelude to Christmas, invites us to anticipate the embodiment of this light, in the life of a baby named Jesus.
This can be hard to believe when the temperature is cold and the sun sets so early. Hard to believe as a metaphor of hope, when the political winds blow contrary to so much that I hold sacred and dear.
With such dark thoughts in mid December, I climbed into my Subaru and headed 90 miles for Canterbury, New Hampshire. I’d heard about a little church that invites seekers to unplug, breathe deeply and walk mindfully in the forest.
I drove up a snowy road to Church of the Woods http://kairosearth.org and parked adjacent to a small barn. Standing in a field, adding logs to a campfire, was Steve Blackmer, pastor of this unusual church.
Steve, a forester by profession, has become an ordained Episcopal priest. His parish is the outdoors. Most often congregants are sent out into the woods, in silence, to commune with our Creator.
Church of the Woods is tapping into a truth that most of us know but so often forget. That that great mystery we call God/Spirit/Creator, is heard and sensed most clearly when in nature.
Early Christians had a name for this truth: ‘The Book of Nature’. They believed that in nature we hear and experience the voice of the Creator reminding us to be humble, thankful, mindful. Inviting us to make room for awe and wonder.
Martin Luther spoke to this truth when he wrote: “The call of a bird, water in a stream, the wind through the reeds, are little words to us from God.”
Steve invited us to walk the snowy paths of Church in the Woods. We worshipers were a mix of ages from three to seventy plus. He invited us to listen carefully for little, holy words. After a time of wandering, a bell called us back to the barn with its wood stove. There we warmed our bodies and shared gifts from our walk.
On the altar was the Eucharist, to which we added decorative touches of pine cones and hemlock bough. Steve spoke ancient words inviting us to consume the bread and drink from the cup. Each a symbol of God’s grace.
Once all were served, Steve poured wine onto the ground, reminding us that the fertile soil is the source from which the wine and bread come and to which we will one day return.
Now late in the afternoon, the sun had begun to set. It was time for me to drive home. I left feeling calm, centered and thankful. Thankful for the Book of Nature that had spoken so gently and clearly. Reminding us that ‘little words’ from God are being spoken for those with ears to hear and eyes to see.
This season may we remember that light always follows darkness.