Kindness, No Small Thing

I spend a fair amount of time in hospitals.  As a pastor I visit people in all sorts of circumstances.  Sometimes I’m sitting with my own family.  On one memorable occasion I  was the patient waiting for biopsy results, being prepped for surgery and then the process of recovery.

Being in a hospital provides ample time for waiting. We sit with our emotions or the emotions of others.  Often we feel vulnerable, placing our well-being or the well-being of a loved one, in the hands of another.   We wait, we pray, we hope.

I’m always mindful that each person has their own story….patients, family members and staff.  A hospital is a container for the emotions that make up the human condition: Anxiety, vulnerability, despair, grief, kindness, hope, healing.

In the intensity of this setting there is no such thing as a ‘small act of kindness’.


Recently I sat in a large hospital reception area sipping a cup of coffee.  To the side was a man seated at a piano.  As people waited for their appointment or for a loved one, he quietly played a variety of jazz and standards, making each piece his own.  An accomplished pianist his music was designed to help us relax.

One woman with tears released a long sigh.  A man holding a sleeping child closed his eyes and nodded his head to the music.  A few children held hands and danced.

Around his neck was a lanyard  which read’ volunteer’.  Thanking him for his kindness I asked how often he played at the hospital, he responded: ‘Once a week for a few hours.  I retired a few years ago from teaching and playing music allows me to give something back.  I know from experience that hospitals can be a stressful place.  If my music can make things a little easier, why not?’


We know, there is no such thing as a small act of kindness.  Every expression, particularly in the heightened setting of a hospital, is a blessing, a gift, a balm.

Thank you to the piano man. Thanks to each of you for the kindness you show.

 

Martin 50 Years Later

Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago.   Murdered as he confronted systemic injustice fueled by racism.  His civil rights advocacy led to the end of legal segregation and enforced voter suppression. What hasn’t changed is the persistence of racism.

On March 18th Stephon Clark was shot by police in his grandparents backyard in Sacramento.  Police were called to the neighborhood because of reports of a man breaking car windows. Two officers saw Stephon and fired 22 shots, eight hitting and killing him.  They thought he had a gun.  What he actually had in his hand was a cell phone.  Initial autopsy reports that the first six shots struck Stephon in the back. https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/3/21/17149092/stephon-clark-police-shooting-sacramento

The shooting is currently under review.  If this is like most police shootings, no charges will be filed against the officers.  What this highlights is a racial bias in the so-called judicial system, against people of color, particularly against young men.  People of color make up a disproportionate percent of the prison population. People of color serve longer prison terms for the same offense as compared to a white person.

This was true in Dr. King’s day.  It’s true now.

Racism is also at work in our current political climate.  Scratch below the surface of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of President Trump and Jeff Sessions and you’ll find racism.  In Mr. Trump’s world view, Mexicans are ‘murderers, rapists and drug dealers’.  In this world view we need to militarize our border.  We need to fear ‘the other’.  In almost every case ‘the other’ is a person of color.

Dr. King was martyred because he stood over against the fear and hatred of his time.  He was demonized by his opponents.  The Black Lives Matter movement seeks to continue Dr. King’s principles.  They too are demonized by their opponents.

So why do we talk about Dr. King’s dream  5o years later after his death?  Why didn’t the dream die with him?

Simply put, because he offers truth.  The truth that ‘hate is to great a price to pay’.  The truth that ‘only selfless love can make an enemy into a friend’.

Racism is a shape shifter.  It takes many forms.

Yet it has no place in a healthy society.  No place in a healthy person.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a man guided by a source of wisdom that is eternal.  That comes from the very presence of God.

On one occasion King received word that his home in Montgomery had been bombed.  After reassuring himself about the safety of his wife and baby he had to confront the rage of a crowd bent on retaliation.  Dr. King said:

We cannot solve this problem of racism through  retaliatory violence.  We must meet violence with nonviolence.  Remember the words of Jesus, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”…We must love our white brothers, our enemies,  no matter what they do to us.  We must  make them know that we loved them…We must meet hate with love.’

Martin King’s love was not passive.  It organized.  It confronted.  It persevered in the face of injustice.  His message offered a new way of being.

Dr. King didn’t believe in ‘us’ and them’.  For Martin there was only ‘us’.  May it be so.

 

 

 

Hope is Rising

With each school mass shooting my prayer is always the same: ‘May this be the tipping point that awakens us’.  Thurston High School, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and so many others.  But with each shooting the NRA doubles down.  Politicians who rely on the NRA for funding and political endorsement resist reasonable gun control.

But Parkland feels different.  Student leaders have risen from the trauma of seeing seventeen classmates murdered and fifteen wounded.  This time they say ‘thoughts and prayers’ won’t cut it.  What they are demanding is new gun control legislation (universal background checks, outlawing assault weapons and high capacity magazines).

They won’t back down.  They won’t go away.

I think of a prophecy in the Bible ‘ a child shall lead them’ (Isaiah 11: 6-9).   Perhaps the words of the Prophet have come to fulfillment yet again.  I hope  and pray  so.

Below is a powerful poem by Alison Luterman.  This poem speaks to the hope that these young leaders have stirred within me and my generation.

A new generation is stepping forward to lead.  To put a spotlight on the greed and hypocrisy of the gun merchants and their political lackeys.

It is time for my generation to follow. To encourage.  To support the change that is coming.  That must come.

No more Sandy Hooks. No more Parklands.


A new breed of activists is emerging.  Hope is rising.   Do you see them?  Will you add your voice to theirs?

 

The New Breed– for Emma Gonzalez and the other student activists

I see her on TV, screaming into a microphone.
Her head is shaved and she is beautiful
and seventeen, and her high school was just shot up,
she’s had to walk by friends lying in their own blood,
her teacher bleeding out,
and she’s my daughter, the one I never had,
and she’s your daughter and everyone’s daughter
and she’s her own woman, in the fullness of her young fire,
calling bullshit on politicians who take money from the gun-makers.
Tears rain down her face but she doesn’t stop shouting
she doesn’t apologize she keeps calling them out,
all of them all of us
who didn’t do enough to stop this thing.
And you can see the gray faces of those who have always held power
contort, utterly baffled
to face this new breed of young woman,
not silky, not compliant,
not caring if they call her a ten or a troll.
And she cries but she doesn’t stop
yelling truth into the microphone,
though her voice is raw and shaking
and the Florida sun is molten brass.
I’m three thousand miles away, thinking how
Neruda said The blood of the children
ran through the streets
without fuss, like children’s blood.
Only now she is, they are
raising a fuss, shouting down the walls of Jericho,
and it’s not that we road-weary elders
have been given the all-clear exactly,
but our shoulders do let down a little,
we breathe from a deeper place,
we say to each other,
Well, it looks like the baton
may be passing
to these next runners and they are
fleet as thought,
fiery as stars,
and we take another breath
and say to each other, The baton
has been passed, and we set off then
running hard behind them.

–Alison Luterman

Hope Springs Eternal

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.

Waiting for a blanket of snow.

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!

 

 

Remembering Billy Graham

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.

 

 

 

 

Refusing to be Silent

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.

In the Company of Dreamers

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. 

A new friendship, Kent and Ruben. Kent was born in the United States. Ruben in Haiti. Both call USA, home.

 

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.