Martin of the Poor

The last major speech Dr. King delivered, four days before his assassination, was on poverty at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968. Dr. King´s sermon was entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” containing the quote below:

“There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia; I see this poverty in the United States.”

Poverty is a reality in Massachusetts where I live: According to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless http://www.mahomeless.org/advocacy/basic-facts 728,514 people live below the poverty line; in 2013 19,209 people experienced homelessness; in the 2012-2013 academic year 15,812 students were homeless; on Nov. 25, 2014 4800 families with children were living in shelters. The level of poverty in this state is double what it was in 1990.

In the face of these daunting statistics, on this anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday what would Martin have us do?

photo Dr King marching

I think he’d encourage us to get involved in local initiatives like Family Promise. In my community Christians and Jews partner to house three homeless families at a time in our places of worship.

He’d encourage interfaith worship gatherings that reminds us to work together. In the town I live we will conclude our interfaith worship with a candlelight procession to a corner of our main street (Cabot Street). We will stand in solidarity with our neighbors who are homeless. For a few moments we will feel the bitter weather that accompanies those who camp in doorways and alleys.

Dr. King would remind us that beyond offering kindness to our neighbors we are to understand and confront the political, economic and social factors that push so many into homelessness and poverty.

He’d invite us to wrestle with these words: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Dr. King’s dream of a world governed by equality and compassion remains compelling and elusive. His words are rooted in the wisdom of Jesus who said, ‘whatever you do (or don’t do) to the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do (or don’t do) unto me.’

The dream continues to capture our heart and imagination. The opportunities to serve are on our very doorstep. Let’s get to work.

Note: If you live in Beverly, MA join us for interfaith worship January 19 2015 7 p.m. St Peter’s Episcopal Church 4 Ocean Street; First Parish and First Baptist Beverly partner to house 3 families with Family Promise January 25 – Feb 1 contact either church if you’d like to help. Beyond Beverly, find partners in your local community, religious and secular to make a difference.

Leaving Your Comfort Zone

DSC_3384For ten days in January, 15 people from McMinnville, Oregon travelled to La Pimienta, an isolated village in Nicaragua.  Our age range was 13 – 77.  We  partnered with an amazing health ministry called AMOS (A Ministry of Sharing).  AMOS works with 32 isolated communities to provide basic, sustainable  health care.

AMOS only helps if  requested by the community and only after the community elects a health committee and health promoter to work with the staff.   The model is intended to build upon the capacity of the local community to improve their own health.

The church I serve and travelled with (First Baptist McMinnville), has made a financial commitment to provide the essential capital necessary for the local leaders to do their work.  For $6800 for each of four years, we provide the community with a dependable revenue stream sufficient to provide: a basic pharmacy for 400 people, a stipend for the health promoter and funding to bring in AMOS medical staff each month to supplement the work of the community

For the  past five years we’ve sent a team from the church to work under the guidance of local leaders.  This year we built and installed 39 bio-sand water filters and did health screenings and home visits.  Dr. Marcy a pediatrician, has visited the village four times and has seen a significant improvement in the health of the children.

It is amazing how God leverages the humble efforts of village leaders, with AMOS staff and a modest size church in Oregon, to bring about a synergy that saves lives and offers hope.

I go for selfish reasons.  Yes, my/our efforts help some.  But we who go are inspired by the hope of the villagers who work towards a better tomorrow for the sake of their children.  If they can do so much with so little, how can we not return to our relatively affluent communities and work for the common good?

It is amazing what happens when we leave our comfort zone and make new friends and face new challenges in a place like La Pimienta.  God has a way of expanding our hearts and imaginations as to what is possible.

I’m Just Livin

photo of graffitiThis past Sunday before worship I noticed graffiti on an exterior door of the church. The graffiti read:  “Forgive me for my sins.  I’m just livin.”  A message from a neighbor. The church I serve is a downtown church, which means that there is no boundary between ‘church life’ and ‘real life’.

On any given day of the week, this church is home to neighbors who are homeless, recovery groups, a preschool, parenting classes for fragile families, a relief nursery with an amazing record of preventing child abuse, a free medical clinic, a place to rest and reflect, an office staff that seeks to provide a listening ear and help with emergencies, meeting space for community groups, and a wide variety of church programs.

There is no boundary between ‘church life’ and ‘real life’.  By intentionally offering hospitality to our neighbors, this particular congregation has chosen to be in a dynamic relationship with our neighborhood.  There is the clear sense that our building is not a gated community, designed to keep the right people in and the wrong people out. Rather our building strives to be a place where dialogue and relationships are fostered.

Does life get messy at times?  Do we sometimes struggle to get along and make room for one another?  Yes.  Such is the price of being human.  The price of being faithful.

This past Sunday, someone with a blue marker left a message on the glass of the church door:  “Forgive me for my sins.  I’m just livin.”  I don’t know who wrote this but I’d enjoy having a conversation, to hear their story, their struggles, pain and hope.  I’d speak of a God who loves and forgives.  I’d talk about our God who seeks to restore and bless.

Here at the corner of First Street and Cowls Street, there is no boundary between ‘church life’ and ‘real life.’  That’s a good thing.  Thanks be to God.

Hangin with the Dalai Lama

A few weeks back I gathered with 11,000 of my closest friends to see and hear the Dalai Lama.   His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not only the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism but also a spiritual leader for people of many faiths and no faith tradition in particular.  He projects a sense of centeredness that grows from a life of being intentionally rooted in that which is eternal….that which is good and true.

The Dalai Lama was the keynote speaker for a conference that focused on climate change. During a Q and A time a person asked:  “Given that humanity has recently reached a carbon output of 400 parts per million (ppm) and given that 350 ppm is considered the maximum level before escalating global warming is unleashed, how can we have hope for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren?  How can we not give in to despair?”

The crowd waited expectantly for his answer but the Dalai Lama was distracted.  It seems a girl to the side of the stage, perhaps 5 years old and sitting on her Dad’s shoulders was having a hard time.  Clearly something was bothering her.Dalai Lama and child

As 11,000 of us waited, the Dalai Lama walked over to the girl and whispered in her ear.  She then whispered back a response.  His Holiness then walked across the stage to a bag that lay by his chair.  He rummaged through the bag for sometime and then slowly walked back to the girl.  Once again he whispered in her ear and placed in her hand a small item he had taken from the bag.

She smiled and skipped off the stage.   Then and only then, did the Dalai Lama turn to the question from the audience.  For me the answer was already given.  Hope is found in the smallest act of compassion, in this case on behalf of a little girl.  It is through compassion that we bless others.  It starts with the need that is right in front of us. 

Translate such small acts of compassion to the needs of our home planet.  Consider what happens when compassion gives way to acts of advocacy on behalf of our natural world.  Is it not a compassionate act to work for minimizing and in the long run even rolling back the level of carbon being emitted into our environment?  Knowing climate change has the greatest impact on those least able to cope, is it not an act of compassion to work within our political and economic systems to bring about change?

Having tipped over the 400 ppm level where do we turn for hope?  The answer the Dalai Lama reminds us in the every day acts of compassion.  In closing His Holiness blessed us and sent us forth to bless others.  For the sake of this planet we call home, may it be so.

Earth Day: Working for the Common Good

Blackstone RiverI remember sitting on the banks of the Blackstone River on a beautiful day in April 1970, listening to the great folk singer and prophet Pete Seeger.  Pete was giving a concert from a barge anchored to the slow-moving Blackstone, in honor of the first Earth Day.  On that day citizens across our nation had worked to clean up trashed and polluted areas in their hometowns.   I was 14 years old and I had spent the day with my cousin Tom,  pulling shopping carts and old tires out of the shallow reaches of our local river in Cumberland, Rhode Island.  

Life Magazine had recently labeled the Blackstone as ‘the most polluted river in America’.   The Blackstone had been the workhorse powering the American Industrial Revolution, since the first Cotton Mill had been built by Samuel Slater in the 1790’s. 

Since that first mill the river had been lined with textile mills that drew power from the river and poured their industrial waste directly back into the water.  By the time I came along the mills had long since closed but the chemical waste remained imbedded in the river silt.  The chemicals had killed off the fish and decimated the birds.  Biologists labeled the river as a biological dead zone.

Rachael Carson in her landmark book Silent Spring, published in 1962, awakened the conscience of our nation to the price we pay for our neglect of mother earth.  On April 22, 1970 thousands across the nation looked around at our polluted water ways and toxic landfills and said ‘no more’.  It was the beginning of our national awakening to our responsibility to be stewards of the earth, for this generation and generations to come.

On that  first Earth Day after a day of working to clean up the Blackstone, hundreds listened to Pete Seeger sing a song of hope for the river.  He spoke of nature’s ability to restore and regenerate.  He reminded us that taking care of creation was a sacred trust.  

43 years later as you  walk alongside the Blackstone River you are likely to see people jogging along a newly built footpath and seeing parents push their children in strollers.  You’ll watch the trout dimple the water as they rise to feast from an insect hatch.  A woman casts her fly as she stands chest high in her waders casting for that elusive trout.  At the same time a Great Blue Herron casts its own shadow on the water as it looks for its next meal. 

And as you walk or canoe along the Blackstone the words of Pete Seeger our great American Prophet continues to remind us, that taking care of mother nature is a sacred trust.  The Blackstone is a story of resurrection and regeneration and a reminder of what happens when people of good will come together for the common good.  Happy Earth Day and keep up the good work.

Praying for Francis

Pope FrancisWith white smoke rising over the Vatican 1.2 billion Roman Catholics welcomed  Cardinal Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, Argentina as their new Pope.   

A theological conservative, Cardinal Bergoglio is also known for his compassion — a combination reminiscent of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador or Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement. In Buenos Aires, the cardinal showed real compassion for HIV victims, and he sternly rebuked priests who refused to baptize children born out-of-wedlock.  There are also reports of the new pope being a “bridge builder” between Jesuits and other orders and, more widely, between conservatives and liberals in the church. How welcome that would be.

As the first Pope from South American, I am impressed by his sensitivity towards the poor and the world’s massive inequality — from the perspective of one of the world’s poorest places.

“We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” said Bergoglio at a 2007 Latin American bishops meeting, according to National Catholic Reporter. “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

Reflecting this sensitivity the new Pope has chosen the name Francis.  His namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi refused the trappings of power and possessions and chose to enter into deep solidarity with the poor, forgotten, oppressed.  In his famous prayer he asked that he become ‘an instrument of peace’.

When he spoke to the welcoming crowd, the first act of Pope Francis was to ask for their prayers.   As a Christian from the Baptist tradition I add my prayers to those of my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers.   I pray that this Pope will be a moral leader not only for the Roman Catholic community but for Christians from all traditions.  Indeed, may this Pope use his calling to build bridges of understanding and common cause among all the faiths of the world, particularly for the sake of those whom Jesus called ‘the least of these my brothers and sisters’ (Matthew 25: 31 – 46) 

There are many expectations placed upon Pope Francis.  With God’s help and the prayers of the world family we can only be hopeful.  In choosing the name of Francis, the Prince of the Poor, he is off to a good start.  “May God bless Pope Francis.  Amen.”