After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
- Wallace Stevens
Recently, I was reading a sad account about a family being evicted. The writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the scene in his very popular personal memoir and commentary about American Society, “Between the World and Me.” In the account, Coates describes visiting a neighborhood in Chicago several years ago when a sheriff’s department was called in to evict forcefully an African American family who had fallen behind on their house payments after the husband lost his job. It turns out that the wife was caught completely by surprise by the sheriffs banging on the door. Her husband had never told her of the summons papers he had received warning the family of the impending eviction. Coates describes the husband running around and screaming at the moving company workers as they proceeded with the difficult job of carrying the family’s furniture and possessions out onto the sidewalk as the family stood by and helplessly watched. We forget how many families had a similar experience in 2008 and 2009 when the real estate market and economy crashed all at once.
It is hard for me to imagine the feelings of duress and sheer panic that these parents must have felt in such a situation. Maybe they could have been more proactive and dealt with their situation earlier; maybe not. Even so, the loss of home and hope must be devastating. In such a circumstance it is hard not to despair.
For me, the Easter story deals with this sort of despair. The account of Jesus’ death can be glossed over with bunny stories and egg decorating, but at its heart it is a tale about a people facing utter despair only to find themselves transformed by an unanticipated and unimaginable hope. I do not pretend to understand what did or did not occur on Easter, but what I do know is that a traumatized and beleaguered community all of the sudden had their outlook transformed and their prospects enlivened in ways they could not have possibly imagined. And the direction the whole world took was transformed as well.
One of the great invitations we can take from the Easter season is to be bearers of hope in this life. This month we welcome back Family Promise of the North Shore, a non-profit organization that works with churches and synagogues and helps them “take turns” one week at a time hosting three to four homeless families. The First Church became a host congregation for Family Promise at the end of December. Starting on March 20, we will once again transform several of our upstairs classrooms into bedrooms so that a few homeless parents and their kids have a place to stay for a week. Where once there was stress and despair, there is now some hope and possibility for a different and better future.
Some churches observe Holy Week with lots of services and rituals and prayers. We are going to observe it this year by providing a little hospitality and hope; by being one of the places where people hear “yes” after experiencing “no,” to use the poet Wallace Stevens’ phrase. For more information about Family Promise and how you can help out, see inside. I wish you a joyous early Easter season and many blessings as the wheel of the year turns towards spring.
On Sunday, January 10 the First Church hosted a program called “Ask a Muslim Anything.” Robert Azzi, an Arab American Muslim writer, photojournalist and columnist, came and spoke at our morning service and then led an early afternoon “question and answer” forum open to the public. I am pleased to report that we had close to 140 people attend the afternoon program with a variety of questions being posed to our speaker. (See the link here and on our website to the front page article in the Salem News.)
This program is the first of a series we plan to host this year on Islam and America. Currently in American society we see a caricature of Islam often presented; one that focuses on extremist elements of the faith and does not recognize the millions of decent, law-abiding Muslims who live and work in the United States, many of whom are American citizens. Too often what is reported as Muslim is an extremist ideology espoused by a small minority (given the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims); an ideology whose hateful speech and actions are then presented as a general view of what is Islam is and who Muslims are. Too often public personalities and media outlets in our country are allowed to get away with inaccurate and sensationalized depictions of Islam for the sake of ratings.
It is clear to many of us that the wars being fought in the Middle East are about land and oil as much, if not more, than they are about Allah and Jehovah or Jesus and Mohammed. There are extremist elements in all of the great monotheistic religions of the West active today. While I believe the United States should protect itself, what we need is not more threats and military strikes but rather greater understanding and awareness of different cultures.
Our church has a long history of encouraging interfaith understanding and compassion. Our congregation was the first established Protestant congregation here in the area to welcome Roman Catholic immigrants to Salem in the 1790’s, thanks to the leadership of the Rev. William Bentley. Bentley also incidentally taught himself to read and write Arabic. A century later, we welcomed and helped with the formation of the first synagogue in town as well, Temple Shalom, (which sadly closed several years ago). We have a legacy of welcoming people and fostering understanding and community.
That is why we decided to move ahead with a series of lectures and programs featuring Muslim speakers this spring and summer. As the rhetoric continues to escalate during this Presidential election year, we think it is vitally important to understand that extremism and ignorance here in this country is just as dangerous as militant extremists agitating outside of it. Indeed if we as a country are truly honest with ourselves then we will realize that the latest manifestation of Islamic extremism is partly the fruit of our own foreign and military policies.
I invite you to support our efforts here and attend our programs. Currently we do not have a budget for this “Bentley Lecture Series,” as we are calling it. We saw a need and an opportunity and decided to sponsor these events as an act of faith of sorts. Some of us believe that the road to any durable peace here in the 21st century lies in faithful acts like this and many others that facilitate understanding, create connection and foster engagement. The Rev. William Sloan Coffin once observed that “the World is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.”
We have a fun and inspiring month of special services, chocolate fundraisers, discussion groups and even a story telling event. There is a lot happening around here these days.
Last month the First Church became a host congregation for Family Promise of the North Shore. We are now one of 14 congregations (13 churches and a synagogue) in the area that “take turns” hosting up to four homeless families for a week at a time. Our first week as a host community began on Sunday, December 27 and concluded on January 3. We had four homeless families sleeping upstairs in our 2nd floor classrooms.
The effort and planning involved in bringing this program to the First Church was significant. Jessica Kane led this effort, advocating and working to make this happen for over a year. Lynn Taggart, Iana Plum, and Hannah Diozzi more recently have all played key roles in transforming the upstairs classrooms into bedrooms and coordinating linen and bedding donations, dinners and volunteers. Some 42 people stepped up to volunteer or help out in some way, including preparing meals, hosting dinners, and sleeping overnight at the church for the seven nights our guests were here.
And even before we could host these families, we had to make some modifications to our building, including installing carbon monoxide detectors upstairs and obtaining a temporary occupancy permit (like hotels receive) from the City of Salem, which is no easy feat! In all we spent close to $2,900 in order to welcome these families. It was sort of a leap of faith that involved key support from the Social Outreach Committee and many others. Some of the money came from a bequest to the church that “appeared” just at the right time. Other donations came from members and from a café fundraiser run by the Religious Education program and Youth Group of the First Church. I even had a six-year-old member of our congregation donate to the cause: he proudly presented me with a small plastic baggie full of change from his piggy bank.
This was truly a congregational effort and I have to say I felt very proud to be the minister of this community. I knew that it was all worth it the moment I saw those little kids running around the Cleveland Room on the first night, met their parents and heard a little bit about their “story” and situation. Family Promise of the North Shore is not only a great organization that helps local families down on their luck and truly in need; it is an agency that helps communities like ours remember who we are and who we can truly be, with a little vision, hard work and good will.
The best holiday presents involve presence, not things. The most memorable gifts are usually the ones you give away, not the ones you receive. That certainly was true here last month. Lest we forget, at the heart of the Christmas story is a homeless family looking for a place to stay. So I thank everyone who participated in our work with Family Promise as well as last month’s Stocking Project (see inside for how we helped 20 local families in a completely unrelated program). And if you missed the chance to help out, don’t worry: we will be hosting again at the end of March! Here’s to a happy, healthy and warm-hearted New Year!