Busyness is Not Always Good Business

The New York Times recently published a long article on the work practices at Amazon.  It described a work culture which could best be described as horrible.  It reported that people will receive work e-mails at midnight with a text message follow up a little while later demanding why the e-mail was not answered.  It described an internal evaluation system which allows employees to make anonymous comments to supervisors about other employees and a culture which promotes critical comments which too often are destructive rather than constructive.  It also told of a compassion deficit for people who had to care for ailing parents or for employees who suffered a personal loss, such as a miscarriage.

Other media outlets picked up this story.  The Times published Jeff Bezos’ response in which he basically said he doesn’t recognize the company described in the original article and that “anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

The paper published comments from current and former Amazon employees as well as people who have had connections with Amazon employees, including family members and at least one tech recruiter.  While some comments contradicted the article’s descriptions, most of them supported it.

Since the article,  the Times published related articles to the workplace independent of Amazon, including software to monitor employees’s work time and today’s competitive work environment.

Maybe because I’m on vacation this week and taking a real break from all my ministries or maybe because I’ve been working in the church too long, these articles have been churning in my mind.

The article on today’s work environment touched on its history.  Our corporate model began at the turn of the 20th Century in the New York law firm Cravath.  They hired a slew of highly competent law school graduates and over time through their work they would prove themselves worthy to receive a partnership. The article noted that the difference in compensation between partnership and the next tier below was dramatic, which created a highly competitive environment.  This environment worked to cull most of the new hires  over time.

People wanted to prove themselves worthy to move into the tier above them, so they worked very hard, which gets me to the software.  The article described apps which can monitor an employee’s whereabouts 24 hours a day.  General Electric uses a smartphone app which the supervisor can give an employee immediate feedback after a presentation.  Other software can monitor what an employee is working on or if the employee is working at all.

All of this has left me thinking that corporations view their employees as cogs in a vast machine.  OK, this is not exactly new.  Working for large corporations has been like working as a cog in a vast machine seemingly forever.  Heck, it’s the same for government or any large organization for that matter.

But the infusion of technology into the workplace bothers me, especially technology that can track us and rate us on all of our activities.  It re-enforces the machine culture in which too many employees are cogs, and which Charlie Chaplin captured brilliantly in Modern Times.

Without the technology infusion there was still a human element in the workplace, even in the biggest corporations.  Water cooler conversations were hardly productive from a corporate perspective, but it built a sense of shared community in the workforce.  Software, however, can identify those down times.  Certainly management can allow for some water cooler time, but how much and when?  Those conversations were spontaneous and could last for an imprecise number of minutes.

More nebulous are face to face informal meetings to talk about a problem.  But even those meetings will sometimes drift into non-work topics.  I can see a dialogue something like this:

A:  We’re onto something, but I think we need to tweak this some more.  I have another meeting in ten minutes.  Can we touch base this evening to wrap this up for our morning presentation?

B:  We should, but Tim’s got a basketball game tonight and …

A:  Hey, how’s he doing?  He’s in what grade now?

B:  He’s a junior.  That’s the thing after the game we were going to map out the next college road trip.

A:  Where does he want to go? ….

You can see where this is going.

What about silence?  Silence is more important than we realize.  In today’s world when everything seems to work and move at hyperspeed, silence doesn’t seem to have a place anymore.  People may think of silence as a doing nothing.  But like sleep, silence allows us space and time to process and reflect.

Too often people go from meeting to meeting or leave a meeting and then proceed to answer a slew of voice mails which stacked up during the meeting.  Where is there time to think about what transpired during the meeting?  And that thinking extends beyond the project at hand and even the corporation.  What impact does the meeting’s decision have upon the world itself?  Or expressed differently, what does it really matter that you can order something from Amazon and have it at your door in an hour?

There’s nothing wrong with hard work.  But is it really necessary to use technology to squeeze humanity out of the workplace?  When the organization’s success, generally measured in profits, takes precedent over human life, we’ve reduced every employee to a cog in the corporate machinery.

We’ve placed a premium on efficiency in order to increase productivity.  Efficiency’s tentacles have spread beyond the corporation and have touched many aspects of our lives.  Our time is too precious to go to the store to purchase food and prepare it, so we order it on-line to have a dinner kit shipped to our door with everything pre-cut and pre-mixed to leave us with the feeling that we’ve cooked our dinner.  We order from Amazon because we don’t have time to go to the store and look for whatever we must have.

But what’s so bad if we stop to purchase groceries on our way home from work?  We might stumble across a food item which we never ate before or we might have a brief conversation with the produce manager to learn a new way to prepare a vegetable or we might enjoy a pleasant greeting from the person at the checkout.  If we go to the store, we might run into a friend or neighbor we haven’t seen in awhile.  But living our lives efficiently means we don’t get these moments of serendipity.

Less busyness gives us space to for a mental pause.  We get a chance to reflect upon what just happened or how our day has been going.  We get a chance to think more expansively about what we discussed in the meeting and to wonder about its impact beyond the bottom line.  We also come to value what really matters, our life and the lives of the people we see: family, neighbors, friends, and strangers.

Less busyness means we don’t reduce life to some vast machine without a soul.

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Five Smooth Stones

This is the sermon I preached today, the fourth Sunday after the Pentecost.   I used the David and Goliath story, today’s lectionary reading (1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49), to comment upon Wednesday’s shooting in Charleston.

Wednesday’s shooting in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina horrified this nation. Nine people, including its pastor, were shot dead by Dylann Storm Roof. But let’s not dignify Mr. Roof without dignifying the nine who died: the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, and the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr.

By now we know the details. He sat with in Bible study with his victims for an hour before shooting them. He wore a jacket with white supremacy symbols. He didn’t shoot everyone in the room; he left a few to tell others of his horrendous deed.

Let’s call it for what it was. This was a racially motivated attack. It was a hate crime. It was a terrorist attack aimed at black members of a black church, which holds special and historic significance in the black community. Let’s also not say that the shooter was mentally-ill or a loner or a lost soul. He was a racist who intended to kill black people.

And the public wept. Spoken words expressed outrage and sorrow. Politicians said some variation on, “That’s not who we are.” South Carolina’s governor talked a lot about the need to be in prayer and made a point to say that all of its officials will be in prayer. Others saw hope in that people regardless of race came together for prayer vigils or to express collective sorrow.

But this is what people say after tragedies like this. To say otherwise would sound out of synch. But we’ve been saying this too much. It’s said so often that I feel it has become part of the public ritual that plays out across this land to take away the hurt. Yet, after our public ritual, we return to life as normal, and we ignore race and its weight that bears down upon us.

Race in America. It’s real. It’s in our faces. It was the hot discussion around Rachel Dolezal until the shooting bumped it off the front page. Race in America and its repugnant and ugly children, racism and privilege, are our scourges. Race is a problem, even for people who are not racists. Race is a problem, even for people of color, like me. Race is a problem no matter where someone sits on the political spectrum. Race touches practically every aspect of our lives no matter how we identify ourselves racially. Race is not their problem, but our problem, and if we don’t own this problem, it will consume us.

Race is our Goliath. It looms large over us. It taunts us and we can’t confront it. We’re Saul’s army. Like them we dither in the face of this giant. So, we spew platitudes and say the appropriate things and promise that we will do better, and then we go back to our lives.

In the last twelve months we’ve had shootings by police and Islamists. During the same period we saw street violence in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore. The dramatically different perceptions of those events between whites and people of color expose our racial problem. Note that I’m not saying which side was right or that they were justified or unjustified. My point is that our perspectives and the way we interpreted those events tracked closely with race and that’s our problem.

Consider how the media portrays these events. When a crowd of blacks commit violent acts, they are thugs, but their white counterparts are rowdy. When a gunman of color shoots people indiscriminately, he is a terrorists, but a white gunman is a loner or is mentally ill. When Islamists shot two people outside an art exhibition of images depicting Mohammad, it was characterized as a terrorist attack, but Wednesday’s shooting was a hate crime.

Listening to the talk about terrorism threats, we instinctively look abroad. We look at dark-skinned people with suspicion. We think that terrorism will come from Al-Qaeda or ISIS, but this past week a survey issued by the Police Executive Research Forum reported that last year police departments around the country found that domestic anti-government extremism was almost twice the threat than groups like Al-Qaeda or similar organizations. The New York Times noted that since 9/11 about 20 Islamist terrorist attacks have occurred in the United States causing 50 fatalities whereas right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year accounting for 254 fatalities.[1] And here’s where I get sick. Some quarters of our media portray right-wing extremists as heroes who stand against encroaching government overreach rather than people who are angry that the president is black. As evidence, consider the increase in the number of anti-government Patriot groups since 2008. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 149 in 2008 and is currently at 874, which is down from the high in 2012 of 1360.[2]

But let’s not think that race is not some abstract problem which has no bearing here and now in this time and place, especially in this little corner of God’s creation. Take the article this past week in the Berkshire Eagle about Pitt Park. The local NAACP chapter wants the basketball courts fixed in time for the West Side’s Gather In festival at the end of July. The city says it can’t work that fast due to the competitive bidding process, but it could make some temporary patches. It all seems reasonable, except that Pittsfield’s West Side has gotten too little attention from the city for years. It’s been the city’s step-child who isn’t quite loved enough to get even the crumbs which fall from the table. Pitt Park is the stand-in for our racial divide.

I don’t often talk about race from the pulpit as I am today. It comes out from time to time in the way I see contemporary issues, such as proposals for immigration reform which advocate deportation or building a wall, which, I’ll be blunt, I see as racist. But on a whole I don’t make it a defining part of my ministry. Yet, I am fully aware that I am often the only person of color in most of the congregations I visit. Last week at the Massachusetts Conference Annual Meeting Amy saw a vendor who made religious jewelry out of stone. As her birthday is today and she was fairly confident that I hadn’t gotten her anything, she picked out a piece. She then told him that when he saw a Chinese man to tell him this is what she wanted. He found me because I was the only Chinese man among 300 people.

It’s not that our congregations, our association, our Conference, or even our denomination is racist, but the absence of people of color is another example of race as our collective problem.

We’re not even aware that race taints almost every aspect of our lives in this nation. Recently Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute traced the way government housing policies segregated this country’s metropolitan areas.[3] When we use property taxes to fund our schools, academically struggling schools track closely to poor communities where the student body is predominately not white. Our jails and prisons house black men at a rate far exceeding their percentage of the general population. Sociologically, this has decimated family structures in the black community.

The black scholar Cornel West wrote, “To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society – flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes. How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perception and response to these issues. As long as black people are viewed as a ‘them,’ the burden falls upon blacks to do all the ‘cultural’ and ‘moral’ work necessary for healthy relations. The implication is that only certain Americans can define what it means to be American – and the rest simply ‘fit in.’”[4]

David went to the wadi and chose five smooth stones. Let’s pick up the stones from the wadi through which love runs. Love made them smooth. But these stones are not just any stones. Our stones have names:

  • Compassion – this goes without saying. We have to approach race and each other with open hearts.
  • Empathy – we won’t begin to strike down Goliath unless we have empathy for each other. We cannot begin to close our divide without knowing and understanding the cultural, historical, and sociological contexts of each others’ lives.
  • Courage – We have to have courage to listen to words and perspectives that might hurt us because they overturn what we have always thought about ourselves.
  • Forgiveness – which is not just what we might have personally done or not done, but also to forgive for wounds inflicted in the past, especially the sins of omission.
  • Atonement – we cannot move forward without acknowledging and reconciling the sins inflicted in the past. Furthermore, what steps moving forward must we take to rectify the damage that was incurred?

The Goliath that is race in America will taunt us and diminish us as a people if we do not step forward to take it on. It is far more damaging than any external threat from beyond our borders. We must talk, ideally in settings where whites and people of color can sit together, but even if it is all one race, we must talk.

[1] Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer. The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat. The New York Times. June 16, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/16/opinion/the-other-terror-threat.html

[2] http://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/hate-and-extremism


[4] Cornel West. Race Matters. Vintage Books:New York. 1994 Pages 6

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Memorial Day – A Pastor’s Reflection

I spent this morning at a local Memorial Day ceremony.  The chaplain at the local VFW chapter asked me as one of the local clergy to provide the prayer of invocation and the benediction.  Having served as clergy in small towns, a request from a local veteran’s group for this service is not unusual.  It’s an honor to do it.

If I am not called upon to participate in this local event, I usually attend the one in Pittsfield.  The ritual has a sacred aspect and one that I believe a community should pause long enough to acknowledge.  Memorial Day commemorations are for the community to remember and acknowledge the men and women from the community who went to war and never returned.

It is a solemn occasion.  It also pairs religion and patriotism, which becomes troubling if it moves to nationalism.  Slipping into nationalism is easy because the day often promotes American mythology, wars in which men and women died were fought for freedom, specifically our freedom.  Add to that Anselm’s belief that Jesus’ death on a cross and it elevates death in battle to a noble and righteous sacrifice.  Thus we are freed not only from political oppression, but freed from our sinfulness as a nation as well.

We can’t ignore that this nation was founded in war.  The Revolutionary War was the violent overthrow of English rule over the colonies and the success of that war brought about our birth and freedom as a nation.  A few decades later the War of 1812 solidified it.

The Civil War also contributed to our American mythology.  Both sides could justify the war.  Union soldiers died to preserve the nation.  Even Confederate soldiers died to sustain a cause.

As we advance through our history, though, making a blanket statement that men and women died to preserve our freedom gets more difficult.  Could we say that about Korea or Vietnam?  How did the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan preserve our freedom, even if they were fought in response to a deadly terrorist attack?  And the current drumbeats to become more involved in the conflict with ISIS stretch this blanket statement even further.

Saying reflexively that men and women died for our freedom is a statement which exposes our reluctance to confront our mythology.  Without offering a critical note to our mythology, we perpetuate our justification to project and protect our national values and interests through weapons of violence of destruction.  We don’t encourage exploring non-violent, peaceful alternatives.

I’m not sure how many clergy today will note the contradiction war has with the gospel.  While it would be inappropriate to contradict directly the speakers who readily tell us that men and women died for our freedom, I believe it is a dereliction of our responsibility not to note in our remarks that war is contrary to God’s desires.  Without critical notes, we implicitly offering our blessing to the proceedings and the mythology conveyed through the ritual.

Here are my remarks from this morning:

Prayer of Invocation

O God, we gather this morning to remember and honor your sons and daughters who left home in service to this nation. They responded to the call. They faced evil. They lost their lives. They never saw home again. While their faces may have faded from our memories, we know them by their names etched in these stones. You, however, O God, know them because they are with you for all eternity. Their faces are forever young. Nevertheless, their deaths left wounded and empty hearts among their families, friends, and community. Bind up the wounds and wipe away the tears. Fill the broken hearts with your love and compassion. Help us to be mindful that they will carry their heavy hearts to their graves. Finally, O God, we pray that the world’s political leadership will recognize war’s madness and brutality. Grant that they will take to heart the words of the prophet Isaiah, who wrote, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Open their eyes, their minds, and their hearts to understand that war is the most abhorrent of all options to settle differences and that true peace will only come when we extend to all people your justice, rooted in you steadfast love. Amen.


As we leave this hallowed ground we will carry with us our memories of those who rest here under this sheltering sky. Do not forget that they heeded their nation’s call and gave their lives for it. Give comfort to those families who lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Honor the fallen by the lives we lead: giving hope to the hopeless, comforting the afflicted, and pursuing justice for the oppressed so all people will know God’s peace. Amen.

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Can I Turn Off this Campaign Until October 2016?

I haven’t been able to write much lately.  Too much stuff has been happening with my ministries.  On the other hand, there has been a lot of stuff happening in the world too.

The events in the world are really complex.  I have this nagging feeling that something is really wrong and that the something is some grand theory I can’t quite identify.  I can  identify its parts:  globalization of capital, disruptive technology, post-modernism, climate change (and our national leadership’s blindness to it), nationalism, racism, expanding income inequality … you can probably name several more.

The world, or maybe more accurately, life in this country has changed and not necessarily for the good.  Here’s an excerpt from my sermon a couple of weeks ago:

“It seems like we’ve lost a sense of shared responsibility for community. We have community, but it has become sliced economically, racially, demographically, religiously, socially, politically, and whatever other category we can name. I don’t get the feeling that the common good prevails anymore or that we have a shared destiny.

“Then, perhaps, maybe we’ve never had true community. Maybe it was an illusion created by the media in the 1960s and 1970s where families were intact and typically white, except for the Huxtable family. Baltimore is only the latest city to suffer riots. Remember Watts in the 1960s? Boston in the 1970s? Cincinnati in 2001? Though marriage equality has exposed major fault lines between the left and the right today, two generations ago we had the Vietnam War. We’ve had our Kumbaya moments, but our norm has been a nation where whites and people of color typically see the same event through two different lenses.”

Of course, I ended talking about the church’s responsibility to create authentic community:

“…where the values preached are the values lived, where all people are truly welcomed into the community’s fellowship, and where questions about faith and belief are not only accepted, but encouraged.

“Young-old, rich-poor, liberal-conservative, orthodox-progressive, immigrant-native, straight-queer, white-people of color, employed-unemployed, when we all come together, that’s the church. Together we bring our perspectives and by sharing them we come to a common understanding. As Christians we share a living faith rooted in God’s radical, inclusive love. We hold in common a belief that God’s creation is one of abundance so that when shared appropriately no one should know scarcity or deprivation. We have faith in the bread and the cup as the real implements to lasting peace and that wealth is measured not by how much we have, but how much we give away. We value the common good and acknowledge that injustice anywhere frays and rips the fabric of our community no matter its size. We hold fast to the teachings of Jesus and try to live them out as best we can every day of our lives, knowing that we are forgiven by God’s steadfast love when we fall short. We should seek to create this type of community. Then, we can come together to learn and practice to speak and minister together across the divides between us. We will come to respect each other, even when we disagree, and remember that despite our differences we are a stronger community together than we are alone.”

I thought it preached well, but then there weren’t many in church that day and I’m not sure how many spread my message after they left.

What I preached hints at what bugs me about the now-upon-us-way-too-soon 2016 election cycle.  We’ve got serious problems as a nation and the announced candidates, except maybe for Sen. Sanders, aren’t really addressing them.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you can probably guess that none of the GOP candidates resonate with me.  They’re not serious about addressing income inequality. They have no plan to replace the Affordable Care Act if the Supreme Court invalidates the federal health exchange (reminds me of the dog that chases cars – it has no idea what to do when it catches it).  They can’t figure out immigration.  Those candidates who are in Congress have a lot of bluster about the debacle in Iraq-Syria, but can’t give the President authorization to pursue the military action (which would be a huge mistake, but that’s another post).  Climate change is a non-starter.  Their positions on marriage equality and women’s reproductive health are absolutely ancient.

Clinton, however, is just as bad.  She’s doing a lot of listening.  That’s a good thing because she’s listening to the people.  She’s going to Chipotle and visiting small businesses so she can listen.  She’s stopping in towns across Iowa to listen.  Did I mention that she is intent upon listening?  What a crock!! She’s been about as close to the nation’s political and policy center as anyone since 1992.  Her husband was President of the United States for eight years.  She’s been a United States Senator and a Secretary of State.  And she is very smart.  She should have some serious ideas by now, but she avoids answering journalists’ questions and she needs a passel of advisers to formulate her positions.

Even when she was coy about running, I never got any inkling why she wanted to be POTUS, except that she “earned” it or it was her turn.  Her listening and not talking tells me she has no vision for this nation or even a passion to make a difference.

I like Bernie Sanders.  Of all the candidates he seems to have a vision for the future, but I await the details how he plans to pay for this vision.  Besides, Bernie Sanders remains an independent, even though he is running as a Democrat.  I’ll give him this, he’s entertaining.

Let’s not overlook the media’s role.  The recent essay by James Fallows in The Atlantic is a case in point.   He observed that the recent favorite question to the candidates, “If you knew then what we know now about Iraq, would you have gone to war?” is as shallow as “Knowing what we know now, would you have bought a ticket on Malaysia Air flight 370?”  But the media is not asking hard questions on any topic. Consider this one which no one asked of any candidate with regards to the recent Amtrak crash – “Please describe your vision for an integrated, comprehensive transportation policy balancing air, highways, and rails.  And how do you see Amtrak’s funding fitting into your scheme?”  (Note the New York Times article on our nation’s funding of rail travel compared to other nations.)

Unless the candidates can say something of substance and can forge a vision to address the elusive unsettled sense of community in this country, I don’t want to hear them.

Maybe what bothers me is that our national leadership is unwilling to acknowledge that we must take some dramatic actions to address issues such as race, immigration, climate change, disruptive technology, global capital, income inequality, and post-modernism if we are to maintain this nation’s exceptionalism.  And as a people, we need to hear this truth telling.  But until that truth telling becomes a reality, please spare me the shallowness of this campaign.

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What’s Next?

This is today’s Easter sermon.  I used Isaiah 25:6-9 and Mark 16:1-8.

Mark’s gospel ends with the three women coming to the tomb to anoint Jesus and then fleeing in terror and amazement and afraid to tell anyone what they saw. The young man said, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (16:6-7)

Unlike the other gospels in which the risen Christ appeared that day, whether the appearance happened in the presence of the women or later in the day before the two disciples, Jesus did not appear at the end of Mark. Jesus was gone. Like the women, we’re left hanging. Go to Galilee? Tell others? What’s next?

Had they arrived at the tomb and found Jesus’ body, things would have been fine. In sorrow they would have anointed him. His ministry would have become great stories to tell the next generation. It probably would have ended there. However, that his body was missing and the young man reminded them that they will see him in Galilee changed everything.

Jesus rose from the dead. He slipped death’s shackles. The men probably didn’t tell the women what Jesus said to them as they went from supper to the Mount of Olives just days before, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” (Mark 14:27b-28) Thus, the young man’s words were a sort of challenge to the women, “Will you follow Jesus or stay here?”

Their fear was not due to timidity, but awe. What Jesus said came true. He spoke on three different occasions to his disciples that he would die and rise after three days. It was too fantastic to believe then. But with his body gone and the young man’s words, the women saw that it was true.

What else would be true? All that he taught and all that they witnessed … could there be any other explanation other than what he said would be true?

Going to Galilee, then, became more than traveling north of Jerusalem to return to the place of his ministry of the preceding three years. Going to Galilee meant continuing the work and ministry he began. The healings, the teachings, the advocacy on behalf of those who had no power or voice, all that had to continue and Jesus was waiting for them to resume and assume it. Mark’s ending, though we might think of it as ambiguous, did not give a simple, pat, “neatly tied in a bow” ending to the Jesus story like the other gospels. Rather, the ending told the women, told the readers, and tells us that making visible the risen Christ is our responsibility. Jesus lives in and through the work we do.

We are the body of Christ, not just as a synonym for the church, but as the incarnation of Jesus today. We are Jesus’ hands and feet. We are Jesus’ voice. People need Jesus. The world needs Jesus. They could be unchurched or the spiritual but not religious. They could be people without a place to lay their heads at night. They could be people who have dim hopes at best. They could be people who struggle to have a full evening meal. They could be people of other faiths. They could be the rich and the powerful as much as they could be the poor and oppressed. The world needs Jesus, not to make people Christians, but to manifest love in all of its dimensions. The world needs Jesus to bear witness to justice in order to bring about shalom. People encounter Jesus when they are fully accepted for who they are. People without voice or without power will know Jesus when those who can speak and those who have power will use their voice and their power on behalf of those without. People without dignity will find Jesus when they are no longer invisible while standing in broad daylight. People who have more than they could possibly use in ten lifetimes need Jesus, too, so they might know generosity and thus, live more richly than if they hoarded their wealth.

Jesus is not just the man who rose after three days in the tomb. Jesus offers hope to all in this world without it. Jesus says that all are loved by God and that all should receive mercy and compassion. Jesus reminds the world that justice and peace rooted in God’s steadfast love is for all people and that the health and well-being of our common good trumps our own personal desires and agendas.

Jesus’ ministry in Galilee was not about providing charity to people in need, but being relational with them. He shamed the mighty so they would stop exploiting the weak. He included women because they had as much to offer as men. He healed the lame so they might serve others. The unspoken aspect of his teachings was that we are in community together and though we must take care of each other, especially the poor, the widow, and the orphan, we do it out of love in order to bring us together, not to maintain our separate spheres of existence.

Jesus did not seek to create a church or a religion, but to create the beloved community desired by God for all of us no matter if we were rich or poor, man or woman, straight or queer, young or old, powerful or powerless. Jesus sought to bring about the gathered community Isaiah described, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.” (60:3-5) The community, our community, would be all people for all people. The strength and richness of our community come not from all of us in uniformity, but united in our diversity.

The reality Jesus proclaimed in his ministry was that all are welcome and all have a place at God’s table where a feast of rich foods filled with marrow and well aged wines strained clear is set for all. And that feast extends beyond the table. It goes into the world and touches all people with grace, love, and compassion. It means that no one should ever know scarcity or deprivation and all will have their daily bread.

But Mark’s resurrection account was not just for the women that morning. It is for every one of us, too. That Jesus was not in the tomb is not just a story, but a powerful witness that continues to this moment and will continue to resonate as long as there is injustice in the world. His prophecies were true, not just that he would die and be raised up in three days, but that we all are worthy of God’s love and grace and that true justice is fundamental in order to create the beloved community. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr spoke these words at the Riverside Church exactly one year before he died, “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will only be an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

On Good Friday evening I went to the Lichtenstein Gallery in Pittsfield to see the opening of a photography show by Nick DeCandia entitled “Take Another Look.” It will run through April 25, and I recommend it. The images capture the magnitude and reality of food insecurity in Pittsfield. Many faces. Many worn with struggles. Many photos were taken at November’s massive turkey distribution at South Congregational Church. Though the food distribution was a successful collaboration of many organizations throughout the city, we should not ignore that in the richest nation in the history of the world, these images show people begging for their food. And though the community might congratulate itself for its generous support, we cannot leave it at that for if we do, then we have accepted begging as a way to address food insecurity.

Jesus sought to restructure the edifice of first century Palestine. He died for that effort. His resurrection became hope’s light in that darkness and implicitly proclaimed that life always overcomes death. The young man challenged the women to continue his ministry. That challenge remains for us today. What’s next? Are we prepared to go to Galilee? Are we the body of Christ incarnate?

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Open and Hidden

This was the sermon I preached this morning based upon John 3:14-21.  Having spent last Wednesday in a training session on trauma-centered care, trauma really stuck in my mind.  Plus, working with homeless veterans makes a deep impression, too.

Preached on March 15, 2015 in Dalton, MA

That we are awash in heroin here in Berkshire County is no secret. Even though Alan Chartock wrote about it in yesterday’s Berkshire Eagle,[1] we’ve known this for a long time. Most of the men I see in the county jail are there for some sort of drug charge.

All the men who come into the program at Soldier On were homeless. Soldier On is a transitional shelter, although we have a nine-bed emergency shelter as well. While many homeless people are veterans, we have many homeless people in our community who never served in the military.

Though our homeless situation is better than it was a year ago, we still have a sizeable homeless population. You don’t have to look very hard to see them during the day. They sit at the Intermodal Center or the library. They sometimes go to the emergency room at night. A Pittsfield police officer told me last year that there’s a man who actually commits enough of a crime at the beginning of winter to get himself incarcerated long enough to be released in the spring so he can take advantage of “three squares and a cot.”

These problems are open and aren’t hard to see if we open our eyes. We see them literally or we read about them in the paper. As for the latter, a week doesn’t go by without some sort news story about some drug-related arrest or event or a break-in or a robbery. I also sense that over the last several years we’ve seen an increase in news reports of shooting and other gun violence.

I believe the visibility of drugs, homelessness, crime adds to our anxiety and sense that things aren’t right. The problems are too big for any one of us to tackle. Even if we work together as a church, we have an implicit sense that the difference we make will not end any one of these problems. In the end, we know we have to work together as a community, including people who are not part of any faith community.

I believe there are many people who want to see a difference and are working towards improving our community. They’re also realistic enough to know that they might have to be content with small gains rather than solving an entire problem. They know that change cannot happen overnight as these problems took a long time to grow to their present size and that maybe satisfaction comes from reducing the rate of growth in these problems.

John’s gospel this morning is the tail end of a conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus. Following Jesus is coming into the light. Light cleanses. Jesus cleanses. Darkness, however, or not being in the light keeps the evil from light’s cleansing power. Without exposing the deeds that contribute to our suffering, we can never be free of them.

We see the heroin problem and the homeless problem, but what we don’t really see is what’s underneath. Our drug problem, our homeless problem, and our crime problem didn’t spring up from nothing. Their roots have been kept in the dark without the benefit of the cleansing light.

I recently learned that when we face danger or a very stressful situation, we viscerally react by fighting, fleeing, or freezing until our brain and our body can settle down. It’s a form of protection, a survival instinct. Trauma, however, comes when stress overwhelms our visceral response to leave us feeling fearful, helpless, vulnerable, or out of control. We lost our sense of protection. We go into a state of permanent alert.

There are three types of trauma. There is acute trauma, a single event, such as an auto accident or a natural disaster. There is chronic trauma, a layered and continuous trauma. Think of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Many experienced a series of traumas: first the storm, then the flooding, then evacuations, and then the crowded Superdome. Chronic trauma could also be homelessness or abuse and neglect. Finally, there is complex trauma which happens in early childhood development as the brain develops. This type has a long-term impact on all aspects of development. Children subjected to complex trauma seek to survive rather than thrive. Factors contributing to complex trauma include, but are not limited to: poverty, single-parent households, having an incarcerated parent, child abuse, abandonment, presence of substance abuse, or violence in the household.

We typically can get through an acute trauma. It might change some things for us. For instance back in 1988 when I lived in Brooklyn I was burglarized three times in two months. Even though shortly after the last burglary I moved up here, it haunted me such that when we’d leave home for a weekend, I’d hold my breath from the moment we turned the corner onto our street until we got into our driveway. But complex trauma hard wires the brain such that when these children become adults they are more prone using high risk behaviors as a coping mechanism. These behaviors could include: eating disorders, smoking, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, propensity to violence, and re-victimization.

In my work with homeless veterans I have come to see that many of them had a childhood that could be characterized as complex trauma. Let’s keep in mind that not everyone who is homeless or uses drugs or commits crimes suffered complex trauma. Let’s also remember that not everyone who had a childhood with complex trauma will be homeless, use drugs, or commit a crime. Still, we cannot overlook the factors contributing to complex trauma are roots to the community problems upon which we shine the light.

I raise this because we’re seeing increased childhood poverty in our community. The Berkshire Eagle the other day had a front page article in which Pittsfield school Superintendent McCandless made clear that we cannot ignore the impact of poverty on academic performance.[2] I recently spoke with a teacher in this school district who noted that the percentage of children receiving free and reduced lunch is 30%. McCandless made a point to say that we need to shift our focus from unfunded mandates and standardized test to addressing poverty among our children. Today more than 50% of our nation’s students live in low income families with Pittsfield at more than 60% and climbing.

Nationally, more than 20% of our children live beneath the poverty line, which makes the percentage of children living in low income households around 45% (discrepancy between 50% and 45% is that some children in low income households are not students).[3] Our childhood poverty rate, however, has been at least 20% for more than a decade. Imagine for a moment what we would do if a foreign nation pushed 20% of our children into poverty. And yet, we accept this of ourselves. That we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world and that we have accepted this as normal is unconscionable and our collective sin.

We won’t, however, make any headway to bring down this statistic unless we shine a cleansing light upon it. The problems that are in the light, drug use, homelessness, and crime, will stubbornly remain if we keep child poverty and the other factors which make childhood traumatic for many of our children in the dark.

What can we do? This is traumatic in and of itself. We can protect ourselves by looking past it as though it is not happening. Or we can begin to address this collectively beginning here in Dalton, even though we know we don’t have enough resources to turn this around even in a couple of years. Still, if we think about the children in this community, especially those who are in at-risk situations, even if we can shine a light on their situation and help address it, it could make a difference in that child’s adult life and may keep it from self-perpetuating to a generation yet unborn. “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’” (Mat. 19:14) Even if we can keep one or two children from becoming an adult prone to drug abuse, homelessness, or criminal activity, that’s progress, even though it is small and slow.

I recently had a conversation with Adam Hinds, Pittsfield’s coordinator for youth programs to stem the rise in gang violence. We both know our community’s reality, and this applies to Dalton as well. Our children will grow up and leave for other places. I said that the best thing we can do is instill in them the real values of community so that wherever they settle they will be good, upstanding, righteous members of their community. And when people ask them, “Where did you learn this,” they can say, “Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where I grew up.” Our children from Dalton should be able to say, “Dalton, Massachusetts, where I grew up.”

What Jesus said is not just salvation after we die. Salvation can be in this world, too. Can we and will we shine a light on the lives of children at risk? Do we have the courage and will to bring those things that hide in the dark into the light and free those children from an adulthood of pain and suffering?

[1] Alan Chartock. Road to Heroin Addiction has Numerous On-Ramps. Berkshire Eagle. March 14, 2015. Page B1

[2] Jim Therrien. Pittsfield Superintendent McCandless Describes Dire School Budget Options. The Berkshire Eagle. March 13, 2015. Page A1

[3] http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html

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Communion Prayer for Holy Week

I’ve started to plan Holy Week worship.  (OK, I try to stay a step ahead of the game.)  We’ll do communion on Maundy Thursday.  Given its connection to Passover, I wrote a communion prayer based upon the Seder prayer, daiyenu, a prayer offered to remember what God did for Israel.

You’re welcome to use this for your communion (just be sure to attribute it to me saying something to the effect, “Used with permission by the author, the Rev. Quentin Chin.”)

If God created this world with plants and living things for our nourishment and had not made a new covenant with Noah, it would have been enough.

If God made a new covenant with Noah and had not brought Israel out of Egypt and sustained Israel on manna and quail for forty years, it would have been enough.

If God brought Israel out of Egypt and sustained Israel on manna and quail for forty years and did not give us the Law that we might live in community with one another, it would have been enough.

If God gave us the Law that we might live in community with one another and had not led Israel into the land flowing with milk and honey, it would have been enough.

If God led Israel into the land flowing with milk and honey and had not built the Temple, it would have been enough.

If God had built the Temple and then restored Israel after its exile to Babylon so Zion could be a light to all nations, it would have been enough.

If God restored Israel after its exile to Babylon so Zion can be a light to all nations and had not come to us as a baby named Jesus who grew to bind up the wounds of the world, it would have been enough.

If God came to us as a baby named Jesus who grew to bind up the wounds of the world and had not died on a cross to rise again, it would have been enough.

And yet, O God, you did this to remind us that life always overcomes death and that out of death new life emerges. For this O God, we are eternally grateful.

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Christmas Eve Homily

I couldn’t pass up the 100th anniversary of the Christmas truce, December 24, 1914. I used it to begin my Christmas Eve homily.

Christmas Eve, Dalton MA

People did not anticipate a long war at the outset of World War I. But after five months of war the battle lines became defined by a network of trenches from the English Channel snaking to the Swiss border. This “short” war soon became a war of attrition. Allied and German armies faced each other across no man’s land, sometimes only thirty yards apart. Both sides fortified their trenches. Some war fatigue had already taken hold.

The distance in some places was so close that the men from each side would sometimes hold up wooden signs to each other or even shout to each other. It was a sort black humor, especially after a heavy barrage. They might shout to each other “Missed” or “A little to the left.”

Tonight is the 100th anniversary of a wartime truce between German and Allied soldiers. Across the front a temporary peace broke out. The temperatures plunged on Christmas Eve after weeks of wet rain which gave a feeling of a “white Christmas.” The informal communications between the two sides during the weeks leading up to December 24 inadvertently forged a type of comradery. The truce was not limited to one location nor was it uniformly observed along the length of the trenches.

Traditionally, Germans celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve with a large family meal and a gift exchange. They began to sing, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht! Alles schlaft, einsam wacht…” Silent Night was still relatively unknown outside of Germany. Some put up a Christmas tree festooned with lanterns on the embankments above their trenches. An account published in some of the English papers described, “Their trenches were a blaze of Christmas trees, and our sentries were regaled for hours with the traditional Christmas songs of the Fatherland. Their officers even expressed annoyance the next day that some of these trees had been fired on, insisting that they were part almost of the sacred rite.”

A letter from “Rifleman C H Brazier, Queen’s Westminsters, of Bishop’s Stortford: ‘You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ’”

Some truces were arranged on Christmas Eve and others on Christmas Day. Some had formal arrangements, such as a designated end to the truce. Others were informal where the soldiers who had been fraternizing could not bring themselves to shoot at each other hours later. Some truces lasted until New Years.

The truce allowed the soldiers to bury their dead, swap jokes, exchange souvenirs, sing hymns and songs, and exchange information about the war. Because of military regulations, many of the soldiers risked disciplinary action for fraternizing with the enemy, but they proceeded to celebrate Christmas together anyway despite their nations’s enmity. In one location, the German and English troops set up a large table between the two trenches where they ate a meal together, swapped souvenirs and gave each other small keepsakes. The German soldiers even noted in their conversations that they disagreed with the Kaiser about going to war at all.

Though enemies, they were first men and because of Christmas saw each other as men not as enemy combatants. The truce happened because these men were able to purge their hearts of all the negative stuff: fear, anger, bitterness, resentment, jealousy, and greed. They allowed love, which also resided their hearts to grow and fill the empty space that remained once they cleared out the negative stuff. Love in all of its fullness grew in their hearts: compassion, mercy, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, peace, and grace.

We could call this truce a Christmas miracle, which it was. But we shouldn’t think of this truce or Christmas itself as a miracle when wishes come true. Christmas is not December 25 as much as it is a state of the world. Though we think of Christmas as the day Christ was born, it is more than that. It is the day God came down to earth and squeezed himself into a tiny baby born in a stable to a barely teenage mother in order to share our common lot, to struggle with us, and to suffer the cruelties of our world. God came to us in love for us in order for us to purge our hearts of all the negative stuff. God in Jesus showed us that love is a verb, which means it is actions we undertake towards each other.

One hundred years ago tonight, God broke into our world and showed us that despite enmity, peace is possible. Christmas is the end of our world’s darkness and the dawn of a new day that is God’s reign on earth. Christmas tells us that another world is possible. It is a world where love prevails over fear. It is a world where peace rooted in love proclaims true justice for all people. It is a world where God’s abundance is shared so no one will need to know or suffer from deprivation and scarcity. It is shalom, a peace that is beyond the absence of violence and embraces the wholeness of Creation.

We celebrate Christmas to remind us that another world is possible. And that world becomes real when we let love fill our hearts and we place our faith and trust in God’s ways so that we can share that love with family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and even our enemies. Christmas is hope born anew rooted in God’s radical, inclusive love.

Tonight we celebrate that God came down to be among us in Jesus. The name is Emmanuel, God with us. Let us ponder this in our hearts.



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Sermon: Fourth Sunday of Advent

I preached this sermon today, December 21, in Dalton.  I based it upon the today’s texts:  Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55

What would you do or maybe what would be your reaction to an angel coming to you to tell you that God chose you to do some huge act? For women, it would be giving birth to the Son of God. For men… help me out, what is something that we can do that women can’t do that rivals giving birth, let alone to someone else’s baby, who just happens to be the Son of God?

By tradition, not scripture, Mary was a teenager, which added another level of complexity. She was a single teenage mother, betrothed to Joseph. By the way, we don’t know Joseph’s age, but by tradition we accept that he was much older than Mary. Though we tend to believe Mary was about 15 or 16 years old, an early non-canonical writing known as the Protoevangelium of James noted that Mary was about 12 or 13 years old when she gave birth.

Today, we’d think of this birth as scandalous. We generally look askance at teenage motherhood, but a girl who is 12 or 13 years old would probably suffer even more acutely from disdain. We certainly wouldn’t venerate her. So, imagine how scandalous it would have been for Mary.

No one would wish pregnancy upon a young teenage girl, especially betrothed to a man old enough to be her father. And just to add another dimension to this story, according the Protoevangelium of James, Joseph had two sons, who from the story were probably older than Mary. Given our current guidelines today, we couldn’t have this arrangement; for one, Joseph would be barred from marrying Mary. That we find this story difficult in our current context, it must have been much harder for Mary than we could even imagine.

Maybe it’s me, but I’ve carried this image of Mary as a meek and mild woman. Maybe it comes from an aggregation of many multiple images conveyed through Christmas carols. There is a sense of gentleness, such as in the carol “Once in Royal David’s City,” which has this line, “Where a mother laid her baby in a manger for His bed. Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child.” But that sentiment doesn’t capture Mary the mother of Jesus. Instead, we should think of the second verse of the carol “The Snow Lay on the Ground,” which begins, “’Twas gentle Mary maid, so young and strong.”

She was obedient, but obedient to God. When she sang, her words were a powerful indictment of all that was wrong with the Roman Empire in first century Palestine. “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Those were words of revolution. They were words seeking to overturn the order of the day. This was not a woman who was blindly obedient. She was a fierce defender of the people like her, poor and oppressed. She knew that the powers of the day, political, economic, and religious, were not serving the people they ruled. She was effectively saying to the powers of her day, “I will not stand for this. I defy you and your power and authority.”

Her song was a preview of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Maybe Mary taught a young Jesus to push for the underdog and ensure that those at the bottom of the economic ladder have their daily bread. God chose her to carry the Son of God to term and to raise him to become humanity’s teacher. She had to be strong enough, brave enough, and bold enough to seek overturning the order of the day. She followed him. She was the only person who was with Jesus at the moment of his birth and at his death on the cross. How could she be anything less?

Mary set in motion a movement that would challenge the Empire. She showed that there is nothing to fear when God is on your side. Her son, Jesus, continued to live courageously, like his mother, to pursue God’s peace and justice.

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is the gospel in miniature. Its sentiment is breathtaking in scope when we really think about it. Mary practically said that God favors the poor over the rich and powerful. God’s mercy will be upon those who fear the Almighty and that power and wealth in and of themselves are ephemeral. And when you think about it, “Relying upon wealth and power for one’s well-being is a weak reed” would be one summation of Jesus’ overarching message. Psalm 146:3-4 expressed it as: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”

I think people whether they know it or not are singing Mary’s song today. I’m sensing that something is happening, a shift of some kind or another. This month there have been ongoing protests over the Michael Brown and the Eric Garner cases. These haven’t been one-day protests and then are over. This past Thursday Union Theological Seminary in New York City held a community breakfast with faith leaders to discuss how to address the racial gulf these two cased exposed. Immediately following the breakfast many participants held a “die-in” in the intersection of Broadway and 120th Street.

But it’s not just these protests in the wake of the decisions. I see it going back to last year’s Occupy movement. And it is not just on the left. I see the roots of the Tea Party movement in the same way. All of these are manifestations of a deep, deep disquiet and unease in our community fabric. We know something is wrong. We feel it though we can’t quite put our finger on specifically what it is that’s wrong. Some of it is cultural. Some of it is racial. Some of it is economic. Some of it is political.

We’re frustrated. We know something has to be done, but we don’t see our political leadership, especially at the national level, doing anything substantial to address it. Furthermore, we can’t ignore that the long-held belief that if we “work hard and play by the rules we will succeed” is over. Economic statistics bear out that economic mobility in the United States has diminished over the years. It used to be that when the stock market went up, general prosperity increased too. Today, the stock market is at its highest levels ever and yet income seems to be stuck. Furthermore, data already show that income when adjusted for inflation has fallen over the past 20 years. And the benefits of the economic recovery since the recession in 2008-2009 correlate more favorably as one goes up the economic ladder.

There is a disconnect between the rich and the powerful and the rest of us. While there has always been a difference, the separation has become a chasm that is almost impossible to cross. This nation has not seen such disparity in wealth since the Gilded Age. And like the Empire when Mary sang, there is a feeling that many of the rich and powerful don’t seem to hear or know or care about those who are not like them. I often think of our situation as fighting for the scraps of food that fell from the table where the rich and powerful eat. They’ve forgotten, however, that Jesus said we have a place at that table, too.

We have to remember and hold dear to us that despite our differences in the way we see our current political climate we are all in this together. Fighting for scraps and crumbs distracts us from the real problem, the rich and the powerful have commandeered the table. Furthermore, those who are rich and powerful must not forget a huge lesson from the upside down world of the gospel. That with increased power and authority comes greater responsibility to be a servant, especially to the Marys in our world, keeping in mind what Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35b) And it is by coming down from their thrones that we can make real the kingdom of God on earth.

Something is happening. Something has stirred among many people who are not among the rich and powerful, who do not hold positions of authority, who are not among the elite, to sing as Mary sang long ago. This movement is not going away. It may take awhile, but something indeed is taking shape. As disciples we are called to speak truth to power, to “die-in” the streets, and assert everyone’s right to sit at the table. Like Mary, doing this is a sign of strength, courage, and boldness. We do this to overturn the world as we know it in order to bring forth the world as God through Jesus proclaimed it. We are the inheritors of a movement Mary set in motion long ago when Gabriel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”


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Emergency Food for the Food Insecure

Yesterday I attended a meeting with the Western Massachusetts Food Bank and other members of the local faith community.  Our local food pantries have been struggling to keep up with the increasing number of people who come seeking food.  Overall, we have a shortfall in food supplies.

The meeting, though, was valuable because we got to understand the situation the food bank faces and they got to hear our challenges.  We also received some guidance on other programs such as one for schools whereby a school having a high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch can apply for a blanket allocation so all students can get a free meal, which reduces some of the stigma of free and reduced meals.

We have a pretty extensive food network in our area.  One church produces thousands of pounds of produce to put into our food distribution system so people using our pantries can get fresh produce.  We also have several smaller gardens that get their produce to the local pantries.

Even though we live in a fairly rural part of the state, we have an infrastructure problem getting food from farm to table.  We need a commercial kitchen which will process raw food into food so it will have more longevity.  An example would be making June strawberries into jam so they can provide revenue well past the growing season.  We also need a USDA approved abattoir.  Currently farmers must book slots months in advance and transport their livestock a couple of hundred miles for slaughter.

Though addressing the infrastructure impediment will enhance our local agriculture, it probably won’t change the dynamics around local food insecurity.  Food insecurity comes about for many reasons including low income, lack of transportation, and high housing costs.

I listened.  I couldn’t help saying finally, “What’s happening is that we’ve accepted begging as a way to address food insecurity.”

Today it seems so normal to have food pantries and public suppers to help people who are food insecure.  Many churches collect food weekly to fill food pantries.  Food drives to fill pantries have become a regular activity within our communities.  On Monday Pittsfield will have its third annual Thanksgiving turkey dinner giveaway.  (The organizers plan to distribute 1200 turkeys with all the dinner side dishes, including dessert.)

These activities we see as doing something good.  It makes us feel good because we’re helping people who don’t have food.  We’ll even congratulate ourselves when we give away or collect lots of food.  Something has changed in us that we make ourselves feel good for this work.

In reality we should feel angry.  Government policy could be more effective to raise incomes for the people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.  Benefits could be more generous.  Instead by donating to food pantries, holding food drives, and serving public suppers we let government policy makers off the hook.  They don’t see this and if they do, then they have no shame.

We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.  We produce more food than any nation in the world.  That we have food insecurity in a nation awash in so much food and wealth is hard to imagine.  Even worse, however, we accept begging as a way to address food insecurity.  This is absolutely wrong.  It is not just shameful, it is our collective sin.

And we’re stuck.  Since that meeting I’ve thought that maybe we should close down our food pantries and stop serving public suppers.  Let anger build so people will take it to the streets, but the anger will probably not be directed at the political leadership.  The faith community will feel its brunt.

So, we’re stuck working hard to feed people who don’t have resources to feed themselves. That is so time-consuming that we don’t have time do the advocacy and research necessary for systemic change.

I wish I could have more confidence in our political process.

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