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, 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. 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). 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?
 Alan Chartock. Road to Heroin Addiction has Numerous On-Ramps. Berkshire Eagle. March 14, 2015. Page B1
 Jim Therrien. Pittsfield Superintendent McCandless Describes Dire School Budget Options. The Berkshire Eagle. March 13, 2015. Page A1