In 1859 The General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in Richmond, Virginia and said nothing about slavery. Now we have another pivotal moment in the work of anti-racism in our country. We cannot sit this one out. There are many ways to engage this work and our Beloved Community ministry has offered us resources. One way to take part in this moment is through public witness.
I have participated in a number of public witnesses through the years. In the early 1980’s I marched with Pax Christi in opposition to the nuclear arms race. I was arrested twice (but not detained) with Daniel and Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAllister for planned and peaceful symbolic actions.
As a bishop I have marched in public prayer processions with other bishops in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Salt Lake City, Alaska and Austin, Texas to bring attention to the public health crisis of gun violence. And have led public prayer witnesses at Smith and Wesson headquarters in Springfield. Caring for God’s creation led me to take part in public witness in Minneapolis and several towns within our own diocese.
How do we, as people of faith, discern when to take part in public witness? I find these questions helpful in my own life and ministry.
Does the event align with the values of the Gospel?
Is it meaningful and timely?
Is it intended and likely to be non-violent?
What do I know about the planners/leaders of this witness?
Will this public witness bear witness to the Risen Christ and to the presence and power of a loving God?
Ours is a unique moment in history and a time for each one of us to consider how to lend our voices to the work of justice. I have been deeply moved by peaceful protestors who willingly risked exposure to the virus to stand up and stand together for the dignity of black lives. There is always a risk when we put our values out there on a sign for all to see. In these days deciding to be part of a public witness can have real consequences, so please wear a mask. How deeply we are feeling the grief of our biases, our blindness and our white privilege.
We pray for justice. We work for justice. And, sometimes, we walk for justice. May God be with all who pray with their feet in these days and may God’s justice roll.
Thank you for all your dedication to Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope. Thank you for the time, effort and love you put into the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it. Thank you. Your work and prayer means so much.
In June I was at the Tri-annual gathering of deacons throughout our country which was being held in Providence. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was there and, as always, he rocked the house with his keynote address. At one point he was talking about St. Paul and how everywhere St. Paul went with the message of Jesus, there was a revolution. The crowd was riveted as Michael brought that revolution of love and resurrection to the present day.
He started shouting out, as only Michael can, to the bishops in the gathering. He would shout out the name of a bishop and say “can you imagine what a revolution would look like in …and then names the bishop’s diocese.” He did this for several bishops –“Bishop- name- can you imagine what a revolution would look like in – name the diocese.” The he gets to me. “Doug, can you imagine what a revolution would look like …wait, there is already a revolution going on in Western Massachusetts.”
When I die, please put that on my tombstone.
Michael never did go on to describe what is
revolutionary about Western Mass. That leaves it open to me to speculate what
he meant in this convention address.
Could it be the day to day commitment you all make
to following Jesus? Could it be the hospital visits, the hours of sermon prep,
the choir rehearsals, the bible studies, the pastoral counseling, the millions
of prayers you say privately and publically, the loving care of church
property, the reaching out to the lonely or hurting neighbor, the generous
financial commitments you all make to the mission of the church? Faithfulness
in this era is revolutionary. You inspire me.
Here is some other revolutionary activity in Western Mass. This is not an inclusive list. You will see other examples in the videos throughout the day.
In Western Mass, we dare to go where the people are and where the need is. We have chaplains to the Appalachian Trail – because if people are coming from around the world to walk from Georgia to Maine (or some part of it) you know they are searching for something.
We go to the challenged Main South neighborhood in Worcester through our Walking Together ministry – addressing the opioid crisis and addictions through Twelve Step programs, providing counseling and getting people the help they need, which includes a lot of prayer. And, sometimes, it includes saving lives with Narcan.
Our chaplains for the Women’s Correctional facility in Chicopee and to the Worcester House of Corrections fulfill Jesus’ revolutionary statement; when we visit the imprisoned we visit him. And we do that in another way with Reconciliation House in Webster – a facility for men coming out of jail with addiction issues.
Some revolutionary ideas are simple – like gathering veterans for lunch. A number of our churches do that once a week. Together we serve 500 vets every week. Some of those vets are doing fine and they come for the companionship. Others are literally living under bridges. And some suffer from PTSD and Moral Injury. I’m studying both those afflictions and I invite other church leaders to do so as well that we might listen with understanding and compassion. It is where our church is called to be.
There are many other revolutionary ministries that change lives like Lawrence House, outdoor liturgical communities, Laundry Love and others you will hear about in this convention.
But perhaps Michael Curry was referring to the revolution of his Revival with us last year. It was a phenomenal day with our celebrations in Pittsfield and Worcester – marked by inspirational music, witnesses to our faith and of course Michael reminding us that “if it is not about love, it is not about God.”
That revolution was not a one day event. We followed up on that day in many ways with Revival Year 2. And one of the lasting effects of Year 2 is a new spirit of collaboration in our diocese. For Easter Vigil this year, all the churches in the Berkshires got together in Lenox for one glorious service. The Church was packed and we had baptisms and confirmations and receptions. And then in Pittsfield on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, over 100 people from many different parishes gathered to put together 20,000 meals (yes, 20,000 ) for the hungry.
I invite you to consider continuing the revolution
of Episcopal churches working together. This is not about mergers or closing
churches. It is because we are stronger together. And it is a lot more fun.
Christ Church Rochdale, Grace Church Oxford and St. Thomas Auburn are doing
this right now. In the last few years the churches in Chicopee, North Grafton
and Sutton, Wilbraham, West Springfield, Greenfield and Turners Falls have come
together with their neighbors and it all looks like Resurrection.
A great example of this is the Small Church Summit
which has had two very successful meetings of devoted followers of Jesus who
have come together to share the challenges and opportunities of being small
As a sign of my commitment to collaboration, how
about this idea? For any neighboring parishes that want to do this, I volunteer
to walk from one parish to another, ending with Evening Prayer, a meal and a
discussion as to how those two parishes can work together. After all, you are
in walking distance of each other!
Another collaboration that came out of revival is our Pilgrimage Project. Members of our Diocesan Council called every church in WMA and asked them about a ministry they are particularly good at. They range from food pantries to farmer’s markets to Celtic liturgies and many others. If your parish is considering a new ministry and want to know how to do it, you are invited to a Pilgrimage to one of the parishes that is already doing it. It is part of an ancient tradition – go to a holy place and grow in mission and spiritual depth. Those holy places are right here in revolutionary WMA. You will hear more about this in the next issue of our diocesan magazine.
I’m excited to announce here that Bishop Mark Beckwith is our new Missioner for Spirituality and Leadership. Mark brings great gifts to our diocese. He is spending time in our congregations, preaching and teaching.
This is all part of a big commitment we all have to parish renewal. In past Convention Addresses, I have invited us to “double down” on social justice, and to “double down on prayer.” Let’s add to that “double down on parish renewal. We have a whole range of ways to make this happen. Already 10 of our parishes have done Renewal Works, 5 are enrolled in the College for Congregational Development. One is doing Natural Church Development. 7 parishes are working with Peter Swarr and Sue Schneider in “Explorations into Christian Leadership.” And we have 11 coaches to work with parishes leaders to fulfill our hopes and dreams for the holy mission Jesus has given us. If you want to know more about any of these programs see Pam Mott. Yes, let’s double down on parish renewal.
Let’s collaborate with Episcopal Churches and with the Lutherans, Congregationalists, Methodists and anyone else that wants to share prayer and mission. Recently I was at a meeting with other “heads of churches” brought together by the Mass Council of Churches.
We told stories of parishes working together across denominational lines. One example is that this year we are merging our popular Leadership Day with the UCC’s “Super Saturday” where there will be dozens of workshops that can be helpful to any UCC and Episcopal church and there will be a few particular to our Episcopal Church. When so much in our world is coming apart, we are coming together.
Michael Curry has given us a clear definition of the Church. I mentioned it earlier. “We are the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many, into the Dream God has for us.” Could our humble efforts at that be what he means by revolutionary?”
Religious scholar Thomas Cahill has written several books about key moments in the history of Western Civilization and how different communities contributed. He wrote The Hinges of History series, and The Gifts of the Jews. Twenty-five years ago he wrote, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. He tells the stories of how monks formed communities of peace and prayer, with farms to feed the poor displaced by the many wars. Monks spent their lives copying the bible by hand to preserve God’s word for future generations. Without the efforts of the Church, what was known as the “Dark Ages” might never have ended.
The Church responded to the needs of the time. We have not always. When the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in 1860, they said nothing about slavery or the impending Civil War.
We now have another “hinge of history” moment. We face a climate change crisis. And as the monks saved Western Civilization, it is our challenge to save the earth. Listen to the words of our Michael Curry and Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Archbishop Jackelén, head of the Church of Sweden:
“…the link of unprecedented climate change to human action rests now on insurmountable scientific evidence. In human societies, these climate changes compound social injustices, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us. Yet the burdens are not borne by humans alone: acceleration in the disappearance of species of plants and animals underlies the intertwined struggles of all life on Earth, and the destructive exploitation of resources leaves a diminished planet for all time to come.”
A Call to Join in the Care of Creation From The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Church of Sweden (Lutheran)
These religious leaders go on to say, “We claim the deep resources of our Christian faith to meet this challenge. We worship a God who created all that exists, who rejoices in its flourishing and blesses its diversity.”
They issued a call to action which involves: advocacy, education, prayer and collaboration. That sounds like the work that our Margaret Bullitt-Jonas has been doing for so long.
Now I invite us to make a commitment to joining her in this earth saving work. One way to do that is for all our clergy and lay preachers to make a commitment to preach about creation care. And to do so in the spirit of Michael Curry who says, “We acknowledge the dire urgency of this moment not through the lenses of despair, but through lenses of hope and determination.” We will be providing resources on how to do this.
We have a public health crisis of gun violence in our country. Over 100 people a day die from gun violence in our beloved USA. Our diocese is acknowledged by the network called Bishops United Against Gun Violence as a leader in this cause.
One of The Episcopal Church’s top priorities is racial reconciliation. Our Beloved Community Committee is working hard at education about white privilege. Several of our churches had services marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves in our country. They came from Ghana where we have a companion relationship. Friends, we have a long way to go in this work before we can be anywhere near revolutionary, but we are committed.
And we have a long way to go in being revolutionary in standing with immigrants and refugees – check all the references in the Bible about “welcoming the stranger” for why we do this. A shout out to Grace, Amherst for their embrace of a refugee family and for their support of the Congregational Church as they provide sanctuary for Lucio Perez, a father of four who has worked and paid taxes here for over 20 years. I went to the ICE offices with several UCC ministers and a rabbi to advocate for him. Thank you to our many churches that have signs saying “immigrants are welcome here.”
The mission before us is daunting which is why we need prayer and one another. Rachel Held Evans, a wonderful young Episcopal writer who died all too soon this past year, writes “The only way to work for justice in a sustainable way is to be rooted in the nourishing soul of contemplation and community.”
When we do that, really do that, we recognize God’s presence among us. And here I want to thank our brothers and sisters who tell me I am too political. They tell me we should be about saving souls. In my heart I believe this work IS about saving souls. But I do thank you for faithfully calling us to a life of prayer. If we lose our center in Christ, our work for creation, addressing gun violence, welcoming immigrants and refugees, promoting racial reconciliation becomes about power instead of following Jesus who has merged loving God and loving neighbor.
A few weeks ago a video about a boy anxious about school and what his parents did about it went viral. They dressed him up as a different super hero every day.
I think St. Paul would like that video because he had a similar idea. He told the early Christians to “put on Christ.”
Galatians 3:27 “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
Ephesians 6:10 “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God.”
Romans 13:14 “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”
And 75 times we are told we are “in Christ.”
Prayer, deep, sincere prayer leads to a resurrected life. We know this from theologian Bruce Springsteen. You knew I was going to get Springsteen into this address somewhere. In “My City in Ruins” he sings:
Now with these hands,
with these hands, with these hands, I pray Lord.
I pray for the strength
I pray for the faith
I pray for your love
I pray for the strength
I pray for your Love
And then he sings “Come on, Rise Up.” Eleven times. “Come on, Rise up.”
You see, praying leads to resurrection – for our souls, for our society, for God’s creation.
My spiritual director often says to me “Doug, you are capable of more than you think you are.” And I say to all of us in the revolutionary diocese of Western Massachusetts – “We are capable of more than we think we are.” And if you don’t believe my spiritual director, believe Saint Paul, who in his second letter to Timothy wrote, “We have not been given a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love and power.”
We say that every time we pray Evening Prayer. It’s 9 am but let’s pray these words.
“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.”
“The Census at Bethlehem,” oil on panel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566
In 2020 the United States government will undertake a census of the people. There is a lot at stake in the census, but the most important thing for us to remember is that federal funds will be allocated for ten years based on this census. When the numbers are inaccurate, the funding is inadequate. One of the reasons for an inaccurate count is that there are human beings living on the margins who do not get counted: people experiencing homelessness, the elderly poor, veterans with PTSD, those suffering from addiction or fleeing domestic abuse. Churches – ours included – can help support the work of the census because many of these people are part of our lives.
In Western Massachusetts we have significant engagement with the poor and elderly through our “outdoor cathedrals” in Pittsfield, Greenfield, Northampton and Springfield. We also serve lunches to military veterans in eight locations. And “Walking Together,” a storefront ministry in the challenged neighborhood of Main South in Worcester, offers a welcoming space for 12 Step support, and community programming.
My church leaders in these areas tell me “couch surfing” is the biggest reason that the poor go uncounted – staying with friends and relatives for a short period of time and then moving on. This is especially true when the count is done in the winter. The Rev. Jenny Gregg, who leads the outdoor ministry Cathedral of the Beloved in Pittsfield, told me many individual stories of people who would share space with a friend in rented apartments and then would be forced to leave when the landlord found out about the arrangement. She also reports that many feel unsafe in the shelters because the shelters are underfunded and have too few staff .
“Friends of the Homeless” had 1000+ individuals sleeping in their facilities in 2017. They have a marginal number of beds compared to the number of people needing beds. In some facilities there are as many as 20 people a night sleeping on the floor.
My deacon at Springfield’s “Church Without Walls” says the “tent cities” in Springfield are constantly shifting locations.
Although much of our work is in urban areas, there is tremendous need in the rural areas. Studies show the average weekly wage in the “hill towns” is 43% of the state average. And the poverty rate for young children is 23% in Greenfield, 22% in Ware and 39% in Montague. The Berkshires is aging faster than the rest of the commonwealth and many struggle with rising health care costs and transportation.
There are good people already preparing to make this census comprehensive. The Census Equity Fund has a plan for making 2020 a census that reflects the needs of all the people in the Commonwealth. The Episcopal Church stands ready and willing to help count all of our neighbors. We are blessed with several strong ecumenical partners and we will work with other churches in this effort. We will do this because in God’s eyes everyone counts.