Sunday, December 07, 2014

A Word from God "Reconciliation"

A Word from God

And now a word from God: “Reconciliation”

This Advent we “Prepare the Way of God” within our hearts, and as we do, we consider three Great Gospel Words that really help make room for God; Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Love. Last week I shared with you some thoughts on Forgiveness. Today I do the same using a different word; Reconciliation. 

We begin with a story.

It was a cold and wintry night when the storm set in. The winds blew beneath the St Albans/Nitro Bridge over the Kanawha River among the hills of West Virginia not far from Charleston, and the Capitol district.  Just a few blocks away from the bridge was St Mark’s Church where I served as Rector. Unbeknownst to us a small gathering of homeless folk improvised a cardboard lean to against the elements and then, to warm themselves, they lit a fire. The ensuing events left three of them dead from asphyxiation and burns. Our church housed a soup kitchen and the deceased were numbered among our clientele. The press came to the church to report the tragedy.

A reporter and I went over to the scene to investigate. There we saw the remains of the burned out lead to and charred shopping carriages with a clutter of clothing and other items collected by the homeless over time. In what was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, one of the most mean spirited things I’ve ever witnessed was the appearance of a DPW truck and a few men who gathered up all the worldly belongings of these folks. Everything was tossed into the truck and carted away. The police scattered the homeless while they looked to me and said; “This is all we have in the world.” The reporter and I took names and pictures and got a few badge numbers. 

The next day, to further exaggerate the tragic events now to almost grotesque dimensions, the police handed out tickets for loitering, littering, and vagrancy. I no more referred to these folk as the homeless. To me, they had become my friends. I told them to give me their tickets. I called all three networks and both newspapers and held a news conference on the front steps of the church. I brandished the tickets in front of the camera. By the way, one photographer gave me a wonderful power shot angled upward with the cross at the peak of the belfry slightly offset over my head. I told the cameras; “I am responsible for these tickets. If you want payment you will have to come to me. I will not pay them. If you want to arrest anybody, you will have to arrest me. I  vow that the homeless will have a warm dry place to live beginning today.”

Immediately, money poured in. I had to create a special fund and our poor treasurer’s work multiplied many fold. I began to put the homeless up in local motels, and that presented a whole new set of problems. More than once, I had to box their ears with corrective directions as to acceptable behavior in motels.

The reaction from City Council was swift and unpleasant. I arrived at the office one morning to find my secretary in tears. I asked her the problem and she said; “Oh Fr Paul, the President of the City Council just called and he was in a state of outrage. He referred to you in most uncomplimentary terms and said that the only thing the Irish ever did for this country was to bring whiskey and red headed women here.” No, he really said that!

The press got hold of that statement and called me up for a quote; “I’ll have one of each”, I quipped. Money continued to pour in as more and more support for a shelter continued to swell throughout the Kanawha Valley.

The executive director of Habitat for Humanity called me and we began a search for a suitable shelter. We found several possible locations. At each point along the way we were met, of course with the NIMBY syndrome; “Not is my back yard!” In one particularly memorable meeting, hundreds of folks crammed into an inadequate space at city hall and heaped insult upon injury. I relented and said, “I withdraw my request for a shelter in this location on condition that you help find a more suitable place for the homeless somewhere else in this city”. 

At last we did find a place; in an old abandoned upholstery shop along the main street. The City gave us the necessary variance to rehab the building. Then all we needed was the money to buy the place. Honest to God, that very day, an elderly woman called my house to ask me if I was the priest who was trying to build a homeless shelter. I told her I was and then she asked me if she could send $25,000 for the down payment. The cost of the building was $110,000. All in all we raised over $85,000 in free will offerings and made significant strides in preparing the building for occupancy. 

We organized a 501c3 non profit, and put a board of directors together. I met with federal officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A grantsman offered to write up a proposal to operate what is known in the law as a “Safe Haven” for the chronically homeless. I worked with the main Homeless Shelter in Charleston West Virginia and offered to give the place to them as a satellite operation. After all, what do I know about operating a homeless shelter? I’m just a simple parish priest. We drafted an agreement and then we received a grant from HUD for $250,000 for the first year’s operating funds. 

It wasn’t easy. In fact as we approached the completion of our efforts, Cindy received an anonymous phone call with death threats against her husband’s life. “We’re going to kill your husband!” In her best Boston accent she replied; “Take a numbah, I want to kill him too sometimes.” They did not call back. They must have found my wife’s words somewhat disarming.

I tell you this story as a way of looking at the second of our three Great Gospel Words; Reconciliation.

We begin with tragedy. The homeless, helpless and harassed beleaguered with catastrophe are met by a priest and a reporter who sing with the words of Scripture; “Comfort Ye, Comfort Ye My people, Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished”. It was thus that I spoke to the homeless. But to the Powers and Principalities, I spoke words of some direct forthrightness. I had no choice but to speak up for the “least of these”. After all, that’s written in my job description. There was confrontation and a great and long way forward to effect reconciliation. 

We all knew that. It was the role of the priest to do his work, the police to do theirs, and the city council to do what it had to do. Then comes the work of reconciliation. As we know from our reading of scripture in the Old Testament, there is both a Sin Offering and a Peace Offering. Knowing that, I would frequently bring doughnuts over to the break room for the police. The first time I did that, I was not exactly welcomed with open arms. But I swallowed my pride and did it again and again and again, and eventually I was welcomed. 

One day a K-9 was killed in the line of duty and the Chaplain of the Police Department refused to bury the dog saying that animals had no souls according to his theology. The police knew where to turn. They knew me. After all Fr Paul would bless anybody and anything. Maybe he would bury the dog. And of course I did. The animals were there at the creation, God saw to it that they were included in the salvation plan on the Ark by Noah two by two, and our Lord was born one dark and chilly night with the barnyard animals looking on. Of course, I will bury the dog. After all, that dog, as the police will tell you, would give his life for his partner and so we commended him to God’s keeping.

There is so much work to do to effect reconciliation among those at odds. As John the Baptizer says in today's Gospel, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his pathways straight” or elsewhere as those wonderful words set to the music of the Messiah; “Every Valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

Reconciliation is an ongoing work in history. Just because we have a Civil Rights act does not mean that racism or ethnic tension is going to disappear as if by some magic. God knows that there is much work to do in the wake of Ferguson and urban violence in this country day after day. The Good Friday accords in Northern Ireland, as encouraging as that was, does not mean that strong feelings do not fester and stew beneath the surface. The work of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in South Africa is a monument to reconciliation but the work is nowhere near completed.

Advent is a season for wakefulness and repentance; a time for a complete makeover of the soul. We are called to make room for God within our hearts. In the words of Cynthia Bourgeault, one of the Church’s finest contemporary thinkers, we are called in Advent to cultivate “an inner spaciousness and quiet heart that prepares us to receive this new birth.”

The work of reconciliation between ourselves and God requires of us to continue also in the work of reconciliation amongst one another.

John calls us to live a Baptized life in which something of the old self dies away, and then to live into Christ, the one whose focus is not on self will but on the will of God. Today we hear a voice crying in the wilderness of our dark world, one who bears witness to the Light.

In today’s Epistle are these words; “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” As the Baptized of God we are among those who are making that new heaven and that new earth not just within our hearts but among the hearts of all we meet. 

This is urgent work. The business of reconciliation is a matter of urgent necessity. We live in a very dangerous world. Without the practice of Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Love there is not much hope. But with us becoming more and more the Church, making room for the new born Child in our hearts, we can be Baptized into him and live a new life and make a new heaven and a new earth. 

When we make room in our hearts for God’s Great Words we live as the Psalmist prays; we live in a world where
“Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
   ~Book of Common Prayer, Psalm 85, verse 10

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fr Paul

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