I’ve met a new colleague, and his name is GW Rolle. (The G is for Gregory and W is for Warren, in case you’re curious.) GW and I are students together at Light Street Presbyterian Church in Federal Hill this week, learning skills and gaining tools to work with others, to bridge the chasm between “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be”.
It was not on GW’s radar, to be on Light Street this week. A pastor from St. Petersburg, FL, he happened to be in town, staying with his cousin on Eutaw Place, so he could attend a reception presented by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty https://www.nlchp.org/. Every year for almost 20 years now, the Center honors individuals who have led the way in their communities, taking a stand against the injustice of homelessness and poverty in our nation. This year’s honorees are Washington Redskins’ tight end Vernon Davis; U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP; and Juanita Rocha of Laredo, TX.
6 years ago GW received the same award Ms. Rocha received last Tuesday night: the McKinney-Vento Personal Achievement Award https://www.nlchp.org/mvawards, honoring an individual who has experienced homelessness and is working to improve the lives of those still suffering its injustice.
GW is on a holy mission, to end homelessness in his and other communities. In his own words:
If left to define myself, I am a soldier and a philosopher.
I am a soldier because after close to five years homeless on the streets of St Petersburg, I am in a war to defeat homelessness and snatch back the right to define myself from the powers that be.
Time and solitude create a philosopher.
Pre-homeless, I thought I had plenty of time.
When my house burned, I didn’t figure I’d be out there long. Four weeks, two paychecks. So certain was I of this I took a cab to homelessness.
In rapid succession I lost my clothes, my money, my job- I lost a novel I had been writing for three years. I lost everything that connected me to life in a house. I was left with plenty of time and solitude.
I am a philosopher …
We now have the technology where if someone gets the first four digits of your social security number, they can tell you when your mother ate her first bowl of oats.
But there are still four to six times as many animal shelters in this country as there are shelters for human beings.
Technologically, the internet has made this world a neighborhood.
But humanly, as Martin Luther King sadly noted, we still have not made this world a brotherhood.
When a telescope that can see into infinity breaks, we can send mechanics into infinity to fix it.
But we still can’t see on any given night, the 800,000 homeless men and women and children- a quarter of which are veterans … seeking shelter from that same infinity …
Involuntary homelessness can be ended tomorrow. It is just an attitude adjustment away.
As a soldier and a philosopher in closing, I’d like to quote Walt Kelly’s Pogo. “I have seen the enemy, and he is us”.
GW is recruiting powerful allies, to fight alongside him to victory.
Will you be one?
This Sunday at 11:30, we hope to have a full parish conversation about whether Redeemer might be the 50th dues-paying member of BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development). BUILD is a broad-based, interfaith, multi-racial organization whose work is to assist people to discover their social, spiritual, and political power. BUILD’s methodology is to listen to individuals in Baltimore, to hear their problems and hurts, and then to help individual problems be refined to issues that an organized community can act on.
BUILD has been in Baltimore for almost 40 years, and its significant work includes, by decade:
1980’s Working with elected officials BUILD created the College Bound Foundation by leveraging $15 million from the corporate community for college preparatory activities and scholarships. The CollegeBound Foundation has assisted thousands of city public school students and provided millions in scholarship dollars.
Beginning in the 1980’s with its partner Enterprise Homes, BUILD is the largest non-profit developer of lower-income owner-occupied housing in the city. BUILD and Enterprise have helped to develop more than 767 Nehemiah homes, enabling families to create equity, while making their neighborhoods more safe.
1990’s Since its inception, Child First has grown from seven to 13 schools, providing academic, cultural and recreational enrichment to more than a thousand students each year.
2000’s State Funding for Education: BUILD organized with MD IAF and the Baltimore Education Coalition (BEC) to restore $18 million in state funding for Baltimore schools and $94 million state-wide.
Today Turnaround Tuesdays job training, particularly with returning felons, in partnership with employers such as Johns Hopkins University, Medstar Health, Blueprint Robotics, and TRF Development.
Through BUILD we have a vehicle for being in relationship with people in our city that we might otherwise not know or work with. Their listening methodology intends to create peers, who may bring very different gifts and experiences to a given issue or moment, but who work together closely enough to form relationships. These relationships are transformative, as someone else’s struggles become common ground for us, issues we all care about on which to meet and work together. And relationships are the way of the gospel. Jesus invites us into such intimacy with each other.
“Who is my neighbor?” asks the lawyer, and Jesus tells him the story of the Good Samaritan, asking his listener to identify with the person who helps the man in the ditch. Jesus suggests that being involved in each other’s life in this way changes everyone in the transaction.
Concretely, BUILD will train us to listen deeply, focusing problems into issues. We will be trained to sit at a table with unlikely neighbors and discern what gifts we might bring to bear. We will ally ourselves with 50 other communities of faith, schools, and civic organizations, most of which are made up primarily of African Americans. We may be advocating on behalf of poor people or folks who are under-served, working with brothers and sisters to transform our city. Along with this work, Redeemer will continue to feed people, clothing the children at Govans, tutoring there, building Habitat homes, providing Boots for Baltimore, making lunch and serving it at Paul’s Place. But BUILD enables us to make change, to get at the root causes of poverty, even as we serve those in need now.
To be clear, if we become full partners with BUILD, we will sometimes be engaged in scrappy work. The Baltimore that BUILD invites us into relationship with has experienced a fair amount of trauma, which in some cases is on-going, and it will be challenging to let ourselves be touched by such pain, to respond to it by knowing and loving the people who are in the midst of it, and to help them transform it. It might be noisy work sometimes. Like the widow who kept knocking on the judge’s door, we might feel like a nuisance. But I can promise you that we will always be proud of the actions we take. And working in partnership with Baltimoreans in this way may just help us discover more fully who we are.
Join us Sunday at 11:30, to learn more, to listen to each other, and see what the future might hold for us.
This reflection needs a “prelude” in order to put it in context. Just as our secular calendar is divided into seasons (fall, winter, spring and summer) so too is our church calendar. You are familiar with the more well-known periods such as Advent, Christmas, and Lent that make up the liturgical calendar. But there are others. Currently we are in the season called “Ordinary Time” which began the first Sunday after Pentecost, June 11 and ends November 26.
So with that backdrop, a parishioner came up to me last week and said she has never paid very close attention to Ordinary Time in our church calendar, but this year she is finding that title to be soothingly significant. With floods and fires and political turmoil seemingly marinating every part of our everyday lives, just the idea of “ordinary’ offers a sense of tranquility. She was feeling reassured that in the midst of all the ‘extraordinary’ challenges, the season of Ordinary Time in the church is comforting. As I reflected back on our short conversation, I have come to find equal wellbeing that liturgically we are in ‘ordinary time’; a period that is known and predictable. This is a reminder that occasionally we can ‘hear’ words differently.
This Sunday the Epistle selection is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It is one of my favorite verses in the Bible and I think it aligns itself beautifully with the potential consolation that Ordinary Time can offer. Lean into the sample below:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace with be with you.
Paul wrote these words while he was in prison fully expecting to be killed. His immediate reality was one of turmoil and conflict. The culture was described as unjust, dishonorable, impure and shameful. Yet from his prison cell, Paul was able to find a different reality of God’s redemption in the world. He was able to detect hope by training his mind to act with a theological discipline that consequently leads to that peace that ‘passes our understanding. Paul invites them to rejoice in grace and goodness, letting go of fear….and he invites us to do the same.
Ordinary Time, when experienced in this way offers us a gift that is a positive perspective. James Allen in his book, As a Man Thinketh, writes: “You are today where your thoughts have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts take you.” For today, now, I, in this moment, choose to let my thoughts take me to Rejoice in the Lord always….
My family’s move to a row house near Patterson Park is transforming us. We knew we wanted to own less and spend less, to have a lighter footprint materially so that we could be more agile spiritually. We looked for and found density, diversity, walkability, public green space, easy access to shuttles. We wanted a place that prioritized being together for cooking and eating over privacy, with bedrooms just big enough for sleeping and storing clothes. And because we need to, we are spending more time on the street. The stoop of 109 South Chester is teaching us what being a neighbor means.
Yesterday I removed years of gravel from the stretch of “lawn” between our sidewalk and the street. Five minutes after I began, the six-year-old from 115 plopped down beside me and asked if she could help. “I love collecting rocks,” she told me, and then shared her day at school. “We learned about bones and the soft stuff in your ears and nose.” When I had trouble with my outdoor spigot, the man in 113 jiggled something in just the right way, so I could water the hard ground. A dog walker from a block away stopped to thank me for planting grass. 120 said “Amen,” and offered to water our little patch when it’s dry. 126 crossed the street asking for help to get to the airport, flummoxed by his Uber app. He handed his phone to a mom sitting outside with her son. “Can you make this thing pick me up tomorrow and take me to Cincinnati?” he asked, laughing at the wonder of technology and frustrated by his ignorance about it. While one neighbor was setting up his reservation, another snuck inside and returned with plastic glasses and something for everyone to drink. My daughter got home from school and walked around the corner to babysit for our youngest neighbor, born a bit early, three weeks ago.
It’s not all rosy: Sunday night we gathered at the intersection of Pratt and Chester as firemen put out a motorcycle fire. Parking is difficult, and we’ve learned the hard way that the street is not safe after 11:00. Last night my wife attended a community meeting, and the president could barely keep order. Frustrations big and small overwhelmed the agenda, making conversation all but impossible… litter, zoning conflicts, a playground burned down this summer keep us on our toes…
Yet, we are hopeful about Baltimore. We’re invested in its promise and its people and its problems.
I thought about all that reading David Brooks’ column this week. There is so much close to home and far away that can invite despair—violence in Las Vegas, tragedy in Puerto Rico and the Gulf Coast, murder and racism in Baltimore, struggling schools… Fear encourages us to circle the wagons, dig a moat or erect a wall, disconnect from others and put ourselves first. The world is too scary to reach out, say the fortress builders. People disappoint us, so why risk loving across borders of race and class and nationality and religion?
But Brooks calls forth “energy, youthfulness, and labor” to counter this tribalism. We are made to be good neighbors, I would argue, a people who look hopefully toward a shared future, not resentfully eyeing some receding greatness behind us. How do we do it? Stop and talk with someone you’ve seen for years but never spent time with… go to a community meeting, sit by someone you don’t know, and ask how their doing… host a dinner and ask your guests to write to an elected official before dessert… tutor for two semesters… join a stranger who’s picking up trash… make sandwiches with your kids and serve them at Paul’s Place…
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus suggests that being a neighbor is our access to eternity. Another way to say it is that we don’t live until we love… across the street, on the stoop, in the ditch, within our families, around the world.