Yesterday afternoon a number of us from Redeemer sat in a grand room on the 4th floor of City Hall, yards away from Darryl De Sousa, recently appointed by Mayor Catherine Pugh to serve as our city’s new police commissioner. We were present as part of BUILD (Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development), representing Baltimore’s faith community and various civic organizations in our city.
For several minutes, De Sousa addressed the room and members of City Council in a modest, quiet tone. He shared vignettes from his childhood, including the time he jumped out of a window with a blanket-as-cape around his neck, wanting to save people as Superman. He apologized for the crimes committed by the elite Gun Trace Task Force and vowed to root out corruption in our city’s police department and rebuild trust in communities between residents and police officers. And he listened as the first person who stepped to the podium, to speak on behalf of the public, lambasted him with anger and cynicism, expressing the long-felt pain of so many Baltimoreans whose trust in the police is chronically shattered and who question how an “insider” of a corrupt system can bring about necessary change and reform.
This tirade was followed by the testimony of BUILD, led by our clergy co-chair, the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, Senior Pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue in Bolton Hill. “We as BUILD stand in support of you and want to work with you, because our city needs you to succeed and cannot afford for you to fail.” Registered nurse Antoinette Mugar thanked De Sousa for agreeing to meet with BUILD leaders on March 6, to listen to our priorities and specific recommendations on how to rebuild trust between police and residents, and called for a public forum to be held within 90-days, for De Sousa to report on progress made. When Antoinette invited anyone in the room with BUILD to stand up, an army of us, shy of a hundred, in blue BUILD t-shirts rose out of our seats with conviction and a deep love for our city.
An hour or so later, another army shy of a hundred gathered in our south transept, to hear Heather Mizeur, founder of MizMaryland: Soul Force Politics. “Our spirit empowers us, connects us, and stokes the passions of our hearts. Our political discourse desperately needs the guidance, strength, and clarity of our soul’s force for good in the world. Inner Wisdom + External Actions = Soul Force Politics.” As a Christian who also draws from the wisdom of a variety of faith traditions, she offered: “The radical love [modeled by] Jesus Christ is the medicine needed for these troubled times.”
People of faith, acting out of a deep and abiding love of God-in-humanity; standing up, rising, and acting, to be the change and to bring about the healing so desperately needed in our communities and in our world.
This is what we are about, who we are called to be, and what we are called to do.
Recently Redeemer has launched an initiative for conversation and education surrounding the topic of mental health within our congregation and community. The response has been enthusiastic and widespread. I invited individuals who have a particular interest in the topic to let me know so that I can develop a group email list. So far, over 80 people have responded. (Please email The Rev. Caroline Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org should you wish to join.) It is exciting to hear the ideas and needs that are coming forth.
A first step is to offer a Mental Health First Aid Workshop to the congregation. This is an 8 hour course, divided over 2 days, that covers the current state of mental health in our country followed by in depth education about depression, anxiety, psychosis, dementia, eating disorders and substance abuse. The cost is $20 for the textbook. Each workshop will need a minimum of 6 but no more than 12 people. The schedule is as follows:
- Tuesday March 6 (10-2) and Wednesday March 7 (10-2).
- Friday March 23 (2-6) and Saturday March 24 (10-2)
- Friday April 20 (3-7) and Saturday April 21 (10-2)
If you would like to sign up, please email me with the date you prefer.
This past week I ran a pilot workshop and the following participants are willing to speak with you about their experiences: Nancy Bowen, Betsy Willett, Patterson Lacy, Norie Olsen, Susan Alexander, Joanne Tetrault, Ann Gavin, Ruthie Cromwell, and Margaret Thompson. I asked them to give me a summary of their experience. A sampling of their responses follow:
Lots of information…ingesting…sharing with love…focus on wellness…expect the unexpected…the beginning of a journey I will continue learning as much as possible about mental health while using the Mental Health First Aid book as a guide and resource. I plan to listen to those around me more intently and less judgmentally. I am curious to discover where this new path of mental health awareness will lead me.
It was an eye opening course that gave me an insight into the scope and impact of mental illness.
The course taught / reinforced appropriate methods of interaction with individuals experiencing mental illness in some way. I would encourage everyone to take it. The textbook is a wonderful reference tool. Skills learned are appropriate for interactions with anyone.
Gratitude….for being able to be comfortable with other parishioners about mental illness/health. As you know for years I have carried the sense of void into our church where we did not talk about parents of children or folks suffering with schizophrenia or other illnesses. It was lonely. It was hush, hush. Going to a N.A.M.I. group was not the same as sharing within the healing context of the church with each other. N.A.M.I. was helpful for how to deal with specific behaviors.
Heaviness….for those confronting painful issues in their or family life….issues that are/were present but not spoken about. I am pondering ways we can keep connecting/sharing….also strengthening (like naming the demons!) in the context of our “narrative”, as David would say. And my mind kept thinking about the homeless in the city and their issues, the people all around us with suffering with unspoken issues….We are all alike…we are connected, so we can become more understanding of each person.
I found this workshop to be a valuable vehicle to expand my horizons, shake up some long held beliefs, and to bring forth from me my willingness to explore personal beliefs and experiences as well as to be open to vulnerability to reach out to others. The sanctity of the small group setting was a gift for learning.
This class gave me a good and comfortable understanding of the numerous mental health illnesses that affect so many.
It explains ways to reach out to someone who may be suffering and reinforces the words so wisely spoken: “Whatever you do don’t do nothing.”
What the workshop meant was more than I thought it would. I was sure it would heighten my sensitivity to mental health issues and, I hoped, give me some basics on how best to relate to folks with these issues. I was especially interested in Depression because the symptoms of Depression are just about identical to the symptoms of those who are grieving. They are in a state of depression. Also, my mother suffered from depression. That part helped a lot as hoped, but continuing on through the whole galaxy of mental health issues really whetted my appetite to expand my sensitivity and ability to relate to them, as well. I will continue to read and click on other resources. But it turned out to mean something more that I can’t quite articulate yet. I think I was a part of something special, something that could be developed and fine tuned into a service and resource for the parish, and beyond. We were staggered by the scope and range of the problems, the symptoms, the possibilities of wellness.
I think those reflections from those who completed the workshop speak for themselves…..both the value of the experience and the great need. I look forward to continuing the conversation on this important subject. Mental Health at Redeemer: Let’s Talk About It; Let’s Learn About It.”
Ancient people put on ashes and sackcloth to accompany their grief. To honor the loved one and mark the loss, a person smeared a bit of charcoal on his head in the days following a death, and she wore what came to be known as “widow’s weeds” for months or a year. The ritual of altered dress or behavior marked outwardly an inner journey, setting them apart physically to help the individual and the community navigate what was happening spiritually: from death back to life and the new normal, from brokenness to healing, from disruption to wholeness.
By extension, sackcloth and ashes were used to mark any devastating loss: a flood or famine or being overrun by enemy soldiers, and individuals and communities were admonished to mark repentance in this way, too. Mourning was honored as an essential rite of passage. When someone or something, even a way of life, has died, individuals and communities are well-served to acknowledge what needs to be put down, as a way to prepare for what will be picked up, when its time has come.
You also see this invitation to put on a whole new mind in the story of Jonah and the Ninevites, or in the Israelites’ journey away from Pharaoh and toward freedom, or in the inhabitants of Jerusalem pouring out of the city to encounter John the Baptist in the wilderness. “We want to get right with God, and with our neighbors, and with ourselves,” they said, “so we will lose our bad habits and take on some good ones.”
That is what we are up to throughout the season of Lent, if we are willing to take on the discipline. We construct a meaningful drama of the wilderness for ourselves—simpler food, distinctive ways to dress, a change in our daily routine, taking on a discipline of study, taking time for silence and prayer and listening to the still small voice that is God, who speaks from the very deepest part of ourselves and through our engagement with others—and in that drama, to act out our portion of repentance.
Yesterday I spent an hour with a group of old and new friends at Blakehurst in an extraordinary conversation. At one point I asked them if they would go into the wilderness of Lent, like those folks running out to see John the Baptist, to repent. “Nope,” said one plucky 80-year-old. “Fair enough,” I said, “so what would motivate you to dig into a “wilderness” practice, to put on “sackcloth and ashes” in order to discover? What do you want badly enough that you would change your behavior to achieve it?” Their poignant responses came tumbling out: to experience forgiveness, to be reconciled to my daughter, to mend a broken relationship with an old friend, to love in a bigger way, to feel worthy, to reconnect with my brother, to feel loved again after the death of my spouse, to help my children respect each other.
Amen. Such honesty is the core of turning from death to life, the necessary step of articulating one’s experience of and participation in brokenness that enables something like resurrection to begin. Lent is an invitation to wholeness, but we have to walk through the wilderness to get there.
Redeemer is offering a number of opportunities to strengthen your practice: VOICES speaker series and simple supper on Wednesdays, Lent-to-go site visits each week, contemplative prayer, sung compline, all-parish read, Taize. Choose what makes the most sense for you, and welcome to the journey.
*Excerpted from The Anglican Digest; Winter 2017
Next Wednesday, February 14th, is Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. From time to time, it is helpful to review some basic information about this part of the church calendar. I offer the following summary that was in the Anglican Digest in the form of FAQ.
Why is Lent’s liturgical color purple, the color of royalty? The purple that is used for Lent and Advent is not royal purple, but penitential purple. It is a deep bluish purple, anciently made from berries and grapes. Lent is a season that emphasizes penitence for our sinfulness. It expects self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for the benefits of the death and resurrection of Jesus that saves us from damnation because of that sinfulness. As an emblem and reminder of that, we use purple.
Then why is purple a color of Easter, a time of rejoicing? It isn’t. The color of Easter is white, the color representing purity and joy. Secular Easter practices often use lavender as an Easter color, but this has no Christian symbolism. It is undoubtedly an overflow from the purple of Lent, which most secular Easter celebrations ignore altogether.
Why are there no altar flowers during Lent? Lent is a penitential season and flowers are usually associated with rejoicing. For this reason, the altar is bare, and we use none of the usual symbols of rejoicing, such as singing/saying “Alleluia”. Even though Sunday is never a fast day, in order to encourage the Lenten discipline, we make Sunday services more somber during Lent.
Are we required to fast in Lent? No, although it is strongly recommended. The Episcopal Church has few mandates, preferring to leave most spiritual disciplines up to the conscience of the worshiper.
Why do we talk about the forty days of Lent, when there are actually forty six days by the calendar? Sunday is always a feast day, even during Lent. Being the commemoration of the Resurrection, it can never be a fast day. Discounting the six Sundays, Lent is forty days long.
Does that mean I don’t have to observe my Lenten discipline on Sundays in Lent?
Technically yes. Most people however find that it is easier and more spiritually rewarding to continue the Lenten discipline on Sundays, even though it is not required.
Do we have festive events such as weddings or baptisms during Lent? No. They are not absolutely forbidden, but they are very strongly discouraged, and are usually done only in an emergency. The Great Vigil on Holy Saturday is a traditional time for baptisms. In the ancient Church this was the only time that people were baptized, having been prepared for it during Lent.
What is Maundy Thursday? This is the day of the commemoration of the Last Supper, the first Holy Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles and gave them “ a new commandment, that you love one another.”
Why the day of Jesus’ death is called Good Friday? For all the horror of the Crucifixion, the day is nevertheless good for us, because by the death of Jesus we are freed from the bondage of sin. The name of the day, however, is actually a corruption of the Middle English Godes Fridai, “God’s Friday.”
What does “Paschal” mean? “Paschal” stems from the Hebrew pesach, “Passover” and is the adjective for both Passover and Easter. Jesus died and was resurrected at the time of the Passover. His sacrifice on the cross is closely associated with the sacrifice that the Jewish Law commanded at Passover.
Why is Jesus often referred to as the “Paschal Lamb”? The Covenants between God and the Jews were sealed with the shedding of blood in the sacrifice of a lamb. At the first Passover, the Hebrews sacrificed a lamb and smeared its blood on the doorposts to identify themselves as worshipers of God. John the Baptist referred to Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” Since the New Covenant was sealed with the blood of Jesus on the cross, He is often compared to the sacrificial lamb that was offered each year in the Temple at Passover. He is thus the Passover lamb, or “Paschal Lamb.” Because of this, lamb has become a traditional Easter meal.
Why does the date of Easter vary? The ancient church calendar, like the Jewish one, was based on the phases of the moon. The date of Easter is tied to the full moon at the time of the Vernal Equinox. It was argued for centuries as to whether it should be the full moon nearest, to the first after the equinox, and whether it should be the Sunday nearest or after!
Where does the word “Easter” come from? This word actually has pagan origins. It is a corruption of Oestra (ancient Celtic goddess of sex and fertility). When Christianity came to Britain, the Paschal feast overtook the worship of Oestra but the name remained and eventually evolved into “Easter”.
My friend Bill is a good cop. He grew up 60 years ago in a tough part of Brooklyn and spent his career working in the New York City boroughs and on Long Island. He served in neighborhoods long enough to see their demographics turn over three times, from working class to poor to wealthy hipsters. Over those years he also experienced a shift in how the public he served experienced him, from hero to protector to antagonist, even enemy. The hard-working son of scrappy European immigrants, Bill took a while to register the racism within and around him, but waking up to its perversions changed him and his work. Maybe that was the hardest part of his job, to keep growing as a person while still working within a system that had become defensive and, at awful moments, a threat to the people it was called to protect. But Bill is a deep thinker, who balanced the action of the mean streets with reading and study, which means that as the city and the police work changed, so did he.
We met each other at a new Sunday afternoon service that my church in Cold Spring Harbor held outside: a circle of chairs, some bread and some wine, a scripture story, and a question: How is God speaking to you today? I’m not sure how Bill found our little Episcopal church with its unorthodox liturgy—he was Roman Catholic, newly retired, and happy to spend his days chasing grandchildren—but something led us to each other that first time. Over the months we talked about how the gospel challenged us personally to expand our consciousness, to grow up, to reach out, to risk stability in order to act for God. We connected on the similarities between “the band of brothers” engendered in the boys school where I had once taught and the unity constructed within “the blue line” of officers, acknowledging that each is double-edged. Such an esprit de corps can both call us to our better angels and invite us to hide from our shortcomings.
Then in quick succession, Eric Garner died in a police choke-hold on Staten Island and Michael Brown was shot by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Because by 2014 Bill and I trusted each other, he was able to speak frankly about all of the emotions that their deaths provoked: frustration, anger, fear. He chafed at the racial labels bantered about by people and the push to simplify complex interpersonal dynamics with soundbites. He defended the almost impossible task of diffusing a violent situation and wept for the families of the victims. And he resolved to not settle back into his comfortable retirement. How is God speaking to me today, he asked, sensing immediately that his years of tough police work equipped him to soften some hard hearts and settled opinions.
Bill reached out to me this week, after listening to my sermon that asked, “What is your Nineveh?” He wrote, “My self-education about the long history of deep mistrust of law enforcement by people of color has helped inform this retired, old cop of the Herculean effort that is needed to mend that breach and to build trust. Certainly, the current round up of undocumented immigrants fuels the flames of that mistrust. The men and women in blue, in raid jackets, in corrections garb have to work harder at the balance between accomplishing the societal goals that are articulated by our elected officials and still respecting the dignity of each individual… My work on racial justice and reconciliation has brought me to many parishes on a listening campaign… And that has brought me to leading discussions on white privilege with people… It isn’t easy stuff; it isn’t a welcomed conversation in many quarters; it is akin to my own Nineveh.”
He closed his e-mail to me with a blessing that is really meant for the Church of the Redeemer. The violence in Baltimore continues, he wrote, but “in the midst of those challenges, there is a light, perhaps a little light, that shines, and shines, and shines. You all have been called to magnify that light, to tell the next generation… to not give up and not to give in; to turn law enforcers into Guardians… to bring hope when there is despair… to carry the message that a new day has begun.”
God is speaking to us today, because God is always speaking. The question is whether we have ears to hear it. The challenges of Baltimore are our problem. The victims of violence are our neighbors. The folks who struggle with opioid addiction are our children, our co-workers, our friends. An effective police force is ours to call and train and support. Schools and streets that ring out with the joyous voices of children are ours to create. Faith communities that offer rituals, and fellowship, and teaching that take us from death to life are ours to build.
Bill heard something and responded, first as a police officer, and now as a courageous, prophetic teacher. Do you hear what I hear?