The Caring Corner

What do we do about problems with no easy solutions? Every city and town confronts challenges and it is often unclear how to make a difference. During a recent visit to the small city of Newark Ohio (population: 48,000), I was impressed with a group of volunteers concerned about homelessness and addiction. What impressed me the most was their ability to identify not simply a problem to be solved but also recognize people who need help.  

If you go to Newark on a Saturday morning all year long, you’ll see a white pop-up tent on a corner vacant lot across the street from the county jail and the sheriff’s office. Rickety folding tables hold cases of water bottles, sandwiches in plastic bags, and a few grocery items. An assortment of colorful plastic coolers surrounds the table. A few feet away a metal clothes rack displays shirts, sweaters, and jackets gently swaying in the breeze.

Volunteers greet people as they wander by. Some cluster in the shade, eager to get out of the blazing sunlight. Others straddle their bikes, rocking back and forth as they chat and stock up on supplies. Some sprawl out on the grass, grateful for a cold drink of water on a hot day.

This is the Caring Corner, a place where anyone can come to receive food or drink. My friend delivers a blue plastic cooler filled with frozen plastic water bottles. The arrival of this bounty causes some excitement among those gathered around the tables. They are anticipating just how good that cold bottle will feel pressed against their foreheads or necks. One of the challenges of living outside is the searing, oppressive heat. The ice will provide a brief respite and then offer cool water to these thirsty souls.

One of the offerings at the Caring Corner is fentanyl testing strips.  This was so far outside of my experience or knowledge base that it had to be explained to me.  Many (perhaps most) of the visitors to Caring Corner are heroin addicts. Street heroin is often mixed with the much stronger drug fentanyl. The testing strip allows the user to gauge how much they can inject to reduce the risk of an overdose.

My immediate reaction was – can’t we cure them? Help them conquer their addiction? The Caring Corner meets these mostly young men and women where they are and addresses their immediate needs. They are addicted, hungry, and thirsty. While I might wish to solve all of their challenges, they just want to stay alive today.

Sometimes we are able to provide a solution. Sometimes we are just helpers along someone’s path. I believe God calls us to meet people wherever they are on their journey and offer whatever help and support we can.

Lights for Liberty

I had planned to go to a lovely outdoor concert last Friday. I was looking forward to sitting with friends, enjoying a precious summer evening, relaxing under the trees as we listened to toe-tapping music.

But then I heard about the Lights for Liberty vigil.

 Gatherings were being held across the country on July 12th to raise awareness of the horrible conditions endured by refugees in detention camps in our country. Inspired by the light held by the Statue of Liberty, we are called into action by the poem inscribed on the monument’s base.  “The New Colossus” by  Emma Lazarus issues a moving invitation.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

            I felt compelled to give up my concert plans so I could heed the call of these inspiring words. I wanted to stand in solidarity with hundreds of families who are waiting at our border to apply for asylum. It is not illegal to ask for help. They are simply waiting to be heard. Parents and children are trying to escape violence, terror, and hunger. They are drawn by Lady Liberty’s light of freedom and the promise of this country founded by immigrants. Yet these tired, poor homeless masses are being treated like criminals.

 So I joined dozens of others in a park in Manchester CT to listen to first-hand accounts of recently-arrived immigrants expressing their gratitude for a fresh start. I heard a speaker compare World War II era Japanese internment camps to the refugee holding areas on our border. I joined in the song “This Land is My Land” that celebrates our country that was “made for you and me.”  

And we lit candles. As dusk fell, people of all ages, faces glowing in the flickering light, promised to carry the beacons of hope and determination into our towns, states, and country. I went to the vigil because I believe that is where Jesus would stand – with the outcast, with the suffering, with those on the margins.

There will be another pleasant outdoor concert to enjoy. But the refugees need us now. I was glad to be surrounded by the compassion and strength of those who gathered to celebrate Lights for Liberty. Now I will continue to do what I can to spread the message of justice and liberty for all.

Celebrating with our neighbors

Who doesn’t like a party? And the folks from the B’Nai Shalom synagogue had a wonderful reason to celebrate – it was the 100th anniversary of the founding of their congregation.

            People gathered from far and wide to enjoy good food and wonderful fellowship as the congregation reflected on its past and prepared for a bright future. With a tiny Jewish population in northeastern Connecticut, this congregation has a strong tradition of lay leadership. They rely on volunteers to lead worship and community outreach. They enjoy a strong “can-do” spirit which allows them to work and worship together. In recent years, a rabbi comes once per month to lead services, offer education, and encourage them in leading lives of faith.

            It was my pleasure to be a guest at the festivities and have the opportunity to offer greetings from my congregation to theirs. In this angry and contentious era, it is vital to remember that there is more that unites us than divides us. Together we can serve a God of love and hospitality as we reach out to God’s people as our neighbors.

            Rabbi Eliana Falk wrote this prayer for the occasion:

Dear God, we are thankful for Your gifts and blessings that help us…

  • To be grateful for the ability to learn and understand, and to grow in wisdom,
  • To respond to Your commandment to pursue justice and mercy.
  • To be ever more humble in our use of the gifts by which our planet sustains us.
  • To be strong as we assist all who are in exile, all who suffer oppression.
  • To be fortified through chesed and tzedakah – loving kindness and justice.
  • To bring healing and comfort to all who are infirm, cast off and alone
  • To be fearless forces for good in a troubled world
  • To embrace our tradition of peace and learning, healing and joy
  • To commit to one another – to all of us who are present – and to all who are not present –
  • Reinforcing the unbreakable bonds we share with one another and the Holy One of Blessing.
  • To acknowledge that all of our blessings are Your gifts, and that the hundreds and thousands of miracles that You offer to us each day are invitations to become awake to the mystery that is beyond our vision, yet understood by our souls.

And so to the congregation B’Nai Shalom, I say a hearty “Mazel tov!” and add my best wishes for many more years of worship and service.  May you go “from strength to strength.”

Jamboree – it’s who we are

It happened again – I was trying to describe where our church is and which of the many Congregational churches in our area is actually East Woodstock. Then the light dawned – “Oh, is your church the Jamboree church?”  Yes, indeed.  That’s who we are.

            It’s a good way to be known. Yes, we’re the church that hosts an enormous party on the Fourth of the July. Yes, we’re the church that offers safe, old-fashioned fun for families. Yes, we’re the church that invites kids to play games, dance to music, and ride their bikes in the parade. Yes, we’re the church that encourages people to spend the day relaxing on the common as they listen to local musicians and enjoy delicious food. Yes, we’re the church that opens our doors and our hearts wide and says, “Come on in.”

            While I’m glad that hundreds of people will find their way here on the Fourth of July, I wish more people could experience the behind-the-scenes activity that makes that special day possible. The small but mighty Jamboree committee begins meeting and dreaming in February.

About 10 days prior to the big celebration, the church starts humming with activity as people stop by with donations of “treasures” and books.  I love listening to the laughter and conversations of volunteers as they sort, clean, and categorize the huge variety of items that will be for sale. It is not unusual to find people standing with bits and pieces in their hands, deep in conversation, as they take the chance to catch up with old friends or meet new ones. Sometimes a guessing game ensues – “What is this thing?” (The answers have been as varied as a cranberry scoop, a candle sharpener, and an apple peeler/corer).  Or reminiscing kicks in – “I remember these!  I used to have one when I was a kid.”  I have heard mini book reviews as people happen upon a favorite book and recount a much-loved story. It is a time of excitement and anticipation.

  Fellowship and community are a big part of the Jamboree and they begin long before the actual day.

The Jamboree started in 1957 when the church was short on funds. While this was not a particularly unusual situation, the solution was. A trio of creative women – Barbara Barrett, Nancy Lyons, and Betty Wells – imagined a one-time event to fill the budget gaps. They invited the community and people responded with enthusiasm. And thus, a tradition was born. This year we’ll celebrate our 63rd Jamboree.

Some things have changed over the decades. We no longer host a ham and bean supper in the evening (those hardy New Englanders!  How did they have the stamina to prepare a meal after a long day on the common?!) and the torch runners now carry flags representing our country, our state, and the thirteen colonies.

But the heart of the Jamboree remains the same. It is an invitation for people from near and far to come together. We celebrate our country and the freedoms we enjoy. We celebrate East Woodstock and give thanks for the church. It is a day filled with festivities and gratitude.

I look forward to celebrating the Fourth of July Jamboree and give thanks for all the volunteers – past and present – who make it possible.

Worrying about the children

I can’t get the children out of my mind. Refugee children in detention centers without soap or toothbrushes and sometimes without beds. Children who have been separated from their parents and who barely have enough to eat. Children forbidden to go outside to exercise or play.

            We didn’t invite them here. These children did not ask to be caught up in this violent and dangerous situation. Many do not want them here (I would urge the wealthiest country in the world to consider its obligation to help those less fortunate but that is an argument for another day). The fact remains – the children are here.  They are in our country. What will we do? The way we respond to the weak and desperate defines who we are as a nation. The world is watching. How will we react?

            When I think about the children in the migration centers, I think of my own children at that young age. I remember vividly how vulnerable they were when they were frightened or lonely or sick. When I think of these migrant children who are alone, cold, and afraid, I imagine them crying without comfort or care being provided.  It breaks my heart and makes me furious in equal measure.

            The argument has turned petty. Withholding toothbrushes? Refusing to allow them to shower or bathe? Rationing soap and confiscating blankets? Some would argue that harsh treatment will discourage additional refugees from entering our country. The idea that people are risking their lives in order to be treated inhumanely in detention centers defies logic. No one is crossing the border to get a clean toothbrush. Desperate parents are trying to save their lives and protect their children. They are risking everything in search of safety, security, and a chance for a new life.   

            Responding to thousands of refugees fleeing from countries filled with violence and danger is a huge challenge. Fear is driving them to our border. Our country needs to take action in this very human crisis. We don’t have to agree on immigration policy before we recognize our obligation to provide basic care for these homeless, hurting children.

Our country was founded by immigrants. We are known as a generous, caring country who rushes to the aid of people across the globe. Now those people are on our doorstep. We may not be able to find homes for all of them, but we can treat them with the dignity that all human beings deserve. If Congress cannot find a way to provide toiletries for children, the government should turn to faith communities and other non-profits. Provide 2000 toothbrushes?  We can do that in a heartbeat.

In the meantime, if you, like me, are looking for a concrete way to respond, you may choose to donate to agencies that are aiding refugees. Here are some:

The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project  

KIND: Kids in Need of Defense  

UCC Refugee Relief 

            I will pray that we will learn how to put “love your neighbor” into action.

What CAN you do?

A recent foot injury has led to some frustrating restrictions to my mobility. Standing for more than a few minutes is painful. Some of my favorite pastimes have been temporarily eliminated. My morning walks, which feed my spirit and brighten my mood, have been abandoned. Taking care of my flower gardens and communing with the birds as I feed them are put on hold for now.

            As the list of activities that I can’t do seemed to grow longer and longer, I was becoming annoyed and feeling slightly sorry for myself.

            I was lamenting my inability to exercise and enjoy the improving weather when my wise daughter observed, “Well, you could at least lift weights.” And bingo – a new perspective was introduced.  Instead of focusing on the impossible, I was invited to imagine something new.  Given my limitations, what could I do? It was an opportunity to be creative.  I discovered several activities that worked – not only weight-lifting, but also yoga, swimming, biking, kayaking, and stretching. I didn’t need to curl up on the couch in pathetic defeat; I needed to shift my thinking and recognize what I could do.

            Now I’m starting to expand that thinking to other dilemmas and problems. Often when a situation seems overwhelming, I find it easy or tempting to think, “Well, there’s nothing I can do.”  Prejudice against the LGBT community?  Can’t solve that. Systemic racism?  Where would I even start? Global warming? Oceans polluted by plastic? Children being separated by their parents on the border? There are any number of issues, from personal to global that feel unsolvable. It’s tempting to sink into inaction.

            And yet – my new thinking reminds me that I don’t have to come up with a complete answer. I don’t have to produce the entire solution.  I just need to do what I can do. Maybe I can’t change society’s thinking about the LGBT community, but I can march in a Pride Parade or invite conversation with a bumper sticker. I doubt I will overcome centuries of racism and discrimination single-handedly, but I can accept the challenge to educate myself about the experiences of people of color and pledge to recognize moments of racism in myself and others.

            What can I do?  Pick up trash on the side of the road? Greet surly clerks with compassion? Send a card or email to a long-lost friend? What small action might be part of a larger answer?

There may not be a neat solution for every problem. But that isn’t an invitation to inaction. It’s a call (to quote John Wesley) to “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

     

Bumper Sticker Wisdom

My new bumper sticker reads, “Be careful who you hate. It might be someone you love.”

It is a reminder not to categorize people or to assume that “all” of “those people” are somehow the same. As soon as we try to clump a group of people into a tidy category or description, we will miss someone’s amazing individuality.

“Gay people make me uncomfortable,” we might be tempted to say. Until we realize that our neighbor or neighbor’s beloved child fits that description.

 “I don’t understand transgender people,” we might declare. Until we get to know someone who has fought for their identity and who advocates honesty in self-expression.

 Although my bumper sticker has a rainbow stripe on it, I don’t think the concept is limited to LGBTQ issues. When we start talking about “all” people of color or “all” immigrants or “all” women who have had an abortion, we are missing something crucial. We are overlooking the sacred individuality that exists in each person. We are ignoring their personal stories. We are missing the unique child of God, created in God’s image.

 I believe this bumper sticker invites me to look beyond the “packaging” of a person to see the individual. I believe I am urged to have a holy curiosity about each person so I can resist the temptation to dismiss someone as “one of them.”

             It is easy to hate groups of people. A group is faceless. A group doesn’t have parents who love them or children who need them. A group doesn’t have emotions and lacks feelings that can be bruised or rights that can be trampled.

It’s when we look beyond the faceless crowd that we begin to recognize individuals with stories and backgrounds, journeys and struggles that have brought them to this time and place. Perhaps then I will not be as quick to dismiss “them.”

 Instead of disregard, could I offer respect? Instead of turning away, could I listen? Instead of assuming I know their story and circumstances, could I be willing to wonder and learn?

A bumper sticker is such a simple thing – but it can teach an important lesson.