Monday, May 16, 2011

Sermon - "When Bootstraps are Broken"

“When Bootstraps are Broken”
I want to start in an unusual way. I want to share with you the obituary that was written not long ago. This is about a person who many of the Laguna Beach residents knew well. But you don’t have to have known him personally to understand this description of a man troubled by addiction and homelessness. The obituary says:

“There were two cowboys on the streets of Laguna. One – the laughing, joking, talkative guy. The other- the lonely, sad, unsteady, elderly man. We knew them both.
We loved them both-most of the time, and this week we cried for both and we prayed for both because Charles Reginald Conwell III has died a sudden and violent death surrounded by lights, vehicles, and people in uniform.
Cowboy was part of such action many times, but not this finish-death. But our Cowboy will live on, in the hearts of us all- his long time friends. Goodbye for now, Cowboy, til we meet again, joyfully- in that better place.”

-Author Unknown-

Like I said, many of the members of this congregation knew cowboy well. He was a bit of a local character. I have to admit that I only knew him from the beach. But this obituary sort of says it all. “There were two cowboys on the streets of Laguna. One – the laughing, joking, talkative guy. The other- the lonely, sad, unsteady, elderly man. We knew them both.

This is not a unique story of homelessness. Many people without the wherewithal to maintain regular housing have two sides, a whole side, a whole person of inherent worth and dignity. A human being that is easy to love, whose stories you or I could relate to in an instant. And they also have a broken side. Often involving addiction or mental illness, this brokenness is a scary but real flip side of life. This is the side that scares many of us away.

There were two cowboys, One – the laughing, joking, talkative guy. The other- the lonely, sad, unsteady, elderly man. There were two cowboys, one broken, and one whole. His story isn’t unique to the homeless community, and his story isn’t unique to the human community. His brokenness was just a little more difficult for the world to know how to deal with.

Just like Cowboy, you and I and everyone we know, we are also both broken and whole. We are loveable beings of inherent worth and dignity, with fundamental and permanent flaws. We are broken and whole.

Both fundamentally broken and whole at the same time. It is a paradox, two different realities, existing at the same time. Neither one more important or more true, both broken and whole. It is that precarious paradox that rests deeply in religious life. This is a core of my understanding of the world, and my understanding of my brothers and sisters. In the midst of the miracles and the mayhem. In the undulations between the mightiest love and the most terrifying hate, rests all people. Each and every one of us is broken and whole, just like this chalice.

This broken and whole chalice is one of the most important symbols from my own religious life. It serves as an anchor to challenging questions like homelessness and mercy.
This chalice is not a chalice of our Unitarian Universalist tradition, at least it wasn’t originally. This broken and whole chalice is from a Christian community, where they use one like this every week to serve communion.
That church is called Community of Hope. It started in the late 90s as a United Methodist mission to care for people living with AIDS. A very dedicated minister, a mentor of mine actually, along with five other families, some gay and some straight, began to worship together.
Their mission was to serve those most marginalized by society. They fed the homeless regularly. They taught GED courses to inmates. They traveled to Guatemala to help build houses. They provided housing for low-income families. And they dove into the HIV/AIDS crises, head on. At one point, this congregation conducted an average of two funerals a month for people who died of AIDS.
They knew deeply the reality of brokenness in the world, but they also knew that in the midst of that brokenness, each person who walked through their doors, each person that they served was whole. Each person was sacred. At their very first worship service together, the chalice like this one became their primary symbol, a chalice that is both broken and whole. And that chalice has become a symbol of my own life and my own theology. It’s the way that I understand the complexity of humanity. Like our first of the Seven UU Principles talks about, every person has inherent worth and dignity. Every person has inherent worth and dignity. But it is also true that every person, in some area of their life is broken with feelings of hurt, anger, loss, inadequacy, disabilities, addictions or a slew of other challenges. We are both broken and whole.

Laguna Beach Homeless Situation

There were two cowboys, One – the laughing, joking, talkative guy. The other- the lonely, sad, unsteady, elderly man. This dual reality is more than a theological concept. It’s part of who we are and how we live our lives. It’s a reality that we haven’t quite caught up with in our efforts to care for the homeless here in Laguna Beach, or in the country for that matter.
The usual model for reaching out to the homeless is what you might call the “teach a person to fish” model. We all know the proverb. Give a person a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a person to fish and he eats for a lifetime. Nearly every conversation about homelessness revolves around this idea that homeless people need a respite, some job training, and they’ll be back to working full time and on their own.
For many people that’s true. But for a large portion of the homeless population, the challenge is much, much deeper than updating your job skills. For many people, the way in which they are broken, makes it impossible for them to pull their lives together, at least within the opportunities that our society provides. Sometimes teaching a person to fish isn’t enough.

A respected organization, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that Twenty-three percent of homeless people are chronically homeless. A person who is "chronically homeless" is a homeless individual with a disabling condition like substance abuse, serious mental illness, developmental disability, or chronic physical illness. They have either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

Twenty-three percent of the homeless population isn’t going to be learning to fish any time soon. They are broken in ways that make it impossible to organize their lives in a stable way. This is the part of the story that few want to tell. Sometimes teaching people to fish isn’t enough. Sometimes people, like cowboy, are not able, and most likely will not be able to make ends meet in our society.

If we are to take homelessness seriously, then we need to take into account the needs of that community. There are many people who will tell you that the homeless in our city need a place to stay for a few nights, and they need some job skills and they will be on their way. These are the same people who are willing to invest a little bit of money to provide temporary shelter to the homeless, as a step toward sending them on their way. This is the approach that the city has taken thus far.

But there is another approach that is on the rise in Laguna Beach. Friendship Shelter is developing a plan to provide 40 long-term housing units, studio apartments, for people who would otherwise be chronically homeless. A part of that shelter would be a small temporary shelter, where people can stay for a short time in crisis. But the main thrust, is providing long-term stable housing for those most in need. In addition to the housing, the facility would provide mental health resources, a social worker, and other necessary services. This project is still in developmental stages. We have seen blueprints at the Interfaith Council meeting and funding sources are being explored. Hopefully we can bring more news about developments to UUFLB soon.

You see having mercy is more complicated that teaching people how to help themselves. In a universe where everyone is born equal, where everyone is able bodied and of right mind, that would make sense. But mercy demands more of us. Mercy demands that we meet people where they are, in both their wholeness and their brokenness. Mercy demands more than a fishing lesson.

Strangely enough, this isn’t a sermon isn’t really about homelessness. This is a sermon on mercy and helping people where they are. All this month we are talking about mercy here at UUFLB. We talked about caring for our loved ones through the aging process, and we talked about the tremendous variety of ways that mothers show their love.

But this week, I want us to see that mercy is first about meeting someone where they are. Mercy is about taking someone in all of their wholeness, and all of their brokenness to offer what you can to help. I don’t mean that we have to give up on the possibility that someone can change, or that they might one day overcome their challenges. But, to really show mercy, to really help anyone in a compassionate way, we have to first start where they are, not with some cleaned up version of who they could be or should be.

We often think of mercy as sweetness and kindness, and that is true to some extent. But there’s more to it than that. Mercy is a strangely brave thing. It takes tremendous courage to accept the painful reality of some people’s situation. Any one of us can write a check or sign a letter to help the world. Anyone can do a political analysis of the social ills of our time, or write a few emails. But I think that mercy is something different. Mercy takes much more courage. It’s courage that is rare.

I sometimes find glimmers of it in myself, but they are fleeting. It’s just so much easier to not listen to the real challenges that someone faces, the real brokenness that rests inside. But that’s what mercy is. It’s having the courage to face both the brokenness and the wholeness of someone, and to offer help that respects both of these realities.
Mercy isn’t just helping a person. It’s helping a person as they are. It’s helping a real person with all their complexities, all their baggage. Mercy demands more of us.

In closing, I want to remind you of the hymn that we sang as today’s meditation. Voice still and small

Voice still and small,
deep inside all,
I hear you call, singing.
In storm and rain,
sorrow and pain,
still we’ll remain singing.
Calming my fears,
quenching my tears,
through all the years, singing

In our religious lives, or maybe you want to call it spiritual or philosophical. In our deeper lives, we celebrate that still small voice from within. It is our conscience, and it is often a source of comfort. Through storm and rain, sorrow and pain, still we’ll remain, singing.
But there’s more to this little song. It is the recognition that each person, each beautifully whole and broken person possesses their own still small voice. And that voice deep within us, that voice of passion and freedom and concern, that still small voice is in each of us, resonates with the voice within our brothers and sisters.
As we endeavor to share our mercy with the world, to meet people where they are in all their glory and their despair, let us remember that their wholeness matches ours, and their brokenness does as well. Let us remember that mercy means meeting people where they are.


No comments:

Post a Comment