August 30, 2015

Interfaith Refugee Ministries

Proper 17, Year B, RCL

Each year, the Diocese of East Carolina designates various Sundays to highlight ministries that are deeply woven into our common life. Today, we celebrate Interfaith Refugee Ministry. (Click here to read more; note that Christ Church celebrated a week early to avoid the Labor Day weekend.)

As Americans, we live in a fairly comfortable atmosphere. We might not always think we have enough, or we might want to move up in life. And for the most part, we are able to work on that. We may have some complaints about the political system or even an elected official or two. But the reality is that we have not idea what it is like to experience retribution, harsh, brutal retribution, for who we are or what we believe.

Imagine for a moment that you and your family don't have the freedoms most of the world enjoys. As painful and scary as it may be, go in your mind for a moment to where everything you have is taken from you: Your home, your possessions, even other members of your family, because they government, or the ruling group that calls itself the government, doesn't like who your village supported in the last election, or your tribe is on land that they don't think you should have, or your religion is at odds with those in power. It may not even matter what religion you practice.

Imagine having your very nationality stripped because of those, or any of a long list of, factors so that because of nothing more than where you were born, you are suddenly without a country that you can call home, or a homeland that recognizes you as a citizen.

According to the United Nations High Council on Refugees, 51.2 million people were considered refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced, as of June 2014. That's the highest number since the end of World War II.  There were 17 million people living in camps in places like Rwanda, Kenya, and Jordan. Syrian refugees account for over 3 million people. If you break those numbers down, a human being, a child of God, is forced to flee their home or their homeland every four seconds. (Reference)

It would be nice to think that other countries would open their borders and say, "Come! Make a home here!" But with few exceptions, nations throughout history have been hard pressed to open their gates to those expelled or driven out of their homeland. Even the United States turned away a vessel with over 900 ethnic Jews from Germany in 1939, sending them back to a certain and terrible fate.

Those countries that do take in refugees are more likely to lave them in rustic (to put it kindly) camps. Hardly a way to start a new life. Time magazine had a story in their June 4th issue about a ship with over 400 Burmese refugees who were abandoned by the crew and were sent back and forth across the Bay of Bengal between Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. No one wanted them to disembark on their shore. They eventually landed in a remote part of Indonesia, despite the Navy's attempt to keep them away. And the Army is doing all they can to make sure the refugees stay in that small, remote area.

Thanks be to God, what secular institutions fail to do, people of faith often will. Among the many ministries of the Episcopal Church is Episcopal Migration Ministries. For 75 years, the Episcopal Church has been helping to resettle refugees, first through the Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief (now known as Episcopal Relief and Development). In 1988, Episcopal Migration Ministries was separated from that as a more concentrated effort to resettle refugees from around the world on behalf of the Episcopal Church. It is an organization which strives to be the living example of the Church's commitment to the stranger in our midst. Their vision is to uphold the dignity of every human being by advancing our nation's legacy of welcome. Just last week, at the 10:00 service, over 275 of us recommitted ourselves as well to respecting that same dignity during the Baptismal liturgy.

In 2014, nearly 70,000 refugees were resettled in the United States. Episcopal Migration Ministries helped with around 5,000 of those. It's a drop in the bucket compared to the 51.2 million I mentioned earlier. But it's something. And it means a chance for a new life and a new start for 70,000 people.
Episcopal Migration Ministries works with 26 dioceses across the Episcopal Church, including the Diocese of East Carolina, through Interfaith Refugee Ministries, headquartered here in New Bern with a sub-office in Wilmington. Each year, Interfaith Refugee Ministries resettles families from around the globe to begin a new life in Eastern North Carolina. They have come from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa. Many from the Karen community worship with us and in other churches in the area.

Part of that resettlement includes learning English, school enrollment, and job placement. And it takes hundreds of volunteers from all walks of life to help make that happen. Those seeking a new life quickly become a part of the fabric of the community. During the recent school re-zoning in Craven County, several schools with large Burmese populations saw those students move to another school. One school secretary I know told me that she had called her counterparts at all the schools "her kids" wold be going to tell them how great each one was, and if they had any trouble acclimating, she'd be glad to help in any way. She knew enough of what these kids and their families had been through to get here; she wasn't going to let something silly like a school transfer be a stumbling block to them.

The work of IRM, and organizations like and the volunteers who help make the run, are a reflection of our Gospel lesson and the part of the Letter of James we heard earlier. Jesus in a bit of a spot with the religious leaders over what was right and wrong about various practices of religion. This passage is sandwiched right between Mark's two accounts of Jesus feeding the multitudes. If we look at all these chapters, we see that Jesus feeds people because they are hungry. Not because they ask or because they are worthy, but because they are beloved Children of God. It echos other parts of the Gospel where Jesus heals people simply because they believe he can do it.

James, Jesus' brother, is the leader of the faithful in Jerusalem, and he implores his flock to be "DO-ERS" of the Word, and not merely "HEAR-ERS," to be people who don't just look on the exercise of their faith as a "nice thing to do" or get too hung up on ritual and forget the purpose of why we gather. The directive to care for widows and orphans harkens back to multiple prophets of old who reminded Israel what God expected of them. As a people liberated by God from Egypt, they were to treat the marginalized in their midst with compassion, something I'd say all of us need a reminder of from time to time, and something that those at Interfaith Refugee Ministries remind us of on a daily basis.

The work of Interfaith Refugee Ministries is not unlike the call each of us from God: to care for those whom God has made and loved and to show compassion for them. No one person, no one church, no one agency can do it all. with God as our guide, the Holy Spirit as our companion, and Jesus as the light to lead the way, we can all do our part in easing the pain of others and welcoming those who have no where else to turn.

August 9, 2015

What feeds you?

Proper 14, Year B


In case you’ve been on vacation or just not following the Gospel readings the past several weeks, Jesus has been talking a lot about bread. We’ve been immersed in the sixth chapter of John; in fact, we are in the middle of it right now. It all started two weeks ago with the feeding of the 5,000 from a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, and it will continue two more weeks after today before we go back to Mark’s Gospel for the rest of this season of the church year. As I pondered this particular passage from John’s Gospel, as well as some of my travels the past two weeks, the same questions kept coming back to me: How are we fed? What are our sources for nourishment and sustenance? Yes, you may think immediately about Harris-Teeter or Food Lion or even your favorite restaurant. Or you may think about something unrelated to food, like being on the beach or the river or a long run or a warm cup of tea and a good book. Or maybe it’s the way you give back to others that provides sustenance for you. If we take a long look at this epic chapter of John, we find that Jesus is dealing with people who don’t really know what it means to be fed. He did the Loaves and Fish miracle, and their stomachs were fed. But when they were empty again, there was frustration on both sides (Jesus and the people) because Jesus quickly, and deftly, offered them something more lasting and filling, even if it wasn’t physical. And as people often do, they rejected what Jesus had to offer. Jesus so wants to be the bread that fills their souls, and they just don’t get it. In today’s episode, Jesus begins to have a bit of a confrontation with some of the religious leaders of the area. “How can he say ‘I came down from heaven?’ We know this boy! We know his parents! Who does he think he is?” They don’t seem to take offense at Jesus being the bread of life, but coming down from heaven? That might be a stretch for them to grasp. Jesus then talks about those who come to him are “drawn by the Father,” and that no one comes to him without being drawn. This begs questions to which I don’t necessarily have answers except to say that there is plenty of evidence in Scripture, especially in the Gospels, that God wants to be in relationship with all of humanity and that God will make that happen in ways and time that aren’t really ours to worry about. And that’s the Good News I take from this passage: That God desires to be close to us, and that closeness is lived out in how we know Jesus in our lives. It’s not our religious experience or where we are born or our economic status that determine where and how we know Jesus. It doesn’t come from any amount of study, pondering, or reasoning or insight. Our relationship with God through Jesus comes because God wants to be in relationship with us. But that relationship, and our experience with God, needs nurturing and growth. And that growth isn’t fostered in a vacuum. It requires community to grow and bear fruit. Jesus never said, “You can do this ‘Follow me’ thing on your own.” When we make Jesus the center of that community, and remember that he said, “I am the bread of life,” we will continue to find our spiritual nourishment in surprising and unexpected places. Two weeks ago, I was at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in downtown Boston. It’s not on the tourist maps or on the Freedom Trail, but it’s right there in the middle of it all, right down the hill, behind the Massachusetts State House, just off of the Boston Common. St. Paul’s Cathedral is on the other side of Common, and in a shared ministry between the two parishes, they host a meal each Monday where about 100 or so people gather for a hot, healthy meal. For many, it may be the only real meal they eat all day. But MANNA, as the ministry is called, feeds way more than their stomachs. Prior to the noon meal, there is a community meeting, to which anyone in the homeless community, even those who have gained stable housing, gather to share their stories as well as trials and tips for living without permanent housing. Following the meal, many of the participants gather for Eucharist in the same space. I have seen many homeless shelters and ministries in my life. But I have never seen one that promoted the type of community that Jesus calls each of us to be active in, a community that actively seeks to feed people’s bodies as well as their souls, to nourish their spiritual and emotional needs as well. It didn’t happen in a fancy building or in a secluded restaurant. It didn’t even happen on a lush lawn. It happened in a basement, a holy space where people who saw a need responded to God’s call, and people who had a need, both for food and community, responded to God’s invitation to be a part of that community. When our group of 10 high schoolers and 4 adults were asked to reflect on our experience at MANNA and what we saw and where we were fed by this experience, we didn’t talk about the joy of setting up and breaking down tables. We didn’t talk about the triumph of scrubbing pots and pans and emptying the garbage. We talked about the conversations we had with people over lunch (and before and after lunch, too), people who were created in the image of God just like you and I are, people who may not have had the best hand in life dealt to them, but who are seeking to walk with Christ, and people whom God is seeking to be in relationship with. It’s amazing what happens when you have conversations with people, even if you are a very temporary part of that community. You find things you have in common, from a shared love of a non-Boston sports team to a realization that if a few things had fallen differently, your life and this person’s life could have been in opposite places. What we found was what mattered most – that all too often, we let our own “stuff,” emotional, physical, material “stuff,” try to give us nourishment and sustenance. And it can’t. No matter how hard we try or how much more get, it cannot take the place of the One who is the Bread of Life. Maybe it’s because we like our deity’s high and lifted up, distant and maybe even exclusively in heaven, and God comes to be among us in the person of Jesus, offering us the bread of life. God dares to be made vulnerable in the holiest of efforts to unite people and bring them into closer community and relationship with God and one another. We so often want religion to make us feel better about ourselves, not something that is so uncomfortably incarnational. Bishop Will Willimon writes, “Our culture is a vast supermarket of desire. Can it be that our bread, our wine, our fulfillment stands before us in the presence of this crucified, resurrected Jew? Can it be that many of our desires are, in the eternal scheme of things, pointless? Might it be true that Jesus is the bread we need, even though he is rarely the bread we seek?” So what it is that feeds you? From where or whom do you get your nourishment and sustenance? Is it from the stuff of that vast supermarket of desire, things that will eventually leave you empty and wanting more? Or do you seek nourishment from being in community with imperfect people, centered around the one who is the Bread of Life, people who are walking a similar path, who have something to teach you, and who are seeking to learn from you as well?