When we belong to a church – both in the small ‘c’ and the big ‘C’ senses – I believe we can become too protected by the umbrella we share with those who think similarly to how we do. In many ways for the stabilization of our faith life that is a good thing because it helps lead us on a common straight and narrow. In contrast, sadly, it also can keep us from stretching ourselves outside of that safe cocoon.
Often when I have come to visit you-all I’ve talked about my stretching of self – to the point of what almost has seemed like tearing, especially when I started and struggled through art grad school a few years ago. Long before I took that leap of faith, one might even say, leap of insanity, I had long since realized that not all the world, not even all Christians in the US – believed in a Christianity that I embraced. In fact most people don’t believe in the concept of two great Commandments that summarize all the Law, as Jesus taught us: Love God, Love one another…which also implies the flip side: not so much of Love thyself. So I didn’t know what to expect when I went to school given that it was a secular school and secular art program. I shortly discovered that my art comrades were good people but very leery of anything labeled “Christian.” Their experiences with Christian thought included prejudice, social Injustice and misuse of wealth. Churches sometimes taught intolerance and hate and my fellow students wanted no part of that. So I had to keep my ‘church talk’ down to 0% because it wasn’t going to work with my art school cohort. But where I was able to come to common ground with my fellow art students was through social justice art: using our art to call out injustices in our culture, city and country. Poverty was so prevalent near my school that it was a subject that screamed at me to investigate and to make art about.
Today’s psalmist talks about “shame covering his face” because he has stuck his neck out for God and now everyone around him thinks he’s a fool. The psalmist went to bat for God and what did it get him? Nothing but derision from his community. Later the psalmist asks God not to cover his face – asking God for His loyalty given how loyal the psalmist had been with God. In the Gospel we also hear the words ‘covered’ and ‘uncovered’ meaning that all would be revealed, all would be told, nothing about living a life of giving like Jesus did would be hidden. That kind of life, that kind of devotion and the benefits to the downtrodden would be revealed in time.
So, almost four years after I started my risky path in grad school, what has my art uncovered for me about my connection to God in my faith life? What has studying social justice art done for me and my soul? And, more importantly this morning, what have I learned and can share with you-all that might give you something to think about? (mini-pause) Let me answer that with a couple of stories, simple stories, of people I’ve met who are revealing truth to me specifically regarding the social injustice issue of poverty.
Ten days ago, the mending library came together one more month at the Tenderloin National Forest on Ellis Street in San Francisco. Seventeen years ago Michael Swaine, a college art instructor, began mending and altering clothes for the folks of the Tenderloin. He named the monthly event the Mending Library as a play on words for Lending Library and also because it is a place that brings people together who share their stories and who might not, in their normal lives, be in touch with one another. Now this team of three to five women, including myself, continues Michael’s example and mend at the Forest – a garden area between two resident housing buildings — on each 15th of the month. On our mending day at the Forest last November we had a mix-up of jobs. We gave a repaired quilt to someone other than its owner. The new recipient wouldn’t give it back because she was ticked because we had given HER item to yet another person. It was not a stellar day at the Forest for the mending team! But Katie, our person who interacts most with the neighborhood, convinced the young woman, Christie, whose quilt was gone, that we would make this right. Oh, by the way, this quilt was Christie’s only physical possession that remained of her mother AND Christie is, sadly, both mentally and physically disabled. Katie calmed the waters by offering Christie a quilt that the mending team would make just for her. Christie was not only willing to accept the peace offering but she was delighted and wanted us to make it with joy and love and to have lots of fun doing it. [Did I tell you-all this story when I was here in February?] Christie lives in the Tenderloin neighborhood for the same reason that her neighbors do: she is poor. There is no way this woman can hold a job; she is neither physically nor mentally capable of doing so. Her sources of income are limited. After all, she wouldn’t have brought us her precious quilt if she could have afforded to have a tailor or seamstress fix it for her.
So a week and a half ago Christie stops by at our day at the Forest to check on the progress of her quilt. The finished top and back were in my car to show to the other members of the team who had had a hand in getting it made but hadn’t seen the finished top. Christie, like a small child who wants to hold on to a surprise for the future but who really can’t stand not to sneak a peek, would only look at a opened up corner — not the whole top nor bottom. And she was so delighted with what she saw. (SHOW QUILT TOP).
So, this is what this experience taught me: my art could give delight, taking the edge off of the pain of someone’s poverty. I could never have imagined the opportunity to do that when I started school four years ago. God’s love is embracing Christie AND the team of sewers including me. And we never called it God’s love; it was working on a social justice issue – poverty. We work against poverty by showing up to sew once per month in the Tenderloin and this just happened; it evolved from just showing up and caring. My skills and those of the other menders were used. Christie’s child-like joy bubbled out and the team felt pretty swell that perhaps we will have made a difference in her life that she couldn’t have imagined either.
Here’s another twist of how taking a risk to be open to learning about and speaking out on poverty through art. This story is from last Thursday at Sanctuary Shelter — an Episcopal Community Services facility for adult men and women at 8th and Howard in SF. I believe I’ve also talked to you about my time at Sanctuary in past visits here. Sanctuary Shelter is located about three blocks from the Civic Center BART station, I lead an art hour and a half there on Thursdays for any resident who might be enticed to venture into the second floor meeting room. I use ‘art’ loosely here. Mostly the guys —or the occasional gal — color in coloring books or some actually draw, or some might weave lanyards with plastic lanyard string. And, perhaps, most importantly, they come because they know I’ll bring milk and fresh baked cookies, brownies or something else that includes significant portions of fat and sugar. [brief pause]
This past Thursday, for a while there was not one, not two but three schizophrenics talking to me – not all at one time, they did mostly take turns, but it just hit me as I was trying to figure out the conversations how amazing it was to be privy to this unique experience – at least unique within my kind of sheltered life, that is, middle-class, suburban. On occasion I was able to follow each person’s conversation, sort of, but, just when I thought I was onto some string of thought, off the train of thought seemed to go in a different direction. If any of you have experience with schizophrenic personalities you know of what I am speaking. But this is what was also going through MY mind while I was trying to understand what was being said to me: “No wonder these souls live in a shelter, no wonder they live in significant poverty, there is no way they could hold down a job, no way they could sit in an office or at a construction site and follow through on a task, no way they wouldn’t drive other employees to distraction with their endless talking with no discernible logical ending.” I was exhausted after only about an hour of this listening experience.
Some of the residents of Sanctuary Shelter who have been there for some time know that I am a priest. I certainly don’t show up with a collar on nor with Bible in hand to thump. I come more as a mother figure with my afternoon snacks. The thing is I do show up – every Thursday. They can count on me. Sure, I know they come for the goodies. But they also know that I care enough about them to bother to bake for them and to listen to their stories. But what they don’t know is that I have learned so much from them. Before last Thursday I hadn’t an inkling of what it is like to have the constant noise in the brain that affects the thinking and behavior of schizophrenics. But on Thursday I learned what these three individuals live with every day and the effect it has had on their lives for years, even decades. It has interfered, even destroyed any opportunity to live a normal life, or to even hold a job for any length of time. Poverty often has its beginning in impossible situations, like schizophrenia. Poverty is about broken people who, even though they’d like to be out of it, in no way can they be out of it, nor will they even be able to lift themselves out of it in any way without help.
But another thought was going through my head as I listened to these individuals’ schizophrenic chatter: “How fortunate I have been. I had a brain that most of the time works, has worked, got me through many, many years of education, 33 years of federal government career employment, 33 years of a marriage, the raising of two independent, successful children, and the ability to put together a sermon when one is called for in a place called Grace in Martinez, California. I feel very fortunate to have listened to those three conversations – well, more like three monologues – last Thursday. No time in my life – except for at the time of the birth of my children – have I been shown so profoundly how blessed I am. Through these individuals God uncovered to me the depth of cause of some people’s poverty. It was like looking into three souls and three brains and obtaining insight most people are never privy to. I could never have had that knowledge without stepping out into the social justice universe. Because no matter what we call it: social justice or Christian faith, it is God’s revelation to us of His call to be there for one another. It teaches humility in the face of others’ enormous struggles. It teaches gratitude for our own good fortunes. It provides impetus to keep listening, to keep making cookies and to keep moving mending needles!
Some of you have stories of your experiences that stemmed from God’s revelations – God’s uncovering God’s face and being open to us for our learning from his children wherever they might be found. Church is a good place to share those stories. And I’d love to hear them after the service, if you’d share.