News & Features : Archives May 2017
May 11, 2017
Photo: Barbara McGowan
By: Lois Herrmann
Moved by heartbreaking pictures of people fleeing violence and war in the Middle East and Africa, churches in the diocese have partnered with more than 25 refugee families beginning new lives in DC and Maryland. Individual parishes have provided a loving welcome and material support to new arrivals--and several churches multiplied and enriched their efforts by joining with other Episcopal churches and faith communities to help families.
St. Columba’s has developed a partnership with a family from Afghanistan, a mother, father and three sons who arrived in February. The Rev. Kate Heichler, associate rector, noted that the hardest part of the process was “the very long wait for word of a family we could host, especially as that waiting time coincided with an election outcome that many knew would severely limit the number of refugees allowed into the United States.” St. Columba’s also has had to manage the sheer number of parishioners who wanted to be involved, especially as only a limited number would have hands-on engagement with the family.
But many parts of the parish found ways to contribute. The Refugee Response Committee raised $40,000 to cover a year of the family’s rent and other living expenses. Parishioners scoured the area to find an affordable apartment in a good school district; furnished the apartment; took family members to school and medical appointments; and enrolled the parents in English classes at a community college. When the family expressed a desire to go to Friday prayers at a mosque, parishioners offered to take them every week.
Parish children made signs to welcome the family and contributed proceeds from a lemonade stand. Two children’s grandparents in New Jersey offered to double whatever their grandchildren could earn or raise for the refugee fund. When St. Columba parents learned that soccer was the sons’ passion, they organized a game with their kids and helped sign the boys up for youth soccer leagues.
When asked how the project has affected the parish, Heichler said: “The initiative revealed to me not only the extraordinary capacity of the St. Columba’s congregation, but the powerful movement of the Holy Spirit among us. This kind of response seemed to me a “loaves and fishes” moment that gives us a hint of what God wants to do through us.”
In Montgomery County, St. Anne’s in Damascus has moved in step with community partners to help refugees. In April 2016, it helped found Montgomery Interfaith Refugee Resettlement Neighbors (“Interfaith Neighbors”) -- 20 Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities that have come together to assist 14 refugee families (from Syria, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Chad, Iran and Cuba). “It has been a joy watching our committee members honor their own individual faiths while all stepping out in faith together,” said Pam Brewer, a St. Anne’s parishioner active in Interfaith Neighbors.
Two different faith communities work together to help a single family. “This is to show newcomers that in the United States we honor and respect our different faiths,” Brewer said.
Interfaith Neighbors offer refugees the kinds of choices not available during long stays in refugee camps. They select their own furniture and household goods at A Wider Circle, a local organization offering free furnishings to those who need them. They choose clothing from donated articles collected and displayed by Interfaith Neighbors.
The churches, synagogues and mosques in the interfaith consortium take turns hosting social events for all of the faith communities and refugee families. “That is where we just have fun and all simply become neighbors,” Brewer said.
When, within a year, four refugee families “graduated” to independence, the interfaith group took on four more.
On Capitol Hill, St. Mark’s and Christ Church are part of seven worshipping communities now assisting five Afghan refugee families. “Connections develop as needs arise,” said Karen Getman, St. Mark’s refugee coordinator. For instance, the Mormon church in the alliance has donated food and household goods from its own warehouse. Several volunteers found their callings by spending hours collecting and delivering furniture to the families.
For St. Mark’s, the long wait for families’ arrival during Advent was a reminder of the season of anticipation. The whole parish took ownership of the project as it waited. Clergy gave sermons on “being the stranger,” parishioners created a six-foot Refugee Madonna and Child statue out of colored newspaper, and the flower guild kept Christmas decorations simple to donate money to the church refugee fund. “It felt like waiting for another Birth during Advent,” Getman said.
Parishes working with refugees have found rich rewards. “The most joyful part is just being with the family and seeing their eagerness to embrace their new life in America,” said Deacon Jean Ann Wright of St. Columba’s. For Brewer it is “seeing these people in peace and no longer worried about their families getting killed.” And Getman’s joy is “seeing a five-year-old’s room full of toys and books, and hearing her say she loves school.”
The newcomers, of course, face formidable hurdles including learning English and American culture, finding employment, mastering public transportation, and completing complicated paperwork to get registered in the American system. They do all this while dealing with profound loss--of their home cultures and of close family they may have left behind.
Yet parishes helping refugees have been moved by their hospitality and their gratitude. “The families are so extremely gracious, hospitable and polite, insisting on volunteers staying for tea or a meal,” Brewer said. “And they are using the material things they have been given with such care.”
Refugees’ hopes for the future mirror those of most Americans: “I want to have a good job, learn American culture, have a happy family, and show my sons ‘the good way,’” said Fridoon, St. Columba’s refugee dad.
And they want to reach out. One of St. Mark’s refugee partners saw church people putting signs in their houses that read No matter where you are from, we’re glad you are our neighbors. “I want one for my home, too,” he said. “I want to be a welcoming neighbor.”
Other churches in the diocese are also assisting refugees. All Souls’, together with Christ Church, Georgetown and St. John’s, Georgetown, is beginning the process of partnering with a family. St. Alban’s, St. Dunstan’s, and St. Phillip’s, Baden have assembled welcome kits of household supplies for refugees. St. Dunstan’s has sent funds and materiel to refugee camps in Croatia though a missionary connection there.
How to Get Started Helping Refugees
Churches volunteer with a resettlement agency like Episcopal Migration Ministries, Lutheran Social Services or the International Rescue Committee which have decades of experience working with faith communities interested in helping refugees. The agency offers volunteers training and a plan that helps them move forward systematically. A church first decides how much financial and human support it can offer a family. It then forms committees that work on individual areas of assistance such as housing and furnishings, employment, education, English as a second language, and medical care. The shared goal is to help families and individuals to become productive, self-sufficient members of the community within a year.
May 08, 2017
The Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hooke, associate dean of chapel and the associate professor of homiletics at Virginia Theological Seminary, gave the following sermon at the diocesan clergy conference on May 8.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
John 15: 1-17
Those who pay close attention to this liturgy as it goes along may notice that there are a certain number of references to the Good Shepherd, the passage many of you preached on yesterday, and which is coming up again next week, and is actually also the appointed reading for today. In preparation for this sermon, I did something that by certain lights you are not really supposed to do, and that is to change the appointed reading for the day. I did this, on one level, because our topic for this clergy conference is joy in worship, and I wanted a Scripture passage that talked about joy, as this passage does.—joy, that wonderful, heart-breaking, all-encompassing word—Joy. And also, as I prayed and thought about what makes joy possible, and actual, whether in worship or anywhere else, this passage seemed to me to say something crucial about that that I thought would be helpful for us all to hear, as a starting point for our time together—and really, as an ending point, too.
“I am the vine; you are the branches.” As you know, the Gospel of John is full of “I am” sayings, by which Jesus explicitly connects himself with God, who refused to give God’s name to Moses but simply said, “I am who I am.” In John’s Gospel there’s a sequence of “I am” statements in which Jesus compares himself to something known in their everyday world: “I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the gate of the sheep, I am the way, the truth and the life.” This statement in today’s text is the last one of these, and the most intimate: I am the vine; you are the branches. In the other images, the relationship is one of feeding, like the bread, or guiding, like the shepherd. But here the connection is closer; it is one of physical, organic connection. It is such a close connection between us and Jesus that we don’t need to do anything to make it happen or to receive it; we simply have to allow ourselves to know and to abide in the connection that is always already there.
Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that it matters whether we do this or not. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” When we abide in the vine we live in abundant life; when we live in the illusion of separateness, everything we do is futile. I really can’t think of any words that are more important for us clergy to hear. We have given our lives to the service of Christ, but far too often we fall into the illusion that we can make do without him, that we can bear fruit when disconnected from the vine. I have always found it appalling that, while in responding to our baptismal vows, we say, “I will, with God’s help,” when responding to the vows made at our ordination, we just say, “ I will.” No need for God’s help anymore, now that I am ordained. I’ve got this, God.
No. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing. That’s true of us clergy more than anyone else, and we forget this at our peril. We forget this at the loss of our joy.
We lose joy when we disconnect from the vine not only because we lose our life-giving relationship with God, but also because we lose our relationship with each other. For this image of the vine and the branches captures the reality that in our connection to Christ, we are also intrinsically connected to each other, as each branch is connected to all of the other branches through its connection to the central vine. And when you picture vines and branches, they all intertwine and intertangle with each other, and that is our true condition, inextricably bound up with each other, all living in and through one another, because of our connection to Christ. It was this absolute truth that Thomas Merton perceived one day, and he described it like this:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God Godself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
When Jesus calls us to bear much fruit, he is really only calling us to fully abide in the truth of this revelation of our interconnectedness in him. In other words, he is calling us to love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Here he is at the end of his life, and he gives this one final commandment. All of the other commandments fall away, and we are left with this one: to love one another as Christ loves us. In the end, this is the fruit that will last. Nothing else abides, except for love. And the pruning that Jesus tells us must happen in order for us to bear this fruit is the cutting away of whatever gets in the way of our being able to love fully—whether it is our ego, or our fears, or our tendency to judge each other and ourselves, or our hardness of heart. All of this must be burned away so that we can bear the one fruit of love, the only fruit that endures. My mother is in the last days of her life, and this process is becoming very clear. Everything is being pruned away from her—all her capacities, her activities, even her faults and failings—all that is left, burning through ever more purely, is love—the love of so many for her, and her love for us. A love that will last, beyond the grave.
There is terrible grief in this, to be sure. But there is also, in a strange way, joy. For a wise teacher once said, “Joy is simply whatever is going on, minus our opinion of it. Joy is simply who we are.” Joy is who we are. Joy is our pure encounter with reality, with life as it is, in all its pain and all its glory. Joy is the bedrock truth of our existence, however much we can separate ourselves from this. And why is this? Because joy justisthe awareness that we are intrinsically, unbreakably connected to God and to each other, and nothing can separate us from that love. This is what Merton saw on the street corner in Louisville, which filled him with such joy that he laughed aloud, for Joy is nothing more, and certainly nothing less, than the pure encounter withwhat is, and what is, in the end, is love.
What else is liturgy but a structured place to allow this sense of interconnection to be known, this love to flow, this joy to well up within us—so that we can feel it more readily on the street corner, or in the protest march, or even at a deathbed? What else is liturgy but a place where we find ourselves ever more deeply in the truth that made Julian of Norwich, whose feast day is today, exclaim in joy those beloved words: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” What else is liturgy but a place where we find our souls and voices joining in the song the Quakers sang to express an overflowing joy that they felt even in prison: “What though the tempest loudly roar, I hear the truth, it liveth, what though the darkness round me close, songs in the night it giveth. No storm can shake my inmost calm, since to that rock I’m clinging. Since Love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”