The Church of the Transfiguration
Braddock Heights, MD
Rooted in Christ
Bound in Love
Called to Ministry
August 17, 2017
Responding to last week's rally "Unite the Right"-- a gathering of hate groups in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in three deaths and numerous injuries -- former President Barack Obama tweeted remarks once shared by Nelson Mandela while he was president of South Africa. "No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion," Mandela observed. "People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love . . . For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."
Obama's quoted message (which instantly became the most liked tweet in social media history!) affirms what I'm sure all of us want to believe -- that there is inherent goodness in human nature, a divine spark instilled at birth that we can either invigorate or reject, embrace or betray. Like the seed of God's word sown on rocky soil or among briars, as in Jesus' parable, the vagaries of life often determine how well we will receive the truth and how well it will endure within us. The hope is that, with education and experience and the example of others, and even after a lifetime of wrong choices, the hateful heart can be turned and tuned to the ways of love. Mandela believed that, as did Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
This hope is the hope and calling of all Christians. Jesus will not allow us to give up on any soul in whom that divine spark was first kindled and for whom Christ has died. And yet we know, at the same time, that the world is filled with hate, and this perpetuated by hate-filled human beings. We know that such hate, and the oppression and violence that it directs, has visited untold misery on countless individuals and populations throughout history, down to our own time.
From the institutional horror of black chattel slavery to the death and destruction of the Holocaust, from the genocide of indigenous peoples to the cruelty and prejudice shown toward other religions and cultures -- in every generation faithful persons have had to confront, and seek to overcome, the sin that inspires one to demean and violate and subjugate another. Every generation has had to make it their unique calling to beat back this evil with all the moral force and personal courage -- with all the grit and grace -- that one can gather.
Today, right now, in our country, is, I believe, such a time, and we are such a generation. The events of this past weekend have shown us that, while great strides have been made in the areas of racial justice and social understanding, a deep and stubborn root of hatred and bigotry continues to exist. The endemic stain of racism still exists. The neo-Nazis and white supremacists and KKK members who marched defiantly through the streets of Charlottesville -- and who were met by protesters who rightly and bravely opposed them (including one who lost her life) -- serve as a reminder that the ages-old battle for freedom and justice and equality in this nation and around the world, is not over (was it ever finished?).
Rather, we must take up the fight anew. In word and action, through prayer and peaceful protest, by way of organizational membership and support, through letters and emails and political involvement, informed reading and dialogue among friends and opponents alike, and while keeping ourselves free of hatred and malice -- we must do the work that will make a difference. It is not a time for silence or complacency, or for a "wait-and-see" attitude. We must show others clearly where we stand and what we believe, as Christians and as citizens, as those seeking to speak God's truth and do God's will.
And we ourselves must assume the lead in these efforts. If we don't do this, who else will? Our president has shamefully failed us, falsely equating the proponents of racism and anti-Semitism with those citizens who vigorously oppose these groups and ideologies. In these circumstances, such moral equivalency means tacit acceptance of hatred and murder. To counter this failure, we should make our views known to our state and national representatives. But we should also focus our attention at the local community level, fostering ways for improving the racial and ethnic understanding and peace in the lives closely around us. There are many in our churches and in our city and region who are already working hard toward the fulfillment of these goals; let us join with them.
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul famously declares: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (12:21). This basic tenet remains as valid today as it was in the apostle's time. Still, I know how easy it is to become discouraged, given the weight of that evil and the challenge of the task before us -- and when the good seems at the moment so powerless? Yet we must never lose heart. Speaking to young people in South Africa in 1966 (in a country still in the grip of apartheid), Robert Kennedy said this: "It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time someone stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, that person sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
Let us be those ripples of hope, you and I. Let us join in the current of change and moral progress. In the weeks and months ahead, I will share with you names of organizations and initiatives, learning opportunities and public events in which you may wish to participate (some of these I trust we can host here!). In the meantime, dear sisters and brothers, know that you are in my daily prayers. Please keep me and Kim in yours.
Yours faithfully in Christ,
Fr. Gordon +
Our hearts and minds, our prayers and thoughts are with the faithful of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, as they prepare to bury their friends, family members, and loved ones killed at Sunday service in a horrendous act of domestic terror. Twenty-six persons, ranging in age from eighteen months to seventy-seven years of age, were murdered in their church sanctuary by a man whom many of them knew, armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle and a hand gun. The killer later took his own life, after being also shot and wounded by a nearby resident who heroically came to the aid of the church.
Although details of the crime are still being revealed, it appears that the shooter had a turbulent history of violence and mental instability, including behavior that prompted a dishonorable discharge following a prison sentence from the U.S. Air Force. Most recently it's been reported that the Air Force had failed to alert federal and state authorities of the killer's previous criminal record, information that could have prevented him from purchasing the weapon he used in the assault.
This atrocious event, coming as it does so soon after the terrorist attacks in New York and Las Vegas, serves further to confirm our fears regarding our communities' and our country's safety and security. The latest attack, however, may feel to us especially close to home, literally at the doors of the church. If we can't feel safe in our pews on a Sunday morning (we may ask), where can or should we feel safe? Our church signs and bulletins proudly announce that all are welcome. Can we honestly say or believe this is true after the slaughter in Texas? As your pastor and friend, I've had some anxious nights and days since hearing the news on Sunday, while contemplating the many and sudden perils of life as we know it now in our society and nation. But how should we proceed? What should be our answer to these dangers?
As with so many things, there's no one answer, no single solution. Still, two approaches (at least) do come to mind and seem pertinent to this latest tragedy. One is the need for comprehensive, sufficiently funded mental health programs nationwide. We clearly need ways (perhaps over and above what we have now?) to identify, seek out, and treat those of our fellow citizens suffering from conditions and disorders that can and too often do lead to the kind of atrocity we saw enacted in a Texas church. I realize this can be a complex process, greatly depending on resources and the willingness of those in need to participate. Still, programs and initiatives promoting greater awareness and offering lasting help in the area of mental health would seem well worth the cost of our state and federal tax dollars. It's a first step.
A second approach -- another attempt at a solution -- is a nationwide discussion, long overdue, beginning in the U.S. Congress, on the proliferation of and easy access to firearms, particularly military-style assault weapons of the kind used by the killers in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs. I'm well aware of how seemingly intractable (and passionate) an issue this has become. And yet if we look for answers without addressing this admittedly challenging problem we all but guarantee, I believe, that more tragedies like the ones we've witnessed will occur again. We are right to examine the motives behind such attacks -- whether ideological or psychological -- and to take steps to prevent them from happening in the future. But if we do not at the same time look at the means by which these attacks have occurred, we will not have done our job. And we risk allowing other grieving families to join the ones that today our hearts go out to. It is a great moral burden we are under, and yet one with the promise of blessing in it, if we so wish.
Our prayers never go unheard by the God of love. Indeed, as Christians we are called to a life of prayer. But that same God also desires that we act upon our hopes and expectations, that we both seek his will and make it a reality in the current world. In the Letter of James, the author reminds us that we are justified by works and not by faith alone (2:24). So in this present crisis, in this time of our national testing, let us put our faith to work. Let us be free to speak openly, discuss fairly, examine closely, and legislate wisely in order to confront all the reasons for the ills that assail us. And then let us live the prayers we pray, trusting always in God as our one sure and ready guide.
Fr. Gordon +
September 8, 2017
His name was Alonso Guillen. A resident of Texas since childhood, when Hurricane Harvey descended on his home state, he was quick to respond to the call for rescue volunteers. Despite his family's objections, Alonso made the 120-mile trek to the Houston area, leaving his job as a local radio host. Once he got there, he and another group of volunteers set out in five boats, using a walkie-talkie to identify people who needed rescuing.
Late on the night of Saturday, August 29, Alonso's boat slammed into an interstate bridge. The collision hurled Alonso and another rescue worker into the rushing flood waters where they were drowned instantly. On Sunday, Alonso's body floated to the surface. "He died wanting to serve," his brother said of him. "He could have stayed home watching the news on television, but he chose to go help."
Alonso Guillen was one of the so-called "Dreamers" -- a recipient of the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Brought to this country as a child by his undocumented parents, he was among nearly 800,000 people currently allowed by the program to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation.
A demanding and strictly monitored program, DACA requires (among other things) that recipients 1) came to the United States before their 16th birthday; 2) have lived continuously in the U.S. since June 15, 2007; 3) have completed high school or a GED, have been honorably discharged from the armed forces, or are enrolled in school; 4) have not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety. Yet even meeting the program's full requirements does not guarantee approval, and each recipient's record is regularly reviewed. I wonder how many native-born Americans would submit to (let alone pass) such a rigorous set of standards!
Yet even given these conditions and the program's overall success, this past Tuesday, the Trump administration announced that DACA will be rescinded after six months unless congress passes comprehensive immigration laws preserving the program. The President's decision places in jeopardy a program which has protected young and productive Americans (for that is what they are) from imminent expulsion. It was an entirely unnecessary action to be taken at this time, establishing an arbitrary and unreasonable period for resolution. Moreover, the decision has been opposed by a majority of voters, including lawmakers from both parties as well as leaders in the business and technological communities.
At this writing, efforts are underway to introduce a bill that will prevent the deportation of these Dreamers, possibly attaching immigration reform to other pieces of legislation. Nonetheless, the threat to these young people (most of them now in their twenties and thirties) still remains and the moral damage to what we say we believe as Americans has already been done. DACA recipients represent what is best about our nation's character and ideals. Having entered the country as children, through no choice of their own, they now choose to serve as teachers, doctors, nurses, shopkeepers, construction workers, lawyers, research technicians, and in a host of other worthwhile positions. Some are police officers and others serve in the military (currently, just under 900 men and women), placing their lives on the line for our safety and freedom. And some are selfless volunteers like Alonso Guillen, who could have stayed home in a time peril, but instead "chose to go help." Apart from their strictly legal status, they are the definition of "model citizens. "
If you as concerned about these young Dreamers as I am, I urge you to consider contacting our congressional representatives -- Congressman John Delaney, representing the 6th District, and Senators Benjamin Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, Jr. Impress on them the importance and urgency of their vote to save the DACA program. Express your views directly to the White House as well, to the President's office. And do it repeatedly! A good internet link for information -- and sample letters -- is provided by the Huffington Post (huffpost.com), through an article written by a Dreamer, entitled "If You're Outraged by the DACA Decision, Here's How You Can Help Recipients Like Me." "If you can spare one hour a day," says the author, "your actions might make a difference."
Jesus said, "By their fruits you shall know them" (Matthew 7:20). It's true that we have at present a broken and incomplete immigration system; and it's true that we need security at our borders and in our communities. These are legitimate concerns that have to be carefully and fully addressed, both with fairness and compassion. But to expel hundreds of thousands of persons who are every day contributing to the prosperity and welfare of our country, who by their "fruits" are demonstrating their devotion to the only land they've known, is not the answer. It is, in truth, morally wrong and self-defeating. America has always depended on the children of immigrants (legal or not), and among these those who have come here as children -- eminent Americans like Walt Disney, General Colin Powell, and Nikki Haley, currently serving as U.S. Ambassador to the UN!
We need the Dreamers to ensure our own success, even as we honor their success in fulfilling the American Dream.
Yours faithfully in Christ,
Fr. Gordon +
November 9, 2017
"Upon Reflection . . . " A Message from Fr. Gordon