There’s the story of a police officer coming upon a somewhat inebriated man crawling around on his hands and knees late at night. As the man continues searching for something under a street corner lamppost, the officer asks him what he might be hunting for, as the fellow continues to feel around the sidewalk. “I seem to have lost my keys,” the man responds. “And this is where you might have lost them?” the officer inquires. “No,” responds the man. “But this is where the light is.”
In dark times, how desperately we seek the light. We seek for any sign of hope to be illuminated – any wisdom. That is what Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered the nation in the thirties when massive unemployment held the nation in its grip. Fear of destitution and hunger was palpable.
More often that darkness is more personal, existential – like the day a letter arrived at my house that began, “Greetings.”
Within weeks my comfortable life had been uprooted and I was thrown in with a bunch of strangers in a drafty and poorly maintained barracks somewhere in the swamps of Louisiana. The lavatory was a mess with most of the toilets not working or overflowing.
After doing my business there, I arrived back to my bunk to discover most of my stuff had been stolen by my upstanding bunkmates. Watch, wallet, changes – all gone. About the only thing left besides my underwear and some other clothes was my Bible. This was the copy of J.B. Phillips “New Testament” our campus ministry Wesley Foundation had given me before departing. About the only thing of value left!
Despondent, I wandered over to the nearby Post Exchange, PX, for short. I was going to drown my dejection in a big bottle of Coke and some doughnuts or whatever.
To make matters worse, I had just begun dating a wonderful woman I had met at a church conference in Lincoln, Nebraska. I was in love. Her bouncy walk, this cute petite blond, her shy smile – well, you get the picture.
So I come in through the front door, and what do I hear? Andy Williams crooning “Can’t Get Used to Loosing You.” Instantly, I was a mess. I quickly left so no one would notice that I had dissolved in tears. No Coke. No doughnuts.
Back on my bunk, I opened J.B. Phillips translation to a favorite passage from II Corinthians 6.
“Ever dying, here we are alive. Called nobodies, yet we are ever in the public eye. Though we have nothing with which to bless ourselves, yet we bless many others with true riches. Called poor, yet we possess everything worth having.”
That passage, in an instant, restored my soul. Here in my darkest moment was light. I had no idea as to how this might work out, but here seemed to be a bright ray of hope and encouragement.
This is where the light was — and from that group back home who I knew carried me in their hearts, held me in prayer. Here was more light.
And finally, from a blizzard of letters that arrived from that wonderful woman came enough light for me to make it through the two years of my stint with the U.S. Army.
And now I’m married to that woman, no longer blond. We did have a talk about truth in advertising after marriage when it was revealed that I had actually married a brunette. Oh well, I guess I also was not quite as advertised either. Over the years, we’ve made accommodations, and some things just weren’t that important.
But I digress. While the future remained uncertain and hidden behind a glass darkly, I was waking to this bright light of Gospel hope. I knew for certain that whatever befell me in the days and weeks to come, I would carry on.
I discovered that when Christopher was accepted at Yale, that the school’s motto was similar to that of Harvard’s, which is “Veritas” – Truth. The Yale sweatshirt proclaims, “Lux et veritas” — with the snarky comment, “Same truth, more light.”
When I was finally discharged, the United Methodist pastor who had married us, told us that he wanted us to come work at his church as a couple, to be sort of the dorm parents for the women college students who lived next to the church and ran the tutorial programs. That facility had previously been a boarding house for young Swedish girls from the old country until they got jobs or found husbands – the church having originally been the Swedish Methodist Church.
That neighborhood in the early nineteen hundreds had been heavily Scandinavian and Finnish. Now all those young women from the Old Country had either found husbands, moved to rest homes or were no longer among the living.
Jai and I were soon immersed in the civil rights struggles and antiwar movement of the sixties. For the first time I was living in a community not majority white. It was an education. Fortunately, that pastor, Terry, was the best mentor I could have hoped for. Every Sunday, his sermons rang with the call for social justice. They shed light on the despair in our neighborhood. Our small church spearheaded building over one million dollars of low-income housing there. We drove kids to museums and the beach in two old ratty VW buses. Every afternoon we had a tutoring program for the younger ones. Another United Methodist pastor, Alex, helped people find jobs through the Downtown Service Bureau that he ran at First Church. That church also lots more light in our neighborhood.
One week Pastor Terry told everyone to keep the coming Saturday free. We were all driving to Delano to meet the founder of a farmworker’s movement, Cesar Chavez.
Light was flooding into my being, and maybe in some measure I was gaining a little bit of luminosity myself.
Within just weeks of that trip, Jai and I had boycott organizers from Delano living with us. This was the time of the Safeway Grape Boycott. When I headed to the grocery store, it wasn’t with a list from Jai, but a picket sign.
Same Gospel Truth. More Light!
Another aphorism of Abraham Lincoln comes to mine: “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” We were about building the New Jerusalem, right there in the barrio of Los Angeles.
Another couple in the church organized the construction of a “vest-pocket park.” For quite a few Saturdays Toni and Larry with a group of neighbors and local gang members cleared three empty lots of trash and weeds. Our councilman Tom Bradley found the funds for swings, a merry-go-round, benches and landscaping and other amenities.
Lots of light for the mothers who could now bring their kids there to play where they could watch them. As for the gangs, they made sure nobody-but-nobody messed with that park.
Out of all this activism, a neighborhood council of residents was formed, Pico-Union Neighborhood Council. Every evening at our headquarters on Venice Boulevard ESL classes were in session. In the afternoon, activities for the children. Out of that building residents helped design our low-income, section 8 housing for the neighborhood along with six or seven interns from UCLA. And in the room in the back, off the alley, our English architect, Jon Mutlow seemed to always be tinkering on an old MG that was perpetually in a state of descompuesto, various parts strewn about the floor.
When the church really is the church, we are Light. We are Salt. We illuminate it all. We season it all.
Recently, my friend Lydia Lopez passed into immortality. All during this time she had been one of the sparkplugs across town in Lincoln Heights at Epiphany Episcopal Church.
Out of the basement of that church La Raza Newspaper was assembled and printed, the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War was born.
She was a major figure of that incredible time of Hispanic activism in East Los Angeles. Out of that parish came many of the Latino and Latina leaders in Los Angeles political life.
Lydia was the first person of Mexican-American descent to serve on a grand jury in Los Angeles. It was her activism that resulted in there being Metro stations in the communities of East Los Angeles. Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta often made the Church of the Epiphany their base of operations when in L.A.
Recently, when every Friday I would drive Lydia into our interfaith peace group on Wilshire, it was like having a living history lesson in my car. Afterward, when we had time, it was off to Home Boys Café that Fr. Greg Boyle had begun, Phiippe’s or El Cholo.
Her infectious laugh and telling of those stories were the brilliant light of truth and solidarity. In her, La Causa shown brilliantly. She radiated Light. Lydia, ¡Presente!
And so here we are, all a bit more decrepit. The church in many places is in tatters. Some have fallen by the wayside; we only remember their names. Yet their luminosity continues to brighten the way forward.
Through the power of a good example, light brings even more luminosity. Each of us in Christ is a splinter of that Light – of the same Light brought into being through that primordial first command, “Let there be Light.”
It’s what drives and lightens the way for those working on House of Hope. It is what brightens the room when a shut-in is visited. It is the radiance of a smile that greets a new visitor.
That luminosity is the Love Light we share at St. Francis. And wherever — we’re going to let it shine. Folks, YOU are the Light of the World. I have it on good authority. Amen
 The New Testament in Modern English, J.B Phillips 1960, 1972 J. B. Phillips. Administered by The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. II Cor. 6:9-10.
February 5, 2023, 5 Epiphany
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission
Isaiah 58:1-9a; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20