A Champion of Nobodies

Sunday, when I opened the LA Times, right on the lefthand column was my sermon title for today.  It was an article on the Afro-Columbians, living in a remote jungle of that nation.  These people live by subsisting on marginal gold panning.  They are people living in La Toma, a string of small villages in a most remote area of Columbia, populated by former slaves of African descent.

The article featured an activist, Francia Elena Marquez whose aim is to change “the economic model of death to an economic model of life.”  She is the champion of “the nobodies.”[1]

Francia is a single mother, a former live-in maid who escaped the poverty of that situation to become a community activist.  She was awarded a Nobel Prize for her battle against illegal gold mining.

Today she is improbably Columbia’s vice president, elected along with Gustavo Petro, an ex-urban guerilla fighter, the first leftist president of Columbia and its 50 million people.

It was her popularity with the young and with women who put that ticket over the top.  She’s the first person of African heritage to attain such prominence.  Never even held any office before this.  Walls throughout the land were emblazoned with her slogan, “Vivir sabroso” – live life to the fullest.

She and the new president take office in a period when Columbia is recovering from narco-violence, massive inequality and lawlessness.  In a land dominated by the white-mestizo male elite, she has battled sexism, classism, inequality and gender prejudice.

She has weathered death threats, political slander and racist taunts.  Yet she persisted.  She is now an international rock star.  No, she’s not a Communist revolutionary.  But a revolutionary, yes!

Only because of an aunt, did she find the funds for a school uniform, books and tuition to go beyond an elementary education.  Her mother had eleven children and absolutely no money.  Unlike many American children, she knew the sacrifice of another for her education. 

Her primary teacher recalls that Francia Elena was a very serious student, and very much an extravert.  “But I never thought that the Francia Elena who was my student would so quickly become vice president of the Republic of Columbia.”

As a teenager she joined neighbors protesting a plan to divert the Ovejas River to produce even more electricity by a dam that had flooded much of her community’s ancestral lands, a project that devastated traditional fishing grounds the people depended on.

Columbian authorities further awarded mining contracts to multinational corporations without any input from those living in the villages of the area, contrary to Columbian law.  She and her movement initiated lawsuits.  Lo and behold!  They won.  A major victory for the “nobodies.”

The situation got much worse when those same companies employed right-wing paramilitary goons and began killing locals panning for gold on what they considered their lands.  Soon bulldozers and backhoes moved in and began tearing up their beautiful river.

The river was now filling with mercury and cyanide and other toxic chemicals.  The operation led to massive deforestation.  Anyone interfering with this desecration was threatened with death.

It was at that point that Francia Elena recruited eighty black women, attired in their signature head turbans, the March of the Turbans, from over 300 miles away to march against the illegal activities of these companies. 

These women camped on the doorstep of the Interior Ministry until, three weeks later, authorities agreed to evict the illegal miners.  Again, score one for Francia Elena’s “nobodies.”

By then she was a single mother of two and receiving death threats.  For her safety she left for the big city, joining millions of the dispossessed from the land by violence and narco-terrorism, illegal mining and the gangs they employed.  She studied law.

Francia Elena has raised expectations of the “nobodies” all across Colombia, especially little girls.  One young girl in nursing school panning for gold one morning with her husband and three-year-old said, “We have learned a lot from Francia and from our ancestors.” 

If ever there was a contemporary to St. Francis, it is Francia Elena.  St. Francis is the saint of the “nobodies.” 

Listen to her testimony: “I am a part of the struggle against structural racism.”

“Among those women who raise their voices to stop the destruction of rivers, forests and wetlands.  Among those who dream that, one day, all human beings are going to change the economic model of death to an economic model of life.”[2]

She’s accused of inexperience, lack of knowledge.  Baloney!  She knows something the previous government NEVER knew – the people!  Their toil, their poverty, their lack of opportunity.  The same people St. Francis knew.

All of life is tied together in one marvelous, divine, holy web of life.  Besides our Lord, how do we have knowledge of God?  From creation, the creation that Francia Elena continues to fight for. 

The one psalm I learned as a child – remember, I had a terrible memory for this sort of thing – was Psalm 121, the opening. Of course, back then in the King James Version, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills — From whence comes my help?”

Psalm 19 was another one I did remember from Sunday school Bible drills.  “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.  There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

The splendors of nature are a door to the heart of God.  St. Francis knew this.  Brother Sun. Sister Moon – they testify to the goodness of the created order.  Early on I was fascinated by the vast panoply of the heavens.  In our community college I volunteered as the astronomy coach for Professor Bruff, hauling out our school’s telescope every Wednesday evening if there was half a chance of seeing through the dense muck of the Norwalk, California sky.  It was always a bit of a thrill to focus in on Saturn and its rings or Jupiter with its Great Red Spot, which is larger than our planet Earth.

When we lived out in the desert, serving at my first church assignment, most any evening one could look up into the sky and see it lit up with stars beyond imagining.  The desert sky was black as velvet filled with twinkling wonders once you got away from the light pollution of our small town.

I still remember friends — a mother and her three children — driving out to visit us from Los Angeles.  As soon as her van came to a stop, the side door slid open and out popped one of the boys.  He looked up into the night sky and gasped, “Wow, you don’t have much air out here,” as he beheld the majesty of the Milky Way overhead.

St. Francis was not only a champion of the “nobodies,” but of the entire created order.  It’s all connected.  Only later would I learn to more fully appreciate this wonderful saint.

I find I am doubly blessed to serve a parish named in his honor.

You want a picture of God?  Look at those who have a care for the least of these, activists like Francia Elena Marquez.  Look at those who have a care for creation like writer and activist Bill McKibben.  Like my friend Brian Ebersol, whom I would often see along the bike trail with his sack in hand, picking up the trash others had carelessly tossed.  Most any morning I would see him walking out there.  Champions of the “nobodies.”  Champions of creation.

As we bless the animals today, I recall to mind our beloved Skippy, the dog I grew up with.  Dad had gotten him to keep Mom company when he went off to fight in World War II.  She said that she could tie him to my baby carriage parked outside the store when she went in to buy some groceries, and that dog wouldn’t let anyone approach.  That was definitely another era.  Skippy was my champion.

For our animal friends and family, we give thanks, O Lord.  For the beauty of this blue-green earth, we give thanks and for the star-spangled heavens.  To the psalmist and most of all today, St. Francis, that wastrel who renounced all to bring the Church back to life – THANKS BE TO GOD!

Listen to a song inspired by the work of Francia Elena Marquez, sung by two girls in Columbia, Jinller Leany, 12, and Andrea Torres, 15:

I was born Black and my companion is the sun/To the rhythm of the marimba and first the drum/My name is African mixed with Spanish/I am proud of my race and I give thanks to God/Proud of my race and I give thanks to God/Black I was born, and Black I am.[3]

A blessed St. Francis day to us all.  Amen.

[1] Patrick J McDonnell, “She’s a Champion of the ‘Nobodies,’” Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2022.

[2] Op cit.

[3] Ibid.

October 2, 2022, 17 Pentecost, Proper for St. Francis Feast Day,
Blessing of the Animals

“A Champion of Nobodies”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Exodus 22:21-27; Psalm 121; Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30

Just Get Over Yourself

Recently, I’ve received a number of emails for burial insurance.  Like the plague victim in “Spamalot” about to be carted off to the cemetery, I loudly protest, “I’m not dead yet.  I’m not dead.”

The next day a postcard arrived from Forest Lawn.  I thought about scrawling across the front of it, “I’m not dead yet,” and sticking it in return mail.  Return to sender.

But, as Luke’s passage on the rich man in purple cloth who dines sumptuously while a poor man, Lazarus, at his gate, surviving on scant crumbs from the rich man’s table, clues us in – we get that we all have an expiration date.  No one lives forever.  Though my dad thought that was a real possibility.  In his case, anyway.

Eventually, there comes a summing up.  As Dionne Warwick crooned, “What’s It All About, Alfie?”[1]

What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give?
Or are we meant to be kind?[2]

For those at ease in Zion, life slips away, comes to much of nothing if it’s only mindless entertainment and consumption.  Amos promises exile.  Maybe not in a foreign land, but exile from our interior selves.  Exile from any sense of national purpose.  A deadly, soul-killing existence – a different sort of exile.

The pandemic gave us all space to figure this out.  But at ease?  No, few of us are at ease.  For too many, especially our youth, this pandemic has been a soul-killing disaster.

In our forced isolation we have become a nation in despair. 

Teen suicide has reached epidemic proportions.  Medical authorities now call the needless loss of life “deaths of despair.”  We’re talking suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, and alcoholic liver disease.  They’re rampant.

These deaths are at the highest level in the history of our nation according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – the CDC.

This is mainly a scourge of those on the bottom of the economic totem pole – those whose wages and life circumstances have not kept up with ever rising costs.  They are not lazy or shiftless: many are doing two or three jobs and trying to raise a family.

Anne Case, in an interview with Newsweek Magazine, lists some of the factors leading to these “deaths of despair.”  “The pillars that once helped give life meaning—a good job, a stable home life, a voice in the community—have all eroded.”[3]

Just drive down through the main streets of many business districts.  All you see is boarded up storefronts and littered sidewalks.  Livelihoods are emptied out.  The few rehabilitation efforts promised are mired in bureaucratic incompetency and endless lawsuits.

In many households family-time has disappeared.  Just the amount of homework many teens are burdened with is unbelievable.

I read an article in The Atlantic of a father who writes for that publication.  He had become concerned about his sleep-deprived thirteen-year-old daughter who was being transformed into a zombie.  He decided upon an experiment.[4]

He would try her homework schedule for a week.  He figured her time in class was about the same hours he put in at work.  As she started on her homework upon arriving at their house, so would he also do the same homework.

Monday, he opened her algebra book and for some time stared at the problems until he finally remembered what a polynomial was.  He finished the problems in around 45 minutes, then turned to her reading assignment in Angela’s Ashes.  He figured that there was around an hour and a half, maybe two hours of reading here.  But then he had to find several quotable passages and write an essay on one of them.  Another hour or so.  And he hadn’t even gotten to her earth science assignment. 

Opening that book, he came upon the most brain-numbing writing imaginable.  At one point a “chart 3” was referenced.  He flipped through page after page until he found that.  Finishing the reading, he fell asleep around one or two AM.  And this was only Monday.

How is it kids in Finland hardly bring any homework home yet score highest on international tests of math, science and language?  What do these people know that our educational system hasn’t figured out?

His daughter was a fairly bright young thing.  Think about the average student completely overwhelmed by it all.  Dropout time for them!

Indeed, what’s it all about, Alfie?  No wonder we’re raising a stressed-out generation that is escaping through pills and suicide or violent video games.

Recently, we lost a modern prophet if ever there was a one – Barbara Ehrenreich.  As a social scientist she wondered how it was, given the continued relative decline in wages that the working poor survived.

So, she left the hallowed halls of ivy, abandoned academic security, and for a year she took those menial, low-wage jobs that 60 to 70 percent of our citizens toil in, nine to five – and ofttimes many more hours a day.  This is NOT the Dolly Parton glossy movie fantasy.

Ehrenreich cleaned houses, worked as a Walmart sales clerk, waitressing, hotel maid, nursing home aide, scrubbing floors on her hands and knees.[5]

At first, she thought she’d stick out as “other.”  Nothing in common with her workmates, but soon bonded with several as they opened their lives to her.  One of the most pressing problems for those whom she encountered was housing. 

Ehrenreich quickly discovered that if one wanted to live inside, two jobs were essential.  A good number of her workmates were reduced to living in their cars.  Some lived in crowded quarters with three or four other women.  Several lived with boyfriends and one had moved back with his mother.

There was hardly any “free,” personal time.  Barely any for lunch.  She was always hungry towards the end of a shift.  No wonder it’s called “grinding poverty.”

One night the boss caught her grabbing a bowl of clam chowder.  She’d often seen the other women do this.  “No eating,” Stu snaps.  Though there’s not a customer around to see food making contact with a server’s lips.  “No eating!”

Barbara tells her coworker that she’s going to quit, at which point Gail replies that she thinks she’ll follow her to Jerry’s, Ehrenreich’s second job.

Yes, as Dolly Parton belts it out: “Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’/Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin.’”  Drop into bed dead tired and do it all over again in the morning.  What a way to make a livin.’

These are the folks languishing at our gate, the gate of the richest nation on earth – ever.  These are the poor who live in squalor so we might have clean, tidy homes.  These are the people who ruin their health on fast food on the run while we enjoy fine dining, or grab a bite at McDonalds.  These are the women who neglect their families so our children are well cared for.  These are Lazarus’s companions left to rot at the splendid gate of America.

We’re only passing through momentarily.  How do we want to be remembered?  What’s it all about?

How to be remembered?  We could take a cue from Merrick Garland.

The arc of Garland’s life of service is instructive.  Give your life, or at least some part of your spare time, to a greater cause.  It’s not all about us.  As the kids say, “Get over yourself.”  That’s when we begin actually living, not just existing.  That’s when life smiles back.

But I digress.  Back to Merrick Garland.  There’s the sign we see as we enter the forest, heading to Lake Arrowhead.  “Only you can prevent forest fires.”  Yes, it’s Smokey Bear.

Garland in his recent speech welcoming newly naturalized citizens at Ellis Island, would urge us, I imagine, “Only you can prevent Democracy fires.”  There is nothing permanent about our democracy, no long-haul guarantee.

It’s all based on “rule of law.”  Without that, the whole enterprise goes up in flames – one big national Dumpster fire.

Listen to Garland’s wise counsel.  This is what he told those new Americans:

“The Rule of Law means that the law treats each of us alike:  there is not one rule for friends, another for foes; one rule for the powerful, another for the powerless; a rule for the rich, another for the poor; or different rules depending on one’s race or ethnicity or country of origin.”[6] 

“The Rule of Law is not assured.  It is fragile.  It demands constant effort and vigilance.”

Here’s something worth devoting one’s life to.  Or maybe just a few moments in a supermarket checkout line.  Or a letter to the editor. 

America, get over yourselves.  Let’s try a little self-transcendence.  Re-read the book of Amos.  More wise counsel.  In his advanced years, Merrick Garland is definitely NOT taking his ease in Zion.

Madison, warned us that no Constitution could save us from ourselves if we surrendered to ignorance, imbecility, and faction.  In his address to his home state of Virginia, as he advocated for ratification of the proposed Constitution, this is what he told those delegates:[7]

“But I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men [and women] of virtue and wisdom.”

“Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

Virtue?  There are presently more people in the cult of QAnon than there are Episcopalians or Presbyterians in America!

Virtue?  Look at the craziness of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene!  Consider the duplicity of Governor DeSantis and his theater of the absurd at Martha’s Vineyard, using duped immigrants as political pawns.  Is this what those poor folks fled the corruption and gangs of Venezuela for?  Governor, these are people for God’s sake!

Our Democracy needs an awful lot more perfecting to safeguard the poor huddled at the gates of an extravagantly wealthy America.  Masses of our own citizens yearning to be free of an economic system that grinds them to dust.

A lot of perfecting to do, indeed we need.  Definitely time to re-read the book of Amos.  “Read, mark and inwardly digest.”

As Judge Garland urged us, it’s up to each one as we are given wisdom and opportunity to create a land where all can enjoy its riches and splendor. 

It’s up to each of us to spread the opportunity and joy around.

The other day Jai read to me from the sports section that Maury Wills had died.  With his talent, he surely spread the delight we have in America’s national pastime, baseball.

Wills held the all-time record for base stealing.  As a child I remember watching him in total fascination as he inched away from first base.  Six, then ten, then twelve feet – shifting back and forth from foot to foot, just taunting the pitcher to turn and throw to first. 

The minute that pitcher twitched, Wills would be off like a bolt of lightning headed for second.  The crowd held its collective breath for a second, then went wild.  Moments before the ball arrived for the tag, Wills had slid in on his belly.  SAFE!

With the same delight I watched a video clip of Jim and Verity’s daughter Haden hitting a triple at a recent tournament.

At first the video didn’t show what happened to her after she hit the ball.  Then I saw her far off streaking to second, rounding it then heading toward third.  Yeah, the crowd went wild.

Hayden gives this sport her all.  She puts in the work.  Watching her is a delight!

Might we also give our all to something greater, something outside ourselves.  Something that will free up those huddled at our gates?  Something that will bring joy?  Yes, we need Bread AND Roses, too.

Herein is the beginning of eternity.  A life of blessedness!

What’s it all about, Alfie?  Are we meant to take more than we give?

I think not.  As Alfie’s song questions each, “Do you believe in Love?”  Back to Dionne Warwick:

As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie[8]
I know there’s something much more
Something even non-believers can believe in

I believe in love, Alfie
Without true love we just exist, Alfie
Until you find the love you’ve missed, you’re nothing, Alfie

When you walk, let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie

So, let’s get to work.  We’re not dead yet.  Amen.

[1] Burt Bacharach /Hal David,  Alfie lyrics.

[2] Bert Bacharach, Hal David, “Alfie,” 1966.

[3] Blake Dodge, “What are the So-Called Deaths of Despair?  Experts say They’re on the Rise,” Newsweek, Jan. 14, 2020.  See also, Anne Case, Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).

[4] Tom Taro Greenfield, “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me,” The Atlantic, October 2013.

[5] Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001), 32.

[6] Merrick Garland, https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-merrick-b-garland-administers-oath-allegiance-and-delivers, delivered on September 17, 2022.

[7] Madison: Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York: Library of America, 1999), 398.

[8] Op cit.

  September 25, 2022, 16 Pentecost, Proper 21

“Just Get Over Yourself”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Taking Care of Business

It was a late Friday afternoon; this was to be Joe’s last day at First Federal Bank in the town of Outback.  Joe was beside himself.  He’d just been given notice “his services were no longer needed.”  Fired – in short.

Okay, he wasn’t the sharpest teller on the line.  His drawer rarely balanced out at the end of the day.  He held the record for just rushing through the doors at the last moment each morning, right before the first customers had arrived.  He’d been admonished for his tardiness several times a week.  His attire barely passed the dress code, rumpled shirt, stained tie and all.  Not the image of sartorial splendor.  The Steve Bannon attire with a haircut by whoever did Boris Johnson’s.  You get the picture.

He’d been warned time and again.  Finally, the branch manager had just had it.

This distraught teller panics, pulls out a gun and demands that each of the other tellers fill an empty sack with as many bills as they have in their trays.

As the dishonest teller flees the bank, waving his gun about, he meets several of his cronies out on the sidewalk.  In haste he begins distributing the contents of his sack to them.  All in the hopes that if he is caught, some of these friends might feel ingratiated to him and put him up when he’s out of prison.

As he’s just finishing passing out the ill-gotten loot, the bank manager erupts from the door.  Seeing what is taking place, the manager now praises this teller for his ingenuity and shrewdness.  For “the art of the deal,” if you will.  For taking care of business.

Do we buy this story?  Can’t make this stuff up?

Well, listen to the story Jesus tells.  In what way is it any different?  A crooked manager has been caught out by the owner of the estate.  He scurries about, asking each debtor to jigger his note, reducing what was originally owed the master.  On discovering this deceit, the owner smiles and praises this dishonest manager who has now cheated him twice: “And the master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly…”

Most scholars believe that this is the point at which Jesus’ parable originally ended.  The add-on maxims and such on wealth and the “children of this age” are Luke’s attempts to make this story palatable to moral sensibilities.  He didn’t quite know what to make of it any more than us moderns.

Indeed, this is a most difficult saying.  Are we to believe that Jesus actually encourages, praises such dishonesty?

We’d be crying, “throw the book to be thrown at him”.  Where is Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice when we need them?  Should this grift go unpunished?  Is there no indictment?  “Lock him up.  Lock him up.  Lock him up,” would be the chant.

The beauty of Jesus’ parables is that they admit a number of interpretations.  They are polyvalent — capable of a multitude of images, interpretations and meanings – and have always been, down through the ages.

One of the reasons for the shrewdness of the “Children of Darkness” is that they are totally unapologetic in their cynicism, in their grift.  It’s all about them, nobody else counts.  Might makes right.

Maybe Jesus praises their authenticity as scoundrels.  They are grifters and make no bones about it.  They know how to take care of business.  They are the practitioners of “Realpolitik.”

It’s Stalin’s boast when Winston Churchill brought up the possibility of the Pope’s involvement in the Teheran Conference, “How many divisions does the Pope have.”  That realism will always trump naïve religious idealism in the councils of this world.

As Martin Luther King and the leaders of the 50s and 60s Civil Rights movement learned, if one is to depend on “soul force,” you’d best get it mobilized and know the right moment to deploy it.  Rosa Parks did not decide to refuse to vacate her bus seat for a white just on a spur of the moment whim.  Her protest was well planned in advance.  Malice of forethought.  And the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott was launched off that effort.

Reinhold Niebuhr drew on this story when he penned his book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.  Why is it that the Children of Light so often end up with the short end of the stick?  They are too often oblivious to their own mixed motives, thus too hesitant.  “We’re too nice,” as my friend Vern would often say.

So, what to make of this disturbing parable?  Here’s my take.  In the cause of human solidarity, act boldly.  Or as Luther said, “Sin boldly – but believe in the grace of God all the more.”  And keep your wits about you. 

Here’s a story on how this all worked out for our prison chaplain Chris Hoke — a lay visitor to the incarcerated and agricultural workers in the Pacific Northwest.  A very improbable journey of daring, suspense, danger and, well… you judge for yourself.

Part of his ministry has been in the migrant labor camps, providing whatever support he could with his limited Spanish and resources.  Chris had been working for sometime with Tierra Nueva, his job being to visit and accompany migrant families to appointments and such.

In part, this is the mission statement of Tierra Nueva, Chris’s employer:

“People marginalized due to race, social class, language, lifestyle, or legal status often reach the conclusion that God is against them and that they are not welcome in the Church. And mainstream church members find few opportunities to encounter people at the margins. Bridging that chasm not only elevates those on the outside, but it can also transform those inside the Church”.[1]

Chris introduces us to two laborers from one field cabin, Arnulfo and his friend Magdeleno.  Both men had met a couple of years ago in the asparagus fields near Stockton and decided to stick together.

Arnulfo left his family in Michoacan, Magdaleno had left Puebla as a single man.  He spoke Zapoteco and a smidgen of Spanish.  “They belonged to no one.  All season they had only each other.”[2]

It’s the end of the season with cold rain settling in, it was time to be on the move.  Arnulfo and Magdaleno had no car.  They wanted to fly – not down to the San Joaquin Valley in California, but to New Jersey where some friends had carpentry work for them.  They had to fly, as traveling by bus was considered too risky due to all the ICE agents who stalked the Greyhound stations.

AND… the two of them would look less suspicious if traveling with a tall, white U.S. citizen.  At this point Arnulfo pulled back the corner of his mattress to extract a wad of cash, which he folded and put it into Chris’s hand.

Well, part of his duties at Tierra Nuevo was to accompany workers to appointments and such… but to New Jersey?

They would use the money to also buy Chris a round trip ticket as well so they could more easily move through the airport with some degree of confidence.  It took Chris some fifteen minutes to understand the plan due to Arnulfo’s rapid-fire Spanish.  He had to repeat himself several times.  Finally, Chris got it.  He was to turn this wad of cash into three tickets to New York. 

“If I’d know how to say “Hell yes!” in Spanish, I would have.”  This would definitely be a stretch to the duty of “accompany.”

A week before the flight Chris sat in that small cabin on one of the mattresses and pulled out the boarding passes from his coat pocket.  And a receipt with the exact change left over.  He wanted to make it clear he was a pastor, not a coyote, a paid smuggler.

It began to dawn on Chris that he could get in real trouble here.  It was one thing visiting jails and labor camps, quite another “aiding and abetting the movement of undocumented immigrants across the U.S. interior.”  And it wasn’t just him.  He’d persuaded his fiancée Rachel to come along.  Being half Panamanian, she would make the group of them look less suspicious.  Besides, she’d always wanted to see New York. 

On further reflection, he wondered what on earth was he thinking, putting her at risk as well.

Inside the airport, security lines moved slowly as our small group of travelers approached the podium.  The TSA agent leaned forward, passing a blue light over Chris’s and Rachel’s boarding documents.  On the other side of the scanner, they waited for their two companions.

The agent scrutinized the identification papers of Arnulfo and Magdaleno, paused a moment and motioned over two other TSA agents.  After a few comments to Arnulfo, he said to the two men, “These IDs have no expiration date,” which he then repeated to Chris.

Chris had called the airport ahead of time and was told that these Mexican national identity cards would be no problem.  “Every ID,” the agent snapped, “must have an expiration date.”  Mexican identity, apparently, does not expire.

“I’m going to have to ask you four to step into this line over here,” motioned the agent.  We were trapped.  Caught.

“Yes, I thought to myself. Yes, I’m a failure.  A bad coyote.  A bad pastor.  Mission failed.”[3]

Chris’s thoughts racing through his mind, contemplated the future.  Arnulfo and Magdaleno would not be going to friends tonight.  They would spend the day answering questions and filling out papers.  And headed for a deportation hearing.  No friendly skies.   No complementary Cokes or pretzels.

After being directed to pass through the scanners, the four were escorted to an enclosed area and told to wait.  And they waited and waited, but no one came. 

As they stared at each other, Chris said, “Vamos” — let’s go.  They sidled out into the main concourse.  They heard no shouts behind them.  And their gate was soon right in front of them.

Flashing red letters proclaimed, “FLIGHT DELAYED.  Estimated time one hour.”

What to do?  Chris could think only of disaster.  As they waited, huddled together on a small padded bench, Rachel had a better idea.  She broke out a sandwich and divided it into four pieces.  Arnulfo suggested a reading from the scriptures.  Chris flipped through the pages of the Santa Biblia while expecting at any moment someone in a uniform to appear around the corner.

He found in Acts the story of Peter’s imprisonment.  Chris asked Magdeleno to read.  He read of Peter’s captivity in chains and guards watching him in the night … of how angels wake Peter and he slips through four layers of security as the guards slept close by.  “Get up quick!  “Put on your coat and follow me,” the angel urges.

By the end of the story, the announcement came over the speakers, it was time to board.  As they stood in line for their boarding documents to be scanned, Chris noticed one important thing missing from Arnulfo’s and Magdaleno’s passes:  the initials of the agent who would have checked them through.

He quickly took both passes and a pen and scratched on them their authority for departure – JC.

“Enjoy your flight,” the attendant chirped as she scanned the four through.

Now, for the last six years, when December winter cold comes to the Northwest, Chris and his now wife Rachel, can expect a call from Arnulfo, who is now back with his family in the home he saved for and built in Michoacan, Mexico.  He also sends Magdeleno’s greetings.

He congratulates Chris and Rachel on their recent marriage.  As soft snow settles over the landscape, Christmas is coming.

That’s how, through a bit of grace, hutzpah, and savvy – that’s sometimes how we children of The Way make a “way out of no way.”  And through the guidance of the Spirit, it shall be sufficient.  Heart pounding, but sufficient.  Taking care of business.  Amen.

[1] https://www.tierra-nueva.org/peoples-seminary

[2] Chris Hoke, Wanted (New York: Harper One, 2015), 56-73.

[3] Ibid, 65.

September 18, 2022, 15 Pentecost, Proper 20

“Taking Care of Business”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

From the Top of the World

On this Labor Day weekend my mind goes to backyard barbecues, fairs and the end of summer’s lazy days.  At one time, when summer was not the scorching ordeal it now is, the day of peak attendance at the L.A. County Fair was now.  Presently, thanks to global warming, the fair has to be held in spring.

I fondly remember the huge Ferris wheel, all lit up at night, riding up and up with my girlfriend.  At the top, we might as well have been at the top of the world.  Part of that was the romance of the moment, holding hands as we seemed so precariously seated in that slowly swaying seat.  So high up looking down at all the other amusement rides below.

And then the reality of school beginning the next day.  Ugh. 

Due to all our family turmoil, I was never very good at my classes.  My mind was always elsewhere.  Looking out the window at the other kids on the playground – waiting for the bell to ring for our turn at recess.

This year, as our nation has headed into this weekend of beach trips, hot dogs and a can of Budweiser, there’s an unease in the land. 

We just made it through primary elections with a number of political earthquakes.  On one side of the aisle, many election conspiracy nuts were elected to run in the general election with the goal of denying all votes and throwing their state’s choice of presidential electors to ultra-partisan state legislatures. 

But of course – it’s all rigged.  The voting machines are being hacked by Jewish space lasers or some such nonsense.  Millions of illegals are stuffing the dropboxes with fraudulent ballots.  Rigged, they tell you!

Yes, we’ve gone off the deep end of crazy in this political year.  Same as the last, only more vicious this time.  Poll workers, fearful of threats from MAGA gun nuts, are quitting in droves.  Who can blame them?

Some sixty percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.  As inflated rents throw more and more onto the streets and the job market tightens as the Fed puts the squeeze on the economy, there is little joy in Mudville.   More people living on the streets.

The noted historian, Richard Hofstadter wrote of our tendency as Americans for political distrust in his seminal work, The Paranoid Style of American Politics.  He demonstrated how this strand of thought has been woven through our common life together over the many years.  Perhaps, present from the inception on the nation.  It is a mode of thought born of fear and resentment — I’m not making it — And someone’s to blame.

Our friend, Lynn, may think, “We’re all in this together.”  But the rest of us?  Not so much.

The scourge of fentanyl and other street drugs continues to ruin lives.  This past week our House of Hope team was to meet Sheriff Beaty with his two colleagues, the sheriff of Handcock County to the north of Brooke and the sheriff of Ohio county to the south.  We had our QRT program – that’s Quick Response Team — ready to present.

That afternoon we received a call from Sheriff Beaty’s assistant.  He would not be able to make it.  While he had been engaged in traffic control at Brooke High, sitting in his sheriff’s black pickup truck, a woman ran into him.  She hit him so hard that her car ended up in the bed of the pickup, her front bumper going through the cab window.

Our friend ended up with a fractured vertebra, a concussion, and was banged up a bit.  I had supposed the woman ended up either in the hospital or in the morgue.  No.  She was so loaded up with drugs, she was feeling no pain.  “She ended up in jail,” the sheriff later told us.  To only be in jail…she was one of the lucky ones.

Our reading from Deuteronomy today gives us a long-range view from the top of the Ferris wheel.  A thirty-thousand-foot moral overview.

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous.”[1]

This stark alternative is before us each day.  What, this day, will we choose to give our life and energies to?  What will receive our loyalty and the treasure of our date book and wallet?

The Psalmist, presents the same opposing choices, makes the same case.  Those who choose wisely “are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.”

“It is not so with the wicked: they are like chaff which the wind blows away.”[2]

Another view from the top of the Ferris wheel.  Unfortunately, faced with the complexities of real, lived life, it’s not so simple.

Not so simple indeed.  We humans are a mixed bag, a seething mass of inconsistencies and proclivities.  The evil we hate, we so often end up doing, as St. Paul says of his own spiritual struggle.  Or as one of my friends said of their tumultuous marriage relationship, “It’s complicated.”

This last week we received from the coroner the autopsy results of the famed country music star, who, when she sang with her daughter Wynonna, they were an incredible duo, recording a number of hits.

Naomi Judd, for years had struggled with bipolar depression and PTSD…post-traumatic stress disorder.  At 76 the country music legend ended her life with a gun.  The autopsy, just released revealed numerous drugs in her system used to treat her various afflictions.

She, with Wynonna, had been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame the day after her death.  Her mental illness had finally won the long struggle which had consumed most of her life.

Choices set before each of us – but it’s so tragically complicated.

We Americans again have a critical choice set before us.  Will we go with the crazy, or will we choose a generous democracy that includes all.

It is no exaggeration to say that a whole lot is on the line in the next two elections coming up.  From the top of the political and civic Ferris wheel: DEMOCRACY itself is on the line.  The whole enchilada!

Will America become a theocracy where a small minority subjects the rest to the pinched dogma of Christian nationalism?

Will unlimited money have the final say in our political life?

Will gerrymandered districts so subvert the choices of the majority that any notion of Democracy will have become meaningless?

Will women lose the rights to their own bodies and souls to a group of misogynistic men arguing about “legitimate rape” and whether a ten-year-old must be forced to bear a rapist’s child?  A ten-year-old girl for God’s sake!

America, we must be in this for the long haul.  The thirty-thousand-foot view.  As with those of the Jesus Movement.

The “Cost of Discipleship” is a whole lot more than proper etiquette before the altar.  It is much more than fussing over which candles to light first or extinguish in what order.  More than even showing up once a week to hear a brilliant sermon, or even a mediocre one.

It’s about engaging the issues of the day, in our corporate or private lives with the values of the gospel.  It’s how this all plays out under the mandate to love God and neighbor – one and the same duty.  It’s about daily seizing the joy that is to be offered each day.  And passing it around.

Jai sometimes – okay, often – thinks my rhetoric is over the top.  But, for hyperbole and exaggeration, I can’t hold a candle to Jesus.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and other, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Hard words, indeed!

If I dare to paraphrase our Lord, what he is saying is that this discipleship thing is a life stance that places all relationships and priorities under a long-haul mandate.  “Love God and neighbor as self.”  Every relationship, yea, life itself is to be seen through that lens.

This is not a eat-your-spinach (or Brussel sprouts, or rutabaga) command.  It is the joyful summons into eternity.  Into a life of overflowing blessings and delight.  And struggle.

I don’t know if there is the possibility of political absolution, but I must confess that I was once in the tank for one Richard Nixon.  I, a Nixon campaign worker when he ran for governor!  Coming out of a very Republican household, that was the brand of politics served up each evening at dinner.

With the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, I began to question that allegiance.  In for the long haul, I realized that my politics must comport with the Gospel values taking deeper root in my life.

For the long haul, I in fact abandoned the other party when it sold its soul for a fruitless and inhumane war in Southeast Asia.  The lies, the subterfuge – it was all to the destruction of what I had come to affirm.  Leaving was the cost of discipleship at that moment.  I ended up being a delegate to the California convention of the Peace and Freedom party.

Cause for great disappointment!  It took three or four hours for the gathering just to come to agreement on who might chair this assembly for the next three days.  Every cause imaginable was vying for attention.  Shouting over each other.  From the “Free Huey Newton” people to the animal rights folks – no one was listening.  All shouting over each other.

I remember our distraught pastor’s wife through flowing tears, commenting as several from our local Peace and Freedom club crossed the parking lot after the first day, “If this is our only hope, God help us.  God help us all.”  I was pretty bummed out as well.

No, I needed a politics for the view from the top of the Ferris wheel.  A political perspective for the long haul, not the ephemeral cause of the day.

What Jesus seems to be counseling here is revolutionary patience in the cause for Gospel Solidarity.  Count the costs, this journey will take everything you are – it’s not an add-on — but the results will be beyond your imagining.  Guaranteed!

As we try to walk our faithful discipleship journey at St. Francis, it is Gospel Joy to my heart that Joseph is nudging us towards a program of tutoring for neighborhood kids.  Truly, whatever is done for children, from the thirty-thousand-foot view, is never wasted.

Taking up our cross, in this place, for this effort, means setting aide our inertia and calling friends to recruit tutors.  Pestering, if necessary.  It means finding some to run the recreation program so contained young people don’t riot or fall asleep.  It means help for preparing healthy snacks.  This may be your summons to a deeper engagement with the Jesus Movement in our place and time.  Listen to the whispers of the Spirit.  She can be trusted.

To close, this from my favorite author, Wendell Berry: “Love is what carries you, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”  Amen

[1] Deuteronomy 30:15 ff., New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Psalm 1, NRSV.

September 4, 2022, 13 Pentecost, Proper 18
Labor Day Weekend

“From the Top of the World”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-20; Luke 14:25-33

What a Week!

We, that is one of our House of Hope staff and I, just returned from our sojourn in the hills of West Virginia where we were working on our opioid addiction center. 

I am amazed at how green the hills of that part of the country are.  Especially compared to the dried, arid California landscape.  West Virginia is definitely NOT burning up.

One of the major delights of our August trip is the Wounded Warrior event we hold on our farm – this year’s being the fifth annual.  When I asked if there were any of my generation, the Vietnam Era, the response?  “Nobody’s that old.” 

To see some of the old regulars attend and many of our local folks who put on the event — it’s an occasion for civic pride.  To thank those who have served is a civic duty.  To top it off, Dagmar’s hot German potato salad was as delicious as ever!

Not to mention the guys from Merco Marine who brought out their huge barbecue cooker and furnished smoked pork, chicken and hot dogs.  Wonderful!  Tom Ferbee and his band was also a real crowd pleaser, especially when they broke into “Who Stopped the Rain.” 

With 180 acres of backwoods abandoned logging trails, we take these vets and their families on the ride of their lives.  All in all, a great weekend for everybody involved.  And a big thanks to Scott, Rob and Michelle who provide the organizational muscle.  But I was the only Vietnam vet.  We’re a dying breed.

My veteran’s organization, Vietnam Vets Against the War’s motto is: “Honor the warrior, not the war.”  We were of the generation who tossed our medals over the fence of the White House to protest that misguided, obscene foreign policy disaster.  “They lied, people died,” was the truth of the matter.  But enough of that sermon.

In addition, we met with Senator Manchin’s staff, the West Virginia director of drug policy – a whole bunch of folks who could help us with bringing House of Hope into reality.

Yes, we had quite a week.  And so did our nation.  Back down the memory rabbit hole — do you remember the American version of a British political satire show, “That is the Week That Was?”  Probably not.  It was also out of the 60s.  But you remember some of the stars:  Alan Alda, Elaine May, Gloria Steinem, Gene Hackman, Henry Morgan, Calvin Trillin and Tom Lehrer.  Nancy Ames sang the opening song.

If, perchance, you missed it, you can get an approximate version.  Watch “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver or “Full Frontal” with Samantha Bee.  Same pedigree and same great laughs.

As FBI agents executed a proper search warrant at the Former Guy’s retreat at Mar-A-Lago, much of our nation became unhinged.  No laughs here.

These law enforcement officers were accused by the likes of Ted Cruz and others as being “storm troopers, brown-shirt thugs, kicking in people’s doors.”  That’s right, if they can do it to this upstanding Former Guy, they can do it to you.

For the record, my cousin Floyd was an FBI agent.  The family never knew this until his retirement because he was deep undercover on issues of national security.  He was NOT a jack-booted Gestapo thug kicking in doors and summarily executing folks.  He was a kind, decent-hearted man.  He’d take me down into his radio room in the basement and we’d listen to places like Australia and Canada “on the skip.” 

Floyd faithfully took care of his sister with Down Syndrome after their mother died.  No, Ted.  You’re way off base.

I still wonder what Floyd’s cover was.  We only saw him once a year and I was pretty young.  The other thing I fondly remember was their great big cat that would jump up in my lap.  That, and his delightful book of WWII stories.

That episode with the Former Guy would have in itself been sufficient news, but…THEN…with the passage of the “Inflation Reduction Act” which added in funds to replenish the IRS, then came cries of agents of our government, tarred as a mob of some seventy-four thousand, armed with AR-15s, kicking in the doors of small businesses.  Locked and loaded.  Fixed News was definitely in overdrive all this week.

Actually, the tax cheats they’ll be hunting are way, way, above your and my pay grades.  The “usual suspects” are those who hide their assets in off-shore bank accounts and shell corporations.  We’re talking billions here, not that chicken-feed business lunch you mis-designated on your 1099-Miscellaneous Income form.  Or left out.

Oh, and did I fail to mention that Senator Lindsey Graham lost his appeal concerning a subpoena to testify in Georgia concerning his role in election fraud?  But not to worry, more than one felon has successfully run for office behind bars.  What a week, indeed!  A lot of shaking of the pillars.

Which gets us to the lectionary selection from Hebrews.  This passage is a portion of a sermon on Moses on the Mount of Revelation.

“See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!”

“At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.”

“This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of what is shaken–that is, created things–so that what cannot be shaken may remain.”

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”

I’d never get a pass on a sermon like that.

All this convoluted passage is to say that when God gets through doing the shaking, what will remain is what has value…”How Firm a Foundation.”  Just as the nations are shaken, those that endure are ones built on everlasting foundations.  There is lasting value.  Self-evident Truth.

Those values embraced by the American people, rooted in Divine Revelation, are the residue that will not be loosened.  They are the core of basic decency, the basis for our common bond as a people – whether we be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or None-of-the-Above.  They are deeply implanted in the soul of the nation.

It is these attributes that will remain, that will not be shaken.  We hang on to those spiritual verities and we will arise from the chaos of the moment as one people.

David Brooks, in an opinion piece this week, lifted up a great Christian writer and theologian, Frederick Buechner.  He came from a distressing family background.  A family of isolated personalities, unable to share pain, joy or their aspirations for living.  They are a microcosm of our national polarization – everyone in their own bubble.  Dante’s lowest level of Hell is reserved for such frozen, isolated, most toxic human beings.  Completely cut off.  From everything.

“One morning in the fall of 1936, 10-year-old Frederick Buechner and his younger brother were playing in their room. Their father opened the door, checked on them, and then went down into the family garage, turned on the engine of the car and waited for the exhaust to kill him.”

“Buechner and his brother heard a commotion, looked out the window and saw their father on his back in the driveway. Their mother and grandmother, in their nightgowns, had dragged him out of the garage and were pumping his legs up and down in a doomed attempt to revive him.”

“There would be no funeral, or discussion of what happened. Their mother just moved the boys to Bermuda to escape. The rules in that family were, ‘Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.’ They became masters at covering themselves over.”[1]

Looking back over the life of Frederick Buechner, what remained after a traumatic and vigorous shaking, was a most decent human being, overflowing with the spiritual insight on what makes for a godly life.  A life brim full to overflowing with compassion and spiritual insight.

In a way, this is what remains of President Zelenskyy.   He was a TV comic who only played at being a president.  Now he often sounds like Churchill.

When confronted by naysayers that he didn’t have the experience to be a real president of Ukraine, that he didn’t have standing, his answer was simple and basic.  The most important requirement for the job was just to be “a decent human being.”  And he has exceeded all expectations.  Silencing his most vociferous critics.

That is what we need as citizens for our day and circumstances – just being decent human beings.

Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, makes that most clear.  When confronted by a woman in great medical distress on the Sabbath, he sets aside rules, customs and religious dogma.  He, as a decent human being, does what is required.  He heals her.  And LIFE overflows to all around.  Even the stuck-in-the-mud religious authorities with their fossilized attitudes.

And that is the promise to us in our fractured land.  My politics are at odds with many of our folks in West Virginia.  My cousin Lindsey is an ardent Trumper as are many others.  We set all that aside.  Our team absorbs the pain, the loss of those families devastated by opioid addiction.  In our desire to bring healing we go about the small, boring, tedious work to get House of Hope off the ground.  Setting our political divisions aside.

Frederick Buechner says of our vocation – at the deepest, always a spiritual matter — “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.  In the boredom and the pain of it, no less than in the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”[2]

America, we need to “stop, look, listen.”  Yes, part of our story is tawdry and vicious, but there are moments of great glory and grace.  Much remains after the brutal shaking of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow.

Through that darkest of nights shines the “Black and White Together” spirit of the civil rights struggles of the 60s.  Let us not forget Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, Thurgood Marshall.  Oh, yes, The Rev. Dr. M.L. King.  An everlasting heritage.

Let us claim that sacred heritage of the “Conductors” on the Underground Railroad: Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Levi Coffin.  All shepherding folks North, following the “Drinking Gourd.”[3]  A firm foundation of a new birth of liberty.

These Americans knew their vocations as citizens and lived them.  They were not shaken in resolve or in goal.  May we find ours out as they did.

Your vocation?  Again, let us attend to Brother Frederick:  “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  — a foundation which will remain your whole life long.


[1] David Brooks, “The Man Who Found His Inner Depths,” New York Times, August 18.  Any of his books are superb, novels, theology, or his autobiographical works.  An uninitiated reader might start with Now and Then, a very self-revealing memoir.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Now and Then (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).

[3] “Drinking Gourd,” the Big Dipper constellation containing the North Star.

August 21, 2022, 11 Pentecost, Proper 16

“What a Week!”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17