No Room at the Inn
Dec. 7, 2014
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
“It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do.”
Sharing – Dana Harris
I wanted to share an experience that humbled and has shaped me. Last winter, our church youth group went to Boston for a weekend to stay in Saint Paul’s church across from Boston Common. We were there to help the homeless get through the tough winter we were having. Before the weekend, we had collected backpacks and wheeled suitcases, coats, sweaters, boots and sleeping bags. All kinds of things to help keep people warm. We brought all this with us, and then late on Friday night we took a tour of Boston led by some homeless people that were part of the program. I saw people curled up in balls trying to stay warm, I saw one person who had already fainted from the cold and could have ended up dying. It was really depressing seeing the suffering they were experiencing. On Saturday, I remember being exhausted from sleeping in the uncomfortable pews, making hundreds of sandwiches, and carrying heavy stacks of clothing for a day. The next morning I cried when I saw the people receiving clothing, supplies, and food. No suffering I could be going through was as bad as theirs. Yet, I saw these people find a way to be genuinely happy and grateful. I was able to talk with them, serve them food, and give them clothing! I had never felt so upset and proud at the same time.
The affirmation I grew up with here, “minds that think, hearts that love, hands that help,” definitely applied that weekend. I was thinking about these people so much, I truly fell in love with the idea of helping those in need. It made me think about my life and how the three parts of our affirmation have been building blocks for me.
I would never say I am perfect; I do not think everything through and I make mistakes, like everyone does. But what matters is that we kept trying our hardest to be the best that we can be and respect one another in the process. This is what it means to have a mind that thinks. Learning is a process, and if we try we can learn more each day. The sad thing is not to learn, or to think that some people have nothing to teach us.
The second part of our affirmation is “hearts that love.” Whether I know them well or not, if someone is not doing well I always like to check in with them. That is how I was raised. I want everyone to be happy and respect each other. I am always willing to have hands that help for people in need. Some people may call that being an “errand boy” but I honestly just really enjoy being able to help.
If one can find a community of people that care, I think that is one of the keys to a truly happy and successful life, and I have that! Because of my family and my church I have the skill, the confidence, and the loving support to have a successful life and I know it is going to happen. Thank you for raising me to have good morals to live by.
Reading from “Meeting the Invisible Society” by Tessa Collins in the Watertown High School newspaper, Feb. 25, 2014
Imagine coming to America and being homeless. Imagine getting out of jail just to realize you have nowhere to go. Imagine losing your job and having no option but to sleep on the ground outside. Imagine not knowing whether you are eating tonight or not.
These situations are true for homeless people around the world. Homelessness is ubiquitous, yet invisible to society.
That’s what CityReach is trying to change.
They connect all kinds of people to work toward one common goal: eliminating the displaced population.
Most of the staff are currently homeless or have been homeless at some point. Some of them have been homeless for 20 years or more.
This January, I went to St. Paul’s Cathedral across from Boston Common for a youth retreat. Not knowing what to expect, I was nervous. There were four groups of high school aged volunteers, totaling about 90 youth, who worked distributing clothes and food and learned about the life of the homeless. I came with initial uneasiness, but left with a whole new outlook on society and on people who don’t have homes.
First, we heard their stories.
The CityReach staff told us their plights and how they’ve recovered from them. Everyone who spoke lost their job, fell victim to drugs and addiction, or simply didn’t want to live with their parents and moved out only to realize that they couldn’t build a life alone.
Later that night, we got a tour of Boston from their perspective. Split into groups, we dispersed around the city. My group walked to South Station, where the rush of travelers and trains veil the homeless seeking warmth there. The tour changed my view of the sparkling city of Boston because I saw a dimmer and harsher reality.
That night, we slept in St. Paul’s on pews. Not having our own beds and stable homes to return to, we felt a fraction of what the homeless feel everyday in their itinerant lives. It was hard to sleep, knowing how many people were still outside in the bitter cold.
But soon a 6 a.m. wake-up call signaled the long day ahead. After hours of preparation, the church opened its doors to the homeless who were looking for clothes and food.
Amid the craziness and crowds and the loud voices, I found connections with people. I found great comfort in knowing that everyone had a story and was willing to tell it.
One woman, Jane, arrived to the United States in 1984 to no house. She was born in London and met her husband online. They fell in love, and she immigrated here to marry him.
But this is not a calamitous story about a couple that tragically lost their house and their stable lives: Jane knew that her soon-to-be husband was homeless before she came to this country. She willingly left her comfortable life and family in England to be homeless with him.
Her story is unique, and she is unlike most of the people who came to CityReach. But they are all unlike each other. They are individuals with different stories.
It was rewarding to make a difference and help just by giving out a deli sandwich and a few snacks, or listening. Some people kept their heads down and simply nodded to me, while others bounced up to the table with bright smiles and arms full of new clothes, looking for conversation.
One man told me that the sandwich I gave him was the best he had ever tasted.
Another man called me over to where he was sitting to refill his coffee cup four times. He later thanked me and smiled.
One woman told me, “Chase after any dream you have, and don’t be complacent, like I was.” I was surprised to hear someone be so upfront and didactic.
Another woman had pink hair and offered to dye mine as well, since I liked hers so much. I considered it, but then pictured my parents yelling at me for letting a homeless woman dye my hair neon pink, and decided against it.
Anyone in the world can become homeless, but they’re still the same person they were when they had a place to live. We should not be afraid to reach out to each other, wherever we are living.
I am wondering how many of you have noticed the change in the Zen garden. A couple of weeks ago, courtesy of Clint Sours and a big shovel and a long couple of days, a woman took up permanent residence just to the east of the Japanese maple tree. Her name is Quan Yin, and some people think she is a goddess, but technically she is a boddhisatva – a person devoted to achieving wisdom for the benefit humanity. Quan Yin is the only female boddhisatva, but her identity as a woman isn’t fixed – in some countries, like Japan, she is a man; and many people believe that the Dalai Lama is the living incarnation of Quan Yin. She has a back story – actually, a number of them – but it seems like the bigger issue for us is, why is she here?
About two years ago, a group of kids in our church school decided that they would like to build a zen garden. No one completely remembers exactly how they came to this decision, but it arose from several directions at once – an interest in Buddhism, a desire to do something real and physical, a love of being outside, the fun of working as a whole group to achieve something lasting; something that would benefit everyone, even people we don’t know yet and maybe never will. Happily, Max Sours needed a big service project to meet the requirements of his Eagle Scout program, and that was just the impetus needed to make the project a reality. Also happily, I was teaching in the class when the kids decided on the project, but not when they built it! When the kids were planning their garden and what it needed, the only thing that had to be purchased – as opposed to built or planted – was a statue of the Buddha. I promised them I would buy the statue as long as it was a Quan Yin. I didn’t want the laughing Buddha that greets you in Chinese restaurants with dollar bills stuck to him, or the starving Buddha experiencing suffering, or one of those disembodied heads you see on bookshelves.
I first learned about Quan Yin as a precious piece of pottery in a book that I read in fourth grade. She was a statue that the father kept on his desk. There was no mother in this story, and it took place during World War II and the father was often away, advising politicians in Washington about the economy. Periodically, throughout the story, each child would occasionally sit at the father’s desk and look at the statue. It was not a big deal in the book; it was just something that happened now and then, but it seemed to me that the kids were lonely in a way that was never talked about; like there was an undercurrent to their lives that could only be hinted at. They had great adventures and everything was interesting, and they knew their father was safe, but the little private visits to the Quan Yin fascinated me. She did something for them, but it was left to the reader to notice that. The only thing that was ever said about the statue was that she was Quan Yin, that Father prized her, and she was from the Tang Dynasty. Later, in a sequel to the book, a treasure hunt clue that leads to the statue reads: I am old. I guard a secret or a prayer with equal silence; peace is the jewel I wear and compassion is the wand I hold. Knowing he was an economist and that the statue was so valuable, and knowing that this family was always struggling to make ends meet, it seemed odd that the statue was kept out in the open, on his work desk. She had no protection. And in fact, the statue does get broken, but no big fuss gets made about it. One of the kids goes looking for her on the desk, but she is missing, and finally located in the workshop. The author drew a wonderful picture of the statue standing serenely on a bench, presiding over an oil can and a broken coffeepot, with a wrench and some tacks strewn about. She is waiting to be glued back together.
Eventually I learned that the Tang dynasty was basically the Chinese equivalent of the Renaissance in Italy, a high period of art and literature and military achievement which happened during the 600s. Woodblock printing was invented, as was gunpowder. And it was also a time of incredible religious diversity. Confucianism was mixed with Zoroastrianism and Islam, and Buddhism became influential by taking on its own distinct Chinese flavor. This is when Zen Buddhism began to develop, and it was also during the Tang dynasty that Quan Yin took form. Her name translates literally as “the sound of lamentation,” but it isn’t because she is sad; it is because the name evolved from a Sanskrit term that meant “she who can hear the cries of the world.” She is, above all, able to listen compassionately. I like that in our Zen garden, she is almost under the Japanese maple, which has leaves that are cut so deeply that they rain down like tears. It is a position that evokes the traditional story of Guatama sitting under the fig tree, but it takes that story deeper, because hers is a story not about the search for enlightenment, but what happens after attaining it. Quan Yin appears in many different forms – standing, sitting, riding a dragon, or floating on the sea; with full hands, with children, with many arms or just the regular two. Ours sits like a lotus, the flower that is born of mud, to remind us that beauty can emerge in the midst of misery, and her hands are empty, because she has just released the Buddhist wheel, and set learning in motion. Oddly enough, it is not the statue the kids picked out or that we ordered! Yet she is exactly perfect for the spot, and for us, and I am grateful to the combination of hard work on the part of the youth, especially Max Sours, and fate, that brought us this peaceful and empowering spot. I like, too, that it has a public function; hints at an oasis available to all, despite the sea of cars. You don’t even need to come inside to receive something that helps. So often we think that who we are as a church is in this room, but as Tessa and Dana reminded us this morning, that is not true. There are teachers and children downstairs, and meetings and choir practice…. So much is put in motion, and we are not always aware. What happens in the minds and hearts of people who encounter this faith is not visible to us. Our kids may seem like they drift away, but maybe they are actually carrying us somewhere, making us bigger and more attached to the wide world. What Dana and Tessa shared today certainly shows we are in them, wherever they may go.
Quan Yin stands for compassion that dissolves boundaries. There is nothing magical about her; she is simply patient and strong, and the natural ally of those with the least social power. Traditionally, that means children and women, but of course it also means the poor and sick and all those whose natural suffering is compounded by an uncaring and unjust system. The stories about her are not only about providing comfort; she is seen as a fierce protector, too. She can rescue those who are imperiled, and, if there are demons, Quan Yin is capable of scaring them away. My favorite detail about Quan Yin is that she rejected the chance to leave this earth. Because of her enlightened state, she was offered a chance to move to the next life, but she refused, because it seemed wrong to go be blissful as long as there were still people she might help. She chose to stay in the dirt with suffering humanity rather than be deified. And so there is no ritual or dogma associated with Quan Yin – no prayers or actions or anything. But people who sit with her naturally become nicer, more compassionate, gentle and loving. She cultivates a sense of service. A previous minister of this congregation once wrote of the church here as an old gray ghost, rising on a knoll above the square. He was talking about the building that was torn down decades ago, which once stood where the bank is now. At the time, the building was virtually empty, and in a state of disrepair, and it was a sorry thing. Nevertheless, the description feels positive to me. It gave me this image of the church as a figure; a soft and shapeless woman, hovering about like fog, with ample room for all under her warm and fuzzy cloak. And she will not go away, no matter what. This is the ground she haunts. I think of Quan Yin as a little mini version of the church itself; a presence that abides; whose hands are empty because everything has been poured out into the world, and is in us – ready.
There is a line in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus, after healing many different people says, “Foxes have dens, and the birds of the air have nests, but the child of man has nowhere to lay his head.” He was exhausted, but could not find anyplace to be. He was either surrounded by people who clutched desperately at him with impossible demands, or he was being demonized and chased away by people who were afraid of him and his powers. How and why do we have a world in which it can be so hard to find rest; a safe place to lay our heads, let alone our burdens? The animals can find their burrows and nests, but what does the natural order of things provide for human children? We are dependent upon each other, but we do not always give freely. We are fearful, or judgmental, or blind. We can become pawns in someone else’s script without even realizing it. When Jesus was born, no one would offer his parents shelter. They were strangers there; traveling purely to register with the census, and no one wanted them. They seemed irresponsible and out of place, and there was no room for them in any of the inns of Bethlehem. So Jesus was born out back, in the stables, among the animals, and laid in the feeding trough.
Perhaps you have heard the old story about the Christmas pageant during which this story came out all wrong. When the church school director asked who wanted to be in the pageant, a boy named Wallace, who was slow in school and not good at sports, who was big for a third grader – Wallace volunteered. He wanted to be a shepherd, guiding the animals and then being drawn in by the light above the stable. Instead, the director asked him to be the innkeeper. She thought that it would be good because he was big, and a bit loud, so when he turned the family away and said No, it would feel authentic. She also thought it was a good way of keeping Wallace away from the other kids. Three shepherds who were all friends would have more fun. Everything went along, and then it came time for the performance. Joseph and Mary slowly labored up to the inn, and knocked on the door. When Wallace opened it, he stared, and Joseph asked for a room.
“No,” said the innkeeper. “We are full. You will have to travel on.”
“But we can’t,” said Joseph. “This is my wife, Mary, and you can see she is great with child.”
The innkeeper looked at Mary, and he looked at Joseph, but he didn’t say anything. Soon the children playing Joseph and Mary were staring at Wallace, waiting for him to say his lines. The director started whispering, loudly, feeding Wallace his lines: There is no room.
But the innkeeper didn’t speak, and finally Mary and Joseph just started to leave anyway, as if he had banished them. And that’s when Wallace found his voice, and solved the problem. “Wait!” he said. “Don’t go! You can have my room.”
Of course, none of the actors knew quite what to do, now that they were off script, and so the pageant ending was a bit odd, and there were people who believed it was ruined. Probably the parents of all the kids who had yet to appear as angels or shepherds or animals or wise men were none too happy. But is the point for Jesus to be born in the stable, or for something to be born in all of us that lets us offer ourselves to one another?
I went searching to see where exactly this alternative version of the nativity came from. The answer is, the Baptist Herald of Dec. 15, 1968. Interesting timing. The previous winter had been filled with unrest at major universities, like Howard and Columbia. On February 11, the black sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike. They were protesting the law that forced them to sit in the back with the garbage when it rained, while white workers could seek shelter in the cab of the truck. Ten days earlier, two men had been crushed to death by the compressors, and their broken bodies had to be retrieved from the trash. The strike went on for over two months, and the racism of the mayor only intensified the problems. One week after Martin Luther King was killed while in Memphis to support the strikers, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. And the next week, the Memphis sanitation workers were finally able to join the union, and get the wages and the safety protections that their white colleagues had. It wasn’t a change of direction so much as a giant pause that let us all know that things were going to proceed differently than they had in the past. The narrative does not have to go the same way.
One of the ancient models for Quan Yin was Persephone; the sacrificial daughter who went with Hades to the underworld for six months of the year, so that we could have a green earth in the spring; and we can see the same themes in the story of Jesus. Echol Cole and Robert Walker, the men who died in the garbage truck in Memphis did not choose to lay down their lives for others, but that is, in fact, what they did.
Our tradition encourages us to believe not in one savior for all, but in the potential of every single person to make this world into a beloved community. We believe in everyone. That means nothing is separate from us; not poverty, or injustice, or the people that our society teaches us to be afraid of; to pretend are not there. When a baby is abandoned or neglected, we see it for what it is – a vulnerable creature needing care and nurture. How old does that baby need to be before we suddenly become blind to those needs? At what point do we feel fear instead of compassion?
Sometimes my children say that the world is an awful place. They are hyper aware of all the ways in which we fall short. And it is true that these stories of lives being sacrificed are still being played out. We don’t even have to look to find them – and it hurts. Yet confronting this means things can change. Seeing what is wrong withdraws its power over us. We do not need to live in dread or fear. We can leave the script behind. That’s what our children are doing. And to them belongs the kingdom of heaven — right here; beauty amidst the dirt of our world.
Closing Words from the Diary of Anne Frank
I’ve found that there is always some beauty left — in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can help you. Look at these things, then find yourself again, and God, and then you regain your balance. And whoever is happy will make others happy too.
Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!