By Heidi Shott
About ten years ago a rector from a tony suburb of Boston told of a relationship his church’s youth group cultivated with a Hispanic Pentecostal youth group in a neighboring community. The city next door, once a booming New England mill town, was now struggling – poor in every way it is possible to be poor: bad schools and bad housing, high crime and high unemployment, broken windows and broken playground equipment.
After a few months of back and forth between the youth groups, the Episcopal priest invited the Hispanic pastor to have lunch with him at a restaurant downtown near his beautiful, historic church. They had great a conversation about ministry and the challenges of preaching the Gospel in the context their own communities. They talked about the teenagers in each congregation and all they were learning and sharing. Every couple of weeks, the pastor would drive over the few miles to have lunch with the priest.
One day the pastor said, “Come over to my neighborhood and I’ll introduce you to real Mexican food. There’s a great place. It’s where the people go to eat.” The priest readily agreed.
“When I pulled up - I have to be honest here - I was a little apprehensive. This was a rough neighborhood and the building looked a little dicey. No sign, guys standing on the corner looking at me—a white guy in a collar. Then the pastor pulled up behind me and I was relieved. We walked in together and had the most amazing lunch,” the priest explained.
“I told him of my apprehension and, to my surprise, he laughed hard and then got serious.”
“How do you think I feel every time I walk down your Main Street to meet you for lunch? The looks I get as a Latino man walking down the street of your fancy town. People on the sidewalk look at me, like, ‘What are YOU doing here? What are YOU going to steal?” Man, I’m afraid of going to your neighborhood. Now you know how it feels. Don’t you know that your town is scary?”
The priest told us – a clergy friend and me, there for a three-day site visit as members of the Bishop Search Committee – “that lunch opened my eyes.” He gestured out the window of his office, “How could this town ever be frightening? Well, now I know,” he paused and looked at us intently, “and now I’ll never forget.”
Last Thursday, I went out to lunch with the Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon, the Hispanic missioner in the Diocese of Maine. Our diocesan office is in downtown Portland and generally “going out to lunch” means walking around the corner to any one of a dozen restaurants.
“You want to go some place with good Mexican?” she asked.
“Okay, we’ll have to drive then. I’ll pick you up.”
I couldn’t help but think back to the conversation I’d had with the Massachusetts priest in 1997 and hope we were going some place I wouldn’t have had the nerve to go on my own. But, no, it was a normal looking restaurant next to a Thai take-out near the outskirts of the city.
Inside Virginia Marie greeted the waitress in Spanish and offered menu suggestions. While we waited for our food, we told some stories about ourselves. Even though we’ve known each other for eight years or so, my new role as Canon for Social Justice is bending the arc of our ministries much closer. It’s time to know one another better.
She told me of her next appointment. “An 80 year-old woman from Chile is here visiting her son and she broke her hip. Her visa is up this week and her son is afraid INS will deport her, so I’m meeting with him and the immigration lawyer. I didn’t think they would deport an old lady with a broken hip, but the lawyer says, these days, they might.”
By now we were in the car heading back to the diocesan office. It was raining but warm for Maine in November. “Is fear the default emotion, Virginia Marie? Is that what people feel all the time?”
“Oh yeah,” she said without hesitation. “That’s why what I do is so important. They trust me, la Reverenda.” She turned from the road to look at me, “Maine can be a scary place.”
A few days before lunch with Virginia Marie, I stopped by the Cathedral to take some photos for a brochure about a diocesan ministry called the St. Elizabeth’s Essentials Pantry.
A class of fifth graders from Falmouth were getting ready to hand out essential items to about 200 families, items that aren’t covered by food stamps: toilet paper, soap, ziplock sandwich bags filled with powdered laundry detergent, and ten packs of diapers when the pantry gets a donation. Some members of one of the rotating volunteer teams from a local Episcopal congregation were at a table with donated toys, others were organizing winter coats.
A teenage boy who comes to help because he has two study halls first thing on Tuesday mornings was writing down the language of each person waiting in line: an elderly Russian woman with her kerchief, a Sudanese mother in a colorful but unseasonable dress. I was standing against the wall taking notes when I saw a young couple stop by the toy table. “Can we have this?” they asked gesturing to a kid’s bike.
“Sure,” I said. This wasn’t my show, but I knew it was up for grabs for anyone who wanted it. “Do you want to set it aside for now.”
“Take it for Xander,” said the woman whose accent belied a dozen or more generations living along the coast of Maine. But, as they were figuring how to get the bike, one of the fifth graders behind the table demonstrated his familiarity with television game shows.
“Or you could have this instead!” he said, holding up a complete set of Legos in a self-contained box. “This is cool.” The young man’s eyes lighted up at the perfect looking set of Legos. His eyes said, ‘I just nailed Christmas morning.’
“We don’t want the bike, after all” the young man said as he reached across to take the box from the boy, who glanced back at me with happily raised eyebrows.
The boy’s town, Falmouth, is one of the wealthiest communities in Maine. I suspect it’s a scary town for most of the people milling around the Cathedral undercroft this day. But this day, this boy - and his classmates I hope - learned something about driving out fear, both his own and that of others. And the absence of fear leaves space for other things, good things, like hope.
Recently I googled Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Of course, I found it, but also a great deal more in his prescient speech titled, “Where do we go from here?” delivered in August 1967 in Atlanta. He spoke of a divine dissatisfaction:
So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a "divine dissatisfaction." Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.
Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.
Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home.
Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.
Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin.
Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Let us train our hearts and minds to be dissatisfied with fear, our own fear and especially the fear known by others who walk along beside us everyday.
Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Social Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.