Thursday, May 29, 2008

Reclaiming the Promise

The Mayor of New York might've done the honors for last week's 252nd Commencement of your narrator's alma mater... but in a keen counterpoint to Michael Bloomberg's wisdom from Wall Street and City Hall 102 miles up I-95, the Baccalaureate Address a day prior fell to the River City's most-loved ecclesiastical treasure: Sister of Mercy Mary Scullion, founder and head of Project H.O.M.E. -- the independent agency that, over two decades, has helped cut the city's homeless population in half by giving the poorest of our poor the care, confidence, skills and opportunities to have life to the full, including a home of their own.

It might not be the Big Speech on Franklin Field, but following in the footsteps of Georgetown's famed Augustinian Jim O'Donnell and the late great Jaroslav Pelikan (my beloved professor... one of the kindest, humblest, most luminous souls I've ever been blessed to know... memory eternal), suffice it to say, the Bac Talk is quite the gig to get. And in her turn at the Irvine pulpit, saying that "the promise of America is still unfulfilled, but still beckons," Scullion's master-class drew upon the twin teachings of the Good Lord and the Great Ben (Franklin -- Penn's founder) on the imperative of working toward a truly common good in our own day and on our own turf:
You are beginning a journey that is important, rewarding and complex. It will take you into a world that most often measures the value of a person by his or her productivity alone, while discarding the seemingly unproductive along the way. It is a journey into a society so mesmerized by its view of success that it considers real only that which can be seen and touched and weighed and measured, a society in which human and spiritual values have almost vanished from its consciousness.

As future leaders, you face particular challenges and tough choices. Our society has become largely a culture where even the most lofty professions are often driven by billable hours and well-financed interests. Our legal, financial, political, health and educational systems were established with high ideals: preserving basic democracy and human rights. Yet, largely through the influence of money and power, those ideals degenerate to the point that they are often used to blunt human rights and individual liberties. In the worst cases, these professions are used to promote greater inequities of power and wealth.

The mission of the University of Pennsylvania challenges you to turn the abstract theories that you have learned here into the living, breathing expressions of truth, human dignity and social justice. Your education, your intelligence, your inherent talent should not be sold to the highest bidder and as Virginia Woolf warns, “Do not commit adultery of the brain because it is a much more serious offense than the other.” But rather use your gifts for the advancement of humankind.

My experience has convinced me that the men, women and children who sleep on our city streets are a prophetic presence in our midst; they represent a profound symbol to our society, warning us that something has gone radically wrong.

You may remember the old adage about the canary. “The birds were brought into the mines in cages and hung from support beams near the miners. If the canaries began to fall dead from their perches, the miners would evacuate the mine: deadly coal gas was present. This gas was without smell or taste but it could kill and did. The canaries with their high rates of metabolism would fall before the humans. Their death was an accurate prediction of what would happen to the miners if they remained and if the gas was not pumped out of the mine and replaced with good air.”

In much the same way, homelessness is symptomatic of an advanced disease within. The men, women, and children who are homeless represent the first wave of the sweeping forces that are drastically changing our society and ultimately threatening the larger social fabric.

We need to realize that what is at stake in our response to homelessness is not just the specific circumstances of people who are homeless. It is no less than the very basic health and vitality of our entire community.

Ultimately, the issues homeless and poor people face are our issues: decent, affordable housing; quality education; employment at a livable wage; a health care system that is accessible to all; healthy communities that nurture healthy families; freedom from discrimination.

When we see a person on the street we can no longer pass by and piously say, “There but for the grace of God go I”—but rather “There go I.” As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged us: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Dr. King, speaking at the National Episcopal Cathedral in Washington DC in 1968, in one of his last sermons, offered these reflections on a famous Gospel parable of Lazarus and the rich man: “The rich man didn’t go to hell because he was rich; he didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. The rich man went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He allowed his brother to become invisible ... He sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty. And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world—and nothing is wrong with wealth—this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether American will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

Think about the world you want to live in … the world you want your children and grandchildren to live in … Is it OK with you that 40% of the teens entering 9th grade this year, will not graduate from high school in four years? Is it OK with you that people are being killed on the streets of Philadelphia in record numbers? Is it OK that our jails are the largest mental health hospitals? Is it OK that 400 to 500 hundred people live on our streets daily and are you OK with the fact that over 1,000 kids are living in city shelters tonight?

The Hebrew Bible was understood as God’s revelations of how the human community was to live. It was the vehicle whereby the community could adjudicate conflict, regulate use of resources, resolve inequities, repair harm, and restore relationships. The whole purpose of the Bible was nothing less than to bring about God’s vision of justice and shalom for the human community and show us how we could live according to God’s will and delight. A particular concern of the Hebrew Bible was to protect widows, orphans, the poor, and any other who did not have power or influence in the community and were subject to exploitation.

Jesus, contrary to much overly simplistic Christian theology, did not overthrow the law, but pointed to the ultimate purpose of the law, which was mercy, justice and compassion. Like the prophets before him, Jesus showed that the law bore God’s special concern for those who were poor, powerless, and socially marginalized. He challenged and condemned those religious authorities who wielded the law for their own aggrandizement and for social control—the very opposite of its purpose.

This past December a woman who worked in Suburban Station lost her job. She lived in a precarious housing situation and shortly after losing her job she became homeless and ended up living on the streets. She lost all of her fingers due to frostbite. After being hospitalized due to frostbite, she left the hospital for the streets in a state of trauma. She sought shelter but all she could find was a place on a couch in a woman’s safe haven. Try eating without fingers and doing the most basic self care. What started out as a serious problem of losing one job turned into a nightmare. It is hard to comprehend the suffering and the urgency that homelessness is until it happens to you or to someone you care about. We have to learn to care again about the common good as Benjamin Franklin did so well.

As I said earlier, the promise of what America can be still beckons. Part of that promise is that we become a truly just and compassionate society, where every person is treated with dignity and respect, where every person is valued and has access to affordable housing, quality education and health care, and the chance to use his or her gifts to make a decent living and contribute to society. We are still far from that promise, but like our forebears who refused to give up on this society, who struggled to end slavery, to enfranchise women, to welcome immigrants, to open up economic opportunity, to dignify labor, to extend political participation — we too will not give up. We too will actively work to fulfill America’s promise of meaningful opportunity for all. We will insist that part of the promise of America is that we commit to ending the scourge of poverty in this land of plenty. We must reclaim Franklin’s deep commitment to the common good, which is at the core of this historic university. As we say at Project HOME, none of us are home until all of us are home. Working to end homelessness and poverty is not an impulse of charity or liberal politics. It is ultimately seeking to heal ourselves and our society as a whole. As Lila Watson, an aboriginal Australian activist says, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Pursue truth, knowledge, justice and compassion. They will take you to new and unexpected places. Trust in God and in a higher power, for our prayer today for you is:

“Glory be to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Amen.
Citing her as an example of "good news" in a world that needs it, NBC News once profiled Sister Mary as "the nun who won't take 'no' for an answer"....

God love her, and all those among us who've given themselves to the service of "these least ones"... and, of course, as always, "Hurrah for the Red and the Blue" -- my debt to it is never-ending. Literally.