At Our Church, We…

giant slayers

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 10, 2018.

John 5:1-9, Psalm 98

Just over a year ago, a panicked young mother, Julissa, called her pastor, AJ Johnson, from the Saint Francis Hospital Emergency Room. Through tears she explained that her infant daughter had been bitten by mice as she slept in their apartment in the Clay Arsenal neighborhood of Hartford. As if the horror of mice biting her baby wasn’t overwhelming enough, the Department of Children and Families had been called and was now refusing to release her baby to return home with her. Pastor AJ arrived within minutes, and so begins a most remarkable, disturbing, and ultimately inspiring story.

In addition to leading the Urban Hope Refuge Church in Hartford’s North End, Pastor AJ is a neighborhood organizer on the staff of the Christian Activities Council, a Hartford faith-based social justice organization. As he inquired more about the circumstances that led to Julissa’s emergency room visit, he learned that the Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments (CARA) where she lived had an uncontrolled infestation of mice living within its walls, beyond the reach of tenants’ traps or poison. In addition to mice and rats, the 300-plus tenants of these CARA apartments dealt with leaks, water damage and mold, broken windows, and no heat; and despite being cited more than 2,300 times for violations, the landlord Emmanuel Ku, failed to remedy these deplorable, inhumane conditions.

Pastor AJ and the Christian Activities Council began to organize the CARA tenants in what would become a year-long effort to hold Ku accountable for providing safe housing. Community organizing campaigns like this one depend on the leadership of the tenants. The Christian Activities Council remains in the background, training, equipping, and supporting the tenants to do the necessary research, meet with public officials, and publicize their cause. The tenants soon learned that Ku is one of the most notorious slumlords in America. Every year he received over a million dollars in subsidies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and 260,000 dollars in tax abatement from the City of Hartford.

Holding Ku accountable would require holding HUD and the city accountable. Mayor Bronin of Hartford quickly agreed to support the tenants; not surprisingly, HUD moved more slowly. But on May 31st, HUD notified Ku that they would be removing his subsidy, effectively ending his management of the CARA apartments. Tenants will now be given a voucher from HUD to relocate, and the Christian Activities Council is working with them to make sure they secure appropriate housing.

In the words of Psalm 98:

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.

Just a year after a young mother’s desperate phone call, she and her fellow tenants came together to stand up to forces of evil and achieve justice for themselves. This is the promise of community organizing.

First Church has had a number of meaningful connections to this campaign, most significantly through our intern, Anastasia, who has been working on the front lines with the Christian Activities Council since September. And I have been meeting with a group of over 40 Hartford Area clergy organized by the Christian Activities Council to provide a faith-based witness for righteousness and justice. In May, I had the privilege of sitting in on a large meeting between all the players. The city was represented by Mayor Bronin and the Fire Chief; HUD executives in Boston appeared via a large video screen; Emmanuel Ku’s people were at the table, CARA tenants set the tone for the meeting; and a couple dozen of us clergy sat in rows along one wall, now that I think of it, like a kind of holy jury. I was deeply moved by the skill, strength and resolve of the tenant leadership of that meeting.

First Church has now formed a Core Team of six volunteers that will develop relationships within our church to inform future organizing efforts. Ten of us from First Church were present at an organizing training on Tuesday evening, when the tenant leaders of the CARA apartments were invited to come forward. The room, over a hundred representatives of some thirty-five churches, erupted in a spontaneous and raucous standing ovation for this remarkable, if unlikely, group of giant slayers.

From our psalm, The Lord has made known her victory; she has revealed her vindication in the sight of all people.

With the time I have left I want to address a couple questions.

First, is it consistent with our faith for churches like ours to participate in community organizing efforts like the one in support of the Clay Arsenal tenants?

And, if this is indeed the work of the church, where do each of us find ourselves in stories like this?

In the story I shared from the Gospel of John, a crowd of people with various disabilities gathers at the edge of a pool of healing water. From time to time the water is agitated, activating its healing properties, and those waiting to be healed clamor to be the first into the water. The King James Version of the Bible describes this scene more colorfully. “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”

It seems that some people were closer to the edge of the pool than others, some may have been less debilitated than the man Jesus is talking to, and others may have had someone to help them down into the water. But this man who has been ill for thirty-eight years can never reach the pool in time to be healed. Others have more access, ability and resources. Jesus instructs this man, stand up, take your mat and walk. And the man stands up and walks!

Likewise, by themselves, the tenants of CARA did not have the access, ability, or resources necessary to remedy their situation. Like Jesus, the Christian Activities Council prepared and supported the tenants to stand up and walk on their own.

The psalm continues, God has remembered her steadfast love and faithfulness to her children. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Yes, this equipping and enabling of those without access and means is work we are called to as the body of Christ, the church.

Though this work of organizing for justice and equity is clearly the work of the church, as a pastor I know well that not every individual feels called to such ministries. So, where might you fit in to stories like the one about the CARA residents’ victory over Emmanuel Ku?

Well, this is choir Sunday, and Psalm 98 instructs us, Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

I think our music ministry provides a perfect model for ways we might all claim our place in the social justice “choir.”

At First Church, those who feel called and have a gift for music are invited to sing in one of our choirs. But not everyone feels so called, and not everyone has been so gifted. But the music ministry of this church, with all its choirs and musicians, clearly inspires us all and enriches our faith. And called or not, and gifted or not, each of us is regularly invited to participate in the music of the church through the singing of hymns in worship. And though we might not like every hymn sung or piece of music performed, I think we would all agree that we have an extraordinary music ministry here at First Church, especially unique and successful in my mind, because of the diverse music Mark Mercier brings to us. I would like to think that all of us, whether or not we sing or play an instrument, claim the music ministry as our own, “At our church, we have the most amazing music ministry!”

In fact, I would like to think we could come up with a whole string of “At our church, we…” statements. At our church, we have an extraordinary youth group. At our church we have a great church school. And that each of us feels empowered and equipped to tell stories about these, our ministries.

Like the music ministry, those who are gifted or called are invited to enter into particular roles in our fledgling community organizing ministry. You might attend a training to be a member of the Core Team. Or you might agree to host a house meeting in the fall. Or down the road, you might fill a specific need in a particular campaign. But whether or not you participate at this level, like the music ministry, this organizing ministry will inspire us all and enrich our faith. And called or not, gifted or not, there will be opportunities for everyone to participate. Instead of Sunday morning worship, you will be invited to attend gatherings called actions in support of particular issues. Instead of hymns to sing, you will be given stories to tell. And I would like to think that all of us will become comfortable saying, “At our church, we have a thriving community organizing ministry. Let me tell you the story of Julissa and how, with Pastor AJ, she sparked a campaign that brought down one of the most notorious slum lords in the United States! Yes, at our church, we stood alongside the tenants as witnesses to righteousness and equity!”

Tell these stories, and…

Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.

Let the floods clap their hands;

let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord,

for God is coming to judge the earth.

And God will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

 

 

 

 

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