“The Welcome Mat, Part Two”
A sermon delivered at First Parish Dorchester November 12, 2017 by Rev. Tricia Brennan
Two stories, both coming from the 1980’s and centered in Central American solidarity work of that time.
Dorothy Granada is one of the people featured in the the book Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar.
This recently released book looks at a number of extreme do-gooders, people who devote themselves wholly to helping others.
In the early 1980’s Dorothy heard of a woman’s cooperative
in a small Nicaraguan village called Mulukuku
that was looking for a nurse to establish a health clinic.
Though the war between the Sandinistas and the Contras
was officially over then, there were still ex-soldiers everywhere,
cut loose and without any money, carrying guns,
kidnapping people for ransom.
So it was dangerous, and the village was having a hard time
finding someone willing to come there and work.
It sounded just like what Dorothy, a nurse,
was looking for so she and her husband moved there,
built their simply home, and with others in the village,
built the health clinic.
It became much used, some days 100 people were waiting
outside the door when it opened.
From the start Dorothy said that the clinic must treat everyone-
Contras as well as Sandinista’s.
Many of the villagers had lost family members
to the fighting with the Contras, and disagreed with Dorothy.
But she said she would leave if they refused to treat everyone,
so the community relented.
For Dorothy this was about fairness- a sick person was a sick person, and she was a nurse.
And it was strategic- if Contras were treated at the clinic
maybe they wouldn’t try to destroy the clinic or the town.
She proved right on that score.
One afternoon at the clinic suddenly everyone waiting disappeared, left. She knew why when her next patient came in-
he was a man with a hard cold face,
the kind of face that would scare you for its utter emptiness.
She learned later that the man had done terrible things
around the village, including killing children.
He had come to the clinic because of severe pain
from a bullet lodged in his head.
Dorothy gave him something for his pain,
and drove him to Matagalpa to see a neurologist.
After that, the man brought his wife, and children,
and eventually his mother.
Sometime later this same man heard of a group of Contras
in the mountains who were planning to attack the clinic-
death threats to the clinic were not uncommon
because they were associated with the Sandanistas.
The man with the cruel face told them
not to kill the clinic workers because they helped Contra families,
and the killers did not come.
John Fife is the retired pastor of the Southside Presbyterian Church
in Tuscon Arizona. Both church and pastor were leaders
in the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980’s,
which organized over 500 churches
to help thousands of Central American refugees
fleeing death squads in their home countries
cross the border and find sanctuary in the US and Canada,
in defiance of federal law.
Much like the Underground Railroad that assisted enslaved people
to freedom, the Sanctuary movement transported refugees
from one safe house, or more often safe church, to another,
often in vans driven by volunteers.
A level of secrecy was necessary, to preserve the identities
of those fleeing, and those offering shelter and assisting the refugees. There were many FBI agents who had infiltrated the movement, seeking to gather information to halt the work
and prosecute both those fleeing danger and those helping them.
John Fife said that he and other leaders
knew there were FBI informants in the group,
but they chose not to spend a lot of energy scrutinizing
those who joined the effort.
“You want to help, here’s what you can do”
was the message every volunteer heard.
Now the leaders were careful with sensitive information for sure,
but neither did they get caught up in suspicion.
The starting point of their work together was trust, not mistrust.
The motivation was to provide sanctuary- safe harbor-
and all were welcome to join in.
It is known now that many undercover agents or informants
drove the vans that brought fleeing people from one place to another, and that informants were present
through all the years of the Sanctuary movement.
But their impact was minimal.
Many they weren’t all that good at their work,
maybe their hearts and minds were opened
by close contact with those in need- who knows?
But John Fife says and I like to think he was right-
that the choice to not get all caught up in suspicion
and distracted by speculation on people’s motives
may have been a reason the Sanctuary work of that time
was so successful. It is easy enough for movement
based on trust to devolve into mistrust and the leaders knew that.
The mission of radical welcome was so strong and vital
that it permeated all aspects of the work.
What do I take from those two stories-
from the first, that true security is found in our relationships,
in being known and knowing others.
From the second, that when a people or an institution or a movement maintain a vital spirit of welcome, they are spiritually invincible.
I learned recently that an online interfaith institute
is offering a course called Active Shooter Situations in Churches
for free for the next two months.
Not quite the sort of coursework I went into ministry to learn.
And we know why this course is being offered.
Some of us here will remember the shock years ago of hearing
that a funeral at the Morning Star Baptist church in Mattapan
had been halted by a stabbing and shooting into the sanctuary
where 300 people where gathered to mourn a young man’s death.
It seemed impossible that a church would be violated in this way,
and funeral even more so. That was 1992.
And in the past 25 years, and the last 5 or 6 in particular,
the unthinkable has happened time and again,
most recently, last Sunday in Sutherland Springs Texas
where 26 people were slaughtered.
It does boggle the mind and hurt the heart.
We may be stunned, and we may be sickened,
but there are two things I think we cannot be.
The first is we cannot be numb.
We cannot become accustomed to this gun violence.
We cannot slip into thinking this is the new normal. It is not normal.
It is not normal to have online courses
to address an active shooter situation in a church.
It is not normal for our country to own 42% of the world’s guns,
when we are less than 5% of the world’s population.
With the 5th anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting
on the horizon, we must say that it is not normal
for a country to allow conditions to exist
where its own children are killed by guns
Not normal. Not okay.
There is a time and place for anger,
and there is such a thing as holy anger.
When people who shouldn’t be allowed to have guns
are able to get them,
and when our country leaders are not courageous enough
to institute gun control laws,
then we ought to feel angry, and we ought to express that anger.
To numb out, to accept the unacceptable as the way things are now,
is a failure of love and imagination, and we can do better than that.
The other thing we can not be is unwelcoming.
Our safety is not increased when we put up walls or hunker down
in our enclaves with people we know already
or who remind us of ourselves.
Rather true security is found in our connections to others,
and our vitality is strengthened by our openness
to whomever enters our lives.
Now-I am not saying that it would not be a good thing
to have a safety plan in place case of a dangerous situation,
and likewise, I think it would be very wise to beef up
fire safety and medical emergency procedures here at First Parish.
Like Pastor John Fife from the Tucson,
we can be smart and retain a spirit of welcome
at the center of all we do and all we are.
And that is in fact a hallmark of this congregation-
from the warm welcome at the door,
to the willingness to open the building to many groups
for free or very reasonable rents,
from the BLM banner hung on the fence,
to support of contemporary sanctuary movement,
a spirit of welcome is alive is here.
And that is such a strength of this place,
and so vitally important here and now.
The other day I ran into someone at the movies
and we looked familiar to each other.
We knew we shared something positive in common
and then we figured it out- it was this place, First Parish.
She isn’t a member, but was someone who had come in
for an event here, and we had spoken.
Our shared connection to this place was a warm spot between us.
I bet that sort of thing happens to many of you too.
I think there must be thousands of strands of connection
between this old church and the people of this community.
I imagine them as strands of rainbow-colored silk,
unseen but real, radiating out from this hilltop,
bringing life and strength, and yes, security to this place.
Those silken strands exist because of the welcome mat is for real here.
“No, I was not busy when you came”, the poet wrote,
“no, I was not preparing to be busy.”
We are busy here.
There is lots to do, lots that needs to be done,
lots that calls this congregation to action,
lots of ways to show up and love one another
and love and heal the world.
And we are often very busy in our lives outside First Parish, true.
But I think we can be busy and not busy too.
We can embody a spirit of deep and wide welcome
by simply noticing one another and being curious about who we all are- long time members, long time friends, new comers, first time visitors, the children, the teens, the staff, those who use the space,
those who share the hill with us.
The welcome starts within us, and can extend out to so many.
I find, as an often busy person,
that just a slight shift in my awareness can move me
from a pre-occupied person all caught up in what I need to get done,
to one whose field of awareness, we could say field of welcome, includes those who those who grace my life with their presence.
Busy, and yet not busy, busy and yet not preparing to be busy,
not overtaken by my to-do list-
when I can achieve that balance not only am I more welcoming,
I am a far more happier person.
I am grateful to Neal Snow for selecting the Welcome Mat again
as his choice in the “you choose the sermon topic”
silent auction item that he won for the second time
at last Spring’s Gala.
A congregation on top of Meeting House hill
that stands for and demonstrates an indisputable welcome,
filled with people who try to live that spirit of welcome in their lives,
is just what our world needs right now so very much.
As we breathe in, may each of us know ourselves
as worthy and welcome,
as we breathe out, may we extend welcome to all those
we will meet today, and all those with whom we share life.
Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremism, by Larissa MacFarquhar. Penguin Press: New York. 2015
Information on Rev. John Fife and the work of the Sanctuary Movement in Tucson, Arizona came via a conversation with my daughter Nora Collins who worked on immigrant and border issues in Tucson earlier in 2017.
Information on guns in the US comes from an article published in the newsletter The Interpreter, November 7, 2017 and reprinted in the New York Times in November 8, 2017
Poetry quoted is from The Red Brocade by Naomi Shihab Nye