Hope in Hollywood

SSteSlide1Recently I visited St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hollywood, a parish located just a stone’s throw from Sunset Boulevard that had once been the church of Cecil B. DeMille and other silver screen movers and shakers. In its heyday it was the place where people came to be seen. Since then and through much of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the church along with that particular neighborhood in Hollywood had been in terminal decline. The numbers and the energy had dwindled to the point that when the current priest arrived right at the end of the last century, on his first Sunday only seven people showed up for worship, and that was a good day! The place was run down. It was dark and dangerous at night and all manner of illegal activities were happening on and next to church grounds.

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17 years later, St. Stephen’s has housed multiple partnership ministries that has included a theater company, a fine arts preschool, an urban intern program, and a small urban farm project. In the sanctuary there is Jazz on Sundays for the morning worship and boxing classes on Tuesdays. It’s a story and a half of transformation to be sure, but all of this started with one particular ministry known as Hope in Hollywood which taught at risk youth to breakdance.

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As hip and innovative as the new priest was when he first arrived 17 years back, he was still running a church, and for most youth in Los Angeles choosing between a night out with their gang friends and going to church, the church is going to lose, every time. Yet something changed when the rector of the parish learned of a non-profit based out of Texas who wanted a Los Angeles base to get kids out of street gangs and back on track with their lives through the medium of breakdancing. At first it was slow, but as the youth workers went out onto the streets letting the youth know that there was a place they could learn to breakdance, really well, plus spray their graffiti art on three specially erected walls week after week, youth who would otherwise have never set foot on the grounds of a church began to show up, in their three’s, and their four’s, until they came on Saturday nights in their hundreds. They came, I believe, for one particular reason: in Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hollywood, they had found a place where the gift that they had to share – in this case breakdancing – was welcomed to be shared; a place where all of them could be met and accepted; a place where they could start to come home, to themselves.

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My experience at St. Stephen’s, bearing witness to the extraordinary work of transformation that has happened there both to the community as a whole and to the individuals we met there gifted me inspiration to look at my own church community also as a space where people might come home. Just this week, a regular at our Thursday morning breakfasts for the hungry and homeless shared with me what it meant to have our church in his life. He said, ‘this is the place that I come to break me out of complete isolation. If I didn’t have here, I would be lost to myself’. Later that day it rained pretty hard, which in southern California practically solicits a general outbreak of panic and mayhem, unless of course you are three. I saw one such three year old, a preschooler here at St. Andrew’s, that rainy lunch time, come right up to the down spout that drops a good 60 feet to the ground creating a splash zone that Sea World would be proud of. She was wearing rain boots and a waterproof jacket and stamping in the water as it splashed up into her face. I thought to myself, this is the place where she comes to play – this preschool and this sanctuary, where children sing loud songs and together we share the wild and wonderful tales of our faith. This too is a place where she can come home.

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These lessons of hope, from Hollywood to Pacific Beach are reminders for me that the business of the church, perhaps more than anything, is to be a witness to and a catalyst for transformation, the transformation that takes place when each of us recognizes how it is that our home is found in God’s grace. With so much talk these days about the decline of organized religion, it seems to me that there is still plenty of hope around, weaving in and out of our lives with the same tenacity and tenderness with which the Holy Spirit first breathed life back into the broken body of Jesus, our Lord. This is the season of new life. Let us trust in that. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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Sharing the Gift

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What gifts do you share?

For Dagmar Nordberg, the gift she chose to share was the gift of hospitality and simple human kindness. Dagmar is a museum director, in the southern Swedish town of Ronneby, a picturesque place of about 12,000 people. It has cobbled streets and a bucolic river which flows gently by the farmer’s market which meets weekly on its banks. Sweden, as you may well know, is ranked to have the freest press in the world, its parents are entitled to up to 480 days paid leave when a baby is born or adopted, and it has the some of the best rates of life expectancy, and educational achievement on the planet. Roneby, Sweden, you could say, is quite literally, a pretty nice place to live.

Waliullah Hafiz, or Wali for short, also lives in Roneby, but he is not from there. Wali is from Kabul, Afghanistan. Kabul has endured war of one variety or another for four decades. Its buildings bear the scars of its most recent persecution at the hands of the Taliban; its people bear them too, including Wali. Wali worked as a fuel transporter for the army, but fled Kabul when the Taliban beat him into a coma because he refused to help them smuggle gas bottles out of an Afghan army base which the Taliban planned to make into bombs.

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Leaving Afghanistan to save his life, his journey as a refugee took him all the way north to Sweden, and eventually to a train platform in Ronneby, when on one bitterly cold Scandinavian winter’s morning, Dagmar Nordberg wandered by a man standing there in T-shirt, jeans and cotton shoes. As she passed him, she said, ‘It’s winter’, almost in protest at the barely dressed stranger. Wali simply replied, ‘I know, M’am’.

It was his politeness that made Dagmar stop, and as she looked at him she knew that something was about to happen, in her. An epiphany of sorts. She recalls that in that moment of decision she realized that he was a lost refugee and that she could either go on with her life, or help him. Something did change. Dagmar took Wali in. Several months later Wali is now learning English, and the Swedish Government is helping him serve an apprenticeship as a forester. The final step will be to re-unite Wali with his family by bringing them to Sweden. I once was lost, but now am found. The simple gifts of hospitality and human kindness were shared and two people from vastly  different parts of the world met and in that meeting everything changed: hope was risen from the dead.

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Not all of us will get to change a life like Dagmar Nordberg did, but all of us get to share our gifts. As Martin Luther King Jnr. famously said, ‘Anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace [and] a soul generated by love.’ Any one of us can give, any one of us can work to meet the needs of others, and our world needs those individual acts of love and compassion, of sacrifice and service, to go on, town by town, street by street, life by life.

The church has a word for the kind of service extended to a complete stranger that happened on that platform in Ronneby, Sweden. It is called grace; the opportunity one person offers to another to start again. Easter is the season of God’s generosity, of God’s grace. It is the season of our hope. May we each take that gift and share it.

On Rocks, and the Movement of God

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This past week my family and I had the opportunity to take a short camping/glamping vacation to Death Valley National Park. Camping because we did bring a tent with us. Glamping because my in-laws also brought a motor home, and so life was not all that rough. Perhaps in something of a response to the less rigorous nature of this particular trip, my wife and I took it in turns to sleep outside in sleeping bags, under the star-lit sky with a couple of our kids. Aside from the odd rustle in the bushes and a middle of the night coyote chorus, the tranquility and stillness of the night sky out there was magnificent. The enormity of the cosmos and the particularity of our own tiny corner of it came sharply into focus. I lay there, as my two boys dozed off, gazing heavenwards, wondering how others before, for years gone by, had done exactly the same – searching the firmament for all the ‘beyondness’ my eyes could take in.

The Race Track, Death Valley, CA

Death Valley is the lowest place in North America and holds the record for the hottest ever recorded temperature in the western hemisphere. Its stark beauty is offset by a vibrant palette of color as geological landforms meld into one another. Although we were a couple of weeks too late to see the full extent of this year’s super-bloom, there were flowers a-plenty on some stretches of land along the roads and walkways. Yet the phenomenon in the park that fascinated me most was one that we did not manage to see, only hear about: the Racetrack. The Racetrack is a playa – a dry lakebed -which aside from its barren beauty is best-known for large rocks strewn across the cracked earth whose movement although not visible is attested to by the tracks that form behind them. As a theologian, the most wondrous element of the racetrack phenomenon for me is its mystery. Although some research has argued that a rare combination of rain and wind conditions enable the rocks to move, there is not consensus among scientists and other students of the park as to why the movements occur.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896Today marks the day when another strange movement took place in the midst of God’s creation, this time in the annunciation to a young Jewish girl that she was bearing a child, even though she was still a virgin. Mary’s perplexed question, “How can this be?” has been the question posed by many who see the Virgin birth as yet another instance of Christianity’s loose relationship with probable historical events. The resurrection of Mary’s son, Jesus, from the dead, the parting of the Red Sea, and the other miraculous actions of God through the course of salvation history are seen by some as testaments to the incredulity of having faith in the God who favored Mary, whilst for others they are like rocks that move imperceptibly across a valley floor: mysteries we believe without seeing for ourselves.

gettyimages-518439034_wide-0de40a0166a3314bffc65ea4b2698ff37010f52e-s900-c85Given this gap – indeed this sometimes chasm between those who would trust in the promises of an unseen God and those who can no longer or never could to start with believe in the goodness of a creator in a world of such suffering and pain – what should be made of Mary and the promise made to her that of her son’s kingdom ‘there will be no end’? For the Christians and others in Palmyra, Syria, who suffered in recent months, reportedly with great brutality at the hands of ISIS fighters, the kingdom of the Prince of Peace must have seemed a far off country. Like rocks slowly drifting across ancient valley floors, like Mary’s gift of pure grace, the ancient ruins of Palmyra offer us today a memory, a glimpse of our forebears and how they sought to make meaning in their own place and time. Some archeologists now claim that this world heritage site is no longer to be persevered for the sake of our appreciation of antiquity alone but also because it bears witness to the shedding of innocent blood. It is at once a relic and a living tomb. For the sake of those who died, for the sake of those Mary’s in our world today who take on responsibilities to care for children while they are still young, and for the sake of all people who would dare to believe in a world where peace not terror reigns, we must cling on to the belief that we are not left to our own devises to make what we will of this world. We must remain steadfast that in the end it is the conception of life not the deception of fear and death that drives the human spirit, that allows us to see the Spirit of the holy one at work even when that work is barely visible. May we too know Mary’s grace.