A friend gave me this ornament last year. I told her then that it was perfect as I begin my nightly prayers praying for peace.
It is ever more perfect this year.
I am praying for peace in this war-torn and war-weary world.
I pray for the Ukraine - that the Russians pack up their missiles and bombs and drive their tanks home. I pray that healing can begin, that the things which can be rebuilt will be, and those forever lost - mourned. I pray that the Ukraine will once again bloom with sunflowers.
I pray for Israel and Gaza - that somehow they will be released from their generations-old cycle of vengeance and violence. I am not naive - I know this is a complex history and much harm has been done on both sides, by both sides. But I pray that somehow they can come to see what they share rather than what separates them. Abraham, father of all the monotheistic religions is patriarch to both Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians. Could we begin there? Could we imagine a Palestine and an Israel seeing each other as images of one another, of God, rather than as enemies to be brutalized and killed?
The Book of Common Prayer has a prayer for the aged.
Look with mercy, O God our Father, on all whose increasing years bring them weakness, distress, or isolation. Provide for them homes of dignity and peace; give them understanding helpers, and the willingness to accept help; and, as their strength diminishes, increase their faith and their assurance of your love. This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A lovely prayer, but providing proper care for aging adults requires more than the power of prayer. It requires work.
It takes the kind of work being done by the staff and trained volunteers at Senior Connections: The Capital Area Agency on Aging, a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower older adults to live with dignity, to choose where they live, to receive proper medical care, to be fed nourishing meals, to spend time socializing with others.
Serving eight localities -- Richmond and seven surrounding counties -- the agency offers 20 unique services providing services for older adults and their caregivers in a variety of ways.
“For example, we provided more than 180,000 meals last year,” said Amy Strite, the agency’s executive director who oversees the day-to-day operation at its headquarters, 1300 Semmes Avenue in South Richmond.
Many services are tailored to help seniors remain in their homes. These services include:
Help with money-management and paying bills.
In-home personal care services.
Transportation to and from appointments.
Home visits for safety checks and socialization.
“Isolation is a huge problem, so opportunities to socialize is important,” said Amy. “We have Friendship Cafes in 25 neighborhoods, where seniors gather to stay connected.”
In a comment posted on the Richmond Memorial Health Foundation’s website, Amy wrote: “We are, at every age, inherently social and relational creatures. We need to see one another, talk with each other, hold hands, and laugh together. It is necessary for good health and a good life, whether we are six months old or 96 years old, and every age in between.”
This month the agency introduced a 4-year Area Plan listing programs and services to help people age successfully in the coming years, with special emphasis on older adults who have the greatest needs due to poverty, inadequate housing, or who have no family members able or willing to be caregivers.
“Aging is a justice issue,” Amy said. “How do we in our society see and treat older adults? How committed are we on a policy level to seeing that all people are able to age with dignity, to have their basic human needs met? What value do we afford those people in our society who are professional caregivers for older adults and people with disabilities? These are the questions we must ask ourselves and our communities. Too often older adults and those who care for them are forgotten and unseen. We need to change that by becoming informed advocates.”
She added: “Love God. Love neighbor, Love self. This is why I do the work I do, and why I believe it is important for all of us to advocate for a more just world.” – Steve Clark
One of the leading advocates for reforming federal and state laws relating to firearms and domestic violence is St. Mark’s parishioner Lisette Johnson, a survivor of domestic violence who nearly died of gunshot wounds 14 years ago.
In the summer of 2009, Lisette informed her husband, Marshall, she wanted a divorce. He had been verbally abusing her for too long. She could not continue to live that way. When Lisette returned home from church on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009, they met in the bedroom. She told him again she wanted a divorce.
Marshall retrieved a handgun. From a distance of about 4 feet, he shot her in the chest. Lisette ran of the room and yelled to her children – Natalie, then 12, and Graham, then 9 – to run out of the house and call 911. She escaped the house as he continued to shoot her. Marshall then shot himself. Natalie, who had entered the bedroom looking for Lisette, witnessed her father committing suicide.
Lisette was transported to VCU Medical Center Hospital and immediately taken to surgery. She was bleeding internally and surgeons had trouble finding the source of the bleeding.
“I lost 2.9 liters of blood,” she said. “They didn’t think I would make it through the night. The surgeon later told me they were praying a lot.”
By the grace of God and the surgeon’s skills, she survived. Two bullets remain in her body. One in her liver. One in the breast/chest wall.
After a long recovery period, she dedicated herself to advocating for changes in lax gun laws and to speaking on behalf of victims of domestic violence. Her first appearance on the national scene was in 2014 when then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi invited Lisette to speak at a hearing in Washington. The topic was “Domestic Violence and Guns: An Epidemic for Women and Families.”
“I was also asked to take on an advocacy role to speak for gun violence prevention at the state level,” she said. “Gun violence is a public health issue. It’s a pandemic that has to be addressed.”
Over the years she has become friends with many other victims of intimate partner gun violence. “I have a 44-year-old friend in Texas whose husband shot her in the neck. She’s a quadriplegic and has been since she was 28, raising two toddlers to adults, alone.”
Lisette has been a volunteer at Richmond’s Safe Harbor Shelter and has worked at VCU’s Injury and Violence Prevention and the YWCA, which provides numerous services for domestic violence victims, including emergency shelter.
In a 2014 article in the Chesterfield Observer newspaper, Lisette was quoted as saying that for her tragedy to make any sense, she needed to help other people. “This was my survival technique.”
What can St. Mark’s parishioners do as the issue of gun violence relates to justice and advocacy?
“Vote! Vote! Vote!” she said. “For candidates who will make guns harder to access by those who are in crisis, including those with histories of domestic violence or substance abuse.”
Contacting lawmakers in Washington and Richmond also is important.
“Maybe we should have a training session at St. Mark’s on how to contact and talk to elected officials,” she said.
We are called to be the neighbor we are meant to be
Jeanine Maruca smiled as she recalled a moment in her childhood. “I spoke at my kindergarten graduation and said I wanted to be a nurse to help sick people,” she said.
Jeanine did not become a nurse, but helping people has been the touchstone of her life since earning a master’s degree in social work at Virginia Commonwealth University. Early on in her career she played a key role in creating CARITAS and finding transitional housing for Richmond’s homeless.
For the past two decades she has been the executive director of Greater Richmond SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now), a charitable organization whose mission is to prevent and treat child abuse and neglect in a number of Central Virginia localities.
She has been widely recognized and applauded. In 2019 she was named a VCU Alumni Star by the university’s School of Social Work. One letter nominating her for the award noted: “Jeanine is a healer, a connector, and above all, a doer.”
Jeanine became SCAN’s executive director in 2009 when it merged with an organization providing court-appointed advocates for children and families caught up in the legal system. Under her leadership SCAN has grown from one program to five family-support programs at six locations.
“We even started a preschool for children ages 3 to 6, the only one of its kind in Virginia,” she said during an interview in SCAN’s office on East Grace St. in downtown Richmond. The office is in the Winston House, an historic brick house built as a private residence in 1873-74.
Located in Manchester, the Circle Preschool Program offers traditional early educational experience and nurturing support for children who have been abused or neglected. Some of the children have witnessed a traumatic event, including murder or wounding by gunfire. The goal is to prepare the children to move on to mainstream classrooms and be successful.
The root causes of child abuse are many, including poverty, homelessness, lack of education, injustices in the legal system and political policies adversely affecting the lives of many people. SCAN is working to expose those root causes and change them. “We devote a lot of human capital by trying to change the economic, social and political systems in our community that cause children to be mistreated,” she said.
Referring to the Justice and Advocacy Ministry, she added: “That’s what St. Mark’s is trying to do. We are called to be the neighbor we are meant to be.”
SCAN’s work relies on a large number of volunteers and Jeanine would welcome fellow St. Mark’s members. “I would love to have anyone walk up to me at church and ask about volunteering.” --- Steve Clark
Two weeks ago a note was in the church mailbox late on a Thursday afternoon. Steve apologized when he gave it to me, but he had to.
It was a suicide note. From someone I’ll call Angie who identifies as a 27-year-old trans woman.
I read it. I wept. I prayed. And I hoped.
I hoped Angie is not the young person I’ve seen in the last few months occasionally sleeping or reading in the garden. I hoped Angie is not the one who's bedding always lay against a mirror so if startled they could readily see if anyone was behind them. I hoped Angie is not the one who never returned my gaze - staring fixedly ahead. I hope Angie isn’t the same young person who for the first time on the Wendesday morning before we found the note had returned my “Good Morning,” with a “Good Morning.”
I hope it isn’t Angie.
It should. And more importantly it breaks God’s heart. As Rev. Dorothy White often reminded us, “Oh that our heart would break with the things that break the heart of God.” Angie’s pain breaks the heart of God.
No life goes unrecognized by God. God who I am beginning to regard as the “original they/them” (thank you Facebook) loves us all – no exceptions. To be so separated by our lived experience from this love is a tragedy. Angie, I grieve for you and pray this isn’t you. But Angie - whomever you are - I know that you are loved and held and treasured in the arms of God. I hope you come to know that, too.
Gender equity is some of what our Justice & Advocacy Team is working on, and you will be hearing more about in the late summer and fall. You will be invited into the discussion about how we can work and advocate to provide a different outcome for those who have found only rejection and pain, and feel so lost and separated from love and nurture that they decide to take their life.
So, after we weep and pray let us get up and get loud – stand up against the hate that is so rampant in our world, the othering and the dehumanizing that damages and destroys lives. While we may never know who Angie is – we know that their story is not unique. Transgender people experience discrimination, abuse, violence, and harm at rates far higher than other groups.
Something brought this hurting human, this child of God to our door. Their note was found in our mailbox. I don’t think this was random. There are plenty of other churches on our street, but Angie’s note was placed in our door. Something must have made Angie believe we would hear them. And we do.
We are called to respect the dignity of every human being. We are called to practice and model God’s love in a world that mocks us for doing so. What the world needs now is love – that daring and transforming love which produces growth and change. Let us pick up the pieces of our broken hearts and be the love of God in a hurting world.
PS: I saw our young person last week, got another “Good Morning.”
It’s a start - I hope.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call 988. Help is free and confidential, available 24 hours.
You can also contact NAMI: the National Alliance on Mental Health, M-F 10am – 10pm, 800-950-6264 or text Helpline to 62640.
The word love gets used a lot. I’ve commented before that English does us no favor when it unlike other major languages fails to signal different kinds of love by the word used. I can both love ice cream and love my neighbor as myself. Same word – very different emotions and emotional commitment.
I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book titled Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature. Written by Farah Jasmine Griffin there is a terrific chapter on the transformative power of love. Griffin writes: Because of my own experience of having been so deeply loved I have no difficulty believing in its transformative power. To love the least of these is to be enraged by the conditions, if not the individuals, that enslave them. That love wins out over fear. That love inspires courage in the face of near-certain defeat. That love ought to be extended to babies in cages, to those in the throes of addiction, and to all those whom others would deny dignity and respect.
Wow. That is love in all caps. This is the love Jesus speaks of when he commands us to love one another. It is active. It is transformative. Griffin quotes bell hooks about this type of love: all great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic. A love that presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well. A love ethic differs from a sentimental, overly romanticized understanding of love. It is an action, rather than a feeling. Love is a choice. Love requires us to see each other and to commit to each other’s humanity.
James Baldwin helps us in this understanding of what it is to love. Writing in The Fire Next Time he notes the watering down of what love means, I use the word love here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, a state of grace – not the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
Our Baptismal Covenant speaks to this kind of love when it calls us to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving you neighbor as yourself. Our walk of faith is in the light of this kind of love. Not easy, not about being made happy but rather about daring and growth.
I do not get to hear the sermon as preached. I am downstairs with our youngest members. But late on Sunday afternoon when I first download the recording from Zoom and then upload it to our website, I listen. This past Sunday was particularly evocative as Father Benjamin told the story of the clergy gathering when many were speaking effusively of the support and community and collegiality of the diocese. One voice offered a different story. A person of color told a very different story. One that pointed out the unequal treatment and lack of support they had experienced in the same group. It takes bravery to speak up when your story is not the story being featured and lauded and embraced. It takes courage to say my story is not the same as yours.
A few years ago, during one of our Community Reads sessions two members – both of color – were equally as brave sharing with the group that they could not bring their whole truth to church, they could not tell their full story. It was then and remains with me now the most important question/truth I have heard in many years. And I am grateful that I heard it. I am grateful that in a different setting Benjamin heard it also, and shared his experience with us from the pulpit.
It takes a love that is about daring and growth to say my story is not the same. And it takes a love that is about daring and growth to make sure there is space to hear it. Our love response has to be equal – a love that is action, that requires us to see each other, to hear each other, and to commit to each other’s humanity.