Thursday, August 8, 2013

Reflections from the Defendant's Chair

Today, I accompanied one of my parishioners to court for an eviction hearing. Wore full black clericals and my collar and Franciscan crucifix. Got lots of stares.

My parishioner wasn't especially upset about going to court. She wanted to be evicted -- in the dizzying world of social services, she said eviction is one of the most effective methods to bring about a move to a different part of town that isn't an emergency. She went to court today quite willing to meet her landlord's request to get out -- she just asked to stay where she was for two weeks.

For her and her three kids, two weeks would make the difference between moving straight into her new place or moving temporarily into a shelter. She wanted to spare her kids that. So did I, so I went with her.

The landlord, who eyed me somewhat nervously, seemed like a decent guy who had no problems helping my parishioner out. He simply wanted legal backing to protect himself in case she stuck around past her grace period. I can't blame him.

Sitting in court today, watching case after case go before a straight-shooting, wise-cracking judge, several things occurred to me:

First, most of the folks sitting in the defendants' chairs were black, and most of the folks in the plaintiffs' chairs were white. At least half of those white people were attorneys.

Second, it was clear from the way the cases proceeded that some of the tenants were taking advantage of their landlords. In other cases, it seemed likely the landlords were allowing their tenants to live in lousy conditions. Some landlords extended a great deal of grace. Some wanted their tenants tossed out by the city marshal asap.

Third, as I anticipated sitting beside my parishioner in a defendant's chair, it occurred to me that I didn't want to. I even felt scared and embarrassed to sit there, although neither my comfort nor my good name were at stake. Why? Because the defendant's chair had a strong aura of guilt and powerlessness. And, I didn't want to sit in a seat with no power.

Fourth, I noticed, in a different way than I ever have, that my collar gave me a weird kind of power. The landlord was intimidated by me. The judge greeted me. People stared at me. And, my parishioner assured me, my silent presence helped make it possible for her kids to avoid the homeless shelter.

So, when the case was called, I marched my pious-looking self over to the seat with no power. And I thought, "This is the seat you deserved years ago, Christina. You drove drunk so many times in the past. You deserve the worst this seat can throw at you, and sheer mercy saved you."

And then I thought about Jesus. Sitting in the defendant's seat. Sitting in the seat with no power. Taking the worst it could throw at him.

The judge greeted me. "What church are you with, Reverend?"

"Jesus' church, sir."

"Well, yes. Which one?"

"The Episcopal Church, sir."

"One of many."

"Yes, your honor."

The thing a priest can't escape is -- no matter where we go -- we represent the church. And today, I got to represent the church by sitting in the seat with no power, and that was used for good. That gives me joy and satisfaction.

But -- more than anything -- sitting in that seat today made me love Jesus more.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

"I'm scared to have God inside me"

Last Sunday as I read from Colossians, one of our Baptismal candidates (a 9-year-old boy) sidled up to Hannah and whispered that he might not get baptized that afternoon after all.

After some questions from Hannah, he admitted, "I'm scared to have God inside me."

So, he got it. Hannah explained that's not a bad thing.

On July 28, two kids died with Christ in the waters of the Hudson River, just a block and a half from Oaks Cafe, and arose to new life as children of the Father Almighty, filled with the Holy Spirit.

One of them, the boy, has been passionately drawn to the person and story of Jesus ever since I introduced them back in 2011 in Ingalls Park (see blog entry:

The other new child of God, a girl, has dozens of questions and a hunger to learn. During the Baptismal vows, in response to the question, "Do you promise to follow and obey (Jesus) as your Lord?", she smiled with a quiet peace beyond her years and said, "I promise."

Now these two young people belong forever to Jesus. But Sunday's baptisms did more than that. Here are two things we witnessed:

1. The Baptisms exposed and confronted a hatred between families.

Ironically, the family of one of the baptismal candidates has a strong dislike of the other family. Let's just say the word "dirty" was being thrown around as everyone sat down for worship. So, we bluntly told the offenders that they'd be asked to leave for the day if they couldn't keep their mouths shut.

And then, there was Hannah's sermon. She pointed out that Baptism is death -- death with Jesus in the waters, death to our sins -- and rising to life with Jesus and freedom. And it's adoption -- to be God's sons and daughters. And that means....

"You," she said, pointing at the boy, "and you," she said, pointing at the girl, "are going to be brother and sister."

There was a small uproar of protest. And Hannah continued, firmly, to insist upon this truth. When the kids pointed to a family member we'd baptized months back, Hannah smiled a little impishy and said, "Oh, he's already part of the family."

2. The Baptisms are a sign that God is making all things new in our city.

When Hannah and I first came to Troy, we walked around and prayed a lot. During our walks, we happened by the Hudson River and the little gravel beach littered with broken beer bottles and scraps of clothing.

We sat by the water and sang worship songs to God. We asked him to cleanse the beach spiritually of things that had gone before. We touched the water and asked him to cleanse it. We asked God to make it holy. And we prayed and believed that, one day, we'd baptize someone on that beach.

And we waited.

During Easter Vigil 2012, a group of about 20 Christians from different denominations marched to that same beach. We renewed our baptismal vows. We felt the spray of water from the river, flung by an aspergillum. We remembered our own baptisms.

And we waited.

The wait is over. We have seen, yet again, God bring his promises to pass.

And we wait. There is more to come.