A Christmas Song for a world on fire…

I really enjoy Christmas music. Even though I get frustrated when I hear holiday melodies before Thanksgiving Halloween, the familiar songs fill me with warm nostalgia. My memories of Christmas and Advent are good memories. My house would be filled with the smell of tamales and baked goods. Lights and nativity scenes would appear. Records that laid dormant for a year would be pulled out and played after dinner. Church would echo with carols and hymns to the coming celebration of the Christ child.

I have my old favorites: The Little Drummer Boy (specifically the one with Bing Crosby and David Bowie), O Come All Ye Faithful, Carol of the Bells. And I have some new ones. But my most favorite Christmas song is Do You Hear What I Hear? It breaks me every time in all the ways I need to be broken for the Holiday season; toward hope, giving, forgiving. Most importantly toward peace in a time overcome with the threat of destruction.

The song’s creators, Gloria Baker and Noël Regney, wrote the song in 1962 while the world was reeling from the Cuban Missile Crisis. And after it was recorded by Bing Crosby in 1963, it quickly spread across the world. Baker and Regney’s message was prophetically powerful in a time that needed a message of hope. Which is probably why I have always gravitated toward this simple Christmas classic. It reminds me to live in hopefulness.

The song, like the Nativity story, is subversive. It begins with a message whispered from creation to people on the margins: “Do you see what I see?” “Do you hear what I hear?” And then from the margins to the powers that be: “Do you know what I know?” How I long for those of the halls of power to suddenly realize that out in the freezing night, there are children who need silver and gold; who are homeless and hungry and in poverty. For the wealthy to realize that these children will bring goodness and light. For our leaders to announce peace; turning away from greed, racism, and bigotry.

55 years later, Do You Hear What I Hear? is in the background of a Holiday Season set amid chaos. I am clinging to it in desperation. I want some small whisper in the night wind. I want a voice bigger than all the hate in the world. I want an intervention, reminding the world: “Glory to God in the highest, peace on Earth, and good will to all!

This last Sunday, one of the children at my church came up to me and asked, “Do you want to know something?” I nodded with a smile. He told me, “God is everything. In the wind. In the trees. In the world. In you. In me.” I asked him how that made him feel. He smiled at me and said, “It makes me very happy.”

Do you hear what I hear?

img_3237

Walking in their Footsteps: A Call to Solidarity

(This post was originally written for the Faith & Family Homelessness Project. I highly recommend checking out their resources and learning more about how to experience and volunteer with their Poverty Immersion program.)

I’ve never personally experienced poverty. It’s an obstacle that inherently separates me from people living on the margins. I’d like to think I’m in solidarity with the poor because of the way I vote, the money I donate and the time I volunteer. I’ve built houses in Mexico, volunteered at food banks, and even served two and a half years in the Peace Corps in Romania. I’ve spoken with people living with dirt floors and tin roofs and have shared meals with families with no running water or electricity. I even work at a peace and justice non-profit organization. But I’ve never lived on the margins.

poverty-mandela

Which is why participation in the poverty simulation offered by Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry made a difference. It brought me one step closer to personally understanding the stigma, barriers, and hurdles people on the margins face on a daily basis just to have access to food, shelter and healthcare. I was reminded that our “welfare” system is a punitive one, punishing people for needing help.

I played a small part; a day care provider. However, I was forced to turn people away because of overcrowding, funding, and health issues. Participants needed a safe place for their children in order to go to work and pay their bills. I wasn’t able to help everybody, even though I wanted to. I watched as participants became increasingly frustrated with their experience. In the end, everyone had a small glimpse into what daily life is like for our brothers and sisters without food, shelter or resources.

quote-it-is-easy-enough-to-tell-the-poor-to-accept-their-poverty-as-gods-will-when-you-yourself-have-warm-thomas-merton-347817

Afterwards, we unpacked the experience. There were plenty of opinions on how to “fix” the welfare system. Two comments stood out. One participant mentioned that when we give to the poor, we should ask their forgiveness. It is the poor and marginalized who have been failed by our society and system and we’re all part of the problem. Another person said we need to stop judging people for being poor; we need to change our system to make it easier for people to get the help they need. As much as possible, we should eliminate the piles of paperwork, agency signatures, hoops and rules we make people go through. Sure, some people might take advantage of the system, but how many more people would be helped and brought back into self-sufficiency.

These opinions made me rethink my behavior. I’ve never thought of asking a person for forgiveness when I hand them a dollar outside a supermarket. But it makes sense. By asking for their forgiveness and blessing, I’m reaffirming their inherent worth and dignity by treating them with respect; I’m asking them for something only they can give. And I need to stop caring how they ended up being homeless. It’s not my place to judge and I’m not qualified to ask.

quote-the-gears-of-poverty-ignorance-hopelessness-and-low-self-esteem-interact-to-create-a-kind-of-carl-sagan-332837

All I know is that as a man of faith, it’s my responsibility to respond with compassion. This is the hard truth of faith; this is where conversion of the heart takes place. When we stop punishing and start forgiving. When we stop blaming and start helping. When we treat our neighbor as ourselves. This is why I’m grateful for having been able to participate in the poverty simulation. It reminded me yet again of the humanity of the poor, allowing me, if only for a brief moment, to walk in their footsteps. That is where solidarity begins.