Isaiah 50-4

Sermon by Reverend Shirley Bowen

September 12, 2021

50:4 The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens– wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you again and for all the ways you provide support our work. It means so much.

The Isaiah passage is one of my favorites. Although I emphasize the first verse in reverse order because one cannot happen without the other. “Morning by morning God wakens my ear” – I have to listen, I have to listen first so I can discern, along with my colleagues, the path God’s justice. And there are so many sources of God’s word that inform our work, but for me there is a foundational document I return to over and over. As a matter of fact it hangs on the wall in my office – the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal church. Especially the last two promises: “to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbor as ourselves and to strive for justice and peace for all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.”

Those are some pretty strong marching orders, and yet it is, for me, the resonance of Gods word. And it is the sustenance I need to then be a teacher to our volunteers, our staff, and the community so I and they can bring sustenance to the weary. And in the past couple of years, and especially the past 18 months, people are weary. As you well know, this past year has been extraordinary. But I want to take a further step back to highlight one of our critical initiatives to sustain a particular subset of our neighbors – those experiencing homelessness.

In the summer of 2019 I met with a board member and asked for her help in bringing to the Board and to the City our determination to offer on overnight resource for those living outside on extreme winter nights. There were several meetings and creative ideas and we finally came to a proposal to bring to City Council. We new we could run the program. But we needed their financial support; and shocking to everyone present, they fully funded our pilot program in early 2020 and in our expanded program this past winter.  It is a public health issue and equally important, it is a human dignity issue. You can’t imagine how powerful it was for those we brought inside.

And then the pandemic. One of the things of which I am most proud is that we never missed a day of service. In 24 hours we flipped from inside service to brown bag service at the door. It was a crazy time. Biddeford Food Pantry had to shut down for a couple of weeks to figure out their new normal so the City asked if we could fill the gap with their help – so we did. The Library had to shut down which also meant that when people were losing jobs and needing to apply for unemployment and other services they had so public access to the internet – so we brought people in one at a time into our Support Center so they could take care of accessing much needed services. And, because all except for one of our regular volunteers fell into the high risk category and had to step back from volunteering we were operating for a brief time with just the 3 of us. But miraculously the community responded when we asked for help. Young professionals who got furloughed volunteered. New Life Church, who has a young population, sent teams, and we created an assembly line for meals.

It was important for us that we provide a menu they could choose from rather than our just handing over pre-packed brown bags. Plus, it was important for us to have a brief conversation each day so we could offer connection and support. Very quickly we became a source for not just food but toiletries and most importantly, toilet paper. And thanks to you and so many in the community we were able to offer masks. We operated in this manner for 5 months but it became increasingly evident that the isolation was really getting to people and we saw more desperation for connection and heard more self-identified depression. During the summer we refined our protocols so that last September we opened inside, inviting small numbers at a time following restaurant guidelines but still offering door service to those not ready to come inside. This required more volunteers at a time burnout was setting in. But we continued and new people found us. We did our 2nd year of our overnight program, opening 53 nights in January – mid-March. In late spring as vaccines became available we moved to “mask optional” protocols but still kept people sitting apart and using all single serve products. We had to do some strong advocacy for a vaccine site in Biddeford, and then had to make up our own ID’s so the site would give them the shots. Unfortunately we just went back to requiring masks as the current variant began to spread.

That gives you a summary of what we’ve been up to since I was last here, but I want to take a moment to share more about those we serve. As is true for the entire country, people are very frayed at their ends. We increasingly see people acting out their stress in more extreme ways. We see signs of heightened mental health fragility and self medicating. Drugs are on the increase so we work very closely with Biddeford Police Department’s Substance Use Liaison and Community Outreach staff. Biddeford is gentrifying so helping people find affordable housing is nearly impossible. Those living outside are increasing in numbers which again, is both a human dignity issue and a public health challenge. And there is heightened fear that with the elimination of the moratorium on evictions these numbers will just increase.

We believe that everyone who walks through our doors is a precious child of God, even when they don’t act like it. My mantra to my staff and volunteers is to just love our neighbors. AND that they are doing holy work in whatever way they understand that, and they are the heart of the organization. They make everything we do possible, as do you and other supporters. We have been blessed this year with an outpouring of assistance. Although this pandemic has shown more of the underbelly of our population than many of us knew existed, we have seen many times more the goodness and compassion of our population. And this too is the word of God that sustains me. It is poignant that we are reflecting this weekend on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. Our theme at the service yesterday was acknowledging that while some step back from a crisis or a need, others step forward. May we all find ways in which we can step forward and make a difference.    

I want to close with a Quote from St. John of the Cross

And I saw the river

over which every soul

must pass

to reach the kingdom of heaven

and the name of that river

was suffering:

and I saw a boat

which carries souls

across the river

and the name of that boat

was love.