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Be the Change #46: Working the Polls

If you live in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, I was one of the people who WOULDN’T STOP BOTHERING YOU.  My husband and I worked the phones and knocked on doors on behalf of Conor Lamb in the weeks leading up to the March 13 special election. 

But we were working the polls on election day on behalf of something even more important to us: the anti-gerrymandering effort.  We were outside a polling place trying to get signatures on a petition to change the way state and federal congressional district lines are drawn in Pennsylvania (see details HERE). 

You will be happy to hear that  I was punished for annoying you with phone calls all winter.  That day was really, really cold, and we had to stand outside the polling place, not inside where it was nice and warm and people had donuts.  We were well-prepared.  We wore gloves, hats, thick socks, and heavy coats over heavy sweaters.  And the nice people from Fair Districts had provided us with hand and foot warmers in addition to petitions and pens.  But it was still cold, and we were out there from the minute the polls opened until about noon, when our relief arrived .  Our faces were numb, our fingers  were popsicles and our feet were blocks of ice.

But it was SO worth it – and not just because we got 144 signatures on our Fair Districts petition.  144 signatures was a fantastic result:  more than 1/3 of the voters that morning signed.  But, the best part of that frigid morning was that we were reminded that Americans are more than the angry, divided, partisans portrayed on the news and in social media.  We are definitely divided, and definitely partisan.  And many of us are angry. 

But, at the personal level, we are also really, really nice.  Not a single person was rude to us, even the ones who made it clear that they disagreed with our cause.  Most disagreements were expressed like this: “No, thank you, I like things the way they are.”  One young guy even got into a jokey argument with us.  “Come on,” he said, “I’m a Republican. We have it set up so we always win.  Why would I want to change that?” 

Almost everyone expressed concern about how cold we must be.  One person offered to bring us coffee.  Many people stopped to talk to us, either to learn more about Fair Districts, or to share their concerns about the direction the country is heading.  For the first two hours, a local councilman stood outside with us, just to greet his constituents.  He knew almost everyone who came to vote, asking questions, listening, sharing personal anecdotes.  When he left us, he was on his way to another polling place in the community he represents.  This young guy, has a job and a family, but he had taken on the relatively thankless job of being on a community’s council, and he took the responsibility very seriously.

That councilman, and all the people who were worried about how cold Al and I must be, are the real America.  We could hear them, if we could only stop yelling at each other.


Be the Change #45: My Night With the Homeless

Don’t worry, I wasn’t sleeping on a grate or under one of Pittsburgh’s 446 bridges.  I spent last Friday night in a comfortable home – and so did many others, thanks to the Family Promise program. 

My friend Patty’s parish, Saints Simon & Jude, is one of 16 churches in Allegheny and Washington Counties who serve as hosts for homeless families on a rotating basis.  When she told me about it the last time they hosted in December, I was so intrigued by this hands-on ministry that I asked if I could help out next time. 

I had it easy:  we had only one guest the evening I stayed overnight in the parish house.  I will call her Kelly.  A pretty, talkative young woman with an explosion of curly black hair, Kelly is the single mother of 4 children. Three of them stay with their grandmother.  The oldest is staying with her in the Family Promise host houses.  Kelly juggles two part-time jobs and is working hard to find permanent housing and bring her family back together. 

Before she connected with Family Promise, Kelly and her kids were “couch-surfing” with various friends and relatives. Most often, the 5 of them could not be accommodated together.  The program is providing her with a place to stay every night until she gets back on her feet, along with with housing referrals and budgeting assistance. They hold her accountable for managing her income so that she can save up enough for a security deposit.  She is also encouraged to build a little nest egg for emergencies.  The hope is that she won’t find herself homeless again the first time she faces an unexpected expense. 

Family Promise is a nationwide organization with 180 affiliates, 6000 participating congregations and over 135,000 volunteers. The Pittsburgh area has two Day Houses where the families can stay during the day when they are not at school or work.  They then spend that night at whichever local church is the host parish for that week.  Volunteers from the host parish drive the van that transports the families between the Day House and the nighttime host home.  Host parishes provide dinner, a small suite in the host house where families can spend the night together, and breakfast in the morning.  Most host houses can hold up to 4 families.

Did you know that 40% of the homeless are families?  And that 25% of the homeless are children?  Did you know that many programs will not accept single dads, or even fathers in 2-parent families?  In many programs, mom and children are welcome, but dad has to fend for himself.  Family Promise is one of the few programs that accept 2-parent families, single dads with children and families with teenage children.  They do not accept anyone with a criminal background that includes child abuse or violence of any kind.  They also do they accept current drug users, clients with untreated mental illness or families with a current domestic violence situation. 

If you’re looking for a volunteer opportunity, or your church is seeking an outreach ministry, I’d encourage you to check out FAMILY PROMISE.  And I’m not just saying that because I had an easy night and breakfasted the next morning on delicious cinnamon rolls home-baked by some awesome Saints Simon & Jude parishioner! 


Be the Change #44: Keep a Sabbath

My mother and father-in-law were old fashioned people.  Raised on farms, they each lost a parent early in life.  Pop-pop was raised by his grandparents, who had been born in themid-19th century.  Muni remembered attending religious-revival camp meetings during her childhood in the 1920s.  Their manners were old-fashioned, their morals were old-fashioned, and, oh my, did they have a 19th-century work ethic.

Pop-pop worked as a contractor and then building inspector until his early 70s.  Then he volunteered teaching woodworking at a retirement home until he was past 80.  Muni had scaled back a bit on the home front by the time I knew her, because she had a full-time job outside the home by then. But during my husband’s childhood, she maintained a large garden and a small orchard, from which she canned hundreds of jars of fruits and vegetables every summer.  She home-sewed her children’s clothes were home-made and made ice-cream in a hand-cranked wooden ice-cream freezer (which Al and I still own but don’t use). 

Staunch Lutherans, they never missed Sunday church.  And when church was done, they continued to keep a Sabbath by doing…nothing.  The occasional Sunday family dinners were raucous affairs with a dozen or so children and grandchildren elbow-to-elbow around the dining-room table, all talking at once.  But most of their Sundays were very quiet.  Muni cooked meals, but they otherwise did no work and rarely left the house after they got home from church.  In the summer, cool breezes drifted the white sheers in billows through the open windows.  In winter, a fire burned in the fireplace.  They read the newspaper or the Bible, and chatted quietly about some newspaper article or the day’s sermon or news of friends from church. Pop-pop usually dozed off for a while to the soothing ticking of the 19th-century clocks they had inherited from ancestors (Al and I have one of those, too, and sometimes if he is patient and fussy enough, he can get it to run for a few days). 

What is most touching to me is that they could always be counted on to be THERE.  If we happened to be out their way and decided to stop, we could be sure they’d be home – and invite us to stay to dinner.  Their friends and neighbors knew it, too, and so they often had unexpected – and very welcome – visitors.  Because they had no plans for the afternoon, unexpected company was no trouble to them.  They were happy to see you and have you spend as much time sitting with them as you wanted.  Imagine that in one of our busy homes today, where mom has to get the kids to hockey practice and dad is catching up on email from work.  An unexpected guest would be an intrusion.  You wouldn’t dream of just dropping in on someone in this century. 

And I think that’s too bad.  There’s a lot to be said for living at a slow-enough pace that an unexpected visitor is a delight.  And there is a lot to be said for rest.  Muni and Pop-pop worked hard for most of their lives, but they rested on Sundays – and they both lived into their 90s.  Lately, I’ve been trying to keep our Sundays free of commitments.  We don’t always stay home all day.  Sometimes we plan a hike, or a trip to a museum.  But mostly, especially this winter, we just stay home.  After church, we make soup or stew, put some music on, and settle down on the couch with the newspaper – while, when it’s in the mood, that old clock ticks with its quiet 19th-century dignity.

Wendell Berry wrote:

“The mind that comes  to rest is tended

In ways that it cannot intend:

Is borne, preserved and comprehended

By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps  us by

Your will, not ours.  And it is fit

Our only choice should be to die

Into that rest, or out of it.” 

This week, take a day off.  Give yourself the gift of a Sabbath.


Be the Change #43: Grace

I just finished reading a wonderful book, Grace by Paul Lynch.  It’s about the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s, but, more deeply, it’s the story of everybody’s life.

14-year-old Grace is wakened by her mother in the wee hours one morning.  Mam cuts off Grace’s hair, dresses her in boy’s clothes and sends her out on the road to fend for herself.  She can no longer manager to feed all of her children, and she doesn’t like the way Grace’s step-father has started looking at her.

The horrors that Grace endures, and her stubborn spirit, make for a story that is hard to put down.  Just as the fields have been corrupted by the potato rot, Grace is corrupted by her experiences.  The Irish people as a community are corrupted, as the veneer of civilized behavior is worn away by privation and an every-man-for-himself ethos prevails. 

Grace’s salvation comes at the hands of a very flawed group of human beings.  Giving a clever double meaning to the book’s title, Grace is the beneficiary of grace, in an unexpected way. 

It occurred to me, as I neared the end of the book, that Grace’s basic story is everybody’s life story. 

Everyone is ruined in some way.  This life is a beautiful miracle, but it can also be brutal in big, tragic ways or  in slow, small ways that accumulate like a weight on your back.  Some of us had addicted parents or other traumatic childhood experiences.  Your heart is broken by someone you loved.  A career setback proves to be unrecoverable.  Someone you love dies far too young.  You are disabled, or stricken with a chronic illness, raped or mugged or your house burns down.  And then there are the everyday insults of having to make a living:  tedious work for 40 years, unkind bosses and co-workers,  long, miserable commutes, the sheer weariness of getting up at 6 a.m. day after day after day.  “Life has a way of breaking everyone,” Hemingway said.  We are all broken.   Most of us are more tired than we like to admit.

And, like Grace, we are saved by other imperfect human beings.  I’m a Christian, so I believe that our salvation is in Jesus – ultimately.  But, day by living, breathing day, our salvation is in each other.  You are ill or disabled, but your spouse sticks around and takes care of you.  Your work is tedious, but your co-workers make you laugh.  You are hungry and think you are alone, and a local church group delivers food to your door.  A friend betrays  you, and the next day a neighbor you barely know shovels your walk for you and you invite him in for coffee.  This is what happens to my main character, Leona, in The Saint’s Mistress.  She suffers an unbearable loss, and is only healed when an old friend re-enters her life and gives her a glimpse of God’s grace and a reason to go on.    In a hard world, God grants us the grace of each other.

Every single person you meet is broken in some way.  This week, be the grace in someone’s life.


Be the Change #42: Why I Marched

250,000 in Chicago.  600,000 in Los Angeles.  A total of more than 4 million world-wide.   Measured on volume, the 2018 Women’s Marches were a great success.  For those of us who participated, it was spirit-lifting to be surrounded by singing, chanting, sign-carrying men and women who care about many of the same things.  Civility.  Decency.  A return to a foreign policy based on careful diplomacy instead of impulsive, inflammatory tweets.   The right of all human beings, regardless of race or religion, to freedom and dignity.  The ideal of “liberty and justice for ALL.”

To be sure, many people marched mostly to protest the direction – and, for some, the very legitimacy – of the Trump presidency.  But, it’s not enough to be against something (or someone).  I think it’s important for the movement ignited by the 2016 election to be clear on what we are FOR.

For me personally the march was about protecting the basics of our democratic republic:  the First Amendment, voting rights, fair districts, and getting dark money out of politics.

Just as it’s not enough to be against something; it’s also not enough to be theoretically for something.  The “kumbaya” moment of the march was uplifting and inspiring, but it should be just a start.  That’s why I donate to the ACLU, and volunteer with the anti-gerrymandering group Fair Districts PA.  That’s why I’ll be involved in voter-registration efforts between now and the midterm elections in November.

Political involvement was not in my plans for my 60s.  My plan was to retire, do some more writing and gardening, travel with my husband, and enjoy my grandchildren.  But the 2016 election and the year that followed broke my heart, and I’m not willing to just sit and be broken.  Al and I want our children and grandchildren to enjoy the same freedoms that we and our parents did.  And that takes action.  Marching is fine and feels good.  It puts our current government on notice that there will be a price to be paid at the polls in November.  But we really make a difference with what we do after the march.

What will you do to help move our blessed and beloved country toward the vision of freedom, justice and dignity for all?


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