Shortly after my arrival in Foley, a parishioner named Wayne asked to meet. He had been serving on the board of the local educational enrichment foundation and asked if I could attend a meeting with him and the Principal at Foley Elementary School. In that meeting, in Dr. Lawrence’s cramped office that he shared with his administrate assistant, I learned for the first time what it meant to be a Title I school. At that time, 75% of Foley Elementary School students received free or reduced lunch, a key poverty indicator. More than 50% of the children didn’t have a dad living at home. Just less than half came to kindergarten with no pre-school experience. Nearly 25% came from homes where no English was spoken. As a result, most incoming students were already a year behind: they didn’t know the alphabet, couldn’t count to ten, didn’t know blue from red, and often, had never held a crayon or a pair of scissors ever before. My heart was broken, but I was afraid the task was just too big. I could feel the doubt creeping in, and Dr. Lawrence could too.
“I have to tell you,” he said with dead cold seriousness, “you are the third church to come to my office and ask what you can do to help. I never heard from the other two again. I hope you are serious about coming back.” So much for sneaking out the door quietly. Whether we wanted to be or not, the Holy Spirit had just committed Saint Paul’s to adopting Foley Elementary School. For almost a decade now, there have been Saint Paul’s members all over that school. Most help in kindergarten, helping the least and the lost get on that first rung of the ladder. My favorite part of my nine years in Foley is easily the hour I spent in Mrs. Cashion, Mrs. Davis, and Mrs. Laurendine’s class rooms. Watching kids who couldn’t recognize the letter A when I first met them read “Tap, Rap, Bam” to me by the end of the year was a gift. Seeing our volunteers, many of whom had grandchildren who were grown or lived far away, fall in love with these kids was a gift. Even as my heart broke for the kids who I knew hadn’t had a clean shirt since Monday or whose shoes were clearly third generation hand-me-down, or who I wondered if they had anything to eat from Friday lunch until Monday breakfast, God’s blessing was always present in that place where there should have been despair. I can’t help but think about Foley Elementary School every time I read the beatitudes because they remind me that God is always present where we least expect him.
A funny thing happens when you start to spend time with people different from yourself: you begin to care about the things that affect them uniquely. After several years of being blessed at Foley Elementary School, we found our Latin American friends in the middle of a crisis. In 2011, the state of Alabama passed HB56, a draconian anti-immigration law that was intended to make brown-skinned people second class citizens. Its impact was as far reaching as it was uninformed. Some of the provisions of the bill included making it illegal for a landlord to rent to an undocumented immigrant. As a priest, I was eligible for prosecution if I gave any kind of aid to an undocumented immigrant. Under HB56, I could have been arrested for using my discretionary funds to help someone stay in their trailer, keep their lights on, or feed their children. At Foley Elementary School, the law struck fear into the hearts of many. Schools were required to check and keep track of the immigration status of all of their children. “We’ll never ask you to turn in your students,” they said, but Dr. Lawrence and his teachers didn’t put much faith in that promise. Mothers would tearfully ask teachers to take care of their children if they were arrested during the school day. Children were afraid to get on the bus, unsure if anyone would be home when they got there. Over the first weekend after HB56 was signed into law, some 50 Foley Elementary school children disappeared into the dark of night as their families fled in fear. It was heartbreaking, and yet, God was in that heartbreak, calling us to show mercy.
The IRS is very clear about what I can and cannot say about politics from the pulpit. Saint Paul’s, like Christ Episcopal Church, was a rich tapestry of political and theological viewpoints from Tea Party Conservatives to Bleeding Heart Liberals and yet that Sunday my Rector and I decided it was time to take a stand. This wasn’t a political issue, it was a gospel issue. Hundreds of thousands of Latin-Americans were made to feel less than human because of the color of their skin or the accent on their lips. In that moment, we had a choice. We all have a choice. Do we stand with the oppressed or with the powerful? Do we use our positions of privilege to lift up those who have been cast down or do we sit comfortably and give thanks it isn’t us? That Sunday, we chose to speak out on behalf of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We invited our people to stand up for what was right, to show God’s love to everyone, especially those young children at Foley Elementary who were so scared, and we let them know that despite a state law to the contrary, we would continue to show mercy to those who were in need, whether they could prove they were in this country legally or not. It was what we were called to do as followers of Jesus and ministers of the Gospel.
This morning is another one of those mornings when a choice has to be made. Will we sit in relative comfort as a thousands of Muslims right here in Bowling Green, both Arab and European, along with 1.6 billon Muslims worldwide are told that they are less than human? Will we allow 55 million Latin and Mexican Americans live in fear of harassment or arrest just because of their appearance or accent? Or will we use our positions of privilege to do what is right, to show the love of God and to respect the dignity of every human being? Will we be a church that is too afraid to stand up for the Gospel of love or will we take a risk by showing mercy to the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the outcast?
During his inaugural sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus explains to his disciples the basics of blessedness. Among the items on that list are things to which we might be called for a season: mourning, meekness, and persecution, for example. Others are things that I believe all disciples are called to seek at all times: a hunger for righteousness, peacemaking, and especially, showing mercy. We live in a time in which being merciful has gone out of fashion. It has become increasingly easy to casually label and dismiss our neighbors be they Muslim or Jew, Hispanic or Black, straight or gay, rich or poor. As a nation, we have lost sight of what it means to show mercy, to offer compassion, and to see the good in one another. And as a result, we’re seeing more and more unmerciful legislation and, in recent days, executive orders, demanding that we show less and less mercy to the vulnerable among us.
In the beatitudes, Jesus is clear that his disciples are to stand up against such things, by showing mercy to the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed. In the beatitudes, Jesus declares God’s blessing on those who seek after the heart of God, who came in the form of a baby, born in a stable to an unwed mother, who fled to Egypt as a refugee when the powerful tried to kill him, who declared God’s love to sinners, tax collectors, Samaritans, and Centurions, who died on the cross that all might come within the reach of his saving embrace, and who invites each of us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in his grace. We who claim to be disciples of Jesus, we who claim God’s blessings of forgiveness, we who have received mercy, are called to show mercy to all because God cares not just about those who are in power, but especially for those who are most vulnerable. “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says, “for they shall receive mercy.” Will we choose comfort over blessedness? Will we show severity instead of mercy? The choice this day is us ours. Amen.