These are my remarks from the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy’s 17th Annual Thanksgiving Eve Service.
Good evening, and thank you all very much for being here with me and with each other. Over the last decade-plus I have learned so much about what it means to do the work that I do.
I have learned that, while I am the chaplain, you – all of you – are the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy.
I recognize that I am not alone in this. Tonight, I am grateful for so many people in my life – my wonderful wife Annie who keeps me grounded and somewhat organized, our circle of friends who support me in this work, my colleagues and mentors at the Marin Interfaith Council, San Francisco Theological Seminary, Ritter Center, and the St. Vincent DePaul Society. I am grateful to my church home at CCC Tiburon, which holds me and those whom I serve in prayer. I am grateful for the Tuesday Wellness Group who hold space for me and for each other to find our way together on a shared spiritual path, honoring our differences and recognizing how we are all the same.
Tonight, my heart and my prayers are with the town of Ferguson, Missouri where there is unrest and fear and anger. My anger and fear are with them as well. It is difficult for me to imagine what the experience of being there, in the middle of that, is like. It is difficult to comprehend the chaos and the turmoil that has welled up there and continues to overflow and spill into communities all over the country.
I am disturbed by the state of things.
As Norman Fisher said at this year’s Visionary Marin event, “As bad as we think things are, they’re much worse.”
It is easy to forget, living here in Marin County, that there are people who are seen and treated in ways that deny their humanity. It is easy to forget that there are people who are judged based on their appearances alone. It is easy to forget that there are people who endure the weight of prejudice and hatred and violence every day. It is easy to forget that these people live here, in our communities. We do such a good job of trying to hide it, trying to sweep it under the rug.
And yet, I’ve been in City Council meetings where I’ve heard people say that they are afraid to walk in open space, that they are afraid to come downtown, to bring their children to the park. Because they see other people who, by their appearance, raise fears. I see our elected leaders dictating policy guided by these fears, determined to solve the problem. I know I am angry and I am afraid of the way in which this country is moving.
Many years ago, Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote, “I am waiting for someone to really discover America and wail.” And I am waiting with him.
A couple of Fridays ago, I was talking with one of the chaplaincy participants over coffee, expressing my frustration about these things.
I said, “If only these people would engage with the folks that they’re afraid of, they would see that there’s really very little to fear.”
He responded, “Well, I guess that’s true, but I’ve been surprised actually at how nice folks are in the homeless community here. I would think they’d be much angrier, much more aggressive given the cycle of continual oppression they find themselves in.”
And I had to pause for a moment to reflect on that. Asking people who are oppressed to just calm down and be nice to the figures of systemic oppression they see every day is almost insulting. At the very least, it adds to their oppression.
I myself have always been nonviolent. I’ve never been in a fight, and I don’t plan on it. And I don’t personally advocate or endorse any kind of violence. But I do understand where it comes from.
I do understand that when a person feels boxed in by their circumstances and is faced by a rapidly militarizing police force, it may seem there is nothing left to do but fight.
But I believe there is always a third way. There must be a way in the middle between passive resistance and violence. There has to be a way beyond just voting or paying taxes or organizing ourselves around political issues. And I am looking for this third way, and I believe it has something to do with soul work.
A couple of Sundays back, I was leading a discussion on the book Souls in the Hands of a Tender God, and as we were talking about the context of working with people who live outside I spoke about the kind of person I think I would be if I suddenly became homeless. I really believe that if the worst imaginable thing happened, and I ended up losing everything, I know that I would be one of the most difficult, rude, crazy, drug-addicted people that anyone has ever seen. Maybe that’s hard for some of you to see, but I see it very clearly within myself – this potential for me to become that. One of the women in the group asked me how I arrived at this insight, and my best response was, “I know myself. I know what I am capable of.”
Over the last couple of weeks, the Tuesday Wellness group has been looking at some of the words of Amma, the Hugging Saint from India. Yesterday, I shared this with the group:
The sun shines down,
and its image reflects a thousand
different pots filled with water.
The reflections are many,
but they are each reflecting the same sun.
Similarly, when we come to know who we truly are,
we will see ourselves in all people.
To be able to see ourselves in others takes a great deal of work, and it requires stripping away the assumptions that we have about what makes us different, better, worse, more or less deserving than others. It requires letting go of the judgments that separate us from others, and living fully in the reality that we are all in this together.
When we begin this process of reflection, we can see how these problems out there are merely a reflection of the problems in here.
I hold within me a piece of ownership of all of the oppression, slavery, and genocide that this country was founded upon, and I am troubled by this because I know on a very deep level that I participate in the very things that continue to perpetuate this cycle. At the same time, I have hope and trust that even in the middle of all of that, amazing and wonderful things can happen.
And I know this is possible, because I see it happening. I participate in its happening every week when new people join with us on Tuesday night and are invited by others to find a place within our spiritual community.
I see it when Jay and Chandra cook dinner in service to people they like as well as people they don’t like.
I see it when folks like Edward show up, tentatively at first, to offer something special to the group, like cheese and bread and salami.
I see it when the feather goes around the circle during our prayer time and it comes to Matt and he stops to see if any of the people who just arrived want to hold the feather and offer their prayers before he does.
And I see it when I look around at the end of the evening and there are people I haven’t even met yet who are sweeping the floor and washing dishes just because they want to be of service and express their gratitude.
Being able to see our potential goes both ways – I can see in myself my own potential for greatness in the same way that I can see my potential for ugliness. But when people get stuck in that place – that place where they are only told that their ugliness is what really matters – how terrible that would feel and how damaging to the heart and soul and mind. And this is our work together as the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy – my work and your work – to continually remind people that they matter, that they belong, that they are loved and held and cared for.
This is an exciting time for the Street Chaplaincy. I am entering a new level of Clinical Pastoral Education, training to be a Supervisor of student chaplains. I am honored to be the Shaw Fellow for Supervisory Clinical Pastoral Education at San Francisco Theological Seminary.
At the same time, I realize that my engagement in this learning will take me off of the streets, perhaps a little more than I would like. This is where you come in – and this is why we need your support now more than ever.
We have to hire an Associate Chaplain to fill the gaps that will arise during my classroom time, and we need to find space to host the students who will be learning the art of chaplaincy with us. I also want to find a way to offer monetary compensation to Jay and Chandra who spend about 10 hours every Tuesday to cook for the Wellness Group. Your financial support of these things is essential.
Also, we have to create a kinder, more loving community for our brothers and sisters who are living outside and in transition. To that end, I will be offering two Companionship Workshops in the month of January, especially for those who are volunteering with the REST Program. In the spring, I will offer two more. Look for these announcements coming soon, and I invite you to engage with us.
One of my favorite songs by The Mountain Goats, one of my favorite artists, says:
When the last days come, we will see visions,
Far greater than sunsets, brighter than stars.
We will recognize each other and see ourselves for the first time,
The way we really are
My prayer this Thanksgiving is that we don’t have to wait until the last days to realize this vision; that we can create together a community that is welcoming of everybody and offers everyone a place to belong. Thank you very much, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
-Rev. Paul Gaffney, Chaplain