Texts: Isaiah 58: 9b-12; Psalm 55:8; I Corinthians 13: 1-13
I begin this morning with two extra-canonical pieces of Scripture. The first is a gorgeous speech from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear has lost nearly everything – his throne, his family, his reputation. At a crucial moment in the play, a powerful storm stings a small band of travelers with rain and wind. Lear is warned to go inside, but he chooses to expose himself to the storm’s wrath. Here is what he says:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
It’s a pedagogy of the soul that Lear goes through in the play that bears his name, and his exposure to the storm is a pivotal moment in his education. “Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are….I haven’t done enough for you,” Lear says. To all those who recline in luxury, he counsels a similar pedagogy of the soul: expose yourself to feel what they feel, to undergo what they undergo. Perhaps then, the king reasons, you’ll distribute things more fairly, and render the world more just. Perhaps then, the king indicates, shelter will be found for seasons such as these.
My second extra-canonical Scripture for the morning is taken from the Gospel according to Jagger and Richards, a kind of rock and roll answer to the existential agony of King Lear. The text is “Gimme Shelter”, from the Rolling Stones 1969 album Let It Bleed, one of the all time great rock and roll classics. It came out when it felt like the world was falling apart. There was Vietnam and My Lai. There was the assassination of MLK and then RFK. There were the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards responded with a song reflecting the anxiety and tension of the moment, a song about the need for shelter from the storm. “Oh, a storm is threat’ning, My very life today, If I don’t get some shelter, Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away.” You know the rest.
There is, in human life, a persistent, pressing need for shelter. Sometimes it’s of the figurative variety, such as the Rolling Stones convey. We need places to rest, to gather ourselves, to renew our strength and courage when the going gets rough. Churches and places of worship are like that for many of us. So too is God. As Psalm 55 puts it in a prayer to God, “I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest.” We each of us need shelter in our lives, and faith can be one way of finding the shelter we need from the storm blasts that life occasionally hurls at us.
But sometimes, as the scene from Learindicates, the need for shelter is far from figurative. It’s literal. “How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides…defend you from seasons such as these?” the king asks. He’s echoing stories throughout Judaism, throughout the New Testament, and throughout Islam as well. The wandering Hebrews with no place to rest their heads throughout the book of Exodus; the prophet Elijah, hungry and forsaken after being cursed by Queen Jezebel; Mary and Joseph, told that there was no room for them in the inn. Lear’s question looks backward from the Elizabethan era, but it looks forward as well: How shall your houseless heads defend you from seasons such as these?
It’s a question worthy of consideration just now. It certainly has implications for the challenges facing immigrants in our country, and for the sanctuary work that we’ve embarked upon. But it also has implications for the affordable housing project that Hope Partnership is attempting to build here in Old Lyme. There are those in our state, in our region, and in our town who desperately need affordable housing. They include the working poor, to be sure, but they also include those who work at any number of the retail sites here in Old Lyme, most all of whom have been priced out of this community, and communities like this one. They include firefighters, policemen, veterans, and postal workers. Gimme shelter isn’t simply the lyric to a popular song from the 1960’s: it’s a plea from neighbors and residents all around us, one that people of faith, one that people who read, one that lovers of rock and roll, one that people of conscience, should all be able to recognize.
This past Tuesday night, I, along with a number of you, sat through a public hearing about the affordable housing project. Passions run high about the project, and so I’m wading into the fray with some fear and trembling, recognizing that there are people of good faith who support the project, and who oppose it. I trust and affirm that most basic truth. Nevertheless, I found the entire evening depressing, and dismaying, in the extreme. Hope Partnership and its team put together a thoughtful and careful presentation, comprised of lawyers, traffic analysts, architects and landscape designers. They did so because they have a mandate to create shelter within our region for those who need it. Throughout their presentation, they were subjected to catcalls, heckling, derisive laughter and generally disruptive behavior. A spirit of listening, or the posing of honest questions in a spirit of seeking to understand, was entirely absent. When it came time to speak, only two people spoke words of support, both women: One courageously spoke about the need among the elderly for affordable housing. The other was our own Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager, whose words were eloquent and moving. Neither was treated with respect or courtesy by the crowd. I respect those who have questions about this or that – traffic patterns or environmental impacts – all of which can be addressed in a rational and logical manner. But that wasn’t on display on Tuesday. Instead, it was antipathy, spite, and scorn that was elevated, and celebrated.
How did it come to that? How did a proposal that should call forth the best in all of us generate such friction, such heat? Oh, I know, there’s the grade of the hill at the entrance, as if other hills don’t exist in town. There are altered traffic patterns, as if there aren’t 10,000 other complicated intersections in Connecticut. There’s the fact that school buses may stop to pick up kids on 156, as if buses don’t already do that up and down 156. There are, supposedly, the pollutants from I-95, which, if it were true, would mean that we ought to be concerned for Big Y and all of the other businesses along I-95, to say nothing of individuals who have houses close by. That wasn’t a concern prior to Hope’s proposal. And there are all of the other thousand objections raised by a privately funded lawyer, hired to peck the project to death. Any site selected for such a project could be subjected to that same withering scrutiny, and made to look inadequate by opponents of affordable housing.
Rather than sabotaging a project from a trustworthy organization, I wondered why some of the individuals present weren’t using their considerable experience and legal erudition to help iron out what impediments may exist to a project intended to provide shelter. But then, I don’t think shelter, or the needs of those who may benefit from affordable housing, were under consideration at all.
This past April marked 50 years since Dr. King was assassinated. Do you remember what he was working on in the years leading up to his death? We all remember the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. We remember the march from Selma to Montgomery, and some of us even remember the labor strike among garbage collectors in Memphis, where King was gunned down. But we don’t often remember that he was also involved in a campaign to integrate the housing market in Chicago. A significant piece of that campaign had to do with affordable housing. And it met with fierce opposition. This was, let me remind you, in a northern, cosmopolitan city, not the segregated south. That campaign revealed what later battles about housing in cities and towns all across America have simply reinforced: that as often as not, arguments about affordable housing are how economic and racial segregation is maintained and enforced.
That became especially true after Jim Crow laws were ruled unconstitutional. But class and race bias didn’t simply disappear. It went underground, and soon thereafter was expressed through different means. One expression has been well documented in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, about how mass incarceration supplanted segregation laws. Less well understood is how fights about affordable housing have also been used to enforce a de facto mode of segregation throughout our communities.
That’s beginning to change. A new book entitledThe Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, details the history of segregation through housing laws. It’s worth looking at as a background to the arguments now being conducted in our town. But another example emerged several years ago, when HBO put out an excellent mini-series called Show Me a Hero. It’s a nonfiction account of the struggle to bring affordable housing to Yonkers during the 1980’s and 1990’s. The mayor of Yonkers, Nick Wascisko, believes that building affordable housing in his city is the right thing to do. He sets about creating a proposal, and then bringing the project to fruition. At various points, we see depicted the public hearings that took place in Yonkers in those years, in which the mayor and his team are heckled, shouted down, spit upon, and threatened. Wascisko is savaged for trying to do the right thing, for trying to provide decent and affordable shelter for individuals and families who need it most. What the filmmakers make plain is that there is a continuous thru line between the struggle for civil rights in the 1960’s, and the struggle to integrate housing markets in the 1980’s, and all the way up to the present. The spite, the outrage, the angry sneers – these have a long and tortured history in America. If affordable housing in Old Lyme is a subject that interests you, I can think of no better resource to recommend thanShow Me a Hero.
There are people of good faith and good will in our community who have legitimate and thoughtful questions about affordable housing and how the site in question will work. I have no quarrel with those individuals. But the anger, the zeal, and the vituperative spirit at Tuesday’s meeting suggest that something deeper, and more powerful was in play, an old spirit of exclusion, whether along economic, or racial, or cultural lines, or a combination of all three. It may well be that other factors are at play as well. And it may be that objections to this particular project can’t be reduced to class or race. Maybe. Maybe. But I have my doubts. Given the history of exclusion that too often inflicts communities like ours, and given the way opposition to affordable housing has been used to enforce segregation, it’s imperative to reflect carefully on those issues. I only wish to suggest that we don’t have to yield to those tendencies. I only wish to suggest that there are better spirits among us. I only wish to suggest that there are other, better, behaviors available.
Here’s one: on Thursday evening, I returned to the Middle School auditorium for a middle school choir concert. It was hard to be there. I was still churning over the scene on Tuesday night, still unsettled by the implications of all I had seen and heard. I confess I didn’t really want to be in that space again. And I confess that I wanted to avoid contact with the other adults in the room, lest something of that same old spirit was unleashed again.
But then the concert began. And the first person to come onstage was Mohammed Hamou, having arrived in Old Lyme two years ago during the Syrian refugee crisis. He had a djembe drum, and as he played a rhythm, all the other students walked onto the stage and began to sing. When it was over, all the students cheered for Mohammed. They love him. Right behind me, his father, Hani was proudly filming it all on his phone, to be sent off to relatives in Syria and Lebanon and Denmark and Germany – this scene of welcome performed in Old Lyme. And I sat there thinking: this is the world I want to live in. Not everything is lost. And then I thought: this already isthe world we live in.
And then there was the refugee meal last night, celebrating the culture of Puerto Rico, and the Colon family’s sojourn through Old Lyme. There was such wonderful energy in the room. The band was incredible, and the food was incredible. But the spirit of all of those who came out to affirm this work of resettlement was the most incredible thing of all. And I thought again: not everything is lost. This is the world I want to live in. This is the world we already do live in.
I conclude with familiar words from the Apostle Paul, words that I hope can guide us in the coming days as we sort through the questions of affordable housing. “Love is patient,” he writes. “Love is kind. It is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…it is not irritable, or resentful. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Might we bring that spirit of patience and kindness to our deliberations about affordable housing, acknowledging our differences, but also recognizing the powerful needs around us at the moment? Might that move us beyond seeing dimly, allowing us to see, as if face to face, the pressing economic realities that ordinary people in our community are experiencing? Might it allow us to acknowledge that opposition to affordable housing has been one way that segregation has been upheld? But might the spirit of Paul’s letter, the spirit at play among the middle school kids on Thursday, the spirit of a celebratory dinner, be unleashed among us all? I contend that it can. I contend that it’s already present.
“If I don’t get some shelter, I’m gonna fade away,” Mick Jagger sings. “How shall your houseless heads defend you from seasons such as these,” Lear wonders. “I would hurry to find a shelter from the raging wind and tempest,” the Psalmist writes. The words of poets, prophets, singers and kings call to us across the generations. Give them shelter.