I would be remiss if I first did not take time to thank Mayor Bracey and the York County Council of Churches for gathering the faith community together for this important conversation.
I consider it an incredible honor and privilege today to address fellow members of York County’s faith community; a privilege because many of you have labored in ministry longer and harder under more difficult circumstances than I have endured; an honor because so many of you are more qualified to address the topic with which I have been tasked this morning.
We are gathered here today to share insights and reflect together as faith leaders on the power and strength of cooperation and working together to improve our community.
Your presence here today is a warm statement of your love for this community, your commitment to its progress and your desire to make a meaningful contribution. I commend you for carving out the time to be a part of this unique community.
Breaking Down, Building Up, our theme for this year. Breaking down is something I know a bit about.
In 2006, my wife and I purchased a home in York City on Madison Avenue, an old home that required a whole lot of ‘breaking down’ before we could build it back up. We broke down walls, ripped out plaster, tore up carpets, removed the roof, and pulled out old knob-and-tube electrical wire.
Thank God for people who know how to rebuild once the hacks like me have finished destroying everything. And so this morning, I will get us started on tackling the issue of ‘breaking down.’ We have wisely left the task of ‘building up’ to a worthy expert like Superintendent Dr. Wortham.
“Good fences make good neighbors.” So Robert Frost reminds us of his neighbor’s long-held family belief. Every year the tradition stands; Frost and his neighbor walk the property line rebuilding the old fence at spring mending time.
“Why do they make good neighbors,” Frost asks his neighbor. “Aren’t your pine trees and my apple trees a natural boundary?” But the neighbor will not go behind his father’s saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The logic in many ways seems indisputable. Fences keep us in, but more importantly they keep the unwanted and unwelcome out.
The Great Wall of China built centuries ago protected the Chinese empire from military invasions. The Eastern Bloc used by the Berlin Wall to keep Germans from defecting and to keep others out. The Korean Demilitarized zone divides North and South Korea. The US-Mexico barrier is 600 miles of fence that aims to keep illegal immigrants out of the US.
One could go on about walls that separate Israelis and Palestinians, about gated communities with restricted key-code access, or about fences in our neighborhoods to separate us from the neighbors that annoy us.
Six feet of vinyl can provide privacy and make a powerful statement that says, “You can come this far and no further!”
We build fences to mark off our territory, to protect our interests from those dangerous, unstable people on the other side, to make a statement. Could we really trust them if there were no barriers?
Sitting on the outside those gates can cause a sad reality to set in: that you are an outsider without much possibility of getting close to whatever is happening on the inside. It makes you feel almost small, petty and unimportant.
Fences may at times be necessary but we are here today to suggest that most of the fences in this county have not made us good neighbors or made this community better.
There are three fences we are here to discuss today that still need to be broken down in York County.
The first fence to be broken down is geographic. York County is heavily divided by geography.
The Old Testament writer reminds us in Psalm 24 that “the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it”
When I started considering a move to York City I was quickly informed that anything west of the fairgrounds was not part of the City though it looked and felt the same.
I was discouraged strongly by many suburbanites against moving into the City and have been discouraged by several York County realtors against moving into the City.
Roads like Route 30 serve as an almost invisible fence on the north side of town between the suburbs and the City.
When a church I once ministered in decided to have a Christmas Eve service in the City at the Valencia there were people who were opposed to the idea simply because it was in the City.
This geographic fence divides York County along socioeconomic lines.
A few short years ago I coached a York City Youth League basketball team. We practiced in one of the City elementary schools, an old facility with tile floors and bent rims.
The team travelled to a new basketball facility in the county for a game and I distinctly remember watching the little faces of my team light up as we walked into this new facility with its shiny wood floors, glass backboards, breakaway rims, and new bleachers.
We blew that team out that day but I recall with sadness how ‘we’ as a community are losing a more important game. I thought to myself of how unfair and still segregated this world is that we call modern.
Outside of York City and possibly York Haven, where else can the poor afford to live?
Prior to living in York I lived for several years in Raleigh, NC. For a little over a year I worked as the General Manager of a steakhouse. I had a lovely African-American woman who worked for me named who had one daughter.
She once needed a ride home from work. I knew she lived in subsidized housing, so I didn’t know exactly what to expect as I drove her home. I was blown away when we pulled up at a suburban house in North Raleigh in a good school district. The home was owned by the Housing Authority and was part of a program that ensured the poor were not all lumped together in the worst parts of Raleigh.
I am no expert on housing zoning laws in PA but it seems to me that we need to look at providing abundant fair housing opportunities not only in the City but also in the suburbs.
There is richness we are missing on the other side of that geographic fence.
Friends recently moved into the City down the street from us into a duplex. As they got to know their neighbors they quickly came to a joint decision to tear down the chain link fence in the backyard. The yard is now so much more open like I envision their relationship.
There is a richness that exists beyond those geographic fences we have erected.
When asked why I moved into the City I often reply “because of my kids.” This usually elicits a strange frown. I go on to explain that my wife and I desire for our kids to grow up in a diverse environment.
If you were to watch me when they have their friends over for birthday parties you might catch me watching with a smile as white, black, Hispanic, rich, middle class and poor kids play together with very little idea that fences even exist.
We have so much to learn from each other, so much to share with each other but the invisible geographic fences are going to have to come down so we can learn, share and cooperate together.
The second fence I would like to address is ethnic. York County still struggles with significant racial issues.
The New Testament writer Apostle John wrote “whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar.”
I was dumbfounded when I moved to York County and a pastor drove me to a county church whose window still has stained glass that announces that the KKK donated it.
I am sobered as I walk with my kids through Farquhar Park and down Newberry Street where Lilly Belle Allen was shot some forty years ago.
Are these just remnants of the past? While this community has made progress there is still much work to do.
I wasn’t prepared for the racism I encountered when I moved north of the Mason-Dixie line after having lived in the Confederate South where most people admitted racism was a reality.
Flabbergasted: the only word I could conjure when an elderly white suburban man with whom I was eating breakfast called African-Americans the “N” word and spoke disparagingly of Puerto Ricans. I rebuked him on more than one occasion.
Dumbfounded: to hear white people talk about the other “element” that was moving into their neighborhoods.
Disgusted: by the old commenting system on the old YDR.com website. I read numerous comments about how it would be an improvement for the county if certain blocks of blacks and Hispanics would be firebombed.
There is a richness that exists on the other side of the ethnic fence.
I consider our Puerto Rican neighbors Luis and Margarita Leon, whose granddaughter Darisabel was murdered in 2008, to be some of our closest friends. Just the other day our family had an impromptu cookout and swimming party. We have tried new foods, learned new culture and been welcomed as family.
There is richness there that we will all miss if we leave the ethnic fence in place.
Recently we have been enjoying hospitality with a Mexican family who speaks very broken English. Our initially short conversations have been lengthened thanks to my iPhone and Google Translate.
I’m certain my kids will never be the same because of the joy of knowing people who have a different skin color and a different cultural background.
There is so much richness to be gleaned if we will work to tear down the ethnic barriers that keep us divided.
The third fence I would like to address is religious.
In the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
The recent slaughter of Sikhs in Wisconsin reminds us not only of racism but also of religious fences that still exist in our country.
Christianity is still the majority religion of York County. Our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters can surely describe the religious barriers that exist in this county better than I.
Nothing divides us deeper than religion. We have different conceptions of God, different ideas about the goal of life, different goals, different concepts of the after life.
Atheist Sam Harris has written calling for ‘The End of Faith’ because of the endless religious wars that have been bloody and unfortunate. I respectfully disagree with his conclusion that the end of religion is the answer.
Maybe even we, the faith community, just don’t understand each other.
I have learned so much from my ongoing friendship with Dr. David Turkewitz, a Jewish man and the head of Pediatrics at York Hospital. We sit together on the board of Prevent Child Abuse PA and enjoy frequent rides to Philadelphia together.
In our rides together I have learned much about Judaism and I hope he has learned more about Christianity because of our relationship.
I believe you are here today because you believe there is richness on the other side of those fences: the geographic, ethnic and religious ones.
What can we do to break down those barriers? In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. maybe York County needs some creative extremists. In his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ written to express his disappointment that white, Southern Christian ministers had not joined the cause for civil right, he wrote:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Creative extremists might use the following four tactics for ‘Breaking Down’ fences.
1. Forgive each other
The elderly white man with racist tendencies I referenced earlier had been pistol-whipped and robbed by a black man. It seemed to me that he held it against all black people.
I once sat in Central Market with a young African-American friend for lunch. An elderly African-American woman caught his eye and shook her head at him. He told me that he had been chastised before for fraternizing with white people.
I understand it. I go out of my way to smile and say “Hello. How are you?” to my African-American elders in this county because I know how terrible they were once treated in this place.
If we are going to break down barriers that divide us we are going to have to work through the tough work of forgiveness. We are going to have to be patient and gentle with each other in the process.
As a Christian minister forgiveness is an essential part of my message. The New Testament declares that Jesus Christ died to destroy the “dividing wall of hostility” that separates us from each other.
2. Tolerate each other
There is a spirit in the air today that says tolerance means removing all distinctions and disagreements, especially theological and ethical ones but tolerance has nothing to do with agreement.
In fact, tolerance means that I recognize your beliefs and respect you and your right to hold them. Tolerance is the willingness to make room for the other; to put up with the reality that someone has a divergent belief system than you.
Tolerance means you and I can discuss topics about which we disagree and hold deeply without disrespecting each other.
3. Have civil discourse with each other
I wrote in a recent op-Ed piece that I fear we are losing the art of civil discourse. Discourse is a two-way street that implies listening, being willing to learn and even have your system pointedly critiqued.
I have a young atheist friend in the City who gets together with me to discuss all kinds of topics. I’m pretty certain we disagree on multiple topics but our conversations are always friendly, engaging and I would like to think that we both walk away a little more enlightened because we are both open to learn from each other and to be critiqued.
The spirit of boycotts and counter-boycotts, of repeated nasty, political Facebook posts is diminishing our opportunity to have civil discourse with each other.
4. Be hospitable with each other
Regardless of your skin color, religion, education or place you live, there is one thing we share together: we all need food and drink to live.
Why not share it together? Start in a coffee shop, move to a restaurant and even better start opening your home to someone wildly different from you.
We frequently do community meetings, revivals, worship services but how often have we had a meal in each other’s homes?
I am convinced hospitality will be the seeds of destruction for the fences that need to come down.
Frost’s poem later says:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”
Fences don’t exist only in mighty places, militarized zones or temples. They can be invisible, like the Route 30 barrier that separates York County suburbanites from York City residents. Fences can be poignant pictures of hostility. They can send the message that others are unwanted and unwelcome.
Everyone here has probably built them, visible or invisible. There are neighbors we want to avoid, classes of people we avoid by not crossing the Wal-Mart barrier, restaurants we would never frequent because snooty, wealthy people eat there. Hostility lives and breathes between people of varying religious, political or ideological persuasions, between varying levels of education and income, between the beautiful and ugly, the fit and the fat. Walls are erected every place we turn in this county.
There are three choices when faced with people radically different from us: hate and do violence, ignore and build fences, reconcile and befriend. I’m pretty sure we all know which one God wants.
Whether you are a Christian, Jew, Muslim or non-believer, we need to begin to mine the resources of our various religious traditions to break down the barriers.
Speaking as my calling as a Christian minister, my personal faith forces me to embrace the ideas of forgiveness, reconciliation and hospitality because Jesus willingly went to a cross to forgive me, to reconcile me to God and my neighbor and has invited me into hospitality.
This is the resource I use regularly with my congregation to encourage them to build a world where unnecessary fences no longer exist.
The fences along the property lines are in constant need of repair. Let us commit to no longer walk the property lines and rebuild those fences. Let us break them down so that our children, grandchildren and the future generations in York County roam freely in wide open, welcoming spaces among friends and neighbors.