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March 14, 2021: In Search of the Kingdom of God: Being Peace-Bringers

In Search of the Kingdom of God: Being Peace-Bringers

Video:

Scripture: Matthew 5:9 and Philippians 4-9

  • Prelude – “St. Columba (The King of Love My Shepherd Is),” arr. by Michael Fontana; Pauline Olsen, organ
  • Welcome – Pastor Brad Beeman
  • Hymn 2113 – “Lamb of God,” by Twila Paris; Patty Shoop, hymn leader; Pauline Olsen, organ; Terry Reitz, keyboard; Donna Grubbs, piano
  • Prayer Time – Rev. Dr. Kathleen Charters
  • Special Music – “Oh, the Blood,” by Mary and Thomas Miller; Janice Parks, vocal and piano
  • Scripture – Matthew 5:9 and Philippians 4-9; Neva Smith
  • Sermon – “In Search of the Kingdom of God: Being Peace-Bringers,” Pastor Brad Beeman
  • Hymn 3105 – “In Christ Alone,” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend; Patty Shoop, hymn leader; Pauline Olsen, organ; Terry Reitz, keyboard; Donna Grubbs, piano
  • Postlude – “Overture and Trumpet Tune on Lobe Den Herren (Praise to the Lord),” arr. by Mark A. Radice; Pauline Olsen, organ

I think for many of us, this one seems impossible. How can I bring peace to those with whom I disagree? How can I bring peace to members of my family who see themselves so differently from me? How can I, little old me, bring peace to a community, or to a church for that matter? Thinking about bringing peace to the world seems unimaginable. I think many of us will be surprised to find what this really means, this whole idea of bringing or making peace.

Many of us think back on the ’60s and remember the peace signs, the two fingers raised up to symbolize peace. To a great extent that isn’t what this Beatitude is referencing. It’s something much deeper, much wider, and only accessible as we come into a relationship with God. It is Shalom. Some of it has to do with the whole idea of blessed. Some with self-examination, while other parts explore those expressions outside of ourselves. Jesus sought to and still seeks to bring peace; one that passes understanding. But like so many other elements of these scriptures, bringing peace often comes at a cost, and we’ll explore that more fully this morning.

So, again this week I want to go back to Sunnyside, that small town in the Yakima Valley in Central Washington. You only heard half of the equation last week. It would be easy to believe that the gangs were the only challenge in this small community. They were not.

The challenges of working within a community like this were huge. Today, given that this Beatitude is about being peacemakers, this second half of the story is vital. Last week you heard about the remarkable transformation that took place with gang members because of the work of the church, and the work of God in and through their lives. This week, let’s take a look at the other side, the law enforcement side, the Dutch side, the White side, the attitude, and the racist side. To get there, I need to give a little background.

I shared that Sunnyside was 85% Hispanic. Hispanic means Latino and from Mexico. Some of the Hispanic population had moved from being farmworkers in this agricultural community, to jobs that did not involve moving as often as a seasonal worker might move. Many worked in fast food, or restaurants, or as gardeners. Some still worked on the farms but in a greater capacity than a seasonal worker. Some worked in the huge feedlots that surrounded the community, others in some of the vineyards, and still others worked in more skilled positions as mechanics or in the hospital, mostly in maintenance. What really surprised me, however, was that there was only one Hispanic business owner. They ran the shop that sold quinceanera and wedding dresses. That’s it. So now set that aside for just a minute.

Our first real introduction to the police department was in our first month in Sunnyside. The department had just opened a beautiful new facility that sat just outside of town. It had lawns, gardens, and ponds. One of the ponds was a koi pond. You know, the kind of pond that is designed to bring peace. I know, it just doesn’t seem to fit, but it was there.

On one summer day, a great blue heron found the koi pond. And like any great blue heron would, it feasted. It feasted until the then-chief of police walked out with a shotgun and literally blew the Great Blue Heron out of the water. Yes, he shot it. He killed it. And then bragged about it. He was fired. He wasn’t fired for killing the bird. He was fired for discharging a firearm on city property without cause.

He argued that he had fired with cause, and in just a second you’ll see the irony of this. Well over half the people in town couldn’t understand why he would be fired. I mean this is a community that loved to hunt and fish. To some extent, that was a part of the population that didn’t care if it was an endangered or protected species. It was eating the koi out of the city-owned pond. There was a much smaller group that was outraged by the action. No matter, the law was clear, and he needed to be fired. He was.

That was our first introduction to the police department. Here’s the ironic part of that story. The next summer, the town became infested with crows, thousands of crows. For some reason, they chose the trees downtown to congregate. You can only imagine the racket. But then you think of what they would leave behind. All kinds of solutions were offered up. Did I mention that this was a community of hunters? The police invited everyone with a shotgun to come into town early in the morning. Shotguns were loaded with salt rather than pellets. All together, at the agreed-upon hour, everyone shot their shotguns into the crow-infested trees.

Yup, it scared the crows into flight. It also caused them to deposit large amounts of, well, what crows leave behind when frightened. It did not, however, cause them to leave. Then, after much deliberation, came the ultimate solution.

Working alongside the fire department, there came a day where once the crows landed in the dozens of trees around the center of town, which included the hospital and our church, the fire department filled their trucks with a solution of detergent and water. They sprayed the crows down so they couldn’t fly. The police department then came in with all their shotguns – 10 and 12 gauge. Yup, beginning to get the irony? This time it wasn’t blanks or even salt, it was steel shot, and they began pelting the trees with shotgun loads.

Hundreds and hundreds of crows were killed. Others tried to fly away, but were then killed. This went on for weeks. Every Saturday at around 6 am, the same thing would be repeated. The problem, okay, among the problems, was that they had no idea what to do with all the dead crows.

Instead of taking them out of town and dumping them, they filled the dumpsters in town. So, dead crows sat in dumpsters, in the summer heat, for at least 3 – 4 days. Yup, you guessed it…the smell became unbearable.

The crows finally left, the clean-up took months, but the legend of the crows still lives on in community lore. And well it should. I share this simply to talk about the lack of peace in the community. Solutions to problems were often violent and bizarre. Now, throw in the abject, often overt racism and you begin to get the picture. Any sort of peace, whether with nature or within the community was fleeting at best.

No Hispanic was allowed to serve on the city council. No Hispanic was allowed to own a business. There were no Hispanic doctors, no Hispanic lawyers, no Hispanic professionals to be found. And lest you believe that this was happening in the ’50s or ’60s, we moved to Sunnyside in 1996 and stayed until 2001.

Sure, there were 43 churches in this town of 13,500, but like the community, they were also divided by race, other than maybe the Catholic church. And, by the way, there was only one Hispanic on the police force, and he was relegated to the kinds of duties that often involved a desk. But like what happened with the gangs, the changes that took place in that community in that time were nothing short of miraculous.

It’s important to mention that there was nothing positive about the relationship between the gangs and the police. Nothing. The police saw themselves in absolute, sometimes violent opposition to the gangs. The police mentality was that “the best gang member is a dead gang member.” But you throw in everything else going on in this community and the elevation of the kinds of chaos you heard about with the crows, the overt racism, the overall lack of peace, the overwhelming smell of the feedlots, the incredible poverty, cultural and religious divides, you begin to understand why finding peace of any kind was a challenge.

The first time I sat with the police department to talk about my intentions regarding the gangs, I was laughed out of the building. The second time, as we opened up basketball, I was warned out of the building. The third time, as we opened the espresso stand, I took a few gang members with me to the department. I asked the one Hispanic officer to be present. I asked the school resource officer to be present. I asked the chief to set up some ground rules with his officers, and asked that they listen without judgment, something I knew was impossible. The stubborn attitudes on the part of the police were a huge part of this equation. We kept going.

Over time I asked specific officers to come and play basketball with the kids. After that, I asked the officers to put together a team, and asked that they play the all-stars of the gang league. Before that game we had some get-to-know-you time. After that, we had some time to cool off and eat together. It all began simply. The initiating of a different understanding of what a relationship can be; in this case from overtly negative, to a sharing of experiences out of which could come something positive. It wasn’t always smooth, didn’t always happen, but it was always intentional.

We understood the needed level of patience, knowing that to change a deeply felt negative belief in adults; beliefs that created negative attitudes, particularly when expressed in specific overt behaviors, also negative, is by far the toughest kind of change to bring about. Think about it. Think about the presidential election.

But, you know what, we had an espresso delivery service so decided to give it a shot (no pun intended) as we sought to build relationships between gang members and the police. The first time they tried, the kids took a bunch of espresso to the police station. The kids were told to leave the premises. They did, but they left the drinks. Many of the officers simply threw out the drinks believing that the kids had doctored them.

Then, I, along with other adults took drinks in with the kids. I had arranged to have them handed out during roll call, and the chief was the first to take a drink. As he drank his, others began to drink theirs. Over time, and it took time, the police became one of the largest organizations to support the work of Holy Grounds.

Now, imagine a group of gang members walking into the police station with two or three of those cardboard trays with eight or ten or twelve drinks. Imagine them being greeted with smiles, and by name at the front desk. Peace was growing, and this in the place where the Great Blue Heron had been shot not three years before. A feeling of peace was found in a place where previously there was none. So, that was one part of the change, but it wasn’t enough. We still had the racism to deal with. Believe it or not, this was much more difficult.

The City Council was made up of community leaders, most of whom were also local business owners. One owned a large auto shop, another the biggest Bed and Breakfast in the area, another owned a financial consulting firm, one owned a vineyard. They were all white and of Dutch descent. They were also well off, lived on the hill above town, and didn’t have any real experience with the gangs or the kind of poverty consistently found in the community they were supposed to serve. They seemed to like their positions of power, and didn’t want to see any significant changes in the community (council-speak for: don’t change anything in our community).

By now, Holy Grounds was getting some really good press. The Alternative School was getting good press. The relationship with the police department…you guessed it, was getting good press. I thought it time to put on a forum around racism. I did. It didn’t go over well. I met with the Council any number of times. They didn’t want to hear it. So, we turned to the Hispanic gate-keepers in the community, and yes, there were some. They began to find their voices, to challenge the status quo, and to force the Council to do some self-examination.

Then one of them did the unthinkable. He applied for a business license. He was turned down. He applied again. He was turned down. He applied again, this time with legal counsel, and decided to do it in front of the City Council. Word had gotten out (can’t imagine how) and the Council chambers were packed with Hispanic community members. The business license was granted, and that began to open up opportunities for others. I wish I could tell you that the racism disappeared. It didn’t. It got better, but something as deep-seated as what we saw there doesn’t change overnight, if at all. It did get better. That same business person ultimately found himself on City Council. That was a really good thing.

What happened in Sunnyside, at least for a little while was peace. No one could quite name the reason, nor could anyone really define the kind of peace that seemed to have descended on this community. But it was there. Even people driving through would talk about it. There were no more crow shooting incidents, no more Great Blue Heron killings, people began to greet each other in ways we hadn’t seen before. It didn’t dawn on me until much later that this was a peace that passed understanding. It was God’s peace that had descended on this community. The church was filled with it. It was tangibly present. And therein lay the most perfect example of the living out of this Beatitude. And there is so much more I could share – Easter Sunday with the Hispanic church from Mabton, in both languages, is but one.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. That church, elements of that community had become a family with God at the head and Jesus at its heart. The evil had been diminished. The chaos, at least elements of it, had found order – even if for a little while. The tragic element to all of this is, that if it isn’t practiced continually, it grows weaker and weaker until ultimately it will disappear. It did. After Dorothy and I left, the next pastor dismantled all that we had done. Within a year or two the church was back down to around 60. Five years later, it was 40. Five years later, it was 25 and was unable to sustain itself. It finally closed around five years ago. It is a testament to the need to continually live these elements, practice them, share them, become centered on them, and then, only then, will they be sustainable. That is always the risk. So, as we continue to move through this time of Lent, please let’s take a look and make sure we’re practicing these elements in ways that make them sustainable. We have everything we need right here and right now…so let’s pray about that.