There was a time when you could learn what was happening in the world by reading say The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle or the New York Times and the Hartford Courant. But today some of the best reporting on what’s happening in American as well as California comes from The Guardian – a newspaper based in London, England. Time and again I have learned more and gained a deeper understanding of what’s happening here in San Francisco from The Guardian than any of the US newspapers I mentioned earlier.
After the 2016 election, The Guardian started taking us on a tour of states won by our current President. One of these stories centered on a man – who we’ll call Jack – who lives in the west, in oil country. He married a woman – we’ll call her Diane – who already had two children with two different fathers. They lived in a small town where people mourn the loss of community they used to have: people used to garden together and go to church together. But all that has gone away and now people wonder if, as the economy changes, their town will even survive.
After marrying, Jack enlisted in the Army. He liked being in the service, made good money, bought a camping trailer, and went on a trip with Diane and the kids. They stopped at a yellow light and BAM – a truck hit the trailer and then their car. Jack and Diane both suffered painful neck injuries. Jack stopped taking the pain killers their doctor prescribed – he didn’t like how they made him feel disconnected from reality. But Diane liked how that felt – and she became addicted to the painkillers. Jack’s injury left him with lingering pain, so he left the military. He used a fraction of the accident settlement from the trucking company to start a welding business. Diane spent the rest of that windfall on clothes and a new double wide. All the settlement money was gone within a year.
But the welding business took off as fracking boosted their local economy. Diane continued to struggle with addiction. Jack tried to help Diane: he drove her to medical appointments, tried to get her into treatment programs, worked to get her therapy. But nothing would come together for Diane. She couldn’t find a bed when she needed it, she couldn’t find a therapist who made a difference.
Then the local economy went south. The family avoided cutting expenses by taking more and more money out of the welding business. Diane’s 13-year-old son started having more and more trouble in school. He dressed and was bullied like an outsider, an Emo freak, someone who did not fit in. Jack and Diane tried to help. But once again the safety net programs that are supposed to assist failed. Their son wasn’t sick enough, they were told, to be treated on one of the few spaces available in that rural conservative red state. The young man committed suicide and his Mother’s downward spiral accelerated. Jack and Diane divorced, she slipped deeper into addiction her mother died of complications from alcoholism. Diane slipped into dementia at age 43. One of the doctor’s treating her thought she might have a manic depressive personality – one that could have been treated had the diagnosis been made a few decades earlier. But this insight came too late. Diane died within a year of her mother.
This story of Jack and Diane is both heartbreaking and depressing: there’s no happy ending nor is there hope for a different ending in the future. It makes clear both the loss of hope, increasing loneliness, and disappearing sense of community that afflicts people in places like this. Factories have closed, jobs disappeared, life became more fragile in hundreds if not thousands of American towns. Essential services which middle-class Americans take for granted are hard to find in these communities. Slowly, folks living in these towns are realizing they are slipping out of the middle class and toward poverty.
The Guardian series on states won by our current president tells of a surging suicide rate among middle aged white middle class Americans: they now account for a third of all US suicides. It tells of an epidemic of opiate drug abuse and alcoholism afflicting “rust belt” America’s white folks. Woven throughout this reporting people speak of the devastating loss of community and the scarcity of hope in their lives. All this is heartbreaking. It also reminds me of the kind of travails and troubles people of color living in urban centers have endured for decades.
Our problem is we don’t connect the dots. We don’t see the similarity between a Latino man struggling with a drug addiction inner city and a white man in the rust belt who is struggling with drug addiction. We don’t see the similarity between despair and the loss of hope from joblessness in the black community and the same loss of hope in rust belt towns. We don’t see the similarity in these two communities between a growing sense of isolation and loneliness that leads to high rates of alcoholism and suicide in both places.
We’ve learned to wall what’s happening in the white community off from what’s happening in the Latino or black community; to wall off what afflicts people in our inner cities from that which affects those living in the rust belt. There’s a reason for this: those who won the last election did so by dividing America along classic fracture lines of color, class, and religion. Richard Nixon started this tactic with a “Southern Strategy” appeal to racial hatred across America. In the years since Nixon, conservatives have used “wedge issue” after “wedge issue” to splinter the New Deal coalition of poor and Middle-Class Americans who once had hope for a better tomorrow. And as Harvey Milk once said, you gotta give them hope.
We struggle to connect the dots because we are told time and again that we cannot connect the dots: we cannot reach out and work across divisions based on color, creed, or class. We’re told we have nothing in common with people in the rust belt. Truth is, we all sweat the same color sweat, cry the same color tears, and bleed the same color blood. As Americans and Christians, the common ground we share vastly overshadows the divisions drawn by devious politicians and preachers who seek to build their membership and budget.
To survive, we need to stop strengthens walls that divide us and start focusing on the common ground we all share; the common values we believe as Americans and as Christians. We need to transfigure our nation. This transformation is essential and unavoidable if we are to remain a free people. And that is where today’s sacred story from the Gospel (Matthew 17:1-9) comes in.
The anonymous author of the Gospel called Matthew tells us Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” He was transformed by the presence of God in the presence of two great Hebrew prophets: Moses and Elijah. And this change was endorsed by a voice from God saying “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
So if we listen to Jesus, what does God expect us to hear and do now, right here in San Francisco? I believe God is calling us to transfigure the world by transforming ourselves into the living likeness of the love of Christ. We are called to be the hands and feet and arms and – yes – the loving heart of Jesus. We are called to walk the Jesus path right here and now, serving as the body of Christ in our place and time.
We know people are isolated, lonely, and cut off from each other: let us love them with a community where everyone has a place of honor and respect. We know people are afraid: let us love them with courage as we walk unafraid though our lives. We know people are hungry: let us feed their bodies as well as their souls with community meals, art, music, and worship.
We stand at the intersection of two very different communities: San Francisco’s Wester Addition and North of the Panhandle (NoPa) neighborhoods. Can we find ways to live as the body of Christ and heal the hurts of those who live here? Whether this is our call is a question each of us must consider individually and then weigh as a group. We will start this discussion during our upcoming annual meeting. May we find our path toward a new day filled with hope and community.
Let us pray:
Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, whose compassion illumines the world. Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who live and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.