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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
March 21, 2019

Radical Hospitality: Notes for Living on Earth

The children’s story is really the sermon this week. (Notes for Living on Earth by Oliver Jeffers) Here is a recap of what we need to know in order to live on Earth:

We’re glad you found us as space is very big. Look after your body as most bits don’t grow back. Three really important things to remember are to eat, drink, and stay warm. People may look and sound and act different but don’t be fooled, we are all people. Things move quickly here on planet earth so use the time well because it will be gone before we know it. Take care of the planet. It is our only one. Be kind. There is enough for everyone. Amen. The sermon could end right here but I would add one more thing and that is what I call radical hospitality. Try to treat each person you meet, including yourself as if they were the very person you are waiting for, the very person you are hoping for. Make the circle of welcome a little bigger, and then a little bigger still.

Father Gregory Boyle calls this kinship. Father Boyle is a white haired, round faced Jesuit priest who has been working with former gang members and incarcerated youth in East Los Angeles for 30 years. He is the founder and director of Homeboy industries, the largest gang rehabilitation program in the world. Homeboy Industries provides employment to formerly gang involved and incarcerated youth (homies as they call themselves and each other) in its many small businesses. These include, among others, Homeboy electronics recycling, Homeboy solar panel installing, Homeboy tortillas and salsa which is sold on line and in restaurants. There is Homeboy Catering, Homeboy Diner and Homegirl Cafe. In addition to jobs, Homeboy Industries provides education, counseling, anger management, case management, and parenting classes. They also provide free tattoo removal services and have removed thousands of tattoos from former gang members bodies because it can be hard to find a job when you have alarming tattoos across your forehead.

Homeboy Industries serves 15,000 young adults every year and while they have never expanded beyond LA by choice, their work has been a model and a blueprint for more than 250 organization around the country and the world. One of these organizations is UTEC in Lowell which is also doing incredible work with gang involved and incarcerated youth. I visited there on my last sabbatical and had a tour and met some of the youth and staff and it is wonderful. I would love to go back with some of you and see if can create some kind of connection between UTEC and our congregation.

Father Boyle’s first book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion came out in 2010 and if you were around here then you know how enthusiastic, really evangelical, I was about that book. We had a congregation wide read and I know many of you loved it as much as I did. Father Boyle’s latest book is called Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. The title, Barking to the Choir, comes from a wonderful verbal mistake one of the Homies made. Father Boyle was giving him a lecture about some trouble he was having and the Homie answered, “Don’t Worry, G (as the Homies call Father Boyle for his first name Gregory), You are barking to the choir!” Father Boyle said it is a perfect expression, really because sometimes the choir really does need barking at. We get complacent and we forget what we are here for — to testify to the fact that we are all kin.

Like Tattoos on the Heart, Barking to the Choir is full of beautiful, funny, heart breaking and poignant stories about the young men and women Father Boyle works with, learns from and is in deep and mutual relationship with. It is also about how we find kinship with one another no matter who we are and no matter how different we seem on the surface, and about the power of tenderness to heal people, no matter what their particular wounds.

Father Boyle has gotten a little bit famous in the years since his first book, he has a Ted Talk now and interviews with Terry Gross and Krista Tippett. He has multiple speaking engagements and some honorary degrees and big awards but it does not seem to have changed him at all. He is still hilarious and humble and talks about things like delight and awe and love where many others use words like violence, despair and generational poverty.

As some of you might remember Homeboy industries began in 1992 after Boyle came to be the priest at Delores Mission Church in East LA, It was the poorest parish in the region and had the most gangs and gang related violence and he ended up there because no other priest wanted to serve there. Homeboy Industries just grew slowly from the needs he encountered.

In a recent interview with Terry Gross Father Boyle said, “We began as sort of a job employment referral center, trying to find felony-friendly employers. And that wasn’t so forthcoming. So we had to start our own [employment center]. We couldn’t wait, the demand was so huge. And gang members kept saying, “If only we had jobs.” So we started Homeboy Bakery in 1992, and a month later, we started Homeboy Tortillas. Once we had two, once we had plural, we came up with the highfalutin name “Homeboy Industries,” as if there was any industry involved in this venture.” Homeboy has over 400 employees now as well as hundreds of volunteer teachers, therapists, doctors, social workers, mentors. And, in the intervening years, they have learned that the work is not just about providing jobs, as important as that is, it is about providing a place for healing, where young people whose lives have been treated as disposable are shown their value and are given respect and esteem and love.

As Father Boyle puts it, “We don’t hold up a bar and ask people to measure up to it. We hold up a mirror and tell people the truth which is that you are exactly what God in mind when god made you and then you watch people become that truth, inhabit that truth.” And the work is about creating kinship among young men and women who as once rival gang members would have killed one another and who, without fail, become peers, colleagues working side by side, and often friends, because once they actually know each other, the old gang affiliations fall away and become meaningless. Father Boyle says he gets asked about this all the time. He gets asked how it is possible for rival gang members to work in the cafe together for example. He says it always starts the same way — they say, well I will work with him but I won’t talk to him and that lasts a few days. It has never not worked, not once he says, that eventually and usually in a really short time they forget they are supposed to hate each other and start to belong to each other. They are powerful role models for the rest of us.

I found a wonderful short video of Father Boyle telling the story of an experience he and two of the homeboys, homies as they call themselves and each other recently had when they were giving a talk at Gonzaga University in Spokane. I would love to be able to show you the video so you could hear him tell it in his own words and get his wicked sense of humor directly as well as his delight but we lack the technology for that at the moment. But I will do my best and will also put the link to the video in this Friday’s weekly church wide email. Here is how Father Boyle tells it:

It’s been the privilege of my life for 30 years to have been taught everything of value by gang members. In the last few years they’ve taught me how to text and so I’m really grateful to them because I find it sure beats the heck out of actually talking to people. And I’m pretty dexterous at it LOL, and OMG, and BTW. The homies have taught me a new one, OHN, which apparently stands for Oh Hell No. And I’ve been using that one quite a bit lately.

My alma matter Gonzaga University called me and said they were going to have a big talk on a Tuesday night with a thousand people. And so I said sure and they said can you bring two homies with you. And (when I go on these talks) I always pick homies who have never flown before just for the thrill of seeing gang members panicked in the sky. I’ve never picked anybody more terrified of flying than this guy Mario He was just absolutely petrified. In fact, he was hyperventilating and we hadn’t even boarded the plane yet. And then our flight crew arrives, and I see two flight attendants, females, and they both have very large cups of Starbucks coffee and they’re schlepping up the front steps. And Mario goes “When are we going to board the plane?” and I said Oh, as soon as they sober up the pilots.

I should tell you that Mario in our 30 year history at Homeboy is the most tattooed individual who’s ever worked there. His arms are all sleeved out, neck blackened with the name of his gang, head shaved, covered in tattoos, forehead, cheeks, chin, Eyelids that say “The End” so that when he’s lying in his coffin, there’s no doubt. And I’ve never been in public with him and were’ walking and people are (doing these shocked double takes) and mothers are clutching their kids more closely. And I’m thinking, Wow isn’t that interesting because if you were to go to Homeboy on Monday and ask anybody there who’s the kindest, most gentle soul who works there, they won’t say me, they’ll say Mario. He sells baked goods at the counter at our cafe.

Mario is proof that only the soul that ventilates the world with tenderness has any chance of changing the world. So the nighttime talk comes and it’s a thousand people and I invite (the homies) up to share their stories in front of all these people for five minutes each and they were terrified but they did a good job. And honest to god if their stories had been flames, you’d have to keep your distance or you’d get scorched. I invite them up for Q and A and … a woman stands and she says “Yeah, I’ve got a question, it’s for Mario,” first question out of the gate. And Mario steps up to the microphone and he’s a tall drink of water, skinny, clutching the microphone and he’s terrified. Yes?

And she says, Well you said you’re a father and you have a son and daughter who are about to enter their teenage years. What advice do you give them? What wisdom do you impart to them?

And Mario clutches his microphone and he’s just terrified and he’s trembling and he’s getting a hernia trying to come up with whatever the hell he’s going to say. When finally he blurts out I Just… And he stops and he retreats back to his microphone — clutching, terrified retreat. But he wants to get this whole sentence out. And he starts crying as he says it: I just don’t want my kids to turn out to be like me.

And there’s silence. Until the woman who asked the question stands back up and now it’s her turn to cry, and she says “Why wouldn’t you want your kids to be like you?? You are loving, you are kind, you are gentle, you are wise. I hope your kids turn out to be like you!”

And a thousand total perfect strangers stand up and they will not stop clapping. And all Mario can do is hold his face in his hands so overwhelmed with emotion that this room full of people, strangers, have returned him to himself and they were returned to themselves

I think, you go from here to stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop and you stand with the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. And you stand with those whose dignity has been denied and you stand with those whose burdens are more than they can bear and you stand with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. Make those voices heard.

And that’s the end of the video.

Mother Theresa once said, if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another. Our work as humans who live on planet Earth is to create a circle of compassion, a circle of welcome, a circle of radical hospitality and then to imagine there is no one outside that circle and to act accordingly. Our work is to refuse to believe there are lives that matter less than other lives and to act accordingly.

Father Boyle gave a talk at Chattaqua Institute a couple of summers ago with Krista Tippett the host of On Being and the transcript of the session is on line including the Q and A session at the end when a woman get up and says something like, I am so moved by your work but I am here for a week and then I go back to my pretty privileged life among my Unitarian Universalist co-congregants and what am I supposed to do, I mean besides writing a check?

Krista Tippett says something like, God Bless the Unitarians for asking the hard questions. And Father Boyle says, Well don’t stop writing checks first of all! But then he says, basically the answer is kinship. The answer is to try to create kinship everywhere we go.

That is your assignment this week — practice kinship. As often as you are able and in as many places as possible welcome each person you meet as if they are exactly the person you are waiting for, hoping for. The waiter who takes your lunch order, the person in the Dunkin Donuts line who is taking too long, the co-worker you don’t like, your child or parent or spouse who is not behaving as you might wish, yourself, who you so often do not forgive for the slightest mistake. You could even say it. You could say, “You are exactly the one I was waiting for.” See what happens. Imagine yourself holding up a small mirror to everyone you meet so you can show them the beautiful truth of who they are. We happen to have some tiny mirrors downstairs, leftover from another church experiment, if you want to take one and try it for real- if anyone thinks it’s strange, just say your minister told you to do it. Ventilate the world with some tenderness this week. We belong to each other.

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1 Powder House Road … P.O. Box 457 … Groton, MA 01450-0457 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Created 2019-04-05