I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's on Sunday, July 10. It was the conclusion of our "Season of Listening," a time when our congregation turns intentionally outward to listen to voices from our neighborhood. The text was Luke 10:25-27; the story of the Good Samaritan.
“And who is my neighbor?”
the man asked Jesus.
This is the last week of our "Season of Listening" here at St. Lydia’s.
For the last few weeks, we’ve been hearing stories about this neighborhood from our neighbors.
We heard from Michael Higgins, Jr., an activist with FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality)
who came and taught us about the work public housing residents are doing
to keep their neighborhoods in tact as the city makes plans to build luxury units on public housing land.
Last week, Tracey Pinkard came and told us stories about her grandmother,
a matriarch at the Gowanus Houses who took care of just about everyone,
and the way her work is continuing
through the arts program for kids that Tracey co-founded,
We've heard very local stories from very local people --
people who live and work right next door.
Today our country is writhing in grief.
These last few weeks have been relentless with violence and pain.
Hashtag after hashtag.
We mourn for 50 lives lost in Orlando,
We mourn for Philando Castile in St. Paul.
We mourn for Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge.
We mourn for six lives lost in Dallas.
This morning at Waffle Church the children cut out hearts for all the places in the world they wanted to pray for
and we covered a map of our nation in prayers.
God, we need them.
With the whole country grieving,
we might wonder how hearing stories from our neighborhood
can make any difference.
What can a little neighborhood like Gowanus
have to do with systemic violence that is so big?
The system of racialized violence, police brutality, and mass incarceration
in our country is big. Really big. Overwhelmingly big.
Don’t we need to think big, act big, to make big changes?
Yesterday in this very room during a cop watch training that was held here,
sixty people heard a very personal story from a neighbor who lives just down the block in the Gowanus Houses.
It’s a story of this neighborhood.
Of something that happened here, right on these blocks.
Mr. Nicholas Heyward told us the story of his son, Nicholas Heyward, Jr.,
who was playing with his friends in the stairwell of the Gowanus Houses.
Nicholas was holding a toy gun with a orange cap on the end.
And a police officer shot him.
He was thirteen years old.
Nicholas was murdered in 1994. He was just a little younger than me.
He would have been 35 in August.
It happened right here in Gowanus, three blocks away from us,
just like it happens in neighborhoods across the country,
needless stops and harassments of dark skinned people,
again and again,
that too often end very badly.
My friend Kaji, a pastor I graduated with and an amazing speaker and preacher,
just upgraded from a moderately-priced car to a Mercedes (a stretch financially)
in the hopes that she can stop getting constantly pulled over
with her baby girl in the back in a car seat.
Mr. Heyward tells his story.
We need to know the stories of our neighborhoods --
the stories of our past that our present is built on.
Here’s a story we need to hear:
St. Lydia's is a block away from the Gowanus Canal,
a superfund site that is perhaps the most polluted waterway in the country.
Before the Gowanus Canal was a canal, it was a creek.*
The area where we're sitting right now was the water basin for all of Brooklyn,
where all the streams and came together and emptied out into the sea.
The Gowanus creek meandered along about the same route the canal takes today,
and the land around it, which was marshy and covered in sea grass,
was home to one of the tribes of the Lenape Native Americans.
They farmed, hunted, and harvested shellfish from these lands.
There were oysters here that, one Dutch colonist wrote,
were the size of dinner plates.
The Dutch “bought” this land from the Lenape
and early on a colonist named Freek built a mill
that used the river power to grind flour.
The mill was built and installed by African slaves.
The canal was dug deeper by African slaves.
This land was built on the back of slaves,
who never saw the profits it earned.
Slowly, the Gowanus began to industrialize.
200 soldiers from the Maryland 400 died in or along the Gowanus river during the Battle of Brooklyn
as George Washington retreated from the British and back to Manhattan.
After the War, Edwin C. Litchfield purchased a huge parcel of Brooklyn land,
which included Gowanus.
He built a great villa up on the hill --
it still sits on Prospect Park West and fifth street.
It looked out on a thriving commercial area along the canal,
ships busily moving in and out of the bay,
delivering supplies for cement factories,
gas works, brass foundries, lumber yards.
In the 1850’s the Gowanus Canal was lined with shanties,
an area called Darby’s Patch.
They were one room, one story buildings with packed dirt floors,
inhabited by mostly Irish immigrants.
You can guess what happened when it rained.
The sewers that were installed in the new city of Brooklyn
were never able to handle the rains of these low-lying flood lands.
In August of 1877, the Brooklyn Eagle published a article titled,
“Very Vile: The Disgusting Condition of the Gowanus Canal.”
The article wrote that 9,187 pounds of feces
were expelled into the canal every day.
There never seemed to be city money to make the changes the canal needed —
so the residents of Darby’s Patch stood on the tables
when the water rose to high.
Meanwhile, Mr. Litchfield, way up on the hill, had never paid a dime of taxes on his lands.
Every factory along the canal pumped their waste into the canal, untreated.
At a certain point, a pump was installed at the head of the canal
to try and move water through, drawn from the East River.
A few years later it broke, and it stayed that way for decades.
Then they got it working again,
but as we know, it only did so much.
It was fine though, because only poor people lived here, right?
This neighborhood still has what's called “combined sewage overflow,”
which means that when it rains hard,
the raw sewage goes straight into the canal.
Today the Gowanus is known to contain almost no oxygen.
Because of this it has almost no plant or animal life.
The only thing that lives in there are strains of viruses and parasites.
We all walked to church tonight on the bones of our forebears.
Soldiers who died here, slaves who worked here,
native people who once made this place their home.
The Gowanus is a living reminder of the sins of our past:
our domination of other humans and of the environment
all to make a dime.
Reading about the history of this neighborhood,
all I could think was that we can’t move forward
without dredging up the sins of the past.
Through the years, plenty of people have suggested
just paving the whole canal over.
But the land will still flood,
reminding us that we’ve usurped the natural order of things.
We can’t just bury it.
In the same way, we can’t just bury the cries of an entire people
because of the actions of one gunman.
Do not allow the hate-filled action of one person to distract you.
We must grieve the loss of life in Dallas. It’s heartbreaking.
And we must keep the focus on the Black lives
that are at risk in our nation every day.
The story of the Good Samaritan is very local story.
The Samaritan is a man who is going about his business.
He’s walking down a treacherous road on the way back from Jerusalem.
He’s probably tired out after a long trip.
And this man encounters a real person.
A Jew. Who is separated from him by belief and religious practice,
Someone who he’s been taught to see as the enemy, taught not to trust.
He encounters this other:
a real person, in a real time, in a real place, on a real day.
And his heart is moved.
The Spirit stirs and he is moved to action.
God moves him to make a choice to address the real
pain and brokenness that he witnesses
and to take it on.
Not to ignore it, but to see it.
And seeing it means, in a way, owning it.
Now it belongs to him, too.
It is a story of a fundamental interruption:
the interruption of the Samaritan’s routine,
the interruption of his beliefs,
the interruption of his day.
His life is disrupted, upended
to help this person who is not far away
but right up close.
Right in his life, in his neighborhood.
On the street he travels.
It’s not convenient,
helping this man, this neighbor,
takes work, time, effort, and money.
He sacrifices his life as usual
to hold another’s pain.
I believe that we are living through a critical moment in our nation’s history.
We are poised on the edge of something.
Deciding if we’re going to own up to the centuries of shit
we’ve dumped here
and dredge it all up
and face it, deal with it,
or just pave it all over
and pretend that our black and brown citizens aren’t dying in our streets
or being funneled toward our prisons.
We have a choice:
to stop and look at the suffering of our Black and brown siblings,
or to walk on by.
Many of us in this room have the privilege to just keep on walking.
And many of us have already had our hearts changed,
and decided that we must stop,
to try and hold a pain that we will never have to bear.
Allow our lives to be interrupted:
give time, give money, give energy
because this is really, really important.
It’s easy to look back on the movements of the past
and idealize all that took place.
We see pictures of Martin Luther King walking, arms linked, with clergy
or preaching at the March on Washington.
There are fewer pictures of the secretaries copying out notes from late night meetings,
of building data bases of phone numbers
or trudging door to door to register voters,
making coffee and setting out chairs and sweeping the floor after the meeting.
But that’s the stuff that movements are made of.
It’s easy to remember the organizers who led the way,
but behind them were tons of ordinary people
going to chapter meetings and writing their senators and showing up for marches.
It’s easy also, when we look at those photos,
to erase the uncertainty, the confusion,
the in-fighting and the painful decisions,
that characterized those days.
Not to mention the real, gnawing fear.
Of fire hoses and angry mobs...
bombed out churches…
I think of more names we must remember:
Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley…
Medgar Evers, James Earl Chaney…
lives that shouldn’t have been lost.
Funerals that shouldn’t have taken place.
Do you think the Samaritan felt certain of what he was doing?
Felt sure that he should do what the priest and Levite failed to
and take it upon himself to get involved in all this?
I feel sure he was trembling in fear.
My friend Austin Channing, who does incredible work for racial justice in the Church,
recently posted advice for white allies
who hope to work toward racial justice on Facebook.
“It's time to identify, call out, and uproot white supremacy
wherever you find it,” she wrote.
“You may not be a police officer who's decisions come with deadly consequences.
But don’t think you are in any way off the hook.
I guarantee somewhere in your life is a space infested with decisions being made to benefit white people
at the expense of black people and other races and ethnicities.
Its time to be a co-laborer, to risk your body along with mine.
Its time for urgency.
Your thoughts and prayers and posts don’t mean much,
if they are only for places far away,
and never right where you live, work or worship.”
There’s not some magic place “out there”
where the movement is happening, without us.
It’s happening right here, right now, on these streets.
On the banks of this canal, made toxic with the sins of those who came before us,
which we must now reckon with.
It’s happening in these streets, in this neighborhood,
where young men and women are aggressively policed every single day.
And we must reckon with it.
Yesterday sixty people gathered in this room to learn about how to “cop watch:”
how to video the police to create accountability
and to make sure they know that the actions they’re taking
in low income neighborhoods are being observed.
These are people who are ready to, as Austin puts it, “be a co-laborer.”
To risk their bodies and their safety in the same way
that darker skinned people risk their bodies every day.
Cop Watch CPU in New York has grown and organized.
They know where the police are showing up and they show up with them.
And they’re working on these streets, these neighborhoods.
We need massive police reform,
massive reform of the justice system,
massive reform of the prison system.
These massive reformed probably seem as impossibly distant
as desegregated schools did in 1954.
But it happened.
Change takes place one street at a time, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time.
It takes place though thoroughly unromantic stuff
like meeting minutes and setting out chairs.
It happens when we encounter the pain of our neighbor —
those who may seem strange and different and “other” from us,
and allow it to move our hearts,
allow the Spirit to open our hearts,
to disrupt our lives,
and then to fundamentally change our routines:
and begin to take time out to do inconvenient stuff,
like take a long subway ride to a longer meeting
even though we worked an even longer day.
But we want to.
We’re compelled to.
We are ready.
So, so ready.
To dredge it up.
To clean it out.
To remedy the sins of our forebears.
And make a place where something might live again.
Nicholas Naquan Heyward, Jr.
Would you like to support racial justice in your streets and on your block?
Your congregation can get involved with the Live Free movement led by PICO, a national, grassroots, faith-based organizing group. You can give to the NAACP, give to Black Lives Matter, and volunteer for local chapters in your area. If you're white, you can get involved with SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice). It is a process of growth and commitment. Join this movement for the long haul.
If you lead a predominantly white congregation and would like support getting started with these congregations, I offer myself as a resource. Write me, invite me to speak or preach. I want to help white congregations support this movement.
*Information about the Gowanus Canal and neighborhood was drawn from Joseph Alexia's book, "Gowanus: Brooklyn's Curious Canal."