Here we are singing among the people. Because the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America’s summer conference will be held in Minnesota this year, we have borrowed their banners to adorn our worship space and provide focus for our work and worship life. We have chosen for the year, the topic “Surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses”. We have heard the stories, one each Sunday, of people who have made an impact on our lives. We have paid specific attention to people of the Baptist tradition who have been peacemakers. Isaac Watts fits well with the sub-theme for this season, “To Sing Among the People”.
Who are the people that have influenced you? How do their teachings affect how you live your lives today?
Today is Memorial Day, as we know. As we sing these old tunes we sing as our ancestors have sung. We sing the same hymns, the same words, and in the same style. And mystically, we are connected with all those who have gone before us. When we sing among the people with this kind of music, we sing among those gathered here, but also with all those who have sung before, and those who will sing in the future.
Today is also Pentecost Sunday. And there is an aspect of Pentecost to this type of singing, too. It’s not so much the spirit that we feel, although we do feel a spirit here in this room. Part of the Pentecost miracle had to do with people understanding each other across language and cultural barriers. I think it’s not so much about the language, but when we sing with people, we get a lot less self-conscious. We start singing by paying attention to what we are singing. But eventually, we let go and hear what another is singing. You match their passion and intensity. You commit to sing with them and lift them. I know I have been lifted up by the singing that happens in this very room. And it’s less how I sound, it is how we sound. And the fact that we all try to do it together. That takes spirit, the kind that comes on Pentecost.
I’ve seen it when we sing with our sister church members in Nicaragua. I’ve seen it when we sing with our Karen or Lisu sisters and brothers. There is a power of God that arrives when we sing amongst the people. Language seems to matter less and less.
We saw it here a few weeks ago at Joan Fritz’s memorial service, when 150 of us sang our hearts out just as 29 of us had done with Joan in her living room a few days before her death. And I dare say, when we sing these songs, we imagine her singing right next to us. The music is the bridge between us and those who have gone before.
I want to tell you of another place where culture and music build bridges. There is a place called Friendship Park on the Mexico/US border near Tijuana. It was dedicated by Betty Ford in 1971. A chain-link fence separated the two countries. The transnational community was unique in the park. Families picnicked on each side of the fence. They sang songs, of course, held English and Spanish classes, shared communion and even did yoga in tandem, separated by the fence. News of families would travel across the fence and there was a model community set up there.
That all came to an end in the past year as the US built a 20’ tall steel fence right through the park, complete with barbed wire across the top. It’s part of a 1900-mile fence across the US/Mexico border. Your tax dollars at work.
On the Mexican side of the fence is graffiti. I mean, who could resist. The graffiti is creative. It says things like,
“Empires crumble from within.”
“This wall will not save your economy.”
“Welcome to Fortress America.”
“Feel safe yet?”
The Baptist Peace Fellowship sponsored a Friendship Tour to Tijuana in January. They met the people living near the fence. They heard the grief of being separated from family. They heard stories of the deportations. They saw the graves of those who had died trying to cross the border, their belongings discarded like garbage. Ray and Adalia Shellinger are ABC missionaries in that area. It’s difficult work with a transient population and people being abused and forsaken. They run Deborah’s House, a home for people recovering from domestic abuse.
At the end of the trip, the members of the tour were invited to add something to the wall. What might you put on such a wall? What might be your word of Pentecost-inspired peacemaking? What might be the song you sing amongst those people?
Some had trouble with the graffiti. What difference would it make? Isn’t this just white people trying to assuage their consciences?
One person wrote the words on the statue of liberty “Give me your tired your poor…
Another wrote, “Forgive U.S. for we know not what we do.”
My friend LeDayne Polaski who has preached here and works for the peace fellowship wrote, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”-Jesus
Ray wrote, “No wall can contain my heart.” Ray is caucasian and his wife Adalia is Mexican. Their children are biracial, bi-national.
A few weeks after the tour ended, Ray called LeDayne and said, “I have the most amazing story to tell you.” I’ll let LeDayne’s words tell this part of the story:
…Ray started telling me about a work week so bad that he’d considered giving up completely. So many things were going wrong that, for the first time ever, he started thinking about quitting. It just seemed so useless. His discontent was added to the stress of having several new families move into the shelter all at once – women and children feeling shell-shocked from the violence in which they had lived, struggling to make sense of having left at last, and pondering an unfathomable future. Ray knew he was teetering on the edge. Then one night he had a chance for a long talk with one of the new residents. She had moved to Tijuana on a promise from a friend who said he’d help her to start a new life and to eventually move to the US. Instead he abused her and forced her into prostitution. After months of struggle, she finally found the courage to leave. Wanting to at least see the US, she made her way to Friendship Park. Being so close and yet so far away from her dream was so painful that she contemplated suicide. She thought about what it would be like to throw herself into the ocean and end it all. Surely the smartest and easiest thing to do would be to end her life.
And then she began to notice the graffiti. She walked along the wall to read what people had written. It was, she told Ray, a transformational experience. The words reminded her that people – many people, people who did not even know her – cared. And on the strength of that transformed way of seeing – of believing again that there were people who would care for her – she abandoned her thoughts of suicide and sought help. She had made her way to Deborah’s House – the first step to a real new life.
Ray asked her which words had meant the most to her, of the many phrases painted there on the long wall. She paused to think and remember. “There were two,” she finally said, “One was ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ And the other was ‘No wall can contain my heart.’”
From “Woman at the Wall” Copyright © BPFNA. Used by permission. The full text can be found at www.bpfna.org.
When LeDayne told this story to her family, her daughter said, “So your work is to save lives.” Yes, that is my work, said LeDayne. And sometimes you don’t know when you are saving a life. Sometimes you do your part to bring voice to hope and let the Spirit do the rest. Ray and LeDayne saved the woman’s life by painting words of hope. The woman from the shelter saved Ray from his despair. Ray told the story to LeDayne and instilled hope in her. I now tell this story to remind us of the power of the Spirit. And so, we sing.
Sisters and brothers, what songs do you sing to those around you? Are they just to make you feel good, or do we sing to make another feel like they can face the day with a bit more strength and hope. If we do that, then the song we sing amongst the people may just be God’s song—a sacred song sung by a chorus powerful and beautiful.