St. Mark's Episcopal Church

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Pentecost 3 2013 Sermon
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Rev. Bonnie Campbell

When Jim and I went to Israel/Palestine, we visited Nain. It is a Muslim town now; when the Israeli government was formed, the Palestinian Christians who lived there were forced to abandon their homes and their church. Inside the church, there are no chairs or pews on its black and white stone tiled floor. There is an altar table with fresh linens and flowers and two beautiful paintings--each depicting Jesus raising the widow’s son from the dead. Nain is in the middle of nowhere. It is a tiny village surrounded by irrigated fields and a lot of dry, dusty land-oh, and a McDonald’s down a dry, dusty road. That was the landmark for the bus driver; turn off the highway next to the McDonald’s.
 
I was deeply touched that the Muslim neighbors would maintain a building that had nothing to do with them--decades after its congregation had been forced to leave. Certainly, the woman who unlocked the door and who had prepared the altar and flowers for us was too young to remember any of the former Christian neighbors. I find myself frequently returning to Nain in my mind and seeing the face of this woman who exhibited hospitality to 30 foreigners--strangers in her land. We read both the stories we just heard today when we were at that church. Amazingly, Nain is in the same area as Zarephath so these two stories happened in the same place only centuries apart. Jesus and Elijah raising widows’ only sons from the dead.
 
We all know pretty well the plight of widows-and women in general-in these Biblical times. The widow would have depended upon a son to care for her when her husband died. If the son died before her, she would be in real trouble to be able to live. I have been thinking about the widows in these stories and wondering about women in today’s world: who are the widows of today? For the stories are certainly about resurrection but they are also about justice for widows.
Jesus admonished the Jewish authorities for not taking care of widows like they should.  A few weeks ago, Corby told us about the early church and how the congregations were populated with many widows because they were not getting what they needed from society in general.
 
So, I read this article and I think it is an example of the sort of women who are in jeopardy today. I’m sorry I didn’t look up the stats, but isn’t it something like 73 cents on the dollar that women in the workforce make compared to men in the same fields? We think women have it all-they are going to higher education in higher numbers than men, they can work anywhere-right?, they have daycare for children, and they are all living in two-income homes. But, that isn’t true for everyone. Women are still marginalized.
 
And, as I thought about this, like I said, I read this article in Sojourners magazine [June 2013 No Room at the Inn] by Dawn Araujo. The article especially interested me because when my mom graduated from high school in 1941, she went to live in Indianapolis to go to business college. She started out in the home of her first cousin and his family then she moved on to the YWCA, a boarding house for young women, etc. Even after she married my dad, they lived in downtown Indianapolis in a rooming house. So, I found the story interesting.
 
Back in the early 20th century, there was a need for young women to have safe housing in downtown Cincinnati. Young women who were staying in boarding houses would have to pay extra so they could have access to communal bathrooms that were not also used by the male tenants. There was other housing available but it was in neighborhoods that were not safe. Cincinnati Union Bethel wanted to provide such housing for these young women.  So, Charles P. Taft, the son of President Taft, donated land to the organization and when they opened the building in 1909, it was named Anna Louise Inn. 120 women moved in immediately-full capacity. Anna Louise Inn is in operation today and still provides affordable housing for single women. The ages range a lot wider than they did in the past. As many of us know, people have lost work in this country and those who have been able to find work often have to take a lower wage than their previous jobs. Single women have been greatly impacted by this. Older women who were renting or buying a home have been unable to stay in those homes. Anna Louise Inn has become their new home.
 
The inn has college dorm-style rooms with a bed, a desk, a chair, and a dresser. Some of the rooms have a mini-fridge and an air conditioning unit, but the women share a dining room and there are no private bathrooms. One 55-year-old tenant said she loves living there because of the friendships and the support of the other women, but she would love to have her own bathroom and a kitchen so she could cook her own meals. The women of today aren’t like the young women of 1909--they are likely to stay single longer rather than work for a short time then get married and become a housewife. And, as the older tenants seem to indicate, there are older single women who may not have the opportunity to increase their income enough to live somewhere else--especially if they are living on social security.
 
So, Cincinnati Union Bethel or CUB decided that they needed an updated facility for the women they serve. They could remodel the existing building or sell it and build a new one. They hoped for small apartments that included a kitchenette and a bathroom for each tenant.
 
In 2007, a corporate neighbor of the inn offered to buy the building. The building was valued at $4 million by the county and CUB offered to sell it to Western & Southern Financial Group for $3 million--they countered at $1.8 million. CUB tried further negotiations but the corporation said that was all they could pay. We live in a country that honors property rights--correct? If we have our house on the market and someone offers us less than we want to receive, we just say no and hope another buyer will come along. We don’t have to sell our house to someone for less than it is worth.
 
So, CUB went out and looked for other options and they got $12.4 million in tax credits and a loan from Cincinnati’s Home Fund to remodel the existing building into the kind of apartments they wanted while maintaining the historic exterior of the building.
 
Western & Southern was not finished. They had drawn up plans to convert the inn building into high-end condos. The financial group already owns luxury apartments and a hotel in the neighborhood. So they started a smear campaign against the women who live in the Inn. Some of them are former sex workers who have received help from CUB to leave that life and find legal means of employment. The corporation claimed the women in the inn would all be sex workers and homeless people and it would turn the neighborhood into a gas light district. One of the employees of the corporation wrote a letter to the weekly newsmagazine for Cincinnati stating he had seen current residents doing drugs and performing sex acts in the park in front of the Inn--the executive vice president of CUB flatly denies this sort of thing is going on.
 
Western & Southern then offered $3 million for the building but the board had all the plans and funding in place to remodel so they refused the offer. As renovations were to begin, Western & Southern sued CUB for zoning violations which has resulted in no construction and 2 years of legal run-arounds. In February this year, an appeals court sent the case back to the trial court for reconsideration of parts of the initial ruling.
 
This is the thing: the Taft family were wealthy people who were ready and willing to step up and donate this property so there could be an Anna Louise Inn (named for President Taft’s granddaughter) and Western & Southern with its billions in assets could have helped CUB find and build a new facility and paid market value for the old building. But, instead they want to use that money to deplete CUB’s funds and wear them down until Western & Southern can buy the building for next to nothing.
 
Jesus and Elijah were worried about widows and these single women are marginalized people in Cincinnati. So, an interdenominational group of Christians are working together to fight for the Anna Louise Inn. They protest, they have created a legal fund for the court fight, and they set up a live nativity last Christmas in the park across the street. The irony is that Western & Southern sponsors an annual nativity scene there--no room at the inn. As Sister Monica McGloin, a Dominican Sister of Hope said, “When are we going to recognize that just because you have money, that doesn’t mean you know what’s best for everybody?” Rev. Nelson Pierce, Jr. of Beloved Community Church said, “Any time we use our money and power for abuse, I believe that God has something to say about that. …The way they’ve gone about slandering women, accusing them of prostitution in the park--that type of malicious slander, targeted toward women, is part of what’s broken in our society. And we need our business leaders to be about making society better and not about increasing oppression and degradation of the people in our country.”
 
Though it is all about David fighting Goliath and they know they may not win this battle, the group of Christians are encouraged that they have been able to work together to try to save Anna Louise Inn. Sister McGoin said, “I think more and more, we as church people are working together. And I think that’s a good sign. We may have different beliefs, we may have different doctrines we adhere to, but when it comes down to it, everyone believes in justice.”
 
Elijah and Jesus used the power of God to help these two widows--in their grief and in their ability to live. We are the church. We represent Christ in the world. How can we use the power we have to help resurrect the world? How can we show the wealthy how to be like Charles Taft? Who are the widows in our own communities-the women who have little money and no power? How can we, as Christ in the world, help them? Let’s stop telling people there is no room in the inn while we set up our nativity scenes for all the world to see.
 
Postscript: I checked out the Cincinnati Union Bethel website and Western & Southern and CUB have come to an out-of-court settlement: The Inn will be sold to Western & Southern and a piece of property that recently came on the market will be purchased and a new inn built there. So, Western & Southern came around and the women who live at Anna Louise Inn can move directly into the new building rather than relocate temporarily to other housing. It sounds like a win-win. Maybe David still can prevail over Goliath. I really hope that group of rowdy Christians were part of the reason Western & Southern decided to cooperate rather than continue to hinder the efforts of CUB to help those in need.



 
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