In the Message by Eugene Peterson the Jeremiah passage reads: “I drown in grief. I’m heartsick. Oh, listen! Please listen! It’s the cry of my dear people reverberating through the country. Is God no longer in Zion? Has the King gone away? … The crops are in, the summer is over, but for us nothing’s changed. We’re still waiting to be rescued. For my dear broken people, I’m heartbroken. I weep, seized by grief. Are there no healing ointments in Gilead? Isn’t there a doctor in the house? So why can’t something be done to heal and save my dear, dear people? I wish my head were a well of water and my eyes fountains of tears so I could weep day and night for casualties among my dear, dear people.”
Sarah has buried too many people from the streets of Grays Harbor. One is too many! On Maundy Thursday this year I read the names of those who had connections to Chaplains on the Harbor who had died--37 people! The list keeps growing.
And our broken hearts turn to the living. About half the people of Grays Harbor County receive some kind of government assistance. 1 in 16 people are homeless. Many people rely on free lunch and dinner programs to survive because they don’t have access to cooking facilities. Many go to these programs during the last half of the month because their food stocks get depleted and it is the only way to get a meal in their stomachs. I know families who plan their lives around when the dollars appear on their EBT cards. They can get ground beef and make that special meatloaf dinner they all enjoy once a month. Thank God for Grocery Outlet--if you have a way to get there.
Chaplains on the Harbor has expanded our hours at the Westport Community Center. We are now open four weekdays each week. The staff arrives about 10am and they put out breakfast food. Lunch is served about 12:30pm. People come in and take naps on the comfy sofas, they visit with friends, sort through the clothes for things they need, watch TV, wash clothes, and take showers. They might get a cigarette from Janet--or two if they will wash the dishes. They have people listen to their stories, on Thursdays they can attend a Eucharist service if they want, and at 4pm, we close the doors after handing out some take home food. We also have a few raised beds and grow some of the produce we use.
During the fall and winter at Westport, we provide a cold weather shelter for those who need it when the temperature dips down to 35 degrees or lower. We feed whomever shows up for dinner and some stay and others go home and then we provide breakfast the next morning before we lock up again. The people who work the shelter put in a 14-hour shift to cover the time--we always have two staff members on site when we are open. That’s Westport.
In Aberdeen, we have an office for the staff to use for meetings and storage. This space is a sober space so our staff members who are recovering from addictions have a safe place to gather. In the office, we keep some food supplies so staff members can make a sandwich or heat up some ramen noodles if they are hungry. We also assemble sandwiches there every Wednesday morning and lunches are currently taken out to the sidewalk near the city’s tent encampment and we feed whoever comes.
This is how the Chaplains on the Harbor ministry started 6 years ago: sandwiches distributed outdoors in Aberdeen to whoever was hungry. Sarah had $500 for a grant that year. Sarah and volunteers--I was one of them--went out and engaged people in conversation. Sarah wanted to find out peoples’ stories and what they needed to survive. She had grown up in Grays Harbor County and she wanted to return there to minister to the working class people she so admired. “It’s the cry of my dear people reverberating through the country.” Sarah heard them, she saw them and she has trained others to do the same, myself included.
On Sunday evenings, we feed people in rented space in Aberdeen--St. Mark in Montesano pays the rent for us each month. Now that the people who were living on the Chehalis River bank have been moved to a tent camp by Aberdeen City Hall, our Sunday dinner numbers which were running from 45 to 100 each week have leapt to about 200 each week. There are no cooking facilities in the city camp and no perishable foods are allowed so the residents there have difficulty trying to eat from day to day. They go to the feeding programs that are available in town. They buy what prepared foods they can afford. The local food banks have been adapting to their needs as they can.
That original $500 has grown to a budget this year of over $400,000. We have 11 employees. We are employing people who work at the Westport Center and in Aberdeen and we also have volunteers and people who need community service hours. We have a farm that grows produce organically and about 15 shareholders who get fresh produce each week during the growing season. We are providing supportive employment so there is someone available to make sure they get to court, see their DOC officer, make medical appointments, get a drivers’ license, or figure out to how to manage debts. Whatever it takes for the individual to be successful.
We have a grant writer who also does some of the admin work. And, Sarah is still working the equivalent of two full-time jobs to keep us running. We are at a point of growth again and we are excited and a bit intimidated.
We have a counselor who is volunteering her time twice a month to meet with our employees one on one to talk about their lives. And, we have so many dreams for the future.
We are now in contact with about 500 people--that is a large congregation with deep needs. We provide rides to the ER, visits in the encampment and in jail and the hours of listening to pain and joy and stories.
The jail ministry is Sarah and I. We visit, we write letters, and there is The Holy Hustler--our newsletter we send in to folks in the jails and prisons. Sarah has also written curriculum specialized for the incarcerated that they can use for Bible study. We have about 50 people incarcerated at any time.
Like Jeremiah wrote, the grief and sorrow is often overwhelming. And we have fun, too. People in the camps laugh about the same things you and I laugh about; sometimes it is gallows-type humor but we do encounter joy. I’ve lost count of the hugs I’ve received. I am proud of my street cred. Folks know they can trust me and that has high value to me. They know I will help when I can and I will also tell them when I can’t. I can’t imagine my life without them. My coworkers, too, are awesome people who have my back and I have theirs.
I want to thank this church--each of you--for the support you have provided to Chaplains on the Harbor. You have needs in your own community and I am well aware of the support you provide to other places.
Let’s not forget the poor. Jesus told a story about a dishonest manager and the underlying story is about a system that is rigged to benefit the rich and our day and age is no different. If you are poor and have a debt you can’t pay, the debt grows like a monster and it becomes an overwhelming burden. If the debt is paid by some benefactor, at some point soon there will be a new debt and a new struggle because the underlying poverty was not addressed. Chaplains pays a minimum of $15 an hour to our employees which is our way of breaking this cycle.
This was what was grieving Jeremiah: The rich were living off the poor and they just didn’t care! We are heartbroken each day and a broken heart is an open heart--open to what joy we can find wherever we can find it and open to the sorrow of others because, “It’s the cry of my dear people reverberating through the country.” Let us have ears to hear and hearts to respond. Amen.