Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Embracing the Dream: A Pastoral Reflection on the Anniversary of the I Have a Dream Speech[1]

As this nation observes the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and its centerpiece event, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s I Have a Dream speech, it is worth asking:  what would Dr. King think of contemporary life in the United States of America 50 years after his soaring, prophetic words confronted and challenged the nation?

No doubt, Dr. King would recognize that tremendous progress has been made on issues of race and racial reconciliation in America.  A majority of Americans voted for a person of color, Barak Obama, to be President of the United States, not once, but twice, even amidst the strains of an unstable struggling economy.  Many Americans live in integrated communities and have deep relationships with others that cross racial boundaries. In many workplaces people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds happily work together, and although the top positions in corporate America are still predominately held by white males, some inroads are being made.  In lots of schools, playgrounds and on playing fields, white children hold hands with black children fulfilling an explicit hope of Dr. King’s dream.  Television shows, commercials and print ads feature an increasingly wide variety of persons pitching products to diverse audiences.  Houses of worship are somewhat less segregated at worship time on Sunday morning.  None of this was the case when Martin Luther King spoke in Washington D.C. fifty years ago.

Still, significant problems continue to confront us as a nation.  The angry divide over what many feel certain was an unjust verdict in the Trayvon Martin slaying reveals the on-going chasm of mistrust along racial lines.  Purposeful dialogue, sharing of stories and experiences, and intentional relationship building between people of different races and ethnic backgrounds continues to be sorely needed in the United States today.    

If he were alive, I’m certain Dr. King would set his sights on the persistent achievement gap in education.    African-Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics continue to lag behind Whites and Asians in educational achievement in this country.    There has been marked improvement in the decades since Dr. King’s assassination, but he would, I am sure, urge us on as the value of an education is still the best ticket to social and economic parity in this country.  Nonetheless, schools in poor communities are badly under-resourced and whites have greater access both to private schools and to high-achieving public schools.  There is still tremendous work to be done on this front.

If Dr. King were alive today, he would unquestionably recognize our nation’s criminal justice and prison system as a focal point of mean inequity and injustice.  The United States is second only to Russia in having the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Approximately 740 persons per 100,000 are in prison in this country compared to 120 per 100,000 in China.   In the United States, a shamefully disproportionate number of the prison population is made up of young black and Hispanic men.

In the United States, Prisons have become a “growth industry” as we have become increasingly dependent upon a privatized prison system.  This creates a profit incentive to increase the number of incarcerated persons.  The immorality of this should challenge us all, as it did many students and faculty of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.  This past year, they rose up in protest when GEO, a giant, international, corporation, which bills itself “the world's leading provider of correctional, detention, and community reentry services,” attempted to purchase the naming rights of the FAU football stadium for a $6 million donation.  F.A.U. faculty and students were successful in preventing this renaming (playing upon the school’s mascot, one clever person dubbed the stadium “Owlcatraz!”).  In the wake of this debacle and other missteps, the F.A.U. President was forced to resign. 

Incarcerating persons should not be the happy enterprise of entrepreneurs in a laissez faire corporate climate loosed from moral accountability and responsibility.  Incarcerating persons should be the reluctant chore of the state, heavily regulated, with very close oversight and accountability to the general public rather than a body of shareholders.  No one should profit from its misery.

Moreover, incarceration often demands forced labor, “chain gangs.” Our nation has legitimized a contemporary form of slavery and made it socially acceptable.  Yes, prisoners receive nominal pay, but the system charges them back room, board, restitution and other expenses, often more than their income provides.  And what is the driving force for the massive number of incarcerations in this country that catches a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men in its dragnet?  A failed war on drugs, and a system which punishes and recidivates rather than rehabilitates and heals!  If he were alive today, no doubt, Dr. King’s prophet’s sword of a tongue would decry our nation’s criminal justice and prison system as a primary perpetuator of institutional and systemic racism. 

Above all, I am convinced that if Dr. King were alive today, had his life not been cut short by an assassin’s bullet from a high powered rifle, he would decry this nation’s obsession with guns and our complacency about gun violence.  I am confident Dr. King would have been anguished, with the rest of us, at the killing of 26 innocent children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14 of last year.  He would have been horrified, as we all should be, that the American reaction to the deaths of those innocent children and adults was to buy more guns, so that additional violence will inevitably be inflicted upon our nation.   Our nation’s obsession and worship of guns has become in many instances a clear form of idolatry – “gunolatry.” 

I believe Dr. King would have wondered, and would have provoked our nation’s conscience, by asking us why the sadness, grief and outrage, which understandably and appropriately surged after Sandy Hook, which understandably and appropriately surged after Columbine and Aurora and Virginia Tech and the other 30 or so mass shootings which have occurred in the last decade,  have not been equally pronounced or deep for the exceptionally high number of black victims, especially young black males and young black children who die from gun violence each year across our nation.

In the City of Trenton where I now live, there have been 31 homicides since January 1.  This ties the record in Trenton for the most homicides in a year.  The previous record was set in 2005.  No doubt that record will be surpassed in the four months remaining in 2013.   Of the 31 homicide victims in Trenton, almost all were young black men, a few were Hispanic and one was a 42 year old black woman.  The most recent victim, Jafar Lewis, was a 26 year-old city resident who was shot dead this past Friday night.  Two police officers were also shot in recent days, one is still in the hospital as a result of his wounds.

According to the FBI, in 2008, the most recent year for which I could find statistics, there were 6,841 black homicide victims in the United States.  Black males between 17 and 29 make up almost half of all gun homicides in this country.  As one reliable source notes, black American are six times more likely than white Americans to be victims of gun violence, and seven times more likely to commit homicide with a gun.   Guns and gun violence are an epidemic problem in this nation and visit death inequitably within the black community.

Some shrug this off, declaring that these kinds of deaths are mostly “about young black men from the poor part of town killing other young black men from the poor part of town” as though that were a negligible thing.   “It's mostly a matter of thugs killing thugs," Rod Dreher declared last year in a blog entry on January 14, 2013 which focused on gun violence in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.[2]  

In a thoughtful response to Dreher, David Frum, a contributing writer at CNN, editor of Newsweek, and former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush wrote, “many of those seeming thugs are carrying guns for the same reason that people who consider themselves respectable carry them: in a futile quest to protect themselves with greater firepower.”[3]  Frum observes, “One person can find safety that way.  But if two people carry firearms, a confrontation that might otherwise have ended in words or blows ends instead with one man dead, and the other man on his way to prison for life.” Frum continues, “Widespread gun ownership means not only more gun killings, but also more gun maimings and cripplings…. Those young men in Baton Rouge [and Trenton, Camden and other cities large and small!], who are killing each other in such horrific numbers do not manufacture their own guns. They did not organize the gun trade that brings the guns to their town. They did not write the laws that prevent their town government from acting against guns. They carry guns -- and misuse guns -- thanks to a national system of gun regulation that makes guns easily accessible to those least likely to use guns responsibly.  The gun laws intended to put guns into the hands of ‘good guys’ are the laws that also multiply guns in the hands of ‘bad guys’ -- bad guys who might not have become such bad guys if the guns had not been available to their hands.”  

Frum’s conclusion?  “The price of redefining gun violence as an issue pertaining only to ‘those people’ -- of casting and recasting the gun statistics to make them less grisly if only ‘those people’ are toted under some different heading in some different ledger -- the price of that redefinition is to lose our ability to think about the problem at all.”[4]

There are those who argue, “Guns aren’t the problem, people are.”  Sadly, this thinking is wrong.  Guns are the problem…. Access to guns is the problem, easy access, especially to handguns and military-style assault weapons with high-capacity magazines.  Our nation has, by far, the highest rate of gun deaths in the industrialized world.  Nearly 30,000 people per year in this country die from gun violence.  No other so-called developed country is even close.  The numbers are inarguable.  The conclusion is irrefutable: where there are more guns there are not only more gun deaths, there are more violent deaths overall, a lot more!  I believe it is well past time for people of faith to name the evil of gun violence without equivocation and to stand our ground in calling for significant and meaningful Gun Reform.  It is time for us to reject “Gunolatry” and all of its attendant ills and evils.   
There are estimated to be more than 228 million Christians in this country.  Surely, enough of us accept the gospel of peace preached by Jesus Christ to stand up to the gospel of violence preached by gun lobbyists and gun manufacturers.  On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I am confident that this is the work Dr. King’s legacy calls us to.  I am confident this is what Jesus would have us do.   It is time to reject the nightmare and embrace the dream:  Dr. King’s dream which is actually the dream of the kingdom of God. 

[1] I first developed the thoughts in this reflection in a sermon I preached on the occasion of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Observance held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach, Florida on January 20, 2013.
[2] Dreher, Rod Janaury 14, 2013 “Who kills, who dies, in Baton Rouge” The American Conservative -
[3] See Frum, David, “America’s Gun Problem is Not a Race Problem” CNN website, January 16, 2013 at 
[4] Frum

The week of 8/19 - Wisdom all over the place!

As I began my third week in the Diocese of New Jersey, I continued to meet with diocesan staff one-on-one.  This is allowing me to get to know them and understand the joys and challenges of their ministries. On Tuesday, 8/20, I met with Canon Debi Clarke who shared with me the fabulous work she is doing with the youth of the diocese.  Debi loves to say, “I have the best job in the Diocese!” and she means it. There are some challenges though.   There is never enough adult volunteer support throughout the diocese to support the activities she plans with the youth.  We’ll have to work on this.  Youth need adult mentors who are not their parents.  It is a vital and wonderful ministry.  She would also like the Diocese to be more intentional in forming a young adult ministry specifically addressing the concerns and needs of those in their 20s and 30s who are not a part of our campus ministries.  This, too, is critically important and something we all will need to work on. 

Last Tuesday night (8/20), Susan and I joined Fr. Jack Zamboni, the Vestry and other leaders of St. Francis Church in Dunellen ( at the home of Senior Warden Pam Maiolo.  What a committed group of people!  A lot impressed us about this gathering.  What was most impressive was the care and warmth that each of the people in this group have for one another.  The meeting after dinner began with a “caring conversation” during which everyone had an opportunity to share some blessing they had experienced during the summer.

I learned over my years as Rector at St. Paul’s in Delray Beach, to begin all my meetings with prayer and with time for these kinds of “caring conversations.”   It built genuine relationships and community, and made a real difference in how we approached the “business” of the church.  I commend these practices to all church leadership.  Especially when meetings are held on weeknights and people are coming in from their workaday worlds, they need time to pray and check in with one another and remember that we are the Church, the people of God called to pray for and with one another and to serve Christ and his mission.  Fr. Zamboni and the people of St. Francis, Dunellen, modeled that beautifully.

                  The leadership of St. Francis.                                 Barbara Dalto is holding"Flat Jesus"

Susan and I were also tremendously impressed by the history of St. Francis Church which represents the successful merging of St. Andrew’s, Plainfield and Holy Innocents, Dunellen.  This merging took place in 1980.  Present at that barbecue were some who had been part of both of the churches before the merger.  They shared what a positive experience this consolidation was and understand well that it brought new life and vitality in ministry where there had been little hope and only dying.  It is a great resurrection story that needs to be widely shared across the diocese, especially in some corners where there is great fear about merging and consolidation; places where it might bring about similar new life. During the meeting, Barbara Dalto introduced the St. Francis leadership to “Flat Jesus” a project of the Church School that will encourage people to take Jesus with them everywhere they go.   Great work Fr. Jack and the leadership of St, Francis, and thanks Chef Vin Maiolo for a delicious dinner

On Thursday evening, I had dinner with Clara Gregory, the extraordinary Senior Warden of Trinity Cathedral and the equally extraordinary Phyllis Jones, Chief Financial Officer of the Diocese of New Jersey.  Both Phyllis and Clara are heavily involved with Urban Promise of Trenton. ( Phyllis is also very active with Urban Promise of Camden, including serving on their Board.   Both Clara and Phyllis shared with Susan and me the story and good work of Urban Promise which does phenomenal work with the youth of inner-city children and youth.  We look forward to knowing more and to working with the leadership of this important organization.  Bishop Councell has designated Urban Promise as the recipient of gifts given in honor of his retirement.  I encourage everyone on the diocese to give generously.

On Thursday, Bishop Councell and I drove together to Tuckerton for a meeting with the clergy of the Atlantic Convocation.   This allowed us an hour each way in the car to get to know each better, to share stories of our experiences and for me to feed on his wisdom as a bishop who has done amazing work in a diocese that needed considerable healing when he started.  I recently acknowledged to him how blessed I feel to be able to work with him in a healthy transition.  I recognize that he did not have that same opportunity when he was elected 10 years ago when there was tremendous hurt in a diocese that had experienced significant conflict.  What a gift to us all his healing ministry has been.

Our host at The Church of the Holy Spirit ( was The Reverend Martha McKee who also served on the Episcopal Election Committee.   It was great to see her in action.  Holy Spirit was hosting VBS that week and the undercroft was “dressed for action!”   We began with sandwiches after which the 20+ people broke up into two groups.  Half the group started with Bishop Councell who reflected with the clergy on his 10 years as Diocesan Bishop.   The other group stayed with me and allowed me to share some of my personal story and then to engage in a conversation in which I intended to ask three questions: 

1.       What do you hope I do as Bishop of New Jersey?
2.       What are you concerned I might do as Bishop of New Jersey?
3.       What are you concerned I might not do as Bishop of New Jersey?

After about and hour and a half of conversations, the groups switched.  Those who had been with Bishop Councell came to me, and those who had been with me went to him. 

Bishop Councell later shared with me that the clergy had been very “tender” with him and that it had been a grace-filled time.   I thought it was grace-filled time as well.  I was grateful for the care and candor of the clergy who urged me to love them and the people of the diocese; to lead, grounding myself in Jesus and in prayer; to pace myself and stay true to myself and not get “sucked into the system.”  They had concerns about the number of churches we have in the diocese that have too few people and money resources to function in a healthy and missional way.  

There was significant concern about how senior supply priests are being used in churches to “shore up” desperate situations where there does not appear a realistic hope of supporting clergy on a regular basis either full or part-time, situations where there are 5 – 10 worshipers a week.  These priests feel it is unfair to clergy in healthier situations that need the availability of supply priests to provide them with some relief for illness or vacation.  Deacons want there to be more intentional consideration and use of them and their gifts and talents.  At present, I am taking it all in.  I want to continue to get around the diocese to the meetings of clericus and convocations and to listen, but I am aware that these are challenges I, and we, face.  Decisions, many of them difficult, will need to be made as we move forward. 
Susan fell in love with Derby the Bat Dog!

On Friday evening, Susan and I were the guests of Dot Cellini, the official paparazzi  of the Diocese of New Jersey, at Arm and Hammer Stadium for our first Trenton Thunders game.  It was a beautiful night and the Thunder defeated the Portland Sea Dogs 3-1 in a very well-played game.  It was great fun thanks Dot! 
Dot Cellini!

On Sunday, 8/25, I was the celebrant at St. Mark’s Keansburg where Transitional Deacon Kathy Murray, who has been appointed by Bishop Councell to serve, preached a strong sermon about the woman Jesus healed in the Sabbath.  It was a great pleasure to meet the strong leaders of St. Mark’s – Deacon Rose Broderick, Senior Warden, Cindy Medina, St. Mark Center’s indomitable Director Tammy Young and Vestry member Mark Schumacher. 
Susan got right into the kitchen and helped Diane Broderick!

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We stayed afterward and shared in the meal and fellowship at the St. Mark’s Community Center which has become an incredibly strong community outreach center and feeding program in the period following Hurricane Sandy.  I sat and ate with some of the folks who come to the center regularly and heard from them about life in that community and the struggles the community has been facing since Hurricane Sandy.  They were particularly concerned that I be aware, despite the television commercials promoting the Jersey Shore as if everything is back to normal, that many homeowners are still without homes and struggling.   We met one woman who has been staying with a friend for nearly a year and hopes to get back into her home next month. 

After lunch, Susan and I drove to Staten Island to visit Susan’s sister, our nephew and his wife and their new baby in Staten Island.  It was great to catch up with our New York family who we haven’t seen in a while.

Sunday evening, on our way home from Staten Island, we detoured to Ocean Grove where we caught up with Debi Clarke who was helping to lead a joint youth mission trip of New Jersey and Long Island.  I shared with the group that I was ordained in the Diocese of Long Island and how pleased I was to see these two dioceses work together.   
At Ocean Grove Retreat Center with Canon Debi Clarke and the Youth of New Jersey and Long Island

We arrived in time to participate in “ice breaking activities” and watched a TED Talk video on “shame and vulnerability.”  We engaged with the youth and adults leaders of the Diocese in a wonderfully insightful discussion about how important it is to understand the notions of shame and vulnerability and how these factor into the dynamics of ministering in post-Hurricane Sandy contexts.  Our young people are an amazing group.  I look forward to getting to know them better.

Wow!  What a week!  There were lots of new experiences and wisdom from lots of corners:  staff of the Diocese, Bishop Councell, the leadership of St. Francis, Denellin, the clergy of the Diocese, the people of St. Mark’s Church and Center, Dot Cellini, and the youth and youth leaders of New Jersey and Long Island.  One thing is clear: There is a lot of great energy and commitment to the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Diocese of New Jersey!  Thanks be to God!!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Week Two – Moving beyond Trenton!

I began my second week pretty much as I had ended the first – meeting one-on-one with members of the diocesan staff.  This group of talented people know a great deal about The Diocese of New Jersey and how it works.  Their thoughts and insights are invaluable to me.  They love the clergy and people of the diocese and are dedicated to our being the best diocese of the Episcopal Church!  A strong message I heard from many of them is, “continue to be yourself, the person God called to lead this diocese.”  It is good advice that I will strive to follow.

Beyond these one-on-one staff meetings, I sat in on a meeting of the Investment Committee of the Diocese and participated in a meeting of the Transition Committee which is charged both with responsibility for caring for Susan and me as we enter into life in the diocese and for Bishop Councell and his wife Ruth as Bishop Councell moves toward his retirement.   There will be a special service of recognition and thanksgiving for Bishop Councell and Ruth on October 13 at Trinity Cathedral.  Details will soon be going out to the diocese about this special service and about the Consecration. 

Most exciting for me in this second week were two trips to parts of the Diocese beyond Trenton.  On Thursday, August 15, I went up to New Brunswick and had lunch with Greg Bezilla, Chaplain of Campus Ministries at Rutgers.  I have to confess, I was surprised at how large a city New Brunswick is and also, to learn from Greg, how massive Rutgers is.   
The Rev. Greg Bezilla

Greg showed me around Canterbury House, which is the center for Campus Ministries at Rutgers.  Once a home, it is a now a warm and inviting place for Rutgers students to meet and share in meals, discussion and fellowship.   Needless to say, it being summer, things were pretty quiet.  I look forward to visiting again when students are back and activities resume.  This, it seems to me, is a vital opportunity and I’m grateful for Greg’s leadership and also for the Procter Foundation of the Diocese which makes this ministry possible.  

The New Brunswick campus of Rutgers is the main campus, but is only one of four in this State University system.  I can’t wait to see the rest!  Greg and I had lunch outdoors at Au Bon Pain on College Avenue.  It was a beautiful day.  We engaged in a wide ranging discussion about how to reach out to young people and young families in today’s very changed and challenging culture in which church participation is in precipitous decline.  Greg is the Chair-Person of The Committee on Lifelong Formation.  I am very interested in that committee’s work.  Greg and I both agree that more and better use of technology – videos, webinars, social media --  is a top priority for the church and the diocese as we strive to get our story and message out in new and creative ways.  We also recognize that today’s young people are bombarded by noise and technology and that we as a church can offer them places of sanctuary and quiet which are vitally important for spiritual health and well-being.  It will require an interesting balance of priorities. 

On Thursday, I also participated with Bishop Councell in my first meeting of The Standing Committee of the Diocese.   The Standing Committee is a critically important body in the life of the Church, the Diocese and its Bishop as a trusted council of advice.  Although I have served on many diocesan and denominational boards and committees, I have never served on a Standing Committee, so this is one more learning experience for me.  It has a personal meaning for me.  I have been told that my grandfather, Frederick Stokes, an Estates Attorney, was the first lay person ever to serve as a member of The Standing Committee of the Diocese of Long Island.  Sitting in that Standing Committee meeting allowed me to touch base with that part of my story.    In this meeting both Bishop Councell and I reported on our activities and anticipated what is to come.  I stayed to hear various presentations about matters concerning church properties in the diocese including an interesting proposal enthusiastically presented by representatives of St. Elizabeths’ Chapel in Ortley Beach, whose sanctuary was washed into the sea during Hurricane Sandy.  It is great to see that community working on rebuilding their church and its ministries!

On Friday, Susan joined me and we left early for Bernardsville, about an hour’s drive from our home.  The Garmin took us along a beautiful route through stunning countryside. Our first stop was at St. Bernard’s which was hosting Splash! An Interfaith Kids Camp.  This creative idea was the brainchild of Betsy LeVela, a talented Christian educator who worked with St. Bernard’s in bringing this camp about.  She facilitated a partnership with a local Jewish congregation, Adath Shalom and The Islamic Center of Basking Ridge who devised a program centering on care of the Creation and especially understanding God’s gift of water through story-telling from all three faith traditions.  There were games and science experiments and a lot of fun.  This was part of St. Bernard’s participation in the certification program sponsored by Green faith an interfaith organization that supports churches and other faith-based organizations to be better stewards of the environment.  Green Faith is New Jersey-based.  Its director is The Reverend Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest.  You can find out more about Green Faith at I encourage churches in the Diocese of New Jersey to check them out.   
Betsy LeVela and Splash! Interfaith Kids Camp

We enjoyed getting a tour of St. Bernard’s from Ali Dockery, who is on staff at the church and whose enthusiasm is infectious.  What a great ambassador for the parish.   We also enjoyed meeting Junior Warden, Stephen Galpin who has a long family history at St. Bernard’s.
As we were going to be in the area, we had made arrangements to visit Susan Ironside and to have her show us around St. John’s on-the-Mountain­, Bernardsville.   We really appreciated Susan’s positive, high energy and appreciated hearing of the good things happening at St. John’s.   Susan has scored a major coup!  She and Dr. Patrick Malloy of General Theological Seminary have agreed that Dr. Malloy will lead the efforts in adult formation at St. John’s this year.   That will be exciting for the people of the parish.  It was exhilarating to visit two beautiful churches in the Diocese and even more exhilarating to witness and hear about the good things going on in each! 
With Susan Ironside at St. John's on the Mountain

On Friday evening, we joined the staff of the Diocese for a “staff recreational day.”  To honor Bishiop Councell and his love of baseball, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, we all went to see the Phillies take on the Dodgers in Philadelphia.  It was a well-played game and the result was good news for Bishop Councell and part of the continuing disappointment for Phillies fans.  While I am on the subject, I will declare my team allegiances:  Baseball:  NY Mets and Miami Marlins (which shouldn’t threaten anyone too much!);  Football:  NY Giants and the Jets; Hockey;  The NY Rangers (can’t root for a team called The Devils even if they have a terrific goalie, sorry!) and basketball, The Heat and the Knicks.

On Sunday, Susan and I worshiped at Trinity Cathedral for the first time and were warmly welcomed by the Dean and the Cathedral community.  It was Megan Thomas’s last Sunday before she begins her new ministry at All Saints in Princeton.  She preached a terrific sermon on a very difficult text using Robert McCloskey’s book Time of Wonder for her departure point and exploring the challenges of what we anticipate and what we ought to anticipate as we consider Christ’s coming. 
We spent a leisurely afternoon with Dean Rene John and his wife Andrea, and met their son Akeem.  The Dean grilled terrific barbecue, served Red Stripe Beer ( favorite of mine!).  Andrea prepared spectacular cod cakes and we enjoyed wonderful company. 
With Trinity Cathedral parishioners Judith Miller and Gwendolyn Pearson