Stuck Like a Dope with a Thing Called Hope

I’ve been thinking lately about hope, which seems to be in short supply at the moment. Where is hope in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as infection rates continue to rise in some areas of our state, country. and world, unemployment rates are at historic highs, and the necessity of quarantining has canceled so many significant events and isolated us from others?

I have been especially grieving over the fact that high school and college graduations are not able to take place in person this year. Particularly inspiring is the story of Texas principal Virdie Montgomery, who decided that if his high school seniors were not able to gather for graduation, he would go to them. Virdie and his wife then put on their masks and proceeded to drive eight hundred miles over twelve days to visit almost every one of the homes of the 612 seniors. Virdie couldn’t stay very long at each home, but he spoke words of hope and encouragement, gave each senior a card and some candy, and took a selfie.

When asked, “What was the hope that you would get out of that?” Principal Montgomery said, “It’s pretty selfish. This is not for you all. You all are handling this fine. l just want to see you and let you know I care about you. This matters a lot.” Another senior who was visited said, “It’s good to know that somebody cares about you… giving people a sense of hope … like they are not alone.”

I have always been an optimistic person, clinging to hope as one of God’s most enduring promises. Many years ago, I gave a speech at my high school graduation. It was called Living in Hope. I still have a copy, which was hand-written during the height of the Vietnam War and then pecked out with two fingers on a manual typewriter. Here are a few things that I felt were important to share with my fellow students and their families in 1972. (Please forgive my lack of inclusive language in the era this was written. Quotes from the speech are in bold italics.)

“Are you living in hope? Are you looking to the future with anticipation or dread? Are you able to endure the trials of the present because of a confidence in the future, or are you so weighed down by life’s difficult problems that mean nothing anymore?”

“Hope is naturally directed toward God, for God is the ultimate source of hope. Only through faith and trust in God can we look to the future with confidence and anticipation. Hope can give us security in times of loneliness and faith in times of despair. Hope can free us from the life that binds us and lead us into a new kind of freedom, a freedom in which we know that the future is in God’s hands.” 

“But what do we, graduates, who are the future of the world, have to hope for? The future looks very dim when we talk about the senselessness of Vietnam, the tensions in the Middle East, the growing arsenal of nuclear arms, the pollution of our environment, the overwhelming number of college graduates out of work, or such issues as poverty, ignorance, dissension, and prejudice.”

Decades later, we’re still lamenting the same problems. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. Protesting injustice and oppression wherever they present themselves is part of our baptismal and membership vows as United Methodists and is the responsibility of every Christian as we work together to bring in God’s reign of shalom.

Near the end of my speech, I quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “I don’t know what will happen to me…. We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it doesn’t matter to me now…. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” 

How could I have ever imagined the truth of this paragraph? I was just 17 years old. “We all have great hopes for the future, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the present. Everyone must do whatever he can to make hope for the future a reality so that all people can live in happiness and peace.”

I graduated from high school just four years after King’s death and still remember the pit in my stomach when I heard the news that day. Several years later, when working on my speech, I realized that Martin Luther King Jr.’s words apply to me as well you. Like Mr. King, I don’t know what will happen to me after tonight. I know that my life will not be all happiness and that I will have to endure much, but I am still able to look beyond today toward a joyous future. I am not afraid because I’m stuck like a dope, with a thing called hope.”

For what do I hope as a disciple of Jesus Christ in this year, 2020?

  • I hope that we will be diligent in practicing social distancing until the pandemic has passed.
  • I hope that we will continue to be creative and hopeful in our worship.
  • I hope that we will be “living stones,” witnessing to the power of the gospel to transform lives.
  • I hope that we will do our part to live in hope by reaching out to those who feel depressed, discouraged, or hopeless and using our collective resources to make a difference.
  • I hope that we will keep connected with each other, with our local churches, and with our communities.

If you want a little dash of hope this week, I invite you to play this two-minute video of Mary Martin singing A Cockeyed Optimist in the Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway production South Pacific. Martin, playing a U.S. Navy nurse named Nellie Forbush, falls in love with a French plantation owner named Emile de Becque. People around the world were fearful about the outcome of the war, so Nellie reassures Emile that everything will turn out fine by singing.

But I’m stuck like a dope, With a thing called hope,
And I can’t get it out of my heart!
Not this heart, either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the Healing of the Nations

A favorite hymn was running through my mind last week as I participated in one virtual meeting after another related to COVID-19. It was reinforced by a recent Zoom meeting of the Council of Bishops, where we heard about countries whose struggles with COVID-19 are far more serious than ours in the U.S.

For the healing of the nations, Lord, we pray with one accord;
for a just and equal sharing of the things that earth affords.
To a life of love in action, help us rise and pledge our word (2x).
(Tune: CWM RHONDDA: United Methodist Hymnal, #428)

The writer of this hymn, Fred Kaan (1929- 2009) was born in the Netherlands and was ordained in the United Reform Church. Kaan was a pastor in England and also served in ecumenical roles in Switzerland. His great love, however, was hymn writing, with a focus on justice, mercy, and abundant life for all people on our earth.

Statistics released last Friday show that nonfarm payrolls fell by 20.5 million jobs in April and the unemployment rate rose to 14.7%. These are both post-World War II records.The actual unemployment rate, including those not looking for jobs and those who are underemployed, surged to 22.8%.

As our world continues to struggle with COVID-19, how is God calling people of faith to live a life of love and action and seek a just and equal sharing of the resources of our earth?

Lead your people into freedom, from despair your world release,
that redeemed from war and hatred, all may come and go in peace.
Show us how, through care and goodness, fear will die and hope increase (2x).

One of the most important markers of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health is relationships. People the world over yearn for meaningful connections with others through care and goodness. Like many around the globe, my husband Gary and I connect with our three children and grandchildren every Sunday evening through Zoom. We don’t often have lots of news since we are all confined to home. However, there is comfort and hope in seeing the faces of those we love, laughing together, and offering support and encouragement.

How is God calling you and me to dispel fear and bring hope by reaching out to those who live alone or are afraid or have fallen onto despair? And how can our communities of faith create systems of caring through personal connection with the most vulnerable among us?   

All that kills abundant living, let it from the earth be banned:
pride of status, race or schooling, dogmas that obscure your plan.
In our common quest for justice may we hallow life’s brief span (2x).

My heart aches for the millions of students around the world who will not be able celebrate their graduations with friends and family. Nor are any of us able to gather for funerals/memorial services or weddings in ways we had hoped for. These milestones are so important, and it is wonderful to witness the creativity of family and friends as they honor these significant occasions.

Jesus said that he came so that we may have life and have it abundantly. What is it that kills abundant life in our world? Looking out only for myself? Refusing to help my neighbor? Criticizing those who look differently, dress differently, speak differently, or believe differently? Keeping score? Turning my back on human need?

You, Creator-God, have written, your great name on humankind;
for our growing in your likeness, bring the life of Christ to mind;
that by our response and service, earth its destiny may find (2x).

Clearly, the health and economic effects of COVID-19 continue to be catastrophic for our world. We were honored to have Vice-President Mike Pence visit Des Moines on Friday in response to a rise in confirmed infections in the state. Pence was meeting with religious leaders to encourage them to reopen churches responsibly. At the same time, most of the religious leaders who were present stated clearly that we are not ready yet for in-house worship and must put the safety of parishioners first. It was important dialogue with no easy answers.

About thirty miles from where Vice-President Pence was meeting is Tyson Foods pork plant in Perry where 730 employees – nearly 60% of its workforce – have tested positive for the coronavirus. Many of them are immigrants and refugees. More than 100 patients with COVID-19 are hospitalized in Polk County, which includes Des Moines. Karl Keeler, president of MercyOne Central Iowa, a major hospital system, told his staff last week that Iowa’s estimated rate of transmission for the virus remains among the highest in the nation. “Our community spread of the virus remains high. We have a lot of work to do.”

At the same time, we are discovering that in the midst of COVID-19, where so much travel and movement has come to a halt, the earth itself has begun to flourish. Our planet and its creature are beginning to heal, just as everyday life comes to a virtual standstill. Our “energy-friendly” quarantine lifestyle has resulted in less pollution, less waste, cleaner air, and a reduction of greenhouse gases. The earth it literally coming alive.

Fred Kaan based his hymn on Revelation 21. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring. 

How will earth find its destiny? I suspect it will happen when we recognize that the God who dwells with us has written God’s name on humankind, upon each heart. When you and I grow into the likeness of Christ and respond by our stewardship of the earth and our love for one another, then our world will become whole again. To a life of love in action, help us rise and pledge our word.

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

But if someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help – how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?” (1 John 3:17 CEB) The scripture keeps nagging my heart as COVID-19 continues to challenge all of us, but especially the most vulnerable in our midst.

Last Friday was May 1. Observed in European cultures since the late 19thcentury as an ancient festival of spring and a public holiday for working class people, May Day is also called International Workers Day where dancing around a maypole and crowning a May Queen is common. The U.S. celebrates a similar Labor Day holiday on the first Monday in September, a time when we honor all who labor on our behalf.

May Day, however, has another meaning. “Mayday” is an international distress call that is sent out when someone is in serious danger, whether on a ship or plane. A radio operator sends out the mayday call three times in a row to indicate that it is a real emergency.

Are May Day and mayday related? Not really. Mayday comes from the imperative form of the French word, m’aidez, which means “to help.” Yet May 1, 2020 reminds us that we are in the midst of a “mayday” pandemic, as workers around the world struggle to contain COVID-19.

On May Day, our Governor Kim Reynolds relaxed restrictions around restaurants, fitness centers, malls, and houses of worship in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties. But on the same day, May 1, Iowa had a single day record of 739 new COVID-19 cases, including 8 deaths. As of May 1, there have been 7,884 total cases and 170 deaths. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! The curve has not begun to flatten yet in Iowa. I and other Iowa religious leaders issued a statement last week strongly encouraging our congregations to continue to refrain from in-house worship at this time.

Of biggest concern in Iowa is outbreaks of COVID-19 in nursing homes, jails, and meat-packing plants and the disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases among our ethnic population. U.S. Census Bureau Statistics released on April 14 showed that African Americans made up 4% of Iowa’s population but they accounted for 8.7% of Iowa’s known infections. Latinos and Hispanics made up 6% of the state population but represented 16.4% of the confirmed cases. Mexican, Central American, Burmese, and Congolese immigrant workers have also made Iowa their home.

The disparity in infection rates is due to many of our meatpacking and food-processing employees coming from other countries. According to Joe Henry, political director of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, “People need to realize Latinos and immigrants are doing the heavy lifting right now. We’re feeding the country, and we’re not being treated with any type of safety that would be provided to health care workers and others.”

Meat-processing plants, which include beef, pork, and poultry, are critical to Iowa’s economy, with Iowa ranking first in pork production in the United States. Thousands of farmers are dependent on the meat-processing plants for their livelihoods, and therein lies the agonizing dilemma of pigs, people, and profits. In order to supply the nation with pork, the meat-packing plants should be operating at full capacity, but with COVID-19, many of the plants are not providing the appropriate level of safety. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

A disproportionate number of employees have been infected with COVID-19 because they work in close quarters, there have not always been partitions between workers, the lines move too fast, and there hasn’t always been enough protective equipment. In addition, the plants have not been regularly sanitized, and there is concern about not enough testing. According to a USA Today investigation, the meatpacking industry has been notorious for poor working conditions, even before the coronavirus pandemic. Federal watchdog reports have found that meat and poultry employees have among the highest illness rates of all manufacturing employees and are less likely to report injuries and illness than any other type of worker. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

In the midst of rising numbers of infections, an executive order was issued last Tuesday to reopen the meat-packing plants. Citing the Defense Production Act, President Trump said that “it is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry (‘meat and poultry’) in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.” According to the executive order, meat-packing companies are exempt from lawsuits.

In addition, after first indicating that furloughed employees refusing to go back to work in reopened plants because of fear for their safety might lose their unemployment benefits, Governor Reynolds moderated the requirements. Her revised statement said that exempt from losing unemployment benefits would be those who have been infected by COVID-19, have household members who have been infected, are in higher-risk categories of contracting the disease, or have higher-risk household members who have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine.

United Food and Commercial Workers International Union President Marc Perrone called for workers to have protective equipment, daily testing at the plants, and social distancing to be in place. He said, “While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first… Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.” Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

Balancing the need to supply food with concerns around worker safety is complex and gut-wrenching. While President Trump’s executive order gives hope to farmers who agonize over the back-up of pigs on their farms, meat-packing workers and their families are still fearful. The Waterloo Tyson Plant, located in Black Hawk County, Iowa, with 2,800 workers, remains closed. Black Hawk County had its first coronavirus case on March 18. Since then there have been more than 1,400 cases in the county, with 90% related to the Tyson plant, (primary or secondary exposure) according to Black Hawk Public County Health Director Nafissa Cisse. Making worker safety a priority will go a long way toward assuring profitability for both farmers and companies.

How can the love of God dwell in us during this time of COVID-19? I am grateful for the outpouring of love and generosity toward all those who have been adversely affected by COVID-19. But if someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help – how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?”

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! How can we embody the love of God in light of deep disappointment and intense grief of graduations that will not take place; people who are furloughed and may not return to work; weddings and funerals that take place without the presence of many who wish to be present; and the novelty of time away that has gone sour?

Who will make phone calls to church friends and neighbors, just to check up? Who will make box lunches to be handed out to those whose resources have run dry and who have no place to turn for help? Who will help those learning how to access their church service by live-streaming? Who will contribute money to food banks? Who will organize car caravans to drive by the homes of people having birthdays and show them some love?

Who will show support for our farmers, who raise animals and grow other foods that are vital for our economy? Who will pray for workers in our meat-packing plants as they face the fear of infection? Who will pray for our health care professionals who place themselves in jeopardy every day by caring for those with COVID?

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! How will the love of God dwell in you this week?