Today, I Mourn…

In the wake of the shootings in Orlando, several groups in Olympia joined together to sponsor a vigil Sunday night. Earlier in the day I was invited to share some remarks at the evening’s vigil, and I prepared some words not knowing what format the vigil would take.

That evening in Sylvester Park the space was created via open mike and open community to share and deeply hear the emotions and experiences of the LGBT community, and especially the LGBT community of color, who were the targets of this horrible act of violence. 

I was asked to come to the mic, and I did so, recognizing that I spoke not for those most directly affected, but as a part of the greater community of friends and allies who were deeply hurt by these events and whose work is to listen and support, and to work to create a better world for all.

When invited in the morning I didn’t know how long I would have to speak, and at the vigil times were set at 3 minutes apiece. I went on a bit too long with my prepared remarks, which I regret, and I share them here in full:

I am honored to stand here in memory and solidarity tonight, humbled by the fact that I know that I, as a cisgendered straight man, was not the target here.

But while not all of us were the target, we are all the victims.

I stand here tonight in solidarity, being from a community that has historically has been and continues to be persecuted. I understand the fear and pain that comes from that fact.

And I stand here as a member and leader of a faith community. I recognize and accept the role religion has played in perpetuating hate and violence. Religion can be the source of much division, pain and hurt, and to say it does not would be disingenuous.

And at the same time, I believe that religion can be a source of inclusion, affirmation, love and comfort. And it is in that spirit that I am here.

So let us extend words, thoughts and prayers of healing to those who have been physically, emotionally and spiritually injured by the events today in Orlando. May their healing be complete and come speedily. And let us extend words, thoughts and prayers of comfort to the victims and their loved ones. May their memories be a blessing to us all.

But we know that is not enough. It is not enough to mourn for those who have died. There is so much more for which to mourn.

Today, I mourn for the fact that despite the progress we make as a society, there are those who wish to move us in other directions.

Today, I mourn for the fact that in the face of overwhelming evidence of the destructive nature of firearms, we are incapable as a nation to do anything.

Today, I mourn for the fact that there are those whose hearts and minds remain closed and unwilling to accept those who are unlike them.

Today, I mourn for this willful rejection of the humanity of another and the denial of human dignity and rights.

Today, I mourn for the impulse to respond to one act of hatred with another.

Today, I mourn.

Today, I mourn for the fact that what was supposed to be a safe space turned out not to be.

Today, I mourn for the fact that those who sought welcome and acceptance were told they were not.

Today, I mourn for those who were murdered simply because of who they were.

Today, I mourn.

Today, I mourn for those whose murder causes tremendous pain to their loved ones who held them close.

Today, I mourn for those whose murder has become the long-hoped for reconciliation with family and friends who rejected them.

Today, I mourn for those whose murder will just deepen the estrangement.

And today I mourn for those whose murder is their coming out story.

Today, I mourn.

It is a common refrain to say that love is stronger than hate, but I’m not going to say that. Love and hate, like anger and sadness, are only emotions, feelings.

What we should say is that acts of love must be stronger than acts of hate. It is only what we do, not what we feel, that can change the world.  And so we commit ourselves to acts of love. To acts of welcome, to acts of acceptance, acts of celebration, acts of connection, acts of community, acts of resistance and acts of justice.

May the memory of those who have died inform how we who survive shall live. Let us now open up our hearts, clench our fists, lift our feet and raise our voices  to create a more just and peaceful world, free of hatred and oppression and violence, where we all stand together and see that we share a common vision, a common cause and a common future.

My House Shall Be a House of Justice (Beit Tzedek) for All Peoples

Last Friday at Erev Shabbat services, Temple Beth Hatfiloh was blessed to host Meg Martin, the Program Director of the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter, who spoke to us about the impact of the warming center that TBH, along with two churches, has been hosting and she and her staff have been running these past four months. She also expressed her appreciation to TBH and presented us with a sweet gift (pictured).

We in Olympia all owe Meg and her great staff much appreciation and thanks for the tremendous work that they do every single day.

Here are just the brief words I shared before Meg spoke (I spoke extemporaneously, so this is an embellished recreation):


I’m often asked what the name of our congregation, Beth Hatfiloh, means. I tell them it means “House of Prayer,” and explain how “Beth” is actually an Anglicization of the Hebrew word “Beit,” which means house.

For someone who has been around the Jewish world, they know that a synagogue being named “Beth Something” is not uncommon, that many synagogues have a variation of that name. And while “Beth Hatfiloh” isn’t that common (I’ve checked), the use of the word “Beth” is.

And it is not random, for the term beit, or house, is a common designation for Jewish communal institutions. Aside from “beit” showing up in proper names, the Hebrew term for “synagogue,” as you would find around the Jewish world or in Israel, is beit knesset, a house of assembly.

We know of a synagogue being a beit tfilah, house of prayer. And there is also a beit midrash, a house of study, a place to learn Torah and Jewish wisdom. We maintain, like other places too, a beit sefer, a school to teach our children (literally, “house of a book”). And synagogues are sometimes referred to as a beit am, a house of the people.

I wanted to add one more designation to that list; I think synagogues should also strive to be a beit tzedek, a house of justice or righteousness. At the root of our word for charity, tzedakah, is tzedek, justice. And we should use our resources to do what we are called upon to do, our obligation to help those around us and provide for their needs.

For the past four months our congregation was literally a beit tzedek as we opened up our physical space to help those in our community in need. My hope is that as the warming center closes, we have set the stage for further developments in our greater community to help those facing homelessness and the associated challenges that go with it, as well as thinking anew about how we at TBH can continue to fulfill that ideal of being a beit tzedek, a house of justice for all people.

Where Do You Charge Your Cell Phone?

Years ago, I remember learning of a movement to create voice mail boxes that could be accessed from pay phones, so that people who are experiencing homelessness will have an “address” that could help with communication, job searches, etc. The lesson of how technology can address this specific social issue made an impression on me.

Technology changes, but the principle stays the same. Those who are homeless can now get an email address, or Facebook, which can be logged into through public computers at the library—a virtual address that can help in so many different ways. And now, with cell phones becoming cheaper and easier to obtain, those who are homeless can have the same ease and access to communication as anyone with a physical address.

The one major challenge will cell phones, of course, is they need to be charged. And that is the big question: if you are homeless, where do you charge your phone? Think for yourself when and how you charge your phone. Perhaps you make a point of plugging it in by your bedside overnight so you wake up with it fully charged. Or you leave it connected at work while you sit at your desk. Or in your car you make sure to have a charger so you can automatically plug it in on your commute to work or running errands. I do all three, so I am never at risk of being completely out of juice.

It’s not having a cell phone that we tend to take for granted these days, it’s having the ability to charge our phones when we need to that we take for granted.

This began to dawn on me when I would see people hang out in Sylvester Park in downtown Olympia, with their phones plugged into the outlets on the lampposts. Or when people would sit in the TBH courtyard and use our exterior outlet (which we have since removed because it was vandalized and damaged.) Or when people would come into the warming center cosponsored by TBH, and one of their main concerns was being able to plug in their phone. This was an eye opener.

I noticed this and many other things over these past four months that the warming center was opened. Today, the warming center, as planned, closed its doors.

warming center
Photo from the Olympian
Four months ago, my colleague the Rev. Tammy Stampfli from The United Churches and I were invited by our third colleague, the Rev. Amy La Croix of First Christian Church, along with Meg Martin and other staff from the Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter, to strategize about a new idea. The winter cold weather and rain were on their way, and Olympia was faced, as it has been in recent years, without a place for homeless people to go during the day. The original ideal of a full service shelter/day center championed a few years ago needed to give way to a permanent overnight shelter only, and while that was a great step forward it still left a gaping hole of needs. Where do go during the day when the shelter closed at 7 a.m.?

We made the agreement that the three faith communities and the IW Shelter would open a temporary winter warming center, to run from the end of November to the end of March. We worked out details—we would open 7 days a week, from 7:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m., and hosts would rotate on a regular schedule. (TBH hosted Mondays and Tuesdays.) The shelter staff would oversee and manage the day center, signing people in, enforcing the rules, etc. Each faith community would provide a coffee/tea service (no meals). And each faith community generated its own protocols about how their building was to be used, the spaces available, the bathrooms designated.

And then, at the end of November, the warming center opened its doors, with TBH being the first host.

It was, in many ways, an experiment to see what was possible. It was very much a “ready, fire, aim” undertaking, as it was hard to know what it would be like happened once it was underway. Shelter staff was amazing, taking tremendous care of the guests and taking care of our building. Many people donated coffee and tea and money to keep the coffee tea service going. We ran cable through the walls to get cable television in the social hall. (We already had service through our bundle deal with Comcast for our phones and internet). Some programs were rescheduled or relocated. The generosity of spirit shown by the TBH membership and leadership has been incredible. And in the end, the warming center went off very well and with little incident.

As the warming center closes, my hope is that it was able to demonstrate a need and a possibility. That the need exists for a day center in Olympia than can help alleviate homelessness and provide access to resources and care, and that such a center is feasible. There are so many factors that underlie homelessness beyond economic—mental illness and substance abuse, to name two—that the ability to concentrate services would be tremendously beneficial. I am heartened by the initiative of Providence along with other organizations to make something like this a reality for our community. It is an initiative I think we should all fully support.

But even beyond these more substantial needs, something simpler and perhaps even more important is required, and that is what we were able to do with the warming center. For looking back over these past four months I see a tremendous success in that we were able to provide the basic human needs that we all desire and require (and sometimes take for granted): a warm, dry place to be to rest, to connect with friends, to have a cup of coffee, to watch TV, to read a book or play a game. And yes, to charge cell phones.

In the Wake of the Police Shooting in Olympia

I got behind in my usual posting, etc. because of the events in our Olympia community over the past 48 hours: the police shooting of two African American men in the early morning hours. Without getting into the facts of the shooting, it is enough to say that the fact of it happening raised a lot of emotions in our community. And rightfully so.

The initial struggle is how to turn those emotions into something concrete. Beginning Thursday morning, plans were being made to hold a forum, sponsored by local clergy, where community members can come together to express what they thought and felt. City officials would be on hand to

With the incredible coordination of Danny Kadden from Interfaith Works, it came together in amazing fashion. Temple Beth Hatfiloh–our “house for all peoples” as the quote from the Book of Isaiah adorning our Ark says–was the chosen venue. At 6:00 p.m. the sanctuary was full with almost 20 members of the clergy acting as hosts, local attorney and civil rights leader Reiko Callner acting as moderator, and with city officials, including Mayor Buxbaum, Chief Roberts, City Manager Steve Hall and others on hand to listen.

People spoke eloquently and with emotion. People spoke with respect and with passion. People spoke openly and firmly.

At the same time as this forum, hundreds gathered on the west side of town at Woodruff Park and then marched down to City Hall. Rather than being in conflict, both of these events were important and served a purpose. Many voices were raised to address this rift in our community.

And address it we must. As one speaker said at the forum last night, “we have become one of those communities.” But the hope is that we can do things differently, we can say what we need to say, hear what we need to hear, and listen to whom we need to listen.

Last night was a start.

Here is a comprehensive write up of the forum. The Olympian created a video of some of the speakers:

And these were my introductory comments:

Welcome to Temple Beth Hatfiloh.

This space, this sanctuary, is meant to be a community space. Oftentimes we gather in this space at times of community celebration. Other times, as we do tonight, we gather for difficult community conversations.

We are here because two African American men were shot in the early morning by an Olympia Police Department officer. I for one am not going to get into facts or allegations beyond that, simply to say that this event strikes a note of discord in our community, especially as it reflects our national conversation on law enforcement, race and gun violence.

We all come to this room this evening with our feelings. Feelings of anger, sadness, pain, helplessness, fear. I invite you to check in with yourself now to see how you are feeling at this moment.

And we come to address it head on. And we are convened here not just by myself but by my clergy colleagues from many different faith communities, and I invite them now to rise to join me in welcoming you here this evening.

And so we are here. We know we are not the only gathering tonight. Right now on the west side people are gathering in Woodruff Park to meet and plan and march. That is OK—we act in concert, we are all one community.

And so we are here with intention, with purpose, with open hearts and hands, with emotion, with passion and with prayers for peace, justice and healing.

Welcome, and thank you.

The Unclaimed Dead

This week’s Torah portion is Chaye Sarah, and begins with the death of Sarah.

After the ordeal of having to nearly sacrifice his son, Abraham returns home to the death of his wife. (Some commentators connect the two events, saying Sarah died when she heard about what Abraham had done.) Abraham then begins the difficult process of making arrangements, something we all find ourselves in the middle of after a passing. The grief is there, but the mourning can not fully start until the arrangements are made.

The same is true in our contemporary mourning practice. One is not considered a “mourner” until after the burial. Between death and burial is an intermediate time known as aninut during which one makes the necessary arrangements.

Abraham sets out to make the arrangements. Having left his ancestral home, he is living among the Hittites in Canaan.  He goes to see the local chieftain, Ephron ben Zohar, to inquire about purchasing a cave in which to bury Sarah. Ephron knows of Abraham’s reputation as a leader and man of God, and so offers to gift him the cave. Abraham insists however on paying for it, and a deal is struck for Abraham to purchase the cave, and he proceeds to bury Sarah within.

There is much that can be said about the merits of a sale versus a gift. Gifts imply an ongoing relationship (a subtle expectation that the gesture of a gift will be returned at some point) while a sale is a clear transaction. Gifts are open ended. A sale is final.

So while some will read this about land claims, it perhaps has to do more with the need to make “final arrangements” when it comes to mourning a loved one. Part of our mourning practice is to provide some formal act of transition between experiencing the death of a loved one and the beginning of the mourning process. This is the function of the funeral and burial. Sometimes circumstances require a service at a later date, or unconnected with burial. But the need to do right by our loved ones so we can begin to heal is a powerful motivator, the need to honor those who have died with ritual and acknowledgement is a necessary process. Abraham’s actions demonstrate this.

Two weeks ago I had the honor to participate in a commemoration organized by Interfaith Works in conjunction with the Thurston County Coroner’s Office. It was a memorial service—held in conjunction with All Souls Day/Dio de los Muertos—for all the unclaimed dead this past year. These were the people who did not have anyone to care for their bodies, or unbelievably, those whose families did not want to take responsibility and walked away.

The ceremony felt very much like a tikkun, a repair. To leave the dead unacknowledged felt like a tear in the fabric of what is right. These seven people did not have anyone to ritualize their passing, did not have anyone to offer a prayer or some words. Since this usually falls to the family and friends, and there weren’t any, it then falls to the community to do so. We, like Abraham, insist on making the arrangements for our honored dead.

I was asked to offer a eulogy, an interesting prospect for people I did not know and for whom there is no one to fill in the details of the life lived. I opened with the poem “Each of Us Has a Name” by Zelda, translated by Marcia Falk. And then here is what I shared:

We recall the names.

Names are often what we leave behind. A name etched on granite, on a headstone, on a wall, printed on paper.

Or a name etched on our hearts, on our minds.

We know the power of names. Our ancient biblical ancestor Abraham, as we know him now, but his name was originally Abram, his name changed to Abraham, father of many nations, when he was granted by God with the covenant.

His grandson Jacob, also in covenant with God, whose encounter with an angel in the middle of the night resulting in a blessing and a change of his name, from Jacob to Israel, “one who wrestles with God”, a name that will come to define a people for millennia to come.

The power of a name.

Think about your own name. Maybe you were named after someone at birth. Why were you given the name you have? What hopes and dreams were meant for you when your name was bestowed upon you? What family history is wrapped up in your last name? Do you have a nickname? Did you change your name? Did you choose your name, perhaps after some significant life event.

For we know that a name is much more than a name. A name is a life, a life of meaning.

We come to remember these honored dead. Defined, as we remember them here, only by their names. We do not have the stories that made up their lives. But the name is only an entry way into understanding their life.

These people: Annette Paula Emerick, Edward Harvey Epstein, Cleveland Anthony duBois, Jordan C. Silver, Juanita K. Hinchliffe, Christoper J. Rabe, Larry G. Ryan. Someone gave them the name that they have. Someone bestowed upon them this blessing of a name. What was in their minds when they did so? What family history was in their last name? Was the middle name “Harvey” after a beloved uncle? Or what is the story of the “Hinchcliffe” family? Someone thought and cared to bestow upon a name. They are not just individuals but members of a family, a lineage, a heritage.

And as we think about these beloved dead, let us not just stop at their names. Let us think about the person who gave them the name, who held them in their arms and whispered their name. Or used their name in scolding them, telling them to cut it out. Or who called out their name in fear and panic and reminded them to look both ways before crossing the street.

And let us remember the fact that they were called by this name by family and friends. Spoken as an invitation to get a beer after work. Or called out in joy by a young niece or nephew. Or spoken softly by a beloved partner.

Their bodies might not be claimed at death, but throughout life their lives were claimed by anyone who sought them out by name.

It is in this way we can bestow our love and empathy upon them. As we recall what it is like to be called by our names, the love shown when our name is spoken by someone, the pride and heritage we carry when we sign our surname, we can project that same feeling upon these honored dead as we call their names.

And just as they were claimed in life, they are claimed in death. By calling their names. This is what we honor here today. The blessing of their names. The blessing of their lives.

The need for ritual at the end of life is so important, whether carried out by a loving husband, as Abraham did for Sarah, or by a faithful community, as we did for the unclaimed dead of Thurston County. It is in this way we give honor not only to those who have died, but to those of us left behind. It is both a final, and a first, step in the healing process. All lives are thus claimed.