Embrace – Epiphany4


Epiphany 4


The University of Alabama, a major university whose football team will compete once again for the national number one slot in collegiate football in three days, is only forty-nine minutes away.  The bustling metropolis of Birmingham is only one hundred miles away.  Yet, for the children of Hale County, Alabama, they might as well live on the other side of the country.  They live in one of the most rural and impoverished areas of Alabama in what is known as the Blackbelt region of the state. Residents of this are at an economic disadvantage with very limited resources. The high school graduation rate is only 34% with 74% of households earning less than $30,000 per year. Almost 200 families live without plumbing and healthcare is nonexistent for most.


According to the United Way of West Alabama, 1 in 4 Alabamians is functionally illiterate, unable to read, write, or use basic math skills and technology in everyday life.   According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 60% of K-12 school children read below the level needed to proficiently process the written materials used in their grade levels.  Children who have not already developed basic literacy practices when they enter school are three to four times more likely to drop out of school.


According to the 2014 Alabama Kids Count Data Book, compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 26% of Alabama children are living in poverty; 9.7% of Alabama teens are not in school and not employed; 25.8% of Alabama children are food insecure; 40.1% of Alabama fourth graders are not proficient in reading; 20% of Alabama’s students do not graduate from high school.


The Sawyerville Work Project is, on paper, a day camp. It is an outreach project sponsored by the Youth Department of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama & local community volunteers.  It takes place in the summer for just a few weeks, and for that camp session, the children that attend the camp are not framed in the light of the region’s poverty.  They are simply kids, having fun, in a place created solely for them.


The Sawyerville Day Camp’s location originated at the Head Start Center in the small town of Sawyerville, hence the name. Within a few years of hosting the camp, the Center could no longer accommodate the increased numbers of campers and staff volunteers. The elementary school in nearby Greensboro welcomed this project and the partnership has continued for a successful thirteen years.

Sawyerville Day Camp ministry began in 1993.  The Blackbelt Convocation knew they needed to embrace the residents of the area, not just those in their church pews and the Diocese of Alabama Youth Department needed an outreach program for senior high students.  The answer to both problems became the Sawyerville Work Project, now known as the Sawyerville Day Camp.  It is supported by many people.


People serve as prayer partners, staff members, organize book drives, gather paper products, provide meals and make financial gifts.  The Episcopal Diocese has committed substantial funds to this ministry.  The generous people of the Black Belt have opened up their homes and churches for staff housing and meals.  Volunteers from within and outside of the Episcopal circle lend time and talent.  High school, college, and adult staff come from all over the state to serve as counselors.  The Hale County School Board permits use of school facilities and buses.  This project is woven together by hundreds of different supporters, all working together to form the Sawyerville experience.


The mission of the Yellowhammer Literacy Project, born out of the Sawyerville Day Camp, is to help close the achievement gap and prevent summer learning loss in Greensboro, Alabama. The YLP works toward this mission by hosting a multi-week summer academic program in which students will participate in reading intervention, engage in creative writing, and strengthen their literacy skills. Additionally, the YLP is invested in helping students grow as scholars and citizens through participation in academic field trips, community engagement, and other enrichment opportunities.


Summer 2015 was a huge success for the Yellowhammer Literacy Project! When we first assessed the students in April, 58% were performing below grade level. By the end of this program, 88% of students grew by at least one reading level. Of that 88%, 66% grew by at least two levels. Nine students saw growth by three to five levels in a mere three weeks!
Not only did these students grow academically, but what cannot be tested or shown through the results is that these kids were encouraged to enjoy reading, were praised for their efforts, and became more confident in their own abilities by the end of the program. One child said it best in his final reflection, “I really am smart.”


The Humanitarian efforts of the Sawyerville Day Camp are led by Leslie Manning but she would be the first to acknowledge the help of hundreds, both volunteer staff and interns as well as the volunteers who fed, donate, and serve as prayer partners.  Each child received a swimsuit, towel, and book as well as a backpack.  For many this is the first time they have owned any of these items which serve as outward, visible signs of the larger community of caring that supports them and embraces them.


Now over twenty years old, this day camp has counselors who were once campers.  They believed in the promise shown by the Sawyerville Day Camp of a brighter future and by those who embraced them and they have succeeded.  Kids who once had never heard of a college are now college graduates, having learned to believe in themselves to make a better world for themselves.  People of all ages, races, and stages of life create the humanitarian efforts that result in Sawyerville Day Camp.  They come together and embrace each other.


I hope you are able to be a part of something like Sawyerville Day Camp.  Contact your local YMCA or YWCA or Salvation Army, Easter Seals, or local religious groups.  All will be able to put you in touch with a program that you can give aid to with your time and talents and, if possible, monetary assistance.  When we embrace each other and ourselves, we make the world a better place.  Sawyerville Day Camp is but one example.  For more information, they can be reached at www.sawyervilledaycamp.org.



Feed – Epiphany 3


Epiphany 3


It can be a simple fix or a covering over a wound.  Recently a construction crew doing roadwork cut a fiber optics cable that served as the main Internet trunk line for a rather large library system.  The slice of the cable cut all Internet connections to all twelve libraries operating in the system serving almost half a million people locally and even more online.  Within five minutes of hearing the news and the delay in restoring power, someone was asking about a “band-aid” or a fix to the problem which, by the way, still has not been repaired.


The advent of covering wounds may seem like a simple way to prevent wounds but it took quite a few years for the “band-aid” to gain respect as a medical tool.  Many believed that to cover the wound meant locking germs inside.  No one imagined that such a covering could prevent germs and bacteria in the air from getting into the open wound. 


In 1920 an employee at Johnson and Johnson, an American company of household products, devised a way for his wife to dress the wounds she often incurred while cooking.  At first these strips of adhesive bandages were not popular but within four years they were sterilized and gained in popularity.  A simple compound word formed from a word meaning come together and assistance had also been born.


Fast forward to the late seventies and we see the beginning of a different type of band-aid, a type that would provide not a temporary assistance but a “fix” that would mean everything to those in need.  This type of band-aid, much like the original, came about because of a problem and a need.


A boy born in the early 1950’s named Bob grew up in a very strict Catholic school without any real athletic ability, especially in the popular game of rugby.  The subsequent bullying he faced gave him a sour attitude about school and a desire to go elsewhere.  Landing in Canada he sought work as a music journalist, later starting his own band.  As he explained, it was because he wanted “To get rich, to get famous and to get laid”.


By the mid 1980’s, though, this man named Bob had a more humanitarian attitude and saw music as a way of raising awareness, especially about the famine that was currently plaguing several African countries.  In the summer of 1985 Bob Geldof was one of the primary people behind the Live Aid Concert, an event sponsored by Band-Aid, a charity made up of mostly Irish and English musicians that had been formed in 1984.  In November of 1984, Geldof had released a music video unlike any other.  He sang the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” while showing pictures and video of starving children.  This video had no slick costumes or choreographed dancers.  It was stark reality and moved many.  It became the impetus for Live-Aid, an intercontinental televised concert from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.


The young boy who had once been bullied now implored the people of the world to open their eyes and help however they could and he called upon the leaders of the world to do their part as well.  In his own words, Geldof explains how he became an international humanitarian. “It seems so long ago now that we asked for your help. … It was only meant to last seven weeks, but I hadn’t counted on the fact that hundreds of millions of people would respond and I hadn’t reckoned on over 100 million dollars.” Last year Band-Aid celebrated thirty years, still raising money and feeding the hungry worldwide.


There are hungry children in every country of the world.  To be sure, there are some more than others but every country had its hungry children.  You might not be able to play in a rock band but you can also be a humanitarian and help feed those hungry children.  Soup kitchens worldwide and food pantries exist that could use your help.  Whether it is baking a casserole or donating food items, you can do something at a minimal cost.


The Backpack program is a system at schools in the United States of America.  Begun by teachers who saw students going home and not knowing if they would have food to eat, they developed a way to provide food and maintain the child’s dignity.  Backpacks of food are distributed to children in need through their school system each Friday afternoon or before a long holiday weekend.  These children who are at risk of what is called “weekend hunger” are then able to take home a backpack filled with nutritionally healthy, nonperishable, easy to prepare meals. 


I feel blessed to know two people who have begun such programs in their towns.  One I met through an online course several years ago.  He would be the first to tell you he is nobody special although the children he has helped feed would disagree.  In a search for spiritual fulfillment, he asked what he could do and he started small.  He worked out of his garage with neighbor volunteers for the first two years but then his program was adopted by his church and later his business and now many churches and businesses.  Now these children in a very large metropolitan area are going home with food instead of fear of hunger.


More recently I had the blessed fortune of seeing another side of a woman whose back I had seen often.  She sat several pews in front of me at church.  She is a congenial person with a beautiful smile but I seldom saw it because, as I mentioned, I always sat behind her.  Still, there seemed to be something that radiated from her and people were drawn to her.  While this lovely lady stands taller than many, she really soared to new heights when I learned she also had begun a backpack program for hungry children in our area.  Having volunteered at a school in a depressed area, I also had worried about this children and their weekend hunger.


This person whom I am happy to call a new friend is a giant to these children, not because of her stature but because of her humanitarian efforts in feeding them.  They may never see her face but her goodness helps them every day.  Passing her on the street you would notice her ever-present smile and lovely appearance but you might not notice that halo of humanitarian goodness.  She might just appear ….normal. 


That’s the beauty of manifesting our faith and living our beliefs.  Any person can do it.  We can all help in many ways and the Backpack program is just one.  I hope you seek out ways you can feed the children of your area.  Bob Geldof said it best:  “Our idea was to open the avenues of possibility. The possibilities of ending hunger in Africa are there. There can be other Band-Aids, there must be others, in new times, in different ways. I said once that we could be more powerful in memory than in reality. Now we are that memory.  The avenues of possibility have been opened.  Walk down them.  Goodbye and thank you for everything.”  When you feed another, you feed your soul.


Last Words, Loud Words

Last Words, Loud Words

Pentecost #166

The Polynesian myths found homes in New Zealand and Hawaii but in different variations.  Society on the Hawaiian Islands followed the typical Polynesian caste symptom.  There were the top social classes comprised of tribal chiefs and royalty.  Next came the priests, then the common folk.  Slaves were at the bottom.  One became a tribal chief by being relates to a “divine ancestor” which also included inheritance of lands.

Life on the Hawaiian Islands was fairly easy.  Abundant seafood and lush vegetation gave the natives plenty of time for relaxation. Storytellers or bards were often valued members of the chief’s court.  There were also those who performed for other aristocracy on what today we would call a concert tour.

Hawaiian mythology, though it had its origin in Polynesian culture, quickly developed its own identity.  Polynesian myths encouraged the worship of nature gods who were chiefs living in faraway places or heaven.  In the Hawaiian myths, their gods shared a history much like the tribal chiefs.  The legends gave the gods divine power which was inherited and then passed on to their mortal relatives.

Regretfully, progress led to the loss of much of the mythologies of the Hawaiian Islands.  History tells us that the area was discovered (and I use that term ironically since some portion of mankind had obviously located and settled the area prior) by British naval officer Captain James Cook in 1778.  He found a thriving and beautiful culture.  Christian missionaries arrived forty years later and met with astounding success.  The tribal chiefs discarded their native religion and converted to Christianity.  Their myths from antiquity disappeared from their culture.  Those that remained were rewritten to agree with Biblical scripture.

How do you feel about missionaries?  Many religions and denominations encourage sharing their faith.  This is called evangelism and as recently as three days ago when the newly ordained Bishop Michael spoke for the first time as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and encouraged his flock to become part of the “Jesus Movement”, it has long been considered a major facet of faith and believing.  The word evangelism comes from the Old English word “evangel” which means “good news” or “gospel”.  While the word dates back to the 1720’s, the practice goes back to the twelve disciples of the man called Jesus of Nazareth.

The disciples, like more modern missionaries, often found themselves in danger, trying to reach as many as they could while avoiding the ruling authorities who were not big fans of their preaching.  Somehow, though, in the telling of the “good news”, the present overwrote the past.  In trying to present a new myth for the people to believe in, entire cultures were lost.

When we find something on sale, we share it so our friends can get the same good deal.  In other words, we share our “good news”.  The challenge is to share without insisting on complete assimilation.  I am not against missionaries at all.  It is how literacy has been introduced in many areas and poverty reduced or eliminated.  Nonetheless, we must remember that there is no one perfect race just as there is no one perfect way for all to live their faith.  Mankind is as diverse as the planet on which it lives.

We need to proclaim our good news while letting others speak it in their own way, in their own culture.  The history of a culture is valuable because it is the story of a part of mankind, a part to value and respect.