On Saturday morning, our executive director, Alan Jennings, was the guest speaker at Bethlehem’s 53rd annual Community Advent Breakfast. Here are his comments, relative to the season and the state of our society.
COMMUNITY ADVENT BREAKFAST
CACLV has been around since 1965. I started in December, 1980, right out of college, desperate to make a difference in the world.
People ask me how I got to be the way I am. The question is a little disconcerting: “What do you mean, “the way I am?”
[I explained how being a middle child, paying attention in church and having an older brother were the major factors.]
We run a broad array of programs, including sheltering over 100 homeless families with children at the Sixth Street Shelter and another two long-term transitional housing, weatherizing more than 1,000 homeless, supplying 9 million pounds of food to 200 nonprofits in six counties through our Second Harvest Food Bank, revitalizing neighborhoods like the Southside, Easton’s West Ward, downtown Allentown, and, now, four boroughs in the Slate Belt. That community revitalization work has included dressing up more than 300 building facades, replacing 150 sidewalks, installing street lights, planting hundreds of trees, creating or reviving small neighborhood parks and helping people start their own businesses and lending more than $7 million to businesses that can’t get bank financing, helping families buy their first home, rescuing 1,200 families from the torture of losing their home, helping more than 5,000 households maintain their electric service. A couple of new programs we’ve started are designed to help people of color overcome some common challenges, like keeping girls from making foolish mistakes that could lead to a lifetime of poverty and helping high school kids get into college.
I absolutely love this time of year.
I love the cold snap in the air;
I love to retreat to the coziness of my home;
I love the way the flames dance and fire crackles in the fireplace.
I love the lights;
I love the music, both sacred and commercial;
I love the food, the smell of pine;
I love the Christmas movies, the Christmas specials, the Christmas cartoons that I’ve watched every year at least once for more than 40 years;
I love the candlelight Christmas services;
I love the nostalgia for years passed;
I love the hopefulness that comes with the new year;
I love the kindness;
I love the reverence;
And I love the poetry of the King James version of the birth of the Christ child
The story has been told so many times
Oddly enough, no matter how many times you look,
there is nothing in there about fat old bearded guys in goofy red suits
there is nothing in there about eggnog, chocolate chip cookies or mistletoe;
there is nothing in there about lavish spending on gifts for people who already have so much
there is nothing in there about the bustle of shopping.
So let’s take this time and take a minute to take a deep breath and relax; close your eyes, listen to the sound of nothing.
And let’s take a look at that story again:
Mary is little more than a child; biblical scholars place her around 15 years old; she’s pregnant but not married. er soon-to-be husband learns that the girl he will marry is pregnant and he knows he is not the father; the story she tells is that she is pregnant by God.
They have no place to lay their heads; technically, they are homeless:
The son of God is born amidst the stench of the barn, in a trough, no throne, no armies.
God sends the angel to deliver the news- not to the kings or the merchants, or even the common laborers but, instead, to the shepherds who were the lowlifes of their times.
I’m not a genius but I’m pretty sure God is trying to tell us something here: Christmas really isn’t about those of us who are winners.
Christmas is about the losers.
It’s not about the haves, it’s about the have-nots;
It’s not about those who can, it’s about those who can not;
Not those who are with but those who are without.
It’s not about those of us who are lucky enough to be surrounded by love,
it’s about those who are lonely and forgotten.
So, where are our leaders?
They are spraying tear gas on people fleeing places where there is nothing, places where oppression and deprivation, often reinforced by our own policies, is a way of life and they cannot live with it any longer!
They are poking at hornets’ nests, provoking disputes with countries that have nothing to lose but are capable of leveling cities and killing millions, countries led by people with horrifically skewed views of the world.
They are dividing us: black against white, Christian versus Jew, black vs. white, working class vs. elite.
If God is love then it seems to me the rest is pretty easy:
Love means we treat each other with respect;
Love means we insist on fairness;
Love means we care for those who have too little;
Love means we visit the lonely;
It means we lay down our weapons, turn them into plowshares;
Love means we educate the children;
It means we protect people from harm;
Love means we treat people the way we want to be treated;
It means every decision we make is not focused on what’s good for ourselves but what is good for others, for our community, for our nation, for our world.
Friends, there are so many good people in this community who do no harm, who embrace these ideals, who make selfless decisions without a shred of publicity. I have no doubt that includes most, if not every person in this room today.
But there are also far too many who can sign up, but who turn away; too many who can give more, but who squirrel it away. There are far too many who have time to give, but who guard that time. Not enough people show tolerance toward those who don’t look like them or speak the same language; too many guns, not enough books; too many self-absorbed, patronizing politicians, not enough with the courage to lead on unpopular but righteous causes.
As Lennon said (the Beatle, not the Bolshevik), “And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”
I have worked at a frenetic pace for my entire life, trying desperately to make a difference. Now I am 60 with Parkinson’s. I have no idea how much longer I can keep this up. I need your help to save one, two, two hundred, two thousand more souls. I am cynical enough to know what I am up against, but optimistic enough to pick the fight anyway.