If you were to walk down the street in Manhattan, or Los Angeles, or London, or Paris, or Johannesburg, or any other major city in the world, you could go for a very long time before you heard anyone speaking English. You are far more likely to hear Spanish, Mandarin, French, German, Portugese, Afrikaans, Hindi, Arabic, Swahili, Japanese, in all sorts of dialects. Even in parts of Burlington, VT, the variety of languages and dialects is remarkable.
Not so much in Bennington, VT, although if you listen carefully, beyond the profanity which too often seems to be the main dialect, you might hear a French-Canadian-speaking visitor, or someone speaking German. You might overhear Spanish or French or Japanese.
What we discovered in our “Becoming a Refugee-Welcoming Congregation” study this past Lent is that we live in the midst of a much more international community than most of us are aware, and that there are voices and lives with stories to tell and which we need to hear.
Janice Lerrigo will share one of those stories with us–
My name is Thema Gomez. My husband and I came to Vermont from Mexico 3 years ago to provide a better life for our 2 young children.
When we first came, we lived on a farm where we had to live in the barn. There was no bathroom and there were many hours of work. They didn’t pay even minimum wage and there was no day off.
On another farm, we lived in a house where there was no heater and in the cold weather it was very intense. And also the water ran out.
Now I’m in a place where there are better conditions, but the farms where I was continue to be as they were; there continue to be farm workers that are being exploited and I want this to really change. The situations cannot go on like this.
I am on the coordinating committee of Migrant Justice. My motivation for joining Migrant Justice was the desire to change the situation in Vermont, because we want dignified work and for our rights to be respected. It doesn’t matter which part of the world we come from, we still have rights as human beings.
There are over 1500 migrant farm workers in Vermont. They understand that this is hard and rough work that not many people want to do. A recent survey by Migrant Justice reports that:
40% receive less that Vermont’s minimum wage
40% do not have a day off
29% work 7 or more hours without a break to eat
20% have their first wages illegally withheld
30% have had a workplace injury or illness
The Migrant Justice program is modeled on one in Florida. It calls for:
Standards, defined by farmworkers, to establish dignified work conditions.
Education provided to farmworkers to allow them to protect their rights.
A third party to monitor and enforce the standards.
An amount paid to farmworkers and farmers which recognizes their work.
A contract with retail corporations [Ben and Jerry’s] to give the program legal accountability.
As Thema puts it:
We are organizing ourselves to shift the power to ensure that farmers and farmworkers have a voice in the [dairy] industry. We want to be recognized for all of the effort we put into creating Vermont’s famous products.
On dairy farms in Hoosick Falls and Bennington County, in our apple orchards and blueberry fields, workers from Mexico and Haita and Jamaica speak different languages and have stories for us to hear.
The Jerusalem in which those first disciples gathered to await the Holy Spirit was not so different from any other major city of the world. People from all over the earth–all those names which Scripture readers dread to have to pronounce–”Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphilia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans, and Arabs…”–all those people gathered in the streets of Jerusalem and in the murmuring after the mighty wind had blown through heard those rubes from Galilee speaking in languages that were the native tongues of those gathered in the street. In their own languages, they heard wondrous words that carried on the breeze: hope, love, abundance, community, generosity, kindness, healing, new life, sharing, bread and wine, resurrection,…
Who could believe such a thing? Is all that really possible, in this day and age? They must be filled with new wine, some said. New wine indeed, in new wineskins, for those men and women gathered in that upper room were utterly changed, filled with the Spirit from God that Jesus had promised, filled with power to communicate, touched with the fire that would sweep through the city and in fact the whole world.
The Day of Pentecost was the Jewish festival of Shavuot, a harvest festival of first fruits which celebrated the hearing of God’s voice on Sinai, giving Israel the Torah, the law by which they were to live, giving shape to their life in community with God and each other. And ancient tradition says that the voice of God in the commandments is connected with the divine voice of creation. As one rabbi explains this mystical perspective– “All creation is therefore only a re-ification, a thickening into material substance, of the word of God as it travels through all the worlds. For everything, were we capable of so perceiving it, is only God’s voice and being, embodied in the form of something else apart, a tree, a bird, a boy, a girl, or a cloud. When God said, ‘I am,’ then everything for a moment recognized its own essence and was reconnected to the source of its spirit.” [Jonathan Wittenberg, Beliefnet, “Rehearing God’s Voice”]
When you think about it, what is more amazing–to be able to hear someone from another part of the world speaking a language you understand, or to be able to perceive God’s voice, God’s word, in everything and everyone? “For God speaks to every person all the time,” the rabbi says, “in a voice limited only by the capacity of each one of us to apprehend it.” [Wittenberg, op cit.]
“And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’”
A wise teacher once told me that underlying the issue of communication – in a church, in a relationship, in a community and beyond– the real underlying issue is trust. If we cannot communicate clearly–by whatever means, spoken language or body language or art or written word– it is extremely difficult to build trust; and without trust, relationships unravel. Our current climate of alternative facts and fake news, of mis-information and outright lies is destroying the very fabric of our nation. I fear that trust in the United States has been eroded by words spoken this week.
One of the challenges for the church in our day is to be able to communicate the good news which we have to offer, which has made a difference in our lives, to those outside the church, most of whom do not “speak church,” do not understand the language we use in our worship or the hymns we sing.
Emily Heath, who was the keynoter at our Vermont Conference Annual Meeting this past April, tells this story–
A friend once told me that she opened her Facebook account before worship and ‘checked in’ at the church. The woman sitting next to her shot her a judgmental glance and said, ‘Church is not a place for cell phones.’ But that check-in on Facebook sent a message out beyond the church’s walls, telling friends and neighbors, ‘Hey, this is my church…and you would be welcome here too.’ Our ways of communicating are changing every day. Facebook and Twitter and all the other online platforms are calling us into a Pentecost moment. Are we going to wait for the people around us to walk into our doors to learn the language of the church? Or are we going to learn to speak a new language and share our story with others?” [UCC Daily Devotional, 6/1/17]
We don’t really know what to do with a story, let alone an experience, like Pentecost. I daresay none of us anticipated being blown out of our seats or overwhelmed by wind and fire when we came to worship this morning. We get uncomfortable when someone gets a little out of control–calling out an Amen or a Hallelujah! Or a sigh, Yes or Preach it! or raising their hands in praise or prayer, let alone breaking out into speaking in tongues or dancing. Pentecost is a wild, mystical experience! Yet, as Bruce Epperly writes, “The mystics remind us that reality is larger than we can imagine and that we live in a sea of energy and possibility in which wild things can happen when we least expect it, rearranging our spiritual landscape and sending us on unexpected holy adventures.” [Adventurous Lectionary, Patheos, 6/4/17] Quantum physicists remind us of the same thing–that we live in a sea of energy and possibility!
In the midst of this sea of energy and possibility, with voices all around us embodying the very voice of God, it is important to have touchstones, things we come back to again and again to ground us. Anne Apple tells of woman she knew who was going through the agonizing, confusing last days and weeks of her father’s life. Every morning, she said, she would pull into the same parking space in the hospital parking lot and place her hands on the steering wheel. “God’s peace,” she would inhale, “God’s presence” she exhaled. God’s peace, God’s presence, and she waited, “until something in me changed,” she said. Then she could go in and see her father. [Christian Century, 5/5/17]
“This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, poured out for you.” Breathe in–”The bread of life.” Breathe out–”The cup of blessing.” All those voices, all that diversity, all those people from all over the world, all God’s voice, thickening into this one loaf, one cup, creating peace. May peace prevail on earth. Let us keep the feast.
Amen and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark