Good morning! I’m so glad to be here with you today. I want to thank Rev. Stephanie and Rev. Danae for the privilege of sharing this pulpit, to tell you all a little bit about the work we do at Chaplains on the Harbor. My name is Aaron Scott. I am the Organizer at Chaplains on the Harbor, which is a mission station of this diocese in Grays Harbor County. People don’t always know what that means—are we social service providers? Are we a non-profit? The answer to both of those questions is no. We are a church. We are a congregation. Like St. Stephen’s we are a network of people who take care of each other, worship together, eat together, pray together, study the Word and the world together, dream of ways to transform our community together, and then take action for that transformation together. We are a church. Chaplains on the Harbor is a church. We have that in common with you.
Here is where we are a little different from St. Stephen’s: we are a congregation made up almost entirely of poor and homeless people. Westport, where our church building is located, has an official unemployment rate around 10% but when you add in the number of people living on disability and the number of people who are no longer actively seeking employment, about 70% of adults are out of the work force. In a town of roughly 2,000 people, over 400 people have active warrants out for their arrest—overwhelmingly for poverty-related offenses like failure to pay traffic fines, petty theft, and other crimes of economic survival committed in the absence of legitimate employment opportunities. As the timber industry pulled out of our county and the fishing industry has dwindled with warming ocean temperatures, the primary replacement industry has been an expansion of prisons and jails. Much of our congregation has done time. Nearly all of our young people—my generation, millennials—have felony records.
This context means that the ways we gather as a faithful people are unique. Every worship service, every Bible study, every education program by necessity includes a meal. Our pastoral care happens inside the jails, under the bridges, in homeless encampments, and next to the county needle exchange. Our liturgy committee includes street kids who wander in looking for a safe place to nap. Our maintenance and hospitality teams are made up of folks living in their RVs, tenants in slumlord-run trailer parks, and people living with addiction to meth and heroin. This is our church. These are our leaders. These are our teachers and our evangelists and they do powerful ministry. They do work that the world desperately needs. They accomplish these things because they can speak directly to the reality of the struggling community around them without condescension, and with blunt love and truthfulness about what hope in hard times really means.
Hope can be so frightening when you live in the depths. Real hope for real-world transformation in real life is terrifying when you are at the bottom because you can see precisely how much must change for things to get better. The economy must change. The policies that punish and incarcerate people for their poverty must change. Real hope in hard times requires a belief that the entire structure of our society can be changed—and changed by the very people who have been most shut out of dignity and abundant life. This kind of hope is the height of absurdity in our dominant values system. It is foolishness. Surely the poor cannot save us as a society, let alone save themselves. Leave that job to the experts with degrees and positions of public office. Leave it to the rich.
Except, here is the catch: at Chaplains on the Harbor, we believe in Jesus. We believe that a homeless Palestinian Jewish peasant changed everything under heaven. Even after he is assassinated by the system, we read in today’s Gospel that he lives on wherever suffering people are fed abundantly. We read that he lives on wherever persecutors like Paul are knocked to the ground, ordered to do the work of liberation, and ultimately give their own lives for it. We doggedly believe the words of Psalm 30, “You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave,” because we are surrounded young people dying from overdose and suicide and we refuse to accept that this is the natural order of things. We believe at Chaplains on the Harbor that Easter is not only a season but a choice and a fight we make every single day, in the face of unnecessary death and suffering. We refuse to accept that this present reality is God’s will for the world, and so we are not merely feeding and praying with people—we are also raising up prophets. We are raising up street leaders and poverty scholars who are here to teach the world exactly what good news for the poor entails. Our mission is to build a movement for the full abolition of poverty in Grays Harbor, a movement led by poor people themselves for the good of the whole county. An outlandish dream. A resurrection dream. A dream worthy of the Gospel.
I don’t know if you know it but St. Stephen’s is already a part of this work. You have supplied our homeless prophets with tents, boots, backpacks, toiletries. Your financial donations have enabled us to do things like put money on the books for our young incarcerated leaders, so they can buy stamps at the commissary to write letters to us and to their families. Your prayers and your words of encouragement have reminded us that we are not alone in dreaming big with God, against often impossible odds. We could not do this work without your support, as our sister church and family in Christ, and we are thankful to you for remembering us, for remembering that we need one another. Stay in touch. You remain in our prayers, our hopes, and our dreams.