July 28, 2019
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
“You are family now.” It was our last day of day camp in the Woodbourne-McCabe neighborhood, and Miss Phillis was reflecting on the week. There had been challenges, but also the growth of relationships with the children and parents of the community. Miss Phillis wanted to make sure we knew that we were more than just visiting neighbors. We are family. Over the past year, we have been showing up regularly to Alhambra Park, just off of York Road, past Glenwood Life, where Precious has an incredible garden, and therapists empower folks to live into recovery. The park has been slowly transformed from a place parents didn’t want to send their kids because of drug dealing and broken glass, to the heart of the neighborhood. It’s not our games of Kickball that have led to this transformation, but Miss Phillis and the Neighborhood association’s dedication to the children who are growing up around it. The Woodbourne-McCabe neighborhood has more children than most in the city, with young people making up nearly half of the population. The communities dreams for these children to grow up and thrive has led a revolution, from speed bumps to back to school backpack giveaways and mentoring programs, to dreams of an after school program and a grant to install permanent drums and xylophones for the kids to play on in the park. We’re family now in this neighborhood, as improbable as that may sound.
Woodbourne-McCabe was a 100% white community when racist housing practices in 1910 made it illegal for the white, working class home owners to sell their homes to black families, Catholics, and Jewish folks. Then in 1937, the Residential Security Map of Baltimore was published by the Federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. “During the depression, the HOLC produced Residential Security Maps for over 150 U.S. cities…Cartographers used the colors red, yellow, blue, and green to ‘grade’ Baltimore neighborhoods” based on what they understood as risk factors. The York Road Corridor was marked as yellow, which communicated that so-called undesirable people were living there, and that these neighborhoods should not be extended loans unless the lender was willing to take a substantial risk. While part of Woodbourne-McCabe was marked as yellow, the majority of the neighborhood was blue; an area where there was relatively low risk to extending mortgages. But then the G.I. bill entered the scene after World War II, and veterans came back and were encouraged to purchase homes. Unfortunately though these maps continued to be used, and a new form of segregation arose.
Neighborhoods near yellow areas were considered suspect. Realtors had a solution though; they would find a black family who wanted to purchase a home with their GI bill loan, and move them into a blue neighborhood that neighbored a yellow or red zone. Once the family was settled, they would go down the block and warn the residents that the community was changing, and offer to buy their property for a lower cost, but offer them a deal on new suburban homes or tracks of land in the county. This practice, known as blockbusting, gave rise to much of Baltimore County as we know it today, including the homes that surround our church. Our church was built, along with the others on Providence Road, as a result of “White Flight,” as our cities white residents left specific neighborhoods with the promise of increased home values, and the convenience of the emerging beltway and interstate system. Woodbourne-McCabe, in a few short years went from a 100% white neighborhood to a community that was 100% black. The families that moved in suddenly discovered that, while early black residents could use their GI benefits, theirs wouldn’t be accepted. So families scrimped and saved, and took on loans with higher interest rates. But realtors didn’t offer the homes for the prices they had purchased them, but instead drastically inflated their supposed value. This led to Black families purchasing overvalued homes, and over the years the estimates of those homes dropped dramatically, destroying any possibility of black families building equity through their investment. Given their high mortgage payments, it was difficult for many families to update or maintain their homes. Families who wanted to open their own businesses in their neighborhood discovered that banks would not extend them investment loans, leading to vacant storefronts. This entire racist process became known as Red-Lining, and because school funding in Maryland comes from property taxes, the drastic decrease in home values led to underfunded schools, and a cascade effect that continues to this day. The systems of our government and the approaches of realtors to these neighborhoods led to the re-segregation of our city and communities across our country. So it’s no wonder that suspicion grew towards churches like ours by community leaders in black and brown neighborhoods in our city. While congregations like Light Street Presbyterian and MPC got involved to try and fight segregationist practices through sting operations against red-lining realtors in the 60’s and 70’s, the deck was stacked against us and our neighbors.
But then something miraculous started to happen; folks in neighborhoods started to learn what was going on, and organize to push against the forces that were trying to harm them. The Miss Phillis’ of the world heard a still, small voice calling them to try something wild. Folks started dreaming of what could happen if communities of color reached out to predominantly white, suburban churches, and affluent city congregations. What if we didn’t make distinctions, and claimed these communities as all of ours, our children as precious to us all, the park as a place where everyone could gather and live into the Beloved Community?
Friends, when we cross the boundaries that have shaped our city and county, there are a lot of forces and voices that try to slow us down. Simon Peter had to push through his confusion and uncomfortable feelings, but when he reached out to a group of gentiles, a group of folks with power. The early disciples discovered that these Romans, for all of their violence and oppression, were folks Jesus and the Holy Spirit were able to bring to life to create something new. But Simon Peter’s fellow Apostles, they’re not so sure. They demand to know the whole story. When they hear that the Holy Spirit has adopted these Roman Soldiers, who have profited off the oppression of the people of God, the early church is awestruck. Simon Peter’s words “Who was I that I could hinder what God was doing?” reminds them that God’s Son, Our Brother Jesus, is all about overcoming all that divides us, and the most unlikely people become family.
And so, after a long week of camp, full of crafts and field games, of kickball and snacks, we had a family cookout in Alhambra Park yesterday, complete with crabs, hot dogs, my Brother-in-Law Jeffrey DJ’ing, even a bouncy house. We met parents and community members, and got to be family over potato salad and picking crabs.
Beloved, we are family, not just in this little church in the woods, but outside of these doors with our neighbors who are risking to partner with us, overcoming the fear and oppression we represent and have benefited from. We are hearing Jesus’ call to ask our neighbors “what word of Jesus’ love do you have to share with us as you transform our community?” and are hearing of our adoption by the Liberating Christ who is resurrecting neighborhoods and communities, and inviting us to be siblings.
This past week, we’ve loved our children down the road, and they have loved us. In a week where our racist President has decided to attack our city, dehumanize us in tweets, and attack my representative, we’ve been adopted into the family of God, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be. The empire doesn’t understand love or family, and certainly isn’t listening to the voice of Jesus. That doesn’t mean we can’t be loved by the power of the Holy Spirit, and be transformed. So let us continue to be a family in the face of oppression, as our loving parent makes all things new.
In the name of the God of Woodbourne-McCabe, Towson, and all of humanity, amen.