Sermon by three Peace Church graduates, June 7, 2020
Eli Beech Brown
As seniors we have been through a senior year like no other. We found ourselves with just three months left of high school and the next thing we knew, no days left of high school. We lost our prom, we lost our graduation, but fortunately most of us did not lose our way to support our family or our sense of security due to Covid-19. While most of us didn’t directly experience these hardships, with the experiences we had growing up at Peace Church, we were better able to empathize with people who lost so much more.
A few years ago, our Youth Group did a weekend in Minneapolis where we were immersed in an inner-city environment. We had the opportunity to listen and learn from people who faced disparities due to their race, income, and other factors. This helped us as a group to better understand the struggles that most of us haven’t faced. The next summer, we continued on this journey when we went to one of the poorest states in the country—West Virginia. There we saw a community ravaged by drugs and loss of coal mining jobs. We worked with a very hurting community by doing many different tasks. I was tasked with one specific job for the week—to build a handicap ramp for one of the community members. At first I thought this was just a simple construction job, but as the week rolled on, the man fixing up the house (Joe) went from a stranger that I knew nothing about, to a friend whose story I cared about and was determined to help. Joe’s daughter was disabled, and if I didn’t get the ramp built along with the Green team, he would lose custody of his daughter because they didn’t have a place to live. At the end of the week and many long hot days, Joe thanked us and told us how much our work mattered to him.
At both of these places, I learned that “Joe” could be anyone; he could be the person you meet at the grocery store, he could be the person you see on the street, he could be a person in the pew next to you. From the Peace Church community and our families, we learned and continue to learn how to treat and interact with everyone with kindness and respect because we don’t know their story; we don’t know what they have gone through. In the last few weeks, in our home state, we have been reminded that the struggle of people is ever present, and empathy is more crucial at these times than ever.
Soon I will be going to college at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. As I leave the heart of the current struggle for racial equality in Minnesota and head to a community deeply rooted in racism, I will carry the values of Peace Church with me: inclusivity, community, empathy, and justice.
Though our senior year was challenging, the values of Peace Church have helped us persevere and focus on others rather than ourselves. These values will guide us as we continue our journey to work, college, and beyond.
I’m extremely grateful for the community Peace Church fosters. This year is barely halfway done and has already been full of challenges, making community more important than ever.
Peace has taught me that I can make a change in someone’s life. I was able to travel to Minneapolis for Urban Emersion, Atlanta, and West Virginia. My favorite parts were where you could connect with the people you were helping and just listen to their stories. Listening to stories has not only spurred my obsession with The Moth Radio Hour but also been one of my favorite parts of these trips. In Atlanta we listened to the group leader share his experience of losing a loved one and listened to the children from a summer school in a low income neighborhood talk about their families. In Minneapolis we listened to stories of families who struggled with poverty, and in West Virginia we listened to a man whose wife was recovering from a drug addiction while he raised his children. These experiences were not only eye-opening to issues such as poverty and racism, but also motivated me to volunteer outside of the church community alone.
Next year I’ll be attending the University of Minnesota where I plan to study environmental engineering. Right now there is a lot happening in the cities, and I hope to carry with me the same change I witnessed at Peace Church.
When I was younger I dreaded Sunday mornings. Trying to sit still for an hour and sit quietly on top of that was a task I was sure that had been designed just to torture me. My parents would give my sister and I disapproving looks as we giggled in the pews while we were supposed to be singing hymns. My parents would pretend to be patient with us while gently pointing to where we were supposed to be following along. My parents are filled with the kindness and love that makes me believe in God. I learned about compassion and forgiveness watching my mom handle every challenge with grace and composure. When my problems became balloons in my mind she is always the first one to grab my hand and encourage me to give it up to God. She reminds me that love is larger than any issue and I will never have to walk alone in anything. My mom gives up pieces of herself every day to make sure others are full. She modeled for me the empathy and understanding God asks of us.
My dad had a more direct approach with talking to me about God. He keeps religious icons scattered around the house. He’ll print off writings on weekly scripture for me. He takes notes in the columns on the side and encourages me to do the same. We’ve had countless conversations on what Jesus was asking of us. When I had doubts or concerns, when the world seemed too horrible for there to be a bigger picture, he challenged me to think bigger than myself. He pushed me not to run from religion, but to embrace it. He showed me as dark as it gets, we are grounded in a belief of love. He never gave up no matter how dark it got. He modeled for me what Jesus did for us.
I see God when I help my dad water his garden. I hear God in the way my mom laughs every time I tell a corny joke. I believe in God because I believe in love. The overwhelming sense of joy and peace I feel when I am with those I love comes from a power much larger than myself. My faith is regularly evolving as I try and grapple with the hate and violence that happens every day in our world and our community. We are constantly being called to action to step up and use our resources and privilege to help those without. We can’t let something as simple as being a little uncomfortable stop us from seeking the truth and loving our neighbors unconditionally. This is the message the bible is telling us. It is up to us to listen.
My sister and I still have a tendency to giggle a lot during church. But now, we don’t have to be reminded to follow along. Because when it comes time to sing, we dance, too.