Tales from the communion of saints …

Today is All Saints’ Sunday, the day when we celebrate the saints of God who have gone before us, the saints of God who are among us still, and the saints of God that we hope to be.

And what better way to celebrate the saints than to tell stories about them?

Our first story took place two weeks ago near Doswell, Va. For those of you who don’t know where that is, think Kings Dominion.

On Sunday, Oct. 23, an 8-year-old boy, Robert Wood Jr., visited the North Anna Battlefield Park near King’s Dominion with his family. Robert, severely autistic and unable to communicate with others, ran away from his family in mid-afternoon; within hours, hundreds of professionals were scouring the 2,000-acre park for him.

The searchers looked all day Sunday and all Sunday night. They called for volunteers, who turned out by the hundreds, and searched all day Monday. And through Monday night. They searched Tuesday and Tuesday night. Wednesday. Thursday. And still they didn’t find him.

Six thousand people volunteered to help in that search – 6,000, from as far away as Alaska and Florida, showed up to be trained in search techniques, to learn about autism, and to comb the hills and gullies, to struggle through the brambles, to scan trees and fields, looking for this boy.

There were reports of grandmothers from Pennsylvania joining the search, because they have autistic grandchildren themselves, and they couldn’t stand the idea of their own grandchildren being lost in a wilderness.

People took time off from their jobs and drove miles to participate … because they cared.

They didn’t know the child. They didn’t know the family. For the most part, they didn’t know the area.

Yet they showed up.

Because a little boy with severe autism was all alone, lost in a park, and not one person could stand to think of him like that.

I didn’t show up until the sixth day – I honestly thought that Robert would have been found by then. I’ve never participated in a mass search before and wasn’t certain I could be of much help. But I went … because, just like those other 6,000 volunteers, I cared about a child I didn’t know and to this day have never met.

When I first arrived, I found hundreds of people standing in line, quietly, not saying a word. Have you ever been to an event, stood in a line with hundreds of other people, that was as quiet as church?

Well, I’m an extrovert, so after about 10 minutes of silence, I couldn’t take it anymore. “Does anyone remember,” I asked, “where they parked their cars?”

For the next four hours, we stood in line as the temperature dropped and the snow came and went, hoping to get a chance to go into the field to search for Robert. We talked about all kinds of things, including why we were there (because we cared), what we hoped to accomplish (find the child) and what we feared (none of us wanted to be the one to find Robert’s body).

While we waited, volunteers brought us Starbucks coffee and Dunkin Donuts coffee and 7-Eleven coffee. They brought us fresh Krispy Kreme donuts, and fruit and granola bars and even Burger King breakfasts. They had tons of food donated by local organizations; some of the volunteers spent all their time taking care of those who were going into the field, and those coming back from the search.

Finally, we reached the registration tent, where I was asked the oddest question: Do you have a title?

“Well, sure,” I said. “It’s ‘the Reverend.’ I’m an Episcopal priest.” There seemed to be some people there not used to women priests, so I added, “I can be a chaplain.”

“Make sure you tell your team leader that when you get into the field,” the registration people told me.

“Cool!” I thought. “I’m going into the field!”

Then we were trained in searching and in how to approach an autistic child – because each autistic child is unique. Robert, we were told, could not communicate much beyond saying, “Ba ba ba ba.” He didn’t like to be touched – apparently it felt as though someone were drawing razors across his skin. He didn’t like strangers. And he had never been alone this long before.

Finally, they took us by bus out to an area to search for Robert. As I got off the bus, I told our team leader, a professional firefighter who’s also a Marine sergeant in the Reserves, that I was a priest and could serve as a chaplain if they need me.

And then we began to search.

Now, if you’ve never done this before, there are rules for it. You line up about this far apart (arms outstretched) and your search area is only the area in front of you. You don’t look left and you don’t look right, because the searchers on the left and the right are responsible for those areas. And you walk along (the team leader calls, “Step out!” and frankly, all of us were worried about stepping out first with our left or right foot!), looking intently at the ground, and oh, yeah, don’t forget to look up, because Robert is a climber, we were told. The area where we were searching was covered in pine trees – you know, the ones that are easy to climb with all those branches – so we had to look up and down, and struggle through fields and gullies and brambles that caught at us, and climb over barbed wire fences, and cross small streams.

We only went about half a mile before we ran into another group, searching their sector. The team leaders consulted and made some calls, and next thing we knew, we were told to turn around and search our areas again, going back to our starting point.

There we were, standing on the road with at least three other search teams, when we got the word through someone’s iPhone: Robert had been found, and he was alive! We waited until the news was confirmed, first by one TV station, then another, then another, and finally by the sheriff himself.

And then we all cried.

We all had wanted to find Robert, but we all feared being the one to find his body. Now, that fear was removed, the boy was safe, and all we could do was cry with relief.

Then the team leader came over to me and said, “You’re the chaplain, right? Can you say something?”
So I did. I told them who I was, that I was just like them – a concerned member of the community who came out to look for a boy we didn’t know, and that this was why God created us: To care for each other in community. I asked if we could pray (everyone said yes), and led us in the Lord’s Prayer (the most universal prayer in the world), which we said while a bus went down the road.

My friends, if you want to know what the communion of saints looks like, if you want to see the saints among us, just look at those 6,000 lay volunteers who showed up to look for a boy no one knew … beacuse they cared.

• • •

The second story comes to us from your local neighborhood Starbucks (and I can assure you, I am not  being paid for this endorsement).

On Tuesday, on All Saints’ Day, Starbucks launched an effort to put people back to work. If you give $5 (or more), you get this lovely bracelet (show them), made in America, and every single cent of your contribution goes to the Opportunity Finance Network, an organization rather like a community bank (think, the difference between, say, a local bank like Virginia Commerce, and a national bank like Bank of America).

Howard Shultz, the CEO and founder of Starbucks, has decided that we as a country can’t wait for our government to take care of the high unemployment we face, because our elected leaders are squabbling too much and doing too little. So he’s put up $5 million of Starbucks’ money, and is asking customers to put up $5 at a time to help people get small loans so they can work, or hire others to work for them. If you have an idea for a business, or if you have a small business, you can apply to the Opportunity Finance Network for help, and they will give you that small loan, and train you and help you to grow a business and put America back to work. (http://www.opportunityfinance.net/about/)

It’s an example of the community coming together to help each other. For the price of one Carmel half-fat, no-whip, decaf Macchiato (or whatever that thing is – I don’t know, I drink tea at Starbucks), you can help someone in need get back on their feet.

It’s the communion of saints at work.

• • •

Our third story comes from Detroit, once known as the Paris of the Midwest (or as we called it when I worked for the company that owned the newspaper there, Zee Par-ee of zee Mid-wessst). The founder of Quicken Loans – not Quicken, the program you use on your computer, but Quicken Loans, where you go to get loans – is from Detroit. He grew up there, and he remembers the stories his father told him about his hometown and what it was like in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, when anyone could get a job, regardless of their race, creed or color, and move into the middle class (Detroit helped create the middle class).

But I think we all know that Detroit is not what it once was. Two decades ago, they build the Renaissance Towers there, because they wanted to have a renaissance in Detroit. But now, buildings stand empty.

So Dan Gilbert, Quicken Loans’ founder, has moved his company back into downtown Detroit, and with a group of other businessmen and leaders, he has formed an investment network to give people a chance to work and learn and hire others. If you need a place for a business, if you have an idea for small manufacturing, you can apply to this group and get help. And it’s not just money – they put you through a rigorous three-year program, training you in bookkeeping and accounting and management, and even in writing a decent sentence in English. They have the buildings and the funds, and are looking to give people a step up the ladder, so that Detroit can go through a true renaissance.

Again, the communion of saints is working together.


• • •

Our final story comes from Coney Island, N.Y. Has anyone here been? I’ve never been there, but I’ve always wanted to go. It has some kind of mystical allure for me.

This story is about the Coney Island Bagel and Bialy Shop, the oldest Jewish bagel shop on Coney Island. After 91 years in business, the owners had to shut it down six weeks ago because the owner said he wasn’t making enough money and couldn’t do this anymore.

Five weeks ago, the business re-opened.

Two men in New York heard that the bagel shop was closing and couldn’t stand that idea. Turns out one of them had worked there years before when he first came to this country. So he and a friend bought the company.

Two New York cab drivers bought the shop and reopened it.

Two Muslim cab drivers.

Two Muslim New York cab drivers reopened the shop and promised to keep it kosher.

Some of the employees, who were planning to retire (because the shop was, after all, closing), have decided to stay on, to make sure that the owners know how to make kosher bagels.                  Another example of the communion of saints working together to take care of each other.


• • •

Today is All Saints’ Sunday, the day when we celebrate the saints of God who have gone before us, the saints of God who are among us, and the saints of God we hope to be.

I could have told you stories about other saints, the ones we know … Patrick and Gabriel and all the others we know and love.

But sometimes, the saints among us are those we least expect.

And those are the ones who can help us learn to be saints as well.

By focusing on our communities, by reaching out, by helping each other.

We, too, are saints of God.

If we decide we want to be.

It is All Saints’ Sunday, after all.


A sermon preached on the Feast of All Saints’ Sunday, 6 November 2011, at St. Matthew’s, Sterling, Va.

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