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Sermons at the 144th Annual Diocesan Convention

Sermons at the 144th Annual Diocesan Convention
The Rev. Elizabeth Wigg Maxwell and Richard Williams

The sermons at the opening Eucharist of the 144th Annual Diocesan Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark were given by the Rev. Elizabeth Wigg Maxwell (St. Peter's Church in Livingston) and Richard Williams (St. Paul's Church in Paterson). The video of both sermons follows the text.

The Rev. Elizabeth Wigg Maxwell

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts find favor in your Heart, O Beloved, our strength and our joy! Amen.

I'm standing in the middle of the airport in Belfast Northern Ireland, and I have two choices. One is to go out the door to my right which is where the taxi stand is. The other is to continue straight ahead out the main doors to the street and parking lot.

I'm going to a town on the north coast about an hour away. I've been told that taxis are expensive, and I'll get a better deal if I go to the Help Desk and arrange for a car to drive me. It's five o'clock and the Help Desk is closed.

As I look around, a man in a white shirt, blue tie and trousers, and cap approaches me.

"Do you need a ride?" he asks.

"I going to Ballycastle," I say. "To the Corrymeela Center. Do you know where that is?"

"I can put it into my GPS, I'll get you there."

He takes the handle of my rolling bag, the one that contains all my worldly possessions and says,

"Follow me."

We go out the main doors and as we get to the middle of the street there's a shout from the taxi stand area. A man comes running toward us.

"Hey! What are you doing?" he yells at the man who's got my bag. "You're not supposed to be giving rides!"

"I'm just giving my friend a ride home," my driver says.

"Your friend?" the other man looks at my face. "Liar! That's not your friend. You have no right to drive her and you know it."

As they continue to shout at one another, I step forward, take the handle of my bag and turn back toward the airport entrance. A small group has gathered on the sidewalk witnessing this scene. As I get back to the airport, one of them says to me,

"Welcome to Belfast!"

I managed to get to my destination, driven by the taxi man. As we drove, he told me the story behind that confrontation and a little about the years of conflict which continue to feed it. I told him about the conference I was attending which was about storytelling as a tool for bringing people together in the midst of conflict.

When we arrived he gave me his card and said,

"In case you need another ride, or another story."

I heard a lot of stories over the next week. What I thought was a conference on the power of storytelling became, for me, a lesson on the power of listening. As I listened, my focus shifted from trying to understand the the issues, to understanding that the key to resolving conflict lies in our relationships with one another.

Toward the end of our conference, I said to one of our leaders, a man who has been doing this work of reconciliation for decades,

"In our communities, we do a lot of talking about the issue of justice. We do a lot of telling people - even the people we're supposedly helping - what they should believe, and how they should act. I don't think we're as good at listening."

He said to me, "Listening is justice."

When I went back through the doors to the airport in Belfast, I was not the same person I’d been when I arrived. As I returned to my congregation at St. Peter’s in Livingston, we continued our listening in the community and wherever we found ourselves. We realized that no matter what the conversation, we were being transformed and being more deeply connected to the individuals, the community, and to God.

Follow me, Jesus says, in Mark's Gospel, and I will make you fish for people. Follow me out the doors, beyond the buildings, and your comfort zones. Follow me into the middle of streets and conversations and confrontations that have been going on for ages. Then stop and listen to the stories and most especially the people, that you might be transformed and know our deep connection with one another, ourselves, and God. Amen.

Richard Williams

As a younger man, during the late Winter/Early Spring of 1995, preparing to complete my first year of undergraduate studies at Seton Hall University, I remember receiving a call from my Rector (at the time), The Rev. Tracey Lind, inquiring as to whether or not I might be interested in returning home and helping to run a summer program for local neighborhood youth. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. As a college student, low on cash with the prospects of another summer working at the mall staring me square in the face, I thought sure. It’s a paying gig doing something that might be fun – sign me up. The only prerequisite on the job description had to be my willingness to share my experiences growing up in the church, harkening back to my days in youth group and the experiences that made that time of my life so meaningful. “Take those experiences and fashion them into a 4-week summer program,” she stated. I remember being told that I’d be working with a small team of likeminded individuals, including fellow church members, leaders from the community, and some faith partners from the other side of the “largest river in the world” – the Passaic River. That was one of Rev. Lind’s more profound statements on the economic and social disparities that can be found simply by crossing over that river.

Whether I was simply not paying attention at the time or couldn’t fully comprehend the complexities of what I was about to undertake, I completely missed the genesis for why this program was being formed, and more importantly, why it was needed (at that time).

You see, several weeks prior to that fateful phone call from Rev. Lind, a young man, whose name was Lawrence Myers, was shot and killed by a Paterson Housing Patrolmen. Lawrence was African-American, 16-years of age, unarmed. The patrolman, Ronald Cohen, Caucasian, 25-years of age, had been on the force for just a few months before being assigned to a housing authority drug enforcement task force.

The circumstances surrounding Lawrence’s death were quite controversial. He was shot in the back of the head after a reported tussle with the patrolmen. There were many questions raised about whether or not this inexperienced officer should have been assigned to this veteran task force. Was this excessive force? Was it murder? Or was it simply a terrible, terrible accident? At the time, local officials at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson described Lawrence as “brain dead” when he arrived. He, subsequently, died when his heart stopped at 11:15 p.m. on February 24, 1995.

As one can imagine, the ensuing civil unrest that gripped the city was palpable. People were angry. They were scared. Young people, those who knew Lawrence, and those who did not, were angry and scared.

As reported in the NY Times, “Police officers in riot gear threw up a protective phalanx around City Hall this afternoon after a brief spasm of street violence by youths angry over the shooting of an unarmed teen-ager during a police narcotics investigation Tuesday night.

Usually busy streets, including the major commercial district along Market Street, took on a ghost-town atmosphere after police cordons rerouted traffic away from City Hall, which was closed down, and most neighborhood merchants pulled iron gates over their storefronts.

What turned into a tense afternoon in this old industrial city began with a peaceful rally and an appeal for unity from Mayor William J. Pascrell Jr.

The demonstration this afternoon broke up with teen-agers running along Main Street, some smashing store windows, and a quick police buildup. As police cars darted about, pursuing roving youths, one teen-ager was struck by a squad car outside an elementary school on College Boulevard. A spokeswoman for St. Joseph's said the youth, whose name she would not release, was in stable condition and was being kept in the hospital for observation.[1]

Young people were angry. They were scared. They had no constructive way to process what they were feeling. No means of channeling that anger into a positive dialogue on police/community relations or how do to deal and interact with “the other” among us.

“So, Richard, your task, should you choose to accept it, is to work with us to engage OUR young people. Share your story. Share your experiences. Broaden the conversation. Light the way.” (Rev. Lind)

What was born over the course of that sweltering summer of 1995 was a little program affectionately known as CityServe.[2] It brought together about twenty young people from the local neighborhood surrounding St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 13 to 15 years of age, some who knew Lawrence personally. And together, we embarked on a journey of self-discovery. With the support of many civic leaders and community support programs (too many to name today), we picked up trash around our neighborhood, built a community garden in close proximity to where Lawrence lived, participated in workshops on Conflict Resolution and Diversity Training, restored donated bicycles so that each young person could take one home at the end of the summer. Most important -for me at the time- we loaded into our vans and drove out of Paterson, across that “largest river in the world.”

We spent a day in the woods of northern New Jersey participating in team building activities and high-ropes courses. On another day, we tubed down the Delaware River. Most of these young people had never been outside the 8 square mile borders of the city and here I am plunking them in an air tube and floating them down the Delaware. (It was fantastic.)

Not only did that summer fundamentally change those young people, and their outlook and perceptions of what is possible, it changed me. It changed my worldview. It completely upended what I wanted to do professionally. My mother, who is here today, will happily tell whoever will listen that I should have been a doctor or a lawyer (or a priest). But those were no longer options for me. There was still too much work to be done (in Paterson).

As the leader of a non-profit organization, St. Paul’s Community Development Corporation, I know all too well the realities of needing to share stories to engender support for the work that we believe in and is vitally important and necessary for the upliftment of our shared communities.[3] This past December, as a part of my End of Year Appeal Letter to our supporters, I shared the story of a student who briefly passed through one of our workforce development programs. Her name is Nykijah Wright. Due to a pretty bad attitude and some anger management challenges, Nykijah came to our agency having been expelled from two high schools in Paterson. She was eventually brought up on aggravated assault charges. As a part of a plea deal, she was able to enter a diversion program for juveniles that included mandatory counseling and referrals for supportive services. One of Nykijah’s goals was that she wanted to complete the coursework necessary to obtain her high school diploma. When she arrived to us, she expected to be confronted with the same song and dance that she had heard when she was in school and her multiple engagements with the court system. What she encountered, however, was a non-judgmental environment, based on a compassionate understanding of her circumstances and the pangs of hurt and undiagnosed post-traumatic stress that her life had wrought upon her. What she found were people willing to listen and share their stories and their experiences. She was afforded an opportunity to decompress and refocus on what she felt was most important in her life.

Nykijah obtained her high school diploma within three months of being in our program. Today, she is working in retail in Paramus, NJ, and is planning to pursue a career in the Culinary Arts; a passion which she discovered while participating in one of our elective training courses.

Twenty-three years removed from that sweltering summer of 1995, still working to impact the lives of young people in the city of Paterson. Yet and still, there is more work to be done.

As our churches continue to swim against the tide of relevancy, we need, as congregations, to be reaching out to the communities that surround us, inviting people in, listening, sharing our stories, lighting the way.

In today’s Gospel, “Jesus says to Simon and his brother Andrew, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” [4] The roadmap is there. All we need to do is follow. All we need to do is follow.

At the end of Bishop Beckwith’s video introducing the theme of this year’s 144th Annual Convention for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, Stories from the Journey: Dwelling in the Word, he states, “Our stories are holy documents written on our souls. We need to treasure those stories, to discover those stories, to see how God is working in those stories, and have the confidence and the competence to share those stories with one another.”

I can confidently and competently share with all of you, the story of the Summer of 1995 is truly a holy document that is written on my soul.

And may this gathered community who has so graciously shared today in My Story, Lawrence’s Story, and Nykijah’s Story, collectively say “Amen.”

[1] Robert Hanley, “Unrest Follows a Police Shooting in Paterson,” The New York Times (24 Feb. 1995). Available:

[3] St. Paul’s Community Development Corporation. Available:

[4] Mark 1: 17-18, ESV