One Degree of Separation
Here's a quote I chose for the top of the Order of Service to help get you in the mood: "When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That's the message he is sending.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
The title of my sermon today started out as a joke based on the theory of 6 degrees of separation, which basically states that that everyone is six or less degrees, (or steps or introductions) away from any other person in the world. This theory was originally proposed by a Hungarian author, Karinthy Frigyes and it was popularized by John Guare’s play titled 6 Degrees of Separation, which was then adapted to the screen, and which many of you have no doubt seen. In the story, the actors make a game of trying to figure out how far any given celebrity is from the actor, Kevin Bacon. Now, when I play that game in my head and look at the people I’ve known over the course of my life, I realize that this could easily be true for myself, I might actually be 6 degrees away from everyone else on the planet.
For one, I have an extended family member who works for the United Nations, prior to that he worked for Oxfam, I don’t even know where he is now, Mauritius? But I’m connected to thousands of people all over the world through him. Another friend appeared in an independent film recently, “The Kings of Summer” with Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman. So now I’m only two introductions away from them and only 3 degrees of separation away from Amy Pohler and Tina Fey! That’s pretty impressive so just for fun I checked out Kevin Bacon’s page on IMDB, the Internet Movie Database, and sure enough, back in 2002, Kevin Bacon guest starred as himself on an episode of Will & Grace with Megan Mullally. So… there you have it! If I’m only three degrees of separation away from Kevin Bacon, how far am I from the rest of the world?
So for the past several years I’ve been telling anyone who will listen about the 6 degrees of separation, and then I tell them that in Grand Rapids, there’s only one. In Grand Rapids, everybody is no more then one degree of separation away from everyone else. It’s true, isn’t it? Every time you meet someone new, you have mutual friends and you can’t go anywhere in this town without running into someone you know! Am I right?
Here are a couple of personal examples. It’s about a 20 mile round trip from our house to downtown so Eli rides the bus most days and I give him a ride up to the bus stop. Last winter we were talking about the One Degree of Separation theory a lot and one morning this red car pulled up, maybe 50 feet away from us. The driver, another Mom, was dropping her son off at the bus stop at the same time I was dropping off Eli. I pointed them out to him and said: you know, we’re probably connected to them in some way too! He agreed that was likely and came back to me later on to report that indeed, he had spoken to the young man on the bus and what do you know, he turned out to be the nephew of Eli’s former drum teacher, my friend, Randy Marsh, so that’s how we met Randy’s sister Sandy and his nephew, Jake.
Another example happened right here at Fountain Street Church just this past spring. I was just walking through the social hall when I made eye contact with a stranger and we smiled at each other in that way that you do, friendly but not too forward, you don’t want them to think you’re flirting! Then my inner choir recruiter woke up and said, you should introduce yourself to this gentleman because you never know, he might be a tenor! I let my gaze drop to his name tag and wouldn’t you know, it was a name I hadn’t seen since High School, someone I considered to be one of my best friends but had lost track of! The person I used to get dressed up with and go to The Rocky Horror Picture Show with weekend after countless weekend! I rummaged through my purse to produce my own name tag and showed it to my friend. His eyes popped open a little, “NO WAY!” my friend said. “Way.” I said. We hugged and the reunion began.
It’s important to stay open to these possible connections, to see each other anew and avoid our usual ruts. You never know who you’re going to run into. I’ve found this to be especially true in social hubs like Facebook where I regularly find old friends and new kindred spirits through our mutual friends. It’s hard to stay open to all these connections sometimes. It’s too easy to allow fear to dictate our actions instead of love. As children we are carefully taught to fear the dark and the unknown and to stay away from strangers. Stranger danger! That same conditioning meant to keep us safe as children, makes it’s difficult for us, as adults, to assess that danger rationally and move beyond that conditioned response, to open our hearts and act with love.
Another example happened last fall, when, in spite of our fears and better judgment we took in a couple of young men who were homeless. They had been hanging around at church on Sundays and during choir rehearsals and I was kind of surprised when I found out they were homeless. That really bothered me because both of them were younger then my son Eli, who is 21 and although he’s working and going to school, he’s still living at home and I can’t imagine what his life would be like without parental support. So one Sunday in October I invited them home for dinner. Within minutes of arriving at our house, an epic nerf battle erupted in the backyard. I watched them play fighting with my two boys for awhile and shook my head as I looked at my husband, “They’re just kids!” I said, “There must be something we can do for them.” After dinner we listened to their stories… and then we had a family discussion… and we decided to let them stay for awhile. One of them stayed for a month and the other one is still with us.
In the process of getting to know these two young men I sent them friend requests on Facebook, and I wasn’t at all surprised to see that we had mutual friends. They had been hanging around church for about a month so I just assumed that Dr. Barton or some member of the choir had befriended them. That turned out to be true for one of them, the older of the two gentlemen who was with us for a month. But when I clicked on the mutual friends’ link for the younger gentleman, the two people I saw there were John and Lisa, an old college buddy of my husband and his lovely wife. My brain briefly exploded while I processed this new information and I quickly gave up on calculating the odds of such an occurrence. It just seemed too coincidental. Yet there it was; they were connected through a church in Cadillac, where our young man had lived with his adoptive parents. Do you ever have one of those moments where you feel like the universe might be trying to tell you something? This was one of those moments and a voice in my head whispered, “yes.”
Later on when I had time to think about it I remembered a conversation that I had with John and Lisa at one of our parties about 4 years ago. They were telling me about this young man they knew from their youth group who had been kicked out of his house by his adoptive parents, not entirely because of the trouble he’d been in, and there had been some trouble, but for declaring himself a Pagan and a practicing Wiccan. He was 15 at the time and he’d been with them for 6 years, but that was the final straw for the adoptive parents and they were done. He was living in a group home and they had no plans to let him come back. I remembered this conversation and how concerned I felt for this young man with no family and I wondered what would happen to him when he aged out of the foster care and group home system. It’s not like you just stop needing parents when you turn 18.
Four years later I met this handsome, articulate, 19 year old and I had no idea he was the same child. But when I figured that out, I have to admit, it really did feel like a vote of confidence from the universe. And after 9 months of working with him on getting his life back together, I can tell you that I am now intimately acquainted with what happens to young people who age out of the system and it is not pretty. It’s estimated that we have around six-thousand, two hundred homeless youth right here in Kent County and each year, over 1000 children are reported as runaways. Community resources for these young people are slim, jobs are scarce and the competition for them is fierce.
Being a card carrying bleeding heart liberal, homelessness has always bothered me and now it bothers me even more. I hear people complaining all the time about these lazy homeless people demanding to know why they don’t just get a job. I’m sorry but how do you get a job when your wallet’s been stolen, your birth certificate is lost and you have no identification? How do you even prove who you are? How do you get a job when you have no address to put down on an application, no clean clothes to wear to the interview, no place to take a shower and no money for a haircut?
So this journey is challenging at times and fraught with peril. But it also serves as a serendipitous and poignant reminder of how close we all are, not just to the Kevin Bacons and Amy Pohlers of the world, but to the homeless youth in our own community, to our neighbors and the check out clerk at Meijer, to the Amanda Berrys and Charles Ramseys, of the world and to each other. Now I’m not suggesting you all run out and adopt a homeless person like I did, but I often think of that quote from Hebrews, chapter 13 verse 2, be not forgetful to entertain strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.
99.9% of all human DNA is identical. All of our apparent differences in height, skin, hair and eyes and gender are all contained in one tenth of one percent of our DNA. That’s 0.1%. Renowned astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, reminds us that “We are all connected, to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically.” So I’m not just making this theory up, we really are all connected whether we like it or not! But maybe it was Dustin Hoffman’s character, Bernard, who states my case most succinctly in the movie, I Heart Huckabees, when he says: “Everything is connected and everything matters. There is not an atom in our bodies that has not been forged in the furnace of the sun.” It’s a continual challenge to honor those connections, to drop our guard and let each other in, to not let our lives be lead by fear. Listen to that little voice that says “yes” and keep an open heart, my friends. Miracles happen every day! Thank you!