Saturday, November 21, 2015

A refugee crisis

Then they heard a tapping at the back door. There on the back step was a stinking, filthy urchin. He was a an Indian boy. His bare feet were black, his toenails split and bloody. He wore ruined trousers and a beaten and burned jacket, no shirt. His eyes were runny, and his upper lip was caked in crystallized snot. His hair was hard and vertical, coming off his scalp in spikes. Teresita reached out to him. Come in. He stepped in shyly, his cloud of odor filling the room. The boys collar was stiff. His reek was of rotten meat and old blood. Teresita looked at his head - it was full of infected sores. Pus formed peso -sized pools on his scalp, and the pus had drooled down his back and coagulated in his hair. Dirt stuck to the mess and made hard spikes on his head. She gently pulled apart the boy's hair, and she revealed dark little creatures drawing in the pus. Lice.

She bent to the boys hair and carefully snipped away the stiff locks. We will take away your lice, she said. We will take away your stink. Pluck, she told her father. Pluck what? The lice. Pluck them and pop them. But I will get pus on my fingers. You can wash your hands. But, it's disgusting. No, Father. Letting an orphan suffer and die is disgusting.

He plucked lice for so long that the boy fell asleep. He wiped so much pus on his pants that there were two ugly stains. For the first time in his life, he felt - well, saintly. Teresita went to the pot of hot water and set it on the table to cool. Jesus washed dirty feet, you know. They washed the pus off his head. She smeared a yellow ointment on the wounds and wrapped a white bandage around his head.

What shall we do with him? she asked.
Why are you asking me?
You are the patron, she pointed out,
I am not in charge here, I have lost control of everything.

(from The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea)

Working out commitment

We sat around the table after supper and talked. We were a small group that was part of a small church. We were talking about what to do next. We are reading the book Slow Church together but it hard to imagine being much slower than we are. The church is four years old and we are still talking about how to become a member. Some of us cannot even get the word join out of our mouths. If we do we make the quote sign with our hands. You know, "join" as in how all the other churches do it. We don't want to do it like that. We want to be more inclusive; we don't want anyone to feel excluded or inferior; we want something deeper than just "joining".

We are so small we cannot afford a building. If we had one we couldn't afford to maintain it. We rent space and we use spaces that others are using to live in. This makes it hard to have meetings on days other than Sunday unless we invade some one's living space who might actually be living in it that night. Many week nights that invaded space is our pastor's and her family.

So in this small church which inhabits small spaces maybe it's not big deal if we don't have members but we think it is. It's a big deal to commit which people have such a hard time doing today. It's a big deal for us, too, we think, so we want to come up with a way to do that -that doesn't create a two tier system of Christians, and make any one feel excluded. So we come, we give, we take part in the mission of the church and we share Communion every Sunday. But the problem is our communion, our covenant together, is non specific, it is ambiguous. It is there but how do we know it is there. You know what I mean. We don't want to sign up, or come down the center aisle at the end of the service (we don't have a center aisle anyway), or have a show of hands. We have been there and done that and are looking for a different model. Because it is important. Commitment is important. It could be we are making too big a deal of it (Jesus just said, Follow me.) But we don't think so. So our small group in our small space will continue to eat together and share our lives and pray and try to figure this out (among other things).

Psalm 82, Earthshakes

The gods of the nations are called to account: Have they acted justly
Toward the most vulnerable on the earth
Have they acted justly on behalf of the children
and their mothers who are suddenly without husbands and fathers
Who is hearing the cries of the weak and displaced
or ignoring
Who has plans of refuge for the miles of refugees
that do not include walls, registration lists, and religion tests
Are those with much on the earth paying attention to those with little
God wants to know.

Is this why the earth is shaking so?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


There is a lot of fear in the air today. We should close our borders to keep refugees and immigrants out. We should be afraid of what they might do. A refugee may be a terrorist in disguise carrying a fake passport. Our presidential contenders try to make us very afraid of what can happen if we vote for the wrong person, the one who will not be able to keep us safe and secure. They are running campaigns based on fear. We should be afraid of people who are different from us in race, sexual orientation or religion. We should be armed and ready to defend our properties and lives with deadly force. Strangers are strange and we should suspect the worst in others.

In the neighborhood where our church is located is a small park. It is not used much. It is not seen as a  safe place. It is a diverse community with different ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations and religions including "nones".  The park has some playground equipment and a basketball court and a couple covered places with grills to eat. Except no one does. Our church has met there a few times putting out some food, playing some games but not many people outside our small church showed up. This past weekend we planned a "harvest party at the park". We collaborated with some other people from the neighborhood who were interested in the idea. As the hour to start got closer it looked like it would be another small affair. But by the end over a hundred people had come. There were games and food and even a pick up basketball game with some of the local Jacksonville police who stopped by in uniform. Some people were heard to say that it felt good to come together in a safe place. The many children who were there (who would not have been there on a normal Saturday afternoon) were having a good time. Adults were meeting and talking. Families were having their pictures taken and faces painted.

For a few hours it was a respite from fear. When the police cars pulled up I thought the worst. What's the trouble now? Do we have to seek shelter? Fear is such a common reaction. It is so easy to let it control our lives. Much easier to avoid something rather than take a risk. But avoidance makes for a smaller and smaller way of life. We get trapped within our own borders. Fear becomes our default setting.

The way of following Christ involves risk. The Incarnation was risky. Jesus' parents took a risky trip when his mother was about to give birth to him. Jesus broke some of his religion's laws by touching people who were deemed unsafe. In his last days he walked into a fire storm in Jerusalem. It ended badly for him. At the cross. A cross, he said, that anyone who wants to follow him has to pick up.

Monday, November 2, 2015

In the eyes of a beggar

We drive through the city of Jacksonville on our way to church in one of it's neighborhoods just north of center city. It's common on Sunday mornings to see homeless people begging for help on street corners. As you slow for a red light they make eye contact and hold up their signs: Help a Homeless Vet or something like that. Acknowledging their need and your resources to meet that need. Most of the time people drive by as I have, though occasionally some one stops as I have, too. Many of the streets we travel run by huge churches with worshippers heading to Sunday services. In those churches this Fall time of the year are Stewardship Campaigns. It is time to raise the money for next year's budget. Even though stewardship is a minor Biblical theme if it occurs at all, the sermons will mine the Scriptures for proper texts. One popular gospel story is called the Parable of the Talents. The  owner gives talents (literal talents or time or money are used interchangeably as if there is no difference) to servants, one gets a large amount, another a smaller amount and the last servant gets the smallest. The servants with the two larger amounts manage to increase their talents by the time the owner returns to check on them. They are good stewards of what the owner has given. The third servant just buried his in the back yard. He is a bad steward and is punished. The moral is clear, God gives us talents and he expects a return on investment. He is the owner and gives gifts for us to manage. We are stewards of all God gives to us. It is a bad thing to waste talents by burying them.

So the people on their way to church are learning to be good stewards of money and stuff and they get to practice it by tithing to the church. God will make up what they have given. He will bless them. However, what about the people on the street. They are poor stewards. They have wasted what God has given to them. They have resorted to begging. They could work, they can get welfare, there are city services that our taxes pay for that they can avail themselves of. We should not encourage them  with handouts. It will not do them any good in the long run (although it might put something in their bellies in the short run). Never give cash because they will just use it for booze or otherwise waste  it. Some of these beggars actually come into the city and make a good living off begging. You are a fool if you think you are helping them. It is hard to make eye contact and not feel like helping so look the other way and remember if you really want to help them you won't give.

Kelly Johnson has written a good book called The Fear of Begging. She tells about St Francis who began an order of beggars, mendicants they were called. Eventually the church put a stop to it. The church has had an uneasy history with money. Stewardship was one of the good ideas it came up with. Not everyone thought it was a good idea, though. Peter Maurin who was one of Dorothy Day's inspirations at the Catholic Worker had good reasons for begging. Like Francis he believed begging was a sacrament. He said: "people who are in need And not afraid to beg Give to people not in need The occasion to do good For goodness' sake. Modern society calls the beggar Bum and gives him the bum's rush. But the Greeks used to say That people in need Are the ambassadors of the gods."

Francis and Maurin called this voluntary poverty. They say it reminds us of the need for justice and charity. An encounter with beggars calls for reverence. We are in the presence of someone close to the heart of God. They read the parable of the talents a little differently. God gives freely and then waits, beggar like, on the fulfillment of that freedom which will be the return, the gift of love. The parable is not about how to make the best use of resources for the owner but how to give oneself - heart, mind, muscles, home to the beggar-Lord in love. Christ you see is the lowly servant who buries his talent as a prophetic act to confront an unjust ruler who gathers where he did not scatter and reaps where he did not sow. This truth telling servant is cast out, into beggary. That figure is like Christ who told the truth to the powerful in Jerusalem, suffered and died, becoming one of the least of these (Matt. 25).

It is a creative interpretation. I don't know if it's the correct one. I don't know if the traditional is either. I do know I am starting to look at beggars differently. I can look them in the eyes.