For my internship year during seminary, I was placed at Trinity Church, Sigourny Street, in Hartford. Some of you may note a familiar ring. This is where our previous Director of Ministry, Dante was placed last year and continues to work for as their social media specialist. In the mid eighties the west end of Hartford was a very different place than it is today. Despite Aetna’s home office just across the street. Prostitutes and drug dealers plied their trades on entrance steps to the church most nights. The congregation was a wonderful mix of well to do insurance executives, doctors and lawyers who purposely drove in from the surrounding suburbs because they wanted to worship along side the people of the neighborhood, the homeless who would often join us for respite from the cold, families who lived in the local public and section eight housing who found Trinity a place where they were greeted warmly and respected by the members of the congregation as a whole. After his first visitation , Bishop Rowthorne noted with some glee, that Trinity was the only church where the names of the confirmands ranged from William, Mathew and Mary to Angel, Jose and Shakara.
Trinity was and still is a wonderful tapestry of humanity. While there, part of my work within the congregation was to lead the youth ministry. Just because Trinity was a diverse congregation, did not mean it was without its problems. The youth group I inherited reflected the diversity of the parish. We had an equal number of young people from the suburbs and youths of color from within the city. They came each week because, for some reason, they liked Maureen and me, and because they enjoyed the activities we conjured up for them. But truth be told, they didn’t really like each other. If we sat down at table, or circled up the suburban kids sat on one side and the city kids on the other. Whenever I tried to get them to talk about why this was, the conversation quickly became heated as each side accused the other of being the cause of the problem.
When Maureen and I, along with the volunteers discussed the issues we faced with this group, we knew if we were ever to bring this group together, we would have to move the kids beyond the suburban/inner-city divide. The solution was to have a lock-in on Maundy Thursday and invite the kids to keep watch with the reserved sacrament through the night in the side chapel. The rules for the night were simple. We would keep watch through the night until we celebrated the Good Friday liturgy at seven the next morning. The kids would keep half hour shifts in the chapel. They were encouraged to pray for as long as possible, but if they could not keep silence, they could talk to each other. But under no circumstances could they leave the chapel. The kids were okay with this until the leaders announced that we had paired them. The groans were deafening as they realized the time they spent in the chapel would not be with one of their friends but with a person from the other side of the great divide.
Being stuck in a dark and quiet chapel is a unique experience. As each pair entered the chapel their prayers lasted at best five minutes, followed by another few minutes of staring at each other until finally neither could stand the silence any longer and conversation began. This is what I had hoped for. In the midst of their conversations, each pair discovered even though on the surface their lives were very different. Deep down they weren’t that different at all, they shared similar frustrations and fears of what the future would bring, they worried about test grades and the sense of isolation most teens experience at some point in those early years of life.
When it was time for the group to gather to debrief the following morning, they all gathered on the large tufted sofa as they always had, only this time was different. No longer was the great divide in evidence as they spontaneously and happily sat with the person they had prayed with and shared what they had discovered about each other in the course of the night and the new bonds they had made.
This morning, St. Paul asks the Corinthians, “For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within?” In this statement Paul both challenges the Corinthians, and offers wisdom in a way that is akin to the Native America value of not judging a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes.
In today’s contentious and polarized world, we have lost the ability actually talk to each other beyond sound bites, memes on social media, and protests. Instead of trying to understand each other we are quick to judge as we seek to convert each other while digging in our heals ready to defend our position with jingoism and insults.
If our world is ever to become the Kingdom we seek, we as a people of God, need to heed Paul’s challenge and wisdom by not being satisfied with the merely human but with seeking the deeper reality of the spirit within.
In recent weeks I have struggled with how to preach the Gospel within the context of this divided world. And I know I am not alone, countless colleagues have shared articles and blog posts on this vary issue. We are all asking how do we preach the biblical command to seek justice and mercy when feeding the poor, welcoming the stranger, and loving our enemies have all become so politicized that we seek shelter and hide to avoid conflict.
As I have prayed with the words of Christ this week to be the salt of the earth, to be the light on the stand or the city on the hill, I have come to realize we need to redefine our role as the church. Yes, we will still advocate for the poor and the marginalized in what ever way God calls us to do. However, at the same time, in the same way Vince Lambardi reintroduced the football to the Packers when he took over as head coach, we, the church need to reintroduce ourselves to the art of listening and understanding without judgement. This is in keeping with how and why Jesus and the Church grew in the early years. Our message was not about judgement but acceptance.
The young people of Trinity learned during that wonderful Maundy Thursday night, when they stopped judging based what they thought they knew about each other and took the time to listen and learn about each other, that which divided was easily crossed on common ground. When we seek to understand our enemy, or one who has hurt us, understanding may not lead us to agreement or to condone behavior, but it can lead to a place of forgiveness.
When I first began working for the Department of Children and Families, I was assigned an abuse case. I can still remember how angry I was with the mother for what she had done to her child before I knew anything about her. Luckily, before I went out to meet this mother, my Program Supervisor sat me down, looked me straight in the eye, acknowledge the anger I felt and then said. “I know you don’t understand why this woman did what she did, you are a young parent, you have a good marriage and a support system to help, but trust me, when you have been stuck home alone all day with no resources, no one to reach out to and your child, the one person in the world who you have made so someone would love you, is colicky and has kept you up for nights on end, I can understand why she did what she did. I have been on the brink with my own children, the only thing that has stopped me from hurting them is because like you I had a good spouse and the resources with which to walk away when I needed to.” Maria’s talk did not serve to condone what the mother had done, instead, it helped me let go of my judgement and to begin the process of helping a sister in Christ who was as broken as I am..
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we live in a world where it has become easy to condemn those who are less fortunate than we are, to judge those who’s positions are different than ours, where discussions about receiving refugees into our homeland and feeding the poor lead to discord instead of harmony. We live in a world where loving our enemy may be perceived as an act of treason. This week I ask each of you, instead of approaching each other with judgement, choose to be the peace makers and the bridge builders, seek the spirit within each other by listening to understand. If we can seek to do just that then our salt will not loose its flavor, our light will not be hidden under bushel, but will shine as if a city on a hill.