Category Archives: religion

Stinky People, Cake and Jesus

Some places are just not intended for human comfort.

Take, for example, the concrete pad behind the building where I work. Two heat pumps and a garbage can occupy the space, which is surrounded by a waist-high concrete wall. There are no picnic tables or chairs to indicate this is a place to hang out. Nor is there any cover from the elements, which means both the sun and the rain beat down on its surface.

And yet, for the past few weeks, it’s been someone’s sleeping quarters and safe space. As I was leaving out the back door for a meeting last week, I noticed  “Mark” (not his real name) sprawled out on the concrete pad in the hot sun reading children’s books.

The books were donated to my organization to distribute free to anyone who walks through our office doors.

I asked “Mark” how he was doing, and he grunted at me. I continued to my car without bothering him because, well, the grunt meant he probably didn’t want to be bothered.

“Mark” is a thirty something year-old man with schizophrenia who has been coming to our office for years.

Sometimes he is taking his medications. Sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he has a place to live. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he wants to talk. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes, the system helps him. But most of the time, it fails him miserably.

He spends much of his time moping around town with his head hanging low and his pants hanging even lower. The police know him. He’s been arrested and even done jail time for trespassing. Many of our social service and mental health facilities know him. Even the people at the hospital know him.

One time, when he was desperate to get the demons out of his head and a safe place to stay, he actually called an ambulance to come get him at our office. That didn’t work out very well. He’s even been committed and spent a few days in a psychiatric facility. That didn’t work out very well either as he landed right back where he was before.

“Mark” isn’t capable of living on his own, but there are no facilities in our community for someone like him. From what I understand, he is an unwelcome guest at the rescue mission. He’s been robbed and taken advantage of by people who are more streetwise than he is. And much of the time, he stinks. Literally.

And yet my co-workers treat him with the same respect they treat our donors. They listen to him – even when he doesn’t make sense. They let him use the phone – even though we are fairly certain there is not anyone else on the call. And, on the occasions they’ve convinced him to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom and he’s thrown his wet, stinky clothes away, they’ve taken them out of the garbage and washed and folded them.

They don’t do any of this because it’s in their job descriptions. They do it because it’s the right thing to do. They do it because that’s what loving thy neighbor is about: loving all of our neighbors – not just the ones who smell good or with whom we agree.

I was thinking about this last week when “Mark’ grunted at me from the hot, concrete pad and I slipped into my air-conditioned car. When the radio came on, I heard the news about the Supreme Court decision in favor of the baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. I’m not a lawyer or a Constitutional expert, but I disagreed with the ruling on a personal level. I also wondered how baking a cake could even became a political and legal issue in a nation where so many people define themselves as “Christians.”

But the again, I also wondered how, in a “Christian” nation,  Mark’s safe place is a concrete pad behind a social service agency.

Christians are supposed to be followers of Christ – that’s where the name came from, right? And wasn’t Jesus all about breaking norms by socializing with the ostracized and caring for people who others disregarded? He never pretended it would be easy or pleasant. But he did teach us that no person is more important than any other person.

When I got back to the office after my meeting that day, Mark was gone. His belongings were out of sight, and there was no indication he’d ever been there or that he would soon be back

But I knew he would be.

Because the fact that the concrete pad behind my office is his safe place isn’t by chance. It’s because the people inside the building have created that safe place by accepting him just as he is.

You know, kind of like Jesus taught us,

Since I’m Not Catholic or a Lesbian…

On Sunday morning, I’ll be worshiping at a Catholic mass. I’ll also be briefly speaking about the Catholic who-am-iorganization for which I work.

The Catholic Church has always been a part of my life during the Christmas season. My parents met on the campus of Notre Dame University back in 1961, and their annual Christmas cards from Father Theodore “Ted” Hesburgh always held a place of honor in their home.

Despite that, my parents aren’t Catholic, and I’m not Catholic.

Just learning to call their church service “mass” was an accomplishment for me.  Less than a month after I started my current job, I made the mistake of walking into a Catholic Church on a Sunday morning and asking two women about “the service.” They looked at me blankly until one of them, with a note of disbelief, asked “do you mean the mass?”

I did. Since then, I’ve also discovered that a Catholic priest doesn’t deliver a sermon but instead gives a homily and that Catholics don’t say The Lord’s Prayer. Instead they say a shortened prayer called the Our Father. It has the exact same words as The Lord’s Prayer, but it ends sooner. Which means, if you are a Protestant (like me) in a Catholic Church, you quickly become the center of attention when you are still loudly reciting the end of the prayer you know while everyone around you is silent. That may actually be more embarrassing than loudly saying “Amen” at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance during a school program. Yeah – I did that once too.

But back to my original point: many people assume I’m Catholic because of my job (unless, of course, they get the opportunity to observe me during an actual Catholic mass.)

I had a similar experience back in the early 1990’s when I worked for the statewide AIDS Program. At that time, the popular belief was that AIDS was a gay disease. Therefore, many people assumed that I must be a lesbian, especially since my job required my going to some very interesting events at some very interesting places. Needless to say,  I became quite familiar with the gay community.

But here’s the deal: not being Catholic doesn’t prevent me from doing my job or serving people in need any more than not being a lesbian prevented me from addressing the growing AIDS epidemic in the early 1990’s. And I’m fairly confident that the people who know me and have worked with me will agree.

What my work does require is that I accept people for who they are just as I hope they will accept me for who I am. In doing so, we can all work together for the common good.

During the last few months, I’ve witnessed too many individuals make negative comments about people who don’t share the same religion, the same sexual orientation or even the same skin color.

I just don’t get it.

Considering our differences as negative will never, ever allow us to work together. It certainly won’t help us identify and use our various strengths to build a better country. Most of all, it won’t help us eliminate hate, which is an enemy to all of us.

As a small child, one of the first Bible stories I learned was a parable that Jesus told  in the Gospel of Luke. It went  like this:

 “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”    Luke 10:25 -37

I’m not a Biblical expert. Instead, I’m just a lowly social worker trying to do a small bit of good in a world that can be harsh, brutal and often downright cruel. But to make even the slightest difference, I have to work with and be a good neighbor to people who are extremely different to me.

I can only hope that this Christmas, all of you will “go and do likewise” as well.

The Meme I Hate the Most

megaI regretfully admit that I was in my forties before I truly understood one of life’s most important tenets: being right will never feel as good as being kind. That’s why I almost didn’t write this.

I don’t want to shame or embarrass anyone who has shared or posted the meme that makes me cringe every time I see it.

I know that it was posted with the best of intentions by great people with good hearts, kind souls and a desire to make the world a better place.

But a statement suggesting that big homeless shelters are somehow better than big churches is, well, just wrong on so many levels.

Let’s start with the fact that we live in America, a nation founded by people seeking a right to worship in the way they wanted. Dismissing how others choose  to worship is completely un-American.

Personally, I’m not a fan of churches with memberships larger than the population of the town in which I live. But that’s why I don’t attend one.

I understand concerns that the money used to build, maintain, and equip such large churches could be better used to pay for services to the disadvantaged, but couldn’t the same be said for almost any aspect of our own lives? If we had a smaller house or a less expensive cars, all of us would be able to give more to charity.

We should all spend less time judging and more time actually helping others.

Which brings me to the other reason I hate this meme.

Are there really people who think that building more and bigger homeless shelters is the answer to our homeless problems?

To me, that statement is like waving the white flag in surrender to all of the issues that cause homelessness. We are accepting that we are helpless in the face of the root causes, such as mental illness and social injustice. We are admitting that prevention doesn’t work and that people and systems can’t change.

And I’m not willing to accept that.

I work for a social service organization that fights poverty. Yet every day, I also fight a mentality that providing financial assistance and food to the poor is all we can do to help.

In reality, that’s doing people in poverty a disservice. It’s sending a message that they are not capable of doing more or being more. It’s telling them we’ve given up on the possibility that they are capable of helping themselves and helping others.

Addressing issues of poverty is hard work. It involves developing relationships with people who are often hard to love or don’t understand the manner in which middle class people live and interact. It’s our job to walk with them, teach them, and set expectations for them.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for emergency financial, food, and housing. There is. We can’t expect anyone to make big changes in their lives when they are in the middle of a crisis.

But if that’s all we do, then we are selling them, and ourselves, short.

So instead of calling for more homeless shelters, I want to hear a rallying cry for more preventive and support services. I want a united demand for better mental health and drug treatment programs. And, most of all, I want people to stop putting the band-aid of temporary shelter on gaping, life-long wounds created in part by the inference that some people should just accept their place in life.

I Believe In God

favorite sunriseI don’t believe in God because I think my belief will get me into Heaven.

My thoughts won’t get me anywhere.

Actions take me where I want to go or where I need to be.

I am too logical to believe that praying will get me what I want. If it did, the world would either be extremely chaotic or dangerously competitive as everyone would be praying  for and expecting to get what they want. If everyone’s wishes were granted, life would be mass confusion.rainbows

This doesn’t mean I don’t need to believe in God or in the power of prayer. In fact, the exact opposite is true.

I believe in God because I know that I am an incredibly imperfect person who doesn’t have the strength to do what is right without a greater power compelling me to consider how my words and actions affect others.

When I ignore that voice, I immediately feel regret.

And so, I am motivated to do my best to make the world a better place for others.

I believe in God because I witness miracles on a daily basis.

sunsetThese miracles exceed the power of humans: we can’t create sunrises, sunsets or any of the beautiful phenomena of nature.

And so, I am compelled to stop worrying about my insignificant concerns and enjoy what is significant, important and beyond my control.

I believe in God not because I expect the world to be perfect or for only good things to happen to good people.

Life isn’t intended to be a joy ride. It is intended to be a lesson that begins at birth and ends at death. Like any lesson, sometimes it is fun and entertaining and sometimes it is exceedingly difficult.

And so, I have learned the power of prayer – of talking with God to help me understand what lessons I am supposed to learn and how I am supposed to use those lessons.sunrise4

I believe in God because there is not other explanation for why I pray when I am feeling lonely or scared or irritated.

Even though circumstances don’t always change when I pray, my strengths does. Instead of  feeling hopeless or alone, I feel loved and embraced.

And so, I continue to pray to do the right thing, or say the right thing or write the right thing.

Because believing in something doesn’t mean I expect my life should be perfect.

sunrise2It means I expect that I’m not alone in any struggle I endure and any battle I fight.

It doesn’t even mean I expect to always win or succeed during those tough times.

But it does mean I grow and learn and become a better person who can help others learn and grow and become better people too.

And, ultimately, that’s why I believe in God.sunrise on beach

 

 

 

Keeping It Simple

newyorkerpopefrancisSince I started working for Catholic Charities West Virginia, people are always asking what I think about Pope Francis. I don’t mind them asking. In fact, I appreciate the opportunity to share my opinion about the Pope: I think he’s fantastic.

As a meeting was wrapping up on Saturday,  I was once again asked about my job and about the Pope.

“My job and Pope Francis are both awesome,” I said.

“Did you see the cover of The New Yorker where he is making a snow angel?” one woman asked.

“That’s perfect,” I replied. “I think his messages are right on target.”

“Yes, but will he be able to change church doctrine?” another woman asked.

I didn’t have a reply to that because I didn’t think her question was relevant. I may have spent most of my adult life being an advocate for social change, but Pope Francis puts everything in perspective: keep it simple by caring about other people more than anything else.  That message speaks to all people no matter what their faith or whether they agree or disagree with any parts of Catholic Doctrine.

In a world when many of us spend too much time and energy worrying about what kind of car we drive, whether our children’s achievements  are sufficient, how high our tax bill or health insurance premium will be or whether we will have enough money for retirement, Pope Francis reminds us what’s really important: using our time on earth wisely by making it a better place for our fellow humans.

That’s pretty much it.

The reason I am such a fan of Pope Francis is that he rises above the issues of doctrine and politics. His message really is simple:

  • Care about other people-all other people regardless of race or religion or nationality or sexual orientation.
  • Help meet the needs of other people, whether those needs are physical or spiritual.
  • Don’t judge other people. Period.

That’s pretty much it.

And yes, I am fully aware that life in the real world can get complicated. But when it does  get complicated, that’s when we most need the reminder to “keep it simple.”

I’m pretty sure that’s a message a guy who was born in Bethlehem about 2000 years ago also shared.

Here’s hoping the world starts listening.

A Portrait of Jesus

This past week, while much of the news focused on Congress, the debt ceiling and the federal shutdown, another story caught my attention.

portrait of jesus WBNS-10TV

WBNS-10TV

A school district in Jackson, Ohio agreed to take down a portrait of Jesus that had been hanging in a school since 1947. The district is not removing the portrait because, after 66 years, it realized that the portrait might be a violation of separation of church and state. It’s removing it for financial reasons.

In February, the ACLU of Ohio and the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the Jackson City School District for “endorsing one religion improperly.”  The school attempted to argue that the portrait was part of a “limited public forum” but eventually agreed in court to remove it to avoid “risking taxpayer money.”

The actual story wasn’t what caught my attention. I’ve read about plenty of similar stories over the past couple of decades. What caught my attention was someone’s reaction to it.

“This is why are country is in trouble,” the person wrote. “We are turning our backs on Christianity.”

I couldn’t have agreed with that statement more. I just agreed for entirely different reasons.

I don’t believe many of our leaders or citizens are acting in a way that Jesus wanted.

From what I know about Jesus, he didn’t care about himself. He cared about everyone else. EVERYONE else – regardless of socioeconomic status, criminal status or religion. He simply cared about people and did all he could to help them while trying to teach all of us to do the same.

I can’t imagine the Jesus that I know would care whether or not his portrait was on a wall in a school. My guess is that he probably wouldn’t want it there. He didn’t want his image (or what  a lot of people consider his image) to be worshiped.

The type of worship he wanted was for people to understand his words and behaviors and to practice them every day.

There are those who would argue that the portrait of Jesus in a school was just a reminder for students to listen to his words and to do their best to practice his behaviors. If that is what they believe, I applaud them. But if they are trying to promote Christianity as a religion in which all people should believe, then I do have an issue with that.

I don’t think whether or not someone is a Christian defines whether they are good or bad  or worthy or unworthy. But I do believe that Christianity means that, instead of judging others, we love and care for them.

And that’s why I agree with the person who said we are turning our backs on Christianity. My agreement has nothing to do with the label and everything to do with the behavior.

Which is exactly the message Jesus was trying to teach us: it’s all about how we treat others.

Godless

coexistThis week, I was told I was godless.

That was news to me, but in this era when people can post anything on the internet and pretend it’s the truth, I have forever been labeled godless.

In reality, that doesn’t actually mean that I don’t believe in God. It just means I don’t share the narrow-minded, judgmental views belonging to some people who call themselves Christians.

Because I support gay marriage, believe in comprehensive sex education, will always fight for separation of church and state and don’t believe that Christianity is the only legitimate religion, to them, I am godless.

This isn’t the first time someone has questioned my faith.

When I was a teen, I often attended youth group activities with a friend at a fundamentalist church. Upon arrival, my friend always got the attention of  boys while I always watched from the sideline. One evening, I just couldn’t deal with the situation, and the youth pastor picked up on my petulance and jealousy. He asked me to come to his office, and I agreed because I thought he was going to provide some words of wisdom and solace.

Instead he interrogated me about my religious beliefs.

“Are you saved?” he asked me.

“I go to a Methodist Church,” I said, thinking he would understand that most Methodist weren’t real big on going up to the altar, getting on their knees and proclaiming they were “born again.”

He didn’t like my answer.

“Well then, you aren’t a real Christian,” he said.

Even at fifteen, I knew he was full of it. But, in order to escape his small office, I promised I would think about his advice.

I never talked to him again, which probably wasn’t real Christian of me. Instead, it was actually rather godless, because the God I know is loving and forgiving. I wasn’t being either.

There are times, like this week, when I’m still not.

I question people who wrap themselves in Christianity and proclaim that the way they live their lives is the way everyone else must live theirs. I swear when those same people call me a hypocrite for saying I believe in diversity but don’t believe in exposing kids to the lies they want to perpetuate. And I have a hard time loving and forgiving people who are more intent on justifying their own beliefs rather than caring for others.

I was too angry to truly exemplify God’s love and ability to forgive, so maybe people were justified in calling me godless.

But I’m pretty sure God understands and forgives me.