As we approach the closing days of 2013, and reflect on our interfaith experiences during the last 12 months, we are pleasantly surprised by the many ways our different traditions converge and complement one another. We are Christians, Jews and Muslims. There is a cross fertilization of ideals and values among us that broadens our individual vision of ways to reach higher ground – a connection.
Today, we desperately need to connect the values taught by all of our religious institutions with our daily practice as citizens. Allow me to share the value of connectedness by relaying a recent personal episode, the story of a giver and the selflessness of a venerated saint.
First, I’ll share a personal tale. A few Sundays ago, after enjoying a wonderful worship experience at Ebenezer Baptist Church, we stopped at a gas station on the way home. My wife and I remained in the car while our son filled the tank. There was a middle aged man walking by us and others at the gas station. He had on three pairs of worn out pants. Each pair was slipping on his thin frame, showing his soiled undergarments. He seemed depressed and desolate, but he didn’t approach us to ask for any assistance. He probably wrote us off as people, coming from church, who had already forgotten the challenge heard at worship.
There were two large trash bins outside of the station. He started searching through them for any discarded food. He was hungry, and quickly wolfed down anything that was edible. He searched again, looking for anything he could drink. When he found a few soda cans, he swallowed the last drops. Then he pulled up his pants a third time, and summoned the nerve to enter the food market at the station to ask them if they had anything edible – something that they would throw away anyways. They answered him rudely and negatively, and then forced him out of the store. In a moment, he was gone, but we didn’t know where he went. Even worse, we didn’t go looking for him. We could have helped him, but we didn’t try to even try to find him. There was no connection.
We had just left a glorious worship service down the street, but in linking the experiences inside the sanctuary with those outside at the nearby gas station, we failed miserably. There was no connection.
He expected nothing from us, and sadly we offered him nothing. We went back to business as usual. Will we ever connect?
Now, a story of a modern day giver and an ancient leader. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an obscure Catholic priest, was elevated a few years ago to the position of Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. While serving in this position, he was criticized for not protecting liberal clergy during the country’s “Dirty War.” Yet, look what he did after. He tripled the number of so-called slum priests, and opened new chapels for the poor in devastated areas of Buenos Aires. He repaired soccer fields in these neighborhoods, but more importantly, he stayed in touch with the chapels and priests in the poorest sections of the city.
He was not given to pomp and circumstance. He rode on public transportation, and visited these new parishes frequently – traveling alone. He recently contacted a drug rehabilitation center as it celebrated its fifth anniversary, and left this message, “Don’t let them steal your hope.” That’s connection.
You may know the Archbishop of Argentina as the newly elected Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, in as many ways as possible, he maintains a humble lifestyle. He rides the bus in Rome when he can, and washes the feet of beggars. No wonder he chose the name Francis, Pope Francis. He reminds us of St. Francis Assisi, that beautiful humble priest who was not ashamed to do the work of the gospel, to wash the feet of beggars, to give the hungry something to eat, to hold young children and kiss them, to embrace older citizens and not be ashamed, and most importantly . . . look into the eyes of the needy and see Christ.
If we can ever do this, look into the face of the Lord, we will make the connection between our creeds and our deeds beyond the sacred walls and corner gas stations. We will begin to find the true unity of all of the people in God’s world. In this love connection lies our hope.
Joseph L. Roberts, Jr.