“Then some people came, bringing to Jesus a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.” –Mark 2:3
In his widely shared essay, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” Martin Luther King, Jr., acknowledged the limits he had once perceived in the gospel’s message of liberation. Key teachings in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount were only effective, King had come to despair, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals. In cases of social injustice, race relations, and war between nations, the power of such love was not the ultimate power, and more “realistic” approaches were necessary. “Then I came upon the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi,” King wrote; “The whole Gandhian concept of satyagraha (satya is truth which equals love, and graha is force; satyagraha thus means truth-force or love-force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” Gandhi, and the freedom movement he led, interpreted the Sermon on the Mount for King in a way he had not, for all his theological training, realized before. Bapu’s posthumous mentoring of the pastor from Montgomery opened new dimensions of the Way, Truth, and Life in the laboratory of the American Civil Rights Movement.
I have been considering people who have “carried me to Jesus” and the fullness of his nonviolent, generous agape love, that I might rise up in such power. Who has “dug through the roof” on my behalf, their faith going a long way to making me whole? There are so many to honor! Here are four:
(1) Frances was the coordinator of the Witness for Peace delegation to Nicaragua that I participated in during the summer of 1986. It was the midst of the American-sponsored Contra War in Nicaragua, and rural communities were especially vulnerable to contra attacks which resulted in many deaths, kidnappings and destruction. Particularly in regions north and east, the presence of North Americans provided solidarity with people in local communities, and a lessening of the incidence of attack. We were going to be near Nueva Guinea, in an eastern farming region amidst what had been rain forest. We would live with families, learn, participate in a local building project, and be prepared to nonviolently defend the community.
In Mexico City we trained in preparation for what we might encounter. We practiced how we would put ourselves in between the contras and the people of the village in the event of an attack. The depth of what a commitment to “nonviolence in the manner of Jesus” would mean was dawning on me in a primary way. But it was a particular exercise, and the role Frances took in it, that shook me in a way that became life-giving. Kidnapping of local residents and forced conscription was a pattern of Contra activity. But in the previous year, Witness for Peace volunteers had been kidnapped as well. In this particular role play, we responded to the possible event of several of our group being taken. Frances was quietly insistent that we not break faith or solidarity no matter what, that we follow the captors and our captive friends even in the face of any threat or deterrent. Some of us posited that the summoning of authorities in the face of such a development would be first and foremost, and that the risk of captivity for even more didn’t make sense. Frances was lovingly, incarnationally insistent. She had already summoned an “authority” of a different order, thank God! I never forgot this lesson. It has meant a great deal to me, not just in subsequent experiences in El Salvador, but in life and ministry in hospitals, prisons, and among God’s wondrous and vulnerable people in the local communities I have loved and served. I don’t know whether Frances would remember me, but I surely remember her!
(2) Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador continues, more than thirty years after his death, to be an inspiration to people of faith and love throughout the world. I read the story of his own pilgrimage of faith long before I began going to El Salvador as a Mission Partner. During my first trip to El Salvador, we visited the chapel at the Divine Providence Hospital where Romero was struck down by an assassins bullet while celebrating communion. It is a relatively small place, especially in comparison to the large ramshackle cathedral from which his weekly homilies were broadcast. Across the driveway remains the little hermitage where Romero lived humbly. On the day of that first visit, we entered the chapel in the midst of worship. Near the altar where the Shepherd had fallen eight years before, a baby was being baptized. The astounding symmetry of grace took my breath away. I recalled reading Romero’s words of prophetic promise: “I have frequently been threatened with death. I must say that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in the resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador. I am not boasting; I say it with greatest humility.”
I have had friends who knew Romero personally. And I had the privilege, on more than one occasion, to spend time with his colleague Maria Julia Hernandez, who directed the Human Rights Commission of the Archdiocese. I remember her talking about how Romero would constantly be available to common folks who would come seeking his care. He was never too busy for “his people.” Maria Julia said that Romero’s staff would become very frustrated when he would excuse himself from critical decision-making meetings in order to welcome and listen to with those who had come , sometimes travelling considerable distances, to meet with their shepherd. “But we have a very important decision to make,” they would complain, imploring him to stay. “I know; that’s why you’re here,” he would tell them. “I have to go be with my people.” An icon of Romero is framed outside the door of my office. A book of his sermons and reflection is always nearby on my bookshelf. When I am confused and heavy-laden, he is there with disarming clarity.
(3) “Ann” was a patient at Fox Chase Cancer Center when I served on the pastoral staff there many years ago. I loved that work. I wandered into Ann’s room one day and introduced myself. The prognosis for successful medical treatment of her condition was not good. She was unable to sit up, and experiencing considerable pain. In spite of her discomfort, she generously received me. Her gentle voice granted me such gift; her countenance embraced me. At the same time, the injustice of her cancer shadowed my spirit, and in the face of Ann’s tender smile I was struck dumb. I had nothing to say beyond the tears welling up in my eyes, even as I fought to smile back at her. How would “pastoral care” be summoned in my love-soaked, stupefied state? It didn’t take long for me to find out. She welcomed my awkward effort wholly, and with great care. “Let’s pray!,” she urged, deep compassion in her eyes, as she took my hand in hers.
(4) Ned Mitchell was the pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ when I was growing up. I cherish his mentoring, his guidance, and the friendship we shared when I returned to the congregation as an adult. Ned saw things in me that I did not perceive in myself. He was constantly affirming. When I was fourteen years old, he took me aside to relate to me the story of his calling into ministry. He called it his “tap on the shoulder,” leading him from his planned career in engineering to the vocation that he now modeled for me. I thought, “This is great; but why is Ned telling me this?” “I believe you are going to receive a tap on the shoulder, too.” I was honored, humbled. But I thought this unlikely, since Ned was my (excellent) model and I was more the thorn in his side; I couldn’t see myself as him. As I continued in my teen years, I was very active in the community, but also branching out into the larger world. My translation of the gospel I had learned from Ned and the people at Glenside was including people and communities we had little regular contact. I constantly brought Ned questions and challenges. He was gracious and patient. When we disagreed he always took time for substantial conversation; Ned never feared where our dialogue would take us. At the time, I was quite oblivious to how courageous and inspired much of Ned’s pastoral witness had already been in our community. When at age 18, I left Glenside Church; Ned came looking for me. I was never there. I know this hurt him. By the time I was 29, the “tap on the shoulder” that I had industriously avoided became more a kick in the seat of the pants. My path led me back to Glenside. Ned was retired but still in the congregation. I called him and told him what was happening, and we got together. He did not spare me the anguish he had experienced at my disappearance, but then undertook supporting and encouraging me. His mentoring continued in a new chapter until his sudden death during my last year of seminary. When I came back from Nicaragua and El Salvador full of passion, Ned made it his business to take me with him to places where the stories I had to tell would be unfamiliar (and among some unwelcome) but important nevertheless. I have a picture in my office of he and I together on my last Sunday at Glenside Church, and his wife, Lenore, gave me portions of his theological library, his handwritten notes scrawled on many pages. It is very cool to look at those volumes and have his reflections inform my pastoral ministry today. But the most essential of Ned’s contributions are written indelibly on my heart, continuing to flow from the life of Jesus that he shared so selflessly with me. I like to think that Ned has blessed all those for whom I have been pastor. I see things in people.