By Rev. Dayton, Central Presbyterian Church, Tarentum
Jesus came to save a very broken world. On the cross, one of his last statements was, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The church, as it attempts faithfully to follow Jesus, encounters a great deal of this brokenness. Michael Manning is a worker in a ministry on the Isle of Man (a small island between England and Ireland) called Graih (meaning “love” in the Manx language) which ministers to homeless and needy people.
Manning writes in a recent issue in Plough Magazine about his experiences in ministry, ones that are not dissimilar from our experiences in ministry at Central Presbyterian Church:
“A young man – let’s call him Adam – writes to me from prison. He’s in his early twenties and has been in and out of prison several times. In a few brief lines he describes his lack of hope. Homeless before going into prison, he expects to be homeless again when he’s released. He has a bad reputation with landlords and no one will give him a chance. He was staying in our homeless shelter here in Douglas, on the Isle of Man, before he was sentenced. He’s writing to say please could I hold on to the shorts and flip-flops that he left in the shelter, just until he’s released? His writing is neater than I expected. The whole letter is polite.
“What has caused this painful mess marring Adam’s life? There are individual failures, to be sure. Adam continually makes poor choices, though it’s clear his capacity for choice is limited by his circumstances and self-awareness. Adam’s parents have failed, a result of their own struggles. The institutions that have dealt with Adam have failed: the criminal justice system, the welfare system, and particularly the mental health system – the best they can attempt is to keep him stable with medication and occasional calming “interventions.” There are wider horizons too. Adam’s life, like those of too many others, has been fundamentally deformed by a political and economic system that prizes individualism and material gain above all else. Those on the margins of this system, unable to reap its benefits yet manipulated to desire its offerings, are left to flail in a demeaning cycle of constant failure. Adam is alone, and he knows it.
“Adam would often join us for walks around the island – he enjoyed the distraction of getting away from his situation – and once he came to my shared house for a common meal. Conversation was difficult with him, as always, but he was sober and had smartened himself up and sometimes we would catch him smiling. Soon afterward he was back in prison. There are no certainties to love, no easy roads home.
“Community is also, in many ways, unattractive. Who wants to take up an invitation to the slavery of love? Who wants to be part of a poor, broken people whose very self-understanding rests on a realization that they live to serve others? Who wants to give his life? I’ve spent enough time with Adam and others to know that an offer of community, of family, with all the baggage and burden and structure that involves, will not be so enthusiastically received by desperate, wounded people. Many, too many, will prefer to nurse their wounds in the darkness. They will walk away from love, and this failure, too, will cause us pain. But perhaps at the very least they will have been shown a glimpse of something, an attempt to be more alive. They will have had an invitation to come into a real home, a real family, and gather around a real table with real hope.”
Constantly in religion, we encounter the poor and needy, displaced by the same broken world that Adam had been. In Matthew 25:40 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” In Genesis 18 we read of the hospitality that Abraham showed toward the heavenly visitors who appeared near the great tress of Mamre. In Genesis 19 we read of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for the sin (among others) of great inhospitality. In the Book of Ezekiel we read of the sin of Sodom, (Ezekiel 16:49) “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”
Even outside of religion are these portrayals of the poor and needy met in the works of Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the in the songs of the late John Prine. Nobody is alone, and all around us are helpers, such as the church. This is adequately exhibited in these few lines from the song All of My Favorite People by the duo “Over the Rhine”:
“All my friends are part saint and part sinner We lean on each other, try to rise above We are not afraid to admit we are all still beginners We are all late bloomers when it comes to love All my favorite people are broken Believe me, my heart should know Awful believers, skeptical dreamers, step forward You can stay right here, you don’t have to go.”