Learning from My Neighbors
It’s a great honor to be together to listen and speak and have a conversation. I think it’s a fun time to be alive right now. What a gift to be here at any moment in history, but particularly right now.
When I was on an airplane the other day, a fellow sat down next to me and said, “So, what is it that you do?”
I decided to have a little fun, so I said, “Well, sir, I’m a preacher.”
And he said, “Oh. I never would have known. They must not make preachers like they used to.”
And I said, “No, thank God.”
We talked for a minute, and he said something very interesting. He said, “You must not be short of preaching material these days.” And then he went on a spiel about how this is the apocalypse and these are the end times.
At first I said to myself, “I think this brother’s read too many of Tim LeHaye’s Left Behind series books” —if you don’t know what they are, don’t worry, you’re not missing much—but I listened. Then he started talking about things, and I thought to myself, “I think he’s on to something.” Because this word, apocalypse, as you may know, doesn’t just mean the end of all things; it comes from the same root as revelation, or to reveal, to disclose, to unveil things. I think in the truest sense of the word, this is an apocalyptic time. We’re seeing what lies underneath so many of the patterns of our world. It’s kind of like The Wizard of Oz, when they march in, they rip away the curtain, and they’re like, “Whoa! A little old man! Who knew?”
Everywhere I go, people are asking really good questions about the time that we’re living in. Questions about some of the things we could miss, for example that the average executives and CEOs are making 400 times their workers’ salaries. Or that the average person in the U.S. is consuming what 500 Africans consume. If we continue to live in the patterns we’re living in now, we would need four more planets. I think across the board people are saying, “Maybe God has a different dream than the American dream. Maybe the patterns of God’s kingdom and reign don’t just look like the patterns of Wall Street.” So I think it’s a fun time to be alive.
I also think it’s very important to me that my life has been located next to people who are in poverty and who are suffering, because they seem to have a pretty keen sense of the fact that God is good no matter what the circumstances around us say. I can remember when I was talking with one of my neighbors in North Philadelphia, in Kensington, one of the poorest districts of Pennsylvania, but also one of the great beacons of hope. You know that I love you all a lot because I missed a block party today where we open up the fire hydrants and turn flips in the streets. My housemates said, “This must be an important Gathering.” I said, “It is.” But my neighbors teach me so much. I remember talking to this neighbor. We were talking about Wall Street, and he said, “Oh, no matter what happens on Wall Street, God is still good.” And then he said, “And besides, my people have been in a recession for a few hundred years. It’s gonna be okay.”
Whom Shall We Expect?
Nonetheless, I do think there is a crisis that’s very real to many folks. It’s a time that’s going to take incredible imagination with how we live, not just to pump billions of dollars into a broken system, but to rethink the system and the way we’re living. What I love about Jesus is his imagination. He’s never doing anything normal. He’s walking on water. His first miracle is turning water into wine to keep a party going. At one point he wants to heal a blind man. You may remember that he picks some dirt off the ground, spits on it, and wipes it on the man’s eyes. That’s different. In my tradition, we laid hands on people or anointed them with oil, but we didn’t have many spitting pastors in that way. No other rabbis were going around asking, “Hey, could you hack me up a holy loogie?” It seems that what Jesus is doing is bringing about redemption in the places and in the ways that we would least expect: mud and spit. Even these dirty things are things that are holy and bring about redemption.
One of the beautiful ways that I see Jesus’ imagination is when he gets asked the really big questions. I love when the tax collectors come and ask Peter, “Does Jesus pay his taxes?” Jesus steps up and he has this great answer. He says, “Oh, tell them to go get a fish, and it’ll have a four-drachma coin in its mouth.” Fish don’t usually have four-drachma coins in their mouths. I think what he’s doing is calling into question the very question itself, isn’t he? It’s as if he’s saying, “Oh, Caesar. Caesar can have his coins. I made the fish.” As Dorothy Day said, “Once we’ve given to God what’s God’s, there’s not much left for Caesar.” He’s calling into question what actually is Caesar’s, it seems.
There’s one other passage where Jesus gets asked one of those questions that I actually want us to look at together. To set the scene a little bit, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, has got in a little trouble with old King Herod, and he’s been locked up. He’s put in jail. While he’s there, he is of course hearing all the news in the land about Jesus. He sends his disciples out. John commands them to go and to ask Jesus this question: “Ask Jesus if he’s the one that we’ve all been waiting for.” That phrase, “the one we’ve been waiting for,” was a very particular phrase from the prophet Isaiah, that prophesied the Messiah, the Anointed One, who was to come.
So the disciples of John come to Jesus, and they ask him this question. Listen to his response. This is Luke, Chapter 7. It says:
When John’s disciples came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask: ‘Are you the one that we’ve all been waiting for, or should we expect someone else?’” At that very time, Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses, and evil spirits, and gave sight to the blind. So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and tell John what you see and what you hear. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”
I love that answer. It’s as if he’s throwing the ball back into their court. “Are you the one we’ve all been waiting for?” And Jesus answers, “You tell me. Go back and tell John what you see and what you hear.” After all, it seems very typical of Jesus that he’s not walking around, flaunting that he’s the Messiah. You don’t ever see him going up to people and saying, “Hi, I’m the son of God. What’s your name?” In fact, many times when people figure it out—“Whoa, you’re the Messiah!”—Jesus says, “Shhh! Don’t go telling everybody.” What a strange way, and yet it’s a beautiful invitation, I think, to read the trail of crumbs behind him. One theologian said so well, “What we can learn from Jesus is that the Gospel spreads best, not through force, but through fascination.” It seems that Jesus is doing that, just fascinating people with God’s love and God’s grace. And yet, it also makes me think to myself, “Do we have that same integrity?” If someone said to us, “Are you a Christian? Are you a part of the Church?” can we say, “Tell me what you see and what you hear.” Do we have a trail behind us that radiates God’s love? Do we have something in us that burns and shines the hope and the good news of God?
That’s what I love about Quakers. You guys have been doing that silent witness, this subtle infection of love in the world for so many years. I think that you have so much to teach the rest of the Church.
An Image Problem
I grew up in east Tennessee, in the Bible Belt. It’s actually very disturbing: this past year and a half, there was a study done by the Barna Research Group. What they did was to ask people outside of the Church, “What are your perceptions of Christians?” They did this survey in, I think, every state of the Union. The top three answers were: Number one, Christians are antigay. Number two, Christians are judgmental. And number three, Christians are hypocrites.
We’ve got a little bit of an image crisis. Much of it’s well-deserved. It’s certainly not what we know of Christianity, but it has hijacked the airwaves of Christianity, and it has monopolized the story of our faith in recent decades. And yet I’m excited, because I think many of those things are changing right now. I catch glimpses of that everywhere. When I go places and preach, I don’t always draw the church crowd. I remember one place that I was speaking, the pastor came up beforehand, and he wanted to make sure that I noticed something: that there were two gay men that came in holding hands. They were sitting in the front row. He said, “I just wanted to make sure that you saw, so if you want to say something about that, you can.”
I took a little time in silence, and I said, “You know, pastor, if I were going to say something, I’d want to say that I’m really glad they felt welcome in your church.” That wasn’t what he had in mind. As we talked, I said, “I think we’ve really got to rethink a lot of things.”
Visiting Mother Teresa
When I think of my upbringing in east Tennessee, there were a lot of things I saw that didn’t really add up. I’m thankful that I had people in the church that loved me. I had a radical conversion experience, you know, one of these emotional festivals where we all came forward and we got born again. There’s not a ton to do in east Tennessee, so that festival was like the highlight of our year. We’d go and get born again every year. But there came a point for me when I said, “Man, there’s got to be more to being a Christian than just getting born again again every year.” We would come forward singing “Just as I Am,” and leave just as we were, and live just as we always had. And the more I read about Jesus, the more I saw that Christianity wasn’t just a way of believing, but a way of living. And that the kingdom of God that Jesus talked about every time he opened his mouth wasn’t just something that happened after we died, but something that we were to bring on Earth as it is in heaven. This wasn’t just about going up when we died, but about bringing God’s reign down to Earth. It became clear to me that this wasn’t just about getting into heaven while I ignored all the hell that was going on all around me in the world.
So I became a little agitated. Actually, what happened for me was I just became conflicted. I was running after all the things that the culture had taught me to run after. I can remember, in east Tennessee, I was in the in-crowd in high school. I was the prom king—I know that’s hard to imagine. It was a small town—and yet, I started to read the things that Jesus said, and I’m thinking, “My gosh. Here he is. He’s saying, ‘If you want to be the greatest, you should become the least.’ Why am I working so hard to be the greatest?” And yet there was a part of me that said, “Man, does anybody really believe this stuff? Does anybody really believe that Jesus meant the things he said?” And as I looked around, I was just fascinated by the life of Mother Teresa. So, with childlike innocence, a few of my friends and I said, “Well, let’s just write her a letter, and let’s see if we can come learn from her.” So we wrote her a letter, and basically said, “We don’t know if you give internships over there in Calcutta, but we’d love to come work with you.” We sent it off. We waited. Week after week. We didn’t hear anything back, and then I got a little impatient, so I just started calling some nuns on the phone trying to get the number for Calcutta—some of them responded, “Is this a prank call?” Finally, I got hold of one of the sisters in the Bronx, in New York. I said, “Yes, I’m trying to reach Mother Teresa or someone in Calcutta.”
She says, “Well, I’m going to let you talk to the head nun here. Her name is Mother Superior.”
Awesome. Anyone with superior in their name, I’m into. So I talk to Mother Superior, and I tell her we’re trying to go to India. I think she just thought we were cute, so she said, “Okay, I’m going to give you a number. Don’t go giving it out.”
I called in the middle of the night so it would be a decent hour in Calcutta. All my friends are around. I’m expecting a polite greeting on the other line, like “Missionaries of Charity, how can we help you?” No such luck. I just hear this raspy old voice answer the phone. “Hello?”
I’m thinking I’ve got the wrong number—and I did my research, it was four dollars a minute—so okay, I’m going to make this quick.“I’m calling from the United States, we’re trying to get hold of Missionaries of Charity or Mother Teresa or someone over there, can you help me?”
And then I just hear, “Well, this is the Missionaries of Charity. This is Mother Teresa.”
I’m thinking, And I’m the Pope!
So I ask her, “Can we come work with you?” And she says, “Yeah! Come on out.” She didn’t have a southern accent, but you know.
I’m kind of without words, so I start asking what I think are logical questions. “Well, where are we going to sleep? What are we going to eat?” And I’m asking Mother Teresa—she didn’t worry a lot about that. She just says back, “Oh, God takes care of the lilies and the sparrows, God will take care of you. Just come.”
I didn’t know how you argue with that.
So we did. We went over to India. Many of us in our community, and I know many of you too, have been over there and worked. I worked every morning in the orphanage, I worked every evening in the home for the dying, and I saw things that have just formed me in so many ways. We would have these parties on the street where we would get all these kids together, and we would blow bubbles and turn flips and play with these kids that were eight and ten years old, just begging on the street to survive.
There was one day where one of those kids had a birthday. I’m thinking to myself, “I’ve got to get this kid something,” because he was one of the kids I’d grown really close to. I’m trying to decide what to get him, and it’s almost 120 degrees Fahrenheit. I decide, What better to get this kid than an ice cream cone? I have no idea how long it had been since he’d had ice cream, because when he gets it, he’s just stunned. He stares at this ice cream and just shakes. And then his instinct is, This is too good to keep for myself. So he yells at all the other kids, and he says, “We’ve got ice cream!” He brings them all over: “Everybody gets a lick!” He goes down the line, “Your turn. Your turn. Your turn.” He goes full circle, and then finally he gets back to me, and he says, “Shane, you get a lick too.” I’ve got this whole spit phobia thing going, so I sort of fake a lick. I say, “Ooh, that’s great! Chocolate!” He says, “No, it’s vanilla.” But he knew the secret of Jesus, which is, the best thing to do with the best things in life is to give them away and to share them.
Mother Teresa knew that too. Sometimes people hear that I was over in Calcutta, and they say, “Mother Teresa, she’s a saint. Did she shine?” No, not really. Sister wasn’t a night light, but she was beautiful. She radiated God’s love. But there’s one thing that I will never forget about Mother Teresa, and that is her feet. You see, her feet were terribly deformed. I noticed because every morning we would go in to worship, and we would take off our shoes, and we would go in barefoot. We would bow down to pray, and I noticed her feet. I wondered if she had caught leprosy or something. Of course, I wasn’t going to ask her about it. But one day one of the sisters said, “Have you noticed Mother’s feet?”
I said, “Yeah, I have.”
She said, “Her feet are deformed because we get just enough shoes donated for everybody to get a pair. Mother Teresa doesn’t want someone to have a worse pair of shoes than she has, so she digs through all the donations, and she picks out the worst pair of shoes, and she wears them. After years and years of wearing the worst pair of shoes, it’s deformed her feet.”
Don’t you wonder what this world would look like if we really took that idea of loving our neighbor as ourselves that literally, or honoring the needs of others above our own? It shamed all of my short-term mission trips that I had gone on as a youth, where we dig through our closet and get all of our worst clothes to give to the homeless. Mother Teresa would say, “Don’t you dare. When you give to the poor, you’re giving to Jesus in his most distressing disguises. Give the very best stuff you have.” It flies in the face of so much that we hear in our culture, and even so much that we hear in the Church with this self-centered, blessing-obsessed gospel of prosperity that is about what we can get from God. “If you give a dollar you’ll get a hundred,” “becoming a better you,” “finding your best life.” If we’re not careful with our infatuation with ourselves, we lose the secret of Jesus, which is, if you want to find your life, you’ve got to give it away. We’re made to live for something bigger than ourselves.
I think I’ve been figuring that out for the past ten years in Philadelphia. One of the things that Mother Teresa would say is, “Calcuttas are everywhere, if we only have eyes to see. The lepers, the poor, the marginalized are all around us, if we only have eyes to see them.” We came back to Philadelphia and started our community there. I think part of the question that we’ve been wrestling with is this idea of, How do we embody the things we believe? This idea of the incarnation of Jesus is about putting flesh on our beliefs.
The Christianity that I grew up with was just about what we believe, as if our Christianity was a presentation of ideas on a piece of paper. But in Jesus we don’t see a presentation of ideas, but an invitation to join a movement that embodies God’s love in the world. In the end, I think that this obsession with belief came to the point where we were only making believers and not disciples or followers—worshiping Jesus without doing the things he did. We can fall into that if we’re not careful. What I love about Jesus’ account of the judgment— Matthew 25:31–46—is that when all the nations are gathered before God, the final test is actually not a doctrinal test. It’s not that God asks us, “Virgin birth: Agree? Disagree? Strongly disagree?” The final question is, “When I was in prison, did you visit me? When I was sick, did you take care of me? When I was thirsty, did you give me something to drink?”
How can we embody with our lives the good news that we speak with our mouths? It seems that maybe the biggest barrier to people experiencing the goodness of God has been Christians, who have so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. As one of my friends says, “The atheists have been on a crusade, but we’ve given the atheists less and less to disbelieve in.” Christianity has very little that you can see. What I love about Mother Teresa is that she didn’t spend a lot of time with just her words, but with trying to flesh them out. Mother Teresa is a champion for life and for unborn children, not because she went around wearing a T-shirt that says “abortion is murder,” but because she came alongside women in tough situations and told them, “If you’re not able to raise your baby on your own, we’ll do it together.” That’s why everybody called her Mother. It just has an integrity that you can’t argue with.
An Abandoned Cathedral
In Philadelphia, our Calcutta, we began to see—“Tell me what you see in the Church.” It was different from east Tennessee, but we began to see a lot of really ugly things. In 1995, there was a group of poor and homeless families in Philadelphia that moved into an old, abandoned Catholic cathedral, and they began living there. They were living in this cathedral that had been abandoned for about six years. Then the archdiocese that owned the cathedral came in and gave them an eviction notice and said if they weren’t out within 48 hours, they could be arrested for trespassing on church property. I don’t know about you, but that didn’t feel right to us. We read their story in the newspaper, and the headline actually said, “Church Resurrected.” It told the story of how they had brought this place back to life, and it ended, of course, with the terrible timeline that they were facing. It sparked a movement on our campus that got many of us involved in that struggle for housing. We went down and found the cathedral, and on the front of it, the families had hung a banner that said, “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?”
It took our little evangelical ears a minute to process that. We entered into that struggle with these families, and we began to read the Bible with new eyes. We read in the Book of Acts that all of the Christians in the early Church shared everything they had, and no one claimed any of their possessions were their own, and then it says, “And there were no needy persons among them.” One of the signs of the Church’s birthday at Pentecost was that the people had ended poverty, because they had figured out how to flesh out this idea of being family, of being born again. One person’s comfort has to be disturbed by another person’s discomfort. This idea of rebirth has to mess with us. We felt that happening in us.
Incidentally, we continued to have worship services there. We would have communion, and it was old apple cider and stale bagels or whatever we could find, but it felt sacramental. (I figure Quakers might like that, communion with stale bagels.)
We were thinking through so much of this, and we saw some really disturbing things. The media were making the Church look really bad, and the news was making it look as if the Church was kicking homeless people out, because the Church was kicking homeless people out. So they brought in a fire marshal, and they said, “Well, we’re going to say that they don’t meet fire standards. It’s in the interest of their safety to come out.” The night before that was supposed to happen, there was a knock at the door. We went to the door, and it was almost midnight. We opened the door, and there were all these firefighters outside. We’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, they’ve come at midnight, and all the kids are asleep.” We started telling them, “Can you please come back tomorrow? Everybody’s already in bed.”
One of the firefighters said, “No, no, no, listen. We’re not here to kick you out. In fact, it’s just the opposite. We know what’s happening, we know it’s not right, and we’re here against orders. In fact, we could get in really big trouble for being here.” And they said, “So we’re going to walk you through and help you get ready for tomorrow, because the fire marshal is going to come.” So they helped us get all the exit signs and fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, and we worked all night that night. The next day, the media came, and the police, and the archdiocese officials. The fire marshal walked through, and he said, “I’m not kicking them out. They meet fire standards.”
Yes, Lord! It felt like God splitting open oceans and swallowing up armies to protect these families. It was a beautiful moment.
There were also things we saw that were so hard, because we felt a disconnect with the Church and the suburbs and the struggles of these families. I can remember one time a congregation from the suburbs brought us a box of donations. They didn’t even bring it down to the cathedral; they dropped it off at one of the places where we were living. It said on the front of the box, “For the homeless.” We thought, “Great!” So we opened it up, wondering “What did they give?” The box was filled with microwave popcorn. We barely had electricity in there, much less a microwave, and popcorn wasn’t at the top of the needs list, if you know what I mean. My first instinct was to laugh, but my second was to cry because of how far it seemed the Church was from the struggle of the poor in the city.
I can remember we had another group of visitors that came to the cathedral the next week. They brought bikes for every kid. They brought turkeys for the families because it was almost Thanksgiving. They brought all of these gifts, and thousands of dollars that they gave in a check, and we came to find out, after they left, that it was the Mafia. And we said, “Wow! God works in mysterious ways.” And I’m sitting there, thinking to myself, “Gosh, I guess God can use the mob, but we would like God to use the Church. What’s happening here?”
There came a moment in that struggle where we relinquished our frustration with the Church. We said, “We’re going to stop complaining about the Church that we’ve experienced, and work on becoming the Church that we dream of. And work on figuring out how we can be people of God in the world who are formed into something different from the world around us, who embody the love and the grace in a way that people can see and touch.”
Now, when we were thinking all this, we thought we were doing it for the first time in history. Then we took a little closer look, and we saw that this seems to be a pattern, that every few hundred years it seems that we have an identity crisis. That the Church loses who we are, and we become infected by our culture and the materialism and the militarism and we forget who we are. There are people who go to the margins and to the desert and to the abandoned places of the empires, and they rethink what it means to live out our faith in the world. It seems that that’s what Clare and Francis of Assisi had, this youth movement: that in the middle of the materialism, the so-called holy wars and crusades in Italy, they heard this whisper of God that just said, “Repair my Church, which is in ruins.” Of course, Francis was a simple-minded guy; he just picks up bricks and starts rebuilding that old San Damiano cathedral. But really to understand the renewal of this body of people that are to live out God’s love in the world is a call I think we see people feeling in your history. Today, people are hearing that same whisper.
My friend Phyllis Tickle, a Church historian and a beautiful writer, says, “Every few hundred years, the Church needs a rummage sale, where we can get rid of all the clutter and all the stuff, and we can cling true to the precious treasures of our faith.” I think right now we need a little rummage sale. But we also don’t want to throw out everything. We don’t want to throw out the family photo album, we just need to get rid of all those infomercial things we bought. We get rid of some of the clutter and rethink what it means to be part of the Church today. This is where I’m so excited, because I think that this younger generation has to be surrounded by older folks who can show us that what we’re doing is nothing brand-new.
That’s why one of my teachers and mentors is Sister Margaret McKenna in Philadelphia. She’s one of those folks I’ve been arrested with a lot of times. I figure that if you’re going to go to jail, you need a nun with you. And yet she’s poured so much wisdom into us and reminded us that it’s nothing new to go into the desert. Today, the inner city is our desert. Our desert may be different, but this call of the stirring in the Church is an ancient one. And right now, as I begin to look around, I think that part of what we saw in our neighborhood was that we need to become a witness against the things that have become unhealthy in our Church.
For me, as a young man from the South, our response to one of those things that we saw in our neighborhood is that we’re trying to teach kids not to hurt each other. Over and over we see kids that are killing each other. I’m so thankful for the witness of Heeding God’s Call, the work being done in Philadelphia on the gun shops, and the work we do with Sister Margaret and the Alternatives to Violence Project, but then there comes a point in our neighborhood when the kids begin to ask questions about the world that we live in. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I’ve told kids in the ghetto that violence won’t solve their problems, but then they ask me, ‘Why does the government use massive doses of violence to bring the changes that it wants?’” And Dr. King said, “Then I knew I could no longer speak out against the violence in the ghettos without speaking out against the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, my government.” And it’s those kids who really challenged me to the way of the cross.
A Visit to Iraq
I can remember, right after September eleventh, I was talking to a young man named Steven, and I said, “Steven, what are we going to do?” And Steven (he’s about 11 years old) looked up and said, “Those people did something very evil and wrong.” I said, “Yeah, they sure did.” And Steven said, “But I always said, two wrongs don’t make a right.” That’s good, right? And then he says, “Besides, we’re all one big family, Shane!” And then he got really excited, his eyes got wide, and he said, “Shane, that means you and me are brothers! Which is really cool, because we have different colored skin.” Yeah, that’s the message. Preach that to the world.
And that message, of little Steven and Dr. King and Jesus, actually led me and many of the people in my community to go over to Iraq, as I’m sure many of you have. I was in Iraq at the outbreak of war in March 2003 with Christian Peacemaker Teams, and before that, with Voices in the Wilderness. We were there together during the shock and awe campaign, during the bombing. It became very clear to me that what is at stake right now in the world is not just the reputation of the United States, but the reputation of Christianity, because they’re so closely associated. I can remember hearing folks in Iraq calling leaders in the United States “Christian extremists” in the same way that we’ve heard the other. One woman threw her hands in the air and said, “Your government is creating all of this violence and asking God’s blessing—it’s the same thing that my government is doing. My question is, what kind of God wants to bless any of this? What has happened to the God of Love and the Prince of Peace?”
I saw some of the hardest things I have ever seen. And again, if you say tell me what you see, and what you hear, people were seeing things done in the name of Jesus that didn’t look like Jesus. I remember going to the Amaria Shelter, which was one of those spaces that was filled with women and children, almost 400 of them, when two smart bombs fell on the roof, that killed everyone in there.
That was what people were seeing, and hearing, and yet—you’ve got to hear this—one of the most exciting things about being in Iraq was seeing the incredible, persistent triumph of love over hatred. Everywhere we went, people embraced us; we were invited to worship services almost every night. There was one worship service where, as I was sitting there in the middle of the bombing, we had hundreds and hundreds of Christians gathered together from all over the Middle East, and we sang Amazing Grace in Arabic. And then the bishop stood up and read a statement from the Christian Church to the Muslim people. It said, “We want you to know that we love you, and we know that you were created in the image of God, that you come from the same dirt of the Earth that God breathed life into, and that we’re all from the same dysfunctional family of Abraham and Sarah.” Then they led us to the cross, and one of the priests said, “This cross doesn’t make any sense to the wisdom of the world, but it’s the foolishness of the cross that’s the very center of our faith.” I was so moved, I was bawling. I ended up talking to one of the bishops afterwards, and I said, “I can’t believe it! This is one of the most powerful experiences that I’ve ever had, in the Church, and in worship.” And then I said something a little ignorant: “I can’t believe that there are so many Christians in Iraq!” He was gentle with me, but he said, “Yes, this is where it all started. That’s the Tigris River over there, and that’s the Euphrates. Have you heard of them?” And he said, “You didn’t invent Christianity in the United States, you only domesticated it. You go back and tell the Church in the United States that we are praying for them to be the body of Christ, to be the things that Jesus is and was.”
It seems to me today that while all of those things are true, and people have seen and heard many things that don’t look like Jesus, I see all kinds of signs of hope. I see hope in your own story as a community of people working this out, and I see hope as I’ve traveled to probably a dozen countries this year, and I see folks who are trying to embody the good news in who they are. We got to travel all over the country this past year—we had a little campaign called Jesus for President—and we traveled 11,000 miles by vegetable oil. (It’s a cheap ride.) We would pull up to Arby’s and get our vegetable oil, and run our bus on it.
While we were traveling around, we got to gather stories. We went to a community right on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, where there were Christians who had created sanctuary houses. They said, “We don’t need to be doing this just in our own houses, we need to bring it to the streets as a prophetic witness to the world.” So they organized worship services across the border, where Mexican Christians would walk to the wall, meet U.S. Christians who also went to the wall, worship together, and serve each other communion by flinging it over the wall. Yes, that’s the promise that the gates will not prevail.
There’s a little community out in Ohio that started out as a couple hundred poor folks who were pretty distraught about the fact that 47 million people don’t have proper medical care. But these folks did something really courageous— maybe out of desperation they came to a point where they said, “We can’t wait for politicians in D.C. to solve all the problems! We can try to embody this good news and bear each other’s burdens.” So what they began to do was to pool their money, and they said, “Every month we’ll put out a newsletter of who’s in the hospital, and we’ll pray for each other, and then we’ll put our money together and cover each other’s medical bills.” So what started with 400 people was so contagious that it just continued to spread, and now there are 20,000 of us. I’m one of those folks. Every month, we get a newsletter of who’s in the hospital, we put our money together, and we meet each other’s medical bills. Right now we’ve done $500,000,000 of medical bills.
This certainly doesn’t answer the problem for the 47 million. There are responsibilities that we all have. But I think what’s so exciting is some of these things that you’ve been doing for so long. We’ve got to see our new wine skins and old wine skins come together. I remember when I was in South Africa this year, one of the places I visited was a community of black South Africans and white South Africans who had said, in the middle of apartheid, “We want to be a witness to God’s reconciliation,” and they bought a bunch of land and started living together. Their lives were threatened, they were threatened with jail, and yet they continued to live together. Now they’ve raised their kids together. I was at dinner—there were about 100 people at the family dinners every night—and when you look at that you say, “My goodness, what a beautiful witness in our world.”
I was in Ireland this year, and there are young Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, who are starting communities where they live together. Maybe that’s a part of this embodiment that we can do—just learn to live together. I think one of the most radical things we do in our community is that I live with people with whom I disagree on the gay issue. Yet, we’re able to live in community and learn from each other. I think that one of our best witnesses to the rest of the world is our ability to disagree well, and that maybe, even more than just creating a statement that we can all adhere to, it’s our ability to wrestle together with issues that we may not resolve. If there’s something that I’ve learned from being with both progressive and conservative folks, it’s that you can have all the right answers and still be mean. And if you’re mean, nobody really wants your answers anyway. Maybe the new camps for our generation are not just left and right, but nice and mean. I want to be with people who can laugh and work through things together without trivializing truth and the importance of the struggle. We can go together and say, “We’re going to continue to be one, and it’s Jesus’ prayer that we would be one as God is one.” We want to work towards that.
I was in Sweden this year, and there were groups of young people from all the major denominations who said, “We believe that it is Jesus’ dream that we would be one, as God is one, and we think we can do more together than we can divided.” Of course, they immediately met all kinds of obstacles from the older people. But before long, young people were leading this movement in Sweden. I was there for the climax of it, when there were thousands and thousands from every denomination who signed a covenant that within the next five years they’re going to merge together as one body in Sweden. Incredible signs of hope.
I think it’s not just the big stuff—the ways we begin are very small, aren’t they? I remember when they asked Mother Teresa, “How did you manage to lift 50,000 people off the streets?” And she said, “I started with one. That worked pretty well.” I think for a lot of us it’s easy to be in love with the big ideas, but it’s harder to love the people right next to us. I went to one community where they had printed T-shirts that said, “Everyone wants a revolution, but nobody wants to do the dishes.” We can tear each other apart in meetings where we dream about a better world, if we’re not very keenly aware that the seeds of that world are right beside us. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “People who are just involved with their vision for community will destroy community, but those who are in love with the people all around them will create community everywhere they go.”
A Flaming Metaphor
As we continue, I want to leave you with one last image—an east Tennessee image. My grandfather was a farmer, so we always used to bale hay growing up. I can remember one time when my grandfather had gotten a brand-new truck and trailer. He tells everybody, “All right, we’re going to break this thing in today.” So they start stacking hay bales as high as they can possibly get them, into this giant tower of hay. When they couldn’t get any more on it, he said, “All right, that’ll do.” And they hit the highway, and they’re driving along—my uncle’s driving and my grandfather’s in the passenger seat—and what they didn’t notice was that there was so much hay that it was resting on the tires, so as it gets hotter and hotter—a little problem, a thing called friction—it catches fire, and it spreads. And they’re driving along, just listening to their country music; folks are waving their arms, and my uncle’s nodding back. Eventually they end up looking in the mirror, and my uncle says, “Oh, God.” They pull the car off the road, and when they stop, the problem is that all the fire that’s been going behind them is now just sort of going straight up, and it starts melting the back of the truck. My grandfather is over on the passenger’s side, and he’s got his shirt out, and he’s in the glove compartment, and my uncle asks, “What are you doing?” and he says, “I don’t want all of this to burn—I’ve got my bluegrass tapes in there.” He’s scraping it all out, and then my uncle looks at him dead in the eye and says, “No, no, no. It’s not going to burn. I’ve got an idea. Get back in the car.” And my grandfather says, “All right,” and they jump back in. Now the idea was that they would go back on the highway and try to shake the fire off the truck. So they’re driving along, a blazing inferno going down the highway, and they’re rocking it back and forth, and these hay bales are falling off, and they’re lighting fields on fire behind them. They’re being followed by fire trucks from all the neighboring counties, trying to put these fires out. Eventually they put all the fires out. My grandfather says to me that week, after he got out of jail—no, I’m just kidding—” Shane, we caught half of east Tennessee on fire this week.” My first thought was, “Who is this man?” But my second thought, as I was going to bed that night, was, “What a great image of God’s kingdom and reign coming on Earth.” Not that we should be pyromaniacs, but that we should have something behind us, that leaves a trail of God’s love. As Mother Teresa says, “We should be the fragrance of Christ.” As we come through the world as a community of people, we should remind people of the goodness of God by whom we are together. And certainly not so that people will praise the things that we do, but so that they can’t help but recognize how good is our God.
One great pastor I heard said it so well: “Sometimes a lot of us get to doing this work in the world, and we start to think that we’re doing something good. And it might be kind of like the donkey that Jesus rode at Passover. This donkey is moving along, and all these acclamations are happening, and the donkey might have started to think a little something about himself. The donkey might have been walking along seeing the palm branches and hearing the Hosannas, and thought, ‘That’s not my name, but.…’ Riding along, we’ve got to remember, it’s not about the donkey, it’s about the one who rode the donkey; we’re just the asses that get to bring Jesus in.” But what a beautiful thing it is, that we get to carry the precious cargo, that the spirit of God wants to move through us, and that we have a God that doesn’t want to change the world without us. I’m so convinced that a generation from now, when people hear the word “Christian,” their first responses will not be “anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical,” but things like “grace, love, justice, and peace.” May it be so.
This is the edited text of an address on June 29, 2009, to the Friends General Conference Gathering held in Blacksburg, Va. It is reprinted by permission from Friends General Conference. ©2009 FGC. To acquire an MP3, CD, or DVD of Shane’s talk, go to http://www.quakerbooks.org.