A few years ago I attended a panel discussion at one of the very well known and attended Catholic churches in Chicago. The congregation is, generally speaking, pretty financially healthy. I can’t remember the exact topic of the discussion although I think it was on an issue of social justice. I can remember, however, what happened at the gathering.
As we were seated with our light refreshments waiting for the panel to begin, a woman who was dressed rather oddly and in fairly worn clothes came and sat down at the next table. Her hair was slightly disheveled, and, while she wasn’t "well put together," it looked as though she had tried. As she began to converse, however, her comments made only intermittent sense. The reality began to dawn that she was probably homeless and certainly not mentally sound.
I could feel the energy shift, both within myself and around me. Several people’s body language began to change. I found myself feeling anxious – could she be violent? Would she be disruptive? I hoped she would simply leave. Those thoughts and feelings became mingled with guilt as I saw myself responding, before anything else (including compassion), out of fear. And the irony was thick. Here we were preparing to hear commentary on the plight of the disadvantaged and I could see that several of us wanted to jump out of our skins because the disadvantaged were so close.
Today’s first reading and the Gospel do not mince words and we shouldn’t either. Being a Christian means to constantly ask oneself to let go of the societal barriers, stratifications and judgments that separate us externally so that we can love one another. We shouldn’t put ourselves in harm’s way out of foolish romanticism. But we needn’t fear being close to "the other." We are called to love bravely.
It is my opinion that every time a wall of judgment goes up, it is our duty as Christians to ask ourselves why that wall exists, and if there is a way to take it down, brick by brick if need be. Whether the wall goes up in terms of wealth, race, sexual orientation, faith, politics, ethnicity or any of the other myriad reasons that radically divide us, we are urged by the Gospel to instead stand shoulder to shoulder before God and stop segregating those who are, simply put, not exactly like us. We are specifically called to reach out to the poor.
Loving bravely doesn’t mean there aren’t dangers. It cost Jesus his life and, frail human that I am, I hope to God I never have to put my physical life on the line for my beliefs. But we segregate out of hate and judgment at our spiritual peril, dying a bit inside every day if we lead with anger, fear and exclusivity. I think the only way through the cross of spiritual diminishment is to embrace Christ fully and be willing to love, knowing that God will give us the courage we need to let go of old fears and patterns of discrimination.
Nancy Nickel is director of communications at the Passionist Development Office in Chicago, Illinois.