Twenty years ago (already!), I belonged to an activist church with a woman minister, gay leaders, and a social justice agenda. I chose it and similar organizations because my life of getting and spending, work and amusement, politics and personal life, felt empty and insufficient. So I took up a two-stranded way, spiritual and political, protests and potlucks, rallies and fund raisers, services and singing, meetings and celebrations. The church became an important community to me, but I needed further growth. Let me illustrate:
Our church owned and rented a tiny house to a woman and her teenaged son who were not parishioners. I lived close by, so they were my neighbors though I didn’t know their names and never introduced myself. At some point, I heard, the woman became ill with cancer, and then she died. Her son held a garage sale to raise funds; I browsed, but saw nothing I wanted and, with a vaguely uneasy feeling, walked away. Some weeks later, he came around selling Ginsu knives. I didn’t need knives, so I didn’t buy any. I don’t remember how many other attempts he made, but eventually he couldn’t make the rent and had to move out. That was the end.
At some point, I came to view this incident with horror, remembering my lack of response, the feeling I had that the situation was too bad but not my concern. I was focused on grand causes, so many ways to change the world that I could not help a neighbor even when he knocked at my door. Did it matter that I didn’t need an old kettle or Ginsu knives? Why couldn’t I have given money? Why couldn’t our whole church have put our heads and resources together to help? I’m sad and disappointed that our bottom line, the rent, prevailed over loving our neighbor and caring for the orphan, a literal neighbor, a literal orphan. It was almost a test case for living by principle, and I failed it. I remained passive (though sympathetic) in the face of need and pain; I often wonder if that struggling son thought, Churches and their ” love”: what a joke.
Big changes came about in both my personal and organizational life. I began to pay more attention. Those were the Reagan years when one effort after another came to heartbreaking failure. I began to ask the question: with all my hours of effort, all my meetings, whom exactly have I helped? Could I name one individual? I couldn’t – outside of family members. I became convinced that I needed to integrate long-term efforts with short-term acts and daily responses to unexpected opportunities, the kind that arise when heart and eyes are open. I wanted my destination and my journey to match. It’s a goal I still pursue.
This and my future posts on Tikkun Daily, then, represent an effort to remind myself and others of what small groups or individuals are doing right now and can do to heal and mend our local worlds, to celebrate the wonderful efforts we imperfect humans are capable of . May it strengthen us to– as the great French socialist, Jean Jaurès, put it –”live every day in a socialist state of grace,” to live now the battle that is “never won and never lost.”
Blessings on the journey!
Spotlight on Immigrant Service Day, August 29, 2009