Telling the Stories that Matter: April 30 – James Walsh, Missionary, Bishop, Prisoner

She was furious with the boy but she had to admit that she should have seen it coming. James Walsh and his brother were intelligent and clever and she should have known that this wasn’t a battle she wanted to fight. Yet, she had decided to call their bluff when they claimed to be able to recite their lesson while standing on their heads. Now, she had no doubt that they understood the lesson perfectly well and would be able to utilize what they had learned and apply it to their studies. But, James and his brother seemed so confident that she found it hard to resist to put them to a challenge she felt them unequal to. She doubted they could even stand on their heads, let alone recite the entirety of their lesson in front of the class. Surely they would laugh or forget some important part and when they did she would win this battle of wills and claim her victor’s prize of their silence and obedience for a little while longer. But, then James and his brother had turned themselves upside down–as if they anticipated she would take them up on it–and began with the opening words of the lesson. She followed along as they recited it word for word and her confidence turned first to surprise and then to anger with each correct word. They returned to their seats after doing exactly as they claimed they could and were excused from doing the work that they had not wanted to do on account of their clear understanding of the lesson. At the insistence of the teacher, their father soon transferred them to a Roman Catholic parochial school.

Hearing the stories and feats of missionaries always seemed to make James’ heart sing. He imagined himself living into these stories and he found that they resonated deeply within his mind and soul as he learned to value what missionaries value: a felt and met need. As he grew older he eventually took a job as a timekeeper in a steel mill. This job helped him meet his needs and allowed him some comfort but it was not what he felt called to do. Eventually, he followed his dream and entered the seminary and Maryknoll brotherhood so that he might become first a priest and then a missionary. He wrote that the calling of a missionary was an odd one because they were called “to go to a place where [they are] not wanted, but needed, and to remain until [they are] not needed but wanted.” James was sent with three other missionary priests to China. He became the Superior of the order in China and eventually was appointed bishop of Kongmoon where they were. He was happy in China and found great joy and peace in serving the priests there as a supervisor and pastoring bishop. But in 1936 he was called back to Maryknoll, New York, to become the second Superior General of the Maryknoll order.

While he led the Maryknoll order he expanded their missionary efforts to include Central America and Africa. It was clear to any that knew him that James’ passion was with those who had an unrecognized need to hear the Gospel message he and his brothers and sisters in the faith carried with them. After his term as Superior General he answered a call to go back to China. When he returned, though, in 1949 China was very much a different country than when he had left and the communists had taken power. It was harder to speak openly and they were indirectly opposed by the government at every turn. That is to say, until 1951 when James’ group was outlawed and the missionaries were told to go home. James refused to go–even when asked to do so by his superior–and was arrested. He wrote to the Vatican: “To put up with a little inconvenience at my age is nothing. Besides, I am a little sick and tired of being pushed around on account of my religion.” He was sentenced to serve twenty years in jail and during this time he was forbidden visits from anyone he knew except for one visit from his brother who was the Attorney General of the State of Maryland. After twelve years of confinement, he was released and he walked alone across the bridge into Hong Kong where he was greeted warmly. He would live another eleven years in which he would spread his love of mission work and continue to advocate for Chinese Christians even while far away from them.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 27 – Toyohiko Kagawa, Poet, Pacifist, Friend of the Poor

When Toyohiko Kagawa was asked to come and speak to the seminarians at Princeton–one of his alma maters–he went willingly and eagerly. Toyohiko had been displeased with much of his own seminary experience because he found that the students there were far more interested in arguments, rhetoric, persuasion, and the fine points of doctrine and textual study. He repeatedly begged them simply to live out what Jesus had taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He knew he was asking for much of the seminarians but he hoped that they would–as far as people go–be the most likely to answer a call to genuinely and sincerely practiced allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Savior. When he finished speaking to the assembled Princetonians he accepted some questions and then dismissed them quietly and gathered his things from the podium. As he was doing so, two of the seminarians turned to each other in their seats and discussed his lecture.

One insisted that it had not been quite what they had expected from a man who was so well respected around the seminary. Turning to his friend, he quipped, “He didn’t have much to say, did he?”They shared their own little laugh knowing that they were better educated than Toyohiko but not knowing that they were still fools. Both of them had heard of his background and how he had been the illegitimate child of a powerful Japanese man and a geisha. He was hated by his mother and liked by his father but soon both his mother and father had died and he was orphaned. He was given over as the ward of the widowed wife of his father. She and her mother struggled not to resent little Toyohiko because it had not been his decision to be a child of infidelity but they failed in their struggle and Toyohiko knew he was hated by them. They sent him away to a boarding school. He began attending a bible study given by a Christian minister so that he could learn and practice his English. Yet while he was learning the language, he was hearing and considering the truths and teachings of the Faith of the minister. When he was a teenager, he converted to the Christian Faith that had gripped him by the heart over a long time of reflection and meditation. Soon after this conversion he knew clearly that he would be a minister of the Gospel that had spoken to him when he had walked in darkness, desperation, and death.

Though they didn’t seem to prize it, those two young seminarians knew that after receiving more education in preparation for the calling he was already living into, Toyohiko had stepped out in faith and moved into the Shinkawa district of Kobe. These slums were some of the worst–if not the absolute worst–in all of Japan. He lived in a three-walled dwelling so filthy and small (only six feet wide by six feet long) that it would be an overstatement to call it a shack. For nearly fifteen years he tended to the sick, suffering, hungry, poor, and dying in Shinkawa. Toyohiko was able to make a little money (not nearly as much as he would have been able to if he had moved out of Shinkawa, though) but he spent it all on medicine, food, and clothing for those who came to him asking for it. He was regularly abused and beaten for his love and compassion. At one point, a band of thugs accosted him knowing him as an “easy mark” who would give over anything to them not out of fear but out of love. They demanded his clothing and mentioned that they knew he was a Christian. He took off his clothing and handed it over to the criminals and they walked away with filthy rags and an increasing awareness of the goodness of Toyohiko’s God and their own inherent sinfulness shown by their willingness to beat and strip a poor and loving man in the slums.


Those two young seminarians probably had no idea that Toyohiko had spent nearly every night for nearly fifteen years tending for the sick and homeless in his own meager dwelling. He gave over his bed to the sick and filthy people he loved and slept in the cold with little to protect himself from the elements. He gave over his food and drink with such regularity that he was regularly ill from hunger. He did not have intense theological debates but he regularly lived out the teachings of Jesus in a way that granted him an inherent understanding of the Gospel that Jesus brought into this world. Every night for four years he held the hand of a murderer as that murderer drifted off into a fitful sleep in Toyohiko’s own bed. The murderer could not bear what he had done any longer but Toyohiko still spoke of forgiveness to and refused to abandon the poor man who feared isolation and judgment. He organized workers in the slums and shipyards all while fighting for increased voting rights in Japan. Eventually, he was arrested and held in prison for two particular crimes: 1) he organized the voiceless so that they might speak in unison to those with power and be heard, and 2) he apologized to the Chinese for the Japanese occupation of portions of China. Toyohiko’s commitment to peace–one he felt compulsory for all who hoped to follow Jesus even if it cost them their lives–made him a dangerous criminal in the eyes of Japan.

Perhaps the two young seminarians knew that a terrible earthquake hit Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923. The ruins of those cities were flooded with the sick, suffering, hungry, poor, and dying. The government was overwhelmed by the need and was uninitiated into taking care of its citizens since it had been so long practicing power and control and forsaking compassion and mercy. So they came to Toyohiko in prison and released him. They knew he had made a difference in the lives of those needing help and they also knew that it was Toyohiko who would be able to do it again. They made him Chief of Social Welfare and offered him a home and a sizable salary. He rejected them and insisted that he could neither help the poor from a position of comfort nor allow his Christian duty to be purchased. He slowly helped rebuild cities devastated by earthquake, neglect, and need. For this he was lauded and honored even as he insisted that he was only doing the bare minimum of what God had called him to do.

As the two seminarians continued to share their own criticism of Toyohiko they ignored that Toyohiko was struggling to see the steps he was trying to descend. He had acquired a serious eye disease because of his practices of offering hospitality even in the slums. Those he lived with were sick and soon so was Toyohiko. As the two men missed the point of all they had heard and continued to pass the drug of intelligent pride back and forth an elderly lady overheard them and interrupted them. She leaned forward to interject one simple sentence into their conversation while pointing at Toyohiko as he carefully descended the stairs: “You don’t need to say much when you’re hanging on a cross.”

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 18 – Apollonius of Rome, Martyr, Apologist, Not Afraid to Die


Apollonius had spent years in study and was strikingly familiar with the major philosophers and schools of thought in the second century Roman empire. He had converted to Christianity because of the witness and testimonies of the early Church members but had continued to study the beliefs and convictions of those he had left behind and hoped to bring to faith with himself. He was a Roman senator and knew that his power brought a modicum of protection with it. He knew that there was a law against being a Christian but he knew two other things, as well: 1) the Roman rulers would not simply betray him without cause, and 2) he was called to share the grace and love that he had freely received. Eventually, one of his slaves betrayed him as a Christian to a praetorian prefect by the name of Perennis. It’s likely that Perennis and others knew but they were turning a blind eye to Apollonius’ faith because they had no desire to enforce the law upon their friend and respected colleague–they were comfortable enforcing the law upon “the little people” who didn’t matter but feared what might happen if the laws were enforced fairly and equitably. So, Perennis had Apollonius arrested so that he might come to trial. He also had the slave’s legs crushed as punishment for forcing the hand of the Empire.

As Perennis brought Apollonius to his trials he pleaded with him to renounce his faith–even if he “didn’t mean it”–because those in power were all too willing to find him not guilty of the crime. He reminded Apollonius that the punishment for being a Christian was death and insisted that the right course of action for a senator like Apollonius was to renounce his faith and maintain his influence and power in the world. When Apollonius refused to apostatize before the court he was given over to the senate of which he was a member to be tried by his peers and–hopefully–dissuaded from his faith. This was the moment that Apollonius had been counting on and so he shared his faith with the whole senate. He knew they would give him a charitable ear because of their respect for him and that his arguments–well crafted by many years of education and the passion he now felt for life and truth because of his faith–would be heard without interruption. He ended his great testimony by praying, “O Lord Jesus Christ, give us a bit of your spirit so that we might be helped to obey your teachings to: make peace over anger, join in pity with others and for others, temper our desires, always increase in love, put away our sorrow, cast aside our foolish pride, not love vengeance, and not fear death. Help us to trust our spirit to God the Father who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit now and forever.” Perennis couldn’t understand why Apollonius wasn’t taking the easy and reasonable way out of death and yelled at him, “Are you determined to die today?”

Apollonius responded, “Oh no.” He continued, “I very much enjoy life but my love of life does not make me afraid to lose it. There’s something better waiting for me: eternal life! There is something better given to the person who has lived well on earth.” He admonished the listening crowd to cast aside their pride and self-obsession but they were unwilling to pay the price of faith. He was convicted for his crime not because the senate was willing to convict one of its own but because he was unwilling even to pretend not to trust God. For his crime his legs were crushed and he was decapitated. He died a martyr who had been given a rare chance to preach the Gospel to his executioners.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 12 – Isaac the Syrian, Abbot of Spoleto, Intuitive, Man of Prayer

The monks must have balked at first at Isaac’s strange instructions–did he really think it was wise to leave their gardening tools out in the garden at night?“Surely,” they said one to another, “he must know that thieves will come and steal them.” But Isaac’s story had earned their obedience even if it seemed a ridiculous instruction that almost certainly meant trying to garden without their tools in the days to come. They did as they were instructed because they had grown to trust Isaac completely and had, in fact, left their previous lives behind simply to be his disciple after hearing stories about him. Many of them had first heard of Isaac shortly after his arrival in Spoleto, Italy. He had traveled from far away and when he arrived he requested from the local officials at the cathedral that he be allowed to stay in the cathedral as long as necessary to make his prayers and to give thanks to God. When they consented, he went about his prayers with a fervor that was at first charming but grew tiring for the men in charge of the upkeep of the building. When he had been there for nearly sixty hours, one of the men had had enough of what he believed to be Isaac’s hypocrisy. The man reasoned that Isaac was attempting to gain favor with other worshipers by faking a devout prayer life all while keeping a roof over his head. So, the man approached Isaac to tell him to leave and not to pester anyone else.

With venom on his tongue, he harassed Isaac and told him to move on. But, Isaac continued in his prayers. So, the man struck him on the side of the face and knocked Isaac to the floor. The man was suddenly seized by an unclean spirit that took advantage of his spiritually weakened state and his sin against his brother. Under the conviction of God and having been driven to the floor by the unclean spirit, the man begged Isaac to drive the spirit out of him and grant him forgiveness. Isaac said nothing, continued his prayers, and leaned over the stricken man. In an instant the man was delivered from the spirit and from his sin and offered his heartfelt gratitude to Isaac as Isaac continued to pray. This story spread quickly and soon Isaac was deluged by people seeking not only to learn from him but to give him money, possessions, and land to build a monastery. Isaac politely refused all these offers and when asked why he responded, “A monk who acquires possessions is no longer a monk.”He left Spoleto behind and moved into a nearby wilderness to build a small cell and take up the devoted prayer life of a hermit. In his wake came those who were willing to cast aside all things to gain what it was that Isaac already seemed to have–an intimate connection with the God that others just seemed to talk about.

So, the monks under his care went to sleep that night confident that their tools would be gone in the morning. Indeed, shortly after they had all fallen asleep, thieves scaled the walls of the monastery and began the task of gathering up the gardening tools. But, as each man picked up a spade he felt a heaviness upon his heart concerning their plan to pilfer the monks’ livelihood. So, one by one they decided to finish the work that the monks had started before leaving with the tools. In the morning, Isaac gathered the monks and asked them to prepare a breakfast feast for some unexpected guests from the produce in their garden. When the monks went to the garden, though, they found the thieves still working and were amazed at the wonderful care that each man had taken in tending the garden. As the thieves and the monks stared at each other in surprise, Isaac entered the garden and began gathering produce while inviting the thieves to sit at the table and join in their feast. Each thief and each monk ate his fill and enjoyed the fellowship of one another. As the meal finished, Isaac spoke to the guests. He didn’t shame or guilt them but he simply encouraged the men to leave their lives of theft behind. He invited them to join with the monks in prayer whenever they wanted to do so and then he gave them each permission to come and harvest as much as they liked from the garden any time they were hungry. Many of the thieves left their sin behind while some were converted and even joined the monastery. Isaac had simply followed after his Lord Jesus and offered grace and mercy to any who would have it.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 4 – Martin Luther King, Jr., Martyr, Preacher, Dreamer

The audience in Mason Temple was justifiably enraptured as Martin Luther King, Jr., preached yet another gripping and inspiring sermon. As he moved to conclude the sermon his mind–and the minds of the audience–were drawn once again to the weapons and bombs that were threatened and used against them.Martin’s flight to Memphis for this cause had been delayed by yet another bomb threat.He concluded the sermon, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.” As the imagery settled, he continued: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.” This would prove to be a dark foreshadowing of the limited time left on earth for Martin. He finished“And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”With these words, Martin ended his sermon and went back to room 306–a room he had stayed in often–at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Martin led countless individuals in the struggle for civil rights in the United State of America. He was one of the founders of the influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and gave direction to people looking for a way to resist the powerful and abusive parts of the American power structure. They marched and met and slowly raised the consciousness of the American people in relation to the struggle that they were undergoing simply for equality and justice. One of the foundational tenets of Martin’s leadership was the philosophy of nonviolence. This philosophy led to many sit-ins and passive forms of resistance which proved to be especially powerful in a nation where media were looking for a story. He drew the inspiration for how he might best resist nonviolently from Jesus, Gandhi, and the writings of Howard Thurman. With each nonviolent protest, they were met with violent opposition from those who hated their very existence. They absorbed the wrath and evil intentions of their enemies and offered them something resembling love and forgiveness in return. As the violence escalated, Martin and those who followed after him suffered even more. But the power was found in the increased awareness of the rightness of their side and the wrongness of their enemies as their enemies perpetrated great evil in an attempt to remain powerful. In other words, the nonviolent protest of Martin and his people provided a canvas upon which the inherent, institutional evil could take form and be recognized. With every blow and wound they received they gave witness to the evil that motivated such injustice.

Martin was a preacher and recognized the power of the spoken word both to inspire and provoke. It seems that at every stop he would be in a church preaching to a capacity crowd about the inherent spirituality of what was going on. The civil rights campaign was not his only cause. After much reflection his nonviolence extended into his political life and he became a leader in the cause to end the Vietnam war. This did not gain him any popularity among the powerful–many of whom he had already offended–but it did help to ease his own conscience as he considered what his faith and calling demanded of him. He preached and he taught and in so doing he excited the joy of his audience and the antipathies of his opponents. So many of them were regular members and attenders of a church but saw no problem with the injustice and evil that they supported. Martin’s preaching demanded awareness from those that supported him and those that resisted him. He didn’t just help reform American political attitudes. He began the process of reforming the Church in America and around the world.

At 6:00 p.m. in the evening of the fourth day of April–in the year 1968–Martin prepared to leave room 306 and go to another church to preach another sermon in support of the sanitation workers in Memphis. By doing this, he was further living into his conviction: “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar….it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” As he stepped out the door he turned to the musician who was with him–Ben Branch–and said: “Ben, make sure you play Take My Hand, Precious Lord in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” At 6:01, a shot rang out and a bullet entered Martin’s head and settled in his spinal column. The man who had received the Nobel Peace Prize for working through nonviolence and civil disobedience to end racial injustice was gunned down in Memphis on his way to preach a sermon commanding love for enemies. He died a martyr and was buried shortly thereafter in a funeral that was widely attended. According to his wishes, nobody talked about his many awards or degrees but, rather, his wife chose to play a recording of a recent sermon in which he said he’d rather be known for being a man who tried to “feed the hungry”, “clothe the naked”, “be right on the war question”, and “love and serve humanity.” As the preacher got one more chance to preach–an honor he would have indubitably enjoyed–Mahalia Jackson sang Take My HandPrecious Lord and a nation laid to rest a martyr and prophet.

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Looking for Tyler

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***

“Hey brother, I saw you yesterday near the hospital,” I said, patting Tyler on the back and taking a seat next to him at a long table with my plate. “I waved and honked, but I don’t think you saw me,” I continued, as I unfolded my napkin, knowing well that not only had Tyler not seen me, but he hadn’t even looked up.

“Oh yeah,” Tyler offered, “I was coming back from the pharmacy.” Making a mental note to find a way to ask him later if the unexpected medicine expense was going to keep him from eating later that week, I almost missed his next comment. “I guess I didn’t hear you. I don’t pay too much attention,” Tyler added with a soft chuckle and something like a smile. But, I knew that wasn’t true. After all, Tyler is one of the people who remembers every detail of our calendar without the help of anything written. He notices when folks get haircuts or a new pair of shoes. He knows the names and faces, not to mention the stories, of many of the folks who gather for our meals. Tyler does pay attention and he doesn’t have a problem with his hearing.

That one missed interaction was a little thing, really, that caught my interest as it floated by in the sometimes rushing river that is the life and work of our community. It was certainly more important in the moment to make sure Tyler had food to eat in the weeks to come, than it was to wonder after one small, curious moment. So, I forgot about it for a while.
That is, I forgot about it until it happened again with Redd, Iris, and Hasan to name just a few. I started noticing that if I was in my car and saw one of our friends, I rarely succeeded in getting their attention by honking or waiting for them to look my way. I had to pull over, roll down my window, and say or shout something so they’d recognize my voice. The truth was, nobody was looking—at least, they weren’t until they heard a voice they recognized.

It was all so perplexing to me, because when I went for a walk to the store or one of our community’s houses, there was a good chance I’d see somebody I knew drive by. If I heard a honk, I looked around, assuming that somebody might be trying to get my attention to say hello. This exchange of greetings through tempered glass was one of the most charming things I had discovered upon moving to the south, and I had really grown to enjoy this tiny sign of welcome. But, for some reason, many of the folks among whom we had made our home weren’t looking.

Finally, I decided just to ask Tyler to see if I was misunderstanding something. Still thinking it was probably just some curious coincidence, but worried that it might be something deeper, I figured Tyler could be my teacher. He shrugged, before saying something that would change the way I think about ministry forever: “I don’t know. I don’t look, ‘cause I know no one’s looking for me.” Inwardly, I crumpled at the realization—it was all about dignity, after all. If people studiously avoid eye contact or even looking at you, if they cross to the other side of the street after glancing your way, and start saying “no” before you’ve finished asking them even a benign question, you learn that nobody is looking for you. When you stop being seen, you stop looking.

“I’m looking for you, Tyler,” I offered, with a forced cheerfulness, afraid to think about the times I hadn’t been.

“Alright,” Tyler said, “I’ll look for you too,” ending again with a soft chuckle and something like a smile.

Since then, I’ve learned to pay attention to who’s looking and who’s not. In those smiles of recognition, timid waves, or boisterous woops from a corner, I’m learning to see the power of community in a new way. Not only is there a power in seeing and being seen, but there’s also encouragement in this quickest of greetings. What we’ve discovered as we continue to do our meals in their not-so-efficient, but intimate way, and as we continue to invite people to share our homes, sit on our porches, and talk about all the things that really matter (and many that don’t matter in the slightest), is this: once people know that somebody out there cares about them—that somebody might be looking for them and glad to see them—they start looking. “I see you,” my car’s horn seems to call out for those with the ears to hear. “I’m looking,” their nod and wave seems to answer for those with the eyes to see.

***
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