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As he knelt on the beach by the Black Sea, Clement recalled the time he spent working with Paul. Clement had been born in Philippi and had worked with Paul when Paul came through. In fact, Clement had been one of the people who Paul mentioned in his letter to the Philippians.Perhaps Clement had been one of the young men who told the story of Paul’s conversion in hushed tones of awe. He hadn’t stayed in Philippi for his entire life, of course, but his interaction with Paul and Paul’s interaction with him had left a powerful mark on young Clement. Years later, after Paul had been executed and the Philippian congregation had undergone yet even more persecution,Clement was bishop in Rome and in charge of helping and guiding the house churches and congregations in Rome.
As they tied the rope around his neck, Clement turned to look at the anchor the other end of the rope was affixed to. They were very careful to make sure that Clement would be unable to untie the rope in just a few moments when they expected him to beg and be desperate to escape their intentions. As they checked the knots, Clement remembered how he had stepped into the supervisory role of bishop of Rome and reflected on the letter he had written to the church in Corinth. His letter–now known as 1st Clement–had demonstrated his commitment to taking care of the Church Universal even if it might not fall under his jurisdiction. Years later, when councils were deciding on what letters and books to include in the New Testament, there was a strong contingent of Christians who argued for its inclusion in the canon. Clement had lived into the role he had been called to and become a shepherd of shepherds and a man concerned with a greater flock than simply the ones he came into regular contact with.
As they led him into the boat with the anchor, they shook their heads in mock pity at his impending fate. They rowed away from the shore into the Black Sea but Clement’s mind was far away from the water. Instead, it was on the day he had been arrested for being a Christian by the soldiers directed by Domitian. After a short trial, Clement was exiled and sent away from Rome. He was sent to work in the stone quarries of Chersonesus. When he arrived, he was amazed at the terrible conditions that the workers were in. Among the prisoners and slaves, he began to provide pastoral care to the sick, suffering, grieving, and dying. Through a miracle, he provided water when they were thirsty. He spoke of a Faith that was foreign to so many of them but stripped of their status as citizens and people, they were perhaps especially well prepared to hear the Gospel message of freedom and forgiveness for all people and mercy and grace for even the least of God’s children. A great revival had spread through the camps and soon the Emperor was outraged that the Faith he had tried to eliminate had only been spread by Clement’s exile. Because of this, Clement was ordered to be executed.That’s how he had ended up in the middle of the Black Sea in a boat with soldiers and a rope tied around his neck and attached to an anchor.
They picked up the anchor and dropped it into the water. Clement could not help but follow. He died a martyr.
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Upon his horse, Martin was clearly visible to the crowd through which he rode. The people knew a little about this man who had been raised in a military family of high regard. They knew that his father and father’s father were respectable men. They knew that his cloak and symbols designated him as powerful and influential. Some even knew that he had been meeting with Christians in one of the churches that had been recently been legalized. Martin was legally allowed to attend but it caused a degree of uncertainty in so many of the common citizens of the Empire. These thoughts traveled through the minds of the crowd as they looked to see what this powerful and influential man would do in their presence. Martin’s eyes and mind were in an entirely separated location–on a man who seemed to have fallen on terrible times.
The beggar barely had enough clothing to cover his nakedness. He looked weak from hunger and exhaustion. Most people in the crowd passed over him quickly because he made them uncomfortable. He was “somebody-else’s-problem” and they felt he probably had more problems than they could count or determine.They salved over their discomfort with rationalizations that allowed them to avoid this destitute beggar in mind and sight. Yet, Martin couldn’t look away. His heart burned at the sight of the nakedness of the man and he wondered if there wasn’t something he could do.He was astounded at the way people ignored and avoided the man and wondered if itwasn’t possible that he was seeing things since it seemed that this man was invisible to the crowd. The words of his Christian friends echoed in his mind and he was moved to help. He dismounted his horse, drew his sword and cut his cloak in half. He gave half of the split cloak to the man. The man accepted it wordlessly but with a smile.Not knowing what else to do, Martin mounted the horse and rode off wondering what he had just done.
That night, while he slept, he had a vision of Jesus standing among the angels wearing the given half of the cloak that Martin had split. Jesus pointed at Martin and said to the angels, “See, this is Martin. He is the Roman soldier who hasn’t been baptized but who has clothed me.” Martin woke with a start and considered what he had seen. It had an immediate impact upon him that he couldn’t shake. He shared it with his Christian friends and they reminded him of the passage of scripture that insisted that Jesus would be among the poor, the sick, the prisoners, and the naked. He rejoiced with them in his encounter with their Lord. He was slowly being changed. He finally requested to be baptized and his Christian brothers and sisters did so gladly and with much joy. As the glow of his vision and baptism began to fade slightly, however, he soon began to be burdened by his profession of soldier. He struggled with this for nearly two years before the call was made for all soldiers to prepare to go to battle the Gauls. Martin went to his commander and dropped his sword in the dirt and said, “I am a Christian. I cannot do as you command. I cannot fight.”
The commander ordered him jailed and mocked him before the other soldiers. He questioned what kind of faith Martin held that would prevent him from fighting for the Empire. The commander didn’t understand a faith that wanted to love enemies and promote peace even at the cost of death. He jeered at Martin and tried to undermine the calling that Martin felt. As people labeled him a coward and questioned his courage, he responded:“I’m not afraid to die. I’m afraid to kill. Send me into battle unarmed–even at the front lines–and I will go gladly but I will not kill my enemy. I am called to love them.” His commander responded with a sickly smile and agreement to send Martin forward on what was clearly a suicide mission. Yet, that night the opposing army changed its mind and sued for peace. The battle never happened and Martin was released from his bondage as a soldier. He went from there to become a monk and lead others along the path of faith that he followed.
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Martin was the child of Spain’s domination and conquest of the Peruvian people. His father was a Spanish nobleman who denied any connection to young Martin. His mother was an black former slave who had been taken advantage of by Martin’s father. She raised Martin and his sister Juana in poverty and to the best of her meager abilities. Though there was often a lack of money and food in the family, there was never a lack of love among those who shared a roof with each other. Their poverty was influential and therefore Martin became a servant boy to the local group of Dominicans. He was of mixed race and they were hesitant to accept him (and it would be many years before they would accept him fully) but he steadily rose through their system and was eventually the almoner of the monastery. As almoner, it was his duty to disburse the alms and funds of the monastery to the local poor. When it became clear that Martin had a gift for hospitality, he was also put in charge of the infirmary. Martin didn’t try to do great things but instead focused on loving people. He brought a cup of water to the poor and to the sick with the intention of relieving a need but in the cup of water they often found healing. It wasn’t Martin’s intention to do great things but his loving spirit effected great changes. It was this same loving spirit that came out as the primary force in his life time and time again. His devotion to love is what made him saintly.
When he was young, he truly was a servant at the Dominican monastery. The priory that he was associated with underwent some considerable financial distress when he was still the servant of the monastery and not fully a member. The debts that they had accrued became an unmanageable burden for the brothers. As the brothers gathered to discuss the serious and precarious situation they were surrounded with, Martin intruded upon them and said, “I am only a poor mulatto, sell me. I am the property of the order, sell me please!”The brothers were shocked that he had come in and offered his freedom to purchase their own.In Martin they saw that the ethic of love and sacrifice was more primary than his desire to be free. They did not choose to accept Martin’s offering and found another way to avert their disaster but Martin’s words echoed in their heads for years to come as a testimony of the primacy of love over freedom.
Martin had a habit that wasn’t expressly forbidden but was not smiled upon by his fellow Dominicans. His love of the poor and the disenfranchised seemed to extend beyond that of his brothers. In fact, one evening he was stopped by a brother after he had been observed escorting a sick and dirty person into his own room and giving him rest and comfort in his own bed. As he entered again into the hallway to go and fetch some food and water, the brother said that he had gone too far. “That man will dirty whatever he touches–including your own bed.” He looked loving into the eyes of his brother and responded, “Compassion, my dear Brother, is preferable to cleanliness.Reflect that with a little soap I can easily clean my bed covers, but even with a torrent of tears I would never wash from my soul the stain that my harshness toward the unfortunate would create.” Without saying another word, the brother walked away with Martin’s words echoing in his ears, again. Martin had made it clear that, for him, love was more important than preference,cleanliness, or comfort. The brother walked away wishing he could say the same for himself.
In many of the places where Spain conquered, disease followed in their footsteps. Peru was no exception. Martin’s heart was broken for the sick and the needy in the streets. He understood that the monastery doors were locked for a rational reason: to protect those inside from the contagion that crept through the air to lay low the rich and the poor. Yet, the rationale was not enough for Martin who would unlock the doors so that he might take care of the sick. In doing so, he was being disobedient to his superiors even though he had vowed obedience. This was no little matter and eventually his superior approached him to say that this must stop. He was ordered to stop being disobedient. To this, he replied in a small and humble voice:“Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.” In doing so, he was not being passive-aggressive to his superior but, rather, articulating the implications of what his superior was teaching. He was willing to be obedient as long as it did not require him to subvert his calling to love. His superior withdrew the request to stop and insisted that love was, in fact, more important than obedience to superiors.
Martin died in Lima, Peru, in 1639. He was widely acclaimed as blessed and a healer of the sick and unfortunate. His life had proclaimed the power of love and in death he was united with the God that is Love.
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We first met Todd years ago, when one of us was wandering the neighborhood with a backpack full of lunches on what we called the “roving feast.” Todd invited us onto the stoop in front of his apartment to share lunch. He was a resident of the complex we took to calling “Little Calcutta” and we became regular guests on Todd’s stoop and in his apartment where we shared lunch—where Todd’s hands broke the bread and opened new doors in the neighborhood. As he began to join us at some of our community meals and tell us more and more of his story, we learned what else Todd’s hands could do.
Little Calcutta was a place that needed a lot of love. Sewage backed up into bathtubs in the apartments, the water would be off for days at a time, holes in the roof would go unpatched for weeks, and cockroaches and vermin were everywhere. Through a variety of circumstances, most of the residents of Little Calcutta couldn’t leave and when we’d help one find a new place to live, their empty spot would be replaced by someone else with painfully limited options. Todd’s housing options may have been limited, but he was willing to put his hands to work.
Turning his hands to the work of justice and peacemaking, Todd joined with most of the other residents of Little Calcutta in a long process of meetings, conversations, letters, phone calls, and nonviolent action that led to the inspection and condemnation of the building in which they lived. When the work of Todd’s hands brought retaliation, Grace and Main was proud to stand by him and make sure his needs were met. After all, the steady work of Todd’s hands was cultivating the Kingdom of God in Little Calcutta. We helped Todd and the residents to find other places to live and to get settled in their new homes when the building was shut down.
But, Todd’s hands do so much more than this, when the Spirit moves through them.
A few months back, we celebrated Todd’s birthday. We weren’t surprised when Todd chose Kentucky Fried Chicken for the menu. We also weren’t surprised when he named Grace and Main leaders and the leaders from Little Calcutta as his guests. Once everybody showed up that Tuesday night, we took in the menu: Kentucky Fried Chicken, vegan beans, corn on the cob, gluten-free cornbread, ice cream, and cake.
We spent the first few minutes of the night celebrating our brother Todd. I patted him on the back gingerly even as he shook my other hand with characteristic vigor. I told him “happy birthday” and even joked a little about his age: “twenty-nine again, Todd?” Finally, right before we offered communion and blessed the food, one of us said, “Todd, everybody here can say that you being a part of our lives has made us better off.” The crowd of Todd’s friends nodded vigorously, chorused “amen,” and pounded the dinner table. We broke bread and passed the cup, we blessed the food with our words and our gratitude, and we insisted that Todd go first.
After Todd finished eating, he began to open some gifts. Wrapped in brown paper bags sealed with scotch tape and plastic grocery bags tied shut with yarn or a shoelace, Todd mostly found gifts of his two favorite things: coffee and cigarettes. Both were promptly shared, one in the kitchen and the other on the front porch. One particularly large bag from Lisa contained both Kool-Aid packets and sugar—a common gift that Lisa had shared with Todd on the days worthy of a little celebration at Little Calcutta. When folks were surprised to see Kool-Aid and sugar in the bag, Lisa winked at one of us and said, “He knows what it means, and I know what it means to him.”
Todd got seconds at his birthday meal, but only after checking with everybody—his big hand resting on each shoulder in turn—to see if they had already gotten some and if they wanted seconds, too. He was anxious not to take more than his share, even as we insisted that he should. But Todd, the man of peace with a boxer’s hands, has learned something over the years that he continues to teach us as we share life, work, and prayers with him: the work of our hands in community isn’t just about giving. Todd’s hands are teaching us how to receive, as well.
A few nights after his birthday, the community once again gathered to pray. The weeks had been hard, because my father had been back and forth between home and the hospital. I asked the community please to pray for my father, and struggled to find the words that made it clear what I needed and what I feared. Todd rested his heavy hand on my shoulder—the same hand that had just, minutes ago, carried my daughter back to me after she stumbled in the yard—and he whispered, “It’s ok, man.” In that moment, I knew what he meant, and he knew what it meant to me.
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