Neither Do I

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***

I was just getting ready to start Sunday evening prayers at one of our community’s hospitality houses when an unfamiliar brown sedan pulled to a hesitant stop in front of the house. I didn’t recognize the woman who got out of the back but I recognized the driver from a local congregation. The driver didn’t make eye contact with me as I walked off the porch toward the street. I imagined that perhaps the driver and his unknown companion would be joining us for prayers, so I was eager to greet them. But, as the anonymous woman closed the car door and I recognized the tears in her eyes for what they were, the driver departed without a word. With a familiar, sorrowful look, the woman sat down on the curb.

With a quick glance around the porch, I hoped to find somebody whose expression would show that they knew the woman or perhaps had some idea what had just happened. What I found in the faces of those who make up our little community was surprise and a creeping realization that this woman had been abandoned here by somebody who didn’t know what to do with her. For all of us, this was a tragedy; but for some of us, this was a familiar experience.

Sitting on the curb next to her, I coaxed her name—Kathleen—from her between sobs and looked back over my shoulder to see if anybody had figured out what to do yet. Kathleen and I were joined on the curb by Brandon. With his intimate experience of what it’s like to be “somebody else’s problem,” Brandon took the lead as I fumbled for words and understanding and Kathleen tried to catch her breath.

Like Job’s friends before they messed it up with their words and false confidence, Brandon kept silence and helped me to do the same. Brandon didn’t know what to do, he later admitted, but he knew how to be a witness to suffering so that one of God’s children doesn’t have to suffer alone. When Kathleen fumbled in her pockets only to find an empty pack of cigarettes, Brandon offered her one of his in a gesture that our shared life in community has taught me to call generous and merciful. With a shaking hand, Kathleen smoked her borrowed cigarette and began haltingly to tell a piece of her story to two silent strangers whom chance and a fast-moving sedan had compelled her to trust.

As Kathleen explained that she wasn’t from Danville and was, in fact, from High Point, North Carolina, I could hear quiet footsteps approaching. Another one of our community’s leaders brought Kathleen a glass of ice water and whispered to me that prayers would wait. While Kathleen began to explain that she had ended up in Danville in order to escape an abuser in North Carolina, yet another one of our leaders started up a conversation on the porch thirty feet away. There wasn’t anything special about the conversation, but so many of our folks know well from past experience what kind of story Kathleen was likely to tell. They also know how hard it is to tell when you’re worried that you might have an audience.

So, in the place of prayers, our little community talked about nothing much in particular and offered a grace that sounds like a low, inconsequential murmur. What our people knew—what they had learned from their own similar, hard experiences—was that you didn’t need to know exactly what to do in order to do something good. Sometimes we all are tempted to strive for acts of great, heroic love and not be satisfied with little acts of love. In pursuit of big solutions, we risk seeing people as problems.

Kathleen continued her story but interrupted every other sentence with an apology for being drunk. Kathleen seemed to hope that her many apologies would pry mercy from our unwilling hands. Brandon spoke for us both when he quietly reassured Kathleen that she was welcome, even if unexpected, and that we weren’t interested in judging her. With that tiny shred of confidence in our hospitality, Kathleen opened up and expressed her fear and anger to us. She was angry at her abuser. She was afraid to go back to High Point. She was angry at feeling abandoned. She was afraid because she didn’t know her way around Danville and didn’t have a place to stay or food to eat. She was angry at herself for leaving her ID in High Point, but she had done so because of the fear that had gripped her heart in her escape.

Then came the question I knew was coming, as Kathleen made eye contact with me for the first time and asked, “So, what can I do?” I had been dreading this imminent question because, like the driver of the brown sedan, I didn’t know what to do. Kathleen wanted to go back to High Point but was also afraid to go back. She wanted to stay in Danville but had no material or social resources here. She wanted to be sober but didn’t feel like she could be yet.

I excused myself for a moment to make a few phone calls and see what our options were for making a place for Kathleen. After about fifteen minutes of phone calls, I still had very few options because there are very few places that pick up the phone on a Sunday evening. Discussing those few options with a handful of our community’s leaders led us to doing something we’d done before but which I still find relatively uncomfortable: making a promise and then counting on God to keep it. We didn’t know what to do, but we trusted that God did and then went about our business of little acts of love.

We convinced Kathleen to join us for an impromptu meal in the kitchen of the hospitality house. We hadn’t been planning on eating, but we didn’t want her to have to eat alone. Sunday Evening Prayer became sandwiches and a tray of finger foods that week. While most of us shared lemonade and tea, one of us made a reservation at a local hotel for a few nights. Between bites of egg custard left over from a meal earlier that week, we promised Kathleen quietly that we could do more nights of shelter if it took longer to find a solution and we scheduled a time the next day for us to sit down and figure out her options.

While taking Kathleen to her hotel room, I repeated to her out loud what the sandwiches and egg custard had said more subtly: “you’re not alone and you’re not a problem.” As I drove back from the hotel room, I had a short voicemail on my phone with an awkward apology from the driver of the brown sedan.

“I just didn’t know what else to do,” he told my voicemail with an apology tinging the corners of his voice.

“Neither do I,” I confessed to God, myself, and no one else in particular, “but I’m not sure that always matters.”

***
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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 23 – George of Nicomedia, Martyr, Beloved of Diocletian, Hero


Geronzio had been a servant of Diocletian before Diocletian had risen to the status and rank of emperor in Rome. He had served Diocletian loyally and had gained his respect and admiration. He was, however, a Christian and though Diocletian knew this he did not expect Geronzio to change his allegiance as long as Geronzio did not openly betray him. Geronzio was also married to a woman named Policronia. The two of them had used their connections and influence to elevate themselves to a noble status and to shore up possessions and wealth. They used this wealth and status to provide comfort and aid to their brothers and sisters in the Faith and to prepare their newborn son–whom they named George, meaning “worker of the land”–for his life and whatever it might hold. As George grew in age and education he also grew into the faith of his parents and his many new brothers and sisters that came to his family’s home for services of worship and communion.Tragically, Geronzio died when George was fourteen and within three years Policronia had taken that fateful step beyond mortality and into life more ideal and true. George was among many who were like family to him and he was the inheritor of his family’s considerable wealth but he was without direction and no longer had his father as his mentor. So, George went to the man who had so loved and favored his father: Diocletian.

George became a soldier under Dicoletian’s watchful care and guidance. Diocletian was heartbroken when he heard of Geronzio’s death but was overjoyed at the prospect of guiding George’s career and continued service to Rome. He was aware that George was a Christian but underestimated George’s allegiance to his faith. Eventually, George was promoted to the rank of Tribunus and set upon a career that would likely end up with him in a powerful political position within the Roman empire. Further, he served as one of the Emperor’s personal guards and soldiers–living into Geronzio’s favor with Diocletian. While in this position he had many opportunities to use his wealth and influence to better the lives of those with whom he came into contact. At one point he arrived in a village of non-Christians who had taken to a bloodthirsty ritual of human sacrifice. They would cast lots and the young woman who was indicated by the lots would be sacrificed to appease the dark god they feared. When George arrived he was stricken at the ruthlessness of such a ritual and stopped them in the midst of their ceremony of slaughter. He spoke at length with not only the leaders but the assembled crowds and told a story of a God who did not demand blood and death but had, instead, given blood and died so that we might be forgiven. At his words, their hearts turned and they abandoned their ways of death and many came within the fold of the Christian faith. They gave over their allegiance to a slaughtered and risen Lord and gave up faith and hope in slaughter and domination. For this he was labeled a hero because he had slain the dark beast that dwelt within them and brought them into the way of life more abundant and free.

Tragically for both George and Diocletian, Diocletian began to be swayed by Galerius and his own fear of a loss in power. Having heard so many lies about the Christians, Diocletian issued a command throughout the army. All soldiers were to give a sacrifice to the roman gods and values to demonstrate their allegiance and deny any faith in the Christian God. Those who refused were to be executed as Christians and traitors to the Roman army. Diocletian was stuck deciding between his beloved friend George whom he knew as a Christian and the power he hoped to consolidate with this bloody edict. He begged George to renounce his faith and offered him great gifts of land, money, and slaves if he would give his greatest allegiance to Diocletian and Rome. George refused and still Diocletian begged. Diocletian still offered him his most persuasive gifts but George did the incredible by giving away all that he already owned to the poor and to the Church that he had served so eagerly and willingly. He was tortured and finally he was beheaded so that Rome might make a statement about power. Eventually, George was turned over to the executioners with many other Christians for torture and death.However, Rome and Diocletian also made an unintentional statement about the faith of the Christians of whom they made martyrs. George died in good company and died so that others might know there was more to death than a grave and more to life than comfort.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 15 – Damien of Moloka’i, Priest, Missionary, Leper

The kingdom of Hawaii had one particular advantage when it came to the spread of disease since they were a chain of islands they were quarantined from the rest of the world. Of course, this boon carried a danger with it: the inhabitants were especially susceptible to infection and disease when ships began bringing more and more merchants to the Hawaiian islands. The influx of commerce and foreign visitors was accompanied by crippling outbreaks of influenza that weakened and killed many. But whereas influenza was a fast killer and survivors were able to develop a fairly sufficient immunity in a little while, there was another disease that proved to be a slow and torturous killer. This killer was “Hansen’s Disease” but it is also known as leprosy and those who contracted it were known as lepers. It was hard to hide and soon the king–Kamehameha the Fifth–decided to quarantine those affected to protect the rest of his people. They were forcibly detained and sent to live on the island of Moloka’i at a place called Kalaupapa. Contrary to common assumptions, leprosy does not cause body parts to fall off and isn’t especially contagious but it does cause extensive nerve damage and can cause permanent damage to the skin, eyes, and lungs. The other–perhaps intentionally forgotten–damage it does is the relationships it crushes by fear of contagion and threat of quarantine.

Damien de Veuster had been ordained a priest in Belgium but due to the coaxing of his brother he became interested in becoming a missionary. He became determined to travel abroad in service of the Church when it was determined that his brother would be unable to go himself. Damien stepped into the opportunity and was sent to Hawaii shortly before the outbreak of leprosy there. The lepers had been sent to their isolated place and given little in supplies, though, and Damien began to worry for them. They had been given some help in growing their own food–having been fully divorced from their land and people–but this support also proved to be insufficient. They were disconnected from those they loved and made to feel as if the world didn’t want to–couldn’t afford to–associate with them. There wasn’t any semblance of community and the 816 lepers outcast to Moloka’i fended for themselves. Damien couldn’t stand their abandonment and petitioned the vicar to be sent to them as their priest. The vicar made sure that Damien knew he was likely signing his own death warrant but Damien insisted and was sent by boat to the people. By becoming one of them, he was effectively exiling himself as he would no longer be able to leave once he lived among them. He went without hesitation for his Lord had called him to take up his cross and follow. In this case, it meant going to Moloka’i.

Damien built a church with the help of the lepers there and organized them into a community around himself. He treated their pains and lesions with his own hands. He conducted services of worship. He heard confessions and gave spiritual direction to the willing. He built furniture and homes. He painted houses to give their place another measure of comfort. He built coffins, dug graves, and performed funerals. In short, he became a devoted member and leader in the community at Moloka’i. Because of his involvement, the people gathered around him and joined together as one people to share in their suffering and carry each other’s burdens. Because of his leadership they were able to work together to sow and reap crops each year and sustain themselves in their exile. One night he went to soak his feet in hot water–as he did every night after a hard day’s work–and was frightened to find that he could not feel the heat of the water. He had contracted the disease but he kept it as his secret for a little while he worked hard to prepare the citizens of his community to go on without him when he was forced to leave them by death. As he got more and more sick the Church sent three people to take over his duties and one to care for him as he died. They carried on his legacy of love and compassion while he slipped out of this life and into the arms of the Lord who had called him from before time began. Damien died on the fifteenth day of April in the year 1889 after serving the people the world wanted to forget for over sixteen years. He was buried where he belonged: Moloka’i.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 5 – Agathopodes and Theodulus, Martyrs, Preachers, Unafraid

The year 303 AD brought with it an edict of persecution against Christians within the boundaries of the Roman empire. Diocletian was confident that such an edict would not only restrict but reduce the practice of Christianity within the empire. In many ways, he was correct. Many Christians left their faith behind when confronted with the harsh reality of imperial expectations. Others would not deny their faith but fled from Roman scrutiny at every turn–in effect, they hid their faith away so that it might not cost them their lives. Others, like Agathopodes and Theodulus, were unafraid of what imperial Rome could do but well aware of the cost associated with ceasing to preach the message and story their faith had infused into their lives.Theodulus, who once woke with a ring in his hand from a dream where an angel gave him a sign of his calling, was a young man associated with the Church in Thessalonica. Agathopodes was an elder and respected deacon in the same congregation as Theodulus. While others denied their faith and hid it away, Agathopodes and Theodulus boldly proclaimed the story to all who would listen. Thus, it comes as no surprise that they were eventually arrested, beaten, and dragged before the governor of Thessalonica–Faustinus.

Faustinus had interrogated and tortured Christians before and was familiar with what methods seemed to be most effective. So, first he spoke with Theodulus alone while Agathopodes was held in a cell away from the proceedings. Faustinus tried to flatter Theodulus at first but was surprised to see that Theodulus was unswayed by the governor’s words. Typically, a young man would jump at the chance to be highly regarded by those in power–Theodulus was the exception. Then, Faustinus presented Theodulus with a choice: wealth and influence within the embrace of imperial Rome or death at the hands of the same. Theodulus responded without hesitation that he’d much rather die than to make sacrifice to Rome and forfeit his soul for momentary material gain. Faustinus tried to reason with Theodulus by saying, “Theodulus, do not choose death!”

Theodulus responded, “I don’t! I choose life in a way that you don’t seem to understand. It is you who daily choose death by following after yourself and your sin.”

When Faustinus had decided that Theodulus was unlikely to be swayed, he sent him away to another cell and brought Agathopodes in for questioning. He assured Agathopodes that Theodulus had already denied his faith and he encouraged Agathopodes to do the same. Agathopodes shook his head and called Faustinus a liar. Agathopodes knew Theodulus well and knew what that miraculous ring meant about his calling–Theodulus would be a martyr and now Agathopodes knew he would join him in that baptism of blood. Having convinced neither of the two men, he had them beaten once again and jailed. The next day they were forced to listen to a crowd of former Christians who urged them to deny their faith yet they were once again unswayed by Faustinus’ methods. Theodulus insisted, “Yes, you have conquered some of the weak but you will never conquer Christ’s strong warriors–no matter what tortures you devise.” In response, Faustinus determined to test their faith by immediately taking them to the place of execution and raising a blade above their necks. Theodulus cried out, “Glory to you, O God, the Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, who deigned to suffer for us. Here, by His grace, I am coming to You, and with joy I die for You!” Faustinus’ bluff failed and the faith of Agathopodes and Theodulus remained steady. They were once again beaten and jailed.

That night they prayed for quite some time before eventually falling asleep and having the same dream. In the dream they were on a ship in a vicious storm that threatened to capsize the vessel and eventually to beat them against the rocks of the nearby island. When they awoke, they conferred and gave thanks for what they expected to be their impending martyrdom. Finally, they were condemned by Faustinus to die for their faith. So, they were cast into the sea and brought by the waves against the jagged rocks of the shore. Shortly before dying, Agathopodes yelled to the assembled crowd, “This is our second baptism, which will wash away our sins. We shall come to Christ in purity.” The two men died as martyrs and their bodies were eventually recovered by Christians on the shore and buried.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: March 30 – Good Friday


In the morning–after a long night of deliberation–the chief priests, elders, scribes and the whole council decided to hand Jesus over to Pontius Pilate. They bound him and gave him over to Roman hands for his fate to be decided by another. Pilate questioned him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”


Jesus responded, “You’re the one who says it.”

The people who had brought Jesus in chains–as if he were some dangerous criminal–began to accuse him of many and sundry things before Pilate but Pilate waved them off and asked him, again, “Are you the King of the Jews? Don’t you have an answer for me?” He asked because this is what Rome really wanted to know deep down at the heart of the question: was Jesus proclaiming himself King over a Kingdom that Rome didn’t endorse? He continued, “Won’t you defend yourself? Do you not understand the gravity of what they’re accusing you of?” Jesus didn’t offer any reply and Pilate couldn’t believe that he’d simply sit there and take it.

Rome had a custom in Jerusalem of releasing one prisoner from captivity every Passover. This wasn’t because of any innate mercy but, rather, because they recognized that the Jews hated them and dreamed of liberation. With the release of a prisoner, they could lessen the potential for revolution. Some in the crowd began asking Pilate for the release of a prisoner in accordance with the custom. Pilate devised a plan to pass the buck and so he had Barabbas brought out of prison in chains. Barabbas had committed murder in a recent rebellion and was considered a danger to the people. He asked the people if they wouldn’t rather have Jesus released because he was aware that there was something suspicious about how Jesus ended up in his hands. But the crowd was stirred up to demand the release of Barabbas. Shocked, Pilate asked them, “Then what shall I do with your King?” They demanded that he should be crucified. “Why?” Pilate asked. “What has he done?” he questioned. There was no answer to his question but only more demands for Jesus to be crucified. So, Pilate caved to their demands in order to lessen the tension–he didn’t want a revolution on his imperial record. He released Barabbas and had Jesus beaten before being handed over to be crucified.

After Jesus had been whipped and beaten the soldiers in charge of him led him into the courtyard of Pilate’s headquarters and called together the whole cohort of Roman soldiers. Feeling full of imperial pride, they mocked him mercilessly. They put a purple cloak on him and called him “King” bowing before him in mock submission. If only they had known that sincerity could have brought redemption, they would have thought twice. The cloak became stuck to his body as the blood dried. They twisted some thorns into a crown and had a mock coronation of Jesus as a type of Caesar. Once they had had their fill of cruelty, they stripped the clothes from him–reopening his many wounds–and led him out to crucify him between two other revolutionaries.

After some time, they became aware that their beating and torture of Jesus had weakened him before his monumental task of carrying his own cross to the place of his death. So, they compelled Simon of Cyrene–the father of Alexander and Rufus–to carry the cross for him. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha–meaning “place of skulls”–and offered him wine mixed with myrrh as was their custom. This drink would likely have numbed Jesus somewhat but he refused it They didn’t care whether he suffered more so they didn’t offer it again to him. They held him down–though he didn’t resist–and drove spiked through his wrists.Then, they rose the cross up and with a thud it fell into its place in the ground. As he felt the first excruciating moments they gambled for his meager possessions and clothing.

Over his head they hung a placard with the charge that merited his death. It read, “The King of the Jews.” The crowd that gathered heaped mockery and scorn upon him. One cried out, “Wait! Aren’t you the one who said you could destroy the temple and build it in three days? If you’re so great, why not come down and save yourself?”

The chief priests and scribes who attended his crucifixion joked with one another, “He saved others but he can’t save himself? Let this Messiah–the King of All Israel, right?–come down so that we might see it and believe it.” They laughed with each other at the ridiculous thought that God or God’s Messiah would ever consent to die on a Roman cross. About three hours after all this started, darkness descended as far as the eye could see. This darkness lasted another three hours while Jesus died. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice quoting the twenty-second psalm, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (meaning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Some of the bystanders misunderstood him and thought he was crying out for Elijah so as one of them ran to give him a drink from a sponge of sour wine they stopped him saying, “Wait a minute. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down.” Then, Jesus cried out and took his last pained breath. At that moment, an earthquake ripped the land and the veil in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest was torn in two from top to bottom even though it was very thick and the building was unharmed. At that moment, God died.

At this, the Roman centurion was amazed and remarked to those nearby, “Surely this man really was God’s son.”

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Telling the Stories that Matter: March 24 – Oscar Romero, Martyr, Friend of the Poor, Enemy of the State

Oscar Romero spent most of his free time around the Church when he was a little boy. Sure, he was active among his friends and did all the things that little Salvadoran boys did but when he had a stretch of free time you were likely to find him down at one of the local church buildings. He had been raised in a Christian family–son to Santos Romero and Guadalupe de Jésus Galdámez–and received a limited education. His limited education was not because of lack of intelligence or priorities but because of a relative lack of need for education within El Salvador in the early twentieth century. Oscar’s school, for example, only offered three years of education for its students. After that, a student would need to receive private tutoring if they were going to received further education.So, for the Salvadorans it was better to learn a skill or a trade than to receive an education and so Oscar learned carpentry from his father. Oscar showed some talent at carpentry but it did not prove to be the calling that was first and foremost upon his life. He did have receive private tutoring but academia was also not his primary calling. Instead, he became a priest in 1942and answered to a calling that had been brewing in his young mind on those lazy afternoons when he was likely to be found around the Church and its ministers.

Oscar’s ordination took place in Rome and he stayed a little while longer to continue his studies in theology. In 1943, however, things were becoming increasingly tense on the geopolitical scale and Oscar was summoned to return to El Salvador. When he finally made it home–he was held and detained occasionally because of his presence in Mussolini’s Italy during World War II–he began to serve the Church as best he knew how. Eventually, this entailed becoming bishop and even archbishop in El Salvador. His appointment to these positions of power was not always well received because he was not fully invested in the liberation theology that was so popular in El Salvador at the time. Further, he seemed to have no Marxist leanings and Marxism was becoming more and more popular with the less politically conservative members of the priesthood in Latin America. Everything changed, though, when Oscar’s friend Rutilio Grande was assassinated for advocating for the poor and politically undesirable.

Oscar had been a friend of the poor for years but not the extent of Rutilio. With the deafening thunder of the machine guns that made a martyr of Rutilio, Oscar was awakened to the incredible struggle that was already going on in El Salvador. He would later explain that Rutilio’s death impressed upon him that Rutilio’s cause had been good and just. In other words, the martyrdom of Rutilio Grande convinced Oscar Romero that the poor and disenfranchised were worth dying for. As archbishop, he was called to shepherd the People of God and care for its ministers. When Oscar realized that both were being killed, he said,“When the church hearts the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.” He wrote letters to Jimmy Carter–the President of the United States of America–asking that the United States stop sending money to the Salvadoran government because of the injustice that was being perpetrated with those funds. As he further invested himself in the life of the people he began to be questioned about why he would agree to do this since it likely meant he was signing his own death warrant. He responded, “I am bound, as a pastor, by divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadorans, even those who are going to kill me.

In 1980, he was officiating the Mass at a chapel and knew he was woefully under protected according to the security expectations of world leaders. Yet, he understood his calling to be a matter of commitment regardless of danger or potential cost. Just a few days before, he had told a reporter what it was he wanted to say to any who might be planning on killing him: “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” As he lifted the bread during the Eucharist the doors at the back of the chapel were flung open and gunfire was heard. A single bullet hit Oscar in the heart as he lifted the bread above his head and spoke of a God who loved the world–the poor and the rich, the powerful and the hopeless–enough to die for it. He had been executed by one of the governing body’s death squads. At his funeral, they threw bombs into the crowd–numbering nearly 250,000–and snipers fired into the panicked masses. The struggle was not over but Oscar had played his part well and with passion. He died a martyr and drew the attention of world leaders who began to suspect that something wasn’t right in El Salvador. He purchased this attention with his blood.

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