Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Here’s a seasonal column from an Atlanta pastor who also writes for the Higher Ground blog at www.highergroundgroup.org.
By Joseph L. Roberts Jr.
Today, we desperately need to connect the values taught by all our religious institutions — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — with our daily practice as citizens.
A few Sundays ago, after worship at Ebenezer Baptist Church, we stopped at a gas station. My wife and I remained in the car while our son filled the tank. A middle-aged man walked by. He wore three pairs of worn-out pants, each pair slipping on his thin frame, showing soiled undergarments. He seemed depressed and desolate, but he didn’t approach us to ask for assistance. He probably wrote us off as people coming from church, who had already forgotten the challenge heard at worship.
He searched two large trash bins nearby, looking for any discarded food. He quickly wolfed down anything that was edible. He searched again, for something to drink. When he found a few soda cans, he swallowed the last drops. Then he pulled up his pants a third time, and summoned the nerve to enter the food market at the station to ask them if they had anything edible – something that they would discard anyways. They answered him rudely and negatively, and then forced him out of the store. In a moment, he was gone, but we didn’t know where he went. Even worse, we didn’t go looking for him. We could have helped him, but we didn’t try to even try to find him. There was no connection.
We had just left a glorious worship service down the street, but in linking the experiences inside the sanctuary with those outside at the nearby gas station, we failed miserably. There was no connection.
He expected nothing from us and, sadly, we offered him nothing. We went back to business as usual.
Will we ever connect?
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an obscure Catholic priest, was elevated a few years ago to Archbishop of Buenos Aires. While serving, he was criticized for not protecting liberal clergy during the country’s “Dirty War.” Yet, look what he did after. He tripled the number of so-called slum priests and opened new chapels for the poor in devastated areas of the city.
He repaired soccer fields in these neighborhoods and he stayed in touch with the chapels in the poorest sections. He was not given to pomp and circumstance. He took public transportation. He recently contacted a drug rehabilitation center celebrating its fifth anniversary, and left this message: “Don’t let them steal your hope.”
You may know this archbishop as the newly elected Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. No wonder he chose the name Francis, Pope Francis. He reminds us of St. Francis Assisi, that beautiful humble priest who was not ashamed to do the work of the gospel, to wash the feet of beggars, to give the hungry something to eat and, most important, to look into the eyes of the needy and see God.
If we can ever do this, we will make the connection between our creeds and our deeds beyond the sacred walls and corner gas stations. We will begin to find the true unity of all of the people in God’s world. In this love connection lies our hope.
Rev. Joseph L. Roberts, Jr. is pastor emeritus of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.