My home church here in Decorah is First Lutheran, an ELCA church with a long and storied history and, at least in recent years, its share of good preaching ministers. That, combined with an activist orientation to social justice issues, makes it a fertile place for hearing stories. The ministers have been careful to integrate real-life stories with the message for Sundays and it has made for some inspiring moments. Unfortunately, it has created some despondent moments, as well.
In the sermon during this past Sunday’s service, our pastor referenced a letter which she had received, presumably from someone in the community, if not from within the congregation itself. Reportedly hand-written and some six pages in length, the letter contained a diatribe against the local practice of providing food for the poor, particularly those families who have immigrated to this region, legally or otherwise. I suppose the note could have been sent to any of the area churches, but it was likely directed to First Lutheran because our church actually houses the community food pantry (as well as the Free Medical Clinic for those families without the resources for health insurance-covered care). The author stated that the practice of providing food to potentially undocumented workers was an illegal act in which the community should have no part, that feeding such people constituted an act “no better than feeding stray cats.”
I like to think that I’m accustomed to hearing tough messages in church, that the challenges of leading some kind of good life necessitate facing hard lessons. But I confess that I had been totally unprepared for the the analogy made by the letter-writer. I swallowed hard at the words, fighting off a soul-shaking sob that rose up from somewhere deep within my sensitivities.
I am not a naive sort. I am no longer shocked at examples of human depravity or callousness. (A visit to Dachau concentration camp years ago cured me of that.) I understand the presence of evil in our world and have come to know it as a reality of the human experience. But there was something so cold and straightforward about the writer’s message that it momentarily choked me. Perhaps the harshness of the feeling struck me due to the time of the year, a time when so many are able to at least temporarily rekindle feelings about “goodwill toward men.” Maybe it was the idea that someone actually sent the letter to a church, as if half-expecting that the “logic” of the content might possibly sway the pastor’s or church’s activities. Or perhaps I was simply feeling too comfortable in the season, in my “lust for comfort” as Kahlil Gibran cites it, or the ease with which I am able to exclude thinking about the less fortunate, now suddenly brought into unexpected focus. Whatever the cause, the writer’s words struck me with severity and grief.
For two days I have wrestled with the acerbic words and my visceral response to them. They have been particularly disquieting, perhaps moreso because I do not know the author’s name: frighteningly, the words could be the words of anyone. But I have come to feel this about the unfeeling analogy: if the poor among us are to be considered as little more than stray cats, then the logical extension of the analogy must be that we are all strays. If fellow human beings are seen to be of little greater worth than stray cats, then so are we all, because we are all made of the same stuff. And I think it is interesting to observe that, to some extent, even cats will take care of one another.
From time to time we all wander from what we know to be right and fair and loving. We stray from our humanity, not necessarily because we desire to do so, but because we are imperfect creatures who seek to survive physically, even at the expense of dying spiritually. While I personally find myself very centered at this time of year in the reason for the season, I am saddened at the awareness of those whose hearts have missed the entire point of our journey….