The Institute for Clergy Excellence is an immeasurable blessing to me. Most recently our group of eight completed a module we called the "Alabama Journey of Pain and Hope." The previous module took us to India. Our next journey will be to Brazil in October. We are trying to put our finger on the interplay between faith and money. Why? Because “stuff” defines us if we aren’t paying careful attention to the source of our true identity as children of God.
I was working my first “real” post-college job in 1991. Money was tight and the things I could not afford weighed heavily on my sense of self-worth. After a number of months paying off debts I could finally afford the payments on a used car. The little Honda that replaced my 20-year-old truck lifted my spirits in a way that surprised me. A car isn’t supposed to be that important, is it? Even at the time I wondered, ‘does this feeling mean I am shallow?’ The Civic was shiny and didn’t smell of exhaust like the old F100, but I felt like a new man. It is my suspicion that we are all like that, at least a little.
Part of why I am so excited to participate in my ICE Faith and Money group, the Change Agents, is that we are diving into the interplay between faith and resources available to meet our needs (both real and imagined) and vice versa. Ad agencies are masters at stirring up our sense of need, and at telling us how to best meet that need. We all want to be safe, fed, loved and well thought of by our neighbors. The ads train us to buy things that will improve the score on any of those points. Money can make us feel we have power to meet all of our needs, and then becomes an idol. Money can make us feel like gods.
On a recent trip to Calcutta I got the opportunity to serve at the Sisters of Mercy mission. We were told to grab an apron and find a place to lend a hand. Some volunteers did laundry. Some took the clean clothes and bed linens up to the roof to hang. Marcus and I stepped over to the men’s ward and said, “how can we help?” An employee pointed out four men and said, “You can give them a bath” and walked away to do his own task. Oohhh-kaay.
Let me describe the scene: the ward is a long room with plenty of windows and dozens of ceiling fans spinning. Smooth greenish-black slate covers the floor and the walls are light grey granite up to shoulder height, and whitewashed concrete up to the 20 foot high ceiling. Thirty low beds side by side line the walls left and right and two rows of nine more run lengthwise up the middle of the room.
The four yet-to-be bathed men are at the end of the room on the left. I went to the first guy (let’s call him Rakesh) and reached down to help him up. Rakesh’s neighbor gestures to me, and in made-up sign language conveys that I have to scoop this guy up. ‘Ok. Yes I can do this. God *is* at work here, after all.’ I bent over and scooped up my new friend and carried him to the big bathroom. He’s 60 pounds, max.
The bathroom is kind of like a locker room shower, without any showerheads. There are barrels of water, buckets, scoops, scruffy sponges and bars of hotel-sized soap. A wide stone bench is for the guys who can sit up on their own, but my guy can’t sit up. I feel bad about it, but Rakesh goes on the floor. Ok. Yep, here we go. Peel his shirt off, then the pants. Grab a scruffy sponge, some soap, a scoop and I’m giving a bath.
Again I think to myself, ‘how am I not freaking?’ Then ‘yes, thank you God for being here to help me show your love to this guy.’ I’m worried about the scruffy sponge being uncomfortable so I go over his chest and arms gently. Back and legs and feet – ok, got it. I looked over to another volunteer who is bathing a patient to get a clue on how to handle the final bits, and notice some words painted high on the wall... “the Body of Christ.” Epiphany! Rakesh becomes Jesus right in front of me... “the least of these.”
“Just use his shirt,” the volunteer says a second time. I’m staring and he probably thinks I am freaking out. I am, but maybe not for the reason he’s thinking. Whoa.
Ok, shirt, fine. That works out ok, too (God, you are so awesome!) but it is a little strange to think of serving Jesus this way. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 nrsv)
How has this experience changed me? I am “disturbed.” Honestly, it is still hard to formulate an answer for this. India gave me a better understanding of systemic cause and effect. The half dozen empires to colonize India have exported most of the resources and wealth, and left a corrupt and paternalistic government in their wake. I am still astounded when I think of the accumulated coat of grime over the whole of Calcutta. There is no time to clean, paint, or repair buildings when millions (literally) struggle for basic survival. I’m disturbed, and feel a little sick. Calcutta is not the only place like this, or even the worst; it’s just the place I’ve seen.
I would never have met such a variety of people or been to the diverse places without the opportunity offered by ICE. The eight of us in my learning group have seen and experienced the wealth of Dubai, learned from poor people in Calcutta, and encountered the-still-entrenched racism in Selma, Alabama. I have experienced God’s kingdom by talking with these people and sharing our faith lives together. Through this ICE experience I am learning how to more effectively keep my eye on the source of my true identity, and how better to lead congregations to do the same.