Over the last several months, our nation has been compelled to undertake a serious examination of the ways we treat our African-American brothers and sisters, and particularly of the ways that they interact with many police forces. For people of good will, this has been a sobering and painful time of truth-telling, when stories that seem more likely to come from America in the 1870’s or from South Africa during the time of Apartheid keep appearing on the front pages of our newspapers from our country at this time.
This week, the news has been from Parma, Missouri, where five of the town’s six police officers and the city attorney resigned when the town swore in Tyrus Byrd as its first African-American mayor. When I first saw the story, I reeled. It was inconceivable to me. And yet, justice compels me to note that the issue is clearly not with the town itself; its residents were happy to elect a mayor based on what they thought she could bring to the office, rather than judging her by her appearance. Whether the issue is racism or corruption or something yet to be discovered, it’s clearly a problem with those officers and that attorney, not with everyone. And yet, it is still a sign of a deeply broken town, in which it appears that not everyone is truly welcomed as a human being.
I had a very different experience Tuesday morning, when I began my day by attending a breakfast sponsored by the L’Arche communities. L’Arche is a set of homes, initially established by Jean Vanier, in which people with mental disabilities and people without mental disabilities live together as companions, caretakers, and friends. The key is mutuality: everyone comes there to be loved, supported, and made whole. When I entered the hotel ballroom, we were seated a tables with Core Residents (people with disabilities), Assistants (the others in their community), and guests like me.
A priest told us how he had been changed when members of L’Arche began to attend his parish. At first, when a Core Resident asked to be confirmed, the priest was deeply skeptical. At Mass that Sunday, however, he was passing out the consecrated bread when he found the man at the rail, weeping because he knew he was about to experience the love of Jesus. The priest broke down, recognizing that the man’s love of Christ was deeper than his own. The Core Resident is now not only confirmed, but on a number of leadership teams in the parish.
Others spoke, both Core Residents and Assistants, and the stories they told were the same: of being loved into wholeness, into accepting themselves as they were, and realizing that that was more than enough.
Two communities, two very different visions.
Many years ago, St. Augustine described them like this: “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self…In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love.” (The City of God) Augustine writes that now these two metaphorical “cities” are intertwined, the city of self and the city of love, and I think they are so closely bound together in this world that most of us can find both of them even in our own hearts. But still, we can choose: we can choose to feed the forces of division and disdain, or we can choose to way of acceptance and radical love.
Which path are you on this morning? Which path would you consciously follow?
As a person afflicted with a mental illness, although not an intellectual disability, I know a lot about hatred and contempt. I know a lot about marginalization and being outcast for being a bit different. I know a lot about losing one’s life in the sense of the great wonderful things of growing up. And I know a lot about loneliness and fear. I also know mockery and derision, scorn, patronizing and the sense that one is a “loser.” But I have come to know the great closeness of Jesus. I have been gifted with the sense of His renewal. Henry Nouwen also worked at L’Arche, and writes that the person who means the most to us is not the one who gives advice, but the one who shares in the wound, who is not embarrassed to love you or grant you dignity as great as theirs. Jesus does this.
The sad thing is that people who are different mentally are often very beautiful. Few people come to know this. They reject them for being poor and sick. I know that St. Alban’s preaches love and Jesus an awful lot. Jim did. Now Deborah. Well, put it in action! Don’t hurt people who are different.
The police officers that resigned may have inadvertently done the mayor a favor. Maybe she can hire people that will respect the dignity of everyone in the community, even those suspected of crimes. Maybe Americans should demand that their police develop a set of best practices that embody this principle. If not, our country is headed for a violent future.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book “The Dignity of Difference” reminds us that the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but in no fewer than 36 places commands us “to love the stranger.” Just the title of this book inspires me almost every day. My advice, run don’t walk to your library and check out The Dignity of Difference. Better yet, buy the paperback, you will find your self underling passage after passage of sage wisdom.
Good reflection. Sometimes it takes “The Worst of Times” with God’s help to bring out “The Best of Times.”