When a non-believer is chosen

Published September 1, 2011

She stands in the gritty parking lot, her eyes brimming with tears. Hot tears of outrage.

“How can this be? How can there be no food on weekends?”

We’ve just come from an informal committee of street people. I was impressed with how well organized the meeting had been and how gracious the chair was with people whose concerns seemed sometimes peripheral to the main topic.

What they were discussing was the fact that if you are really destitute, there is nowhere to get food in our city on weekends. A number of agencies provide free meals during the week, but they all close on Saturdays and Sundays. Those agencies still open on the weekends provide meals, but only for those residing in their facilities. If you aren’t a resident, you don’t get to eat from Friday night to Monday morning.

My friend and I were gracious visitors from another planet in which there is never a shortage of food. They never once asked us what we were going to do about it. They were talking among themselves about what they would do. Among the options was political action, a demonstration, everyone bringing what little food they already had to a central location, and writing letters to the editor. There was a dignity and self-reliance that claimed our admiration.

By the end of the meeting, there wasn’t a great deal of clarity about next steps. It’s pretty challenging to get hungry people organized to demonstrate, to bring a little food to some central location on weekends, to find a place to store the food, or to write letters. This committee consists of whoever turns up-no staff, no budget, no connections with funders or policy makers.

My friend and I walked back to the parking lot deeply moved.

That’s when the tears started.

I was concerned about the plight of the homeless, but I knew there was nothing I could do. I was prepared to chalk it up to another experience of tragic reality in today’s world and head off to my comfortable bed, having learned to accept that I have to live with such disparity.

But not my friend. Not her.

She has no religious practice. Once or twice she has spoken about coming to my church but never has. Her commitment to feed people who have no food far surpasses mine. I stand there in the dark, in silence, and learn from her. I, who every weekend feed my congregation with the bread and wine of Jesus’ inclusive justice. She puts me to shame. She’s far more Jesus than I am. I could see her throwing over the tables of the money-changers.

Secretly, I wonder how she’s going to feel in the morning, remembering how upset she got in my presence and recognizing in the light of day that this is part of the long, slow process of changing society. I listen sympathetically, but I don’t encourage things that I know can’t succeed. We part company and we each return to our comfortable homes.

And over the next few weeks, she initiates meetings of agencies, organizes a detailed survey of what food is provided by every single group in the city, gets that survey widely distributed and negotiates adjustments in the hours of service. Now food is available on weekends. In addition to the sips of wine and crumbs of bread my church gives out free on Sunday mornings.

But there’s a problem. It isn’t that she’s more outraged than I am, or that she’s a better organizer than I am. Neither of those would be hard to do better than I do.

The problem is how the church is going to respond to being surpassed by the miraculous action of God in the secular world. It’s not just that it undermines our pride in thinking we are the loving ones who set the example. It’s not just that secular agencies have more staff or funding than any parish.

It’s that God uses people of no faith instead of us.

We could feel hurt.

Or we could remember Isaiah proclaiming that in 600 BCE God used Cyrus, who had never heard of Yahweh, to return the people to their promised land. Or we could remember Luke proclaiming that Caesar Augustus was used by God to get Jesus born in Bethlehem. There has been a long tradition in the faith of recognizing that God chooses non-believers to get the work done.

How should the church respond to being bypassed by God like this? We could find an excuse to invite secular leaders to a special service where we honour their work.

We did. And they were deeply grateful. And we were deeply moved. And we were all fed. And there were tears of joy at the inclusion of everyone.

Canon Harold Munn is mentor-in-residence at the Vancouver School of Theology.


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