I went to the city last Sunday to St. Thomas the Apostle for mass. This is the black Catholic church that embodies so well the diversity and beauty of the image of Christ. The priest and deacon are black, which is important to me because I miss being under the leadership of black men. So much of my growth as a Christian came from the guidance of Chauncey and Coleman at TCU FCA. They have opened my eyes to the fullness of the Gospel in new ways.
You know the area where the church is. It is Hyde Park right by the University of Chicago. The exit you get off of from the highway is Garfield. I really don’t know much about Hyde Park as far as the makeup of people, but the area near the exit is relatively poor. There are always homeless people on the corner with signs asking for money or food. Almost always black people. Going into the city, I often bring food or gift cards for homeless people. Try to remember to ask their name. I started doing it mostly out of self-righteousness. Because I perceived I was good, and this was something good people do. As the Lord has changed my heart and renewed my mind, I see people like me with stories who do not have homes. I have talked to them and learned how they became homeless. My heart has grown towards them. But this past Sunday, when I turned onto the exit, I was hoping for a green light, so I wouldn’t have to stop. Don’t miss this. I was on my way to church, in service to the loving Lord God, and I didn’t want the opportunity to be charitable. To give of only what has been given to me. Woe is me, hypocrite.
There are obviously so many things wrong with this. With me.
Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.”
Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew in his Sermon on the Mount, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement…Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift…”
James says in his letter, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you tells him, ‘Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,’ but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that?”
Samuel says in his first book, “’Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.’”
The Lord through the prophet Hosea, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings…”
Micah the prophet says, “’With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, and calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God.
Lastly, Jesus says to the Pharisees and scribes again in Matthew, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law; justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel…”
Through the prophet Hosea, the Lord exposes the adultery of the people of Israel. He tells them they have forgotten Who provides for them. “I knew you in the wilderness, in the land of drought. When they had pasture, they became satisfied; when they were satisfied, their hearts became proud. As a result, they forgot Me.”
I am caught in this adultery as well. I have forgotten Who has provided for me again and again. Who has freed me and counted all the hairs on my head. I often mistake the things He has given me as my own.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.”
We can only love the Lord as much as those we love least.
If my heart doesn’t ache in compassion for the sister or brother on the street, while I drive my car with air conditioning and money in my pocket, how will I love the Lord Who loves these just as He loves me? I am not looking to love Him but to protect my own and keep my life as comfortable and convenient as possible. I perceive what I have is being taken away by giving, when this is not the reality. I only have what I have been given.
I know this, and as Paul says, I don’t always do what I know to be right. This is how I know there is evil within me. Furthermore, I go to church knowing this about myself. I go before the merciful, loving God knowing I cannot be in His presence and live in my condition of sinfulness.
I have a confession. The Christmas and Easter masses are maybe my least favorite of the year. People come streaming into the church for these two occasions and are not seen any other Sunday. Is this awful of me? Yes. Is it judgmental? Yes. Is it honest? Yes. I cannot pretend it doesn’t bother me. But this is also why I go to mass. This is the point. I know I cannot change my heart to be more merciful and genuinely desire for these people who come to mass twice a year to know the Lord. Just as I know that I will only be moved by compassion for people who are homeless by the grace of God acting in my heart. It is only Jesus who heals. Knowing Him more, I come to their table to learn about their lives and give what I have been given out of love, not self-righteousness.
I am responsible for recognizing whether going to church is just about the sacrifice. Or if it is about a desire to know the Lord and be transformed in His love, mercy and justice, as well as the sacrifice. As Christians, we are guilty of this. We are guilty of preaching love and withholding the actual fruits of it. We are guilty of loving our neighbor, smiling at the people next to us in the pews, and then neglecting the real needs of people around us, especially those who do not look like us. I was listening to a question and answer session with Father Richard Rohr, and I do not quite remember the context, so this could be way off what he meant, but he said it would be better for some people if they didn’t go to mass. I believe he may be addressing this scenario. When Jesus says to the Pharisees, they rightly tithe, but it does not make sense to tithe and neglect the purpose of the tithes, justice, mercy and faithfulness. I think many of us Christians find ourselves stuck in this posture of heart. We do the “easy” things of the faith, while neglecting the weightier things.
I do not think it is a stretch to say this is a similar situation to the one we find ourselves in with “all lives matter” and “black lives matter.” Of course, all lives matter. These are the tithes we have ought to have been offering faithfully, in addition to practicing justice, mercy and faithfulness in the ways the Lord calls us to in certain seasons of our lives. But we have been neglecting the purpose of tithing, the purpose of all lives matter. The reflection of dignity and worth all humans are created with. We have been neglecting this in black lives. James says not to deceive your heart with what is not true. “But if you harbor bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast in it or deny the truth.” Let us not deceive ourselves (my fellow white people and white Christian people) with the lie that we treat all people the same or have left the sin of slavery in the past. If my own story has taught me anything, it is I must consider how the past provides context and reveals itself in the present. Not only this but it helps explain patterns of thought and behaviors and tendencies. I have to consider how the ways other people have injured me and how I have injured myself. And then I have to let those things come into loving relationships with trusted people in my life currently to be healed and unlearned.
After mass that Sunday, I stopped at a coffee shop in Hyde Park before heading home. I thought I had a pretty good idea of where I was and knew the general direction of the expressway. I like to learn my way around and engage in a little spirit of adventure rather than using the GPS on my phone all the time. I started driving south, thinking I would come to a street running east and west I recognized to take me to the expressway. Nothing was looking familiar. I ended up just turning because I knew I needed to go west sooner rather than later at this point. Driving down this unfamiliar street, hoping to see signs for I-94, I am getting a little nervous. It is definitely an impoverished area. Then something occurs to me. How far south did I drive before turning? For those of you who haven’t been to Chicago, Hyde Park is south of downtown but not quite the “southside,” the neighborhoods with the poor and scary reputation. I am getting nervous because I am wondering if this is where I am. I am getting nervous because I have what Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson calls a “mental map” of the city- “deeply held perceptions about different neighborhoods.” The thing is though I don’t know why I have them or how they have come to be. I never learned about the Great Migration in school or heard of the Black Belt. I didn’t know Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in America or how intrenched the divide in the city is by race and income. I have only heard the term white flight less than a handful of times. I didn’t realize that the building of roads and the production of cars allowed predominantly white people to move to the suburbs when previously booming industries in the city closed their doors because black people, without any sort of generational wealth to help them, could not afford to on the wages of industry and manufacturing jobs. And then once the industries closed, only service jobs were available to uneducated people. Uneducated black people who did not have access or opportunity for education.
There I was, driving in a car I was only able to be driving because my parents paid for me to go to a nice high school with a driving course to get my license because we lived in a suburb because my dad had a good salary because he had his MBA because his dad built wealth because he had opportunity to work because his dad was a white European immigrant. All this trickled down to a savings fund for me to “own” this car. A car that allowed me to drive to the city to attend mass. To get to soccer fields to coach and make money. To drive to Texas for school.
There I was, driving in a car afforded by generational wealth, getting nervous because I had heard things about the southside. Made jokes about staying as far away as possible from the southside. Making jokes out of ignorance and privilege.
If you are curious what privilege is, or do not think it applies to you because you have worked hard for what you have, take a look. I do not doubt my dad and his dad and his dad worked hard for what they had. Shoot I would say I worked hard for my college scholarship and opportunity to go to Texas. But here are the facts of my history. My family worked hard with the wind at our back. Without skepticism of our work ethic because of the color of our skin. Without judgement of our intellectual capacity because of the color of our skin. Without the weight of hundreds of years of subhuman treatment shackling our wrists and ankles because of the color of our skin. Without any suspicion we were human at all.
If you are curious what privilege is, take another look. I was getting nervous because suddenly I found myself on turf where no one looked like me because ninety-nine-point nine percent of my life every place I have been I have been pigment comfortable. I haven’t had to consider what my white skin may mean. Majority life has molded my mind and scaled my eyes. As Ta-Nehisi Coates says, I haven’t had to be twice as good to protect myself from body breaking bias. I know the southside is almost all black people. I know there has been a lot of violence. This is easy for me to know. And it is the only thing shaping my perceptions of the area and people. I didn’t know Chicago has one of the worst unemployment rates in the country for people my age. I didn’t know “around 40 percent of black 20-24-year-olds in Chicago are out of work and out of school today, compared with 7 percent of white 20-24-year-olds.” [“Chicago’s Awful Divide” The Atlantic] I didn’t know of Cyrus Walton who lives in Englewood and graduated high school two years after I did but can’t work at one of the only jobs he found because the facility is 45 minutes away, his shift starts at 3 a.m., and he doesn’t have a car. [“Chicago’s Awful Divide] I don’t know what it is like to live in a neighborhood where “you have to look over your shoulder every five minutes.” [Cyrus Walton, “Chicago’s Awful Divide]
These are the facts. This is the history. Privilege, white privilege, allows us to believe we don’t need to know either of them. Privilege allows our hearts to be deceived, to deny the truth, as James warns us against. Privilege persuades us it’s okay, just the way it is, to go to the altar and offer our sacrifice, while our brother is on the street, angry from injustice and crying out alone. Privilege says be warm and filled without thinking to provide the blanket and food. Privilege convinces me the pasture is only for me and only ever has been for me. Privilege helps me forget my God and Who he is. Who he says I am and who my neighbor is. He tells me how I see the black man who is homeless on the corner of the Garfield exit is how I see Him. If I consider this man is not worth my time, how do I consider His Maker, and my own, is worth my time? I can only love Him as much as the one I love least. What I do to the least of us is what I do to Him.
Lord, help me be diligent to know You so I may see all people as You do. To know justice, love kindness and walk humbly with You always. Move me to those who do not look like me in charity and humility. Uncover the southsides of my heart, the places I have neglected to know out of pride and privilege. Let me see You and myself in the man at the Garfield exit. Your poor, beloved son and daughter.