Wednesday, January 27, 2010

When The World Crawls Through The Church Door


I don't often get to see my brother these days. He is still living in our home town of Marion, Indiana, and is an associate professor in the School of Business at Indiana Wesleyan University. He and I are very different when it comes to politics - I'm a liberal, he's a conservative. Anyway, I got to see him at his son's wedding up in North Carolina a couple of months ago and I really enjoyed the visit. This reminded me of a talk he had delivered at a church in Philadelphia. I'm not sure if I remember where or how I got the text but just this morning I was reading through it and decided I would like to post it here on our blog. As to why, I guess in the first place I thought you in particular would enjoy it. But another reason, possibly, is that there is so much in that talk which constitutes common ground for people at all points on the political spectrum. And after all, isn't that what this blog is all about? Enjoy...

When the legless man crawled through the front door of the church on his elbows, the preacher paused. When a scarred Rawandan woman and a wealthy Brit spontaneously jumped from their pews to lift him to his, the sermon was complete—lived out in front of the church. My friend Peter Rhetts relates this first-hand account in a speech from his years of travels as a lawyer for a missions organization. Regardless of our various religious backgrounds, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before Gandhi, we can all lean into his enduring passion for humanity’s crises and be better for doing so.

The following are excerpts from Peter’s speech to the Tasker Street Baptist Church in Philadelphia (September 29, 2007). When I caught a glimpse of these words from a humble, soft spoken man with an inviting sparkle in his eyes, they seemed deserving of a continued audience. With his permission, lean into a conversation from deep within this wonderful ambassador for both calculated and spontaneous acts of kindness.

The following is given from the pulpit in the place of a sermon. The congregation is African American. Peter is a tall slender Caucasian. If you’re reading this as a Christian, the many references are clear. For those who are from religions or are non-religious, I’ve tried to assist through edits and clarifications. The following is a glimpse of a Christian lawyer’s challenge to other Christians based on his lifetime of travels.

PETER RHETTS: . . . I ask among this crowd - who are the missionaries? How do we identify them? Where do we find them? Do we need to go to China or perhaps India to find real missionaries we can support? Do we go to Africa, or Honduras – then we will find real missionaries? . . . might we find that the missionaries are already here?

May I take a short detour?

Those of you who are parents - have you ever decided what your child was going to be when they grew up? Mine did. They wanted two things – they wanted me to be the musician in the family and a lawyer. I fulfilled both prophecies. My parents allowed me to take a detour in my music career. To this day, I don't think my father, who is still alive, knew what he did next. Because at age 15, he allowed me to play in rock 'n roll bands at parties, special events, and eventually taverns and bars around the northeast. For the next 16 years, I had a love affair playing music in taverns and bars. But that's really of no consequence. I did become an alcoholic, and did experiment with drugs. But even that is a mundane story in today's world. What is unusual are the settings in which I played and the fellow musicians I worked with. You see – for the majority of time I played in bars, I was the minority not only in the band, but in the bar. And for those many years of living in a world different than mine - one that much of white America doesn’t know exists - I learned a few things. I learned that the chances of me suffering discrimination in this country because of my color are about zero – and I learned that if I was not white, my answer may be different. I learned that whites know a lot less about blacks, than blacks know about whites. I must carefully say that many whites watched the Dianne Carroll show in the 1960s’ and thought they were learning about black America – they weren’t. Much more than that, I learned that in spite of what all the politicians have done, or say they have done, discrimination is very much alive. And I learned something which haunts me to this day – especially now as a Christian.

What I am about to say – may I say it with all due respect. I can’t say it because I am a member of a minority in the United States and have experienced discrimination, because I am not. But I can tell you because of my experience as an attorney running with the country club types – working for them as an attorney – that speak with some conviction. You see - I have learned that the corporate board rooms of today look very similar to how they looked when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The control of corporate wealth has not materially changed from what it was when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Even with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was meant to bring equality to the workplace, there is still a lot to do. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, about 30% of all the workers in the Unites States are minorities. While that number has risen steadily since the civil rights movement, the number of leaders and CEOs of major corporations has not. Only about 11% of all management and executive level positions in fortune 1000 companies are held by minorities. Nor have things really changed economically from when a small, diminutive lady on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, decided she wasn’t going to take orders from the bus driver – she was going to sit where she wanted in the bus. But friends, may God grant me favor in what I am about to say. You see – social discrimination – as evil as it is, is only one part of the sin. Having the ability to attend the school of your choice – travel where you want – eat in the restaurant of our choice – that is all very important. But the fact remains that corporate America to a large degree didn’t really care if Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus – because she was never going to be allowed to own the bus. Mrs. Parks had two things going against her – she was a minority and she was a woman. There are close to 20 million women in the workforce today. Of all those women, only 20 of them are CEOs of the top 1,000 corporations. I have learned the following as clear as clear can be - social advances mean very little to many of the wealthy – because they do not touch their pocket book and they do not diminish their power.

Have we been hypnotized into believing that social injustice ought to be the center of our attention by watching some of the wealthy occasionally throw some dollars that way. But watch the picture closely as people of wealth and influence appear on the talk shows emotionally pleading for the elimination of discrimination, then leave those very talk shows and go back to their rich neighborhoods and country clubs with no intention of ever materially helping a minority economically succeed. There are exceptions – but they are few and far between.

Don't think for a second that the economic disparity that exists in this country will be solved politically either because it won't. Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, Mayor Guliani, and Mitt Romney will never eliminate the problem. They may champion the cause, they may even lead the cause. But know this – they need the cause to exist because without it, the cause doesn’t need them. In plain English, politicians at times show little interest in helping others and more interest in helping themselves. If the problems of this country are solved, whatever they are, we won’t need politicians anymore and my friends, that’s just not going to happen. . . .

White America has been effected as well. What social advances have been achieved have hypnotized much of white mainstream America into thinking we have really advanced and we are good - it has almost become a whimsical bedtime story - it makes us feel good about each other and ourselves. It has served to perpetrate the greatest sin - turning away from God.

What is the answer? How does one address the incredible economic disparity that exists in not just this country, but around the world? Why is it that when I go to Central America, I see abject poverty among 80% of the population? Why is it I see a wealthy man drive his brand new Mercedes Benz by men, women, and children who are near death and yet does nothing about it other than drive up the mountain to his palatial estate to live a life of luxury. Why is it when I go to Kenya, I see suffering in the slums of Liberia that should not be tolerated by civilized people anywhere. Where conditions are so horrific, we are incapable of even imagining what it's like to live in such a place.
It is a fact – until Christ returns [a Christian belief about the latter days of human existence], African children will die of AIDS unless we do something.

At the Mexico City dump – perhaps the biggest garbage dump in the world – children will continue to live and die in the garbage unless we do something. And perhaps within a short distance of where I am standing today, there are homeless men, women and children who have no way out – unless we do something. Do we focus on ourselves or do we focus on them. Perhaps the sociologists are right – for some, it is easier to be concerned with self instead of the needs of others – that’s what we are taught, it’s hypnotic and causes blindness – it’s almost as if it is easier to be sick than to be well. Perhaps it is easier to need than to give. But if we buy into that, we have opened the door to the evil one to take over [a Christian reference to Satan] – and to hypnotize us to believe that we are the center of attention – that it is all about us. Don’t believe it.

I plead today for liberty – liberty from you and liberty from God. For what I am going to say – you may never have heard from anyone in this church, let alone a white man. But I am going to say it and take the risk it may bring with it. You see – until Christ returns, social injustice will never end – it will never go away. All the marches, picket lines, political causes, demonstrations – you name it – they may very well bear fruit. But if you allow the cause of racial injustice to consume you, you could very well miss out on the only true way to help yourself. And that is to deny yourself and help others who are in greater need than you. . . .

I was in Nairobi, Kenya, during a Sunday morning service at Good Shepherd Church. One of our missionaries was the pastor at the time. Well along in the service, and right after the pastor began his sermon, the front door of the church opened right by the platform. Everyone saw the person who came in. I will never forget it. It was a man who appeared to be in his 30s. He had shriveled arms and no legs. He crawled on his elbows and looked awful. Unfortunately, he could not raise himself to get in the pews. He tried and tried but just couldn’t do it. Almost on cue, two ladies from the congregation, one from war torn Rwanda and the other from the affluence of England, left their seats, went to the man, lifted him in the pew and then returned to their seats without uttering a word. The service progressed and then ended – but when those two women who did not know each other – who were from totally different parts of the world – one a refugee – one from property and affluence – when they saw the need and responded as one – for me, the service was over. And the service was over because in my heart, I had just witnessed Jesus in that place through those two, very different, but very obedient, women. Other than my family, and my salvation, that experience, that day in Nairobi, is one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced.

I have in my hand a picture of an 8 year old boy named Melvin. He lives in the garbage in a very large garbage dump in Central America. He lives in the garbage – and if he is fortunate, he will see tomorrow. He lost two brothers in one month – one who drank poison, thinking it was a Pepsi and the other, who was crushed by a garbage truck. Melvin can’t drink the water in the dump because if he does, it is full of so much bacteria and parasites that he may die. But he has to drink the water because without water, he will die of dehydration. If you feel a tug on your heart, it may very well be Melvin - what will your answer be for Melvin, and for so many millions of people around the world like him?

My friends – the world tells us to look out for ourselves and we will find happiness. It’s a lie. Deny yourself – take up His cross – and follow Him [a reference to Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of the Bible]. Belief in Christ and denial of self for the benefit of others is the true path to Heaven. With all that is going on in this country, I don’t know if we live in a true democracy. But I know this – our relationship with Christ is not a democracy. He has given us the way – now will we obey - do we really have any choice?

What do we have to offer? We have ourselves and the bounty God has given us as His stewards. What will we do with it? Who will receive its benefit? Philadelphia’s own Tony Campolo tells this story. A group surveyed an area of Haiti and decided to build a hospital for children. Their survey showed that the area needed a 100 bed facility. The day they opened, 400 seriously ill children showed up. Tony knew that the hospital could only take 100 kids – but that meant he had to turn away 300 and the chances of those 300 living was remote. Tony cried out to God asking Him how could He let this happen? How could He let 300 children be turned away and possibly die? God answered his plea – His answer? I didn’t let this happen, you did.

In Paul’s last letter – II Timothy [in the New Testament]– right before Paul was executed, he said this: “I have run the race – I have fought the good fight. May He [Jesus] say, when I see Him, well done my good and faithful servant – well done.” Earlier I asked you a question – who are the missionaries – and where are they? The missionaries . . . are you. You are – right this very moment – writing your letter – you are writing your story. When you see Christ – when your record is laid before you – what will Christ say about you? Right now, this very day, someone in need waits. They wait for a missionary – God’s ambassador – to help them – to bring them Jesus. As a missionary, you have a choice – how long will they wait?

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