After I completed my seminary education and received a call to a church, the day of my ordination came at last. I answered the questions in The Book of Order and then knelt on the floor of the sanctuary. I had hands laid upon me and was prayed over, and thus I officially became a minister of Word and Sacrament. I felt called, committed, competent and ready to take on theological leadership myself.
The church had prepared a lovely reception in the fellowship hall after worship: cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, lime sherbet punch, cake and cookies. I was enjoying meeting nice people and thinking that ministry was going to be a truly lovely vocation.
Then an elder tapped me on the shoulder. “There are some people over there who need to speak with you,” he said.
I looked across the room and saw a bedraggled couple. They seemed clearly out of place at the party, but I walked across the room to greet them. They were the first of many homeless people I would meet: a couple loaded with mental disabilities, plagued with bad luck and lacking friends. Lovely? No. Loved by God? You bet.
Seminary was only the first chapter of my theological education. These two strangers became my teachers, too. They opened my eyes to the needs of people who were our neighbors on the street. They taught me that Jesus often comes in the person of the stranger. They led me into a new understanding of ministry that extended far beyond punch bowls and party sandwiches. They ushered the Holy Spirit into my heart and into the advocacy work I have been a part of for more than 40 years.
We do not live in a “we and they” world. We share a common humanity with our fellow human beings: all of us made in God’s image and connected to, responsible for, one another. If we ever lose the capacity to see the stranger as a sibling, we will sink as a civilization. Empathy is what will save us. Empathy does not mean “feeling sorry for” but “feeling with.” I am grateful to my first two friends who lived on the street. They educated me about the essential nature of compassion.
The other important spiritual educator on my mind right now was as notable as my street friends were unnotable. I met Bishop Desmond Tutu only twice; but each time, I observed in him what I can only call courageous humility. Some years ago, a terrible shooting took place in the Buckhead district of Atlanta, Georgia. Tutu was in Atlanta at the time, teaching at Emory University, and he was asked to speak at a prayer service at the city’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Tutu, a very short man, stood behind Ebenezer’s massive pulpit and spoke strong words of comfort and hope. After his message, the floor was opened for questions. In a voice mixed with frustration and anger, the first person at the microphone asked, “Bishop, what in the world are we going to do about the National Rifle Association?”
Tutu folded his hands on the pulpit and answered quietly, “The first thing we are going to do is to remember that every single member of the NRA is a beloved child of God.”
I hated being reminded of that. We all did. But the bishop was right. Jesus is the only other person I can think of who had the courage to say such a thing at such a time.
My other memory of Tutu comes from an evening service held at a church where I was serving. It was a service of hope and healing for people with AIDS, conducted during a high point in the HIV epidemic.
The sanctuary was packed. A great many church leaders from around the city were set to process down the center aisle as the service began. “You go first,” I said to Tutu, who again was to be the speaker.
“No, you go first,” he said.
I said, “You first.”
We laughed as we stepped on one another’s toes. In the end, the Bishop would not be moved. I went first. He went second, but in his humility, he carried the day.