Today Jesus would be an atheist

The Thinker by Rodin

My new home in Northampton, Massachusetts in some ways is not much different than life in the Washington D.C. region where I used to live. For example, there are plenty of homeless people here too. They are not hard to spot, particularly in downtown Northampton where they beg for spare change. I also see them at traffic intersections with cardboard signs saying they are down on their luck (usually ending in “God bless”) and a Styrofoam cup. Some of these people look familiar. They look a lot like me if I had been less fortunate.

Perhaps giving them some spare change is love, but it’s a minute measure of the love they need. There are lots of people who end up as at least temporary road kill, curiously often found next to roads. There are some social services for them, but not much. Mostly these services make their lives a little less bleak for a while. Rarely do they help transform these sad people the way a caring and loving society should.

My friend from childhood Tom has a podcast. Regular readers will recall I recently attended his father’s funeral. In fact, Tom once interviewed me. Tom is a talented creative artist currently scratching out a living in advertising by doing freelance work. But he also podcasts and helps support online progressive radio. In his last podcast, Tom conversed with Jeff Bell, who hosts his own podcast, The Left Show. Jeff’s show is a raucous, freewheeling, frequently hilarious but very bawdy weekly endeavor that is also surprisingly entertaining. In Tom’s latest podcast, I learned at Jeff has his friend Forrest (alias Podcast Phil) living in his home with him.

I have not been listening to The Left Show long enough to recognize Forrest’s voice. In the podcast I learned that Forrest has stage-four prostate cancer. Jeff and his wife were kind enough to let their very sick and destitute friend live with them until he dies. I learned that Jeff, very financially stressed himself, was hunting the Internet for donations so that when Forrest dies they can cover his end of life expenses and have him cremated. Yes, you can still die in America and there is no guarantee anyone — not even the government — will pick up the bill even for a cremation. I guess that would be socialism or something.

I felt appalled of course and contributed $50 toward his future cremation. During the podcast Tom contributed his own story of his father’s decline and fall. His father was lucky in the sense that by being a World War II veteran a local veterans’ home took him in at no charge. Tom comes from a large family but all have their financial challenges. Tom’s father never bothered to create a will and was basically destitute too. The family was at least able to scrape up enough money to have their father cremated, but a coffin and a cemetery plot were simply unaffordable.

Until I listened to the podcast, I had not learned another part of the story. Tom’s father was a long time member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Binghamton, New York. I attended his father’s funeral and it was very well done. A number of priests celebrated mass and reminisced about their time with Tom Sr., who was popular at the church, extremely Catholic, extremely Irish, and extremely Notre Dame (the university where he got his engineering degree). The funeral included a cantor and a luncheon for family and friends after the service. Aside from being destitute though, Tom’s family shared something in common with Forrest. St. Pat’s wanted money for the privilege of sending him off to the next world in the Catholic way. Apparently, all those years of Tom Sr. tithing money to the Catholic Church was not quite enough for a freebee funeral. There was also an exit fee for the family to pick up.

This surprised me but my surprise quickly turned to disgust. What did Jesus call the moneychangers at the temple? Jesus saw them as desecrating the temple. It made such an impact on early Christians that it appears in all four gospels. Two thousand years later, at least at some Catholic churches, charging money for service rendered is routine. It happens in the very church that Jesus himself founded.

Catholics are not alone in this grubby business. Mormons must tithe 10% of their income, although I don’t know enough about Mormons to know if they close the door on you at services if you don’t pay up. I read that Jews don’t require tithing anymore, but some practices like selling tickets for a seat on high holy days leave me revolted.

Churches, synagogues and I’m sure mosques have bills to pay too, so perhaps I should not be surprised they charge fees in addition to depending on donations. St. Pat’s is a big, honking Catholic Church. I can understand charging for certain services like a minister’s fee for a wedding when the participants are not members. That wasn’t the case with Tom Sr. A truly Christian community would certainly send off one of its most devout, popular and loyal members without charging an exit fee, right? You would be wrong.

I hear all the time that we live in a Christian country. While we are free to practice the religion of our choice, for many of the devout Christianity is our state religion. Well, I’ve got news for these people. Christianity is not our state religion. It’s Capitalism and it’s so much a part of our values that it’s built into our religious institutions too. It’s why most Christians in our country have little in common with Jesus Christ.

Perhaps due to the kindness of strangers or the beneficence of government some of our many distraught and uncared for people will get some escape from their misery. But while the services we do provide may seem like a lot, it is but a droplet of water to a thirsty man. It’s not nearly enough. Our tacit message to the poor like Tom Sr. and Forrest is that you have to throw the dice and hope on the kindness of strangers, and the kindness you get is likely to be meager if you get it at all. Tom Sr. got it from being a veteran. Forrest is getting it thanks to the beneficence of Jeff and his wife. Otherwise he would probably be on the street too, dying of prostate cancer in some back lot or hovel.

By the way, Jeff is an atheist in the predominantly Mormon state of Utah. No one from the state of Utah or the Mormon Church seems interested in making Forrest’s exit from this life humane, perhaps because I believe Forrest is an ex-Mormon and thus an apostate.

Apparently, it takes an atheist and the kindness of people on the Internet to see real Christianity at work these days. Which is why I suspect that if Jesus walks among us today, he is probably an atheist. Who could blame him?

Bored of directors

The Thinker by Rodin

You can only dodge the bullet for so long. Somehow I dodged it for sixteen years.

That’s how long I’ve been attending my local Unitarian Universalist church. And that’s how long I’ve not been on its board of directors. Not that I never did anything more than put money into the collection plate. Over the years I’ve taught religious education, helped with a youth group, took kids on field trips, spent a night in a lockdown so youth could play all night and even went to our denomination’s general assembly. I’ve ushered, helped put together lunches for annual meetings, cleaned up the church kitchen after services, put away lots of chairs and hymnals after services and drank copious amounts of coffee after services too. I’ve attended church auctions, church dinners, facilitated rummage sales, painted walls, cleaned out closets and showed youth how to pray toward Mecca.

That was then. This weekend I find myself on our board of directors, although my three-year term does not start officially until July. I tried to talk them out of it. I said usually directors were chosen from an elite inner circle, not from the next circle in, which is where I saw myself. That’s probably where they saw me too except after sixteen years they could no longer not call me. They had run through the usual suspects too many times. So I am on the board of directors, somewhat unwillingly, but mainly because I could not think of a good enough excuse to get out of it.

In truth I have plenty of other commitments already. This would be one more and anecdotally it was likely to evolve into one of these unappreciated, time consuming and open-ended commitments. The sad truth about non-profit operations like churches is they don’t run themselves. They are complex organisms of relationships. Bill Gates once famously said that trying to manage programmers was like trying to herd cats. Managing churches is like trying to nail Jello to the wall.

There are all sorts of challenges in our church, none of which are likely to get solved no matter how much we flagellate ourselves or how much time I give it. Membership is declining. Our minister of just three years is leaving, for reasons she will not explicitly state, which of course pumps the rumor mill. As I once noted, churches are human institutions, and ours certainly is. We have a long and storied history of settled ministers leaving us for greener pastures or in strange circumstances, and this latest episode is just one more that feeds the fear, is there something intrinsically wrong with us?

Supposedly we have institutionalized trust issues but it seems that we really have ministerial issues. Our first minister was later revealed to be philandering with the congregants he was supposed to be counseling. His replacement left abruptly after less than a year. One of our interim ministers wrote a letter purporting to be from our board of directors endorsing himself for a permanent ministry elsewhere. He was, of course, quickly sacked. The last interim minister complained that we were a surreal congregation, happy enough to listen to sermons but reticent to challenge him on them, something he saw routinely in other congregations. Not that all of our ministers have been bad. Most recently we had a husband/wife pair that spent nine happy years with us.

The Catholics at least have a pragmatic solution to these organizational problems: the priest gets to decide. His decisions may be imperfect, but at least they tend to be final. In a covenantal church like ours everything is done democratically, which means that consensus is usually needed and usually hard to achieve, even though we are quite similar to each other in categories like race, income levels and politics. A building expansion consumed ten years, all but two of which involved in coming to consensus on whether then what to build. Curiously, once we finally broke ground it all went swimmingly: delivered on time and on budget but for a lot more money than had we done it in year one instead of year eight.

All these details and institutional detritus were on display this weekend as I and eight other members of the board huddled at the church for our annual retreat. It’s an opportunity to talk about big picture things, and for new members like me to get acquainted and subsumed in the church issues of the day. You would think that after forty years we’d have a refined governance structure, but we haggled through issues like whether we should micromanage or empower committees, and how to oversee the myriad committees that we have. Some things are clearer: slowly declining membership is probably due to some cliquishness in the congregation but mostly due to the pressure on members to do church work, and then do more church work. If you aren’t on a couple of committees already, you are a considered some sort of slacker. Being a member is more about taking a second, unpaid job than getting spiritually enlightened. It’s not surprising then that many who come through the door don’t want to stay.

So maybe we need to do less as a church, but no one seems to want to give up any programs. They are all vital. No hypothermia project? How can we let homeless people freeze on cold winter nights? No social action committee? Fighting for issues like gay marriage is in our DNA. And yet it is clearly too much and everyone is exhausted, including me, their newest board member, from just listening to it all. The sandwiches for our retreat from PotBelly were at least tasty, but except for sleep spending twenty-four hours on church business was exhausting, as is the stack of action items I received as I am now the board member overseeing education. I will no doubt be petitioned to attend all these related committee meetings, and the monthly board meetings plus follow up on an ever changing list of action items.

I get to do this and a full time job and nurture my wife back to health after her accident and help my daughter transition from degree to productive employee somewhere and monitor a declining cat who needs regular doses of drugs and special cat foods and all the other stuff in life like finishing painting downstairs. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

So what’s the point? The point is to change the world for the better, one small step at a time. It takes a lot of energy to heal a broken society, which is the whole purpose of our church. It is made harder when our own church is rife with purely predictable human dramas and institutional malaise. It seems so pointless somehow, until you see the success of the Alternative Gift Market and that realize families in third world countries are getting cows, which means they have a path toward a better life. It seems pointless except a church brings people together who volunteer to help out at the homeless shelter. It seems pointless except for the youth group bonding for life at a weekend at Chincoteague, or the passing out of sandwiches to the homeless on alternate Friday nights. Then you realize there is a point to all of it, exhausting and inefficient though it may be. And you realize that while being on the board of directors is a hassle and our means are far from perfect, there is some value from all these committees, although it is hard to see while you wallow in organizational mess bordering on chaos.

And so you keep pulling at the institutional oars, though you don’t know if you are going in the right direction, though the efforts seem microscopic in comparison to the size of the problems to be addressed. You hope that your unreasonable faith in what you cherish most highly through your church results in outcomes you will mostly not see that matter and that will leave the world a better place.

So you pick up the phone and dial that member and ask them if they are interested in being in the next ministerial search committee. And you find yourself in your off hours looking at the church’s web logs to see what could be done to bring in new members. And you get in email threads with other directors on the minutia of this stuff. And you keep going, despite frequent deficiencies in both interest and energy. You don’t really know why you do it, but you do it. It is both an expression of your faith and absurdity, but you keep going.

Loaves and fishes

The Thinker by Rodin

Our minivan has been sitting a bit closer to the road recently. For a change, it is full of cargo: non-perishable food and donated clothing. In fact, our dining room is currently more of a pantry, full of boxes and bags of food including the perishable variety like bags of potatoes and onions. This food and clothing is not for us. We are doing fine. It is for the hungry, the malnourished, the homeless and the displaced.

I would like to take credit for all this laudable charitable work but I had little to do with it. My life is full of matters that are more mundane. They include my full time job, teaching part-time and, oh yeah, writing a blog entry a couple of times a week. This is not to say I do not also give to charities. I write checks to charities all the time as well as contribute 1% of my salary to the Combined Federal Campaign. Periodically, but especially when the money is flush, I give back some of it to the community by sending checks to charities I care a lot about, but rarely enough to actually visit. Some of these charities include House of Ruth (a shelter for abused women in Washington D.C.), So Others Might Eat and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. When disasters happen, I am one of the first to send three figure checks to places like The American Red Cross. I am sure my cash is greatly appreciated but my contribution is rather abstract.

Engaging in charitable work first hand takes a tougher soul. It takes someone like my wife. Her motivation might come from remembrances of hard times growing up and now has the means to give back. Nonetheless, for most of our marriage she was content to let me write checks to charities and sleep in late on Sundays. Lately though she has had something of a midlife renaissance. She has become a one-person force of charity.

It all started one Sunday at her Buddhist temple. When it came time for announcements, she stood up and asked why the temple was not doing any charitable work in the greater community. Everyone sort of looked at each other. No one had really raised the question before. When that happens, the onus often comes back to the questioner to do something. So she did. She knew that many of the local food banks were doing relatively well, so she cast her net a little further out. Using the power of Google, she soon found places like Community Touch in Fauquier County, Virginia. Soon she was dialing them up and asking, “What can our temple do to help?”

A week later, she reported back to her congregation but for the most part they still looked at each other with blank expressions. Then she brought a plastic box with her to services put it in the Sangha Hall with a sign above it saying “Donations for the poor”. Every week during announcements, she persistently brought up the issue of helping the poor.

Transitional Housing at Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia
Transitional Housing at Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia

At first, just a couple items trickled in. When the pile got high enough, she would drive out to one of her selected charities and deliver the goods. What she found often appalled her. In the Shenandoah Mountains, she found a food pantry with only a few cans and boxes on the shelf. At Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia she found that The Clara House Food Pantry was nearly bare too. The following Sunday during announcements, she reported back again to the congregation on her first hand observations. Slowly, donations started to increase. Most Sundays she would haul back donations to our house.

By July, it was clear that my wife had found a new calling. One of her deliveries coincided with one of my days off, so I volunteered to drive up to Bealeton too and visit Community Touch. I spoke with the director. I took pictures. I asked questions. In part thanks to my wife’s work, their food pantry was now much better stocked. I examined the Victory Transitional House, a large ranch house with multiple kitchens and numerous rooms. It housed some of the area’s homeless families. Each family had their dedicated pantry space and their own rooms. Slobs were not allowed. People had to follow certain rules including keeping their room and the common areas clean. Outside was a playground for the children.

One of the kitchens at Community Touch
One of the kitchens at Community Touch

When we visited at midday, the place was quiet. Most of the homeless were not jobless, and were either at work or looking for work, while the children were in day care or public school. This is the changing face of homelessness in America today. While many are out of work, many also remain employed, although they may have traded full time jobs for scattershot part time employment. Many of the homeless got this way through a series of unfortunate events. Expensive medical issues cropped up. They became exacerbated because they could not afford health insurance. This was often manifested in an inability to show up at work. At best this meant they kept their jobs but took home less money. In some cases, they were let go. Their landlords were largely unforgiving and, living paycheck to paycheck, within a few months they were out on the street. Some lived in their cars. Some live in the woods in and around Bealeton in small Hoovervilles. The fortunate ones end up at places like Community Touch where at least for a little while they can try to get their lives back in order.

When you spend time at places like Community Touch, you hear stories. You hear about the homeless man sitting outside a Food Lion, and the nice people working there who bought him some food and drove him to Community Touch. You find out that he took a bus from Baltimore to Richmond because he heard there was work, ran out of money, tried to thumb his way back to Baltimore only to find himself sitting on the concrete, homeless and hungry. This man was fortunate. Many others are not so fortunate. They can be found in the woods or scrounging garbage bins at local 7 Elevens.

Charitable work does tend to peak during the Holiday season, which explains in part the mountains of food and clothing now occupying our minivan and dining room. It culminates this weekend. My wife, my very own force of nature, has many people from her temple meeting tomorrow and hauling their donated items to Community Touch. In Bealeton they will meet others including people from The True Deliverance Church of God, who run Community Touch. Using their many donated items, they will assemble Thanksgiving dinners to go for the homeless and hungry of Fauquier County. Many turkeys have already been donated by local food banks and are being cooked en masse tonight. She and many members of her temple will be there to help.

Most of you are familiar with the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Many devout Christians believe Jesus somehow fed an unexpected multitude with a single loaf of bread and a fish. At least when Jesus is not around, it works this way: someone like my wife stands up inside their community, poses the question and then largely by herself start to address the problem. Those inside the community at first feel hesitant because they are used to the way things have always been. However, if like my wife she persists, and she does so with a generous heart they find themselves drawn into caring about the poor too because they know and care about her. And so one loaf and one fish multiply into a van stuffed with food and donated items which might have otherwise gone toward evenings out and buying an Xbox. Moreover, a dozen people from a Buddhist congregation venture sixty miles into the wilds of Fauquier County to work with people of a different faith they do not know. They help them feed the unfortunate who live among us, but whom for the most part we choose to ignore. As a result, at least some of the hungry are fed. Moreover, new connections occur between people that likely would never have otherwise met. The circle of people who care about others unlike themselves grow. The social fabric of our society mends itself a bit. Love and compassion spreads a bit.

I know that people who would otherwise go hungry or be malnourished will soon have a full belly, thanks to my wife standing up in her congregation and leading them with humanity forward toward a larger fellowship. I am blessed to be married to such a warm, caring and compassionate woman.