There is a discussion in Christian circles about just what it means to be ordained a minister. The Protestant side of the house usually argues that ordination is a local choice of someone who serves as leader and role-model, but there is no essential difference between an ordained Christian and one who is not. The Catholic side of the house argues for an ontological change in the person effected by God at the moment of the laying on of hands of a Bishop. Essentially, ordained people have undergone an indelible change in the rite of ordination and are fundamentally different from laity.
Recently a priest connected to my parish passed away. Since his passing I have been thinking about his life. One thing is clear: Wherever Fr. Gene was, he was always a priest of the church of God. His last couple of years were spent at the Veteran’s Home in Truth or Consequences, and it didn’t take long for everyone to call him “Fr. Gene,” always with affection and respect. He became the de facto chaplain to his fellow residents. When I took him communion on trips up to Albuquerque he would talk to me about different people—and always as one priest to another.
I remember well when I was ordained. Whether an ontological change occurred or not, my experience of the moment was life-changing. It felt like fire fell from heaven. I have not yet developed eyes to see the ontological reality of myself so I can’t tell if the fire left burn-marks that make me different or not, but my life has been different ever since. I don’t know what Fr. Gene was like when he was a civil engineer working for city government, but I know how he was after he was ordained. He was always the priest.
Somehow I think the world is supposed to be that way, and we go wrong when we pretend to be something we are not. I think the things that make people false or self-centered or dangerous to others’ well-being are not of their truest essence. Gene’s integrity as a priest was his small contribution to the healing of the world. I could wish no less for myself. And I could wish no less for you, whoever you are, that whatever your ontological or experiential reality is, (if there is even any important difference) at your deepest level, down below all the whims and winds of the times, you are always who you are. Our world depends on it.
San Pedro Sula, Honduras — Three years ago, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world. The city of San Pedro Sula had the highest homicide rate in the country. And the Rivera Hernández neighborhood, where 194 people were killed or hacked to death in 2013, had the highest homicide rate in the city. Tens of thousands of young Hondurans traveled to the United States to plead for asylum from the drug gangs’ violence. So writes award-winning journalist Sonia Nazario in a New York Times opinion article published August 11th (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/opinion/sunday/how-the-most-dangerous-place-on-earth-got-a-little-bit-safer.html) She goes on to tell the story of a very brave pastor, Daniel Pacheco, who, using funds provided by the United States Government, bought the killing house of one of the gangs and turned it into a community center where children come to watch movies, play and share a meal. Homicides have dropped 62%.
The Teton Valley News recently published an article about a cooperative effort between St. Francis of the Tetons Episcopal Church and the Teton Valley Rotary Club to prepare youngsters to go back to school. They set up a Back-to-School Store. The parish also runs other programs, like “Back to Work,” for people reentering the job market and “Back to Health” for people needing all kinds of supporting assistance for medical needs. They sponsor a Boy Scout troop as well.
In this age of greater and greater socio-economic division in our society, with the railings of presidential candidates bent on consuming one another, it’s nice to know that in little corners of the earth good things are happening. I’d like to believe that these little candles in the wind really do more in the long run than political programs and pundit posturing. Somehow, when I think of Jesus healing a blind man here, a leper there, and a bent-over woman over there, I’d like to think he had the same strategy.
Elmer Towns writes, “The Mosaic Law stated that anyone who committed a murder was to be put to death (Exodus 21:14). But for unintentional deaths, God set aside these cities to which the murderer could flee for refuge (Exodus 21:13). He would be safe from the avenger—the family member charged with avenging the victim’s death (Numbers 35:19)—until the case could go to trial. The congregation would judge to find if the attacker acted unintentionally. If he did, he would return to the city of refuge and live there safely until the death of the high priest who was in office at the time of the trial, at which point he could return to his property. If the attacker left the city of refuge before the death of the high priest, however, the avenger would have the right to kill him (Numbers 35:24-28).” (http://www.gotquestions.org/cities-of-refuge.html.)
Wikkipedia records under the heading “Right to Asylum,” “The Egyptians, Greeks, and Hebrews recognized a religious “right of asylum,” protecting criminals (or those accused of crime) from legal action to some extent. This principle was later adopted by the established Christian church, and various rules were developed that detailed how to qualify for protection and what degree of protection one would qualify for. According to the Council of Orleans in 511, in the presence of Clovis I, asylum was granted to anyone who took refuge in a church, in its dependences, or in the house of a bishop. This protection was given to murderers and thieves as well as people accused of adultery.” And “Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” The United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees guides national legislation concerning political asylum. Under these agreements, a refugee (or for cases where repressing base means has been applied directly or environmentally to the defoulé refugee) is a person who is outside their own country’s territory (or place of habitual residence if stateless) owing to fear of persecution on protected grounds. Protected grounds include race, caste, nationality, religion, political opinions and membership and/or participation in any particular social group or social activities. Rendering true victims of persecution to their persecutor is a particularly odious violation of a principle called non-refoulement, part of the customary and trucial
Law of Nations. These are the accepted terms and criteria as principles and a fundamental part in the 1951 United Nations
Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees
non-refoulement order. Since the 1990s, victims of sexual persecution (which may include domestic violence, or systematic oppression of a gender or sexual minority) have come to be accepted in some countries as a legitimate category for asylum claims, when claimants can prove that the state is unable or unwilling to provide protection.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_of_asylum#Medieval_England)
The UN High Commission on Refugees states, “The 1951 Refugee Convention is the key legal document that forms the basis of our work. Signed by 144 State parties, it defines the term ‘refugee’ and outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of States to protect them. The core principle is non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This is now considered a rule of customary international law. ” (http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/1951-refugee-convention.html)
The United States is party to the 1967 Protocol only.
If we have committed ourselves to being good neighbors, if we claim the Judeo-Christian heritage as one of the great formative traditions underlying our society, and if we uphold international law, why do we fast-track women and children back to Honduras to live in gang-violence-ridden communities where family members are routinely killed if extortionist-level protection money is not paid? Who is afraid here?
Tonight we said goodbye to our Honduran friends in the big fiesta. At the end of the time Father Dagoberto and I always speak. We tell people what’s important. We talk about our common vision. We talk about the friendships we hold dear. We give thanks to God and one another for all the work done in the last week.
We also speak of upcoming changes. We speak of shifts we anticipate that will influence how we work together. For example, this year we had Honduran doctors working with us. It was a real joy to work with them. It gives us a sense of shared work. This is no longer just the Americans bringing good things to the Hondurans, it is Americans and Hondurans working together for the good of the Honduran people. This really is our ideal world. This is team-building and sharing. It embodies many values we in Honduras Good Works hold dear.
So this is goodbye for another year, it is also goodbye to old ways of doing things. With every goodbye there is a welcome. We welcome the future.
Today was day 5 of 5 in our mission to take medicines and doctors to the needy people of Honduras. It’s been a rewarding and exhausting week as it is every year. We always end the week with a church service at which people get a chance to share what the week means to them. People shared a variety of things, like a 10 year old girl that impressed the doctor so much that she wants to support her when she goes to high school through our scholarship program. Others talked of older people who impressed them with their resilience and their good attitudes in the face of tremendous trial. I found that as I listened to people’s stories I began to see their souls, and they were all beautiful. Stories really make the world go around. When we tell our stories we tell ourselves who we are and we show ourselves to the world. This is a bunch of people with beautiful souls. It has been a privilege and an honor to work with them these five days.
The stories people told are all stories of an encounter. Running through them all was the scarlet thread of encounter across great differences. The differences are economic, racial, linguistic, geographic, and of personality and personal history, yet in some unlikely way connection is made between two hearts. Two minds find that there are common themes in there thinking. Two souls find that they have common ends and common goals, common ideals and common images of the beautiful. These are the substance of our humanity, the scarlet thread of human experience through all time and place. Invariably we discover this thread by telling our stories.
We are not meant to find common stories. We are meant to find places where our stories touch one another, where they share moments of humanity, times of true beauty, goodness and truth.
I went on a home visit today. We went to visit a lady who turned 100 years old this year. She was born before the nation of Honduras celebrated its own hundredth birthday. I remember well visiting her 7 years ago, one year after she had fallen and broken her hip. It had healed wrong rendering her bed ridden. She was in good health, well cared for by her family. Now 7 years later, she is still in very good health for her age. But she is restless, very hard of hearing and very dim of sight. There is something about her soul that seems ready to fly.
It leaves me wondering what people like that really believe, what they might know though their ancient flesh. How might this woman look at something like justice? Maybe they would see it in terms of their family around them. This woman apologized to me seven years ago for only having had 19 children. She has lots of family around her, caring for her in her old age. Justice, then, perhaps is a function of the quality of our relationships.
How might she see mercy? Maybe mercy is the ability to set aside all of the unnecessary burdens of guilt, resentment, anger, and hurt that we so easily load on our backs, especially the ones that are the works of our own hands and tongues.
What about love? Is not love the hands that care for her now in her old age? The hands that she extended toward her little ones and then her mid-sized ones and then her grown ones gave life. Now those 19 children and the hosts begotten by them reach out to her in tenderness and concern.
I don’t really know, I’m not a hundred years old yet, but maybe my almost 60 years can open my eyes just to crack to see what the future might tell us of wisdom when my own flesh turns ancient.
This woman is certainly soon to fly. She will be mourned by those she leaves behind who love her so. In my mind she will live on as the one who embodies ancient wisdom in ancient flesh.
I met a shining soul today–not like the young woman pregnant with a child already diagnosed with renal insufficiency; not like so many others who are concerned about little things grown like a cancer, all out of proportion.
This 85 year old woman lost her son three months ago to complications from diabetes. She is mourning, to be sure, but she’s not undone. She is sad, to be sure, but not without a deep and abiding peace. She said that the key is friends that stand with her through thick and thin, through all of the trials of raising nine children, through the death of her husband several years ago. Almost in passing she mentioned an automobile accident that broke a number of bones some years ago. But she continues strong, healthy and full of a deep and abiding joy.
The struggles of life have knocked off the hard and rough edges that we so quickly develop and left her a clean and pure soul. She wondcers why she is still on this earth. I know why. She is here to shine light into the rest of us.