“You speak of signs and wonders / I need something other / I would believe if I was able / But I’m waiting on the crumbs from your table. (“Crumbs From Your Table,” U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb)
It’s become something of a tradition: I start a conversation via email with a large distribution list I have, made up mostly of fellow church members but also including some far-flung friends and colleagues. Often, I share my bLOGOS reflections on the lectionary or make a plea for help with a project or program; sometimes I simply direct folks to an interesting website or blog. The point is not to court controversy for its own sake, but sometimes the topics and the ensuing conversation take us into complex social, political, or theological issues where the moral murkiness can be difficult to navigate.
In last week’s email I shared my concerns about the increasingly aggressive tactics by local law enforcement agencies to target undocumented immigrants in our town and in nearby communities. I noted, with barely-contained outrage, that an ICE agent (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had visited our church office, inquiring about the Guatamalan pastor who leads the Hispanic church that meets in our building. (The week before I had inquired if anyone would be willing to hire one of the church’s members as a housekeeper; we later learned that the woman’s husband is being deported. That situation also fueled my sense of urgency regarding the “immigration issue” in our particular context).
In my email I indicated our denominational stance on immigration, which is, in part, that local churches are “to welcome, assist, and empower the refugee, immigrant, visitors, and undocumented persons in their neighborhood, and to denounce the persecution of the sojourner in the U.S. as prejudicial and racist.”
I was prepared for an avalanche of responses and I got them. (Note to self: When you send out a strongly-worded email just before going to lunch, be prepared for a stuffed inbox when you return).
But I was not prepared for the passion and compassion that oozed from those emails, for the eloquence, the compelling personal stories, the unequivocal insistence that our church stand as a witness with the persecuted sojourners, that we not only talk the talk on this matter but that we walk the walk. And even when disagreement was voiced (or typed), when counterpoints were made to my and others’ points, there was a level of openness and generosity in the opposing viewpoints that still moves me.
I’m not naïve. I know there was some grumbling behind the scenes, and not every sentence shared via email was devoid of stridency. But to begin this important conversation with the kind of thoughtfulness and goodwill evident in our exchanges is itself a moral achievement. Or perhaps it’s a gift we can’t even take credit for. Either way, we began—just began; long way to go—a conversation about something that lays on the line in very real terms the cost of Christian discipleship.
Some say that such “virtual” conversations are just that: artificial, illegitimate, without depth; that genuine dialogue cannot take place in cyberspace; that the anonymity afforded by the internet precludes community and communal accountability. There’s some truth to this. I’m a regular at enough blogs to know that people often talk past each other in an effort to one-up their perceived opponent.
But in our case, there’s no real anonymity. The emails are not sent blind; everyone can see who receives them. No one responds with an invented handle but with their real name. Even more importantly, the person you disagree with may be the one who serves you communion on Sunday or who teaches your child’s Sunday School class.
Maybe that’s why we’re careful with each other. We know that an ill-considered word uttered (or, again, typed) in the heat of the moment can be hard to take back—especially when we’ll be teaching VBS together or working side by side in the community garden. But I think we also know that we can risk real disagreement because our unity is not derived from the need to agree on everything, but from our oneness in Christ—a oneness that we don’t create but that we are invited to participate in every time we gather in Christ’s name; every time we baptize or share the Eucharist or proclaim the gospel.
All of this came full-circle on Sunday morning as we listened to the appointed lesson from Matthew. The Canaanite woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter. “Have mercy,” she pleads. With an insensitivity that startles us, Jesus refuses, calling her, in essence, a dog. But her clever comeback—“even the dogs eat the crumbs”—and her persistent faith win Jesus over and he grants her wish (Mt. 15:21-28).
Like this foreign woman, our mostly-Latino sisters and brothers, documented or undocumented, are asking for crumbs, and still we begrudge them. But like Jesus, we are being converted: we are learning that, as Matthew announces by placing this story between the two feeding narratives, there’s enough bread for everyone. More than enough.
During the course of our email conversations on immigration, my friend Les sent me the prayer copied below. Les and I disagree on many things. But we keep talking—in person and online—trusting that, because of our unity in Christ, our differences need not divide us.
O God, in whose one Gospel all are made one,
let not your saving work fail in the broken order of Christendom
because we have failed to understand your message.
Prosper the labors of all churches bearing the name of Christ
and striving to further righteousness and faith in him.
Help us to place the truth above our conception of it,
and joyfully to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit
wherever he may choose to dwell in human beings;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
– Charles Henry Brent (1862-1929)