Unexpected News

This past Sunday brought NCAA basketball just down the street from my parish on the campus of Xavier University in Cincinnati. We’d been warned parking would be a nightmare for the 11 o’clock mass, so we went instead to St. Joseph’s church, a largely African-American Catholic church in Cincinnati’s struggling West End. My family had worshipped there before – usually at the end of one of our parish’s “urban plunge” weekends – and knew we were in for a powerful experience.

But what struck me more than the heartfelt singing and unselfconscious prayer was the force of scripture proclaimed by mouths familiar with the bitter taste of injustice.

I would have heard the same text well-read in my own parish of overeducated, socially progressive white folk (and, to be fair, a small number of African, Asian and Latino folks, for the most part well-educated and similarly active in matters of peace and justice). Nonetheless, Matthew’s account of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness sounded more authentic – more real – proclaimed by an African-American deacon who treasured every word. More importantly, I heard it differently – and, accordingly, the words meant something different. Different, at least, from what I usually associate with this passage.

The temptation of food means something different when the nearest grocery is a dreary, poorly-stocked hole two miles away instead of my own, familiar neighborhood store full of organic produce and farm-fresh food. Temptations of security mean something different when the family next to you is more concerned about the physical safety of their children walking to school than about the status of Dad’s tenure application. Temptations of power mean something different when your neighborhood is the dumping ground for whatever the latest city gentrification project has displaced. You get the idea.

The Body of Christ is, I know, a strange and wondrous thing, but I felt like an infant astonished to discover for the very first time that I had feet. Where did these come from and how did they become attached to my legs? Of course, I knew a great deal about poverty and racism in my city – enough to teach a course to medical residents about poverty medicine – but here was poverty, injustice and the struggle against racism in my own body – and I didn’t have to travel to Central America or the Navajo Nation to find it. I knew this all before, but in God’s Kingdom, knowing doesn’t count for much.

This summer’s EP gathering will consider how the sin of racism wounds the Body of Christ we call the Church. Pray, my sisters and brothers, that I might hear what waits to be said – what must be said – rightly. And rest assured I’ll be praying for you in case you need the favor returned.

And, as they say at St. Joe’s: God is good…All the time.

(Originally published Tuesday, February 12, 2008)

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