‘If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.’(1 John 4:20)
When we first moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1988, where I was to serve as Rector of All Angels Church, I was excited by the energy and diversity of the people of that part of the city but also somewhat intimidated by the large number of homeless people who were ever present on the streets and subways.
One day, as I was walking with our 7-year-old daughter Rachel to the church office on 80th Street and Broadway, I noticed a man on the street corner displaying vile, second hand pornographic magazines. He was covered with grime, sitting on the ground and delivering a sales pitch filled with obscenities. I grabbed Rachel’s hand and tried to walk as far away from him as possible ... but she would have none of it. She dropped my hand and went up to him and said, “Hi! I’m Rachel-what’s your name?” I was appalled and tried to pull her away, but she persisted and repeated her greeting. “Hi! My name is Rachel. What’s yours?” Since he was seated, Rachel was at eye level with him and could not be ignored, so he snarled, “Tex!” She smiled sweetly and said “Hi, Tex!” and then finally allowed me to move her along. Thus began a morning ritual ... Rachel would insist on greeting Tex each day and eventually I was drawn into the conversation – very reluctantly.
After a few weeks I was surprised by a knock on the outer door of the church – it was Tex, and he was looking most distressed. “Have you seen my girlfriend?” he asked. I shook my head but he continued: “She stole my stereo, and when I find her, I’m going to kill her!” To underscore the seriousness of his intent he pulled out a cheap-looking gun! I must have looked horrified because Tex continued, “Don’t worry, Father. I wasn’t going to kill her in the church!” Somewhat reassured, I suggested that killing her over a stereo was perhaps a slight (!) over-reaction. We started to talk and he began to cool down. I think, in retrospect, he just wanted to talk.
Our morning ritual continued, and then one day Tex asked if I would baptize the baby that he and his girlfriend were now expecting – it seemed that they had reconciled! I assured him that I would be willing to do so ... I also noticed that he looked a lot cleaner and his merchandise had changed – instead of pornographic magazines, he was now displaying second-hand National Geographic magazines! I could not describe this as a total transformation, but there was no question that positive change was underway in Tex’s life.
It all started because Rachel refused to see him as worthless trash but instead as a person loved by God. That was a lesson that I learned time and time again as I came to know the men and women who lived on the streets around us. I could no longer dismiss them as ‘the homeless,’ people to be feared and avoided. Rather, they became individuals with names and stories.
This tendency to categorize groups of people who differ from us as “the other,” and therefore to be avoided, is antithetical to the gospel. This categorization stands in sharp contrast to the many ways in which Jesus deliberately reached out to people across the cultural and ethnic barriers of his day. This attitude can also lead to increasing polarization and even violence, as witnessed recently in the clashes between “right” and “left,” “conservative” and “progressive,” and all of the other groups in which people identify themselves over and against others.
This practice can become even more destructive, as we witnessed in a visit to Kigali, Rwanda. One of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind took place there in 1994 – and even in an era of the Internet and round-the-clock news, the events went almost unnoticed by the rest of the world. In only three months, one million people were brutally murdered. I stood next to a mass grave estimated to include almost 250,000 bodies. I could not avoid the agonizing questions: Why and how could this ghastly tragedy have happened in a country known for its gentle beauty and Christian faith?
After the graveside visit, I was taken to a small memorial and museum nearby and witnessed some of the most horrifying images of human slaughter that I have ever seen. I also heard what I believe to be a partial answer to my question. The genocide was not, as some have suggested, a spontaneous uprising feeding on tribal tensions. It was instead a carefully planned effort to eradicate part of the population. It was prompted by a very sophisticated propaganda campaign aimed at persuading people of the Hutu tribe to attack the Tutsi tribe. The propagandizers did this by deliberately describing the Tutsis as “cockroaches.” This message became relentless, repeated on the radio 24/7 ... these people were just cockroaches, they weren’t really human, they were vermin, and they need to be eliminated. And then the killing began ... Once their humanity had been destroyed, their death was virtually assured. Some of the killers were even convinced that they were performing a public service.
But this horror is not a problem limited to Rwanda.
Whenever we treat entire groups of people as “other” and somehow less than human, we risk trouble. That is why I try never to use labels to describe other people – every person is made in the image of God and therefore deserves to be recognized as such. While I may disagree with the way that they choose to live their life or express themselves, I try to avoid dismissing them as “other.” Every person has a name and a story.
During our time in New York we visited many of the museums, including the Museum of Modern Art. We found it filled with many wonderful paintings, sculptures and design, but during one visit noticed that a large number of people were clustered around one particular exhibit. We pushed closer to see what had them so enthralled and discovered, to our surprise, that it was simply a series of photographs of individuals, each with a brief synopsis of their life printed below. These life stories were more compelling than any of the world-class art that surrounded us.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27))
Your brother in Christ,