by Kathy Coogan
Recently I was seated in my house of worship, which shall remain nameless. The person in the pulpit was one of the regulars here, semi-retired but alternating with the head honcho to cover all the services. The pulpit was elevated, up a series of steps, so that we parishioners cricked our necks to look up at the presider. We could see him quite clearly, the sound system was efficient and we listened attentively to the lesson he would impart. He was speaking about charity, a worthy topic. I settled in to absorb his wisdom.
In his gentle voice he described the poor and the ill for whom he had prayed in his decades as a person of religion. His formal assignments had been all stateside in large urban settings with splendid buildings of marble and glass, or in suburban, middle-class neighborhoods whose facilities leaned to the practical rather than ornate.
But, he reported, on his annual vacations, he traveled. Occasionally, because of his longevity, he was blessed with lengthy sabbaticals during which he flew to foreign locales, staying for weeks or months. He proudly told us that he had visited every continent except Antarctica; and most countries several times.
He spoke of his travels to India, South America, Central America, Africa. He described the images of poverty and disease that he witnessed. Wooden huts, cardboard and corrugated tin shacks. Children drinking from fetid ponds where bone-thin cows leaned down to drink beside them. The blind, the lame, the maimed, the mutilated. He had seen it all. He had us in the palm of his hand. We were mesmerized by his travelogue.
He described these good, suffering, far away people. And then he paused. He looked upon our upturned respectful faces. We waited. He removed his eyeglasses and wiped them with a clean and ironed handkerchief. He settled his eyeglasses on the bridge of his nose and adjusted the side-pieces behind his ears. When he was ready, he said, “America should be ashamed.”
Whoa, we weren’t ready for that. He continued to speak as if we were not squirming in our seats, the way one does when the movie goes on too long. He described us, “sitting there in your warm winter coats,” as selfish and greedy. He quoted from the Bible, Old and New Testaments, though the chapters and verses went right over my head. The envelope with my weekly donation became damp, as I squeezed it in my sweaty hand and saw other people doing likewise. I saw one man place his back in his pocket and fold his arms across his chest, insulted and rightly so.
The preacher had lost us and he didn’t even know it. I gave him the evil eye as he now identified his captive audience as “unduly blessed.” He spoke of the unfairness of it all. The unfairness that good, far-away people suffer while we, “in our heated homes,” do not. I have him pegged. He is an arms-length kind of guy. It’s all about the masses not the persons. He can’t see the trees, only the forest, the vague distant, amorphous, foggy forest. There can be no suffering here. Suffering can only be “far away.”
I saw a neighbor one pew over who had recently lost her husband after nursing him through Alzheimer’s for a dozen years. Goodness and suffering. I looked toward the lovely varicolored family which had grown to five in recent years as two siblings with assorted handicaps were adopted. Goodness? I searched for the parents in the front pew with their forty-seven year old son who would be forever seven. No suffering there? No good?
I wondered why I could see this close-by suffering and goodness but the man in the pulpit could not. Directly below him are the grandparents who still come to pray even after their handsome, tall grandson was criminally-committed forever for killing his brother. Can this preacher not see their suffering? Standing in back is the Marine, just back from Afghanistan, who still likes to stay near the closest exit. Can he not be good? Did he not suffer? There are the lifelong friends, two couples, who work twice a week in the soup kitchen downtown and the elderly man who mentors a teen ex-con. Not generous? Not good? And I see two ushers who call numbers at Bingo every Friday--but now I’ve given away my mystery denomination.
While the speaker droned on, I entertained myself with a story I recently heard. Friends are gathered around a dining room table. They write down all of their personal troubles on pieces of paper and place them in a basket in the center. They are given the opportunity to choose anyone else’s troubles instead of their own. The basket goes around the table. At the end, each has taken back his own troubles. A teen daughter pregnant. A mother with a broken hip and depression. A lost job. Alcoholism. A drug addicted kid. A fire. Cancer in remission then returned. It didn’t matter. Everyone took back his own troubles, then tried to figure how to help each other through.
I looked back up at this earnest, misguided, judgmental man, so full of uncharity towards us all. So unseeing. I wanted to ask him if he knew the names of the greedy parishioners who had paid for his travels to every continent but Antarctica. I wanted to ask him if he had knelt in the gutters and touched the sick and poor or if his prayers from a pew had sufficed. My intellectual curiosity was aroused as well as my gut. He seemed to think that the cause of poverty and illness far away was a direct result of heated homes and warm coats here. I knew the opposite was true. The generosity of these worshipers, American worshipers, keeps missions afloat, fills poor boxes and buys diapers for babies from here to Kabul even as their personal pain persists.
I thought of the trouble-filled basket. I realized that this man, so high and mighty from the pulpit would have changed the rules of the game. He would have commandeered the basket and righteously dispensed the troubles as he decided who deserved what. In his narrow mind the people who sat before him now could not be good, could not be suffering. Goodness was saved for those who suffered far away; those whom only he could see, as he gazed far out and over our bowed and saddened heads.
As he concluded his remarks and we stood to pray, I sent a telepathic message to my fellow parishioners, “He is the one who should be ashamed.”
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