Moving from Me to We
During the period known as ‘Reaganomics’, in 1984, the nation was enjoying a seeming wave of enormous prosperity. At the time I was a Regional Vice-President for a financial services company. That impression of our nation soon changed for me after a providential encounter at a 7-11 convenience store in midtown Kansas City, Missouri. As I was filling up my car with gas, an elderly African-American man came limping up to me. When he lifted up his head he drew me in with his magnetic smile. I thought he needed a ride, but after offering, he explained that he was simply out getting exercise. Instead, he invited me to come and visit him sometime at the nearby LaSalle Apartments. There is one caveat. He had suffered a stroke. He spoke with slurred speech, and it was difficult to understand him. As I was standing at the gas pump, I felt an internal prompting that he was to ‘be my teacher.’ Immediately I thought, “But how? I can hardly understand what he is saying?”
A couple of days later, I went by to see him. When I knocked on his apartment door, no one responded. At that time, a frail, but energetic lady in a white dress came up and said, “Mr. Evans must be out for a walk.” She revealed herself as “Mother Esther.” Mid-sixties, friendly, loved to talk, and knew everyone in the building. However, she also shared with me that she hadn’t eaten for two days, since it was the end of the month. She took me upstairs to another apartment where there sat a forlorn elderly white lady, with her gaze fixed on a can of pork and beans sitting on her table, the last food in her apartment. Reagonomics seemed to have passed this building by. Whether it was a church mother in the AME tradition like Mother Esther or her friend upstairs, people were hurting. I had read St. James about faith and works. I knew I couldn’t just say, “Peace, be warmed and be filled” and go back to my comfortable home in Leawood, Kansas.
Around that time, during a time of prayer and reflection, a mental scenario came into my mind. Two brothers were kneeling and praying together the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, Who art in Heaven…” and when they got to “give us this day our daily bread”, I saw two loaves coming down from heaven and they were given to only one of the brothers. Then I heard a gentle question, “Did I answer their prayer?” How one answers that question, makes all the difference.
At that time, I had also been a pastor in the Evangelical, charismatic tradition. Many of us would answer it like, “Praise the Lord! God answered my prayer. I got my two loaves!” Then, I would pat my brother on the back and say, “just keep praying! Soon you’ll get your loaves!” And off I go, and the other brother is still praying.
But another way to answer the question “did I answer their prayer” is in the tradition of St. John the Baptist, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the early Christians. When the repenting multitudes asked St. John, the Forerunner of Christ, “what shall we do?” he replied, “Let him that has two coats, share with him that has none. Let him that has food do likewise” (St. Luke 3:10-11).
It hit me that I had been praying the Lord’s prayer not as “Our Father” but as “my Father.” I had not been thinking “give us this day our daily bread” but “give me this day my daily bread.” There was a deep change occurring within. My teacher, Rollen Evans, was teaching me about the necessity of moving from “me” to “we.”
After contacting a few friends, we began to take some groceries to the same LaSalle Apartments. The conscience can be very loud in such times. One day, as we were passing out food in the lobby, a 9-year old black boy tugged on my suit coat and emphatically said, “My gramma don’t have no food!” His name was Robert, also called “Lil’ Man.” I followed him to his grandmother’s apartment. His aunt, Cherlyn, let us in and said, “My mother’s not here now, but she’ll be back soon. Her name is Thelma Coppage. Just put the food right here.” As she opened the refrigerator, I saw that it was completely empty.
As we returned to the lobby, I noticed two ladies entering. One looked just like Rob’s Aunt Cherlyn upstairs. So, I asked, “Are you Thelma Coppage?” She quickly snapped, “How’d you know my name?” I realized my appearance was a bit off-putting. A white man in a three-piece suit and the first thing I was asking for was her identity! When I explained, she relaxed and was friendly. I later discovered that Thelma often would bring people into her apartment that had no place to stay or food to eat. She, like Rollen, became my teacher. This same Thelma two years later became my wife.
When I became an Orthodox Christian in 1993, I found that early Christian social teaching viewed this way of life in the world as normative. Eusebius, the early Christian historian, wrote about the early church of Rome that in the middle of the third century cared for
… over fifteen hundred widows and persons in distress, all of whom the grace and kindness of the Master nourish (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6:43.11).
Two of the greatest early Orthodox Christian teachers, St. Basil of Cappadocia, and St. John Chrysostom, had much to say on these matters. Here is but a sampling:
He who strips a man of his clothes is to be called a thief. Is not he who, when he is able, fails to clothe the naked, worthy of no other title? The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit [On Poverty, St. Basil the Great, @368 AD].
Therefore, let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others, so that they may become our own. How shall we use them sparingly, as belonging to others? When we do not spend them beyond our needs, and do not spend for our needs only, but give equal shares into the hands of the poor. [St. John Chrysostom (+ 407 A.D), On Wealth and Poverty, p. 50, SVS, Crestwood, NY 1984].
The almsgiver is a harbor for those in necessity: a harbor receives all who have encountered shipwreck, and frees them from danger; whether they are bad or good or whatever they are who are in danger, it escorts them into his own shelter. So, you likewise, when you see on earth the man who has encountered the shipwreck of poverty, do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune [St. John Chrysostom (+ 407 A.D), On Wealth and Poverty, p. 52, SVS, Crestwood, NY 1984].
St. John Chrysostom also wrote at length on the Divine Scriptures. In his commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians, he amplifies St. Paul’s teaching on the Body of Christ. Quoting and then commenting on St. Paul, he writes:
For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked: that there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. (1 Cor. 12:24-27)
And St. John comments:
He [St. Paul] … “adds also the cause, saying, ‘But God tempered the body together, giving more abundant honor unto that part which lacked:’ by all that befalls them, good and painful, are the members bound to one another. Thus often when a thorn is fixed in the heel, the whole body feels it and cares for it: both the back is bent and the belly and thighs are contracted, and the hands coming forth as guards and servants draw out what was so fixed, and the head stoops over it, and the eyes observe it with much care. So that even if the foot hath inferiority from its inability to ascend, yet by its bringing down the head it hath an equality, and is favored with the same honor; and especially whenever the feet are the cause of the head's coming down, not by favor but by their claim on it. And thus, if by being the more honorable it hath an advantage; yet in that, being so it owes such honor and care to the lesser and likewise equal sympathy: by this it indicates great equality. Since what is meaner than the heel? what more honorable than the head? Yet this member reaches to that and moves them all together with itself… For if it shared not in the suffering, it would not endure to partake of the care. Wherefore having said, "that the members may have the same care one for another," he added, ‘whether one member suffereth, all the members suffer with it; or one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.’
Next, he also adds the reason, showing that with a view to their profit he both caused it to lack and more abundantly honored it. And what is the reason? “That there should be no schism,’” saith he, "in the body." (And he said not, "in the members," but, "in the body.") For there would indeed be a great and unfair advantage, if some members were cared for both by nature and by our forethought, others not even by either one of these. Then would they be cut off from one another, from inability to endure the connection. And when these were cut off, there would be harm done also to the rest. Seest thou how he points out, that of necessity "greater honor" is given to "that which lacketh?" "For had not this been so, the injury would have become common to all," saith he. And the reason is, that unless these received great consideration on our part, they would have been rudely treated, as not having the help of nature: and this rude treatment would have been their ruin: their ruin would have divided the body; and the body having been divided, the other members also would have perished… (Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 12, Corinthians, pp. 182-183. (1994) Hendrickson Pub: Peabody, MA)
Such comments about showing honor to the part which lacked, so that there might be equality (to avoid dividing the body apart by schism) could well have been written for our time. When my wife was raised in Southern Arkansas during the Jim Crow era she was told by well-meaning white people, “you see dear, there is a black heaven and a white heaven.” The rest of her life she was devoted to One Heaven, One Lord Jesus Christ, and the healing of this schism through her love for all. After I became an Orthodox priest with the name of Paisius, she became “Matushka Michaila.” After her repose, they named the donate-what-you-can restaurant on the corner of 31st and Troost Avenue, “Thelma’s Kitchen” in her honor. This corner where she used to feed and clothe people, this corner that was known as a racial dividing line, this corner where Reconciliation Services and St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church began, became a corner that she embraced as a place of healing and love for all.
The model of the early Christians provides us answers for these troubled times. After His Resurrection and Ascension, the Lord Jesus Christ poured out His Holy Spirit. It resulted in a miraculous manifestation of Heaven on earth within the Jerusalem community (Acts 2-4). Eventually though, troubles started to appear in the form of discrimination. The Jewish widows from the Greek speaking community were being neglected in the daily food distribution by the Hebrew speaking community. The way that the Apostles of Christ responded to this problem provides a template for us today. They allowed the Greek speaking community to choose their own leaders who would assure that the needs were met. They chose seven Greek leaders who were exemplary, full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit. These became the first deacons of the early Church (Acts 6:1-7).
To the apostles, Greek lives mattered! Those who were being neglected and marginalized, received preferential treatment to balance the neglect! To St. Paul, the hand mattered, the foot mattered. (1 Cor. 12) In the supreme parable of Christ’s care, the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to go and search for the one sheep that was lost along the way. To Christ, the lost sheep mattered (St. Luke 15:4-7).
After 400 years since the first African slaves appeared in the colony of Virginia, isn’t it about time that we realize that those parts that have been most abused, neglected, and marginalized should be given ‘more abundant honor so that there should be no schism (division) in the body’? Black lives DO matter! This is not political superiority. This is not a heresy. This is following the model of Christ, St. Paul, the fathers and mothers of the Church.
How can we ignore the foundations of the Church? It was Africa that provided protection for the baby Jesus when Herod sought to kill him. It was Simon of Cyrene, an African, who first carried the Cross of Christ. Millions of African martyrs are praying for us now. These are mothers with their children. Whole families now in heaven. Multitudes of black saints. It was Athanasius, an African, called ‘the father of Orthodoxy’, who kept the Church from deviating into heresy during the first worldwide Council of the Church. It was Anthony, an African, who became the ‘father of monastics’ as his life inspired men and women to become monks and nuns throughout the world. It was Pachomius, an African, who inspired the community form of monasticism with over 10,000 monks on one side of the Nile, and 5,000 nuns on the other. It was Macarius, an African, who gave us morning and evening prayers. It was he that inspired a former gang leader and thief to become a Christian, whom today we know as St. Moses the Black. Of Africa it was said “the desert has become a city” because of the multitude of desert fathers and mothers.
How can we ignore the sanctity of the Black Church in the United States of America? Thousands of slaves had prayed for mercy, not just for themselves, but for their masters as well. Like the early Christian martyrs, they were “baptized in their blood” for many died from floggings, overwork, or were killed simply for praying or seeking to learn to read the Scriptures. In Virginia, Thomas Ashby confessed to killing his slave “Zeke” when he overheard Zeke praying for him. Like the blood of Abel, “though dead he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). During the 60’s, many were fervently praying for their oppressors who were beating them during peaceful protests. On Juneteenth 2015, in Charleston, SC, Nadine Collier had just lost her mother along with 8 others after Dylann Roof had killed them trying to start a “race war.” When asked if anyone had anything to say at the hearing, she replied, “I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you!
As Christians, this is something beyond politics, beyond right and left political organizations. This is part of our faith. This is etched in our hearts from the earliest times of Christianity. Let’s not be swayed by the furor and the fear. Let’s follow Christ and the saints and the teachers of our faith. Let’s move from me to we and restore balance where it’s needed. Let’s be the Body of Christ.