Love Thy Neighbor.

Romans 13:8  Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

*

I took this picture yesterday morning, of the leaflet at my cousin’s bat mitzvah.

shalom

I come from a long line of blue-eyed, pale-skinned Irish Catholics, so the fact that we were even in a temple is an amazing anomaly; it had never really occurred to any of us that Ellie would become interested in adopting the faith of the other side of her family. And yet there we all were — gamely filing into the synagogue, ready to support and celebrate her achievement, despite the fact that none of us speak a lick of Hebrew and the closest we’ve collectively come to studying the twelve tribes of Israel is attending a matinee of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

I took this picture in part because I wanted to contrast it with another picture, one that can be seen on eighty-four city buses over the course of the next month:

SEPTAbusad_600

A federal judge ruled that the city transit authority could not legally deny the ads, despite their extreme anti-Islamic sentiments and despite the fact that the group behind the campaign has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And so here we are, the City of Brotherly Love, belching hatred and intolerance into the air alongside the bus fumes.

*

Matthew 25: 35-40 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.

Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.

*

My theatre company’s stage and offices are housed inside a beautiful old church in the middle of center city Philadelphia, with gleaming hardwood floors and increasingly weatherbeaten stained-glass windows. When we first moved in five years ago, I loved it because the space was beautiful and the commute was easy, but – and I don’t think I even realized this was true until recently – I used to feel a little uncomfortable around the posters advertising pancake breakfasts and midnight masses. Liked the building itself, just … you know. Felt a little awkward whenever I remembered that Jesus was involved.

I’m a lapsed Catholic for, I suppose, many of the same reasons that others are. I lost my faith when I was in high school, when I started to question and started to see hypocrisy that I couldn’t ignore. You’re looking at a former plaid-skirt-wearing altar server, church council appointee, Christian teen leadership scholar, handbell choir member, bible school camp counselor and live nativity organizer, who believed fervently in a loving God who wanted to heal the sick and feed the poor and who asked us, above all, to love thy neighbor as thyself. And I began to find it impossible to reconcile my belief in that God with the picture that was being painted around me: a God who would condemn my best friend for being gay, a God in whose name our country justified a brutal war, a God in whose name our leaders would perpetrate and willfully conceal thousands of sexual abuse cases.

One of the funny side effects of having an office in the church is that it means I get a firsthand look at the daily operations of the building. And what that means in my particular case is this: the church also functions as a homeless shelter. Five hot meals a week, served without judgment by a team of expert chefs and volunteers. A place for those without an address to receive their mail, to apply for the jobs and paperwork to get them back on their feet. A place to sleep in the winter months when it is freezing. A team of sweet older women who volunteer each Thursday to mend torn garments, replacing zippers and buttons for anyone who needs it. A fully stocked closet of donated clothes, available for anyone who needs a winter coat or a pair of shoes. Art projects line the walls, created by hundreds of guests over the years; a nurse keeps weekly hours, free for those who need assistance.

And here’s the part that feels most radical to me – I’ve never once heard anyone who works there use the term “homeless.”

They are “guests.”

Homeless is a word that classifies, that de-humanizes. And I know why we use that word: because it’s not easy to see the homeless person wrapped in blankets on the corner, begging for your money, looking like hell and smelling like piss, as, in fact, a person at all.

I was using the bathroom last week, and overheard these two older women talking as they washed themselves in the stall sinks, topless bodies hunched over, lathering up hand soap and paper towels, splashing cold water under armpits and onto naked breasts and sagging stomachs. They were bonding over feeling useless. How they both hate sitting around, spending the hours of their day figuring out how to eat, how they both wish they had a job, how they are both in their seventies and know it’s hopeless because no one will hire a seventy-year-old homeless lady. Except they were laughing about it, making the kind of jokes you might make with any new friend when you discover you share something in common, that thing of friendly I know, right!?!

I remember sitting in endless parish council meetings as a teenager, ostensibly to serve as the “voice for the youth” amidst a sea of my elders, listening to hours of debate about the best way to encourage the parishoners to socialize with one another after church was over. Hours and hours of bickering over whether or not to switch coffee brands, to try out muffins instead of bagels, to consider playing soft jazz in the background at an appropriately low volume.

Imagine if just one of us had proposed the radical solution of offering that food to someone who actually needed it.

*

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ. –Mahatma Gandhi

*

A pizza shop in Indiana raised over $800,000 this week after the co-owner stated on local news that she would refuse to cater a gay wedding due to her religious beliefs. It’s been a massive media frenzy, the latest drop in the bucket of stories where intolerance and religion seem to walk hand-in-hand. In Jesus’ name, prisons have expanded and food stamps been cut; funds have been poured into abstinence-only programming while protestors rally outside abortion clinics. In God’s name, hallelujah, amen, we’ve seen megachurches built and megamoney flowing, from corporations to congress, all of this just the latest in a long, long line throughout history of religious figureheads and corruptive ideologies entwined together.

Frankly, Jesus’ name has kind of a bad rep with me. Has for years now. If you start to think about the history of thousands of years of church corruption and brutal warfare and discrimination and generally just being on the wrong side of history and progress, you start to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Gradually, over the years, I started to subconsciously view my friends who were into Jesus with a bit of suspicion or mistrust. It just seemed like, “You are otherwise rational, thinking people … surely you must see what I see, that your system of belief has been the source of so much pain and suffering in the world? How can you subscribe to something that has done so much damage?”

Which is why I was more surprised than anyone to discover that I’d accidentally become friends with a bunch of ministers.

The folks who run the church where I work are funny and smart and opinionated and goofy and weird and gloriously human, and good at what they do, and especially good at not holding themselves on pedestals. I punched Andy in the arm really hard last week and told him to stop being an asshole, and it took me a good while before I remembered that he was a minister, that I had the kind of playful bantering relationship with a Man of God that allowed me to curse like a sailor and freely communicate without fear of hellfire and damnation. David’s sense of humor is so quiet and gentle and funny, and I just want to hang out with him and his boyfriend forever; Gracie is the one you want at your party when you have a bunch of people who don’t know one another, she’ll get it moving in under an hour.

It makes them qualified to do stuff like actually talk to people. People who have no homes, have no jobs, have addictions, have family members who are shot and killed on the streets. People like me, whose problems really are pretty surmountable when you get right down to it. Their brand of spiritual guidance isn’t judgmental or rude or condescending or dogmatic. It’s informal and loving, and yeah, it’s imperfect – they’re humans, too.

What a shock to my system, to discover, in meeting people of faith that actually seemed to embody goodness and love, that I had been carrying such prejudice against people with religious conviction. That I had been equating Christianity with the loud and intolerant, the ignorant and hate-filled, the discriminatory extremists screaming from the television.

What an unexpected joy, to find people who seem to believe in that loving God I remember from my youth, that God who is patient and kind and merciful and entreats us all to love thy neighbors.

Here’s what is happening right now in Philadelphia. I work in a building alongside people who are clothing the naked and healing the sick and feeding the hungry and sheltering the poor, who are tirelessly working to bring peace and joy to the weary and the suffering. I am here to bear witness that no one in that building could care less that I identify as agnostic, that someone else identifies as queer, that someone else is mentally ill or a Muslim or a Jew or an addict. These are people who include. These are people who don’t discriminate. These are people who love.

Others have pointed me towards the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia, where their mission is to foster connection and understanding between those of different faiths. I’ve named just three places of religious worship where the focus is upon connection, inclusion, acceptance, and understanding. There are hundreds more.

Beautiful and important work is happening, in my city, every single day. And so.

To the woman who spent thirty thousand dollars on Anti-Muslim advertisements on our transit system: how dare you.

It’s Easter Sunday and you have placed hate in our world when the message should be love. It is Easter Sunday and Philadelphia is my home, and it is imperfect and messy and tragic, but it is also beautiful and special and filled with hope. You have equated all Christians with your brand of hatred, and spread your message to a place that is undeserving of your ignorance. Philadelphia might be filled with those who murder and those who rape and those who steal, but it is also filled with the rabbis who welcome, the ministers who listen, the volunteers who believe, the endless throngs of those who create and who laugh and who beautify and who love, who love, who love above all.

Your thirty thousand dollars could have purchased overcoats for the cold, hot meals for the starving. Your thirty thousand dollars could have kept the boiler running on freezing nights; could have paid the salaries of those working tirelessly to make the world better.

You don’t know our city. You don’t know who we are. You have failed to understand, to connect, to understand that your words of hatred have no place here.

We are the city of Benjamin Franklin and Pearl Bailey, of Patti LaBelle and Mo’Ne Davis, of underdog stories and complicated diversity and fierce pride and ferocious love. This city is black and white and hispanic and mixed-race; Jewish and Christian and Hindu and Muslim and Atheist and non-religiously affiliated; young and old and wealthy and so very poor. This is a city that is unique and complicated and struggling and striving, and it doesn’t need hatred, and it doesn’t need lies.

We are the city that launched a response campaign to your message, and who seeks to spread the word of understanding and charity and peace. And if you were to come visit, perhaps you would see that. Perhaps you would see past bias and skin tone and prejudice to see humanity, to see people, to see connection.

Perhaps you could try choosing love.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. 

**

jj

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43 thoughts on “Love Thy Neighbor.

  1. Beautiful. I came from a christian family too and I face similar prejudice. I was once scared out of my church for not believin, and now help out there at the local rainbows, with the vicar too! Really great to hear I’m not alone in my prejudice, or my challenge to overcome it. Thankyou for such a lovely message, on Easter as well!

  2. Katherine, your mother would be so honored and proud to read your splendid piece. I am a Christian and a knee-jerk liberal. I’m happy to say that I experience absolutely no cognitive dissonance. Thank you for sharing your most important message with us!

  3. Thank you for sharing this. Tears are streaming down my face. I grew up in a fundamental Christian home and then thoroughly rejected it. When I had children, it was a challenge to me to figure out how to raise them as spiritual and allow and assist them in finding their own path. I went to church with my daughter this morning – a United Methodist Church in W Philly where it was clear that their commitment to social justice and inclusion was so very clear. It was clear why my 21 year old activist daughter chose it. This coming from a girl who 10 year ago challenged me when we were at our church on Easter saying – mommy – why are we here? you don’t believe any of this anyway?

    and regarding the ads, the ironic thing to me is our support of Israel who are oppressing an occupying the people in its own country (Palestinians).

    Thank you for this blog. I love your open and frank look at the world.

  4. Thank you for this. I’m a Christian – a Christ-follower, as we call ourselves these days. It shames and grieves me to see how many who identify as such are the screaming antithesis of everything He taught.

  5. This absolutely resonates with me. I think many teenagers go through a time of doubt in their faith, where they must really think about what it means to them instead of blindly following along. I certainly went through it.

    Unfortunately it was due to a huge scandal in the church. The pastor ended up divorced and kicked from the church (he didn’t deserve that), and my family was harshly divided because of this.

    I now see my ex-pastor’s hate-filled Athiest posts where he belittles everything and everyone that isn’t like him. My church did that to him. Granted he makes the choice to spout hate instead of acceptance for all, but it has been the greatest lesson in my Christian life; to love and be open to everyone. To not be like my (ex)church or like him….

    There are ignorant and hateful people in every walk of life. The media latches onto that. But in reality, we can actually all get along.

    I love hearing of people spreading love!

  6. I’m so glad you’ve discovered that real Christians love everyone as Jesus did–regardless of color, social or economic position, sexual orientation, or whatever else the so-called-“Christian” fundamentalists want to exclude. Happy Easter!

  7. Your posts sometimes make me laugh and sometimes make me delve deeper into my own views on life…and sometimes both. This is another thoughtful evening for me as a process your words…thank you.

  8. Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” I believe he was talking about those visible, powerful, ‘Christians’ who spout separatism and other hateful things. The ones you so accurately discuss here. I am glad to say I also know fair-minded, loving Christians who do a lot to distance themselves from those others. And do a lot of good in the world.

    Thank you for always presenting things here that make me think, or laugh, or both! Oh, and cry. Like today.

  9. Thank you, thank you for posting this. I’m a Christian who constantly feels the need to differentiate myself from “those” Christians. The true goal of Christ followers should be to love as he loves us… I’m glad you’ve found a few of those. Happy Easter!

  10. This story reminded me of a photographer in Philadelphia, not because of the Christianity part, but because of the inclusivity part. (Also, the photo for the Interfaith Center looked a bit like his work). I donated to his Kickstarter project “Everyone is Photogenic” because I loved the message that we are all beautiful (for instance, even if we are out of work and without resources and in our 70s). See: http://www.everyoneisphotogenic.com Philadelphia certainly must be a wonderful place in a lot of ways.

    • Wow — Good eye, mmcenzer! That’s because it is his work. JJ is actually the first one who brought the bus ads to my attention, and shot me an email with a link to the Interfaith Center’s work. He’s a pretty outstanding artist and person, and Philly is really lucky to have him added to the roster of folks that make this a wonderful place.

  11. Great post. Very relate able for many of us. I had similar experiences (former Bible study leader that now struggles through my feelings about Christians). This post gave me some things to think about and I appreciate you sharing your perspective. There are good Christians out there, I just need to find them. Your title added another layer for me. The worst Christians I know are my neighbors. Loving them through all of their “ministering” would be a challenge for Jesus himself.

  12. I truly think religion is the root of all evil and if we can just get to the people we all are we find it so much easier to see we are the same – all having the same triumphs and struggles, the same joys and sorrows, the same happy and sad days… the rest of it is b/s.

  13. Thank you, again, for reaching into my head, and heart and putting my thoughts in order. Happy whatever you want it to be day!

  14. Thanks for this. “Gradually, over the years, I started to subconsciously view my friends who were into Jesus with a bit of suspicion or mistrust. It just seemed like…” You really hit the nail on the head with this statement, especially with me. Though I was not raised in a church, I do go to church occasionally and consider myself a Christian, but my skepticism toward other, more conservative Christians, weighs heavily on my mind. It makes me absolutely sick to know that others use a faith that I consider a standard for peace and love as an excuse for bigotry, hate, and/or violence. I do not blame the faith. I blame those that warp the faith to facilitate their closed minds and archaic view of society.

  15. This is the first post of yours that I’ve come across and it’s really a great piece. I’m excited to start digging into what else you have to offer. Funny, somber, with my views or against them, I support anything that makes me think, and you’ve done that, so thank you.

  16. As always, you have nailed it! I go to school for Nursing at a catholic school that follows the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. The mission is simple, walk among the least of us and lift them up. Sometimes I get bogged down in my studies and I lose track of this from time to time. Reading your article serves as a reminder of what I am going to school for and the community I intend to serve. No I am not Catholic. While I view myself as a spiritual person I have trouble with organized religion. Your writing has reminded me not to be jaded against organized religion as a whole, but to really look at what is being done by the real people that practice their faith for the good of their fellow man. Thank you for reminding me of that in a time I need it most.

  17. You’re post made me cry. I was a youth in the Interfaith Center’s program and interned for them this past summer.Your story and mine sound similar in many ways (finding doubt, experiencing poverty and feeling conflicted about God’s role in it all, theatre) and it really touches me to read your thoughts. It was the reminder I needed that people do care about the world, and people do see things the way I do. Thank you.

  18. Loved the post…. another reminder of good to be me … no no, no personal credit here…the family has married into so many religions from so many different parts of the world that I am one-quarter everything 😀 …nyways doesn’t religion seem outdated now?

  19. What a beautiful, thoughtful, well-written post. I have felt the same as you regarding Christianity for a long time now. Thank you for your lovely words.

  20. A beautifully written post distilling a complex and highly charged issue down to the essence of truth, “Love one another”. Although you use the words “Imperfect and messy and tragic, but also beautiful and special and filled with hope” to describe Philadelphia, something deep inside of me felt acknowledged, appreciated and encouraged. Thank you.

  21. ~~~~~waving to you, Katherine. I hesitate to re-introduce myself as the woman at the Phoenix Press Publish who asked how I can avoid being perceived as preachy and condescending, but there it is.

    New to your blog, I was touched deeply by this post. It is beautifully written, heart-felt, rich, and honest. It also touched me because it mirrors my journey (except that mine started in Scranton, PA. I’ll pause while you laugh. I love Philly, BTW.) I empathize, understand, and agree with many of your points. Then and now.

    My journey did eventually bring me back to the Catholic Church. I will not preach or condescend. And I will ask a favor. Will you add me to your short but growing list of people who love beyond political, organizational, and philosophical lines? I would offer to be your cool Catholic friend, but I’m not exactly cool. I’m more like, quirky.

    Anyway, thank you for this post, for coming to Phoenix, and I look forward to reading more from you. I did read your viral happiness post last night and about died laughing. I need to confirm this next point, but I’m pretty sure that my daughter had passed it onto me at the time it was blowing up. Lovely small world.

  22. Well said! Thanks for sharing. Your blog hit on a point that I want to share, if you please. When you said the bit about the word “homeless” being a word that the volunteers don’t use because it’s a bad label/connotation I agreed. A few paragraphs later you used the example of a woman “refusing” to cater a gay wedding due to her beliefs. I wish we felt the same about that word. If the lady had “politely declined” to not cater the wedding, perhaps we would have a little more tolerance for her right (whether we agree with it or not). I wish people didn’t use opportunities like these to witch hunt, two wrongs don’t make a right. I am rambling, and I apologize, I don’t know how to articulate this thought. Bear with me, and keep writing your great work!!!

  23. Hi Katherine,
    I enjoyed chatting with you at Press Publish yesterday. This post makes me miss the church I attended in Seattle, which believed in compassion for all. Reading it made me remember the covenant we spoke at the end of each service, which included the phrase, “To promote Your reign of justice and peace, meeting hate with reconciling love.”

    That, in turn, made me remember a post I wrote way back in 2010, when I first started blogging. If it’s kosher to post URLs, then I’d like to share it:

    http://donnafreedman.com/2010/11/03/the-divine-up-yours/

    I’m all about the “that which you do for the least among you” idea. While in Las Vegas right before Press Publish (for the New Media Expo), I ran into a guy on the street who asked if I could help him buy something to eat. I had two dollars in my pocket, so I gave it to him.

    A guy who saw me do that tut-tutted and said, “You know, he’s probably just some drunk.” Well, yeah, maybe. But he could also have been Jesus, come back briefly to see how his people are doing.

    Not that I’m a saint or anything. The previous day I’d sidestepped a guy with a giant half-empty cup of what looked like beer. He was calling out, “Won’t somebody help me buy more?”

    Again, I enjoyed meeting you and have bookmarked your page. Keep fighting the good fight.

  24. A reflective post about religion. I liked your train of thoughts and the way you describe the more compassionate sides of religion. Like all things, religions can be both bad and good, and sometimes we need to find out how to make something better and less destructive. I also loved the quote from Gandhi, a personal favorite of mine!

  25. This is a beautiful post. I hope everyone in the world reads this post! 🙂
    Btw, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want your mom to read this 😛

  26. As an atheist surrounded by atheists, it’s easy to drift into thinking that the religious are misguided at best and malicious at worst. Those are the stories that rise to the top. I grew up with many people who are religious and I’ve never forgotten how committed and sincere they were about bringing more good into the world. Thanks for another reminder.

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