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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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. 

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jj

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