September 2013

I meet people all the time who tell me how impressed they are by the good that we’re up to in the city.My experience, however, is often quite different.

When I go around the city, I often ended up being impressed by the good that other people are up to.

A couple months ago, a group of us went around the Washington Heights neighborhood (a poor neighborhood in Haverhill), handing out free cookies and asking people what would make their neighborhood a better place. As I was walking with another couple people, I saw a group of kids playing behind an abandoned church building in the back of a parking lot.

We went down and asked them if they’d like some free cookies. Being as they were nine year old boys, the answer was a very enthusiastic affirmative. As we were talking to them, they asked, “So who are you?”

I told them were a group of people in the area looking to make the neighborhood a better place.”Oh”, one of them said, “We’re trying to do that to!”


“Yeah, we want to make our neighborhood better,” one of them responded, with the type of earnestness possessed only by nine year old children. He pointed up to the tree they had been climbing when we walked to the back of the parking lot. “Yeah, we want to clean up this parking lot”, he said, pointing to a pile of trash, “and put up a tree fort and put up a gate there”, and, pointing to another part of the parking lot, “a basketball hoop there, so people can come and play”.

“We even have a dog guard!” another child piped in, pointing to a small dog leashed up nearby, who barked enthusiastically, as if on cue.

“That’s great.” I said, as I offered one of the other kids a second bag of cookies for his little brother and took a picture of the three of them, poised proudly around their tree-fort-in-construction.

I was reminded, in that moment, how very-not-alone I was in my quest to make this city a better place. Here were these kids, alone on a Sunday afternoon, living in one of the very worst neighborhoods in my city, who, without any prompting, wanted to love their community.

I shouldn’t be amazed by this by now.

I often think that I am bringing light to dark places – to places where people have lost all hope, lost the ability to change their lives for the better, have lost the ability to care for themselves or for those around them.

But, as I think anyone who works in neighborhoods like this will tell you, it is not that we are bringing light to dark places, it is that we are discovering the light that is already there. It is already flickering in the forgotten corners of our cities, in the hearts and lives of single moms bravely raising kids on their own, in recovering addicts who are trying to put their lives together when it seems like everything (and everyone) is against them, and in nine year old boys who are foolish enough to believe that they can make a little place where all their friends can come and play.

These neighborhoods don’t need me. They don’t need my light.They just need to learn that what they already have, and that the goodness already inside of them is capable of making a true difference in their community.

And do-gooders, like myself, have to remember to get out of the way and let their light shine.

In case you didn’t notice, Pope Francis’ first in depth interview pretty much blew up the internet. My Facebook feed exploded with Pope-love (especially from my Protestant friends, most of whom, I think, secretly envy their Catholic friends for having such a cool leader.) Buzzfeed did one of their patented picture-lists on the interview – lists that they have recently been reserving primarily for cute puppy stories and pictures of Clint Eastwood’s shirtless son. Andrew Sullivan, one of the top bloggers in the country, pumped out post after glowing post about the Pope, pausing only periodically to pass out from over-excitement.

I read all the highlights and about half of the full transcript of the interview, and one thing in particular stood out to me: this man did not break any new theological or social ground. He’s a definite Jesus-person, still opposes abortion and homosexuality, and has pretty much kept himself entirely in line with the whole canon of Catholic teaching. Anyone looking for a shift in Catholicism’s teachings on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, or women would have been disappointed.

So what made this interview so popular that the internet exploded?

It was not what he said (e.g. What is the church’s position on abortion, gay rights, etc.) but how he said it.

When asked “who are you?”, he said that he was a sinner, loved by God. When asked about why he chose not to live in the Papal apartments, he talked about how he couldn’t live without community. When asked about his leadership style, he was humble and freely confessed his faults. When asked directly about homosexuality, he said, (and I lifted this quote straight from one of my gay friend’s glowing status updates about Pope Francis),”A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, whether I approved or disapproved of homosexuality. I replied, ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person'”.

Simply by communicating with humility, compassion, and love, he did something that the world absolutely did not expect from one of its religious leaders.

In the process, he also happened to get everyone’s attention.

In church circles, we tend to argue ceaselessly about the correct doctrinal or social positions to take on the various issues of our day. We often delude ourselves into thinking that if we just found the right combination of positions – conservative, orthodox, reformed, progressive, emergent, etc., that the world would somehow be drawn to us.

However, perhaps this interview teaches us, (from all varieties of religious belief and unbelief) a different message. In the end, it is not what we believe, but how we hold what we believe that people find compelling or repelling. If I believe in peace, justice, and inclusion, but do so in a snarky, elitist, and judgmental way, no one’s going to be convinced by my arguments, no matter how brilliant they are. If I believe in Jesus Christ’s importance in my life and in the lives of others, but do so in a way that makes me greedy, angry, and scornful, then no one’s going to want the Jesus I’m offering.

I’ve thought through about a thousand ways to wrap this up, but perhaps the simplest way is this.

People paid attention to Pope Francis because they feel like he would love them if he met them. They’re probably right.

Perhaps we’d have more credibility if people felt the same way about us.


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