These past three days I have been in Pasadena, a place where in days gone by the wealth of the east coast would come to show the west coast how things are really done. It is one of those locations in our country whose buildings speak not only of a resplendent past but whose current occupants of said buildings are none too shabby in the economic wealth department themselves. Two particular buildings spoke to me this weekend: Pasadena City Hall, a veritable temple to civic power, which yesterday was the setting for what looked like something of an upscale fashion shoot, and All Saints Episcopal Church, where it happened the conference I was attending was taking place. The two buildings are just across the street from one another: one the seat of local government, the other a place of worship, of refuge, and a community striving to shake up the world one injustice at a time.
All Saints has become well-known both in its corner of Los Angeles and in the nation beyond as a church that has committed itself to live into the calling to be co-builders of God’s kingdom of justice and peace. Their former rector, Ed Bacon, had even incurred the wrath of the IRS for blurring the lines between freedom of religious speech and the supposed separation of that freedom from congregants’ behavior in the voting booth. In the end, not much came of it, mostly because the IRS wasn’t the main thing; God’s unbounded compassion was and still is the main thing. It was appropriate, therefore, that the conference that I had been attending at All Saints centered around a conversation about generosity, generosity of all kinds that might flow out of a deep appreciation of God’s generosity toward us. Generosity cannot, though, be taught as much as it has to be seen, often in the life of another, in order for us to be able to see it in ourselves. All of us conference-goers were richly blessed this weekend by two such others, who profoundly witnessed to that power of generosity: a priest and a nun.
The nun is Sister Simone Campbell, a Roman Catholic sister, attorney, poet and advocate for social justice. Sister Simone has worked within the order of the Sisters of Social Service as an agent of social change for the past 50 years. In 2012, she famously led a two-week bus tour of the country through her organization, Network, to protest cuts in programs for the poor and working families in the federal budget. She describes her work not as charity to the poor but as striving for the transformation of the whole system, arguing that real generosity is that which allows our hearts to be broken open by the stories of our times, stories that will enable us to be changed to lead lives of generosity. She argues that we cannot be moved to generosity until our hearts have been broken and we have touched the pain of the world as real and so live into the narrative that we have received, the narrative of the broken life of Jesus that transformed everything.
Sister Simone’s vision and practice is of a life grounded in hope, in the possibility that, should we attend to one another’s brokenness, we might come to ‘obliterate the illusion that we are separate’, a hope articulated by the other truly holy human being who made the conference goers laugh and cry all in the space of the same sacred hour. This was the priest, Fr. Greg Boyle. Despite having made vows myself to serve the world’s needs through the mission and ministries of the church, it has been for me a rare thing to come across a truly holy person, a person who almost effortlessly is able to make God more visible. Such people have a magnetism; you want to spend time close to them, you want to listen carefully when they speak, and for me I want to learn, somehow learn, such that my life might make even a fraction of the difference theirs does for good in the world.
Greg Boyle is one such man. He teaches us to trust in a God who is too busy loving us to have any time left to be disappointed in us, and to believe on the fact that we are exactly what God had in mind when God made us. The work that Fr Boyle has built up among gang members in Los Angeles is the largest single gang intervention effort in the world. His commitment to the beauty of the person right in front of him has been the catalyst that has led to thousands of lives be transformed. He is a remarkable instance of the profound impact any of us could have on those around us should we choose to respond to God’s redemptive compassion for all creation. Yet, Boyle is clear that his work is not to save anyone but to receive them and be received by them. He shares story after story of how he is rescued daily from his own selfishness, his own egoism, the tyranny of his own self. For Boyle, ‘service is the hallway to the ballroom, and the ballroom is the exquisite dance of mutuality’. It is a beautiful image of how we might arrive, as Boyle puts it ‘at that point where there is no daylight between us’.
We are capable of profound generosity. I continue to marvel at our capacity as human beings to see one another in a seemingly endless myriad of ways. People across this wide world strive to see and be seen by one another even in the face of the potent forces of division and degregadation that confront them every day. For in the end, we are discovered and revealed for who we truly are by a Wounded Healer, by the divine life that dances within and among us, transforming us one wound at a time, setting us free to love as that divine dancer loves every last one of us, especially the poor and despised, those whom God perceives are trustworthy to guide us to the place beyond the boundaries we erect between us. I may never look at Pasadena in the quite same way again. Thank you God for this indescribable gift called life.