The Christ of The Forgotten

The Christ of The Forgotten March 18, 2011

Mother Teresa used to say that the greatest pain for the poor she fed and comforted was not the physical facts of their poverty, not the chronic hunger, the infections untreated, the million little inconveniences that complicated their lives and burdened them. No; it was that they believed themselves to be Invisible; People Who Don’t Matter; The Forgotten. This was the most poignant pain they experienced.

The Forgotten.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

” ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ “

Luke 16:19-31

America teems with the Forgotten; there are entire cities inhabited by no one but them. We know those cities by the names of Watts, Compton, The South Bronx, Richmond California, East Oakland, East Palo Alto, and many more.

These places are filled with suffering, but also grace; grace that not only sanctifies those who dwell in these places, but grace also waiting to sanctify those who live in more comfortable circumstances but learn to remember these places, and have the courage to go and serve Christ there.

And make no mistake; Christ is there waiting for you.

I lived until I was 14 in Richmond, California.

Richmond consists of The Flats – that portion of the city west of Interstate 80 and on the coastal plain next to San Francisco Bay, where the poor people live, and The Hills, which overlook the flats.
I lived in The Flats.

My great friend Sertha grew up down the street from me, and he, my late older brother Mark, Sertha’s younger brother Ray, and I used to hang out together. I have great memories of playing street football with them, building forts in our back yards; kid stuff.

I also have more troubling memories of fleeing a park with Ray when we saw guns being drawn and a murder gathering, but also Ray comforting me when one of the neighborhood thugs singled me out for persecution.

Sertha was murdered about 20 years ago, in a minor drug deal gone wrong. Ray saw the aftermath, and 20 years later is still so devastated that he still lives with his mother. He needs your prayers. I look at the 11th station of the cross, and think of Ray:

Christ Speaks:

Can you imagine what a crucifixion is?

My executioners stretch my arms;
They hold my hand and wrist against the wood
and press the nail
until is stabs my flesh.
Then, with one heavy hammer smash,
they drive it through —
and pain
Bursts like a bomb of fire in my brain.

They seize the other arm;
and agony again explodes.

Then raising up my knees
so that my feet are flat against the wood,
they hammer them fast, too.

—————

My next door neighbors were an old couple, the Penders. Mrs Pender had a stroke, and so she walked with a walker, but her heart was as warm and pure as a tropical lagoon. She had only to smile at you, and suddenly the problems you had seemed to fade into insignificance. She used to take me in sometimes when the streets got hairy, and feed me hot chocolate, and tell me that she just knew I was going to grow up and be someone really special. (She’s surely long dead, and I’m sure she’s praying for me. Sleep in heavenly peace, Mrs. Pender. I’m still trying to live up to your belief in me.)

From my neighborhood in Richmond, you could see, about a mile away and on the other side of the freeway, The Hills and the comparatively lavish homes of middle- and upper-middle class folks. The people in those houses, to us, seemed situated across some invisible and unbridgeable divide. On those occasions when we ventured up into those hills, we were greeted with cold stares and parents pulling their kids inside. We were Other, and a threat.

When I began middle school in the hills, I was shocked by the attitudes of the kids in my school. My dear childhood friends and neighbors lived in “Niggertown” and were dismissed as “Zulus” and worse.

My friends and neighbors were People Who Don’t Matter.

That’s when I got my first clear view of a deep wound in American life.

Those kids in the hills (and their parents: the kids didn’t emerge from the womb with those attitudes) were immeasurably poorer for not knowing the people I knew; they were deprived of the joy of being held by Mrs. Pender; they never met the kind police woman who probably did more than anyone to keep me from entering a life of crime; they never sat on the porch with my down-the-street neighbor – an older boy who’d had polio – and had the experience of basking in the warm generosity of his overflowing heart; they never walked my friend Ray’s bike home for him after a spectacular bicycle wreck.

The violence and the tattered social fabric in Richmond is a poignant expression of the outrage — more than that, the the unutterable pain — of priceless children of God who have been told, with words and the bleeding wounds of a million injustices large and small, that they are the Forgotten, the People Who Don’t Matter.

These are the kinds of people Christ described as “the last [who] will be first.”

The gulf between the flats and the hills is replicated all across the United States, and this is a terribly diminished country for it.

Richmond, and the many places like it, stand as monuments to a deep sickness and sinfulness in American life. They are searing indictments of our greed and selfishness.

May the God Who made us all, break our hearts. May we all be reunited across the gulf that divides us. May we not only come to understand one another, but may God so reconcile us with one another that we truly, deeply realize our brother- and sisterhood, and then weep tears of joy in each others’ arms, flooded with gratitude that our long separation from our brothers and sisters is at an end.

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  • I myself grew up a minority: a white kid in the varrio, of divorced parents and an alcoholic father who eventually killed himself. Also a minority in my own home, since there were far more cockroaches than people living there.

    “The Hills” for me were some of the neighboring suburbs, which at the time were majority white, though now they are majority Chinese. Once my high school went to one of these neighboring suburbs for a band competition. We noticed that they had painted the banner identifying our school, in such a way that it emphasized one syllable to appear as an insult. We strode en masse to confront the members of the host band, who apologized profusely and insisted that it was an innocent mistake. Our band director, who had attended that school himself, said “Trust me, they were scared to death of you guys!”

    So yeah, we were looked down on, and other schools were afraid to come to our school for football games because there had been gang fights there in the past, etc. We thought that was funny and at the same time reveled in our reputation. (Though I don’t recall ever feeling “forgotten”.)

    But the thing is, the same people who resented being looked down on by neighboring schools, at the same time looked down on me for not fitting in with the majority due to my pale skin and blonde hair. Many times throughout my childhood and adolescence did I wish I had that nice, brown skin, black hair and brown eyes that the vast majority of my peers (and the girls I had crushes on) had. I was ashamed that my skin was pale and freckled and would turn beet red in the sun.

    And, yes, I was beaten up on occasion for no reason other than that I was white.

    My point is, the “divide” you describe does not have its origins in economics. Rather, its origins are in human nature: Everyone, everywhere — including the poor! — derides those who are different from themselves, whether in terms of language, skin color, economic background, mode of dress, taste in music, or a hundred other things.

    In fact, it might shock you to learn that people of the liberal persuasion sometimes mock and deride people of the conservative persuasion, for no reason other than that they’re conservative!! And, yes, conservatives do the same to liberals. And Protestants to Catholics, Catholics to Protestants, Muslims to Christians and Jews, atheists to theists, and on and on and on.

    It’s not as though the well-off people put us down, and we responded only with humility and charity. On the contrary, we looked for any way of putting them down in return, and also put down each other, and also the foreign immigrants in our midst. The football team put down the band dorks, the stoners put down the disco-freaks, etc. Divide after divide after divide.

    It’s not reducible to economics. If you had lived in a Korean part of town, and the other part of town was predominantly Mexican, but you were economically indistinguishable, you would still have felt divided. Put any group with common characteristics next to another group with different common characteristics, and the two will find a way to resent each other.

    • Agellius – While my concluding prayer certainly applies to the other kinds of divisions you describe, I think Richmond and places like it are in a special category, due to both the long and sad history from which they come, and also the scope and depth of the wounds there.

      If you’re ever in Berkeley, look me up. I’ll buy you a drink and we can swap stories from the ‘hood. Deal?

    • Cindy

      Agellius,
      Your story makes me wonder, if we humans were really capable of living out the idea of not judging one another, maybe we all could avoid this. When you really think about it. No human being has the right to judge one another. Also, no human being has the right to tell someone that they are not worthy of being saved, or that they are not worthy of God. Maybe if we as people started living more from the heart, instead of from the head, we would be a little better off. What I think is missing (just from reading the story of your life that you were willing to share) is that we seem to lack love first and foremost, and true love for oneself comes from the idea of truly not judging. From understanding that people behave they way that they do, because they are learning lessons from this life as we all are.
      The more loving you are, the more intelligent you become.
      I think what we are lacking most, in all facets of our world is love. People that are more well off and have more money, don’t love any more than people that don’t come from money. Sadly it all comes down to a lack of love.

      • Cindy:

        Nice of you to take the time to read my long comment!

        I agree that what we are lacking most is love. I think that is the whole point of the Gospel. But I also think that what the Gospel tells us is that we need the Gospel in order to love as we ought. None of us is capable of loving as we ought to love, without God’s grace, and we can’t receive that grace when sin stands in the way.

        We need, first, to recognize that we are in need of salvation; second, to repent and be baptized. Once that is done, we realize how merciful God is and how wretched we were before he saved us. That in turn motivates us to preach the Gospel to others, that they might know the salvation that we have experienced.

        I don’t believe there is any way of convincing people of the absolute necessity of being non-judgmental and charitable, without the Gospel. Therefore, the answer is to spread the Gospel as Jesus commanded.

        • Cindy

          I think your points are valid, although, I dont know that I necessarily agree. For instance, what if we are baptized first (as an infant) how can we repent and then be baptized? I for example was baptized first. I think we are capable of love, without it all. I really do. God is merciful, indeed. But why do we need to realize that, and then be baptized?

          • Cindy writes, “I think your points are valid, although, I dont know that I necessarily agree. For instance, what if we are baptized first (as an infant) how can we repent and then be baptized? I for example was baptized first. I think we are capable of love, without it all. I really do. God is merciful, indeed. But why do we need to realize that, and then be baptized?”

            Well, I was speaking of the conversion experience. Of course if you were baptized as a baby, then everything would apply except the baptism part.

            I was baptized as a baby, but still consider myself a convert since I was not raised in the faith, but rather discovered it as a brand-new thing in my mid-20s. So although I was not baptized at that point, I was received into the Church and given the sacraments of Confession, Communion and Confirmation. I was overcome with a sense of God’s goodness and mercy, because of the fact that by his grace he gave me a sense of my own sinfulness, and enabled me to surrender and repent and submit myself to his will. I think this experience is not uncommon among cradle Catholics who never really “get” the faith as children.

            But my main point was that we are a fallen race, and so the judging and divisions are to be expected, as long as people’s hearts are not converted.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Matt, sometimes they are the forgotten. But from my years in Oakland, and now my longer years in Hartford, I see that the flatlands in Richmonds, the Fruitvale district in Oakland, the North End in Hartford are also the Other. People do not know them in any meaningful way, but they are certain that they “know” them, and they perpetuate the racist and classist stereotypes which serve to shield them from the reality of the Other. Now the reality is sometimes (often?) not a pretty sight: economic and racial isolation can exacerbate the worst traits of people. But, as Dostoevsky said, “Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” And Christ loves them all.

    • Indeed, David. I would just add that being “Other” is also a way of being invisible, I think – people look at you and see, not the human being you actually are, but a mental category: blackpeopleintheghetto. The real you is replaced by the pre-supposed “you”.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Good point. But when I think of the Forgotten, I am especially reminded of the homeless in Berkeley, whom it was customary to brush past and ignore—throwing up mental barriers to make them invisible, un-noticed, un-remarked. I was guilty of this myself until an encounter with one homeless man forced me see what I was doing.

      • David – The street people in Berkeley are a source of some anguish for me. I don’t do enough for them; few of us do.

      • Cindy

        The turning away. Why does everything these days remind me of Pink Floyd lyrics?

  • Amen, brother. Thank you for this beautiful post.

  • Kyle R. Cupp

    Thank you, Matt, for this post that gives voice and remembrance to the forgotten.

  • Matt, I have to agree with Agellius. I agree that there are specific segments of society that are targeted for extra exclusion, but even within those communities there are those who suffer as well (high rates of domestic violence, including abortion). The poverty is high in America because it is a poverty of soul. I have encountered middle class/upper middle who are not happy and do not know why. Look at the numbers are anti-depressants. We are a sad society. The poverty is not economic, but rather placing hope & faith in things, materialism.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      SLW: “targeted for extra exclusion” seems a very tame way of describing their reality. The forgotten are almost completely cut off from the world that the mainstream takes for granted. There are kids in the north end of Hartford who have never seen the Connecticut river that is the eastern boundary of Hartford. (This is described movingly in “The Children of Room E4”.)

    • Cindy

      Call me crazy but I think it’s because we are told we are separated from God. Instead we should view that God is inside of us. That we are like little Gods here. We are the I am. And if we lived our lives more like this, we perhaps could be happier. Instead of viewing ourselves disconnected, we should all feel we are part of a great Spirit. The energy that is never destroyed. How we treat each other is all a part of that.

  • Good post, by the way. Very moving reflection.

  • digbydolben

    Mother Teresa lived in India, where I live now, but she also lived in a very large city, where the poor ARE, indeed, forgotten. However, I assure you that they are not at all “forgotten,” in the villages, where most of India’s people still live.

    Additionally, India still has, as the West once did, but no longer has, a religious tradition that places a very high value on the role played in society by mendicant, contemplative ascetics who live among but not with the poor and share their living conditions. The richest and most powerful Hindu knows, at the back of his mind, that the most wretched-appearing sadhu is on a higher plane of REAL existence (that is focused on jivan-moksha) than he is. You can see this whenever you remark, in this country, a billionaire kissing the feet of an itinerant sadhu; it happens all the time, and it’s in the newspapers and on the television, whenever there’s a religious mela.

    It was the Europeans and Americans, not the Indians, who were shocked to see Queen Sophia of Spain kiss the calloused feet of Mother Teresa, as she lay in her coffin.

  • Mike McG…

    Extraordinary post, Matt. I echo Pentimento´s characterization of it as beautiful. So many things to admire: the moving final paragraph, of course; the grounding in locality rather than theory; the invocation of real people.

    Two things particularly struck me. First of all, Matt´s decision to interweave his own experience of marginalization without privileging it over the experiences of those virtually suffocated by poverty. Secondly, the authentically personal nature of the conversation this post engendered. Participants spoke from the heart and invoked the pain that frames their worldview. And note: not contentiousness.

    Bravo Matt, all.