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.
“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.’ “
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:
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 —
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.