Our doorbell rang at a little after nine last night. It had the same effect that a ringing phone has in the middle of the night. The three of us who were still awake looked at each other with a mix of confusion and concern.
The man on our doorstep, a stranger, was holding some cash and lists of names. When I opened the door, he immediately began to put my anxiety at ease, giving me his name, telling me where he lives, and launching into his story. The story was of how his nephew was tragically struck and killed only a few blocks from our home, that the driver had not been identified, but that he suspected someone who lived in a nearby house that was known to all as a drug house. The tragedy left his family more than bereft; amidst the chaos in the economy, they have no money for a funeral for the boy. So he turned to his neighbors for support. He wondered how much I could offer.
He was passionate about the injustice. He was deeply sad about the loss of his nephew. And he was sorry to even have to ask for money.
As I went back inside to look for my wallet - because I felt compelled to help him - my wife stopped me. She pointed to a story in a local neighborhood news piece about a recent scam whereby men were knocking on doors and asking for money for the funeral of a son, a nephew or another family member who had been struck by a local drug dealer.
When I was serving in the parish, we heard all sorts of stories. At one staff gathering, we decided that perhaps we were asking the wrong questions. We had been concerned about being duped, about being poor stewards of our parishioners' donations to the church, about funding a drug or alcohol habit rather than paying for that bus ticket, tank of gas or prescription that was needed. We developed relationships with the local bus depot, filling station and drug store so that we could take people at their word and send them to the place that could help them. But we also decided in every instance we needed to ask, "What should the church do to address the conditions that would lead someone to have to ask us for such things?"
It is a far more systemic question, and perhaps a far more difficult question to answer. But it is a critical shift, a move from worrying about our vulnerability to acting on our shared sense of responsibility-our call, if you will-to not only address immediate needs but to engage the compelling questions of our society in ways that let the church be the church.
The man on my doorstep told a compelling and emotionally evocative story. It was not true, but it captured my imagination and spoke to the challenges facing my neighborhood. As Christians, we, too, have a compelling story to tell, both as individuals and collectively. Too often, I hear our story told in the media as if it was the same kind of hoax that came to my door, one that capture imagination but ultimately is untrue. Perhaps we need to work more carefully as communities of faith to ask the kinds of systemic questions that demand the kinds of stories our faith has to share, stories that transform individual lives, communities and even the world. What is the compelling question for your community, and what story might you tell as a person of faith that gets to the heart of such a question?
[Taken with permission from the FTE On Call Blog, The Fund for Theological Education.]