Gene Nelson column

Gene Nelson 

Well, another Christmas has come and gone. I am sure that some of us are sad to see it go even as others of us are relieved. Personally, I think if I would have heard one more recording of “Santa Baby,” I might have ripped the radio out of my car. But it is always a little sad to take the ornaments off the tree and transport it to the recycling bin. But as we leave Christmas behind and move into a new year, I find myself haunted by a post-Christmas reflection written long ago by that great saint of the church, Howard Thurman:

            When the song of the angels is stilled,

            When the star in the sky is gone,

            When the kings and the princes are home,

            When the shepherds are back with their flock,

            The work of Christmas begins:

                        To find the lost,

                        To heal the broken,

                        To feed the hungry,

                        To release the prisoner,

                        To rebuild the nations,

                        To bring peace among all people,

                        To make music in the heart.

I have quoted these words many times, but recently I have wondered if I am up to the daunting challenge Howard Thurman presents to us.

On Thanksgiving morning I spent time putting together 200 “to go” turkey dinners for the people currently camped on the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa. I was happy to be able to help out, but I confess I also had mixed feelings about what I was doing. Yes, I was feeding the hungry, but was I also somehow enabling self-destructive behavior?

During my years of active ministry, I often found myself and the church dealing with issues of homelessness. We did what we could, providing hot showers,  vouchers for food and lodging and even overnight space in the church parking lot for folks living in their cars. We advocated for more affordable housing, even helping to develop one project in Sebastopol. But, along the way, it never ceased to amaze me how many reasons seemingly good-hearted, progressive people could think up to block affordable housing.

But, it also never ceased to amaze me the many reasons and excuses I heard from homeless people for not taking advantage of programs designed to get them off the streets. Yes, I met many wonderful people who needed help, and the church gladly did what we could. But there were others…people we finally had to send away empty-handed because they refused to do anything to help themselves. For some folks, it seemed that our help was more a part of the problem than the solution. I hate to admit it, but often I felt myself suffering from “compassion fatigue.” I had had enough!

So I, a progressive, preacher of social justice and advocate for affordable housing, feel  conflicted about the Joe Rodota Trail encampment and the broader issue of homelessness. But then I read again those haunting words of Thurman: “find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry.”  Such a difficult and challenging task, especially when a number of the broken, lost and hungry resist all our well-intentioned efforts, even as many with power and influence denigrate our efforts as a waste of time and money. 

At Christmas, the church dares to proclaim that God — the Holy — has moved into our human story; that there is something holy, even spiritual in human flesh; that there is no human life that does not register in the heart of God.  Yes, we are fatigued, frustrated and unsure of what to do next, but we cannot turn away from this battered, vulnerable, yet holy humanity of which we are a part. We need new ways of thinking and seeing and an openness to the possibility of transformation. Pray for it, long for it, work for it, and we just might make miracles happen.

The Rev. Gene Nelson is the retired pastor of Sebastopol Community Church.

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