Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Sunday, July 28, 2013
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
It was a lesson I learned on the streets of San Francisco many, many years ago while in seminary studying for the Christian ministry. It was a Religion and Sociology course entitled “Night Ministry.”
Before walking the streets of the Tenderloin district of the city, I spent one evening with a patrol officer for the Berkeley Police Department. Part of our course work required us to get ourselves out of the classroom and into the “real world.”
I sat in the patrol car not certain about what to say or do. A call came in. The officer responded and soon we were on our way, sirens blaring and lights flashing.
I learned very quickly that every conversation was coded. “What was that call about?” I asked not even sure if I should even be asking.
“There’s a man standing in traffic downtown on Shattuck Avenue,” he said. “It may be that he’s on drugs.”
As we drew near to the location at Shattuck and University avenues we saw a man standing in the middle of the road. What the police officer neglected to tell me was that the dispatcher had indicated the man was completely naked. I stayed in the car.
The evening I spent in the Tenderloin district began at 11:00 p.m. I was invited to walk the streets with the night minister, a Lutheran pastor, who seemed unfazed by the underside of life in the city.
Amid the neon lights of bars and adult bookstores were ladies of the night who knew him on a first-name basis. I stayed close to him as we walked the back streets and alleys.
In between buildings and along alleys were the homeless, the destitute, the mentally ill, the drug addicts. I thought it best to avoid eye contact thinking it was best not to engage anyone directly.
But the night minister not only looked at each person in the eye but spoke with them – not at them or to them – but with them. He turned to me and said, “We may not approve of the lifestyle of those who are out on the street, but we can still affirm their humanity. We can’t solve all of the problems each person faces, but that does not mean we cannot acknowledge and affirm their humanity.”
“A simple ‘Hello!’ or ‘How are you?’ is all it takes.” That lesson – of engaging someone directly in the present – has remained with me since that day.
It was a lesson put to the test this week on my morning and evening walk with my dog Kiko. I saw someone I had met several months ago the other day at the Wailuku Banyan Tree Park.
“Good morning,” I said. “How are you doing?”
“Okay,” he replied as he reached out to give Kiko a pat on her head. I learned when we had met earlier that he had served time in prison on drug charges. I often see him engaging in his regular morning ritual of having a cup of coffee at the Wailuku Coffee Company on Market Street. Since then we always exchange words of greeting whenever we see each other.
A few days later someone called out, “Good morning!” A young woman was sitting on a curb in a parking lot smoking cigarettes with a friend not far from the banyan park. She is transgender. She was once a young man.
“Good morning!” I replied.
We were introduced to each other by the “auntie” I mentioned to you last Sunday. Auntie said, “This is the Kahu of the Mākena church. The church is the one that helped you with your rent so you can pau your AA program. Say ‘Hello’ to Kahu, say ‘Hello.’”
She expressed her gratitude. We honi each other – gave each other a hug and a kiss - and ever since that day whenever I see her, she is the first to say, “Good morning!”
At the end of the week as we were walking by a MacDonald’s restaurant in Kahului, I was startled to hear two voices from behind a hedge. They were two homeless men sharing a lunch.
“Look at that dog!” one said to the other.
“What kind of dog is that?” the other person called out in my direction.
“She’s poi dog,” I answered. “She’s mixed – part Border collie and American Staffordshire Terrier.”
“That’s great,” he said.
We exchanged a few more words and then Kiko and I were on our way. I did not think to invite anyone to join me in a moment of prayer. Yet it would seem that our interactions had become our moments of prayer.
It was the French philosopher, Christian mystic and social activist Simone Weil who said, “Absolute unmixed attention is prayer.” It may make more sense in French but in English this is the translation.
Weil was born to an agnostic Jewish family in 1909 but it was not until 1937 that she said her first prayer. Over time she developed an exceptional compassion for the suffering of others. “Absolute unmixed attention is prayer.”
Praying is not about what is said or how it is said. Prayer, Weil would contend, is about paying attention to another human being. It is not about doing but about being.
By paying attention we are able to make others “feel loved, wanted, valued, special and important.” (Reflections of an Acolyte, January 21, 2010,) It is the kind of feeling that comes from “sitting in the quiet, gentle presence of God. We feel loved, wanted, valued, special and important.” (Op. cit.)
Our reading from The Gospel According to Luke this morning is about prayer. “When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he gave them a simple outline: praise God, ask for what you need and pray to participate in God’s reign by accepting and offering forgiveness, risking openness to others as God in Christ risked everything for us.” (Living by the Word, Christian Century, July 24, 2013)
Now that may sound like a formula of some kind. It may sound like there is a right way to pray in terms of how we pray and what we pray for. But for me the key to prayer this morning is our being able to take the risk of being open to others.
It is a prayer that we can offer this day and every day. Taking the risk and seeing in the face of another, the face of the One who risked everything for us. It is in paying attention and seeing in the face of another human being, the face of Jesus Christ.