Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tell me what they sing and I will tell you their theology...

In a recent Christian Century, I read about a wise Pastor who gave some advice to a young seminarian looking for clues which might reveal the inner theological identity of a religious community.

Today as we served lunch to about 200 souls in the government plaza, I wondered if I was just becoming more childish. As the acolytes of local government passed by, scowling, I "turned up the volume."

For fifteen years we Catholic Workers have been "singing the alphabet" while we arrange and then distribute the US mail along with our soup. Knowing how utterly dependent homeless people are for the mail to contain the documents, or even the funds they need for "redemption," I years ago became inured to their repeated requests that I "check again" or "keep a lookout" for their salvific correspondence.

To allay their fears that we might miss something, we began pulling an entire sheaf of incoming envelopes, gathered by the first letter of the last name, and crying out, "Doing the "M's," or "Doing the R's!" Then we would proceed to sing out the surnames so everyone in our soup-line could hear their "call."

Over the years I became culturally more sensitive. I pride myself on begin able to pronounce Spanish and Vietnamese surnames. In a lower voice I can almost guess how the mortified parents from Detroit and Mississippi would have their kid's names properly pronounced all these years later in this God-forsaken place so far from home.

By saying aloud every surname beginning with a given letter of the alphabet for every single communicant, we have arrived at a process that largely allays the fears of those for whom no check ever comes.

This process, a hymn of sorts, is the way we sing the names of the children whose ship won't be coming in; for those whose only ship is deportation; and for those whose forebears "already got their trip" on a slave ship many years ago. We sing the names of those who will not be rescued this time around.

We sing out these names, a tiny balm over anxious and troubled waters, and we sit with the empty-handed until, on rare occasions and after many, many years, they raise their own voices in song.

It is then, thanks to your Pastors' message to a young seminarian, that I now recognize the hymnal of our theology: I now hear the loud, clear voice of those who have turned, undistracted by wealth or power or even sustenance, utterly toward the Cross.

It is the song of those reconciled to the singular sufficiency of the Redemption Himself; of those for whom no lesser counterfeit will suffice.

Thank you for your much needed and salvific interpretation.

Tomorrow I pray that I might listen anew to the sound of my friends, silently singing of the Love that will at last their terrible suffering relieve.

Thank you for showing me how to follow this sweet, sweet sound.