A Man And His Church


I've told this story before, but the Obama-Wright flap brought it back to my mind. In the early 1990s - I can't recall exactly when but it was during a showing of the AIDS quilt on the Mall in Washington - I made a visit to the quilt, and visited the memorials for some dead friends. I was grappling with the terror of my own HIV infection, and as the day drew to a close, went to mass. I went just to offer my grief and fear to God, and pray for some guidance. Amazingly that day, the Gospel was about the ten lepers whom Jesus healed, and how only the Samaritan - the social outcast - came back to thank him. It seemed to speak directly in my own heart to my brothers who had fallen in the plague and the sense of social ostracism that had added unforgivably to their fear and pain and loneliness. It spoke to me of Jesus' ability to transcend all of it through divine love, and of His special love for them, the outsiders.

The priest stood up to give his homily and began with these words (I paraphrase from memory): "These days, we do not have plagues like leprosy, plagues that stigmatize individuals the way the lepers were in today's Gospel. So we have to think of other diseases, like cancer ..." I don't remember much else, because my anger and shock literally made me shake. I found tears running down my cheeks. At the end of the mass, as I was leaving the church, I went up to the priest and said, with an edge and quaver in my voice: "Have you heard of AIDS, father? It's in the papers." He replied - and I can still hear him say it today: "I didn't think that kind of disease would affect anybody here."

It did take me several weeks to go back to church.

And my current period of inconstant mass-going is also laden with these memories and these hurts. But I didn't renounce the church, and I don't renounce the church, or even that priest, because I also knew and know that it includes many, many good people, and does many, many good things. I was able to distinguish between a callous homily and other homilies and experiences that outweighed it. No church is defined entirely by its pastor's worst moments. And I would actually think less of someone's spiritual integrity if they dumped their church community for purely political reasons. (David Kuo agrees.) Fait is not like a policy check-list; it's an unending engagement with a community and a set of truths. Any church, moreover, is its membership, all of it. And every Christian community speaks to a larger, eternal community of saints that redeems us even as we falter and even betray the Gospels.

This is not the same as Obama's tolerance of some ugly political extremism from Wright and decision to focus on the better parts of his pastor's message and work. And a black pastor's relationship with his church is different than a priest's relationship with his. But suffice it to say I understand that faith and church-membership are not always uncomplicated or non-contradictory things. There is much bad among much good. We are answerable for our own choices and our own complexities and conflicts. But we are not always answerable for the views of others, especially at their worst moments, and especially in the life of the flawed, human but necessary church.