I have always been tormented by the way we readily hang labels on people, which become the whole simple story of that person. When I was in my late twenties, and considering returning to Church, it seems whenever I walked into any Christian gathering, somebody would ask me “Are you a Christian?” My answer was always, “Well, you tell me what you think a Christian is, and I'll tell you if that's what I am.” Not one one person ever responded to that. I was usually then automatically labeled 'Not a Christian', that information was filed away, and thus I remained in the perception of that person.
People ask me “How do you work in the prison?” I often want to ask, “How do you work at your place of employment?” What they are really asking is “How do you work with THOSE people?” meaning criminals, dangerous monsters, bad people. The answer is I found it much more difficult working in a department store in my younger days, dealing with all the different people that walked in the front door with complaints, unreal expectations and selfish demands. The men I meet in the prison, with some obvious exceptions, are ordinary people, getting on with the difficulties life puts before them. The few exceptions are generally, in my view, people so traumatized and damaged by abusive lives, that they have lost the ability to relate to other humans. I'm pretty sure I have never met a monster. I'm looking forward to, though, if it ever happens.
When you meet somebody new, are you looking for everything that is good about that person? I feel our society, and especially our media is teaching us to look for what is dangerous or threatening about that person. Read about Jesus. He met ten lepers, he met a tax-collector, he met a foreigner, he met a man born blind, he met a man possessed by many demons who lived naked and wild among gravestones. They brought him a woman caught in adultery. A woman of the city, a sinner, came and knelt at his feet. All these odd-bods and misfits, and I've checked a few translations, never once does Jesus say “Ooh! Be careful, it's one of those!” His disciples sometimes come close, and a couple of Pharisees and Lawyers blurt it right out. Jesus, however, greets and welcomes these people, and whatever label society has tacked on to them, he is able to encounter them in a way that turns out positively for everyone. There is a much broader sense to Jesus saying, “‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
I eventually returned to the Church when I met up with a Parish community that didn't say “Are you what WE expect?” but rather, said “You look interesting! Let's see where we can fit you in!” The rest, of course, is history.
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Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)