I'd like to share with you the speech that I gave at the recent gathering of the Greater Rochester Community of Churches (GRCC).
The Rev. Alan Dailey told me that the GRCC's Metropolitan Award is given annually to someone who has through their life and work, shown a willingness to put their Faith into Action. Well, when I look at the kindnesses shared freely and thoughtfully by people in our neighborhoods,
• when I see the people, who walk on Good Friday Crosswalks, and realize that they walk the walk on a regular basis,
• when I see those honored tonight and in past years from around our faith communities for practicing a culture of actively responding to human need,
• when I notice the protesting spirit embodied in demonstrations when the Black Lives movement, farmworkers, the homeless, New Americans, teenagers in the city, our Muslim or Jewish brothers and sisters, any vulnerable group in our community, or our planet is threatened, intimidated or abused, that tells me that I am in an amazing community of people who put their faith into action, right?
• That would be the only rationale for me to accept the award I received: on your behalf. Each of you has constantly put your faith into action to make Rochester and its contiguous region a place of welcome to strangers and vulnerable people. May I have your permission to receive this award as one among you and on your behalf? Thanks!
I am sure you have your stories of faith moving into action. Here are some of mine. I was born and raised in South India by a single mother who was a social worker at the YWCA. I took my faith in Christ seriously because I saw practitioners generously give of themselves, sometimes sacrificially, to make the world a more equitable and better place. Many of them were ordinary people who had figured out real ways to reach out to those who were vulnerable.
I remember my mother going into several slums in Madras—now Chennai—organizing women to learn to read. She called it functional literacy and it had to do with using life skills to teach reading, writing and arithmetic.
My pastor, when I was a child, was a humble man by the name Murdoch Mackenzie, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary, who had come to India with his family. He learned to speak our language of Tamil and went to places where Dalits—formerly referred to as “untouchables,”—the most invisible and ostracized people within India’s Caste system lived. I learned by watching the humanizing of dehumanized people through the simple act of being present—ministry of presence or showing up—when I was a boy in high school. It has stayed with me.
When I was in college, a friend by the name Wilfred Davidar, invited me to a leprosy colony where people with leprosy lived with their families. We were to assist a medical clinic. When I first touched a person with leprosy and Wilfred talked about seeing the face of God in them, a light bulb went off. I started to read scriptures with an eye for humanizing processes. It was in one such encounter when a bunch of us students in college arranged for a fellowship for beggars with leprosy that I first really noticed, my now-spouse, Roja. She has been a significant empowering source in my life over many years. The golden rule of loving God and loving neighbor has been the simple motivator for my story. It’s a simple story about an ordinary guy trying to live a meaningful life. What are your stories?
I thank you for this award, because it is an expression of welcome to strangers like me. My family and I are strangers in your midst. But, just like the Episcopal Church, you welcomed us and embraced us. In giving me this award I feel you are honoring new Americans. We became citizens of this country nine years ago. It is a reminder that despite some of the noise and hatred directed toward new immigrants, we are not invisible people in this democracy. According to the D&C, more than 61,000 people living in Monroe county were born in another land. There are people from 125 nations speaking many tongues, including American sign language. Rochester has a higher proportion than any other community in the country of the number of deaf and hard of hearing persons. When these strangers live with a sense of safety and productivity our city, suburbs and rural parts are even better.
Religion today has a bad rap, and sometimes, rightly so. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry famously said, "If it is not about love, it is not about God." To embody love is to be curious, faithful, and courageous. A lover is a person who has moved from consumer to generative giver. A lover is an agent. A lover transcends all that binds and holds us in restricting and irresponsible spaces of fear. A lover takes the spatial constraints of goodness and embodies, incarnates, reifies it. Where a lover stands is holy ground. Colleges, churches, temples, mosques, Gurdwaras, and other holy places are like goodness “for here.” A lover on the move is like goodness “to go.”
When love is narcissistic and about self-indulgence, it is like indigestion. It is unfortunate that so much of the clamoring philosophy today is about “how great I art!” Most of life’s realities will teach you to be cautious, withdrawn and fearful, not curious, faithful and courageous. This is what I like about love. It provides a way to connect the temporal, where every human being regardless of Faith or no-Faith, has the capacity to create a new future. When you love, you create what does not exist until that moment. It is, as David Brooks in his book The Social Animal, articulates it in the infant’s cry to the mother, “I am not here; touch me, even with your finger, so that I know I am here.” Love shows you up for the joy you are and didn’t even know it. Love happens in an encounter, a look, a smile, a touch, an acknowledgement, a humane policy, a resistance to narcissism, an equitable system, a selfless culture, a generous hospitality, and a loving glance. Everyone has the capacity to love.
Of course, as with all things that matter, to love is not easy. There is suffering. There is a cost. It is said that Mother Teresa was being interviewed while she was carrying a child with leprosy. The reporter said to her, “Mother, how do you do this? I would not do it for a million dollars.” Mother looked at her with her kind eyes and said, “neither would I, my dear. Neither would I.” The motivation to love is priceless and costly.
When you love, you can count on being hurt, betrayed and even abused.
When you love, you will be taken advantage of, sometimes scourged, and almost always considered weak.
When you love, you may find yourself wandering into places of self-doubt, hearing voices of the naysayers, and always forgiving all kinds of people. Through it all, I hope you will remember: You know enough for now, you are enough forever, and love is all you need.
Let me conclude with immortal words from Nobel Laureate and poet par excellence of India, Rabindranath Tagore.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country—and I paraphrase—my community and my world awake!