You read that right. Last Saturday, my boss was one of half a dozen people who were arrested in Puyallup, WA for sleeping in the park. These individuals, including my boss, are members or supporters of the Puyallup Homeless Coalition. This “sleep-in” was their way of raising awareness for the need for homeless shelters and affordable housing in our community.
You wouldn’t know just by looking at him that he is the type who would get embroiled in this kind of protesting. His friendly blue eyes, big white beard, ruddy cheeks and permanently windswept hair evoke more of a Santa Claus vibe rather than that of a hell raiser. He’s the jolly deacon who preaches at Mass, tells wonderful stories, and then stands in his white chasuble after church to shake hands with everyone, laughing his big bear laugh. It’s hard to imagine a guy like that locked up behind bars for any reason.
And yet, as I think about what I’ve learned of him and his life story through the years we’ve worked together, I realize more and more that this last Saturday’s arrest has really been a long time coming. Not because he’s been sleeping in parks all these years, but because he’s been living this life for all these years – the life of advocacy for peace and charity. He and his wife spent some time early in their marriage working and living at a homeless shelter. They’ve protested against war for decades, and are still picketing for peace at the same busy street corner in their home town. They make and serve soup at a local homeless shelter every Tuesday, almost without fail, even after his wife had just been discharged from having donated a kidney. As a deacon, he visits the sick, buries the dead and ministers to the families who grieve. Not to mention the scooter that he rides to work most of the year is covered in bumper stickers calling for justice, peace, and charity.
Pope Francis wrote in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” Now I find myself standing witness to my own boss, who is also my deacon, as he lives out this calling almost down to the last letter. In light of this exhortation, I am realizing that there is nothing incongruous about my boss’s arrest and his position as clergy. In fact, I’m starting to think that every member of the clergy – in fact, every person who claims to be a believer of any higher power, even if that higher power is none other than human decency – should once in a while suffer to be bruised, hurting, and dirty from the work of caring for, fighting for, and advocating for one another. The world is a messy place, full of brokenness, violence, and discord. If we would just open our eyes for a moment and look beyond ourselves, it’s hard to miss the casualties in our society; the poor, the weak, the voiceless, the invisible. It’s an uncomfortable reality, but it is reality. And those who say they believe in love, who say they pray for peace, who say they long for justice, those are the hearts who should feel this discomfort in the deepest way. That’s not reason for us to retreat into our comfortable sanctuaries and our squeaky clean living rooms where we can watch the atrocities happen from a distance. If we claim to have any conviction at all, we have to be willing to be convicted for our beliefs.
One day a week, I see my boss in a clean white robe, preaching at the pulpit and shaking hands with the faithful. I get to be a fly on the wall, observing as people in the congregation listen to him with respect and greet him with admiration. I feel proud in those moments, but not as proud as I felt last Saturday. The morning I heard that my boss was arrested for advocating for the poor, I knew I was working in the company of someone who wasn’t afraid to walk his talk. Living in a time when the world feels like it’s being ruled by thieves and liars, it is a gift to find people who lead by example and by sacrifice. He has been showing me that true conviction goes further than the white robe, the pulpit, the church pew. It goes out into the streets, face to face with the discarded members of the human race. It serves serves soup at homeless shelters. It sleeps in parks. And when necessary, it gets arrested and stands trial so that others might be moved to change.
Others like me. Others like you.
So the question I’ve been asking myself, which I’ll ask you now, is this: how far do I allow my convictions to go? Do I leave them in the pews or the steps of my church? Or do I dare take them with me into the world, my world, where the real battles are fought?