There is a beautiful stately old church in downtown Portland. Built in 1894, it is multiple stories tall, when that part of Portland was prosperous and safe. You can see this church in old drawings of Portland. That part of Portland has not aged gracefully and is frequented by the homeless.
In an alcove, exists a small courtyard where there is a fountain. Above that fountain is inscribed scripture from Isaiah. It says: “Come all who are thirsty. Come and drink freely.”
One could not drink from the fountain because the alcove was blocked by a high wrought iron grill gate. A sign placed on the gate stated: “No Loitering — Church Business only — Police Enforced.”
I could understand why both messages had been placed. The original inscription above the fountain was intended to express the central message of the Gospel. The second message was a pragmatic one to prevent people from expressing their bodily functions in the fountain.
But something has been lost. Something important. Life is messy and is lived in reality, on life’s terms, not good intentions from a safe distance. It’s tempting to separate yourself from the unclean and look toward your own interest.
Jesus was not a man for others. He was one with others. People want to leverage Jesus into taking the right stand on issues, their preferences, their purposes. But Jesus just stood in the right place, with the outcast, with the suffering. He didn’t support lepers from a safe distance. He touched the leper before he got around to curing him.
2020 was a difficult year. 39 people in Douglas County died of COVID-19. Precious souls. 1,636 deaths were due to causes other than COVID-19. Also, precious. 28 deaths were due to suicide. Had you heard of them? And these are events we can measure.
Much that matters cannot be easily tabulated. Alcohol, drug, and family abuse. Mental illness. Isolated seniors unable to visit with those they love, slowly losing their mind and desire to live. Children baffled by rules that no longer fit the game, reclining in rumpled beds of unmade dreams that can’t come true, because of adult fears.
And the Church is too easy a target. Other social institutions have failed to keep faith with their implied promise to the community during this time of COVID. At the very time they were needed most. An infant’s trust in their mother is borne out of dependency. It is beautiful to see unless that trust is broken. This community is dependent, in differing degrees, with the social contract it shares with government, medical and educational institutions. But promises are worthless if they depend on how you feel.
Most Douglas County schools have remained closed or provide severely limited in-person learning. Many medical clinic services are largely virtual. Our Social Security office has been closed since March, leaving behind a barely penetrable website for seniors.
Meanwhile, grocery and retail store workers, service station attendants and others have declared themselves essential by showing up.
There is power of presence. We cannot pretend virtual services offer the same. It is a difference as large as the distance between the sun and the moon. The moon reflects light and will guide our path through the darkness. But there is no warmth. And that’s tragic. Because this is the power needed for healing.
It is that very brokenness, whether of disease, physical, spiritual, or financial needs that is an open door to make a difference. It’s how the light gets in. If everything worked perfectly, society would have no need of these organizations. It is only when they bring help and healing to a community that is hurting that they are relevant.
People say that when one door closes another door opens. But sometimes there is a hallway, a period before people find the next door. Our task is to line the hallway, to make that distance stretching between the old and new versions of one’s life a comforting one.
I don’t have the right name for what happens in that darkness, for what turns them around. But I know that it requires we share something of ourselves. Something true, something relevant, something that can bring healing to a troubled and broken spirit. Something that won’t happen unless we show up.
It is time to open our schools and our community, while still protecting our most vulnerable. Time to fulfill our promise. Now could be the moment when we fall apart, or we become whole.