… ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40)
CLAIMING THE “LEAST OF THESE”
By Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace, May 29, 2015
Growing up in NYC, I was convinced the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was manifested in a real and present manner among the marginalized and the less-than-fortunate. By the time I was 17, I was serving as a lead teacher in the annual Summer Vacation Church Camp in lower Manhattan that would run all day for 8 weeks (The half day ‘one week’ VBS model was totally foreign to me). The children we served were mostly Latino, economically challenged – living in the immediate neighborhood.
Receiving the smiles and hearing the laughter of children coming from such challenging situations became a source of hope for me. I was awed by the resilience of the human spirit that seemed to be as much a part of their lives as their challenges. Being part of a church that created the space where these children could come and experience the love of God became important to my understanding of church community. Year after year, I watched children of drug addicts proudly perform at the closing summer program. They had no need for fancy music programs and props. They simply needed people who believed in them; who reminded them they were created in the image of a loving God. They simply needed people who would say, “you are not bound by the stereotypes of the world around you” (whatever those stereotypes might be).
I especially remember one little girl by the name of Yvette. About 5 years of age at the time, Yvette lived in a pretty run-down tenement building a few blocks from the church. Yvette’s father was a drug addict – she was being raised by her grandmother. As we made plans for the closing summer celebration, I had been warned not to expect too many family members to attend. Well, mostly out of innocence (and some determined tenacity) – in an effort to ensure families would come to the closing summer celebration, I decided to personally invite them by showing up where they lived. As I walked down their neighborhood, I can still hear Yvette and the other children loudly proclaiming, “there comes our teacher.” With her enthusiastic presence as my escort, I wound up meeting lots of family members that same afternoon. Their response was amazing as they came out in full force to see their children perform.
It was within the context of this experience (and others like it), that I understood we are to be present for those who suffer physical hunger and thirst. We are called to clothe those who cannot clothe themselves. We are to embrace the stranger and visit with those who find themselves in prison. I got it! The gospel message was clear – we are to be present for the ‘least of these.’
Later in life, I would serve a congregation that looked very different – 99% Caucasian and upper-middle class. It posed a new question – If the Gospel was primarily for the poor and people of color, what happened to the other folk who go to church? How did they fit into “the least of these?” This might sound like a silly question to some of you reading, but it was a question with which I honestly had to wrestle. It was a question against which my ‘smug’ assumptions would be challenged. I would quickly learn about another kind of poverty – another kind of hunger and thirst, one I had not considered in the first 30 years of my life. I became privy to the pain and depth of what it meant to be spiritually impoverished. I became consciously aware of the many prisons that keep us in bondage – prisons not made with steel bars, but nonetheless oppressive. I understood that we all carry a spiritual hunger and thirst that cannot be met by the material symbols of this world. In essence, I learned that the “least of these” included far more than those who find themselves in economic impoverishment.
The “least of these” – so much more can be said about what this means for each of us, but one thing is certain. The Church of Jesus Christ – WE – are called to respond to the needs of those whose lives are impoverished on all fronts. Our church families are to be sanctuaries of safe harbor – where we might talk and walk through those places in our lives that keep us in dark prison-like circumstances. Our church families are to be lighthouses and sanctuaries that respond to the pain of the economic reality and injustice around us. The “least of these” includes both.
May the words of Jesus convict our hearts and compel us into generous response – … ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’