On Saturday, I had a lesson that I have been trying to teach volunteers for over 25 years hammered home to me more forcibly than ever before in my life.
The basic lesson is this: that all ministry is personal. Numbers of meals served, blankets given away, hats distributed; these are just so many things. One of many lessons that Jesus spoke concerning the kingdom of God has always informed my point of view on this: “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” [Luke 17:20-21] The “you” is plural so this could be translated “the kingdom of God is among (or between) you.” The point is that the kingdom of God is not some event or happening or place that you can be the first of your friends to discover. It is not a social or political movement or worldly empire, although it can and will shake all of these to their foundations.
The kingdom of God is among us. We experience the kingdom of God whenever we recognize a unique reflection of the glory of God in another person or it is so recognized in us by another. It can come as a fleeting flash of insight or last a lifetime of mutual care and forgiveness. It is what knits us together as brothers and sisters, knits our marriages together, ends our loneliness. This is personal, not institutional. This is messy and unpredictable. This cannot be programmed in or out. God will not be confined to our box.
We are called to be disciples. If we practice the disciplines of prayer and regular Communion, and add fasting and almsgiving, we work with God to create fertile conditions to experience the kingdom of God more and more in our dealings in this world. Since 1985, when I became a prison chaplain, I tried to encourage all of our volunteers to be open to be personally involved, even when that was contrary to the institutions’ policies. I was always willing to lose a volunteer from a program for them to become a friend to an inmate. All ministry is personal.
Every person we meet uniquely reflects something of the image of God. God sees something lovable and worth dying for in each and every person we meet. I instruct all of our volunteers to pray something like this: Lord, with each person I meet today, show me what it is about them that you love. I always follow up with the warning: Be prepared to have your heart broken when He starts to answer this prayer.
On Saturday, November 20, Alexander Bejliri, known on the street as “the Russian”, visited me at Grand View Hospital. You may have heard me refer to Alex the Albanian. This is he. I think Alex and I have known each other for almost 25 years. Alex has been homeless or in various SRO’s all of these years. He works as a dishwasher or odd jobs. He always gathers up the leftover used clothing to ship it back to his family in Albania. Through the years, whenever I have been sick and had to miss going down to the street, he would call me at home to check in on me. With this illness, he was beside himself with concern for me, not being able to imagine what could have happened to me to keep me away for so long.
During my second hospitalization, he called me repeatedly to try to figure out how to visit me. I told him the name of the hospital and that it is in Sellersville, but there is not public transportation from Philadelphia to it. I asked him to pray for me. He told me that he went to Ss. Peter and Paul (R.C. Basilica) and prayed for me every day. He insisted that he needed to visit me in person. I thanked him for his prayers and said I would be discharged shortly. When I was hospitalized the third time, I ended up in ICU with my cellphone turned off and no non-family phone calls forwarded to my room. As soon as he discovered I was out of ICU and could receive visitors, he determined to make the trek. He took the SEPTA train to Lansdale; then took the bus to the end of the line at Landis’ Supermarket in Telford. Then he walked five and a half miles to the hospital. Still, he did not sit down during his visit. He was amazed that I had a walker and needed to use it.
Even after all Alex had gone through to visit me, he was amazed that none of the homeless guys had visited me. He thought nothing of his sacrifice and care to visit me, but treated it only as what should be expected of a friend. He shook his head that I should be brought low like this after serving the poor for 25 years. I tried to assure him that God was using it for good. Since I was laid up, more people were getting involved in the ministry and taking on more responsibility. He said something that blew me away: “Others come and then don’t come. For 25 years you come and you serve the poor peoples. You come in the rain and in the snow and when the sun shines. We look for your face, your face, your face! We look for your face.”
The kingdom of God is among us.