The Real Presence of Jesus – Br. Curtis Almquist
During the past nine months I have had two opportunities to travel with my brothers to Tanzania in eastern Africa, such a great privilege. I’ll tell you two stories out of Africa. On a late afternoon this past March I was walking with my brother Tom Shaw along a dirt lane, being escorted by Bishop Phillip and Father Edward. The four of us had just called on Leonard, a 35 year-old employee of the diocese, who lived with his three children in a grass hut in a small, very impoverished cluster of similar dwellings off a dirt road. Leonard was dying of AIDS, and two of his three small children were with him, along with fifteen or so other members of the extended family. Leonard’s wife, the children’s mother, had only recently died of AIDS. This afternoon the four of us – two bishops, two priests – called on this family to anoint Leonard with healing oil, lay our hands on him to pray for his healing, however that might come, and to sings hymns of comfort and hymns of praise to God. Leonard was in a delirium. The scene was appalling, as was the stench in this three-room grass hut, overflowing with loved ones, who were full of fear and despair, and a kind of faithful courage, quite humbling to experience.
We had said our goodbyes, and the four of us were walking along this dirt road, a 45-minute walk back to the bishop’s and Father Edward’s homes. We talked about AIDS and orphans and the troubled economics, which is when the bishop pointed to a small river to our left, flanking the lane on which we were walking. The river was opaque with mud, stretching not more than 20 feet wide, with a slow current. “That’s where the divers collect fine sand that is used to make very special, costly kind of mortar. There are generations of families,” the bishop said, “who make this their livelihood. They strap fine-mesh bags to their head and shoulders and dive to the bottom of the river to collect the sand. They’re down for a long time – more than a minute – and then they swim the sand to the surface and haul it to the riverbank. They have to collect a certain number of kilos of this sand to make it worthwhile on the market.” And the bishop named some weight of sand that was worth some amount of Tanzanian Shillings… and it seemed to me almost nothing. So much work for so little gain which, on a good day, would provide for a little food for the family. And then the bishop said, “… and then there’s the crocodiles.” I said nothing. I thought he had said “crocodiles.” He did. And he told us how this river was infested with crocodiles, who are as hungry as everyone and everything else. And I said to the bishop, “you mean to tell us that in this river….?” You can probably finish my question. And I said, “Why?” “Why in the world would these divers risk their lives facing the prospect of an attack by a crocodile?” My alarmed question was, to the bishop, almost rhetorical. He responded without emotion to my question. “Why? It’s a job.” I protested a little with incredulity. In a culture where the vast majority of people live without employment or any predictable means of income, a job, any job, is a find. This was obvious to the bishop and Father Edward, and it became obvious to my brother Tom and me.
A second story from this past January, when my brothers David Vryhof, Roy Cockrum, Tom Shaw and I, along with our friend, Canon Stephen Bonsey, were invited back to Tanzania, with David and Roy also ministering in Kenya. I was speaking with a priest and a woman – a mother – about AIDS, which is a pandemic, but not at the local level. AIDS is a personal and family and village crisis, repeated tens and tens of thousands of times around the world. This priest was translating this woman’s Swahili for me, she saying why she thought AIDS continue to spread, at least among the people whom she knew. It was about poverty. She named three obvious reasons – obvious to her – why AIDS continues to spread. I’ll now use ‘my’ language to describe what she said. For one, this mother said that AIDS continues to spread because of poor mothers. More than a few mothers will “sell” themselves on occasion to a passerby truck driver to provide a meal, maybe the one meal of the day, for her hungry children. Does she know about the risk of contracting AIDS? Yes, most likely. But a poor mother’s tragic logic is: Money today, just a few Shillings, will keep her children from starving today. If she contracts AIDS, well, tomorrow is tomorrow. And if we were to ask the question, whether this mother has any moral conflict about selling herself as a subsistence prostitute. The answer would be, “yes, almost certainly.” But she would have a greater moral conflict in seeing her children starve to death today, especially when she could help prevent it today. No mother should ever have to face such a moral dilemma.
Another reason this woman said that AIDS continues to spread is that poor people have poor options. There are no “breaks” in life, very few things new or refreshing or restorative. Your diet (if you have food) stays the same; your clothes stay the same; your options for almost anything stay the same. There’s very little sense of “re-creation.” There’s no day off; no weekend; no vacation; no traveling to visit friends; and perhaps no cure for your sickness or injury, in part because you don’t have access to a doctor, and if you do, you may not be able to afford the care. Poor people have poor, sometimes-tragically poor options, and a sexual encounter may be a momentary respite from a very hard life, no matter its possible ultimate cost. A third reason that AIDS continues to spread is because of the brutal force of men, and sometimes the cultural mores that condone, even encourage the violation of women. We see these terrible AIDS statistics. The statistics don’t bleed; neither do they weep. But there are real people – parents, orphaned children, caregivers, health care workers, teachers – behind those statistics. Those whom I’ve met I find heroic and inspiring. I’ll say more about that.
A third story comes from here in Cambridge, just several weeks ago. I was walking into Harvard Square with a friend. Within a few minutes we were asked by more than several people to buy copies of the Spare Change newspaper, sold by homeless people, and we were also asked to contribute change or cash to other people. I suspect all of us here know of this experience. My friend said to me that this is such a challenge to him to face these near-constant requests for money, whether it be on the street or through the mail or at some kind of rally. In his experience, it’s constant. And he said, “I guess that’s one advantage in your being a monk, not earning any salary, not having any money you could call “your own, you don’t have to deal with this” Not so, I told him. We brothers are given $75 each month as an allowance, no strings attached. I face the same kinds of decisions – or I need to face the same kinds of decisions – as my friend faces who has a considerably higher income each month. I told him that I thought the principle was the same: how to steward the resources entrusted to me, and the same with my brothers, how we collectively steward the resources entrusted to us as a community. I would say the principle of stewardship and responsibility applies to us all equally. I would say that we all need a rule of life on matters of personal economics and stewardship. I’ll come back to that.
In the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus speaks some strong words about the poor and needy. He goes beyond just identifying with the poor. We hear him say that he is really present in the poor: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” 1 Jesus goes beyond simply saying that as we serve others, we serve him, especially those who are the least and the last and the lost. We’re not only serving him; we’re seeing him in the least and the last and the lost.
Near the end of January, as our time in eastern Africa was drawing to a close, one of the priests whom we had been teaching said to us, “We have some sense of what you have to offer us by coming here to teach and minister to us. Now what do we have to offer you?” This was a right question to ask, and it pushed us. Undeniably we come to our African sisters and brothers from a superpower nation, with a huge economic base, and with our personal access to education, health care, communication, and many other privileges. And I had arrived with more cash in my pocket, a modest amount by our standards and yet I knew I carried more money than most of these priests would earn in a year, let alone their rural, unemployed parishioners. I even had a credit card, which is an unknown concept. I knew this; they knew this. “Now what do we have to offer you?” they asked. Both Canon Steve Bonsey and I who were present attempted to answer the question. I spoke of the many riches we experience in Tanzania. People are abounding in love, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, courage. And it’s contagious. It’s like as if a strain of malaria – which is so rampant – were transformed into the breath of the Spirit, and you can hardly escape being affected by its beautiful contagion. And I talked about the real presence of Christ in their midst. Among the economically poor, there is no such thing as ‘virtual time’; everything is real time. And the western tyranny of multi-tasking is a completely foreign concept. All you have is now. These beautiful people are really present to what is present because there is nowhere to go, no route of escape, no anesthesia. They live in the present. And in the face and form of these beautiful Christian sisters and brothers, the real presence of Christ is really present. You would have to experience this to know how this can be so; but once you’ve experienced this such riches coming out of such poverty, you will never be the same. It’s the real deal.
What we actually experience in these settings is one kind of poverty meeting up with another kind of poverty. We experience this in Tanzania and Kenya; but you can know this same experience on the streets of Cambridge or downtown Boston. Here is economic poverty meeting up face-to-face with a poverty of meaning for those of us who have gained the whole world… but lost, or not found, our soul. There is something about poverty meeting up face-to-face with poverty that produces a double dividend of blessing for all. Everyone is blessed.
I said a few moments ago that I think we all would be helped by creating, then keeping a rule of life on matters of personal economics and stewardship. Something more than a rule of thumb. Some prayer and some formula we keep for the stewarding of our resources. Something that keeps us from pretending away the two-thirds world. Something that steeps us in reality, not in the escapisms we can flirt with as persons of privilege. Something that keeps us in touch with the gift of life, a gift to be shared, not squandered. And a formula which is at least as clear and as exacting as the Internal Revenue Service. Maybe call your formula the Eternal Revenue Service. Your rule of life on matters of personal economics and stewardship will likely look very different than mine. But then, we’ve not been created to be clones; we’ve been commissioned to be missionaries, in very unique and diverse ways, to help build on earth the kind of kingdom we anticipate in heaven. (We will pray that very prayer momentarily: “Your kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”) We’re all on a mission from God, each in our own way.
One last story. A couple of weeks ago in a distant city someone came to see me, to talk about global poverty. This person said to me at the outset that they found it all rather overwhelming: what they read each day on the front page of the newspaper, and on the web, and in news magazines; what they heard relentlessly on the radio and the nightly news. They were not in any way denying issues of poverty; they simply said they were overwhelmed. “And…?” I said to them, “And…?” And they said they weren’t doing anything about it all. Weren’t praying, nothing… except feeling incredibly guilty and empty. 2 Could I help, they asked? I asked them if ever in their life they had been hungry or thirsty. I mean, so hungry you’re just dying of hunger or thirst… and the fear that you might not make it. They told me about their childhood and the Depression, their family having lost everything. “Did anyone help you,” I asked? And they said, “yes,” few neighbors, a relative or two. And I asked them, what if, on one of these days you felt you were dying of hunger or thirst someone held food in their hand or a drink of water, but refused to share it with you because they couldn’t solve all of your problems. Since they couldn’t fix everything they would provide nothing. What would that have been like, I asked them? Well, there were many tears, this person’s and mine. I’ve only been hungry, almost starving for hunger, a few times in my life… and my sole concern at that moment was now.
That’s the way poverty works. Poor people are really present. When you’re poor, you’re where you are and only now matters. I remember Mother Teresa’s being praised for her great works of mercy. And she responded that there were no great works of mercy, only many, many small works of mercy offered with great love. Consider creating, then keeping, a rule of life on matters of personal economics and stewardship. What is something you can do to alleviate the poverty you witness under your own roof; in your own town; in your country; in our world? (Your share in the Eternal Revenue Service.)
In Tanzania, we have been invited into a diocese in the northeast which was formerly a part of the Diocese of Zanzibar. More than eighty years ago, in 1923, the Rt. Rev. Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar, concluded an address to an Anglo-Catholic Congress about what he called “Our Present Duty.” Bishop Weston speaks with passion, the passion of Christ:
“If you are prepared to [adore] Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum…. And it is folly – it is madness – to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done…. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, and in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.” 3
1) Matthew 25:35-36.
2) For much information and inspiration see Jeffrey Sachs’ book, The End of Poverty: How We Can Make It Happen in Our Lifetime. Sachs draws a conceptual map of the world economy and explains why, over the past 200 years, wealth and poverty have diverged and evolved across the planet, and why the poorest nations have been so markedly unable to escape the trap of poverty. He offers very practical, progressive steps for participating in the alleviation of poverty.
3) The Rt. Rev. Frank Weston (1871-1924), Bishop of Zanzibar Quoted from Sacraments and Liturgy; The Outward Signs; by Louis Weil (1985); p. 90.
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We suffer from unhappiness when we are rich because we constantly want more. We do not appreciate the little things…..but take them for granted. I have been poor and when I had some little thing given with love…I was satisfied.
All points made in the sermon and the comments, very good. What remains is to accept that the American world presence is also a kind of neighborliness, and the riches we possess lie in our very broken democratic system, which nevertheless allows us to vote our consciences and our beliefs. We can and should understand our stewardship of the franchise as a way if joining God in creating–and calling others into creation of the Kingdom. That means recognizing the evil of satiating and stoking our fear as public policy, recognizing the public worship of other gods in our national tax policies that benefit the marketplace over the neighborhood, and choosing relationship over program every time. In other words, your vote at every level is not your opinion or your preference, your vote is an act for or against the Kingdom, in the smallest of ways. The wretched ‘evangelical’ movement in the US has poisoned our Christian vocabulary so that we imagine we cannot do or speak from a global and national Christian perspective, but must keep it all very personal. Better that we read Jeremiah than Isaiah in these days. Better that we read the Walters Wink and Bruggemann than sweeter singers of comfort, better that we remember our privilege and right of voting has consequences in Kenya. Tanzania, Chicago, St Louis and Baltimore, and all the neighborhoods of Cairo, Baghdad and Beirut. The vote is a small thing, too, but our stewardship of its power is as much a part of all things eternal as our stewardship of dollars. What can the people of Tanzania do for us? Teach us the value of our franchise.
Each morning I ask myself the question: “Jesus, how can I serve you today?” Each day, without fail, at least one opportunity to serve arises; quite often the service involves a street person, and I do look for Jesus in his/her eyes, or pray that Jesus may be made known to me in the face of this particular person. I will now be more intentional about it rather than just letting it happen by chance.Tomorrow I will pray: Jesus, how can I serve the poor today?
At this time of Thanksgiving when I am reminded of so many blessings, your sermon casts a new light on my material possessions. By the standards of American economy, I might be in the middle-class to poor category; however, by the measure of those folks you have spoken of, I am rich. I will no longer complain aloud about the tons of requests I get through the mail or telephone or internet. I will pay the mite I can, and pray for the ones to which I cannot respond. My tithe is first and foremost. Thanks for raising my awareness to a poverty-stricken world.
Dear Curtis: I weep.
My Scottish father loved the poetry of Robert Burns. One often quoted was: “Man’s inhumanity to man, makes countless thousands weep.”
Weeping is one thing. Wiping away the tears must be our challenges.
Dear Br, Curtis, I had the pleasure of meeting you years ago at retreats. Thank you SO much for these beautiful,, frightful true stories and for all they taught me. How very Blessed I am, and though I share, i can and should share so much more. thank you for teaching me. God Bless you.
I was very happy to know that Tom Shaw went to Tanzania.
Would you please pray for my dear friend Kamrie. She is 41 years old and has an inoperable brain tumour. She has a fine husband and a son and daughter. Thank you.
In His Love, Barb.
Powerful words from Bishop Weston that complete an inspiring, very readable sermon- thank you, Brother Curtis. Your stories make the truth of poverty more tangible ( including our “poverty of soul”).
Hello Curtis, Thank you for sharing your stories of Africa with us. They are so sad that they made me cry. So much suffering, and for seemingly inexplicable reasons. I’m glad that you could be so honest about the reality of these peoples’ lives and where some of the suffering comes from. Also, it was lovely to hear at the end that these folks asked you what they could give back to you. When I first became an Episcopalian I attended a mission church on the West side of Chicago. Every Sunday after church they would throw a communal Sunday dinner –it was always a feast! Also, around that time, I used to drive with a friend who was in seminary to African-American churches –a different one each Sunday. There we were always met with the most outrageous hospitality. I remember one of these Sundays sitting down in a pew next to a man of about 60, whose face lit up just at my presence, and he grabbed my hand in his, and said, “God bless you for coming!” I looked down at our hands, and I realized that part of one of his fingers was missing, and I thought, “This man has a lifetime of stories to tell, and they are very complex.” I wasn’t quite sure why my presence was so important to this man –after all I wasn’t the bishop, who might be able to really bring about change in our diocese– but I think that my presence brought him hope, as if someone outside his parish hadn’t forgotten about this community; that someone remembered.
Yours in Christ,
I thought I was poor, now I am rich, I have no more problems I can’t handle. thank you