Friday, March 22, 2013

Pure and Faultless

     Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
-James 1:27 (NIV)

There are people who live on the margins of our culture, out of sight of most of us as we go about our lives. It’s not that they’re driven there by pitchfork- and torch - wielding mobs, or sentenced to lives outside city gates by the ignorant and superstitious. But they’re no less marginalized.
     They are the poor, for whom life is all about navigating a tangle of cold, impersonal social services that keep them dependent and reinforce the very behaviors they need to change.
     They are the mentally ill, isolated in institutions or group homes. (They’re actually somewhat fortunate. How many suffer silently and alone, with no one to understand or help them understand their illness?)
     They are children in foster care, hoping that their next home will be with the family who wants them as their own, but too scarred by previous rejections to really expect it or even hope for it.
     The elderly, kept out of sight in nursing homes, with no one to visit them or provide for them or advocate for them.
       The alien, good enough to assemble the merchandise we consume in substandard factories and for substandard wages in their own countries, but not good enough to share in our prosperity here within our borders.
     The developmentally disabled, shunted out of the mainstream of human contact into special schools, special homes - or just kept out of sight.
     Mitchell Marcus could be in that last group, but he isn’t. Mitchell is developmentally disabled, but he has a school community who cares about him, and a basketball team who loves him and who gives him a chance to do something constructive and positive.
     Mitchell is a student at Coronado High School in El Paso, Texas. He has loved basketball since he was a little kid, and so Coronado head coach Peter Morales made him the team manager. But before the last game of the season, against their rivals at Franklin High School, Coach Morales had a special gift for Mitchell.
     A uniform.
     Mitchell got to dress with the players and sit on the bench like one of them. And, privately, Coach Morales had made another decision. However the game was going, whatever the score or situation, he was going to put Mitchell in the game at the end. And he was going to instruct his team to get the ball to Mitchell and give him a chance to score. He would later say that he was willing to lose the game if it meant getting Mitchell his moment. 
     Nobody else knew this, so Mitchell was no doubt as surprised as anyone when, with 90 seconds left and Coronado leading by 10, Coach Morales called his number.
     The Coronado crowd, of course, went nuts, and Mitchell got to hear his name chanted from the stands of the packed gym. His teammates got him the ball, and Mitchell shot and missed. On Coronado’s next offensive possession, they got the ball to him again, and again he shot and missed. 
      On the next possession, one of Mitchell’s teammates passed him the ball, and in his excitement Mitchell mishandled it out of bounds. With seconds left, Franklin had the ball again. Mitchell wouldn’t get a basket, but at least he had the chance to play.
     The official handed the ball to Franklin senior Jonathan Montanez. Montanez yelled something, but it wasn’t the signal for a play. It wasn’t even intended for his teammates. He yelled, “Mitchell!” And, when Mitchell looked, Jonathan Montanez threw the ball to him. He didn’t talk that over with his coach, or his teammates. He just knew what he needed to do.
     “I was raised to treat others how you want to be treated,” Jonathan would explain later. “I just thought Mitchell deserved his chance.”
     And, of course, Mitchell made the most of his chance. He took Jonathan’s “assist,” and put up another shot. Which hit nothing but net. 
     Here in March, when the “madness” of watching elite athletes hit game-winning buzzer-beaters is at a fever pitch, it’s probably important to remember that those athletes we idolize aren’t any more important to God than the people our world marginalizes. We might prefer to forget them, to place them out of sight and out of the way. But God doesn’t. He knows their names and their stories. And it’s required of us, as his people, to remember them too. It’s necessary that we make the subversive and counter-cultural move of caring for those our world pushes to the edges. If we want to be like our Lord, who touched the lepers and forgave the sinners and accepted the unacceptable, then we must look to the margins of our society and love the people we find there.
     “Religion” has almost a negative connotation in our world, and it’s because organized religion - Christianity included - has historically often lost sight of the marginalized. We’ve enriched ourselves and protected our institutions at the expense of the very people the Scriptures say should most occupy our attention. We’ve spent centuries fighting over proper doctrine and practice, but skipped over James entirely. Jesus too, for that matter. Religion that pleases God and is acceptable to him is concerned with personal holiness, but it’s also concerned with our attitude toward the marginalized. Want to know if you’re the True Church, or the New Testament Church, or whatever nomenclature you consider important? One of the first questions to ask is how you and your church treat those everyone else has forgotten, or overlooked, or ignored.
     It doesn’t take that much, really. It’s not about solving every social problem, or coming up with the right answers to every public policy question. It’s really just having eyes to see the people around us, and a heart to care about who they are, what they need, and what their stories are. It’s visiting a nursing home. It’s sharing food with someone in need. It’s spending time with a forgotten, hurting child. It’s helping someone who wasn’t born here find their place. It’s treating someone on the outside looking in as you’d like to be treated if the circumstances were reversed. It’s believing that everyone deserves a chance.
     Mitchell Marcus, it might be argued, was never marginalized. He was welcomed by the communities of his school and his team. But Mitchell, along with his new friend Jonathan Montanez, have become something of a phenomenon in recent weeks. They’ve been guests on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. They’ve been hosted by NBA star Chris Paul at an LA Clippers game. It goes to show, I guess, that when one person decides to treat another with respect, consideration, and kindness, the ripples of that decision can spread farther and wider than anyone might have predicted.
     Just try it, and see if it isn’t true for you as well. 
     See if an act of kindness offered to someone on the margins doesn’t take both of you to places you never imagined.

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