Saturday, May 25, 2013

In the Marketplace

a fountain in the center of the marketplace near my retreat house

Several years ago,  a huge "immigration rights" march and rally was held in Los Angeles. At the time I was a priest at a church in the city, and when we learned that hundreds of thousands of people would be marching past our building,  we thought this would be a tremendous opportunity for us to show off the church to the city.

So we decided we would have little mini-services every 15 minutes,  We would invite the passing-by marchers to come into the church, say a few prayers, sing a hymn. The visitors would then see how beautiful the church building was with its magnificent organ and stunning stained glass windows. Hopefully this might even convince some people to come back again, maybe join the church. 

Well it didn't work out that way at all. We had signs everywhere. We even had ushers at the doorways inviting the marchers to stop and come in. No one showed. Every 15 minutes, it was only the clergy and the organist.

So we decided to go outside the doors and take the church to the people. We stood on the steps,  rang the bell, and joyfully waved in support of those passing by. We got cases of bottled water and went into the crowds passing out refreshments - no hymns, no prayers, no ritual, no sermons or proseletyzing, just lots of expressions of compassion and support. 

The result was exhilarating. The marching crowds roared their approval and cheered their thanks as they passed by enthusiastically waving back at us. I can still remember that day as being one of the most exciting days I ever spent as a parish priest.  The church was with the people out in the marketplace of everyday life, and this is where we were supposed to be.

On this Saturday,  I was thinking that weekends are when religious people around the world go inside buildings to worship God.  Mosques, temples, synagogues, meeting halls, churches - they all open their doors for the faithful to come inside, say their prayers, and engage in their religious observances.

Today I have this fantasy about a different kind of weekend. 

What would happen if, just for this one weekend, all the religious buildings closed their doors to the faithful, sending them "out" rather than inviting them to come in - out into the marketplace of everyday life, out onto the streets - not to preach their brand of religion, but to practice compassion among everyday people in their everyday lives.

Some might go and bring food to the homeless sleeping in the stairwells of the city, maybe others would set up a sidewalk booth and offer job assistance for the unemployed,  maybe the choir would go into the local park and offer a concert - there are hundreds of ways in which compassion could be practiced outside the doors and in the marketplace. 

Yes I wonder what would happen if my wild fantasy actually became a reality this weekend? 

Maybe religion would become more credible in a growing secular world so suspicious of what religion has to offer.

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