I was driving to work the other morning. Along the way, I pass a Gothic style Catholic cathedral. When I first moved here the churches fascinated me, gone were the simple clean lines of the little NC Baptist and Methodist churches on every other corner that all look the same. In each little neighborhood of my city there is a prominent church, most of them are Catholic although there are some lovely Protestant ones as well. Each has its own style, culture and heritage. They are nearly gaudy with their buttresses, carvings and stain glassed windows. Reminiscent of a time in our history where each neighborhood would have have been a village, often of immigrants transplanted from the old world to the new. They built their new village as a piece of old world culture and design in the wilds of a new territory. Perhaps the church would have been the center of comings and goings, many had schools attached to them Now several of the churches have FOR SALE signs on them, although some are still active they are hardly full and most of time when I drive past them they are silent as statues. The steeples blend into the strange hybrid of Old city, when she was what Longfellow called the Queen of the West, a cultural and commercial center at the turn of the century and NEW city with modern high rises, Billboard ADs and homeless people. I admit half the time I don’t even notice the churches anymore.
In the tendrils of early morning sunshine, a few neighborhoods down the road toward work, in front of the large cathedral, there kneeling on the stone steps was an elderly African American man praying. He was dressed all in blue, it looked like a uniform, perhaps even the navy uniforms of the hospital janitors. I stopped at the stop light and couldn’t help watching. I wondered what brought him so early to the steps of this massive church, I wondered why he did not go inside? Was it closed? Did he not feel well dressed? Did he feel he would not be welcomed inside? Was there not a service till later and he had to go to work just like I did? Was it because it was holy week? Suddenly, he crossed himself repeatably, great emotion filled his face. Was it because he had some great supplication for God? Was someone ill, dying or in peril? Had he done something he was ashamed of, was he begging for forgiveness? Was this his confession? Or maybe they were tears of joy? Was he overwhelmed by the presence of God?
I felt embarrassed like I was spying on someone private conversation like when you walk into an exam room and your colleague has just told Ms. Jones their child has leukemia and you just needed an otoscope tip. I wondered about my fellow drivers around me, commuting downtown to work, what did they see? What did they think? Did they notice this Man crying his heart out on the stairs?
What about the people inside? Where were the priests? Where were the nuns who taught at the school next store? Were the children inside looking out their windows at the man on the stairs? Were they wiser than me, knowing not to intrude on this man’s pleading?
In Eastern Europe, the gates and stairs of the Orthodox Churches were filled with beggars, elderly people and disabled people who begged for money of the priest and the church goes. I remember in one of my bitter moments of frustration with the culture, the lack of care of the forgotten children who would be baptized but never cared for by the churches, I felt far more comfortable on the stairs then inside. I arrogantly thought Jesus would too. I thought to myself now years later, that I was right Jesus was with the beggars, the prostitutes on the stairs and the unwanted more than the religious authorities. I knew even that Jesus and later the apostles had interacted with the beggars at the Temple’s gates. What I lacked at 19 yo was the insight into the people that lived on the steps of my church. The fact there was many in America who because of their heritage, the color of their skin, their language, their sexual orientation, their bank account, their addiction, etc, etc were not welcome either because of stigma, hypocrisy or fear in our sacred spaces. God welcomed them but we do not.
Even more, I lacked the understanding that we all belong on the stairs of heaven, none of us measure up not due to our social classification but because of our selfishness.. All of us should be sobbing amongst our transgressions and the ugliness of our hearts on the stairs. Holy week is a celebration of grace. Jesus welcomes us through his loving self-sacrifice inside the gates. Jesus came down the stairs to invite us but he also still sits there. He is there on the stairs and when we invite the others on the stairs to share in his grace and compassion, we invite him to be among us.
I prayed a short prayer at the red light for the man on the stairs. A prayer of gratitude for his example, for his courage and for grace, for our shared celebration of Holy Week that I knew I would remember far more than the third refrain of the UP FROM THE GRAVE HE AROSE on Easter Sunday. I prayed that Christ would sit with him on the stairs and meet him in the heart of whatever his circumstance. And that he would sit on the stairs with me, as I confessed my unworthiness, my failings and my need for him.