“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:31-40
It is such a joy to be a part of this community. Thank you all for giving me such a warm welcome. I honestly don’t think you know how rare that gift is. Starting here, new, got me thinking about my first year of teaching and being new.
I had just finished graduate school and was starting as a teacher and chaplain at a boy’s high school just like this. I was eager to impart all of the knowledge I had learned on some unsuspecting Form III fellas. I was so eager in fact that I assigned them summer reading from the Bible that culminated in a test on the first day of school. They had never had that before.
I graded their tests and posted who passed and who failed on my office door. Boys kept running to check for their name, and then I would hear an audible gasp and mumblings. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe he failed.” After the third time of this happening, I got up from my desk and went to the door and said, “Who are you referring to?” They said, “Massie Ritsch. He never fails anything.” I went back to my desk and rifled through the tests and saw my error. In my post I had failed Massie Ritsch and passed Will Massey, when in actuality the opposite was true. I went to the refectory to find the boys and tell them my mistake and apologize. I started with Massie Ritsch. At the ripe age of 15, he replied, “Oh I knew you had made a mistake. You are new here. You will figure it out. A lot of us have last names as first names.” He spoke to me like a 40-year-old-man. I kind of felt reprimanded but in a nice way. Then I went to find Will Massey and share that he had in fact failed the test and would need to retake it. He looked up at me and said with a sheepish grin and sigh, “Rev. Hollerith, for a moment there, I thought maybe there was a God after all.”
How we welcome people into a community says volumes about who we are. The boys I just talked about used humor to make me feel okay with my mistake — they didn’t shame me or make me feel bad. And as a result, that moment has stayed with me.
That’s what happens. The small things we do to make others feel comfortable, welcomed and included, may not feel extraordinary to us, but for the person on the receiving end, it makes a difference, a noticeable impact. You all do an amazing job. I told Mr. Robinson just last week that I wish folks could walk with me and see what I see on a daily basis.
My first week here, I always forgot to bring a pen to check the lunch list for Mr. Hansen. And every single day, Clyde Eaton gave me his pen. Every day at the end of class, some students come up and thank me for class, thank me for doing my job. And they are sincere. And it is humbling. Every day when the announcements are made at lunch, I watch as each of you welcomes the community to come and take part, make a difference, have fellowship — from service work to knitting to chess to robotics. You all want to make sure everyone has a place to hang his hat. And when I walk down the hall, everyone says hello. These things don’t happen at a lot of schools. And you may not realize it, because this is the norm for you.
Jesus said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.” Meaning, every time we welcome the stranger, care for the lonely, feed the hungry, we are acting as one of God’s servants. How might we grow and continue to welcome our brothers and sisters as God would require?
Several years ago, a large sign caught my eye. I was driving along and noticed this big billboard — not because it advertised about a car dealership or a cell phone service. In fact, no company was mentioned. There wasn’t even a name or photo. The sign simply had a quote — with a statement underneath the quote.
It said: “‘Once you’ve heard their story, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t love.’ Ask someone their story today.”
I thought, “Wow. I love that. I wonder who put that up.” I was still thinking about the billboard the next day. And then my curiosity got the best of me. The billboard was put up by Lamar Corporation. Lamar Corporation is headquartered in Baton Rouge, where I grew up. I actually have a friend whose son works for Lamar — so I asked her if she thought he could help me find out who sponsored the sign, and he did. It turns out it wasn’t put up by a company or an institution. An individual paid to have that billboard put up. For me, that made it even more powerful. To think someone would use his/her own money to remind me about what is most important. “Once you’ve heard their story, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t love.’ Ask someone their story today.”
Every human being has a story to tell — a story full of blessings as well as wounds. The human experience is one of Good Fridays and Easters, deaths and resurrections. What makes the human journey powerful though is when we share our stories, our lives. In doing so our souls rub up against one another and our lives are deepened and enriched as a result. In doing so we help one another carry the heavy burdens that sometimes overwhelm us.
When we do it, when we share our stories, we learn that we aren’t so different — you and me. Our seniors did a little of this last week on their retreat where they presented objects from their life to their peers. In our sharing, we begin to understand “why school is hard for him, why he is angry sometimes, where his insecurity comes from, why he is quiet, why he fears failure so much.” Our stories set us free and allow us to be loved and understood, they generate empathy and compassion, and help us to know we don’t walk alone. It is truly one of the greatest privileges of this life to hear someone’s story.
The billboard for me is like hearing God’s voice. God is saying: “I know all of your stories Melissa, and I still love you; I know all of your ugly parts, the parts that make you feel ashamed and cringe — I know every single part of you and I still love you.” And that knowledge, the knowledge that there is nothing in our stories that can ever separate us from the love of God should give us great comfort.
There was no name attributed to the quote that I could see. However, with just a little research, I found the author. It is attributed to a Benedictine nun named Mary Lou Kownacki. She serves in the inner city of Eerie, Pennsylvania where she works with soup kitchens and homeless shelters. She is the author of numerous books and is hailed as a prophet along the lines of Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez.
The fact that her name is not attached to the quote on the billboard is significant to me. It is not about her — her name would distract from the words. It is about us. It is about us taking the time to know and understand each other, to love and accept each other with all our flaws and imperfections. It is about us reaching beyond ourselves and seeking to love others as much as God loves us. With her words, she points to the One who came to teach us all — Christ. Christ who loves all; Christ who dined with tax collectors and had prostitutes in his inner circle, Christ who knew no boundaries or divisions, Christ who healed everyone in his path, Christ who listened to every person’s story and let them know they were loved. Christ who turned no one away and worked tirelessly to make all feel welcome.
That is what we seek to create in our school community, a place where stories are shared, where walls and divisions cease, and all know they are welcome at the table.
Now let us go forth to love and serve the Lord.