On the closing day of the most recent UMCOR International Disaster Response and Risk Reduction regional training, in Freudenstadt, Germany, the Rev. Alessandra Trotta, president of the Italian Methodist Church, offered the reflection below, calling on Christians to show love for the stranger who is far away and for the one who lives nearby, even next door. She based her reflection on I Cor. 13: 3-7; 13.
In September, the European Methodist Council met in Bulgaria, and significant time was spent in conversation on migration “in the face of the reality of hundreds of thousands of desperate people crossing the borders of Europe, fleeing conflict and persecution, and seeking the possibility of a future for themselves and their children.”
The Methodist representatives from all over Europe decided to send a pastoral letter to our Churches, in which we stated, “We recognize how the understanding and practice of the obligation to radical Christian hospitality and love is challanged when God confronts us with unexpected neighbors, and we face the temptation to be selective of our neighbors.”
Unexpected, surprising, unrecognized neighbors, such as those reavealed by Jesus in the story of the final judgment in Matthew 25: 34-40.
In the same way, Paul challenges us when he refers to love in this very famous, wonderful text of 1 Corinthians 13.
The word “love” and the expression “God is love” or “Jesus loves you” are often reduced to slogans, stickers on a car window, or a pendant on a nacklace, so dangerously abstract as to become banal.
There is nothing abstract and nothing banal in the love that Paul talks about, love according to the Great Comandament, as even the actions that often are considered the highest expressions of love, perfect and close to holiness (giving all our goods to the poor and sacrificing even our life for others or for a good cause) can be performed without a real love.
Real love, greater then faith and hope, the love that never ends, is, in fact, the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ; a love that is universal but at the same time particular: this love sees, meets, touches, speaks to people in their uniqueness and in their real life, and so teaches us that there is no love for humanity that does not go through love for flesh-and-blood human beings.
There is no room for a philanthropy that regards the other as a human category (the poor, the drug addict, the immigrant…) and not as an actor with whom to start, in a spirit of trust, a relationship on an equal footing, based on openness, listening, debate, exchange, sharing and even inclusion in a renewed project of community to be built up together.
In Christ we are called to accept the risk of true relationships with real persons, the people right before our eyes, those who are closest: people we can “smell”; those who more than others distract us from our comfortable, tidy ordinary world; people who bother us and disturb us and call into question our habitual behaviour, challenge our certainties and threaten our defences; people we recognize at the heart of our deep identity.
In Christ we are pushed to live a full humanity by recognizing in all other men and women whom we meet on our way our own condition as guests in a land that is not our property; people who are vulnerable and weak and so dependent on one another. We also live that full humanity by sharing the condition of creatures made in the image of God, sons and daugthers beloved, welcome, renewed.
We have to admit that it is not always easy to accept this risk; sometimes we may find it more comfortable to assist those who are far away.
In the famous romance “The Help”, set in a little town in the Deep South of the United States, at the time of segregation, the good Christian white women of the local women’s charity organized generous fund raising events in order to help the poor “negro” children in a far African village; meanwhile the “negro” children of the black women who served in their house (victims of daily violence and cruel racism) suffered hunger, cold, and exclusion from education.
They were not seen as human beings to love and respect, although they were so near. Or perhaps because they were so near.
Some years ago, I accompanied a small group of sisters and brothers from a church in central Italy, who were visiting the Diaconal Center in Palermo (Sicily) of which I was director at that time.
I had just finished talking about how our center often found itself surprisingly involved in assisting African women and men who miraculously survived risky voyages across the Mediterranean, when so many of their fellow passengers had drowned. A woman from the group cried out in delight, "How lucky you are here in Palermo to have all these problems to make yourselves useful! Where we come from, nothing happens!”
I confess that my blood ran cold! It seemed to me that this was a case, not a rare one either, of love for a cause more than for flesh-and-blood human beings. I tried to tell her that Sicilians would have preferred to have fewer problems and that the Diaconal Center would have been happy to go without this “usefulness.”
I also invited the sister to “look” more carefully at the reality around her, to “see” real people, starting with those she met every day, even her next door neighbors, perhaps even her brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ in her congregation.
Then followed a rewarding discussion among the whole group about the problems of the city where they lived. Their town proved to be anything but free of need and hardship for many of their neighbors there.
I confess that it was not—and still is not—easy for me to confront the reality of a love that knows only the “general,” and I am not content with gestures or words that don’t start by looking at a person and seeing him or her.
How often have I noticed the emptiness of assistance given without really “seeing” the person I was dealing with—because of lack of time or laziness, because of embarrassment, because of fear—something I only came to understand with time and experience?
But—and I thank the Lord—I too have felt the extraordinary blessing of strong ties in an absolutely surprising way—with an embrace, meeting someone’s eyes, sharing a little time, stories, sorrow, joy.
And I felt there was no effort, or sacrifice, or tiredness, but only full humanity and solidarity. And I discovered I was enriched, that I was more loved, more free, because the humanity of the other had increased my own.
Charity without compassion acts without genuine interest in the person, without looking him or her in the face; it leaves the persons where they are, and does not suffer the injustice and does not enjoy the truth. Such “love” is sacrifice; it is an effort that liberates neither the person receiving it nor the one giving it.
May our God give us always the blessings of his concrete love, encouraging us to take the risk of entering into full, authentic relationship with our unexpected neighbours, close to us every day.