Welcome! What Are You Doing Here?

This post is a reiteration of a recent “Faith Matters” column in the New Haven register, which a number of folks missed and wanted to read:

The Catholic priest Henri Nouwen lived for many years in Toronto, serving as the resident pastor in a community home for mentally disabled adults. He liked to recall what he learned from the way he was greeted by two of the residents there. Each day, a woman smiled at him as if seeing him for the first time and said, “Welcome!” And a man looked at him quizzically and asked, every day, “What are you doing here?”

Nouwen said he came to think of these two members of his group home as angels who brought him important messages each day: the assurance that he is welcome here, and beloved;  and the challenging reminder to ask himself what he is doing with his life on the earth.

This anecdote is one that crystalizes the purpose of a faith community — a place in which we should hope and expect to find both embrace and challenge.  The message of embrace is simple: Welcome! You are welcome here, with your rough patches and flaws, your uncertainties and doubts. Your religious home is meant to be a place where connection and intimacy flourish, where love and respect bind people together across all their differences.

The message of challenge is more complicated, and just as important. What are you doing here?  Behind this question we can hear, as Nouwen did, the implication that we are all still works in progress. Though we are welcome and beloved just as we are, we also have some growing to do in order to be as kind, compassionate and open-hearted as we are called to be. We have some work to do — both on ourselves, and out in the wounded world.

The two messages of embrace and challenge are both essential. Through an open-hearted welcome, we recognize that we are all one people, we human beings — whatever our faith, culture, language or color, whatever lines and walls might divide us. Through our challenge to ourselves, we recognize that we are called endlessly to the task of growing into the kind of people we truly want to be. We’re called to ask: What are we doing here, on this fragile little planet, to bring peace and to ease suffering?

Surely this is the core question for people of every faith — a question by which we build our lives, and bind ourselves to one another.

The Wrong, Wretched Death Penalty

Like so many others, I was part of the long-distance emotional roller coaster surrounding the pending execution of Troy Davis in Georgia.  I signed petitions, wrote e-mails and made phone calls urging the powers that be to institute a stay of execution. I breathed a sigh of relief when the appointed hour came and then passed and he was still alive. And then I watched with both despair and disbelief as the last minute appeal to the Supreme Court failed last night and Troy Davis was executed by the state.

The Washington Post began their story by writing, “After a day of last-minute appeals, including one made to the U.S. Supreme Court, Troy Davis was executed at 11:08 p.m. Davis convinced hundreds of thousands of people, but not the justice system, of his innocence in the murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in 1989.” This is an absurd statement. The tens of thousands of people who opposed Davis’s execution did not do so because we were convinced he was innocent; we are not in a position to make that judgement.

We opposed his execution because there were so many contradictions in this case that Davis’s innocence was a distinct possibility: seven out of nine key witnesses recanted key elements of testimony, and there was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime. We opposed his execution because our judicial system is weighted so heavily against black men, a bias starkly evident in the application of the death penalty. We opposed his execution because in states across the country, the Innocence Project has now exonerated more than a score of men — that is, absolutely proven their innocence — who, like Davis, were facing execution.

We opposed the killing of Troy Davis because the death penalty is a barbaric practice that costs our society an intolerable price. We pay for it in the moral contradiction between opposing murder while sanctioning state execution. We pay in the reprehensible fact of its racial bias. We pay through the financial burden of the many years of legal appeals that would not be pursued if the punishment were life imprisonment. We pay in the isolation of being the only western nation that still sanctions execution. And we pay through the soul-deadening willingness to enact vengeance: putting even an inarguably guilty person to death does not bring back the murdered loved one, nor does it make society safer. It just lodges us in the ancient violence of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

I am deeply saddened. And I am more than ever determined to bring an end to the death penalty.