A Sunday Teaching at the 8th Day Faith Community of the Church of the Saviour, July 2011
I tell the story of my faith journey and my call to Family Place through reading excerpts from my memoir, Border Crossings: A Spiritual Journey in Medicine. The Family Place is a mission of the 8th Day Faith community. It is a community center located at 16th Street and Park Road NW where low-income families with preschool children can find services such as prenatal and parenting classes, family literacy and ESOL programs, nutrition and medical services. Family Place has been supported by a Church of the Saviour Mission Group throughout its now thirty three years. Family Place has become a national model for family support and education services.
My husband, Dick, and I, and our children had found the Church of the Saviour some years after we moved to Washington in the 1960s. We were intrigued to find a church where the announcement period told of opportunities to participate in a Civil Rights demonstration, find out how to become a foster parent, and attend classes on prayer and silence. Dick and I signed up for a class.
I had become estranged from the faith of my childhood, because of my unanswered questions about the unfairness of suffering. God, if He existed, was distant, powerless, or uninterested in human affairs. My parents were Christian missionaries, fundamentalists, Both of them had become Christians as teenagers, converted from Judaism to Christianity. They were, or so It appeared to me, secure in their faith. I couldn’t find a place where I could struggle with my questions. I couldn’t be honest about my doubts at home, because it distressed my parents too much. Nevertheless, their faith instilled in my spirit a consciousness of God that I could not escape, and a yearning for a world beyond the one we see.
In the 1930s, my parents, two brothers, and my sister and I lived in Elmhurst, Illinois. Every day our father took the train to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago where he taught Jewish Life and Customs to people studying to become missionaries. We lived in a shabby comfortable wood-framed house that had screened porches upstairs and down where we played and slept in the heat of summer. But during the late thirties we were no longer allowed on the porches because they were given over to strangers, refugees from Hitler’s Europe. No one told us kids why they were there, or if they did, it didn’t sink in. I resented the wild-eyed men and women taking over my space and my mother’s attention. I stopped bringing my friends home. I think my mother had a vague idea that our non-paying boarders might help her with household chores and child care, and my father thought they might teach us Hebrew or Yiddish. These plans did not work well. Our visitors were preoccupied. Most had sensitive stomachs for which mother cooked matzos ball soup and custards.
When I was 12 years old I solemnly responded to the Altar Call during the annual summer revival meeting at Greenwood Baptist Church. To the background of a hymn sung by the choir over and over and ever more softly, the preacher quietly but insistently asked the congregation to accept Jesus as Personal Savior and Lord:
“Just as I am,
Without one plea,
Except thy blood was shed for me…. O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”
As I walked down the aisle, my copycat little sister ran after me. So both Eva and I were Saved that night. Later I severely cross-examined her about whether her conversion was real, or just another instance of her being a hugely annoying little sister. We both took baptismal classes. Although we’d had Presbyterian baptismal water sprinkled upon us as infants, that didn’t count for Baptists. Salvation came through faith in Jesus, and this depended on receiving the Word of God, which a baby was not old enough to do. As a sign of salvation, it was necessary to “go down in the waters,” in the same way that Jesus had been immersed in the Jordan River. My profession of faith was genuine. I loved Jesus. I believed He died to save me. I wanted to be good. Pleasing God was my deepest desire. I threw myself into various church activities in order to prove to Him I was saved.
But when I was 14 years old, I found out about the concentration camps and the murder of the Jews. I rejected God. Who could trust a God who couldn’t keep even his Chosen People safe? How could God be good? I tried, but unsuccessfully, to put God out of my mind.
Then when Dick and I and our children moved to Washington two decades later, we found the Church of the Saviour and took the class in the School of Christian Living, a class called “Doctrine” taught by Gordon Cosby. I was converted all over again.
A few years after discovering the Church our family spent a year in Mexico I did neurological research at a pediatric hospital caring for severely malnourished children. I wanted to find out how malnutrition affected infants’ brain development and to document the effects of nutritional rehabilitation. I did electroencephalographic – brain wave – studies of 30 severely malnourished infants when they were admitted to the hospital and then followed them with periodic tests over the next one or two years. The babies did get better with good medical care and nutritional rehabilitation. Their brain waves did become more like those of normal children. But sadly, the children remained stunted in both physical growth and cognitive development. Early deprivation leaves permanent scars.
Our hope was that my research on the babies in my study would someday be of benefit to otter children by helping to guide their treatment. I sat with the babies in my study hour after hour, following our research protocol and watching the babies.
Most of them were so sick when they were admitted to the hospital that they couldn’t even cry. Maybe a little whimper, not more. At the time, in Mexico and Central America, the winds of Liberation Theology were blowing through the Catholic Church. Carried on the current were the words, “The voice of the poor is the voice of God.” Dimly— I had no blinding insight like the Apostle Paul’s on the Road to Damascus—I wondered if God could be talking in the still, small voices of the infants. Perhaps in their mute suffering God spoke.
“Feed my sheep,” Jesus had said to Peter, his disciple. As a well nourished North American, I had taken the admonition to mean that Peter was to provide spiritual sustenance to his flock. Similarly the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Now I reflected that, however rich the possible spiritual interpretations, first the words should be taken literally. Perhaps the small cries of these starved babies were as authentic a Call of God as I was likely to get in this life.
As is true of much medical research, my study raised more questions than it answered. Some of these questions could be answered with more analysis and research. But many of the big questions that loomed for me were not so easily addressed by the traditional research techniques I’d been trained in at Harvard Medical School. Some of the answers to my questions were glaringly obvious but, given the way life is structured for the poor, made me feel helpless and even complicit.
I asked myself:
What could have, should have, been done to prevent these children’s malnutrition?
Did their treatment program include adequate social stimulation and enrichment?
Why weren’t their parents more involved?
What good did it do to feed these starved infants and send them back to the same conditions that resulted in their nearly dying? What kind of future was open to them?
What good did it do to partially rehabilitate starved children when not enough was being done to prevent malnutrition?
Why weren’t these babies breastfed?
Where was the government?
Where was the church?
Where was the outrage?
Who is my neighbor?
These were not original questions, although most were new to me. What did the lives of these babies have to do with the admonition of all religions to love my neighbor?
Whether or not it was reasonable to do so, I felt complicit in their suffering. After my “conversion”— my experience of a suffering Jesus incarnate in a baby — I found I could not maintain my customary perspective as a scientist. Although, of course, I was not directly responsible for the suffering of starving children, I experienced myself as part of the web of indifference that allowed, condoned or accepted their regrettable fate as unavoidable. In the immensely rich world we live in and of which I took full advantage, they took nothing except pain. No one precisely meant that they should be sacrificed for my comfort, but nobody cared enough to prevent it. The babies were “collateral damage” in the struggle of those who already have enough to get more. The children were victims in the war against the poor.
I was nagged by my unexpected (and to tell the truth unwanted) vision of God in those babies and in the 35,000 others who were dying all over the world every day. How could I know Immanuel—God with us—unless I recognized him embodied in those babies? They called out to me with great power: Do to us as you would be done to. “In as much as you do this for the least of these, you do it unto me,” Jesus said.
My conversion, this knowing Jesus in a suffering child, was “personal.” It was also the work of a community. Humans are blessed with a long tradition we can look to that holds up love, justice, compassion, and humility and calls us as people of God to this work. True we are also mightily constrained by the urge to survive with the fittest. Who doesn’t want to be fit? Who doesn’t believe secretly or openly that in a world of not-enough there are winners and losers? Clearly we want to win.
We operate uneasily in a between space. We desire to win the whole world, but in our better moments realize that the price, losing our souls, is not worth it.
Gordon Cosby once said: “Leaders are trained best when they are set in the midst of the suffering and feel the hurt and pain of which they are to be the healers. Unless we ourselves are there, we will not be able to know and to introduce others to the poorest of the poor. We cannot begin to bring in the Shalom prophesied by Isaiah and embodied in Jesus…What we do with intensity and focus in the neighborhood in which God has set our community will enable us to reach out in affection to the whole human family, to the whole created order. We are related in affection to everything that is.”
The Family Place is a specific small something that was born out of my need and the need of a few others to “do something with intensity and focus.” Others have grander dreams, mobilize more resources, and accomplish greater things. Or they achieve something even more minor.
The faith that sustains us is that the almost invisible little streams and rivulets will flow together to become the mighty river that makes glad the City of God. It is Martin Luther King’s “Justice flowing down like a mighty river.”
If the river at floodtide is to be given, it is God’s gift, not ours. The gift is given through that mysterious wellspring that flows from our journeys inward, outward, and in community. Together they give courage and inspiration for the journey that draws us across the borders that separate us.