By Mel Harkrader Pine
Like a jazz musician invited to join the Miles Davis band when Miles was still among the living, I’ve been thrilled to work with Rev. Kate Braestrup on this blog. At the moment, I’ve read two and three-quarters of her books, and I love her style. But I’m not writing this to plug her books or make her agent happy. I’m writing because her Anchor and Flares reminded me of a story that fits the blog’s theme.
In December 2003, I wrote and delivered a sermon about the Least of These. It came from deep within me and told a terrible story about one of the very least — a man who, in his late 30’s, shot his parents to death. That man was my cousin Barry, and his parents were my Uncle Eddy and Aunt Marge. Barry had been my frequent playmate growing up, and the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia didn’t emerge until he was about 20.
So I loved him and mourned first at the loss of all three of my relatives, and then later for Barry after he hanged himself in his prison cell.
I hoped that the sermon, a tribute to those who ministered to Barry and other least, would inspire the rest of us, including me. So I offered it to other churches in my area.
After the service at one church, a woman who appeared to be around 30 approached me with great emotion and in some distress. She was upset that her husband had missed the service and asked for a copy of the sermon, so I handed her the pulpit copy. Her husband works with the least and embodies my message, she explained. So I asked her about his work.
“He’s a parole officer,” she said, “and sometimes takes a special interest in some of his clients, collecting clothes and groceries for them.” Then she continued:
Recently, he had high hopes for a client, talked a lot about him, and collected clothes and money to help him get a new start. Then I never heard more from him about that client, so I asked him what had happened.
“Oh, he committed a crime again and was sent back to prison,” he said.
“What was his offense?”
“He’s a child molester.”
I was enraged, she told me. “How can you help a man like that? Especially because we have a 2-year-old daughter.”
“If I don’t do it,” he replied, “who will?”
The reason that story fits here, in a blog about open minds and hearts in a liberal religion, may not be obvious. Many of us liberal church members are seeing people with opposing views as the very least.
If we can’t learn to see them through eyes of compassion and hear them through ears of empathetic understanding, who will?
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine
Oddly enough, Mel, I just returned home after visiting an English class at the Maine State Prison, They’d been studying memoirs (and writing their own!) and my book Here If You Need Me had been assigned. Boy, were they great to teach—very involved, asked lots of good questions, discussed the book intelligently, and were extremely polite. I wasn’t told (and didn’t ask) about their crimes. Only afterward did I learn that one of them had beaten his wife to death.
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One of the least-of-these heroes I mention in my sermon is a United Presbyterian minister whose church is near the prison where Barry died. He wasn’t the prison chaplain, but he just made it his business to visit with the prisoners. When a prisoner dies with no one to claim the body, the prison cremates the remains. This minister would make a funeral service for the cremains and bury them.
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