Walking down a busy street in downtown Portland at rush hour, a man stops me at the corner. “Can we be friends?” he asks. I reply, “I think we already are” (after all, the light was red and I knew I was going to hear him out).
It was clear by his outfit that he was soliciting donations for a cause. He asks me my name, if I’m from here, and a few other strategic questions. The final question was “what do you do for a living?” I knew this answer was likely going to prolong our conversation, but I couldn’t think of anything better to say.
“I’m a minister,” I said. He smiled. “A minister?” (with a little chuckle). “Really?”
I assured him I wasn’t lying.
“You do know that Portland is the least religious city in the country, right?” I told him I had heard that.
From there he said, “well next I usually ask people if they like kids, but since you’re a pastor I know what you’ll say to that so I’ll keep going.” He proceeded to tell me about the non-profit organization that he works with that supports kids and the development of communities in other countries. He was surprised to hear that I had been to two of the countries they work in- Malawi and Uganda, and even more surprised to hear that we had adopted two kids from that region. He explained in detail why the organization was not religiously affiliated, but told me I could use my personal correspondence with my sponsored child to “spread the good word, or whatever you like to do.”
I told him the program sounded great, but that we are supporting a family in Uganda already and also a couple other kids through World Vision. I wished him luck and thought I’d be on my way.
My non-religious, philanthropic friend had one more question. “Can you tell me what Jeremiah 22:16 says?” he asked. “I have meet a lot of Christians and I always ask them if they know this verse.”
I stood silent and thought for a moment. “I know Jeremiah 29:11” I replied. “Is that the one you mean?” “No!” he said. “That’s what Christians always say.”
He proceeded to recite the verse.
“(Your father) defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord.”
I smiled, told him I wish that I had been able to give that answer, and told him that’s really what all of this whole “Christianity” thing is supposed to look like- love for God, and love for other.
We shook hands and I continued walking to my dinner destination. I kept moving, but I was still stuck on that street corner mentally. As I ate my meal (I was alone, because I’m currently traveling for work), I began to pinpoint what was frustrating me.
I was bothered that I didn’t know the verse, not because I think I should have all of scripture memorized, but more so because I had memorized (and thought he was referring to) a verse a few chapters later. In fact, most of evangelical Christianity could probably quote the same verse I mentioned. You know it (or have seen it on a bookmark or bumper sticker)- it’s the one that talks about God’s plans for us being plans to prosper us, not to harm us. Plans to give us a hope and a future. Beautiful words for sure. Important words. But why is it that the verse we are quick to memorize is about our own future and prosperity? That is not the heart of the Gospel I read. The other verse, the one my friend quoted, that’s the one that we should be memorizing. The one that says that defending the cause of the poor and needy is what it means to know God. What about that? In fact, that’s not the only verse in the Bible that says this is what “true religion” is… caring for the poor and oppressed, loving God & others, and laying down our own lives. True religion is not supposed to be about our own security, but that is so often what we make of it.
It made me sad that no one could quote the obscure text that my friend had asked about, but even more sad that we all were so quick to admit that we had memorized the verse about our own prosperity and well being. I wish that the “religious folks” (myself included) had a reputation for caring more about the people of the world than about ourselves. Which brings me to my next musing & this note I jotted down while at dinner.
Portland, for being so non-religious, you sure do challenge my own spirituality. You care about the earth and its resources. You take care of the poor. You give yourselves away to fight against injustices of all sorts. You value all people equally, and you treat them all with dignity and respect- whether on the street, or at a table. You befriend the stranger. You are comfortable in your skin, and you free others up to be the same. I’m not saying you are perfect at these things, but they are clear cultural values that I have felt and experienced and appreciated while spending time here. You have challenged and refreshed me, and you have welcomed me on numerous occasions as if I were your own. Thank you.
And I have to say, though you do not claim to be religious, you might be closer to the heart of God than you think.