Just last night we began our gatherings for Holy Week. It was also the beginning of the 8 day celebration of Passover. Rabbi Arik Ascherman writes that “Pesakh (Passover) is a time where Jews traditionally clean their homes of khametz (leavened grain products) and that many speak of cleaning our souls of khametz as well.” For us, it was a time to de-clutter our lives, our hearts and our spirit so that we can journey with Christ during the darkest of times and also rise joyously with him. We read scripture, acted out a Holy Week Play, celebrated communion, discussed how our lives connected to this time of the liturgical year and sang together. Then we ended the night in prayer, silently and aloud, for those dark and troubled places in our lives and in our world that is so in need of God’s love, grace and redemption.
We prayed for the 15th anniversary that commemorates that genocide in Rwanda that killed more than 800,000 innocent lives. We grieved over another mass shooting at a Korean Christian retreat center, a center that helped the orphans and the homeless. It is no less than 8 such mass shootings in the past few months. We prayed for the continued unrest and wars around the globe. We prayed for these difficult economic times and for the growing homeless population that includes 1.5 million children, 45% of which are below the age of 6. We prayed for one of our elderly members who had a horrible fall and fractured her elbow and her knee. And finally we prayed for the hundreds of deaths and thousands of displaced families in the earthquake in central Italy.
As I was driving home from this wonderful and spirit filled gathering, I turned on the radio to listen to NPR. The announcer stated that as of last night, there were 272 dead and 28,000 displaced residents in this town of L’Aquila, Italy. After all the news detailing the horrible destruction of that city, the announcer ended this segment by saying “And Pope Benedict has promised to visit them soon after Easter.” Upon hearing those words last night, I felt anger from the tips of the toes to the top of my head. Ok I was hungry, sleep deprived and visibly tired, and I could have been irrational in my feelings, but anger was all I felt.
Here is a town that has been torn apart by this earthquake. As of today, there are 279 dead, countless others missing, just fewer than 30,000 displaced with 17,000 living in tent cities just outside of town. 10’s of thousands of others have fled the city and are lucky enough to have family close by where they can live temporarily. One can not enter its churches, its schools, or most other public buildings because of structural damage. The newly built hospital that was suppose to withstand earthquakes is also crumbling and with one more shake, the experts say that it could come down also. In a country where 96% of the population is Roman Catholic, the Pope says he “will visit soon after Easter.”
Many times, when tragedies happen, the goodness in people shines forth. I remember while working in a nonprofit in downtown San Francisco that worked with underprivileged youth, a young girl was hit and instantly killed by a school bus two blocks from her middle school. Knowing some of the youth who attended that school, several of us went to the school to see if we could be of help, but already gathered were religious leaders, counselors, youth oriented non-profits to help any way they can. When I walk my dog Chewy, I find people walking several dogs at a time, and several of those people, I later found, are pet sitting for those families whose lives have been turned upside down in New Orleans until they can get back on their feet again. I know of scores of churches in the area who still continuously send people to work on homes to rebuild the towns and lives of people of New Orleans.
The Pope, who some say is the incarnation of God on earth, or the second in line to Peter, the rock, the foundation on which the Church is built, will not visit this little town in their time of need. So I thought maybe he is not in Italy or anywhere close for him to visit before Easter. No, he is in the Vatican. Maybe this little town of L’Aquila is too far away even in Italy for him to travel to during Holy Week. So I Google mapped it from Rome and it is only about 100 km away. That is about 62 miles. So in the Pope’s eyes and for the powers that be in the Vatican, it is far more important for the Pope to be part of the Holy Week services than sneak away for even a few hours to care for one of their own just 62 miles away. It reminded me of George Bush flying over New Orleans during its hurricane decimation and never landing. Call me unfair for the comparison but it’s just what I am feeling at the moment.
This also reminds me of the religious leaders who rebuke Jesus for bringing God’s love and healing to those who especially need it on the Sabbath. As the Gospel of Mark states:
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ 4Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (Mark 3:1-6)
The Pope’s inaction is a reminder to me, even in my difficult, sleep deprived, busy week, to not let the work of the church hinder the work of God’s love and grace to those around me. Or else verse 5 should be ringing in my ears when Jesus “looked around them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness . . . “