I write my blogs in the early morning hours when the world is a fairly quiet place. I look out on the little world of my backyard as I gather my thoughts and seek inspiration for a topic. Sometimes the ideas seem to pop out of nowhere like a distant call inside my head. It is as though I am being gently compelled to speak of a certain idea, event or individual. This day lead me to a rather strange place.
It began as I pondered my recent trip to Mexico and a visit to San Sebastian Church in an old colonial town dating back to the fifteen hundreds. Our tour bus stopped just long enough for a quick peek inside the old structure where daily mass was being celebrated in spite of all of the gawking tourists. The sounds of the ritual prayers were so soothing to me, and their familiarity in spite of being uttered in a somewhat foreign language helped me to fully understand just how the word “catholic” means universal. I remembered my religion teachers telling us back when I was still a child that we might go anywhere on earth and find the same mass with the same prayers. Here I was thousands of miles away from home and I knew exactly what was going on inside that historical church just as I suspect its earliest parishioners would have also known. It was a joyful moment for me as the people raised their voices in song and praise because I felt a deep connection to them that came from being part of a Church that transcends local geography.
Of course I also thought about the tragedy of missionary work in Mexico that had so ignorantly trampled the culture and traditions of the Mayan people who were indigenous to the area. In the misguided belief that the natives and their own religious ideas were somehow less advanced, the Franciscans built San Sebastian and other churches throughout Mexico hoping to save them. We now see the practice as questionable, but back then it was viewed as a matter of doing God’s work. Thus it often is with religious fervor. There is a very thin line between actually helping people by spreading the love of Christ and being presumptuously and wrongly judgmental. Sadly the history of missionary work in the colonies of the European nations intent on founding new worlds were sometimes far too dismissive of the local morays.
Such backward thinking is present in radical and fundamental religious sects even in today’s more enlightened world. In particular the members of Westboro Baptist Church are an example of demonstrating the most obnoxious and invasive forms of overreach. In a blind belief that they somehow have all of the eternal answers they time and again force their presence and their tainted ideas about God on people who would rather not have to deal with them. This past weekend was no exception as noted by a longtime and dear friend of mine whose children were shocked when they encountered a demonstration being held by the group in front of a Lutheran church in Pasadena, Texas. The zealots were holding signs that read, “God Hates Gays!” a particularly repulsive statement to my friend because she is in fact a lesbian woman.
I firmly believe as my friend does that God doesn’t hate anyone. To say so is to contradict all of the preachings of Jesus whose one and only commandment was that we love one another. I often wonder how we manage to take His clear and powerful message and distort it to conform to twisted interpretations. I have little doubt that if Jesus were to walk among us once again He would emphatically reiterate that His is a religion of peace and kindness devoid of judging and other such nonsense. I can almost envision Him tearing up signs that indicate that any form of hate is a product of God. To me such pronouncements are nothing short of blasphemy, a perversion of His words.
Ironically as I was experiencing the sting of anger over the hurt that I knew my friend was feeling because of the rabid Westboro folk, I encountered a grainy old black and white photo of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church being built back in the early nineteen fifties. The church opened its doors for the first mass in the same month in which I turned four years old. Two years later I was a parishioner there along with my parents. I would spend the remainder of my school years learning about my Catholic faith in that parish built near Hobby Airport back when southeast Houston was little more than empty fields waiting to be developed in the post World War II boom. It was a wonderful experience in every sense mostly because it was where I was taught about a God who is all about love.
In the same spirit as Pope Francis today the nuns and priests and laypeople who were my teachers and mentors unveiled a love filled religion to me and my classmates. They taught us to honor our fellow humans and to see ourselves as citizens of a beautiful world in which we are all cherished by God. Ours were lessons in understanding and inclusion. We were told to empathize rather than indict, and so I struggle to understand how some fanatical Christians or those of other over zealous sects can be so self righteous as to presume that they are speaking and acting for God.
Of course religion or lack of it is a very personal thing. I would be loathe to foist my own faith on someone else. Still I would be remiss to simply leave my friend and others who are abused and misjudged to endure the taunts of groups like Westboro Baptist Church without defense from those of us who disagree with hateful preaching. Sometimes we have to speak up when the actions of others are so egregious.
Yes, it is a free country. Yes, the folks from Westboro Baptist Church have a right to their freedoms of religion and speech. I will not ever deny them those things. What I will do is shout from the rooftops that God is not about any form of hate and never will be. I will embrace my friend who is in fact a good and godly woman. I am certain that she is loved by our Lord, and I want her to know that those of us who have been lucky enough to join her in our collective journey through this life will always be by her side.