Years ago when my colleague Rabbi Robert Scheinberg’s mother died suddenly I was invited to sit shiva, something I’d never done before. I ran a community youth group with a member of Rob’s congregation so I was able to ask what I should know before going. Melissa said that when I saw Rob I shouldn’t feel pressed to come up with something to say. Visitors to a shiva home are invited to be silent, allowing the grieving person to engage in conversation or not.
Later, I learned that this tradition has its roots in the Book of Job. When Job’s family suddenly died his friends Elifaz, Bildad, and Zophar came to comfort him. “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights” (2:13).
When I went to Rob’s apartment the right-ness of silence impressed itself on me. What can a person come up with to say that fits the occasion of a life changing loss? It’s like standing in front of the Grand Canyon and exclaiming “Wow!” No words are the right size.
I don’t know what it’s like to really suffer. When I look at the pictures from Houston of elderly people chest deep in flood water and families standing on their roofs desperate for rescue I am at a loss to imagine their experience. And yet, I’ve been with people as they suffer.
As the sixteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center rolls around I think of sitting at church in a room full of widows and widowers in their early thirties whose spouses were returned to them over time and in pieces. When the 911 Support Group began, I thought the collective grief of its members might open a black hole that would swallow us all. Instead, because they were together, grievers laughed as much as they cried. They listened to each other and understood in a way that bound them for life. After a few weeks, they went to the homeless shelter together to serve meals. Over years, they became social workers, began charitable foundations and opened a camp for children who experienced the catastrophic loss of a parent.
I know that when Jesus said “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them." (Matthew 18:20) it’s true because I’ve seen him do it, and not just during worship. Being with people who suffer has taught me that the way through suffering is community.
The Episcopal Church in Jersey City has leased a small, storefront in Greenville across the street from a tiny, beleaguered park. Last month, the clergy and volunteers walked about a half mile radius around the storefront to talk to people on the street about the neighborhood. Residents spoke about “minding their own business” and “staying off the streets” when it gets dark because of the gangs. Most of the conversations we had were about a slow-burning hopelessness that happens when you find yourself alone.
Yesterday, dozens of people from Grace, St. Paul’s and Incarnation showed up at that park and tied balloons to fences, wove red tulle around a war memorial, served hot dogs and cake. We hired a DJ and rented an ice cream truck. Some of us painted kids’ faces and tried to remember how to weave God’s Eyes with yarn and popsicle sticks in the newly christened “Triangle Park Community Center.”
Neighbors who spend a lot of time inside came out. We laughed, chatted about family and talked about what we might do together. For those few hours, any hopelessness people on the street conveyed about Old Bergen Road was gone. Church members and residents alike left excited about what we could do next to keep it away.
I used to think that the church should go fix the broken world but I don’t any more. Now I think that the most important thing the church should do is be in the broken world and love it.
Of course when you love you do things that help like making meals, wielding hammers and offering rides, but you do those things anyway when you’ve cast your lot with someone else.
Where there’s community, suffering loses its sting.
Where there’s love there’s no such thing as charity.
And when two or three people gather for Christ’s sake, heaven and earth touch finger tips.
Your sister in Christ,