Among the Poor

As a seminary student, Buechner was assigned to work part- time in an East Harlem parish. Here he is commenting on the regular parish staff members:

THEY HAD CAUGHT something from Christ, I thought. Something of who he was and is flickered out through who they were. It is not easy to describe. It was compassion without sentimentality as much as anything else, I thinka lucid, cool, grave compassion. If it had a color, it would be a pale, northern blue. They never seemed to romanticize the junkies and winos and deadbeats and losers they worked among, and they never seemed to let pity or empathy distort the clarity with which they saw them for no more if no less than what they were. Insofar as they were able to approach loving them, I got the impression that they did so not just in spite of everything about them that was neither lovely nor lovable but right in the thick of it. There was a kind of sad gaiety about the way they went about their work. The sadness stemmed, I suppose, from the hopelessness of their taskthe problems were so vast, their resources for dealing with them were so meagerand the gaiety from a hope beyond hope that, in the long run if not the short, all would in some holy and unimaginable way be well. If, as I suspect, they looked at me and at the others who worked there only part-time as less committed than they, farther away from where the real battle was being fought, then I can say only that, of course, they were right. But they seemed less to hold the difference against us than simply to mark it and leave it for us to come to terms with as best we could.

What they make me think of, looking back, is the passage in Mark where Jesus tells the rich young ruler that if he really wants to be perfect, then he must sell everything he has and give it to the poor, whereupon what the rich young ruler does is turn on his heel and walk sorrowfully away because he has great possessions. Jesus made no attempt to hold him there, shouted no reproaches or entreaties after him, simply let him go as the parish let me go, but you feel that the look in his eye as he watched him disappearing down the road was as full of compassion for the young man himself as for the poor whom the young man could not bring himself to serve fully. And they make me think, too, of how, in the same passage, Jesus bridles at the rich young ruler's addressing him as "good Teacher." "No one is good but God alone," Jesus says, and surely that is what the parish staff would I think have said too. At their strongest and saintliest, I believe, they knew that in the last analysis they weren't really a spiritual elite, not really better than other people. They were just luckier.

-Originally published in Now and Then