The tragedy that has been unfolding in the Ukraine has brought to light some unlikely heroes. A story on NBC last week showcased, albeit briefly, priests on the front lines. In a world where joining the clergy is often a way to avoid the dark and dreary reality of war and want, it is strangely heartening to see (in this case) men of the cloth willing to walk into danger. These are people who truly do believe. Sometimes it is easy, sitting safely behind a computer monitor in a relatively quiet neighborhood, to believe that the world is a peaceful place. Even a walk through the “cleaned up” parts of Manhattan will reveal, however, that human need is very real and omnipresent. Perhaps it is just the times when I’m out—it is winter after all, and we do value our comfort—but I seldom see clearly identifiable clergy on the streets of Manhattan unless they are trying to convert. The homeless almost always are sitting alone. The chill this winter has been almost Siberian. Where do the helpless turn?
Seminary is not the training ground for combat. At least not in the way that armed conflict brings. As a student and teacher in a seminary setting, I was constantly watching for signs of hope. It takes a truly remarkable individual to engage in caring for those who need it. Far too often “minister” is a job, with benefits, because that is the only way to get along in a world enamored of capitalism. That clerical shirt can be quite costly—who wants to sully it with human need? The world inside the church is often artificial. If the people are not inspired to go out and help, then we’ve just wasted another hour in a feel-good social gathering. We’ve learned to tune out the bitter lessons of life. Yes, there are war zones. Some with real guns and the dead we see in photographs used to be people just like us. Who cares for them? A cassock can cost upward of 600 dollars. How many warm meals would that buy for the woman sitting on the sidewalk with a baby on her lap and a handwritten sign on cardboard in front of her nearly empty paper cup?
Too often religions become ingrown. The job of missionaries is to convert, not to comfort. We would like to crawl into a world where people are safe and happy, but the moment we wander outdoors—and the mall doesn’t count—we find a different reality at work. It is difficult for me to read about current events. The Olympics are not the only reality of the world of the former Soviet Union. There are others who will never be recognized with gold, silver, or bronze, They may walk into the crossfire holding aloft a brass cross to indicate that they are there to try to help. No great cheer arises, no great ceremony for torches that have fictionally burned since ancient times. There is a fire here, however. It is the fire of human warmth. In this long winter, it is an honest flame of hope.