Sunday, May 1, 2005
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
Since I first talked about Father James Callan and his congregation three years ago, a number of you have been asking me to retell their story. I occasionally get asked to repeat a story I have told in a sermon. But usually the stories people remember and want to hear again are the funny ones. So it is interesting and in fact moving to me that of all the sermons I have preached in nearly five years, this is the story so many of you remember and want to hear again. It is interesting and moving to me because this is not an easy story. I find it an extraordinary and inspiring story, but not in a sit back and listen and feel good way — this story asks something of us in return.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer said, “Theology begins from below and turns the world upside down.” The “view from below” is a phrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer used in one of his letters from prison before being executed for participating in the resistance against the Nazi regime. Though he came from a secure, Christian, middle class background and he and his family were not immediately threatened by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer came to identify with the victims of Hitler so deeply that he was willing to give his life to try to help them. In doing this, he learned, in his own words, “to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled - in short from the perspectives of those who suffer.”
Seven years ago, I met someone who taught me something about what Bonhoeffer meant when we talked about theology as beginning from below and turning the world upside down. I didn’t even really meet this person. I just sat in his presence for a couple of hours and listened to him speak at a workshop at General Assembly, our annual meeting of congregations which happened that year in Rochester NY.
In the years since I met him, I still think about his and every so often I look up his congregation’s website on the Internet so I can keep track of where he is and what he is doing. His name is Rev. James Callan, and he was, at the time I met him, though he is no longer, the parish priest at Corpus Christi Catholic Parish in Rochester, NY. Now he is priest of a congregation also in Rochester that he and his parishioners founded called Spiritus Christi and they are doing amazing things.
Father Jim, as his parishioners call him, was pretty unremarkable looking, definitely not the sort of person who stands out in a crowd. He is a small, middle-aged man with short hair, and when I met him he was dressed in a smock, which reminded me of something my dentist wears. (And since all of Father’s Jim’s clothes are donated ones, the shirt may actually have been something someone’s dentist once more.) He spoke in a quiet voice and would frequently break out into a huge grin, which lit up his whole face, and laugh over some part of his own story. And the story he told was the story of the transformation of the Corpus Christi congregation and how they came to serve poor and homeless people in downtown Rochester, New York.
Some parts of Father Jim’s story are deeply critical of his faith tradition and I repeat them because they are vital to the story. But it is important to know Father Jim loved the Catholic Church as much as he challenged it. I wish that you could hear him tell the story himself but as accurately as I can remember and with the help of the some of the writings of Father Jim himself here is the story.
Father Jim’s ministry at Corpus Christi began 28 years ago. He ended up there in 1976 because he was in trouble with his Bishop, Bishop Clark of the Catholic Diocese of Rochester, for the first of many times. He had originally been sent, as a young priest, to another parish in a wealthier part of the Diocese but he refused to live in the rectory that was supposed to be his home because it was too luxurious. He was suspended from the priesthood for two months for his disobedience but then, when his suspension was over, Bishop Clark called him in and asked him, “Well, Where do you want to go, then?” Father Jim said something like, “Send me somewhere small. Send me to some dying congregation in a dying part of town.”
So that is how Father Jim ended up at Corpus Christi, a parish of 200 or so members whose future was shaky. (I cannot resist noting that what is a dying congregation to the Catholic church is actually a mid size congregation for us)!
Anyway, Father Jim and his new congregation began to figure out what they wanted to do and how they wanted to deal with their future. And they did this by having meetings where they prayed a lot, seeking out God’s will for them, as Father Jim put it. And through these meetings, they got a deep sense that they needed to follow Jesus’ teachings more closely than they had been, not so much the words, but his actions, his life. They got a sense that they needed to pay more attention to the poor and the homeless and the hungry people all around them in their own city.
So, after a lot of prayer and conversation, they made their first big decision: they decided to give away 10% of their weekly collection to the poor. Now they didn’t have all that much in the collection plates to begin with because so few people were coming to church. So you can imagine this was not an easy decision, but that is what they did. And rather than stop there, they kept on praying and talking and next, the congregation decided to give away all of their small endowment to the poor and that is what they did.
They decided that giving away their endowment would help them to live more day to day, the way the book of Exodus tells that the Jews did when they were wandering in the desert. In that story, God tells Moses, “I will let manna, this sweet, sticky bread stuff, drop from heaven but the people are to pick up only enough to feed themselves for one day.” No hoarding, no saving, no keeping what you can’t eat. Just take enough for the day and trust that tomorrow you will be provided for.
Then someone brought up the issue of the twice a week bingo games which were one of the main ways the church raised money to support itself. People had played bingo at Corpus Christi for decades. Father Jim explained, and I am sure some of you know from previous experience, that in many Catholic parishes Bingo is a serious tradition, as serious as coffee hour is for Unitarian Universalists. For nearly two years, they talked and prayed about Bingo - they talked about how many of the people who came to play
Bingo didn’t seem to be doing it for fun but seemed pretty desperate and that Bingo could, in fact, be considered a form of gambling and how they didn’t want to run a church financed by exploiting people’s addictions. Finally, they decided to cancel Bingo.
Soon after this, they decided they wanted to give away something more than money, that giving away their money had become almost second nature by now, and they wanted to do something more, to get involved in some way, to help with their own hands. So instead of figuring out in advance what to do, a number of church members spent time walking around the poorest neighborhood of town and after a while they found an empty storefront in an old, falling down building. They decided that the corner with the storefront was very worst, most neglected, destitute neighborhood in Rochester. So they contacted the landlord and asked if they could rent the storefront, which they did. They weren’t really sure what they were going to do with their storefront once they had rented it, so a number of members of the congregation signed up to take turns just hanging around in the storefront, making sandwiches and giving them out to the people on the street and slowly getting to know the people who came for the sandwiches. They figured that if they did this, the next step would become clear.
The next steps did become clear and this was the beginning of the Corpus Christi ministry to the poor because pretty soon the sandwiches grew into a full fledged supper program, with the congregation taking turns cooking and feeding dinner to hundreds of hungry people every night of the week.The food for the supper program was bought with money from donations that kept somehow coming into the collection plates on Sunday mornings. Then winter came and the congregation realized that they couldn’t exactly send these homeless people back out into the freezing nights of a Rochester, New York winter and somewhere about this time the landlord of their storefront asked if they wanted to buy the terrible, broken down building.
Father Jim said that yes they were interested but they didn’t have any money. The landlord said, “Oh, I’ll give it to you for something like $1000 dollars.” “Can’t do it,” said Father Jim. A few days later the landlord said, “Okay, okay $500.” “Just can’t do it.” said Father Jim. “$100,” said the landlord a few days later. Father Jim said, “When your price goes down to zero, then we would love to have the building.” A few days later the landlord called. “Okay, okay, Just take it off my hands.” And the landlord gave them the building and the congregation went to work fixing it up and Corpus Christi’s first homeless shelter was created.
From that first shelter, several more shelters were created in donated buildings, including a women’s shelter and a family shelter for parents and children. The congregation also founded a residence for people who are going off of drugs, a big thrift store, a child care center, and a prison transition program so that people leaving prison might have a safe place to live while creating a new life. Then, once the congregation realized that, of course, many business owners are reluctant to hire ex-convicts and homeless people and recently sober drub users and that without a job it is pretty hard to put your life together, they founded a job program. Then came the neighborhood health clinic which serves uninsured people. The only paid staff at the clinic are administrative people who make the appointments and keep the place running. All the doctors and nurses and dentists and massage therapists volunteer their time, a few hours a week or as many as they can.
Meanwhile, back at the parish, some interesting changes were happening there too. For one thing, a lot more people had started coming to attend Masses at Corpus Christi, not just all the new volunteers who were serving the food and helping at the shelters, but a lot of the shelter residents and guests from the soup kitchens too. And many of the newcomers weren’t actually Catholic but they wanted to receive communion and the congregation decided that was all right by them. At some point down the line, a lot of gay and lesbian people started coming in and they too were made welcome. And the gay and lesbian people started having support groups to reach out to other gay and lesbian people who have been so painfully excluded and marginalized from so many churches for so long. I imagine that, at some point, gay and lesbian couples started asking Father Jim to perform ceremonies of Holy Union for them and he started doing it.
The role of women at Corpus Christi was changing too as women took on more and more of the priest’s role during the masses. The longtime pastoral associate Mary Ramerman was a woman and the congregation decided, well not exactly to ordain her, but to sort of commission her in a ceremony and to give her a priestly stole. Father Jim told how Mary’s picture was on the front page of the Rochester Daily News. There was Mary standing on the altar in her stole, holding up the communion cup to bless it before sharing it with her congregation, all things women are definitely not supposed to do.
Through all of these changes Father Jim had been getting called into the Bishop’s office quite regularly because even as the congregation was growing, literally by the hundreds, some of the parishioners, both new and old, were of course surprised and angered by the very creative interpretation of the Catholic Church doctrine that the church was engaging in. But, as Father Jim himself put it, Bishop Clark deeply supported the work the congregation was doing with the poor. The Bishop would tell Father Jim that certain things he was doing, women leading worship and the gay and lesbian support groups for example, simply weren’t in line with church doctrine. “You just can’t be doing this sort of thing; you know this,” he’d say. And Father Jim would just nod and say “I understand” and the work of Corpus Christi would continue.
But in August of 1998 the Vatican became involved and Father Jim was removed from Corpus Christi for three serious violations of church doctrine: for allowing women to dress in priestly garb and act as deacons, for actively distributing holy communion to non-Catholics, and for engaging in ministry to homosexuals that did not adhere to church teachings. He was directed to write a letter recanting his controversial positions if he wanted to return to active priesthood. It is not surprising that he decided he was unable to do this and was suspended from the priesthood. The story was followed on public radio at the time.
But probably what the Catholic Diocese of Rochester couldn’t have imagined was the response of the congregation of Corpus Christi. A number of parishioners were quoted on the radio, including one woman who had moved to Rochester from California specifically so she could be part of the work of Corpus Christi and another who simply said “Father Jim was the holiest man I have ever known.” Incidentally, by the time Father Jim was fired there were 3000 church members, with some 4500 people attending worship services every week. The congregation vigorously protested Father Jim’s removal but their appeals were denied. And what most of the members said at the time was that Father Jim’s ministry wasn’t going to end just because he himself was leaving. Because, the 4,500 worshippers had taken on a mission which started with one priest almost 30 years ago but it became their own mission. They had made this ministry of service and shelter and radical acceptance of all people their own ministry. Their congregation had been transformed; they said that the work for and with the poor, that the practice of welcoming all people at the communion table, that the affirmation of women as priests, and of gays and lesbians as full children of God, they said that all this was, to them, the deepest, the most true, meaning of their faith. They were living it out. They reminded the reporters in the radio interviews that Catholic means universal. They said that they believed they had not strayed from Catholicism at all, that they were living it out more fully than they ever had before.
What happened next is both painful and wonderful. When the new priest sent in by the Diocese to take over the running of the parish would not allow the innovations to continue and sought to bring the church back into compliance with church doctrine, a large part of the congregation simply left and decided to form a new congregation. They asked Father Jim and Mary Ramerman and several other members of the old pastoral leadership team to lead their new church. They were all excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Though most members still consider themselves to be Roman Catholic, the church has remained denominationally independent. They meet in various church buildings around Rochester to hold their 10 weekly masses and church school classes. Slowly they let go of their old name, Corpus Christi, the body of Christ , chose a new name for themselves Spiritus Christi, the spirit of Christ. The first new outreach program, Grace of God Recovery House, began before the parish had even chosen its new name. New outreach programs have developed and financial support of the old ones continues, some of which chose to incorporate as independent non-profits, some of which remain affiliated with Corpus Christi.The members say that there is still sadness about their decision to leave Corpus Christi and that being excommunicated was deeply painful but the new congregation is thriving.
The part of the story that I am so moved by is that this relatively small group of parishioners began to seek a deeper mission. They began to seek a deeper understanding of what it might mean to live out their faith. And their search led them to an idea that was probably very uncomfortable, even frightening for some of them, that they ought to be following the example of Jesus more closely. And this led to the idea, again probably quite frightening, that they ought to go downtown and walk around and see what they could do. And they prayed and reflected and then they acted and then they prayed some more and acted some more and behold, they were completely transformed. Something transcendent, something totally beyond what they could have imagined started happening. It wasn’t instantaneous by any means, in fact it took decades but it kept happening.
And while this transformation was happening, I am quite sure the church leaders still disagreed at board meetings, which were probably still tedious and tense at times. Father Jim talked about how of course, some people became angry and upset and bewildered and left the congregation when they started giving away all their money and letting women on the altar and offering communion to non Catholics. But they just kept going. They kept going back to prayer, back to their storefront to make sandwiches and back to prayer again and each step they took led to another step.
At one point, someone in the audience at the General Assembly workshop asked Father Jim something about his own motivations, something about how he came to be who he was. He said that he had a good mentor, a monk who used to tell him incredibly challenging things that were terribly hard to hear - things like: If you own any shoes other than the pair of shoes you are wearing on your feet right now, those other shoes don’t belong to you. They belong to the poor. And if you have any clothes in your closet other than the clothes you are wearing right now, they aren’t really yours, they belong to the poor. And if you have any money in the bank or in your wallet left over from the money that you need to shelter yourself and your family and feed yourself and your family for this one day, that money isn’t really your money, it belongs to the poor.
Since I first preached about Corpus Christi and Father Jim three years ago, we have made some changes here at First Parish. This year, we gave away 3% of all the money we received in pledges from the congregation. In addition to that, we have given away thousands of dollars in special collections and drives for needs that have come up through the year. We have begun a fledgling but very important partnership with the people of Santa Rosa, Nicaragua. And those who just returned from their first trip there say that their lives have been transformed by that trip — that they understanding in a new way something about what it means to be our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers.
I tell you Father Jim’s story again today because I sense the beginnings of our own transformation here and it is my job, it is my calling really, to nag and nudge that transformation along. It is my job and my calling to call forth, to push and pull forth if need by, your own restlessness, your yearning to be part of something larger than our own personal needs and desires and ambitions. So I ask you to keep asking these questions — What will you become? What will you do in the time you have left and with your abundance of gifts and resources and intelligence and luck to be born in this time and place? And what will we become, here, together? Do we see the needs of those around us, the needs to fed and housed and safe from violence, but also the needs to be accepted, to cared for, to be affirmed as essentially good and worthy, regardless of money, race, sexual orientation, status? And if we truly see, what will we do? What is our next step?
In an article in Salt of the Earth magazine written about the transformation at Corpus Christi, Father Jim told this story to illustrate how he understood what had happened there - how a dying congregation had to let go and reach out in faith:Once there was an old man who lived on the island of Crete. He loved the land there with his whole heart. As he was dying, he asked his family to place his body right on the dirt, on the very land he loved. In his dying moment, he reached out and grabbed some dirt in his hand, then clutched it to his breast as he died.
When he got to heaven, he was still hanging onto the fistful of dirt. Saint Peter told him he had to let go of the dirt if he wanted to enter heaven. Oh no, I can’t do that, said the old man, This dirt is precious to me. It is from the island of Crete, the land I love. Peter repeated that he needed to let it go if he wanted to enter heaven, yet the man refused again.
Finally Jesus came out and told the man the same thing, saying very seriously but with great compassion, Believe me, drop the dirt. After a long hesitation, the old man slowly let the dirt fall from his fingers.Then Jesus gently took the old man’s elbow and escorted him slowly up the stairs to heaven. When they reached the top, the old man looked out over heaven. As far as one could see was the entire island of Crete.
Who is fit to hold power and worthy to act in God’s place? asks the psalmist.
(From Psalm 24, Stephen Mitchell)
May it be so. May it be so.