The mission is such a unique place. It’s amazing how the poor are our teachers and open our eyes to the realities of what our faith means. Not long after I was ordained to the diaconate, I was asked by a seminary to give a lecture on Orthodox mission and what our mission does. Unfortunately the group was only able to come on a day that the mission was closed. I thought to myself: How could I teach about mission without the community being present?
Though I found it a little strange, I did manage to muster up the skills from my teaching days and give them some understanding of what the mission is. We spent the greater part of the morning discussing the history of St. John’s, how it came to be, and how our various programs developed. It was a delightful discussion, that is, until the end, or so I thought. Once I opened the floor to questions, one student asked, “Father Deacon, I understand what it is you are doing, but why are you doing it?” I paused for a moment, then asked him to explain further.
What he said next took me by surprise. He said, “Isn’t the whole point of this to convert everyone? To make them all Orthodox?” Again, I paused. My initial reaction was disappointment. I honestly felt I had let the students down, because I spent two hours talking to them, and he just came and told me that: Aren’t we supposed to evangelize them all?
I then began to speak about St. John the Merciful, and why we call him the compassionate one. I explained how the term “compassionate” comes from a Latin word meaning “to suffer with.” In its greater form, it is a deep awareness of someone else’s suffering, making it so that you want them not to suffer. In other words, compassionate means to suffer with another. St. John was the model of this that led the mission to follow his path.
The room went quiet. Everybody was contemplating what I had just spoken. Instead of getting angry or agitated, I actually looked around the mission, and I saw all the empty tables, and I began to think about all the people that I serve every day. I remembered on the day of my ordination to the diaconate how many people from the mission actually came. I was amazed. While I was giving my speech at my ordination, I mentioned something that I didn’t have actually written, and I said that I’m not ordained to serve only the parish but everybody in this community.
At that moment, I finally broke the silence by sharing a quote from St. John the Merciful himself. I said:
Those whom you call poor and beggars, these I proclaim my masters and helpers, for they and they only are really able to help us and bestow upon us the kingdom of heaven.
I told the young man: By thinking that our sole purpose was to convert everyone, we’re putting a price tag on compassion. This in turn makes us no better than other groups who say, “I will give you this piece of bread, but you must attend Bible study on this such-and-such a day or come to church on this certain day.” I remembered all the people I had spoken to since I started working at the mission, and how many of them even knew where the chapel actually was. I explained how we had two tables at the mission: table of the rich and table of the poor. And sometimes people will never cross over from the table of the poor to the table of the rich. Some will, but it may take a lifetime.
As I reflected on this, I was glad that the question was raised. It brought about a very fruitful discussion and opened the eyes of many, including my own. Like some who don’t actually know, it wasn’t too long that I, too, thought this way. Though the young man didn’t agree with what we were doing in terms of not evangelizing aggressively and that we shouldn’t be helping non-Orthodox, I couldn’t help but empathize with him. I prayed that God would open his eyes further.
As I prayed about this, God actually opened my eyes to see that the young man was one of the poor that St. John referred to: “The poor are my masters and helpers.” He wasn’t much different [from] the homeless or the poor person who comes and eats at the mission and doesn’t want to talk about God. The young man wanted to discuss God, but refused to be poor. He lacked knowledge that compassion means to carry each other’s burdens, to walk with someone who’s poor, down a path that is lonely and dark, and to encourage that person that they are not alone. Compassion truly has no price.