When I was in college, I was part of a small but devoted Christian fellowship. We met on Friday nights, since every other night was already filled with a capella rehearsals, rugby practices, or good old-fashioned cramming for exams. I never missed a Friday. I loved God and my friends, and I looked forward to it every week. But, even though I never would have admitted it at the time, I think I also enjoyed a secret smug feeling that while my classmates were out partying, I was busy worshipping God. I was doing things right.
During my first year I became aware that a fellow student had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. I didn’t know him personally, but I recognized his name. Another group of students immediately organized a benefit dinner for him on campus. I’m sure our meager college student offerings didn’t put a dent in his medical expenses, but it was an offering of support, of embrace, of love. It was on a Friday night. I did not go. I was busy worshipping God. I was doing things right.
I had another friend who occasionally came to those Friday night meetings, and her faith had more doubts and doors open than I would ever have permitted myself. We were spiritedly debating some issue or other (by which I mean that I was telling her that I had all the answers and was definitely right), and, in exasperation, she finally asked me, “Why didn’t you come to the benefit dinner?”
Why didn’t I go, indeed? I’m sure I sputtered some answer or other about the primacy of worship and prayer, but I knew that she was right. Why didn’t we cancel the worship service and attend that benefit dinner en masse? Why didn’t we see that showing up in love and support…would have been an act of worship, true worship of our God of compassion and tenderness and mercy? I had missed my opportunity to love.
But many years later, God gave me another chance. My faith had been on a wild roller coaster ride since those days in college. I had slowly become disillusioned with the limiting, black-and-white faith of my youth and come home to the Catholic faith in which I was raised. I reveled, for the first time in my adult life, in the celebration of majesty and mystery.
As a Russian literature grad student at Berkeley, I occasionally took freelance interpreting jobs, and an exciting one came up in my fifth year (grad school is long!). A local museum was showcasing the work of my favorite painter, Marc Chagall, and several employees of the Russian State Archives were coming over with the paintings to make sure that the art was properly handled and installed. The museum needed an interpreter between their staff and the Russian staff, and that’s where I came in, two hefty bilingual dictionaries crammed into my purse, just in case.
The installation was in the spring, during Holy Week, but my hours were only 10-4, leaving lots of time for me to make it to my favorite liturgies of the year. The last day of the job was Good Friday. As the Russian staff and I waited for the doors to be unlocked in the morning, I noticed that one of them was sporting a very swollen wrist. “So,” she said to me, in a remarkably even tone, “We have a problem. Last night we were out walking, and I fell.” She rolled up her jacket sleeve, and I audibly gasped at the sight of her arm.
She told me that she wasn’t in any pain and didn’t think it was broken, but that perhaps she should see a doctor. All day, in between opening crates and cataloguing paintings, we gathered in the conference room to make calls to her Russian insurance company and try to make heads or tails of her policy, which clearly wasn’t set up for an international emergency room visit.
As the day wore on, no one conveyed a solid plan to me. But I knew that I would not be going to my beloved Good Friday liturgy. I longed to be in my hushed and darkened parish in Berkeley venerating the cross, but I did not give it another thought. As surely as Jesus was there in the Blessed Sacrament, so, too, He would want this young woman in a loud and foreign downtown emergency room to be comforted and cared for in her native language. I took the train back to my apartment that night around 10pm. I had missed the liturgy. But I had been busy worshipping God. Finally, but finally, I had done something right. I am not saying that we should be looking for reasons to miss liturgies. I am just saying that sometimes we need to carry those liturgies outside the four walls of the church.
It’s been so long since that night in college when I missed my chance to be present for someone who was suffering. As I was writing this story, I nervously looked up the name of the student who had received the diagnosis. I held my breath, having no idea if he had survived. Tears filled my eyes as I learned that he was alive and well, a licensed counselor working with a children’s aid society and assisting with prisoner reentry and substance abuse counseling. As I looked at a picture of his smiling face, I realized that, as smug as I’d been about my faith, he’d been the one out there giving glory to God, through his kindness, his generosity, his compassion.
Do you remember those trendy and cliched bracelets of the 90s, the neon ones emblazoned with the letters WWJD, asking us to consider the question “What would Jesus do?” Well, at some point in the time between college and this Good Friday in the emergency room, God challenged me to ask myself a slightly different question: “Does Jesus care about this?”
Asking this question shifted my perspective in a profound way. I have always had a very deep sense of God’s love for me, but while I had considered myself as right and holy and special for so long…I’m embarrassed to admit… that it never occurred to me that God loved every single other human being just the exact same way, without exception. Justice had always been an abstract concept to me–I knew it was one of God’s top priorities, but…what did it have to do with me?
When I took my eyes off myself long enough to actually look at the world around me, to see the belovedness of every person I crossed paths with, it was as if a self-imposed blindfold had been removed from my face. And that question: “Does Jesus care about this?” became my constant companion. Does Jesus care about the person taking forever in front of me at the post office? Yes! She is beloved! The bus driver? Yes! Beloved! The cashier checking me out at the grocery store? Yes! Beloved!
Little by little, justice became less of an abstract concept and more of a deep and beautiful expression of the belovedness of every human being, each one made in the image and likeness of God. Although I still love every mass and liturgy, my understanding of God’s embrace has grown ever larger and larger, reaching far beyond the walls of the church, never relenting until not one single person is left outside it.
And the question kept taking me further–Does Jesus care about conditions of the people who are making my clothes in overseas sweatshops? Does Jesus care about the people picking my food, in terrible conditions, for insulting pay? Does Jesus care about the men, women, and, most terribly, children, treated atrociously for no reason other than the color of their skin? The answer has never been “no.”
Cameron Bellm is a Seattle mom of two young boys. After finishing her PhD in Russian literature, she traded the academic life for the contemplative life (well, as contemplative as chasing two small kids can be!). She is a great lover of Ignatian spirituality, Catholic social teaching, and strong black coffee. You can find her on Instagram at @krugthethinker.