Martin B. Copenhaver is senior pastor of Wellesley Congregational Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and coauthor (with Lillian Daniel) of This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers.
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Most of my early life was spent within the gravitational field of New York City, and I spent a good deal of time in the city itself. A while back, I was going to see a play with some friends from other parts of the country, and so they are less familiar with the city’s sometimes strange and difficult ways. As we walked to the theatre, I had a certain spring in my step. After all, I was with people I enjoy, the exhilarating rhythms of the city were all around us, and I had in my pocket tickets to the hottest show in town.
To get to the theatre we had to walk through a particularly tough neighborhood. No problem, I assured my companions. I’ve done it many times. Conversation flowed. There was much laughter. And then I realized that my companions had become suddenly silent. Then one said, “Did you see that woman? She looked like a prostitute. Did you see the way she was crying?” Everyone else immediately responded, obviously struck by the same sight.
We walked the next few blocks in silence. The reason for my silence was probably different, however. I had also seen the woman who so haunted the others, but in a sense I didn’t see her at all. Somehow, in all the times I had walked in that neighborhood and ones like it, I had lost some of my ability to see. Do you see this woman? Of course, she’s right in front of me. No, I mean do you actually see this woman? Well . . . no, not really.
Years ago there was a wonderful New Yorker cartoon by Gahan Wilson in which two men are sitting at a kitchen table drinking beer. There is a single window over the table, but as is true in many city apartments, immediately outside that window is a brick wall. One fellow says to the other, “I like this view. It leaves you alone.”
And is that one of the reasons why some of us live in the places we do? Beyond the good schools, the safe neighborhoods, the elbow room, the relative quiet, do we also choose to live where we do because it offers a view that leaves us alone? Do you see this woman? Do you actually want to see this woman?
One of our congregation’s wonderful young people, Liza Carens, is a student at Connecticut College. She just finished a semester studying in South Africa. Liza — like many who visit that remarkable, beautiful, troubled land — has confronted the stark contrasts found there. She stayed for a week in a rural village with no running water or plumbing. In a letter describing her experience, she writes, “I lived in a one room house with the sweetest mama and her two grandchildren. She gave me her bed and slept on the floor every night so I would be comfortable.”
From there, Liza went to the home of a wealthy Afrikaner family. They had all the amenities of the affluent life, including three cars, a pool, a guesthouse. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But of all the homes where Liza stayed, she found this one the most uncomfortable. You see, the family has a domestic worker, and the only time they address her is when they are telling her to do something or yelling at her for doing something wrong, like letting the tea get cold. She has a name. Her name is Sara, but most of the time, the family would refer to her as “the domestic worker.” “Leave your key to the guest house on the counter so that the domestic worker can straighten up.” “Leave your dishes in the sink, and the domestic worker will do them when she returns from her day off.” And, of course, Liza found that quite unsettling. Do you see this woman? Do you actually see Sara?
The above sermon is reproduced with permission from Journal for Preachers.