Never Judge a Church By Its Cover

The email flashed across my screen at work.

"Who is available next Sunday, 10am, to go to a church to pick up some items their fifth grade youth group wants to donate to us?"

The message was from a staff member at Spectrum, where I serve as executive director in Burlington, Vt. Spectrum is a nonprofit organization, and we provide care to teenagers who are homeless, runaways, disconnected from families, in trouble with the law, addicted to drugs and alcohol or some combination of all of these.

I hit the reply button and asked, "Which church?"

It turned out it was a church only about two miles from my house, so I volunteered to go. But I did so with some misgivings. The truth is, I didn't really like that church. It is an evangelical church, and it is physically large, modern, reminding me of a WalMart or a Costco building. To use the currently popular term, it is a megachurch. I also recalled reading a news article about this church expanding Sunday services to the local cineplex, with a photo of congregants seated in the new stadium seating there. This of course only reinforced my misgivings. I'm a Catholic, my wife is a Catholic, and we have always attended Catholic churches. In my mind, these megachurches promote a pie-in-the-sky, feel-good spirituality bereft of any emphasis on social justice and reaching out to the poorest of the poor. Whatever problems the Catholic Church may have, it does not give short shrift to Jesus's teachings about feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and challenging the underpinnings of a society and economy which create such suffering. It is the Church of Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, the martyred El Salvador missionaries and others whom I so admire.

But if the fifth graders of this particular megachurch were willing to donate some items to the homeless teenagers staying at Spectrum, I was certainly willing to swallow my prejudices for one hour. So I showed up on the appointed Sunday morning and found my way to the room where the fifth graders were waiting for me. There were about 20 children sitting cross-legged on the floor. Four other adults were with them. I was introduced to the children and did my standard five-minute presentation on what Spectrum is, who the young people are that we help, and why they are on the streets and without families. Then one of the adults there, a male, carried up a laundry basket full of things like deodorant, toothpaste and shaving cream, and placed it before me, announcing that these were things the kids had collected for our teenagers. I thanked them, saying that I'd be certain to deliver them to young people who needed such items.

I started for the door, when this same man motioned for me to stay.

"Amy, can you please show Mr. Redmond what you brought?"

I stopped and watched this 11-year-old girl dragging a black duffel bag up to the front of the room. She unzipped it, and I peered inside, then started pulling out a set of sheets, towels and washcloths. I started joking with the kids, "Hey look, here is some dental floss, everyone needs that, right?" They laughed along, and then I heard this man say, "Amy, show Mr. Redmond what else is in there." She reached into the duffel bag, pulled a Bible out of it, and handed it to him. I could see a card sticking out, which he handed over to me. "To a Young Man at Spectrum" was handwritten on the front of the card.

"Why don't you tell Mr. Redmond why you and your family are donating these things to Spectrum?"

"I had a teenage brother," she said, "but he died last year. So my family wants to give these things to a boy like him who can use them."

I opened the card. On the front was written, "Always remember..." and on the inside, "God is watching over you." A picture of this girl's brother was taped to the other inside flap -- a smiling young man, happy, standing in front of a building. Under his picture was written, "Given in memory of Brad," with the dates of his birth and death. He was only 19. Also inscribed was "God bless you, from the family of Brad."

I leaned over to the adult and whispered, "How did he die?"

"Heroin overdose," he answered.

My heart just broke when I heard that. That's one of the main things we do at Spectrum -- work with kids who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, trying to help them break free, and some are heroin addicts. I looked at the face of this young man Brad. Somehow we missed him. Maybe he never heard of us. Maybe he was too ashamed to come in for help. Maybe he overdosed his first time using. I'll never know, but it just cut right through me to be looking at him there, smiling. I could just feel the agony of that family in the writing on that card.

I reached over and hugged Amy. I held her tight, thanking her for the gift she had given. I promised to give the duffel bag to a young man who was homeless and could really use it. I looked over at the adults in the room, and I could see they were near tears. So was I.

I learned a lot that day in the megachurch. I was reminded that the heartbreak of addiction and early death can happen not only with kids who have no families and therefore live on the streets, but with kids who do have supportive families, some degree of financial means and even attend church. I was reminded that addiction reaches beyond all socioeconomic and racial boundaries; it clutches where it will.

And I learned, once again, for the umpteenth time in my life, not to judge. I judged that church. I put all kinds of nasty labels on it. But I was wrong. Like any other church, including the Catholic Church, there are good people who go there, people who care about others, people who want more than pie-in-the-sky religion. And some of those people are incredibly wounded, scarred by what life has dealt them. They go to Church to worship, but they also go in order to find healing, comfort and compassion.

That's why I keep a photocopy of that card, including Amy's brother's picture, and periodically look at it, with the hope that it'll keep me from judging any person or any house of worship again.