The Strangest Dream
December 29, 2005 | bpfna
Last night I had the strangest dream. A festive church picnic was interrupted by a womanís piercing wail, "A baby! Thereís a baby floating in the river!" A teenaged girl bolted in the direction of the water. Shucking off her sneakers, she plunged into the murky river, while the picnickers held their breath in prayer. Finally the teenís head appeared above water, and then the baby was seen, held aloft in the arms of the heroic rescuer. A shout of praise went up from the shore. A blanket was found, and the baby was wrapped tightly and passed around from picnicker to picnicker. The little boy was safe, but no one knew how he had gotten into the water, or where his parents might be. There was much speculation on this topic, and on the question of what should be done. While this debate ensued, another piercing wail was heard. "A baby! Thereís another baby in the river!" The same strong teen threw off her sneakers and plunged again into the river, and this time came up with a little baby girl, who cried angrily as she was blanketed and passed from picnicker to picnicker. What to do now? The church folk decided there must be a program of care for the babies. A schedule was drawn up, and a phone tree for volunteers, and a list of supplies for the little ones, including food and diapers. When once again the cry went out, "A baby! My God, thereís another baby in the river!" When she emerged from the river this time, the teen rescuer was angry. While baby care committees were being formed by urgent picnickers, she tugged her sneakers back on and was seen muttering under her breath. She rose to her feet and began running upstream. Where are you going, the church folk cried out? "Iím going upstream and figure out who the hell is throwing these babies into the river," she screamed back.
I stirred in my sleep, and tried to shake off this dream. But it came back, scene after scene illuminated by my disturbed consciousness. There was now a river of babies. There were babies everywhere, as far up and down the river as the eye could see. The church folk had found some rowboats, and they were out on the river snatching up babies as fast as they could, but they could not keep up. Someone found a motorboat, and a crew was formed to race down the river and rescue babies at a faster pace. This seemed to be working, and a chorus of praise went up. More motorboats were commandeered, and then someone had a brilliant idea: Letís hire a grant writer to write us some grants to buy more motorboats so we can rescue more babies! This idea was met with wild enthusiasm. There was no mention of the teenaged girl who had run upstream. Some folks were put off by her angry attitude, and others were distressed because she had been such a strong swimmer, and could have helped with the downstream rescue effort, which was becoming more manageable now with the motorboats. Then someone said, "Hey, letís get the media out here to capture this story!" So a press release was written and the media showed up. The print media arrived first, and took the story of how the church had been having this picnic and then this baby appeared and the teenaged girl (no, sorry, we donít know where she is now) had saved the first three babies, but now there were hundreds of babies being saved. "Are you tired of saving all these babies," the reporter asked? "Well yes, it is really straining the church budget, and our volunteers are swamped (if you know what I mean), but this is the work that God has called us to, and we are not complaining. Weíre just worried about keeping up with all these babies, so we invited you here to tell this story so we can get some more help." "I understand," said the reporter, scribbling away. "I got the story."
Everyone was pleased with the print coverage, and there was an uptick in volunteers the next week, though it wasnít long before they were at the same volunteer level as before by the next month. Then the TV folks showed up, just a local crew at first, but then a national correspondent for the number one cable news station. The intrepid reporter had stationed himself in the middle of the river, on a sandbar, and was using his body as a human measuring stick to show the folks in TV land how deep the water was. A storm was coming up, and the reporterís hat blew off, and his shirt was billowing in the wind, dramatically. Just then a baby came floating by and the reporter reached out a well manicured hand and scooped up the baby, handing him to a waiting volunteer.
My alarm clock went off. I shook my head fiercely, trying to dislodge the image of that reporter in the river. I found that I was feeling angry. This dream had really disturbed me. Where was the teenaged girl who had run upstream? How had the intrepid reporter become the center of the story? How many grants had been written, how many motorboats purchased, how many babies rescued downstream? What was going on upstream? Did the teenaged girl find out? What resources did she have to work with? Was she able to get to the root of the baby problem? Who WAS throwing these babies into the river? I thought of baby Moses, adrift in the Nile due to the blind hatred of an emperor, and baby Jesus and the Holy Family, made refugees in Egypt because of another mad monarch. I thought of Dorothy Day, who had angrily denounced the filthy rotten dirty system that gave us babies in rivers. I thought of the Catholic bishop who had lamented, "When I call for the feeding of the poor they call me a saint, but when I ask what is the cause of this poverty they call me a Communist!"
I slipped into the shower, trying to achieve a wakefulness that had thus far eluded me this morning. What is the meaning of this strange dream? And why was I now engaged in theological reflection before breakfast (always a bad idea).
Hadnít Pope Paul VI spoke of the church as having two wings, charity and justice? Both are necessary, but without justice, charity was deprived of its natural support, he had argued. It is impossible to fly by flapping only one wing. Never give to charity, the pope said, what is owed to justice.
I began to daydream. What if churches took this word seriously? What if every church did a conceptual analysis of its budget, to determine what percentage went to charity and what percentage to justice? Would that angry teenaged girl find the resources she needed to determine who was throwing the babies in the river, and how to stop it?
And you, I asked myself, you help run a peace organization. If churches woke up to their responsibility to do justice, what would your own budget look like?
But what is peace, anyway? I asked myself. It cannot be merely the absence of war. Your work on the Dayton Peace Accords has shown you this with new clarity. In ten years there has been no killing, but poverty is a slow form of violence, and there are signs of unrest which could erupt at any moment in renewed violence and war. Hadnít the prophets mocked those who called for peace, peace, when there is no peace, because there is no justice in the land?
I pour myself a glass of water and sit at the kitchen table, recalling my recent visit to an African American church out west, where the connection between peace and justice is understood, sustained by the prophetic voice of a remarkable pastor and his people. I wonder about that churchís budget, and how it breaks down, charity vs. justice? Is there greater parity in that churchís budget than in others you have known, between justice and charity? Do they do a better job at giving to justice than white churches? You recall being seated in the office with the pastor, who was visiting with the guest preacher, a black pastor from New Orleans. You remember the host pastor inquiring about whether the New Orleans pastor was going to be able to meet his payroll that year. When the New Orleans pastor shook his head no, the pastor had turned to one of his deacons and said, "Let us get this brother pastor a check to support his church." The deacon had nodded, and went off to write the check, but was called back by the pastor. "And let us be generous," the pastor said.
This was all the more remarkable, I remembered, because that same Sunday the host pastor had announced to his congregation that the church budget for next year was looking grim, that they were in the red to the tune of some $300,000. And yet, here was the pastor holding his brother pastor in his arms in front of the church, saying that he loved him and he wanted to help support his church, because justice was calling, and was the church in agreement that they wanted to be of help to this church? All around the room there were nods of assent.
If you want peace, Pope Paul VI said, work for justice.
These words today are remembered by some, and often quoted in organizations like mine. But what do these words mean, and what does justice call us to, and where?
I sit at the table and ponder.
BPFNA Coordinating Director