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Loving the unlikable, loving the people who hate

Anti-gay activists Fred Phelps, Jr., (L) and Betty Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, protest outside the building where Rev. V. Gene Robinson, a gay man, was about to be consecrated as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of NH.
Anti-gay activists Fred Phelps, Jr., (L) and Betty Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, protest outside the building where Rev. V. Gene Robinson, a gay man, was about to be consecrated as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of NH.
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In late January, I had the opportunity to twice attend Holy Eucharist at Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City on Park Avenue. I always try to spend time at St. Bart’s when in New York whether for Eucharist, evening prayer, or to sit quietly in a side chapel with its large Eastern Orthodox icon of the Blessed Mother.

Fr. Edward Sunderland, LCSW celebrated both Eucharist liturgies I attended. In one, he shared a sermon reminding everyone of the many aspects of faith. Although there were several lessons to take away from each sermon, two themes still resonate weeks later. I don’t recall if they came from one sermon or I’m mixing them together like a fine recipe.

“Faith is a conversation about possibilities,” he said. It draws us to “open space for people we hate.” Conversations use words and these expressions of language can free and empower. You can’t transform someone’s negative energy, if you’re unwilling to engage.

In further reflecting on Fr. Edward’s lessons, we need to welcome people to our table who seek us harm trying to be patient with the demons limiting them, tough sometimes projected and unleashed on us. Mustering the courage and patience to find a place for haters and bigots enables us to help them by slowly re-directing their negative energy into goodness.

It can be an exhausting, emotionally draining endeavor. In doing so, however, we open space for, as Fr. Edward noted “the God we can’t see.” We encounter the Giver of Life’s presence through our own positive actions assisting others to heal and be true to their Creation as the Creator intended.

Fr. Edward referred to the rock star popularity of Pope Francis. He cautioned not to emulate others. He challenged worshipers to be their own light in the world to love more, judge less and build a more inclusive community.

All of us have the potential within to be a holy light. “A lamp is placed on a lampstand,” the Bible teaches, “where it can give light to everyone in the house. Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise God in heaven” (Mathew 5:15-16).

It’s OK to be inspired by someone or encouraged by their example. Ultimately, we each are called to be our own light and empower those who are angry, alone, hateful, fearful, insecure, or under great stress.

When was the last time you took the time to pay a colleague at work a compliment, especially one difficult to like? When was the last time you noted on a restaurant check, mentioning the waiter or waitress by name, for the outstanding service? When was the last time you left a tip in a hotel room for the cleaning staff (who do not make a living wage), and wrote a short note thanking them for their work?

In many ways, these are opportunities to explore faith whether trying to understand the bigot or connecting with a waiter we may never see again. It speaks to our personhood and also to the humanity of the individual with whom we seek to engage at some basic level.

Faith is a conversation no matter the other person’s politics, religion, education, or whether they cheer for the Yankees or Red Sox.

Paul Jesep is an author, attorney, and a seminary trained, ordained priest in greater Albany, NY. He is founder of CorporateChaplaincy.biz, a firm committed to the spiritual wellness of professionals. He also is author of "Lost Sense of Self and the Ethics Crisis: How to Live and Work Ethically."