By: Chad Hyatt
The story of Mercy begins with a baptism. I had been baptized before, while in college. That earlier one was the “official” one—the one we recall when invited in worship to remember our baptism. It holds deep meaning for me still and need never be repeated. But the baptism that began Mercy was altogether different. I didn’t seek it. It caught me: sudden, spontaneous, of the moment, in the Spirit—not unlike the surprising flow of blood and water from the wounded side of Jesus on the cross (John 19.34-35).
I was working in Kingston, Jamaica, with the Missionaries of the Poor, a Catholic religious order founded in the early 1980s by Father Richard Ho Lung. For those who have no idea about the varieties of Catholic religious life, I usually describe MOP as “Mother Teresa for guys.” All over the world, communities of vowed brothers give their lives alongside the poorest of the poor in “joyful service with Christ on the cross.” Daily life is organized around prayer, community, and the works of mercy: to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, to welcome the stranger, and to visit the sick and the prisoner.
A man, already dying from AIDS and abandoned in the dirty gutter of a Kingston alley, was about to be stoned to death by a frenzied crowd. One of the brothers ran into the streets, somehow carrying with him enough authority to disperse a mad, stone-wielding mob, and along with another one of the brothers, brought the dying man back to the house. Immediately, they set about the task of cleaning the man from the blood and dirt and filth that covered him, head to toe. It was more than the two brothers could manage themselves. Close at hand and watching it all, one of the brothers saw me and asked if I would help.
That was my call to baptism, there in the showers of a Jamaican house of hospitality. I held the man as best as I could, my trembling arms beneath his sagging shoulders, as we stood together under the cold water that poured from the shower head. The two brothers worked together, slowly, methodically, gently, stripping the ragged and filthy clothes from his wounded body. Water mixed with dirt and filth, and mud and blood mingled, as the streams ran in widening arcs toward the drain at our feet.
Holding his wounded body in my arms, I was baptized—plunged deeply and outside my control—into the human experience, one marked as indelibly as if by blood with suffering and death. Why is our experience, created for beauty, soaked in blood? Because we hurt one another. And we hurt ourselves.
As Father Christian de Chergé, one of the Trappist monks martyred in Algeria, observed with humble wisdom: “I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.”
But baptism is being plunged not just more deeply into suffering but more deeply into Christ. Jesus himself was immersed into the depths of suffering and death, becoming a “curse for us.” (Galatians 3.13-14) Like Jesus, the man I held in my arms was a scapegoat, already outcast and now ready for sacrifice. In the eyes of the mob, this man with AIDS was cursed. They saw him as an evil that must be eliminated for fear the curse would spread to include them. But Jesus has once for all redeemed us from such scapegoating violence. Through Christ we are baptized into the experience of cursedness so that we might be delivered from it—from both the shame of being the one cursed and the fear that drives us to curse one another. In Christ, we see most clearly that God is present in our suffering—and does not abandon us even when we cause the suffering of others. Always God is active to save, to heal, to lead us toward life.
In baptism, we say both a “yes” and a “no.” We say no to Satan, the “accuser”: the frenzied fingerpointer, the rabid segregationist, the angry stone-thrower—the dark power behind all our scapegoating.
From these works we turn away. But saying no is never enough; we must also say yes. We say yes not just to God but to God’s own work in our broken world: the works of mercy. We become part of a community with a vocation of yes: of engagement with pain and suffering, with brokenness and death—with the human experience, even at its darkest depths.
The grace to be found in the story of the man dying with AIDS is not in the event itself, in the simple fact that it was happening. Grace is found in seeing that it is happening—that it has happened, that it will happen—and entering into it so that we might act to redeem. We are called to act with God and with our sisters and brothers to redeem everyone who suffers—and all who create suffering. By grace we know violence must be stopped, but because of grace, it cannot be stopped without our participation.
This is the deep call of Mercy—and how it started with a baptism. Our church is the direct result of experiencing God’s grace by holding a dying man in a shower and the need to say yes to that grace.
Mercy is a community with a vocation of yes. We are sent out into all the world but particularly into the abandoned alley-ways where children of God are left to die—so that all of us might be lifted up together into God’s own decisive and resounding yes to life. This is my story, but I believe it is the call of us all.
May God give us the grace to remember our baptism.