Q: What was the most important religion story of 2009?
It was hardly reported. It didn’t seem like news. But again this year, all around the world, people of faith kept serving God’s cause of love and justice among the poor, forgotten, alienated, and needy.
Governments bailed out big banks, but pastors, social workers, community organizers, and volunteers bailed out hurting families. Governments propped up corporations that were too big to fail, but local churches, mosques, synagogues, and other faith communities came to the aid of homeless women and single moms who were too small for most people to notice.
The President delivered an important speech signifying a major change in the U.S.’s relationship to the Muslim world, but thousands of individuals Muslims, Christians, Jews and others put those words into action: they engaged in thousands of small acts of kindness and neighborliness towards people different from themselves, realizing that God is the creator of all and all human beings bear God’s image. They moved into neighborhoods where they were a minority so they could be agents of relationship-building and reconciliation: they created interfaith, multi-racial safe places where needed dialogue could occur, replacing prejudice with mutual regard. In so doing, they helped pre-empt the hate crimes, un-holy wars, and genocides of the future, unmaking future news.
Oil and coal companies continued to make huge profits while toxifying our air and destroying our land, but faith-based organizations working at their own expense among the rural poor planted trees to preserve hillsides, taught more sustainable farming practices, helped subsistence-level families acquire their first goat or cow or chickens, and provided simple but efficient stoves to reduce the cutting of trees for charcoal. Faith communities organized as never before around the need to preserve God’s creation, helping growing numbers of people see the vital link between ecology and spirituality. They promoted ethical buying and fair trade, helping people of faith see the democracy of the dollar, where every dollar spent is like a ballot cast against companies that work for the single bottom line of profit, and where every dollar spent is like a ballot cast for companies that work for the triple bottom line of economic, social, and environmental sustainability.
Well-known public figures self-destructed in scandals of sex, drugs, alcohol, and greed, but unknown pastors, priests, imams, rabbis, and other spiritual leaders taught millions of people to live responsible lives of chastity, fidelity, self-discipline, and generosity. They provided rhythms of worship, teaching, fellowship and prayer that helped strong families stay strong and struggling families survive and thrive again. They hosted recovery groups where addicts were restored to sanity, and they formed youth groups that engaged young people in productive activities that helped them discover the true highs of friendship, good clean fun, and service to others. They visited prisoners and helped them prepare for a better life in the future.
Politicians fought about health care and media pundits amplified all kinds of crazy lies and frightening exaggerations, winning votes or viewers at the expense of increasing polarization. But thousands of faithful people saw God’s image in the sick, the mentally ill, the refugee, the other and outsider. They brought compassionate resources to those in need, and they built bridges of solidarity rather than walls of polarization. People of faith in places of power expressed that solidarity by including the oft-forgotten as their most important constituency, believing that God guided them to exercise a preferential option for the poor. Their work, however, was hardly ever reported, because they worked from the assumption that it’s best not to let their left hands know what their right hands were doing.
Some high-profile religious leaders continued to motivate their people to hate and fear “the other” – the religiously other, the racially other, the politically other, the sexually other, the economically other. They plotted ways to discredit and even kill those with whom they disagreed, all in the name of God. Meanwhile, many low-profile religious workers quietly but courageously defied the leadership of the purveyors of hate and fear. Where their counterparts called for high-profile violence, these humble workers called for reconciliation and quietly embedded the virtues of love, joy, and peace in their neighborhoods. Where their counterparts used sacred texts to maintain division and prejudice, they used the same texts to form peacemaking communities and instruments of peace. Where their counterparts got rich broadcasting religion to siphon money from the desperate and poor, they impoverished themselves by giving to those in need. While their counterparts made it easier for skeptics to be atheists, they made it harder, because God seemed to become real in their humble acts of service, sacrifice, and love.
The most important news story of 2009? Sin abounded in all its forms – personal and social, sexual and financial, racial and religious, private and public. But grace abounded all the more. That, thank God, is good news for everyone.