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Religious Reflections

Contamination risk worth taking

by Rev. Katie Haney

My husband and I happened upon an idle evening recently and took the opportunity to watch the film "The Aviator." That's the movie about Howard Hughes and his climb to fame and fortune. It also probes his eccentricities - in particular, his battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The words of his mother when he was 7 kept running through his mind. A cholera epidemic was close at hand and she had warned him away from the infected sections of town, saying, "You're not safe."

That obsession for cleanliness grew until it ruled Hughes' life. You've seen that disorder in the movies before - the victim uses a handkerchief to open the door so he doesn't get germs off the door knob. He brings his own case of soap into a public restroom and scrubs his hands until they're raw.

We look at that psychosis with pity and puzzlement and can't understand how anyone could be so afraid of contamination. Yet, we are reluctant to get into a conversation with a stranger on the street who's obviously suffering from mental illness or retardation. And we shudder to think of getting too close to a filthy, homeless person nested on the sidewalk in Seattle or Portland. We'd rather not be contaminated by whatever creepy, crawly things are inhabiting their bodies. And all the media focus on publicly transmitted diseases feeds our fears. Better to stay safe in our antiseptic world.

Contrast that view with this story from Mother Theresa who ministered to the "untouchables" in Calcutta. In her book, Words to Love By, she tells of walking past an open drain and catching a glimpse of something moving in it. She investigated and found a dying man whom she took back to a home where he could die in love and peace.

"I live like an animal in the streets," the man told her. "Now I will die like an angel."

"How wonderful to see a person die in love," she exclaims, "with the joy of love, the perfect peace of Christ on his face."

Those are two different ends of the spectrum of involvement with humanity. One totally protected from others and the other totally immersed in others. Jesus calls on us to minister to the least and lost in our world, just as he did. He touched lepers. He healed the blind and crippled homeless people he encountered. He fed the hungry and cast demons out of crazy people.

In Matthew 25:37-41, Jesus answered the question, When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, sick or in prison and visited you?

He said, Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

It sounds like if we're going to be Christ's disciples, we're going to have to get our hands dirty. Think about how you might roll up your sleeves and carry on Jesus' ministry. Getting involved with others is risky business. We aren't safe, as Howard Hughes' mother warned him. But we are saved, and that makes the risk of contamination worth taking.

- Rev. Katie Haney is pastor at Sunnyside Presbyterian Church.

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