They were 26 men living in a downtown halfway house for serious offenders. They had served time for everything from rape to murder, but somewhere along the line they had made the decision to turn their lives around. Now, here they were at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting listening to a middle-aged woman from a nearby church tell them that they were smarter than most of the wealthy professional people who hurried past their door every day.
“How can you tell us that we’re smarter than all those college-educated people out there?” one man asked. “Because you’ve admitted you’re dependent on God,” she said. “You know you can’t do this on your own. They still think that they can.”
Tom, the man who ran the program, was a no-nonsense type in a cotton shirt and rumpled trousers. His office hung heavy with the blue haze that seems to cling to chain smokers. These were his guys and it was his intention to help them make their way back into society as productive citizens.
Repeaters were rare but there were a few who were no longer welcome because of their refusal to follow Tom’s rules. “Thou shalt not kill” also applied to killing oneself with alcohol and drugs and he wasn’t about to let it happen on his watch. Tom also knew that he couldn’t do this alone.
Paul and Barnabas were doing good work, but they knew that after they had left an area some of the people would return to their old habits. So “they returned” to strengthen the spirits of those they’d left behind and to “exhort them to persevere in the faith” because, as they continued to remind them, they couldn’t do this alone.
We Americans have a reputation for being rugged individualists. We easily fall into the trap of thinking that we can do just fine without anyone’s help. “[T]hey called the church together and reported what God had done with them.” What do we talk about when we call the church together? Are we like the guys in the halfway house? Or are we more like the folks who walk past their door every day?
Van Benthem is a longtime pastoral minister in the diocese.