Jesus said that the core of being Christian is to love God and love thy neighbor as thyself. Except Jesus wouldn’t have used these words. This is the English translation and English has a very loose definition of that keyword, love. We use the same word to say “I love you, mom” as we do to say “I love ice cream.” “love” in English doesn’t have a clear definition. So, how do we know what “love thy neighbor” really means? Jesus originally spoke these words in Aramaic and would have used the word “rakhma” meaning unconditional or compassionate love” however, we don’t get this phrase directly from Jesus either — we get it from the new testament, which was written much later than Jesus’s day and in greek. The word Jesus’s followers use to quote Jesus is “agape” the highest form of love. The kind of love that is self-giving without expectation of receiving anything in return. Earlier Christian followers didn’t look to a dictionary or a word study to understand “agape” they look to Jesus’s actions and miracles.
Whether you are Catholic or not, we can learn something about these values. Agape is different from romantic love, or even how you love a friend. Page is not a feeling you have for someone, it is not something that happens to you. Agape is an action you take to help those around you without expecting anything in return. This love is especially powerful when we give it not because we want to, but because someone needs it. Today, I want to share what Agape means to me and how I came to this realization.
Sine this summer I have been working at a homeless shelter in Palo Alto. At first, going there made me feel depressed. I focused on all the injustice and hardship I saw. I felt like there was nothing I could do to help. This feeling was overwhelming, but eventually, I stopped letting this heavy weight bother me and channeled this energy into service. I started learning. I started talking to people not just homeless people but policymakers, researchers, religious leaders, classmates, and graduate students. I found a serious lack of mental health care, which motivated me to start a health and wellness program. This act came from a place of responding to a human need –in this way, I was practicing agape. And When I started this project I was full of doubt. I thought people were not going to care or they might be angry or think I was naive, but that not the response I got at all. I started bringing in people, yoga teachers, exercise equipment, and talking to people about their health needs. And once I started doing this people got excited. And it wasn’t the stationary bike making people happy. The healing began when people came in and showed a genuine interest in their well being. Starting this program has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. And all it took was caring and standing with people who needed care and help the most. In this very practical way, I was able to learn and come to realize how I could best serve people in my community. I let my head lead me to respond to a need, and I am proud of what I accomplished. But this talk isn’t about healing the world — it’s about love — its about agape.
When I visit the shelter. I park at play and walk through town and country because they don’t want homeless people to stay the night in the parking for the shoppers. One day, on a late start Wednesday, I was walking down El Camino and saw a woman across the street laying on the sidewalk. I could have walked by her. I could have forgotten her seconds after I passed her like I have done many times. But I didn’t, when I saw her I crossed the street and came over to her. She was an elderly woman; her hair was matted with dirt, and her face was cracked and tired looking. I knelt down, her clothes smelled terrible; there were urine stains on the blanket wrapped around her, and what looked like dried vomit on her jacket. She looked emaciated and weak. I might have walked by her, but I didn’t because I knew her. I met Sage when I was doing survey outreach for the city of Palo Alto. They were trying to get an estimate of how many elderly homeless people are living in Palo Alto, so I was asking people questions like why they were homeless, how long they have been homeless, and what they needed most. When I met her, she looked nothing like the way I saw her that day. Sage was one of the most competent people I talked to that day. She used to be an English teacher. I used to come in and she would ask me about the short stories I was reading in class, she would hand me articles and tell me she was praying for me.
In November, however, I started noticing that she was changing. At first, it was small stuff, she started talking about people following her. She was convinced that someone was always watching her, that someone was stalking her. She would get so paranoid that she’d call the police and bring them to the shelter. Soon, she was blacklisted by 911. She started getting angry, she felt like no one was helping her, no one was listening to her. Sage has been homeless for 15 years now after her husband died in a motorcycle accident. She refuses to get the help she needs because she doesn’t want to give out any of her personal information. She thinks that she will come out of her homelessness, and when she does, she doesn’t want any affiliation with being homeless. Despite the fact that there are services available that would help her get off the streets and into stable housing, she would refuse to get any real help. Soon I started supplying her with materials she needed to survive because she didn’t trust any of the case managers or administrators at the shelter. I was collecting whatever I could rain boots, clothes, toiletries, towels for showering, bandaging and Advil, and groceries. But I was only coming into the opportunity center so often. Sage isn’t getting what she needed to survive. This December, things took a turn for the worst when her car broke down. There are services to fit it, but she refused to tell the people at the shelter her last name so they can’t help her. She started getting angrier. She would tell caseworkers, administrators, other clients, even volunteers. She became so paranoid she wouldn’t let other people touch her, or physically come near her — including me. Actually one day I had my phone out on the patio and she started yelling at me. She was convinced I walk taking pictures of her. She told me that I was being rude and disrespectful. She used more foul language and I was shocked by her outburst. That was when I knew they were much worse than I thought. In January, she stopped coming to the shelter altogether. She no longer had a place to sleep at night nor any food or other services that the shelter was providing. She was relying on church offerings and handouts from the street. I heard from other people at the shelter that they had seen her around and she was telling other people on the streets not to come to this shelter because all the people are backward and were harassing her, the following her and trying to steal her identity. This made me sad but unfortunately, I can’t say this is the first time someone I knew at the shelter went on a downward spiral.
When I saw her that day last February lying on the street helpless. I wish I could say that I immediately felt bad for sage. But I didn’t. I was mad. I was mad at her for not letting us help her. I was mad at the world for being so screwed up that this would happen. I was mad at God for giving her the life that she had. I was mad at myself for feeling angry. But all this resentment wasn’t going to change what I was about to do. I grabbed sage by the hand, they were freezing. I don’t know why she was there that day– but I’d imagine that she was close to the shelter for a reason and that she was in desperate need of help. As I helped her up from the sidewalk, she didn’t say anything. I was surprised to see that she didn’t resist me at all. In fact, she held onto me tightly. I was surprised to see how much she was relying on me, putting her whole weight on me. I took her towards the shelter. As we were getting closer to the building I turned to see that there were tears coming down her face, leaving streaks in the dir on her cheeks. As ai brought her into the building the guards took her from me into the clinic. Truly I didn’t even know if she knew I was the one that brought her in. I got some juice and food from the kitchen. When I came back I had the food to the burse. By this time the door to the clinic is closed and she is with the clinician. At that moment, I know what’s going to happen next, but I was just standing there on the outside. I know that she is going to get some initial help and as soon as she really needs something she will refuse to give any information and leave. I couldn’t be here to watch her do this again. So I go back to get her beg, which I left on the sidewalk outside where I found her. When I get back she was still in the clinic, and from the state of the nurse I could tell what I thought was going to happen was happening. I was disappointed in her. I stuffed her bag with toiletries, shower pills, clean clothes, some first-aid gear, and Safeway gift cards. I left the bag with the nurse and I left. I got into my car and had an absolute breakdown. I cried like I never have, and I listened to translations. This is the kind of love that doesn’t make you feel good, but something that you have to do.
Love — agape — is not one we give because we want to, but because someone needs it. Form this act of agape was quite obvious — but god acts through us in small ways every day. Every time we let go of our judgments and chose to love someone anyway we are practicing agape. Agape love is hard, we can imagine that the heart of the world is this being with overflowing love for the world. It is our job to receive this love, but also to love each other. Agape is as simple as reaching out to someone in need, putting someone else’s needs above our own.