From today’s first reading, we hear: “For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person with shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Sit here, please,’ while you say to the poor one, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?” (James 2:2-4). I wonder how many church communities find themselves with such a demographic diversity or even if they might, experience the dynamic that James seems to be warning against.
Our parish has some interesting diversity along socioeconomic lines with an interesting mixture of Catholic “tradition” thrown in. A typical morning Mass at 7:00 am might have 30 people present, most on their way to work in the downtown core of the city. Some have already parked at work and walk to the church. One comes early to make sure his Bentley has a parking spot (our parish has zero parking to call its own). Some hop off the bus at the corner. Some have been sleeping on the church steps during the night. Many are lawyers with offices and courthouses (state, county and federal) near by. Some are bankers – others bakers at the hotel across the street. I know a butcher and candlestick maker, but they are not normally at morning Mass. We have several judges present but they are good people without “evil designs.” I am jealous of some of the folks; they are retired. I think I would be very good at retired.
Some folks have been sleeping on the church steps during the night – or nearby spots. The Florida winter has been mild. They are as diverse as those who slept in their beds at home. Some are between luck, between jobs, between meds, between the self-medication of their choice – and some just passing through. Some are new and seen only once. Others are regulars with names known and stories familiar For some the morning mass is a chance to use the bathroom, clean up a little, and for some a chance to pray before the altar. Some stay for Mass, most don’t. Some have breakfast or coffee with slept-in-my-bed folks.
The interesting Catholic “tradition” is that all the regulars sit in the same spot. It is for sure a Catholic thing; possible an American Christian thing. When I served in Kenya, it was first come, first seated – with the exception of the local tribal elders. They had front bench seating. The elders in age were always treated with respect and offered seats. Here everyone knows where everyone sits – and should a visitor take their seat – there are other places to sit.
At our morning Mass there is plenty of room – you could have your own pew if you wanted. Yet people sit with their friends and plan a coffee for after Mass. People sit alone for the early morning quiet. One prays the Stations before Mass. Another ponders the mystery of something on their mobile phones. One readies their notebook and will write during the homily. I don’t know whether to be honored or nervous.
All the regulars have their spots – the ones who come early, the ones on time, and the ones forever running late. Of course the Wednesday regulars are not necessarily the Monday or Friday regulars. I have no idea about the Thursday regulars; its my day off.
Lots of people come into church – golden rings and shabby clothes – and in the mystery of grace they are transformed into a community. Distinctions suspended for a time during a morning in church.