So, just what is the "public world" in which/about which we are to have conversations? We enter the public world whenever we go out our front door...or back door. Well, actually, even when we are still inside we are in the public world. Our actions need deliberation, conversation, as they impact society, such as the ELCA's Social Statement on education, particularly advocacy for public schools. Or, careful study on and public voice on health insurance reform. Or, our just-passed ELCA statement on human sexuality. We are always using our public voices.
Sometimes ministry is intentional; sometimes unintentional. I entered the public world, the world where I might encounter people who are strange to me and I to them, when I went for an early morning walk two days ago. I'm visiting my son, Mark, and his family in Phoenix. Yes, I know it's August, but a new baby, Aimee, had arrived, so, of course, I had to come.
Mark lives beside a golf course. Almost everyone in Phoenix lives near a golf course. That doesn't mean they have the finances to play there, but early morning, before the golfers come out, people can walk the golf cart path. I walk when the daylight is breaking, before the sun comes out.
On my walk I simply said hello to a worker passing by, one of many who daily groom the greens. No matter that I saw only one set of golfers out the day before (It's 110 degrees here.) Their work of service calls them to serve everyday.
I walked the path the next morning, having forgotten the brief encounter of the day before. But the same service worker approached. He stopped his service vehicle, and smiled and initiated a "hello." We connected, there in the public world. He would not have needed to do that. In fact, usually in our society we have clear, if unstated, boundaries of non-conversation between service people and those they serve, whether that be in hotels, or convention centers, or, perhaps in one's place of employment. So this second-day intentional encounter, reciprocal, is rare, especially when initiated by the service person. Now, granted, I was not a fee-paying golfer. There are layers of class lines in this "classless" society. But, still, it was remarkable and appreciated. There was genuine mutual appreciation; although only one or two words were exchanged, I experienced conversation in the public world, mutual ministry in that early dawn hour.
I had walked this direction, because the other would have brought me to the gates, the "no trespassing" signs. A few years ago one could walk by those houses, but not now; that neighborhood is now a gated community. No trespassing allowed, no public encounters with those unknown, or with those one refuses to notice, no conversation. Of whom or what are they afraid? And why? Really, why? Our call to ministry is a call to encounter, to conversation, and for us to create and help sustain trustworthy places for us all to meet, across the invisible but all-to-real barriers of class.
This morning, again at dawn--the sky was red--I walked. This time I climbed 1/4 the way up a mountain...a Phoenix mountain, not the Rockies. I had a wonderful view of the city. I watched Jack Rabbits and saw a family of Quail pass by, and caught a glimpse of some hummingbirds. Special! All special. But the most surprising was a third meeting. On my way back, once again the service man came by. Recognition. Encounter. He stopped; perhaps it was because there was trash nearby to pick up. Perhaps because we were, if not friends, then certainly welcome acquaintances. I said a full sentence this time; but further communication across language barriers would have been hard, and perhaps "uncalled for." But this encounter I won't forget. The sun came up. I could feel the intense heat of the day begin. No matter. The warmth of the ministry in encounter would set the course for my day.