Time spent with the Brethren brings self-reflection and many questions

Every day, I do everything I can to make the world a better place. I’m not some kind of religious freak or anything — I’m just human — but I sincerely want to do the appropriate thing all the time; or at least so long as it doesn’t affect my competitive edge in the global marketplace.

Therefore, I make it my business to at least recycle my trash, drive a small car that gets good gas mileage, buy organic vegetable oil and clothing made only in Amnesty International-approved countries. I buy a lot of hand-crafted native artifacts made by indigenous tribes – but is that enough?

It is my practice to be respectful of other people’s cultures and I purchase artifacts when my money allows. These things help me to appreciate the richness and diversity of the human race, even if a lot of the participants are sort of “lagging behind.”

So I was going about living my relatively ethical life when I noticed a bearded guy in shabby brown clothes holding a sign saying something about God in front of the Lory Student Center. His name is Jerry Williams and he is the leader of a local branch of a national religious group called The Brethren.

Some police officials say the group is a cult, and that Jerry himself is a dangerous individual and a menace to society. Unlike the police officials who had apparently forgotten that every major religion, including Christianity, originally began as a cult, I approached Jerry with a more open mind. It would be wrong to judge an entire organization by the inappropriate conduct of a few of its members. If I were to do so, how could I possibly continue to vote for Democratic candidates (or Republican ones, for that matter)?

Curious about The Brethren, I ignored the warnings and decided to let Jerry speak for himself.

On many evenings over the summer months I’d notice Jerry and his brethren at the public Library Park picnic benches serving dinner to groups of homeless people. Sometimes, upwards of 25 people were fed by the day-old dumpster discards of local supermarkets. After the dinners Jerry would repair any of their bikes that needed fixing. The homeless who were without shelter were invited to join him at his Brethren camp.

I thought this was cool because whenever I see homeless people on the street I sometimes put a quarter in their cup – if I have extra change in my pocket.

Talking to Jerry at the Student Center over the past few weeks, I found out that he and I have other things in common. He is opposed to the rampant materialism in American society. He believes consumer greed is a major obstacle to creating a just and equitable world. And he thinks corporations manufacture mostly glamorous distractions that keep society attracted to superficial lifestyles.

I thought this was cool because I’ve read about Buddhism and understand the teachings of detachment from the world and the value of seeking noble truths — like trading up one world for another. Jerry listened to my philosophies and asked, “What are you doing about what you believe in?” And I said, “Well, I do what I can whenever the opportunity presents itself; I have faith that in time, man’s ways will be reconciled with God’s.”

Jerry has been on the road for almost 20 years, traveling back and forth across America. He moves from town to town witnessing for Christ, living as the early Christians did, without visible means of support. Then Jerry asked me, “Is the body of your actions consistent with the heart of your beliefs?”

And for a minute this unstylishly dressed man who hasn’t watched television in almost 20 years stopped me in my tracks. Was he suggesting that I don’t practice what I preach?

Jerry has never taken a college class. He is unlearned in the ways of post-modern relativism. He was never taught about the fragmentation of the once unified self, about the unbridgeable gulf between the sign and the signifier. In his unschooled confusion, was he suggesting I was a hypocrite? I repeated to him my catalog of efforts to do right and to be good. He listened for a while then finally he asked, “Are you living your life for your self, or for God and for others?”

All at once, Jerry’s true nature was revealed. He was advocating nothing less than a spiritual revolution. And not the kind that can be put to music and used in a Nike commercial. The police officials were right – Jerry is a menace to society. But not in the way they imagine him to be. If Jerry were to have his way my individual freedom of choice to become a Hollywood celebrity or a Wall Street gazillionarre would be compromised.

Jerry and others like him represent a 2000 year-old dinosaur of oppressiveness that would wish me to be nothing more that a common member of the human family. He would have me think that my choice of personal lifestyle supports the very institutions that my ethical beliefs tell me need to be fundamentally changed. I know I may be guilty of not practicing what I preach, but I don’t want to feel

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The Rocky Mountain Collegian, USA
Sep. 6, 2001
Michael Robeson

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday September 6, 2001.
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