Worst of sinners — an example

from OrthoCuban by Fr. Ernesto Obregon

Yesterday I commented on how sometimes the best of saints come from thoroughly sinful stock. Grace abounds to overflowing and overcomes even deadly sin. One need only read the lives of several of the saints in order to realize that. It was the murderer, King David, who wrote Psalm 51, which is recited by every Orthodox clergyman who incenses the altar. It was the murderer Saint Paul who wrote over half of the New Testament. There are many saints in Church history who were sinful in large scale. One needs think only of Saint Moses the Black or Saint Mary of Egypt, for instance. But many do not realize that smaller examples of the same models are present with us to this day. I alluded to that yesterday.

One of the people whom I have met at the VA is a pastor’s wife. She is African-American and she and her husband live in a rough neighbourhood here deliberately. Her husband’s church is there, and she works as a lab in order to ensure that their family has enough income and her husband can continue to pastor in a community that would have difficulty in fully supporting him and his family. She is well-dressed, well-spoken, friendly and is a college graduate. It is only when one talks to her over several months that one begins to realize that she is one of the models to whom I have been alluding.

I have heard her talk before about her work with children in the Sunday School and how they have fostered some young people. She has also counselled young women caught in drug addiction, inappropriate sexual behaviour, etc. She has told me about teaching the children to say, “Yes, ma’am,” and “Yes, sir,” in Sunday School, and about washing their hands, and about caution when dealing with strangers, etc. Her Sunday School is really a mixture of Sunday School and Life School. For inner city children, this may be the only such teaching they will receive. She has told me of looking at high school (and junior college) report cards and chivying  them about their homework, all the things that a parent should do. But, sometimes the parents are absent. And, she has helped young women deal with the detritus of bad decisions. All that work, by itself, already puts her and her husband leagues ahead of most Christian couples. Some people would say that the work almost qualifies her for minor sainthood already.

But, just two days ago, as I was talking “church stuff” with her, she commented in passing about how important it is that the people with whom she works have somebody to whom they are able to relate. When I looked questioningly at her, she commented on how she could not figure out how Roman Catholic priests could give sound advice about marriage, having never been married. But, that phrase did not match what she had just said previously, so when I looked at her again, she said to me that she had been like the young women with whom she works. It was because she was back then what they are now that she is able to give those women exactly the advice they need. Then she said that most people could not believe that she had ever been “bad” when they meet her today. Without giving me details, she simply said that she had been every bit as sinful as every one of those women and that, in fact, one of her techniques is basically to tell the young women to quit their self-pity, because she had been where they are now. (But I know her. I suspect she then promptly becomes all motherly, hugs them, and supports them as they change their lifestyle.)

That is when I realized that I was face to face with one of those “minor” saints, who had been in a chasm of sin but in whom the grace of God had abounded and overflowed until she has become largely conformed to the likeness of God. She does not blow her trumpet, nor call attention to herself. Instead her husband and her are quietly in the inner city, working so that God’s grace may run rampant and change even more people into the likeness of his Son. No, she is not Orthodox, but she is one of those strong committed Christians whose life testimony is glorious. She may not be Orthodox, but I have little doubt that she is firmly held in God’s hand. As so many saintly hierarchs have said, we may know where the Church is, but we do not know who all is in the Church. But I have the deep suspicion that she is firmly in the Church.

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