Today we honor Charles Freer Andrews. Born in Birmingham, England, in 1871, Andrews was ordained a priest in 1897. Turned on to social justice efforts in college, Andrews became interested in the cause of social justice throughout the British Empire, especially in India. In 1904, he began to teach philosophy in Delhi, where his students and colleagues began to refer to him by an Indian name which means “Friend of the Poor.” Andrews openly criticized the racist treatment of the Indian people by British officials, and in 1913 he successfully mediated a cotton worker’s strike which could have become violent. He travelled to South Africa to help Indians there. While there, he met Gandhi. Andrews was impressed by Gandhi’s teaching of non-violence, knowledge of Christian faith and practice of peace. Andrews and Gandhi worked together to negotiate matters of Indian authority with the British government. Andrews also took up the Indian cause in Fiji, and eventually returned to England where he taught about social justice and radical discipleship.
I am sure Andrews was no stranger to our text from Deuteronomy today. The passage is all about the sabbatical year, where debts were forgiven. The passage warned the faithful against scheming around the rules of the seventh year. Knowing that year was approaching, people were hesitant to give to those whose debts would be quickly forgiven. Instead, the people of God are told, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
In many ways, St. Margaret’s is a faithful witness to opening our hands. We are constantly collecting food and basic toiletries, giving gifts to the less fortunate and growing produce to feed the hungry. We give liberally and ungrudgingly, as the text suggests. But in all our good works, I sometimes wonder whether we could be labeled “Friend of the Poor,” as Andrews was. It is one thing to give good or money to the poor, a necessary and important effort, but giving to the poor is not the same as being their friend. Being a friend means getting involved, hearing their stories, finding out how they got to where they are today. That work is much harder and messier, yet more meaningful.
Last week a story broke about Pope Francis and the Vatican opening up a new set of showers and a barber shop for the homeless of Rome. The facility is beautiful and the homeless are treated with dignity and care. The Vatican is trying to live into a life that embraces the poor and recognizes their humanity. Now whether they become “friends of the poor” is something that is yet to be seen. We all have that same invitation – to see the dignity of every human being and then to try to be their friend. Good luck with your work! Amen.