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NOVEMBER 18, 2009   

What would Jesus do?

Four candles on altarFour lit candles were on the altar, each with a hand-written name in front of it. The church, St. Patrick's, was about one-quarter full. Neighbors, family and a reporter or two sat in the pews and thought about the three men and a woman who died in a fire on West 32nd Street ten days ago.

As Joanne and I slid into a pew, a small group of musicians softly sang a hymn. There was a brief mention of the four who had died, then a steady procession of neighborhood ministers talked about Jesus and read Bible verses.

I hope this in some way comforted the families of the dead, because that would make it worthwhile. It made me angry. The focus seemed more on promoting Christian beliefs than on remembering, mourning or honoring the dead.

I'm not a religious person, but I try to respect the beliefs of others. As I listened to talk about the Bible I wondered what Jesus would have said. Would he have talked about himself or about the four who were consumed by the smoke and flames? Somehow I don't think that he would have allowed these four, who died without much material success or social standing, to be forgotten amidst talk of John the Baptist and Bible studies.

The ministers, whose commitment to our neighborhood and its people are without question, did a wonderful thing in organizing this event. I don't question their sincerity or their love for their neighbors. In fact I know that they do much more than I in this respect.

Still, I wonder about their wisdom in choosing to emphasize the religious interpretation over the human stories. It seems to me that a much-needed time for neighbors to grieve as a group became an occasion to promote Christianity. Maybe Jesus himself would have seen this as an opportunity for self-promotion, but truly, I think not.

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