Was Chaplain Conroy really canned for praying for the poor?

ATLANTA -- It goes without saying that not all Christians think alike.

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Gracie Bonds Staples
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- It goes without saying that not all Christians think alike.

Still, I couldn't help wondering what in the world Speaker Paul Ryan could've been thinking recently when he forced the Rev. Patrick Conroy to resign.

As recently as a few days ago, it wasn't immediately clear why the House chaplain was dismissed. Some said it was because of lawmaker complaints that the priest wasn't fulfilling his pastoral duties. Others have said it was because of Conroy's political leanings and more specifically a prayer he gave during last fall's tax debate urging lawmakers not to "pick winners and losers" but spread benefits equitably.

Ryan spokeswoman Ashlee Strong has been quoted denying that was the reason, and I hope that's true.

Listening to all the television pundits over the past weekend, it was hard to tell.

What I know for sure is the chaplain is responsible for opening the House each day with a prayer and offering counseling to lawmakers and aides on the House side of the Capitol. I also know that Christians are called to serve the least of these, which includes advocating for them and, yes, praying for them.

Conroy, who had served in that position since 2011, is a Roman Catholic priest from the Jesuit order.

According to the Rev. Lyn Pace, chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University, here's why that and what he said regarding the poor is so important.

"Jesuits have a long history of seeing their calling to be public theologians, meaning that faith can and should have a role in the marketplace or the everyday," he said. "I believe that the Christian faith has more than just a private role; it's meant to be communal and often that means that it's also political just as its founder was."

Pace said that if Congress is going to have a chaplain then its members need to understand that the role of a chaplain is not just to offer "nice" prayers.

"In this particular case, as a Christian and more specifically a Jesuit, Father Conroy saw his role to embody Jesus, one who stands in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable in society," he said. "Seems like that ought to be the role of Congress too."

We talk a lot about separation of church and state but in the 17th chapter of John, Jesus makes it plain that a Christian's ministry is to this world, not a select few.

Isaiah 58 defines true worship of God as living lives focused on justice and mercy and taking care of those in need. Matthew 25 calls us to be in ministry to the poor, the hungry, the sick, the stranger.

And Proverbs 14:31 says that "Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God."

For as long as I can remember that has been the hallmark of every Baptist church I have been a member of since age 10, when I first gave my life to Christ.

I'm going on 61 now and that has never changed. At Antioch Baptist Church North, where my husband and I worship, not a day goes by when we aren't reminded that our purpose is to serve the least, the less and the lost.

On any given Sunday, we carry all of our beliefs, including our politics, to church. By the same token, we're called to carry our faith out into the world.

As I understand it, that is what it means to live in the world but not be of this world.

At a time when politicians seem to be saying poverty is a 'lifestyle choice,' Scripture, indeed life itself, is a reminder that poverty can touch any of our lives in a multitude of ways and a mountain of reasons.

Ever looked at a beggar on a street corner and wondered what might be his story?

A Christian faith that is lived out, Pace said, is one that understands the role of narrative or story.

"Christians are shaped by gospel stories about Jesus and his ministry," he said. "As a Christian I'm called to care about my story but also the story of my neighbor, any neighbor, and especially vulnerable neighbors."

Make no mistake. There's nothing wrong with being poor. Turning our backs on the poor is wrong and worse, a sin against God.

I'm not advocating government dependency here. I'm just saying our faith needs to be lived out to others.

If Speaker Ryan is indeed a Christian, and I have no reason to believe he isn't, he has to know what I'm talking about.

If he doesn't I suggest he read James 2:14-16:

"What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?"

It's a good question.

Gracie Bonds Staples writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: gstaples(at)ajc.com.

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