[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times August 8, 2008]
The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy? Amos 3:8
He was still on the corner of Canal and Chartres in New Orleans where I’d seen him on my visit five years before — ensconced on a folding chair, wearing a multicolored umbrella hat, and wielding a bullhorn. “Repent! Return to the Lord and he will save you,” he boomed in the cool April air.
The streets were empty in the early morning and I could hear him for blocks as I walked briskly off to satisfy my craving for a beignet slathered in powdered sugar. “Repent.” Later in the day, the street din would drown out his words, and parents would cross the street with their children to avoid the crazy preacher. Oblivious to his audience, or lack thereof, he continued to stay on message and decry the sinful ways of the world. “Turn to the Lord.”
I resisted crossing the street, but still felt slightly uncomfortable each time I passed by, my conscience itching at the edges. His words sounded harsh against the riotous jazz playing in New Orleans’ French Quarter, a prickly counterpoint to my twice daily indulgence in Cafe du Monde’s sweet fried dough.
As the haunting words of the prophet Amos poured forth at daily Mass a few weeks ago, the face of the New Orleans street preacher, incongruous hat and all, surfaced before my eyes. And I felt that same faint unease return.
Would I have dismissed Amos as a well meaning, but slightly demented soul on a street corner? Should I have been paying attention on that street corner in New Orleans?
Prophets, even those confronting people and events long past, can be hard to listen to. Isaiah promises destruction to an Israel that has strayed from God’s ways: Rebels and sinners alike shall be crushed; those who desert the Lord shall be consumed.
I tried to banish the unease that Amos’ words evoked by taking refuge in their historicity, crossing not just to the other side of the street, but to the other side of the chasm of time. I am not in Israel in the 8th century before Christ, nor are the warriors of Assyria assembled against me. Even so, the historical distance doesn’t quite dispel my interior qualms.
What do you mean by crushing my people, and grinding down the poor when they look to you? — the Lord asks Israel through Isaiah. It is a question that is as apt for me, perhaps, as it was for ancient Israel.
Amos and Isaiah’s original audiences are long gone. Yet courtesy of the Scriptures, they, like my street corner prophet, remain at their task, their message proclaimed heedless of their listeners’ presence or discomfort.
Where are the prophets among us now? Surely we still have need of their reminders to face God. Next time I hear a prophet preaching repentance, whether his words are drifting down the street or down the centuries, I will turn to the Lord — and listen.
Almighty Father, let your light so penetrate our minds, that walking by your commandments we may always follow you, our leader and guide. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.