When I was little, I lived in a small town in southern Missouri. My house was within walking distance to my school, and if you took a stroll around the town very often at all you’d notice an old man riding around on a bicycle.
All the kids were afraid of him, made fun of him, thought he was the crazy old man who haunted the town. He rode around on his bicycle picking up aluminum cans–getting them from trashcans and dumpsters, picking them up off the side of the road.
He was not worth our time, but worth our criticism and laughter. We were a civilized bunch of youngsters, and he was the old man who didn’t quite belong, who we’d never know much of, until years later.
We found out that, so the story goes, that he was one of the wealthiest men in our town, and all those years he’d been collecting the cans to exchange them for money. His wealth was hidden from our sight.
The man we’d thought was crazy and poor was actually intelligent and wealthy, doing something for himself that appeared odd to us. I’m sure my cheeks flushed red that day that we found out. I’m sure we were ashamed, but as it goes in this society, we were taught to fear the other. We feared him, and in fearing him, dishonored him.
I watched the movie Chocolat for the second time recently. Have you seen it? I’ve yet to read the book, but the movie, in watching it again, became a crystal clear picture of what I’ve seen so many times in our society.
Imagine: A small conservative catholic town celebrating Lent is shaken up by a woman opening a Mayan chocolate shop, a woman who shows her cleavage every now and then and allows her daughter to run around with an imaginary kangaroo, a woman who befriends river rats.
There is so much to this movie about the church’s fear of anything other or “secular” or for heaven’s sake, anything that tastes good or is a tagged a temptation. And because it is Lent, a season of fasting, the mayor of the town turns everyone against this woman and her illegitimate daughter.
Have you seen this scenario before?
In our traditional church pulpits we often give sermons of passion about staying far from temptation, every now and then using a them or they in the scenario.
“If you don’t go to church, you won’t last long here,” says a new friend to Vianne. And the church proves it with every passing day, as only the most heretical enter the Chocolaterie Maya to taste the most delightful chocolates they’ve ever eaten, and in doing so, build a small community.
Vianne takes her friend in, rescuing her from an abusive husband. They work in the shop together, throwing a birthday party for another dear friend who is mending a relationship with her grandson. They celebrate community in a way that many in the small church across the street wish they could, but are too scared to indulge that hunger.
Toward the end of the movie, the mayor, the one who disgraced Vianne’s name throughout the town for months, ends up in the shop, and in a fit of sabotage, eats and literally rolls in chocolate until he falls asleep in the shop window.
It should never come to this for so many of us. There shouldn’t have to be a complete breakdown of our way of life for us to see that we are neglecting those on the margins, on the outside. In this little catholic town, mass was an event designed to separate holy from unholy, those who belonged from the ragamuffins too disgraceful to walk the city streets on a Sunday morning. While this is not every church, of course, it is the identity of some.
Friends, it should not be so.
But, by the end of this particular story, those divisions are broken and the town comes together around Vianne and her chocolate shop. Lessons are learned. Friendships begin. Love flourishes.
Toward the end of the movie, the local priest says this in church:
“We can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude. We’ve got to measure our goodness by what we embrace, what we create and whom we include.”
Those words should be spoken from every church pulpit. Those words should be spread on our high-rising billboards along country and city roads. Those are words of reconciliation between the ones who have been other for so long and the ones who always seemed to belong.
They sound a lot like the words of Jesus.
It’s what happened that day when I realized with a group of my friends that the man collecting the cans was an actual human being with a story and a timeline to his life.
It’s what happens when we go beyond our own comfort zones into a world that is waiting for us, with pockets of communities who care for one another and would welcome us in a heartbeat.
If only we’re willing to go across the street and taste the chocolat.