By Tom Ehrich

It's a haunting photo: a homeless woman sleeping on the steps of my own church on fabled Park Avenue.

The photographer, a friend, titled it, "When society fails, what is the role of the church?"

The photo is made even more haunting by what was happening inside the church, just three inches of wood from where this woman slept.

Congregants were having a heated dispute about the church's budget. People were asking whether it was realistic, had people been adequately informed, what did certain line items really mean, what was being hidden from view?

My friend wandered inside and listened to as much of the budget discussion as he could stand.

I will be using his photo in next Monday's issue of Fresh Day online magazine, as centerpiece of a feature dealing with the question he asks. (http://www.freshday.org)

In these juxtaposed images -- homeless woman, battling congregants -- a tragic story being told throughout the land is revealed.

Faith communities looking inward, while human suffering happens just outside their doors. Faith communities balancing budgets, while a chasm of inequality sucks in more and more people. Faith communities focused on self, while God's eyes see the homeless woman.

And where the religious do look outward, it is often with disdain for the different, scorn for the vulnerable, and cruel intentions toward certain minorities.

I wrote a piece for this feature that offers a calm, reasoned analysis of why society's failure and religion's failure have coincided. It makes sense and might even be true.

But my feelings go deeper than analysis. I think we have lost our way, because we have forgotten which side of the church door matters more.

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