We are often suspicious of change in others. We tend to put people in categories and then expect them to stay there. We decide this is what “x” is like and form judgments based on that.
Those judgments are not necessarily faulty. The Christian disciples in our first Mass reading from Acts formed a judgment on Saul based on his behavior. It was an accurate judgment of the Saul they had known, who had persecuted so many Christians.
But Saul was changed irrevocably by his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. The Saul who had persecuted so many Christians no longer existed; in his place was a disciple. That change was not easy for the other disciples to accept. We hear in Acts that when Saul tried to join the disciples, “they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.”
Like the disciples, we find it hard to believe that people change, especially when the change involves drastic conversion. We often have the same fear and suspicion the disciples did, treating people as possessing a permanence that ignores the effect of God constantly at work with and in us.
The reading from Acts demonstrates the importance of personal witness in this regard. The testimony of Barnabas as to both his message from God and his personal experience with Paul had an effect on the disciples.
This is an important message because this truth about the importance of personal witness operates with respect to all who are marginalized. In this case, Saul’s marginalization stemmed from his pre-conversation behavior, but marginalization can stem from any number of causes. Someone looks different or acts different or seems a bit strange and so we are wary, sometimes even fearful, and stay away. Often in such cases, all it takes is one person willing to say, “Hey, I talked to him and he’s not so bad” or “She seems like an OK person, let’s give her a chance.” One person’s testimony can change everything.
Are we willing to be that one person? Are we on the lookout for the marginalized person? Do we look for ways to bring them into the fold?