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Opinion | All Saints’ Day Is a Holiday for Beautiful, Imperfect Stories

I learned about how Christians created orphanages and hospitals. I encountered Ephrem the Syrian, a poet and musician, who began women’s choirs and composed some of the earliest hymns for female voices, spreading literacy among women in the fourth century. He died tending the sick in a plague.

I read about Felicity, an enslaved woman who was martyred in the third century while offering forgiveness to her executioners. I learned about Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest who hid thousands of refugees during the Nazi regime. Kolbe died in Auschwitz after volunteering to take the place of another prisoner who was to be executed.

But learning church history was also deeply disillusioning as I discovered how parts of the church have been complicit in white supremacy, colonialism, abuse, misogyny and astonishing evil. All faith stories are shaped by human communities, and these human communities often disappoint us.

In a cultural moment where want to divide all people and institutions neatly into “good guys” and “bad guys,” those on the right side of history and those who aren’t, the righteous and the damned, this day reminds us of the checkered and complicated truth of each human heart. Martin Luther gave us the helpful phrase “simul justus et peccator” — simultaneously saint and sinner. It names how we are holy and wayward at once. It proclaims a paradox that we are redeemed yet in need of redemption.

All Saints’ Day reminds me that God meets us, saints and sinners, despite our contradictions, and makes good out of haphazard lives. It tells me that all of us, even the best of us, are in need of unimaginable mercy and forgiveness. The church is “first and foremost, a community of forgiven sinners,” writes the theologian Gilbert Meilaender. It is not “a community that embodies the practices of perfection” but instead “a body of believers who still live ‘in the flesh,’ who are still part of the world, suffering the transformations effected by God’s grace on its pilgrim way.” Recalling the stories of saints is, in the end, a celebration not of perfection but of grace.

Have feedback? Send a note to HarrisonWarren-newsletter@nytimes.com.

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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