In a few hours a group of 17 high school youth and chaperones will be loading up vans and driving to Washington D.C. to the William Penn Hostel (not the pent house, but the Penn House…) for a week’s mission trip – thanks to the organizational talents of our Youth Director, Kristen Otte.
The William Penn hostel is on Capitol Hill – located within a few blocks of what is arguably the most powerful site in the world: the United States Capitol, the seat of power and wealth.
The William Penn hostel is also located within a few blocks of some of the worst urban blight and powerlessness in the nation – caused by poverty, economic injustice, ignorance and both benign and willful oversight.
We will be on the edge, in the in-between spaces – a bit dislocated, out of our comfort zones – out of Northeast Ohio, away from South Euclid, Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, Orange. I have no doubt we will be safe but still we will need to be careful – we don’t know these streets.
It is precisely in these in between spaces where we need to go. Particularly in these dislocated places where we need to be as Christians. Moving from comfort zones into the disquiet of a new reality is precisely where Jesus Christ wants us to be. Spiritual transformation occurs in the “thin” vulnerable spaces of life.
We are everywhere conditioned NOT to want to pay attention to the poor and the powerless – actually most of our first reaction is to remove ourselves from them. That is why we surround ourselves with “stuff” to separate ourselves from “that” reality.
I am not pointing fingers – I do the very same thing. I may preach that I want to be identified with the marginalized, but I want to do it from distance – from an intellectual space that allows me to observe and make pronouncement or to write a check. It is a constant struggle for me. I like my ease and comforts and possessions!
But I am not alone in this struggle to align myself with the Gospel imperative and clear priority for the poor. It is the national struggle. It is the soulful struggle to move towards instead of away from, to move deeper than charity into compassion. To move beyond our individual rights into a communal responsibility – from the “I, me and mine” – to the “yours, mine and ours.”
This is what resounds in Isaiah, and in Amos, and in Micah, and in Jesus that always throws me – the call is always counter to what I would rather do.
Jim Wallis once wrote: “Proximity to poor people is crucial to our capacity for compassion….Compassion comes out of a feeling of relationship. That is precisely what the affluent lack with respect to the poor – any feeling of relationship.”
He goes on to say something much more unsettling: “Society’s denial of the existence of the poor is at the root of their oppression. Putting ourselves in proximity to oppressed people begins to open us up to understanding and compassion. Our hardness of heart cannot be maintained for long in the midst of such obvious human suffering.”
It is interesting to me to follow the ongoing debates between the left and the right on issues of the economy, of taxes, of cuts, of debt ceilings. There is much at stake and we need our brightest and best to move towards compromise and consensus rather than what we all feel so distressed by – partisanship and pettiness. But, from a gospel perspective, from a prophetic perspective, from a Jesus perspective – what I find disturbing is that neither side talks about the poor. And guess who will be, in fact, hurt most by the cuts? I am just calling it as I see it and as I think the Gospel proclaims it.
And so that is why it is so important that our kids go into the city and experience things that they normally do not. And our young people have been in the city of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Louisville and now Washington. Our young people have traveled to the native reservations of South Dakota, and have journeyed across the border into Mexico and flown to Nicaragua.
This is why we have the exhibit of photographs of homeless men in our Fellowship Hall – it is a way to enter (still from a distance but it gives us a bit of proximity) – at least a face, a name and a story. Please go see it!
This is why we involved ourselves with a campaign against sub-prime loans.
It is why this year, I hope, we will send more numbers to the Homeless Stand-Down – because to do anything less will be a compromise of the call of Jesus Christ.
It is why we host Interfaith Hospitality Network.
I haven’t been on a mission trip in several years. I got out of faith-based organizing because I got tired. I didn’t go on the Homeless Stand-Down – for I don’t even know why. I have lots of excuses, some really good ones. But I have noticed something missing in my life, in my prayers, in my faith. As columnist Albert Kohn points out, it is not only the poor who are oppressed. “People who pursue extrinsic goals, like money and power are more distressed and anxious than others. The cost of unbridled capitalism is paid not only by the poor; it is paid by the spiritual lives of any rich person who ignores the cry of the poor.” My own spiritual life is diminished by ignoring the cries of the poor.
The prophet Isaiah calls out that his message is to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…” Of course these were the words that Jesus read in that synagogue in Nazareth – his first homily.
And the results of this good news is that the former devastations will be raised up, and the ruined cities shall be repaired, and the despair of many generations will be lifted. So all this work is really good for us! Moving towards the poor is restorative work.
It seems clear that our Gospel call is into the city, to rebuild and reinvest.
Our Gospel is news of a turnover. In Luke: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled… but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
That is the radical call of Christ that agitates me to give more, to be in closer proximity to those whom Christ has special care for – the widow and the orphan, not the connected but those on the fringe; not out of guilt, or fear of punishment, but out of a deep desire to be free and in alignment with Jesus.
I was struck by the words of a member – she knows who she is – who was part of the “Restoring the Building and Reclaiming the Mission” campaign last year. I will tell you that this process has been one of the most successful capital campaigns in our history – the work is done, pledges are over 70% paid (and here is a gentle reminder to fulfill your pledges as soon as possible so that we are not paying on the bank loan.)
This member said, thinking about our immediate future, “We have restored the building… now it is time to reclaim the mission.” Amen and amen to that, sister.
But it raises the question: what is our mission? Our three focus words for the last 15 years have been Discover, Celebrate and Witness. Moving into our mission means that we must equip the saints – YOU – in prayer, in Bible – so we know our identity, and you can speak your faith with conviction. Speak with confidence NOT what you don’t believe – but what you do. Everything we do is to help whoever walks through our doors to discover their calling as beloved children of God.
We are to celebrate and give thanks for this identity. Christians can be so damned serious at times – and we have to lighten up in our conviction. We are about building community and extending community. Our building has been restored to be used to extend the boundaries, to show hospitality, to be welcoming.
We are to witness – witness to what? I believe we are to witness to the Kingdom of God, the beloved community – we have built up the walls to serve. We have called you beloved children so that you can pass on this good news. We have challenged you to give so that others might eat.
We are called on to move beyond the safety zones into the marginal areas of spirit and of politics to proclaim Jesus in word and in deed. Faith is not about protection it is about promotion – proclamation of the divine proximity – of a God who cares and we as the church become the incarnation – discovering that, celebrating that, witnessing to that.
The discovering and celebrating and witnessing is all connected, the journey inward and the journey outward balances us to discern well the call of God.
I am looking forward to being with the young people. I want them to be changed – to come back with reality and to show us the way.
I am hopeful that within the next year – our benevolence budget will be increased. That there will be an adult mission trip somewhere – why should the kids get all the fun?
I’m hopeful that we will be a changed people – generous, just, willing to sacrifice for the common good, giving testimony to hope on the corner of Monticello and Lee. The prophet Isaiah tells us that we will receive the “oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
Pray for this mission team. Pray not for safety but transformation. And then watch out when we return!