One of the things that has been weighing heavily on my heart is the idea of immersion and being in-community when doing community work. I have been getting a consistent message about abandoning the idea of mission work, and the importance of inhabiting and belonging to the communities in which we serve. For example, I grew up in Trenton but now live in Hamilton. Over the course of the past year or two, as the work that I do in Trenton has grown exponentially, I have been feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that I am no longer a member of the community in the sense that I do not live there. God has been disturbing my spirit with a sense of hypocrisy and a desire, or more a need, to be living where I am serving.
I've also grown increasingly frustrated and saddened by the feeling of many that they need to leave Trenton, or any "hood" for that matter. We consistently push a narrative that our goal should be "escape" the places we are from, where we grew up and have roots, and that making it out of these places defines success. This frustrates me because I truly believe that this is the kind of thinking that results in the continuation of violence, poverty, and despair inside the communities we are so hell bent on escaping. It feels very much to me like abandonment. We shame the places we come from rather than investing in them and being the change we wish to see. We spout negativity and condemnation rather than pouring love and healing into spaces that need them the most. As community members, our communities are what we make them. But if we constantly abandon them, it is difficult for there to be any real change taking place inside of them. It also stigmatizes the communities that made us, and casts a dark cloud over them. The fact of the matter is that as Bob Goff points out, we are all terribly wounded and "emotionally incontinent," and we need love and healing in order to break negative cycles.
Hearing Bob speak at the Justice Conference truly strengthened these convictions I have been having. He discussed how, as Christians, most of us would rather agree with Jesus than actually do what He says. He points out how we tend to avoid people whom we don't understand or who "creep us out" because we don't want to "get any on us." But we need to get people on us. We need to get people all over us. Genuine interaction, exchange, and relationship is the only way we learn and are able to affect change in people. If we continue to stand on the periphery and try to dictate change, nothing will happen. We have to get in the middle of it all, learn and listen, and begin to make (and be) the change from the inside out. As Bob says, "we don't need bouncers at the door, we need ushers." We need people who are willing to take others by the hand and walk with them. Instead of drawing a circle around people we don't understand and standing on the outside, we need to draw a circle around them with us in it, and protect them. We don't need more people dressed in their Sunday's best, with their hats and high heels on, we need more humble people with their shoes off for Jesus.
I think the idea of not wanting to get people on us also speaks to a reoccurring issue that I often run into in community work. One of the things that tends to happen is that most people are preaching to choirs. Politicians sit in rooms with politicians, artists with artists, police with police, parents with parents, and they all talk to each other about the "other." Very infrequently are they put in spaces together where they can actually hear and learn from the "other." On top of that, on the rare occasion that they are in those spaces, we as humans have a tendency to write certain people off as having nothing valuable to offer. When was the last time you sat and listened to a homeless man and thought to yourself, "I may be able to really learn something from this guy"? We often assume that we cannot learn anything from certain people, or that certain individuals or groups have nothing valuable to offer, and so we do not listen to them or do not place any value on what they have to say. When we do this, we do ourselves a disservice, because we may really be missing something important. This makes me think of the concept of "getting people on us" because it is important that we don't discount people because of our own "isms."
Bob also warned against making people into issues. He reminded us that God makes people and people make issues, but people are not issues. This harkens back to the warning from Eugene Cho not to make people into projects. People are not an issue or project to be "fixed." They are human beings, with all the intricacies and complications that entails, and deserve to be related to in a way that reflects that. Do not strip someone of their dignity by trying to "fix" them. This tendency is often a result of our big opinions. We must be careful about our opinions because these are not what we will be remembered for, and they can sometimes get in the way of what we are purposed to do. We will be known for our opinions, but ultimately we will be remembered for our love. People will remember you by the way you made them feel. And as Bob says, we all walk around with a bucket, and you become what you fill your bucket with. So if you fill your bucket with love, you will actually turn into love. It is also important to be mindful of how our opinions manifest in our actions, and how they are communicated, because the consequences can be dire. Sometimes our opinions can block someone from receiving the love Jesus has for us all, because we turn people away from Christ. You do not want someone to live a life separated from Jesus because you blocked them from getting to know Him with your big opinions. When your opinions become bigger than your love for each other, than you have lost Jesus in your relationship, and you have missed the cross. This particular precept calls to mind the issue of gay marriage to me, and how many Christians are blocking people from Jesus with their opinions on homosexuality; but we will save that for another post. At the end of the day, you don't need to close a deal for Jesus. He's got it. All you need to do is talk about the stuff you love. Reflect his love and others will be drawn to it.
What Bob suggests in his talk is that culturally, people tend to follow availability over vision. He states that living a life following Christ is living a life of constant interruption. Being a true follower of Christ is not convenient. Life as a Christian is filled with inconvenience, interruption, and adaptation, and if we are only applying Christian principle in the areas where it works for our lives, than we are not truly serving Christ, we are serving ourselves. In other words, if you go to Haiti and ask the orphans to make you feel good about yourself, you missed the cross.
The last charge that Bob gave that I thought was really poignant in the context of community work is to "say their name." We get so caught up in trying to convince people, prove to people, persuade people, and fix people, that we forget that they are people. The homeless woman you gave a dollar to, what is her name? The person for whom you prayed for deliverance from homosexuality, what is his name? Take the time to know people, to have a vested interest in people, to build relationships with them, and display genuine love for people. That was Christ's number one desire of us. "Above all, love each other deeply, for love covers over a multitude of sins" 1 Peter 4:8.