Most of the churches that I have spent my time in (middle to upper class, white, European decent) have been focused on Direct service as their entry point into the world of social justice. Food shelves, packing meals for hungry folks all over the world, mental health clinics; these are just a few examples of the incredibly important services that many of our communities are providing.
But there is something that always makes me a little uncomfortable with our focus on direct service in the church. The distance.
Direct service, while absolutely good and holy and necessary work, often enforces distance between those members of the church serving and the people they serve. This isn’t always an intentional move and in fact much of it is simply the inertia of church work across the generations. But, nonetheless, it feeds and maintains our comfort rather than justice when it comes to encountering poverty, illness, and difference.
We’re generally comfortable with the act of serving someone else. Inviting them into our building. Giving them our resources. Treating them by our standards of care. This model ensures that the boundary between us and them is never crossed; often spatially, always psychologically.
It also reinforces the stories we tell about ourselves; that we are the haves not the have nots, that our righteousness is confirmed by our wealth and social station. We subconsciously assume that we are what others aspire to be, more or less.
When we hear a text like the Beatitudes, as we did this past Sunday, I think it is important for us to question the ways in which we are hearing and processing the words of Christ through the lens of these stories we tell about ourselves. All too often that distance we enforce in our direct service sneaks its way into our interpretation.
In this hearing, Jesus’ “blessed are the poor”, takes on a patronizing “aren’t they precious” kind of tone. Again, I don’t believe that this is intentional (mostly) but in our churches (and here again I am speaking to my fellow mainline protestants) we tend to have an unconscious revulsion when it comes to the people we serve outside the membership rolls.
Pity, sympathy, patronizing comments, these are all too dangerously present in our direct service work. We make broad sweeping statements about who we serve, we assume too much about who our neighbor is, and we position ourselves as those above serving those below.
This stems from the reality that we simply don’t know (and often don’t want to get to know) the people we serve. We don’t naturally cross the boundary from server/served to neighbor. We stay where we can comfortably maintain the bubble of safety and security that we’ve told ourselves only lies in our ability to hold distance between our experience and the experience of others.
However, when we start to pick at this bubble of safety and security, what we actually find is that the bubble isn’t safe and secure at all. It isn’t even a bubble. It’s a cell.
We have so closed ourselves off from the rest of the world and convinced ourselves that we are the ones acting from a position of freedom and privilege, that we find ourselves suffering a kind of bizarre incarceration-syndrome. We’re safer locked up in our little cell where the full humanity of those we think we’re serving can’t confront all the ways that our own humanity is being stripped away by false notions of success, affluence, and security.
We are enslaved by a system that commodifies us and convinces us that our value lies only in our production and the symbols of affluence. I am constantly encountering this intoxicating narrative in my own mind. In the harried pursuit of acceptance and success and things I have all too often lost touch with the person who God has made and declared Beloved. I have perpetuated the common myth that I am what I do. I am what I have. I am what others say I am.
I overwork, I spend, I produce, all in an effort to feel safe and connected, all the while putting my health and well-being at risk and ignoring the connections that speak true and lasting belonging to my frightened soul.
The blessing of my work in the church has been those moments of deep connection and relationship, especially with folks who often appear to be in the most need of direct service. It is in those relationships that I have rediscovered my own humanity, my own hidden self too often left trembling and terrified of coming up short, being seen as vulnerable or weak, or even being seen at all.
I am conscious of the blessings that I have experienced receiving hospitality from individuals who have been harassed and targeted by law enforcement, who have been separated from family, who have wondered where their next meal was coming from. Folks who are acutely aware of the injustice of our current system, and who see the world as it is.
I have been confronted with the faith and the resilience of friends who are immigrants. Who have sacrificed everything for their families and who face endless streams of hatred and bigotry. Who have gone out of their way to feed and welcome me with overwhelming grace and warmth. Who have loved me with no interest in my own status, privilege, or accomplishment. Who welcome me, as I am, as God made me. Who have made me feel truly and deeply Beloved.
In these relationships with those who hunger, those who grieve, those who are poor, more often than not it is my own sense of liberation that I find. The notion that I have the power or the ability to set the meek or the lowly free is shattered in the connection I find with my friends. They are Christ for me.
It is in this liberating experience that I am able to be with my neighbor, to shatter the boundary between server and served, to wholly invert and re-imagine the dynamics at play between us. I can share what I have not for my own self-aggrandizement but because I am made whole in the beautiful reciprocity of relationship. I can set aside any notion that my status requires that I be the one to lead, learning instead what it is to follow the direction of my neighbor who is most directly impacted.
This has been the most profound impact of direct action organizing on my faith. In community organizing we prize relationships above all else, and we know that if our work doesn’t disrupt existing power dynamics we will simply continue to prop up structures that rob every single one of us of our humanity.
In the work of organizing we are first and foremost interested, not in the problem, but in one another. What is hurting you? What is preventing you from health and safety? What gives you joy and gladness? What makes you the person you are?
I think when we hear the Beatitudes from Jesus, the evil one is trying their darndest to convince us that the poor, and the grieving, and the meek need what we think we have. Now, to be clear, this is true in so far as wealth and the protection of the law have been concentrated in the hands of a few, largely divvied up by race, gender, and status. But what is even truer is that our collective liberation is fundamentally intertwined.
For folks who look like me, who are in communities that look like mine, the good news that Christ preaches in the Beatitudes is not simply an admonition to serve the poor. It is the promise that in relationship with one another, through Christ, those who have been convinced that their value and belonging depend on the maintenance of dominating and hierarchical power are set free from an evil that steals away their Beloved humanity.
It is the promise that in relationship with one another, through Christ, those who have been crushed by dominating and hierarchical power will be set free from oppression and violence to live lives of their own making, recognized and seen as full and Beloved human beings.
It is the promise that in relationship with one another, through Christ, we find enough for all, including enough power to upend structures of evil and oppression that keep us all down.
I am hopeful that as we continue to press into the hard work of building empowered communities, we will find ourselves setting aside any notion of us and them, any sense that justice is anything less than the reciprocal service of one Beloved to another.
In Christ, this is possible. In Christ, this is promised. May our direct service begin with genuine and mutual relationship. May our relationships grow into empowered communities in Christ. May our faith in the world as it should be grow day by day, person by person, until all are made new. May it be so.