A UM Missional Future: Path 7

Part 17 of 21...

Eliminate poverty in community with the poor

As someone who has worked fairly extensively both through church structures and with community-based organizations with people who are poor in Indiana, I can only say "Amen, sisters and brothers! Preach it!" when I see these words and hear them spoken.

And then I want to go around and shake people and say, "Are you even listening to what you just said?"

(I'm not referring to bishops here. I'm pretty consistently hearing them get this right... especially our bishops from the Global South.)

Eliminating poverty in COMMUNITY with the poor implies some very concrete changes in how "we" usually think about people who are poor.

Starting with that very phrase-- "WE thinking ABOUT people who are poor." There is a social distance implied in the very formulation, a social distance that is very real in the US, and perhaps less real in other contexts. Most United Methodists in the US are "middle class" and up. "We" are not poor by US standards, and by world standards "we" are extravagantly wealthy. "We" continue to live in our congregations with the reality that in many, many cases, the poor are NOT among "us."

(Of course there are exceptions! Many exceptions! I'm talking about what our statistics in the US reveal to be the norm, however).

This reality is what gave rise to the social gospel movement in the early 20th century in the US. Folks like Walter Rauschenbusch, an American Baptist pastor serving in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City, looked at his congregation, then looked at the people actually living in the area, and noticed that the people living there weren't in his church. He investigated further, and discovered they weren't in nearly any Protestant churches. And he investigated a little further yet and found they weren't all that often to be found in many Roman Catholic congregations, either-- though the rate of participation there was substantially higher than in Protestant settings. (In those days, however, one might conclude that this was because many of the poor were immigrants who came from predominantly Roman Catholic cultures in Europe).

If we refocus what we preach inside the church, Rauschenbusch and these leaders said, and work at addressing social policy so that we improve the lives of these people-- or he would put it more bluntly in A Theology for the Social Gospel, if we would actually reclaim biblical and Christian theology focusing on the here and now rather than the pie in the sky by and by pabulum we had passed off onto so many of our congregations, we'd be more faithful to Jesus AND we might just see more of "them" in "church" with "us."

I don't entirely disagree with Rauschenbusch on any of those points. But what happened as a response to his work and that of many others in the larger social gospel movement was, to a large degree, a continuation and even a deepening to some degree of the distance between "us" and the "poor." Yes, "we" were doing more FOR them. And we could congratulate ourselves for advocating for them to change policies to improve "their" lives. (And don't get me wrong-- those were good and faithful responses!). But the basic" us-them" distance still was not being effectively addressed. We were still caught in our classist assumptions-- including especially that "they" were basically deficient and "we" were basically sufficient. We were not really in community WITH the poor. We were in community FOR them, at times-- but often, quite frankly, "AT" them.

John Wesley showed us a more excellent way. He consistently asked Methodist individuals seeking his spiritual counsel and the society meetings he visited how they were doing at getting to know and serve WITH poor people-- people in prisons, people who were sick, people who lacked food, safe shelter, or healthy living conditions. At the root of how Rule 2 was lived out was this basic expectation that it wasn't just the "poor" who needed "us" to "help" "them"-- we needed each other, and we ALL had gifts to offer.

That's a reality that most of us don't learn in the abstract-- or at least don't learn well. Wesley didn't consider it enough for Methodist class meetings or societies to create and administer a charitable fund so that they could deputize a few people to "take care of" the poor. No. He insisted that every Methodist get to know poor people, personally. Practical, face to face community.

That wasn't likely to have much opportunity to occur in weekly worship in the Church of England in the 18th century. Nor in Protestant worship in the early 20th. Nor in worship settings per se nearly anywhere.

There are good reasons for this. Perhaps most basic among these is time. Worship is a short period of time in a whole week. And the time that's there is pretty well programmed to accomplish things other than face to face community per se. And that's fine, really. Worship is a concrete act with its own purposes. At its best, it presupposes that there already IS some sort of community occurring among those who gather at some level. So it's not structured so much to create that community (though it also does to a degree) as to reflect it and direct its energy toward God.

And that's fine, too-- IF that community actually exists in real, tangible, face to face ways.

And there's the problem. It often doesn't. And the congregational format can do relatively little and often DOES do little to help it to do so.

Why? The congregational format, while it is public and inclusive, because of its very public nature can also become easily captive to the classist assumptions of its surrounding public. What is "appropriate" for worship often gets defined by the values of the dominant culture within it or around it. That's not entirely bad-- it can allow for every culture to have some genuine opportunity to express itself in community and in worship in its particular way-- looking across all kinds of congregations. But it's less than the fullness of our calling-- which is indeed to BE one body in Christ, not just to THINK we are.

Early Methodism was providing a venue where some of the rich, the poor, and those in between were not left to their default classist assumptions, but were expected to meet each other, to serve each other, to speak with and for each other-- in short, to be that concrete trans-class community God has birthed us to be in baptism, leads us to be in Jesus, and continually urges and empowers us to be in the Spirit.

Nat Nkosi was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary while I was there in the late 1980s. He was an African from South Africa. And he was a prophet. He found Louisville to be a very challenging place to live. At the time, the demographics were incredibly clear. White people and wealthier non-white people all lived pretty much east of downtown, and non-white people and poor people all lived pretty much west of downtown. He had a simple solution that he offered regularly in all sorts of class and extra-curricular settings. White people need to move into non-white neighborhoods-- not to take them over, not even to fix them per se, but to form community with the people there. Then, together, in community, when real community existed this way, all sorts of power for improvement would emerge.

He was not talking about gentrification. He was not talking about white people moving en mass and dislocating non-white people and poor people. (We've all seen that happen, again and again!). He was talking about a process for helping people eliminate poverty by forming real, everyday, face to face community WITH the poor.

Get to know folks, really know them. Learn to see what they have to offer, not just what they need. Learn to respect the dignity of every person-- poor and non-poor. Don't let this be abstract. Dont forget about doing things FOR and ADVOCATING FOR the poor, too. But don't stop there. Be in community with the poor-- wherever you are. And if you need to move somewhere else to do that, well...

Mr. Wesley did not hesitate to tell lots of those who wrote to him about their spiritual condition that the first thing they needed to do may not be to pray more or study scripture more-- it would be to get themselves into the jails and prisons and hospitals, and get to know folks there-- not just the guards, but the people being held there. See Christ at work there. Help others see Christ at work there. Love them. Let them love them back. Show them Christ.

Early Methodism was doing this, alongside existing congregations of many denominations. A new, emerging, missional Methodism today, alongside existing congregations, would have the opportunity to offer the same.

Eliminate poverty... yes. But we won't do that well-- and here I mean ALL of us, not just the "usual suspects" (middle class and up)-- WE won't eliminate poverty well unless and until our "we" includes (not just makes clients out of ) and honors (not sentimentalizes) the poor-- the real poor, actual people we know or get to know.

And when our "we" begins moving in that direction-- just watch all the good news the Spirit begins to unleash!

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards