In my post published January 22nd, I wrote that language had failed. Except that isn’t what has happened. Mike is dead and we are left with competing narratives: the injustice of Mike’s arrest, police brutality, what is “necessary,” the worth of black lives, homelessness as a social issue... So it goes.
This is how people make meaning in reaction to events and ultimately how they exert power.
Recently, I have found in myself a skepticism about my own thoughts. I don’t quite trust that my patterns of thought, prejudices, or reactions are really my own. I’m not saying there’s some other personality at work whispering in my mind. But I question whether my opinions about public events (especially events as fraught as Mike’s killing) are generated within me or whether I simply default to whatever narrative happens to have been convincing enough to gain power over me.
Of course, this is also a narrative I tell about myself.
Working with homeless folks, I’ve sometimes noticed and grown to suspect that speech is a distraction from true presence. In part this is because with people experiencing homelessness, you’ll often find yourself buffeted by a stream of words that frankly don’t make sense. I find myself nodding and smiling and thinking to myself “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” I’ll look at the volunteers who work with me and we just sort of shrug and shake our heads. “Who knows?”
But other times, when I feel particularly grounded or, more often, when I’m just too tired to put on the stupid play of active listening, I have experienced a deeply spiritual connection with the person who is speaking. In these moments of revelation, speech becomes exactly what it is: noise. I wish I could explain the uncovered fullness of another person I’ve experienced in these moments, like the envelope containing the world has been opened for a moment to something cast just beside us, always there at hand but hidden by our narratives about how the world “really is,” but of course I can’t.
Opportunities for this kind of encounter with Mike are over. His narrative has ended. As a single individual, one must resist the tempting offer to take up the easy narratives offered by competing powers.
The truth is language really has failed. It failed before the sheriffs who killed Mike restrained him so brutally. No dumb narrative will bring him back to life. There is no justice for Mike, only silence. To claim anything else is to attempt to make meaning out of his meaningless death, and to use his story to wield power.
I have been trying to figure out more to say about Mike who was restrained by Denver Sheriffs and sent to the hospital where he would later die.
What I’ve written so far feels entirely too small. But the situation makes me feel small. The enormity of the mechanism that generates these incidents of injustice is impossible for me to comprehend. My imagination isn't good enough. I'm reduced to doing small things and writing small thoughts.
Words about sin, justice, homelessness, race, responsibility, and reconciliation feel like empty placeholders or feeble attempts at meaning-making. When language fails, what are we left with but to lie down and die or get up and keep going? For too many people, language has utterly failed. All but a very few get up and keep going.
Network Coffeehouse can be hard sometimes, but Mike always made me feel like I was doing good work, and doing it well, and that I could keep going.
How much a dollar cost?
My friend, Mike, was recently killed by sheriff’s deputies at the Denver jail. “Homicide,” said the county coroner, which just means he didn’t kill himself, not that anyone did anything wrong.
Mike was picked up on suspicion of trespass and disorderly conduct and held on $100 bail. He had an incident with another inmate and was restrained. Choked on his own vomit. Suffered a heart attack. He lived until his family had him removed from life support.
If I was someone without experience with mentally ill, addicted, sometimes aggressive, often erratic people, I might think it wasn’t unreasonable for sheriff’s deputies to restrain Mike to the point where he died. Except I have weekly experience with people just like Mike. If I can resolve erratic, psychotic, drug-induced behaviors nonviolently, then a Denver sheriff’s deputy sure as shit can.
But on November 11th 2015, Mike’s life was worth less than a hundred dollars.
I left off exploring the concept of friendship last time with Buber’s observation, “All real living in a meeting.” We investigated friendship as a concept that has no measurable object but itself, a continuous process of becoming, and as a relationship which contains freedom, joy, and affection within mutual responsibility and solidarity.
Normally, we think of friendship as a matrix of shared experience and interests. Throw in a chance meeting and you’ve got a friendship. A quote from one of my favorite movies, High Fidelity, captures this:
“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films, these things matter. Call me shallow, it’s the fuckin’ truth.”
It would be easy to cast this sentiment aside as unserious, except I think it sketches around the edge of a fundamental truth: it is impossible to encounter the fullness of another person. Books, records, films, these things can suggest who another person “really” is—and it's how we "really" meet each other.
Remember our short look at Martin Buber’s concept of ‘Thou’ in the previous post? With this language he’s suggesting another person is totally other. Buber wants to say there is a transcendent quality to a human being that is impossible to approach.[^1] Even to make the attempt to meet “what you are like” is folly when we do not first recognize the constraints of language and limited human understanding. Perhaps the best we can do is to approach the Thou of another person through manifestations of our similarities. Encountering and acknowledging this unbridgeable gulf is the basis of relationship based on freedom, mutual responsibility, and a process of becoming.
But this only partially meets our definition of friendship. If we’re content to define friendship through mutual interest, we miss a deeper understanding of friendship based not on similarity, but difference. It is difference which drives friendship as a site of action where need and desire are joined.[^2]
Shelley Jackson writes of the power of difference in friendship through the metaphor of a book: “A book, like a friendship, has two sides.” Jackson says that these two sides are “you and me” or “author and reader.” The power of the relationship between the two sides comes directly out of their difference. The desire for that which is out of reach of both the reader’s understanding and the author’s ability to express holds the two sides together in a mutual process of difference and togetherness.[^3] The same is true of friendship. We seek to express who we really are (what we are like) through our friendships. We seek to know another person, and ourselves. Through this process we come to know a bit of God—the divine sustaining center which makes friendship possible in the first place, the first thing we all share. We fall short, but the infinite qualitative distinction[^4] between ourselves, the other, and God stokes our desire and compels us to continue searching.
Meeting difference in another person is what drives our desire to continue the process of friendship’s becoming. Difference is also what makes solidarity possible. It fills out our definition of friendship. Most importantly, moments of reconciliation within difference are where we experience joy.[^5]
In an upcoming post, I will more deeply investigate mutual responsibility and solidarity as basic requirements for the fullness of friendship generating freedom and joy in those who constitute the relationship.
Through conversation over the past week, I've been led to continue reflecting on the concept of encounter that I touched on in my previous post, Encountering Poverty. Specifically, I will look into the concept of friendship and how it functions practically, philosophically, and theologically as a relationship. This will be a multi-post exploration, and I thank you for humoring me.
The word friendship shares etymologies with the word "freedom" in English, "freude" (joy) in German, and "philia" (affectionate love) in Romance languages and Greek.
For the sake of illumination, let's take a longer look at "philia." Philia is defined by Aristotle as, "wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one's own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him."[^1] Discussing the same, John M. Cooper writes, “the central idea of philia is that of doing well by someone for his own sake, out of concern for him (and not, or not merely, out of concern for oneself).”[^2] It is important to note, in both of these examples philia is directed toward and concerned with the other over the self.
With this etymological understanding in mind, friendship is not merely affection, but a relationship which contains freedom, joy, and affection within mutual responsibility and solidarity.
The edges of friendship are fuzzy and imprecise. Friendship is fundamentally a relationship of becoming. Svetlana Boym writes that friendship is not an object of analysis but a process. It is a process of coming to know the self, another person, and the boundaries of a relationship. Roland Barthes calls it a “miraculous crystallization of presence." Friendship is a site of action where need an desire are joined.
The process of friendship is always imprecise and non-prescriptive. It opens into the universal and cannot be wedged into preconceived models or easily understood tactics of marketing, mission, or outreach. Rather than a relationship of increasing closeness and a fusion of individuals, friendship defies symbols of fulfillment. Instead, friendship has no measureable object but friendship itself—the continuous development of two people into a life where friendship is more and more possible. The only goal of friendship is its own continuous becoming and the becoming of its constituents as selves.
When this process ends, we say people have "fallen out" of friendship.[^3]
Martin Buber traced the full weight of friendship in his formation of the relationship between I (one, as an individual person) and Thou (another person). For Buber, to relate to another person is to become a person, a self, an "I." And as a person becomes more and more a self, she likewise increasingly understands that another person is himself an "I." But Buber goes beyond the impoverished, individualistic understanding of "I" we commonly hold.
Buber reveals that to relate to another person is to relate to the divinity of that person—her total otherness and transcendent quality as a human being. Another person is not "you," or "they." She is "Thou."[^4] Only this formulation of friendship can contain the fullness of freedom, joy, and affection within the bounds of mutuality, responsibility, and solidarity.
Truly and freely encountering another as a friend rules out coercion, violence, utility, and possession.
It is with this understanding that we will continue our investigation of friendship. And throughout the series, we shall keep in mind Buber's poetic wisdom: "All real living is a meeting."[^5]
- [^1]: Nicomachean Ethics, 1380b36–1381a2
- [^2]: "Friendship and the Good." The Philosophical Review
- [^3]: Svetlana Boym's reflections on friendship play heavily into the previous two paragraphs. I found out today that she died on the 5th of this month after a year of living with cancer. I am thankful for her and her work: “Scenography of Friendship,” Cabinet Magazine
- [^4]: The Christian theological tradition formulates this as the Image of God (or Imago Dei) in every person.
- [^5]: I and Thou
Working at Network Coffeehouse, the goal is to be friendly. Christians being friendly; that’s what Network is. That’s what we do.
Sounds pretty simple, but oddly this makes answering questions about what you do a little challenging. The never-ending question that follows after I’ve explained this is, “Do you have success getting people off the street?” or “What do you do to help people get off the street?” or “How many people get off the street there?”
People want to hear about goals and a narrative of meeting those goals. Numbers tell a surface-level story that is easily accessed, digested, and understood.[^1] Goals and mission statements are a narrative about what an organization will do. It’s a pitch. We then act within that story to conform to the pre-constructed narrative.
But Network is about encounter. Narrative—our attempt to construct meaning—only occurs after encounter has already taken place.[^2] John Hicks, the guy who founded Network, says, “We are friends with real-life poor people.” Friendship takes encountering another person and opening yourself up enough to be encountered by someone else.
The second part, opening your heart to another, is the really hard part. Ryan Taylor, the co-director of Network, has been saying for a few months that a major part of coming to Network as staff or a volunteer is encountering the beggar within you. When you serve the poor, especially at a place like Network where the distracting varnish of goals and pre-set narrative is nonexistent, you will encounter parts of yourself you otherwise try to ignore: racism, prejudice, anger, sadness, loss, loneliness. Every shift I run at Network I meet myself at my very best and my most callous, passionless worst—sometimes in the exact same interaction.
In a nutshell, I found myself saying this at a professional networking event last night. Let me tell you, people looked at me like I was a crazy person. This, too, reveals our poverty. Our unwillingness or inability to encounter a person beyond a narrow narrative constrained by success and failure is a kind of societal violence we participate in without even thinking about it. We minimize each other and ourselves when we fail to encounter each other fully.
Pay attention. It’s the only currency that matters.
- [^1]: Kierkegaard calls this “glittering externality.”
- [^2]: Narrative often (always?) functions as a way to gain power over our experiences or the experiences and actions of others.
Yes. The solution to ending homelessness in the United States is taking people who live without housing and asking them to live in garbage. Homelessness is so bad and homeless people are so desperate that they would live anywhere, even in a house made of garbage.
Look, I get that this is a creative solution that has the nice benefit of crossing over into eco/green/recycling/earth-friendly territory. Some people might like to live in, like, a regular house made out of wood or whatever, but I’ve concluded that the people who think this is a great idea must assume that homeless people live garbage lives already so they would probably be pretty comfortable living in garbage, too. Right? After all, if wishes were houses beggars wouldn’t have problems attaching to other people and end up on the street addicted and vulnerable to the capricious whims of the homed and their police force. Also, if wishes were houses people might have a house. But why would they want one when we built them this nice one made out of trash?
I guess it’s not such a surprise that this seems like a viable solution to enough people that I see it in my social media feeds twice a week. We already pawn off the excess of our consumerism on the poor as it is. Why not build it into shelter for them while we’re at it? A garbage house is better than no house, after all.
Except that it’s a bandaid applied and applauded with such breathless enthusiasm that there’s surely little thought being put into its implementation. We can be sure the thoughts and feelings of those who we expect to joyfully accept their new pile of refuse have not been considered. And the root causes of homelessness either go unnoticed or are actively ignored. Homelessness is a problem not only of economy but also of power, privilege, culture, society, psychology, and family history. It differs from person to person, life to life, individual to individual.
The garbage homes “solution” to homelessness arises from a mindset that sees homelessness as a inexplicable phenomenon and people experiencing homelessness solely as a problem. This disregards the humanity and individual identity of folks living lives which do not conform to the majority of the population of a given society. To offer simple solutions to homelessness, even with the best of intentions, not only further marginalizes and dehumanizes the people experiencing it, doing so reifies the matrix of causes that lead to homelessness in the first place.
A person is not a problem to be solved. The task, then, is to treat people not as objects, but as the subjects they are. In other words, don’t treat people like garbage.
(Please also see Mark's timely post on this issue.)
My reaction to city government restrictions on serving food to homeless individuals in public? Let's fight the laws and spend some time with the homeless doing something other than giving them food.
Things to do with homeless people in public not involving handing out food:
- Share Holy Communion
- Go to a restaurant and order food
- Ask if they have special skills or secrets to teach you
- Do random acts of kindness for strangers together
- Watch funny videos on YouTube
- Hug if you both want to hug
- Ask what they want to do
- Sit and talk about rights
- Sit and talk economics
- Sit and talk theology
- Sit and talk politics
- Care for a community garden
- Start a guerrilla garden
- Do an art project
- Sing a song
- Tell stories
- Listen to music
- Watch a movie
- Watch a TV show
- Share a cigarette
- Give out sleeping bags
- Give out toothbrushes
- Give out wash-clothes
- Give out conditioner
- Give out toothpaste
- Give out underwear
- Give out shampoo
- Give out tampons
- Give out lotion
- Give out pads
- Give out combs
- Give out tissues
- Give out water
- Give out tarps
- Give out socks
- Give out shoes
- Give out soap
- Give out hats
- Play a game
- Play checkers
- Play chess
- People watch
- Read a book
- Shake hands
- Take a walk
- High five
I get that the first thing on the list involves sharing food. But it's all Holy Communion, isn't it? If you're arrested for sharing Communion, it's a whole new ballgame.
I've written before about the dangers of trying to have a discussion via social media (spoilers: it's terrible), but I continue to do it. I'm an idiot, though, so I forgive me.
Recently a friend posted the Facebook status referencing the humanitarian crisis on the U.S. southern border in which thousands of foreign minors are fleeing their homes in Central and South America and attempting to gain refugee status here. He wrote, "Jesus wouldn't deport 52,000 children." To which Logan responded "No. I mean...he wouldn't. But he also wasn't a head of state." This led to Logan and I having a lengthy offline discussion about what the original thought implied and what our reactions were to it and why they were so immediate.
It's important to look at what's going on when we talk about what the government is doing or should be doing and what Jesus said we should be doing in the same breath. On a historical level, it gets murky when we try to grant Jesus political authority. There was a separation and a tension for him (the "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar" thing[^1]), so outright conflation of the two doesn't sit well.
This doesn't mean, of course, that what Jesus was all about had no political implications. The social and economic status quo is very much the business of the government and has been since the invention of the concept of governmental authority. But that's where the crux of my reaction to the statement lies: Jesus was about something so much more than government business.
For the record, I don't believe deporting those kids will do one damn bit of good. Maybe it'll discourage others from seeking asylum here[^2], to make the dangerous journey that might cost their lives, but if the crisis at home is bad enough, those deported back will just leave again. I also believe that it is morally necessary to care for them while they are here, to do as much as we can to help them begin a life here, and to also make the life in their home countries good enough that they don't feel the need to flee in the first place.[^3]
The flip side to all this, and what I think my friend was going for when he wrote what he did, is that such an invocation is usually the tool of the Christian Right in this country. In that sense, he was turning it back on those who commonly use Jesus as a way to justify political and social action, often for causes that look and sound very un-Jesus-like. However, this tension between what Jesus was all about and how governments operate doesn't really let the technique work for liberals, either. No matter which side uses the lingo, problems arise.
That being said, if we're going to think through an issue that holds government action and religious conviction in conversation, we have to think about how much the two have to do with each other and how action in one sphere might affect the other. For my friend, the issue came down to how we begin to focus our responsibility to those children in great need and what our top representative's response should look like given that responsibility. To which I replied, in part:
If by "our responsibility" you mean the responsibility of the federal government, its representatives, and the people who elected them, then no. It's not "our" responsibility. Obama's responsibility is constitutional, to do what he can for our national interests while following federal law. If he does more, it's above and beyond the actual responsibility of the position.
If by "our" you mean Christians, which I assume you do by invoking Jesus, then yes, it is our responsibility. However, as much as fundamentalists want it, we're not a Christian nation and our president, of all people, shouldn't be acting based on one set of religious virtues. This doesn't mean he can't act morally within the grounds of his public office, but it also means that he can't base such action on what Jesus wants.[^4]
Essentially, we can't expect Obama or any other politician to abide by WWJD bracelets. Nor should we. Government will do what government does, especially in this country where we at least claim to stake some identity (I'm sighing as I type this because it's ridiculous to keep saying it given current American politics) on the separation of church and state. That leaves those with a religious responsibility to respond in their own way.
"What does that look like?"[^5] is the million-dollar question. A lot of things, actually. Electing representatives that favor domestic and foreign policies that speak to the tenets of your religious beliefs (and if you're a Jesus follower, I sure hope you're thinking first about major social and economic reform and not gay marriage or birth control) is a place to start. Giving your financial resources to trustworthy groups that seek those same goals is another quick way to jump in. But most importantly, giving of yourself, your time and body, is the best way we can demonstrate commitment to our responsibilities. If you truly believe we have a commitment to those children, to the humanitarian struggle they're facing at home and here on our soil, then how are you actively, physically planning to help them?
Am I helping them? Have I taken a leave of absence from my job to go down there and touch those in need with my hands and tell them they are loved and show them that someone cares? No. But I'm a bad Christian. It's important to know these things. I've known I'm a bad Christian for a while, actually, since I have a house full of stuff and a car and money in savings and I'm planning for retirement. Jesus said something about selling what you have, giving the proceeds to the poor, and then following him.[^6] I haven't done that. Most Christians haven't. But we can try to do better. We can think on how we failed the least of these, breathe in and out a few times, and then try to do better. We can then do our best to help those in need all around us. We can even ask Obama to do the same thing. Just don't get mad when he allocates funds to speed up the deportation process because you think Jesus wouldn't have done that. Jesus wouldn't have agreed to be commander-in-chief, either.
- [^1]: Mark 12:17
- [^2]: Though if they did, the Bible has something to say about that, too. Check out Leviticus 19:33-34. That's in the chapter before the one certain folks like to wield.
- [^3]: We're up against some decades-old Reagan-era policies toward Central and South America here which, frankly, haven't gotten much better with presidents since. This one's a toughy.
- [^4]: Feel free to substitute another moral/religious system in place of Christian here. I'm arguing from a Christian perspective because that's a) where most of my experience lies and b) where the discussion started.
- [^5]: It sure as hell doesn't look like this.
- [^6]: Matthew 19:21
It’s amazing how quickly my stupid mouth listens to my stupid brain. Especially when it comes to the reduction of the other. Especially especially when social media gets involved.
This morning, I had a Twitter conversation with a friend. First note: don't do that. Twitter has practically no room for nuance, it isn't built that way, so trying to say something meaningful to another person is going to be difficult. Second note: if you're going to do that, you better put on your generosity pants, because it's gonna get real at some point. Because of the first thing.
It started with an observation, went quickly to debate, and then at some point I stopped recognizing my friend as someone I loved and replaced that person with the image of someone out to get me, out to hurt me. I responded in kind by lashing out with non-sequitur jabs and a childish, reactionary stance. I was called out for it, realized my error, apologized, and now we're good (so you can stop holding your breath).
It immediately struck me how quick I'd been to go low, to strike out at someone I care for out of a sense of self-protection and hurt. It's an old, old story. We all know it by heart. So why do we keep participating in it, keep propagating it? Because we're broken. Because life is a turd sandwich. Because it's easy to scowl at the taste of it and forget how wonderful our loving relationships with others can be when we let them fill us with their intrinsic beauty and worth.
This is the cycle of grace. We harm, are convicted of our wrong, are loved regardless, and feel the urge to love better and more fully despite knowing exactly how we will harm again. The scary truth is, this cycle has the potential to play out countless times per day. I went through the whole thing before 10 a.m. But this is our duty and privilege when it comes to those we encounter: see them for who they are, not for how they benefit you, not for how they might wound you, and not for how you perceive your wounds or their part in them. I forgot that for a few minutes with someone who matters greatly to me when I made them "less than" by guarding myself with mean-spirited humor. I did it in the guise of attacking their argument, when I was clearly attacking them. We are people, and this is what we do. Knowing that we do it will not keep us from it. So we trust in grace to move us forward, deep into the arms of the other who can smile and forgive and show us the love we could not, would not, show.
Take care of each other, folks. And when you don't, try again.
“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe…What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.” – Flannery O’Connor
Apart from what you see here on the DB, Logan and I are friends who still talk about religion and belief quite often. We do so in funny and serious ways. He also knows what love I harbor for Flannery O’Connor, so he sent me the quote above. I guess it worked, because I’m writing this. It’s also a chance for me to provide my own angle on Logan’s most recent post. Doubt and the ability or desire to believe is something I spend a lot of time wrestling with, which is what makes something like a “non-religious church” an issue for me, particularly for its shallow approach to something that is by its nature paradoxical and mysterious.
I think what we’ve got going here is a battle over terms, over the language of church and religion, which is no small battle as words are all we’ve got to explain what we’re doing. As Logan noted, Sunday Assembly hasn’t done away with religious structures even in their attempt to provide a secular alternative to “church.” This isn’t just another community organization we’re talking about here; otherwise, it wouldn’t have made the news. Rather, it’s an attempt to co-opt and then negate the mysterious connection afforded to us when we attempt to interact with the divine.
Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not saying Sunday Assembly should go away, or that they are wrong in their approach. Do what you want. Being a good person is good. I generally acknowledge that how you choose to experience joy in community isn’t my business. What I’d like to say though, if SA is your cup of tea, is this: don’t cheat yourself.
If we’re going to get at the contention of language presented by trying to separate what church is from what you want church to be, it begins with “feelings.” Church isn’t about making you feel good, which is what O’Connor is getting at in the quote above. Want proof? Christianity, at least, is a religion that houses an execution instrument at the front of, and on the tops of, its buildings. Granted, the effect has been lessened by its shallow usage and smothering frequency on everything from jewelry to coffee mugs, but still. This is a religion about the cross, and that’s not “feel-good.”
There is a public notion at large, one which SA bases itself upon, that being a good person and feeling good about it captures what church is about if you can so conveniently place the “God-talk” by the wayside. Wrong. Church isn’t about feeling good, it’s about confronting mystery and power, confronting a cross and all it represents, and wondering what you should do about it. When people reduce "church" to something you can do non-religiously, you're pigeon-holing religion into something devoid of mystery and power, which is antithetical to the origin of religion itself. The major religions negated by SA’s “feel good, do good” approach [and we’re going beyond Christianity here], and the organization of church as an extension, is about dealing with a truth and a reality which is, often, profoundly uncomfortable. You’re not all there is, how you “feel” isn’t really the center of anything, and what’s more, you’ve got to get over that and do some real work for others with a real eye towards love and obedience. And what makes groups like the SA so inept in their attempt to make a church is this: church is the place where you go to face that and fold yourself, along with your neighbor, into an attempt to live out those uncomfortable truths. Faith and belief are real concepts that those of us committed to living out religious truth must deal with, but church isn’t even really the place we go to do that. Faith, or even the longing for faith, is a foundation upon which church is built. Church is the second step in a religious process. So you can’t separate church from faith. Sorry.
Religion and Cost
This is where the language of struggle and the concept of belief as something painful come into play. O’Connor is right in that “religion costs.” It costs a great deal. I count myself among those who cry out for belief, wishing they had it in a way they used to or can only imagine now. And in my position, I do find it much harder to believe; yet I still strive for it. When confronted by the cross, I no longer truly know what to think or feel. But I don’t go to church to figure it out. That’s work for me to do, painful work, in which I grasp for something I believe truly matters and yet consistently avoids my longing, outstretched fingers. It’s work I do in silence, work I do with friends and family and mentors and professors, work I do in books and on paper and on an awesome blog called Disembodied Beard.
But church? That’s where I go to live out the parts I know are true and struggle to keep my heart and mind open to the parts I’m not sure about. Like, that if God exists, God is love. And love is hard. Loving God and loving neighbor aren’t any easier than loving in romantic or familial relationships. Church is where I learn how to live out that love, where I learn how to express religious truths that inherently speak power to action, where I bind together with a community to buckle down and get things done. Sometimes that makes me feel good, and sometimes it doesn’t. But my “feelies,” my “believies” (Logan already linked the best clip in his article, so go to it) aren’t a factor in all that. My actions are, and they’re predicated on my desire to know more about the divine and myself.
So, do what you want to feel joy, but don't confuse that with what church is supposed to do for you. Church is supposed to confront you with mystery and power and transform you, often in painful ways. And if you want to gather and sing songs and love each other, that’s great. Seriously, it’s great. The world would certainly be a better place if everyone did that. But that's not "church minus religion." That’s a club, and if that’s what you want, name it and own it.
Since moving to Denver I've been active in a church called AfterHours Denver (AHD). It's weird. We meet in a bar three times a month for fellowship and to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be included in sack lunches. Every day AHD and its partner groups meet in Civic Center Park to distribute up to 150 lunches to the people who congregate there or who are passing through. Communion is also offered in the form of bread and grape juice.
That's it. It's weird. There's no building. There's no paid staff except Jerry. There's service and there's fellowship in the name of Christ.
A common criticism of AHD often comes in the form of a question: "What are you doing to address the root causes of homelessness? The poor don't need a peanut butter and jelly sandwich." It is an important question. It is a question that I, myself, have asked. It is also a question that can be cynical. When I have heard it, it is often delivered in a tone that says, "so what?"
The answer is, 'nothing.' "What are you doing to address the root causes of homelessness?" Realistically? "Nothing." So, if the answer is nothing, then who cares? Why continue to do it? I mean, other than the fact that most people like to have something to eat for lunch?
What I intend below is a quick look at AHD and its mission as a movement of Christian hope.
I follow Soren Kierkegaard's (SK) expansive treatment of hope in his book Works of Love. In it he deals with hope not as a feeling but as action. For SK, hope is "to relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good" (249). Importantly, SK points out that hope cannot be put to shame. Even if what is hoped for does not come to pass, still, hope remains intact. This is because the action of hoping for the possibility of the good, a good which may not exist in present time, itself creates the good (296). In the face of crushing poverty this is perhaps not quite satisfying. But hopefully the sandwich adds some tangible satisfaction.
Hebrews 11:1 teaches that faith is the constancy for what is hoped for. To ask the question alone, "do the poor need a PB&J," and not to participate in hope is to hope nothing at all, is to lose faith, and indeed is to sink into despair (248).
Going out into the park every day, sustained by the Spirit, in communion with homeless women and men, springs out of a constancy of hope. It is a work of love from love, an act of faith from faith. Far from doing nothing, this daily action creates out of nothing a new reality, community, and awareness.
Without public meetings among the poor, the root causes of homelessness will not be addressed. Awareness is the very beginning of the movement to address social problems. In a society in which most wish not to see the poor, in which individuals dismiss an area as dirty or off limits because homeless women and men sleep in doorways -- some actively go to the poor, ask them to gather together, and interact with them as individual human beings and blessed creations of a loving God.
The best case scenario is that those who gather are brought to a new consciousness. They come to be awake. If the Spirit of the divine is involved in the least then their being is transferred into a state of aletheia: unconcealedness, disclosure, all truth. Their world experiences an apocálypsis, not a literal destruction but a revelation that destroys preconceived notions, an un-covering, an end to a time in which the reality of the world as it exists was hidden to them. They may experience a re-birth and perhaps take a step on the road toward Christian Discipleship. They may ask, "why do these conditions of poverty exist," "why have I not come to terms with them until now," "why have they been hidden from me?" This new awareness may lead toward action addressing homelessness itself.
Worst case scenario? Someone who's hungry gets something to eat.
Today was an interesting day, church wise.
I'm a member at St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Denver, Colorado where I'm also the volunteer coordinator for the Sunday Meal Program (SMP), which needs a new name. Each Sunday morning St. Paul's serves an average of 150 meals to the homeless and food insecure of Denver.
Monday through Saturday around 40 locations are available to grab a free meal across the Denver metro. That number drops to 5 or 6 on Sunday. Why such a dip on Sunday? Without delving into it, I'm not sure if religious obligation trumping the command to be merciful is at play here, but I wouldn't be surprised. I won't go down that tangent for now, but suffice it to say St. Paul's program is a vital resource for those who might not otherwise find a place to eat on Sunday.
Much of the food we typically serve at SMP is sourced from food banks. While this allows us to provide a meal each Sunday at a very low cost, often the food itself is low quality, and it is almost never what anyone would call "breakfast food." Honestly, it can be a pretty dreary affair. No one is particularly overjoyed to be there. Considering what the very part-time chef has to work with, it's kind of amazing that the food is ever better than simply edible, but it can still be pretty so-so.
Let's just say it isn't exactly going to lift anyone's spirits.
So, as a test case, this Sunday we wanted to take out all the stops and provide breakfast for our guests, with the goal of having real breakfast every Sunday. With the help of a member or two, a good guy named Adam who is passionate about serving those in need, a big donation from out of state, and a lot of work by some free range Gunnison, Colorado chickens, we were able to serve 170 meals of scrambled eggs, french toast, cheesy potatoes, and biscuits and gravy, with coffee, orange juice, milk, cookies, syrup, and ketchup on the side.
Our guests raved about the meal. I've been helping coordinate SMP for a few months now and I've never heard anyone say, "great breakfast." We get thank-yous. But today not only did I hear "thank you," I also heard, "That was the best breakfast I've had... ever," and "My favorite breakfast is the 'big breakfast' at McDonalds, but this blows that out of the water," and "I think I'm in a food coma," and "Gimme some more a them eggs, bro," just to quote a few. Simply by providing breakfast foods, coffee, and orange juice the spirit of the place lifted, conversations became livelier, the space filled with joy and noise from everyone talking and laughing.
It's amazing what a few (28 dozen) eggs can do.
We didn't solve any of the problems of homelessness that our guests deal with each day, but we did create a safe space for a few hours, filled bellies, lifted spirits, and—I hope—saw each guest as an individual loved by the divine, so they might feel love that they so rarely feel when objectified in the eyes of the world as the poor, dispossessed, unwashed, and unwanted. It is a start, at the very least. And it is also our end.