I went downtown today to get all set-up for my internship this quarter. Ill be on staff at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, this huge, 12-site organization that helps out homeless people. Mostly I’ll be manning the front-desk, so I’ll be one of the first faces people encounter, whether they’re walking in for the first or the last time. I’ll also, apparently, be working with small groups (?) of people who are in the addiction recovery program there. Basically my job is to model good relationships for people who have never experienced one before. Most of these folks have been betrayed or rejected by everyone they’ve ever trusted, and so they’ve turned to the one thing that has never let them down: drugs. I’m nervous and excited and there is this sensation, again—I’m kind of addicted to it—of becoming a Christian for the first time. Of opening a door into some new, vast, grandiose room of this mansion that is the Christian life.
My supervisor, John, and I are kindred spirits. He’s 26 and graduated from Point Loma Nazarene with a degree in theology and philosophy, now he’s on the ground in the city doing very practical work with a very academic degree. We sat down in his office today to talk logistics, but also just to get to know each other. I can definitely see myself in this guy, and I’d love to be like him in 5 years. Relaxed, collected, cup of coffee in hand, but moving with the ebb and flow of things, responding in the moment, off-the-cuff. Not controlling, but facilitating the movement around him. And trusting, deeply, those around him. I like that.
We were talking about what it means for churches to really make sacrifices to help the poor.
“Most churches, you know—they want to reinvent the wheel on this stuff, but there’s no need to do that, really. We’ve got dental clinics and legal clinics and addiction recovery programs and meals for everyone who wants it. In Seattle, homelessness is not a resource problem. It’s a relationship problem. And you know, you can get folks coming in once a month slopping food onto a plate, and then go home feeling like they really did something, but really, what is that?”
“Well, that’s exactly the thing,” I said. I knew right away that I could trust him with my opinions. I’m comfortable talking about emotions and relationships with lots of people, but very few get to hear about my thoughts. “Because fundamentally, that kind of Christianity isn’t about helping the poor or serving people or any of that. It’s about the feeling you get when you help the poor. Once you get the feeling you want, there’s no more benefit for you (and it’s all about you, in the end, isn’t it?). The problem is that having that feeling doesn’t always mean that you’re really helping anyone.”
“Exactly! Real change requires commitment. Imagine this—imagine this! Here’s a crazy idea. I’d love—love—to see one of the churches around here suck one of our guys into a small group. That’s what these guys need—belonging, community, relationships.”
“That would be cool . . . huh. I’d never thought about that.”
“But I’m sounding too romantic. People think that serving the poor is romantic. I’ll tell you something: it’s not. Serving the poor is gross. It’s gross, it’s ugly, and it’s messy. If you brought one of these guys into your small group, it would suck.”
“Well, yeah—I mean, they’d be an emotional wreck, they’d be needy, dependent—”
“—Smelly, dirty, late, distracting. And they’d run away. All the time. And you’d have to go chasing after them. All the time. That’s a lot of sacrifice.”
What a lot of people don’t know about me is that I have a radical streak. I’m a feminist and a pacifist and I don’t believe Christians should keep more than maybe $30,000 of whatever they earn each year. I don’t ever want a mortgage or a car loan. So today, meeting a guy who had a lot of the same ideals, and just being around people who’d had a rough first start at life, was like rediscovering myself, in a sense. I felt like I was—oh yeah!—practicing what I preached. That’s kind of stupid because I’m just an intern doing this, in part, for the credits I need to get a Global and Urban Ministry minor. But still—I’m going to chase this one a while and see where it takes me.