On Monday night, I was hanging out with some young adults from Dumbarton United Methodist Church and Wesley Seminary at the Cosi’s at Metro Center.
We were having our regular Monday night Bible study, in this case on a passage from the letter of James, 2:1-17. Here’s a couple of excerpts (without which this story isn’t as powerful):
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person with dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my fee,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kin-dom that God has promised to those who love God? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’….What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you hav faith but do not have works?”
We were doing the Bible study using four questions that I learned from stories of Christian Peacemaker Team member Tom Fox:
1) What is your first impression of the text?
2) How the text make sense in your life experience?
3) What is difficult about the text?
4) What in the message of the text could change your life?
We’d reached question 3 and were about to move to question 4 when a man approached us.
He asked us if we were studying the Bible. We said yes.
He told us that he was homeless and couldn’t see very well, but asked if he could listen in. We said of course, and read the passage again. Go back and read it, again, with that in mind.
As we talked, we found out that the man’s name was Ray. He told us some of what it was like to be homeless in the city, to not have a sense of protection or shelter or community. He talked about sleeping on a bench–in fact, the one moment in which any anger was evident in him was when he talked about sleeping on a “goddamn bench,” a phrase that I think has a certain literal application given the text at hand. He also spoke about not feeling accepted by a church community, of having “no place to go and hear the Word.”
Now, as I’ve said many times before, one of the fun things about this blog is that I never know who (if anybody) reads it. So I don’t know what you think when you read “the Word.” (It was def. capitalized when he said it). That’s a long discussion. But we all need a place where we can hear the Word, I think. Or at least a Word. A word of compassion. Of being included. Of mercy. Of justice. Of truth. Of comfort.
So many unhoused people in this city, and so many of them might go a whole day without ever really hearing a word, or at least a kind word, directed to them, as a person, a human, an individual.
At the end of the evening, some people from the group gave Ray the little money they had, and we all prayed together. We prayed for Ray, and Ray prayed for us, and for all people experiencing homelessness. When he left, he told us he felt like he had “some armor on for the night.” Because it’s a battle, living without a home, in the capital city of the richest nation on the planet.
Guess that sort of answers question number 4.
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On this blog and in all sorts of other places, I’ve often written about the question, “What is mission?” I’ve written about mission as relationship, about mission as justice, about mission as listening, about mission as solidarity.
And Ray’s gift of his presence at our Bible study was another reminder to me that, after more than 2 years in this mission program, I still haven’t even begun to answer that question.
How many times over these past 8 months in DC have I rushed to work, using my busy schedule as an excuse not to talk to or even acknowledge a human being asking me not just for money but for acknowledgment of their personhood? Too many times to count.
My mission placement here in Washington, DC, is at the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and indeed my work here educating at advocating and sharing my experiences on behalf of a just peace in Palestine and Israel is a mission. When I forget that this is a ministry, when I lose that focus, I lose motivation and I lose clarity and, most importantly, I lose legitimacy.
But in the end, that’s a placement. That’s work. And mission, if it’s to mean anything–ministry, if it’s to mean anything–is something that happens every step of the Way.
Mission isn’t about me talking–or writing this blog, for that matter. It’s about listening and being open–to Ray, for example, who ministered to us much more than we ministered to him.
Whose mission is it?
And who is mission?
Those questions are just as important as what.
Thank you, Ray. May God be with you, and with us, reminding us of the need for compassion–and the need to end this societal sin of empty houses, forced evictions, and children of God sleeping on Goddamn Benches.