I want to thank everyone who responded to my post, “Why Don’t More Christians Respond to the Needs of Those on the Margins?” I think we would all agree that a desire to respond to the needs of others grows out of some kind of relationship. I would like to delve a little deeper into the responses so far and see where it might lead us.
My co-worker Qasarah helped me gain the greatest insight into this question this week. She asked, “What is in it for me?” Whether we admit it or not, we all ask this question when presented with new opportunities. We are all driven by inner motivations, some conscious and some not. As Qasarah and I probed deeper into her question, we came to the conclusion that only those who are motivated by a desire for personal or spiritual growth enter into these types of relationships and are able to sustain these relationships for the long haul. Any other motives, such as a desire to “make a difference”, “win people to Christ”, “obey God”, “feel good about one’s self” all break down rather quickly in the face of the hard realities of true authentic friendship. However, it is those who enter into relationships with a desire to learn from their new friends who are able to navigate through the tough times.
So, why aren’t more people open to developing friendships outside their own comfort zone? I think my friend Howard got it right when he pointed to “the high cost of friendship.” It costs us time, energy, resources and it is messy, awkward, uncomfortable and often really hard. One must recognize that the level of personal and spiritual growth that one receives is higher than the perceived cost. In order for that to happen, we have to recognize our own need for growth and our own poverty.
In addition to recognizing our own need and the cost of friendship, my friend Stephanie, also reminded us that “fear of the unknown” is a huge barrier. However, Stephanie confirmed my friend Corey’s hypothesis that it is through being a part of a “community” verses acting as an individual, that we are able to overcome this fear.
As Qasarah and I explored her question, we realized that the motivations and barriers are the same whether you are a person with physical means or not. The false motives for our friends who are trying to escape from material poverty may look different such as “a desire for material gain”, “someone to “help” me”, “someone to fix my problems”, or “compliance with perceived expectation by an authority figure.” In the long run these motives cannot maintain a friendship. Only a deep desire to grow personally and/or spiritually can sustain the relationship. Likewise, both individuals have to be willing to pay the high cost of friendship which requires that we make ourselves vulnerable and allow others to see the real person underneath the façade.
As I shared in my last post, Christopher Heuertz and Christine Pohl have written a wonderful book titled “Friendship at the Margins”, in which they have looked at this issue in depth. Chris is a practitioner and says this about his ministry, “Word Made Flesh has formed small communities that attempt to take Jesus’ incarnation seriously – his willingness to become flesh and “move into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 The Message). Word Made Flesh describes itself as a community of contemplative activists who follow the most vulnerable of the world’s poor to God’s heart. Their call is to practice the presence and proclamation of the kingdom of God among friends who are poor by embodying love and holding onto hope….The WMF community is seeking to embody a form of life that is deep and broad – deeply rooted in the Christian tradition and turned toward community and the world’s most vulnerable people. WMF discovered that for them this would mean moving back and forth between multiple worlds, not being specialists but dwelling with and becoming bridges between several communities.”
Chris and Christine point to the key starting point for authentic friendship when they write, “Mission and ministry with people who are poor or vulnerable often assumes that “our” task is to meet “their” needs. Whether their need is for the good news of Christ or for bead and a place to sleep, we tend to think that we have the resources and that they have the needs. A focus on friendship rearranges our assumptions. What if the resources they have also meet our needs? What if Jesus is already present in ways that will minister to us? What if in sharing life together as friends we all move closer to Jesus’ heart?” True friendship is always mutual. Both parties are givers and recipients of blessings. We must enter into these relationships open to receiving from our new friends.
Over the past six years, I have felt this same call to be rooted in under-resourced communities while building bridges between multiple communities. I think Embrace can learn a lot from Word Made Flesh and how they have been able to do this. I am challenged by WMF because I am not able to physically live in the communities where I minister. My desire is to translate the truths they have discovered in doing so and clear a path for the rest of us to experience some level of the growth and transformation. While many like my friend Corey see this kind of ministry as an “all or nothing” proposition and my friends from WMF have definitely jumped in wholeheartedly. I do believe there are ways all of us can tap into the transformative power of these kinds of friendships.
My friend Howard has spent the last several years of his life building friendships with people from all walks of life and constructing paths for others to follow into these kinds of friendships. He shared in one of his comments this week, “I would say that 75% or more of my growth over the last 5 years has come from intentional efforts to create, maintain, and honor friendships with “different” people. The growth comes from leaning on God for help getting through rough patches….from hanging in there and engaging in the learning that unfolds in unknown territory. I think we need God in this territory because our human instincts are to eject from it because we don’t want to deal with the tension and awkwardness. I’ve also found that I need prayer to deal with the crap in me that gets pushed to the surface, and to maintain grace in situations that I am tempted to react negatively to tough moments.”
Howard is a contemplative activist. Without being deeply rooted the traditions of the faith and without practices such as prayer, this kind of ministry cannot survive.
Are you a contemplative activist? Are you willing to enter into relationships with friends in the margins with a heart to learn, grow, and receive? Would you like to be a part of a “community of contemplative activists” who are dedicated to building counter cultural friendships?
None of us can do this kind of ministry alone. I hope this blog will be a place for others who are seeking to follow this path to find encouragement and support. However, I am also praying about how we might gather like minded people together. Saturday night, I am hosting my first gathering with a couple of very interesting people to explore what that might look like here in Richmond. I have no idea what God will do, but I would love to get your thoughts on the subject and ask for your prayers as this unfolds.
If there was a gathering of contemplative activists here in Richmond dedicated to developing friendships with those in the margins, would you be interested in joining the conversation?