Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Professor Jack and Poverty

I was moved when I read the following blog entry from Josh Graves, a minister and teacher in Rochester, Michigan. The encounter Graves shares through his interaction with "Professor Jack" is the essence of missional ministry; it fits the very objective Jesus himself described in his job description in Luke 4.18-19: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Several of us (as in 100 plus) from the church I serve and the college I teach for decided to be a part of a “love feast” for the poor and homeless persons who live in and around Cass Park in Downtown Detroit. Cass Corridor is a notorious section of Detroit—known for rampant prostitution, drugs and destitution. The people who live down here swear, “The police have given up on this place.” The men and women who call this area “home” welcomed us into their space with love, acceptance, and hospitality.

Cass Park is within a stone’s throw of mighty Ford Field and Comerica Park, home to two professional sports teams—the Detroit Lions and Detroit Tigers. The two stadiums, and the millions of dollars they represent in profits each year, cast a long and dark shadow over this area the locals call “Jurassic Park”—referring to the violence and chaos often experienced by its inhabitants.

Some of us involved in the feast have experience working with the poor. Others were experiencing the power of “solidarity with the poor” for the first time.

When Kara (my wife) and I arrived at Cass Park, the food and clothing distribution line was in full force. College students and life long members of the church were working at a feverish and quiet efficient pace. One thing was obvious: our service was not needed. We decided that rather than being in the position of power, which suburbanites often fall back to when working with the poor, we would seek out persons to talk with, to simply be present.

My friend Andy Turner, who has taught me a great deal about city life, was already in conversation with several men at the southern end of the park. Kara and I decided to join him. I did not realize how meaningful these conversations would prove to be. I have 84 hours of college graduate education, and 130 of undergraduate training. None of those hours contained the wisdom I was about to be imparted.

One of the men engaged in dialogue with Andy was Jack. I prefer calling him Professor Jack, for he allowed the three of us into his classroom and offered us a humble but powerful class that could be titled “Life as I See it”. Jack’s body is failing him, he struggles to walk. Imagine being homeless and physically handicap. Jack’s mind is strong however, strong as it ever was.

I don’t want to make this too Disney—Jack admits he’s made a lot of poor decisions in his life. He has battled a drug addiction for some time. He’s on the streets because of it. But…he’s also had a good deal of decisions made for him; things that were way beyond his control. This notion struck me several times during our conversation: “Humans do not lose control,” Barbara Brown Taylor reminds me. “We lose the illusion that we were ever in control in the first place.”

If you had the eyes to see and the ears to hear, it was quite the holy conversation. There were no pews, sacraments, or prayers—but God was oh, so present. Here are a few of the things Professor Jack shared with his new pupils.

Professor Jack on authenticity. When I asked him what people could do for the poor and homeless, he replied, “Make us feel real. We want to feel like we are real people. You’ve done that today. See us. Talk to us. Be with us. Help us feel. It isn’t just about feeding us or giving us clothes, it’s about seeing us.”

Professor Jack on human dignity. I made the mistake of saying “that’s no big deal” after Jack had just finished ostracizing some folks for complaining about the food. “No, that’s not ok. We’re human beings just like you. Don’t say ‘that’s o.k.’—expect something from us just like you would any other human.”

Professor Jack on church and state. “You think the city or any other government cares about the poor? You’re crazy. The only thing holding things together for the homeless are the churches. If it wasn’t for the churches, things would be unmentionable. I can’t even imagine what would happen if the churches weren’t so invested in the city.” And in discussing the indifference of government for the poor he noted, “They don’t even have places for the poor to use the bathroom. We have to do the most self-degrading things just to use the bathrooms. Makes us feel like animals. Know what I’m saying?” I wish I could’ve replied, “Yeah, Jack, I feel your pain.” But if I did, I’d be lying. I have never known the pain that was pent up inside of Jack.

Professor Jack on community. After I left, Andy and Jack continued to talk about life, pain, and meaning. At one point, Jack pulled out a candy bar and offered it to Andy. “I couldn’t,” Andy reacted. “Why not? C’mon, they won’t let me take it back into the shelter. Have this with me. Share this with me.” Hearing Andy describe this moment, that place where heaven and earth kiss, I could not help but think “this is one of the best communion stories I’ve heard in a long time.” There was no bread or wine present, but the holy solidarity embodied by Christ was dripping from each passing second. It is difficult for persons who are used to being in the role of giver (even in the most subtle of ways like working in a soup kitchen, or stitching up a patient in the ER) to being in the position of receiving. Until we follow this aspect of Jesus’ life, going from host to hosted, we will miss out on the true power of God’s way in our lives.

Before I left, I asked Professor Jack if there was anything, and I meant anything, that Kara and I could do for him. I looked him dead in the eye, “Tell me what you need Jack.” He replied quickly and humbly, “I’m fine, really. I’m good. What you’ve done today, keep doing this.”

Shane Claiborne says that the real tragedy in our country is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor—but that rich Christians “do not know the poor.” Jack teaches me that the poor want to be known; they have faces, names, history’s and stories. They have a great deal to do with the in-breaking of God’s kingdom among us.

Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said he could be searched for and found among the poor (Mt. 25).