Thursday, March 27, 2008

Retreating on the poor. . .

Did you see the report on the group of men who took part in a spiritual retreat in Austin, Texas during Holy Week?

It seems the leader of a homeless ministry in that city leads such a group of "seekers" onto the streets for three days. The goal of the retreat is "to connect with God" by striping away the normal creature comforts of the participants. The intention is to "walk among the poor as Jesus did" to grasp the power of the resurrection. Appropriate Easter theme.

One of the participants commented, "We're made aware again just how much of a chasm there is between who we are and who we could be." You know, there but for the grace of God go I.

Another confesses that he wants to "see Jesus in the faces of people who live here permanently." The experience of detachment from the materialism of his normal life causes him to feel like
"standing on a mountaintop and shouting 'Don't you see where the peace is?'"

Such analysis always prompts me to think or to say, "Wonder if the homeless and the impoverished frame their poverty in such joyous, spiritual terms?"

One of the men is a retired theology professor who reported that he has been thinking about the randomness of his situation compared to the homeless people he will meet on the streets. "You meet people in the world who are really powerless. The shoe could be on the other foot." He makes a clear connection between his experience on the streets among the very poor and a personal discovery of how Jesus shared in the human condition during his life.

I expect this little group of Holy Week pilgrims discovered great benefit in their short-term street experience. I expect they learned a great deal from the experience, including new insights about themselves.

But, am I the only person put off by the entire concept?

Wouldn't a more productive way to escape the troublesome limits of materialism involve giving and sharing the wealth and the goods that success brings on a consistent basis? I mean, is it really a good thing to use the poor to grow spiritually in such come and go fashion?

How about forming a new spiritual commitment to doing the hard, daily work of battling poverty on as many fronts and in as many ways as are both possible and necessary to see things actually change?

Maybe these men leave the streets more committed than ever to put an end to homelessness in the Texas capitol. But the report I read in the Austin American-Statesman did not mention such new resolve born of the group's Lenten repentance.

To presume to "come and go" for my own personal "spiritual benefit" seems to raise lots of questions that don't have very satisfying answers.

Maybe it's just me. What do you think?



Josh Linton said...

Wow, good point. I'm wrestling with this now as a youth minister. I want our kids to see the difference in real justice for this world and service projects that tend to only be about those serving. Thanks for the reminder.

spike said...

I couldn't agree more, Larry. We see this all over the place. One particularly egregious example is the trips to South America or Africa to build houses for a week. Is there any doubt the service is not really about service?

You go build houses for a week in Guatemala or Kenya, then go home and vote for politicians whose policies exploit those same countries. Where's the tranformational change in that?

On the one hand you can't help but think that any attempt to understand poverty is a good thing, but on the other hand, it's easy to conclude that it's just a band-aid placed over a still-festering wound. But it's almost like Americans are raised from birth not to see the big picture of all of their actions.

Anonymous said...

I didn't read the article, but perhaps part of the purpose of the experience was to teach the participants about issues related to poverty. If they were as moved as they sound, hopefully they will not be able to just go back to their old comfort zones and willl become active. I don't trust the media to give the full story.

Just a thought.

Frank Bellizzi said...

I agree, Larry, and appreciate the previous comments too.

Daniel Gray said...

I agree. Most short term mission/volunteer efforts leave me very satisfied and content. However, rarely do they ever encourage one to think longer than a week about the power and meaning of Christ's example of suffering with people.

Sadly, most of us do go back to our normal lives. These trips should ultimately change our lives into one that participates fully in the struggle of the people we intended to serve.

The short term mission effort -- or the tiny handout to a poor person -- is only a chance to salve a guilty conscience. Rarely have I ever seen it move beyond that.

Larry James said...

Thanks for the comments. What really got me about this event--and possibly the news report didn't get all of the details for us--is the fact that it was totally about "experiencing poverty and the poor." There didn't seem to be a service component or even really an educational mission, as in understanding homelessness. Rather, the point was to utilize the presence of the extreme poor to draw near to God. Sorry, but that is whacked--unless one plans to move onto the streets permanently or go back to reality and change the system or build housing, etc. I wonder if these same folks would lobby in Austin--just across the street almost literally for adequate mental health funding, housing dollars and other basic human services? I wonder what their churches budget for the poor? Honest questions, not rhetorical.

Tamer said...

Thank you for this. It takes me beyond when I see this kind of thing. To me it is hypocritical nonsense. How could anyone possibly know what it's like to live in abject poverty and be homelessness if they never have been.

This subject reminds me of people who go to church on Easter Sunday and no other time of the year.

You walk the walk, not talk the walk.

Tamer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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