When other people hear that I work at a homeless youth drop-in center, I am often asked to share my success stories. I often feel a sense of uneasiness as I attempt to stitch together a “success story” in the clean and eloquent form that many so often demand. Over the course of the ten months that I have worked at Sox Place, I have come to learn that the world’s idea of success does not stem from the same definition of success that Jesus so often spoke of.
Working with the homeless is not prestigious. It is not easy. It is messy and frustrating. And it can oftentimes be like watching paint dry – quite literally. I often struggle with many of our kids when I try to reason with them, attempting to explain simple and well-known concepts, only to watch them easily brush me away to continue in their destructive cycle.
Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries in LA, recounts in his eloquently written book, Tattoos on the Heart:
“…this work has taught me that God has greater comfort with inverting categories than I do. What is success and what is failure? What is good and what is bad? Great stock these days, especially in nonprofits (and who can blame them) is placed in evidence-based outcomes. People, funders in particular, want to know if what you do “works.”
Are you, in the end, successful? Naturally, I find myself heartened by Mother Teresa’s take: “We are not called to be successful, but faithful.” This distinction is helpful for me as I barricade myself against the daily dread of setback. You need protection from the daily ebb and flow of three steps forward, five steps backward. You trip over disappointment and recalcitrance every day, and it all becomes a muddle. God intends it to be, I think. For once you choose to hang out with folks who carry more burden that they can bear, all bets seem to be off. Salivating for success keeps you from being faithful, keeps you from truly seeing whoever’s sitting in front of you. Embracing a strategy and an approach you can believe in is sometimes the best you can do on any given day. If you surrender your need for results and outcomes, success becomes God’s business. I find it hard enough to be faithful.
…Sr. Elaine Roulette, the founder of My Mother’s House in New York, was asked, “How do you work with the poor?” She answered, “You don’t. You share your life with the poor.” It’s as basic as crying together. It is about “casting your lot” before it ever becomes about “changing their lot.”
The American poet Jack Gilbert writes, “The pregnant heart is driven to hopes that are the wrong size for this world.” The strategy and stance of Jesus was consistent in that it was always out of step with the world. Jesus defied all the categories upon which the world insisted: good-evil, success-failure, pure-impure. Surely, He was an equal-opportunity “pisser off-er” in this regard. The right wing would stare at Him and question where He chose to stand. They hated that He aligned Himself with the unclean, those outside – those folks you ought neither to touch nor be near. He hobnobbed with the leper, shared table fellowship with the sinner, and rendered Himself ritually impure in the process. They found it offensive that, to boot, Jesus had no regard for their wedge issues, their constitutional amendments or their culture wars.
The Left was equally annoyed. They wanted to see the ten-point plan, the revolution in high gear, the toppling of sinful social structures. They were impatient with His brand of solidarity. They wanted to see Him taking the right stand on issues, not just standing in the right place.
But Jesus stood with the outcast. The Left screamed: “Don’t just stand there, do something.” And the Right maintained: “Don’t stand with those folks at all.” Both sides, seeing Jesus as the wrong size for the world, came to their reasons for wanting Him dead. Both sides were equally impressed as He unrolled the scroll and spoke of “good news to the poor” … “sight to the blind” … “liberty to captives.” Yet only a handful of verses later, they wanted to throw Jesus over a cliff.
How do we get the world to change anyway? …You actually abolish slavery by accompanying the slave. We don’t have to strategize our way out of slavery, we solidarize, if you will, our way toward its demise. We stand in solidarity with the slave, and by so doing, we diminish slavery’s ability to stand. By casting our lot with the gang member, we hasten the demise of demonizing. All Jesus asks is “Where are you standing?” And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, He asks again, “Are you still standing there?”
Can we stay faithful and persistent in our fidelity even when things seem not to succeed? I suppose Jesus could have chosen a strategy that worked better (evidence-based outcomes) – that didn’t end in the Cross – but he couldn’t find a strategy more soaked with fidelity than the one he embraced.
…[we need to allow] our hearts to “be broken by the very thing that breaks the heart of God.” In the end, what needs to get disrupted will find its disruption in our solidarity and in our intimate kinship with the outcast – who too infrequently knows the peace of a white dove resting on a shoulder.
…Nietzsche writes, “The weight of all things needs to be measured anew.” Enough death and tragedy come your way, and who would blame you for wanting a new way to measure.
If we choose to stand in the right place, God, through us, creates a community of resistance without our even realizing it. To embrace the strategy of Jesus is to be engaged in what Dean Brackley calls “downward mobility.” Our locating ourselves with those who have been endlessly excluded becomes an act of visible protest. For no amount of our screaming at the people in charge to change things can change them. The margins don’t get erased by simply insisting that the powers-that-be erase them. The trickle-down theory doesn’t really work here. The powers bent of waging war against the poor and the young and the “other” will only be moved to kinship when they observe it. Only when we can see a community where the outcast is valued and appreciated will be abandon the values that seek to exclude.
Jesus was always too busy being faithful to worry about success. I’m not opposed to success; I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.
Myriad are the examples… of [people] coloring way outside the lines and being given their ninety-eighth chance. Maybe it’s because we are often forced to start where others have stopped.
…You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.
Jesus jostled irreparably the purity code of the shot callers of His day. He recognized that is was precisely this code that kept folks from kinship. Maybe success has become the new purity code. And Jesus shows us that the desire for purity (nine times out of ten) is, in fact, the enemy of the gospel.
Funders sometimes say, “We don’t fund efforts; we fund outcomes.” We all hear this and think how sensible, practical, realistic, hard-nosed, and clear-eyed it is. But maybe Jesus doesn’t know why we’re nodding so vigorously. Without wanting to, we sometimes allow our preference for the poor to morph into a preference for the well-behaved and the most likely to succeed, even if you get better outcomes when you work with those folks. If success is our engine, we sidestep the difficult and belligerent and eventually abandon “the slow work of God.”
We are asked to continuously, consistently, and lovingly share our lives with the outcast, the downtrodden, and the rejected youth of our city. We are not asked to crunch numbers in a vain attempt to quantify emotional and spiritual progress. We are asked to live alongside the brokenhearted, the abused, the neglected and angry, and the “lepers” who struggle to survive on the outskirts of our society, though they are most often right in front of us, longing for just a taste of what it means to be loved. As Mother Teresa so succinctly said, “Following Jesus is simple, but not easy. Love until it hurts, and then love more.”
The thing that I have discovered in the nearly two years that I have spent working with the homeless is that, to the onlooker, there is not always a shockingly obvious change that someone goes through. Even I don’t always notice it at first. But when you catch that faint glimmer of hope in someone’s eyes, the one that whispers “I’m worth something. I know that I am loved,” you know – you know – that everything that you have accomplished in your life prior to this moment has been but a shadow produced by the light in this child’s eyes.
“We have grown accustomed to think that loving as God does is hard. We think it’s about moral strain and obligation. We presume it requires a spiritual muscularity of which we are not capable, a layering of burden on top of sacrifice…
I suppose Jesus walks into a room and loves what he finds there. Delights in it, in fact. Maybe, He makes a beeline to the outcasts and chooses, in them, to go where love has not yet arrived.”
Let us choose to love as He does. Let us choose to completely obliterate social and economic barriers in order to embrace the ones that need love just as much as we do. Let us choose to forge a new definition of success in our wake. Let us choose to love instead.