We walk about 12 minutes to get to church. It’s a few blocks up, and a few blocks over and on the walk, the first few blocks, we’re still in a nice-looking neighborhood with low crime. But it soon changes and for the last few blocks we’re in a rougher part of town. A few Sundays ago, we saw a drug deal on our way to church, and this week a very loud and aggressive man asked us for money.
A habit I picked up living overseas was carrying my wallet only when I was pretty sure I was going to need it. My husband had some cash in his pocket for the church offering, I didn’t have any, and all else that was on us was our keys, a water bottle, and a thermos of coffee. I apologized to the man saying I didn’t have any cash and I was sorry.
This was somewhat true. I didn’t have any cash, but my husband right next to me did. It wasn’t my intention to lie, of course. That’s not the person I am when I don’t feel vulnerable or in a situation with the potential for escalation, nor is it the person I want to be even when I am in those situations. I just get into flight mode and want to say or do whatever will get me out of the situation the fastest. I’m not proud of this.
After several rounds of this exchange, he eventually let us cross the road, but then followed us for about a block yelling and cursing, getting closer and louder until we turned down the next block. I gripped the mace in my pocket hard (I’m sorry to say) as we walked the last few blocks to church, hearts pounding in our chests.
We walked into church, a little shaken, pulse starting to slow, just in time for the start of the service and the confession prayer.
Our confession prayer for the week included, “We ignore our neighbors in need and fail in the labor of justice and peace. In your mercy forgive us.”
We ignore our neighbors in need.
Well dang. Gut punch.
We sent Jesus away empty handed on Sunday. Loud, obnoxious, cursey Jesus. I was walking to church, I clenched my own fists, and I sent Jesus away empty handed.
We talked about it, and there isn’t really a safer way for us to take when we walk to church. It’s in a rough part of town. That’s the point. It’s a big part of why we love our church.
Our pastor reminds us that the table is for all, even those shooting up in the alley in the back, while also expressing how tragic it is that people hurt so badly in this world that they need heroin to make them forget their pain. He has teared up during the sermon, recalling seeing the force with which he saw two young men arrested, their faces shoved into asphalt. Our church talks about the victimization of the poor, and reminds us to stay woke and alert to the work of the holy one. A lady is using the church during the week to teach sewing classes for people in the community, and a woman who lost her son last year to violence on the streets brought in a shirt belonging to her deceased son and sewed it into a pillow to put on the mantle next to his ashes. The other week there was a baptism, and the child was brought down to be baptized as the historically black congregation sang “Wade in the Water.” It gave me goosebumps.
We’ve all heard the expression that church is for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. I am the comfortable. I need afflicting.
More and more it seems to me that the Bible teaches us to give to those who ask without condition. I think affluent believers in every generation have tried to come up with rules to not do that, like the whole invention of the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor (a myth still being perpetuated). If we knew peoples’ stories—if we knew peoples’ histories and hurts, if we understood the full story of the way corporations and the state have contributed to the poverty of people and communities, if we understood what people have endured, we’d probably be more understanding, more generous, more open-handed with what we’ve been given.
But the truth is, I don’t actually have a right to their stories. I have a responsibility to understand how the state and other entities are failing my neighbors, but I don’t have a right to their stories. They are not a requirement for my empathy, and shouldn’t be one for me to extend my hand. I’m just told to give to those in need.
A friend reminded me recently of something a professor of hers in seminary said, that in every story in the Bible, we are the rich man. I am the rich man. And there are far more stories and verses in the Bible warning me, the rich man, of being greedy and stingy with my wealth, then there are for those who are with less or altogether without.
It is an upside-down kingdom we believers live in and are living for. A kingdom that isn’t red, or blue, or American. And I got it wrong on Sunday. I got scared, I kept our money, and I power-walked into church.
Thank God there is grace for me, but I’ve got to keep trying to do better, conditioning myself to respond better each next time. Because even though I waffle on all the time about loving our neighbors, when I am walking on the street and I’m yelled at by a man I can still be so slow to love, so quick to fall into self-preservation mode, and so ashamedly ignore the neighbor right in front of me.
Jesus had grace for even the rich, tax collecting, money laundering Zacchaeus, but Zacchaeus understood that following Jesus means we are compelled to give to those in need. May we who are rich (which is probably you who are reading) understand the same. May we be quick to extend our hands, and if we’re not may we be determined to condition ourselves to do so.