On one of the darkest nights that I can remember, a young friend of ours who grew up on the streets came to our meeting in hysterics. This was our weekly Friday night street gathering in one of the most notorious red light areas of Lima, Peru. Assembled on the cold street corner was our usual ministry team, a motley group of young men and women from different national origins, conservative and liberal, clean-cut and sloppy, outgoing and timid.
Love in the Midst of Pain
Our young friend’s loud shouts and frantic body movements called immediate attention to himself. To a point, our meetings can tolerate what in most social settings would be considered disruptive and/or destructive behaviors. We believe our theological reading of the stories of Jesus Christ embracing the outcasts of society should translate into our strategies for ministry. Our community seeks out authentic love relationships with young people who live on the streets. Period. We do not ask them to first get off the streets or change their lives around in order to be loved and touched by us. We want them to get close enough to be cleansed by God’s touch.
The culture of the street is rough, anxious, and belligerent; people who live in this environment internalize these characteristics and then slowly forget how to act any other way. At our meetings on the street there are always a few drunk people, many more who have been inhaling shoe glue, and a handful who are very upset and ready to fight. But this was more than we could tolerate; this young man was shouting wild accusations against us and pushing people around. After this, he threw the cup of hot chocolate he had just received to the ground in front of everyone.
What made this more difficult was that our community had been in relationship with him for many years; in addition, he had quite a reputation on the street. When he stormed off around the corner, a handful of people followed him, which seems to be the case wherever he goes. I thought I had seen this kind of exit before, only to be confronted shortly after with an angry person holding out a broken glass bottle or a freshly stolen kitchen knife intent on threatening someone. So I also followed him.
After abruptly brushing my hand off his shoulder as we walked the length of the dark street, him telling me “where I could go,” and how much he hated me, he finally broke: standing completely still, he looked at me through streaming tears and said he was afraid that if he got lost no one would come to find him. But this was practically his neighborhood—the streets, corners, and stores that he had been navigating for seventeen years. “Well, I am here right now with you and I love you,” I told him. He came toward me and we embraced, experiencing God’s loving and reconciling presence in each other’s arms for a few moments, and forever marking both our lives.
The fear he expressed that night and the circumstances surrounding how we heard need to define the presence and work of the Church in this world. Underneath the violence in our hearts and the ways we abuse others is a fundamental desire to belong and have purpose. We all need real people to speak of God’s loving embrace to us and then to actually have someone put their arms around us as a very real sign of that love.
Sadly, much too often church congregations, which are called to be the Body of Christ in the world, practice an exclusive and judgmental way of life that doesn’t intentionally embrace those people who live on the margins of society. When Jesus says, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that lasts for eternal life” (John 6:27), what is at stake theologically, eternally, is our ability to recognize God among us. Like the ancient story of manna from Exodus 16, we are given bread from heaven to gather and eat, but we fail to recognize and appreciate it. We grumble and long for what had nourished us before. Can we see the bread we are given, which is God’s presence among us in the poor?
Choosing to See God
While riding in a bus through the crowded Lima traffic, I often pass a certain corner church building that never lacks for that freshly painted look. It catches my eye every time, because all the other buildings in the surrounding blocks are full of graffiti, caked-on black sludge, and stick-up posters for concerts that happened three years ago.
On this wall, every few meters is the message, “Don’t stick papers here, respect God’s house.” The message appears to be working. Maybe it’s because people are afraid that something bad might happen to them if they “mess” with God’s property. Maybe it is the latent, shared desire to respect the sacred that the message awakens. The country of Peru, while being more than three-fourths professing Catholic with one official language, is by no means homogenous.
There is actually a great variety of religious expression, as evidenced by the multiple and diverse regions and hundreds of spoken languages in addition to the official Spanish. And yet, regardless of creed, language, or region, the majority of Peruvians maintain a marked theological and practical separation between sacred and profane, not unlike most places in the world throughout human history. Religious systems have always purported to communicate the divine rules and norms that govern a good society, and so we have the message painted on this Peruvian church warning us not to mess with God’s house (one might wonder if we could inquire inside as to the divine punishment for transgressors).
Almost daily at this same street corner stands a man with an old cardboard sign. On it he has written in simple letters, “Hunger.” The walls of the church building within a stone’s throw of this man remain pristine, and everyone notices how nice it looks. In passing, they say a prayer of thanks that people finally respect God and all that which is sacred. Many would call it scandalous if someone were to paint and thus mar the wall of God’s house.
But few name and act on the greater scandal that one of God’s children goes hungry right in front of this wall. “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat” (Matthew 25:42), Jesus said, referring to people just like this man standing below the wall of the pristine church and to the young people who live and work on the streets with no one to love and embrace them. Inasmuch as we fail to see God in them, we fail to recognize God’s presence among us and so nourish our lives, and theirs, with the true bread from heaven that God gives.
Our ministry center has a fig tree which last year produced buckets and buckets full of nutritious figs. We had more figs from this one tree than we could possibly eat, so one of our industrious volunteers began to prepare fig jam, which, in addition to the raw fruit, we gave away as gifts.
Many times, while working at the center, we gathered some of the fruit for a quick pick-me-up. This was a very old, gnarled fig tree, whose branches were growing weary and needed support beams under them. And yet this old tree was true to its variety and produced abundant fruit in season with scant care or water. After listening to a Peruvian friend explain the wonders of fig trees, Jesus’ curse on the fig tree in the Passover season shortly before his death on the cross (Matthew 21:18-20) became clearer.
The cursed fig tree was a visible sign of judgment for not recognizing God’s presence among us. In the desert coastal regions of Peru, mature fig trees are very hardy and easy to care for; with little rain they produce buckets of fruit every week. Similarly, a Palestinian fig tree with leaves in April, the Passover season, should have some fruit on it. A tree that is not showing any fruit at this point in the growing season is a dead tree.
Jesus called attention to something vitally wrong in the very essence of God’s people by cursing the fig tree—that which was supposed to be showing signs of life, the recognition of God’s presence among them, was not. There is a common Peruvian superstition that dwarfs live under old fig trees, and so some who come into our center are immediately filled with fear after eyeing our tree, afraid they might see a dwarf.
Many times, the Body of Christ practices a similar theological superstition by failing to recognize God’s presence among us in the poor. A young person living on the street is a child of God, a sacred object of infinite worth, just as much as the well-respected local pastor. And yet, instead of seeing the life-giving potential in a person from the street, what is seen is a macabre figure. Many of us then choose to look away in fear. In faith, we choose to see God in even the most difficult people and places. This is, in Stanley Hauerwas’ words, our “happy task.” Hauerwas writes, “As the Church, we have no right to determine the boundaries of God’s kingdom, for it is our happy task to acknowledge God’ power to make his kingdom present in the most surprising places and ways.”1 That’s why we bring donuts to the “casona.”
Eating Donuts in the Casona: Finding Our Way Together
I saw a small red dot bouncing around on my chest and thought for a second that some clandestine sniper was actually targeting me. It was getting late in the afternoon, and standing precariously on top of the main wall of this aptly named abandoned building, “the big, old house,” was frightening enough. Then there were the odd stares of passersby whose faces were unable to fathom why a group of decently dressed, seemingly normal people would be climbing into this building known to shelter drug addicts who walk around asking for food and steal hats or watches every now and again.
Earlier that morning, we had spent considerable time preparing homemade donuts from a family recipe. Between the mixing, dipping into hot oil, and then coating with powdered sugar, we all had done about a half day’s work to produce the fifty or so donuts that we carried in plastic bags. Over top of trash and excrement piles we carried this simple breakfast as a small gesture of love. In addition to the vivid smells and images that I have carried with me to this day from those visits to the casona, what is of more value is that the young people remember when the donuts were brought to them during a period of great struggle and suffering in their life. If we were to simply calculate the human hours and economic cost of bringing donuts to the casona, it would be hard to justify this activity as effective ministry.
Further, many of those young people are either still struggling with their addiction or in jail. A scant few have left the streets altogether. Yet if anyone were to ask them personally what it meant to them to have donuts brought to the casona, all would say that they experienced the love of God as we sat together and got our faces messy with powdered sugar.
Our fundamental ministry strategy cannot be reduced to helping youth get off the street, nor is it to merely lift people out of poverty. Rather, we organize activities and implement strategies as a fruit of our devotion to the call of being living testimonies of God’s love for humankind among the marginalized.
This does not exclude strategy and evaluation; we no longer bring donuts to the casona because that population is no longer together. But we go visit them in jail, and work with the families of those who have gone home. God has also led us to different abandoned buildings where we are doing much the same thing. The manna that was given to the Hebrew people could not be preserved from one day to the next, save for the Sabbath provision. In the same way, the Body of Christ in the world must be continually gathering the portion that God gives, trusting that it will nourish. Since the rendering of the temple curtain at the death of Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God is released in a new way. The spirit of adoption spoken about in Romans 8 is inciting the Body of Christ to recognize God’s presence among the poor, thus extending the borders of God’s family. If the Church does not choose to see God in the poorest and most unsightly in our societies, our testimony will not only fail to bear fruit, but will wither and die.
This is our message to the Body of Christ: that we might together in Christian community kneel down in joyful submission and daily gather the true bread of God’s presence among us. In history, there will never be a lack of this bread, for there will always be “poor among us” (John 12:8). Let us pray that we would gather the manna God has given, and give thanks.
1. 1991. The Peaceable Kingdom. South Bend, Indiana, USA: University of Notre Dame Press, 161.