By Joshua Graves
Several of my friends (as in 100-plus) from both my church and college 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 there swear the police have given up on the place. The men and women who call it “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 the Detroit Lions and Detroit Tigers, respectively. 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 helping at the feast had worked with the poor before. 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 lifelong members of the church were working at a feverish and efficient pace. 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.
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. None of my 84 hours of college graduate education or 130 of undergraduate training contained the wisdom I was about to receive.
Life As He Sees It
Jack was one of the men speaking with Andy. 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 disabled. 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 beyond his control. A statement by Barbara Brown Taylor struck me several times during our conversation: “Humans do not lose control, 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 things Professor Jack shared with his new pupils.
Authenticity and Dignity
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 OK.’ Expect something from us just like you would any other human.”
Government and Community
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 also had some words on community.
While speaking with Andy alone, Jack pulled out a candy bar and offered it to him. “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 people 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 be in the position of receiving. Until we follow this aspect of Jesus’ life, moving from host to hosted, we will miss out on the true power of God’s way for 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 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.”1 Jack teaches me that the poor want to be known; they have faces, names, histories, and stories. The poor have everything to do with the way one understands the gospel and the way one understands Jesus.
Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said he could be searched for and found among the poor.
1Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 113, italics mine. This is one of the most provocative books I read in 2006.
Joshua Graves is a minister serving the Rochester Church of Christ in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and adjunct professor of religion for Rochester College. A longer version of this article appears in New Wineskins (www.wineskins.org).
It’s the Church’s Job (sidebar)
Whether you lean left or right in your political convictions, Scripture assumes the power we possess will be used for the sake of “others” in our world. Scripture assumes our education, talents, and beliefs will be used in the same manner of Jesus, “who ate with sinners and tax collectors” and eschewed the religious “ghettoization” that took place in his own culture. It seems God does not want us to write checks to the Red Cross so much as he wants us to be personally invested with those people who live on the margins of our societies.
The Republican Party does not have a corner on this mission. The Democratic Party does not have a corner on this mission (and neither do the Libertarians, in case they’re reading this too). Maybe this is why God primarily depends on the church in the New Testament and in our world today, and not the governments or particular political parties, to bear witness to his justice and mercy. I have a hunch God is still relying upon the church to continue the work Jesus began.