By Jennifer Johnson
One of the most commonly quoted verses from Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible is John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” This metaphor for the incarnation is referenced so often because, like all good poetic language, it succinctly describes a profound truth: Jesus not only came to earth to be with us, he came to be one of us.
Following Jesus means following his example and “incarnating” the gospel in our own neighborhoods. Sometimes this means tutoring children or planting a church. For Salt & Light, it meant offering opportunities to work. (See the related article, “Changing the Solution for the Needy in Champaign.”)
“We used to start distributing food at 1:00 in the afternoon, and people would begin standing in line to receive it before 8:00 in the morning,” Lisa Sheltra told me. “They spent their day standing out in the pouring rain waiting for a handout, and we spent our day trying to work while watching them shiver in the cold. That system was obviously difficult for the people needing food, and it also required us to detach ourselves from them.”
Sheltra and her team at Salt & Light did not set up this process because they consciously felt superior to the people they served. Their goal—to provide healthy food to the hungry—was honorable, and they could have felt good about the thousands of people they helped each month.
However, they realized this system created unhealthy divisions between those giving help and those receiving it. So they refocused on the real needs of the people they were trying to serve. They invested in their lives and invited them into the work, and now there are no lines, no giveaways, and no ‘us here’ and ‘them there.’”
In God Is in the Manger, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.” We try to love “those people,” too, but without coming near, and certainly without acknowledging we are also weak and broken. It is less risky to remain separate, to assign labels, and to feel gratified by our charitable giving.
The genius of Salt & Light’s ministry is not only that people have the dignity of earning money, but that they’re doing it by working with professionals across the city and spending their credits in a store open to the community. Instead of a handout or even a “hand-up,” Salt & Light simply offers an open hand that welcomes everyone.
God sent Jesus to understand our pain, invest in our lives, and invite us into his work. The creator of the cosmos showed his love by leaving Heaven and moving into the neighborhood. It’s time for us to get better at sharing his love by leaving our comfort zones and connecting with our neighbors.