A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to preach a sermon in our Acts series here at Quest. The same week, we also had the opportunity to interview one of the founders of Future Hope’s partner, El Salvador NGO A-brazo Ministries. The woman I interviewed, Hilda, had left her well-paying job as an engineer to work with those devastated by the earthquakes in El Salvador a few years back. The innerview was inspiring and challenging, but took some time away from the sermon. While I was able to share about the larger church’s call to ministry, and our call as Christians to respond, I didn’t have the chance to share what has been hardest for me: the struggle between local and global ministry. Even if we’re called to minister in a global way, how do we live out our daily faith as people here in Seattle, driving our cars to and from work, living in our houses or apartments, and going out to dinner with friends? How are our lives as followers of the Gospel different from the lives of those who do not follow Jesus?
I wanted to share a bit of my struggle with that question in an excerpt from my discernment final from last quarter:
Fear is one of the most powerful adversaries of faith. It is said in scripture that “perfect love drives out fear.” In the example of Oscar Romero, it would seem that he was able to set aside his fearful self, to give himself over to Christ in such a way that his faith and trust were so securely rooted in this perfect love that fear held no power over his life, his actions, and his heart. So often in our world we live in a carefully constructed climate of fear. In his chapter on Downward Mobility, Dean Brackley describes this noxious environment that surrounds us all as Upward Mobility. In this “principal life strategy” of the United States and indeed much of the Western world, success is the ultimate goal and all who do not actively resist the system are at best complicit and at worst actively engaged in participating with systemic injustice. This logic of Upward Mobility leads to competition, undermining cooperation, trust and community and creating “institutions and societies in the form of a pyramid…[where] a few at the top decide for the majority without having to answer to them. In the pyramid, authority and power, which are necessary in social life, are exercised as domination to contain weaker groups and keep them dependent, ignorant, and divided.” The ultimate product of this pyramid logic is “above all, a climate of fear, mistrust and coercion.” We are led to believe in order to preserve our own security, we must protect ourselves, compete for scarce resources, and hoard against the threat of a future wherein there will not be enough for all. We are led to believe that the only way to prevent attack upon our own shores is to preemptively bomb anyone who might be seen as a potential enemy. We are led to believe that gated communities and larger homes are an assurance of security from those who would take from us what is “rightfully ours”. We are led to believe all who are not like ourselves are less deserving of what we have in order to absolve ourselves of guilt.
Living in Uganda, a context less familiar made such realities easier to see. Outside the anesthetized culture of the United States, I lived in Catholic Relief Services provided housing in a suburb of Kampala, the capital and largest city. Per U.S. directed regulations, I was required to live in a gated house under care of a full-time guard, as is common with expatriate workers in the country. Padlocked into my kitchen with its barred windows and 3/4” steel door, I could look out and see, just on the other side of the 10’ walls crowned by looping razor wire, Ugandans living in shanties. Children running around wearing only a t-shirt and chasing each other with squeals of laughter. The corner shop, a stall at the side of the dirt road selling everything from warm beer to bananas and washing powder. In the midst of this disparity, I could hear the bells for mass and the Ugandan nuns heralding the dawn of each morning with song. Initially, I wondered to my Irish roommate why we were required to live in conditions that, by comparison to those we were called to serve, would be considered palatial. She cited security and safety, sharing that particularly as single, white women in the country, we would be easy targets. Indeed, everywhere I walked alone I was met with remarks and requests for companionship by Ugandan gentlemen. Requesting the opportunity to get to know the people in the country better, I traveled to rural villages as they welcomed survivors of past military conflicts back into their midst. Here, sitting in villages with men and women while working as an assistant to a Ugandan coworker, I experienced none of the violence or potential harm I had been conditioned to expect in the city. In Bundibugyo, Ntokoro, and Fort Portal I was a welcome guest, someone to hear the stories of the forgotten, witness the pride in the education of children, someone to honor village leaders by sitting in their councils. Venturing out of fear and into the midst of the people, I experienced a blessing that could never come had I pursued only my own security. While my expatriate coworkers, who worked for CRS but found my personal faith and devotion to God puzzling, for the most part sought to remain within the secure compound of the NGO, I felt a prodding to venture outward. I cannot claim that prodding came from within myself; indeed I still regret the times fear compelled me to remain in my home rather than hang out at the corner shop getting to know my neighbors. I still believe that God, through the voice of the Holy Spirit, enabled me to look beyond what I was told, to resist companionship only with other expatriates, and to pursue friendship with native Ugandans. In my final weeks in Africa, I traveled to encourage friends working as missionaries in Congo, taking local busses and mutatus (vans converted to public transportation) through Uganda and Rwanda. I traveled alone, and encountered only African faces in my journey. Throughout the trip, my travel companions marveled at seeing a ‘mzungu’ (white person) who would travel with them. Almost always, white people pay more to travel privately, as it is seen as ‘safer’. A mzungu woman traveling ‘public’ alone? Most had never seen such a thing, and continually asked where I was going and why. Many times I had the chance to share where I was from, what I was doing in their country, and how I was visiting friends at a hospital in Congo. Bantering with locals about bus fare, I realized this, too was a gift. Increasingly, resisting fear and living in the context of the people around me, I felt liberated.
Looking back at this journey, and the liberation I felt, I wonder how we are called to live out this same reality in our current context. Regardless of geographical location, truth is still truth. One of the traditional passages for Palm Sunday in my tradition is Philippians 2:5-11:
In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ
Jesus had: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (TNIV)
If we are to take seriously the call to Christ-likeness, we are also called to be humble, to take the very nature of a servant. As Christ himself became human as we are, are we not called to be human to one another? I wonder if this, within our current context, also means that we are to be in solidarity with our world. According to Brackley, “To seek security through control of our surroundings dehumanizes us and destroys our environment…Faith allows us to let things go and share what we have.” Letting go of security seemed easier in the context of stark disparities, in a culture where as an outsider, I did not have as much stake in maintaining the status quo. How can this posture of humility and solidarity be lived in the familiar reality of church, home, and family? What does solidarity mean in Seattle?
It is in these more literal questions that I find Brackley helpful. Beyond the concept and theological justification for poverty, he offers challenges contextual to the world I currently live and operate within. “As the New Testament and Christian tradition tells us, possessions are resources entrusted to us, to be administered for the good of all, especially those in need…What about pursuing higher education in a world of hunger? If we have that opportunity, then studying means storing up cultural capital to be administered later on behalf of those who need us.” Ministering in a church environment where so many are either in the process of higher education, or have received at least one degree, this prophetic call to pursue the opportunities available not for our own benefit, but for that of others, is timely. The burden of responsibility I feel as the first person in my family to receive a college education, as the daughter of working-class parents who suddenly finds herself with more resources than at any other point in life, I need to know how to resist the social pyramid of our society, and how to encourage a mentality of Downward Mobility within my congregation.
As I continue to weigh the possibility of more global work against working in a local congregation, I begin to wonder if they are necessarily separate. While I have found it easier in other contexts to see the path I believe we as Christians are called to walk, the path of solidarity and resisting pyramids of inequity, I wonder if leaving Seattle is in some sense a denial of the prophetic voice, and leaving the people I am called to serve. Looking again at the example of Romero, he spoke truth to power in the community to which he was called. He did not need to travel outside his own congregation in order to find the context in which to best live his faith. Above all, I do not want to participate in a glamorized notion of Christian travel in which I go elsewhere to minister to those ‘in need’ when our own context contains just such people in need. If we, as people of faith, open ourselves to the transformative influence of Christ, if we consider what it means to be reconciled to our world and to live in solidarity with our world, if we commit to changing our own culture, will not the repercussions of such radical change affect our world? I wonder at my own heart, if I am seeking an easier road with my consideration of global work. Instead of seeing work in Thailand or Africa as outside the physical security of the United States, and therefore a departure from living out of fear, could such work also be seen as fleeing from the difficulty of engaging my faith in the context of my community? How can I lead my congregation in global engagement if I do not discern the answer for myself?
Within this learning of discernment, I feel that in most cases I have arrived at more questions than answers. In examining the Spiritual Exercises, I still feel held up in the early movements. These processes are not brief, and in the first movement, Forgiveness, I still feel that I have not worked through my disorderly attachments, or opened myself fully to the healing forgiveness promised by God. In examining the process of the second movement, Birth and New Life, I continue to consider how I am called to be with Christ in new life. Solidarity, yes. Working for Justice and Peace, yes. Living a life counter to the cultural norms of my context, yes. How this plays out in the myriad daily decisions, is something for which I do not have a complete answer. The third movement, Passion, Compassion and Suffering With, I seek to experience more deeply. As part of my regular duties, I meet with and pray with those in my community experiencing all manner of difficulty or suffering. On a regular basis I find myself praying silently as I listen “God help me to be present to this person. Send your Spirit to minister here in our midst.” This process of loving another, of the pain that comes in sharing another’s pain, or remaining engaged is something I continue learning. The fourth movement, Resurrection, is something I am only beginning to grasp. How do I become “hollowed out by the experience of the depth of God’s love for us in Jesus” so as to “become filled with the oil of life, alight with the love, the Spirit of Jesus, the pledge of our own resurrection”? How do I let go of enough of my own insecurities, fears, hurts, and doubts to leave room enough for God’s love and Spirit to enter in?
As Alan and I continue to try and discern how God is calling us as a family to minister to others around us, how can we start that work now, instead of waiting for a distant future? Perhaps it is through our care for one another and our friends, our community and our families. Through intentional budgeting decisions, investing in people and causes we care deeply for. Through volunteering and working here at Quest, and seeking to deepen our own faith life together in community. As you journey with us, let us know how you have been encouraged to walk this path.