It’s the work that changed me. That’s what I want to say when someone wonders how I came to a different social, political, or religious stance than what is expected of me from those who have known me for more than 10 years or from people who perhaps make assumptions about what they expect me to support or believe based on where I live or how I look.
It wasn’t just the work though that changed me, it was also the circumstances of my life that resulted in a shattering of the way I thought things should be if I do things “right”. The fact that I had to do the work while things shattered within me refined me in ways that I am overwhelmingly grateful for. It stripped everything down and away from me. It set me free. Free to love and grow and hope and rest and be. Free to let others be. I was free from being “right”, free from being the “fixer” or “saver” of others. I was free to just love people. I was free to just be there for them, with them. I was free to do the work before me.
What was the work? The work was mainly my job, which I only in retrospect recognize as a type of mission field. I’ve written about my job before, but in short – it was to help people coping with mental illness, who were also often dealing with poverty and additional health issues.
A lot of the work I did was work that churches or families should or could be doing. A lot of the work wasn’t really work that should be left to a non-profit agency in a first world country, as it didn’t require my expertise or resources so much as it required my time, energy, empathy, and compassion. I began to see that many times we have the resources to help one another, but too often we don’t and instead expect someone else to.
The work woke me up.
There are a lot of things that I don’t see the way I used to. Some of the things that would have made me uneasy or would have instantly sent me into judgement of someone don’t matter to me anymore. I literally don’t care. It’s not that I don’t care as in “I don’t care about you and your life” but that: I don’t care that you’re different than me, I still believe you hold the same worth and value as me and I’m not afraid of or intimidated by our differences. I don’t care that you’ve chosen things I wouldn’t have chosen because we all have to make our own choices and I realize that I don’t know your why for all your choices, so I don’t care to automatically place a label on your choice – that’s not my place. I don’t care that you have made horrible mistakes and choices because I recognize that I have too and I see now how the consequences for our actions are sometimes shaped by our social status and I recognize that I was born into a higher social status than others (am privileged) and therefore have protective factors surrounding me that I did not earn and do not deserve any more or less than anyone else. I don’t care that I don’t like things about you or your life or your lifestyle because I recognize that it’s not everyone’s job to cater to my preferences (nor is it my job to cater to theirs).
Not caring about any of those things made room for me to care about other things. What I care about is you, as a person – what you’ve experienced and how it’s shaped you, what matters to you, and what I can do to help or support or love you well. I care about you growing as a person, making informed choices that help you work towards your goals for yourself. I care about your safety. I care about your civil rights. I care about your wellness. I care about your needs. I come to you with no other agenda, no desire to fix you or save you or show you the “right” way to live. I believe the power of being loved well points you to the light of the one who loves you most more than anything else I can do or say.
The work taught me that. Doing the work taught me a new way to approach people. Doing the work taught me how to love people better. Doing the work inspired me to be a voice for those in the margins, those who’ve fallen through the cracks, those who aren’t just less fortunate than me, but who are also systematically mistreated.
The more I did the work, the more frustration I felt on behalf of the people I served. The more I did the work, the more anger I felt at the systems that don’t work. The more I did the work, the less tolerance I had for people who refuse to acknowledge their privilege and who belittle others who aren’t like them. Even more, I began to despise the cop-out statements and became disgusted by the rationalizations behind prejudiced remarks, jokes, ideals and policies.
The more I did the work, the more I respected the people at the bottom of the ladder who were trying even if they kept failing and the less I respected the people in the high rise who were born into or simply handed the power they had, often exploiting the people below them to maintain their position.
The more I did the work, the more disappointed I felt when someone who had been there, in those margins, somehow made their way out decided that they would rather separate themselves from their past than fight for the people still there.
The more I did the work, the more upset I became that much of the Church is not doing this work. I am almost enraged by the religious who spout Bible verses piously, offer passive aggressive “biblical guidance”, try to teach the “right way” with false humility and prefer to support oppressive systems of injustice as doctrine while keeping a safe distance from anyone who isn’t one of them instead of getting out of their Sunday clothes and off of their high horses and getting their hands in the dirt and their boots on the ground to do the work which requires much more action and much less chatter.
The angry outburst feels satisfying at first and it’s not lacking in truth, but it’s also not very helpful. Too often, I’ve let my passion for justice turn my words into something sharp and cutting, when what I wanted them to be was a plea for change. I want to apologize for that.
Too often I’ve written about these issues thinking only of the harshest and most hateful opponents to justice, when that’s not really my audience. My audience is generally people like me and people like a person I have been (and sometimes still am). Those people like a person I have been (and sometimes still am) are people who are generally kind and good and well intentioned. They are people who don’t intend to be hurtful or harmful, who don’t understand or never thought of why some things would be hurtful or harmful. They are people who sincerely want to be faithful in living a life that honors God. They are people who have had a social/political/religious culture that works for them and makes sense to them passed down to them through family, church, and social groups. These people not only feel uneasy about and wary of challenging those norms, they also don’t see that it’s necessary, and may even fear (or strongly believe) that it is wrong to challenge the way things are.
If I am writing for that person, I have to write differently. No progress is made when we make enemies of one another with blanket statements and name-calling, yet I have done this at times. If we want more than war, we have to work harder to be kind in our conversations, to be understanding of each others concerns and hesitations, even if we disagree. We have to be steady but patient in our discourse. I have to be kinder, I have to be understanding. I have to be steady but patient. The need for justice is urgent, yes, but change is not simply a switch one can flip without being convicted to do so. Doing the work taught me how to love people better, but often I have forgotten to love the people close to me as well as I have loved those in the margins. I have not always laid down my judgements, I have not always considered your why, I have not always listened well to your heart or your fears. Instead of asking more questions and diving deeper to the roots of it all with you, I have often reacted harshly in the heat of the moment. I am sorry.
The atmosphere of online writing is full of scathing criticisms and debates that pit one side against another, even in the Church. They are less a catalyst for discussion and more fuel to feed the fires raging amongst us. I don’t want to fight, I want to grow. I want to learn, I want to discuss, I want to share, I want to invite and inspire change. That doesn’t happen in a fire fight. I don’t want to feed the fire anymore, so I have to change the way I communicate about these things. I want to display a more generous spirit: urging, imploring, exploring, encouraging, educating, challenging, listening; not shaming, not accusing. If someone comes away from something I write or say feeling upset, I want that to be of their own conviction, not because I tore them down, accused them, or incited them.
I am seeing that you can not, in real life, fight fire with fire. To put out a fire, you must use water. May my words be like water. May they quench the fire.
“People who fight fire with fire usually end up with ashes” – Abigail Van Buren
As much as I want to burn the systems of oppression and injustice to ashes, I don’t want to burn down my friends, family, community, or bridges along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to see how to separate the two – the systems from the people – but I think we must. If we want to truly disrupt and dismantle oppression and injustice, we must find common ground and work together to do so.
I think the people of the Church are among the people who can do this, I believe this is what we are called to do and I believe to do it we must step outside the comfort of pews and small groups and Bible studies. We must leave behind our Sunday School answers and “know it all” attitudes. We must be willing not only to serve the broken, but to also admit our own brokenness and even allow ourselves to be broken even more. We must be willing to be uncomfortable, to allow our lives to be turned upside down – made messy by the inconvenience of truly serving others, even people we don’t like, understand, or agree with. We must look past our own perceptions of people we don’t actually know and instead get to know them by engaging with them as equals – not as “fixers”. We must be willing to stand with the marginalized, even if it is risky. We must be willing to listen to the hurting and acknowledge any ways that we have contributed to their suffering and repent. We must be willing to grow in love towards and for one another, even though that will mean letting go of some things we grasp tightly now. We must be willing to receive the things people offer us as we serve them, knowing that we are needy too. We must be willing to push past our fears. We must be willing to be changed and be the change our world needs to see.
This is my hope for the Church: that we will surrender our idols of safety, of privileged living, of labels, of high horses and let our controlled worldview be shattered with the wild, free, abundant, unrelenting love that comes to us and through us as the Holy Spirit. I hope that we find ourselves one day in the ashes of oppression and injustice and I hope that when we do, we see that we are covered in the dirt and grime of what it took to do the work.