We Are About Relationships
During the first two weeks of January, I was in Washington, D.C., taking classes at Wesley Seminary toward my Doctor of Ministry degree. One of our classes, entitled “Engaging the Powers” focused on how the church can be engaged in the world in order to bring about God’s dream of compassion, justice and human flourishing.
As part of that class, we gathered early one morning at Capitol Hill UMC to take part in Our Daily Bread, a ministry that serves breakfast to and with folks who live on the streets. We heard the powerful story of how the ministry got started, and we had the privilege of joining others at the table to share a meal.
On this particular morning, I sat down next to a man whose name was Brian. He seemed quiet at first and a bit reluctant to talk, but after a while he opened up and talked freely about some of his experiences and opinions. He told me that he had been on the streets for about eighteen months. He grew up in Brooklyn and had been married for about thirty years. He had struggled with mental health issues and had what he called a “breakdown” about two years ago. He shared with me how stressful it was for him to live on the streets as he pointed to the hives on his left cheek.
He had a sore on his foot that wasn’t healing well. He had been to a doctor at the public health center and gotten some medicine, but it wasn’t helping much since, being homeless, he had to walk a lot and spend most of the day on his feet. He grimaced as he got up from his chair to throw his trash away, and I wondered how he would make it through that day in those shoes.
We spent some time talking about God and our faith. He talked about “sanctification” and said he believed that we don’t just “get right with God” all at once and stay there. No, in his mind we continue to grow over time. We never “arrive” and can never be perfect, but God keeps working on us. I was amazed at his wisdom. And when he said that it all boils down to “loving God and loving other people,” I told him that he would make a good Methodist! That’s John Wesley’s theology in a nutshell.
As we continued to talk, there were two things he said that moved me deeply. He said that at times he got angry at God. He described one experience he had riding the bus to Baltimore. Rolling by outside the bus window he saw a lot of enormous houses right next to dilapidated housing projects. He told me, “I can’t understand how God would let that happen. I mean, there’s enough for everybody. Why isn’t it more evened out?” It seemed a simple question, one that could be explained away with economic theories, but its very simplicity pierced through me. And I didn’t have an answer.
The second thing he said that moved me came toward the end of our conversation. We had both finished our breakfast, and he pushed his plate away and said, “I’m just so tired. I wish I had a little room I could go to and lay my head down. Just a little space that was mine.” And it hit me: he had no escape, no place he could go and really, truly rest. When he went to a shelter, he was crowded in with other people and had to guard his stuff and his person. On the streets he was alone all the time and yet never alone.
That morning at Our Daily Bread gave me an opportunity to be “in relationship with God’s hurting world.” It was a brief conversation, only an hour or so. But in that one encounter I met the living Christ. I saw with my own eyes the struggle and pain of another. I brushed up against another’s suffering. And I gained new insight into my own pain and privilege. John Wesley said that the poor are a “means of grace.” Our relationship with others helps us to see God and to see ourselves. Brian was certainly a means of grace for me, and I thank God for the chance to grow in love through this new neighbor.