Summer of Social Justice

“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people from everyday Christian life in community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; for in the poor sister or brother, Christ is knocking at the door.”

– Deitrich Bonhoeffer

Some of the women at my church just finished reading Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America, and I joined the book discussion group, figuring it would be a good way to kick off my summer reading. Next spring I’m slated to start teaching Writing for Social Change, a first time offering of the course at our school. Part of me is excited to teach the course because it will make the first time in my eight years of teaching that I get to teach something other than the core of basic writing, English Comp, or Public Speaking. This is a required course for our communication students, but for the first time ever, students can also elect to take my course for no other reason than they want to take it. Another part of me is terrified to teach this course though because it’s outside my area of  expertise, and more than that, it would be a course that would be easy to teach as a hypocrite, and I don’t want to do that. If I stand in front of my students and tell them to go make a difference in the world without doing so myself, then shame on me.

The book itself was more convicting than I thought it would be as I pondered reading it. The basic premise is that two college students — Mike Yankoski, the author, and his friend, Sam — decided to live as homeless people for five months. They write about what life was like on the streets and, most jarringly, they react to the way that they were treated by churches. The picture was not good, and I did my fair share of squirming as I realized that if two homeless men walked into my church, my reaction would be to steer clear as well, which is what happened to Mike and Sam to the extent that they had three empty pews all around them at one church they visited.

As I gathered with my tablemates to discuss the book each week, we’d sometimes be in stunned silence, overwhelmed by needs. Three of us are teachers and one a nurse, so we’ve seen people who are down and out. It’s one thing to know about people who are struggling though and another thing to do something about it. We all admitted that we’re stuck up and would have difficulty going and buying a homeless person dinner and actually talking with them through the meal. Yankoski says, “Too often money is insulation — it conveniently keeps us from ever having to come face-to-face with a man or woman whose life is in tatters.”And, we all agreed this is true. It’s easy to donate money or food, but to actually do something that puts us life on life with someone less fortunate than us ratchets up the challenge of the matter tenfold (if not a hundredfold depending on the action we were talking about).

I was challenged about my lack of perspectives when I read, “It’s easy to believe that God has laid you down to sleep in safety after you’ve locked the deadbolt. What about when you don’t even have a door? Are you still so sure His promises are true?” I know God still wants me to go to him with my needs, but suddenly some of my “desperate” needs don’t seem quite as desperate.

And, Yankoski started to give me new eyes through which to see the needy of the world. When I think of the homeless, I realized before reading the book that it’s not an easy life — exposed to the elements, not knowing where the next meal is going to come from. However, I only gave glancing thoughts to what being trapped in that life does to someone’s dignity. Yankoski reflects, “Begging is hard. It’s something you expect hungry dogs to do, but not men and women made in God’s image.” And, after recalling an experience where he saw a homeless teen get picked up off the streets one day by a passing car only to return the next day beaten, he challenges, “Whenever we close our eyes to the real needs of the real people of our world, we force them to survive via whatever options are available to them, dehumanizing though they may be. This means a lot of different things for a lot of different people.”

Yankoski doesn’t deny that some individuals are homeless or stay homeless because of the choices they make, and he’s realistic in his action plans to help others. However, he constantly challenges readers who would brush off their social responsibility by brushing responsibility back onto those who are living on the streets. Yankoski reminds readers that who we choose to associate with is very much conditioned by our narrow perspective and traditions: “What’s worse? To do dope or to not love your brother? Why do we kick drug users out of the church while quietly overlooking those who are ignoring their own different but equally destructive sins? Why do we reject the loving, self-sacrificing, giving, encouraging, Jesus-pursuing drug addict but recruit the clean, self-interested, gossiping, loveless churchgoer?”

As I move on from this reading into other readings, I think one of the prayers that Yankoski gives is particularly fitting: “Help me to grow, to realize what You want me to realize. Change my ideas about who I am, who others are, who You are, and what Your church is, so that I’ll love others as You would have me love them.”