By Will O’Brien
A few years ago I was visiting good friends at an intentional Christian community in a large city. This was a community I dearly loved: For many years, persons from privileged backgrounds, following Jesus’ call, had served, lived with, and developed ministries with the folks who lived on the streets of that city. They engaged in powerful and creative prophetic witness to the compassion and justice of God, insisting on a commitment to struggle with society’s most marginalized persons. These good saints had taught me, inspired me, challenged me, and emboldened my faith in countless ways.
On this morning, I was helping with their daily breakfast for their friends who were homeless. It was a sizable undertaking, in which they blended a well-oiled efficiency (to feed a couple of hundred persons a sit-down meal in a diner-like setting) with a compassionate quality. They treated the guests with dignity and reverence, in the spirit of Matthew 25. Many of the diners were rough-edged from years on the streets, bearing the wounds of addictions and illness, severe poverty, and dehumanization. Most of them deeply appreciated the sense of community that enveloped the meal.
I was struck by one of the diners: Disheveled and disoriented, he sat silently at the table, barely able to lift his spoon, bits of food dangling from his scruffy beard. It was evident that he suffered from severe untreated mental illness.
The servers – volunteers, community members, some themselves formerly homeless – were respectful and kind toward him. I inquired—they knew him. His name was Carl, and he was a semi-regular. Of course they were aware of his illness, and expressed concern about it.
While I helped out, I kept my eye on him. The community needed to bring the meal to a close at the appointed hour. They would soon be planning an action downtown later in the week. Carl barely managed to get a decent meal down, then shuffled quietly back out to the streets.
That scene evoked complex and confusing feelings in me. I was deeply humbled by the compassion and the commitment to prophetic justice that was at the heart of this community. I resonated with their radical critique of the “filthy rotten system” (as Dorothy Day put it) that had both created and abandoned these street refugees. That system had fostered this urban nightmare amid a society of uber-plenty and billions worth of military machinery.
At the same time, I wanted to scream: “This man needs housing and services! He doesn’t need to live this way!” I knew it was possible – because I had spent much of the last couple of decades helping to develop a nonprofit program that had successfully gotten several hundred severely mentally ill persons out of chronic homelessness and into stable, decent permanent supportive housing.
Of course, assisting Carl in getting off the streets with the appropriate supportive housing he clearly needed would require setting aside some prophetic verve and sitting down at the table with denizens of the “filthy, rotten system.” It would require cooperating with government, zoning board, architects, lawyers, licensing and inspection, funders (possibly – egad! – corporate funders), the health system (grossly unjust as it is). It would entail accounting, paperwork, data systems, blueprints, case management programs, and lots of stuff that seems far from Matthew 25 personalism. Though it might be infused with great compassion, a spirit of community, and a priority on spiritual values and relationships, it would likely end up with a fair dose of organization, structure, and complicity with social systems. Not to mention a fancy and festive facility opening catering to the politicos and sundry civic elite. We would have to dress up and officiously fawn upon corporate honchos who contribute a few crumbs from their plunder and in turn expect their names on the wall.
This was an old tension, one I have struggled with for decades. In a quarter century of seeking to be an advocate for justice for those who are poor and marginalized, I have covered a wide swath of territory – from housing takeovers with the Union of the Homeless to meeting with corporate executives; from street protests and civil disobedience to strategic planning and budgeting workshops; from sleep-outs to fancy fund-raisers.
My theology, my social analysis, and my deepest passions resonate with the radical vision of Christian faith as exemplified in such movements as the Catholic Workers and other subversive communities of struggle and alternative life. But my relationships with men and women who have experienced homelessness and poverty have led me to work – uneasily – with organizations, systems, structures, programs.
I live with a constant inner critic who whispers in my ear: I have been drawn into complicity with the powers and principalities. I am a “poverty pimp,” drawing a salary from the suffering of others. I am part of a nonprofit system that functions to “manage the poor” while upholding the unjust system.
On the other hand, because of such efforts, thousands of people in my city are no longer homeless, but instead live with dignity, security, and a chance to flourish. Many are friends of mine, and as I share in their journeys, they in turn give me new understandings of courage and human dignity.
Is that not just? Is that not compassionate? Is it not part of the reign of God that these sisters and brothers are not on the streets but in homes and community, with jobs, education, services, and new roles as empowered advocates?
But at what cost? And with what accommodation to the realm of Pharoah/Caesar/Wall Street/Pentagon?
Of late, I have confronted anew the old saw among some Christian radicals, particularly those with Anabaptist and anarchist leanings: We must eschew success or progress. We theologize about the smallness and weakness at the heart of Jesus’ ethics. It’s more about community and relationships than organizations or movements. No less an authority than Mother Teresa is evoked: “We are not called to be effective, we are called to be faithful.”
I feel a need to weigh my radical theology and ideology against the real lives of men, women, and children in desperate, dehumanizing situations. Protests are critical, but at some point there must be actual bread and homes and income and medical care. We can bring a few folks into our homes and our houses of hospitality, but what about the thousands of others – must we sacrifice them to the altar of “smallness “? A litmus test for our faithfulness is how our actions affect the actual flesh and blood of God’s beloved children in poverty and oppression. What does it mean to love them?
I challenge my inner anarchist: Would Martin Luther King, Jr., have settled for a theology that said Christians aren’t called to form movements or lobby for laws? What if the abolitionists, the liberation theology communities, the landless workers movement in Brazil, or others decided that being faithful to Jesus means we should avoid worldly forms of success and settle for doing “small things with great love?”
How are our radical theologies –don’t cooperate with the worldly system of Caesar, insist on the uncompromised integrity of our small counter-cultural communities, take up the cross with all its anti-imperial witness and apparent ineffectiveness–also devious and subtle expressions of our privilege? It is, in fact, mostly white men (like, say, me) espousing such noble gospel anarchism. In a perverse sense, we can afford such prophetic witness – we are, after all, not victims of the system’s oppression. And it can serve our sense of ego, to revel in our radicalness, unlike all those complicit liberal Christians still in Caesar’s thrall.
But what of the real victims, those who are desperately suffering, whose lives are crushed by poverty and homelessness? Are they OK with us forming small communities, doing a little hospitality and a lot of protest and writing articles about radical anti-imperial theology and the need to be wary of effectiveness? Wouldn’t they urge us to use our talents, our resources, our access to systems to meet as many needs as we can?
This is not a rhetorical question. It was the chronically homeless men in our first makeshift shelter who pushed us to grow our program, insisting that we find some effective solutions. Though hardly naïve about the injustice and corruption in the political and economic system, they also understood the urgency of forcing that system to cough up resources and make things happen.
Somewhere in the thick of this lies a false dichotomy. Faith requires struggle, but not for an “answer”– a final resolution that says, “This and this alone is the authentic way of discipleship.” Rather, we pray and live into the mystery of God’s reign– in us and among us but always greater than us. We seek to love, knowing that we are imperfect channels of an awesome love greater than we can imagine. We yearn to become the church, the revolutionary community of the gospel–and part of its revolution is that it never fits into one rigid box. It takes many forms, even apparently contradictory ones. Radicals, reformers, prophets, priests, apostles, case workers, mystics, managers strive together for what we sense is compassion and justice. Room enough for both St. Francis and Cesar Chavez, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King.
And room enough for both a decent breakfast and a decent home for Carl.
Will O’Brien is part of the Vine & Fig Tree community in Philadelphia, where he has worked on issues of poverty and homelessness for over thirty years. He also coordinates the Alternative Seminary (www.alternativeseminary.net).