The United Methodist campus ministries went on our annual trip to New York this past week. It always a rich time with students getting to make new friends and see and learn so much from the city. It is also a blessing to be able to stay at Metropolitan Community UMC in Harlem. Their hospitality has always been a huge gift to us and a shining example of the United Methodist connection.
This year the United Methodist Seminar Program led by Jay Godfrey and Jennifer McCallum outdid themselves, scheduling 3 parts of our group in 3 different areas of the city for 3 days to learn about the communities, culture, and social action taking place. We were divided into groups going to the Bronx, Lower East Side and Harlem and had one day of service at a meals on wheels sort of thing where we actually walked to apartments and delivered meals to the elderly, one day of learning about cultures in our particular communities, and one day of seminar focusing on some of the issues in our communities and what organizations in those communities are doing to combat them.
I had spent some time doing seminars in Harlem and the Lower East Side so I was particularly interested in the Bronx. What a huge area and diverse group of people the Bronx includes. In all of the stops at museums, art collectives, a Yankees game, community action groups – each area of the Bronx was really different. They were all so proud to be “Bronxites” that their enthusiasm for their borough was infectious. We all felt like Bronxites to an extent at the end of our time. Did you know that the Bronx has more green space than any other burrough in New York? Me either.
What we heard from a lot of people and I would think the other groups would say this to, was people saying that they grew up dreaming of moving somewhere else and starting a new life, but that through whatever experience, education, epiphany moment, they decided to stay in their community and try to bring about change and keep fighting for chances and opportunities for the children growing up behind them. Many of the speakers we talked to were born and bred in these communities and the passion, devotion and pride that they felt for these places was evident in everything they said whether the good or even the challenging issues that they are still battling.
It was good for the students and me to see these people standing up for what they believe in using real, practical, and change-bringing principles to their every day, bringing voice to the voiceless.
The divide I feel when I’m talking about us going to a living wage rally or fighting on behalf of the poor versus some of the questioning looks I get from people back home, has a lot to do with people’s questions about justice and righteousness. We say we don’t believe all of the malarky about people who suffer having done something wrong or may not have lived right and have caused their suffering. We say that we need to support our mentally ill, veterans, the widows, the orphans, those that can’t help themselves. But then again, when it comes to our wallets and our own comfort, it seems easier to say and assume that if people were just working hard enough, if people just did what it takes to succeed, they would somehow pull themselves up out of these places of poverty.
We just witnessed a royal wedding where a commoner who descended from coal miners and criminals married a prince. As much as I like the fairytale and as hard as her family worked and as many names they have been called for “social climbing,” I think it paints a somewhat unfair picture of what the cycle of poverty really looks like. To say that it is hard to break that cycle is such a rough and belittling use of an adjective that it feels wrong to say. To stand up in the face of corruption, in the face of not just people but entire systems that abuse you, to demand the same rights that others enjoy when you’ve never gotten a fair shake – that is scary, it’s terrifying, it’s intimidating.
I am constantly amazed at the voices that do stand up though. I was glad to hear of a student from the Bronx talk about students in the Bronx organizing a walk out of thousands of students when the government was going to take away their right to a student metrocard to get to and from school. I was inspired listening to Intikana from Rebel Diaz Arts Collective talking about how they’re using art and music and film and all sorts of creative outlets to give people in the Bronx a way to express themselves in non-violent and constructive ways. It’s great to see young people working to bring about a new day. It’s good for all of us to see that we can make a difference, whether through our churches doing a soup kitchen, clothing closet, food pantry, or other social action. In the midst of the sometimes uphill climb and little defeats in the battle, it’s good to know that none of us are alone in this battle and that we have folks journeying with us all over the world.
From a faith perspective, we are clearly called to the poor, to the wounded, to those that need to feel that love and wholeness and new life. This isn’t just the obvious poor among us, but it’s also the single mom trying to make ends meet, it’s also our cranky next door neighbor who’s as lonely as heck, it’s also our friends, our family, the people we see at the office or grocery store or school.
One of this past week’s lectionary texts was 1 Peter 2:19-25 and it talked about suffering and following in Christ’s footsteps. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t ask God for suffering. If you suffer, you suffer, but Christ suffers with you, I get that. But I’m not asking for it like the lovely Mr. Wesley in his new year’s service. There’s two things I like in particular about this text – one that Christ suffered for us and so God knows what suffering feels like – for real without a doubt not even his fault suffering. There’s a song in the new Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon that’s called “Man Up.” I am NOT endorsing or saying you should go out and watch Book of Mormon or get the soundtrack. The story is about two Mormon missionaries in Africa and needless to say, one of them is seeing that he has a challenge before him and he’s like, hey – Jesus had to man up, so I need to too. I’m not saying that we all have to man or woman up, but the song is right in that Christ did suffer and die and he’s been there. He knows what it’s like to feel alone, tired, hungry, beaten, ridiculed, and tortured.
The other thing is that he did the suffering for us, that “by his wounds you have been healed” and he is our Shepherd leading us home. To me, this calls us in two different directions – one to realize that we realize that this LOVE and sacrifice was for us. The other is to realize that we have to share this LOVE and sacrifice with the world. We can’t say, that’s not my problem, it’s a problem over “there” with “those” people in “that” place. Nope, it’s something that we all must wrestle with as we share the light and love of Christ. This cycle of poverty only ends as we all jump into the fight, pool our resources, and leave our pride, self-protection, and rationalizations at the door.
We learned a ton in New York. It was a great trip. The thing I like about these trips is that it’s not just something we leave in New York, in this far away place, but these are things we learn and do and bring home to make a difference where we are, not just in a nice, greeting card kind of way, but for real.
How do we break the cycle of poverty in our communities? How do we break the cycle of unbelief and fear and doubt? How do we break the cycle of people believing that Jesus would just look at them with contempt and say that they deserved it because of what they did? What are our churches saying about the cycle of poverty and suffering? Anything? What message are we telling? What inner soundtrack are our lives rocking along too?
A nice, tame song by JJ Heller, “What Love Really Means.”
Man Up from the Book of Mormon – (don’t forget this is a satirical musical written by the creators of South Park and Avenue Q so listen at your own risk…this is your disclaimer, seriously.)
If someone was going to write a satirical musical about our faith? our denomination? our churches? what would it say???
Info about Rebel Diaz Arts Collective: http://rdacbx.blogspot.com/
Info about the United Methodist Seminar Program: