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Author: Margot Pickett
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)
This Advent, as I ponder the mystery of God taking on flesh to dwell among us and what it means for me and the Church, I thought about an article by Sam Wells, Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. Sam has an intriguing way of looking at Jesus’ life and how that might inform the shape of our ministries with neighbors who are poor or disadvantaged.
Using the example of seeing a lot of homeless people on the street he suggests four potential responses. One is, we might decide to work for these neighbors by joining the board of a homeless shelter or day center that helps with those needing shelter. A second option, which Wells calls being for, would be to go home and channel our concern by writing an editorial about using the term “people who are unhoused” instead of “the homeless,” and reminding our readers about the huge holes in our social safety net. A third response might be to talk to the person and explore with them reasons why they’re living on the street and ensure that they know where they can find resources: free health clinics or drop-in centers that offer training and career advice. We might even take them to one of these. Wells calls this working with. The fourth option is to simply sit down next to the person and be with them, exchange names, have a cup of coffee, ask what it’s like to spend the night outside, or talk about the weather or football games or whatever else seems to interest them. Wells identifies this as being with.
None of these is a bad way to respond, but Wells wants us to see that two of them, working for and being for, people means that we see ourselves as separate from them. They have problems or maybe even are the problem and we want to solve their problems, to “fix” them. That seems admirable, but neither of these approaches requires having any kind of serious interaction with the person, or to consider that they may see life differently, or to entertain the idea that they could and should have a role in their own redemption or solution.
The other two options, working with and being with, presuppose genuine interaction with the homeless person and a recognition that the person themselves must be at the heart of whatever happens next. These two options are often demanding, time-consuming and require some humility in recognizing that we don’t necessarily have the solutions to other people’s problems. We might not even realize what they see as their biggest problem or need. We would have to spend time with them before we could really know and understand.
Sam Wells arrived at his ideas about ministry by studying the life of Jesus. In short, he points out that of the 33 years that Jesus was on earth, he spent only three of them in direct ministry, in “calling, training, and sending disciples, the working with part,” and even less in the saving process of passion, death and resurrection, the working for part. All that amounts to less than 10% of Jesus’ life. On the other hand, he spent 30 years, or 90% of his life, in obscurity in Nazareth, just being with people. Wells sees in those numbers the fundamental purpose of God’s incarnation: to be with us—not primarily to rescue us, or even empower us, but simply to share our existence, enjoy our hopes and fears, our delights and griefs. As we celebrate this incredible Christmas mystery, may we find new ways to be with our neighbors, all our neighbors, and share in each other’s hopes and fears and joys and pain.