Our Easter 2011 newspaper is now online. Be sure to read it and let us know what you think.
Also, below is an article from that paper.
Word on the Streets
We began our work on foot. In hopes of giving airtime to street voices, we walked “The Avenue” (Independence Ave) and we hung out behind Dairy Queen. Later we frequented the “Alley House,” “Indian Hill,” “The Haunted House” and “The Wall.” We hiked into campsites behind Super Flea and the I-29 ramp off The Paseo Ave. We slid gingerly through broken windows and muddied our knees crawling under fences. We had coffee at Hope Faith, ate lunch at “Sally’s” (Salvation Army), and dinner at “Monday Night Church” (Micah Ministries).
We had our own ideas, of course. And we brought with us rich past experiences from prior work in Atlanta and Davenport. But we wanted street voices to speak into our calling. It is essential for anyone to speak to their own needs and wants. So, when people began to ask us if they could come to the house to do a load of laundry or take a shower, they helped create “The Shower House” (Cherith Brook).
We still take our weekly pilgrimage but with a different mandate. For one thing, we move around a lot less. In fact, we usually make a beeline to Fast Stop or Bronceados on the Avenue—both places are notorious for high drug sales and prostitution. And we no longer take food or toiletries. Aside from our prayers, we go empty handed.
So why the change? Our experiences over the past few years called to us for a new approach, in fact they screamed bloody murder. One afternoon we dragged a bleeding man into our living room from a drive-by shooting. Enrique was shot and killed in our alley after chasing armed robbers from his Aborrotes. Keith came over with bruises on his face and ribs after young men jumped him for the meager change earned panhandling. I visited Wes at Truman Medical Center after he suffered a shotgun blast to his ankle due to a “misunderstanding.” The Bigger Jigger bar down the street has had two fatal bar brawls in the past year. Recently, Yuri Ives, a real estate agent and a respected neighborhood leader, was shot in his own home with his own gun by a 17 year old intruder.
Then there is the amount of violence concentrated toward women, mirroring the way our culture persecutes women, consuming them for sexual satisfaction and as release for rage. Once I met a young lady on the streets who had her earlobe bitten off and her kneecap broken by the swing of a hammer held by her “date.” Last summer a friend showed up bleeding after being attacked by a serial rapist who was targeting prostitutes in the area. He had bitten her and stabbed her with a screwdriver before she fought him off.
These troubling experiences on the streets and stories at showers continue to collide with our understanding of Jesus and his gospel of peace. Though taunted by a culture of death, is our community not also a Christ haunted landscape? Is Jesus not already here in some form and if so where do we encounter him? When we don’t, how can we extend his presence by our own? How will we be received if we have nothing to offer but ourselves? Can our willingness to be there open up new possibilities or will it escalate the conflict? How can such spaces be redeemed for God’s conspiracy of goodness in a broken world?
Yes, we proclaim and witness to the fact that Jesus is there, exorcising the darkness and rescuing all things for God. Yes, we are a people of hope. As Colossians 1:20 says, “Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Christians speaking about peace often give way to a two-fold temptation: On the one hand, we avoid affirming the transformative power of the gospel. Do we believe that we have weapons of the Spirit at our disposal? Do we believe that our commitment to peace is backed by a force even more powerful than the violence we face? If we proclaim that resurrection overcomes death, do we believe that includes the streets also?
One day while on our peace-walk, a man we didn’t know approached us talking excitedly. I remember his body gestures were strong. He spoke quickly but his words were tangled. We strained to make sense of what he was saying. We asked questions to get clarity, but it soon became clear that he was either strung out or crazy or both.
At some point I got a creeping feeling. His gestures were becoming forceful. His eyes became as wide as they were red. Was he angry or only getting animated? Whatever it was, my discomfort was rising. He called himself Gabriel but I was convinced he was no angel. When his hand went into his pocket I became cold. I suddenly realized we were alone; the other men had vanished. I almost stumbled backward. I remember trying to figure out how to get the attention of the others without worsening the situation. When he ripped his hand out of his pocket, my fear was realized. He had a knife. But then he did something I did not expect. Without pause, he turned and threw the knife across the street. We stood there frozen as we watched it skip across the concrete.
For weeks we tried to process this experience. At first we second-guessed ourselves. Had we created this problem, instigated something or pissed someone off? Was our approach too confrontational? Then our processing turned to panic: What are we doing? Who do we think we are anyway? I’m scared! We should just forget it.
Evaluation is essential. And all of these responses were natural. We have no death wish and we’re not going to throw caution to the wind. And yet, over time we became aware that we were so focused on our fear we had ignored the outcome—Gabriel threw away his knife! We were fixated on the causes for the danger and not what caused Gabriel to disarm.
I have learned to retell that story now in its entirety. I believe it was a miracle of nonviolence. That is to say, an event that points to Jesus’ victory over death. It exposes the chimera of violence and calls us to greater trust in the truth of Christ’s peace. I have no other way to make sense of it. And as I think back over the past four years, there are a dozen such occurrences.
Do we recognize the weapons of the Spirit at our disposal? Do we believe that our commitment to facing danger without harming others is backed by a force more powerful than evils surrounding us? Do we affirm the Resurrection we profess is stronger than the death we face? It is a great temptation not to. We have been disciplined by a belief in the need for force that overshadows the possibilities present in this age of resurrection.
This story highlights the other temptation. We are enticed to think God would not call us into work that might involve risk or even harm. Ron Sider once wrote of practicing Christian nonviolence, “Making peace is as costly as waging war. Unless we are prepared to pay the cost of peacemaking, we have no right to claim the label or preach the message.” Will we only affirm ministry that can guarantee our safety and security? Do we support those called to this kind of work or write them off as naïve or foolish?
We are well aware that there are no assurances that that things will always end up in our favor or that we will not be harmed. Glamorizing nonviolent living is no more truthful than glamorizing war. In all honesty, this work has exposed our own willingness to give into these temptations as well as our own fears, our own brokenness, even the violence within. We want to take seriously that as followers of Jesus we are set apart - made holy for the ways of peace - even if our vessels are humble, broken and vulnerable.
The sign and source of peace in the Colossians passage quoted above is the cross. It is, ironically, a symbol of violence. But it does not symbolize our means of power nor a weapon we might use against an enemy. In fact, in I Corinthians 1 & 2 Paul admits that others will see this symbol as a stupid or an irrational choice. They will see it as an indication that we are weak or passive. But we believe it was meant to symbolize that the power of peace is not an issue of might, force or coercion--all forms of human strength to which we often turn.
The cross is a revelation of the way God’s power plays out in the world. It was intended to jog our memory. It was Jesus’ humility, patience, willingness to endure suffering, and refusal to do harm that won the day. A contradiction to some and an insult to others, it is, nevertheless, to be our means, our strength and our comfort. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (I Peter 21-23).