A significant factor in beginning this blog was that it would be a creative means of holding myself accountable for engaging in regular spiritual reflection and critical thinking. For the past few weeks, however, I’ve shied away from this personal commitment in favor of savoring the present moment.
This past week, after a nearly a month of gradual goodbyes and “lasts,” I transitioned out of a year long post-graduate service program in which I lived in an intentional, faith-based community. This time last summer, we were strangers, but somehow, through the joys and pains, laughter and tears, arguments and embraces, we were transformed into a family.
Even more difficult than the transition out of community, however, is the transition away from the work. For the past year, I have been so unbelievably privileged to have spent myself in the service of disadvantaged and marginalized youth. Day in and day out, I was blessed to spend my hours with kids that did not look like me, talk like me, or think like me, and whose personal narratives I could barely being to comprehend let alone find any detail about which I could claim to relate.
The sad irony in this is that a few years ago, I would have walked past so many of them on the street as quickly as I could without so much as a second glance, except perhaps to fear for my safety or belongings; I would seat myself away from them in movies or restaurants; I would hope that I never found myself alone with them. I’m still not quite “there” yet. I still struggle with making assumptions, expecting the stereotypical norm in interactions, buying into the heavily prejudiced and racialized narrative of humanity that is force-fed to us by the media and even some history books. But thank God, I’m also not who I once was.
It’s not easy to do personal battle with these subtle cultural and institutional injustices, but it is what Christ demands of us. The Gospels are an oft-quoted source of motivation and mandate along these lines, but the Hebrew Scriptures are full of similar summons. A personal favorite comes from the beginning of Isaiah:
Put away your misdeeds before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphans plea, defend the widow! Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD.
Is 1:17-18 (NABRE)
I love the Hebrew Scriptures for the incredible depth, beauty, and context they bring to the New Testament, but at the same time, there is a danger in reading passages like the one cited above, and unfortunately, I think that it’s one that far too many Christians fall into when extracting moral and social instruction from the Old Testament. Namely, there is a tendency to over-historicize it, to disregard the Truth while over-obsessing over the details of context.
Yes, the writer of Isaiah was speaking to a specific people in a specific time and place, but we cannot claim that our work is done simply because orphans and widows occupy a different space in contemporary society. This challenge from Our Lord never expires, the actions and populations named are simply redefined as some injustices are corrected only to be replaced by others. Yes, in some ways it’s a never-ending battle, and we know that we’ll never quite get there this side of heaven (Mark 14), but there are two ways to take that message. We can either allow it to discourage us or desensitize us to Jesus’ radical call or, and I’d highly recommend this choice, we can allow ourselves to take comfort in the knowledge that we can’t do it all on our own, turn our eyes eastward with earnest longing, and in the meantime, keep soldiering on simply because He told us to.
All of this, at least today, brings me back to the youth that were loaned to me this past year – those beautiful, wounded, strong, heartbreaking, inspiring, hilarious, tragic, and joyful kids who have endured every evil imaginable. As I reflect on this summons from Isaiah, my mind is flooded with the faces of these teenagers who taught me where to find the orphan and the widow today, in my own time and neighborhood. These kids may never know the profound depth of the impact they had on my life or that I saw the face of Christ in them every single day. When possible and appropriate, I try to find ways to show and tell them of the inherit goodness I see in them, but I also respect that they aren’t always at a place where they are ready to receive that message of acceptance and love.
Thankfully, I have had the time to prepare them for my transition, and even more thankfully, I will be able to continue working with them in the future, albeit in a very different capacity and with less regularity. And then there’s that additional detail that with the end of the year of service, so too ends the sense of self-sacrifice that I carried with me every day of uncompensated work with them.
Although I find it difficult to let go of the gifts of this past year, I do recognize that this – as the cliché goes – is not a true ending, but rather a new beginning, and I am excited to journey forward in my relationships, work, and schooling. More than anything though, I want to publicly thank my kids for allowing me to journey with them and for changing my life.
Thanks to them, I have gotten a little closer to understanding one of the greatest mysteries in life, how love, true love, is redemptive suffering. I will be the first to admit that at times, all the forces working against them simply seem too big, too powerful and it makes me question if what we’re doing it’s making a difference, if it’s worth the fight, but then, I remember that this is what love is, what love demands. And I will continue loving them, if for no other reason that because it’s what He told me to me do.