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Serving without the Pressure of Success

A few weeks ago I was waiting to get coffee in the lobby at my new church, where my husband and I have been attending for several months, having downsized to a smaller neighborhood church. The man next to me, who had been there first, gave a little jump when he saw me. He was wearing black jeans and a black hoodie sweatshirt.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Let me get out of your way.” I assured him he wasn’t in my way, and to take his time. He got his coffee, smiled at me, and shuffled away. I can’t be sure, but I’ve been working at a recovery center for people with substance use disorders, and I recognized some of his characteristics: the uniform, the hypervigilance, and the sense that maybe he wasn’t comfortable in this place. I thought it likely that he was in recovery from substances, or homelessness, or both.

I can’t remember the last time I was at church and saw someone of either population. And I realized that makes me a bit sad about church, but also glad about what I’m currently doing with my weekdays, leading twelves groups a week in a recovery center.

Before I had this job, I’d attended the same megachurch for 23 years. And I’d never spent time with anyone who had experienced homelessness. I had never had a conversation with someone who had spent time in prison or been in a gang. I had rarely talked to anyone about what it was like to be part of the LGBTQ community or come out to their parents. And I had a lot of friends who drink alcohol, and a few who got sober, but I didn’t have many conversations with people who had struggled with drug addiction; lost friends to the disease; had parents who were dealers; or heard people tell stories of being given their first drugs by their parents.

These are now things I do all the time. And it’s really changed my life, my view of God’s kingdom, and my place in it.

My former church actually had a recovery ministry where I served for years, and our campus hosted Twelve Step meetings every day of the week on our campus, but the people I met in those meetings were rarely seen in the main sanctuary, and the people I met in the main sanctuary almost never came to our meetings. It was an uphill battle getting our church to staff and promote ministries for the population that struggles with addiction, and I have a few theories as to why:

1.     Addiction carries a huge stigma. Though it’s rampant in culture, it’s hard to admit that you have one or your family members does.

2.     People with substance use disorders don’t usually get a lot better very quickly. And I know this is going to sound like a harsh indictment, but slow growth and high relapse rates doesn’t fly well in mega-churches, which favors ten-week discipleship programs that end in cardboard testimonies: where people write about how broken they were when they came into the program on one side, and then flip the cardboard to show how healed they feel now on the other side? This is all set to music and everyone claps and cries. It’s encouraging, and a good start. But that isn’t how healing from the trauma of addiction works. It’s also not how people heal from abuse, PTSD, extreme poverty, or racial oppression.

3.     And because these above issues aren’t easily solvable, and these ministries don’t show explosive growth, churches often divert resources from these needs in their congregations, and provide more resources to ministries that seem to be bearing more fruit, at least in terms of numbers.

And this is why it’s very important for us to serve God outside of church too. Because otherwise, the “least of these” won’t be served the way Jesus called us to serve them. Because often the “least of these” can’t clean up quickly enough to sit in our sanctuaries and feel accepted.

 Before I started this job, I read a book called Tattoos on the Heart by Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program located in the Boye Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, the gang capital of the world. He wrote about how donors want to hear statistics about their successes, and Boyle quotes Mother Teresa who said, “We are not called to be successful, but faithful.” Boyle continues the thought with this:

Jesus was always too busy being faithful to worry about success. I’m not opposed to success; I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.

To which I add, then we will refuse to work with the ones that may be most desperate for help.

Jesus said this at least once, recorded here in Matthew chapter 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Jesus is not actually calling those who are sick, in prison, poor, and hungry the least of all people; he is pointing out that these are the people we see as the least, but the ones that God identifies most closely with himself. When we honor, help, and spend time with those that our cultures sees as outcasts, we honor God. Notice it doesn’t even say that those on his right converted the least of these. No: they offered practical help them and fellowshipped with them. (And for any of my clients who might end up reading this, I definitely don’t see you as least, nor am I trying to hoodwink you into liking Jesus if you aren’t interested.)

So. This is why I’m loving my sojourn into secular service, after years of being a committed church volunteer and a professional Christian writer and speaker. Because in the church, it can be harder to find fellowship with these honored “least” people, because it’s difficult for the church to serve and get them in service on a Sunday. And I’m not just being critical of the church; churches as entities have limits, budgets, time constraints, and the well-documented issue that they become ethnically, culturally and economically homogenized in spite of their efforts.

Instead, I’m reminding all of you, and myself, that our holy work is done just as well – and sometimes better – in secular spaces. Like public school classrooms, as social workers, in political advocacy positions; as doctors, nurses, and therapists; as lawyers and court-appointed special advocates; and as volunteers in non-profit organizations that exist within the communities they serve. And more.

I like being of some good to the world, I admit it. It makes me feel good! And also I enjoy another wonderful side benefit: I feel like I understand God better. In this last year, I realize that God is nicer than I realized. He is kinder, more present, more interested in people, less judgmental, less attached to outcomes than I ever thought. And yet, he’s also very interested in alleviating pain. Maybe I’m just imagining this, but I don’t think so; I think it’s one of the side benefits that God knew would come when we spent time with his people; we would actually be with him.

Here’s hoping I’m right, and also, I hope I get to see my new friend in the hoodie at church this Sunday.

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