This week I’m in Guatemala with a service team from my church. We’re beginning work on a multi-year sanitation system for a Maya community, Chuicutama, in the Highlands. Our reflections for the week center on the theme of Jubilee, the biblical commandment mandates forgiveness of debts and economic restoration as part of God’s New Creation.
Jubilee is what Jesus announces as his Gospel in his first sermon in Nazareth in Lk 4. According to Torah, a big part of the good news of the Jubilee is reconciliation of wrongs in the world- a theme Paul picks up in 2 Corinthians.
To complement this theme, I’ve asked Mike Crane, a friend and parishioner to offer his reflections.
We’ve all been there before: that awkward moment—coming up out of the Metro, stopped at a long traffic light, or in any one of a dozen other situations—when a grizzled man or woman in wrinkled, dirty clothes calls out to you (or holds up a cardboard sign).
“I’m homeless. Can you help?”
They’re right there—right in front of you. And they’re looking straight at you. Or, at least you feel like they are. Now you have to decide. Do I give them a few bucks? Or do I look to the side (or right through them) and walk (or drive) on? Either way you go—and if you’re like me, you’ve chosen both options at some point or another—it’s over in a minute or two and you move on, back into the comfort of the world you know. Your world—light years distant from the one the grizzled drifter lives in—and from the eyes of the drifter. It was just a one-off occurrence, anyway.
Maybe a one-off occurrence, though, has driven you to take a closer look at the drifter’s world. You’ve felt moved to help with the local homeless ministry. Now, it’s twenty sets of eyes looking at you. There’s no avoiding the eyes, anymore. Soon, you’re sitting down at the table to eat with four or five men and women from that other world. You can’t help but notice the dirt under their fingernails. And they want to talk to you—and for you to talk to them. You’re drawn into their world—and you’re starting to think that the huge distance that you thought separated you really isn’t there. It may be one world, after all.
By now, those one-off encounters on the street and the time you’ve spent with people at the homeless shelter are telling you there’s more for you to do. So you decide to take a chance and head off on a mission trip to Guatemala. You leave the modern airport—much like the one back home—and very quickly you’re struck by the crowded, poor conditions that exist side by side with the wealth of an international capital. When you get to your destination, a small rural village, you come face to face with real poverty. The people you meet aren’t homeless, but they live in a country with no natural source of potable water. Where ten people live in a single room—dad, mom and kids living out their whole lives in less space than you have in your family room, back in “your world.”
How can we not address the need that we’ve grown increasingly unable to look past?
That one homeless guy at the Metro has become a roomful of homeless people at a shelter.
And that’s become a country—a world—full of people in need, trying to survive from one day to the next.
It’s like tending to a tree damaged by a tough drought. And you look up to see that the tree is part of a grove of struggling trees—and that grove is just a part of a vast forest.
When we think about it, it can seem overwhelming. Tending a tree—treating the grizzled drifter with dignity and helping him when we find him—is a manageable task. It’s what we’re called to do, and it does make a difference. That’s our mission.
But injustice has thrown our world out of kilter.
It’s allowed a country rich in natural resources, blessed with nearly forty watersheds, to have no potable water for its people. It allows hundreds of millions of people to live at subsistence level while a relative handful have more than they know what to do with.
We have to understand justice issues, to argue for justice, if we expect to help set things right.
Mission and justice go hand-in-hand—and they bring us ever closer to the day when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”
When the eyes of a homeless person won’t trouble us—because she can’t be found, no matter where we look throughout our wide world.