Dispatch from the Inner City: the People who Disappear

My neighborhood has a high degree of what we call “transience.” Basically, people move a lot. There are a variety of reasons (landlords, rent, neighbors, you name it) but it all boils down to the fact that people don’t stay in one place very long.

One of the results of all this is that you get pretty used to people being gone for a bit, and then move again and come back. Our church life is filled with this regular rhythm. Whole families will tell me that they are going because they are moving to another side of town only to come back six months later saying the found a place closer. Going away and coming back is a regular thing.

However, there is a difference between transience and disappearing altogether. Rarely does someone just vanish without even telling me. The strange thing about being pastor to a whole community is that people feel a need to tell me when they are about to go away. Perhaps its not so strange. I’m their pastor and this is their community. Strange or not, I do notice when someone completely vanishes from our neighborhood.

Since I first came to Martin Luther there was a particular Hispanic family, a mom and her two kids,  who regularly showed up to our various ministries. Never in worship, but the kids pretty faithfully came to our after school program and I would at least see them pretty regularly walking around the neighborhood. The mother didn’t speak any English and I, being a not so diligent student, didn’t pay all that much attention in Spanish for Ministry. So I would always communicate with the mother through her eleven or twelve year old daughter.

I bring up this family because, since this election cycle began, this family has disappeared. I can’t tell you why and there could literally be a thousand reasons, but I can’t help but notice the timing.

One other thing my neighborhood has a high degree of are churches. Heck, counting my church there are three that are basically on the same block. About a block and half from where I live and work there is a Hispanic Pentecostal church. They are an interesting and wonderful bunch. Frequently they would do marches around the neighborhood.

I bring them up because since the start of this election cycle that church has become very quiet.

 

I’ve been seeing this meme go around that goes something like this: “I wish all you protesters cared about [insert group here] as much as you cared about [immigrants or refugees].” The groups that get inserted into the first blank are wide ranging; starting with homeless veterans and going all the way laid off factory workers.

In a certain way I understand. I wish human beings had a capacity to be outraged over more than one thing at a time. The fact that veterans are homeless is a tragedy and a moral outrage. Our economy shows little compassion to those who are laid off.

But here is the point, those homeless veterans and unemployed factory workers haven’t disappeared. They still show up on my doorstep (whether church or home) on a fairly regular basis. I interact with them and know their life struggle in this time. They are most certainly transient, so they go away for a while, but they do return.

On the other hand, that family we began by talking about, has really disappeared.

It is often folly to try and argue with internet memes and arguments from my limited experience are not really factual. So given all that, here is what I am not going to do:

I’m not going to try and sanctify one or the other of the political parties because they both fall so woefully short.

I’m not going to tell you who you should vote for because (1) we are a little late for that and (2) I don’t have the power to sanctify one candidate over another.

But I can tell you that words matter. We are so bombarded by words on a daily basis at this point that many of us in positions of privilege (and believe me, as a straight, white, male leader of a community I sit in a position of awesome privilege) have grown numb to their effects.

But whether we are numb or not, words do matter. They have the power to grant life. They also have the power to not just kill, but to make people disappear.

Since this election cycle began we have been using words in the hope that people we don’t want to deal with and the suffering we don’t want to see will just disappear. It’s not just the family from my neighborhood, but many people. Our words are used in the hope people who are lesbian, gay, or transgender will just disappear.  Words get used to try and make the suffering of African American communities disappear. And yes, words get used to distract the unemployed and suffering white communities from the real issues. Hoping those issues will disappear so that we can all continue to have our pocketbooks benefit.

Well, its working.

One of my mentors looked at me once and said “if Jesus Christ didn’t need to die for your sermon to preached then you are just an overworked social worker.” His point was not to insult social workers. Instead he was trying to get me to understand that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ reveals everything about our God.

In Jesus’ day, crucifixion was Rome’s way of making people disappear. So slaves who were fighting for their freedom were crucified. Traitors, rebels, and people who didn’t pay their taxes were crucified. All in attempt to make people be silent about their problems with Rome and disappear. It worked for a long time.

There are many things that Jesus’ death tells us. One of things is that if Jesus is “Emmanuel” (God with us) than the cross shows who exactly the “us” is: God is with those whom society tries to make disappear. It’s why God liberates slaves from bondage and why he calls an elderly couple who have no children. It’s why God consistently says that society is called to watch out for the widow, orphan, and foreigner. God is consistently with those whom we wish would just vanish.

And more than just God is with those people, the resurrection shows us that God creates new life in abundance around those people. It’s seems like complete foolishness as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, but it is how God works.

One of my friends asked me “How is possible that you have any hope?” Truth be told I’ve been trying to find an answer to that question for months. I think I have an answer now:

I have hope because precisely when we try and make people disappear God does the best liberating work.

I have hope because I believe we are about to see the awesome work of God’s abundant life in our world.

I have hope because, while I wont tell you who to vote for, I can tell you what kind of God we have:

A God who brings abundant life through those whom we wish would disappear.

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