My experience of life during a pandemic has been an interesting one. In a matter of a few days, my crowded speaking schedule was erased; leading a group trip to Russia, canceled; officing in coffee shops, over.
Suddenly, I was without a string of obligations to a social life, to my community Coffee Break group, even to church attendance.
With my outward-facing life on hold, I began reading whole books, finding enriching art and spirituality devotions online, catching up on lingering projects, finding new ways to be creative, tending my garden, and so much more.
One of the “more” involved uncovering a deepening collection of online courses, lectures, and art projects. My previous busy life had left me no time for these searches. Everybody seemed to be working overtime to fill the internet with enrichment for a new stay-at-home class of people. Surprisingly, these were also often free.
One such invitation to participate came to join a group in an online course from the Chalmers Institute. Called, “Helping Without Hurting: The Basics”, the series of lessons with videos, readings, and resources takes its inspiration from Brian Fikkert’s book When Helping Hurts. So I came to the online experience with book read and in hand. I began with something of an understanding but eager to work with the ideas more personally.
Then a black man was shot in my city. A video was released on my news station. Chaos, anger, and weeping spilled into my city streets.
Crises management went into full swing. My city did that really well. Overnight, clean-up crews, food distribution, and supply stations went up with donations overflowing to the point of excess. Churches pitched in. We are all really good crises project managers.
As I lived through the next three weeks of my own grief and pain for the people caught in the injustice of my city’s systems, I finished this online course. The final questions in that last lesson asked me how I was going to apply my knowledge in my church community. In my own life. In my outreach and helping efforts.
By that time, I had realized that the “crises” part was over but the “development work” wasn’t.
Slowly I realized that the steps toward wholistic “poverty” alleviation weren’t just good for “the poor”, however defined. They were steps needed for every human situation in which things are less than what they should be. In other words, Step #1 in development work for “the poor” is Step #1 wherever human life isn’t flourishing.
Step #1 is clear. Don’t do. Listen. Not to me or to people like me. To those who are suffering.
Listening is really hard work. It means shutting our own mouths. It means stepping outside of our cultural assumptions into those of somebody else.
In the last few weeks the listening requirement has also come in ways that make listening uncomfortable. People are yelling in action as well as words. People are pointing out the ways in which cultural systems—ones that I may be comfortable in myself—are actually crippling their human flourishing as image-bearers of the God that I claim to serve.
This inconvenient truth is especially difficult in churches. We try to be inclusive and are good-intentioned, welcoming even. But the churches and church structures into which we invite people have an underlying code of acceptability. Sing our praise songs, study the Bible our way, dress as we do, make decisions that further our church structure—all of this and more nibbles away at our attempts to be inclusive.
So maybe it’s time to take a deep breath. We’ve worked so hard at what we thought the problem was and is. Maybe we should just sit back and do the hard work of listening. Just listen.
As a start, maybe we can listen to the suffering people who manage to find their way into our pews. I would like to offer one such voice as a way to begin that mutual listening. In a podcast interview comes the voice of a fellow CRC member. She has CRC credentials: encountering and affirming the Reformed faith, she and her husband have been nurturing their faith life in one of my local CRC churches. Her husband is an ordained chaplin in the CRC. They send their sons to a local CSI Christian school. She has a PhD in philosophy. She’s one of us. Her voice comes to us from the pews in which we sit.
Maybe we should just be quiet and listen.