Curt was a new face at the Mission church/nonprofit where I was serving as pastor/director. He had a great attitude, working hard within days to get a job and start back down the right path. A few days later, after wondering where he had disappeared to, I saw him. I didn’t even recognize him, he had been beaten up so badly. Broken jaw, swollen face, lacerations, and after a few days in the hospital he made it back up to our Mission.
I asked him what had happened. He said he didn’t know who did it, but word was that it was some folks that we knew. I was furious. I remember driving by where several of them hung out harassing people and creating fear in others most of the day. Staring them down and forming thoughts about how to get back at them, I seethed. All the while in Bible study we were studying Jesus’s words in Matthew’s gospel about anger and love for our enemies.
And then Curt showed up again in Bible study, adding to our conversation. Right in front of our eyes, we had a real life, timely example of exactly what Jesus was confronting in his teaching. Curt never seemed to hold any anger or desire any vengeance on those who attacked him. And he was not repressing it either. The anger and vengeance were just not there. Instead, Curt stated that he had learned so much from his experience, including that he felt like he was carrying the burdens of his attackers, and gladly. Wow. Taken aback and put in my place, I will never forget the scales falling from my eyes, to see Jesus right in front of me. Love our enemies, even bearing their burdens? You betcha. And Curt was leading the way in living out this life-giving truth.
The Sacrament of the Poor
At the time and now over the years, this experience with Curt and my other experiences among the poor began forming in me the realization that the poor are a sacrament — an outward sign of an invisible grace. Bearing the burdens of the world on their broken backs, bloodied faces, scarred hands, and weary feet, the poor manifest the truth that where sin has increased, grace has increased all the more. The way that we choose to live and how our world orders our lives causes much of their suffering. Their suffering, thus, carries with it the burdens of the sin of the world. And this is exactly the place where God’s grace abounds. Here, in the suffering of the poor.
William Stringfellow, a man whose life work I admire deeply, proclaims, “In history, men live at each other’s expense… What sophisticates the suffering of the poor is not innocence, nor extremity, nor loneliness, nor the fact that it is unknown or ignored by others; but, rather, the lucidity, the straightforwardness with which it bespeaks the power and presence of death among men in this world… What sophisticates the suffering of the poor is only the proximity of their life to death every day… [which] matures a radical and wonderful piety, constituted in the actual life of the poor and consisting of the intense humility of the poor about their own existence as human beings. As the Ninth Psalm says, among the poor, men know that they are but men.” from My People is the Enemy, pp. 30-1. Stringellow also shares, “So from death arises new life. Suffering issues in celebration. To be ethical is to live sacramentally… In resistance persons live most humanly. No to death means yes to life.” An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, p. 156.
The poor are not perfect, far from innocent, as all of us miss the mark of life. However, this does not alter the truth that they bear our burdens. Our fears and anger, our desire for vengeance and longing for scapegoats, our lust and our greed. Their suffering carries with it the sin of the world, including all (yours and mine) our ways of living apart from God and God’s abundant life. In this way, the poor reveal our God of grace, present with those who suffer, redeeming and bringing life from death. Like Curt, the poor carry the burdens of their attackers, living humanly in the face of death, saying yes to life.
I don’t know about y’all, but I want to be like Curt. I want to know the Grace manifested among the suffering of the poor. I long for an experience of this Life as we encounter death. And the place to find it is among the poor. Yet none of these necessary transformations will occur unless, in our religious communities especially, we begin again to live life with the poor. As we fellowship in the struggle with our brothers and sisters who carry many of our burdens, we will experience the sacramental nature of the lived experiences of the poor. And we all might have Life and live abundantly.