The following excerpt is from William Stringfellow’s My People is the Enemy. This book, Stringfellow’s “autobiographical polemic”, has been and continues to be one of the most realistic yet hopeful accounts of the lived experiences of the poor, and a work that continues to challenge and inspire me constantly. If you work with the poor and oppressed, I strongly suggest you read some of Stringfellow’s work. My People is the Enemy is a great one to start with. This is one of my favorite passages. Let’s call the boy Adam.
“The Word of God is present among the poor as well as among all others, and what I have called earlier the piety of the poor reveals the Word of God. The piety of the poor is prophetic: In a funny, distorted, ambiguous way it anticipates the Gospel. This is confirmed every day in East Harlem. There is a boy in the neighborhood, for instance, who is addicted to narcotics and whom I have defended in some of his troubles with the law. He used to stop in often on Saturday mornings to shave and wash up, after having spent most of the week on the streets. He has been addicted for a long time. His father threw him out about three years ago, when he was first arrested. He has contrived so many stories to induce clergy and social workers to give him money to support his habit that he is no longer believed when he asks for help. His addiction is heavy enough and has been prolonged enough so that he now shows symptoms of other trouble—his health is broken by years of undernourishment and insufficient sleep. He is dirty, ignorant, arrogant, dishonest, unemployable, broken, unreliable, ugly, rejected, alone. And he knows it. He knows at last that he has nothing to commend himself to another human being. He has nothing to offer. There is nothing about him that permits the love of another person for him. He is unlovable. Yet it is exactly in his own confession that he does not deserve the love of another that he represents all the rest of us. For none of us is different from him in this regard. We are all unlovable. More than that, the action of this boy’s life points beyond itself, it points to the Gospel, to God who loves us though we hate Him, who loves us though we do not satisfy His love, who loves us though we do not please Him, who loves us not for our sake but for His own sake, who loves us freely, who accepts us though we have nothing acceptable to offer Him. Hidden in the obnoxious existence of this boy is the scandalous secret of the Word of God.
It is, after all, in Hell—in that estate where the presence of death is militant and pervasive—that the triumph of God over death in Jesus Christ is decisive and manifest.
The Word of God is secretly present in the life of the poor, as in the life of the whole world, but most of the poor do not know the Word of God. These two facts constitute the dialectic of the Church’s mission among the poor. All that is required for the mission of the Church in Harlem is there already, save one thing: the presence of the community which has and exercises the power to discern the presence of the Word of God in the ordinary life of the poor as it is lived everyday. What is requisite to mission, to the exposure of God’s Word within the precarious and perishing existence of poverty, is the congregation which relies on and celebrates the resurrection.”