By John Carroll
Hugh Hollowell, pastor to the homeless of Raleigh, N.C., through the scrappy and brilliant ministry Love Wins, told me a story once that I haven’t been able to shake.
He has a good friend who is quite supportive, vocally and monetarily, of his ministry to the impoverished and homeless but who constantly told Hugh that he did not have the time to engage in the ministry with him due to the demands of his high-level corporate job.
One day, during one of these genuine excuse/apology sessions, Hugh simply and wisely asked, “Do you use a cleaning service to keep your offices in top shape?”
“Yes,” his friend replied.
“Are you ever there when the cleaning person comes in?”
“Is it the same person each time?”
“Yes, she’s always the same person.”
“What’s her name?”
A few weeks later, Hugh’s corporate friend came to see him and looked a bit exasperated as he plopped down in a chair across from Hugh. Hugh remained silent until his friend spoke.
“Her name is Mary. She is a single mother with two kids who comes and cleans my offices after working another part-time job earlier in the day. She and her kids are coming over to our house for Thanksgiving dinner. What do I do now?”
Hugh told this story as he talked about the need for Christians to have lives rather than ministries — lives of discipleship that model the life of Christ instead of ministries that they engage in but which remain separate from the ins and outs of their lives.
This story kept coming to mind as I reflected on the 50-year anniversary of the “war on poverty.” The story’s movement — from distance to engagement and from interest in an idea to solidarity with a person — resonates with the need for Christians to take a step beyond the typical debates raging about the “war on poverty’s” success or failure, about its continued viability and about the best strategies for engaging the issue of poverty today.
While these conversations are important to have and to engage critically, Christians, as followers of the one anointed to bring good news to the poor and of the one who sat at feasting tables with those who lived with their backs against the wall, need to bring something different to the table. Instead of talking about a war on poverty, we need to be talking about solidarity with the poor.
Such a shift moves us from the abstract and safely distant level of generalization and pity to the messy and confusing ground of nuance and compassion — that holy ground where we constantly have to ask, “What do we do now?” It moves us from the boardroom of strategy-making against a state of being we fear to the arena of loving action on behalf of individuals that matter because we know their name and their story. It shifts our undergirding paradigm from the kingdoms of economics to the Kingdom of God. And, most importantly, it shifts the focus of our thinking and attention from an “it” — poverty or the poor — to a holy, beloved and wonderfully made “thou,” such as Mary.
In other words, when we bring the language of solidarity with the poor to the table, we remind ourselves and all others engaged in the realm of poverty that we are all brothers and sisters, made in the holy image of God, and that we are all in this together. And when we ask each other “What’s her name? What’s his name?” we offer a firm but loving reminder that, by God’s wisdom and grace, we all belong to each other.