One of my favorite books last year was Michelle Ferrigno Warren’s, “The Power of Proximity: Moving Beyond Awareness to Action.” Her family’s story of choosing to live in communities where they are proximate to the pain of the poor deeply resonated with me, since my husband and I made that same choice before we were married. For two years, we have lived in a rural, backwater village of 300 white people, many of them broken families dealing with addiction, incarceration, and generational poverty.
A paraphrase I heard of the idea contained in John 1:14 played a role in that decision: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” Although I grew up on a small farm just outside town, our family never really integrated into the community, partly because our church was 12 miles away, as were most of our friends and after-school activities. However, there was another reason, whether we realized it or not. As Warren writes, “…On the highway I was born to, people of faith didn’t go down the Jericho road–ever! We didn’t have to worry about being inconvenienced or too busy because it seemed reasonable to us to stay off that road so we didn’t get hurt. How dumb someone would have to be to go down that road!”
Fast-forward 18 years. Our eyes were finally beginning to see the brokenness in our community. At that point, we had some decisions to make. “…It’s easy to play it safe,” writes Warren. “It’s easy to get scared when you get in deep and your world changes in ways that make it hard to return. It can make you want to change your mind […]. There are many lies out there trying to convince you to head back, but fight the lies. Be willing to forge ahead into the unfamiliar. Follow the example of Christ and decide to push on–not as a martyr but as a disciple.”
When my brother and I began renting a house in the middle of town, we discovered something we hadn’t known before: “Not everyone gets a front row seat. The front row is a privilege, an opportunity to see what’s really going on and to allow those factors to penetrate your heart and mind, bringing you to a place where you can participate in the transformation.” Warren continues, “We cannot understand problems from a distance. We cannot respect people if we don’t know them.”
How well do you know the people you serve? How well do you understand their problems? In ministry, do you see neighborhoods or neighbors?
Warren describes a very different set of neighbors than those she knew growing up. “Those with possessions were once in a place where they were without, so they don’t hesitate to take their barely working car across town to drop you and your kids off after work because they know how long the bus takes. My formerly homeless friends would give change without reservation to those holding a sign asking for money because they had been there too. You know you can’t do it by yourself, so you help when you can. What kind of people take care of only themselves? Me.”
She admits, “I had headed into the city to be generous, but day after day, request after request made me see my own selfishness. The life I came from where everyone was expected to take care of themselves was radically different. I saw how individualistic my view of people was, and it made me wonder if my social construct of rugged individualism was biblical or human-made.”
Warren makes it clear that social justice is not her motivating force. “My family and I have lived daily on this [Jericho] road. We have chosen to invest our lives and futures in serving those who are hurt by society’s ills. It was not out of a noble cause for the hurting or broken but out of simple obedience to the One who gave up everything to join our messy world.” She later adds, “Loving sincerely with great investment takes a miracle, which is why it is solely a result of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.”
For sure, Warren asks some challenging questions. “A friend… was talking to me about the cost of discipleship and God’s call on our lives to go deeper. She told me it felt like swimming on a good hair day. Sometimes you simply look good, and the last thing you want to do is get in a pool and go all the way in…. You’re left with a question: Will I go in all the way? Will I let my hair get wet? Will I ruin the version of me that I like right now for a deeper engagement?
“God is calling us all the way in, and until we are willing to allow the cool waters of His call to mess up the way we perceive ourselves and our intentions, we are limiting our opportunity to be free. The journey exposes us and changes us so we do not come up to the surface the same as we went in. But with satisfaction we realize that we don’t need or want to go back. Life is richer when we are entirely in.”
Where has God placed you in this season of your life? Is it possible that He is calling you to deeper engagement?
What about your children? Warren writes, “Our choice to bring our children into this proximate place began in me a journey of holding out what God would call ‘worthless idols’ for me.”
She quotes Jonah 2:8, saying, “I was completely convicted by this verse in light of our impending decision to have children. I had to confess before the Lord that safe neighborhoods, successful schools, polished church programs, amazing musical performances, garage doors and openers, and other upper-middle-class amenities would not be part of my story or the story of my children. I cried and grieved all over again about the future loss, telling Jesus that if those were ‘worthless idols,’ then I would walk away from them again and again to gain a grace I would not have otherwise.”
There is grace, but Warren is honest about the challenge. It’s a lie to pretend that this kind of life “doesn’t kick you in the gut and reveal anger, disappointment, and disillusionment. It makes you dig deep and admit you are being affected by the pain and brokenness all around you.”
“…We have to face two facts,” writes Warren. “We will face rejection from those who don’t understand our purpose, and we will face failure. We may pour all our energy and efforts into fixing something that stays the same.”
Which is why it is vital to remember that we are journeying with Jesus on his mission to rescue a broken world.
“Nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.” II Chronicles 20:12
“Go in the strength you have… am I not sending you?” Judges 6:14
Prayer: Jesus, thank You that You moved into the neighborhood and brought good news to the poor. Show us where You are already working, so that we can join You in that work, wherever it may be. Show us where we’re not willing to get our hair wet, and enable us to swim joyfully. Make a way for us to be part of the lives of the people we’re currently serving, not as projects but as people… as neighbors… to listen to them, learn from them and love them with no strings attached.