The Poor Are Our Teachers?
Over the course of the last few weeks, I have been struck by the number of times I have been confronted by the disparity of poverty and wealth within London. I have to admit, on the surface, having moved two years ago from living in Hackney where 40% of children were growing up in poverty to now living in Hampstead where the figure is 5%, I have seen this first hand. It makes me feel uncomfortable, each time I say that I believe in the Apostolic and Catholic Church, as I know that I am not divorced from this disparity. We all have our parts to play, and I wonder how we might do this, as we share humanity with our brothers and sisters.
In overseeing the work of the commissioning of Ambassadors in the Diocese of London, I regularly reflect upon the life experiences of those thousands of people that we are commissioning. What does it mean to be confident Christians who are able to speak and live the Christian Faith in a variety of different settings? Likewise, if we take the likes of the Sermon on the Plain seriously (Luke 6. 20-26, with the blessings and the woes), how do we make sure that the poor are indeed our teachers, influencing our outward focus as a Church. We are sending people into a variety of environments, most of which I know very little about, and I would imagine that this was the same for the majority of people. Each setting is unique, and it would be wrong for me to pretend otherwise.
I was challenged during a recent visit to Mozambique, when I was surrounded by such extreme poverty. Yet the desire for mission and church growth was palpable. I came across one clergy person who had commissioned 200 Catechists, and now oversaw 54 church plants, because his zeal for mission was unstoppable. He said that he had nothing to lose, and the people he served had everything to gain, so daily he was looking out for new leaders, new relationships and new opportunities. So why is it that sometimes in London we feel threatened by one new church plant just up the road, for fear that this might “steal our people”, yet on average just 1.7% of the population attend our churches.
In Mozambique, I also lived such joyful worship, in a spirit of sharing and fellowship. It seemed to me that many Christians really did love each other in a way that I rarely see in any Deanery Synod or Clergy Chapter. I witnessed both lay and clergy offering all that they had to God’s service, living something of the life of Acts chapter 2, and people were flourishing together, en Christo, in the midst of extreme poverty. I was reminded of the importance of the prayer of Charles de Foucauld, I surrender all, I give all.
Closer to home I recently attended an open AA meeting. Here I was surrounded by a different sort of poverty, a fragility and brokenness which was terrifying yet beautiful. The storytelling, the testimonies, reminded me of Mozambique, and a few of the Confirmation services that I have led in London, when truthful testimonies have been encouraged. The testimonies were deeply honest, soul searching, a deep desire for grace and forgiveness with all the cries of the laments of the psalmist. It was as if Jesus was dancing in the room, and the reality of the cross was laid bare, as was the beauty of powerlessness and humility. People were open about their vulnerability, and so much stronger as a result, and their relationships reflected this too.
I know that this might sound like an episcopal version of Pulp’s Common People (without the sleeping with bit), but there is a real challenge here for a church which is, in leadership, too white, too male and too middle class. If the poor, with all the complexities of what this term might mean, are our teachers, how is the church learning, and how are we listening to their cries in our community, which are only really given airspace in times of trial, terror or tragedy, when their experiences become news for a moment.
In the Diocese of London, we have been encouraging the blessing of the backpacks. I have never got out of the rhythm that September is back to school, therefore we bless the new year, and new beginnings. Symbolically, we have been encouraging people to come to a specific Sunday, perhaps even for Harvest, and we have asked God to bless their backpacks, filled with those things that we need to flourish and thrive day to day. For some this is the mobile phone, others a new pair of shoes, others a tablet or laptop and for others a new PE kit or pencil case. The Church commissions everyday people to go about their everyday lives, and the tools that they will need in those everyday lives. This is at the heart of “Setting God’s People Free” and part of Renewal and Reform. People are sent out into their workplaces, schools and day centres with a renewed sense that this is the place for us to be confident in mission, and in building relationships. This is an exciting development, but I do wonder how we are properly preparing people for this ministry. This needs to be more than mere rhetoric. I wonder also how many of those commissioning (myself included) really do grasp the realities of those individuals that we send out, and the places that we are sending them out to. How do I experience for myself their homes and workplaces, how do I immerse myself in the realities of another, and how might I frame the relational building and teaching styles of the church to reflect this, to make it as easy and accessible as possible? Indeed, who am I excluding, because of my lack of immersion, and my unwitting caving in to my unconscious bias?
I love the good news in Luke Chapter 10, when Jesus sends out the disciples. He has been with them, taught them, healed them and loved them, and now he sends them out, a bit like the blessing of the backpacks. As we commission, and as we pronounce a dismissal, we are also sending people out to love and serve the Lord. Yet Luke Chapter 10 only makes sense when we realise that those who are sent out come back rejoicing. They tell their stores, and we see a real glimpse here of how the poor, vulnerable, broken and fragile have taught, and how the sharing of these experiences shape the life of the Kingdom of God. Then, of course, we see Jesus himself rejoicing because the poor have taught. Jesus exclaims “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will”. Perhaps we need to pray that this Gospel comes alive in our own time, perhaps we need to find new ways in which the poor can teach, that their stories will be told loudly and then we might, just might, like Jesus, find a renewed sense of hope and joy.