Comfort from unexpected places

I love Advent. The month of December is filled with garish decoration, but if I can quiet my mind the waiting and longing of Advent reminds me of all that is yet to come. Advent reminds us that God is in control, not us. That’s a comfort when injustice threatens to overwhelm us.

Several years ago I took a group of students with me to Chicago to study poverty and community development. We wanted to learn about the important work others were doing in the field of poverty alleviation. I thought the lectures would be wonderful and the site visitations would be powerful – and they were. But the most important thing happened the very first night we were there.

We had made arrangements to live for two weeks in an SRO, a single resident occupancy building filled with the poor people we were going to be working with. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I made those arrangements but at the time it had seemed like a wonderful way to learn from those we were most concerned about. The night we arrived, however, it became clear how naive I had been in setting up the plan. The rooms were dirty. The windows didn’t close and snow fell onto the students’ beds. Some of the people in the building cried out at night and we couldn’t tell what might be an emergency and what was just rambling. My own room had a two foot hole near the ceiling. I called my brother to ask if he thought mice could get up to the eighth floor of a building. “Don’t worry,” he said. “There are no mice in Chicago. The rats ate them all.” I sat on my bed with my eyes fixed on that hole for hours.

While I sat vigil over the mice, I could hear a couple of my students crying in an adjoining room. I went to talk to them and it became clear to me that I had to bring the students back to campus. None of us were cut out for the difficulty that lay ahead of us.

A fraction
We made it through that night and the next morning I was set to change our plane tickets. But the most amazing sight met me in the hallway. Some of the residents were sharing cereal with the students. The students had smiles on their faces and everyone seemed happy to meet the day. “We’re staying!” announced the students.

“I called my mom,” said one. “She told me that poor people lived like this every day so we should just suck it up!”

“My mom said the same thing!” said another.

Thank goodness for those moms.

Nonetheless, the students and I were in tears a lot that week. Our trip remained difficult as we saw things we could hardly fathom. When I took one student to a medical clinic a young gang banger who had been shot died on the ground in front of us.

So much of that experience was overwhelming. But over and over our neighbours helped us through the tough spots. Though we took the trip to help comfort the poor we actually ended up being comforted by the poor.

Since that trip with students I have often been discouraged by the paucity of what I and others are able to do in the face of extreme poverty or injustice. But when frustration threatens I read over and over a poem that the students came upon during their time in Chicago. We do not know for certain who wrote the poem but we think it is likely written by a bishop in honor of Bishop Oscar Romero who was shot in El Salvador in 1980. The author starts by explaining we have to take a “long view” of our work in this world because God’s Kingdom is beyond our vision.

             We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
             of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
             This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
             day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
             knowing that they hold future promise.
             We may never see the end results, but that is the
             difference between the master builder and the worker.
             We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not
             messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

A Reformed perspective on culture tells us that God’s sovereignty rules over all of life. It also reminds us that while we have a job to do in this broken but redeemed world, God’s Kingdom is not dependent on us. That is a comfort. It is also a challenge.

  • Julia Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair at Whitworth University, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. She lives in Spokane, Wash.

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