(Tammy Perlmutter’s “31 Days of Community” continued!)
31 Days of Community
When I was a teen, my mom would take my sister and me to a church that had a soup kitchen. We would help serve the food and clean up. Sometimes we would talk to the people. We were kids and we were a little shy. I look back at this in wonder. My mom was serving the poor before it was cool. This was just a part of life for us, something my mom did with us most likely to keep us out of trouble in the summer and on weekends.
My parents were known for their generosity. They gave away money, possessions, and their own time to love others in need. They took in teenaged sons and daughters of friends who had moved in their senior year of high school, or were having difficulty getting along in their homes. My parents would drive people places, fix their broken appliances, and make sure they had money for necessities. My dad was on the board of directors for a homeless ministry in Philadelphia called The Brotherhood Mission. They also took in foster kids, and I was one of them. I am thankful to my parents for introducing me to a theology which taught that serving the poor was a daily thing that permeated all of your life, and made you the richer for it.
I was no stranger to poverty, having been born to an alcoholic woman who was welfare-dependent. We lived in a series of neighborhoods that were unsavory, to say the least. When I was placed in foster care at 4, I was filthy and had cavities in almost every tooth. My mother still lives in a house with no hot water, no heat, and an infestation of cockroaches. So when I became a member of JPUSA, living among the poor was something I was already familiar with.
When the community was looking for a place to settle in Chicago, they picked the Uptown neighborhood due to its poverty and need. They wanted to be light in a dark place. Uptown is a very dark place. Even though gentrification is in full swing, the homeless, refugees, mentally ill, and under-served still make up most of the population. They are pretty much the only people who want us to stay in the neighborhood.
Some of these people are well-known by us. Like Freddie, who used to come in every day, sometimes more than once, bumming cigarette money and asking if he was going to hell because he smokes cigarettes. I think most men in the community prayed the salvation prayer with him.
There’s Beverly, an American-Indian woman who is usually drunk and raucous, especially in church. It’s her favorite place to be seen. She is a shameless flirt and has propositioned my husband at least once.
There was a young man who was mentally ill and had a toy steering wheel in the seat of a shopping cart. He would drive that cart everywhere, making screeching and beeping sounds. You got out of his way fast when you heard him coming.
My favorite characters were Jolene and Curly. Serious drug addicts. They were almost always together, and they would smile and stop to talk whenever they saw me. I loved seeing them on the street. They were so strung out that most of the time you couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Curly died in our foyer where he was sleeping off a high in late winter. I came downstairs that morning as the coroner was getting ready to transport Curly to the morgue. We don’t see Jolene anymore.
But I do see the woman who carried around a huge stuffed bunny and had a pronounced physical disability, causing her to have a sideways lurching walk. I see the shirt, angry Asian woman who smokes the brown cigarillos. I see the mother and son who lives across the street in absolute squalor, the mom, toothless and untidy is so large she can barely move. The boy is so shy he won’t ever leave his mom. His sister got out years ago.
This is what it means to live with the poor. Knowing their names. Recognizing their bondage because it reflects your own. Understanding what they need before they have to ask.
The Jesus People community runs several shelters, a feeding program, and a transitional housing program. They even operate a shelter for homeless families so the cycle of homelessness is not perpetuated by splitting up intact families. The people who work there every day are some of the bravest and most compassionate people I have ever known. They are on the frontlines of inner-city ministry, doing way too much work for way too little reward.
What they do get to witness and celebrate, in the midst of the pain, abandonment, rage, addiction, abuse, and despair, is the good news of a client being hired, or getting keys to an apartment, enrolling in school, kicking an addiction, or keeping the baby they nearly aborted.
Jesus calls his disciples not only to serve the poor but to discover in them his real presence . . . . Jesus tells us that he is hidden in the face of the poor, that he is in fact the poor. People who gather together to live the presence of Jesus among people in distress are therefore called not just to do things for them, or to see them as objects of charity, but rather to receive them as a source of life and of compassion. These people come together not just to liberate those in need, but to be liberated by them; not just to heal their wounds, but to be healed by them; not just to evangelize them but to be evangelized by them.
Jean Vanier, Community and Growth