The other day I received an email with the subject title, “The inner city needs you!” complete with exclamation point. What followed was a series of pictures and stories of churches visiting the Tenderloin feeding folks, washing feet, and praying for homeless people, all within a good day’s work.
I have good friends who volunteer with this ministry and I’ve volunteered there myself, passing out bags of chips and trying to engage folks in conversation and prayer. I know they’re doing good work. But this idea is getting out of hand. The inner city needs you?? Come on now.
(Rant: What is the “inner city” anyway? Is it a location? Is it a people? The phrase “inner city” is used as a euphemistic convenience tool, an abstraction that plays on our worst racialized assumptions and brings up stereotypes that turn real people into an amorphous “them.” It’s not loving or helpful. For the long version of this rant, go here.)
I remember when I was still living in Chicago, a colleague came up to me randomly one day and asked, “Hey Nate, do you know of any good places to eat in San Francisco?” To which I gladly named my favorite pho restaurants. “A group of us from our church are going to volunteer in the Tenderloin for a week!” he said, also informing me that he had no clue what pho was. I was angry. How anyone could live without even the knowledge of God’s greatest creation, pho noodles, was beyond me. But also upsetting was this weird notion… why would my friend in Chicago feel the need to go all the way to San Francisco to volunteer in the Tenderloin? I caught myself in my own hypocrisy: I too, after all, had left home to live in Chicago to experience an alternate poverty. But I walked away thinking pridefully: San Francisco is doing fine without you. We don’t need your church’s help.
In my Berkeley-educated, anti-imperialist, and solidarity-seeking mind, any time a group of affluent people come to “serve” a group of poor people, red flags go off. But after some reflection, I don’t mind affirming the subject line of my upsetting email, with one addendum:
The Tenderloin does need me…
But I need the Tenderloin more.
Without the other half of the equation, we are merely self-absorbed, first-world-guilty, privilege-undoing Christians looking for ways to assuage our consciences with a “Day of Service” where we engage in all manner of story and poverty porn only to return to our comfort with a few nice anecdotes. Without committed reciprocity, our service to the poor does more harm than good, and actually prevents poor folks from ever realizing their true humanity in Jesus because our service renders them voiceless and without agency: we end up deciding when, how, and what they get served.
There is another way, of course:
My friend goes to a church called La Villita Community Church, a mostly-Latino church in inner city Chicago. Every year, a group of kids from a suburban church in Kansas comes and helps run a summer camp for the youth at La Villita. Pretty standard stuff here: white kids with money coming to run a camp for poor and working class brown kids.
But that’s not the whole story. In the name of reciprocity, kids from La Villita go down to Kansas the following year and run the summer camp for the youth over there. Picture it: brown kids from the inner city now helping run a camp for white kids in the suburbs. It’s a beautiful picture of mutuality that defies our expectations who is supposed to serve whom. (Although last year, La Villita’s van caught on fire on their way to Kansas. I guess some things are still separate and unequal.)
It turns out, we need each other. The inner city—and more importantly, poor people—do need folks like us, but not for a “Day of Service” or a conference where I can appease my guilt for a weekend. Because if that’s the case, then no, the inner city sure as hell can do without me. We need more creative solutions, solutions that act as more than a guilt release valve—we need committed mutuality. We need love.
“And that’s why I love Jesus. That’s why I love who he was and how he went about changing the world. It took the dude 30 years to set roots, to know people, to be known by people, to make the world his home, not just his mission field. And I love that we were not objects he just had to save, some amorphous group called “humanity” in the “inner city” of the cosmos that needed his “help,” but people that he joined and knew and loved and cried with and was betrayed by. The way of his salvation was not to simply cast a life preserver out for us to grab, but to dive headfirst into the ocean of brokenness that we were drowning in. Christ didn’t pull us out of our humanity, instead he came into it and took it upon himself with the fullness of all its joys, failures, sins, and sufferings. It is the most beautiful thing to me, and yet its implications on my life absolutely terrify me. If you want to really see salvation and transformation, stop talking, release your privileges, become one with those who suffer, and get ready for the long haul. Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses it for Christ’s sake will find it, and find it in the full.”