by James H. Furr, PhD, President, Houston Graduate School of Theology In the family and church in which I was reared, care for hurting people was a common practice. Wide-ranging expressions included funds from the church benevolence fund, personal gifts of cash discreetly shared in a handshake, baked goods from a charitable cook, or help with rowdy children. Indeed, most Christian communities demonstrate variations of such care. In today’s cities, homeless people may be the incarnation and symbol of poverty and vulnerability that most readily come to mind.
Sam Wells, Christian ethicist and vicar of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields in London, reminds us of four sound and historic expressions of ministry with “the least of these” among us. All of them were prominently displayed in southeast Texas after Hurricane Harvey. Those who were stranded in the flood waters required rescue; they needed someone to do for them what they could not do adequately for themselves. Most homeowners who began to clean out their homes needed others to do with them the many physically and emotionally overwhelming tasks. Because the most socially and economically disadvantaged groups suffer disproportionately in natural disasters, they needed prophetic advocates to be for them and address systemic inequities.
Perhaps, ironically, both the easiest and most difficult way to engage another person is not to do for, do with, or be for them, but simply to be with the other. Wells develops this framework in a book called A Nazareth Manifesto reminding us that before the three years of Jesus’s so-called “public” ministry, he shared his life by merely being with the people around him, mostly in the unassuming little village of Nazareth. The invitation to us is simple in that we don’t need resources, expertise, or power to draw our lives alongside another person. For most of us, though, the prospect is intimidating because we are required to relinquish our presumed control of time, intentions, and outcomes.
As Wells contends, the very nature of the Triune God, eternally related as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is expressed through God’s abiding and grace-filled presence with us as we are reconciled to God in Christ and to one another. The ultimate telos or purpose of our lives is to be in relationship with God. Like Martha in Luke 10, however, we are inclined to domesticize God’s presence rather than simply and joyfully embrace it like Mary. The challenge is not to avoid serving as caregivers, collaborators, or advocates when appropriate but to prioritize and celebrate God’s dream that relationships be ends in themselves rather than means to other ends. As Wells asserts, “Being with is the heart of mission, because it imitates the primary way God interacts with humanity and the creation; and so being with is always the default of any initiative, which may then be modified as circumstances and opportunities dictate.” (30)