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I Was Never 'Called' to Journey Alongside of Poor People

From what I can tell, based upon the standards often used to measure one’s ‘calling’, I am not, and never have been, called by God to journey alongside of poor people.

  • Based upon my family background — growing up in a quiet suburb with debt-free parents who were wealthy enough to send all four of their kids to a private Christian primary school; living an extremely sheltered childhood, basically cut-off from peers and non-Christian influences (like TV, or movies, or video games, or participation in things like Halloween), etc. — you would think I was being prepared to be called into some sort of sheltered, comfortable Christian life.
  • Based upon my personal disposition — being an extraordinarily frightened child (something as simple as being left in a Sunday School class would cause me to cry uncontrollably); I am still fairly shy and introverted, not to mention socially awkward in a good many situations — you would think I was being prepared to be called into a profession that didn’t require much engagement with others, and certainly not any engagement in high stress or violent situations.
  • Based upon my personal interests and talents — I’ve always loved reading and learning, nature and animals (I wanted to be a vet for years) — you would think God was going to call me into professional Academic work or perhaps work away from the city and out in the wild, where I love to be.
  • Based upon the lack of any ‘call experience’ — the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I was having a call experience was a dream I had when I was thirteen that led me to believe God was calling me to be a missionary to ‘Africa’ — you would think that moving into something so terrifying (to me) and so different than all that had come before would be out of the question.

So, based upon my family background, my personal disposition, my interests and talents, and the lack of any sort of ‘call experience’ I can only conclude that I am not, and never have been, called to journey alongside of poor people… but I want to challenge the way in which we approach this topic.
It seems to me that the notion of ‘calling’ is generally used to justify the pursuit of that which is advantageous to ourselves.
Thus, we see our background in places of privilege as rooted in God’s choice to put us in those places, which means (of course!) that we are called to remain in such places.  Or, we take our personal disposition as a sign of the way God wants us to go, and therefore remain within our comfort zones.  Or we take our personal passions and talents as ‘gifts’ God has given us to develop and so we pursue what we want to pursue.  In this way, all of these things are interpreted as the ways in which God ‘calls’ us — although markedly absent is any sort of call experience similar to that experienced by Paul or Isaiah or Abraham or whomever else.  Indeed, the absence of such an experience is taken as further proof that we are living ‘withing God’s will’!  Unless God appears to me in a dream or vision and says, ‘Go live and work amongst the poor!’, I’ll rest assured that I can take my place amongst the wealthy and privileged.
I trust I am not alone in noting that this ideology is conveniently and profoundly self-serving.
So, here I am, coming up on ten years of moving out of my background, challenging my disposition, and relinquishing my prior interests and talents, in order to attempt to journey alongside of the poor.  Why?  Because, to me, this is what it means to be a Christian.  Even more, I think that this is what it means to be truly human.  Our identity, as disciples of Jesus and as bearers of the divine image, is caught up in, and defined by, mutually liberating solidarity with the marginalised.  This journey has nothing to do with a sense of personal vocation, and everything to do with a sense of our communal identity as children, heirs, and ikons of God.
This is why ‘call narratives’ don’t take place all that often in the Bible.  A few individuals — notably those within the prophetic tradition — experience radical theophanic call events, but most people do not.  This is because the biblical narrative is already pretty clear on who we are to be and what we are called to do.  As Christians we don’t need to be ‘called’ to journey alongside of poor people, our Scriptures already make it plain that this type of life is essential to our identity.
If we miss this ‘call’ then the chances are that a theophanic dream or vision wouldn’t do much to change our minds.  Hence, I am reminded of Jesus’ parable regarding the rich man and Lazarus.  After the rich man dies and heads to torment, while Lazarus is welcomed into Abraham’s bosom, the rich man pleads that Lazarus be sent back to warn his brothers.  This is Abraham’s response: ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’  The same, I think, applies to us and whether or not we believe we are called to journey alongside of poor people.  If we do not listen to Moses and the Prophets (including Jesus), then I suspect that we would find ways to get around any other ‘call’ experience.

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  1. Right – we mostly just use the word “call” to mean “theological justification for what I want to do anyway.” Or as justification for not changing and “being transformed into the image of Christ.” This is a problem not just for vocation, but for all other areas as well. My favorite example – the contemporary Christian “men’s literature,” (c.f. John Eldredge) which apparently seems entirely devoted to telling men it is ok to be assholes because that is the way God made them.

  2. Great post, thanks!
    Sometimes, though, I wonder if our destiny is really to “journey alongside of poor people”. There are words of Jesus that seems to imply that to be a disciple of Jesus actually is to oneself BECOME poor(er?) (in a non-spiritualizing way).
    Is there a risk that this journey alongside of poor people implies that it´s ok to stay as rich and powerful as before, as long as one befriends and welcome the poor? (Of course, I know that most of us, myself included, most of the time is doing neither…) 🙁 Or does friendship etc with the poor always leads us to become poor ourselves?

  3. Jonas:
    Yes, I don’t think one can say that one is truly “journeying alongside of” unless one is seeking to genuinely enter into the experiences of the people with whom one is seeking to journey.
    However, there is another solution. Rather than all becoming poor, we can enter into communities wherein everyone has enough (neither poor nor rich). Granted, having “enough” can look like poverty to those of us who are accustomed to more than enough, but that just means we that need to revisit our understanding of poverty.

  4. I started writing this then realized Jonas was saying similiar things so I’ll post this anyway if anything just to say I resonate
    i wonder if our attempts to journey with “poor people” really misses out on the realization of our own poorness. The more I read Jesus the more I”m starting to see Jesus trying to level the playing field in our head by assuring us we are no better or better off rather than encouraging us just to be around them.
    I don’t think Jesus pushes us to spend time with the poor because they have no friends but because he wants us to see that we are those people. Poorness is where the kingdom is found, its not that we need to become poor but realize we are poor (in whatever sense of the word).

  5. Dan. Ok, I agree.
    I think there are different ways for us into discipleship. For some, we will begin developing a more humble way of life (with less money, stuff, insurances, bank accounts etc) as a result of our meeting with the poor. But I also think that for others, our fed up-ness with mammonism and longing for the kingdom of God will lead us to resistance, giving away our things to the poor etc even before we have had journeyed much with the poor, but I think this will also lead us to come closer to the poor. The lastway has happened to be mine.
    Sometimes I get the feeling that you and Claiborne and a handful of other people seems to imply that there are certain steps that should be taken in a certain order, the first being hanging out with the home-less and stuff. But I don´t think it will happen that way for all of us. If you, like me, are married and have two small children, the first thing to do is not to bring home-less people into your home, for example. There are other aspects of a life seeking God´s kingdom than our relationship to the poor.
    Nathan. You seem to imply that “poor” is simply a category in our heads. But I think that we need to look at this in terms of structure and material conditions, and not make it become a question of only “attitude” or internal stuff. Jesus was, after all, attacking the rich and comforting the poor, so he was not trying to break down this way of speaking (Lk 6).

  6. Jonas, along side of attaching the rich the comforting the poor, he was attacking the prideful and comforting the humble, attaching the greedy and comforting the selfless, attacking the know-it-all while comforting those that just chose to follow, attacking those that didn’t need to be forgiven and comforting those that knew they did.
    So while I agree with you, I can’t stop there. And with all those examples I see Jesus not so much as telling us to “hang out with them” as much as he is telling us that we are them. If we truely are them then we stop making distinctions like the above at all.

  7. The call is only to follow Jesus. His example was to be about the Father’s business and on a daily basis his audience changed from the poor to the rich to the political, to the middle class…etc.,
    Every one has a gifting and we need each other and cannot do without each other. “How can the hand say to the eye I don’t need you!” Whether we choose to work and live with the poor, we need those who work in other areas of life to fund that work. We need those who work in government, or on farms, or as fishermen, or as whatever. But whatever it is that we do…the call is to follow Jesus and be about the Father’s work in our daily lives.

  8. I have talked to many (Americans) who say that they are right where God wants them to be. For them it’s even rather rebellious to change “where” they are.

  9. I simply see homeless and others in my community and stop to buy them a meal, etc. The calling is them on the street. They are calling to us, and we are often passing them by with a label or stereotype.

  10. I was thinking about this a bit more. It is not correct to say that you were never called to journey alongside the poor. More precisely you were never personally called to journey alongside the poor. We have privatised the notion of a “calling” to be something that is personally tailored to us. For calling, we read something like a spiritual version of the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment. We assume that there’s an extra special call just specific to each and every one of us, and when we get that we have the theological excuse to ditch out on the general call to reach the oppressed, the prisoner et cetera – because that’s icky.

  11. Dan:
    Exactly. It is this privatised notion of ‘calling’ that I am rejecting in order to affirm what we are all called to as Christians and as human beings (so, it’s still correct to say that I was never ‘called’… in that privatised way… plus that makes for a more catching title… which apparently makes some people think).

  12. i really enjoyed your post and i think that it was perfectly articulated and attention grabbing.
    i am a theological student to be and a current Ryerson University Social Work student. i have also not been “called” in the typical Biblical way that you have explained yet i feel a strong push in the direction of ministry regardless of my own reluctance. i agree with the comment explaining that we are all called to follow Christ and i think that you have a excellent understanding of what Christ was trying to tell us, with his life and his death.
    i too believe that the commission that he gives to us is to live with not only the poor but the marginalized and the stigmatized. this would even mean that we would be living with, advocating for all those who are even persecuted and excluded by “Christians”. to what ends do we go, i do not know. perhaps if we follow Christ and his teaching’s, we would go as far as advocating for those and fighting for those who we would least expect to be with Christ.
    i fear for the Christian faith that we may fail God’s will for us and become the modern day Pharisees. It is not our duty as Christians to judge and be self-righteous, but rather humble ourselves as you have done and attempt to live in harmony as God would want us to live.
    i really agree with your comment about equity, where people who are privileged may seem as though they are living in poverty if they were to equally distribute resources. until the rich and powerful are ready to give these privileges up, poverty, inequality and injustice will always be present in this world.
    i apologize to all the readers for such a long comment and although i want to add more i will stop by saying i think that you are on the right track and i am inspired by your post.


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