Friendship at the Margins
Mission director Christopher L. Heuertz and theologian and ethicist Christine D. Pohl say friendship must be at the center of mission and reconciliation.
April 13, 2010
“Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission” is an exploration of a series of questions about the role that friendship, as an expression of love, ought to play in our understanding of Christian mission.
Its authors ask, “What difference does it make for mission, discipleship and the church when friendship with people who are poor is a central dimension of our lives?”
The authors are Christopher L. Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh, a mission organization that serves the most vulnerable of the world’s poor, and Christine D. Pohl, professor of social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.
The book is part of the Resources for Reconciliation book series, a partnership between InterVarsity Press and the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 3, “Mutuality in Mission,” written by Pohl.
When I (Christine) worked with my church in refugee resettlement in New York, I became good friends with a young Cambodian woman who had escaped with her children and mother from Pol Pot’s killing fields. Samneang had become a Christian in the refugee camps of Thailand but had begun calling out to “the Christian God” earlier during her escape. In the Thai camp, life was terribly difficult but a vibrant revival was going on, and many people came to faith in Christ. By the time Samneang arrived in New York City, her Christian faith was strong and contagious.
She and I participated in a small group that met in my apartment, and the members heard her stories of God’s miraculous interventions in her escape and in saving people from death and terror in the camp. She challenged and inspired us with a bigger picture of God and wondered aloud why God seemed less active in the United States. If we compared levels of trauma, loss and suffering, she was certainly the needy one, yet she brought life to the church community and to me even as we reached out to her and her family.
My church welcomed many refugees over the course of just a few years. As a congregation we matured through friendship with people from various, very different cultures. We learned the importance of fidelity and stability. A willingness to put down roots in a particular place and with a particular group of people provides a setting where over time we are forced to depend on God’s grace as we work through interpersonal issues and go deeper into the Christian life. Such stability is a challenge to our contemporary tendencies toward self-serving notions of pilgrimage or journey that allow us to pick up and leave when things get difficult.
Sometimes we hesitate to reach out to strangers and people on the margins because we are afraid -- there are too many unknowns. But as we saw [earlier in the book], safety and friendship are surprisingly linked -- for everyone. In fact, friendship in the hard places invites a rethinking of what it means to be safe in any place.
When I ... spent time with Catholic Worker folks in New York City, I was reminded of the close connection between security and relationships. As we walked toward one of the Catholic Worker houses, the woman I was with greeted by name a remarkable number of people. Almost all were folks that the other New Yorkers on the street were doing their best to avoid. I would have been nervous if I’d been alone. Over the years she had become friends with many of the homeless people in lower Manhattan, and while she asked them specifics about how they were doing, they also asked about her circumstances. There were many moments of obvious mutual affection that reflected a long and caring history of shared meals and experiences at the Catholic Worker communities.
Being in mission with people on the margins also reminds us of the importance of locating ourselves in places where we can respond to the initiative of another person for friendship. Unless our worlds are mutually accessible, all of the initiative is likely to come from one direction only. And unless a person has opportunities to offer friendship and gifts on his or her own turf, the relationship is unlikely to yield its most mature fruit.
The stories of friendships at the margins remind us of the power of hospitality and a hospitable presence. People are transformed when someone is willing to listen to their stories, to share a meal with them, to find their insights and concerns important or interesting. They are able to recover a measure of self-respect and a fuller sense of identity. But hospitality works both ways, and people on the margins also gain self-respect and recognize their own gifts when someone is willing to receive their hospitality.
Henri Nouwen has written that “we will never believe we have anything to give unless there is someone who is able to receive. Indeed, we discover our gifts in the eyes of the receiver.” Making sure that each person has a place in community and an opportunity to contribute is important for all of us.
The importance of eating together
One of the most powerful expressions of mutuality and friendship is sharing a meal together. We tend to eat with people we like and with people who are like us. But shared meals break down social boundaries. All of us need to eat, and when we break bread together we embody our solidarity and common humanity.
Meals are also at the heart of the Christian story. Jesus frequently ate with his followers, adversaries and outcasts in the community. He was sometimes a guest and sometimes a host, but in either case, meals were important settings where he shared deep truths and insights about the kingdom, discipleship and God’s priorities.
In Luke 14, Jesus is a guest in the home of a religious leader. During the meal, Jesus teaches about the banquet of the kingdom of God and how God will make room for people often considered unimportant or unworthy. Jesus tells the host -- a Pharisee -- that when he gives a party, he too should invite those he would usually overlook. He should make room for the people who don’t seem to have much to offer. These folks, Jesus says, are the ones God wants to be included.
In this passage, Jesus invites us to think about the people with whom we share meals. He isn’t saying that we should ignore our family and friends, but to make our circle larger. An important spiritual discipline around meals is to ask ourselves regularly, With whom am I eating? Who is invited, and who is left out? Our meals become kingdom meals especially when people who are usually overlooked find a place -- a place of welcome and value.
In Luke 19, Jesus invites himself to dinner. He calls out from the middle of a crowd, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus, literally up a tree, wasn’t expecting any friendly attention -- he was a despised and dishonest tax collector. How strange then that Jesus decides it is with Zacchaeus that he should have a meal. Jesus doesn’t host Zacchaeus; he invites Zacchaeus to be the host.
To be willing to be someone’s guest is an expression of respect for them, and many of the pious people of Jericho were shocked at Jesus’ behavior. Out of the whole town of perfectly good people, Jesus -- in their minds -- clearly picked the wrong person with whom to eat. They knew it was an honor, and they were annoyed. But Zacchaeus, in his joy, offers to give away half his money and to give back four times as much as anything he has stolen. Jesus declares that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham, [that] this despised man belongs to God’s beloved family, [that] one of the lost has been found and restored. The meal gives us a picture of the kingdom being laid open by love. The kingdom of God is big enough and gracious enough to have room for the most unlikely folks and to give them places of honor.
In our shared meals, God is especially present. There is often abundance and an element of mystery. Meals are important times of healing and restoration and are central to most efforts at reconciliation. In the New Testament church, the early Christians struggled with eating together because of their ethnic and social differences. But they ate together regularly as an expression of the oneness they had found in Christ. Their behavior was so countercultural that the outside world noticed.
Jesus could have had us remember him and celebrate his love and sacrifice in any number of ways, but he chose a meal. His body, our bread; his blood, our drink. When our practices of communion or Eucharist are closely connected to our common meals, we catch glimpses of the kingdom.
Years ago, I ... was part of an amazingly multicultural church in New York. People from many nations worshiped together, but one of my favorite memories is of the meals we shared.
When everyone brought a dish of food to share, we didn’t necessarily know what we were eating, but it was a time when we drew closer in love and fidelity, laughter and gratitude, conversation and care. Most of the people in the church were refugees or involved in refugee resettlement, so it was a congregation that knew about tragedy, loss and displacement. But our meals together were a simple yet joyful proclamation of mutual hospitality, new beginnings and God’s healing.
Taken from “Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission,” by Christopher L. Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl. Copyright(c) 2010 by Christopher L. Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.