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A Suburban Faith

10 ways to engage the world, wherever you are.

Because I watch CNN, I already know that people who are poor are out there. They stand on wet roofs in New Orleans, they dodge bullets in the Middle East and they pose for mug shots in Detroit. They might not live in my condo complex, but I know they’re out there. Somewhere.

For years I had understood Jesus’ words, “The poor you will always have with you,” to mean, “No use bothering with them because they’re like bedbugs: no matter what you do, you just can’t get rid of those pests.” Though it resonates with none of Jesus’ other teachings, it was a very soothing and self-serving interpretation.

In fact, though, Jesus was answering Judas’ outrage about the extravagant gift of a sinful woman’s fragrant oil being dumped on Him. I suspect Jesus’ tone might have sounded like: “Judas, you nutball, if you want to know the poor, and love the poor and feed the poor, knock yourself out, buddy! They’re right here. I’m the one who won’t be around long.”

The rub for Judas and for us is that those of us who can separate ourselves from a world in need—by virtue of choosing where we live, work, worship, shop and play—often do. And Jesus’ invitation to many of us is to allow our lives to intersect with those who are poor for His sake. You don't have to go far to make this a reality. Here are a few practical ways to turn your neighborhood, your morning commute or even your grocery run into an opportunity for life-giving relationships:

Know the name of the person who touches your goods.

When you shop for your stuff—groceries, gas, guacamole—in the usual local places, purpose to know something about the one who serves you as a bag boy, attendant or waitress. What’s her name? Does he live alone? What happens when her bus doesn’t show up? Honor this one by looking him in the eye, calling him by name and taking a genuine interest in his life. Baby steps.

Exercise in a place where you’ll encounter someone new.

Recent studies show that you won’t be encountering persons from marginalized populations on the Stairmaster at your pricey gym or club.

For your next workout, choose a physical space where you might naturally encounter someone with fewer resources. Jog past your city’s social service providers or do your weird race-walk through a low-income neighborhood. And because it’s not a poverty tour, be sure to speak to some of the real live people who also think your race-walk looks ridiculous.

Get to really know those who you encounter in the course of your daily work.

Whether the bulk of your week is spent on a campus or in an office, in a bar or as a barista, get to know the faces and names and stories of those who too often go unnoticed. Who is it that cleans the bathrooms you use most frequently? When you don’t make your own lunch, who is it that serves you the one you buy? What’s the story of the guy who waits outside the coffee shop asking for spare change? 

Invest in the life of a young person living on the world’s margins.

If you have a heart for teens, consider mentoring a young person who lives on the edge. You might meet a young person in need through Big Brothers and Big Sisters, or by volunteering to coach an urban sports league or by tutoring at a local school. A mentoring relationship also creates opportunities for relationship-building with a whole family.

Share the lives of those who give and receive care.

On your block and in your church and at your workplace, enter into the lives of those who are giving and receiving care. Is a coworker caring for an aging parent or grandparent? Is a neighbor caring for a sibling with a brain injury or physical disability? You bless others, and are blessed, as you bring a meal to share, providing respite care or simply visiting on the front porch.

Build relationships with the elderly who have been forgotten.

Some nursing homes can be those places that no one—neither residents, nor staff, nor visitors—really wants to go to. Whether you have the natural entrée of an older neighbor rehabilitating after a fall, or whether you contact the recreation coordinator to be scheduled as a bingo caller, the poor, the weak and the forgotten are waiting for company in nursing homes in every community.

Volunteer to coach.

During his four years of college, my friend Matt volunteered as a coach for a Special Olympics basketball team among friends who had intellectual disabilities. The Sunday afternoons he spent shooting hoops with these friends at a local rec center are some of his fondest memories of school. Partnering with Special Olympics gave Matt a natural opportunity to know and enjoy and share life with those who are too often excluded.

Engage in ministry with a partner from a sister congregation.

Does your congregation have a relationship with a sister church that’s socially or economically different from yours? Support the ministry they’re already doing. If it’s tutoring students, show up Fridays after work. If it’s Vacation Bible School, learn how you can serve. If it’s cleaning up the neighborhood, don your work gloves on a Saturday morning and make a new friend.

Open your home to children in the state foster care system.

Have a heart for young kids? Before you ever raise your own, consider opening your home to children in your state’s foster care system. When local kids are suddenly displaced from the home they share with their natural parents, they often need a place to stay for a night or two. This moment of loving stability can bless a child more than you know.

Invest in people living in a place where personhood can be easily overlooked.

Tuesday night your church is providing supper for people being sheltered through Interfaith Hospitality Network. Though it’s bad news for the poor when people of privilege dip into their lives only long enough to throw a casserole out their Prius window, your church’s support of local mercy ministry might be the vehicle by which you are able to develop a real friendship. Play board games. Practice finger-knitting. Bake cookies.

Jesus’ insistence that the poor will always be with us was never meant to be bad news. Rather, when we open our eyes, we have the opportunity to encounter the ones Jesus loves, positioning ourselves to receive and bear good news.

What are some other ways you have reached out or could reach out in the daily routine of your community?

Margot Starbuck is the author of the recently released Small Things With Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor (InterVarsity Press). More at www.MargotStarbuck.com.

17 Comments

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SlyEagle commented…

As a person living in a housing project, I find this comment completely offensive. Yes, as it happens, when you take families who have to face the monthly choice of paying their electric bill or buying food, and herd them together into a pen with other families wrought with the same stress, you do get an increase in domestic violence, neighbor conflict and vandalism. But running out and attacking a pedestrian on the street in broad daylight? Please. The kids run around outside without supervision, and the worst that ever happens to them is their moms coming out and yelling at them about something in front of their friends. Horror.

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whoyu123 commented…

i honestly think that you skimmed this post, saw the Scripture, heard the "bad interpretation" alarm bell ringing in your head, and proceeded instantly to make a reactionary post, completely missing the author's intention in using the passage (which the other commenters have already explained).

classic example of slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to become angry.

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Theresa D commented…

Okay, I have to chuckle a little. I live and work in Oakland, CAand I see plenty of "marginalized" people everyday. Every day I hear sirens, but for the most part I feel safe. I do think that one has to be careful in regards to taking a run through a low income area. I wouldn't do that here. I would do a drive-by though (no pun intended) and only in the day time.

I know it's hard for suburbanites to imagine what it's like to live in an inner-city. For whatever reason, you have not been planted there, so it's wise toserve where God has already placed you. I do love the idea about ministering to teens and seniors.

If God does stir up your heart intensely to serve the poor- pray about relocating. I am always praying for more Christians to move to the Bay Area. A place where only 5% of the population attend church.

Ryan Drake

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Ryan Drake commented…

Really interesting article. My friend and I are currently exploring similar things in our faith life but hopefully meet people in order to introduce them to the Living God and lead them to Christ through supernatural encounters! If you would like to know more, we blog at www.theradicaldisciples.com

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thedailysaint commented…

Excellent post, thank you. I think the temptation is often to move from the front porch to the back patio, increasing the chance of isolation and a more private life. Thanks for the reminder to stay in community, even when it's harder to do so.

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