Bringing Justice to the Suburbs
By Laura Richardson
June 16, 2007
In today’s edition of the Daily Dose, we talk to Will and Lisa Samson, the authors of Justice in the Burbs (Baker). The book combines short fiction stories about suburban families with practical teachings about bringing social justice to neighborhoods around America. Along with contributions from Brian McClaren, Leonard Sweet, Lucy Shaw and others, the book examines how suburbanites can truly love their neighbors.
You have a new book coming out in August. Can you tell me a little about Justice in the Burbs? Lisa Samson: Well, I wrote the fictional narrative at the beginning of each chapter because that’s what I do; I’m a novelist. It’s nice because it illustrates what Will is saying in the teaching portions of the book. So while we do give practical suggestions, we’re not doing like a “seven steps to justice in the burbs.” It’s not that type of book, but what happens is, although we do give practical suggestions, this family—it’s Matt and Christine Marshall—you go through their awakening to issues of justice. And so you kind of can see what it looks like when a family actually decides to start to live justly. So instead of it being just a list, you actually can experience it as you walk through it with this family. And so it starts small. The first thing is that they’re there on a rainy Friday-night date night. They’re putting money into this rescue mission man’s bucket who’s been there every Friday night for the past five years, and you know, they kind of are familiar with him. And suddenly they’re like, “This man is standing out in the rain trying to collect money for this mission. What is really going on down there?” Then they start to get into volunteering at the mission. So they see down in the city what’s going on and they just start to wake up to the fact that their lives have really been about themselves for so long. I think we can fool ourselves—especially us mothers, we tend to be doing everything for everybody else anyway—but then you take a step back and say, “Oh, you know, it’s all my people—my children, my friends, my church family.” So they kind of step outside: “Oh, my goodness. Everything we put ourselves into comes directly back to us.” So they start to realize that there is more to living a life of Christ than just taking care of your own. They’re waking up to the fact that they live in a really big world and that God loves every one of those people in the world.
That’s the same thing that happened to us. We were just working our fingers to the bone in that typical suburban churchgoer existence. And here’s the thing—we were there three, four years ago. So we know it’s part of a process. We know that it takes people a long time to come to grips with these issues of justice and say, “Wow, I do make a difference on this planet.” But it’s a hard journey and sometimes it can alienate you from people. But we understand that everybody is on a journey and we just hope that Justice in the Burbs will just further that journey. A step, two steps, three steps, whatever God has for the person who reads it. We just hope that we can help others take the journey that we did and maybe not feel so at a loss because it’s so new to them.
Why should people care about social justice? Will Samson: I can think of probably a million reasons. It seems to me the most important one is that the story of justice is God’s story. So if we’re seeking to live into God’s story, then we’re seeking to be a part of the story of justice. For us, understanding this came at several different levels. We actually began to read Scripture and began to see that throughout Scripture, and really throughout the whole Church history, people have been asking, “Well, what does it mean to live as a faithful follower of God?” And really, that means living justly. If you go back to the Old Testament, the Old Testament talks about the concept of shalom. We understand that word means peace, and we all get that. But it’s really two kinds of peace that exist when everybody’s living up to their responsibilities, when everybody’s living justly. So we think it’s an important conversation to begin having in the suburbs, because we don’t necessarily think of ourselves as being responsible for telling God’s story of justice in the suburbs. We think justice is something that happens “out there.” But really, our belief is that justice is something that can begin to happen right in the suburbs.
When I was looking into your new book, I was reminded of the movie Hotel Rwanda. There’s something that one of the characters said when they’re discussing Americans’ reaction to seeing footage of the Rwandan genocide. The character Jack says, “I think if people see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and they go on eating their dinners.” Do you think a lot of suburban Americans fall into that mind-set? Will Samson: I do. I think that what happens is we look at injustices and we say, “Oh, thank God that’s not happening here.” And that reinforces this idea that justice is something that happens “out there.” But I think a world that is just is the composite effect of communities that are just and neighborhoods that are just. I was speaking at the Bread for the World gathering in June. The goal of this conference was to eradicate global poverty by 2015, I think. I was supposed to speak on the best practices for talking about justice that would kind of lead to this global solution. And I told them that I thought they needed to garden. Because if they wanted to eradicate global poverty, it was going to begin by actually understanding that food’s really hard to grow. And a community built around growing food? Boy, that’s really hard to sustain. And so the idea that we’re going to come in with this big huge solution to solve all the problems of injustice in the world, I’m kind of skeptical of that. But the idea that we can create a number of small solutions that begin to address the injustices of the world—that I think we actually might be able to do.
Lisa Samson: I can just pray that God puts this book in fertile hands that are willing to grow things and give and be found in places they’ve never been found before. I’m trusting in the Holy Spirit to get it into the right hands. And what the reaction is, that’s up to whoever it is that reads it. I do hope that even if people put the book down and walk away, that a seed will be planted that somebody else will harvest.
When you were researching your new book, did you encounter any stories that particularly inspired you? Will Samson: We did, but I do think we were more affected by the lack of stories at this point. In other words, we’re connected in with this new monastic conversation that involves people like Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove. And we were really excited about the kind of just communities that they were creating and very struck by the scarcity of stories that existed in the suburbs that were telling stories of justice. So there are a few, and there are some people who are creating communities that are just, but mostly they’re below the radar screen. They’re small house churches of 10 to 15 people. They’re little faith communities that are asking what it means to live justly. They’re Bible studies and people eating together. And they’re all below the screen. And to me, that’s what’s exciting because we like to tell these sort of big-movement stories. But it seems to me that what’s most exciting is the fact that there’s a whole bunch of small stories beginning to take shape, and they’re not necessarily on anybody’s radar screen. And I think that’s actually a good thing.
What are some practical ways to engage in social justice? Lisa Samson: If you’ve read Justice in the Burbs, my suggestion would be to go through and read the Gospels two or three times back-to-back. Keep your eyes open for God’s heartbeat. And Christ’s longing to bring the Kingdom to us, and for us to bring the Kingdom to others. The second thing I would do is start praying for God to guide you, and to show your gifted areas, where He could most effectively use you in the call of justice. It’s going to look different for different people. I like to make food and do stuff. What I do is going to be different from what other people do. Will does other things, small things—it’s just different. People will put their whole lives on the line and move to Swaziland. And others will go, “You know, I’m gonna go to the nursing home once a week and visit with the people who never get any visitors.” And other people are going to go, “You know, I know Ricky down the street in fifth grade, same grade as my child, has a science project due next week. And I know his parents are never home. So I’m going to have Joey call him up, and he’ll come down here and we’ll help him with his, too.” You know, it’s gonna look so different. But then, we just pray for God to open our eyes to what it is He has us to do, and for the grace and obedience to do it. A lot of prayer is going to go into it.It’s all about obedience at the end of the day. So you become aware of what God wants. And God gives us the grace to obey. The next thing I would do is bring your whole family into it. Talk to your children—you know, I just assume that spouses are going to be communicating with each other, but if you have children, bring them into it and let your decisions be made as a family. I just think God calls families, and I’m always skeptical of any calling that makes you leave your children behind. Let’s see ... what I would do next is if you don’t have a family and you’re not married, I would go to the people you trust and family members who may even find your ideas difficult—go to them and humbly ask them to pray for you. Humbly ask them to pray before God, and in some way you’re bringing them into your life. And then, when God has revealed what it is you’re supposed to do, just do it with thanksgiving, humbly, that God has called you to do something and is giving you the grace to do it. Because we know how hard it is to change our lives and to serve. It’s much easier to sit around and drink a cup of coffee and read a book.
What seem to be the major problems with the suburban American mind-set? Will Samson: The biggest problem is the story we tell ourselves. And the story we tell ourselves is that no one is in need in suburbia—there are no problems, and problems are “out there.” So we end up doing justice by proxy, and we end up doing God’s work by proxy. So we hire other people to go do it when, in fact, the call to follow Jesus has always been to be directly engaged in the lives of people. So I think one of the biggest problems with the suburbs is the story that we tell ourselves: that there is no need, no one is poor, there’s no need for justice here because everything’s doing just fine.
I think the other problem is that the suburbs are built on this story about human potential—that if we can do something, we should. Why did you get a nicer car? Well, I could. Why did you move up to a bigger house? We found that we could do that. Shane talks about getting smaller and smaller until we take over the world. I think one of the stories we tell ourselves in the suburbs is that if we can do something, we should, and in fact, the call to be a radical follower of Jesus is much bigger than that. In other words, the call to follow Jesus is if we should do something, then we can. Often that changes the equation. So, we live out of balance with the world. We consume too much stuff in America, and that really causes all manner of injustice around the world.
How would you say those issues can be corrected? Will Samson: I think we need to commit to taking a longer time to solving the problems than to create them. That’s the first step. So we really have this belief that we can fix in three of four years problems that took a hundred years to create. And the problems of injustice around the world are part of a broad arc of human history that has a lot to do with Western civilization and our abuses in places like Africa and Asia. So I think one of the first things we need to do is commit to being in this for the long haul. You know, 40 Days of Purpose is great, but what we really need if we’re going to begin to solve the problems of injustice around the world is 40 years of purpose. You need to say, “The next 40 years I’m going to commit myself to these couple issues, and I’m going to work on them.”
Lisa Samson: Well, I think developing a theology of place would be huge. Because you’d get to know your neighbors, you’d be involved in their lives and they’d trust you. They’d trust you with their problems and the issues they’re dealing with. They’d trust you as a spiritual guide in your neighborhood, and you’re not going anywhere. And once that goes in play, you’d also set the example of, ‘Hey, we’re staying, we like it here, we’re not following that crazy myth that it will be better down the street in a bigger house. We’re staying here, and you know what? We’re providing the example that you can do it too, and you’re still OK. You’re not going to die; nobody’s going to think any less of you. When you get to be about 40, everybody will wish they’d made the same decisions you did, because you’ll be in a lot better spot, financially.’ So I think both of those really can be settled if people just stay put.
What resources (books, blogs, websites, organizations) do you suggest people check out to learn more about social justice issues?
Will Samson: We actually have a whole list of them at the back of the book. I’m always afraid to list one or two. There’s just so many. We’re huge fans of Children’s Hope Chest, out of Colorado. We’re actually very connected in with the Catholic Worker Movement. Even though I’m not a Catholic, we’re connected in with what they’re doing. That’s been part of what we’ve learned, as we started to engage with issues of justice, is we may be involved with people that are not necessarily even followers of Jesus. But if they’re doing justice work, we’ve sought to come alongside them and engage with what they’re doing. Not that the Catholic Workers are not following Jesus. We think we’re all following Jesus. We love what one is doing and especially their engagement with Bread for the World. I think that’s a really important conversation. And Oxfam is a very important conversation.
Lisa Samson: This is the greatest website, it’s called VolunteerMatch.org. You go there, put in your zip code and it pops up all these volunteer opportunities in your area. Some ministries put stuff in there; you’ll get different social service-type things. And the great thing is you’ll get involved in your community, you’ll get to know people in your community, you can shine the light of Christ in their lives because a lot of these organizations aren’t necessarily Christian organizations, so you can, you know, be Jesus. And it’s right there in your neighborhood. And you can also put in a mileage thing, like within 25 miles of your neighborhood.
And sometimes there are little things. There’s a place called All God’s Children, right here in Lexington. And they take in women, unwed mothers and their children, their baby, and they teach them how to be good parents. I love crisis pregnancy centers because they get the baby born and I love that, but this is after that—it teaches them how to be good parents. I just checked, I check maybe once every other week, for small opportunities. They were doing a silent auction and were asking for baskets, and I put together a summer reading group basket with four of my books and tea and cheese straws, everything you’d need for a book club meeting. And so it’s little things like that, too, one-hit things. Or, you can adopt an elderly person and once a week you go and you take them shopping and you help them do their errands and stuff like that, and they assign you somebody. There’s, like, reading to the blind, all sorts of hospital stuff. Another good thing is tutoring, like English as a second language. The Bible is so clear about welcoming the alien among us, and so to help refugees and immigrants who come in, and help them to learn how to read. Instead of complaining, “Why don’t these people learn English?,” why don’t we teach them? If you really care that much about it, why don’t you go down and volunteer and help these people learn English?
I have great hope for the people in the suburbs, and the Christians in the suburbs. They’re nice, kind, generous people, and it would be wonderful if we could just see what we could do for the Lord and how we could change the world when we look outside of our lives and start to care about the people God cares about.