One Sunday night, Emily approached me as people were making their way out of our home. We’d gathered to worship and share cake with a sister in celebration of one month of sobriety. As people trickled out to their cars with hugs and a few more jokes, Emily hung back with a look of frustration on her face. As I placed our community’s Christ candle back on its shelf, I noticed that Emily was waiting for me.
“Hey Em, ” I said, “it’s been nice having you to eat and pray with us these last couple of weeks.” She had only been showing up for a couple of weeks, but she seemed interested in what we were doing. I continued, “What’s on your mind? Something you wanna talk about?”
I figured it had something to do with Alan, with whom she had connected at one of her first meals with us. After a great conversation with Emily, Alan approached us about being ready to seek treatment and find better shelter. But Alan had relapsed after about 9 days clean. We were all disappointed, but this was the first time Emily had dealt with something like this.
Abruptly, as if she had stored the question away for a few days before letting it pop out in our living-room-turned-chapel, she asked, “It’s not as easy as I thought it was, is it?”
I won’t dare say that I knew what she was feeling in that moment, but my memory turned to the first time our work among the addicted broke my heart. With a slow shake of my head, I sighed and answered her, “No. It hardly ever is.”
I worry that too many of us who proclaim the Way of Jesus in the face of the powers are over-confident about our ability to change things. We’ve learned from a combination of articles, books, pundits, sermons, Facebook posts, television shows, parents, and teachers (both formal and informal) that poverty, homelessness, addiction, and hunger are simple problems with simple solutions. We come with confidence and good intentions, believing we have something to offer brothers and sisters in desperate situations who are somehow different from us.
But each of us inevitably comes to the same place where Emily was, her hands on the other end of our altar cloth as we folded it together in my living room.
“It’s different—” Emily began before cutting off in a thoughtful pause. “It’s different when you know somebody—when it’s not just something to talk about.” With frustration showing at the edges of her eyes, she added, “I wish it was easier. I wish I knew exactly what to do and say and when to do it to really help.”
Every time I get to have this important conversation with someone, I find this to be the hardest moment. In so many ways, it’s the second heartbreak. Having been disappointed by someone else’s bondage, a wounded soul asks me to replace her busted confidence with a promise that it gets easier. I know she wants me to say something like, “Well, the secret to working among the marginalized is…” or “When you’ve prayed for somebody to get clean, all you have to do to make it happen is…”
But, all I could say in that moment when Emily wished it was easier was, “We all do, sister. We all do.”
In Emily’s case, we got to talk about just how complicated it is. We talked about how homelessness and poverty are not so much problems of material resources as they are relationship problems. We talked about why we say that relationships and consistent presence are foundational in what we do. We talked about the blistering chains of addiction and brothers and sisters still in bondage even after many attempts at liberation.
I made Emily a promise that I try to make to anyone who comes to the hard moment where their confidence lies bleeding on the altar of God’s work:
I promise you that if you keep serving alongside us, your heart is going to be broken time and again because a relationship isn’t real until you hurt when they hurt and celebrate when they celebrate.
But, I also promise you that in each of those moments of frustration and heartbreak, we’ll stand next to you and hold you up—because our relationship with you isn’t real until we hurt when you hurt and celebrate when you celebrate.
And Jesus promises that he will stand next to you as well, saying like he did with the cross that a relationship isn’t real until you hurt when others hurt and celebrate when they celebrate.
It seems that nearly all of us come to this work with false confidence—knowing exactly how to fix poverty, homelessness, addiction, hunger, and other injustices and evils. But we find that we have to lay our confidence at the foot of the cross and commit ourselves to loving first and understanding later.
Answers don’t come easy, but our calling is simple: to love our neighbor and to love God. The beautiful thing is that when God sends us back to our community, God sends us with something to replace our shattered confidence. Jesus offers us a hope nourished and sustained by other heartbroken sisters and brothers who are learning to trust a God who calls first and explains later.
Our confidence may wither and break, but, as Scripture promises, “hope does not disappoint us.”