My wife Kathy and I took the plunge four years ago. We moved into town. But I’m coming to see I had it backward. God plunged us into a world I knew little about.
In 2013, God moved Clapham Institute to the historic district of Annapolis. Our address is College Avenue but it’s really homeless highway. We live at the intersection of white folk (like me) and homeless people trapped in systemic poverty. They see big house, so they think big money. They knock on our door asking for food, bus money, anything.
People trapped in systemic poverty lack access to basic needs like affordable housing, transportation, healthcare. Stripped of dignity, most beg. One woman didn’t four years ago. She knocked on our door. She was homeless. She wanted work.
At that time, she was living in a box. She was obese. She had open sores. We gave her work. Four years later, this woman is 100 pounds lighter. She’s no longer homeless. She’s become part of our family. But she’s still trapped in systemic poverty. She lacks access to basic needs like affordable transportation, healthcare, healthy food.
This is the world God plunged us into. Systemic poverty. It’s a world I knew little about. But it’s a world I’m beginning to identify with. I’m seeing how Kathy and I, on our own, lack sufficient resources to lift this woman out of systemic poverty.
The faith community also lacks the resources to end systemic poverty. An initiative this huge requires huge resources, private/public partnerships like the one I described last week. As best as I can tell, they’re not happening in US towns and cities.
I don’t fault the faith community. I don’t fault anyone. Annapolis is a trifurcated town. It has three cultures—Hispanic, African-American, white. Cultures are worn paths (Jeremiah 6:16; 18:15). The homeless travel a homeless highway. I travel a white highway. I hardly appreciated this until God placed us on the path of the homeless. Four years later, I’m beginning to identify with the homeless. I’ve come to feel some of what those trapped in systemic poverty feel. They want out. So would I.
There is a way out. It involves identifying and returning. We see these two in the Babylonian exile.
For centuries, the Judeans had hardly crossed paths with their neighbors. So God sent them into exile in Babylon. He put the Judeans in the Babylonians’ path. They were to “stand in the paths and see” (identify with the Babylonians) while asking God “for the old paths” that they needed to return to (Jer.6:16). God wanted the Judeans to live at the intersection of two paths—the Babylonians’ worn path and the Judean’s ancient one.
Older church traditions link these two in baptism. The word means to plunge, immerse, identify. It comes from the garment industry. When cloth was plunged—baptized—in a vat of dye, the newly dyed cloth was identified with the color of the dye. In older traditions, at the Easter vigil, the candle is plunged into the water. The candle is Jesus, the water the church. We who are baptized are the firstfruits of this passionate union. Two become one. God identifies with us, we with him—just like in marriage.
The gospel is about marriage (Hos.2:19; Eph.5:32). God created the entirety of humanity to be his Son’s Bride (“let us make them in our image”). The fall means everyone is not the bride. Yet every human life is sacred. Everyone deserves better than being trapped in systemic poverty. In baptism, we identify with the entirety of humanity.
I’m not saying move downtown. Move to an intersection. Kathy and I did this unaware four years ago. We took the plunge, but God plunged us into the homeless world. If you’ve been baptized, take the plunge, for baptism is “the pledge of a clear conscience toward God” (I Pet.3:21). People of good conscience don’t settle for alleviating the symptoms of poverty. They seek to abolish the systems creating it.
You can do it. Adopt an individual or a family trapped in systemic poverty. Identify with them. Seek to lift them out of systemic poverty. Discover how difficult it is. Discover why we must build civic coalitions to end systemic poverty. It can be done.