Depending on its content, a simple piece of paper can have a significant impact on one’s life. For example, think of the importance of a birth certificate . . . a diploma . . . a marriage license . . . a medical report. My cross-training story involves some rather ordinary-looking sheets of paper with prayer requests written on them, and the surprising effect they’ve had on my journey of faith.
It started innocently enough with an invitation from Joe to check out the Friday Church service about 4 years ago. We had been members here for just a few months. From the moment I heard the pulsing rhythms and joyful clapping, I knew there was something special happening. Many folks in the room were in recovery programs. Some were homeless. An offering was taken, prayer requests were shared and scripture was read. The passing of the peace took a long time, because it seemed that everyone wanted to hug everyone else. The sermon, simple and eloquent, focused on God’s love and tender care for all. There was clearly something holy and real going on – God’s presence was palpable and I was completely hooked!
So I began attending and trying to connect with folks. Taking some baby steps into a world I knew little about. I wondered what I could offer, being so obviously white and middle-class. I mean seriously, how could this possibly work? But I soon discovered that our differences, though real, were actually just surface things, no deeper than the color of our skin. In the ways that truly matter, we were simply brothers and sisters. We all want to be accepted and valued as human beings, to be known and loved, as we’ve heard so beautifully this morning. We want healthy relationships. We have dreams for our children and ourselves. We all struggle to some degree with managing our lives and with addictions of various kinds. We all long to make a difference.
Wanting to make a contribution, I offered to do something practical: type the prayer requests shared each Friday night and e-mail them to folks in our community who would pray for them. It seemed simple enough, not too time-consuming or demanding. But as I typed and prayed for these requests, week after week, from our comfortable home in the east end, something was happening inside me, barely perceptible at first . . . but ultimately transforming. The requests were honest, raw and compelling. The people asked God for strength, for sobriety, for hope, to watch over their families, and to simply make it through another day. They thanked God for forgiveness, freedom, recovery and peace. These requests began to soften my heart and change my perspective in ways I hadn’t expected. My eyes were literally opening to the hurts and needs in our community and to my own self-centeredness. You know that scene when the Grinch finally understands the true meaning of Christmas and his heart swells to 3 times its normal size . . . that’s how it felt! And this transformation of Love continues!
No longer were these folks nameless and faceless, unknown people in need of acts of charity. They were people with stories and dreams of their own: Mary, from my hometown of Dayton. Frances, reaching her 1st year of sobriety. Eric, looking for purpose and hope. Jeannetta, starting back to school. And as Love has continued its work in us, these folks are becoming our friends, part of the Beloved Community. And this realization: in many ways, we are learning as much from them as they are from us; for theirs is a gritty, vibrant faith, borne of struggle and adversity that would leave many of us dissolved in fear. It is a beautiful dependence on God, not based on the illusion or the security of material wealth.
But make no mistake, this stuff is no picnic. It’s real life and people are hurting. Drug and alcohol abuse exact a heavy toll. It’s often messy and uncomfortable and difficult. You realize quickly that you can’t fix everything. You begin to understand how generations are affected by neglect and abuse. You see that systems of injustice and the cycle of poverty are not easily overcome. Your heart aches when your friend sinks back into self-destructive behavior and there’s nothing you can do about it, except pray. And you do pray. A lot.
Which brings me back to those prayer requests. At times, as we understand poverty in deeper ways, the needs can seem overwhelming . . . but the abiding joy is that our community holds these needs together, viewing them as holy, as opportunities to be Christ’s loving presence in the world. I’ll close with this wonderful quote from The Invisible, a book by Arloa Sutter, whom I met a few weeks ago at the urban ministry conference in Chicago. “God has a special place for the poor. The poor are where God lives. God, my friend, is with the poor. And God is with us if we are with them. This is not a burden. This is an adventure.” I’m so glad I get to share this journey and adventure with Highland! And by the way, l’d be glad to add you to the e-mail list for the Friday Church prayer requests . . .