The Posture Of Christian Servanthood
(by George D. Beukema)
[Adapted from STORIES FROM BELOW THE POVERTY LINE by George Beukema {Herald Press, 2001} by permission of the publisher. To order go to: ]

6-13-2001 SOW Seeds Service of the Church Within
Story #140

Greetings my Dearest Sisters and Brothers, and welcome again to Church Within's Story of the Week ["SOW Seeds]

This week's SOW Seeds Story #140, contributed by: Fred Harris

Story of the Week
“The Posture Of Christian Servanthood ”
(by George D. Beukema)

It was during a church board meeting that they stormed into the room demanding answers. Unsure as to why the group of Lathrop residents would be making such a fuss, I asked the reason for their visit.

"It's about this Lifelines program. They've been here before, you know. They come in here and tell us what's wrong with our children and our neighborhood. We heard you're working with them. Is that right?"

Because we had come to Chicago eager to serve, we were excited when the people from Lifelines, a social service organization, came to the church with their proposal. Knowing our church was well known and respected in the Lathrop Homes community, they saw us as an effective conduit for their program to help the many young girls of Lathrop who were vulnerable to pregnancy.

While it is difficult for an outsider to understand why a girl of 11, 12, or 13 would choose to engage in sexual activity or refrain from taking protective measures against pregnancy, there are reasons. First, sex feels good and when there is so much that feels bad, it is no small thing to feel good, even if for only a few moments. Second, when you live in a system like public housing and rarely have control over your life, being in control of something - anything - has great appeal, especially when that something is a precious little baby. Third, along with a child may come a public assistance check.

While I have never known a mother to get rich on public assistance, a young woman achieves a certain status and feels a sense of accomplishment when she is able to get her own check and perhaps even move into her own apartment. The desire for independence is no stranger to any youth, rich or poor.

These are powerful forces. I figured that the quality of life at stake for the many young girls in Lathrop was worth a fight.

Though stunned by our community guests' interruption, I decided to throw aside Robert's Rules of Order and move this matter to the top of our church board's agenda. I explained to our guests that after talking with the social service organization in question, we planned to allow them use of our facility to launch a pregnancy prevention program for the teenage girls in our neighborhood.

Mrs. James, the community's matriarch, spoke first. "So where does the money come from for this program? And where is the money they are bringing into our community going to end up - in the pockets of the people of this community or in the pockets of a bunch of do-good social workers?" (The truth is, most social service dollars find their way into the pockets of white professionals who rarely live in the communities they serve. In fact, social service money often leaves the "client community" as fast as it comes in.)

"And what's their plan for pregnancy prevention?" another community person demanded. "Are they going to tell our children that they better just close their legs and get good grades, or are they going to help us get some new books in our school and some new teachers who really care about our kids?" (Ninety-eight percent of the Lathrop children attend a school still using books from the 1970s. Furthermore, fear of the community prevents many teachers from getting involved in the lives of the children.)

When I saw the elders and deacons of the church board nod their heads in agreement, I knew that we had made a mistake.

We come to the Scriptures with a hermeneutic - a framework for interpreting what we read. Similarly, we come to a community with a hermeneutic - a framework for interpreting what we see.

What then is our community hermeneutic? How do we view the community we seek to serve?

In THE CARELESS SOCIETY, sociologist John McKnight distinguishes between the ways a good servant and a bad servant view a community. The bad servant views a community primarily in terms of its needs or deficiencies and fails to recognize that the power to label people as "needy" or declare them "deficient" is the basic tool of control and oppression.

Obscured by the mask of love and care, professional service providers sell their commodities of assistance exactly as marketers sell other products. They portray needs in ways that are marketable to the sensibilities of donors. (How easy it is to sell poverty-relief programs with pictures of bloated- belly destitution.)

Three disabling effects result from the way service professionals market needs. First, a need is depicted as a deficiency rather than a condition, a right, or an obligation of another. Second, rather than placing the problem in its full social context, the situation is depicted as a lack on the part of the client. Third, the deficiency is defined in such a way as to direct the response toward professionalized service and away from the resources of residents and their community.

Within this kind of system, clients are treated less as persons in need and more as persons needed by the system. The service provider then seeks to manufacture needs to expand the budget of the servicing system.

Well-meaning Christians are vulnerable to making the same mistake. It is tempting to view poor communities through the lens of a deficiency hermeneutic. Christians then become the "full pitcher" on a mission to pour help into an "empty bucket." This perpetuates a dependency model of service in which we, the supposed experts, come into a poor community to define its needs and create programs to keep it dependent on our services. The system has a devastating effect on these communities.

By contrast, the good servant brings a hermeneutic that casts persons and communities in the light of their gifts and resources. The good servant does not use Christ's call to servanthood as a way to dominate and control. The good servant's call is not to be simply a provider of goods and services, but rather a missionary of mutuality.

A Lathrop Homes resident and member of the Church of the Good News gives this testimony: One of the most meaningful things about Good News is the recognition given to the gifts of the people of this community. Those of us who live in the "projects" are often overlooked in that respect. [This] church offers what social service organizations don't offer. To these organizations, people are just numbers and just people with needs. We don't assign numbers here. And people aren't seen as a bunch of "problems" walking around. This is a place where you have a name and a purpose. You are recognized for what you have and not for what you lack. I'm doing things now in this church and in our community that if someone seven or eight years ago told me I'd being doing I'd say, "Yeah, right." Now I'm president of the music school! I'm learning so much about God and myself. And I'm learning how to seek out the gifts in others.

A capacity hermeneutic affirms the God-given gifts, knowledge, resources, and wisdom of all peoples and communities, bearing witness to the holiness of all God's creatures and creation. A capacity hermeneutic skirts the temptation of locating the brokenness of a community within the confines of personal failures and shortcomings of the residents and makes room for a broader, more systemic understanding of sin. A call to listen to one's community makes absolutely no sense at all if the community is viewed as having nothing valuable to say.

Listening for truth and correction "from below" may seem backwards, but we must consider how Jesus constantly got things backwards. He said that to be strong, we must become weak and to find life, we must lose it.

Mark 9:33-35 shows Jesus getting it backwards once again. Teaching his disciples a lesson on greatness, he says that to be first they must be last. Then, in verses 36-37, he enacts a parable by bringing a child into their circle. "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me," he says, "and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

A child has no pretensions to greatness. A child is unassuming. This is the posture of Christian servanthood.

The Prayer
Dear God,
        Remind me of this story the next time I think I have gotten something backward and it's really the way You wanted it in the first place.

You ALL are Within the Infinitely Loving Embrace of our Universal Parent,

The Creator's Eternal Love to all of You,
Pastor Daniel

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