by Carole Reardon
“Faith without works is dead,” we are told in James, and I would argue work without faith is equally dead, though it has taken me many years to understand the lesson.
We were a medium-sized parish without deep pockets or endowments, only the Parish Administrator stretching the dollars that came in so far one could hear them screaming as they just about covered our expenses. Unrest in the larger communion and the imminent retirement of our long-term, much-beloved Rector had made our financial picture more than usually austere, and I was tired from the work day when we held our regular monthly Vestry meeting. Tired and deeply troubled in my personal life I suppose I was simply in no mood to entertain new, expensive ideas. Unfortunately, I was also bereft of words to explain why my reaction was so visceral at the time.
One of my brother Vestry-ites proposed we join the Diocese in a multi-year commitment doing mission work in a lush Central American locale, with the Diocese underwriting our expenses the first three years on a diminishing scale, with our parish becoming self-funding thereafter. The stated purpose was building a library for local children – a noble goal – but the larger purpose was what sat so ill with me: as an opportunity for the adults in the congregation to participate in mission trips.
“We have adult mission opportunities; what about Navajoland? We go every year. We go to the homeless shelter every month and always need people. There is CCA, Pedia-Place, lots of stuff here for adults to do and they don’t cost so much money.”
“We’re looking for something…. A bit more appealing.” There it was, there was the thorn in my side. I forget what I said next, probably an arch and utterly tactless, “More appeeeealing” with a sardonic cock of the eyebrow. I think I might have said something about the need of bribing people to do God’s work with a mission trip where “… verily, it shall be fun, with snorkeling and fine dining opportunities in the off-hours…” and just where was that passage the Gospels? In the end I abstained from the vote.
Years later and across the country in another parish, I got the second part of my lesson, because Holy Spirit likes to parcel things out to me in bite-sized pieces I can digest. Every Saturday, one of a loose confederation of churches across many denominations feeds the homeless of Columbia, South Carolina a meal of hot dogs, chili, fruit, and dessert from the parking lot of a downtown law firm. Like the folks back home in Texas who have gone faithfully to Navajoland for over 20 years, they have built relationships with the people and know most by name, how they came to be on the streets, have a fair idea of what mental health, physical disabilities, or substance issues they have, and they know the ones too who say nothing at all, but take the food from outstretched hands and disappear until the following Saturday.
One Saturday, a group who had served this mission for years got to talking about a homeless couple who touched their hearts: a young woman, disabled after a horrific accident and her husband, clinging to a low-wage job and desperate to get his wife off the streets. They’d ended up living out of their old car after a string of those misfortunes financially annoying to most of us, but catastrophic in the lives of the working poor. For a variety of reasons, not least of which was bewilderment of the oft-times labyrinthine avenues to assistance, they fell through the cracks between the various philanthropic and governmental agencies who help the poor and homeless.
As the group talked, they began coming up with ideas: one knew of an old mobile home that with a few repairs could be made livable and available cheap to the couple; another, retired, offered transportation and advocacy for the young woman at some necessary doctor’s appointments to qualify her for public assistance; still another offered legal services, assisting the man in resolving old fines in another state preventing him from getting better-paid work. As they told me the story, they all suddenly looked at each other with a realization they were onto something new. There were concrete actions within their powers that could get at least some of the homeless they saw every week off the streets. They formed a sort of task-force and a whole new, adult mission was born that Spring day in a parking lot in Columbia, South Carolina.
(And here, dear Reader, indulge my over-active imagination in which I’ve always seen the worn, calloused hand of Holy Spirit switching on the enormous light bulb floating above their collective heads.)
They let me tag along to a lunch meeting some weeks later and over our Asian fusion I listened, fascinated, as they discussed the progress they were making. The couple was no longer on the streets but ensconced in the now-habitable mobile home and while not an ideal solution, it had hot and cold running water and beat living out of the car; the woman had been to the doctor with her mission-team advocate, and benefits would start some few weeks hence; a new battery had been installed in their old car; work boots had been secured for the man. It was a good start but there is still much work ahead of them, not least of which is helping this couple learn to think like “regular” people again; time on the streets does things to people, and it’s a long road to recovery. Additional candidates have been identified, and the team is creating a template of their work so that this mission can move forward in time and location.
This is what they taught me: faith without works is dead, and work without faith is dead, but one cannot force faith, or works. It’s organic, feeding both servant and those served. It’s broccoli and dessert, if you will. What sat so badly in my gut those many years ago was the perceived necessity of making the Work somehow palatable to those who would, or should do it. The Work is all around us, all the time, and it is deeply un-sexy stuff like lifting the poor out of poverty, feeding the homeless, and yes, building libraries, too, but we needn’t force it, or put icing on it. The best Work, it seems to me, is the unexpected work presented by Holy Spirit, sometimes in a parking lot while dishing out hot dogs and chili.