This past week, I and five other adults chaperoned twenty-eight high school students on a trip to Washington DC so that we could help feed people who are hungry. I never got to do things like that when I was growing up in the church…perhaps if I had I would not have been so eager to leave it. I think that what amazes me the most about this trip is that the youth spent a lot of time this past year working hard so that they could earn enough money to go somewhere and serve others. In the midst of school work, after-school activities, sports and family obligations, these young people still managed to find time to participate in a whole host of fund-raising activities – just so they could help people in need.
The purpose of the trip was to intentionally expose ourselves to the reality of poverty and homelessness in America. We really don’t see a whole lot of poverty here in SW Wisconsin; there is plenty of it of course, but in this part of the world poverty doesn’t sit on every available street corner like it does in our nation’s capital. In this part of the world we are not constantly reminded of the inequality and injustices that have subverted a large segment of our population. When all you are exposed to are small pockets of poverty, it makes it easy to believe that those who don’t have enough are somehow at fault for their circumstances. But when you see large numbers of people milling around because they have nowhere else to go; when you see large numbers of people walking in circles and talking to themselves because they are mentally unstable; when you see women holding babies and tending children who clearly don’t have a home to go to, the truth cannot be ignored. We are not taking care of each other.
But how do we do this? Throughout the week it became abundantly clear that it takes a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources to feed people and provide a bare minimum of services. Every day we went to new locations to help out. We packed food bags in distribution warehouses. We served meals. We served guests and broke bread with them. We did yardwork and housework for those who could no longer manage these chores. We did all of this for a week, but then it was time to go home with the nagging question: how do we take care of each other every single day?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that it is the obligation of the Church to remind the other entities (government, family, work, culture) of their role – that is, it is the job of the Church to remind systems to uphold justice. It is important that we show up and pitch in, but until we drill down to the root of the problem, i.e. systemic injustices, we are just putting band aids on what amounts to a hemorrhage.
Most people go to Washington DC to visit the sites and experience the excitement of being in the nation’s capital. Most people stay in nice hotels, eat in nice restaurants, and hire cabs to take them to visit the attractions. We slept on the floor of a church basement all week; we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we walked everywhere it was possible to walk. But at the end of it all, we still got to go home and resume our comfortable lives. Our experience was a choice; those who live in poverty have been stripped of their choices; for them, a choice between two kinds of cake is a big deal.
I’m afraid I came home with more questions than answers, but I am incredibly honored that I was able to participant in this experience with such amazing young people. And most importantly, I am very encouraged because these are the future generation who will be asking the hard questions soon enough. Hopefully they will be the ones to break through to the real heart of the matter where justice and righteousness prevail.