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The Person in Front of Me

Mother Teresa once said this: “I do not believe in the big way of doing things. I only believe in the person in front of me.”

Those words shape the life my wife Diane and I live. Eight years ago, we left a large church in a wealthy part of Aurora (part of the Denver metroplex) to go to the poorest part of Aurora and serve among the broken. No plan. We just went.

The title of this blog series, Justice & Mission: Good News for All, evokes things in me. I think about righting wrongs, advocating for justice, leaning into politics and policy to make a difference among the broken. Big things to make big changes. 

I call our friends “the other 1%.” They are the bottom 1% of our culture, poor in every sense of the word, the lowest of the low. Mental illness, addiction, sex work, drug-dealing, violence, lack of housing, hopelessness, and relational pain defines their lives. Their life grinds them down.

Jesus was clear to us—our call was to focus on our broken, battered and beautiful friends

Jesus called us to love our new friends, but we weren’t clear how to. Two  pathways were ahead of us. We could have leaned into bigger things—programs, advocacy, policy. All aimed at changing a system and ultimately changing our friends’ lives. 

Or, we could start with the people who are trapped in this world. Here the accent is on the person, not the system, not the programs.

Both approaches are needed. After eight years of living in the middle of poverty, I am grateful for anyone who wants to make a difference, regardless of the strategy they choose. 

That said, Jesus was clear to us—our call was to focus on our broken, battered and beautiful friends, not on systems and programs. Just our friends. The person in front of us. 

That message has been constant for eight years. We formed Jesus on Colfax Ministries (JOC). Others came to join us in the work, many volunteers and a small staff. We have made friends, hundreds of them. We listen to their stories, love them as best we can, help as we can. Jesus’ message was and is, simple: Show up and love people. Build friendships with them. Love the person in front of you. Listen to their story. Help them pursue shalom.

If we look at Micah 6:8 with its stunning call to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God,” are we “only” doing mercy?

As JOC has grown, Mother Teresa’s words guide us.  We love the person in front of us. We are grateful for others who focus on larger issues and partner as we can. But at heart, our focus is the person in front of us—this beautiful person. 

Is that doing justice? If we look at Micah 6:8 with its stunning call to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God,” are we “only” doing mercy?

While mercy and justice do have distinct differences, they are but two faces of one heart for the broken. Still, I believe that loving the person in front of me is more than mercy. It is doing justice. Why? Because the great injustice that lies at the heart of our friends lives is this: They do not feel as though their lives matter. They don’t believe it inside themselves and the world reinforces that. “You don’t matter.” 

That is unjust. They do matter, they are valuable, they are created in the image of God. No program, no political advocacy, no strategic approach can by itself resolve that injustice. They learn of their own value, most of the time, in a face-to-face encounter where they are loved by Jesus’ people. Someone focused on them as the person in front of them.

We start there. But again we learn from Mother Teresa. Her love for the person in front of her led to a world-wide organization that served her friends in broader ways—schools, orphanages etc. She did big things. 

So too for us. Our focus on the person in front of us now leads us to larger things—programs that deepen impact, issues to address, places to advocate. 

But it all starts here. We love the person in front of us. 

Don't miss a post in this series! Justice & Mission: Good News for All

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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