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Underside the Mountain: Listening to a City’s Marginalized

While at a church planting conference in Montreal, I was able to explore the city for a day. I visited some drop-ins for those experiencing homelessness and, while eating lunch, I met a man. He was a true Montrealer whose family was from Ecuador. His head was adorned with long, curly hair; his body was adorned with style. He wanted to give me a tour of the city while on his bottle-picking route. I decided to take him up on his offer. We walked together for the day and I was able to experience the city from a powerful perspective – its hidden underside. 

In this kind of situation what does it look like to truly help someone?

In his book, Toxic Charity, Lupton gives a helpful Oath for Compassionate Service which seeks to reduce the harm inflicted by sincere acts of charity. Here is the oath:

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said—unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm.  (1)

I did my best to follow this oath when it came to my Montreal guide. I attempted to listen closely to what he wanted. Thankfully he was very clear, articulate and emotionally intelligent: he wanted company. He adamantly told me to not help him picking bottles: “don’t help. Just watch”. He was more than capable of doing it himself. I was to be his pupil (and occasional coat hanger) and he was the teacher. I tried to offer him money for his time and wisdom, but he refused. He didn’t want any money or anything I had for he “earned his own way through life.” Since this was what he wanted, I gave up as much time as I could to him, subordinating my own self-interests. He even bought me a coffee. We talked about Montreal, his life and God. He told me a story of when he was camping at a church. The Pastor came out of the back door and my guide said, “good evening”. The Pastor closed the door without a word. My guide ended the story saying, “there are many homeless people more generous than ‘Christians’”. 

This was painful for me to hear. It is hard to imagine a church in which people experiencing homelessness feel safe from harm and are viewed as an asset and gift to the community.

It is difficult to accept other cultures – ethnic or socio-economic – without allowing our own to swallow others up. Miroslav Volf argues that we need both proper belonging and distance to our culture. (2) To make this point he takes the work of Ralph Premdas who studies church adherence to culture. Premdas argues that despite great effort most churches merely reflect and perpetuate cultural norms especially in times of conflict. In response Volf argues that we need to depart our culture without leaving it. We should have a sense of belonging to our culture and celebrate the good gift it is: culture itself has been caught up in the redemption of Jesus’ body on the cross and in the resurrection. At the same time, we should also possess an “internal distance” to it. We separate ourselves enough from our culture in order to make space for the other and to critically judge that which has become corrupted and evil within it. This also requires accountability from those outside our culture. Like Lupton, Volf argues that we must “listen to the voices of Christians from other cultures so as to make sure the voice of our culture has not drowned out the voice of Jesus Christ”. This, I believe, can apply to both ethnic and class cultures. Listening requires a certain humility and the release of power to give a privileged space for the other to speak. 

As my guide took me through the city, I heard his strength and resilience, but I also heard his pain. The more bottles we picked, the more we stopped to buy cheap liquor. He even gave me money to go into stores which refused to sell to him. I was quite uncomfortable with this request and quite unsure of what was the best way to help. I did it once and I am still not sure if that was a good and holy act. Nor am I sure if my discomfort came from my closeness to the gospel or my lack of distance to my culture. The more he drank the more he told me about his deep loss, grief, and shame. The more I listened. 

After my time with this man, I can’t help but wonder if and how the mainstream church could embrace this offspring of God, our King. I can’t help but wonder what the voice of Jesus was and is speaking through my time in the underside of Montreal.  

(1) Robert Lupton. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) (HaperCollins Publishers, 2011), 128.
(2) Miroslav Volf. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press, 1996), 37, 39, 51, 52, 54.

Photo by sebastien cordat on Unsplash

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