I won't even try to describe all of the maddening details of finding a HUD apartment for a homeless, no-income family that consists of a mother, five kids under the age of nine, and a nurturing father. It suffices to say that after three weeks of slogging through that kind of absurdity and ugliness, I began to understand why the mother, our friend Jaleena, tried to kill herself when her original building got condemned. Even with all that, we barely managed an awful apartment, and by the time we did, most of the furniture Jaleena had left in the old place had been stolen by her former landlord.
So there I was last Saturday, along with our friend Kwami (the nurturing boyfriend), loading and unloading a truckload of secondhand bunk beds and bureaus, wondering how long my surgically-repaired ankles and arthritic hands would hold up. I could have found somebody else to do it, of course, but no one I trust enough to do it right. Strange as it sounds, moving donated furniture into a family's worn-out HUD apartment is a delicate job.
It wasn't about the furniture, after all. It wasn't about all the phone calls, waiting in line, sidewalk hot dogs, application fees, and driving all over town. That stuff is valuable sometimes, but it sure isn't enough to keep us here in this neighborhood on a bad day. No, the real job - the job that keeps us here - is about communicating genuine, garden-variety love to vulnerable, poor people who may feel that they aren't worthy of your interest, let alone your friendship.
To do that well, you can't act too cheerful about giving up your Saturday. On the contrary, you have to whine about the heat and swear out loud when your thumb gets crushed between the couch and the doorjamb, like you would if you were moving your sister's stuff. You take the beer if they offer it, and hint around if they don't. Either way, you let the guy know he'll be helping you move some of your stuff soon enough. There's a lot more to it than that, of course, but I can't really explain it to you. Nobody can. That's the problem.
These days I encounter lots of people who want to love poor people, just like Shane Claiborne or John Perkins or Dorothy Day or some other radical Jesus-follower they've heard of or read about. Some of them want to move to the inner-city, or to an African slum, or an Indian orphanage, or a Native American reservation. Others want to reach out right where they are. Either way, their enthusiasm for serving God's people in need is positively thrilling to me. And yet...my first instinct is to keep them away from Jaleena and Kwami.
Perhaps it would be easier for us to welcome these people if we were running a soup kitchen or a shelter, but we have no program standing between us and our neighbors here. We have no clients, after all, only friends, and given all the differences and fears and brokenness among us, keeping those friendships genuine is a tricky business indeed. I am often amazed at the beauty of our little fellowship, but I am always aware that it must be protected.
So then, forgive me if I complain about my sore ankles and aching hands, but then won't let anybody but Kwami help me with the furniture. It's my job after all, and I'm glad to have it.
P.S. For those of you looking for an update, Bobbie hasn't yet passed her truck driver's license test, but she hasn't given up on it either. It turns out she has four tries before she has to start all over again. Her school will keep working with her for as long that takes, but I still fear Bobbie's opportunity may be slipping away. Honestly, she's going to need more grace than I'm used to counting on. Pray for us.
Bart Campolo is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks, writes, and blogs (www.bartcampolo.com) about grace, faith, loving relationships, and social justice. Bart is the leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship (www.thewalnuthillsfellowship.org) in inner-city Cincinnati. He is also founder of Mission Year (www.missionyear.org), which recruits committed young adults to live and work among the poor in inner-city neighborhoods across the U.S., and executive director of EAPE, which develops and supports innovative, cost-effective mission projects around the world.