Issue: Fall/Winter 2012
Kate Ambrose '08
I’ve been wrestling recently with a variety of texts, conversations and narratives in order to come to a place of greater understanding regarding the historic figure of Jesus. Much to my own surprise, a fascination with the implications of emulating someone who “became word and flesh and moved into the neighborhood” has failed to lead me to the colorfully crowded, heartbreaking alleys of Mumbai’s red light district, as I initially anticipated upon my barefoot departure from Wesley Chapel’s commencement stage in 2008.
With a dual degree in English and intercultural studies in one pocket and a burning curiosity about this Jesus so poignantly described in Eugene Peterson’s translation of John’s gospel, I found myself researching and applying to a variety of faith-based community development organizations several years after graduation, eagerly awaiting my arrival in an exotic world known as… Houston? I moved into inner-city Houston in 2010 in partnership with Mission Year, participating first as a team member and then as associate staff in 2011; intentional community, neighborhood outreach, simplicity, Christian discipleship, integration of faith with the arts and active service are some of the key components to their year-long urban ministry program. While Texas certainly was not the original destination of my dreams, this fall marks the start of my third year calling this place “home” – and I couldn’t imagine a more diverse, humbling and altogether dynamic locale to tangibly encounter the promise of Emmanuel, God not just for us but with us.
The problems of “the poor” are no longer limited to hierarchical interactions in the controlled environment typical in a 9 to 5 volunteer position, however compassionate or well-meaning that role may be. Instead, beloved Miss Pearlie and I talk every morning on the way to work as we wait together for the always tardy 52 bus. I listen with tears running down my face to the raw mixture of grief and joy in my homeless friend Angie’s voice as she tells me the birth story of her daughter, Hope, while the Harris County Jail’s scratched plexiglass wall separates her outstretched palm from my own. Marcelina’s experience in cooking for the three generations of family members acts as a constant guide for me when I attempt to plot out relatively nutritious meals for our own household of six on a shared grocery budget of 82 cents a meal per person. I swap jokes with Old Man Willie while waiting in line for an available laundry machine at the cigarette smoke-filled washeteria around the corner. Tiny arms wrap themselves around my leg and, to my helpless horror, we watch my neighbor’s house disappear in a cloud of orange flame and black plumes three blocks down. This urban community is now home, and “their” has become translated into the tangible reality of “our.”
A good deal of the shine has definitely worn off those untested daydreams conjured up by my sophomore self during Paul Shea’s missiology lectures. I think I’m finally beginning to realize, however, that the process is just as valuable as the outcome when it comes to grasping hold of and bringing to life some of the profoundly mysterious, transformative and altogether relevant truths relayed by Jesus. “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” He instructs His followers, “and love your neighbor as yourself.” Here’s the thing: the steady rivulet of tears and snot running down my next-door neighbor’s face as she bawls into her open beer can and bemoans the infidelity of her abusive boyfriend for the fifth night in a row is not a particularly beautiful sight. Savoring the sacredness of human relationship is the last thought on my mind when a co-worker at the local community center where I work forgets to replace the toilet paper roll for the umpteenth time, leaving me fuming with annoyance. When the ever-present Houston heat is pounding off the pavement into sandaled feet already swollen with mosquito bites from yesterday’s walk to the bus stop, it seems almost impossible to feel loving toward anyone, let alone toward homeless Mr. “Bushwhacker” as he throws a string of spit-drenched nonsensical words into my face with no apparent provocation. And when I come after a long day of ups and downs spent with some of the Latino youth and homeless individuals in our community, hoping to collapse into the blessed oblivion of our large sofa only to find that our already small living room is buried underneath a mountain of debris, dirty clothing, books and other discarded objects, a grateful “hallelujah!” is not the first word that teeters on the edge of my mouth.
As philosopher-turned-activist Simone Weil once observed, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I flip through the pages of the Gospels and I see this deceptively simple, astoundingly profound gift shared with heartbroken prostitute, eager parent, dying criminal, inconspicuous widow, sanctimonious priest, suspicious city official and incorrigible child alike. Jesus recognizes hunger and partakes in both the giving and receiving of sustenance. Treks on steep, winding roads and boat-cluttered beaches become invitational moments to share stories and delve into the meaning of life-changing mysteries. Hands are grasped, feet are washed, men hidden in trees are noticed and the one crouched down low in the dust is embraced. “Jesus became word and flesh, and moved into the neighborhood” – and it is in this messy, ordinary, sacred sharing of life with all of its small tragedies and simple joys and unexpected gifts that transformation begins to take place.
So. I’m learning. I’m learning how to throw back my head in helpless laughter before building a pyramid out of the empty rolls on the back of the toilet when the T.P. goes missing. I’m learning how to ask for forgiveness and take ownership of my own times of forgetful sloppiness, how to be a prophetic voice calling out the goodness, kindness and creativity I see buried deep within my neighbor, how to navigate the deeply rewarding but unceasing demands of the non-profit world, how to be both a recipient and a giver of welcome to the stranger, how to value relationships more than an uncluttered living space — yes, all of this and more. I’m learning not because it’s inherent within my nature or because it’s easy and glamorous or because I’m any further along than anyone else on this journey; I’m learning because Jesus is asking me to do as He does. I’m learning because I have to.