When I was in my early twenties, I grew weary of sharing space and I decided that I wanted an apartment all to myself, despite the fact that I couldn’t really afford an apartment all to myself. But I was determined and that’s how I ended up living in a very rough neighborhood in the east end of Vancouver. My parents weren’t’ very happy about the neighbourhood and worried about the unsavory characters that lived in the run-down building where I found a spacious one bedroom apartment that I could just about afford. The apartment was just a couple of blocks away from the office where I worked, so I was able to walk to work. I ignored all the warnings of my family and friends and I convinced myself that I could handle anything that came my way.
In my heart of hearts I was rather pleased to be living in such a poor rough and tumble neighbourhood. I was young and foolish and the neighbourhood was exciting. Every Sunday I would make the trip back to my home church in the suburbs. Sometimes I would make a second trip out during the week to attend a Bible study. Like so many young people, I was harsh in my criticisms of the elaborate life-styles of my elders. At bible studies, I was always bringing up the plight of the poor and the oppressed and challenging people to do something. Various members of my own family often accused me of being a bleeding heart liberal. I wore their criticism with a certain amount of pride, convinced that I was living out my beliefs.
Although I walked to work each day, I didn’t know any of my neighbours, until one morning I was surprised by a knock on my apartment door. I wondered how anyone would get past the lock on the front door. So, I peered through the peephole and was relieved when I saw a young woman at my door. I unbolted the door and in swept Brenda. Brenda was all smiles and laughter as she explained that she and her roommates were out of coffee and she wondered if I might be able to lend them some coffee. When I explained that I had just used up the last of my coffee making my own morning brew, Brenda told me not to worry, she and her roommates would be happy to join me. When Brenda returned, she introduced her roommates, Janice and Sue and we all sat down together for our morning coffee.
Over the course of the next few weeks I ended up entertaining the women from across the hall a lot. Brenda, Janice and Sue spent almost as much time in my apartment as they did in their own. I learned that they worked in the evenings. From the way they dressed, I just assumed that my new friends worked in a bar or a nightclub. It would be several weeks before I realized just how my neighbours made their money. Brenda, Janice and Sue were prostitutes. They worked the streets at night. By the time I realized who my friends were they were already regular visitors to my home. So I decided that rather than act like a prude, I would just pretend that there was nothing unusual about the way my friends made their living. So Sunday after Sunday, I would head out to the suburbs and attend church with my old friends and then return home and together with my new friends, I would cook Sunday dinner and spend the evening swapping stories. I often wondered what my parents or the members of my church would think of my neighbours. In my heart of hearts, I hoped that I would never have to find out. I didn’t want my parents to meet my neighbours and I never mentioned my neighbours to my friends at church.
Brenda, Janice and Sue challenged all my assumptions about prostitutes. Not that we talked much about how they made their living. We talked more about their hopes and dreams than we did about their lifestyle. One afternoon, Sue dropped by and she began to rant and rave. Sue screamed that she was sick and tired of the way people lived. Something had obviously upset her, and I assumed that it had something to do with how Sue made her living. She demanded to know if I had been to the park lately. I told her that I walked through the park every day on my way to work. Sue demanded to know how I could stand it. I explained that it wasn’t so bad if you just watched your step. Sue’s ranting was elevated to a fevered pitch, “Watch your step! How can you walk through there? The place is a mess!”
I agreed that the park wasn’t up to the usual city standards. Sue insisted that something had to be done. I couldn’t quite understand why Sue was so upset and so I decided to go into the park for a closer look. When I got there I noticed the usual amount of garbage strewn about the place. There were several drunks and addicts lingering and some children playing in the playground. It looked like any other park in a run down part of a city. I headed home, convinced that Sue was just having a bad day.
Brenda intercepted me at her front door and informed me that she and Sue had gathered together a few people and they were going to do something about the mess in the park. I was instructed to meet them the following afternoon at the entrance to the playground. The next day, I arrived at the playground before the others. There were about twenty children playing on the dilapidated equipment. I went in, and for the first time, I took a very careful look around. The kids looked ok. They seemed happy enough playing. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Then I reached the sandbox and I saw tow little boys digging in the dirt and my heart sank. From where I was standing I could see three used hypodermic needles. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do and as I stood there, Sue, Brenda, Janice and several familiar faces from the neighbourhood showed up with gloves and bags.
Brenda handed me a pair of gloves and a bag and without comment this unlikely crew of ours began collecting up the used needles, the broken bottles, and the used condoms. As I collected those things that threatened the health of children that I did not know an overwhelming sense of shame washed over me. I had walked through the park every day on my way to work and even though I thought of myself as some sort of do-gooder type, even though I fancied myself as a good, upstanding citizen, I had either failed to see, or refused to see the plight of my neighbours. But not Brenda, not Janice and definitely not Sue.
Brenda, Janice and Sue are women whom society deems as untouchable. They are part of the mass of untouchables who we have judged as somehow unworthy of our consideration. Oh most of us wouldn’t be harsh in our judgments. We’re good upstanding concerned citizens and we wouldn’t intentionally harm a flea. But intentionally or not, we would ignore them. Our lives are busy and they live in their world and we live in ours and never the twain shall meet.
The trouble is that our failure to notice people whose lives we have so nonchalantly judged lets us ignore all sorts of people whom, although we are far too nice to actually come out and say it, we probably think we are better than. Oh sure, there are more than a few of us who wouldn’t be so harsh as to judge them. But we’d certainly agree that, there but for the grace of God go we. We might allow as how, if only the circumstances were better those people might not have gotten into such a mess and tut, tut over the governments lack of action.
Living in the east end of Vancouver, I got to know all sorts of people who where doing whatever it takes to survive. Brenda, Janice and Sue, were making the best of a bad situation. Although their way of surviving might seem offensive so some, they do care about each other and about their neighbours. I learned a great deal from these women about how to see beyond my own nose. They also taught me a good deal about humility. Brenda, Sue and Janice were good friends to me. Like many good friends, I lost touch with them after I left the neighbourhood. But my encounters with Brenda, Sue and Janice changed me. They changed me and they changed a city. You see after that first clean-up, about twice a week, a group of us would show up to clean up the park. Eventually we managed to shame the city into doing the job. It may not seem like much, but in a forgotten part of Vancouver, there was at least one playground that it was safe for some forgotten children to play.
If we are waiting for Jesus to float down on a fluffy could and sashay up to us and say, “Follow me”, well, we’ll be waiting for a very long time. If you’re looking for thunderbolts and clear directions before you get stuck in, you’re going to be waiting for a very long time. Don’t get me wrong, Christ is calling each and every one of us to come and follow, to roll up our sleeves and get down to the work of ushering in God’s reign of justice and peace. But, Christ doesn’t come to us as a longhaired, bearded guy, from the Galilee. Christ comes to us in guise of our neighbours, calling us to come and see, look over there do you see, look the children aren’t safe. The children have no safe place to play. Look, look closely and you will see an empty cupboard, there’s nothing for them to eat. Listen, listen and you will hear mothers crying, fathers weeping as silently as they are able. They’re working as hard as they can, but they just can’t catch a break. They don’t want a hand out. They don’t want to have to ask for help, but they’re at their wits end. While we ask ourselves, “What can we do?” “How can we help?” “What should we do?” “How can we make a difference?” “Which way should we go?” Our neighbours are calling out to us: “Here we are.” “Over here.” “We’re right here.” “Help us.”
Christ is calling to each and every one of us: “Drop your nets, leave what you are doing. Follow me and I will show you how to help. There’s so much to be done. You won’t believe how long your neighbours have been waiting for you. You can’t begin to imagine how big a difference you can make.” Christ’s call wells up deep inside of us. It’s that uneasy feeling we get when we see injustice. You know the feeling I mean, the one that makes us uncomfortable; the feeling we so often ignore or put off to some other time.
Christ’s call also comes from “those people;” the people we usually are able to ignore. Don’t wait for the bells and whistles of a heavenly encounter with a guy from Galilee. Look closely and you will see Christ over there, just down the street, and listen carefully and you will hear Christ biding you to come, come and help. Following Christ to usher in the Reign of God is not nearly as complicated as we like to think. It’s as simple as rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in. It’s as simple as reaching out one neighbour at a time and seeing in them the face of Christ.
There’s no time to waste fishing around for the perfect solution to end poverty. Follow Christ and you will find all sorts of opportunities to lift your neighbours, by simply offering a helping hand, or a willing smile, or a listening ear, or a warm meal. Christ is calling us. So come, let’s follow Christ wherever Christ leads. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get stuck in. Let us help to usher in God’s reign of justice and peace. Let us begin by noticing and listening to our neighbours.