Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Climb

Last week as I was boarding a plane for Florida, where I was to embark upon a seven-day luxury cruise vacation, my best friend was boarding a plan for Delhi, India, where she and her husband were to spend a month visiting different slum communities. From day one of their marriage, they have intended to live and work in a slum somewhere in the world. This visit is a giant step forward in the long and prayerful process they have undertaken to become slum dwellers.

As I was cruising comfortably with my family, I prayed for safety and discernment for these friends as they traveled so far from home. As I pushed back half-eaten plates of food in the cruise ship’s dining room, the third dish of a four-course meal, I thought of what she might be eating with her new acquaintances in India. Something much simpler, I imagined, like the meals she once took every day during a Lenten commitment: only rice with beans and vegetables.

There are differences between her week of travel and mine, differences that make me a bit uncomfortable when I ponder them. And I don’t mention them to be self-deprecating or to be falsely modest about the woes of an (admittedly) spoiled girl.

I say these things here because they have helped me consider anew what role one’s social location plays in the pursuit of justice and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. I have often questioned what I can truly know about a thirst for justice when I was born into a safe, comfortable suburban home, and not into a slum or a refugee camp; what I can truly know when the color of my skin still affords me certain privileges; what I can know when I was born a third-generation Methodist in a country that has never questioned, targeted, or persecuted the faith my family and I claim.

But then, all the same are true of my friend (well, except that she’s Presbyterian). And she has never allowed her social location to confine her to a halfhearted, pigeonholed ministry because she can only be “relevant” in a white, upper middle class context. She crosses the boundary lines that are so often drawn by society because God calls her to love people…not just people who look like her, not just the ones she would only meet aboard a luxury cruise line.

I don’t think we all are called to the slums of India. I think I can work for justice in a neighborhood United Methodist Church in the States, even if it’s an upper class one. What my friend teaches me is that a justice-oriented minister refuses to be relegated (or relegate herself) to the strata of society into which she was born and feels most comfortable. A justice-oriented minister follows the call without hesitation or fear.

Last week our ship made a stop in Jamaica. My family elected to a tour one of the island’s waterfalls. We were promised a rocky climb to the top, 600 feet above our entry point into the river bed. The water was cold and crystal clear. The adventure reminded me of the famous Amos (cookie anyone?) passage:

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (5:24).

This verse often has connotations of babbling brooks and peaceful currents. But Abraham Heschel notes in The Prophets that the movement implied here is of a mighty, powerful, and restless force. I saw that power in the waters of Jamaica. Our group had to follow a trained guide, one who knew where we could safely step, to get to the top. We were instructed to grasp hands and pull one another up, rock by rock. I believe that’s the force of justice God envisions, one in which we all are required to climb upward together. I sometimes find myself only idling in the tranquil waters at the base of the falls, lulled by the safety and familiarity. Yet I know that the quest for justice should involve some discomfort—a few murky steps into the tide, a slap in the face by a surging wave: these inevitably accompany a step outside what's comfortable. 

I trust in God’s guidance for those first wary steps out of the calm waters. I have seen how God is leading my friends halfway around the world to India. More and more I am reminded to look at my own journey and see how and where God is leading me. What is so hard for me to grasp, though I am trying every day to do so, is that ministry is less about the cruise and more about the climb. 

Whitney Pierce is a third year Master of Divinity student at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, GA. She is a certified candidate for ministry as a deacon with the United Methodist Church. 

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