As Luke describes it in chapter 4, Jesus returned from 40 days in the desert in the power of the Spirit. He went through the country surrounding Galilee teaching in the synagogues. He came to Nazereth and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath. He stood to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah that was given to him. He found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Luke 4:18 (ESV)”
For the 7th consecutive summer, the Twin City Bible Church journeyed last week to East St. Louis to visit old friends and make new ones. We also went to do some work to help out the ministries of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House. Working side-by-side with youth and adult residents of East St. Louis, we did some minor repairs and restained a wheel chair ramp we built a couple years ago, we added an awning over the entry doors at the top of that awning, we built some storage shelves for paperwork, we refurbished a kitchen and two bathrooms, we weeded and planted two community gardens, and we created three videos about the social service programs of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House.
But at the same time, we went to think about the good news that Christ came to share. How does good news and setting at liberty those who are oppressed and proclaiming liberty to the captives go together? The following is an overview of the topics we discussed during morning and evening devotionals throughout the week.
Elbows and Knees
A phrase often used when we go on a short-term mission trip is that we are being Christ’s hands and feet. We’ve used the phrase ourselves on past mission trips to East St. Louis. At the same time, we’ve worked hard to emphasize the good things that are already happening in East St. Louis, often in spite of the lack of support systems that we take for granted. But it’s hard to not celebrate the positives we are bringing to the community to meet the deficits that are there. A significant danger in doing so is that we end up reinforcing the mindset of both visitors and residents that the East St. Louis community is inferior and that the problem is within the community, something we desperately want to avoid communicating!
The Message paraphrase of Matthew 5: 13-15, Jesus says:
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.”
This year we decided to use a slightly different twist – God is already at work in East St. Louis. Our goal was to bring out the God-colors and God-flavors already in East St. Louis by learning to identify the ways He works through Christ’s hands and feet who live and work in the community on a daily basis, putting their worship into practice in their own neighborhoods. We go not as hands and feet but as elbows and knees, providing brief but important support to those hands and feet that are present. This year we also tried to go one step further to consider who the elbows and knees might be in our own lives that provide support for us to exercise our gifts and talents as part of Christ’s body, bringing about his new kingdom?
We also tried to begin questioning why it might be that sometimes the elbows and knees that would be in a community providing that support are broken? If we were to define justice as the state in which everyone has all that is needed to fully develop and practice their spiritual gifts and talents to build up Christ’s body, what injustices exist that keep East St. Louians from experience such shalom justice? Importantly, though, we wanted to emphasize the log in the eye of our own community, instead of working to dissect what is wrong with the East St. Louis residents.
Sunday scripture and thought for the day: Jeremiah 29:1-7 How is God calling you to love and be among the people of East St. Louis this week?
The History of East St. Louis
East St. Louis was founded as an industrial suburb in the 19th century. Similar suburbs were formed around the country when major cities like St. Louis or Chicago began putting in place policies to improve working conditions and decrease the negative environmental impact of industries within those cities. Some of the industrial leaders found this to be an unacceptable plan that would hurt their bottom line. They therefore crossed the state lines adjacent to the city and formed their own cities and governments to assure a high return on investment. Unlike our idealized visions of suburban life, these suburbs first and foremost did what was best for the short-term profits of the industrial leaders and their shareholders. Throughout the histories of these industrial suburbs, oppression has been a way of life as corrupt governments and city leaders prioritized the needs of industry over even the most basic needs of the residents. They actively recruited recently emancipated slaves to break the unions when they began fighting for similar improved working conditions. And they fomented racial strife when those unions tried to unionize. Eventually all the resources are used up, the streets, sewage, water, and other infrastructure are worn, and the environment is destroyed. Instead of returning some of the profits back to help maintain and rebuild the infrastructure, the industries move on to greener pastures.
On Sunday afternoon after playing some ice breakers with the teens from East St. Louis and Champaign/Urbana, I read an historical fiction I wrote based on many different stories told to me by various residents in East St. Louis and echoed by African American friends in Champaign/Urbana, Decatur, and my hometown of Benton Harbor, MI. The goal was to begin a discussion on how we all depend on support mechanisms found in community to capitalize on opportunities, face challenges, and develop our talents and gifts.
Monday scripture and thought for the day: Amos 5:18-24 This passage talks about empty worship, how can we be doing empty missions?
We all depend on support systems to help us face challenges, and to develop and exercise our talents and spiritual gifts. Day in and day out there are ways big and small that family, friends, schools, our places of worship, our community, etc. come together to help us. Some of these are publicly supported, some are privately supported. There are also incentives and credits provided by local, state, and federal governments that provide critical support. We challenged the youth to consider what some of those systems are that they depend on regularly. But we also discussed how those support systems sometimes are allowed to break down, or in cases like during slavery or more recently in industrial suburbs like East St. Louis are intentionally discouraged and disrupted. Often both the support systems we depend upon and the systems that are missing are hidden from us, something that we take for granted. I once heard a colleague of mine at the University of Illinois call this hidden knowledge, something we know or use but we don’t know we know or use. As long as they remain hidden, we can’t intentionally build such systems for ourselves or work with those who have been marginalized become empowered by helping them build their own support systems.
Tuesday scripture and thought for the day: Luke 19:1-10 Zacchaeus came to know Jesus and that changed everything. In what ways do we need to see the “everything changing” effects of knowing Jesus in our culture?
From Thing-oriented to People-oriented
In his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam”, Martin Luther King, Jr. stated:
“[W]e must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
I’ve come to realize over the years that I’m addicted to things. Not so much shoes or clothes, as anyone who has seen my lack of fashion-sense can attest (thank goodness for my wife, Angie, or I’d be a horrible mess!). Nor do I think I’m addicted to things like computers or carpentry tools. I most certainly appreciate having the right tool at the right time to accomplish a task. But as much as anything that is because I’m more addicted to tasks as things. I love to get things done, and I do try to make it about people. I like to find a way to help people accomplish what they are trying to do and to make someone’s life a little more comfortable. But the task orientation can be every bit as much thing-centered. For instance, for the first several years I visited East St. Louis I never took time to visit Pirtle’s ice cream, always pushing until the last to complete a task. Then when I finally did visit, I did so only quickly to grab the ice cream and go back to work. Only after several years did I take up Mr. Pirtle on his offer to teach me his favorite card game. From there, I began to have an opportunity to slowly build a friendship that has been transformational for me. Only then did I begin to challenge my addiction to the task, to stop being thing-oriented and to begin a journey towards being more people-oriented.
A major challenge we face when on our mission trips is to find a way to accomplish the tasks our hosts have asked us to accomplish, but at the same time never forget that to do so in a way that is thing-oriented leads towards perpetuating racism and extreme materialism. How to accomplish the tasks while being people-oriented is not something I can teach the youth, for every situation is different. But it is something we can work together to explore and learn as we try to confront the sin that is part of the old kingdom and choose to be part of Christ’s body working to build the new kingdom that was ushered in by Jesus and will be made fully known upon His return. We had rich discussions each night, sometimes initiated by the teens through provocative questions and insightful observations.
Wednesday scripture and thought for the day: Leviticus 25:8-55 The people of Israel were called to live as if God was their King, and to live according to His standards, not thier cultures. How do we need to relearn the standards of Jesus, and not live according to the standards of men?
Re-orienting, repenting, and restoring.
God has actively worked to liberate his people from oppression, with the two most notable examples His liberation of the Jews held as slaves in Egypt, and His liberation of all people from sin through the death of his Son and His resurrection three days later. But then His people sometimes would became the oppressors through unjust laws, through judges who take bribes, and through a people who mistreat the widows, the orphans, the aliens, and the oppressed. Then God would send His prophets to tell of His wrath that would rain down if His people did not repent and turn from their ways. So this past week we also tried to begin identifying how our daily choices can contribute to disrupting community and support systems, and play a part in oppression. We also considered how we can begin taking part in confronting systems that oppress. My generation has too often responded either with denial or guilt. Neither of these are what God calls for. Instead, he asks that we reorient ourselves to His way of shalom, to learn about the fallen systems and behaviors, and then to repent and work towards reconciliation.
Thursday scripture and thought for the day: Isaiah1:10-17 With the different things we have talked about this week, where do you feel like God is working on your heart concerning preconceived notions about others?
Continuing the Conversation
Beginning the process of re-orientation, repenting, and reconciling was a challenge we put in front of the teens during the mission trip, and to them to continue throughout the summer and moving forward. And while heavy and uncomfortable at times, the teens responded with active discussion, insightful observations, and challenging questions.
Friday scripture and thought for the day: Psalm150 Today share with someone how you have seen or experienced God’s work in and around you this week.
Here are some follow up questions you might ask one of the TCBC teens (or the leaders who went on the trip) the next time you get a chance:
- What were your expectations of the people and culture of East St. Louis before the trip? Were these expectations met or dispelled?
- How did you see God at work through the hands and feet of the East St. Louis residents? How did you serve as an elbow or knee in support of those hands and feet?
- What are some of the elbows and knees that you count on regularly to provide support for you to overcome challenges and to develop and exercise your gifts and talents as part of Christ’s body, bringing about his new kingdom?
- Why do you think it is that sometimes the elbows and knees that could and should provide support to hands and feet are broken in a community?
- How do you think God wants you to use this experience moving forward? What steps do you need to take to get there?