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Lesson Two: Get Out of the House More Often
You are the salt of the earth....you are the light of the world.
There is a story about a young priest who was very nervous about his new responsibilities. He was especially worried about leading the Eucharistic liturgy. The priest has to say the right words in the right order-for instance, "The Lord be with You," to which the congregation duly responds, "And also with you." The new cleric was concerned that he might foul up his parts of the liturgy, causing the congregation to get their parts wrong too. The whole thing might fall apart, and he would feel like a failure. So you can imagine the young man's panic when he got up before the gathered parish that first Sunday morning, only to realize that his microphone had gone dead. Frantically, the rattled priest began to tap his finger hard on the silent microphone and exclaimed, "Something is wrong with this microphone." The congregation replied, "And also with you!"
I sometimes start with that story when I'm on the road speaking because it's always fun to begin with a good laugh. But the story also helps me introduce my next point. After the laughter dies down, I suggest that something is wrong in our society, and that most people feel it-all across the political spectrum. At that point, the heads begin to nod in agreement.
Despite the constant claims by politicians, Wall Street's elite, and the media pundits about what "good times" these are, most people sense that some things have gone wrong at the moral core of our society. Something about our values just doesn't seemright, and sometimes, things really seem to be unraveling. But what is actually happening to us, and why, and what can we do about it? That
we're not quite so sure about. To figure it out, we are going to have to understand our problems at a deeper level. Raising questions is a good start, but we soon have to decide how far we're going to pursue the answers. To go farther, we need to get some new perspectives. We learn that we can't just take this journey in our heads. We have to reach out to broaden our experience, to move beyond familiar places, and even cross boundaries we never have before. So, our second lesson is "Get out of the house more often!"
The Journey Begins
To change our world, or our community, we first have to understand it. To understand it usually requires a change in our thinking. And for that to happen, we have to experience more of the world than we can know inside the comfortable confines of our lives. We have to cross the barriers that divide people and, indeed, that separate whole worlds from one another. Most of us are deeply programmed not to venture past those invisible but powerful signs that silently scream at us: No Trespassing! You shouldn't be here! You don't belong here! It's not safe! You won't be accepted! Stay where you are!
But I've found that those very powerful cultural messages are usually false, designed in part to keep us from seeing and experiencing people and parts of life that may change our perspective. Oh, it's not a big conspiracy; rather it's all ingrained cultural conditioning that keeps people in their own world and prevents them from experiencing another one.
Most of the people I've met who are deeply committed to social change will trace their own transformation to the time when they first went to a third world country, or even just across town to the inner city. There, in a world very different from their own, they had "conversion experiences" that would shape the rest of their lives. It wasn't so much reading a great book or hearing an inspiring lecture that changed them but rather their experience in a war zone, a refugee camp, a youth center, a women's shelter, or an urban church trying to hold a community together. Time studying at the university can, ultimately, be less educational for social change than time spent on a reservation, in a ghetto, in a barrio, or up a mountain holler. Lesson Two is that you've got to get out of the house more! Once you do, you'll discover a whole new perspective.
You'll see things, meet people, and experience worlds that you otherwise never would. And it will change you. When I talk to people about how change really happens, the first thing I try to impress upon them is that it is both possible and worth it to cross the normal boundaries of our lives, to escape our comfort zones and experience a different reality. That's always the first step. You can stay home and keep accepting the easy answers, or you can step out and make some new discoveries. If you don't get out, you'll never know what's really going on; if you do, a whole new world opens up.
And it's the more in-depth, longer-term experiences outside of your own world that can have the most lasting impact. My wife, Joy, is an example of that. At the age of eighteen, she spent a year working in the countryside of Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. Taking a year off before college, she plunged into a world very different from anything she had ever known. Joy had grown up in the working-class neighborhoods of South London, but she had never seen poverty like what she encountered in Haiti.
The actual work she did was in a project to bring clean and safe drinking water to people in a rural area. There is probably nothing more taken for granted in developed countries than clean water; yet the lack of safe water is a leading cause of disease and death all around the world. It is estimated that more than five million people, including two and a half million children, die each year from illnesses related to unsafe water and improper sanitation.
Living and working with some of the poorest people on earth for a year had a profound effect upon this English schoolgirl. Joy was forever sensitized to the plight of people at the bottom, those who are always shut out and left behind. Later, she became a priest in the Church of England. But she always stayed in the inner city, and paid special attention to people who are poor, homeless, mentally and emotionally disabled, aged, immigrant, or outcast. Something got into her blood in Haiti and it's never left her. Now she talks about starting a new church for the poor in Washington, D.C.
You also won't really know yourself if you stay inside the carefully constructed boxes of your life. Getting out of the house is actually the first step on a spiritual journey; take it and your life will begin to change. That is both the promise and the challenge. Only by the challenges encountered in stepping out do you learn what resources you have and what contribution you can make. What you gain is self-understanding as well as spiritual awareness. The path of self-discovery is critically linked to the process of social and political transformation. But the first step is to walk outside of the old, familiar places.
John Fife was a Presbyterian pastor in Tucson, Arizona. He was a preacher in cowboy boots, and his Southside Presbyterian Church was set in the beautiful landscape of the American Southwest. Pastors like John are expected to play it safe in regard to controversial social issues. But that would soon all change.
One day, in the early 1980s, an Immigration lawyer told John that a professional "coyote" (one who smuggled illegal immigrants across the border) had abandoned a group of Salvadorans in the desert. Half of them had died of dehydration, and the other half were picked up by the border patrol and hospitalized. As soon as they had recovered, the deportation process would begin.
The attorney said, "We've been talking to these people, and they're terrified of being sent back to El Salvador." At that time, most illegal immigrants from El Salvador were fleeing for their lives from their country's military government and death squads. Many of them were Christians, said the attorney. "The churches need to help us."
John Fife didn't really know where El Salvador was. "I don't think I could have even found it on a map!" said the Presbyterian pastor. When I later asked John why he had become involved with the refugees, he told me he had remembered the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew: "I was a stranger and you took me in." So that's what John decided to do. What he didn't know at the time was how much that decision would change his life.
John and his church began a journey. First, they started a weekly prayer vigil for the people of Central America. Then they began to raise money to bail people out of detention and help relocate them. Many problems in our communities remain relatively hidden until we become involved in them. Then you can hardly understand why you never noticed such a big crisis before. The people in Southside Presbyterian Church began with the first group of refugees in trouble, but soon their relationships extended to many more. Members of the church got to know refugee families-sharing meals, stories, tears, and, yes, faith. Before long, John and his church members met others in Tucson who were befriending the new strangers in the community. Lots of ordinary people began to get involved-retired ranchers, teachers, nurses, students, nuns, priests, and homemakers. After about two years of this, they took the next step of helping to create an "underground railroad" for the fleeing refugees. The little church became deeply engaged in sheltering refugees from El Salvador and other countries in Central Arnerica that were caught up in terrible civil wars.
John and his parishioners got to know the U.S.-Mexican border quite well, assisting refugees on their difficult and dangerous journey to safety and settlement with sympathetic families. These citizens of Tucson not only took in the refugee families but became involved with their lives. People listened and learned from one another, and everyone was changed in the process.
Finally, the parishioners began to study the ancient tradition of churches providing sanctuary to those fleeing persecution from the authorities, and they decided that was what they needed to do. On March 24, 1982, Southside Presbyterian Church publicly received a family into the sanctuary of the church at worship and invited other congregations to do the same. These illegal aliens would now actually stay in the church, receiving its sanctuary, and thus publicly defying the authorities. The INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and local police were reluctant to force their way into churches to arrest the refugees. Before long, a sanctuary movement had begun in the United States, and several hundred churches became involved. Two worlds met in those sanctuary churches across the country, and a process of transformation began.
Of course, it created great controversy, especially because the U.S. government had taken sides in the Central American wars and was politically allied with the government-sponsored military and paramilitary forces these refugees were fleeing. The refugees' stories of horrible violence occurring in their poor countries were more than embarrassing to the White House and U.S. Congress. Finally, sixteen people were indicted by the U.S. government for harboring illegal aliens and put on trial. In addition to John Fife, the defendants included a nurse, a housewife, a graduate student, three nuns, and a goat herder. All of a sudden, a local pastor in a sleepy Arizona town became a national figure. I had the privilege of speaking at the national conference on sanctuary called in Tucson to support those on trial. I met all the defendants, interviewed them for Sojourners magazine, covered the whole story, and was struck by how basic and "religious" their motivations were. John told me he was a longtime Sojourners subscriber and was astounded at now being interviewed in the magazine for simply offering the hospitality that "any Christian would" if he was aware of what was really going on with refugees like these.
John Fife's journey didn't start out political at all. These refugees he'd discovered were just people who were alone and needed help. For John and his congregation, reaching out to people in a particular situation of need had led to greater involvement, which led to greater understanding, prompting even more involvement. Soon these ordinary people, responding out of their compassion and faith, were put on trial as criminals. However, the integrity of the churches' action and the power of those relationships was to prevail over the threats of governments, and the sanctuary workers were ultimately set free (in part because the government had collected evidence by sending in "wired" informants to infiltrate church prayer meetings!). The church defendants were at first convicted, but the charges were overturned on appeal. However, no one involved would ever be the same again.
John Fife went on to be elected for a term as the moderator of the national Presbyterian Church (the symbolic leader of the whole denomination), in a surprise vote that especially shocked him. Commitment can be a very attractive thing to people today. Now John is back at work in his little Tucson church, still wearing his cowboy boots, but operating with a much altered view of the world.
The journey begins in many ways. Today it often starts for young people when they decide to reach out in community service. All over the country, students are being offered the opportunity to step beyond the walls of their campuses by volunteering in the community. Those who decide to get involved often find it the most educational part of their college experience. Tutoring kids from an entirely different background from your own is guaranteed to change your perspective. Seeing the joy in the faces of a family moving into their first house-a house that you helped to build-is an experience most middle-class young people have never had before. Some students take the opportunity further by signing up for an overseas work project or otherwise spending time in another country. And it is changing the way those young people think.
Putting a Face on the Poor
My friend Joe Nangle, a Franciscan priest, often speaks of Olga, a poor woman he met while working in Peru. One day, Joe helped Olga bury her nine-year-old son in a paupers' graveyard; the boy had been killed by a hit-and-run driver and then denied dignity by a system that didn't care what happened to the children of poor families. "That day forever changed my relationship to Olga, and in some ways forever changed me," Joe says. "Perhaps for the first time I really saw what life is like for the poor-for that two-thirds of humanity who live as Olga lived, who bury their children as she did. From then on, and increasingly, Olga Valencia came to represent for me the literally billions of people, especially women, whose lives can hardly be called human. When I wanted to put a name and a face on 'the poor,' it was invariably Olga's name and Olga's face."
But priests aren't the only ones learning to see the poor. I met Dale Recinella in 1998 and soon learned about the extraordinary journey this middle-aged man and his family had been on. An international lawyer from Florida who made a high-six-figure income in the 1980s, Dale had decided to devote his energies and substantial skills to helping overcome poverty. Previously, he had arranged the financing on multimillion- and even billion-dollar deals for corporations, banks, and governments. He had helped to negotiate the contracts for Dolphin Stadium and the Port of Miami. Now he wanted to put together multisector partnerships to help move families out of poverty. But it all started with the awkward involvement of a high-priced attorney in a soup kitchen. Dale tells the story of how he began to change. Like many others, he saw some of the problerns around him and decided to get involved. And like John Fife, he had no idea what he was getting into or how it would change him. Dale's recounting of his
life-transforming experiences is compelling.
"Almost seven years ago, I started helping out at the noon meal of the Good News Soup Kitchen in Tallahassee. I showed up every day in my three-piece suit to help from eleven A.M., until one-thirty P.M. They assigned me 'door duty.' My job was to ensure that the street people lining up to eat waited in an orderly fashion. Every day, I stood at the door for an hour, chatting with the street people waiting to eat. Before I came to Good News, 'street people' was a meaningless term. It defined a group without defining anybody in particular. From the comfort of my car, my suburban home, and my downtown law office, street people were just 'those people out there somewhere.'
"Then one day an elderly woman named Helen came running to the Good News door. A man was chasing her and threatening to kill her if she didn't give him back his dollar.'Tell him he can't hit me 'cuz it's church property!'she pleaded. In true lawyerly fashion, I explained that Good News is not a church but he still couldn't hit her. After twenty minutes of failed mediation, I bought peace by giving each of them a dollar.
"That evening, I happened to be standing on the corner of Park and Monroe. In the red twilight, I spied a lonely silhouette struggling in my direction from Tennessee Street. 'Poor street person' I thought, as the figure inched closer. I was about to turn back to my own concerns when I detected something familiar in that shadowy figure. The red scarf. The clear plastic bag with white border. The unmatched shoes.'My God,' I said in my thoughts, 'that's Helen.'
"My eyes froze on her as she limped by and turned up Park. No doubt she would crawl under a bush to spend the night. My mind had always dismissed the sight of a street person in seconds. It could not expel the picture of Helen. That night as I lay on my fifteen-hundred-dollar deluxe temperature-controlled waterbed, I couldn't sleep. A voice in my soul kept asking, 'Where's Helen sleeping tonight?' No street person had ever interfered with my sleep. But the shadowy figure with the red scarf and plastic bag had followed me home. I had made a fatal mistake. I had learned her name."
That's what happens when you get involved. You learn people's names, and that makes all the difference. Poverty is no longer just a social or economic problem when you have a personal friend who is poor. Gang violence is not just a law-enforcement issue when you've spent time listening to a kid tell you why he has taken to the streets. "Welfare mother" is no longer a term of derision when you've gone over the budget of a woman who's trying to raise her kids on $410 a month. Personal involvement seems to defy the easy answers while at the same time it opens up the possibilities of real solutions.
It is just that sensitizing that the world so desperately needs. Joy Carroll, John Fife, Joe Nangle, Dale Recinella, and I were all raised in comfortable homes. None of us would have learned what we eventually did if we hadn't gotten out of the house. It has a way of changing your perspective, as Joe says ... forever.
It's precisely that change in perspective that will make the most difference. And if you have in your mind the picture of a friend's face from the inner city of Detroit, a young child in Haiti, a refugee family from El Salvador, a grieving mother in Peru, a homeless person on the streets of Tallahassee, it's easier to find the right perspective. I've learned many things about what really changes the world-and what makes a difference. Mostly I've learned that the world can be changed; we just have to begin by getting out of the house.
A Fair Test
The Jesuit Volunteer Corps, which sends young people into innercity and rural poverty areas for a year of service, has a wonderful motto: "Ruined for life!" Their simple idea is that once you've seen real poverty and gotten your feet wet by doing something about it, you won't ever be the same again. You'll be ruined for life. After that service, you may indeed go on to other things, but you will be a different kind of teacher, lawyer, doctor, social worker, journalist, business person, pastor, or whatever else you become. You'll also be a different kind of parent, church member, or community leader than you otherwise would have been. That year of hands-on involvement will change your perspective, they are convinced. And so am I.
My brother, Bill Weld-Wallis, coordinated the Jesuit Volunteer program in the Midwest for a decade and tells heartening stories of how most of his "alumni" have gone on to live lives of community service through their career, family, and personal choices. These were all ordinary people. They weren't activists or clergy or community leaders. They were just volunteers. What's most significant is what they became. Service is only the beginning; it's the transformation that comes from service that is the critical ingredient for personal and social change.
When I speak on college campuses, I often spend time with the students who are volunteering their time and energy, in the community or around the world. I remember such an evening at a small college in central Texas. Before I gave the evening lecture, I had dinner with several of these young people who had decided to "get out of the house." Some had just been to an international conference on peace in the Middle East and were planning on going back to work there for a year. Others had been to South Africa to serve in the efforts to build a new country free of apartheid. Still more had traveled to Central America to help with the shaky peace processes in those countries.
Virtually all of them had been extensively involved in volunteer projects throughout the United States. The conversation just crackled with energy and excitement. They had already learned so much, had so many more questions, and were hungry to keep going. Their experiences had already caused many of them to
change their majors, and they were hoping it would change their lives. One could easily tell that these young people had come a very long way from the familiar worlds of suburban and rural Texas where most of them had grown up.
After my talk, we retreated back to the campus chaplain's house and continued the discussion. I challenged them. When I was their age, I told them, we could put ten thousand people in the street in two hours' time. In response to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, we became a generation forged in protest. Their generation had now also taken to the streets, not so much in protest as in volunteering. We marched in the streets for change; today's youth work in the community in order to make a difference.
The test of what my generation did, and what today's students are now doing, I suggested, is simply this: Will what you are doing change the direction of your life? My generation has often failed that test, and the test results for this generation are not yet in. If volunteer projects become merely the preoccupation of a few student years, to be forgotten when the larger life choices are made, little transformation will have occurred. But if this work changes the life trajectory of people, and shapes their most basic choices about faith, vocation, family, money, especially in the most formative period of their lives, then real change will have begun. The students all thought that was a fair test, but a tough one.
One person who wants to change the lives of young people is Bart Campolo. He's the director of Mission Year, a rapidly growing youth volunteer program that is affiliated with Call to Renewal. Mission Year recruits college students to give a year of their time either before or after graduation. They move into an
inner-city neighborhood to work with a local church. Their plan is simple and powerful.The young people go house to house, asking if people would like them to pray for the needs of that home. Most of the people they call on say yes, many probably thinking "What could it hurt?" Sometimes the students pray right there on the doorstep, or are invited into the house. But in the course of the prayer, the circumstances and needs of the people in that house are often made apparent. Aware of those needs, the students are then able to help people make connections to other sources of support or assistance. Maybe there's a need for a job, or some child care, or some household chores and repair work, or an educational opportunity, or after-school options for a kid getting into trouble, or an alcohol- or drug-rehabilitation program, or some support in a difficult domestic situation, or a health care need, or maybe just a listening ear. The young people end up really praying for the people in the neighborhood where they are sent, and then helping to see that those prayers are answered.
I believe the kind of volunteer work going on today has the chance to make a more long-term difference in people's lives than the protests of my generation ultimately did. My generation-the baby boomers-have become the biggest consumers in American history. Many of the old dreams and ideals have faded. "Reality" set in, and many compromises were made. Having once stepped out for change, many are now safely back within comfortable boundaries. Those who got more deeply involved in the organizing in the 1960s, and not just the marching, tended to feel the more lasting consequences. It is the depth of one's involvement that seems to make the most difference.
Now the members of my generation are stepping into positions of leadership throughout the society. And many are remembering the formative influences of their student years and recalling commitments we once made. One hears more and more stories of people in successful careers deciding to do something they think more meaningful or important. I have increasing numbers of conversations with people in my generation who wish to somehow recapture the ideals they once professed but have gradually forgotten. Among my generation of now middle-aged professionals, a new spirit of community involvement may also be in the air. If a reawakening of conscience began to occur among a new generation of American leaders, in partnership with a younger generation hungry for service, exciting new possibilities for change could emerge.
Start by Doing Something
In America, we've gotten used to a pattern of public discourse that has become quite dysfunctional. A problem is stated, an argument erupts about its causes, the blaming begins, the rhetoric rises, the confrontation is joined and quickly becomes partisan-and nothIng is ever done about the problem. There is another approach. A problem is stated. The various dimensions of it are described as best we can understand them. Then a strategy is conceived for involvement with the problem in the hope of finding the necessary solutions. Instead of rushing to theoretical debates, various community leaders and institutions begin to engage the situation, believing that a diverse set of people and resources will probably be necessary to solve the problem.
In the first process, the community or the nation gets further divided while no answers are found. In the second, the community is strengthened in a cooperative effort, and positive progress is more likely to be made.
In other words, the best way to begin solving a problem is to start by doing something. It's a simple notion, so simple it often escapes us. In the process of involvement, not only will likely solutions begin to emerge, but everybody involved may be changed by better understanding what is really going on. This more helpful process is starting to occur as more people choose to address problems in their communities by getting involved in them.
Integrity is also something that seems to be found in personal involvement, even if you're unsure how to proceed. I think the American people are more and more tired of people who profess to be experts on so many problerns but have had little personal involvement in trying to solve them. Talk is cheap, as they say. Taking action doesn't provide panaceas, but at least it wins respect for
actually trying to do something. Is it any wonder that Jimmy Carter is much more respected as former president than he ever was as president? When you ask people why, they dont speak of the impressive Carter Center in Atlanta; rather they conjure up the image ofthe former president pounding nails into a new house for a poor family on a Habitat for Humanity work project. And Mr. Carter is a serious builder, too, not a politician looking for a good photo-op while painting over graffiti for thirty minutes in front of the network news cameras. I've been on one of the Habitat sites with Carter and seen how he doesn't tolerate idle conversation when there are houses to finish!
We have to dispel the myth that you really have to know what you're doing before you start doing it. Just accept the fact that you're going to make some mistakes. Everybody does. But that's the way we learn. The Sojourners Neighborhood Center I described earlier didnt begin as a successful "freedom school." We started, twenty-five years ago, by tutoring children who ended up on our front steps. We did it in our living rooms. None of us was an experienced tutor, but we'd all been to school. Training is vitally important, and we've done a lot of it over the years. But you've still got to start somewhere, and you'll never get the experience until you just begin.
We started Sojourners magazine much the same way. We were all seminary students who became powerfully moved by the idea that faith should show itself in action, and that spirituality was vitally connected to politics. We had a message and needed a vehicle. Someone suggested that we start a magazine. None of us had ever done that before, but we were young and bold enough to think that we could learn. So without any journalistic experience, we launched a new publication. Our first mailing list came from a brainstorming session one night, and our first distribution strategy was one car heading east and one west with a new magazine hot off the press.
I've always likened publishing Sojourners to a running a flag up a flagpole. Many other people at the time were also wanting to put their faith together with a commitment to social action. But they didn't know one another; they couldn't see one another on the ground. But when they saw that flag raised in the form of a new magazine, they headed to the flagpole, where they all met.That was the beginning of a constituency, a network, and a movement for faith in action that has grown until this day. And it all began with lifting a banner high enough for people to see it.
That's how change often happens, in a community or in a nation. Someone has to lift up a banner, and other people stream to it. Change often requires a catalyst, an occasion, an event, or a new initiative. Someone has to start something, and others will become involved. You may be the one to lift the banner, or you may be one of the crucial people to join in and help hold it up. At the beginning, you never feel ready, and you hardly ever know what you're doing. But you begin anyway, because change has to start somewhere.
One night, my father was out at a church elders meeting when I called, so my mom and I had even longer to talk. She was reflecting on what a "good and exciting life" she and my father had been able to have. I asked her what were the most exciting parts. Of course, she lovingly named her children, their marriages, and her grandchildren. She was especially excited about the first child my wife and I were expecting. She spoke about the work of their church and all their friends. But what was most exciting to her was the mission work they had been able to do since they had retired. She ended up talking about that for at least the next hour.
During the years just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, my parents had volunteered with a missionary group that supported and assisted struggling Christians in several Eastern European countries. Communist regimes were still pretty tough on religious believers, who faced isolation, discrimination, an