December 5, 2012

From Compassion to Companionship

by Doug Johnson Hatlem

And they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means, God with us.

Familiar words, for sure. A bit strange, perhaps, because his name is not Emmanuel, but Jesus.  The Gospel of Matthew, in the opening chapter of the New Testament, establishes both the name Jesus and the name Emmanuel.  What does it mean for us, God with us?  Does it change us? Do we live differently as a result?  Is it a lovely story to warm most hearts at this season, what one familiar writer calls The Grand Miracle, God entering into humanity? I have written previous Christmas reflections on feelings of absence and loss rather than presence in this season that has so much joy for a parent of young children like me.  What might it mean to imitate Christ Jesus?  Emmanuel, God with us.
Compassion has been, in many ways, politicized and monetized.  Indeed, some of you, just as some of the people I have been commissioned to walk with, may wince at yet another appeal for funding from Lazarus Rising. Of course, we are all supposed to show our compassion for those who have less.  Some voices, however, are asking that we move beyond charity and pity, to economic empowerment or a fundamentally just and fair society.  These are grand aims and they must be pursued, even, or perhaps especially in long, harsh economic times such as ours.  
But there is something different to dwell on in this passage.  Jesus comes to us with compassion, but even more so than compassion, he comes to us as one of us.  Before taking on a large political role as one of the few Democrats in George Bush's US presidential administration, Phillip Mangano spoke passionately of the need to abolish homelessness.  In Mangano's words, for this to happen, we needed as a society, to move “from compassion to companionship.” 

While I have my disagreements with the way Mangano ultimately made use of his political role, the phrase has stuck with me.  He developed the phrase after studying and attempting in his earlier career to live out the example and teaching of St. Francis.  Do-gooders, Mangano was fond of saying, compel us to pour resources into poverty, but often fail to listen to what people need most. Housing is the answer to homelessness, not more temporary and costly shelters, not small gifts of food nor leftover clothing.   
All of this is very important, and I have friends who have spent much time on the street who continually remind me that housing and economic security are the most critical things we should be asking of our social and political systems. As someone called to witness to and to think through what the historic peace churches have to do and say about homelessness, walking in companionship with people on the street has lead me to listen to the cries of those violated by violence on a regular basis and at an astounding level.  My advocacy in these areas is consistently guided by the stories of those who come to Sanctuary with wounds and stories about those wounds.

But what does this mean, especially at Christmas, for people of the peace churches who are not called to walk the streets daily?  One of the places of convergence between Lazarus Rising's vision, MCC, and Sanctuary is in the insistence that we are here to experience the presence of Jesus.  In those who are thirsty, hungry, naked, imprisoned or without shelter, we encounter Jesus in need of housing, clothing, liberation, and sustenance. 

God with us should mean that we desire to be with the people we feel the need to reach out to with compassion.   At the same time, when we ask ourselves where Jesus is in the world today, we would do well to consider how we might find time to be with those who need such things and who bear God's image amongst us in a unique way.

How can you begin such an unknown journey?  How can you move from compassion to companionship?   There are many ways, and we encourage each church who receives this letter to ask how it might learn to be present on a regular basis with those who are in poverty in its own particular neighbourhood.  We would also like to invite you to join us for a street orientation walk in 2013.  We are planning to have four or five such walks which will introduce people to Sanctuary and to the streets of downtown Toronto in a meaningful way, respecting the need of people who are poor downtown not to feel like they are on display or being pandered to. The first of these walks is on January 26th.   We would love to have you with us

Doug Johnson Hatlem is MCCO's Lazarus Rising Street Pastor

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