By Shelly Esser
I recently took a trip to the city of Chicago. Standing on the famous Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue my eyes were overtaken by the surrounding beauty of this amazing city– beautiful flowers spilled over the planters throughout the populated sidewalks and cute cafes lined the streets amidst the backdrop of the giant shiny, ice-like skyscrapers that framed the city. There was an incredible beauty of the old mixed with the new that created a grandeur that was a feast for the eyes. Shoppers and tourists hurried by, many in designer labels and dressed to perfection. Horse-drawn carriages filled the streets with giddy tourists and star-struck lovers. It was all so picture-perfect–until I saw them. Burrowed away in the doorways and street corners in the shadows were the homeless–the glaring reminder that all was not so beautiful, all was not right.
With each block I walked, I saw them. The mother cradling her children in a darkened doorway, another man covered up from head to ankles in a sheet, with bare feet hanging out. Many held signs: “Please Help Me, I Need Food for My Family.” They were young, they were old, they were black, they were white. Probably most disturbing is that it was if they were invisible. Passersby just stepped around them as if they didn’t exist. Sadly, I did too. To be honest, I didn’t know what to do with this ugly part of this grand city, this messy irreconcilable part amidst the magnificent. At times, I felt a nudging to stop and ask one of them to tell me their story–a story that I’m sure is so much different than I might have imagined. I wished I had thousands of dollars to give them to really make a difference, but I didn’t so I thought what can I do to help? I wondered when was the last time any one of them had any kind of human touch. Just one stranger stopping and offering some bit of humanity, some dignity, to say I see you, you are loved. Mother Teresa said, “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely, and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.” I am ashamed to admit that I did not do the “humble work.”
We’re not good at messy faith are we? We can say we love the poor, the broken, the messy, but when it requires we do something that is uncomfortable, we pull back. For me, the compassion was there but fear pulled me back so my compassion lacked action. Throughout the gospels, Jesus was moved by compassion. Real Christ-like compassion should move us into the messy. In fact, it should compel us to do something about it–a touch, a smile, a meal, clothes, a long-term solution–it will look differently in every situation. Instead of stumbling through trusting God’s Spirit to put the right words in my mouth– to be His hands and feet–I walked on by just like everybody else.
In the middle of my wrestling I couldn’t help but think about Mother Teresa. I could almost see her, like she did so many times on the dirty, messy streets of Calcutta, bending low into the gutters of Chicago getting her hands dirty in the mess and showing these throwaway people Christ’s love with a touch, a word, some bread. I could do that I thought. That’s what we’re called to do in Jesus’ name. Isaiah 58:10 says, “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
In His ministry, Jesus was constantly coming across messy people–and, if even only for a moment, He reached into their brokenness and messy worlds. He listened to their heartbreaks. He stopped along the way. He didn’t solve every problem or heal every disease, but He did have compassion and touched those who were buried in darkness, desperate for help, and longing for hope. He went into the shadows where the messy people live.
Real faith is messy. The world, however, would have us believe it’s all beautiful like the streets of downtown Chicago, but in reality life is not all beautiful – and that’s where Jesus calls us to live.
Next time I come face-to-face with the messy people of this world, I’m praying that fear will no longer hold me back…I’m going to enter into the mess and love the way Jesus did no matter how insignificant it seems. I don’t want to be too “ashamed or too slow to do the humble work of the gospel”–to exercise a faith that has to be messy to be real and make a difference in a hurting world. I want to, as author David Z. Nowell says in his new book Dirty Faith: Bringing the Love of Christ to the Least of These, have “…a faith that embraces what society marginalizes; the kind that finds meaning and fulfillment in servanthood. A faith that rejects entitlement, status, privilege. A faith rarely clean and never sterile. A faith that lives life among the least of these.”