Can the poor, marginalized and incarcerated have the same right to fulfill the Great Commission as you and I- or are they only the subject of our donor letters?
Efrem Smith shook his audience of Christian activists, church and nonprofit workers with this question. It was the last night of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference and those in attendance were tired from the long 12+ hour days of workshops, tours and listening to speakers. Yet Efrem rallied the crowd with his message from the book of Philemon titled “The Missional Call of the Poor, Marginalized and Incarcerated.”
What about the call of the poor?
As I mulled on the topic, I realized that we could rephrase the question as calling vs. career. Yes, sometimes we consider a career to be a calling, but usually such a career comes in the form of serving others, whether that’s as a refugee-employment specialist, homeless shelter cook or Mother Teresa-type saint. Yet how often do we consider the callings of the people in our shelters, our hospitals, our refugee camps? Usually we just want to help them find and keep paid work so they won’t be dependent on our services anymore. We view recipients of our services as people in need of a career rather than those who can seek God for a calling on their lives too.
Like Efram, I want to see people our organizations serve living to their fullest, starting by determining God’s calling on their lives. I think of women who have risen to leadership positions at Sari Bari, a social enterprise that employs women who were trafficked into Kolkota’s red light district. The same women worked the line themselves only a few years ago. Yet they are finding their calling along with their career and freedom.
I think of my friend who is incarcerated and prays for me daily and how he’s studying Latin and sharing my pastor’s book I sent him with other inmates. I want to see him live into God’s calling-both NOW and should he again (hopefully!) experience freedom.Unfortunately, as Efrem pointed out, many people of faith would prefer to commentate on those who are incarcerated, rather than advocate for them! But the book of Philemon deals differently with the subject: Paul wanted the former slave Onesimus to live out his calling as a brother in faith.
Efrem continued by saying that encouraging others to determine their calling does not mean we are simply encouraging them towards good, peaceful lives. No! In Efrem’s words:
We have to be careful in our call to the marginalized we’re not just creating timid, insecure saints. I want them to be just as passionate for the kingdoms of God as they were for pimping.
Many of my coworkers come from backgrounds where they were accustomed to life on the streets. They have thick skin and as Efrem said, “You gotta have thick skin to empower the poor.” Now they are replicating themselves in every strata of society, as bold for Jesus as they had been dealing dope. I feel honored to work alongside such passionate individuals.
Finally, to truly see the success of people on the margins, of neighbors who are homeless or brothers and sisters who are incarcerated, we must keep asking ourselves hard questions, such as:
Is the end purpose mine or their benefit?
How much is my ego driving my ministry?
“You gotta be in a deeply-rooted place to know when it’s time to leave” Efrem said.
Unfortunately, instead of raising people up and letting them replace us and live into their callings, we often stay longer than we should. But knowing when to leave is just as important part of knowing our calling as when we first stepped into it.