We took our small-town youth group to serve in a city homeless shelter one winter morning. I had grand plans for exposing the youth to folks living with challenges very different from their own, maybe fostering some deeper empathy, perhaps even changing the course of their lives. We served trays of breakfast and talked to guests and pulled our group together afterward to process the outing. And then the kids went to the mall. (Hey, if you drive that far.)
My standout memory from the morning is this: In the entryway to the shelter was a large glassed-in cubicle with no roof. There were low benches fitted along the walls. At the center of the space stood a wooden cross complete with a corpus of the suffering Christ, arms nailed wide, feet spiked, head tilted in holy pathos, thorns tracing a red-trickling crown. Disheveled men clustered around the crucified Christ, clutching their cigarettes in the enveloping cold. In my mind it all seemed a sign of something. Crucifix planted beneath the barenaked sky. Nicotine prayers rising as incense. Tableau vivant: Christ of the Margins.
Jesus said, “Where I am, there will my servant be also” (John 12:26). Jesus’ words mean following him to the hard places, the pinched margins along the refugee rocky paths. Some of it will look heroic. But I suspect Jesus had in mind the everyday kinds of accompaniment that authentic life calls forth. We go to people when they’re facing hard times. We accompany them in suffering.
Jesus demonstrated accompaniment in his own life. He was with people: on the seashore, on the road, in living rooms so crowded with the poor, crippled, blind and lame that they came through the roof (Mark 1:16, 10:46, 2:2). Jesus went to the edges where the broken sought wholeness (John 5).
He still does. “I am alive in New York and San Francisco,” says Jesus in Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself.” “Again I tread the streets after two thousand years.”
Jesus calls us to the same: to be with people in places of sorrow and suffering, to join him in treading the streets of the world’s dirty and disheveled places. Being where Jesus is simply means following him. “Whoever serves me must follow me.” Its end is life with the Father: “Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (John 12:26). Sometimes, being with Jesus will mean getting up and going somewhere. That’s what it looked like for the 12 disciples: picking their way through Galilee, Samaria, the Decapolis, to Jerusalem.
But I’ve discovered that being with Jesus starts with stillness, not going. We’ll know where and when to go only after we’ve learned how to wait and be silent and pray.
I’ve experienced moments when I’ve felt like I’ve really been with people. They’ve been intense times of loss, lightning cracks of crisis that leave a person stunned. Those are the times that can overwhelm our ability to cope and leave us traumatized. An intentionality is required to enter into those spaces at the right time and in the proper way, because our usual human response is to insulate ourselves and stay safe. For those of us who are privileged, all we need to do to cocoon ourselves is nothing. Inertia is a privilege of its own.
But most of the time we accompany people in the most straightforward ways. We call, deliver meals, sit beside folks while the surgeon works in the next room over. That too is being where Jesus is. “Do not avoid those who weep,” instructs the sage Sirach in the Apocrypha, “but mourn with those who mourn” (Sirach 7:34). And accompaniment is about the good times as well. “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” teaches Paul (Romans 12:15).
One of the great tragedies of this pandemic is how it has made suffering solitary. Nursing homes are in lockdown mode. Residents’ rooms have become like prison cells where the only family contact is through the glass. So many people have died alone or among plastic-clad strangers.
I see people attempting to draw rationalizing circles around those losses, as if by explaining death we can somehow pen it in, slip a collar and chain around its hackled neck and back away. Then, maybe, we won’t have to be afraid.
Here’s Jesus, calling us to move toward those who suffer, not away. Where he is, there will we his servants be also. What’s more, Jesus leads us to the unexplored edges of our own lives. He invites us to tread gently with him to our places of hurt, places where we need to experience his grace, healing and wholeness. Often, we’ll need others to walk with us in those places, especially when the wounds are bigger than our strength to name and bear them. But the One whose hands and feet are marked by the nails goes ahead of us: Christ of the Margins, his arms flung wide beneath the barenaked sky.