Social justice is cool. And talking about loving the poor and oppressed is super cool.
Maybe you’ve got a shelf full of the latest books by social justice crusaders. Maybe you’ve been to the Justice Conference. Maybe you’ve shared that Francis Chan video on Facebook and spoken a silent “Yes!” Clicked “Like.” Retweeted.
But honestly, the daily grind of loving my impoverished neighbors is a lot less fun and cool. And, frankly, I like the idea of justice much more than the practice of it. Or, as Mother Teresa put it, “Today, it is fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately, it is not so fashionable to talk with them.”
This is why we tend to romanticize poor people who are geographically distant—those living in a war-torn African nation, or folks in an Asian slum— while we demonize the poor on our own doorsteps. It’s a dubious mental strategy for keeping them at arm’s length, while maintaining our identity as people who cares about justice.
For many years, I lived in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside. It’s Canada’s poorest postal code. The United Nations even described my neighborhood as “a two-kilometre square stretch of decaying rooming houses, seedy strip bars and shady pawn shops.” It’s the kind of edgy place where youth groups show up for short term mission trips during their spring breaks.
But, in reality, doing justice takes more than a few days. It takes a lifetime commitment to costly and boring, ordinary love.
We started a Christian community here in inner city Vancouver almost a decade ago, and there are folks in the neighborhood who have been living here a lot longer than that. Their faithfulness, their stability, their rootedness is a beautiful testimony—and it’s a challenge to me.
When we started opening up our home for homeless friends to come in for dinner, we wanted to be more than a soup kitchen or service provider. We wanted to be a community where people experience Jesus in everyday life together.
Each night we invited folks to sit around the dinner table with these simple words: “If this is your first time here, welcome. You’re our guest. Sit back and relax. If this is your second time here, welcome. You’re part of the family. And that means you have the privilege of helping with the clean up afterwards.”
After dinner, one of the kids would pull out a bunch of popsicle sticks, each one tagged with one of the many chores that would return our kitchen and dining room back to spic and span condition. The chores everyone avoided were “wash dishes” and “dry dishes.” With up to 30 people eating, the dishes can take a while. I’ll let you in on a little secret. We never shared it widely because we knew the popsicle stick game was fragile. But, our dishwasher has been in fine working order all these years.
We chose not to use it because we figured there’s something good and real about washing up together. It may not be a street protest. It may not be a war-torn refugee camp. But it’s real life. Wherever two or three people gather in the name of soap suds and clean dishes, there is community in the midst.
So there we are—grappling with a soaking tea towel. Trying to wipe the suds off of a million plates. And all the while, carrying on a conversation about nothing and everything. That’s about as radical as it gets around here.
There is something you find in the kitchen, around the dinner table and the shared clean up afterwards that you won’t find in a soup kitchen or a food line. You find family.
Everybody wants a revolution. But no-one wants to do the dishes. It’s less glamorous, and it involves actually doing something. But maybe we can change that, one popsicle stick at a time.