Potlucking with Jesus: Poverty, Injustice, and the Church
Laura: Hey everyone, welcome to the latest episode of Rethink Poverty. That’s right, we got a new name! Rethink Poverty is a monthly podcast featuring inspiring stories from people, churches, and nonprofits who are involved in helping people rethink poverty alleviation. I’m excited to introduce you to today’s guest, Michael Rhodes. Michael has a PhD in theology from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He’s also the director of community transformation at the Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies, where he works to equip pastors and community development leaders with tools for community transformation. Michael Rhodes is also the co-author of Practicing the King’s Economy, a book to help people honor Jesus in how you work, earn, spend, save and give.
Laura: Michael, tell me where you’re from and a little bit about yourself.
Michael: Yeah, so I am from right here in Memphis, Tennessee, and I’ve lived here my entire life, except for four years at Covenant College and two years working in Kenya as a missionary on an agricultural development project with the Anglican church there. And my life’s sense of calling and work has been to try to help the church hear God’s word calling us to be people who embody God’s justice, and love, and mercy for those who have been marginalized and oppressed, and who are suffering, and who are poor. So, that sense of call has gotten me involved in a variety of kind of community development initiatives. In Kenya for two years, and then full-time for five years working for one nonprofit here in South Memphis, called Advance Memphis.
Michael: And then it also made me interested in learning more about God’s heart for the poor and for justice in scripture, which led me to do a PhD at the University of Aberdeen or through the University of Aberdeen, and thinking about moral formation in relationship to poverty. And so, now I teach at a bible college, Union University, in their College of Urban and Theological Studies here in Memphis, and we focus on equipping pastors, and lay leaders, with theologically-informed tools for community transformation.
Laura: Yeah. I’m actually from Jackson, Tennessee.
Michael: Oh, okay!
Laura: I know where Union University is.
Michael: So, you know Union. That’s great.
Laura: What are a few things you love about your hometown?
Michael: I think it’s hard for someone who is a hometown person to say what they love about a hometown, because it’s like your family. The thing that I love about it the most is that this is where I belong, you know? This is my village. And so, I love having been in a place for 30 years, and love the just familiarity of it, and familiarity makes it sound like it’s comfortable, but I more mean like the way that you get to know a place more and more the longer that you spend there. And so, I think there’s sort of like a grit, and a determination, and a commitment to try to move in a new direction in our city that just comes from being a city that’s at the bottom of all the wrong lists.
Laura: And did you come directly back to Memphis, or was it right after college you and your wife went to Kenya?
Michael: So, I was raising money. We were raising money to go to Kenya for the first eight months after graduation, and so during that time, I started working at Advance Memphis. Which, I mean for listeners that don’t know Memphis, Memphis is a majority minority city. We’re around 60% African American. And my upbringing, which I always lived within the city limits, was almost exclusively white. Where I went to church, where I went to school, was all extremely white, and my church, the church that I grew up in has a particularly troubled racial history, because in the fifties, we had an explicit policy of racial segregation. And in the sixties, we were subject to a year and a half of the so called Kneel-Ins Campaign, which is where black and white Christians who were watching the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement said, “Well, what about the church?”
Michael: And so, black and white Christians would attend church together to try to demonstrate the power of the gospel, to shatter our racism, but they were actually denied entrance to a number of churches, including ours, the church that I grew up in, and so they returned to try to enter the church for a period of months, for a period of weeks over 18 months, and that split our church. And so, that was in the sixties, but the church that I grew up in decades later was still reeling from that experience. Our Christian lives had become unmanageable because of this racism that was sick in our hearts and lives, and in our life as a church, and that’s why we were bringing in people like the civil rights evangelical, Dr. John Perkins, who was saying, “Look, God cares about the poor. God cares about justice. God hates racism. It’s a sin.”
Michael: And so I was like in all that, and knew all that, but it was totally head knowledge, because my life was still completely segregated. And so, partially because of all that, when I thought about community development, I thought more about going to Kenya than about being in a place like Memphis. But I kind of asked-
Laura: Is that because when you saw poverty in general, it seemed like something that was more far away than on your local level?
Michael: You know, it’s actually not, and this is embarrassing to say out loud, but I think it gives the truth to the damage that segregation, and white racism, and anti-blackness has done to our Christian life together. I really cared about what was going on in Memphis, and really cared about the injustice, or I thought I did, but I actually thought, “You know, I’m six foot three, I wear lots of flannel, I like banjo music. It would actually be easier for me to go to East Africa and connect there than to go back to my own home city.” That was the crazy thing that was in my head.
Michael: And so, sort of by accident while I was raising money to go to Kenya, I ended up working at Advance Memphis, which is in a 97-ish percent African American neighborhood. At the time, it was the third-poorest zip code in the country economically speaking, and my job right out of the gate was trying to help adults who’d been deeply harmed by our city’s segregation and injustice, but who’d gone through our job training program, trying to help them find work. And I was immediately just confronted with my own garbage, inspired by how hard these men and women were working. You know, they gave the lie to all these myths that I believed about economically poor people and people from that neighborhood and whatever. It was just incredible. It was an incredible season for me.
Michael: We did go to Kenya for two years, but we kind of had this suspicion that God might want us to come back, so after we’d been in Kenya for two years, we actually made the decision to come back to South Memphis, back to Advance, and that’s when my family moved into that community there in South Memphis, where we are now today, and so that’s kind of a little bit about how things have gone since college.
Laura: So, what neighborhood are you living in currently?
Michael: My neighbors would call it South Memphis. It’s a community where Advance Memphis organizations that I worked for for a number of years served one zip code, the 38126 zip code, which is the zip code immediately south of our downtown business district. And the reason why they got there is because there were two large government housing projects there. And you know, I talked about the joy that comes from being in a place over time. When I was growing up, I thought that communities were poor because poor people kind of happened to live in them or something. The longer that I’ve spent in our neighborhood, the more acquainted with the history I’ve become, I’ve started to realize that no, actually in the early twentieth century, the first black millionaire in the South built his home in our neighborhood.
Michael: And actually, there were a bunch of working-class African Americans living alongside white families and buying homes in our neighborhood, which is why you see some of these old Victorian mansions, and then you also see a bunch of sort of like high quality modest homes, some of which were owned by African Americans. In one of the worst places, at one of the worst times in our country’s history, in Memphis in the shadow of Jim Crow and all this. But that black wealth was threatening to the white supremacist establishment here, and so the mayor in Memphis, Boss Crump, used eminent domain, called these working class black-owned homes a slum, and used eminent domain to seize those homes, raze them to the ground, and build large, racially and economically segregated housing there in their place.
Michael: So, you basically took a neighborhood that was kind of a sign of the possibilities of black wealth and progress post the Civil War, and turned it into a racially and economically segregated community by design. Made it a poor community by design because the way that public housing worked for many decades afterwards was that if you did well, they moved you out. And it was racially segregated, but it was also economically segregated, so kids who grew up in our zip code and lived there their whole lives literally might never see anyone flourish economically, because if someone from the projects started to do well, they’d move them out, right?
Michael: And then redlining, where banks wouldn’t lend, wouldn’t make home loans in neighborhoods with black populations kept there from being investment in our neighborhood. The predatory housing market that filled the gap created by redlining hit our neighborhood, and we’ve had banks convicted of those practices of redlining and predatory lending in our city within the last five years. So, our neighborhood has just been… It’s got the most incredible people in it, you know? It’s got these incredible people, it’s got this incredible history, and yet it’s a neighborhood that’s been deeply shaped by the kind of injustice and oppression that was made invisible to me for so much of my life.
Michael: That’s been sort of the wild journey of being a neighbor in South Memphis, is meeting all these incredible people, and learning this incredible history, and then seeing these just devastating, unjust, racist practices, that just really made life very difficult for the citizens of our community.
Laura: When you entered that neighborhood, was it just you and your family? Or did you have it connected with the church, where you and other families tried to come in together?
Michael: Well, when I started working at Advance, they’d already been around for I don’t know, 10 or 15 years, and I’d already worked there, so I really… I remember when we walked through our apartment that we eventually rented at first, I came back downstairs and a guy I knew, who’d done like 10 or 15 years in federal prison, who I’d helped him get his first job out, lived across the street. So, he came across, “Oh, what are you doing?” “Well, I’m thinking about moving in.” And he really welcomed me in, and introduced me to people, so we had a really easy… We were welcomed way more quickly than we deserved, just because we happened to be friends with some folks already, and because the organization that I worked for, I’d just say I worked for Advance, and so many people in our neighborhood had gotten their first job or their next job through Advance.
Michael: So, we were connected to Advance first and foremost, and then we pretty quickly began attending a church that the church that I grew up in planted, that’s on the border of our community and the downtown area, called Downtown Church. A number of my neighbors go to that church, and a number of other people who worked in the sort of nonprofit sector in our neighborhood went to that church, so we definitely had a community through the church. And then over time, people from our circle have chosen to make their homes in South Memphis, as well, who don’t have to. And that’s included people from outside, but it also has included us seeing people who’ve spent most of their lives in the neighborhood choose to buy homes in our community, because they want to be a part of what’s going on. And that’s what I think is most exciting, and so yeah, we’ve just been really overjoyed to see what God is doing in that way.
Laura: What do you feel like you’ve learned in your journey of living in a mixed-income neighborhood, with people who might be dramatically different from you?
Michael: Yeah, so one thing that Brian and Robby and I talk a lot about in Practicing the King’s Economy, the book that we wrote a couple years ago, one of the biggest sort of paradigm shifts that we talk about is the shift from a soup kitchen model, where we think some of… We’re the people who have, and then we find people who don’t have, and then we kind of transfer our resources across the soup line to them. When that’s your model, you see other people as kind of empty containers waiting to be filled with your knowledge, or your resources, or whatever, and it’s just terrible, because you shift resources around, but what you really do is you communicate to people like me that we’re really important and really matter. And you communicate to people on the other side, the receivers, the have nots, that they really don’t matter. They’re nobodies. They have nothing to contribute.
Michael: So, you’re talking about shifting from that soup kitchen model to the potluck. If the soup kitchen divides the room up into haves and have nots, at a potluck, everyone gives gifts to everyone and receives gifts from everyone. So, it’s not a soup kitchen where everyone gets fed, it’s a potluck where everybody brings a plate. And I continue to find that metaphor, that picture of the potluck to be really powerful as I think about my own desires for the church, and for our community, and for alliance. But I would say that specifically to answer your question, what has it been like trying to live and pursue the potluck in a community like ours, well, first of all, I’ve been really convinced by just how gifted my neighbors are. I’ve been really astounded by just how inspiring people who have gone through so much pain and suffering, how much they’ve experienced, and yet they bring great gifts to the party. So, that’s one thing.
Michael: I’ve really been amazed by how measly my gifts are. So, if we kind of came in with the classic Messiah complexes and all that garbage, and we were going to change the world, and then we find ourselves at this potluck, we’ve been increasingly aware that our plates aren’t all that great, and our neighbors’ plates are really amazing. Much better than we thought. And then the third thing, which I’ve certainly alluded to, is just how much injustice and economic poverty make it difficult for people to bring their best plate. You know?
Michael: So, to give you one story, can I give a story?
Laura: Yeah, absolutely.
Michael: One of Rebecca and I’s closest friends in the neighborhood is this woman who lived downstairs from us when we first moved in to the apartment complex in South Memphis, and she got, through us, got involved at Advance, she got involved with our church, and so through that she went from being unemployed to working a decent job, and she became a caregiver, and she started making economic progress, and her son came to Advance, and he went to community college. He got his GED and went to community college, and now is providing for himself. And then we helped her, she was living in a slum house, like a terrible slum house. She was paying hundreds of dollars. 600 bucks a month in rent, I think. In a house that had no heat through the winter, two functioning receptacles. We think her grandkids got lead poisoning in the house. Just abysmal, oppressive, unjust situation.
Michael: And we took her slum lord to court and we lost. So, she got evicted, she’s just living somewhere else. It’s ridiculous. So, we worked with some friends, and kind of as that was happening, we found a house on the land bank that was up for tax sale, and so we bought a house super cheap, and then passed the hat around and renovated that house, and did a thing with our friend where she was able to rent, but each month part of her rent went towards her eventual down payment, and so after 10 months, she was ready to buy the house from us, so she became a homeowner in our community. And through that process, we’re trying to give gifts, having her in our community group, helping her with her grandkids, helping her find a job, helping her become a homeowner, but now she also gives incredible gifts.
Michael: So, now she hosts our bible study, right? She’s the primary gatherer for our community group. She’s become a member of our church. She’s doing incredible work with the kids. I mean, she’s such a force of stability for her own grandchildren and others’ grandchildren. She’s more involved in the community. She’s helped with some safety. I mean, it’s like her plate is an incredible plate at the potluck, right? It’s like I’m more and more realizing, man, what we have to contribute is less than I thought, and what she has contribute is way more. And we’re sitting at the same table now, right? She genuinely blesses my children. I’m so glad that she’s in my children’s life. And I’m so glad that her grandchildren are in our life. And all of that, right?
Michael: But I’m also impressed by watching her story by just how much of her life has been shaped by injustice and oppression, right? Not only is she in this community that’s just like the victim of this kind of generic racism in our city, but she specifically was victimized by this unjust landlord, and a court system that could not recognize that that was oppressive. She’s being failed by the school system with her kids and grandkids. She had a situation where the law enforcement mistakenly thought that she was involved with drugs, and so they came to her house and kicked down the door, and tore up all of her stuff in her new house, and had her outside in handcuffs, you know? And then my wife tried to go over in the midst of this and pray with her, and the sheriff made some very racially-insensitive remarks to my friend.
Michael: We believe in the police in our community, and we want people to be safe, but treated just terribly by law enforcement in this situation, you know? Her job is telling her she has to work seven day a week, and she works for one of the biggest employers in our city, and they’re saying, “You have to work seven days a week for these seasons.” So, she’s physically hurting and unable to be a part of the church community. She’s had trouble with not having insurance. So, all these different overlapping experiences of injustice and poverty make it so hard for her. And yet she still brings these incredible gifts to our community.
Michael: So I guess my life in the community has been seeing like, “Man.” I think evangelicalism and the kind of church having a part of it, we’re really excited about those two things I said. We’re really excited about people changing to their table, and having a different kind of community, and relationships across the lines. That’s been incredible! But man, we do not like recognizing just how terrible the systems and processes that we have all created, just how terribly they work for people who are poor, and people who’ve been marginalized, and for people of color. And just how well they work for us.
Michael: You know, so it’s just been kind of relentless to be confronted by that in community. So, yeah. I know that’s a long answer, but that’s kind of how I would parse that out.
Laura: I listened to this podcast, and I don’t remember the name, but there’s this guy named William who’s the host, and I think they were talking about injustices, and that he just doesn’t cry very often, because in his community, if you start crying, you just don’t know if you’ll ever stop. There’s so much sadness that they kind of have to keep in, because it’s overwhelming.
Laura: And in some sense, I feel like people from the other side, who don’t even understand injustice, it’s like when they are confronted with the realities of what different communities face, it’s so overwhelming to know that that’s a reality for people, how we benefit from that, and where to start, even.
Michael: Right. Right. Yeah, and I think that one thing that I’ve seen in my own life, and I’ve worked with a lot of people like me, who kind of come from a more middle-upper class background, who are trying to care for the city, and trying to… It’s not really the city anymore, by the way, because there’s a lot of poor people in suburbs and rural areas. There’s a lot of people suffering injustice in suburbs and rural areas. But you know, I’ve been around a lot of upper-middle class Christians, evangelicals, who are trying to address God’s heart for poverty and justice, and as long as we think that it’s just about helping this person manage their money a little bit better, or build their resume, or make some personal changes that will help them make progress in their life, we are so excited, right?
Michael: Because we can get our minds around that. That feels good. But as soon as we start recognizing that folks are embedded in systems and structures that do not work for them, that do not work for life, it’s hard for us evangelical kind of middle class people to hang in there, because it’s confronting our world view. That the world is bigger than a bunch of individuals who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, right? That relationship starts revealing the myths that we believe about what our world is like, and that’s painful for us, and the first response is often to run, right? Or close your eyes, or ignore.
Laura: Well, if you think about the bootstrap itself, it was originated as a joke, like if you actually sat on the floor and tried to pull yourself up, it’d actually be impossible.
Michael: Right. Right. That’s right. Yeah. I was talking to somebody about this the other day. You know, it’s the myth of the self-made person. I mean, there’s no less Christian thing to believe, of course, than the myth of the self-made person. It’s deeply heretical and un-Christian, because we’re created by God, and rescued by Jesus, while we’re yet enemies. So, any idea of like people should just kind of make their reality through their own effort is obviously deeply anti-Christian, when we think about it. But it’s also the reality that nobody changes their own diapers at the beginning, and most of us won’t change our own diapers at the end, so we come into the world with these deep debts and dependencies. But a lot of our lives are devoted to ignoring those, and pretending that they don’t exist, and I think the other part of this is the systems do work for me.
Michael: And when the system works for you, you don’t see it as a system. I’ll give you an example. Over the last seven years, my parents’ neighborhood, which is an extremely upper-middle class kind of neighborhood, with lots of cul-de-sacs, and a couple schools, and school zones or whatever, like really nice private schools kind of a thing, and our neighborhood have both tried to get speed bumps, right? And we’ve both tried to work the channels, and my parents’ neighborhood has been successful, and our neighborhood has been unsuccessful. Right? We have had eight families, households from our neighborhood, half new neighbors like me, and half people who’ve lived in the neighborhood their whole lives, at city hall, speaking to the council, saying that the cars are going to hit kids. We desperately need speed bumps on this street. We have not gotten speed bumps.
Michael: Those folks out there in the suburbs have managed to get them, right? At the beginning of that process, one of my neighbors, who’s like… She’s like one of the mayors of the neighborhood. She told me, “Michael, we tried to get speed bumps in the past. I’ll try again with you, but we’re not going to get them. The city doesn’t put speed bumps in neighborhoods like this for people like us.” And I thought, “That’s not true!” Right? That’s not true! And I still don’t think that they’re a bunch of people at city hall thinking like, “We really just want to go out and ruin South Memphis neighborhoods,” or something. But man, she was right! The system worked for my East Memphis friends to get their speed bumps, and we’re still waiting, and working, and we don’t have speed bumps.
Michael: And I don’t know all the reasons for that. I can’t diagnose all the different ways that that worked out. But I know that the system worked for my East Memphis neighbors, and it didn’t work for us, and the end result is for people in that East Memphis community, they don’t see the system. Or if they do, they see it as a well functioning one. Whereas my South Memphis neighbors are confronted with a system that does not deliver for us and for our children. I’ve got four very small children on a residential street that gets treated like an expressway, and I can’t get speed bumps, and neither can my neighbors. And so, when you are with people for whom the system’s brokennesses are the most painful, you start seeing the system for the first time, and these overlapping patterns.
Michael: So, anyways, it’s painful. It’s hard. Nobody wants to… I don’t like that. I told my friend, I was like, “No! No! We’ll go down there and we’ll do our political thing, and we’ll write our…” I got three degrees, she’s got none. I teach community development for a living, and she was right, and I was wrong. As of yet, our city doesn’t want to put speed bumps on our street.
Laura: I have a friend who works at the city government, and he kind of is in charge of helping house people who are getting kicked out of short-term motels, or like, yeah, trying to house people. Doing really great work in our city. And I was asking him, I was like, “Okay.” I know recently, I think is a… It’s happening in almost all cities, where people who are lower-income neighborhoods are getting pushed out further in the suburbs, and like wealthier families are moving in, and I was like, “Okay, well, and I see the danger in that, that when you live close to downtown, you have access to the bus system.” And I was like, “You working with the government, is there re-routing bus lines to suburbs so people can get to their jobs?” And he said no, and I said, “Why not?”
Laura: He’s like, “Well, because the families that are living in the suburbs don’t want lower-income neighbors coming into their communities.” And I was like, “What?” And he’s like, “It really sucks, because they’re going anyways, and they’re getting stranded, and they have no access, and poverty is multiplying.”
Michael: Right, and the interesting thing about that problem, and this is interesting. It’s interesting because, let me just put a plug for this, the average poor person now lives in the suburb. There are more poor people in America living in the suburbs, by the numbers, than there are living in inner cities. And in Memphis, at least, the suburbs are also extremely diverse places. And it’s so funny, there’s a lot of people in the church right now who are talking about, “We want to see multi-ethnic, multi-class ministry. We want to care about justice, and so we’re going to go to the cities.” Right?
Michael: And in fact, what a lot of suburban churches need to do is just stay where they are, right? And figure what it looks like to be neighbors to the new neighbors that are coming, and not run from the economically poor back to the city, the way we ran from the economically poor during white flight, and suburbanization, and all this other stuff. And to learn how to be pastors who say, “You know, if what you do for the suburban place is make it harder for there to be bus routes, because you don’t want poor people here, well, that’s just sin. That’s just sin.” Right? Economic segregation is a sin. God does not want his people divided up along economic lines.
Michael: We are so unskilled and unused to thinking about the gospel as the good news of God’s kingdom, and as a kingdom that has God’s heart for the poor, and for justice, and for inclusion at the center, right? We just have not been discipled for that kingdom, and so we just… We struggle to make decisions as citizens of that kingdom, and to deal with difficult, weighty decisions as citizens of that kingdom, and so yeah, I see that in my own life, and I see it in the lives of my brothers and sisters in Christ who are trying to figure out what it looks like to love our neighbors and that sort of thing.
Laura: So, say a church is wanting to practice the potluck, but they don’t have a lot of low-income neighbors at their church. What do you feel like is a starting point to get them there?
Michael: Yeah. This is hard for me, because I really believe in the church, and I really, really believe that the church, local churches are called by God to be outposts of the kingdom, and as outposts of the kingdom, I think if you look at Jesus’s ministry, if you look at the way that economic justice is done in Israel, if you look at basically Genesis to Revelation, the primary… Those are first good news for the oppressed, is that the people of God is a family in which the oppressed are full members, right? So, the best news for the suffering in Jesus’s ministry is that they get to be a part of the family of Jesus. They get to be at the table. And literally at the table in Jesus’s ministry.
Michael: And so, that’s why it’s so devastating that our church life has been discipled for racial and economic segregation, rather than for the potluck. But within that reality, we can’t just lament that. We need to lament that. We need to get on our faces and lament that, and confess that, and repent of that, but what do we do next? And so, I think one thing that I’ve seen suburban churches… Well, I’ll just give an example. I talked to a church one time, and the pastor said, “You know what? What we did, our first step was to say nobody was going to be on our local church mission board who wasn’t volunteering every week with one of our local church mission’s organizations.” And since he said that, every time I talk to a church that’s not in a place where it’s easy to be to connected to those who are suffering, in terms of their congregational life and the geography, I just think the first thing is find the organizations that are doing incredible work in your city, and that have opportunities for you to enter into relational volunteer roles.
Michael: In particular, roles that will require you to be a listener and a learner. At Advance Memphis, all of our programs had allies, our champions, where somebody could say, “Okay, there’s a group of guys going through this job training program,” and the ally agrees to just come once a week and hang out with them, and eat lunch, and talk about what they’re learning, and we would give the ally a set of questions from a person. The class answers the question and the ally answers the set of questions. And we told the allies at the beginning, “You’ve got stuff that you’re bringing, and you got stuff that you need, and so you ought to be ready for a genuine relationship of giving and receiving.”
Michael: And I’ll tell you what, that woman who I was talking about earlier, whose life has changed in a lot of ways and who’s changed our lives, some of the most important relationships with… One of the most important relationships in her life is her ally in that workforce program, and that woman who’s her ally does not live in our neighborhood, is part of a very, very suburban church far away, but she has been so fully invested in my friend’s life, and has made a ton of difference. Like has made a bigger difference in some ways than I have. And I’ve seen that time and again, that some of my suburban neighbors who’ve really figured out how to begin relationships in mutuality, they do amazing things.
Michael: Let’s say a church begins investing in a Christian organization that’s doing great workforce development, or entrepreneurship, or financial literacy, or whatever, and they’re coming along with people, they’re getting in relationships, okay? Well, our justice system means that we get unequal outcomes, and there are a lot of lawyers in the pews of suburban churches. So, one thing we’ve done is we call on our lawyers to do pro bono work taking slumlords to court. And so we started saying, “Hey, we need you to do that.”
Michael: We’ve got doctors in our church, and so we started saying to them, “Hey, our uninsured friends need the ability to call you and decide whether they have to go to the emergency room or not.” And they do that. When we bought Rhoda’s home, and renovated it, and figured out how to arrange all that, we required bankers, and investors, and real state people, and contractors, who are all willing to say like, “I’m going to take my vocational capital and bend that towards what you’re doing in ways that are risky for me, that are maybe costly for me, to start to create a more just situation.” So, as you’re being an ally in these groups, you’re going to start have to ask yourself questions like, “Man, why is it that this group of refugees that we’re working with struggles so much? Man, why is it that this group of undocumented immigrants that we’re excited about evangelistic ministry to are discovering they’re facing all sorts of injustices? What does that mean for us and how we get involved?”
Michael: I even know a church in our city who said, “You know what? We’re just going to set quotas that X percentage of our budget always goes to black-owned businesses.” We’re just going to spend our resources in a way that builds black wealth, rather than spending our resources in a way that undermines it. So, I think you start with being radically generous with your money and your time, getting into relationships, getting on the ground, but then you allow that to transform the way that you live wherever you have resources, to aim those resources and that capital towards justice, and mercy, and love for these new friends in communities that we’re connected with. You know?
Laura: Yeah. That’s great. What do you feel like is the biggest danger when churches only volunteer at places like soup kitchens?
Michael: When we try to help in ways that are dehumanizing, we dehumanize our neighbor and ourselves. The shift for the person who’s been forced into a soup kitchen their whole lives is to see themselves as a giver, and a contributor. That’s one of the things that’s so powerful about working, helping people succeed economically through work or through education, is that people start… You start hearing people say like, “I never thought that I could do this. I never thought that I would be able to make these contributions, I had these abilities, and now I see that I do.” So, because they’re not being said like, “Here, sit down and let us feed you,” they’re learning that they have incredible gifts, because every single person is made in God’s image, and given that identity and job description to rule, and reign, and create, and cultivate in His world.
Laura: Yeah. Because if they’re just on the receiving end, they might just think, “That’s all I’ll ever be.”
Michael: Exactly. And I should say, I mean food insecurity is a real deal, and so not every soup kitchen is bad, and certainly not every program designed to address hunger is bad. What’s bad is when that’s our dominant paradigm for ministry, for thinking about what God wants from us. But the thing about the soup kitchen for the guys who are giving the soup, guys like me, is we walk away feeling so good about ourselves, and I challenge your listeners to think about every single time they’ve heard the talk from the people who’ve gone out of the church on the missions trip, or the short-term, and they always come back and they say, “It just feels so good to help.”
Michael: And it does feel good to help, and we’re called to help, and so it ought to feel good, but a lot of that, at least in my life, a lot of that feeling good when I help is about me wanting not to love Jesus but to be Jesus. Me wanting to be the Messiah, and needing that, and so what happens when I go to the soup kitchen is that those sinful idolatries get reinforced, when what I need is for them to be deconstructed in my heart, and mind, and life. So, when I’m at a potluck, what’s happening for me is I’m being forced to see myself as a receiver, right? So, if you only do the soup kitchen thing, you not only do harm to your neighbor, but you do harm to yourself. Because your stuff isn’t being challenged.
Laura: Yeah. And giving to others does feel good, but you’ve got to kind of analyze, is the person I’m giving to, will they ever have the chance to give, as well? Are they stuck in a place where they can’t ever give to anyone else?
Michael: Yeah. Everyone wants to contribute, right? This is a little bit of an aside, but I really think this image of God thing, what it means, if I was going to try to sum it up in a sentence, I would say is that every single person has an identity and a job description as God’s royal priestly family members, right? We often think about the identity piece, meaning because people were made in the image of God, we shouldn’t violate their dignity, which is certainly true. That’s a huge part of it. But to be made in the image of God is not just to be given a job title. It’s to be given a job description. And that means that we all long to perform that royal, priestly job description.
Michael: And I think one of the things about injustice and poverty is it makes it harder. My friend Rhoda, injustice and poverty make it harder for her to be the kind of royal, priestly family member that she wants to be in our neighborhood, in our home, in our church, and so we ought to be looking for ways to receive the gifts of our fellow royal, priestly family members, who’ve been forced to sit in the soup line.
Laura: In your work in community development, do you feel like you have a role model you look up to?
Michael: Joe Muutuki and Shafkat Khan ere the pastors at New City Fellowship in Nairobi when we were there, and New City Fellowship Nairobi, Muutuki is an African Kenyan, son of a witchdoctor, grew up in a very difficult circumstance, and Shafkat was an Indian African, an African who was born in Kenya, but his ancestry was from India. And Indian Africans and black Africans often don’t get along. There’s enormous ethnic tensions between those groups. Shafkat was also a paraplegic because of a really terrible car accident, and when we were there, he was doing incredible work with people with disabilities who had been just pushed into the shadows in Kenyan society, often Muslim, and just doing the gospel of justice and mercy, and inviting people to know Jesus.
Michael: And Muutuki was bringing together people from all different tribes and across the Indian-African divide, and it was just… It was the event that sealed Rebecca and I’s commitment to never give up on the church, because we have seen that the church is an outpost of the kingdom of God. That doesn’t make it easy or clean. No, it’s actually incredibly messy, and part of my story is being really involved at New City, and getting into the weeds, and sometimes you’d see the tensions that ran along this kind of predictable lines of class, or ethnicity, or tribe, or whatever, and I would be thinking to myself, “Come on, guys. Why don’t you just love Jesus, man? You guys are just bringing in your culture. It’s like so lame. What’s wrong with you all?”
Michael: And then it was like God used one of those moments to shine this light on my [inaudible 00:44:27] roots. You are 24 years old. You come from a majority-black city, the most racist city in America, and you have hardly ever had authentic relationships across racial lines in your own city. You are the problem. These Kenyan believers are miles ahead of you. And so, part of us coming back to Memphis, in some ways was like, “Oh.” Again, we came to Kenya to help. Actually, these brothers and sisters have taught us what being an outpost in the kingdom could look like.
Michael: That’s really what it is. I want to be a part of the community that God is building, and bringing, in which everyone has a place, and in which we receive God’s gifts through the hands of our neighbors, and we give the gifts that we’ve received to our neighbors in fellowship with Him.
Laura: You can find Michael on Twitter @michaeljrhodes. In this episode, we mentioned Practicing the King’s Economy. This book is an incredibly helpful tool for Christians desiring to live the counter-cultural life for the common good, especially as it relates to their money and resources. Michael Rhodes, Robby Holt and Brian Fikkert wrote this book to help people honor Jesus in how you work, earn, spend, save, and give. Learn more at practicingthekingseconomy.org.
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