What Extreme Poverty Teaches Us About Belonging.

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In seminary I  worked a few shifts a week at a coffee shop down the street from my house. I wanted to do it so I could earn a little extra income, gain new experiences and minister among the downtown community where I lived.  My time at the shop made me happy. I learned lessons from the service industry that are invaluable to ministry. I also met some great friends. Let me tell you a story about one of them.

We had a regular who was Nicholasville’s resident “homeless guy”. There were all sorts of crazy stories about him (the usual..he is actually a millionaire, he flew a chopper in nam with his feet, was a roadie for Hendrix), but I was able to develop an honest relationship with him. He actually had a home, but you would swear he sleeps on the street. My friend is mentally ill and at times can’t take care of basic needs. He was many of the people we hear about who lives in extreme poverty, but he spent money at the store every day.

My friend belonged at the store.  If I didn’t see his shopping cart outside the window at night, I worried.  You could set your clock to when he showed up at the store.  I actually think that comparing income vs. purchase amount, he was our best customer.  No matter what was going on, Billy knew he could always come in and escape the cold with a cup of coffee and a quiet place to relax. I learned many lessons from that relationship and I want to tell you a few of them.

What Extreme Poverty Teaches Us About Belonging.

1. In Belonging, we are identified as a Member.
Like I said, my friend belonged at the store.  He was a fixture. To call him a regular would be an understatement. He was genuinely comfortable at the store, perhaps the only place so. When we truly sense belonging, we transcend the marketplace. We are in the midst of safe space, and we have the ability to let our guard down.

The table in the picture above was my friends usual spot when the weather is nice. When it wasn’t, he always sat at the same table inside.  At times we have had to defend his space from others, generally because they assumed he was a nuisance.

The space we inhabit ceases to become a place we invade but instead becomes a place we are willing to name. The interesting thing is we do this without privatizing it. We are part of the collective ownership. Membership isn’t equated to consumption but instead to organic sustenance.

2. In Belonging we have a known benefit
Benefit is a different animal than rights. To use civil language, rights are considered to be inalienable. In the marketplace, the customer is always right. Benefits are extremely different.  In order to have benefits, we have to be a member.

The early church really understood this. Because they were called to be a pilgrim people, they no longer lived in the civil realm of Roman society. This made them pariahs, and they lost the benefits of society. Therefore, the Church stepped in and show such community, to the point that the world no longer had ownership over the desires of these people. The benefit of being inside the Church overtook the benefit of secular society. But to get to this place, you had to be one of the faithful (no easy task in those days)

We often think of benefits being morally negative, but instead they are what give meaning to our membership. My friend used to spend his evenings sitting on the curb outside the gas station. He was teased by the kids in the neighborhood and looked down upon by the adults. He had no humanity and did not matter. Our little shop provided a very different environment. Imagine if we started thinking about how life inside our churches can provide a drastically different narrative of membership than the world outside?

3. In Belonging we invest in the operation.
My friend bought AT LEAST a cup of coffee when he came in, and many times he purchased dinner as well.  I have looked around and seen plenty of folks with wealth enough to get a $2 coffee sit for hours without buying anything, but he wouldn’t come in without making a purchase. I occasionally would bring someone else in and would buy them coffee.

Because of our membership and benefit, we are willing to make an investment. This can be financial, time, or our energy. We invest because we see value.

Do our communities truly have the value that people are willing to invest in? Think beyond the scope of money. How do we empower those who belong gaining an interest in our mission? That is the question that we should be thinking about.

Ultimately, belonging trumps the narcissistic individualism of our culture. To belong means we recognize that we need others. As leaders, we have to express this need to others if we want to lead people in belonging. The root of salvation is our recognition that God went to extreme bounds in order for us to belong again to him. The Church mirrors this radical incarnational event