Over the past couple of months, I’ve been sitting on Thursday evenings with a number of brothers in the faith pretty near my neighborhood (aka, biking distance). During that time, we’ve gone between biblical commentary discussions, men-talk, and watching the video No Plan B. The latter item we wrapped up last night, and some of the discussion was not just revealing, but caused me to continue to ask myself about the perspective of “social justice” and who is really receiving the benefits of such actions.

The video centered around having compassion for people who frankly speaking live in the kind of poverty that can only be imagined by some folks. One of the heart-wrenching parts of the discussion – which was pointed out every week – is how its impossible to know what it means to live in such poverty because we live in the US. I call bull on that comment every time – mainly because that kind of poverty is experienced here in the US, we just tend to do a great job of turning a blind eye towards it judging someone else further away from our immediate circles as more benefiting of aid/assistance.

Thing is, I sit with a group of guys who come from fairly affluent families. And I don’t mean that they are what we’d consider rich, but well off enough and encased within the kinds of social structures where they really don’t know what it means to live in any sense of poverty. So socially speaking, there’s a truth to their comment – the structures they are used to cannot look like the broken foundations which cause others (here and abroad) to live impoverished lives.

I grapple with this. Not because I myself lived in such impoverished conditions, but I know literally what my social structures have kept me from seeing. And that gives me license to have two points of view: I’m blessed and deserving of where I am; and I’m obligated to assist those whose social structures don’t look like mine, so that my “wealth” is not a cause for their continued setbacks.

Bah, even saying that much I’ve thrown all kinds of cultural, racial, and economic biases into the mix. It is very hard for anyone to tear away their concepts of life/being to see life genuinely through the eyes of another – that is, not without living their lives. But, even taking on that alternate life, you still carry with you the straps of a concept of life that’s different, that’s empowered. You aren’t native to the social structures or even culture that you now live in.

We looked at the video series for four weeks, and talked about what we saw both in the video and abroad (in some people’s cases), and you know what, we still had the hardest time moving forward. There was (and continues to be) a lot of talk about what we can do globally and locally to not just be a (c)hurch but to live as the (C)hurch.

When my best friend and I used to volunteer, and later work at a teen center in Lancaster, PA; one of the things we noticed is that the most effective methods of getting through to the kids we interacted with wasn’t to pull them into our sense of what’s right/wrong, but to empower them to make decisions that showed our perspective, but kept their ownership over their lives and communities. We had to work hard at this, because in a lot of respects it meant that we had to start life not from what we were brought up in, but in what the kids saw themselves as becoming.

We had to find ways of giving them ownership over their decisions.

When I watched the video series, that’s not what I saw as the option to these communities. There was (and should be) the mandate to provide for those people who have needs (food, clean water, etc.). There was not the push to go beyond that and educate those communities towards the skills they need to keep them from becoming once again a “charity case.” For all of the compassion preached, there was also no sense of giving them back their lives.

One of the guys remarked that he was at first interested to seeing the video series, but upon not hearing any testimonies of the people effected, he had to question what the motives of the video (as it was assigned) were. Were we to watch and discuss this as a means to spark a passion towards service/social justice, or was this designed to compel us to become “bigger givers,” or what? There was no clear understanding on his part (and mine as well after that question) as to the next steps for this group being that we were a mixed fellowship (everyone goes to different places of worship). For all of the push towards being compassionate, we had little encouragement to take ownership of those actions that served local and global communities.

At some level, there’s an individual call to action that has to happen within items like this. You either see a need and move, or quake in the need and stay passive. I’ve been as guilty as anyone in this respect. There are moments where we need to be forward in serving one another, compelled by compassion, and encouraging people to not just be a recipient of a charitable action, but a sowed field where they can now be an agent of change for their local (and later global) communities.

I used to know so well how to filter that compassion into steps that encouraged other communities to come into their own. After watching that video, I’m impressed to find that heart inside of me again. I only hope that I’m not doing it to make those people and groups match my ideas of social justice and economic well being, but doing it to give them back the ability to own their communities, creating the kinds of actions and justices that God puts into the hearts of all them who have been called according to His purpose.