Up Close and Personal: Embracing the Poor

I found an old book on the shelf today called Up Close and Personal: Embracing the Poor written by Harold Shank, Anthony Wood, and Ron Bergeron.  Publishing date 2000 and put out by College Press Publishing Company, it is a small and not-so-famous little book that you probably never heard of.  I picked it up and started thumbing through it, and I think it is noteworthy.

 

I am not sure why I have not put it on a recommended reading list before.  I think Beyond Homelessness by Bouma-Prediger and Walsh and The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne both over shadow this one.  Up Close, in my estimation, is the weakest of the three.  But this little book is not insignificant despite that, and I expect it will prove evermore important for Churches of Christ types.

I will save my critique for the comments below – assuming anyone is interested, but I think I will share excerpts from the opening pages that seem meaningful to me.

From Page 9:

INTRODUCTION

_______

Up Close and Personal:

Embracing the Poor

An Essay

It felt as though God had led us to a precipice, to the very edge of the world as we knew it, and asked us to gaze across a dark chasm.  With our feet only inches from the jagged gash in the earth that seemed to descend into nothingness, we lifted our eyes to what rose out of the mist on the opposite shore.  From the haze rose a city skyline in silhouette, magnificent and ominous, blanketed in a shroud of foreboding as thick as the mist.  Awestruck and dumbfounded, we almost didn’t hear the voice.  But we did hear it.  Faint and weak.  Distant and tired.  We listened again.  There it was… no, there.  From all around, from within, we heard echoing through the city’s maze a muted cry for help, almost a whisper, that said, “Come over and help us!”  Gazing across the gulf from the comforts of a middle-class world, the other side seemed alien and forbidding.  And if the abyss that yawned between the two worlds seemed uncrossable, it was not because of its breadth, but because of our own shallowness.  Because the world that called to us for help was not some distant land.  It wasn’t the steamy jungle of South America or the alien desert terrain of the Middle East.  It was our own inner city.

-Ron Bergeron

 

From Page 10 & 11:

We never held mass prayer meetings in a stadium.  We didn’t organize grand marches to the state capitol.  There were no radio or television broadcasts to reach the masses.  We didn’t have a fifteen-million-dollar grant or even a million-dollar budget.  We didn’t have a grand office building.  There was no fleet of cars or service trucks.  We didn’t have a warehouse or a computerized database.

We just didn’t have any of those things.  None of those elements used in working with the poor are bad or inappropriate; that’s just not what we did.  We found that working among the poor was not a matter of programs or bureaucracies.  The problem with helping the poor was not the lack of money or the shortage of food.  It wasn’t merely the difficulty of finding good medical care or adequate housing; of course all of those are critical pieces to helping the poor.  We can’t go on without them.  But we found that one other thing was more crucial: becoming up close and personal.  We found that helping the poor was just

–     One person at a time

–               Face to face.

–                         Hand in hand.

–                                  Side by side.

The road from the suburbs to the inner city was one of the longest we had ever traveled.  Overcoming the isolation was the beginning of cooperation.  Putting aside the insulation was the start of collaboration.  Leaving our partisanship opened the way to fellowship.

We so often felt distant, like we were standing across the chasm Ron described.  Initially, as we pondered the gap before us, it seemed that God brought us to this gaping canyon and gave us the will to cross but not the means.  Or so we thought.  But we soon learned something quite different.  We learned that being up close and personal enabled us to embrace the poor.  And that’s what this book is about.  It’s about how God led us across the gulf and taught us to build bridges to the other side.  It is the story of three apprentice builders learning step by step.  It’s about the questions of bridge building: How should we build it?  To whom are we building it?  Why are we building?  Where should we build it?

On the other side, we encountered a culture that we admire, respect, and love.  What we discovered was a simple truth: God changes people through other people, up close and personal.  It wasn’t the “project in the projects” that promised lasting spiritual change but the quiet, persistent presence of God’s family plodding along, step by step, side by side, with the people of the city.  to build successfully, we had to embrace them.

Not just a physical embrace easily given and easily forgotten, but the interlacing of lives.  It takes time in the inner city to develop a trusting embrace.  Respect and sympathy can’t be doled out like soup and sandwiches.  You can’t embrace the poor like some good-hearted grandmother welcoming her prodigal son home from the casinos.  It’s not convincing to either the grandmother or the son.  The inner-city resident can tell the difference between head-counters and heart-comforters.  They know how to separate the deeds done out of middle-class guilt from those done in genuine Christian love.  They have an uncanny ability to see through the facades and hidden agendas that may work well elsewhere.  We learned that, to embrace the poor, we had to be real with them.  We had to respect them.  We had to love them.

 

 

 

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5 comments

  1. LoiterLarry · June 7

    You said you would save your critique for the comments below. Well, I am interested.

    What is your over all impression of the book?

    What one or two things do you like about it most?

    What one or two things do you dislike about it in particular? (If any)

    Do you recommend I purchase a copy? Or could I just borrow yours?

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    • Agent X · June 7

      Thanx for asking, I guess.

      I am not overly enthused for the book. It is not a great offering in the big scheme of things. But I think it is an important one in the small scheme of things – especially in Church of Christ circles. (I hate to limit it to that, but I think based on its small publication that is already the case, and the fact that it is old now means it is almost obsolete. Merely a footnote in Church of Christ/Restoration Movement literature.)

      Does that answer your “overall impression” question adequately?

      Let me go on…

      I see it as somewhat of a personal journey memoir kinda thingy. These three church leaders went to work dealing with the poor and found it challenging. Well… duh! If you read this blog, that should be no surprise. But there is a real sense that we might “get it wrong” on the one hand and a distaste for it on the other. And I think we try to cover up the latter with the former somewhat. (This book does not expose (and thus correct) that phenom, but I wonder if it might demonstrate it.) Nevertheless, it makes a good effort at helping white, middle-class churches WANT to get into this work. (At least it seems like it strives to do that, and I sense it achieves it somewhat.)

      I will let that be my over all impression.

      What I like about it is the personal experience stories are good. Based on my experiences, these stories seem genuine. Shank, Wood, and Bergeron demonstrate to me that they really have been there; done that. The really care… sacrificially, carefully, and treat the poor as if they are very important.

      I think they are right to suggest the work necessitates being up close and personal. You cannot just slap together a lot of money and bureaucratic programs and expect to serve Jesus and the poor. Sure, you can feed and shelter people like that, but you cannot love them like that. And any such help is severely limited. It actually drives people away and/or into despair in the long run. But up close and personal puts our own skin in the game, and that will always keep us attentive to needs and wants of fellow humans who are hard to love, hard to help, for all manner of reasons.

      I like how they observe issues of mental illness, incarceration, multigenerational despair. I mean if you have mental illness or a criminal record, there are new layers of pain involved in life. Just assuming someone with such baggage actually wants to live “productively” means they face overwhelming odds with pitfalls most of us never really consider. It is far to easy to sit back and judge their failure and not really help. The book does a good job of demonstrating this kind of stuff and does so in a personal way. These ministers got out there and discovered these things for themselves. They hope to give words to these phenoms – to put handles on the issues so we can take hold of them, discuss them carefully, and thoughtfully address them.

      As for what I don’t like:

      First of it has been a very long time since I read this book. I have skimmed it a bunch in the last few days, but without getting too deep into it for my critique, let me say it is not a book I would have wrote. I find it hovers very near some deep and important ideas that it never quite addresses – OR – where it raises some really good questions it winds up caving to some lame answers. I sense, to use a sports metaphor, that on some pages it runs the ball all the way down to the goal line only to fumble it there and watch the other team run it all the way back! Ouch.

      For starts, I would write a book about bearing the image of God. I would use scripture all through to demonstrate the biblical nature of that idea and how it is God’s plan for the poor and for the rich in helping the poor. I also would very much discuss (as part of that image bearing package) God/Jesus as CARPENTER! And what do carpenters build?

      Well different carpenters build different stuff to be sure, but what stuff does God/Jesus build?

      THE HOUSE of GOD! That is what they build! And what do HOMELESS people need???

      (hint: it’s implied right in the term “homeless” btw)

      They need a HOME!

      And what better home is there than THE HOUSE OF GOD???

      That could easily be my book. Shank, Wood, and Bergeron went with getting up close and personal, which is fine. That is near the mark alright. And I would incorporate that into my book on HOME for the homeless since people dwelling together in a home tend to be FAMILY and thus up close and personal by design.

      Do I sound nit-picky?

      Maybe. But I do like the book and this is my critique…

      I give the guys kudos for actually opening a Bible! They use scripture in a lot of places and even use it as a guide! This is very important to me. I think it is absolutely vital. Foundational.

      Let me stress again – using scripture is sooooooooo very important! And thank God, these guys do – at least a little.

      This still leaves room for critiquing how well they use it, but I do not want to under-emphasize the importance of the fact that these guys actually gave it a real effort. So often, these days, scripture is simply bypassed, and so I want to extend my gratitude for the fact that these guys made a real effort. And their effort is not all bad or wasted. I want to honor it as far as I can, but I do have critique of their use of scripture in the end.

      First off, they could have used more and could have made it even more foundational. All the anecdotal stories in the world, no matter how compelling, are nothing to me if they contradict Jesus, and they are completely secondary when I find a better version of the point they make in the scriptures to begin with. This book could have been more attentive to that.

      But they make a point to say that Jesus, in John 1:14, came to dwell among us. He came down from his lofty height to be among us. Shank, Wood, and Bergeron use that idea to suggest we, the Body of this Christ, likewise need to come down to street level and be among the lowly there.

      So far so good! I like that. I think it is biblical and makes a good point. We have to go at least a couple chapters in to get there, but that is good. But then in the same chapter, I think, they wind up suggesting that our suburbanite churches need to plant inner city churches where the people of those lowly cultures can have that lowly culture separate and apart from our suburban style church and worship. I mean, some of these street people are not going to feel comfortable with our stuffy-white, middle-class style worship, and so if they have their own style on the other side of the tracks where they already live, we can bless it from here.

      I gotta call hogwash on that.

      We don’t need a “homeless” church to take its place beside the cowboy church, the indian church, the Chinese church, the black church, the Methodist Church, the gay church, the Baptist church, the First Baptist church, the Second Baptist church, and the Presbyterian Church and so forth… No. We need to all be one together! When the cowboys and the Indians and the truckers and bikers and little old grannies and black people and brown people and yellow people and red people all get together in ONE church as ONE body, then we honor the Shema prayer of old. Then we honor Jesus’s prayer in John 17. Then we honor the worlds of St Paul in Galatians 3:28 among a host of other scriptures.

      Shoot… even this book written by these same guys in the next chapter says that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week! And they downplay the very barrier they build up in their own previous chapter!

      This all makes me ask, how can they be so blind? How can the publishers of this book be so blind? How can us readers (the few there are) read this and be so blind to it?

      But on that same token, I am watching the Premier Homeless Church of Lubbock which recently changed its name do much the same self-contradictory and Bible contradictory stuff! No one wants to call the bluff on it. Why not?

      Yes, I can pick this book apart in several ways. And it needs to be discussed at that level. The book is great at starting the conversation that needs to be engaged. But we must not just simply stamp our approval on it and think these guys have said it all, said it correctly, and we should swallow it uncritically. No. It has great value, but it has big weak spots too.

      That is just a couple, but I hope it answers your good questions.

      And yes, you can borrow my copy.

      X

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      • LoiterLarry · June 7

        Acts 4:32-35, X.

        Does Shank, Wood, or Bergeron ever suggest the church behave like the Acts 4 church?

        I bet not.

        We like to think of ourselves as “biblical”, but we are not. We all have these huge blind spots in our “biblical” thinking and practice. We need each other to help us to see past these blind spots. I have them; you have them, we all have them.

        But here’s the thing – Shank, Wood, and Bergeron should be helping each other see this blind spot in their effort to be “biblical”, but they don’t.

        You did not point out this passage in your response to me. Maybe you didn’t see in that blind spot. However, it was you that showed this to me, so I am thinking you know about it. But then I think Shank, Wood, and Bergeron know about it too. But they wrote a book that incorporates this blind spot – NO? I mean you read the book, not me. Is it there?

        I bet if it is there, it makes the cover of the book and maybe even the title.

        You see, they want to call it Up Close And Personal. I get it, that is good. Necessary, and all, but not sufficient. And only one small part of being “biblical”. Up Close and Personal – a small step for mankind, but a huge step for the man reading their book. Can you see that, X? Can you see what I am driving at? The reader of their little book is not reading the Bible – not really. He, let’s assume it’s a he, is reading Shank, Wood, and Bergeron, but not really reading St. Paul or St. Luke. Their reader is getting Paul and Luke, and thus Jesus, distilled through Shank, Wood, and Bergeron. And Shank, Wood, and Bergeron are selling a book – a book that pushes their readers to “get outside their comfort zones”. I bet there is a chapter called “Getting outside our comfort zones” – I bet. Because, that sounds trendy. It feels heavy. It’s not really that heavy, but it sounds like it and feels like it. Like riding the Shock Wave roller coaster at Six Flags, it is safe, but it feels dangerous! And for $20, you can ride the thrill ride that really is safe.

        Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me. Yeah, I heard you say Jesus tells ONE MAN to do that. Thus it is not wrong to do. In fact it is right to do, BECAUSE JESUS SAYS SO, but he only told ONE MAN to do it, so it may or may not apply to you and me. Whew! OFF THAT HOOK!

        But the church in Acts got the message! The whole church! A lot of people in one church got that message that Jesus only told ONE MAN, and they found it was right for them! The same church that sets the example for all the rest of us took the message Jesus gave to that ONE MAN to heart, and lived it! But we keep watering it down for ourselves!

        The poor people in those streets need a church, right X? Isnt that your message of this whole blog in a nutshell? I can show you post after post of your own blog where this is the agenda YOU keep promoting! The poor don’t need another 501c3 organization of bureaucracy and programs; they need the hands and feet of JESUS – the Body of Christ! The church was built on this rock, not the 501c3 of God. Your words, X!

        And here we have a book by three church leaders who SELL us the sensation of having done something special because we actually get out of our car and talk to a homeless person UP CLOSE and PERSONAL. And like you, I don’t want to shortchange that! That is a real part of it. But it is not the whole story. It is like the FIRST step in a much longer journey, but these guys entitle their whole book after that first step. And it FEELS like a giant leap for mankind, but really it is a small step – the first step – in a much bigger journey. And they want to be “biblical” and you want them to be “biblical”, but if you read your Bible, you find UP CLOSE and PERSONAL is there alright, but it is the one tiny, little, speck of the BIG PICTURE! But if all you do is read Shank, Wood, and Bergeron, then you think you have the whole enchilada. But you don’t.

        What about the Acts 4 church? Is there ANYONE taking about that in ANY of these books written by these Bible scholars and church leaders?

        I bet not.

        Like

      • Agent X · June 7

        Wow! Thanx for that response, Larry!

        You know… actually, that passage did cross my mind. And to be fair, I did not read every word of the book – at least not recently. But I don’t recall finding it dealt with, at least not in any meaningful way. So, I hate to comment on it until I verify that, but I think you are right. I think if they were dealing with it, the flavor of the book would be dramatically changed. It would have to be different.

        I suppose I did not mention it in my response to your questions because I am juggling foster kids and it is hard to keep all these things fresh on my mind. (We have three in diapers now!)

        I wonder if you still want to look at the book. I will keep it handy until our next meeting, if you want it; its yours.

        X

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  2. Pingback: Stifling Contradictions | Fat Beggars School of Prophets

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