Recently, I was speaking with a computer programmer who works for a large multinational marketing firm. We both got talking about our respective jobs, and I spoke a little about working with street-involved youth and survival sex workers. In response, this fellow expressed puzzlement as to what leads people like me to do what we do. Granted, he respects the work, but he couldn’t help wondering what in the world is it that makes a person think, “Hey, I’d really like to work with survival sex workers! That would be… fun!”
In my own way, I’ve been thinking that question over for a long time. What is it, I’ve wondered, that continually draws me to the places and people that most others would rather avoid at all costs? There are a few options that anybody in my position must consider.
(1) Perhaps there is an element of voyeurism at work here. Am I simply searching for an adventure (I did read a lot of adventure stories as a kid), and seeking out these places and people because of the adrenaline rush I can get, or because of the larger than life stories I can gather? Am I some sort of leech that feeds off of the sufferings of others? After all, don’t our entertainment and news media (and there’s thin line between the two!) train us to be voyeurs in this way? Have I simply been less satisfied than others with the high that the evening news offers? You see, after awhile, even watching live broadcasts of school shootings can get boring… maybe I’ve had to go and seek out greater voyeuristic highs elsewhere. Maybe I’m just ‘chasing the dragon’ but the dragon isn’t heroin, it’s the trauma of others.
(2) Perhaps there is an element of machismo at work here. I was always an extremely quiet and frightened child — I was terrified of going to Sunday School classes, never mind hanging out with misfits in alleyways and rundown bars! Granted, I started confronting those fears in my second year of highschool, but how much of what I am doing is motivated by the desire to prove that I am not afraid? Further, it isn’t enough to just prove this to myself, so maybe I need to prove this to others — hence I share stories of encounters I have had with violence, if walking alleyways at night, of bringing fugitives into my home — but there’s always a wonderful pastoral, ethical, or theological twist I can put on these stories; I can hide my own insecurities, and my own image-building (i.e. self-branding) behind a wonderful screen of ‘radical piety’ or whatever else you want to call it.
As I am trying to be honest, I must confess that I expect that there are elements of both of these things within me. I hate to admit it, but the fact that I despise these things so much when I see them in others, is a sure sign that they likely exist within myself (i.e. I often find that I most despise those who manifest things I try to hide about myself, and I suspect that many of us are this way). Indeed, when I recognise these things within myself, I sometimes think about leaving the work, the places, and the people, and fleeing to some anonymous locale.
But I don’t.
And this is why: by far, the single greatest thing that draws me to these places and people, the thing that draws me inexorably, is the presence of our crucified Lord, who resides therein. To my own amazement I have discovered that such places, and such people, are often overflowing with the presence of God. What else can explain the existence of vibrant communities within neighbourhoods that stand condemned? What else can explain the existence of radical acts of sacrifice, sharing, love, and solidarity, amongst those who are used, despised, and forsaken by the vast majority of us? What else can explain the joy that bursts forth with such freedom from those who, by all of our standards, should be completely miserable? It is all of these things, all of these sacraments of God’s presence with, and within, ‘the least of these’ that draws me most forcefully to places and people of exile.
And so, with fear and trembling, I walk amongst these places and people — afraid that I, too, will use them in some sick voyeuristic or self-affirming manner, and yet unable to turn back because my salvation is only to be found here. It is not flight, but immersion, that will reshape my desires, and my identity.
Indeed, the places and people of exile grant me a full immersion into the wounded side of Christ — Thomas was told to thrust his hand into Christ’s side, and he discovered his salvation in that invitation; I have jumped over my head into Christ’s torn and bloodied side, and walk within it, eat and sleep it, and huddle close to the others who reside therein; and together we await the day when all wounds — even the wounds of Christ that still throb and bleed — are healed.
I invite any and all to join us, for I believe that the salvation of all of us is caught up in that invitation.
For its part, theology also asked in radical fashion about the locus for finding God. Porfirio Miranda responded, “The question is not whether or not someone looks for God, but whether he looks for God where God himself said he was.”
~ Jon Sobrino, quoting Miranda’s Marx and the Bible, in No Salvation Outside the Poor.