When I think of ministry and mission, I have to think about why I do what I do. While working as a librarian downtown Cleveland, Ohio, before I entered the community, I would take the bus into the city and notice the lines by the Cosgrove Center, the local Catholic Charities outreach which served meals, as well as the men who were homeless coming into Cleveland State Law Library where I worked. I would often give up my bus fare to the guy waiting along 14th Street and Euclid near my bus stop. I could always manage to find enough change in the bottom of my purse to make the fare home. I had gotten into the habit to be sure to have some loose change or singles just in case I had to pay for a good conscience. I gave expecting that the people I encounter would succeed in tapping into my fear and not my compassion. No, I don't have platitudes about following the mission of Jesus and living out of the gospel and giving as though I am doing the right thing. All I know is that the mission it seemed at that time was to transform fear into compassion.
So, I gave not out of compassion but out of fear-fear that the person before me will go hungry and because if I didn't give up my last quarter that I might just miss out on an encounter with God. What I needed to do instead was see the person before me in order to listen to their story and identify that his or her need is my need, too. The poor are always with us and sometimes that person is me needing to see the systemic causes of poverty, racism and other injustices. Martin Luther King, Jr. talks about how "we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside. But one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." With each encounter I am listening and aware that by building relationships, I will move the mission of bringing more abundant life to God's people just a few inches closer to making a difference. If only for that moment of encounter there is compassion, it can hopefully be carried through to the next moment in that person or in me.
At times it might feel like you're being swindled out of your lunch money, but somehow, because of faith and a desire to make a difference in the world, I do it anyway. I do it because I have to transform fear into compassion in order to bring about justice. When I stop seeing my encounters with someone in need with the question of "what do you want from me?" to "what is your story?" then I know that my fear has shifted into compassion. The I-Thou encounter which Martin Buber speaks of so well is that the story in the encounter with someone who can easily be dismissed as a stranger or somebody wanting something can sometimes give more insight into the edifice that needs restructuring than any amount of social analysis or platitudes about doing the right thing. Why do I do what I do? Because I have to listen to the story that God is trying to tell through each encounter. This is the call I must follow; this is how I find God in the world today.