This post was published originally on the Alabama Rural Ministry blog.
On Tuesday August 30, Joe and Betsy attended a lecture at Auburn University given by Bryan Stevenson, the founder and director of The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and the author of the recent award-winning memoir Just Mercy. Auburn selected this book as their 2016-2017 Common Book. These thoughts were written by Joe and were inspired by Mr. Stevenson’s lecture and by Joe’s reading of Just Mercy. The blog is being posted today in honor of the Alabama Arise annual meeting today, which Joe is attending as ARM’s representative.
I only needed about 2 days to read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy after it was given to me as a Christmas present in 2015. I was simultaneously enthralled and heartbroken by his stories of being on the front lines of Alabama’s criminal justice system as a lawyer representing death row inmates – some of whom were mentally ill and some who were innocent – and wounded children sentenced for life as adults with no consideration for the trauma they had endured. Interwoven in these stories were the same intersecting, death-dealing threads that infect so much of our American story: white supremacy and poverty. Stevenson’s stories reveal the sick inner-workings of a criminal in-justice system in which innocence and guilt are determined more by your skin color and annual income than the “facts” of your case.
At the same time, Stevenson writes of hope and redemption. He calls us as a nation to new depths of compassion, vulnerability, and courage. He believes – as do I – that we’re all broken people whose personal healing is bound up in our shared healing; that I am not whole until we’re all whole. The organization he founded and now directs in the capitol city of our great state, The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), draws on this hope as it works to end these unrighteous realities of unequal justice across our nation.
Stevenson was invited to speak at Auburn University because his book, Just Mercy, was chosen as the selection of the year for Auburn’s Common Book program. Every freshman received a copy of the book. His lecture late in August is one of many events scheduled on campus throughout the year which will provide opportunities to explore the issues of justice and compassion his book reveals. As an Auburn alum, I found Just Mercy to be a fantastic book to challenge Auburn students to think critically about what it means when they say they believe “in obedience to the law because it protects the rights of all” (The Auburn Creed). Unfortunately, this belief is not yet a reality – not in Alabama, not in America.
This needs to change, and it can. Stevenson shaped the thoughts he shared to a packed ballroom at Auburn’s Student Center (along with a packed overflow room) around four principles to change the world. All four principles connect well with the ministry we’ve been called to in rural Alabama. While all four are worthy of their own blog post, I wanted to focus one the first one he shared since it resonates so deeply with our work and my own personal calling.
“To change the world, we need to get proximate with the poor.” -Bryan Stevenson
Stevenson heard his calling to the work of EJI during a law school internship with an organization in Georgia representing indigent death row inmates. He recounts the story of his first prison visit to tell a condemned man that he would not be executed for at least another year. The man’s response – a chorus of thank you’s followed by hours of conversation and singing songs of Godly endurance and praise as the guards roughly pulled the man back to his cell – struck Stevenson to the core. Before this meeting, Stevenson didn’t really know why he wanted to be a lawyer. Getting “proximate” – that is “within proximity” – with the poor, the suffering, the marginalized, changed the way he saw the world and his own work within it.
Stevenson appeals to a broad, secular audience and doesn’t speak in explicitly religious terms but the principles he upholds – this one in particular – could not be more Christ-like. When he talks about getting proximate with the poor, I think immediately of a poor Jewish baby born in a manger because there was no room in the inn. This baby, as we know, is and was God incarnate – in the flesh. According to John’s gospel, this was God’s chosen way of showing His unfathomable love for the world and His insatiable desire to save it and make all things new (John 1:14; 3:16). The Apostle Paul says as much in Philippians 2:5-11 as he describes “the mind of Christ” who emptied himself to become like us and kept emptying himself until there was nothing left to give.
When Stevenson talks about getting close to suffering in order to share in it, change it, heal it, he is pointing to the dynamic, ongoing, powerful truth of the incarnation that is rooted in the very being of God.
As Stevenson was sharing about getting close to marginalized people and not loving them from a distance, he said something that hit close to home (literally)…
“There is power and insight in Alabama’s poor Black Belt communities.” -Bryan Stevenson
I’m a product of one of those communities – York, in Sumter County – and I know that Stevenson is right based on my own childhood, my service with ARM as a summer construction coordinator in 2005, and my service now since 2014. I felt this power when my own life was changed as I got “proximate with the poor” for the first time as a summer intern with ARM. While I had grown up in Sumter County, I was blind to the stark realities of race and poverty which are now so evident to me. My summer with ARM introduced me to people in my hometown whose stories gave me new eyes to see the world and my place in it very differently. I heard my call to Christian ministry that summer with ARM.
When I consider ARM’s impact, I think of the relationships I made that summer and the hundreds of volunteers and other summer interns who have been blessed by similar relationships over the years through ARM’s work. There is power and insight in Alabama’s poor Black Belt communities not because ARM is special but because God is at work there in powerful ways; after all, God chooses “what the world considers foolish to shame the wise… what the world considers weak to shame the strong… what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing” so that the foolish message of the cross and resurrection might be revealed as the power of God for the salvation of the world (1 Cor. 1:18, 27-28).
It is an honor to call the Black Belt home. It’s even more of an honor to be serving with ARM in these kinds of communities where we can introduce our mission teams to new friends whose stories can help them hear God’s call to be a part of God’s saving mission for our world.
Getting proximate with the poor. Living incarnationally. Loving up-close and personal. This is what ARM is all about. And yet, it’s only the beginning if you want to be a part of God’s mission to change the world make all things new.
God got up close and personal with us in Jesus, but God’s power at work to save our world didn’t stop after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. At Pentecost, in Acts 2, we see God pouring out the Holy Spirit in order to bring Jesus’ work to its fulfillment. God’s saving work begins with the incarnation, but it extends through the ongoing presence and work of the Holy Spirit today and into the future. God’s Spirit calls us into fellowship and makes us one in Christ across all our worldly lines of social and economic division. This Spirit inspired fellowship (aka “the church”) is not reserved for a special few – it is God’s desire for the whole world, for every community in every time and place. This requires folks like Paul who were willing to be sent out beyond their own communities into new places so that God’s good news could be proclaimed to all people. Paul certainly worked incarnationally as he invested heavily in the churches he planted and discipled, but he held this incarnational approach in tension with his calling to keep expanding his vision to reach new communities. His obedience to this bigger vision has literally changed the course of history.
Why do I bring this up? Because it’s important for us to remember the importance of working for change at a broader, more systemic level.
Our heart is partnering on a personal level with families and kids and mission teams as we repair homes and bring the Bible to life. We get the truth of the incarnation and it has been the basis of our ministry model for 18 years. But, on the other hand, we’re called to extend (our “arms”… get it???). Our vision is bigger: we exist to end substandard housing in rural Alabama. All of rural Alabama; not just the 3 counties where we currently serve.
There are so many families seeking home repair assistance in Alabama. We receive calls daily, and we sometimes feel overwhelmed by this burden. Why are so many homes in need of repair? Why are so many families unable to afford to pay for these repairs? These are questions that can’t be answered on a personal level because they point to broader, systemic problems in the way our society operates politically, socially, and economically. Like the early church, ARM is called to look beyond the communities where we serve and consider the reality of substandard across rural Alabama. Like Paul, we are called to be apostles of God’s saving, redemptive work with our neighbors next door AND across our state.
One of the ways we’re responding to this call to extend is through our membership with Alabama Arise. This is a coalition of public and private organizations who have banded together to speak as one voice to the Alabama legislature concerning public policy issues that directly impact the lives of our low-income friends and neighbors. Today, I (Joe) will be attending the annual meeting of Arise where priorities for the year are set. These priorities direct Arises’ research, outreach, and lobbying resources. One of the issues I’ll be voting for as a priority in 2017 is the funding of the Alabama Housing Trust Fund, which would create new opportunities for organizations like ARM and others who want to build and rehabilitate quality affordable housing across our state.
We want to change the world at ARM. We’ve staked our claim in Alabama’s poor, rural Black Belt communities. We’re thankful for the witness of Bryan Stevenson, EJI, and so many others in our great state who remind us to get proximate with the poor as we seek the justice, righteousness, and comprehensive flourishing of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Where do you stand? How is God calling you to extend? We invite you to join us as love up close and personal through home repair and kids day camp ministries. As you get to know our friends, we hope you’ll be inspired to extend, to see the bigger vision of sweet homes for Alabama, and to step out in faith with us on this journey towards God’s kingdom.