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Jesus said to his disciples: "Be constantly on watch! Stay awake! You do not know when the appointed time will come. It is like a man travelling overseas. He leaves home and places his servants in charge… you do not know when the master of the house is coming… do not let him come suddenly and catch you asleep. What I say to you I say to all: Be on guard!"

Hector - Is a periodic visitor at our hospitality house, usually coming to stay after a stretch in jail or in the hospital. While our guest, we works regularly, takes his medicine at scheduled times, and, in general gets healthy. But one morning, just as he seems to be adjusting comfortably, he disappears. In the ensuing weeks, we will see him on skid row: underweight, haggard and drawn in face, nervous and tense from lack of medication. Then we won't see Hector for a while - perhaps a long while - until he again contacts the house from a hospital or from jail. Cheryl - The mother of three children, addicted to crack and alcohol. Because she is HIV positive, she can only last three or four weeks on the streets before she arrives, abruptly, at the threshold of death. Last night she left us to return to the streets. When she comes back in three or four weeks, the question will be whether we take her in again. If we don't, she will surely die in a matter of days; if we do, we are, God forbid, her Co-dependants. Leroy - Is perhaps our greatest success: he doesn't do drugs or alcohol; he doesn't have AIDS; he's never been to jail and he is hard working. In the four months that he was here, he gained the distinction of being the first person in over a decade to actually save more than $200 while living with us. Working at a job that he detested, telephone sales, he was able to save almost $1,500. We urged him to keep saving until he had enough for first and last month's rent on an apartment. But, alas, the only thing that he wanted was a car. The last we heard from Leroy was a call from the discount jewellery store, which wanted to know if he was a good credit risk. Now Leroy has his own transportation, nice clothes, jewellery - and sleeps in his car.

What are we really doing here anyway? When we are really honest with ourselves, when we wake up in the darkness of the early morning plagued with doubt and even despair, we must admit that we have not accomplished all that much. We have not changed the work; the poor and the hungry are still with us in even greater numbers than when we started. Though we write and speak unceasingly, though we appear with some frequency in the media, though our founder, Dorothy Day, is considered by many to be the single most important Catholic in the history of the American Church, we remain virtually a secret movement. What we are doing here, making beds, preparing soup, and cleaning toilets. What are we doing here breaking up fights, arguing with community members and battling unceasingly with petty bureaucrats? What are we doing here going to endless meetings, talking to high school students who would rather be watching MTV, explaining to our parents for the millionth time why we don't get a salary or have health insurance or pay into Social security, apologising to them again for that time their new Buick got graffitied while visiting us?

What are we doing here wasting our time on folks who are probably going to die anyway? What are we doing here wasting our time on losers and drug addicts, people who are never going to make it? We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless; we offer hospitality, community and friendship to the poor, but in 20 years of doing this work, what have we really accomplished? When we first started, it was easier for me to dismiss our failures because we were "just a bunch of hippies running a free soup kitchen." No wonder we failed; we simply didn't know what we were doing. I use to envy all of the professional agencies filled with certified experts who ran effective programs that claimed to "re-connect the poor" or "mainstream the poor" or "empower the poor." But I have come to realise that we are not failures, because of our lack of knowledge, education, sophistication or professional staff. We are not even failures because the poor whom we serve fail so consistently.

We are a failure because we are in intimate contact with the brokenness of our culture. When Jesus told us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and visit the imprisoned, he knew that activities would take us directly into the heart of all the injustice, oppression and brokenness in our society. He assumed that such simple activities would cause us to ask questions about both ourselves and society. He assumed that such activity would involve us in a continuing process of becoming human. He assumed that this causes us to deny both power and status. He assumed that this ministry of prophetic compassion would be the ongoing work of his church.

As Walter Brueggemann said in his book Prophetic Imagination "Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural, but it is an abnormal and unacceptable condition of humanness… Thus, compassion that might be seen simply as generous good will is, in fact, criticism of the system, forces, and ideologies that produce the hurt. Jesus enters into the hurt and comes to embody it." Our tasks is to do the same. To enter into the hurt is to realise that the system is rigged. It is to realise that the poor can never be conformed to the rigorous, self-serving standards of progress, education, and consumption - patterns demanded by our culture for even minimal social acceptance. To enter into the hurt is to realise that there standards are the exact parallel to the pharisaical codes of first century Palestine that kept the poor of Jesus' time landless, marginated and debt ridden. The great temptation of people in our line of work is to abandon the basic human effort of responding compassionately in favour of a so called "effective strategy." But whether those strategies of salvation are job training programs, political action, substance abuse therapies, or just simple minded religion, their pre-disposition toward operational effectiveness and quantifiable results tend to cover over the depth of the wounded-ness.

We are not here to cure the poor or to fix the poor or to mainstream the poor; we are not here to create programs, make converts, raise money, or build great buildings. We are here to enter into the pain of the poor, to expose the wounds that make the suffering of the poor inevitable. We are here to offer healing and compassion. We are here in response to Jesus' challenge to be human. We are not here to submit to that radical surgery which will take away our hearts of stone and exchange them for hearts of flesh. We are here to morn with the poor and tell their stories. Anything less than this witness of prophetic compassion covers over the wound without healing it. Anything less than this is pious serf-aggrandisement or pompous professionalism. It is not enough to be merely people who have faith and hope in Jesus Christ. We must also be people who have a corresponding lack of faith and hope in Jesus Christ. We must also be people who have a corresponding lack of faith and hope in institutions and structures of worldly power. We must not be seduced by professional technique, or therapeutic jargon, or political power, or mindless religion.

To be an instrument of God's grace is to reject the idols of power, it is to reject the instruments of professionalism, religion and professional bureaucracies. To be an instrument of God's grace is to be human and to respond to hurt in a human manner, which is today personally and communally rather than collectively and bureaucratically. The personal, communal witness is the only means that opens a path for our God to act in the world. Only by being human can we make the world more humane. Only by being Christian can we make the world more Christian. Only by exposing the wound as terminal can we then make room for God to work. While it does not seem very effective, this work of cleaning toilets, making soup, healing wounds and offering prophetic hospitality is what our God asks of us in order that we might be human. To be human is to recognise that we are not God, that we are not all powerful. The greatest evil in all of history was perpetrated by good people who thought they could fix all human problems in one great "final solution." Whether through war, revolution or technical progress, these strategies of effectiveness share a common disregard for the relationship between means and ends.

Our collective experience of the last century demonstrates so clearly the "little way" of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin is not some outdated, pious, pie in the sky theology, but it is rather the only appropriate means of achieving our noble end - a more human world. The instruments of power, whether political, military, or bureaucratic, can achieve only disaster, even though the world would wish us believe otherwise. As Dorothy day wrote so many years ago in Loaves and Fishes of the greatest evils of the day… sense of futility. Young people say "what good can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time, we can be responsible for only the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalise and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. Finally, we must ask ourselves what it is that the master should find us doing when he returns? Running successful programs? Acquiring advanced degrees? Transforming political systems? Should he find us filling stadiums with converts, administering massive building programs, developing sophisticated fundraising strategies? No, the master has a right to expect that the servants to whom he trusted his house will be serving still - cleaning toilets, making soup, binding wounds. This is what it means to be human and not be faithful and not be effective. This is what it means to be an instrument of grace and not an instrument of power - to be servants of the poor and not administrators of poverty programs.

We may not be able to cure Cheryl, Hector, or Leroy, but we can serve them and welcome them as best we can. We can embody their hurt and tell their stories. And we can let our god do the rest.

Jeff Dietric

 • Links to other Catholic Youth Ministry programs.

 • Our Youth Ministry Resources and gospel reflections.

 • Rebeccas Community Youth Ministry Programs.

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