For forty-some years now, the Church of the Saviour has been in Washington, D.C., and we now have health services in various places in the city. We also run housing ministries, job programs, programs for children. My own family has been here since 1976. This is where God has called us to invest our lives.
Yet during that time, conditions in the city have gotten worse. There is more TB, more AIDS. More hospitals are being closed to the poor than ever before. There are fewer housing options and more homeless people. There is more crack, more cocaine. Washington has become the murder capitol of the world.
And, of course, this suffering is not unique to Washington. In our nation, a child is killed by gunshot every two hours. Every night, 100,000 homeless children are on our streets. We build more and more prisons, but the prisons cannot contain the hopelessness and anger of the people. One of the sisters who worked with us has called our country the fourth world — a world in which the poor live in the midst of a rich country.
As we answer Jesus’ call to enter into the pain of the poor, we risk being overwhelmed by these needs. Sometimes people come to work with us, very enthusiastic, but then they become discouraged. Often it is because they are not seeing the changes they were hoping to see, either in oppressive systems or in people.
One of the physicians who works with us was describing how discouraged she felt about her work with women in the women’s shelter because so many of the young women were returning to a life of prostitution. Another person in our community is building single-room-occupancy housing to provide a place to live for 90 formerly homeless people in recovery. All the money has been raised from private sources, but angry neighbors have gone to the city council and gotten the building permits. After court action, building has resumed, but it now appears the city will not give a certificate of occupancy, so the building may stand empty as a monument to the oppressive governmental system.
Sometimes we see the changes we hope for and sometimes we don’t, but no matter how much we do, there is always so much more to be done, so much pain we can’t touch. In the midst of all this pain, how do we keep from being overwhelmed? How do we avoid burning out? How do we keep going?
Though I surely am not living them out, I am learning some truths that keep me going.
TO KEEP DOING THIS WORK, PRAYER IS ESSENTIAL.
For me, prayer is a time for being with Jesus and trying to be quiet and listen as the Spirit prays through me. One of our disciplines in the Church of the Saviour is to spend an hour each day in prayer. But the other hours of the day are equally important as throughout the day we send up short prayers like “thank you” or “I am yours.”
In prayer we begin to see ourselves as God sees us and not as we have always seen ourselves. Webegin to know that we are indeed chosen, that we are loved. We begin to know who we really belong to and begin to listen to what we are to be about. I often think that prayer can be much more helpful than hours of therapy.
TO KEEP GOING, I MUST BE SERVING FROM A SENSE OF CALL.
In prayer, as we learn to surrender all, to not hold back, as we seek only to do whatever it is the Lord is asking us to do, we begin to hear our own particular calls, the specific calls God gives each of us. As we encounter Jesus, he leads us to the victims of our society, those who are oppressed.
It does not come just once and not continue. God continues to call us in new ways. Sometimes it is to a major change — a new mission or a move to a new area. Sometimes God calls us in the ordinary happenings of the day. Sometimes I look back on the interruptions I’ve experienced through the day that at the time seemed intrusive and recognize that these interruptions were God’s call for me for those moments.
Call usually involves risk taking. Our natural tendency is to work hard to secure the future for ourselves, but responding to call often means letting go of some security - whatever it is that is keeping us from responding. Letting go can be scare because we don’t know what the future will hold, but in letting go, we begin to learn God’s faithfulness. We experience God’s dependability and come to trust God in new ways.
Paul described to the church in Corinth this process of learning to trust:
We should like you to know how serious Was the trouble that came upon us in the province of Asia. The burden of it was far too heavy for us to bear, so heavy that we even despaired of life. Indeed, we felt in our hearts that we had received a death sentence. This was meant to teach us to place reliance not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)
Call is not static. It does not come just once and not continue. God continues to call us in new ways. Sometimes it is to a major change - a new mission or a move to a new area. Sometimes God calls us in the ordinary happenings of the day. sometimes I look back on the interruptions I’ve experience through the day at the time seemed intrusive and recognize that these interruptions were God’s call for me for those moments.
Clarity about call protects us being overwhelmed with need because it not only guides us in what to do, but also in what not to do. We are surrounded by far more pain than we can possibly respond to. When I am obedient to the particular call God has given me, doing what little I can, I can then trust that Jesus carries all the rest of the pain that he has not called me to carry.
One final word about call. We often tend to think that in obeying call we are making a sacrifice. When our family was considering moving into D.C. with young children, we indeed thought of it asbeing here not as a sacrifice, but as a gift, not only for us, but also for our children. Sometimes a call that looks like it will involve great sacrifice may be God’s way of trying to give us heaven.
WHAT KEEPS ME GOING IS BELONGING TO A COMMUNITY OF CHRISTIANS WHO ARE ON A SIMILAR JOURNEY.
The members of our faith community come from a variety of denominational backgrounds, but we have been brought together through obedience to a common call — to provide healthcare to the poor in Washington. I believe it is important for allof us to find that Christian community in which we can share our call, where prayer and obedience to call are very natural, where we do not have to constantly try to explain our journey to those who do not understand.
When our family was coming to DC. in 1976, we had no particular work lined up. We didn’t know what God had in mind, but we believed God had called us to come. When we tried to explain that to other Christians, we sometimes felt that they thought that we were a bit loony, and we sometimes felt a bit loony ourselves.
When you’re following God into the unknown, it’s so valuable to be surrounded by a community of Christians who are really expecting God’s Spirit to lead, who will encourage you to hear your own call, and who will encourage you to help bring in the kingdom of God.
You also need your Christian community to hold you accountable for your own spiritual journey. One way we in the Church of the Saviour are accountable for our spiritual journeys is by belonging to what we call mission groups. Each mission group is gathered around a particular call. It was one of these mission groups, for example, that started Christ House.
The mission group I am part of now is centered around what we call table fellowship. Table fellowship is one of our worship times at Christ House where we eat and share together by candlelight.
In this little group we have a time we call inward journey where we tell how our week has gone, how our spiritual disciplines in prayer and Scripture have gone. We report our highs and lows of the week, tell how we have been good to ourselves, and share prayer concerns. Then we work on our outward mission, which for us is the table fellowship.
But the structure isn’t what is most important. What is important is just being with Christians who are sharing the journey and to whom we can be accountable.
I DRAW STRENGTH FROM THE MINISTRY OF THE POOR.
Living in the midst of so much suffering, I sometimes stop to ask, “Where is the kingdom of God in all this?” And part of the answer is that I experience the kingdom by being with those who are very poor.
This past weekend in chapel, one of the men who stays with us prayed, “Lord, don’t let my way get in your way.” Another man said,” I am not going to let nothing come between me and my God.”
We often hide and let all sorts of things come between us and God. Sometimes it’s things we put our security in - jobs, house, money, prestige, power. Sometimes it is our intellect or even our education that keeps us from this kind of surrender. So the poor remind me to let nothing come between me and my God, to not hide, and to be utterly dependent on God.
The poor have also helped me understand the deepest truths of the Scripture when I have missed part of it. When people first come to Christ House, they often come very broken. However, as they begin to heal physically and spiritually, they begin to lead us in our faith. Sister Mary Louise who lived with us at Christ House died this past year. Although she had a PhD. in theology, she called the poor her professors.
At Christ House when we have times of sharing around the Scripture, those who have the most profound understanding of Scripture are often not we who have formal theological training, but those poor who have been at Christ House and who share their own knowledge of Jesus.
One of the people who taught us the most this past year was Robert Spence. I met Robert at the corner of 6th and K in Washington. He was standing next to a barrel in which the homeless people had built a fire to keep warm. When the medical van pulled up, he was one of those waiting to be seen. He had a blood pressure of 190/130. We wanted to take him to the hospital, but he wouldn’t go. “I’m old and just waiting to die,” he said. He was the same age as I was.
He agreed to come back to Christ House with us, and when he came on the nursing floor and began to undress and take off his shoes, a stench filled the whole floor. Several of the men came to me and said, “Don’t put that man in my room.”
Robert was with us for awhile in Christ House and then moved into his own apartment. He began to learn to read and write some, and once he could read some Scripture, he would return to Christ House to co-lead a group for older homeless men, to give them hope.
This past year on a routine chest X-ray he was found to have cancer in his lungs. While he was undergoing radiation, he came back to live at Christ House. One night he called me to come quick, and I ran to his room and found that he was hemorrhaging from the lung. All I could do was hold him in my arms as he passed away quickly.
After he passed away, we put a candle beside his bed and people began to come, the other homeless men who were there and the staff and their children. As word about his passing away spread, other folks from the neighborhood came. As we were standing outside his room, one of the nurses said to me, “Robert got it, he really got it. Sometimes I think I have, but I really don’t have it. But Robert really got it.”
Robert got a lot of things. He knew jesus. He trusted Jesus. He was looking forward to going home — looking forward to that resurrection. But I think one of the greatest gifts he gave us was a sense of family. He often said I was his sister, and he meant it. He had many sisters and brothers, many nieces and nephews around the community. If we could all see each other through Robert’s eyes, we would have a much better awareness of God’s holy family in this kingdom.
It is the poor who have shown me the kingdom of God.
We can’t meet all the needs. In fact, in our area, no matter how much we do, the needs and the suffering seem to just keep getting greater and greater. But if we will root our lives in prayer, serve guided by a clear awareness of call, draw support and accountability from a community of Christians on a similar journey, and be open to receive the ministry of the poor among whom we serve, not only can we manage to survive in the midst of almost infinite need; we can serve with joy and with the confidence that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the kingdom of God is indeed breaking in.
Janelle Goetcheus, MD, is a family physician who has been working in Washington, D. C. since 1976. She is the Medical Director of Columbia Road Health Services and Christ House, Where she and her husband Alan live. She has recently also become the Medical Director of Unity Health Care, a private organization that has assumed the ambulatory medical care responsibilities previously exercised by the health department of the District of Columbia. Janelle was a plenary speaker at CCHF’s first conference in Washington, DC. in 1982.
Dr. Goetcheus was approached to write for this series of reflections on “What Keeps you Going?" Given her heavy workload, we discussed the alternative of using the above article on the same topic, which appeared in the 1996 CCHF publication, Upholding the Vision: Serving the Poor in Training and Beyond. (pages 44—48). Dr. Goetcheus' assures us that the illustrations and data might be somewhat dated, but the truths identified in this earlier chapter remain every bit as true today as they were in 1996!