I just got back from a wild and crazy week-long adventure in Europe. We go every year on a standby trip to somewhere fun with our other friends who also work for United Airlines. This year we decided to go to Prague and Budapest. In a wonderful twist of events, our dear friends from Mercy Ministries–who live part time in Romania journeying alongside orphaned Roma (Gypsy) kids who are now young adults–invited us to come for a listening and learning weekend so we added that in, too.
It was an incredibly challenging and wonderful experience, listening to their stories, seeing the realities of their situation, and considering what Hope looks like in their context. Over the past few years I’ve had the same experience in other places, too; Palestine and Pine Ridge stand out so clearly (Read both those posts if you want to learn more. Stories change everything).
As I was listening to these young people’s hearts and stories, I really just wanted to lay on the ground and cry because no matter what culture we live in, no matter how young or old, no matter what we believe, there’s a thread that is weaved throughout all of humanity, all of history, that I believe we’re supposed to work toward healing together–people “less than” another.
Roma are considered less than Romanians. They are the lower caste. They are the lesser class. They are the ones who remain on the underside of power. They are the ones looked down upon. They are the ones no one wants to employ. They are the ones who live on the outskirts of the villages. Their dark skin makes them less and others’ white skin makes them more.
In so many places, in every nook and cranny of humanity, God’s precious creation–made in the image of God, worthy of dignity and respect–are considered “less than.” Not only by the powers of the “world” but also often by the powers of the “church”–one of the strongest forces of influence throughout time and the one place where all of those barriers are supposed to be broken down.
The world is bent against equality for all.
The world is bent against dignity for all .
The world is bent against freedom for all.
In fact, history has typically been built on the opposite of these things. It’s been built on a foundation of conquering, of stripping dignity, of controlling and oppressing.
Yeah, the forces against equality are great. They always have been. They always will be.
But we, as people of faith and followers of Jesus, can work toward changing this reality in all kinds of different ways.
It starts with this hard and most difficult step that is our only hope and a core element of the gospel: In the words of my dear friend and amazing pastor-on-the-streets-for-decades-in-portland, Ken Loyd, “there is no ‘us and them.’ There’s only ‘us’.”
“There is no ‘us and them,’ there’s only ‘us’.”
There’s only us.
No one more, no one less.
Why is giving that up so hard? Why is shifting from no longer over or under but beside so difficult? Why are To and For are our natural default positions and With so foreign? Why has Jesus’ call that the last will be first and the first will be last been the exact opposite of how we’ve constructed so many of our faith systems?
It makes me think of something civil rights author James Baldwin said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Because so many of us might first respond with “But I don’t hate…” I would probably add a little clause next to “hates” that says (“or justifications, fears, walls, positions”) because that means all of us have something in there that we are supposed to reckon with.
I am so convicted of this related to how I feel about people who come from a certain religious and political persuasion, how easy it is to separate from them and make them less and make me more.
It also makes me think of how underneath pain is always fear. Just like Jesus told the disciples when they were terrified in a big storm, “Don’t be afraid, I am here!” (John 6:20) I think he is saying the same thing to us right now in these fearful times, to the church, to the people-who-represent-his-name–Don’t be afraid, I am here!
Yet, we remain so afraid of what isn’t familiar, what isn’t comfortable, what isn’t like “us”, what is unknown, what might challenge or stretch us or make us actually give up something.
But that is the call we have on our lives as followers of the crazy ways of Jesus–to be people of discomfort. To be people who aren’t afraid of rocking the boat, of advocating for the oppressed, of making more room at the table, of going-where-others-don’t-want-to-go, of giving up our seat for someone else, of loving our enemies, of playing our part in ensuring no one is less than another.
I know my friends who work in Romania won’t topple systems tomorrow. Roma kids will still be Roma kids when they wake up in the morning in a culture that sees them as less. But I also know that in the little pocket of love and freedom and peace that they are experiencing through community, there is no us and them, there’s only us.
No one less, no one more.
And that’s a little glimpse of heaven on earth in a world that has sometimes feels like hell.