How do we respond to our fellow humans in need? For David Breitzmann, it starts with the understanding that they are us.
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To me, the inner prompting of what would lead us to treat someone the way that we would want to be treated is anchored in the word mercy, I would say. When we are at our worst, we would ask that someone else would be merciful to us.
We sometimes construct these artificial categories of who is the poorest or the least among us or those sort of things, but really George Fox was quite prescient, I think, when he noted in that famous quote about the ocean of darkness and the ocean of light (great metaphors!), that you don’t get to that point until you recognize that all the propensities that you would point out in someone else—Pharaoh, a Cain, someone else that’s an arch-villain or is self-destructive—exist in you, primarily, first of all.
And when you come to that understanding, you’re not ministering to someone who is categorically different than you. You are caring for yourself in a way that you either have been or at some point in time will be, because those same propensities are in you.
Ministering to the Poor
My name is David Brietzmann. I live in San Francisco and I’m a member of the San Francisco Monthly Meeting.
I was reading early this morning the quote in Isaiah in which, of course, Christ reiterates that there is a message of good news which exists for the poor: a proclamation of good news to the poor. Insofar as in other ways we respond to the needs of people when they present themselves in any condition that is “in need,” we are responding to that of Christ in them, whether it’s in material poverty, or poverty of understanding, or poverty of self-care. To some degree, we are all poor in that way, because we are finite creatures.
San Francisco Meeting
The San Francisco Monthly Meetinghouse, of which I am a member, is located in an environment that is right at the precipice of where two very distinct socioeconomic populations meet. One of which is known as “The Tenderloin,” is one of the poorest in the city, and if you look at crime indices or other indices that are reported by the police, that is a hot red bed of activity and the rest of the city is a lush eco-green.
Here, right across Market Street on 9th, we encounter what is the spillover from that otherwise very tightly clustered hotbed of activity, and that can take many forms whether it’s people that are sleeping outside of the meetinghouse, whether it’s the young homies that are outside engaged in colorful transactions because as undocumented persons there’s no other way to earn an income, or it can take the shape of people who are mumbling to themselves, clearly mentally distressed and in need of care but the city of San Francisco has to some degree eliminated all of the places that would care for them, so they’re just left to their own devices and wander out in public.
That can be difficult particularly on first days because the meeting house, as it should be, is open and so there’s some challenges with what you do depending on who presents itself. But I have found that even what seems to be the greatest calamity in our city affords Friends the opportunity to be obedient to how they are called to respond to the personal needs in persons, whether that means just letting someone sleep in the lobby during worship. As inconspicuous as that might seem, it can sometimes be the greatest form of hospitality that we can give.
So in that way, I think that we’re both challenged in this particular area in San Francisco and we can show up to our neighbors and learn something from them in the best of all cases.
Seeing Christ in Others
Christ approaches us in the face of other people, I believe that quite strongly. Sometimes the needs are slightly more, but humans are always bickering and fighting and catty and self-willed and self-interested. That’s always true. So what I prefer, interestingly enough, and what I have found in the blessing of working with people who are more visibly distressed (I would put it that way) is that there’s a greater sense of honesty. They don’t lie. They’re not trying to deceive you. They’re not trying to put on airs and make you believe something about them that isn’t true.
They will tell you, “I just used. I’ve had a horrible night. I didn’t sleep. I just had intimate relations with someone I don’t know. I’m self-destructive. I’m hurting myself.” Who is going to tell you that in a board meeting? Nobody, that’s who.
So I think there’s a certain level of honesty that is the light and the fire in people that you get from people who are not trying to evade and put on a show and be performative about interactions. It’s not so much that there’s a blessing, let’s say, from that interaction alone, but if you internalize that and use that as “we’re trying to be publishers of truth,” that fire can be quite useful and necessary on some level for a monthly meeting to stay vital.
- David Breitzmann says that when we see Christ in others, we will come to recognize that “you’re not ministering to someone who is categorically different from you. You’re caring for yourself.” Have you experienced this? Under what circumstances? What did it lead to for you?
- Where is your place of worship located? What are the unique opportunities and challenges that your group is presented with by its geographic location? What have you done to address those challenges and rise to the opportunities?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.