Ministry with the poor and middle-class self-hate

My name is Morgan Guyton and I’m a recovering middle-class self-hater. I also love hanging out with poor people and I want to love it for the right reasons instead of using it to build a Pharisaic pedestal from which to judge my own kind. I just heard a presentation from Alan Rice on ministry with the poor at our Virginia Conference 5 Talent Academy that knocked me flat on my back. I went to the front of the room trembling afterwards and gave Alan my card saying I wanted one day to plant a “Bethany church” (a church led by the poor instead of doing ministry to the poor). This wasn’t just a spontaneous response to a bombshell speech but a dream that has been marinating for a decade. I wrote that I’ve worked with “urban youth” and I’m bilingual and I know how to rap (silly I know but it was in the heat of the moment). And yet the agonizing thing I realize is that God has gifted me to minister with “my own” people and He’s definitely not going to let me be a shepherd among poor people until I get over my white middle-class guilt and my need to be a hero.

This was basically what my seminary mentor told me on the plane ride back from a mission trip to El Salvador in 2010. I had been blown away by the vitality of the less than two decade old Methodist movement in El Salvador. Their youth lead every aspect of their worship services except the preaching itself. Many are ex-gang members; some have been assassinated for going Christian. They live the costly discipleship that Bonhoeffer wrote about. I remember thinking this is authentic church in a way that American suburbianity never could be. So I wanted to just go there and be a pastor amidst the thundering cataracts of God’s living water (Psalm 42 reference). But too much of that was coming from the same motive that sent me to Mexico in 1998 hoping against hope that Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos would let a guilt-ridden child of privilege into his secret Robin Hood fort.

Anyhow my mentor told me that I needed to learn to love my own people before I had any business trying to pastor in a different culture. He said I needed to go and serve in a suburban white church for at least four years and then see where God would call me after that. He was right. And I have been falling in love with “my own people” because they’re people made in the image of God, not ideological straw men and women for me to justify myself against in order to cloak my own privilege. Time and time again, God has used the richness of messy human encounters to crucify the Pharisee in me. I just had an awesome weekend at a men’s campout with some of the older guys from our church who have really wise and profound things to say if you ask the right questions and take the time to listen.

And yet, our way of doing church in America is broken. Our Biblical standard is Acts 2 where people with needs were taken care of in the midst of a tight-knit, Spirit-filled community rather than putting on their best smiles in a stadium of anonymity. We are not called merely to send boxes and checks someplace else, though we need to do this also. We are not called merely to sign petitions and put together Powerpoints with heart-wrenching statistics, though we need to do this also. We are called to be “neighbors and ladders” who seek out people with needs in personal relationship, as Alan Rice shared today. We are called to genuine friendship; a video we saw today defined poverty as “the lack of friendship,” which is true of both spiritual and material poverty. Our congregation is doing some really cool relational ministries right now. Of course I want us to do more, and patience is not my strongest virtue.

I really believe Jon Sobrino was right to say, “Fuera los pobres, no hay salvación,” because authentic relationships with the poor are huge in helping us (speaking as a middle-class white) to lose our worldly “wisdom” and our idolatry of self-reliance that keeps us from depending on Christ. Virginia Bishop Yong-Jin Cho said today that “the poor and the sick should be our teachers.” Exactly. I’m not sure what this means for me vocationally. I know that I’m called to be a shepherd (UMC ordained elder) rather than an advocate (UMC ordained deacon). As much as I would love to pastor a working class Latino church, I have to concede that a working class Latino pastor should have first dibs on that job.

Perhaps one day God will give me the privilege of relocating to a poor neighborhood with an intentional community of middle-class-resourced people who desire lives of servanthood. How do you do that in a way that avoids being a small-scale version of colonialism? Would that require me to forego a pastor’s salary and get back in the high school English classroom as a bivocational minister? And the biggest question: how do I balance my sense of vocation with my wife’s pastoral call and my two sons’ gifts and needs?

I’ve been reading neo-monastic community guru Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Awakening of Hope. I lived in three intentional communities among the poor right out of college. One went well; one got me into self-destructive behavior; and I got kicked out of the third one. But I’m a very different person now. It’s likely that I will never be more than a tour guide in the world on the other side of the tracks that I naively and presumptuously want to throw myself into. Perhaps there’s a way to infuse suburbia with Christian imagination that provides richness and solidarity between spiritually and materially poor people. I have a lot to talk to God about. What I can say for sure is that the Spirit is moving in the United Methodist Church. God isn’t going to let us persist in our anxious downward spiral. We are returning to our roots and rediscovering the crucial role of ministry with every kind of poor to our spiritual vitality.

2 thoughts on “Ministry with the poor and middle-class self-hate

  1. It’s a slightly different paradigm (race, not class), but I think there’s relevant wisdom to be gleaned from Malcolm X:

    “I tell sincere white people, ‘Work in conjunction with us – each of us working among our own kind.’ Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do – and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people!

    “We will completely respect our white co-workers. They will deserve every credit. We will give them every credit. We will meanwhile be working among our own kind, in our own black communities – showing and teaching black men in ways that only other black men can – that the black man has got to help himself. Working separately, the sincere white people and sincere black people actually will be working together.

    “In our mutual sincerity we might be able to show a road to the salvation of America’s very soul.”

    Or, as long as I’m trotting out revolutionary poster boys, Che Guevara:

    “I envy you North Americans. You live in the belly of the beast.”

    Of course the questions you raise aren’t exactly the same as those either of them try to answer, But I don’t think that surrounding themselves with the less-privileged is generally the most productive way for more-privileged allies to exercise effective solidarity. (Says a hypocrite who’s doing the opposite of his own advice! Che was a bit of a hypocrite about it, too.) There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

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