The Common Good

The Need to Be Relevant

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to spend the night at the Metropolitan House Men’s Shelter, part of Washington, D.C.’s, Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church.

And in this experience, Henri Nouwen’s, In the Name of Jesus came to life for me. In reflecting on his own experience of transitioning from Harvard University to L’Arche, a house for mentally disabled individuals, Nouwen realized he had to rediscover his true identity. Up until that moment, Nouwen relied on his accomplishments, achievements, accolades, educational training, and social connections to legitimize his impact and reputation in ministry as a priest. However, at L’Arche none of the things he relied on seemed to matter, and he had to gain credibility with those he planned to serve — the mentally disabled. Nouwen states, “I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment” (28). Nouwen was forced to let go of his “relevant” self. Nouwen defines relevant self as, “the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things.” Nouwen would have to allow himself to become vulnerable while suppressing his “relevant” self.

During my experience at the Metropolitan House men’s shelter, I found myself vulnerable and my relevant self — the seminary student — meant absolutely nothing to the four men to whom the shelter provided housing. When I first arrived at the men’s shelter, I was met with an unenthusiastic response from two men — one young, one old, both black — who did not even acknowledged my presence or existence. Like Nouwen, this response from the men made me vulnerable and forced me to let go of my “relevant” self. These men weren’t interested in anything about me and more importantly did not want my affirmations or pity. This was even more striking to me because three of the four men were black Americans, so I expected us to connect. But sharing the same culture was not enough — they wanted to know if I was authentic.

There was an opportunity for conversation at the dinner table over a pizza casserole. During this time, I had to meet them where they were in conversation. I searched my mind to ask questions to potentially build a bridge to a conversation and intentionally put myself out there for acceptance or rejection. I like to believe that it was successful. The young man, who appeared to be possibly the same age as me, and I connected over his upbringing in Northwest, Washington, D.C. I was able to connect with the older man over the New York City and Washington, D.C., drug wars. During these conversations, the older man shared a couple of stories with us about his faith, the trials and tribulations he faced, and even showed us pictures of loved ones.

This interaction with the men at the Metropolitan House men’s shelter would be the first time that I would come face-to-face with my triumphalism and exceptionalism. The things that I thought legitimized me – being a seminary student, black American, a Christian, familiar with Washington, D.C. — meant absolutely nothing to the four men I was serving. Nouwen states, “… the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” I had nothing to offer these four men but my vulnerable self and I have never been placed in a situation like that before. I find myself ruminating and asking now: “Shakei, what is your vulnerable self?”

The experience at Metropolitan House men’s shelter was truly transformative, informative, and influential to me as a future Christian leader. The biggest insights that I took from spending the night at the shelter and interacting with the men are: you have to meet people where they are and you have to be authentic. As a seminarian and a young person trying to make my life count for Christ, I think we sometimes forget that the Spirit is already at work and working in a certain way. I have to remind myself often that just because the Spirit at work is unfamiliar or foreign to you in a certain environment does not mean that it is ineffective or even wrong. The goal of the Christian leader should always be to look for what the Spirit is already doing in a given place or situation. It is a challenge because you have to suppress your “relevant” self and become vulnerable. All the Christian leader of the future has to offer is their vulnerable self.

Nouwen states, “The Leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.”

As a Christian leader, what do you have to offer?

Shakei Haynes is Campaigns Assistant at Sojourners. He majored in Political Science at Howard University and is currently a student at Wesley Theological Seminary pursuing his Master of Divinity.

Image: Homeless man, wrangler / Shutterstock.com

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