The Word on the Street has the potential to be a book about two theologians who volunteer at a soup kitchen, feel good about themselves, and write heart-warming stories about their experiences. But we find that Charles Campbell and Stan Saunders have discovered a treasure, and that the journey into "the field" requires slogging through mud, spending nights out in the cold with homeless folks, cleaning porta-potties, and no small amount of soul-baring regarding one's personal struggles, shortcomings, and need for forgiveness.
The two theologians from Columbia Seminary have teamed up with Atlanta's Open Door Community, a group of African Americans and whites who live together in a Christian discipleship community. They struggle with racism, let the homeless sleep in their backyard, provide meals for the poor at the Butler Street Breakfast, and serve lunches at their home. They wage an ongoing campaign for no-cost health care for the poor at Grady County Hospital, and they fight for public space for the homeless at downtown Woodruff Park. The Open Door is a community that prays, studies God's Word, serves the poor, and protests injustice.
Campbell is direct about his misgivings, that he is "serving as yet another white male gatekeeper' for many poor African Americans." He has "come not to a greater confidence in my own good works,' but to a deeper awareness of my personal sins and complicity in sinful systems, as well as to a greater dependence on the grace of Jesus Christ. What a revelation this has been!"
Perhaps one of the best stories in the book is about a Bible study that took place on the steps of one of Atlanta's towering bank buildings. The text, James 5:1-6, is a scathing critique of wealth: The stored riches of the wealthy, acquired unjustly, will corrode and be a testimony against them. They asked themselves, "Does the seductiveness of wealth in modern capitalism...manifest itself in our deference toward and emulation of the rich? Does the rapidly growing disparity between the fabulously rich and the desperately poor have anything to do with what James describes? Are today's poor deprived of their fair wages? Do the rich use the courts and the justice system to their advantage? Are we, like the rich in James' epistle, comfortably preoccupiedby television and the entertainment culture, for exampleand heedless of God's warnings?"
The authors call us to bring our bodies to the "scapegoated" of our streets, those burdened by urban anti-camping laws, victims of racism, and prisoners. "For many of us," writes Campbell, "this process involves dyingdying to personal identities based on position and privilege and control, dying to old, comfortable ways of being in the world. But this process of dying is in fact a way of living into our baptisms, for along this path lies the promise of new life."
Reader beware! This book could be dangerous. You may follow the authors' example and depart from the comfortable confines of the safe seminary and quiet church to discover not the theory, but the reality that God dwells among the poor. This book captures the spirit of discipleship and proposes the closest thing to the Way of the Cross I've heard in a long time.
Eric DeBode is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.