immersion in poverty

As I walked to my car, the sound of gangsta rap music hit my ears. A group of men across the street from the building I was leaving were working on a car and listening to 50 Cent or N.E.R.D. or The Ying-Yang Twins or some other group that used to tickle my middle-class suburban fancy, but describes reality for many lower-class citizens in America today. Some may argue that hip-hop describes a misguided or unrealistic view of reality of life in the ghetto, but it is a view.

Walking to my car, the poverty scene of run-down housing, gang activity, prostitution, and hopelessness that greeted me could have been confused for Juarez, Mexico, or East Los Angeles, but it wasn’t. It was Abilene, Texas, just two miles from the affluence that exists on “the hill” at Abilene Christian University.

You see, I was leaving the Christian Service Center, a ministry of Churches of Christ in Abilene that provides physical and spiritual support for the underpriveleged of our town and the place where I will be a paid intern this next semester. I had a meeting with Jim Clark, the non-profit’s director, to discuss my goals and responsibilities in the “poverty immersion.” Jim is perhaps the most prayerful person I know, and he leads the social justice organization with a Christ-like spirit that seeks to be led by the Holy Spirit in every aspect of his life. In fact, I told Jim in a follow-up e-mail that whenever I leave his office, I feel like I’ve been with Jesus.

Many people wouldn’t be excited about spending 25 hours a week with poor people for next-to-nothing in terms of compensation. Just wouldn’t be their idea of an “entertaining semester.” I’m approaching the experience with great optimism and excitement, however, because I see it as an opportunity to be “gently unsettled” from my priveleged, “W.A.S.P.” (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) life.

You see, the waiting room of the CSC was full yesterday, likely with folks trying to get a little extra aide before the New Year’s weekend or the new school semester. These are folks that are, for all intensive purposes, my neighbors in Abilene. They live just a few miles from my spacious, 3-bedroom, wooden-floored “starter home” on “the hill.” Many of them shop at the same Wal-Mart, assuming they can even afford that. But how easily I forget about the plight of those just a few miles away.

My writing this semester likely will be colored by my experience with the CSC, as will my conversations, my spending habits, and my prayer life. I hope nothing is the same after this immersion into a world with which I am almost completely unfamiliar. It shouldn’t be. It can’t be.

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