Putting Yourself in Unfamiliar Spaces

November 7th, 2018
This article is featured in the Preaching from the Margins (Nov/Dec/Jan 2018-19) issue of Circuit Rider

One day I got a call from a young man I had gotten to know a few years ago while he was incarcerated. “Yo, Gregg. You told me to call when I got out. Well . . . I’m out!” We agreed that I would pick him up the next day for lunch, get him some clothes, and catch up on how his life had changed since he got locked up.

Darian grew up in a redlined, marginalized neighborhood known for extreme poverty, gang violence, and crime. He never knew a bigger world existed—a world of safety, opportunity, and enough to eat. He was ten years old when he saw his first murder. A day later, he started carrying his own gun, handed to him by a gang member who told him that no matter what, he should use it to protect himself and his homies. Kill or be killed. Did I mention he was ten?

When he was fourteen, Darian and his homie were running from the cops after robbing a liquor store. After his friend was nabbed, Darian fired at the police officers. In his mind, he was just doing what he had been taught. He was arrested and sentenced to adult time.

For much of his time in lock-up, he did what he had always done—fight to survive—until he decided that wasn’t working for him anymore. I asked him how he came to the decision to do something different with his life. “After being in the hole for two weeks for fighting to protect my homies, my eleven-year-old niece came to visit me,” Darian remembered. “When we were talking through the glass, she asked me, ‘Why are you in a cage?’ Something about seeing her face and her asking me that woke me up and made me think I needed to change.”

Peter-Hans Kolvenbach once said that “when the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind is challenged to change.”[1] I suppose something like that was happening to Darian. And I guess that more than anything, it’s direct experiences with people on the margins, like Darian, that have taught me about preaching from the margins. I’ve come to believe that preaching is primarily a relational endeavor. Shaped by the biblical narrative of the God who speaks into human history and awakened to incarnational encounter with God in the other, the content of preaching is created by the chemistry of mutuality. The word of God is spoken and heard, spreads and flourishes, and, yes, is resisted and nullified within the context of the relationships that constitute our lives. Preaching is a communal happening. It cannot occur in isolation. Whether two or three or two or three thousand gather, the act of preaching is much more than the words coming out of our mouths; it’s connecting to the Spirit of God who meets us in the mutual experience of our shared humanity.

With that in mind, I’d like us to think beyond homiletical structures and communication styles to consider the necessary relational conditions for preaching from the margins. Perhaps the right place to start is to understand what we mean by “the margins” and to identify “the marginalized.”

First, according to Merriam-Webster, to marginalize means “to relegate to an unimportant or powerless position within a society or group.” Drilling down a little deeper, the counseling center at Syracuse University defines marginalization as “the process of pushing a particular group or groups of people to the edge of society by not allowing them an active voice, identity, or place in it. Through both direct and indirect processes, marginalized groups may be relegated to a secondary position in society.”[2] Social exclusion, denial of rights, and limited economic resources—not to mention implicit negative bias, stereotyping, and group shaming—are part of the othering equation.

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Second, what direct and indirect social, economic, political, or religious processes are part of the marginalizing calculus? And who is responsible? When people are pushed out, someone or something is doing the pushing. From a societal standpoint, it has always been the prerogative of the powerful to draw the lines that mark who’s in and who’s out. To be marginalized is to be disenfranchised, deprived, and rendered powerless by the enfranchised, the privileged, the powerful, and the structures and systems they protect. By definition, folks on the margins are the most vulnerable among us. They are dislocated from equality and equity. They are often dehumanized and demonized by the larger culture.

It is within such a context of exclusion, trauma, and pain that we find Jesus preaching. Not only was Jesus born among outsiders, but he was moved by compassion to preach, teach, and heal among the harassed, helpless, and harangued. He showed up in places regarded by many as God-forsaken and spoke of an alternative reality called the kingdom of God, telling people that they were not pushed to the margins of this kingdom but were smack dab in the middle of it. He spoke about God’s way of being in the world that erased lines of marginalization drawn by the privileged and powerful.

Further, Jesus called his disciples to take a good look at themselves, to take inventory of their own biases that led to their exclusionary behavior, to open their eyes to see these otherized ones with the same compassion that God sees them. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” Jesus said to them, “therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt 9:37 NRSV). By that I don’t think Jesus was suggesting that the disciples’ responsibility was to take God to the marginalized but for the disciples to receive the presence of God by standing with them. These beleaguered and powerless ones are not God-forsaken; they are God’s blessed. The kingdom of God is theirs. The God of grace fills the space they occupy. So go. Get in that space. Be with them. 

So, especially for preachers who have never been marginalized—and here I’m thinking of middle-class, white males like me—we cannot escape the absolute necessity of putting ourselves into the unfamiliar spaces of the marginalized. Preachers of the gospel must move beyond a conceptual understanding of the margins to knowing marginalized people by name. Pain has a name. Grace has a face. When we put ourselves into unfamiliar spaces to build genuine relationships with the most vulnerable, locate ourselves in the zip codes of the least of these, begin to hear what they hear, smell what they smell, and see what they see, we will find our lives changed and, consequently, our preaching shaped by the stories they tell.

“It is not the religious act that makes the Christian,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”[3] Long before opening our mouths to preach from the margins, we must be willing to build relationships on the margins. Be there. Stand there. Listen there. Learn there. Feel the hurt there. Avoid the temptation to fix or save there. Encounter Jesus who shows up there. Until and unless we learn to recognize that Jesus meets us in the skin of the otherized lives of women, men, and children there, our attempts to preach there will sound like noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

[1] Daniel Cosacchi, “Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Leader of Jesuits at Tumultuous Time, Dies at 87,” America Magazine, November 26, 2016.

[2] Syracuse University Counseling Center, "Impact of Marginalization."

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 361.

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