Becoming Poor and Finding Friendship on the Margins

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

For forty years, Network Ministries Coffee House in Denver, Colorado, has worked to create a place for long-term redemptive relationships, not only for the benefit of our homeless guests but also for the more privileged members of our staff and volunteers.

Simple friendship is our aim at Network, yet we have found that friendship itself is irreducibly complex. Friendship contains the highest virtues of our human existence, including: grace, empathy, vulnerability, sacrifice, solidarity, mutuality, loyalty, honesty, trust, forgiveness, hospitality, generosity, patience, freedom, forbearance, respect, hope, courage, and love. Furthermore, far from being the mundane, everyday relationship one might think of, friendship is a mystical union of souls mediated by the creative force of our helper, the Holy Spirit.

At Network, friendship plays out in mutual hospitality, real presence and attention, and in solidarity between our guests, staff, and volunteers. As we carry out the work of being friends, we seek to foster a creative emptiness in everything we do, a place where friendship can thrive across difference and where Christ is encountered and befriended in the image of the neighbor.


To an outsider, the work of extending hospitality at Network Coffee House may appear to be no work at all. That is not to say, it looks easy. Instead, it may literally appear to an outsider that social justice work among marginalized individuals is not taking place. The hospitality that we create together with our guests at Network cannot be painted on a canvas, captured on video, or advertised on social media.

This lack of busy-ness is the first task necessary for hospitality and Christian friendship to flourish. We have found that hospitality that seeks to fill every moment to the brim with services, programs, referrals, and donated goods is in fact less hospitable than it is oppressive. The work of hospitality is precisely the work of restraining oneself from offering a space full of busy motion, material goods, and pre-canned solutions to problems.

Instead, one must strive to offer a place empty of expectations. As professor, writer, and theologian Henri Nouwen puts it, “Hospitality . . . means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend.” Within this space, Nouwen tells us, change can take place, but not by seeking to bring individuals over to one side or another, or to lead them to a false choice, or to prescribe a narrow narrative about life gleaned from books, stories, and other works. Within this space—if it is really free—one would not even offer God as the criteria of happiness. Instead, this place of hospitality is created by friendly emptiness.[1]

Change, and the transformation of individual strangers into friends, may occur when dividing lines are erased, when a spectrum of options for choice and commitment are offered, and when each person has the freedom to find God their own way. Liberation is possible when the stranger is offered the gift to find his or her own lifestyle, not simply invited to adopt the lifestyle of their host.[2]

Within this emptiness the spirit of God dwells. The most glorious sanctuary and the simplest living room become holy ground when our busy-ness and our desire for power and results are replaced by simple stillness, an invitation, and a greeting with an empty hand.


Emptiness of place makes room for another emptiness: the emptiness of attention. An absolute requirement for friendship, attention is one of the major tasks of any director or volunteer on a shift at Network. This is as true with our friends at Network who are familiar to us as it is when the person across the table from us is totally unknown, and sometimes quite incomprehensible.

Attention itself is a kind of negative effort. Rather than a focused act of the will, attention in its purest form is an aware detachment. This is as true in encountering another person as it is in prayer. Twentieth-century mystic and philosopher Simone Weil describes attention by alluding to “a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains.”[3] When we pay attention to another person, we are present to the fullness of the world the person represents. We do this not by searching or seeking with prodding questions as if we were journalists. It is as Weil writes: “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.”[4] Attention, in stillness, waits for the miraculous uncovering of the image of God in the person of a single individual.

Love of God has the same character as the attention described above. Love of our neighbor is the same love. For those engaged in ministry among marginalized people, this is vital. Simone Weil puts it well:

Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.[5]

Most ministries, service providers, government programs, and other human services obsess over measurable outcomes. How many meals did we serve? How many showers did our guests take? How many people were housed? How much money was disbursed? These questions fit hand-in-glove with our cultural idols: competition, efficiency, effectiveness.

Tracking outcomes is important to organizations for budgeting, fundraising, and reporting. But measurable outcomes are more than what eighteenth-century existentialist Soren Kierkegaard calls “glittering externalities.”[6] Ultimately, overemphasis on measurable outcomes risks transforming the individual subject into an object of analysis and success or failure.

But friendship rules out objectification.

At Network we refuse to objectify our guests. Our friends are not merely units in a collection or specimens “from the social category labeled ‘unfortunate,’” as Simone Weil puts it.[7] Friendship requires attentiveness, a way of looking, an awareness that the person across the table is fully alive, fully imbued with the image of God, and fully capable of receiving as well as returning the gift of hospitable attention.


Many people who seek out help from church, government, and nonprofit human services ultimately end up refusing aid in order to maintain self-respect. It is difficult to maintain dignity in the face of paternalistic directives, and nearly impossible when someone in a helping position pays attention only to problems rather than to the whole person. Often when this is encountered, it is because there is a lack of solidarity on the part of the helper, because—paradoxically—the person in the helping position has not become poor.

What do we mean by becoming poor? Poverty in this sense is an inner disposition of the host (or helper). This is the third and final form of emptiness that is required in Christian ministry of all kinds, and especially in friendship among people on the margins of society.

People come to serve with the idea that they have something to offer. Poverty is not normally the disposition of someone who wants to help. But more often than not, if the space where someone serves is hospitable as described above, and if they are encouraged to pay loving attention, they will slowly be instructed in their own poverty by those they encounter and by the embrace of the Spirit of Christ, who “did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself. . . . When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8 CEB).

According to Henri Nouwen, poverty makes possible a situation of “creative interdependency.” Poverty of this kind enables the helper to serve without defensiveness, for there is nothing to defend. Poverty leads the helper to serve with receptivity and gratitude and to work out of the abundance of every gift rather than the scarcity of what is lacked. Friendship becomes possible when the category of “beggar” is transformed: the helper and the one who is served each have something to give and something to receive. Best of all, creative interdependency is a reflection of the Trinity where each individual is a self-sufficient, mutually sustaining part of the whole who freely adds their own gifts, needs, and abilities to the work of the community.[8]

For forty years at Network Coffee House, our faith has been in Christ’s assertion that we are not merely his servants but also his friends (John 15:15). We assume God’s friendship is enough as we seek to make friends with God’s people: the poor, the suffering, the lonely, and all those who cry out from their hearts for mercy. This is how we live out Christ’s good news on the margins.

[1]     Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday, 1986), 71–72.

[2]     Ibid.

[3]     Simone Weil, Waiting on God (New York: Routledge, 2009), 35.

[4]     Ibid.

[5]     Ibid., 36

[6]     Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995), 328.

[7]     Weil Simone, Waiting on God (New York: Routledge 2009), 36.

[8]     Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday, 1986), 101–109.

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