He was pale with wispy blond hair and a threadbare sweatshirt covering a frame thinner and shorter than mine, though at 14 he was a year older than me. I first met Mark in the parking lot of a motel outside Detroit that his family was calling “home.” My parents and I had come to drive them to our church, which was hosting homeless families for a week as part of the Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team. During that week, Mark and I bonded over pingpong and conversations about comic books. When the following Sunday came, his family left for the next church that would host them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Mark lately. I wonder how the national conversation about government assistance sounds to him, especially when people say things like: “I’m sorry you’re hungry, but you should have made better choices with your life.” Or “I’m sorry, but our government can’t be expected to help you.” I wonder how many of those who deploy the “sorry, buts …” would look into Mark’s 14-year-old eyes and tell him, “I’m sorry, but things are tough all over.” Perhaps more to the point, how many would look into 16 million pairs of eyes of impoverished children in the U.S. and defend the choice (and it is a choice) to cut funding from SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)?
Sometimes I wonder where Mark is now. Did he find a home? Did he go to college? He seemed so much like me, but Mark faced challenges I’ve never known. Experts say that statistically, Mark was 250 percent more likely than me to face health problems, even as an adult. He was 50 percent more likely to miss school or to repeat a grade. Most tragically, Mark is 10 times more likely than people who were never in poverty to still be poor today.
What do we say to a world where so many kids like Mark are pushed to the side? The call of the gospel is the demand to get off our “sorry, buts …” and offer a word of hope to our world, to build a culture of solidarity that does not divide by “merit” but welcomes by grace. Being this alternative means taking seriously that grace isn’t something we offer to the world. It is a promise that God who is already in the world offers to us, as we encounter the face of Christ in our neighbors.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers