In my search to understand the Bible and my own personal faith better, I thought it pertinent to pick apart the parts of scripture that I held near and dear to my heart before I decided to seek further what it all means. I thought first I would start with the scripture I discussed in my small group on Tuesday afternoon. Each week, the members of the small group I lead have the opportunity to trade off who shares a piece of scripture, a song or a book that has proven meaningful or guiding for their week(s). The piece of scripture I felt drawn to share was reminiscent of my experiences in Northern California this summer, and I felt it an appropriate time to share it with the group. Our city directors gave us a little seminar during our last “Foster Family Dinner” on how to assimilate back into the world after short-term ministry. One of the visiting hosts who had done a summer in the Bay Area a few summers prior explained how she didn’t begin to process her time with CSM until months after she resumed her normal life. In the back of my head, I thought that I’d never fully process what I saw and experienced during my time there, and I carried that with me the first month I spent back on the East Coast. But there is a grain of truth to what she said to us back then in Oakland – I haven’t fully processed my experiences from Oakland/SF, despite the fact that not a day goes by without thinking about the whole summer out there. Each day I am reminded of the good times I had, the people I met, the ministry sites, the groups, but it wasn’t until more recently that I began to unpack fully my emotions, not my experiences. So here goes, unpacking my experiences through scripture, a way that does not come natural, but will be far more useful than just “talking about my feelings.” Feelings won’t help me fully process what work was done and the bonds that were formed. But the scripture that was used during my time there will help to connect the dots, glue together the pieces of my memory.
Think about this: Matthew 5:14-16
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Shout out to the CSM SF Bay Area prayer tour! If you’ve ever gone on a CSM trip or know anyone who has, the prayer tour is an integral part of the whole mission trip experience with them. In San Francisco, we as hosts gave the prayer tour on the group’s first night in the Bay Area as a way to introduce the city before they have the opportunity to serve it. Part of the tour took place at the top of Telegraph Hill around Coit Tower, which is the tall thin, cylindrical-shaped building that is a part of the famous San Francisco skyline that I love so much. Anyway, the visit to Coit tower fell in between the schpeal about North Beach and that of the Financial District, and marked roughly the half-way point of the nearly 2 hour script that made up the prayer tour. By this time in the tour, kids would be ansy from staying quiet through Chinatown, Nob Hill, etc, and were just about as excited to walk around silently in the dark as I was to wake up at 5am for shower duty the next morning. But in the darkness of a quiet Sunday Night, this was perhaps the most peaceful place in San Francisco for us to be. It was usually nearly 9pm by the time we reached this point in the tour, which meant that the sky was dark, but the city was lit up like a Christmas tree. We were told to give the kids 5 minutes to walk around and pray for the city before we gathered them back together to talk about being “lights of the world.” (Cue Bebo Norman’s “Great Light of the World…”) Once the group had peed (and most often all of them had to after sitting in the car for nearly an hour…), they would huddle together in the dark and cold summer night, when I would tell them about Matthew 5:14-16 and how they were supposed to be “lights of God in the darkness of San Francisco.” At the beginning I just read from the script, mechanically turning the pages and reading the rehearsed lines until they were memorized; at the beginning, I’m not entirely sure I understood what this all meant, because I had never heard such a metaphor used before in church, let alone in the more conservative setting that was my college fellowship. But slowly, week by week, group by group, I developed a stance of my own, a speech of my own to give to junior high kids, and then a different one for high school kids.
Sunday nights in San Francisco came with mixed emotions. Chances are, I spent a tremendous weekend with my Aunt and Uncle traveling the state either to Napa or Yosemite, or any amazing and picturesque place in between. As I didn’t always have constant contact with my Aunt and Uncle growing up, spending any one-on-one time with them felt like Christmas on steroids, the kind where you run downstairs and every time you think of something else you want, it just appears under the tree for you to unwrap. Every moment spent together seemed perfect, and it was these moments that made coming back on Sunday afternoons to start my long week all over again all the more challenging and at times, heartbreaking. Each weekend marked one weekend closer to leaving a place I felt was more like home than home itself at times. So come Sunday afternoon, my weekend would end and by 2pm, I’d be back at work in a staff meeting, preparing to welcome yet another group to my city. After each weekend, my enthusiasm to return to my one-bedroom apartment with my 8 amazing roommates dwindled, despite the fact that I loved the ministry sites and the work that I was taking part in. Being a leader week after week with only 24-26 hours off a week grew stressful and draining as the weeks dragged on. Getting only 5-6 hours of sleep a night if that began to catch up with me, as well as my roommates. Eating out 5-6 nights a week was perhaps the most amazing part of the job, but after a month or so, I craved a good bowl of pasta or a plate of pizza. Going home to be with my Aunt and Uncle for even just 12 hours meant that I could have pasta, salads, whatever I wanted and needed.
Groups would arrive around 5pm, and their first hour would be spent claiming what little floor space they could for their own, competing with the other potentially as many as 4 groups for the few beat up bunk beds before pulling down floor mats to cover the concrete floor of the basement. Then the leaders’ meeting would begin, where the city directors would lay out the responsibilities of both CSM’s city hosts and the youth directors and their chaperones during their stay. Next came the long, drawn-out discussion with the groups about what they could expect during their week in the Bay Area. Then we would drive the groups into San Francisco for dinner, when finally, the prayer tour would begin.
So it all comes back to the prayer tour, and eventually, all returns to Telegraph Hill and Coit tower every predictably chilly San Francisco Sunday evening. Each time, a new group, but the same old message. We are the light(s) of the world in the eyes of God. By presenting the message this way to groups – by using the tiny lit-up windows of each building in San Francisco as a metaphor for each teen, we could better explain that a small light is nice, but when it unites with other small lights, the light becomes brighter and shines over more and more territory, and in the end, makes a greater impact upon the world. The part about being God’s light is all good and wonderful, but the part of this scripture that touches me more today than it did back when I was in San Francisco is that it alludes to precisely what the city’s namesake stood for. As I have mentioned countless times prior, St. Francis (For whom San Francisco was named) was known for his emphasis on deeds and actions over words. 5:16 emphasizes that we are to let our “light shine before men” but more importantly, that we are to let our good deeds be seen by men, and praise our Father in Heaven. This verse is so appropriate for how I feel now theologically, but also how I think back upon my experiences in the Bay Area. For me, ministry (especially short-term and college ministries) is not about the number of people saved or lives changed for the better, but rather about the impressions made and the work done. Many groups came to California to “save” or “change the world,” and would leave disappointed when they didn’t see the world any differently from when they first came. But the thing about urban ministry is that they real changes occur over time, and at the expense of countless numbers of hands, not just a few over the course of a week. The work without a doubt begins with 10 or 15 sets of hands, but it is by no means concluded with those hands. The relationships necessary to make changes aren’t just forged by a single group in a week, or a month or six; this is especially true when trying to gain the trust of the houseless population in San Francisco, let alone any city. The homeless (or as I prefer to say, houseless, as many of them are lacking only a physical structure to live in, selecting rather to call the street their home because they live amongst those that they have bonded with and trust most…) do not trust easily, especially given the abuse and ignorance they have been shown on the part of other humans and the city legislature; so when it comes to trying to serve their needs as effectively as possible, they don’t just walk up to you and extend a hand out first. The trust must be earned over time, and the trust begins with the way that we act, not the way that they act. We are the source of the abuse and neglect, we perpetuate it day in and day out, so the trust and respect must start with us. And it starts with our actions, not our words. My mom (and I’m sure yours as well…) always said, “actions speak louder than words,” and the same applies here too. The way we act gives off more of an impression than the words out of our mouths most times, and that is precisely how we are commanded to act by God.
We are supposed to preach the Gospel using our bodies as instruments, rather than our voices. I think that is exactly what is being said in Matthew 5:14-16; we are the lights of the world for God – we are supposed to preach His Word using the gifts He gave us, not the voice He created us with. More good can be done in this world using our hands as opposed to our words; our hands can build relationships and gain the trust of those who don’t trust easily. But this is what we are supposed to do; Jesus didn’t come to help those who were righteous, like a doctor doesn’t desire to heal those who are already well. Jesus wanted to meet those who needed to be healed and cared for. So rather than spreading the light using our mouths, which can easily get us into trouble, lets use our hands to do good in our communities, and in the meantime spreading the Love of God in the process.