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Taking a Close Look at Our Culture of Need

One of the least reported stories in the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse was the murky fate of scores of homeless or displaced people who found their only havens of safety in Lower Manhattan – often inside or around the Trade Center itself.

When New York began to emerge from the horrid scenes of Sept. 11, it became apparent that some who had died or disappeared were from among the legion who go unmourned and unmissed every day, except by the few compassionate souls who know them.

These people embody a culture of need and agony that exists in every city. Earlier this month, participants in a theological conference on the legacy of early Anabaptist Pilgram Marpeck, held in New York, had a chance to get a close look at the environment this culture inhabits.

This “mission tour” of Lower Manhattan was led by workers at the John Heuss House, a place for the homeless and mentally ill not far from Ground Zero and the New York Stock Exchange.

Though the John Heuss House adjoins one of the world’s greatest corridors of wealth and commerce, it also stands witness to some of New York’s worst need and humiliation of the human spirit.

Clarke Bell, a deacon at Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship and a worker at the Heuss House, said he hoped the Marpeck scholars would benefit from a close look at the culture of homelessness and the need that helps shape the face and character of the urban church today. Tours like this one, Bell said, offer “a different way of doing theology, more contextual than academic.”

And certainly, seeing the environment where the urban church is born and does its work – seeing the people, smelling the odors of the street and hearing the suffering in the voices of the nameless, moneyless throng – is to put oneself in the place of Christ, to take ministry where he would take it, to those who need it most desperately.

“It’s exciting to be here on mission at this time in this place,” Bell said. “I thank God for it every day, and if I don’t thank him for it, he knows I’m thankful.”

This tour of Lower Manhattan, because it was part of a conference on Marpeck – a German civil engineer who lived in the reformist crucible of the 1500s – also was set apart in one sense by its emphasis on one of Marpeck’s treatises. As they moved about the stygian canyons of the city, the participants were asked to meditate on Marpeck’s “Five Fruits of Repentance,” a reflection on sin and grace written in 1550.

Though this rather heavy epistle was hard to focus on in the spectral despair of places like Manhattan and days like Sept. 11, perhaps a passage from Marpeck has something to say. In this context, it can be addressed to those of us who have the wherewithal to improve the lot of even one person, who have need of repentance and who do not wish to perpetuate the shameful suffering that can be seen in the streets of any city, or in the darkened hearts of suffering families.

“Happy are those who allow themselves to be alarmed by the Word of God,” Marpeck wrote. “Salvation draws near to them. For they are prepared for and led to the Lord Christ through the genuine fruits of repentance so that he bestows his grace upon them. This fruit of repentance proves itself true in suffering, sorrow, fear and pain of conscience, in deep affliction.”

The need in the society around us comes from our own sinfulness, whether we admit it or not. Repentance then, true and simple and in the fear of God, can help reverse this tide of social self-destruction, and restore to grace, along with the rest of us, those who dwell in society’s dark passages.

This column was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.