Suffering is something our culture tends to look down on, and tries to avoid. It seems that to show any outward signs of suffering can be seen as a sign of weakness and failure. Since moving into Uptown and the JUSTembrace community, I have seen more outward signs of suffering than ever before. One thing that I have learned is that the poor and marginalized have less ways and means of covering their own suffering and brokenness than those of us who are more privileged. I do not think that families and communities that are more stable and wealthy necessarily suffer less, but those of us from those more wealthy communities have the means to cover up our own dirt. Whether it be addiction or mental health issues, people from communities of more power and money tend to be able to hide their baggage better. However, I have learned a lot being around a community that has a harder time covering up their own pain and suffering. It is through this vulnerable and humble community in Uptown that I have seen Jesus and the way of the cross in a new light.
One of the most profound moments for me this year at JUSTembrace happened at one of our Sunday evening small groups. That night, as I was rushing to small group, I looked around and all seemed normal. People were in the house talking, drinking coffee, and playing Uno. A typical Sunday evening at JUSTembrace. But I noticed one person across the room from me who I could not recognize. It appeared to be a blonde lady whom I had never seen before at JUSTembrace, or even around the neighborhood. As we all decided to gather together for Bible study, this blonde turned around and looked me straight in the face, and said, “Hey Jordan, it is so great to see you!”. Instantly I knew exactly who this person was – they are here every week and one of my closest friends in the community. I was definitely in shock for a couple of seconds before I could respond.
Buddy is a regular from our small group who has been around JUSTembrace from the very beginning. While Buddy had told some of us about his transgender identity, it was usually as something that was a small part of his life outside of Uptown and JUSTembrace. This week was a special week for Buddy and us all. The Sunday evening prayer group at JUSTembrace has become a family to him, and he said that he wanted to be true to himself with his own family. If he could not, then what kind of family were we?
The Bible study went as normal as any other small group we had had. Nothing was out of the ordinary, and yet I left that night in amazement at what I had experienced and witnessed. While many people might initially want to delve into the ethics of a transgender identity and what that means in the church (as important as that is), I found Buddy’s humility and vulnerability to be profound. Buddy, someone who has faced shame and darkness from his family his entire life, faced homelessness for a chunk of his life because of his gender identity, and who has wrestled with suicide and depression, decided to share that very part of himself with us that night. He trusted us as a community not to turn on him like those close to him have done repeatedly. It took incredible courage and vulnerability to bring that part of himself to the table that night. I was clearly shaken up and yet deeply honored to have experienced that night with Buddy. It was a sacred experience where I felt close to the presence of the vulnerable Jesus who knew not only what it was like to be forsaken by humanity, but who’s very last words were a cry of forsakenness.
It is always interesting to me how the Scriptures are soaked with suffering and brokenness. Jesus tells his followers to pick up their crosses and follow him. The cross, a Roman instrument of torture and shame, would not have been very appealing to any 1st century folks who wanted to follow this Palestinian preacher. The entirety of Jesus’ life is even built around embracing life on the margins and the suffering that comes as a result. The cross is not a comfortable way of life, but for Jesus, it is the only way through which the resurrection comes. The resurrection is not an affirmation that the cross was wrong, rather, it is God the Father’s affirmation of the very way of the cross itself. Jesus’ life and ministry gives us a model to look at if we want to know what it means to embrace brokenness around us and be part of God’s restorative work in our communities. German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, goes as far as to say that it is at the cross that we actually get the fullest revelation of who God is: forsaken and self-emptying love.
The Triune God is the God who “empties himself” out of self-giving love (Philippians 2:7). God through Jesus does not take a step back from “being God” when he took on flesh, lived on the margins, and died a revolutionary’s death. Rather, Jesus gives us a more complete picture of who the Triune God is. This is a God who not only knows what it is like to suffer, but identifies with the vulnerable on the margins (Matthew 25). The self-emptying God who needed help carrying his own cross is the same God that I have seen more and more here at JUSTembrace and the Uptown neighborhood.
Buddy came to the small group that night and modeled for me what it means to pick up your cross and follow Jesus. The sacredness of that night is very profound to me, and something that I will never forget. The men and women who have come through our door each week, or who I have met at the weekly soup kitchen, have given me much wisdom, strength, and courage to pursue and embrace my own brokenness. I feel blessed to have many living icons of the crucified messiah constantly around me this year, and have been wrecked in a holy way. Living in Uptown as part of the JUSTembrace community is allowing me to better see and understand the nature of the forsaken and broken God who is self-emptying love.