From the outskirts of hope

February 11, 2014

                    “Then the King will say to those on his right,
                            ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father!
                            Take what is coming to you in this kingdom.
                            It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation.
                             And here is why:
                                  I was hungry and you fed me,
                                  I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
                                  I was homeless and you gave me clothes,
                                  I was sick and you stopped to visit,
                                  I was in prison and you came to me.’”

                                                                              Matthew 25:35-37, The Message

I first went to visit a person in prison while I was employed as a boarding school counselor on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in Fort Yates, North Dakota. A young native boy I had been encouraging to remain in school was imprisoned for murder. He was 17 years old; I was 21. Nearly everyone had written him off; I knew he needed someone to walk with him. He was without hope; I desperately wanted him to hope again.

At the recent 24th annual Martin Luther King holiday breakfast in Minneapolis, keynote speaker Donna Brazile reminded members of the audience, as carriers of Dr. King’s legacy, that we are called to bring people “from the outskirts of hope” to the center of God’s beloved community. It was a powerful and unabashed affirmation of the Christian faith. We are to bring the hungry and thirsty from the outskirts of hope to hopefulness. We are to bring the homeless and sick from the outskirts of hope to a place of security and comfort. We are to bring the prisoners from the outskirts of hope into a future with hope.

It never ceases to amaze me how we Christians (both those who are more conservative and those who are more progressive) vehemently argue with one another over issues Jesus never directly spoke to or taught about or addressed in any manner, while conveniently ignoring Jesus’ explicit instructions, commandments, and actions. Even a casual reading of the Gospel makes it abundantly clear what kingdom behavior looks like.

At every twist and turn of the Gospel narrative, Jesus is bringing persons from the outskirts of hope into abundant, eternal life. It is clear: We are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and clothes to the poor. We are to visit the sick and go to those in prison. We are to advance Jesus’ personal mission of “preaching good news to the poor, announcing pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, and setting the burdened and battered free” (Luke 4:18). We are to go and make disciples, baptizing and instructing people in the practice of all that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:19-20).

February is Black History Month. It is not only a month in which to remember the journey of our brothers and sisters of African descent. It is not only a season in which to celebrate the achievements of black heroes who led the battle against slavery, apartheid, oppression, and racism. It is also a time to embrace, with renewed energy, Jesus’ radical hospitality of bringing those from the outskirts of hope to the very center of God’s loving grace and restorative justice. Friends, racism lives; exclusion flourishes; prejudice thrives; cultural pride prevails. These are personal and corporate sins of which we all need to repent. These are barriers to the kingdom reality, for which we pray, that we are all called to eradicate.

The young native boy I visited in prison was ultimately convicted and incarcerated in the state penitentiary. I left North Dakota to go to seminary. Over time, I lost track of him; I do not know what, if any, impact my visits had on his life. I do not know if hope was awakened or restored to his soul. But, my visits to the prisoner transformed me.

My experience gives me eyes to see that Jesus redefined the justice systems of his day. Jesus moves us from retributive justice to restorative justice. Jesus moves us from justice based on “an eye for an eye” to justice based on restoring relationships. Jesus moves us from justice focused on punishment to justice that seeks healing, forgiveness, reparations, conversion, and shalom for all those damaged.

My experience compels me to advocate for prison reform and against the death penalty. My experience drives me to support and engage in prison ministries. While serving as the bishop of the West Ohio area, Char and I made regular visits to the Marion Correctional Institution and helped expand its innovative “faith dorm” movement to other prisons in Ohio.

My experience causes me to dream. I dream that God will raise up hundreds of Dakotas-Minnesota Area disciples of Jesus who will say, “It is time for me to walk with someone who is in prison. It is time for me to walk with an ex-offender. It is time for me to walk with the family of someone who is in prison. Yes, it is time for me to walk with those who hunger and thirst for justice. Yes, it is time for me to move beyond kingdom behavior that is safe and comfortable. Yes, it is time for me to bring a person—a friend, a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor—from the outskirts of hope to the center of Christ’s love.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, in reference to the United States Constitution’s statement that “all men are created equal,” that “it is time to take the thin paper and turn it into thick action.” As followers of Jesus, we do this by seeking every opportunity to bring people “from the outskirts of hope” into Christ’s marvelous light. May it be so for every United Methodist congregation in the Minnesota Annual Conference.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area.

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