Faith sees God in the face of the poor, suffering

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 13, 2002

"In each of them I have witnessed... an unbearable sweetness of being."

A newcomer to our community picked up on last week's column on the "Coffee Cup University of Cochrane" to teach me an important lesson: some of life's worthiest coffee companions are to be found among the poor and suffering.

Faith Brace, a semi-retired Lutheran minister, speaks from experience. Before moving to Cochrane a few months ago, Faith spent eight years as part of the Inner City Pastoral Ministry, an inter-church outreach in Edmonton.

While there she met a priest who should certainly be made one of our honorary coffee companions.

This priest spent a lot of time hanging out in a coffee shop in Edmonton, Faith told me. While at the coffee shop, he displayed a sign: "If you want to talk, come to the Listening Corner."

It's not that he didn't have enough to do. It's just that he wanted to be available to people where they were, Faith said. "He thought they might need a person of faith to listen to them, and he was willing to be that person."

For Faith, this availability works both ways. She has found the poor, the marginalized, and the suffering to be agents for her own discovery of God as she has ministered on the streets of the inner city. She has met God "in the chosen individuals in whom the God of the universe meets human pain," she said.

"God appears in the respectful attitudes of those who have not been treated respectfully. God lives in the kindness that surfaces in hellish places. God speaks in the plain words of suffering people."

Take Caroline, Faith said. Fifteen years ago this Blackfoot woman lost her only son, murdered in a back alley, stabbed in the throat by punks vandalizing his father's truck.

"She mourns him still. Her pain became a bleeding ulcer which drains her energy and threatens her life. In the midst of her pain she is the strong heart of four generations of her extended family."

Then there's Harry. This former drinker and street fighter now lives peaceably, spending his days as a companion to the down and out and assisting his neighbors.

"He expresses a deep joy in everyday experience."

Martina's hellish place has been especially deep, Faith said. She is homeless, moving back and forth between treatment centers and shelters. She is clinically depressed and a constant danger to herself. As a small child, she and her brother were rescued from violence at home, only to suffer abuse in the foster-care system.

"She writes poetry and in her good moments lifts the spirits of other homeless women with her intelligence and wit."

It is coffee companions such as these that have strengthened Faith's own faith.

"In Caroline, Harry and Martina – and maybe a dozen others – I have met the living Christ," Faith said. "How is this so? It is because of the depth of their wounds, wounds they bear on behalf of others. And because they have glimpsed the view through the gates of hell.

"Martina wrote of her childhood effort to escape: 'I prayed to the person called God, but there was no one there.' They have seen too much to believe there is any help for us but through the bearing of pain.

"And yet they have allowed their pain to be transformed, to become a source of holy energy.

"In each of them I have witnessed and been the beneficiary of an unbearable sweetness of being. These are truly gentle people."

Does this happen only among the poor?

"In my experience, yes," Faith has concluded. "I have not seen it anywhere else. The combination of suffering, isolation and poverty makes it so. In such circumstances, Christian faith flourishes. Is that faith, therefore, a faith primarily for the poor and suffering? I rather think it is. And we who are comfortable can only observe and wonder."

This is the season of Lent among Christians, a time for personal reflection and self-examination. I'm wondering if others of you have also seen God in the face of the poor and suffering.

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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