Invitation to an Upside Down Redemption

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Courtney Beck -Upside Down Redemption3By Courtney Beck | Twitter: @CourtneyBeck83

“So why do you want to work with the poor?” the teacher asked our class.

“Because I want to help people who’ve had less opportunities than I have had,” someone answered.

“Nope! That’s not a good enough reason,” said the instructor. “Why do you want to serve the poor?”

“Because I want others to see justice,” someone else suggested.

“Nope. You’re just going to hurt people. How about you?” he asked, pointing to me. “Why do you want to serve the poor?”

“I’ve just been given so much. I want to give back,” I said, knowing his answer before I even finished my sentence.

“No! You’re just going to let people down.”

This was the banter that went back and forth throughout a week-long community organizing training that I attended shortly after my college graduation. I had landed my first job at a local non-profit after four years studying the field and serving in the city where I went to school. I was eager to change the world in the name of the God who had changed my heart. My new boss saw the light in my eyes and kindly offered to send me off to a training that would help with the revitalization work we were doing in the city of Baltimore.

The week was far more militaristic than what I expected. We spent six days learning the organization’s model of demanding social change through non-violent resistance and speaking truth to power. The teaching style was “agitational.” The class facilitators pecked and prodded at us in attempts to both share the methods behind such a style of justice work, and also to uncover our true motives for getting involved in the work. Their rightful concern was that far too many young people get into the field only to be so emotionally beat up by the difficulties of such work and eventually abandon ship. This often led to deserted promises to people who were down on their luck. The entire week was laced with a certain future guilt that we would let whole communities down if we didn’t figure out the proper motives for our efforts in the first place.

By the end of the week I had what I now affectionately call my “grasshopper moment.” After five days with not a single satisfactory answer I was beside myself trying to figure out something that would satisfy when it finally struck me. I raised my hand and the teacher called on me. We had moved onto other topics by this point but I asked if we could go back to the question that was asked before every class: “Why do you want to work with the financially poor?”

“I think I know why I’m doing this,” I said somewhat timidly.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“Well, I spent last summer working at a food pantry and emergency assistance shelter,” I said. “In the mornings I would sit with the women and men who had come seeking financial assistance to keep their lights on. I would always start the conversation by asking these folks how they were doing. More than once each morning the individual who I sat down with would respond to that question with, ‘Oh, I’m blessed, thanks for asking.'”

I paused as my eyes welled up with tears.

“I keep going back to that food pantry because I’ve lived in comfort my entire life and I’ve never had to worry if the lights will come on. But I can’t remember a time when my first thought in the morning was that I was blessed. These people who can’t pay their light bills … they’re the only people I’ve ever known to respond so regularly with gratitude.”

The instructor paused and stared at me as tears streamed down my cheeks. The whole room was silent. “That’s very good,” he said.

I don’t remember much else about that community organizing training. If anything, I have seen how the agitational style of justice work can be helpful to wake people up to injustice. I’ve also seen it do great harm to a restorative process when leaders aren’t aware enough to see they’ve turned a corner. But I will never forget how it turned my motivations upside down. It showed me that it wasn’t about what I was bringing to  the table; it was about receiving an understanding of the world I was desperate for. I needed to know how a person could be blessed when they had very little financial capital. I left wondering what other kinds of blessings were out there and if my lack of understanding made me bankrupt.

Strangely, this paradoxical lesson from my early career has come to mind in the past year as I have grappled with the decision to stay home with our first child. Like many women, I have struggled to know if pushing pause on a fruitful career in a justice field to stay home with my daughter was the right decision. In many ways choosing this path felt like sitting in an agitated classroom again. This time it was like getting peppered with questions by an accuser: “With all of the privilege you’ve had access to, why on earth would you stay home with a child?”

On my best days though, I find myself coming back to a more generous place. It’s usually a space that reminds me that my life is not actually a matter of what grand things I do or don’t do. I know at this point that those grand things are a mere fruit of a much bigger reality at play. These grace-laden moments remind me I am called to respond to God’s uniquely designed invitations to take part in a story of redemption. That redemption story takes my desires—to serve the poor or start a family—and turn them into redemptive spaces where both the world and my heart are changed.   

As I spend this season running after a toddler and wondering if I’m making any difference in the world, I find myself returning to a much clearer question God asked me the night our daughter was born 16 months ago: “So, what do you think about parenting this 7 pound 15 ounce baby girl? Her name is Eliana. And she is the spitting image of us both.”

“Yes,” I say as the days pass us all by. “Because I need to understand how this child is so wildly and gloriously free.”

____________

About Courtney:

courtneyI live in Atlanta, Georgia with my husband Andy, my daughter Ellie and a 10 year old dog named Nellie (yes, their names rhyme. It’s a whole thing. I will explain over coffee.)  While I was not born in the south I got here as fast as I could. These days I work part time out of the house but most enjoy my community garden, an engaging novel, time with the people I love and writing at www.CourtneyTBeck.wordpress.com.

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  • YES to “taking part in God’s story of redemption” — whatever our calling may be!
    Blessings to you as you pour yourself out for that baby girl.

    • Courtney Beck

      Thanks Michele. and blessings to you in your journey!

  • I have found the same with people we work with. Your words have helped me have a better understanding of the complex feelings involved with our work. Thank you.

    • Courtney Beck

      Glad it was helpful Debby. Thanks for reading!

  • Helene Burns

    This is so educational and freeing Courtney – thanks for sharing your story and wisdom with us today. God bless you in this treasured time of investing into and discovering the wonder of your beautiful daughter, Ellie. xx

    • Courtney Beck

      Thanks for reading Helene!

  • Oh, this makes my heart ache. For justice work, desperately wanting to get it right, gratitude in the face of situations I can’t fathom, and big, big changes in seasons of life. God, this essay was a hug. Thank you.

    • Courtney Beck

      so glad to read this Beth. Life is never simple is it? Thankfully Jesus gets it right. Everytime. Hugs across the internet to you!

  • As someone just learning about community development and non profit, over the past year, I resonated with your sudden awareness of why you do what you do. I have learned so much, with a felt aching, about what it takes to live out loving people well, in thin, uncomfortable places. I appreciate your authenticity and transparency. Thank you.

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  • Namratha

    WoW – I just got emotional reading this. Yes, it’s absolutely amazing how those we think are poor are rich in blessings and gratitude. You’ve managed to still minister to so many even as You’re home with sweet Ellie! I’m hooked 😉