The Red Couch: The Power of Proximity Introduction


I cried so hard…believing that somehow the tears brought me closer to the children I was reading about. I vowed to never forget the indignation I felt after reading Amazing Grace by Jonathan Kozol about the devastating reality of children living in the South Bronx who lacked vital resources. I wanted to translate those feelings into action and DO something.

That was at age 15. Fast-forward umpteen years later and, sad to say, the passion I felt that day has waned a bit. I read The Power of Proximity as a way to reignite my fire, and it definitely delivered. It offers just the perspective many need to see how far we are physically and emotionally from those who suffer injustices.

After graduating college, author Michelle Ferrigno Warren was determined to address the pain of the needy in an unconventional way. She moved into a poor neighborhood as a deliberate act of social justice. She shares her journey of the power of coming close to those in need after seeing herself as sheltered and privileged. Writing this book was a way for her to answer a question she hears repeatedly from countless young people hungry for social change:

“What can I do to engage in injustice and make a real and lasting change?”

Her answer:

“The most profound move you can make to address pain and injustice is to become proximate to it.”

I like how she explains this idea of being “proximate” to the poor:

“Proximity to anything gives you a front-row seat to what’s happening. This is why tickets near the front of a sports stadium or concert venue are so expensive and valuable. You have the best view from the front and the experience is far more personal. Up close there is little debate about what’s actually happening in front of you. And you know what? Becoming proximate to the poor, those impacted most by injustice, is the most radical, transformative thing you can do to affect it. Proximity to the poor is powerful.”

She continues to expand this concept throughout the book and further explains why she believes living within an underresourced community is so important in moving toward justice. Her way of doing this comes off more like a manifesto than a how-to guide. Readers are encouraged to find their own way in making a difference as opposed to receiving detailed instructions on how to do it.

Warren also discusses many thought-provoking ideas such as the complexities of race, privilege being leveraged as a valuable resource, and how Christians often overlook “lamenting” as a necessary practice in ministering to others.

In a book like this, you would expect to hear lots of cool stories of people she met and how their lives have been changed. But instead, she puts the spotlight on how God transformed her while still sprinkling a handful of moving stories to illustrate her transformation. She went from naïve and sheltered to exposed and aware; from being a “fixer” of people’s problems to being a person who sits with people in their pain; from being fearful about everything to being surprisingly courageous. I can relate to these transformations and I can easily see how they could easily resonate with someone else hearing her story.

Ultimately, Warren’s book offers a dose of inspiration for everyone. For those of us who lack the desire to act in alleviating societal ills, it will spark a desire to depart from what is familiar and do something bold. For those of us who have the desire but struggle to figure out how to live out the value of social justice more fully, it encourages us to simply take action, however it may manifest. And for those of us who are already steeped in the depths of social justice work and are struggling to see if it is even worth it at all, it urges us to soldier on.

I’m happy to say the book lit my fire just as I had hoped it would. While there was no outpour of tears like when I read the other book as a teen, something more tangible emerged: A plan of action to lead a ministry team door to door to meet the people in the neighborhood where our church resides. Earth shattering? Maybe not, but had I not read this book, this idea may not have materialized. This outcome alone has made the book well worth the read.

Jesus came from heaven to live proximate to us. What better example to follow than the One “who became flesh and dwelt among us.” So I invite you to discover the power of proximity and let the Lord lead you in coming close to others and changing your world, one person at a time.

Come back on Wednesday, July 25 for our discussion post and join our Facebook group to discuss the book throughout the month.

The Nightstand: A short list of books and resources to enhance and deepen your reading experience.

Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol

Embrace: God’s Radical Shalom for a Divided World by Leroy Barber

Where the Cross Meets the Street: What happens to the neighborhood when God is at the center by Noel Castellanos

White Awake: An honest look at what it means to be white by Daniel Hill

Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang

Christian Community Development Association: Engaging Christians in the process of community transformation

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