He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
-Luke 6:17-20 (NRSV)
“Welcome to Cherokee” the sign read as our bus of more than sixty college students and sponsors descended upon the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains. Before beginning the eight-hour drive west, we had been primed on the challenges facing this community: above-average rates of obesity, diabetes, and alcoholism and a lack of economic and educational opportunities and resources. We had studied in detail the atrocities the U.S. government had carried out in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries vis à vis boarding schools, assimilation, slaughter, and forced relocation. This wasn’t our first confrontation with society’s economic and social disparities; some in our group had grown up in systems of inequality and marginalization You’d you’d think that would have stopped us from donning self-made superhero capes. Or, something like that.
Our first night in Cherokee we listened as three tribal elders introduced us to their community: “We’re honored you have come here,” one said. “But, we don’t need you to save us or fix us. Just listen to our story and do not forget us when you leave. We need people to know our story. You will all be working in different groups: some of you will be painting, some of you will be working with one of our schools, others will be at a group home for teens. But that’s not why you’re really here. You’re here to be a part of us this week.”
Jesus’ beatitude: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” calls us to confront our preconceived notions of what it means to help bring God’s kingdom come today. People are not problems to solve. Indeed, we are called to relationships, not assignments. Living in community is not an either/or, us vs. them. The satisfied do not always have the answer, nor are they superheroes in disguise. Fifteen years later, I vaguely remember the work we did, but my memories of lavish meals, hugs, stories, worship, and discovery have yet to fade. The dreamcatcher one teen made me still hangs on my bedpost.
As many of us learned that week, sometimes those who come to save end up being saved.
This week’s author is The Rev. Maria Kane. She is an Episcopal priest, historian of American religion, and native Texan. She currently lives outside Washington, D.C., where she serves as rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Waldorf, Maryland (and remains unabashed in her love for Washington’s archrival, the Dallas Cowboys). In her free time, Maria loves reading, cooking, kayaking, and spoiling her godchildren. She can be found on Twitter @mariaconchia.