I was brand new to justice work. I had big ideas about overcoming homelessness, about injustice. And because I was coming into this work because of my faith, I had the example of Jesus, who seemed tireless, who never failed to call out injustice, who sought to build a better world – who so agitated the Powers That Be that they killed him for it.
But some 8 months in, I was exhausted. I felt defeated, I was exasperated with my inability to effect change, and I found myself weeping from the overwhelming fullness of what I was up against. I felt like I couldn’t stop, but I also knew I couldn’t go on. So, in retrospect, I did a very smart thing, but at the time, it was a move of desperation.
I asked for help.
I didn’t have any mentors in those days. I just had some ideas, and some things I had read, and some people whose work I followed on the internet. In desperation, I wrote to three or four of them. I poured my heart out, I told them what I was doing, and I asked for help. I said I would be happy with just a link to an article, or a book they could recommend, or anything.
I got one response. But his email saved my life, or at the very least, made the life I have now possible.
From his email:
I hope you are able to pace yourself and develop enough of an outside life to sustain you over a long ministry in one place. The real fruit of this stuff doesn’t start to appear for years, and too often people burn themselves out early trying to prove how committed they are. Take days off. Keep your own living area sane and comfortable. Establish boundaries. Read good books about stuff other than the inner city. Exercise. Eat as healthy as you can. Remember, the people you are working with mostly don’t change that much, so ministering to them isn’t about ‘getting things done’ but rather accompanying people on their hard journeys, and that is an endurance sport that favors the plodder.
So plod on.
The writer was Bart Campolo, a former inner-city youth minister with a famous dad and no illusions about the difficulty of this work. And he is one of the people most responsible for my ability to continue this work.
Over the next few years, Bart and I would write back and forth, and sometimes, we would talk on the phone. He taught me that if you are committed to living a life that will immerse you in ugliness, then you have to saturate yourself in beauty to keep the ugliness out.
“Hugh, if you want to keep doing this work long-term, it is more important that you know where the art museum than it is you know where the homeless shelter is,” he told me once.
Another time he told me that if I were going to walk across the desert tomorrow, I should spend tonight drinking as much water as I could, so I would have a reserve built up within me to counteract the heat of the desert.
“Likewise,” he said, “you need to spend any spare time you have saturating yourself with beauty that will keep you safe when you go out into the world tomorrow.”
We all are living in charged times. The list of things to be angry about seems endless. The amount of work to be done is staggering. The sheer heaviness of it all can be oppressive. And I am here to tell you that the only way you will survive it is to immerse yourself in beauty.
Surround yourself with things that bring you joy. Read good books, enjoy good music. Plant flowers (or just buy cut flowers at the grocery store). Watch movies that stir you. Go to the museum. Go for walks. Meet friends for lunch, even if only over Zoom for now. Invest in yourself, and take classes on subjects that have nothing to do with injustice but involve subjects that stir you. Or, like I did last week, go for a drive so you can watch the sun set over the ocean.
And when you do, don’t apologize for any of it. Because beauty is not an escape from the fight for justice, but rather the beauty in this world is what we are fighting for in the first place.
PS: If you don’t know, I take this so seriously that I send an email with links to 5 beautiful things every Monday. If you want to be on that list, you can do it here.