If the poor will always be with us, as Jesus said, then why don’t we always see them? Learning from “the least of these” with author and urban ministry leader Arloa Sutter.
Two stories stand out in Arloa Sutter’s new book, The Invisible: What the Church Can Do to Find and Serve the Least of These. The first is about a man named Irving Wasserman, who was a recipient and giver of grace at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, the organization that Sutter founded to serve homeless men, women, and children in Chicago. Wasserman was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man. He looked and acted like the kind of homeless person many of us would avoid: dirty, profane, volatile. But Sutter invited him into Breakthrough’s community center one day for a cup of coffee and gradually learned that he wasn’t homeless, just very much alone and extremely frugal.
Wasserman found a family at Breakthrough Urban Ministries. He also brought his laundry there once a year so he wouldn’t have to take it to a laundromat and stuffed his pockets with used paper towels so he wouldn’t have to buy toilet paper.
One day, after Sutter had casually told Wasserman about a grant proposal she was writing that would help homeless men and women find employment, he asked her to find a lawyer who would, at no cost, help him set up a revocable trust. Sutter writes, “By living frugally, Irving had saved seven hundred dollars per month from his disability checks and had purchased government bonds every quarter for fifty years. With his gift to Breakthrough of five hundred thousand dollars, this eccentric man, who had been forgotten by many, became our largest donor. His legacy has lived on through the changed lives of people who have been trained and employed because of his gift.”
The second striking story is from Sutter’s childhood on an Iowa farm. One night sometime after a buck had gotten out of its pen and impregnated the female sheep, Sutter stumbled over the body of a frozen lamb that had been abandoned by its mother. She had grown accustomed to collecting dead lambs that winter, but this one surprised her by being alive, if just barely. She nursed the feisty newborn back to health and made it her mission thereafter to see that the rest of the rejected lambs would live.
Many years later, when Sutter’s husband of nearly twenty years decided to leave her and their children just as Breakthrough was beginning to flourish, she leaned on this memory. She writes, “In my imagination, I knew I was that little lamb. I needed to be rescued. I could not pull myself out of my suffocating sack of depression and despair. I needed the Savior, the Shepherd with the nail scars in his hands, to bring me to a place of love and security, to hold me lovingly in his arms and restore me to life.”
The impact was immeasurable. “Without the loving support of people in my life, I too, could have been homeless. I learned to appreciate the family of God and their love for me, and would never again look at people in difficult circumstances from a condescending point of view. God allowed me to experience my own brokenness so I could experience God’s love more profoundly.”
The Invisible is chockfull of compelling stories like these that demonstrate the common humanity of those on the giving and the receiving end of ministry. Sutter culled from her twenty years of urban outreach experience and from her deep theological education (she holds a master’s and a Ph.D. in urban mission) to write a meaty treatise on the personal and communal breakthroughs that are necessary to live out Christian faith in an urban context.
Sutter explains, “While understanding and embracing the personal love of God for me and you is certainly important, my [Baby Boomer] generation, for the most part, emphasized our personal walk with God to the exclusion of any notion of social concern or responsibility. What mattered most was whether I was right with God, and my highest concern for you was whether you were right with God. We weren’t overly concerned with righteousness in our relationships with one another or whether we as a group of people might be unrighteous in the way our lives inadvertently oppressed other groups of people.”
UrbanFaith talked to Sutter about her first book and her journey from farm girl to single mother overseeing more than 50 staff members. She said, “From my background, if it makes sense and you see it in Scripture, of course you act on it, so what I was trying to communicate was that in my background we had a high value of Scripture, but we just didn’t really interpret it in ways that were applicable to an urban impoverished community.”
Although Sutter’s family of origin is proud of her now, she says they were frightened when she and her ex-husband moved to Chicago. Her mother even offered to raise their two daughters. Sutter says, “Any parent would want their children and their grandchildren to have a safe and happy childhood. …People on the farm will say, ‘It’s so dangerous, and it is. As I say in the book, a bullet went through my dining room window, but I don’t feel in danger at all. I think about on the farm a lot of farmers lost their limbs in the combines. It’s a different kind of danger.”
Yes, it is a different kind of danger. But what comes across most in The Invisible is how good that danger is for the spiritual lives of those who place themselves in the midst of it and are willing to be schooled by “the least of these, our brethren.”