Our Kenyan friend, en route to the Church in Kagwangware, explained, “This place is a slum, not like Kibera (Kenya’s world-famous slum) but still a slum; that’s why you see these churches!”
My mind did a quick rewind and replay several times in the next while. I would never have expected this comment as part of the travelogue, but it was. In just a moment or so, we arrived to joyful worship, warm and receptive brothers and sisters, and a sense of the Holy inside that tin-roofed, lean-to, worship center that made the slum outside fade while glory-generated hope on the inside captured and changed our focus. In the light of that glory I could then say, “Of course, the slum really does ‘explain’ all these churches!”
After all, I was reminded, this is the gospel. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. But among whom? Not the particularly cultured who would know in advance and have had time to make proper preparations in order to honor the long expected guest in ways surely deserved and that also demonstrated the hosts’ honor and respect and worthiness. He came unto his own—that is, simple, ordinary, relatively unknown, common folk who suffered, struggled, and then died. If they didn’t live in a “slum” it may be more by historical accident than socio-economic factors and their place and potential no one envied. Among them of course there were the “others,” the no-accounts and the cast aways. Among them the shamed and unclean, while not actually dwelling were near. The Word became flesh and dwelt among them, right down and dirty where the cultured and those aspiring to be would always feel a need to “explain” (at least to explain why they were there). The Word came there and from there brought light and life, by the swallowing of darkness and the embracing of death, until Word seemed muted and muffled for good. Until, the Word that was Good itself showed it was also Light and Life itself, and displayed the lie of dark and death. All of it, the Word did among them who lived if not in the slum, the next blocks over. This is the good news we had come to hear and receive in the slum called Kagwangware.
And, after all, I was also reminded, this is the gospel in still another way. That is, if the gospel has anything to do with the ongoing life and work of the one who would not stay dead. Yes, the One who began his work by insisting it was good news to and for the poor that drew him from before until now, to all the places where the poor were to be found. And, since he is not dead, but alive forever more, and he has not abandoned his creation but walks and serves and saves and transforms through new means, a newly composed Body, this then surely remains the very gospel itself.
Therefore, of course, slum-as-setting is a perfect place for churches to be. As Jesus through his people moves in and dwells with those whose poverty he delights to share and transform into riches of another sort, able to make purchase in the kingdom to come and even acquiring a kind of buying power in this present age as well. For there is a food that most know nothing about, a life that no money can buy, and a Family that includes present loved ones but deepens and reaches to the hundred-fold others Jesus promised.
Then, again, since “poverty” cannot be reduced to material matters alone, and since “wealth” requires more than a want for nothing, I am also reminded that many places of external opulence lack depth. Not very far beneath the skin, they are truly slum-like as well. What appears to be opulence simply attests to the clever way some have learned to compensate for common human impoverishments by acquiring more and more fostering illusions of “enough.” But more is never more enough, and so we compensate as we can to finance our denial.
Which is to say: Next week, as we drive to church in a place far more outwardly opulent than any slum, we cannot perhaps be so confident that near the service there does not exist a slum after all, where the poor huddle together in assumed security, enjoying many perceived blessings, merrily moving along in various degrees of denial, but all the while in desperate need of encountering the One whose coming penetrates all forms of poverty, exposing the shabbiness, teasing toward the blinding glare of glory, and whispering, “If only you knew who it is asking you for a sip of water, or a crust of bread, or a little hand, or just a break, you would ask him … “