It was January of 2008. I had been doing this work for about five months or so, and I was already burnt out. I had no money. None. I was surrounded and overwhelmed by the immense amount of need I was confronted with daily. There was nothing I could do to fix any of it.
Most days, my response was to weep.
I was sinking, and fast. I had only been in Raleigh a short time and had no real network of friends or relationships. There was no one I could talk to about my work or my despair – at least, no one who had also experienced it.
There were several people whose writing had inspired me to do this work, so I figured that maybe, just maybe, they knew what I was feeling. I wrote a couple of emails, asking for help. Only one of them replied.
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.
Because his response meant so much to me, I tear up a bit when I get similar emails now from fellow pot-stirrers and justice workers. They read something I wrote once that makes them think I would understand, so they write me. The emails that say, “I am doing similar work to you, but I am struggling because no one understands the work I am doing, and no one is changing.”
Because Bart’s email meant so much to me, I almost always respond to those emails when I receive them. And like Bart’s email to me, my advice is seldom what they are looking for, but most often what they need.
I ask questions like, “Who is your team? Who are you talking about this stuff with? What do you do to enjoy yourself? Do you want to do this in 10 years? When was the last time you saw the sunset? Who does this with you? What books are you reading that have nothing to do with this work?
They want me to tell them the magic words to fix the relationships they have with people who are desperately poor, or to show them the strategy that will make bitter, jaded people have hope, or the way to get their church to embrace people who live outside. Instead, I want to tell them how to live.
Because if you want to do this work long term, you have to learn how to live. You need to immerse yourself in beautiful things. You need to learn boundaries. You need to have friends who have nothing whatsoever to do with your work, and you need friends who do the work with you.
Most importantly, you have to realize that loving people is a team sport, and that whatever positive outcome you will see as a result of that loving takes years to measure. It is, like Bart said, an endurance sport best suited to the plodder.
So plod on.