I never really thought very much of those wizened old curmudgeons who write nostalgic pieces on the anniversary of a ministry they developed about all they’ve learned through the years. Those articles always feel a little out of touch and irrelevant to everyone else in the world except the person doing the writing. But alas, here I am, wizened, old and curmudgeonly writing a nostalgic piece about the early days of a ministry I developed - the Global Urban Trek, which began ten years ago this summer.
Time is a human construct and probably not as important as we give it credit for, especially those of us in the west who worship it. Time is artificial. It is simply a way of recognizing that the past and the future are loosely connected in the present. We can’t change anything that happened in the past and we have little if any control over what happens in the future. Even our ability to control the present is extremely, extremely limited. But the greatest benefit of time is the ability to learn something from the past and maybe, just maybe, get a dim glance into what’s ahead. Winston Churchill said it well, “The farther back you look the farther ahead you can see.”
Ten years ago 80 people embarked on a journey to live among the poor of the world’s megacities as an act of worship and an attempt to discern whether God might be saying something to us through the experience. There was not another summer like the summer of 2001 in my life. I love words, but I can’t string them together with enough skill to make you experience what I experienced that first year of the Trek. You can read some of the journals for that summer, but you can’t attach yourself in the ways I feel attached to that very first summer of the Trek. It was one of those hinge times in one’s life, upon which so many things that follow seem to swing.
Probably about a thousand people have been on the Trek since then, and something like 300 of them have heard God say they should relocate into a slum community in order to know him at a deeper level and to become a catalyst for shalom and transformation. There is some kind of move of God happening among the one billion or more slum dwellers and it has been a rare privilege to get near it.
It’s not been all thrills. Walking alongside the world’s sex workers, street kids and sidewalk dwellers can mess with you. While some Trek students have gone on to relocate to slum communities or to work in organizations seeking systemic change, most of us have not and we must struggle with how to live in the most affluent place on earth while so many, many millions experience extreme poverty of body, mind and spirit. Many of us have reoriented our lives with the poor in mind, changing majors or choosing to live simply, but many others have experienced deep depression and disappointment with God. Investing yourself in the lives of the suffering can do that, since most of us in the US don’t have a theological framework to help us deal with poverty and suffering. I have even seen a few Trek students wander from the faith. I Tim. 6:10 says that can happen for we who choose comfort and materialism. I suppose if we’re honest, many of us who’ve witnessed hard stuff have been tempted to do wander from the faith and into the arms of our lover - Wealth. But like Peter, when asked by Jesus if we too want to leave, we say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:67
I suppose if there is anything I have learned in these last ten years working with the Trek it’s that anyone who follows Jesus will, like it or not, find themselves walking through desperate places involving themselves in the lives of desperate people and feeling a measure of desperation themselves. Some will handle that desperation well and end up looking more like Jesus, even if that means wrestling with God and forever walking with a spiritual limp. But some will not handle it well and will grow apart from him. But if you want to get close to the Man of Sorrows you will find yourself in sorrowful places. And if looking back at ten years of the Global Urban Trek and the New Friars helps me to see ahead a little ways, I am mostly encouraged as I see well-educated, rich, young American college students choosing Jesus and his path over the paths of power, comfort and things. And while this has its measure of hardship and trouble, it also has Jesus, which is enough.
Jesus may set up his camp in dark places, but he always lights a fire and starts singing.