Testosterone and Ministry Among the Poor

(A version of this blog appeared in 2008. Recent discussions made me want to dust it off and repost it)

My regular haircut location was closed not long ago so I dropped into my neighborhood barber shop. It was an experience in masculinity.

First off, there were two chairs both tended by male barbers. As I entered, a man was leaving. “Hopefully I’ll see ya’ when turkey season comes ‘round,” he called out to one barber. “You betcha,” came the reply.

The feng shui of the interior screamed 1970’s man-cave: while there were no mounted deer heads, the walls were covered in dark paneling, posters of various men's sports teams, and one poster of about twenty “modern haircuts.” All of the pictures in this poster were headshots of men, and nearly all sported very short haircuts (with an amazing number of variations on the flat top). Not all were military style haircuts; one photo was of a “radical” cut. It was a 90’s style, super-spiked Mohawk.

Tucked into a corner of my barber’s mirror was a photo of him holding up a large fish.

We chatted a bit. Small talk mostly, but it felt like gruff, manly small talk. Cars and sports and the like. I’m suffer from a huge social deficit here in Wisconsin because I cannot name the starting line-up of the Green Bay Packers. I think I only know the quarterback’s name, but I'm not even sure of that (Bret Favre - right?). However, I’ve learned to fake it. Here’s a tip for others of you that know nothing of sports: When someone says, “Hey how ‘bout them ____ (insert name of sports team)?” Just say, “Yeah, I know. They always begin well, but then they blow it.” It doesn’t matter what team, how they’re doing, or how far into the season it is. This line will nearly always make sense for some reason.

“You just gettin’ off work?” My barber asked. I told him that I was. Then he asked what I did. That was when the whole tenor of our testeronic conversation changed. When I told him I worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and explained I helped to call students to live and work among the poor, his demeanor softened considerably. He became a kinder, gentler barber. Instead of talking loudly about fishing trips or his son’s car, my barber spoke softly about the church's hospital visitation program and how nice it was that those church people did that for those poor, sick patients.

Why is it that serving our friends in poor communities appears so un-masculine? Is it the nurture aspects of ministry on the margins? Does walking alongside street kids, the homeless or the chronically poor lack action, adventure and life-threatening risk, so that this sort of thing is only for men percieved as pansies?

The men’s movement in Evangelicalism often exaggerated Jesus’ table turning, whip-wielding, righteous anger while conveniently overlooking his weeping over Jerusalem, longing to gather her residents as a mother hen gathers her chicks. If it’s true that some corners of the church have emasculated aspects of Christ and his kingdom, it's also true that the wild-hearted men’s movement re-interpreted or avoided altogether things like peace, patience, kindness and gentleness – spiritual fruit both men and women are called to exhibit.

Probably 2/3rds of those who sign up for our short-term projects among our neighbors on the margins are women. There is a resulting dangerous imbalance of women working long-term among the poorest of the poor. Many of them live with the unsettling question of whether any guy will ever serve alongside them in ministry in marginalized communities.

But St. Francis of Assisi really does not need to be viewed as St. Francis the sissy.

We need to celebrate and embrace the things about Jesus and his coming kingdom which appeal to the masculine identity, and highlight Christ’s call to face the cross and engage conflict as we lay down our lives to bring transformation and deliverance. In ministry among the poor there is confrontation with those in power, high-stakes risk taking, and revolutionary change. And I believe we can call more men into ministry on the margins without appealing to the corrupted extremes of the masculine psyche (the desire for physical violence, domination of others, misogyny, etc.). I have seen in the person of Christ and in many others living and working on the margins that men are capable of bringing their maleness into ministry without having to dominate or destroy. There is a vision of men among the poor which does not require emasculation if we can just portray it accurately and invite men into that vision.

When my barber finished cutting my hair he unfolded a single-edged razor, lathered my neck with a brush, and scraped that threatening blade across my vulnerable neck. I found it thrilling. The parts of me that long for danger and love risk, came alive in that moment. But those parts of me are no less active than  when walking with those under the boot of injustice, or working to see the vulnerable protected or the exploited empowered. There is plenty of room for both men and women to bring their gender into ministry.

When I left, I thanked my barber courteously, and when I shook his hand, I squeezed it aggressively in a powerful handshake.

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