Meeting God’s Justice in the Tenderloin

BY ANDREW TAI

Have you ever been to the Westfield Mall in San Francisco? It’s beautiful, and many people shop there on weekends. Walk three blocks away, and instead of Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s you might see drug deals going down and people passed out on the streets. This is where I spent my summer – at Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin.

I worked there on a team of interns seeking to serve however we were needed. After spending two weeks of immersion getting to know the staff, the programs, and all the other intricacies of working in the Tenderloin, I decided I’d spend my summer in the Meals Program, helping to cook and serve three meals a day to the thousands of people who line up in front of Glide each day. I love food, so it seemed like something that I’d easily find joy in while serving. I fried fish, made jambalaya, mopped floors, and loved every single minute I was there.

I thought I’d be pouring myself out this summer, serving people, showing them love; I simply wasn’t prepared for the ways that, in fact, the poor poured themselves out for me, showed me love, and taught me God’s heart for justice.

I didn’t expect this. Coming into Glide, I was a sheltered, upper-middle-class college student; I’d expected, honestly, that my privilege would keep people from identifying with me or being comfortable around me. So it surprised me when those who were homeless accepted me, looked out for me, and treated me like one of their own. People who’d been around Glide for some time cautioned me when they saw me about to burn myself, helped me lift heavy things even when I was too prideful to ask for help, and ate and joked with me as if we’d been friends for years.

The more difficult realization, though, was that I didn’t naturally care about justice. I’d always seen myself as someone who cared about righting wrongs and speaking out against the problems in this world. But now I found myself, too often, apathetic and uninterested. I realized that, generally, I’m lazy and content to remain distant from issues of injustice. And that led me to wonder whether I was even supposed to care about justice: What was I doing? Was serving the poor actually important?

When there’s someone in your life that you truly love, inevitably you’ll find something he or she cares about that you just… don’t. Maybe he loves basketball, but you couldn’t care less about sports. If you love him, though, you’ll try to learn why he cares in the hope that maybe someday you’ll care about it too. Maybe it isn’t natural for us to care about justice; maybe we’re inclined to care, but sin gets in the way. I’m not sure, but I know that we’re generally selfish, sinful, and comfortable with privilege. But God cares about justice, right?

If God cares about justice, and I love Him, I’ll try to learn to love justice as He does. My journey has taken me from gutting houses in New Orleans to pulling weeds on a farm in Sacramento to frying fish in the Tenderloin. Through these experiences, God has taught me to re-evaluate my priorities, question many of the world’s systems, and look critically at how I contribute to injustice every day.

What would it look like if, even if we weren’t sure we cared about justice, we committed to learning what it is simply because Jesus thought it was important? I pray that we’ll try to figure out what God says about justice and then re-examine both the monumental and “minor” injustices we deal with every day: as we do this, I believe we’ll begin to see what bringing God’s kingdom here on earth really looks like.

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