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The Urban Saint

February 7, 2015

In 2012 I published a couple of posts entitled Some of Those I Met Along the Road on My Journey Toward Calvary and Another Meeting on the Road to Calvary. Today I want to tell you about someone else I was privileged to meet on my journey.

Last week, after graciously setting a place for me at her family table for the umpteenth time, a dear friend insistently offered me some books to read. I tried to beg off, protesting that I already had a formidable stack awaiting my attention. Finally I relented and accepted one, in large part because I was somewhat familiar with its subject—Harry Lehotsky, the colourful pastor who left his indelible stamp on Winnipeg during his 23 years in the city.

I met Harry once. It was not too long after he came to Winnipeg to begin his ministry. Likewise it was early days for the ministry I had initiated, at first confined within prison walls but soon breaking out into the streets. As we shared our respective endeavours, I remember wondering what this young American was doing in Winnipeg, working and beginning to raise a family in the roughest corner of West End, one of the city’s most troubled neighbourhoods. I also remember being impressed with his contagious passion with which he so readily infected others, and the love he wore on his sleeve for the hurting people amongst whom he was living.

My reading of Paul H. Boge’s The Urban Saint, The Harry Lehotsky Story, got off to a shaky start. The account of Harry’s teenage involvement with drugs lacked authenticity, perhaps revealing the author’s naiveté about the subject. I wondered whether the book was going to be worth my time. But there were flashes of vivid reality, indeed irrefutable truths, in some of the words he ascribes to Harry. Those words leapt from the pages, seizing me by the heart and dragging me into the story. I was held hostage there, a gathering wind (the Holy Spirit?) fanning the fire that has burned in my belly for as long as I can remember.

“Why don’t we get angry at injustice?” Harry railed. I have been repeatedly asking the very same question for years. I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer, but I suspect I have arrived at one myself. For a few it may simply be bending to the tut-tutting of others to “be nice”, but more likely it is because, as I well know, to get angry at injustice pushes one to act, to become personally involved. And out of fear, laziness, a feeling of inadequacy, or more tragically, disinterest and indifference to suffering, people don’t want to do that.

For many who populate the pews on Sundays, it is far easier to bemoan every social evil, frame it as a spiritual problem, sin, and to argue that the best response is to pray and evangelize. Though this view is not in and of itself wrong, it does not fully confront reality. Should we as Christians, both individually and collectively, not follow the example of the prophets to speak out against injustice? Should we not, as Jesus did, confront those who abuse, oppress and victimize others and challenge systems that push the poor closer to the brink of the abyss? Should we not reach out those who are hanging by their fingertips from the bottom rungs of the social ladder? Should not some of us, in solidarity with the poor, move into their depressed neighbourhoods so that we may really understand what it is like to live there, and then work with them, using our resources and our voices to help make things better? Should we not with the psalmist stand collectively before God and cry,

“Examine me, O Lord, and try me; Test my mind and my heart.”

then confess our own part in injustice and repent of it?

I was amused as I read how Harry pounded on the door of the biggest drug dealer in the community to confront him, and how the man tried to legitimize the trail of carnage, the destroyed lives that were the fallout of his enterprise: “This is business.” “No different from the way the CEOs of many of the corporations we support uncaringly look past the harm they inflict in the pursuit of efficiency and profit,” I thought.

So is it the role of the church to be involved in social justice issues? I have heard the arguments on each side ad nauseum.   I cannot conceive of anyone who knows me or has read what I write not knowing in which camp I stand. It mystifies me how anyone can read the Bible, in particular the Prophets and the Gospels, and not hear God calling for justice. Alas, we see in the Bible what we have been taught to see there, sometimes even reading in what is not there, and what we have been taught to ignore never enters our field of vision. We can become so intent upon a “right” reading of the written word that we cannot hear the living Voice.

I am in no way suggesting we ignore evangelism. I fully recognize that even when all the worldly needs of a person are met, when he has been made as comfortable as possible, he may still be haunted by the emptiness of his life and seeming meaningless of his existence. We must never neglect to share where we have found meaning. But to neglect the practical needs of people is to stop our ears to the voice of the apostle James:

“If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “ Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (James 2:15-16)

When a student suggested to Harry that Christians should forego social action in favour of evangelism, he replied, “So instead of splitting hairs about should I evangelize this person and not give them food, or should I give them food and not evangelize them, why not offer both in a way that is dignifying to them and to God?”

But when the church even considers how to honour both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, it seems to me the balance is typically heavily weighted in favour of evangelism. (At the large missions conference I just attended I had to search among the more than 150 exhibitor’s booths to find the few groups who aren’t focused solely on evangelism.) What help is given often treats symptoms while ignoring the disease. Many times the help that is offered is conditional upon attendance of evangelistic presentations or becoming active in a church. Those who do not comply with these conditions are deemed undeserving. In my opinion, it’s not for us to decide who deserves help and who doesn’t. Everyone in need deserves help. To turn our backs is to fly in the face of Matthew 25:31-46, ignoring the indwelling Christ.

So exactly who should be involved in social justice issues? Our Western culture (and therefore our churches) is dominated by dualistic thinking that delineates and polarizes everything as black and white rather than recognizing the continuum that exists. Our thinking tends to be divisive—“them” as opposed to “us” rather than the inclusive “us” of community. When it comes to Christian service, as we do in most areas of life, we deal in specialities: it is only the “special few” gifted ones who are considered qualified to be preachers, teachers, missionaries, prophets or healers. But in reality, whether we realize it or not, don’t we all, if we choose to, preach, teach, evangelize, prophesy and heal? The Christian’s job description is very, very broad. Lack of specific gifts does not absolve us from any aspect of it, including fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves.

We cannot effectively minister to the disembodied, those who for us have no individuality, no personal story, no unique needs. We do not know them, so therefore we cannot really love them. Love is very personal. It is what allows us to cross the critical border between sympathy and empathy into the province of embodied compassion. As Walter Rauschenbusch, who ministered for 11 years to the people of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and was “a beacon of inspiration” to Harry, put it, “We never live so intensely as when we love so strongly. To understand things and people, we must love them.” If we don’t understand a community and its people, if we don’t listen to how they describe their problems and envision solutions, any attempt to help will be at best mediocre, and may, as is so often the case, do more harm than good. Will we have the compassion and the courage to love people and help them where they are?

Sadly, as Harry observes, “So many thoughts by so many others on how to fix people. But so little compassion to take the time to love them and walk the road to recovery with them.” After his death from pancreatic cancer in 2006, the ministry he had built languished. Donations dried up and church membership declined. The Ellice Café and Theatre that was to Harry “a little bit of heaven” was put up for sale, along with half of the 100 low-income rental units his ministry had developed. It would appear New Life Ministries’ success was built too much upon the man who came to be loved and respected by so many.

As I think about what I read in Boge’s biography, I can identify with Harry in many ways. I can see myself in the author’s account of Harry as he wrote his first article for the Winnipeg Sun. Just as the book describes, there are times the words literally pour from my mind onto my laptop screen. There are times I read what I have written and think, “Not bad, Barry.” Then, like Harry, I wonder, “But is anybody actually going to read this?”

I can empathize with Harry’s early struggles. The book talks about how the churches that had commissioned Harry were concerned when after over a year the only visible “results” of his efforts was a tiny home Bible study. The model of “cold call” conversions and the “business model” of success measured in numbers ran deep within the evangelical community of the day, and still does. Unlike the angels, we don’t rejoice all that much when only one is brought to God. And when there are no converts, we tend to get downright surly. Our business model demands return on our investment.

I can also identify with Harry’s love for the “bottom dwellers of our society” as a reporter in the book disdainfully describes them. My love for “the least of these” (a somewhat gentler term) comes from the same source. In Harry’s words, “I really know that my Saviour loves me. A lot of Christians say that. But I wonder how many actually know that in their heart. I wonder if they walk around each day knowing that he really loves them. I have that, so loving other people is easy. When it comes right down to it, I’m no better than anyone else. When we elevate ourselves then we lose.” Amen.

As the author describes Harry’s relationship with his church, “Instead of feeling like their pastor, he felt like one of them. No better. No worse. Strong in some areas. Weak in others. Needing God as much as they did. Being just as capable as they were of losing sight of him and resorting back to the brokenness of his own humanity.” These words accurately characterize my own attitude toward those I have ministered to over the years, each of whom ministered to me as well.

I don’t find it difficult to love those who have fallen victim to the bad decisions they themselves have made, been beaten down by the callously abusive actions of others, ground between the millstones of our capitalistic economy that favours the rich and the powerful, or have been thrown by a stumble in some gopher-hole of misfortune. Through personal witness and personal experience I know that people can find themselves in circumstances that suck so much of their energy into simply existing that they have little left to pull themselves out of the morass. They need a hand up. I find it far more difficult to love those whose machinations to protect their own selfish interests keep the disinherited where they are—without decent jobs, decent housing, decent lives—in an existence of poverty and fear with little chance of a better future for themselves and their kids. Without hope.

I don’t claim to be able to love others as Harry Lehotsky did on a consistent basis.But I know where you were coming from, Harry.

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