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Friendship and Mission at the Margins: The Radical Practice of Friendship

March 19, 2014

inagraceAs preparation for the July 24-26, 2014 Convocation, this post draws out insights from the book Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission, by Christopher L. Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl, published by InterVarsity Press, 2010.


An approachable combination of theory and practice, Friendship at the Margins invites congregations to question how their ministry would look and indeed be different if it was motivated by pure friendship. The book is a part of the Resources for Reconciliation published through a partnership between InterVarsity Press and the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.* The series grows out of the mission of the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation: “Advancing God’s mission of reconciliation in a divided world by cultivating new leaders, communicating wisdom and hope, and connecting in outreach to strengthen leadership.” The resources seek to offer a fresh and distinctive vision for reconciliation as God’s mission and a journey toward God’s new creation in Christ. Each book pairs leading theologians with on-the-ground practitioners to produce fresh literature to energize and sustain Christian life and mission in a broken and divided world. Grounded in the biblical story, the books engage stories and places of pain and hope, and seek to help readers to live faithfully—a rich mix of theology, context, and practice.

friendship-at-the-margins-bookPowerful challenges are delivered within the disarming personal stories from both authors. Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh (WMF) since 1996 and ethicist Pohl share from their own grappling at WMF, “a community of contemplative activists who follow the most vulnerable of the world’s poor to God’s heart.” There is a major difference between “ministry” to the poor and truly being in community with them. For far too long we have talked about loving the widows and orphans. The authors demonstrate that this does not mean simply throwing money at the problem, but building a bond with them, extending not only a lending hand but a loving heart to those the world would deem unlovable or unwanted. Through the examples of what it means to live out reconciliation to the poor through deep friendships, readers can expect to be nourished and challenged. Heuertz and Pohl speak clearly and poignantly about true reconciliation, diving deeply into: living in tension, personal sacrifice, human dignity and into what it means to befriend someone not as an evangelism opportunity but as an opportunity to know freedom in being authentic where authenticity is the last thing expected.

Friendship as a Vocation.

Love and reconciliation separated from relationships with people who are caught in situations of terrible evil, need, or despair can seem pretty abstract. Jesus made our ministry very personal when he said in Matthew 25 that when we have responded to the needs of the least of his brothers or sisters, we have responded to him. Defining friendship as a vocation, the authors affirm friendship as relationships which embrace respect, endurance, trust, mutuality, and reciprocity. Friendships are revelatory of truth. Relationships forged among friends enable us to learn truths about others as well as seeing our love and action through the eyes of another. It is through the give and take—the listening and sharing, the care and the concern, the rejoicing and the grieving—of friendship that human beings experience the love of God. Cultivating friendships among the poor and vulnerable reminds us that words are rarely enough: actions are required for each of us needs to know concretely that we are beloved by God.

wordmadefleshMany of the stories within the book are drawn from the experiences of friendships in hard places and from reflection on what those friendships mean for the church. Chris Heuertz shares the story of Word Made Flesh, an incredible ministry serving the poorest of the poor around the world, by giving practical examples of what it means to live out reconciliation to the poor through deep friendships. Numbering formally about 200 people, they have formed small communities that attempt to take Jesus’ incarnation seriously—his willingness to become flesh and “move into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message). Their call is to practice the presence and proclamation of the kingdom of God among friends who are poor by embodying love and holding onto hope. Situating their efforts in a Christian faith that bears witness to hope, they attempt to live out the character of a good God in a world that has many reasons to question the possibility of God’s goodness. Establishing drop-in centers, children’s homes, hospices, community centers and advocacy programs, staff members live and work among populations who live and work on the street. Christine comments that when she first encountered the folks from Word Made Flesh she “was surprised by their capacity to live in settings of enormous loss and pain, and to reflect on their experiences with faith and insight.” She was also “surprised by how seriously they took their relationships—the ways in which they were committed to one another and to the folk among whom they ministered.”

While not all Christian communities will live into ministry and mission as deeply and intensely as Word Made Flesh, hearing about and reflecting on their experiences can reshape our visions and our ministries. The stories of their experiences can provide a clarity of vision and a reorientation of moral imagination that allow us to look at our ordinary circumstances differently. When our eyes are opened to the importance of friendship, fidelity, and respect in difficult situations, we become more sensitive to them in the ministry context of our own congregations.

Relationship with God is at the Heart of It All.

The authors take their theology from texts describing relationships between God and Abraham, and Jesus and his disciples. Behind the emphasis on friendship and community in mission stands the experience of our relationships with God. Knowing God as one who desires and offers friendship with us powerfully expands our understanding of God as Creator, Judge, and Redeemer. While we don’t usually think of God as having friends, several times Abraham is described as being God’s friend (2 Chron. 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). Abraham’s life was transformed by his relationship with God. Jesus calls his disciples friends rather than servants because of shared commitments and purposes RELATIONSHIP(John 15:5-7). The love that Jesus commands his friends to have is the love that he is about to show them. “No one has greater love than this,” he explains, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. The linking of sacrificial love and friendship is key for his disciples, and the result is joy, lasting fruit, and a love that endures.

Scripture makes it clear that God’s love is abundant and available for each of us, but also that in a particular and protective way God loves those who are most vulnerable: widows, orphaned children, strangers, and those pushed to the margins of a community. Jesus offers us friendship and that gift shapes a surprisingly subversive missional paradigm. A grateful response to God’s gift involves offering that gift to others—whether family or strangers, coworkers or children who live on the street. Offering and receiving friendship breaks down the barriers of “us” and “them” and opens up possibilities of healing and reconciliation

Scripture expresses a close and important connection between righteousness and distributive justice. In Hebrew the words that are translated as righteousness and justice (sedeqah, mispat) and their derivatives are often used together or interchangeably. Both have to do with living justly and according to God’s purposes, a rightness in relationships, a wholeness to life for the individual and the community. For one thing, this means making a connection between how we live, what we consume, and what that consumption costs others.

Chris gives a personal example which illustrates Isaiah 3:14-15: “The plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor.” On a trip to India, he became acquainted with sisters who worked in a local garment factory. One of them, Sujana, had earned less that $1 a day to stitch the red button down shirt from the Gap store which Chris purchased for $40. Sujana was overjoyed to see Chris wearing her product, but when she asked how much it costs in the US, Chris was so moved he set up a Personal Retail Equality Tax, where he taxed himself 12% of the price of an item and put it in the bank and at the end of the year he delivers it to Sujana’s family. This is just one example of the way we as Americans must rethink our very strong desire for possessions and the use of our money. We can’t get all “the plunder from the poor” out of our houses or our lives, but we can be more attentive to living justly.

Much more than “charity,” communities embodying radical friendship are also godly communities of righteousness and justice. How can the poor have justice if their friends’ unrighteousness uses resources in ways that deepen poverty? The authors lay open the path by which decisions on one side of the world “ripple effect” to the other, reminding readers of the reality they live within whether they accept the invitation to enter the struggle or not.

Mutuality in Community.

clasping-handsHeuertz and Pohl access Lukan hospitality narratives to connect the balanced tension between accessibility and safety with mutuality in relationships. What does real friendship and mutual service mean between someone who has all their needs met and someone who is struggling to survive? Being in mission with people on the margins reminds us of the importance of locating ourselves in places where we can respond to the initiative of another person for friendship. Unless our worlds are mutually accessible, all of the initiative is likely to come from one direction only. And unless a person has opportunities to offer friendship and gifts on his or her own turf, the relationship is unlikely to yield its most mature fruit.

Many of the women and children with whom Word Made Flesh works have suffered unspeakable trauma, abuse, violence, and exploitation. And yet many continue to find the courage to pray. They live with gratitude and hope. From their poverty they practice abundant generosity, giving freely and with joy. Although they bring different experiences and resources, it is through friendship that those experiences and resources can be shared, and they become the clay out of which faithful discipleship to Jesus is fashioned.

friendshipWilliam Booth, cofounder of the Salvation Army in the nineteenth century, understood the central role of friendship in mission on the margins of society. Reflecting on his ministry with those who were desperately poor in the slums of England, he wrote “God, it was said in old times, setteth the desolate in families; but somehow, in our time, the desolate wander alone in the midst of a careless and unsympathizing world. ‘There is no one who cares for my soul. There is no creature who loves me, and if I die no one will pity me,’ is surely one of the bitterest cries that can burst from a breaking heart. One of the secrets of the success of the Salvation Army is that “the friendless of the world find friends in it.” The authors remind us that mutuality within a community of friendship is not secondary but is at the very heart of the matter. Unless people who respond to the good news are folded into a community that is oriented toward growing in Christ, they are very unlikely to survive in a new identity, must less to thrive.

Ambiguities and Tensions.

Friendship as a model for mission recognizes the importance of sharing ourselves and cultivating trust. But friendship on the margins can draw us into morally ambiguous or troublesome circumstances. While Word Made Flesh communities offer alternatives to prostitution and life on the streets, sometimes people are unable to break away or take the steps necessary to change the direction of their lives. “Sometimes the only way we can see and interact with these friends is when they are working. Being with them means being guests in their neighborhood, and being a ‘good’ guest in a red-light area has turned out to be among our most challenging experiences, morally and spiritually.” While they hope that the children and the women will get out, they are committed to journeying with them toward freedom and new lives.

wordmadeflesh2It is in part because of these ambiguities and tensions, that it is so important to be located within a prayerful, truthful, and loving community. It is within a community of friends who share their deepest communities to God that they find accountability as well as strength and support. Word Made Flesh practices “friendship mentoring,” with paired staff members periodically meeting for coffee or lunch to share and talk together. Participating in prayer, study, and celebration provides needed grounding as well as renewed courage. “There is no way friendship with Jesus can remain dynamic and close unless we take time to be with him in worship and reflection. As we grow in friendship with Jesus, he will continue to transform our love and to make it bigger and more fruitful.”

In his review of the book, Walter Brueggemann aptly summarizes its contribution to the ministry of reconciliation. “In a world of aggressive economics, cynical politics and excessive ideological certitude, everyone is an adversary. Such aggression, cynicism and certitude, moreover, produce unbearable alienation. Here Heuertz and Pohl offer a quiet, honest probe of generous friendship as an antidote to the great social pathology that devours us. With narrative particularity and acute neighborly sensibility, they witness to the cost and risk of friendship, which at its best cannot be done wholesale. This account concerns the truth of human life made fleshly—immediate, face-to-face, dangerous and transformative. They offer much to ponder about how, in a world of too many adversaries, the practice of friendship among the weak and unnoticed may be our hope for the future. A tall order, likely our only alternative!”

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

(Suggested by the Study Guide included in Friendship at the Margins.)

1. What characterizes Word Made Flesh’s model of mission as friendship? How is this different from what you normally think of as mission? How does friendship challenge other models of mission?

2. What does friendship with God look like? How is this similar or different from the way you think of your relationship with God?

3. How can friendship with people on the margins reveal the connection between justice and our lifestyle choices?

4. Think of groups of individuals you or your congregation is in ministry with. How is your relationship with them “mutual”? How might your relationship with them become more like a friendship? What might be the challenges and benefits of such a shift?

5. Entering into relationship with people on the margin can bring ambiguity and tension. Why is it both difficult and important to be present to someone whose circumstances can’t easily be changed?

6. Why is community necessary for forming and maintaining radical friendship?

* For more information about the excellent and highly recommended Resources for Reconciliation books, visit their website: .

Christine Pohl

Christine Pohl

Christine D. Pohl, the 2014 Convocation presenter, has both the theological and practical credentials to stimulate and guide the discussion during the Convocation. She is Associate Provost and Professor of Church and Society/Christian Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary. Before attending seminary and earning her Ph.D. at Emory University, Christine worked in various ministries for eleven years. She owned a Christian bookstore and worked in advocacy and refugee resettlement.

As the recipient of various grants, she has organized research projects that have led to the writing of several books, including Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999) and Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2011). In collaboration with Chris Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh, Pohl wrote Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (InterVarsity, 2010).

Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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