SERVING THE CITY: AN INTERVIEW WITH ARLOA SUTTER
For nearly 20 years, Arloa Sutter has been a force for good in the city of Chicago. As the founder and Executive Director of Breakthrough Urban Ministries, an organization focused on helping the homeless and community development, Arloa is a shining example of what it means to live and serve among the “least of these” on Chicago’s West Side. I recently had the opportunity to pick her brain about how everyday people can make a difference by addressing issues of poverty and homelessness. Drawing from experience and her new book, The Invisible: What the Church Can Do to Find and Serve the Least of These (Weslyan Publishing House), Arloa graciously shared some of what she has picked up along the journey. It is my hope that this post is a valuable resource for those who have a desire to being hope to the hurting.
You grew up on a farm in Iowa and sensed a call from God to move to the city where you have dedicated your life to serving the poor. Could you share a little bit about what that journey looked like?
I came to Chicago to attend Moody Bible Institute. I fell in love with the city. I worked at a famous popcorn shop (Garrett’s) downtown and loved the bustle and the energy of the “loop”. I also got an old bike and rode through the neighborhoods. I was amazed with the beautiful diversity and the cultural mosaic. I was also perplexed by the many people I saw begging on the street corners and digging through dumpsters. I sat and visited with a homeless woman in a coffee shop and heard her story. Also my heart was touched by Emma, a woman I met in a Medicare nursing home who passed away and left me a little satchel which was all she owned. I had no idea that I was the only person who was visiting her, reading Scripture with her and praying for her. These experiences and others that I write about in the chapter about my journey to the city, touched me deeply and led me to a longing to be actively involved in work among the poor in the city.
Could you share a story that characterizes or summarizes your work with Breakthrough Urban Ministries? What do the highest highs and lowest lows look like in this kind of work?
One of the stories I tell in my book is about a man who came into our day center and complained that his feet hurt. I gingerly removed his shoes and socks (which let out an obnoxious odor) and found his feet were cracked and bleeding. I put his feet in a tub of warm soapy water and let them soak for awhile. Then I knelt and began wiping his feet with a towel and was rubbing lotion into them when I had a kind of epiphany experience. It was as if I heard the voice of Jesus saying, “What you do for the least of these, you do for me”, and it was if I was sitting at the feet of Jesus, showing Jesus how much I loved him. It was a very moving experience.
Most of my ministry has been a joy. It is inspiring to watch people get the tools and support they need to turn their lives around or at least to choose to take steps that free them from the bondages of poverty, addiction and isolation. It can also be disappointing at times when people who have made great progress relapse into addiction or make choices that bring them harm. One of the most challenging things for me as the leader of Breakthrough is to stand in the gap between the rich and the poor and attempt to help people understand one another. Both the rich and the poor often live in isolation from one another and have huge areas of blindness and prejudice regarding the experiences of people who are not like them. I find myself in the middle advocating for love and understanding.
In your book, The Invisible, you mention that people are often confronted with a sense of being overwhelmed and paralyzed when considering how they can make any sort of impact on this global issue of poverty. How would you encourage someone who is dealing with this kind of feelings?
We are not called to meet the needs of everyone who struggles with poverty, but we are called to be faithful and obedient. I encourage people to spend time with the Lord and to listen to God’s call to action for them. Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” God will touch our hearts with the world’s deep hunger when we expose ourselves to the needs around us. In my book I wrote a chapter entitled, “The Breakthrough of Presence.” The Good Samaritan went to where the man was and then felt compassion for him. Our compassion grows when we spend time with hurting people. I think it is important to be led by the Spirit instead of being driven by need. That is also a chapter in my book. I tell lots of stories of people who were moved to action after listening to God’s whisper and their actions met very specific and real needs that could not be explained any other way than that God was moving through them to show love that was right on point. I also encourage people to recognize that the complex issues of poverty are addressed corporately through the body of Christ. We each have a role to play as we do our part. We should join movements or organizations that are reaching out to meet the needs that touch our hearts. Alleviating poverty is not something that we can do by ourselves. We must work together. We are not caring for the poor out of guilt or obligation but because God calls us to because God loves us and knows what it best for us. It is not a burden. It is an adventure and a journey into the heart of God. Our hearts become broken by the things that break the heart of God and we feel the love of God pouring out through us.
Why is it important for Christians, or anybody else for that matter, to serve the poor?
Scripture is full of admonitions to care for the poor. Jesus modeled it by coming to earth in the way that he did. He hung out with outcasts. He so closely associated with alcoholics and overeaters that he was accused of being a drunken and a glutton. He let a woman with a sordid reputation wash his feet with her hair. He was surrounded by people with desperate needs and he fed them and healed them. Old Testament practices set in place provisions for the poor. They were not to harvest to the edges of their fields so the poor could survive through gleaning. In the year of Jubilee debts were forgiven, slaves were set free and the land went back to it’s original owners, thus circumventing the generational poverty we see today. Sometimes Christians will interpret Jesus’ statement in Matthew 26:11 that the poor we will always have with us, as letting us off the hook of caring for the poor. It is more likely that Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy 15:4-7 where it states that there should be no poor among us because God has blessed us and if only we would obey. Later it says there will always be poor people in the land so we are to be open handed and lend freely. There are other New Testament passages like James 2:14-17 and 1 John 3:16-17 that make it clear that faith that is not expressed by care for the poor is not true Christian faith.
What would you say are some of the first steps for people who want to begin the journey of moving beyond themselves to serve the poor in their communities?
The first step is to ask God for guidance and then to put yourself in situations where you will be exposed to the needs of the poor, to go to the prisons, nursing homes, homeless shelters and hospitals or take trips to developing countries where you will see and experience first hand what it is like to live in poverty. As I mentioned before your compassion will grow when you hear the stories and meet the people behind the statistics. You will also be moved to action when you come to grips with your own privilege. We can’t do everything but we can all do something to make life better for those who struggle with poverty.
Dealing with such difficulty on a day to day basis must be tough. How do you stay healthy, mentally and spiritually, so you can keep up the kind of work you do?
In the book I tell about an experience with burnout early in my ministry and how different it is to be led by the Spirit instead of driven by need. I have learned to listen to my body and recognize when I need to say no to things that are very worthwhile but are not mine to do. When I feel tension in my body I know I need to step back. I have learned to prioritize my time with God, listening and meditating. I have practices in place of spiritual retreat. I also spend time with my kids and grandkids. They always put me in a happy place.
Who else is out there doing great work that give you a sense of hope? Who inspires you?
I am inspired by the veteran leaders of the CCDA (Christian Community Development Association): John Perkins, Mary Nelson, Glen Kehrein, Wayne Gordon and many others. JoAnne Lyon is one of my heroes. She established the relief organization, World Hope International and is now the General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church.
Your book serves as a kind of filed guide for beginning the journey toward service and justice for the poor.
What other resources would you recommend for learning more about issues of poverty and how to best serve this population?
What’s next for you and Breakthrough Urban Ministries? What kind of impact do you hope for over the next 5-10 years?
We are in the final stages of a capital campaign to build what we call the Breakthrough FamilyPlex. It will be a facility that will bring our community together with health care, preschool, after school programs, sports activities and a community cafe. It is my experience that most of our homeless guests have experienced trauma in early childhood. Many have grown up without strong family support and have lived in communities where there is very limited access to opportunity and schools are failing. We have carved out a 32 block area in a disadvantaged community and are committed to building a network of support around the children in the community. We are starting early with early childhood education, ensuring the kids get into good schools and supporting them through high school, into college and back into service in the community. We want to surround enough kids and their families with support until we reach a tipping point in the community and it becomes normal for youth to finish high school and college and make a living wage. We will continue to support adults who have fallen on tough times, but we hope to work with the community for its transformation through supporting education, health care, real estate development and business entrepreneurship. There is a lot of work to be done and we are just getting started.
Learn more at www.arloasutter.com