Throughout seminary, I have found myself reading about the teachings of Jesus and learning the importance of caring for the marginalized. I was fairly certain I knew what it meant to act in a Christian way and to serve in ministry. I used phrases like “love your neighbor as yourself” and “we are all brothers and sisters in Christ” rather flippantly. However, my definition of these concepts changed significantly with my work over the summer.

From May to August, I interned with an organization called Back on My Feet. This organization uses running to empower those experiencing homelessness. Runs leave at 5:30 am from various homeless shelters and rehabilitation centers throughout the city of Atlanta. Those attending 90 percent of the runs have the opportunity to participate in job/interview training, as well as receive the benefits of partnerships with various corporations.

In reflecting, I applied for this internship more for myself than for anything else. I wanted to work with an organization where I could use my passion for running and feel like I was doing something good for the community. However, the lessons learned were invaluable. Back on My Feet crossed every boundary I had ever encountered within the helping profession. Each day, hugs were exchanged, phone numbers given, rides provided, and “hang-outs” planned. There was no difference between non-residential members (volunteers and staff) and residential members (those experiencing homelessness). Each morning, we huddled up with our arms around each other and prayed. We became a community. The men and women I worked with became and remain some of my best friends.

I have always preached the way we must walk alongside those in need, knowing full well that Jesus “hung out” with the marginalized within society. But in practice, I tended to walk above these individuals: handing out food from behind a table or feeling good about myself for buying someone on the street a bagel. But this is not walking alongside and not what Jesus practiced. Jesus calls us to practice love and true friendship in a much more tangible way.

I am incredibly struck by a powerful poem entitled “Listen, Christians” cited in James Cone’s “The Servant Church,” a chapter in The Pastor as Servant (Pilgrim Press, 1986).*

I was hungry
and you formed a humanities club
and you discussed my hunger.
Thank you.

I was imprisoned
and you crept off quietly to your basement chapel and
prayed for my release.

I was naked
and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance.

I was sick
and you knelt and thanked God for your health.

I was homeless
and you preached to me of the spiritual shelter of the love of God.

I was lonely
and you left me alone to pray for me.

You seem so holy
so close to God.

But I'm still hungry
and lonely
and cold.

So where have the prayers gone?
What have they done?

What does it profit a man to page through his book of prayers
when the rest of the world
is crying for his help?

When reading this poem for a Candler course at the beginning of this year, I began to reflect on my experience with Back on My Feet. The poem provides a call to action, not just thought or occasional tasks, but true and tangible action. We are called to recognize those at the margins as our neighbor experiencing extreme circumstances. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ, not just in a figurative sense but in a very real and tangible sense.

Back on My Feet taught me that saying someone is a brother and sister from the pulpit or as I pass by on the street is very different from actually hugging someone and “hanging out” with someone as I would my own flesh and blood. As I complete my last year at Candler, it is my goal to truly internalize these concepts. As we complete our time at seminary, we are called to enter into the world not simply preaching the teachings of Jesus but learning the true meaning of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

*The authorship of this poem is unclear. In his text, Cone notes that the poem was shared at a poor people’s rally in Albuquerque, N.M., and does not make any reference to its authorship. In 2015, Steven Allenmay came forward to claim that he wrote the poem in 1970-71 and titled it "Where Were You When I Needed You"; the poem was subsequently published in a church newsletter and purportedly spread from there. In another case, John Stott includes the poem as part of an anecdote in his book Issues Facing Christians Today (4th ed. Zondervan, 2006), and attributes it to a homeless woman who is not named (pp. 53-54).