Unleashing Scripture on the Streets: The Importance of Faith-based Urban Plunge Experiences

by Lindsey Krinks

Think, for a moment, of where you read and study scripture. For most of us, our engagement with the Bible is confined to our churches and homes. For many Christians, faith in Jesus remains a matter of personal salvation and private faith. In such a paradigm, issues like poverty, economic injustice, and human suffering are left to the realm of partisan politics while we spend the majority of our time seeking the rescue of spiritual souls. Thus, a false dichotomy, or division, is constructed that separates the spiritual lives of Christians from the socio-political realm of life.

The truth, however, is that the events of the Bible did not take place in neatly controlled settings or in a social, political, and economic vacuum. The events of the Bible took place in the margins of one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen, in the streets of Jerusalem where poverty and hunger ran rampant, in the dilapidated prisons where Paul wrote many of his letters, and on the outskirts of the city where people were oppressed and executed. In his teachings, Jesus addressed issues of oppression, liberation, and personal salvation, and he did so with the understanding that the two realms—the socio-political and the spiritual—were deeply intertwined. Theologian Donal Dorr says it well: “The struggle between sin and salvation is not confined to some inner world… it is fought out in the economic and political and in the cultural and ecclesiastical spheres as well.”

My point is this: if we only read and study scripture in private settings, we rob the gospel of its fullness, of its ability to transcend our domesticated, Americanized, personalized ideas of God, of service and mission, and of the life and teachings of Jesus. Where we read scripture affects how we read scripture.

How, then, should we respond? What if we took scripture out of the safety of our homes and churches and onto our streets, into the midst of everyday life in the city? What if we gave up the security and privileges of our comfortable homes, our warm clothes, and our satisfying food for a period of time to open our eyes and ears to what life is like in the margins of our society? This is, after all, what Christ did for us—he left the riches of heaven to make himself a servant, walked on foot from place to place, and became the friend of sinners and outcasts.

Enter faith-based urban plunge experiences. Urban plunges are traditionally designed to take economically privileged individuals, often college students, out of their comfort zones and onto the streets. Participants are asked to dress down, leave their cell phones, wallets, and other possessions at home, and wander around the city on foot (with an experienced guide, of course). They depend on the hospitality of others, eat only what they can find, and sleep and use the restroom wherever they can. (“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest his head.” Sound familiar?) Urban plunge groups consist of about 5 to 15 people (sometimes more) and usually commit to spend anywhere from 24 to 48 hours on the streets. Ideally, each group would have a guide or co-leader who either lives or has lived on the streets.

Contrary to popular misconception, the purpose of an urban plunge is not to figure out what it feels like to be homeless. Those of us who come from privileged backgrounds will probably never understand the discrimination, distress, isolation, and hopelessness that our brothers and sisters on the streets feel daily. Such experiences can be better thought of as a time of interactive learning, of listening, and of cultivating a greater sense of compassion for those who live differently than we do.  The purpose is to lay down our preconceived notions, to learn from “the other,” and to observe how scripture comes to life in new ways on the streets.

Try reading James 5 in front of a wealthy bank downtown (“Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire”). Try reading Jeremiah 22 in front of a day labor site (“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor”). Try reading the Sermon on the Mount at a homeless shelter; read Paul’s letters outside (or better, inside) the local jail; read about the hemorrhaging woman in a hospital or clinic where poor, uninsured individuals go; read about paying taxes to Caesar at the state capitol.

Too often, we’ve domesticated the street preaching of the prophets, the teachings of Jesus, and the writings of the apostles by keeping them inside the walls of our churches and homes. Faith-based urban plunge experiences allow us to unleash the scripture on the streets. The hope is that participants will bring such experiences back to their churches and homes and come to grasp a more holistic theological worldview that recognizes the plight of the oppressed, the impoverished, and the marginalized as intertwined with the spiritual health of the church and all her members.

[For more information about this type of ministry, see The Word on the Street: Performing the Scriptures in the Urban Context by Stanley P. Saunders and Charles L. Campbell (Eerdmans, 2000; paperback: Wipf & Stock, 2006).]

(This article orginally appeared in Campus Crosswalk, an online Christian magazine.)

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