“Service is the rent you pay for being.” These words were spoken to 30,000 Lutheran youth on the Saturday night of the National Youth Gathering, by Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and one of the earliest organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. We looked at our kids that night when she was introduced and told them to pay attention because for the next half-hour, they would be in the presence of a legend, of an icon, of a woman who started fighting for what she believed in when she was their age and who has gone on to make a difference in this world. We sat in awe of this woman, this woman who felt like she towered over all 30,000 of us, even at the age of 76 and despite the fact that she was probably shorter than most of the teenaged boys in Ford Field. She looked at these kids and told them that they can make a difference. She told them that they could change the world, and not just because they wanted to, but because it was who they are called to be as God’s beloved children. She looked at them and repeated, “Service is the rent you pay for being.”
The thing that was the most poignant about her words though was that she was saying it to 30,000 kids who had just spent the last three days serving. They had gone out to churches and communities and served, served well, served hard, served hopefully, served beautifully. 30,000 kids took over the streets of Detroit and cleaned up city blocks, boarded up windows, weeded community and church gardens, painted murals of hope, delivered diapers and food to shelters, and yes, even danced like crazy on the lawns of the city’s churches (Ask our kids, it happened. They witnessed me doing the Cupid Shuffle with teenagers from Genesis Hope Lutheran Church, and yes, they laughed at me, but it was FUN!). These kids could have easily looked at Mrs. Edelman and said, we’ve paid our rent this week. We’ve served. We’ve listened. We’ve helped. We’ve hopefully made a difference. She acknowledged that fact; she acknowledged the sweat, and the tears, and the torrential rain that had poured from us and over us the last few days, but then she made sure to point out that three days is not the rent on a lifetime of sharing this earth with our brothers and sisters. Rent comes due every month, and a few days of service doesn’t make you exempt from continuing to pay up.
The reality that she spoke into our gathered community, that echoed around the walls of Ford Field was that sometimes we fall into complicity. Sometimes we create a list in our heads of all the things we’ve done and we convince ourselves that we’ve done enough. We say, “Yes, but I did all these things, so maybe today, maybe this week, maybe this month, maybe this year, I can ease up, maybe I can get behind on my payments, maybe I can just coast.” It is so easy to fall into this mentality that simply says we have done what was necessary and now we can stop. And just as easily, we can fall into the mentality of feeling like we are just one person in the midst of 30,000, so what real difference can I make? We think we can slide by because we aren’t that important, or that we’re just one tiny person and even if we tried it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. We think there are 29,999 other people who are more equipped, better suited, more called, more capable of paying this rent and we step back. But here’s the thing: YOU are one of God’s chosen, beloved children, YOU are called, YOU are not just one in 30,000, you are ONE who can make a difference. I watched it happen this week. I watched individual kids make a difference. I watched kids high five each other down whole city blocks and hug complete strangers with unabashed joy as they all wore their “free hugs” shirts. I watched projects be completed that wouldn’t have felt whole without each individual kid’s contribution. I watched every single one of those 30,000 kids pay their rent and feel inspired to do it over and over again, because they felt and saw and understood that this was who God called them to be. My prayer for all of us is that the fervor of 30,000 teenagers can be our fervor, that we can feel that pull in our hearts to serve and serve and serve again, that we can remember that we can make a difference no matter how many times this world tries to tell us that it simply isn’t true, that we can remember that life isn’t just about coasting or about existing in isolation, but about living, working, and serving together, to make this world, our world, God’s creation, all that it could be.
Peace it Together,