10 Questions With...Scott Bessenecker

Scott A. Bessenecker (M.A., international development, William Carey International University) is director of global projects with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, based in Madison, Wisconsin. He is editor of Quest for Hope in the Slum Community (2005). His articles have appeared in publications such as Mission Maker Magazine, PRISM, Student Leadership Journal and Evangelical Missions Quarterly.

What is your background & what led you to justice work?
I think my dad had something to do with it. I’d call Dad a pacifist patriot. He loves his country, served in the military, but has vehemently opposed the last few American wars and feels pretty strongly about the act of taking away life. I don’t think he considers himself a Christian, but he has an innate sense of godly justice and passed that down to us kids.

You speak about downward mobility. That is not a common thought, even for Christians. Other than your book, what other resources or websites can people look to for examples of serving God by means of downward mobility?
There is something about laying down power when you have every right to use it that captivates the imagination. Samantha on the TV show Bewitched was never really able to do that, was she? Instead of pointing readers to a website, I’d say interview your grandma (maybe not yours, Chris, unless she’s OK with that). Most of our grandma’s were beautiful, gifted women who often made millions of humble, little choices that quietly changed the course of humanity, yet doomed them to obscurity. I think there is something deeply spiritual about changing a diaper in an age when your spouse was exempt from the chore.

If you could get one thing across to the reader in your book, The New Friars, what would it be?
That Jesus is passionate about people at the bottom of the global dog pile. What is merely a number to us or an article on – the faceless millions who scavenge dumpsites – these people take Jesus’ breath away, and he is calling out over his Church for those who would join him in his mission of solidarity and redemption.

What authors have influenced your spiritual life?
Henri Nouwen, Brother Lawrence, and Jesus’ little brother James.

What’s the greatest thing you’ve learned as Director of Global Projects with InterVarsity?
God is way big, and my fretting does not seem to have any impact on global crises. I send a lot of 18-24 year olds into some pretty intense situations (and a
m reminded so by their over-protective parents). Even when hard things happen, God seems to manage things fairly well with or without my worry.

How could The New Friars be used within the Church?
My hope is for three responses within the Church – first that some in the West are called to a life with Jesus in the slum communities of the developing world, second, that those who are not called would draw courage from the obedience of those who are, and third that our brothers and sisters who were born into poverty would be honored.

You write that, “The social activism & prophetic voice of the new friars are often kept outside the center of wider church.” Why do feel the marginal people – those Jesus calls us directly to minister to – have fallen to the periphery within the church?
a. Because they are uncomfortable to be around.
b. Because we live insular lives and it takes effort to connect with them.
c. Because the Church has an inferiority complex and is desperate to prove that we are cool and important. Hanging around marginal people feeds our insecurities as a Body of believers.

What do you see as a crucial topic facing the evangelical church at large today?
Whether the current youth generation will be able to move beyond a faith characterized by infatuation with Jesus (you know, the I-just-want-to-bask-in-your-glow, kind of masturbatory worship … if you can even put that in print), into a mature love that involves suffering. I own an evangelical Bible dictionary which boasts to have every word of substance mentioned in the Scriptures. And, while it has an entry for the word “sulfur,” it has no entry for the word “suffer.”

Reading the beginning of the book, I was overcome with the magnitude of the situation & the seeming hopelessness of it. I am sure that you & those working directly with the poor feel this way from time to time. What do you do to regain the hope?
Last month I had a good, long, weep-out-loud cry for all that is messed up in the world. I felt lots better after that. Nehemiah managed to grieve over the sorry state of the city of Jerusalem, not in despair, but because he knew what should be but what wasn’t. He believed that God’s promises were true, and he could and cry out for their fruition even when they were unfulfilled. I have not doubt that God will ultimately have his way on this planet. Hebrews 2:8 says,
"There is nothing that does not obey him, but we do not see all things obey him yet.” (New Life Version)

Whether or not you are called to work directly in slum communities, what is something that every person can do to get involved?
We have got to figure out how to connect our lives to those on the margins right where we live. People who live in affluent parts of town could go do their laundry in a sketchy area and ask God to introduce them to someone who is not like themselves. We can’t be too easily put off by one bad exchange with a homeless person. We need to keep pressing into the communities on the fringe all around us – asking what do I have to learn here and what do I have to give? Then we need to live more simply. Our lives have become dangerously materialistic, not just dangerous for the planet and for the people exploited so we can live comfortably, but dangerous for our very souls.

What ways do you see for people to get involved to change the systems that keep the poor in the stranglehold of poverty?
I’m afraid I’m a dismal failure as an activist-protester. I mean, I try to watch where I shop and what I buy, but I– as Isaiah 3:14 puts it – have the plunder of the poor in my home.

If all of us get connected in some way to people on the margins … not just as a “project” but relationally and emotionally – if people in poverty become our friends – then all we need to do is ask, “How would my friend George be affected by my work today? Are there ways I am increasing the barriers that prevent George from accessing the things to which I have access? How does the world bend toward me and away from George? Are there small, seemingly insignificant ways I can help bend it back?”

If I don’t think in terms of seemingly insignificant acts of friendship to the poor, then I become immobilized.

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