By Heidi Blocher. Apprenticeship to Jesus, 2016. 120 pages. $7 suggested donation/paperback.
Heidi Blocher, a New England Friend who has traveled widely in America and Europe (and the 2010 Richard Cary lecturer at German Yearly Meeting), takes us on a journey few of us would undertake on our own. As I read this book, I recalled those famous words of John Woolman’s, as he thought about why he was on his way to visit the Indians in 1763:
Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them.
The experimental daring of this statement is powerful and challenging to anyone moved by the Spirit to visit someone. By Law of Grace is an account of such an experiment, and in its very different setting mounts its own challenges to the reader. Among many other things, the book is a faithful account of someone growing into a leading, and continuing to grow as she follows it.
The author tells us, “This wish had started in me years before, building slowly: A desire to live among the poor in a neighborly relationship.” She is not moved to “go and help,” but to live among people whose needs, imperatives, and experiences are very different from her own—I would say, accepting what they know about human life, and seeking how God is present among the poor—that she might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in.
In the winter of 2013–14, Blocher lived in an area of Phoenix, Ariz., occupied by the homeless, the displaced, the aged poor, the mentally ill, and people living through a bad patch in their lives, hoping for better fortune. This little book presents vignettes and meditations from across these months.
Blocher is very aware of the obvious differences in history and circumstance between herself and her neighbors, and that they must be seen or felt through, if an actual accompaniment is to be possible: she is white, of middle-class extraction, highly literate and self-aware, a slight accent marking her European background. She knows the value of community and the transactional values of the white middle class—attention to time, hygiene, personal space, the niceties of exchange and the kinds of mutual respectfulness that are embedded in rituals of greeting, thanking, and so on. But in the living out of her concern, these resources, unavailable to many of her neighbors, become barriers to overcome. The author, no stranger to such encounters, says, “To cope with this intense experience of a ‘world’ new to me, I needed to journal daily … [about] observations, encounters and dialogues with the homeless and other street folks.” She writes directly about times of anxiety, confusion, clarity, grace, and spiritual openings. The account feels honest and vivid in the way that these elements and others are jumbled together, as they are in life as it is lived daily.
In this review so far I have spoken about the author’s experience. I suppose that makes it easiest for myself—or you—to put ourselves in the author’s shoes, and thus to make her voice and her experience the main story. But I believe that this betrays an unavoidable bias. Of course the author’s journey and rich meditations upon it are nourishing and educating. For readers like me (and perhaps like you), however, it is all too easy to stay in that point of view, looking at the scene with a “middle-class gaze,” and avoiding the opportunity for closer encounter with the people whom we meet in these pages.
Blocher writes an unadorned but eloquent prose, and she introduces us to many people whom we would otherwise never know: the mysterious and charismatic Fred; the sweet, diminutive, deluded person we only know as “Squirrel Woman”; the destitute, needy souls; hungry, hopeless people whose names we never know; the volunteers and social workers who help these vulnerable people. For them, even well-meaning agencies have only impersonal caring and no true knowledge of the individuals standing before them, or of those excluded from their service, invisible to the safety net.
It is such encounters that give this book its depth and searching value—searching for the author and searching for the reader. As Blocher writes, “I desire that these people and the lives in which they move be seen—ultimately, not as something horrible we should avoid or ‘get rid’ of, but as a part of the population at present, and a condition in which, it turns out, Life moves, Light shines, Grace works.” The book, both comforting and uncomfortable, has served individual readers as a devotional and meetings as material for group learning; it is fitting that its distribution is from hand to hand, or heart to heart.