This past year the word “hope” has taken on a more significant meaning for me, largely due to my ongoing study of the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. Freire dedicated his life to serving the illiterate poor of the world. His methods not only taught illiterate campesinos how to read, but also how to “read the world” politically and socially. He had an approach to education that caused people oppressed and squeezed by the socioeconomic system to see the nature of their situation and then act into change that system. In his native Brazil his methods were so successful and so revolutionary he was imprisoned and later exiled by the government. However, he remained undaunted and took his message and methods to the entire world, replicating his work in Chile, Guinea-Bissau and the United States. Despite the suffering and resistance he endured, throughout his life Freire remained a positive and hopeful because he had a vision of what could be, a vision in part given to him by his faith in a just God. His example has inspired and helped me appreciate the power of hope to transform the world.

Faith is “the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1). Trust is “what is in front of you (my own definition with help from Heidegger). Courage is the willingness to act in spite of fear (Hauerwaus). So what is hope?

Hope for me begins with the awareness that God is at work in the world in spite of the evidence. Hope is believing that I am part of something that is bigger than I am, as well as bigger than governments, militaries or terrorists; Hope is seeing the reign of God breaking into the stuff of life in the midst of these atrocities. Hope is a vision of God’s future where the poor have dignity, where people divided by racial/ethnic fear and hatred can reconcile, and where battles between enemies cease. Hope is being part of a people who are working with God to make these things happen. Hope is believing that racism, oppression, injustice and violence are aberrations from God’s created order and not the norm. Hope is knowing that in working for justice and peace, we are working for the right cause. Hope is the conviction that the yearning for peace, justice and reconciliation is planted deep with the human spirit because God has placed it there. Hope is believing that the Eternal has broken into the temporal and God in us (Immanuel) compels us to act, live and believe.

Preachers and theologians often speak of hope in transcendent and heavenly terms: the hope of life with God after death. However, for me hope is woven into the stuff of life here and now. Hope is seeing a place like the Village of Arts and Humanities (a transformed neighborhood in North Philadelphia), or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, or the impact of churches like Monumental Baptist in Jersey City or Greater Exodus in Philadelphia (churches that have transformed their neighborhoods)or emergent Christian communities like the Simple Way (Philadelphia) and Rutba House (Durham, NC) who have woven their spirituality into living with the poor and dispossessed or groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams and Mennonite Disaster Service serving those devastated by war or natural disaster.

In the end Hope is not about me or what will happen to me when I die. Hope is how I live now. Hope is realizing that my destiny is tied to the destiny of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, and that when I share life and struggle with “the least of these” (Matthew 25), I am close to God. Hope is getting the opportunity to rub shoulders with those whom God has touched and knowing that the essence of life is far deeper than my vocational or material success.

So this Christmas I have hope and want to be a source of hope for others. I want to rededicate my life to service and working for justice. For me this happens through teaching students whom the educational system has largely deemed unworthy of its time and energy and seeing them succeed. It happens as I challenge adult students working in the business world to be “tempered radicals” helping to make their workplaces more compassionate, just and environmentally conscious. It happens once a week as I teach a young woman to read. It happens as I interact with people in my church and on my campus whoare captured by a passion for challenging the status quo. It happens as I try to point out places where I believe God is at work. It happens in my attempts to share my passions and visions with those I love and those closest to me. It happens as I continually look for the places and people in whom God is working and join forces with them.

Hope is not a pipe dream. Hope is Incarnate. Jesus, God in our midst, is Hope and enables us to be Hope for the world.