Dignity and Respect
I am no expert about poverty and homelessness. While I want to write as the hero of this story, I am one of the worst of all sinners when it comes to relating to those populations. This is how this article came about.
My husband was always the one who “felt called” to work with the homeless. I’m ashamed to say that whenever we ran into someone living on the streets, he would dive in, and I would hang back. I was uncertain and uncomfortable, and I was willing to wait in a coffee shop or sit in the car if it meant staying within the boundaries of what felt safe to me.
While I so badly want to put on a front that I have treated everyone with dignity and respect, the truth is I have not. I have been a hypocrite to the core, and I have begged God for his forgiveness. I have asked for him to enter into the places where I haven’t been able to look people in the eye — people who are made in his image. I have asked for his grace for the times when I have pulled up to a street corner and felt awkward, so I chose to disengage, to put my sunglasses on and look away.
Yet here I am, in the most shocking, Jesus-induced twist of all: Working full-time at an urban homeless shelter for women and children.
What I am learning is simple: I am closer than I have ever been to some of the financially poorest people in the area that I live. I am also watching myself start to care more about the needs of the poorest people in the area I live, most likely because for the first time in my life I am standing right next to them.
I have been a Christian for eight wonderful years, and I have spent all of those years diving into scripture, craving my God, desiring to learn more about him and his commands. I have studied giving to the needy and caring for widows and orphans in the scriptures, feeling genuine twinges of love and concern for those groups as I read the true Word.
But here, in this new job, I am feeling more than just small droplets of concern: I am finding newfound waterfalls of love and compassion in my heart that I didn’t know existed. I actually am starting to care about the things that God has been telling me to care about all along.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
The ultimate example of proximity comes from the Christ himself. Jesus humbly sacrificed sitting at the right hand of the Father to come down and join us, to be physically near to us. And before he went to the cross to guarantee that proximity eternally, he did ministry in our midst:
He heard our stories, listening patiently through the good and the bad, like he did with the woman at the well.
He cared about our wounds, healing those around him, those who came to him for sick and dying children, or years of bleeding.
He even felt our pain, weeping with Mary and the Jews who were saddened by the loss of Lazarus before he raised him.
His example is plain before us, that we are made not just to pray for the poor, sick and broken people of the world, but to physically go to them in our own communities. We are supposed to stand next to them: to listen to the stories, to help heal the broken and to empathize.
My first day of work at the homeless shelter, I watched an elementary aged boy saying good-bye to his father so he could enter the building with his mother to have a place to sleep for the night. He wailed and kicked and screamed, not wanting to leave his dad, begging him to come inside, not understanding why his family couldn’t be together for the evening. The father teared up as well, looking distraught, caught between his desire to have his son by his side and the need for his child to have a warm bed.
Five minutes later, in the closet where nobody could see me, I wept for that little boy and his family. I cried because I saw the pain on his face, because I felt his distress when I held the door for him to enter the building. As I thought about his family being separated, I cared more about the homeless than I ever had from inside my car, and the amount that it mattered to me was overwhelming.
Jesus absolutely calls us to care for the poor, but for my entire existence, I have been taught to live my life almost completely separate from that group of people. I was taught to desire to live in a different part of the city, thereby attending different churches and shopping at different stores than the people who are on the lowest economic rung. I can live an entire life in a community without truly interacting with what is going on with the bottom 10% of the population, and it has been killing my compassion for them.
I’m learning that we cannot care about the people that Jesus wants us to care about when we live our lives separately from them. In order to listen, heal and empathize, we need to humble ourselves and go, physically putting ourselves in their worlds, just as Jesus did in ours.
If we want to love the poor, we must be near them.