We see them every day. Homeless men and women weighed down by over-stuffed backpacks, pushing shopping carts liberated from local grocery stores or baby strollers jerry-rigged to hold the sum total of their belongings. They spend their days getting together enough money to eat and wandering the streets and shopping malls in search of safe, temperate places to hang out. Indoor shelter is hard to find and difficult to hang onto so when the weather is cold they huddle in bus stops or laundromats to stay dry.
With no permanent addresses, limited skills, sketchy employment histories, and clothing unfit for the workplace, few will find employment. Even fewer will hold a job for more than a short while. So, the street corner becomes a de facto job site for many. They hold cardboard signs that telegraph their rationale for hard times and pleas for money, hoping to secure hand-outs from passers-by.
As Christians, we want to help them. God puts within us a heart that breaks when we see suffering and directs us to love others as He loves us.
“…Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
We are called to share the blessings God has rained down on us, to love fully without expectation of return.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
And, we are expected to help. The Barna Group, a leading research organization that studies the relationship of faith and culture, conducted a 2011 study that revealed that 29% of all Americans point to the church when considering intervention strategies to assist the poor.
While our intentions are good, our efforts fall short. We struggle with the issue of homelessness in part because, deep down, we believe that the circumstances of the homeless are of their own making, that with hard work and sacrifice, they can care for themselves.
We are reluctant to admit this because it makes us sound, well…mean. But, this attitude is real and comes from deep-seated values that we hold very dear.
One day not too long ago, I struggled to maintain a pleasantly neutral face as a homeless women I had gotten to know through a weekly Bible study proudly showed me her new i-Pad tablet. I loved this woman. I had spent many months in prayer and study with her. I admired her courage and her grace in the face of enormous challenges. I wanted to share this happy occasion with her.
But, what was she thinking?
She had no job and no permanent place to live. How could she possibly think it a good idea to spend what little money she had on a luxury item? Never mind that she had no way of keeping such an expensive piece of technology in her possession when she was back on the street where anything of value sports a bulls-eye for many who shared that space with her.
I struggled with the right response.
Is this a teaching moment? Do I try to talk sense into her? Or do I give responsibility and good sense a brief holiday and celebrate with her?
I chose a response somewhere in the middle, The Smile and Nod. But it nagged at me long after.
I sought advice from a friend who works for a local private non-profit that serves families who are considered to be generationally poor –families that have been in poverty for at least two generations. She pointed me to a book titled A Framework for Understanding Poverty.
Written by educator Ruby Payne, the book defines poverty not only as a lack of material resources but also as an absence of emotional, mental, and spiritual resources. She points to positive role models as pivotal in shaping our values and behaviors and details the rules of engagement that exist in the United States for survival among the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor.
These rules are unspoken and pervasive in terms of how we develop our sense of self and our relationship to the world.
Think about it. Those of us raised in the U.S. by middle class parents were taught to work our way out of poverty. If we lose everything we have, we start again, working harder until we’ve regained what we’ve lost. We prioritize our purchases putting necessities before luxuries, learn from our mistakes, and save for a rainy day.
These are values that have been handed down for generations. They are reinforced by stories of tenacity and toil by people from all over the world who have attained the “American Dream”.
When we see a homeless man holding a cardboard sign, these rules and stories serve as our filter as we consider his plight.
We wonder if a hand out will do more harm than good. We question why he isn’t working and. As we scrutinize his too-gently-worn running shoes, we wonder whether he is truly homeless.
We speculate whether he uses his daily receipts to buy alcohol or drugs.
We worry that our generosity would reinforce poor choices he may have made in the past. Would our gift of money preempt the natural consequences that accompany those mistakes — consequences that, once suffered and overcome, could be instructive and serve as a gateway to a better life?
After reading Payne’s book and spending a fair amount of time with my nose in Scripture, I’m no longer so quick to judge those whose financial realities are different from my own.
I no longer assume that homeless men and women can work their way out of their circumstances if they only apply themselves. They are real people with real stories that have led them to their current circumstances.
Their poverty is much more complicated than I once thought –and much more pervasive, escapable only through connection to and intervention by God, our Creator and Healer.
We, the church, are called to be facilitators of the connection and players in the intervention.
Let’s get to it.