Last night I went to a class at church focusing on serving and being in relationships with the poor. This was facilitated by Eric the Intern. For anybody who doesn’t know him, he is a tall weirdo who has traveled the country and lived in a homeless shelter. He has been hit by a barge, driven a school bus, been mugged in New Orleans, and given one of my favorite sermons I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately we only get the benefit of him and his experiences for two more weeks until he goes back to seminary. This makes me sad, but is not the point of this post.
I have always thought that serving the poor was important, but I always thought of it as me going out of my comfort zone to do them a giant favor. They need a meal and some socks, I need to feel like I’m helping someone; it’s a perfect solution! But does that really do anything?
We did some short experiments about how we see ourselves and how we define homelessness. Here are some differences we noticed: Most of the volunteers there primarily defined ourselves by what we do or who we are. Words such as tall, educated, christian, american, hardworking, husband, mother. The homeless people also had filled out the same survey, but their answers focused more on their emotional state with words such as depressed, lonely, hopeless, hopeful, tired. This same trend followed across our definitions of homelessness. Volunteers largely focused on the material and financial aspects of homelessness, while those who have experienced it had a much more (understandably) emotional view of it.
I’ve been helping at Breakfast Club for about 4 years now, and I would say approximately half of the people coming on sunday mornings have been there the whole time. And of that half I probably only know half of them by name. Yeah, they are wearing socks and haven’t starved to death, but are they any better off? Am I really involved in their lives? Jim, one of my favorite breakfast guests, went missing for the better part of a year- and while it concerned me, what did I do about it?
And how have I changed? Am I more like Jesus because I occasionally cook a bunch of eggs or drive a van? I’d say no. Is homelessness the problem, or is it a symptom of a problem? Obviously our mental health, education, and government systems are woefully inadequate to fix this problem and in need of reform. But that is a tall order, what can we do if we have no influence in those spheres?
Let’s start with looking somebody in the eye when you pass them on the street. Maybe instead of handing them $5 or a bag of greasy mcdonald’s food, I can have lunch with them and chat and learn their story. Maybe instead of playing Candy Crush on my phone I can give somebody a ride to a doctor’s appointment or a job interview. What ideas do you have?