This guest post is brought to you by Steffeny Feld, MSW. She did a year-long internship, and now works full-time, at a homeless resource center and shelter in Lebanon, PA called Lebanon HOPES (Helping Others by Providing Emergency Shelter). She brings joy and light and compassion to her work, but will be the first to tell you that it’s what she receives from the people she meets that is most profound to her.
I recently watched a video by The Work of the People that really got me thinking about the nature of poverty. For most of us, the term “poverty” brings up images that relate to a deficit of physical needs. But poverty is far more than a lack of resources.
(If you can spare 6 minutes, please use them to watch this prior to reading on. It’s worth it!)
In the video, Claudio Oliver poses a scenario: What would it be like to lose everything? (Working at a homeless shelter, I literally hear that phrase all the time: “We lost everything.” It took months for me to realize that I don’t even have a framework to begin to understand what that means.) I think the scenario Claudio paints really helps us to see just how insulated we actually are from poverty. We live and operate in this safety net of relationships that prevents us from ever having to consider sleeping on the streets.
It’s striking and simple.
Question: What is poverty?
Claudio’s Answer: Lack of friendship.
Clear and simple. Huge and profound. What is friendship that it could be so powerful? What is our theology of friendship? What do we teach our kids about friendship?
Friendship is human to human connection. Friendship is seeing another person. Having your thoughts, feelings, strengths, and fears engaged by another. Friendship is caring; it’s another person’s concern for your wellbeing. Friendship is sharing—sharing of stories, personalities, resources, and life. Friendship changes the way you see yourself and how you interact with the world. Friends help you to know yourself. Friends give insight about your design, deeper understanding of your purpose, and courage to live it out.
So imagine, to the furthest extent of your imagination, that you lost everything. House, car, job, savings, clothing. You lost it all. And what’s more, you have no one to call, no one to cry with, to come pick you up, to give you something to eat or a place to stay…
My husband and I have had conversations along these lines. It’s a bizarre realization—the discovery that we will probably never face the situations of the people I work with on a daily basis. Simply because of our family and friends, it seems like an extremely unlikely possibility.
So poverty is simple, but it is also complex. It certainly is a lack of physical resources, but it’s not only that. It’s losing everything, but it’s losing everything and having no one to tell about it. And there is certainly spiritual poverty, not having a sense that there is a God, who is over all, and whose heart is for you. Poverty manifests itself physically, socially, spiritually, because we are whole people. We cannot be compartmentalized. Even in poverty, we are whole, and poverty affects the whole.
At HOPES, this makes total sense. I learned the most powerful thing I can do when guests come in is listen. Listen to their stories and truly be present with them. As a person to a person. As a friend.
Henri Nouwen captures this beautifully in his book Out of Solitude:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.”
Nouwen writes, “Our tendency is to run away from the painful realities or to try to change them as soon as possible. But cure without care makes us into rulers, controllers, manipulators,” rather than friends. “Cure without care makes us preoccupied with quick changes, impatient and unwilling to share each other’s burden.”
And so that is the spirit in which I try to engage our guests. Not coming with an arsenal of solutions, not really seeking a “cure” at all. But rather, trying to come as my most human, my most present, self. Coming close to listen. To cry with. To grieve and mourn loss. To celebrate victories. To share life. As a friend.
But that is hard. It’s hard to prioritize the person over the problem and be present in pain rather than strategizing solutions. I have to ask myself, “Am I willing to enter into pain with people, terribly aware that in doing so I’ll have to face my own desperation for a cure?” It is an especially troubling balance for me to find as a case manager at a homeless shelter. My job literally hinges on solving housing crises. When we focus on problems over people—even with our best intentions—it’s dehumanizing, and we miss the most important thing in front of us.
But when we worry less about solutions and make ourselves about people, friendships blossom and bloom. I’ve seen sacred spaces emerge in relationships among the staff, the guests, and even volunteers. They become increasingly knit together. Even people who were at odds with each other couldn’t escape from the fact that they share a deep connection. More often than not, after our guests have found work and saved enough money to get their own place (remedying their physical needs), many people return to the resource center just to hang out or volunteer their time and energy, and some even remain in the shelter (despite the lack of privacy and comfort).
So why do they stay?
What is this mysterious and beautiful that we call “friendship”?
How could something so simple be so powerful?
Can we who have never been apart from friendship truly appreciate its gravity?
What does all of this say about who we are, who God is, and the nature of need?
Let me know.