I was wearing some Christian swag, a hat from a missions organization. That was my first mistake.
This was 7 years ago in downtown Seattle. We just got done eating with my wife’s parents and were making our way back to the train station in various and precarious ways.
The young gentleman saw the cross on my hat, asked if I was a Christian, and started praying in a blink of an eye. He was a smooth operator. He then asked if he could have five bucks. I, of course, told him I only had a twenty. Mistake number two.
He assured me that it wasn’t a problem, he could take me to a corner store to break the twenty. I, of course, followed him to the dismay of my wife’s face as she and the in-laws went back towards the train. I’d catch up with them. Mistake number three.
The corner store ended up being a phone booth and his buddy who always had cash was going to swing by to break the twenty. He turned to me when we got there and told me to hold the rolled up magazine he had been carrying as he paced back and forth a few feet away. I, of course, took it. How many mistakes are we at now?
Nothing serious happened. But it was at that point that I got that spider-sense feeling that overtook my “let’s just do whatever he asks” mindset.
Was I a mark now? Was a car going to drive by in a minute and gun me down? Was I in a gang now? I didn’t know initiation was so easy. Was this guy working with the FBI undercover and it was a slow week and just needed to mess around with somebody?
I ended up just giving him his magazine back along with the twenty and told him to “remember Jesus” or something as I quickly shuffled out of there so I wouldn’t be late for the train or make my wife a widow.
I tell this story because it shows my “good”/polite/ignorant Dr. Jekyll side. But there is also the other side that I bounce to with helping people (specifically strangers) – it’s the Mr. Jackass character.
I’m pretty bi-polar in interacting with “the poor and needy.” Either, as exemplified above, I just go with their every whim thinking “why wouldn’t I help somebody that is in need,” or, straight up lie, disregard, and devalue their request (and story and personhood), thinking they are just trying to manipulate me and any help I give will go towards their crack-cocaine addiction, or porn, or fund their Cambodian sweat-shop stock.
Neither of these postures are really healthy. And so I asked two friends a couple questions who deal with the poor / needy / homeless on a regular basis to share their thoughts, experience, and even theology of what it means to be with the poor. Here’s some of what they had to say…
Grey Matter Material
Throughout this season of more intentionally thinking about what it means to love the poor, I’ve been rolling a couple thoughts around in my brain head, rethinking some of my own assumptions and bi-polar cultural norms within social media ear shot that want to dichotomize us-and-them.
The Poor are Sinners*
As Steff was talking in the video above, it’s important to realize that just because God is working in her and the people she works with, doesn’t mean it’s easy. People, on an individual basis can be beautiful, but, as a general rule, suck. In Social Justice Land we can be tempted to enter into a fantasy that paints a picture of the needy as near perfect except that they are in lack of some key resource. What then naturally follows is you start interacting and find complicated, awkward, bent (like the rest of us) people (and children too) that can be difficult to deal with. You then somehow feel let down because that wasn’t what you signed up for; you just wanted to help people. But your assumptions and expectations were skewed from the start. Relationships are work, healthy relationships even moreso.
Just because someone is poor materially doesn’t mean they are poor in spirit and hence blessed; just because someone is rich materially doesn’t mean they are rich in mercy. A poor person can be arrogant; a rich person can be humble.
For every story of mending that Steff can share, there are 10x times more of frustration, manipulation, and hurt she has taken on from those she tried to love and serve. And that’s kind of the point. We can’t just love those who love us all the time, otherwise we will never love anyone nor ever be loved by another human. Jesus calls us to love our enemies, to love the foreigner, to love the person who is not like us. And when push comes to shove, that’s everybody. Who hasn’t felt alienated even from your most significant relationships at times?
The Poor are Strong
I helped my (former) neighbors move a few weeks back. I didn’t really know them except that they weren’t working, were trying to go back to school, had kids in the foster system, and were recovering addicts. The guy, Frank, was quiet most of the times and courteous in general exchanges of hellos. He also helped rescue our garbage cans from a wind storm. During a back break from moving, his new neighbor at his new house came to say hi. They shared in a few moments their history. Frank’s new neighbor was also in recovery. I witnessed Frank for a few moments talking to his neighbor, encouraging him in his recovery, knowing how hard it is to stay clean. Frank grew a couple inches as he cared for this stranger, his countenance changed, his tongue was loose in kindness.
It reminded me of how God uses our weaknesses as strengths and made me wonder when the last time was I loved someone out of my weakness.
The Poor are a Mirror
I’m becoming more convinced in myself and my Christian brothers and sisters that we don’t know the Gospel. We might have a theology of being saved by the blood of Christ and not by any works of our hands, but there appears to be a disconnect somewhere between that truth and how we interact with one another. We still somehow think it’s about God’s fairness and we did something to deserve God’s presence and grace. But God is unfair. He gives us what we don’t deserve… He gave it out of love and it cost Him His precious Son. I think one of the reasons we don’t like hanging out with the poor is because they remind us of our (humanity’s) own spiritual brokenness very sensually, and we don’t like that because our salvation mind set is off.
Take smell as an illustration. One of the things I notice in being around certain people is that they smell awful. There have been times where the odor has been so repugnant that I’ve almost vomited. It’s offensive. Thing is, we are/were offensive to God. Thing is, we don’t like being reminded of this. Thing is, we think we’ve cleaned ourselves up ultimately and that’s why God loves us, because it makes no sense to love something repugnant. Thing is, even though we were offensive to God, He created a way to overcome that offense.
Jesus hung out with the spiritually and physically offensive, and yet had something that superseded, not dismissed, the pungent smell of sin: compassion. How can we as Christians be overcomers in this way?
The Poor are Always With Us
Hey. Remember that time Jesus was physically on earth for a bit? And remember that time he said, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me”? I think he was doing a double whammy. I think he was saying that His purpose at that time was very direct and specific and should be seen and honored for what it was. I also think he was doing what we seem him do other times in scripture: give a slice of Torah (Deuteronomy 15:11) and have the unspoken part speak the rest. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.
Here’s the thing: The whole Social Justice thing is kind of a buzz-ministry right now, and some people know it’s a buzz-ministry right now and roll their eyes when it’s brought up (me included) because why we do things matters and it seems like the why might be misplaced in the buzz. However, just because a system is broken doesn’t release us from loving an individual that we come across. Just because our culture (whether church or secular) wants to use social justice as a badge of image, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek out receiving God’s heart/hands in it.
Not everyone should go and volunteer at this or that organization and make it the thing that they do. But we do need to developed in us (which doesn’t come overnight) a heart for others. May we not be “incline to Cain’s heresy” and unconcerned for our fellow brother.
*The rich are sinners too; I’m not correlating wealth with righteousness, but that all have fallen.