A Christian volunteer living in the Phoenix area had become friends with a homeless person and asked their new friend this question: “Help me understand your needs. What is it that you (a homeless person) need most?” Their response was this: “I know where to go to find services (food to eat, shelter to sleep, clothes to wear etc.) what I really want is to be loved.”
Why did the person interviewed distinguish the receiving of services as being something different from being loved?
This story has stuck with me for a long time. It’s as if the person had read the book “When Helping Hurts” and memorized their answer for a time such as that. The way this person answered the question is absolutely profound and as the church we should not miss this learning opportunity. In order to effectively alleviate the poverty around us we must begin to realize the real issues facing the very people we are trying to help.
Why are shame and brokenness so closely connected to poverty?
Chapter two of “When Helping Hurts” brings to light the phrase “poverty of being.” The author’s state: “Research from around the world has found that shame – a ‘poverty of being’ – is a major part of the brokenness that low-income people experience in their relationships with themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God, low-income people often feel they are inferior to others.” (page 64) In my opinion, this idea is one of the most vital and central concepts to grasp in this book. This should completely dictate the way in which we attempt to love and serve a person in poverty.
I have a friend that refuses to ask for help. If he needs directions he will circle the block 5 times before he consults someone for guidance. If he slices his drive off the tee box 30 times he will blame the wind before he asks for advice about what he is doing wrong. (Or it is the golf clubs fault!) Have you ever met someone like that? I asked him one time why he never asked for help when he was lost and he said, “it makes me feel weak.”
What about those people who don’t have the opportunity to live without receiving help? Who find themselves constantly “feeling weak”? How do they feel day after day when they line up outside the food kitchen waiting for a bowl of chili from a bubbly over zealous middle-aged women who is so excited to meet the “poor” people of her city.
Now, hear me out. I am not meaning to pick on the woman, it’s great she is volunteering and we need people willing to serve with enthusiasm, but how do we give the poor what they really need – love- while teaching ourselves what we really need – humility.
How do we become the people who don’t just serve the chili but spent the time getting to know the person whose stomach it’s filling? Not just their name and their favorite color but their dreams, hurts, aspirations and struggles. How do we be the people who meet them in their low moments and encourage them in their high moments; listen to them during their hopelessness and affirm them in their outrageous goals? How do we love them for who they are and not what sense of accomplishment they can give us? The bowl of chili should be step one of a life long commitment to friendship not the final chapter in our attempt to be missional people.
Why are services (food and clothing for example) not necessarily forms of love?
As indicated above, I think the answer relies in the fact that services alone do not perpetuate relationship. They can be the icebreaker or start of a relationship but that is not a guarantee. At the core of what each human needs is healthy relationships. We talked about this in our last blog entry. We all want to feel loved, valued and known. And while a free meal can satisfy a person’s hunger for an evening it may not touch their deeper need for the feeling of belonging and significance. In fact as suggested in this book, it might actually perpetuate their feeling of inadequacy to provide for themselves.
John Perkins once was quoted as saying, “You don’t give dignity you only affirm it.” In other words people inherently have dignity by the fact that they have been made in the image of Christ. All we as friends, co-workers and fellow sinful people can do is help to re-affirm what is already the reality. Handouts more often than not don’t affirm the gifts and talents of the poor. Charity more often than not does not affirm the capacity of the poor for creativity, ingenuity and skill. I think the only way we can begin to promote those ideals is through time spent in intentional relationship.
If our poverty is in “being” then as Christians we should be heavy investors in relationship.
Think for a moment about the opposites:
Shame – honor
Inferior – valuable
Fear – confidence
Humiliation – respected
Hopeless – encouraged
Depressed – optimistic
Isolated – included
If you are like me, those words in the left-hand column are really scary. When I feel those I feel really alone and worthless. In those moments I feel I am probably hard to love. But when I feel like those words on the right I feel alive and joyful, ready to face the day. Don’t you long for everyone to feel like the right-handed column? Full of hope and promise, ready to face the day? As followers of Christ I hope we do.
Often the poor know where to find services, but it is much harder to know where to find love. Let’s be the body of Christ and love as Christ taught us. For after all they will know we are Christians not by the flavor of our chili but by the depth of our love.Image courtesy of bykst/ pixabay.com