Forgive this interruption in the regularly scheduled programming about my job search journey. This is just too important to me to not talk about.
This past week I was in a discussion with several others regarding social justice issues like homelessness, stereotypes, what we believe about them, and how we act on them as followers of Jesus.
A significant part of the conversation was regarding those who experience homelessness, with much of that centering on those in chronic homelessness, who often deal with substance abuse and dependence issues.
There were the usual questions about the whys and wherefores of “those” people’s choices and lifestyles. We also touched on the changes and so-called solutions in our society which foster the problem of homelessness and its impact on society.
When we got around to what to do about it, that’s when we got down to the nitty gritty of our role as Christians and individuals. How do you love people who may be unsafe, living in unsafe circumstances, who reject the social services they may have access to? How do you determine if someone will or can benefit from your involvement? What does relationship look like in this context?
One person stated that we can’t know what to do unless we follow the Holy Spirit’s leading. But, what if you’re like me and have difficulty accessing and discerning what the Holy Spirit may be saying?
Look to Jesus. Not to be trite, but, what would Jesus do?
• Make eye contact.
• Listen without judgment.
• Offer a willingness to understand.
• Treat with dignity.
It’s not our job to solve homelessness or poverty, as individuals. Those are goals to be worked toward, for sure. However, what we do know that it’s our job as individuals to love our neighbor, including our neighbors without four walls and a roof.
How to do that? Take time to get to know one of “those” people, even if it’s just to share a cheap fast food meal, a conversation on the corner, or offering a garbage bag so they can pick up their debris. These acts are acts of relationship and relationships are what Jesus is about.
I’ve experienced homelessness more than once in my life. The longest period was as a teen in relationship with a much older man who was, essentially, a professional, low-level con artist. Other times occurred when my mental health crashed and I couldn’t hold a job at the same time as my relationship’s toxicity clashed with my anxiety and mania…only I didn’t understand that’s what was happening.
I didn’t have substance abuse issues, but, my mental health issues, which weren’t recognized or understood by me or others around me, created an inability to toe the line of organizational and societal demands and expectations. Encountering someone willing to actually see ME and not just my circumstances or my history was priceless. It afforded me a sense of dignity that can only come from being seen and treated as if I was worthwhile and that I mattered, whether or not I could conform or meet the expectations of others.
I have neighbors who are unsheltered. Many experience alcoholism and dependency on other substances. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they panhandle. Sometimes they collect cans and bottles. Sometimes they do none of the above. They often do what they can to keep the areas they occupy free of debris. However, sometimes they don’t have a way to gather and dispose of garbage. Just like they don’t have consistent or frequent access to laundry or bathing facilities.
I’ve witnessed them helping and looking out for each other. They’ve helped me carry things too heavy for me to carry up a flight of stairs…without expecting or asking for anything in return.
Of course not everyone in these circumstances is friendly, open, or safe. There’s a lot of history of personal trauma for most people living on the streets. Substance abuse and addiction is very common for trauma survivors and those experiencing mental illness.
It’s easy to look at someone on a corner with a sign and make assumptions based on what you think you would do, given the set of circumstances you believe they are in. But, you don’t know them or their story. You can’t, unless you take the time and make the effort.
Donating money is easy – whether it’s to an organization or directly to an individual. Choosing any degree of relationship with an uncomfortable other is less easy for most of us and it’s not possible with all people at all times…but, it makes more of a difference and more impact than you may believe.