I leave my house every Sunday morning and drive the fifteen minutes to church. Part of a neighborhood community, our small church stands firm in its role to not just help and support the community but to be a part of the community as well. I will live near the church in a little home once Tyler and I are married and already I am looking forward to being near to and active in the lives of those in North Minneapolis.
As I get off the freeway on my usual exit, I have become familiar with a handful of rotating homeless men and women that park themselves on the edge of the curb. On mornings when I catch a red light, I try to keep my eyes averted as my car idles in the lane farthest away from their soggy cardboard signs and worn-down backpacks.
Occasionally, are eyes will meet and I’ll give a little nod of recognition. I see you. Eyes will peer back at me from beneath a torn hat or crooked umbrella before moving onto the car behind me. Knowing they are still there, I try to focus my attention on the car in front of me, silently hoping that the light will turn green and I can move on from this uncomfortable moment. I am uncertain what my role is, what I should do, where our two worlds collide.
This Sunday, amidst the usual awkward pause, something rubbed me the wrong way. I sat in the car as an older man slowly made his way down the long line of cars. I had been listening to worship songs as I made my way to church and I suddenly wondered if all the cars around me were playing this hopeful, upbeat music as we silently pulled away from the brother asking for help.
As my windshield wipers squeak, wiping away freezing drops, and the heater purrs quietly on in the early morning, I feel an uneasiness spread through me.
I’ve spent the past week reading the book of Luke, encountering many of the well-known parables that Jesus tells. Throughout Luke, Jesus breaks the preconceived notions of the Gentiles and Jews in His midst, showing them a new way to view those who sit beside them as well as those in distant cities.
Kate McCord writes in her memoir, In the Land of Blue Burqas, about different Muslim groups she encountered in her five-year stay in Afghanistan. Working in a Non-government Organization (NGO), she had ample time to sit down with both the men and women in the town and discuss life and religion.
She recalls one time where she relayed a story from the Bible amidst a group of men gathered around a desterkhan, the floor cloth they used for eating meals. As a white female foreigner, McCord had the unusual privilege of being allowed to directly converse with Afghan men.
“In Afghanistan,” she writes, “we would call a [wealthy] man a sarwatman. Wealth and power go hand in hand. He could have been a landowner or an extremely wealthy trader. As a man of wealth, he would sit above the law. If he or a family member wanted something, they would get it. If they were brought to justice for some crime, they would be able to pay the fine… and walk away. In Afghanistan, some of these wealthy men raise their own militia, claim the girls they want as wives, and rule their own territories ”
She continues, “The poor in Afghanistan… both fear and loathe the extremely wealthy. They fear the sarwatman because he has unchecked power.
She then set up the scene from the Bible (found in Luke 18), first describing how a very wealthy man came to ask Jesus a question.
“A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered. “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.”
McCord remembers how nearly every man in the room nodded as she told the story. They were able to understand and agree to the basic truths that Jesus was saying. Afterall, they believe Jesus is real, only that he was a prophet, not Messiah. However, even following Jesus and serving those around them paled in comparison to having wealth in their community.
To the Afghans in her midst, they realized that giving up money in their culture meant giving up power and status – and, like the man with Jesus, they, too, would walk away, unable to part from their wealth.
In America, assuming you are able to live comfortably, it is easier to give away money and do without. The consequences are much less serious and it is looked upon with favor when you live simply and give generously.
To those in Jesus’ time – and many of those around the world in different cultures – it meant something different then it does to us to part with money. However, we still hold tightly to our fistfuls of cash, unwilling to part with our paper security.
It’s no coincidence that our pastor is preaching on loving your neighbor this morning. His message is shaped around this cornerstone: we are called both to love God and to love those made in His image. If we acknowledge that we are made in his image, descendants in a long line from Adam and Eve, we must also acknowledge that all on earth are made in his likeness; together we reflect the beauty of God.
These thoughts have been stirring within me the past few weeks and rose to the surface today as I leave the service and turn on my blinker, waiting to merge onto the freeway. I can see across the divide in the road to the old man, his curved back in that threadbare coat split at the seams.
He is made in God’s image. This thought whirls around my head and my hands grip the steering wheel.
Love him as you love yourself. The light turns green and I slowly accelerate, making my way home.
When I pass homeless people or panhandlers on the street, they don’t frighten me and they don’t shock me. They’re strange to me and uncomfortable, because they are unknown, but I’ve become use to seeing them, even in the suburb where I currently live. They’ve become a part of the scenery to me, something that seems to belong there next to the cross walk and the rattling fence.
But I don’t ever want God’s child to become part of the scenery to me. I don’t want the homeless man or woman to get lost in my rear view mirror as I keep on singing hymns and drinking my coffee.
Homelessness is a problem. It’s political, involving affordable housing and gentrification and displacement. It’s economical, centering around the lack of livable wages in a system that favors white males with a college degree and two-parent household. It’s social, we all see people claiming to be homeless, broke, without work, no insurance, a veteran waiting for the day when their luck will change. It’s spiritual; as people of Jesus we are called to live like Jesus – to fight for those who are cast out, lost, downtrodden, hopeless – homeless.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” | Matthew 25:35-40
It’s a complex issue with many sides and opinions. I have chosen that I will be a helper and a lover in whatever way God leads me to do, for now this means making some care packages to hand out this winter whenever I drive by people on the streets. Here are a few helpful practical ways that you can SEE homelessness and HELP.
Educate yourself. Research the area you live in and figure out the main reasons people are losing their homes – lack of affordable housing, loss of a job, divorce, illness, addiction, abuse, etc. Understand how and why they got there in the first place.
Respect. Don’t treat those you pass on the street as invisible. Treat them with dignity, saying “hello” as you pass them by. Start seeing them as people.
Donate. Local shelters often take (and need) non-perishable food, clothing, blankets and toiletries. Regularly participate in giving to organizations who are physically reaching out to the homeless in your area.
Give. Have a regular route that takes you by someone in need? Pack of box of energy bars in your car. Create a small care package with kleenex, fruit snacks, granola bar, band aids, hand wipes. (Here’s a care package list.) Not comfortable giving cash? Buy gift cards in small amounts for nearby fast food places that will allow a homeless person to come inside, or affordable grocery stores or gas stations. Stopping by Starbucks on the way to church? Ask for an extra coffee or hot chocolate that will warm someone up.
It’s beginning to get cold and wintry here, so I collected a bag of socks, mittens, hats and scarves from friends and family that I can hand out as needed.
Talk with your church, community center or wherever you are connected and work to connect with a local shelter. Know of shelters nearby that you can direct someone to if you encounter someone needing help.
What are your thoughts on homelessness? Do you have other practical ideas or ways to influence the housing market? I’d love to know – we are in this together!