“We’ve become good at fooling ourselves. We begin to live in a society where “I’m too busy for you” becomes the norm, and we are taught and teach others that people are not valuable.”Terence Lester, I See You, page 59.
One of the things that bothers me most about living in the biggest city in our state is the number of people I see everywhere who are struggling with homelessness. Which then makes me wonder about the greater numbers in need who are less conspicuous to my everyday existence. Seeing people struggle alerts me to my privilege in a daily way and I don’t know the best way to help.
As a community of the better off, we tend to hear stories about what happens if you give people who are panhandling money, what it might be spent on, how we should not put our money there, and sometimes even how we should give out gift cards or care packets instead. I can see the point, but I don’t know how true this is. Maybe the desire to hand a few dollars out the car window is more about assuaging my unease than it is about addressing the problem. Maybe it’s an easy fix to make me feel better, but ignoring replacing my desire to be compassionate with judgemental stories about how people got where they are doesn’t seem like the answer either.
This issue is a concern in my normal life. I want to know what to do. I’m not sure I like how my city is dealing with it visibly (more regulations about where you can camp and stand, more policing – motivated by complaints from the well-off, and high housing prices), my church as a whole tends to take a hands-off approach leaving action to individuals, and conversations around me often contain more assumptions and side-eye than nuance and grace. All together it leaves me feeling stuck.
But maybe it is easier to make a difference than I assume. In his book, I See You: How Love Opens Our Eyes to Invisible People, Terence Lester writes about how he has learned to best see, be with, and serve people caught in poverty and homelessness. He took time to dispel myths and break down what it means to be homeless or poor in a daily way, how difficult it is to get out, and how many people live on the brink. I really appreciated his honest approach, insights on what helps and what doesn’t, genuine faith that people on both sides of the problem of poverty and homelessness have more in common than we realize, and those commonalities are how we reach toward and see people.
I had about 700 words of quotes I would have liked to share, but, since I can only share about 250 words (per copyright regulations), you will just have to go read the book. Here are a few to get you started:
- “Recognizing our own spiritual poverty helps us understand where the concept of poverty comes from. When we are able to listen to someone else’s story with an open heart and hear their experience, which may look different than ours, we begin to close the gap between them and us. Having an open mind means learning to add more to our already-existing beliefs about affirming the dignity of those who are impoverished.” p11
- “It’s not about pursuing poverty as a goal either. It’s about using the resources, skills, and opportunities we have as tools to work together and enhance each others’ lives. It’s a shift in our hearts and minds to take responsibility for not just the tangible things we have but for all the resources we have been awarded. We’re working together to fight against the greed and to fight for one another as a glimpse into the kingdom of God.” p79
- “In my own spiritual poverty, Christ stepped in for me, and my life never looked the same. In the same fashion, how can we do for others what Christ has done for us? How can we see people where the are, just as Jesus did for us, and offer them more than a painted house or a bag of groceries?” p 117
What I really took away from this book is that it is less complicated to help than we’re making it and less the fault of the people in poverty than popular narrative claims. I am encouraged, but also challenged about what I could possibly do. Lester says it is our specific presence (not just dollars or one size fits all projects) and talents that are needed by those around us. Which challenging – because it takes action – but inspiring, because it means we can make a difference.
I recommend you check out Terence Lester’s other work the LoveBeyondWalls organization (there’s also a podcast!) and if you live in the Atlanta area or close check out the traveling Dignity Museum. If it is ever anywhere near Idaho, or we are visiting our family in Atlanta, I want to see it, too.
Where are the helpers in your area? What could you do?
(Disclaimers: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for the review copy; all opinions are my own. Post contains Amazon affiliate links.)