Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The "spirit" of my homeless friends

Lots of people continue to assume that very poor people find themselves in their poverty because they are much in need of an experience with God. The poorer the person, the more it would seem to these folks that what's called for is a good, old-fashioned conversion experience in the life of the poor person.

I've heard it again last week a couple of times.

Very well-meaning people, who really care, want to learn all of the details about our "discipleship programs."

Again, the implicit assumption is that the poor are doing something wrong, that they haven't dealt with their moral failure, that this lack of religion or faith or a "walk with God" explains why they do so poorly with life. Assumptions can be deadly, especially if your concern revolves around total, positive community impact.

It reminds me of the story of the blind man found in St. John's Gospel, chapter 9. The crowd asked Jesus, "Who sinned this man or his parents?"

Surely, life can't go this bad for a person without our being able to pin the current, presenting circumstances on some sinner, some ethical failure on the part of someone.

In the midst of my latest round of inquiry about how we plan to reach these lost souls on the street, my homeless friend "Johnny" interrupted my afternoon.

You know.

I'm behind.

I'm in the middle of something really important.

Now Johnny's standing outside my door.

Why me?

Why today?

Why now?

Why can't I ever have a moment's peace to do my work?

Johnny missed a doctor's appointment.

He needs a bit of help with bus passes. As a matter of fact he needs a monthly pass so he can look for work.

We're trying to help him receive Social Security disability income because his mental illness prevents him from holding a steady job. He likely missed the appointment because he feels some level of shame for actually needing the public assistance. Johnny wants, above all else, to stand on his own two feet. He's not playin' about that, I can assure you.

Johnny wants to talk. . .to a friend.

The importance of "my work" evaporates in just a moment or two of talking to Johnny.

What am I thinking?

God, have mercy on me, the sinner!

Not, Johnny, me!

Life on the streets for years and years, with nothing but God, is likely the "seminary" we all need.

I know Johnny's working as hard as he can at the curriculum. His effort puts all the judgment in its proper place.


Anonymous said...

Your comments remind me of why I have so many issues with the so called "Health and Wealth" gospel. You always write something that makes me think.


Anonymous said...

Provocative one more time, Larry.

Thanks for challenging me this morning.

Am reading and speaking in the area of white privilege especially as it relates to black farmers. Any authors/sources you'd recommend?


Larry James said...

Waymon, wish I could be in on hearing you. I'll give it some thought. But, I really like Cornell West's Democracy Matters. Not exactly on the subject, but deals with how to confront the powers.

Anonymous said...

I think most of these assumptions about the poor stem from an assumption that Christians live up to (into?) their faith and behave better. So if a poor person's problems stem from bad behavior (i.e. bad choices) then becoming Christian will help them make better choices and do better in life.

I think the truth is that in most measurable ways Christians don't do much better than non-Christians when it comes to their behavior. If we had to prove Christianity by the behavior of Christians, we'd be in trouble! As the saying goes, Christians aren't perfect (heaven knows!), just forgiven.

So there really isn't any reason to think that there is any connection between becoming Christian and escaping poverty - even if poverty were a matter of bad choices. If you want the poor to become Christian because you believe in Christ and the abundant life he wants them to have, great! If you see it as a way for the poor to escape poverty, don't count on it.

Steve said...

Thanks, Larry. We just don't get the crushing effect of the Gospel on people who are crushed already. God Forgive US!

But don't stop there, Lord! Please teach us the way of Jesus! Teach us to be Jesus to the hurting world around us who don't need anything different that what I need right now: Jesus. Incarnate. With arms that hug, and a smile that heals, and a sense of justice that calls a worker of iniquity a goat.

Anonymous said...

You could not be more right about spirituality among the homeless. It's the strongest, the most faithful I've ever seen anywhere. And good for you for seizing that moment with Johnny.

Anonymous said...

I have worked with those in poverty. I can see what you are saying, but at the same time, remember that each person that comes into your agency is a completely different, and unique person.

Just because some clients are very strong, faithful Christians, doesn't mean that all of your clients are.

I think that each client still deserves a chance to hear about Jesus, God, and to be welcomed into a loving church family. I'm not saying you have to force them to, but just simply ask "Would you like to study the Bible" and leave it at that. (if they say yes, then give them an opportunity to)

I am more likely to donate to an agency that treats each person like an individual, and wants to help them with their spiritual needs as much as their physical needs.

Yes, there are definitely many homeless individuals that have a deep relationship with Christ.

But there are also others that have never had someone who cared enough to share the message with him/her. Or, they've got a bad taste of Christianity from the behavior of other Christians.

Regardless, your agency might bring them "the light"

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:42, let me ask you this. Do you ask all the people where you work if they would like a Bible study? How about those people who may report to you on your job? How about your neighbors? How about strangers that you encounter at the grocery store? How about when you are taking food to a sick friend or neighbor? Or, at a time of loss?

Something Larry didn't mention in his post is the fact that bringing food, other services, housing, etc. to people in need puts the deliverer of such services in an unfair position of power. Better to offer the benefit freely w/o agenda and allow the act of kindness or compassion or opportunity to do the "preaching." What you don't understand is the enduring, long term impact of the work that is being done in Larry's place. It is a natural, authenic place of friendship. Lots of people "get saved" in lots of ways. Having volunteered there myself I can tell you that in the food pantry everyone is asked if they would like to pray and folks are pointed toward the church in Dallas. Most of this concern is about the needs of the "evangelists" and not the poor.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:42 here, I guess I should respond to those questions :)

Since, you asked, yes, I have invited people to Bible Studies - tried to be as non threatening as possible - but of course there's alot of room for improvement. As Christians, we should share God's love with our neighbors, coworkers, and yes, even people at the grocery store.

I guess I was thinking of it more from the perspective of the client.

If I were a client, I would like to be at least given the opportunity to learn more, not just shown through actions. I'm not good at mind reading, I guess. I have known of many people who became Christians by someone telling them the gospel. If the person who helped them just had the attitude "well they will see Christ in my actions" they would have never heard about Jesus.

I don't think that clients should be FORCED to by any means, but should know that if they want to learn more, there's an opportunity there. It could be something as simple as having fliers in the waiting room that say something like "Want to learn more about God or study the Bible? Call this number."

Anonymous said...

Respectful of all points of view in this regard here, I do want to pass on a comment I've heard from a caseworker at one of the largest and best homeless providers in Dallas (which does offer Bible study and is religiously based): "The homeless are a 'religiously abused' group." This man is a staunch Christian with a ministerial background.

There is scarcely a homeless provider or advocate in Dallas who is not only providing religious opportunity to be 'saved', by usually requiring participation in religious situations in order to receive services.

Sometimes we need to let our lives shine as an example of Christ's love and let people come to God that way. It's in God's time, not ours.

Larry James said...

Thanks for the comments. As happens often, I think my main point escaped some folks. The assumption that poverty is the result of moral failure or sin was what I was trying to discuss. As to sharing our faith, that happens naturally around our place and is often initiated by neighbors who come to us for assistance. We've given out thousands of Bibles (English and Spanish and have special ordered several other languages for those who asked us)and offered even more invitations to church and study groups. I suppose you just have to be here every day to understand the spirit of the place. No one is being pushed around here and all are welcome and know it.

Anonymous said...

By the way, Larry, it may have been unclear, but I was supporting your practice of not necessarily having a religious 'agenda' in reaching out to people.

You guys are certainly ones that let your Christian lights shine unconditionally! And you and yours absolutely do not 'religiously abuse' people.