Getting in touch with the power that drives the Universe...
We’ve all been there. You’re pulling out of a commercial parking lot and stop at a red light when you see them. The homeless man/woman/family who is plantively holding their crude cardboard sign that reads something along the line of “Homeless; please help; Thank you; God Bless.”
“God Bless.” Did they have to use that line?
The light is frozen. You’re doing everything you can to not make eye contact, but it’s extremely awkward and uncomfortable. Is this light ever going to change? Finally, you’re moving and you rationalize to yourself that you probably shouldn’t hand out money to homeless people as it may end up in a needle or bottle, or enabling the person to continue their irresponsible homeless lifestyle. They probably “deserve” what they’re getting anyway. Maybe they’re not really homeless and are just using it as a money-raising gimmick, scamming all the motorists who pass by. Really, how is one to know?
But something bothers you. Something planted deep in your spirit. Something that you perhaps heard as a child. “And one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:16) Perhaps beloved family members from another generation once told you that “God wants us to take care of others like He takes care of us.” It bothered you when you saw down-and-out people on the street and you asked your mom or dad why they didn’t have homes. Their answers weren’t specific enough and lacked the crucial information you needed to understand. In your child-like heart you wondered, “What if it happened to me, or my family?” You asked your parents, “can’t we help?” But you were gently dismissed.
As humans made in the image of God, it’s sometimes very hard for us to walk or drive by a homeless person and acknowledge them. What would it be like to make eye contact? What would I do next? Should I stop or keep going? What might they ask me? How should I respond?” Mike Yankoski said "sometimes it's easy to walk by (homeless people) because we know we can't change someone's whole life in a single afternoon. But what we fail to realize is that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place."
As lay missionaries from SonRise church, working in the inner city of San Diego under the guidance of the City of Refuge organization, we stop. We engage. We share material and spiritual blessings. We share life stories. Most importantly we listen. We really don’t have a solution for the homeless problem, unless you consider that our changing attitudes toward them are part of the solution. But we are learning about the homeless. We learn that their backgrounds usually include some health, personality, relational, legal or financial issues that are sometimes different than ours. But not always. Indeed, 2 of our recent team from SonRise were at one time homeless or extremely poor. We are learning that the homeless are not a population apart; that they are rather a part of God’s family that has been largely forgotten. As Christians, that’s not okay with us!
On our most recent trip, I shared with the SonRise team that Jesus, the One we follow and represent to the world, always went after the lost sheep. Sometimes it was a group, but more often than not, it was an individual. One who He just happened to encounter at that place and time. He was always available. But more importantly, He was approachable. So for us, it’s not really a matter of planning a solution for homeless people we meet, or hyper-organizing a mission trip. It’s just a matter of giving them hope through kind and thoughtful engagement.
Just today I saw a brief animated video on facebook that reminded me of something important; something that can help us respond to the hopelessness of homelessness. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw).
It was a cartoon that sensitively discussed the difference between sympathy and empathy. According to Dr. Brene Brown, our brains are wired to run from pain—including emotional pain—whether it is ours or someone else's. Brown points out in this video that empathy rarely starts with the words, "At least..." and that oftentimes, the best response is, "I don't know what to say, but I am really glad you told me." Fixing (someone’s) problem is not often what is needed, nor is it necessarily your job or even within your ability to do so. Sharing a listening, caring ear is something most people can do. When we feel heard, cared about, and understood, we also feel loved, accepted, and as if we belong. Belonging is something all humans need, but especially the homeless. Often they are isolated, lonely, and without the personal resources they need to cope with their situation.1
I think Mother Teresa was addressing these basic human needs when she wrote “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”
And maybe we can start on the streets too, with the larger family of God.
In I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn't) (2008), Dr. Brown references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman's four attributes of empathy:
To be able to see the world as others see it—This requires putting your own "stuff" aside to see the situation through (someone else’s) eyes.
To be nonjudgmental—Judgement of another person's situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation.
To understand another person’s feelings—We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else's.
To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings—Rather than saying, "At least you..." or "It could be worse..." try, "I've been there, and that really hurts," or (to quote an example from Brown) "It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”
Brown explains that empathy is a skill that strengthens with practice and encourages people to both give and receive it often. By receiving empathy, not only do we understand how good it feels to be heard and accepted, we also come to better understand the strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable and share that need for empathy in the first place.1
My perhaps overly simplistic view is that sympathy “sends a card” but empathy “brings a sleeping bag and a casserole and listens.” Empathy is expensive and, on the surface appears to be risky. But the risk is more often than not perceived, not real. It relates to a fear of the unknown.
In the experience of those of us who go on City of Refuge mission trips to downtown San Diego, empathy is a powerful tool. We usually do more listening than speaking, but we always learn something about people and homelessness we didn’t know before. And we learn about ourselves too.
How can you respond to the homeless you encounter in your daily life, such as in the stoplight scenario above?
Here are some ideas:
Buy some fast food “credit” cards in small denominations. These are easy to store in your wallet or purse and are ready on a moment’s notice. On a mission trip to learn about homelessness some years ago, I bought enough $5 cards so that everyone on the team could experience the joy of providing food for a hungry person. The students raved at how good it made them feel to feed someone. We even sat down to lunch with a young homeless college athlete which was a sobering reality for our kids. Cheap Joy!
Prepare small toiletry “survival” bags that you can keep in your car and pass out as you encounter homeless while driving. One or two should be enough for a normal day. These are really appreciated and totally unexpected by most people we minister to. You can see the joy of thoughtful appreciation on their faces too! This is one of the most fun things we do, and it gracefully serves as an introduction to conversation. The barriers really come down! You can get creative by including body care products, hair care products, snacks (the possibilities are endless!), drinks, teeth cleaning products, over-the-counter pharmaceuticals and so forth. Bottles of aspirin are particularly appreciated. Something we try to do is to include a note that blesses the homeless recipient and lets them know who we are and why we decided to engage them. It makes it a more personal offering.
Read about the homeless situation. Become educated about it. This will help you “empathize” and converse with the homeless when you engage them. It shows you care enough to learn more about their plight when you can talk intelligently about it. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homelessness or http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org/cgi-bin/id/city.cgi?city=Fallbrook&state=CA for resources in the North County area.
Volunteer for one of our feeding or mission outreach projects, such as Bread of Life, Brother Beno’s, Feeding America, or even City of Refuge. These projects provide incremental exposure to the homeless and poor. Everything from just handing out food, to sitting down and talking, to blessing people in line with prayer. You will be blessed more than them!
Proverbs 19:17 Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.
A cool drink