Every moderately large city has them. They stare at you when you pause at the stoplight. They accost you for money when you walk through a downtown area. A teenager in my neighborhood recently joined their ranks after running away from home. And when we give them our attention, if you’re like me, you feel guilty.
Homeless people comprise the lowest caste in western society. (A caste is a social division of people—often genetically linked—who share common privileges and limitations.) In India, the Dalits comprise their society’s lowest caste. Often called “the untouchables,” their name means “ground”, “suppressed”, “crushed”, or “broken to pieces.”
Undoubtedly, the homeless play a similar role in western society. To be honest, I often find myself avoiding eye contact with them out of concern that they might ask me for money, or gasp, touch me. It’s also a way to circumvent the inevitable guilt if I really see them.
Solutions to homelessness are legion. A few years ago, the mayor of Denver promised to eliminate homelessness in our city, not by shipping all of them out of town, but by providing a program to help get them on their feet. Although his measures made a dent in their presence, he fell far short of the mark when he left office.
But what is our personal responsibility when it comes to homelessness? When someone asks us for money, what do we do? Organizations that serve their particular population tell us that giving them money only reinforces the problem. Instead, we’re advised to give to one of their organizations where it will go into drug and alcohol rehab, and job counseling and training, as well as food and clothes.
John Fischer is a friend of mine. Forty-two years ago he released the first Christian “rock” album—just a few months before the more famous Larry Norman. He wrote a song every youth group in America sang in the 70s—the “All Day Song” better known as “Love Him In The Morning.” And although he’s a great musician, he’s an even better writer and thinker. My two favorite books penned by Fischer are Real Christians Don’t Dance and 12 Steps For The Recovering Pharisee (Like Me).
A few years ago, John launched a blog entitled “The Catch Of The Day”, which I subscribe to. In his June 14 post, he wrote about a recent encounter with homelessness. John and his wife Marti volunteer at a homeless shelter for women.
Recently, after enjoying breakfast with a friend, he walked past a homeless women on the street and realized that he knew her. Wanting to help her, he returned to his breakfast spot and bought a cookie to make change for the $20 bill in his wallet. Then he gave her some change.
Guilt alleviated? Nope!
As he drove away, he confesses, “I thought, ‘Hey, dumb dumb, why not give her the cookie too? Because the cookie was for me.’”
Please read closely what he says next:
Had she been one of the women from Isaiah House would I have done anything differently? Well, yes. First off, I would have sat myself down next to her and talked with her for a while. I would have gotten her name, found out how she was doing, and attempted to see if there was something I could do for her.
And I would have given her the cookie, or better yet, shared it with her. Sharing it would have put us more on an equal level. And if I gave her any money, I would have done it discreetly, instead of just handing it to her and walking away. And heck, I might as well have just given her the rest of the twenty.
It’s amazing how things change once you get to know someone.
Sharing a cookie. A simple action that won’t solve homelessness in itself, but so much better than throwing money at a “problem” and walking away. By giving and then getting on the person’s level, it brings dignity to our society’s untouchables.
Sounds a lot like Jesus.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
Michael serves as co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, Colorado.