Ugh… I don’t want to do this. I’m finding myself doing the same mental activities I would do in college to put off studying. ” The laundry needs switched…” “The cupboard under the sink must be cleaned out immediately…”Now would be a great time to paint my fingernails….” You get the idea. “What is it that I’m putting off,” you are probably wondering. Well, here it is: my write up about the mission trip. Which really makes no sense at all since it was a fabulous trip full of fun with the kids and packed with opportunities to learn and serve.
So what’s the deal? Well, the deal is this. It broke my heart. Truly, it did. I cannot count the number of times that I fought back tears during the trip, and I’m still not over it. The long and short of it is this: poverty and homelessness are horrible. But even more horrible is the notion that homeless people deserve to be homeless. Think about it carefully: what is your gut reaction when a homeless person invades your normal routine? Do you find yourself assuming that the person must have made poor choices and is probably an addict or alcoholic, or has other addiction or mental health issues or is just plain lazy and ignorant - too dumb and lazy to know that all you have to do is work hard and the good things in life will come to you, right? Do you feel that you have earned a more secure position in life because God is especially pleased with you or because of the excellent choices you have made or because of your hard work? All of these things may be true at both ends of the spectrum. But here’s the thing: just like a game of chance, it’s mostly the luck of the draw.
I certainly did nothing special to ensure that I was born in a middle class white family in America where I was lucky enough to have intelligent, hardworking parents who valued education and God and taught me to do the same. I did not earn the right to an excellent education and the opportunity to attend college. Nothing that I have done has kept housing affordable and decent jobs available in Stark County, Ohio. And certainly it was by no special action on my part that I have access to free birth control when I want it and a judicial system that ensures that I can marry or not marry or even divorce at my will.
Imagine where you and your family would be right now if, say, you had been born the 12th child of a woman in Jamaica who wanted 12 kids like she wanted a hole in her head. She had no job or education, no access to birth control, and her kids were left to fend for themselves as soon as she could kick them out. Paulo was that 12th child and still hates his mother for having all those kids then essentially abandoning them to the streets.
He made his way to America and worked construction. He lived for many years on the edge of poverty, but he had a job and a place to live. He took great pains to ensure that he fathered no children because he knew that he could not afford to care properly for them. I met Paulo at Charlie’s Place in Washington D.C. He is now 62 years old. He is currently homeless because it does not matter how many jobs he works, there is no affordable housing in the area where he lives.
Rent for a mediocre 1 bedroom apartment ranges from $1300 to $3000 per month. He does not have an education and his body is not holding up well after years of hard work so construction work is no longer a viable option for him. He has no health care. He is homeless. In case you are curious as to why he does not apply for housing programs, it is important to know that the wait for subsidized housing in metro D.C. is 17 years long. Also, Paulo is not a fan of government programs - and most government programs are geared to women and children - leaving men to fend for themselves.
Paulo is not lazy, stupid, an addict or suffering from mental illness. I fear, though, that chronic homelessness will do to him what it does to everyone who experiences it: it will drive him to addiction and alcoholism as a way to deal with the stress of figuring out where to shower and use the toilet (not to mention where to sleep and eat) and then to mental illness as his self-worth is continuously ground into dust as he faces the hopelessness of his situation day after day.
Somehow he still managed to joke around and be kind to me when I chatted with him at Charlie’s Place. Me, the white lady from the suburbs coming to serve him and the other “poor people.” It broke my heart and made me cry with frustration that simply by the luck of the draw, somehow I was serving them. You cannot imagine until you are in that situation how humbling and awful it made me feel because, really, who the heck am I to be so blessed? And were I in Paulo’s situation, would I have been able to tolerate a white lady serving me?
Homelessness and poverty are such complicated issues. It’s like trying to untangle a twisted skein of yarn that has multiple ends and is alive - I am not sure that the problems can ever be solved. But I do know one thing and that is this: something must be done - lots of “somethings” in fact. And no matter how much a person thinks that he or she has all the answers, you just don’t. And until we can work together globally as well as locally, the situation is hopeless.
I encourage everyone to volunteer with local agencies and do it with an open mind. I guarantee that you will be extremely uncomfortable and it will be really hard mentally and emotionally. I also guarantee that you will meet great people and not-so-great people, both volunteers and those being served. And I guarantee that you will learn something.
Take time during your busy day to realize that most of us have more than enough, and share your resources with others. Teach your kids to live within their means, to work hard and value their educational opportunities - and, most of all, to live generously. And while I certainly am not suggesting that folks need to apologize for their wealth or “sell everything and give it to the poor,” as Jesus suggested to a man in Luke 12, I would suggest that everyone examine stereotypes that we buy into about poverty, and remember that you are where you are by the luck of the draw.
Maybe if we all keep an open mind, look to Christ for an example and love our neighbor, we can make a positive impact in our sphere of influence. And just maybe, if everyone makes a positive impact on his or her sphere of influence, those spheres will grow and join together until they encompass the whole earth.
For more information on Luther Place Memorial Church, the Luther Place Hostel and the Steinbruck Center, and their amazing ministry to the homeless in Washington, D.C. please visit their web site: The Steinbruck Center.