From my spot across the room, I heard an older woman talking to a young intern.
“It will get easier – I promise!”
We were in a hard area. An area where poverty pounded the pavement and homeless gathered in shop doorways, waiting for their evening meal at any shelter they could find. The intern was working at a nonprofit organization as a part of her social work major at university. She had grown up in a suburb with well-kept lawns and less visible dysfunction. She was struggling.
I stopped what I was doing when I heard the statement.
I grew up in an area where poverty was ever-present. From deformed beggars on the streets to children with the bloated tummies and reddish hair of malnutrition, I was never shielded from my surroundings. I am fully comfortable navigating the streets of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and various cities in North America. I spend time with refugees and before I get to work each day, I have already passed ten to fifteen homeless people.
But there’s one thing that I’ve learned about many of us: Seeing and responding to the poor doesn’t necessarily get easier. You may get used to it. You may not stare, or get startled, or cry every time you see a small child put their hand out for money and follow you down the street, ever-persistent in their goal. But it doesn’t necessarily get easier.
Some of us are hard-wired to feel these things in our gut. It doesn’t make us better than others, it doesn’t make us worse than others. It’s who we are at our core. Identifying and empathizing with others is in our DNA.
It doesn’t matter how many times I see Charlie in his wheelchair on the street, his body crippled and unable to function properly. My throat still catches when I see him.
It doesn’t matter how often I have conversations with Jennifer, or Cheryl, or Wilson. I still sometimes want to avoid them, to not have to make eye contact, to not see that sign that says “Homeless. Can you help? Even a little bit helps!” or “Help! Homeless with five kids” (REALLY??? They had to appeal to my Achilles heel? How do they know I have five kids??)
It doesn’t matter. It is still not easy. It is still not easier.
So I wanted to say to the woman “Easier? Easier than what?” But I didn’t. Instead, I pondered it. I pondered poverty and how to respond to poverty.
And as I thought about it, I realized that through the years and with time’s passage, it hasn’t necessarily gotten easier, but I have figured out some ways to respond:
- Learning people’s names. One of my frustrations has always been that I put people in this anonymous category of “poor.” It doesn’t fit with the relational part of me. They become statistics and sorrow stories. So, I’ve learned to ask people what their names are. There is something about a name. It personalizes people and moves the relationship from “I-it” to “I-Thou.” This comes from Martin Buber’s work. He distinguishes between I-it relationships and I-thou relationships. When we see another as “it” it makes them an object, able to be put in a box and manipulated. They exist merely as a part of our own experience. Moving to I-thou puts us into relationship, two people both a part of a dynamic process of relationship. Learning the names of those I encounter reminds me that I am responding to a real person, it brings me into relationship.
- Finding ways to give aside from money. My “go to” is buying coffee for people. I now know their favorite flavors and whether they take cream and two sugars, or cream and six sugars. Buying coffee builds on the relational piece.
- Wrestling with my own ideas of the “deserving poor.” In February, Craig Greenfield wrote an excellent article on this that is a must read and I quote him here: “….God’s work in transforming lives is more about God’s love than whether the beneficiaries are deserving or not. For no one is worthy. That’s why we need God’s grace. In Matthew 25, Jesus does not categorize people based on whether they had sinned…or not. Nor did He judge them by whether they had already had multiple chances…or not. His call was simply to reach out to those whose needs are unmet and love them: ‘I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was unclothed. I was in prison. I was sick.'”
- Finding organizations that I trust who work with the poor. Good organizations that work with the poor know the best ways to give. They are the experts, and we are not. They write books, research, and develop programs that help to meet the needs of those living in poverty. They can give advice, ideas, and workshops on responding to the poor. They often are desperate for volunteers.
- Recognizing that I am not the Savior. I alternate between having an ego the size of the Great Wall of China or the size of an ant. Neither is helpful. Remembering I am not the Savior gives me perspective. It reminds me to pray. I am forced to remember that I don’t have the solutions, that I am often helpless in the face of poverty, but Jesus isn’t. Jesus reminds me that when I connect with the poor, I am connecting with Kingdom people.
- Saying the Jesus Prayer – over and over and over again. The root of the Jesus Prayer is probably the oldest prayer known to man. “Lord have mercy.” God have mercy.” The Jesus Prayer takes three phrases and the more I use those phrases, the more powerful they become. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me.” In asking for mercy, we are identifying with the poor. We are not seeing ourselves as other, but rather as at one with the human condition. It could be me begging. It could be you begging. Asking for mercy brings us into the fellowship of suffering. We recognize that we are all a part of a world that is broken and begging for mercy.
- Giving thanks. For over two years after Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts was published people said to me: “You will love this book.” And cynically I thought “They are so, so wrong! I will hate that book.” (My contrary nature says that I will hate anything that everybody in Christendom likes so there you have it….) One day, I found a free download of chapter one. I read for a few minutes and felt the taste of salty tears rolling down my cheeks and on my lips. The Eucharist precedes the miracle. It always does, it always will. Giving thanks precedes the miracle.
“Murmuring thanks does not deny that an event is a tragedy and neither does it deny that there’s a cracking fissure straight across the heart. Giving thanks is only this: making the canyon of pain into a megaphone to proclaim the ultimate goodness of God.”*
The well-known words of CS Lewis remind us that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t really get easier for some of us. Because ultimately, it’s about immortals made in the image of God. We find tools, we develop ways of responding to the poor, but it doesn’t get easier.
Perhaps it’s not supposed to.
*Ann Voskamp One Thousand Gifts Devotional