Several experiences of the last few months have been on my mind, haunting me in a strange way, nagging me to write them, to try to make some sense of it all. It’s funny when something is pressing on you like that, and I keep stuffing it down only to have it pop back up. So here goes nothing.
One morning last summer I found myself sitting in the front seat of my mini-van, parked in the Panera parking lot. I had gone inside to kill time but found that it was freezing and noisy, so I headed out. (For some reason, I can read, write, chat, and plan in Panera…I just can’t think in Panera.) So there I sat, seeking to think but probably more likely to doze.
After a few minutes, a large pickup truck pulled out of a parking spot that was right by the door. I could see that it was dragging something, as if a bag of trash had been left too close and was stuck to his front tire. As the driver pulled out of the spot and turned to drive forward, an older woman flew out the door towards the truck, just getting there as he pulled away. She shook her hands in the air and yelled some things that I couldn’t hear, but could guess from her facial expressions what they included. Then she set about picking up the bag that had split open and securing it’s contents to a small cart that was stowed in a bush. And it dawned on me, that she was homeless.
I would not have guessed she was homeless when I first saw her, though I did recognize her as one of the people sipping coffee and reading the paper in the overstuffed chairs by the door. I thought of all her belongings piled in that shopping cart, and of how that man, driving his over-sized F-150, had unknowingly trampled on the majority of it. It occurred to me that there is a strange dichotomy in our city: so many have’s and so many have-not’s. Suddenly I felt very thankful for my old Toyota van and old-but-fixed-up house and paychecks that come regularly, checks that are not huge but are always enough.
Fast forward to a birthday party several months later. I was talking to a teenage girl who is a high school senior and expecting a baby girl. Seeing some photos I had brought for a friend, she exclaimed that I must come to the hospital when her baby is born so that she can have pictures of her little one. I blinked. And then swallowed. I didn’t want to promise to come, for she lived in Lincoln (an hour away), so I said that I’m sure someone will take pictures for her. She commented that no one she knew had a camera.
As I thought about this later, I felt suddenly so selfish. I have a camera, a digital one, one on my phone, a video camera. I have this lofty idea that I live so simply, so frugally, so altogether outside the entrappings of this world. Luxury? Us? No way, we have a modest house in a neighborhood that is either upper-lower class or lower-middle class. Our cars are older. Our kids wear second-hand clothes. We qualify for some forms of government assistance. We make do.
But that is a far cry from knowing what it is to be poor. I recently learned that 22,000 people in Omaha do not have enough food. Now don’t get all middle class on me with that “Well, that’s cause they’re buying ______.” I’ll save my “How the Middle Class do not Understand Poverty” rant for a different day. Just know that many people work hard at low income jobs that barely earn enough to house and feed their families. And it’s complicated- single parent households, addictions, mental health issues, lack of education…there are so many factors there to address but the point is CHILDREN IN OUR CITY ARE HUNGRY. So let’s just stick to that point, OK?
Sorry…I think that rant did slip in a bit but I’ll try to get back on point.
The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was an article I read today about public education in Washington D.C. It seems that in our nation’s capital, child poverty and malnutrition is so rampant that the D.C. public schools have decided to start serving dinner at school as well. So now these children eat three meals a day at school. Unbelievable. Tragic.
How can a nation of such wealth not deal with this problem? Why is it not even a buzz issue in elections and campaigns? Perhaps a better question is: why are God’s children not concerned about the needs of the poor? Why do we believe this lie that the government will take care of them, when all that a bureaucracy can offer is a few dollars or a meal, but certainly no compassion or hope?
In Terrify No More, Gary Haugen writes, “When disaster strikes, I have ceased to ask ‘where is God?’ and have begun to ask ‘Where are God’s people?'”
In my cynical heart, I think, “They are all at Starbucks…or soccer practice…or at church.”
I feel like my next step should be to apologize, to recognize that I have overstated things, but then I wonder- have I really? I’m not going to apologize for making you uncomfortable. I know there are some people who are seeking to love the poor and needy, but I don’t understand how our churches can be so full and there be so little desire to engage our own cities.
What if as God’s children, our lives were radically simple and generous? We could live on so much less and give so much more.
These thoughts have haunted me, plagued me even over the last few months as I’ve thought about my own life and how I engage the poor. I have a few friends who I am trying to love and support, but it takes so much wisdom to know how to help them. Poverty is complicated, and money is really just a side issue. When I start to think about the homeless, the hungry, the hurting that I don’t know and have really no way to know, it is paralyzing. And the reality is, it takes most of my time and energy to keep my own little piece of the world together.
But this thought raised questions in me- if I had less, would I have more spare time? If there was less laundry, fewer toys to put away, less things to dust under and sweep around, would my mind and heart be more free? Do I really believe that I am in the season of diapers and driving and play dates, that one day when I am “free” I will devote my efforts to kingdom things, like serving the poor? Maybe. But if my heart is not there now, I don’t think I will suddenly serve with passion later. And I want my children to understand the Father’s heart towards the poor and have a heart that resounds with His.
I guess that’s it for now, or as much as I think is fair to dump on you in one post. I recently read, Same Kind of Different As Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore, a true story of friendship that spanned between poverty and wealth. It is a very moving book, one that I fear too many people will read and think, “Good for you, I could never do that.”
I know we are so far removed, our daily lives so conveniently tucked in a suburbia that is specifically void of projects and homeless districts, it’s hard to know where we would start.
A final thought: I think when we consider the poor, we imagine that they have infinite resources (programs, opportunities for those who want to “pull themselves up”, resources to help) with a finite hope of success. But I have come to think that it is really the opposite, for there are finite resources but infinite hope, if we believe in God and His ability to restore, heal, and encourage.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27