I Continue to Fail “The Poor”

I’d like to think I’m pretty consistent in my advocacy for the poor. I have worked with numerous poverty-related nonprofits over the years, preached about it and worked on it in church, written about it, and so on. But in general, all of that remains at a large “macro” level. It is a nameless, faceless group known broadly as “The Poor,” or worse, it simply becomes an issue.

Sometimes making it more real than that is emotionally overwhelming, if not paralyzing. When I worked in Fort Worth at an AIDS housing facility, seeing the multiple challenges first-hand that some of our residents faced was heartbreaking. In some cases it seemed they had little, if anything, on which to hang a shred of hope. At the Pueblo nonprofit I work with now, we have to turn away more than one thousand people a month when we run out of emergency assistance.

Once in a while, it feels like this work is hardly making a dent in the poverty juggernaut we’re fighting against. So sometimes it’s just easier to keep it at arms-length and focus on “The Poor.”

That may help me feel better, but it’s not Gospel.

My son, Mattias, goes to a magnet school on the east side of town. For those unfamiliar, magnets are established to do just what they sound like they’re supposed to do: attract students from all over the place. Generally they are established in economically depressed areas with the hope both of empowering the local residents with a higher quality education, and also diversifying the student body – and maybe even the greater area – to break cycles of systemic poverty and other related issues.

To get to the school, we go through some interesting territory. In fact, one day I found a bullet casing in the parking lot of his school. When I turned it in to the office, the teacher sighed and shook her head at the ongoing gang presence they had yet to eradicate from the neighborhood.

But it’s a wonderful school, and we believe in it. That doesn’t make it any easier on the way there, though.

A few days ago, we drove by some “Section 8″ housing (a HUD voucher program for housing people with special needs or challenges) to find a man in his late forties or early fifties lying on the sidewalk out in front. An ambulance had already pulled up in front of the house, but they seemed to be in no particular hurry to help the man, who was struggling to hold himself upright. Since the emergency crew was already on-site, we kept going. But my wife, Amy, and I looked at each other as we passed by.

“It’s weird, the flood of feelings I have when I see something like that,” I said, “and the different kinds of conflict I feel about it.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” said Amy. She went to on say that her first instinct was toward compassion. She wanted to stop and help. But then she found her intellectual self waxing skeptical. What if he’s on drugs? Or drunk? Is that the kind of situation we want to expose our kids to?

My first reaction was to be angry. I saw this man who appeared possibly to be having a seizure, and the ambulance guys hardly seemed too concerned. They strolled over, stood next to him, but I could detect no trace of empathy or urgency in their body language.

When I told Amy how I had felt about it, she pointed out something I hadn’t thought of. “They may have compassion fatigue,” she said. “What if this is the fifth time this month they’ve been called to help this same guy? Or what if they know he has HIV, or is prone to violence? Maybe they’re just being careful. Maybe they’re waiting for the police.”

What if, what if, what if?

All of this is plausible, but the reality is that a guy laid there on the sidewalk, obviously suffering, and no one was helping him.

Including us.

I’m still not sure what the “right” thing to have done is, but I can’t seem to get the story of the Good Samaritan out of my mind. In that story, the priest passes the guy in need by, but who knows the back story? What if he’d seen the guy abuse his wife before? What if he had stolen from the church? What if the priest had helped him five other times that month, but the help seemed to be doing no good?

What if, what if, what if?

Meanwhile, the world passes by and suffering continues.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Shanyn Mysti

    Very thought provoking story.  Having worked in emergency services I can attest to the compassion fatigue but we all must battle against it. Each need needs to be seen on it’s own, not as a pattern or we may fall into the habit of judging based upon the past rather than what is in front of us.   I think Jesus was teaching the same thing – it didn’t matter who the man was, it mattered that he needed help. The priest and the others who passed by may have known him or his circumstances or they could have been judging based on his location (so what kind of person ends up naked in a ditch anyway? Musta had it coming!)…we need to forget that and move to the place of grace.  Even if our hands cannot reach out, it doesn’t stop our hearts from moving us to prayer, and our bodies from moving us towards change.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=631929383 Steve DeFields-Gambrel

    I have spent almost my entire morning with a depressed man who is suddenly homeless and suicidal. I watched him walk away hunched over in the rain, because I had so few options to offer him. I also opened our church shower facility to 7 homeless friends, got caught in a confusing conversation with a mentally ill woman, and comforted the mother of another homeless alcoholic. It is exhausting, but I call it Matthew 25 mysticism. My spiritual practice is to work at seeing Christ in “the least of these.” In the past I spent all my time maintaining a building and an institution. But now most of my time is spent doing what I was called to do. So tonight I will be exhausted. My head will be spinning.  I will fall asleep listening to the rain, knowing that most of my friends are outside, trying to sleep in that cold rain. My own inadequacy, my inability to do more will disturb my slumber. But at the same time there is a peace that comes from knowing that I did something. I did what I could today. 

  • http://squarepegfaith.wordpress.com/ jomo86

    I struggle with these same questions. Meanwhile, people are living in pain without hope.

  • ElderA TCOD

    we as followers of GOD in CHRIST find ourselves faced with true ministry in the woe of souls that are not saved or souls that don`t live in victory it seems over whelming to minister to the damn,doomed,the lost and even the poor,i know i been doing it since 1990 what i`ve learned is we walk by faith not by sight and be not weary in well doing,JESUS said the poor you will always have with you,so it`s not a matter of are we doing,  but doing all we can to present CHRIST all the time, every time amen be blessed.!!


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