It was the close of a “compassion themed” Christian small group and the facilitator attempted to lay out action steps for an already overbooked assortment of executive level couples. The groups take-away, highlighting Jesus extravagant sensitivity to human need was obvious enough, but the Biblical prescription in practical terms seemed threatening, even potentially dangerous. You could feel the tension in the closing responses from various members honestly relating how acts of compassion seem overwhelming to personal and family calendars with little discretionary moments to spare? There appeared to be a gap between what kind of life we sensed Jesus was calling us to, and what we felt able to actually do.
Given the late hour, the facilitator deftly asked the group if there wasn’t one last thing group members might wish to share. Mike, a tech executive, mentioned the need for prayer for a “nameless” homeless guy he’d passed repeatedly on his way to work. The leader acknowledged the request and with a quick glance at his watch, asked the group to bow their heads.
Perhaps pressed by the evening’s theme or fed-up with the casual pass given to assaults on our comfort zones, another guy in the group roused everyone’s attention. “Is this really what a community does when confronted by need? Wasn’t the topic tonight about compassion? Sure we can pray, but shouldn’t we be encouraging Mike to respond or come alongside Mike in doing something? … Shouldn’t we at least know the guy’s name?” Awkward found new meaning in the ensuing silence.
In his book “Under the Overpass,” newly minted college graduate Mike Yankowski described his six month odyssey to identify with the homeless by becoming homeless himself. After long days of enduring society’s version of street neglect, Yankowski experienced one of the greatest challenges to reentry to regular life as he knew it … just making eye contact with those he related to. So much time spent registered as a non-person of little worth by passers-by, the atrophy of personhood made the sudden recognition of Yankowshi’s existence actually difficult to digest. Seems the homeless aren’t the only ones plagued with the inability to connect.
Over Christmas break, mostly out of the stir-crazy that comes with winter’s damp chill, extended family confinement and our consumption of soaring glucose levels, we ventured out for an evening walk in our beloved city of Seattle. Not typically out late, nor ambling with any specific purpose, I was astounded by the number of street people that approached us for something. I had no meeting to attend to, enough resources to comfort more than my immediate charges, and yet I had to acknowledge how difficult it was to be present with those requesting something from me. I didn’t take a name, didn’t remember a face. I went home that evening aware something wasn’t right.
Certainly there are numerous reasons to spurn unsolicited appeals. The well-worn anecdotes of the vices we encourage when we ignorantly respond to financial pleas, whether real or imagined, typically dull my impulse to react. It was easy to admit, they really didn’t see me, I didn’t really see them. I placated myself with the notion that perhaps the exchange never happened … they didn’t happen … It’s safer that way. But is it?
None of our family found our evening walk acceptable. Three days later in response we performed a morning muffin raid on the neighborhood Costco and a quick trip through Starbucks for coffee boxes. Looking to reverse the trend, our goal was simply to get some names and stories of the roughly 2,000 persons that ply Seattle’s streets. To my great delight and what proved to be the most memorable holiday moments for our family, we got not only names and stories, but wisdom, friendship and love. A few of those we encountered we look forward to seeing again.
Did we change the world? Not that we could see. Reverse the homeless trend? Decidedly not. I can say though that our relating to the homeless isn’t so awkward any more.
Getting a name and a story:
- Commit. Lean into the idea you are going to get one name and one story. You are going to do a great deal more listening and asking questions than speaking and imparting advice or resources.
- Resources. Pick up something easy to eat that you can share (In the morning, coffee and donuts or muffins work great as many homeless are released to the streets from 5-7 AM.) We picked Starbucks as it is a recognized brand that is loved by most.
- Gather. Go in groups of 2-4 to places where the homeless congregate or pass by. Going in too big a group can be intimidating and can so easily mitigate against building a relationship with someone.
- Realize. You might know the person you are meeting for a lifetime.
- Relationship. Don’t bring an agenda beyond getting a name and hearing a story.
- Relax. Consider that God has brought this person you are meeting into your life to minister to you.