Union Gospel Mission Seattle

First, listen to the song On a Corner in Memphis by Todd Agnew and let yourself take the words in a couple of times. I’m working on about time 83.

Now think back to the last time you saw a panhandler on the off-ramp, and consider how you reacted. Did you give her money? I’m guessing most of you did not. And one key reason is that you don’t want to be an enabler of drugs, alcohol, or whatever else that person’s pet sin might be, right?

Besides, somewhere along the way, someone probably said something like “You know, if you gave someone a fish, they’ll eat for a day, but if you teach them how to fish they can eat forever.” Maybe you even listened to the Arrested Development song and are willing to admit it.

In this case, both approaches might be wrong. I want to propose a third way, one that eschews condescension toward our neighbor in favor of love, real understanding, and empowerment.

Before I continue, I want to make clear that there is a time and place both for giving fish and providing fishing lessons. But those are not the only options, they’re just the ones least likely to tear us down before they rebuild us.

That aside, the third way is deceptively simple: listen to them.

I don’t mean roll down your window as you drive by and ask a quick question. I certainly don’t mean ask them to show you some hidden talent so you can say “good boy” and give them a bone.

I mean take the time to walk with and talk with and get to know someone on the street. It can be a life-changing experience for you and a source of comfort to them. If you’re concerned about safety, take precautions or contact someone at a local shelter to get connected with someone.

So often the homeless are treated like they don’t exist. The best they usually get is acknowledgement as a problem to be dealt with. To actually value someone who’s used to that kind of treatment enough to step into their world and wonder who they are is powerful in itself. And I can say from experience, you are likely to gain a new appreciation both for the wealth of humanity in every person, even those often treated as non-people, and the fragility of our lives as we know them.

What’s more, you’ll be doing the work of theology at the same time. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz spent much of her academic career doing what she called Mujerista Theology, interviewing Latina women in America about their lives, listening to how they live, how they interact with the world, and how they see God. She saw her primary work though not as the books she published of her data, but as the work of encouraging and even just listening to those Latina women.

Anytime you intentionally invest yourself in the lives of people outside your socio-cultural-economic class, that creative work is bound to happen as you encounter point of disjunct between your paradigm and their reality. Treasure the learning, but most of all, treasure the people, each one a child of God with the hairs on her head counted before her birth.

So here’s my next step:

Connect with a local homeless shelter (Compass Center in Seattle) and work to connect 10 or more local church-goers with homeless men, women, and families. Each person would go at whatever time worked to wherever those families happened to reside or be getting a meal or whatever and just be with them.

After hanging out with them a while, each of the volunteers would be asked to tell their friends’ story, whether in writing or on video. Those previously untold stories would be collected, edited if necessary to preserve privacy, and then given to local musicians to live with for a while until each story developed into a song – the song of a voice that may have never been heard except by a few – the song of someone with a great deal to bring to this community we call earth and to the local community (Seattle/Puget Sound). The songs could be recorded and collected into a new CD that might just open a few people’s eyes to the humanity around them.

This particular shelter also has a worship community where all are welcomed, housed or in transition, and no one is forced to be there (unfortunately some shelters make attending worship a requirement of entry). Church of the Steadfast Love is a dynamic community that is a light in dark places. Hopefully, any proceeds from the CD would be passed along to the shelter and the church to bring the experiment full circle and assist them in their work helping, teaching, and empowering the homeless and all the rest of us.

That’s my idea. But first I’m going to have to step outside my comfortable box where I can whine about not having enough money for sushi with friends and go hang out with the blessed for a while.

What’s your next step?