Homelessness and Loving People
Every Wednesday night, a group of neighbors and friends meet at 941 Chestnut Street. Lively worship follows a warm meal, and there's lots of talking and hanging out to keep people busy in between. I had been drawn to the idea of Freedom Fellowship for a few years before I finally got to visit in the spring of 2013. I was serving as a Youth Ministry Intern in Buffalo Gap, so I didn't have many opportunities to sneak away on a Wednesday evening. But as my internship came to a close, I found myself recollecting blog posts centered around a church that met in the middle of the Butternut/Chestnut neighborhood.
Dr. Richard Beck is a professor of Psychology at ACU, an avid blogger, and one of the many people who have found a home at Freedom Fellowship. He occasionally writes about his experiences at Freedom, especially zeroing in on how the church has a fairly unique cross-section of Abilenians. An easy to notice example of this diversity is the homeless and near-homeless population that attends frequently.
Homelessness is definitely a problem in Abilene. There are lots of facets to these problems, and I've struggled for years with how to lovingly address such things while loving the people in such situations. Questions always arose, and few had easy answers: Should I give a spare couple of bucks to the man with a cardboard sign saying "God bless" outside of Wal-Mart? Do I offer this person a ride? Is there a way to help them get in touch with local nonprofits that could be of service? Can I do any of this in a way that's not based on power and superiority, but instead based on mutually-enhancing relationships?
Hard questions are great for sparking thinking and tough conversations, but they don't stop a growling stomach or warm up someone huddled away from the cutting Abilene wind. Thankfully, I have been able to visit Freedom enough times over the past few months to be able to work through the questions enough to make some progress.
For example, there's a guy named Anthony who I've met through Freedom. As a new face at the church, I asked if I could sit with him my first time there, and he graciously agreed. Since then, we've sat together a few times, and generally are friendly to each other. Now, I sometimes see him walking around the city, and when I do, I stop and ask if he needs a lift. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn't, but either way he knows me well enough to trust my good intentions and vice versa. We can chat in the car as I drive him to where he's going, and it's not the awkward, forced conversation of people who don't know each other.
Basically, the relationship we share has changed our mentality, or at least it has for me. Picking up Anthony isn't something I do out of a sense of guilt, like it would have been in the past. Now, I pick him up because I know him and want to be a part of good in his life. It's the same as when my friend Kirby needs a ride because his wife has the car. We're in relationship, and that means when I have something that can be a blessing, I'm excited about offering it.
Part of this process is figuring out how this relationship can be mutually enhancing. I believe relationships become toxic when one person is always the giver and another always is the receiver. I think the toxicity of such situations harms all who are involved: the giver can become bitter and feel taken advantage of, and the receiver can become dependent. Both can develop a savior-complex, believing that the giver is the holder of all the good and that the receiver doesn't have anything to contribute.
I certainly don't want to fall into the trap of overvaluing my contributions to the relationship, nor do I want Anthony to end up believing he doesn't bring anything of value to the table. So I'm trying to focus in on some ways in which Anthony is helping me, to name those contributions to our relationship, and to encourage them.
One such method for me so far has been to ask Anthony to introduce me to people. As a generally gregarious person, I often forget how important and helpful it can be to have someone else make an introduction for you. It allows you to instantly build upon the rapport and street cred of someone else. As a middle-class White male with a house, it doesn't hurt to have a homeless person be the one to introduce me to some other homeless people. Anthony has knowledge and street smarts I'll never possess, and has connections with people I don't run into every day. In order to be on level footing relationally, it's important for me to see his strengths and to acknowledge that he's bringing something to the table that I am lacking.
All this is to say that I'm still working on loving people. That's certainly true of my relationships with homeless people here in Abilene. But I'd argue that hard questions about how to love people better are meant to be worked out in relationships, not just in theory. It's a heckuva lot messier in person, but people are worth it.