Sunday, May 18, 2014

What I learned at church today...

I love going to church. Prayer and music and baptism. Listening and learning. Reading and taking notes.  Laughter and tears. Hugs and kisses. Asking, pondering and answering tough questions about faith and life and serving one another and those around us who are in need.

Today, I experienced all of the above.

Hundreds of adults met in the fellowship hall at Sunday School hour for a class called, "Conversations from the Street." The idea was that we would discuss our questions and fears, our hopes and concerns about our encounters with people on the street, be they homeless, hungry or otherwise in need of help. People asked if we should give money to people who ask for it. If we offer one kind of food but they protest and ask for a different kind of food, how obligated are we to giving them what they want? What if someone shows up at our homes and ask for a place to stay or money or food? What if someone wants to use the restroom at the church? What about in our homes? What if someone shows up at the church at the time of a paid meal, like on Wednesday afternoons or evenings when weekly meals are offered to attendees, should homeless people, those without enough money be able to come in and eat for free? What if we don't believe the hard luck stories we are told? Does it matter if the person asking is telling the truth? Do we have the right to make suggestions or demands about what people on the street do with the money we give them?

Excellent questions. We didn't get to discuss most of them as we didn't have enough time.

The one comment that resonated most with me didn't answer any of the questions posed. Our new, wonderful, wise, thoughtful, generous, experienced, challenging minister of missions said this: No matter whether you give money or food or not, look the person in the eye. Smile. Pay attention.  She said there is a myth that most of the people who are on the streets have a mental illness. She said that is a lie, that only about 15% of the people on the street are mentally ill before they become homeless. What often happens is that days and weeks and months go by and the men and women standing on corners, sitting on benches, lying on heating grates, and asking for assistance are ignored. Passersby (myself included) don't even look at them - so they begin to question their reality and their existence. She said that recently she saw a man sitting on the sidewalk asking for money, and even though she wasn't going to give him anything, she looked at him, smiled at him, and told him she didn't have anything for him that day. He smiled up at her and said, "Thank you for that smile."

Dignity and wholeness and honor.

I remember spending time at Charlotte's main public library with my children several years ago. We were seated at a table together, looking at the books we had chosen when three or four homeless men walked past us. One of the men looked down at us and began to smile, but as soon as our eyes met, I looked away.  I didn't want to look him in the eye. I didn't want to acknowledge that he was looking at us. I didn't want him to come talk to us. I didn't want to have to figure out what to say or how to not give him money. I didn't want him near my children. I was scared. Sometimes I still am afraid when I see homeless people, especially when I am by myself. Honoring that man's dignity and wholeness or giving him any sense of honor was not on my mind at all that day. To the contrary, I wanted him to disappear and leave me to live my neat, clean, pampered, insulated life. I don't think I took my children back to that branch of the library for a good long while.

This morning, that way of looking at people, that way of dealing with people, my unexamined, unwarranted prejudice and fear were all challenged. No homeless person has ever hurt me or harmed me. Not one homeless person has ever yelled at me or robbed me or threatened me in any way. So why all the fear?

I suppose we can all stand to examine our fears and prejudices. I know I need to examine mine.
Gay people. Straight people. People who choose neither of those categories. People who choose both.
Black people. White people. Asian people. Latino people. Native American people.
Those who straddle more than one of those groups. Those who refuse to choose.
Rich people. Poor people. Iraqi or Afghani people. Africans. Asians.
Fat people. Skinny people. Tall people. Short people. People in wheelchairs.
People who don't speak English well. People who speak with accents.
Single people. Married people. Divorced people. Widowed people.
People who don't fit neatly into any of these groups at all.
The list of our self-imposed categories, our divisive categories is long.

This morning, I was challenged to look at my long list and begin to dismantle it.
One person at a time. One encounter at a time. One conversation at a time.

When I think about what Jesus did while he was on earth, I recognize that nearly everything he said, every miracle he performed, every conversation he had was related to building the dignity and bringing about the wholeness of those he encountered. He spoke to homeless people, blind people, sick people, women, foreigners, snobs, the mentally ill and every other kind of social, spiritual, and economic outcast - there were no groups that he feared or avoided or ignored. There was no one beyond his compassion or his reach or his love. I have so much more to learn from his example. So many walls within and around my soul that need to be knocked down. I expect that Erika will be an instrument God uses, a voice, a vessel, and a prophet in my church and in my own personal spiritual walk.

I suspect that as I learn to honor the dignity of those around me,
as I learn to work towards the wholeness of those around me,
I suspect that my own dignity and wholeness will grow deeper as well.
I cannot imagine any way in which the building of other people's dignity
and the movement towards their wholeness would not also transform me.
I suspect that I will be testing that theory in the days and weeks and months to come.


Karmen M. said...

Your morning and the questions reminded me of this scripture that I was reading just this morning. Here it is from the Message Bible
The Royal Rule of Love

2 James 2:1-4 My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, “Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!” and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,” haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted?

5-7 Listen, dear friends. Isn't it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges. This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God. And here you are abusing these same citizens!

GailNHB said...

Karmen, thanks for sharing that passage from The Message. Right on target and on topic. I always enjoy the passages I read from the Message. I think I need to pull mine out and read it more often.

Thanks for being such a faithful and supportive reader of my rants. Peace be with you.