Seeking a Heart Like Jesus’s: Early Reflections on Homelessness

Just came back from a long road trip with J as we explored North Carolina and Tennessee.  We had tons of fun hiking together, sweating to death in the heat and humidity, snapping hundreds of pictures, seeing the beauty nature offers in abundance, and visiting places with some serious history.

In experiencing these new places, somberness came to roost.  There’s something about being away from the familiar and the routine that helps me see life from a different perspective and forces me to confront realities outside myself.

Fair warnings.  If you’re looking for a happy post talking up my vacation, this isn’t it.  We did have fun.  Lots of it.  But, I also found myself feeling grieved, unsettled, and uncertain of myself.  This post focuses on the disturbing parts of the trip.

In the course of the trip, I found myself with a growing awareness of homelessness and racism.  This post is a gateway to a series of posts that I plan to do after some research.

Today’s post is an attempt to dig deeper into my emotions and gut reactions to seeing and engaging with homeless people on our trip. I feel rather unsettled by my reactions to people and events. Rather than shutting down and avoiding, I want to face those parts of myself that I find hypocritical, or at the very least — not very Jesus-like.

First, I found myself struck by homelessness in various places that we visited.  When I’m home, I tend to relegate the homeless people I see to a mere part of the landscape; sadly, I’m not as impacted at home as when I travel.

The following impressions are anecdotal, experiential and not at all scientific.  My perceptions might be wrong.  Asheville struck me with the number of homeless families that we saw.  The discomfort about homelessness rose as I wandered through the enormous Biltmore estate. 33 guest bedrooms.  66 servant quarters.  So much luxury. So incredible to visit. And yet so many people without a roof over their heads in the nearby town. The juxtaposition of luxury and poverty is jarring.  Charlotte struck me with the number of folks with signs asking for money in the suburbs rather than urban areas.   Nashville was startling with homeless folks everywhere we went.  (And yes, we went to both Asheville, NC AND Nashville, TN. ).

As we encountered real people, I found my discomfort level rising.  Guilt quickly rose with it. I figure if Jesus were walking around on the earth, he’d be hanging out with the homeless.  And what do I want to do?  Distance myself.  Occasionally hand money to people.  

Some of the discomfort comes due to fear.  I’m afraid of people asking for things I don’t have.  I rarely carry cash, so when people ask for money I rarely have something simple to give.

When I do have spare cash or change, I tend to hand it over quickly and move on.  I treat the encounter as a transaction, and wind up feeling either like I did a great deed for the day or wondering if I’ve made the wrong choice and just funded an addiction.  Thinking more deeply, I’m not sure that any of this the “right” way to go either.

In addition, I’m suspicious of motives.  Is this person trying to scam me?  Is this money really for a necessity or is it to fund an addiction? If I’m alone, sometimes I’m nervous about my physical safety.

So I respond out of fear, instead of faith and compassion.  In the process, I relegate people to objects that make demands upon me, rather recognizing them as people with stories.  And I forget that, like my friend Lo says, almost everyone is about two bad decisions and an unfortunate event away from homelessness. 

Homeless people are loved and valued by God.  They’re not anonymous strangers.   They’re made in God’s image every bit as much as I am (and as my friends and family are).  This leads to another question about what they might have to tell me about who God is?  I think there’s some insight there that I need to research further.

I wonder what it would take for me to change my gut reactions.  What would it look like to have Jesus’ heart for people?  I don’t think it’s as simple as giving money to everyone that asks just because I feel guilty.  But, sometimes it might mean giving up something or changing my plans.

What would it take going forward to choose relationship?  What if it means treating people like people, and not being afraid of saying “no” when I can’t help (or feel it’s not wise)? Saying “no” doesn’t have to mean hurriedly rushing by or pretending people aren’t there.

What actually helps in healing issues of homelessness– both personally and institutionally?  These are just a few of the questions that I’m looking to research.  I’m looking to find some more complexity and some hope — not just a few band-aids or places to point blame.

Questions or comments?

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