America: a nation that generally prides itself on friendliness, equality, individuality, and recognition of self-worth. We are pretty proud of the fact that we don’t have an extremely rigid class system. Thus, we have the American dream that anyone can work his way to the top no matter where he comes from. We like to think that we express acceptance, faith, and non-judgment towards everyone. But the truth is, too many of us only extend this attitude toward people above a certain line. Those below the line are looked upon as if they are not even worthy of being treated as human beings at all.
I’m talking about people who are homeless.
One of my first conversations with a homeless person took place in Kansas City about five years ago. During our conversation, she asked those passing by if they could spare any change. During our entire fifteen-minute interaction, not one person even answered her, let along gave her money. Not one - in an area that is mostly populated by upper-middle class shoppers. Can you imagine being treated as if you literally didn’t exist, as if you weren’t even worth one word being spoken to you? How can it be perfectly normal and acceptable in our nation to completely ignore another human being? Honestly, the inequality with which many Americans treat the homeless reminds me of how we treated African American slaves back in the day. Like they weren’t even human, and like they were diseased – a people to avoid physical or emotional contact with at all costs unless absolutely necessary. Watching people not even glance at this woman, in fact, purposely not make eye contact with her, let alone speak to her, let alone actually give her any money or even a coupon for food, was truly heartbreaking, because they didn’t even realize that their behavior is something that we as a nation should be deeply ashamed of and disturbed by.
There are plenty of seemingly justifiable reasons why Americans choose to ignore the homeless. We like to rationalize ourselves by saying, “Well, they got themselves in that position. They should have worked harder.” Or, we think that poverty is just too big of an issue to tackle. “How can helping out just one person make a difference? And if I help out one person, maybe I’ll start feeling obligated to help more and more until I end up broke and on the streets just like them. Not to mention the fact that homeless people are dangerous. And who knows what they’ll do with that money I give them – most likely use it to buy drugs or alcohol, which would only make their situation worse. No, we would both be better off if I don’t pay any attention to them at all.” But the truth is that many of us make just as many and just as terrible mistakes as those in poverty. Luckily for us, we have a safety net to fall back on when we make these mistakes. Those in poverty don’t, so that mistake is magnified until it eventually becomes their identity. In this woman’s case, her identity to the people passing by was only “homeless person,” which in their minds undoubtedly come along with countless other connotations, such as “lazy”, “scum,” “worthless,” “undeserving,” “irresponsible,” etc.
He or she is not just a number in an overwhelming statistic of homelessness in the United States – she is God’s creation. She is just as beloved and treasured as you and me. She was created with just as much attention, precision, perfection, and tender care as we were. And she has just as much of a purpose as each of us do.
So, how should our treatment of the homeless change? How should we approach them now, with this new perspective?
Something I heard on the radio shortly after that interaction has stuck with me ever since. A speaker was talking about her encounter with a man who was asking for money at a stoplight, and how she only had a short time period to make a decision to act or not. She ended up giving the man some change, and at first, was worried that she had made the wrong choice – what if the money was used in the wrong way? But then the speaker realized that this was not her concern. She had been obedient to God, and that was all that mattered. He would take care of the rest. And even if that person she helped out ended up using the money irresponsibly, the speaker had given him a greater gift than money – she had shown him, love. She had shown that someone cared. She had given him hope.
I think that we should approach a homeless person like we would approach any other person or situation – in prayer, in obedience, in faith, and in love. The results are not up to you – they are up to a God who draws no lines, except one in the sand saying, “whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.”