mighty oaks from little acorns grow
As I pulled off of the toll road at the Northwest Highway exit, I prayed I would make it through the yellow light. I did not want to have to sit uncomfortably in my car next to the one-legged man on crutches who was begging.
Keep your eyes straight ahead, I thought to myself.
Don't make eye contact.
So I didn't. Eventually the light turned green and I could move on—move away from the pitiful figure on the side of the road.
As I drove away, I rationalized,
Nothing I would give him could really help. I mean, the guy is missing a leg. He needs more than my couple of dollars could provide.
Who even knows if he'd spend it on food. He'd probably use it to buy alcohol or drugs.
If only I had a granola bar or something in my car. Still, giving him a granola bar would almost feel worse than doing nothing, because it is totally inadequate in the face of his great need.
That was the full extent of my "care."
I didn't think of him again.
Except then I did ...
That one-legged man flashed in my head the next time I saw one of them, a homeless person, out begging for food.
For a time, it seemed, they were everywhere I looked. It was as though I couldn't stop at a red light without a homeless man or woman being on the corner. What was I to do? I couldn't offer any real help—or could I?
Finally, the guilt got so bad that I started doing something each time I saw someone. The first time I stopped, I offered to buy a woman coffee at La Madeline and talk to her. Sometimes, I would give out granola bars. One day, I bought a homeless guy a Subway sandwich and drink. Soon, I started giving out my contact information, so that if they really wanted help, I could connect them with organizations equipped to help the homeless move forward in their lives. No one ever called.
The truth is that homeless people constituted an uncomfortable reality for me.
Honestly, sometimes they still do.
So, the question is: What holds us back from getting involved? What holds us back from going to people, from leaving our comfort zones?
Many things, I'm sure, but I want to focus on two today.
- Not knowing what we're doing
FEAR. Some of us (especially me) are straight up afraid. I had lots of imaginary fears of the unknown, and a lot of "grounded" fears related to safety. I had heard a lot of scary stories (mostly via email forwards -- you know what I'm talking about ;)) of people being robbed or mugged or held at gunpoint just doing regular things, like going shopping. So what was I to imagine might happen if I actually spent time in a dangerous neighborhood?
Second, one reason we don't get involved is that we don't know what we're doing. Before I began going to South Dallas, I thought having a seminary degree or being on staff at a church would qualify me more for this work. Unfortunately, I had neither, but I still had a simple choice: just GO and be present on the streets with people, or wait until I have written a dissertation in helping the homeless before I go.
Now, I think that "not knowing what we're doing" can be a great asset.
In fact, even if we have a seminary degree, going in humility to listen and learn without an agenda is essential for effective work. Just think, how would we feel if someone came into our world and told us what we need to do or how we need to do it, without taking the time to get to know us, or our lifestyle, or culture, or belief system?
In conclusion, the only way we really change is by taking baby steps to face our fears—whether real or imagined. And finally, we might just find that our feeling inadequate leads to a humility that produces effective work, as we begin listening to what people really need, rather than going in with a preconceived idea of a solution. In the end, we may even find ourselves changed more than them.