Same Kind of Difference as Me

Last week on The Front Porch Swing I shared that the only visible difference between me and the man holding a cardboard sign was I was sitting in my warm vehicle and he was outside sitting on a plastic bucket. This week, I would like to probe a little deeper into the topic of homelessness and assisting the vulnerable among us.

Obviously the man with the sign and I have unique life stories. I have always been gainfully employed and now enjoy a comfortable retirement and live in a nice home. He is homeless and may sleep in a tent or a car. He may have chosen his lifestyle, or he may be there due to alcohol or drug addiction or, perhaps, as the result of the high cost of housing in Bend. Either way, our lives could not be more different.

Our culture places us in two distinct identities. My material worth and his are galaxies apart. I am confident he doesn’t receive the same respectful treatment as me. Oh, yes; compassionate people stop to give him money or other assistance; otherwise he wouldn’t be sitting at the same corner day after day.

As divergent as our social status, we share one identity. We were both created in God’s image. We are both fallen creatures in need of God’s grace and mercy.

Back in 2006 I recommended a book, Same Kind of Different as Me, to our congregation. The book is the true story of two men in Texas whose lifestyles were dramatically different. The book was also made into a feature length movie.

Ron Hall, a wealthy, respected art trader in Dallas met Denver Moore, a black homeless ex-con from Louisiana, while Hall was volunteering at a shelter in Fort Worth. These two men, from dramatically unique backgrounds, became best friends. The take away from the story is that the relationship between these men, not free meals or a place to sleep at night, eventually enabled Denver break out of a life-time of violence and homelessness. Truth is the relationship also had a positive impact on Ron Hall.

If it is true that the deepest need of the poor among us is not more resources but relationships, how can we respond? I can’t be become a friend of every homeless person in my community. Neither can you. But, I can choose to get involved with one or two men at the Shepherd’s House. The relationship usually begins with caring for his immediate needs such as clothing or perhaps a ride to medical appointments or with a parole officer.

But, having cared for those needs is just the tip of the iceberg. The men I have helped the most were the ones I asked to help with a job around my home. Often they agreed to help me thinking they were simply volunteering. Surprising them, by giving them a generous “salary”, helped move the relationship forward. Sitting in my truck at a local drive-through coffee shop listening to their stories was part of helping them, and it also impacted me.

Last week I promised to share about another friend I have met at The Shepherd’s House. Bill, not his real name, calls me Pops. He has spent much of his five decades in prison. He knows that he is welcome in my home anytime, and we text frequently, always saying “I love you.” The transformation in Bill’s life has been phenomenal but not without struggles. Progress has had its ups and downs. Sometimes the struggle has been so severe he has considered running away- his old default pattern. But, our relationship has been one of the anchors encouraging him to stay and fight through the struggle.

I was humbled one day as I overheard Bill sharing his story with a group of our friends. He shared that the turning point in his life began when I invited him out for pie and coffee. His past life on the streets conditioned Bill to question my motivation for inviting him to meet with me. But, through sharing life together, his life has changed. His deepest need when he came to the Shepherd’s House was not a warm place to sleep or even the recovery program or occasional financial assistance I provided. His greatest need was relationships with other followers of Jesus. I was just one of them, but my life has also been influenced in so many positive ways.

The challenge of helping the poor and the broken image-bearers among us is great. But, how can we help them? I offer a few suggestions:

First, open the curtain. Pull up the shades. Ask God to help you see the needs around you through new eyes.

Secondly, pray for wisdom to know how God may want you to respond. Will it be volunteering at a local shelter? Or, providing transportation to court hearings or medical appointments?

Third, ask God to show you who might be your Bill or your Sam or Susie.

Finally, accept the risk of getting involved in their life. Perhaps it will begin with letting them choose clothing. Spend time getting to know the woman behind the sign or in the man in the mission.

Perhaps your part in the ministry will be providing financial support through your local church or the shelter ministries in your town.

But, get involved. Because God has a heart for the poor, the immigrant and the vulnerable; so should we.

It begins by realizing we are all created in God’s image. We are all needy. Some of us have resources to share.
Denver Moore, an ex-convict comparing himself with the wealthy and respectable Ron Hall, said it quite well: “Same kind of difference as me.”

I have discovered the same truth through my friendships with the men I have befriended at The Shepgerd’s House.

I would love to hear your stories of being touched and enouraged by someone else. Or, share how God has used you to encourage another broken person.

Thanks for visiting The Front Porch Swing today. I welcome your comments and input. Please invite your friends to join us.

Bootstraps or Biblical Dignity?(Part 1)

He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

—Micah 6:8, esv

Today we have accepted homelessness as the new norm.

I see more and more camp sites in the National Forest near my home town of Bend. An editorial in our local newspaper reported an almost 20 percent increase in homelessness in our county since 2015. Recent statistics reveal a 21 percent increase in youth homelessness in Central Oregon in 2017. Men and women, holding cardboard signs, can be found at most major intersections. I often debate with myself whether I should help them—but then the traffic light changes, and I have things to do.

The question is, “Are we helping by responding to the panhandling, or simply enabling them?” Yes, that may sound a bit harsh, but it’s a question worth considering. More importantly, how should we be involved?

My local church, Foundry Church, is deeply involved. We prepare and serve meals to almost 200 people once a month, and lunches twice a month. We provide a shower truck so homeless people can bathe and receive clean underwear, socks, and other necessities. Foundry supports The Shepherd’s House in Bend and the local Teen Challenge with both finances and hours of volunteer work.

Is it enough? Are we doing the right thing? I can hand the guy on the corner a dollar bill and feel a little better. But what if his need is deeper?

When Helping Hurts, a book by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, claims that many efforts to alleviate poverty may actually hurt in the long run. The greatest need people have, according to Corbett and Fikkert, is not more resources but relationships—someone to walk with them and care about them. And I would add that their greatest need of all is a personal relationship with the God who loves them.

The lack of relationships helps explain the weakness of our public welfare system.

The woman holding the sign has a name besides “homeless person.” She also has a story. She’s somebody’s daughter—and perhaps has daughters and sons of her own. Beneath those placid eyes that won’t maintain eye contact is a person created in the image of God. I can’t help but wonder how long has it been since she enjoyed a real conversation? Received a compliment? How long since she was embraced without carnal motives?

Sometimes, of course, I assume the homeless person is sitting there by choice. After all, it’s easier to ask for a handout than apply for one of the abundant job opportunities in Bend. Perhaps they just want another bottle of cheap wine or another syringe dripping with heroin. They have made their choices and now they’re reaping the consequences. So why not leave them alone to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?

I admit those statements sound harsh, but they illustrate how difficult it is to know how to help or whom to help. It is much easier to become the proverbial Levite or priest and just walk on by the wounded soul by the side of the road. After all, it’s not my problem; let the State take care of it.

One thing is certain: everyone wants to be treated with dignity and respect. So the challenge, then, at least as I see it, is how can we help people without doing even more damage? How can I offer dignity to the woman behind the sign?

I can’t forget how often the Bible commands us to care for the poor, widows, orphans and immigrants. God deeply cares about the vulnerable among us. These are the bruised reeds I wrote about on August 20th.

In Michael Barram’s book, Missional Economics, the author writes: “God is deeply concerned for the hungry, and God’s people should be as well.” (p. 96) God’s concern for the poor was demonstrated by the laws concerning gleaning. The Israelites had suffered under Egyptian bondage; now they were to show compassion for the poor among them. (Check out Deuteronomy 24:19-22, Leviticus 19:9-10, and 23:22.) Barram writes that God required farmers to intentionally leave part of the grain and fruit un-harvested so that the poor could “earn their food with dignity.” The words “earn with dignity” leaped off the page at me. Even the simple act of going into a field to gather grain or pick fruit provided some dignity for the poor. “Gleanings were not handouts,” writes Barram. The fact that gleaners would come in behind the harvesters suggests the farmer was aware of the poor living in his community—and even implies a relationship between farmer and gleaner. In the book of Ruth, that lovely older testament gem, Boaz’s invitation for Ruth to glean in his field eventually blossomed into a marriage relationship—leading to the eventual birth of King David.

I have resources the poor lack. My challenge is determining how should I invest them. How can I offer my hand to another image-bearer? How can I help meet their greatest needs—a relationship and dignity? This is a dignity that God Himself demonstrated by sending His Son to rescue them, just as He has rescued me.

When I first volunteered to serve at The Shepherd’s House, a local faith-based recovery ministry, I met Sam (not his real name). Sam had just arrived from Portland where he had hit the bottom after losing everything he valued in this world, including his wife who had been killed in an auto accident. Buried in depression, Sam felt little hope. I begin to take him out for coffee or a meal. We went to Wal-Mart where he could pick out clothes, because everything he owned was on his back.

Over weeks and months of sharing meals in our home and spending time together, the darkness began to lift. Sam today is gainfully employed and enjoying life again. It wasn’t the coffee or the clothes that I gave Sam; it was my time. Myself.

Sam’s greatest need was the relationships he discovered at The Shepherd’s House and in the time we spent together.

In the gospels, two rich men met Jesus. The rich ruler was as a respected insider, but he left sadly after rejecting the conditions Jesus set to have a relationship with Him. Zacchaeus, a social outcast, enjoyed the party of a lifetime in Jesus’ honor. The only difference between the rich ruler and the rich tax collector was that one was already on the inside; the other on the outside looking in.

It seems to me that things haven’t changed a whole lot. The difference between me and the man on the corner with a cardboard sign is that I am sitting in my warm vehicle looking down while he is sitting on a plastic bucket looking up.

Next week I want you to meet another man whose life is being transformed through relationships.

Have you ever considered the greatest need of the poor among us is not more resources but relationships?

Today the economy is good and jobs are available yet millions remain on the welfare system. Could the lack of relationships within the beauracracy be one of the reasons it has failed? What do you think?

Do you have a story about the power of relationships to help restore a wounded person?

Thanks for visiting The Front Porch Swing today. I welcome your comments and input. Please invite your friends to join us.