Living in a city for the past year and a half I’ve lost something I wasn’t cognizant of possessing. I’ve lost the ability to avoid seeing the pain that people in poverty endure. My suburban life was oblivious, in a way. It was generally free from the pain of witnessing fellow human beings who spend each day struggling for basic sustenance. It was free from seeing how poverty can change the posture of a person.
I’ve read a few tweets and quotes lately that urge us all to be tender with one another because we don’t know what those whom we come in contact with are facing in their lives. Wise and kind sentiments. In my suburban life I was very aware of the types of pain and the variety of struggles those around me were facing. Sickness, disappointment, strained relationships, addictions, death, divorce, wayward children and even loss of employment, were shared realities for many friends, family, acquaintances and neighbors.
However, chronic, hopeless, humbling, degrading, desperate poverty, were abstract conditions; only acknowledged by me with occasional donations to impersonal charities, or by volunteering to provide food for those in need, (chiefly during the weeks framed by Thanksgiving and Christmas), or by mechanically sending off a monthly check to the child we “sponsor”.
City life has thrown my abstract numbness onto cold concrete. During the past 24 years living in suburban California, no one ever approached me on the sidewalks asking for some change. I never experienced a request in an aisle of my grocery store for a couple dollars. Only once during those 24 years did someone beg for money in the parking lot of a shopping center. My comfort zone was protected. There were quite a number of people living below the poverty level in my town, but the desperation of poverty lived behind closed doors.
Tonight, a woman knocked on our door. My husband opened the door and was faced with a woman who removed her hat to show her bald head and tell her sad story of cancer and need and desperation for her children and willingness to work for a bit of help.
That brief encounter left us both deeply saddened by her pain and amazed by how different life presents itself here in this city. Not only are we regularly approached for a handout when we are out of our home, tonight we were asked in the sanctuary of our home.
We moved into this home just 2 weeks ago. We’ve been keenly aware of and grateful for the blessing of this home and the luxury of the improvements we’ve been able to make to it. This woman made me keenly aware of the insignificance of a ding on my cabinet made by the men who delivered my shiny new dishwasher today. It’s not shame I’m feeling; it’s perspective.
I ask myself, how do I cope emotionally and respond compassionately and effectively now that I’ve been forced to part with my oblivion? What will my attitude be toward those who choose to beg for money?
“To whom much is given, much is expected,” Luke 12:48. What is the much Jesus is asking of me? Earlier in this same chapter Jesus warns, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions”.
God’s Word makes it clear that I can cope and respond to the desperation and poverty around me, by being on my guard against my own greed. I can purpose to not spend my hours focused on my possessions. Also, the Bible gives a coping response that is life giving (to me and to the poor whom I encounter): joyful generosity. Generosity in possessions and in service. “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Corinthians 9:7 Again, …”life does not consist in abundance of possessions.”
City living can be exhilarating and it can be draining. Actually, that’s true whether you’re living in the country, suburbs, or city. That is true whether you are rich or poor. And it’s true that wherever God places you that, “whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” Proverbs 11:25b. We all have unique opportunities to refresh others.
And yes, there will be times like tonight that will leave me sad. But, the one who is poor in possessions is not always poor in spirit. During my time here, I’ve experienced gifts of encouragement and inspiration by some who don’t even have a place to live in. I have been refreshed by relationship with them. I also want to be one who refreshes.
As a city dweller, I’ve been given the privilege of being in a position to refresh both those who are poor in possessions and those who are poor in spirit. I can’t partake of that privilege behind a closed door or with a closed heart.