Seeing the invisible among us…

Sandra, sitting on the Michigan Avenue Bridge, Saturday afternoon

Luke 7:13…

When the Lord saw her, his heart overflowed with compassion. “Don’t cry!” he said

2 Kings 6:13-17…

“Go, find out where he is,” the king ordered, “so I can send men and capture him.” The report came back: “He is in Dothan.” Then he sent horses and chariots and a strong force there. They went by night and surrounded the city.

When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” the servant asked.

“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

And Elisha prayed, “O LORD, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

Megan Cottrell in The one simple lesson we haven’t learned with the homeless:

We’ve all done it.

Walked by the man with the sign and the cup half full of change. Ignored the lady sleeping on the sidewalk. Crossed to the other side of the street to avoid the person asking for money or food.

I don’t know why I do it. I just do.

In college, I spent some time working at a shelter in Marietta, Georgia. I met a man there – I don’t remember his name – who said the worst part about being homeless was feeling like you didn’t even exist anymore. So many people walked by you on the street like you weren’t there that it began to feel as if you actually weren’t.

Homeless man holding up sign

Megan Cottrell in Making the invisible visible:

It’s hard to know what to do, we both thought. Do you help people individually? I wanted to get Sandra a ticket home, Reggie a warm place to stay and AnnMarie the help she wants and needs.

But helping one person doesn’t seem like enough. There are a million homeless people sleeping on America’s streets tonight. Do you give money or help to one – to try and reach one human being because every person is deserving of dignity? Or should we be giving money to places that can help more, that can even change the societal structures which push people into homelessness?

Mark calls them “invisible people” because so often, they lurk unnoticed on the edges of society. We walk by them on the street, not seeing them or too busy or uncomfortable to stop. Do we give money? Do we buy them a sandwich? We don’t know, and so we pretend we don’t see them because there’s no easy answer.

We distance ourselves mentally, too. The homeless are drug addicts. The mentally-ill. Not us. Not like us. They’re homeless because they want to be, many say. They’re too lazy to do anything but ask for spare change. Not like us. It couldn’t happen to us.

Sitting next to AnnMarie, Doris Day kept singing in my brain.

“I asked my mother what would I be? Will I be pretty? Will I be rich? Here’s what she said to me….”

It didn’t sound so sweet this time. Whatever will be will be? What kind of answer is that? Here I was, sitting next to someone who felt so like me. And Sandra, and Reggie. They felt like me too. Why was I the one asking the questions while they asked for change?

It seems so cruel. AnnMarie and I were both little girls long ago, wondering what we would grow up to be. Did she ever imagine she would be sleeping in an empty lot, depending on the kindness of strangers?

Doris Day has no answers and neither does her mother. Neither do I.

Begging for change: Acts 3:1-10…

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.

Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. When all the people saw him walking and praising God,they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Luke 7:13-15…

When the Lord saw her, his heart overflowed with compassion. “Don’t cry!” he said.Then he walked over to the coffin and touched it, and the bearers stopped. “Young man,” he said, “I tell you, get up.”Then the dead boy sat up and began to talk! And Jesus gave him back to his mother.

Think about it:

How do you view the homeless?

  • People to be avoided…
  • A political issue…
  • A problem to be solved…
  • A project to accomplish…
  • A person to respect and acknowledge…

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6 thoughts on “Seeing the invisible among us…

  1. Great story, Alan.

    I wonder how many lives were changed among your youth that week?

    I'm convinced that the Holy Spirit is pouring out love and compassion in our hearts and desperately wants us to let loose of it. I'm so glad those kids got to experience it.

    I've been pondering how I can help my own kids see the invisible people around them…

  2. Jesus left a pretty clear mandate that we are supposed to be about but feeding, clothing and sheltering, and familiarity is the key to being comfortable with it. Chuck, remember the freshman beanies at OBU? You might not have known anyone in the cafeteria, but if someone was wearing a beanie, there was instant comfort in sharing a table.
    When Megan talks about feeling like the homeless are "others", that is the normal human condition. (I tell the following story often so bear with me if I’m repeating myself.) I remember hearing someone who played a chimp in “Planet of the Apes” say that a most remarkable thing happened during filming. Regardless of race, creed, gender or social status, the people who played chimps sat with chimps, gorillas ate with gorillas, orangutans chatted with orangutans, and so forth. There were even hierarchies with certain species achieving more status than others. As humans we feel comfort in sameness, in our “tribes,” and that is why it is so vital to force ourselves to hear the stories of the homeless: to think "There but for the grace of God go I," instead of "I would never let myself get into that position," and to think of them as part of our own tribe.
    Our church runs a food pantry every Tuesday and Thursday and a dinner for the poor every other Tuesday. Our youth serve at the dinners on a rotating basis. Even though he can't do it often because he has school conflicts, my son's favorite part of serving is listening to the people's stories. A couple of years ago he went on a mission trip to Canada to work in an inner city mission with the homeless. Then 13, he went with a mentor and learned what it meant to live on $2.00 a day and try to find shelter (later in the evening, they slept in a church, but they still had to try). They learned that children alone are in the worst shape; no shelters will take unaccompanied minors. The experience is still very vivid to him and his comfort level with the homeless is much improved
    Perhaps seeing the homeless is best learned, like most things, at an early age. And if we don’t do it, then what are we really about?

  3. Thanks, Brenda. That's very powerful.

    We're blessed to be members of a church which takes this responsibility/opportunity seriously. Our campus is located smack dab in the middle of subsidized housing, with poor, working poor, and refugees. Our help for them is mostly family-to-family or small groups helping out. But we partner with existing ministries to strengthen their outreach and multiply their resources. I have been able, as time allows, to help a little bit (bringing my 17-year-old daughter along), but some of our people treat this stuff almost like a full-time job–on top of their full-time jobs. I think something really amazing is happening and a lot of Christ-followers are getting left out…

    Something wild happened today. Carol and I had been making plans to prepare a hot meal and take it to a guy who lives under a bridge next to the freeway near where we live. Today the guy showed up at my store and bought a prepaid cell phone. He actually has money, from a government pension, just no place to stay. However, during the next few days he'll be moving into a rent-subsidized apartment. It was fascinating talking to him. Hope he comes back by.

  4. years ago I spent some time Christmas day with some guys I’d met earlier in the month who lived under a bridge. We shared a Christmas meal of food left near a bread company’s dumpster. Mrs. Bairds folks knew people went through their dumpster for food, so left some outside the dumpster. We are the past-due doughnuts that were a little stale, but freshly wrapped.

    It was a lesson in how other folks lived. People I hadn’t met, and had a few preconceived notions about. The homeless can’t be put in a box. Many have emotional issues, and should be under medical care. Others have lived a life of irresponsibility, and are paying the price. For some, this is a very temporary state, and one they hope to never see again.

    It’s amazing to have an in-depth conversation with a homeless person about a sophisticated computer graphics program.

    And then there is the crowd who “need money” for a “flat tire”, “baby medicine”, “electricity payment”, “food”, etc. Simple solution is to offer them anything but money. I’ve bought many a meal for a street person. I’ve also seen the meal tossed to the road, or a subsequent petition for money.

    Matthew 25 is pretty clear about helping the hungry. It says to feed the hungry, not give money to those who say they are hungry. A drink of water, a visit to a person in a hospital, etc. Faith in action. A living faith.

    If I err, I want it to be on the side of grace.

    • Thanks, Rick. I have a lot to learn about this and some other social/economic challenges.

      As I said last night on Facebook, this was a post from a couple of years ago. I realized re-reading it that it’s only part of the answer to a social challenge that I think needs our involvement.

      It also tests the thesis I’ve adopted that seeing things (in this case, the homeless) close-up gives us a better chance of agreeing on solutions.

      Does it really? One of the links in the post goes to the article which originally moved me to write this post (Can’t remember how I came across the link originally). If you check the comments, at first glance there seems to be some disagreement on how to help these people.

      Here’s the link:
      http://trueslant.com/megancottrell/2009/09/21/making-the-invisible-visible/

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