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Justin writes in:
I listened to your NYC podcast this afternoon and, as usual, I loved it. Maybe I haven’t behaviorally bought into your message, but I am certainly intellectually on board the ship you’re sailing.
There’s just one thing that is bothering me, and I wanted to see if maybe I can dupe you into doing a Q & R about it.
I am guilty of often viewing “the less fortunate” unconsciously and sometimes even consciously as “others” who are “in need,” and you have completely convinced me of the absurdity of that view. They are only “less fortunate” by some arbitrary standard that I have erected in my head—who’s to say that they are, by their own judgment, any better or worse off than I am?
The point is, we all need help.
So why minister to the homeless? Is it an arbitrarily selected group? Or is it that we perceive them to be greater victims or in greater need in some way? And if so, does that contradict the core message?
The main “need” that you seem to be ministering to is the need of friendship. So my question is, why not minister to the friendless instead?
Hope that’s clear. I look forward to your response.
Thanks for the question, Justin.
There are a number of reasons I work specifically with the homeless community. One reason, of course, is that they are in obvious need, and devoting my life and resources to help friendless accountants gives me no energy (or, as my Christian friends would say, I have no sense of call there).
But on a broader note, I see my work as having two audiences, or beneficiaries, if you will. The obvious one is the homeless community, who naturally benefits by my work. The less obvious is the larger population who are exposed to my work by the writing and speaking I do. In other words, people like yourself.
I tend to think an argument is proved by its extremes. Telling you meditation has helped housewives reduce stress in their life may be interesting, but hardly persuades most people that meditation is a viable stress reducer for the population at large. But telling you how the Buddhists in Alabama have helped death row inmates reduce stress by teaching them to meditate, you might be persuaded that meditation could help you, who has much less stress than they do.
In a similar vein, I don’t really think that because of my work, everyone will develop long term relationships with the extremely poor. But, just maybe, if people resonate with the examples I use, the stories I tell and so on, they may be inspired to view their Muslim co-worker, the gay security guard or the barista with multiple piercings as truly human, instead of as “something else”. And, because you see them as human, you develop a relationship, or are at least open to the idea of relationship. And then, the world changes.
I guess, to put it another way, I come to the world with a certain philosophy (which is probably best described as engaged Christianity, or at least engaged theism). And because I hold this view, I look to practice it, yes, but also to practice it in such a way as to demonstrate its merit. And its merit is best demonstrated by the most extreme case scenario. This philosophy “works” for co-workers and geographic neighbors, yes, but if I write a blog post about how I got to know my next door neighbor, and we developed a relationship and as a result his dog no longer craps in my yard, I doubt anyone would think it remarkable (even if it is true, which it is). So I prove its efficacy by using it in the extremes.
So, I work with the homeless community because I feel calling and energy there. But also because, if I can learn to love the smelly, dirty guy who smells of urine and come to see his value and learn his story and enter into a relationship based on mutuality, then maybe, just maybe, you will decide that you can try to do the same with the annoying guy who hogs the copy machine at work. And wouldn’t that make the world, or at least your workplace, better?