"Why are you poor?" It isn't a question we tend ever ask of a beggar or homeless person we meet on the street. Often we ignore them or tell them we can't help, or at best give them a few dollars with the least amount of interaction as possible. We as the church in America have a problem with "loving our neighbor." "But I give money to the homeless," you reply. "I even give to charities and collect canned food!" That is what the majority of the church seems to do today. Why? Because it is easy. It is easy to give out of our abundance. But what about this word "love" in the commandment "love your neighbor?" It isn't love to just give something to someone. Love is built through relationships. Love engages. Love asks questions. If one of your best friends was in need, wouldn't you talk to them? "How did this happen? What can I do to help?"
In the book Poor People the author, William T. Vollmann, poses a question to those living in poverty around the world: "Why are you poor?" We need to listen to their specific stories and only then will we be in the best position to help. I'm sure we've all heard the phrase "Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." But what if we're not listening to the poor when they try to tell us they can't fish because the river is polluted and the fish are dead, or they can't afford the government fishing license?
Just after I had read The Irresistible Revolution, I had an encounter with a man while walking down Tryon St. in downtown Charlotte, in front of Ruth Chris' Steakhouse. "Uh, excuse me mister, do you know where a soup kitchen is? I'm trying to get something to eat." My first reaction was one of sadness, because at the time I didn't even know where any soup kitchens or homeless shelters were in the city. In the past, I would have just said I'm sorry and given him a few dollars. Instead, I decided to engage him. "I don't know, sir, but I do know a sandwich shop on the next block we can go to." His reaction was more of surprise than anything else. As we went to get some subs, my unexpected response had spurred him to talk open and candidly. His name was Clarence and he had been to several churches that day but was told they couldn't help him. He had finally gotten a job in hopes of getting off the street, and he would be cleaning office building late at night off of Independence Blvd. Clarence's main concern was getting to work. "I don't know if I'll have bus fare every day to get to work." I then offered to go with him to the terminal and get him a bus pass. By meeting very specific needs, we remove any temptation the poor have to spend money on a temporary comfort like alcohol. Clarence was very grateful, and never actually had asked me for anything, other than prayer. "It's a struggle to keep yourself off the streets. Will you please be praying for me?" I told him I would, and then we parted ways.
I feel like I've made an investment in the future of my city, albeit small. And more importantly, I feel like I've made a connection with Clarence, and I hope someday I have the opportunity to run into him again. This is where "love" starts to replace "giving;" when we try to connect with somebody. But that is what makes it so hard for Christians to actually do, because it forces us to get out of our comfort zone on a daily basis. Honestly, it can be hard. I have to admit, I actually had the though cross my mind "I wonder if people are staring at me eating with this guy." I hope we Christians will have the courage to start getting out of our comfort zones more and more and start to truly "love our neighbors" by making relationships with them, and listening to them. As Shane Claiborne says in The Irresistible Revolution,
"When people begin moving beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they get in trouble. Once we are actually friends with the folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to the charity. One of my friends has a shirt marked with the words of late Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara: "When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist." Charity wins awards and applause, but joining the poor gets you killed. People do not get crucified for charity. People are crucified for living out a love that disrupts the social order, that calls forth a new world. People are crucified for helping the poor. People are crucified for joining them."