The Struggle For Dignity | Operation Homeless Connect

I think that one of the things I notice the most when I read the Gospel accounts of Jesus is how concerned he was with the dignity of the individual.

From the first miracle at Cana, where he saved a family from social disgrace by coming up with wine where previously there had only been water, to the woman who had the hemorrhage and was unclean, to the numerous lepers he healed, it seems that many of his miracles are centered around helping individuals get and maintain dignity.

When Christ helped someone, he did it in such a way that not only alleviated their suffering but also allowed them to regain their sense of worth and maintain their dignity. Sadly, many of his followers show no such wisdom.

When we hand out food at soup kitchens, when we shovel food in the park and when we pass out coats and blankets to all who ask (and I have done all of those, do I am pointing the finger back at myself as well), we have to make sure we do not assume the air of superiority over those we are “helping”.

Last Thursday the City Of Raleigh participated in Project Homeless Connect, an all day event held in Moore’s Square, where representatives from all the services a homeless person might want were available. There was a table you could get photo ID, a place to get HIV testing, representatives from the housing authority, and so on. The idea was sound, but the execution showed just how far removed from the actual people and issues that surround the homeless the elected officials really are.

For example, Wake County Commissioner Lindy Brown welcomed us all there, whether we were “homeless, or law-abiding citizens.” What the heck is that? If you do not have your name on a lease somewhere you are not law abiding? Or you are not a citizen? You know, you would think that if anyone would be aware of the power of language and the need to watch what you say in public, it would be a female African-American politician.

The Mayor, the other Commissioners and the heads of The United Way and other organizations involved in “helping the homeless” were, of course, all on hand to have their picture taken with the homeless. Every one of them wore a suit. Now, would it have hurt to dress down that day? If you are going to spend all day wandering among the homeless, who most assuredly will not be wearing suits, perhaps it might be more respectful to dress down a bit. But if you did not wear a suit, you might (oh horror) be confused with one of the homeless. How would anyone know how important you are if you don’t wear your suit?

They paraded the two obligatory “success stories” in front of us, who were once like you, but now live “normal lives” according to Lindy Brown (thus calling the attendees abnormal). In particular, look at this paragraph:

Wake County Commissioner Lindy Brown will host the event and participate in the opening ceremony, planned for 10:30 a.m. She will be joined by Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, Phillip Mangano, Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, and two formerly homeless citizens.

Notice who did not get their name in print. Those two formerly homeless citizens have a name, but we were too busy making sure that Phillip Mangano got his 10-word title in print to worry about the four words that make up these two people’s names.

How about some more examples. In a story by the News and Observer, the reporter covering the event (Michael Biesecker, Eric Ferreri and Samuel Spies were all credited with the article) starts the story this way:

From under bridges, roadside camps, park benches, church basements, junked cars and the other makeshift places where the homeless sleep, hundreds came Thursday morning to three Triangle events aimed at getting them off the street.

One large rule in Journalism is to never stereotype. Just like you would never see an editor in the year 2007 let an article pass that referred to African Americans in a pejorative manner, this stereotyping should never have been allowed. Yes, some homeless do sleep under overpasses. However, some sleep in shelters, some sleep at the homes of friends, and yes, some sleep wherever they can grab a few uninterrupted minutes.

The examples I have shown (and there were many, many more) let us see just how far the Elected Officials of Raleigh still have to go in order to truly understand the plight of the Homeless.

Jesus and the “good news”.

I went to the state fair last night. While I was there, I saw some folks passing out tracts to people and in fact, my friend’s 12-year-old daughter was given one.

It was your standard sort of tract, with a smiley face on the front of it and the cover asked the rather upfront question: “do you want to be a Christian?”. If you thumbed through it, it had a selection of verses from Romans, telling you how we all deserve to die and unless we come to Jesus we will all suffer, but come to Jesus and everything will be great!

Now, I have no doubt that the people who were passing out these tracts thought they were doing a good thing. It was probably the only form of evangelism they knew about and felt comfortable doing (which in itself says volumes about the state of today’s institutional church, but I digress) so I am not going to pick on them, although handing a 12-year-old girl a pamphlet that tells her that God is not happy with her is probably not a good idea.

No, my problem is the idea that by coming to Jesus everything is wonderful and good. This is a common misconception and one that we followers of Jesus tend to perpetuate.

“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” another tract proclaims, as it claims to explain four spiritual laws to the reader. Now, that is true, as far as it goes, but it is a bit misleading.

You see, Jesus never called anyone to a life of happiness. In fact, he tells us so. Several different times, in fact.

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.

In the world, you’ll have trouble. But cheer up! I have overcome the world.

I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Everyone will hate you because you are committed to me.

If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.

That stuff never makes it to the tracts.

“When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

You see, Bonhoeffer knew the truth; that loving and following Jesus means not peace, but enmity with the way the world works.  Followers of Jesus are called to love, but it is active love, not passive love. It is love with work clothes on, Love that is dirty and street worn.

Jesus was no star eyed pie in the sky dreamer; he was a revolutionary, a true radical insurgent. Pilate and the Jews were right; he did intend to overthrow the government but instead of an army, he brought love. Instead of artillery, he brought dignity to the individual.

If you want a nice, easy life, following Jesus is probably not for you. Yes, he has a wonderful plan for your life, but he did for Bonhoeffer too, who was hung by the Nazis. He did for Mother Theresa too, who served the dying for over 30 years. He did for Stephen, who died by stoning, for Jim Elliot who was eaten by cannibals and for the thousands of others every year who literally die for him.

There is no halfway with this Jesus, either. He wants it all.

John Wesley on Money

“As to gold and silver, I count it dung and dross; I trample it under my feet; I esteem it just as the mire of the streets. I desire it not; I seek it not; I only fear lest any of it should cleave to me, and I should not be able to shake it off before my spirit returns to God. I will take care (God being my helper) that none of the accursed thing shall be found in my tents when the Lord calleth me hence.

Hear ye this, all you who have discovered the treasures which I am to leave behind me; if I leave behind me ten pounds—above my debts and my books, or what may happen to be due on account of them—you and all mankind bear witness against me, that I lived and died a thief and a robber.” (emphasis mine)

John Wesley was a leader for Reform in the Anglican church. After his death in 1791, those who followed him separated from the church of England and formed what is today known as the United Methodist Church.

More Jesusish?

Well, yes.

In other words, I want to be more like Jesus. I got fed up with the Christian Industrial Complex… I just want to be like him.

This is more than some hokey WWJD thing. I am serious. I think as a Christian, he should be my model, my ideal, my role model. I have decided to try to figure out what he would do if he were in my situation today.

If Jesus were alive and in my city today, what would he be doing?

Would he have a cell phone? Live in the suburbs? Go to church? Which one? What sort of job would he have? What would he do with his spare time? What would he spend money on?

Well, those are the sorts of questions I will ask here. I am no icon, no role model. I almost did not use my real name, because I do not want this to be about me. It is all about him, and for him.

I can’t tell you what he would do if he were you; you need to work on that yourself. All I can hope to do is, to the best of my knowledge, ask myself what Jesus would do if he were me, and then do it.