Every day that I go to work, I have to drive to what I call the “badlands” of the city. I start out in Old City, which is quite lovely. I could live there, I really could. But I must wind through the city streets, maneuvering my way through several neighborhoods, each showing worse signs of years of poverty.
My office is in one of the worst, crime-ridden sections of the city. Trash is everywhere, graffiti covers crumbling buildings, all of which housed factories and jobs a few generations ago. There are shootings nightly in this area of the city I must travel, and, as I navigate my way to other offices for meetings, I am amazed at the drug deals & prostitution deals that are going down on almost every corner in broad day light.
I’m getting used to it. I pray each day for divine protection, and believe God will provide it. It is what it is. But, there is one thing I have not been able to get used to.
As soon as I cross the bridge into the city, I come face-to-face with a side of life that most here where I live in suburbia choose not to acknowledge: the street-livers. Yes, those that live on the streets, literally. As I sit at a red light each morning, I am only feet away from a man who lives under a bridge. He is there in all weather. He has his clothes, his boxes, his blankets, all in a neat pile, and that is his home. He wears multiple layers of tattered clothing, no matter what the temperature. I noticed when the weather turned cold that he had more blankets, and more layers. He’s usually still huddled under his blankets when I stop there in the mornings—it is early, before 7:00 a.m. Sometimes he is awake, strolling down the middle of the street between the cars, holding up a tattered cardboard sign asking for money. Directly across the street is a shelter: a place where he can go and have a meal and a warm bed. He doesn’t go there. Instead, he stays on the street. He is unlovely: not one that we would run up to and throw our arms around and invite him to come and sup with us.
Every day I see people who are intellectually and developmentally challenged. They have various physical problems as well. Some act-out violently, with no one really understanding why.
I see alcoholics and drug addicts who have lost everything to their addictions: their families, their friends, their jobs, their homes. Still, they find a way to feed the very thing that has caused ruin to them and all around them.
I see people who are annoying, and dirty and crass.
I see teenagers who are so morbidly obese they can barely breathe. I see other teens and young people who are not “pretty”, suffering from acne, suffering even more from poverty that most of us can’t even imagine. They walk with their heads down, hoping no one will notice them. They know that if they are noticed, they will hear the snickers, the insults. The sneers that don’t sting like fiery darts. Fiery darts will eventually snuff out. No, these taunts will land like a branding iron, to leave a mark that will never, ever go away.
We call that “bullying” now, and noble efforts are being made to educate our young people so they will no longer do it. Putting a label on it doesn’t make the pain any less searing for the one who has become the object of others’ taunts. It will probably take at least a generation before we can see the impact of that teaching; it takes time to “un-condition” ourselves, our children. It takes time. And the un-lovely ones hurt, trying to become invisible.
I am so glad there are programs and ministries that reach out to help in any way they can. Social programs arise from the inherent goodness of mankind to help those that need a hand. Ministries arise from our call from God to do our reasonable service to show the love of God to all. Our school administrators, teachers and counselors have risen to the challenge to put an end to it. The desire and call to educate ourselves and our children about how NOT to act is overwhelming, and every sector of society that I know of is actively working on it and implementing their plans.
Yet, everyday, we hear of bullying in schools, cheerleading camps, youth groups. Every day and every night there are shootings in the “badlands” of our cities and communities, and there are young people committing suicide because they just can’t get away from the resounding echo in their heads of the taunts thrown at them daily. The taunts that are becoming meaner and more threatening than ever. Every day. Every night. The evil seems to be rising faster than the good.
At this point the regular readers of this blog are expecting me to give a sermonette on what a good Christian should be doing, citing all of the applicable Bible verses. But I’m not going to this time. This time I am addressing society at large: what can we do about this?
I don’t presume to be an expert. I am just stating my opinions and observations. Yes, we absolutely need to keep the programs going. Accept the un-lovelies into our churches and groups. And then, we need to love them. That, in my opinion, is what seems to be the missing link in all of the educational programs: love. While the people designing and running the programs and the preachers and social workers and analysts try to figure out why everyone is so darn mean to the un-lovelies, the rest of us should just be showing them some love.
I have been making a conscious effort to say something encouraging to the unlovely one that comes into my path, to let them know in some way that they are a person of value. I am trying to look beyond what everyone (including myself) sees as their problem, and just treat them with dignity and respect. There is a guy who comes into our office about once a week. He has a lot of challenges, physical and behavioral, and he is always dirty and smelly and unkempt. He talks to everyone, and everyone is very polite and greets him, but one day I noticed that no one really takes the time to engage him in conversation. So, when he came to greet me, I asked him his name and asked him what he was doing that day. I told him that his blue shirt looked nice on him. He was so excited that someone was actually speaking to him, that it was palpable. Now when he comes into the office, he still greets everyone he sees, but when he stops at my desk, he is always anxious to tell me what he is going to do that day. I am trying to always call him by name and listen to what he is trying to tell me, even if he isn’t making any sense. It seems to make his day.
I wonder if, when the pan-handlers approach cars stopped at a red light, the drivers no longer look straight ahead and ignore them. Instead I wonder how things might change if the drivers roll down their windows and give them a buck and say something like “looking good today” or “I hope you’re staying warm”.
I decided today to buy some gloves and hats at the dollar store and keep them in my car, so when I come across someone on the streets I can give them a dollar and maybe something else they may need. When I encounter the bridge-liver, I want to give him a hat and gloves and say to him: “I thought of you when I saw these gloves and picked them up for you”. I wonder if anyone has ever told that man that they thought of him and acted on the thought. I wonder if it has ever occurred to anyone who gives him something to also dish up a little respect with it and make him feel that someone thinks of him and notices his need.
I guess this is my challenge in this blog entry: instead of just telling people what not to do, why don’t we tell them what to do instead? Why don’t we focus on the ones who aren’t being mean, and tell them to tell the girl who isn’t pretty that she looks good today—and mean it. Wouldn’t it be great of the un-lovelies among us started to hear so many encouraging greetings, that the jeers and taunts no longer resound in their mind, hearts and spirits. Wouldn’t it be great if the encouraging voice is the one that begins to stand out, and changes the un-pretty one’s thoughts from suicide to hope? Maybe the man who lives under the bridge will stay there forever. But maybe, just maybe, if he knows that he is looked upon as a human being of worth, he will walk across the street and into the shelter. One step at a time.
Love. Isn’t that what we have been called to do? It’s time that every person knows, there is no such thing as “un-lovely”.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1John 4:7-8 (NIV)