By Dan Crain
ATLANTA — I witnessed a recent conversation as a volunteer with an amazing heart to serve the homeless spoke with a vulnerable man living on the streets.
It all started when the volunteer, Betsy, overheard me talking with Chuck, who lives on the streets of Atlanta. Chuck told me that he wanted to move back to southern Georgia, to be near his son.
Betsy jumped into the conversation and encouraged Chuck that this is what he should do right now: move so he could live near his son. Chuck was somewhat taken aback by her comment, and replied that he didn’t have the money. Betsy’s solution: Chuck should move in with his son. She had no idea that his son is only 5 years old. Chuck then explained that the boy lives with his mother.
Betsy then encouraged Chuck to move in with his ex-wife. Only this wasn’t possible. Chuck, you see, had never been married to his son’s mother.
Betsy gave up and moved on.
Throughout the conversation, someone who also lives on the streets stood behind Betsy, smiling and shaking his head. I could tell by the look on his face that he knew Betsy didn’t understand.
There are many layers to this conversation to unpack. One is that Betsy was there. She showed up, wanting to help the homeless that day. This has to be celebrated, because she took time out of her busy life to be with the most vulnerable.
Another layer to peel back is Betsy failed to understand what was going on in Chuck’s life. She didn’t listen. Instead, she tried to solve Chuck’s problems for him. This is never a good idea. And after she realized that Chuck was not going to do what she deemed best for him, Betsy moved on. You could see the disappointment in her eyes, that Chuck’s reluctance to follow her advice confirmed her prejudices about street people.
What happened in this conversation occurs all too often in our own conversations. Too often we fail to listen, to empathize with what someone is going through. We try to solve a person’s problems the way we think problems should be handled. And if he or she doesn’t respond the way we want, we give up. We try to play God, and then we turn away in disappointment. Too often, we’re tempted to think: The world would be a better place if only everyone adopted my white, middle-class, Western way of thinking.
Trying to change someone is a tricky game. It rarely ever works.
Why do we talk to street people like we do? Many times we engage in conversations with them as if we’re doing so out of a sense of pity. How condescending! What if we spoke with the vulnerable as if we were speaking to one of our very best friends?
Maybe what Chuck really needed was someone to listen and empathize with him, someone who would care about what he’s going through. Does Chuck need a job and a house? Absolutely. But maybe that is not what God has in mind for Chuck at the moment.
Maybe the best question to ask is: What is Jesus calling Chuck to do? Such a question may reveal a very different answer than what we think Chuck needs to do. I have talked with people living on the streets who firmly believe that being homeless is exactly where God wants them to be for now.
Betsy was in no way going to change Chuck. We can’t change people. So what is Jesus calling us to do? Maybe to stand with, and for, the most vulnerable among us. Maybe just to listen.
Maybe if we really listened, we, ourselves, would realize who really needs to change.
Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.