Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Prayer of Francis of Assisi

What if we all lived this out? The world would be a different place.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Check Yourself

I can recall numerous times on our journey when someone would strike up a conversation with me between church services, or at prayer meetings. It would usually start off with something along the lines of "So why do you serve the homeless?" I could usually sense some sort of agenda in the question, something that wanted to be said. There was a slice of antagonism in their voice, a dash of cynicism about the validity of serving the poor. My response spoke directly to the fact that Christ called us to, and that personally I try to see Jesus in each and every person I meet (Matthew 25:40). That usually wasn't enough, the conversation would awkwardly make a right turn and the typical generalization would be thrown out - "many of them are there because they want to be." Then the commonly heard story about the guy who makes $40,000 a year while begging for change. At the end of each day he walks around the corner to his Lexus and drives home to his $300,000 home. Usually my antagonist has either personally seen this guy get into his Lexus or he read a factual article about this specific guy. This justification for not helping the poor is rampant.

This attitude didn't end when we returned to Oregon, it is a commonly held belief (for one reason or another) amongst people, even those who profess to be Christians - the poor choose to be, if they really wanted out of poverty they could do it themselves. The thought that possibly there are institutional forces that perpetuate poverty amongst different groups is an impossibility . . . . for a white, middle-class and educated individual.

If some catastrophic event occurred to my family and I right now, would we become homeless? Ask yourself that question. No, seriouosly, right now, stop and ask yourself that question. My answer is an emphatic "NO!" Why? Because I have a middle-class safety net, I have friends and family who love us and would refuse to allow us to live on the streets. We have people in our lives who would loan us money, would bring us food, and big enough houses to give us a roof over our heads. Do the poor know people like that? Usually not, they know other folks who are impoverished, other people who are struggling to put food on the table, other folks that if asked to give help would not be able to.

Blaming the victim is a real easy way for us to abdicate our God given responsibility to love on the poor. Jesus did not say "the poor will always be with us . . . so you really don't need to love them and care for them, just blame them for their circumstances."

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast back in 2005 many in the media began to demonize the poor - why couldn't they get out? Why wouldn't they want to leave? Rush Limbaugh was quoted as saying on his radio show: "Why can't they [the poor] afford cars?" This is a legitimate question when you have surrounded yourself with such wealth that you don't know anyone who makes less than $30,000 a year. Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly generalized the hurricane victims as drug abusers: "Many, many, many of the poor in New Orleans. . . weren't going to leave no matter what you did. They were drug-addicted. They weren't going to get turned off from their source. They were thugs."

This attitude is so prevalent in our society that it is basically commonplace. Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote, "The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- with its pathetic images of desperately poor people, mostly black people, stuck in New Orleans without food, water or adequate shelter after all the affluent people had fled -- should come as no surprise. This is a natural consequence of a political and social culture that has decreed: You're poor? Why would you want to be poor? Tough luck. You're on your own."

In our economic system (capitalism) this type of political and social culture is almost understandable (as well as detestable) if for not one thing -- many of these same folks who hold this attitude also call themselves followers of Jesus. People are much more inclined to pay $3.79 and put a Jesus fish on their bumper, or buy a WWJD? bracelet to show that they are good people rather than answer the actual question - What would Jesus do? Would He ignore the poor and justify it to Himself by claiming that they are all drug users and got in their situation by the poor choices they made? Would he put a Jesus fish on his bumper as he avoids eyecontact with the homeless mother at the freeway off-ramp? You and I are surrounded by so many images and rhetoric in our affluent and comfortable lifestyles that we feel completely justified in ignoring the poor. If we do this, we run a significant risk of looking almost identical to the Pharisees that Jesus came to challenge and discredit.