Archive for January, 2012

A Conversation of Assumptions

January 20, 2012

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. 


Light Up The New Year!

January 2, 2012

By Bill Behr

The start of a New Year is exciting as fireworks light up the night in displays of celebration and hope. The dazzling colors and streaking shapes remind me of the spectacular fireworks I enjoyed as a kid on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve.

I grew up a stone’s throw away from what was then the Orlando Naval Training Center, the area now called Baldwin Park.  On New Year’s Eve and the Fourth, parked cars would line the length of General Rees Avenue, next to the base, in anticipation of fireworks. People would back in their cars so they could face the big, open graduation grounds of the base.  We lived close enough that we could have walked a few blocks for a good spot.  But my Dad had this big lunker Ford station wagon, and we would pile in it before he would drive 15 seconds to park.  The idea was that Dad let us crawl all over the station wagon, and some of my best friends would sit on top with me as we waited for the fireworks.

Dad insisted that we get there early, before dark, to secure the best spot, and our family wasn’t alone.  Everyone brought snacks and drinks, knowing we would have to wait.  As dusk slowly passed to darkness, our anticipation grew.  Even though we were strangers, we were parked so closely together that we felt a sense of community.  Conversations would jump from car to car, and invariably we would realize we were talking to neighbors from just around the corner, only we had never met them before.

Soon, someone would try to hush the conversations, saying,  “I think it is about to start!”  Everyone would scan the pitch-black horizon, but our young eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, and we could make out the crowd and almost see in the distance.  We knew exactly where on the horizon the fireworks would start (from previous years, just as we knew exactly where to watch when the Space Shuttle lifted off).  Sure enough, the first shot from the fireworks cannon would ring in our ears, and people along General Rees would hold their collective breath as our eyes followed the contrail to behold the first great burst of the beautiful fireworks! With every rocket that exploded, with its sparkling trail of sparks, the flash would briefly bathe all of the cars on General Rees and, for a split second, we would all be revealed in light.

This is a great time of the year to reflect on light.  As a Christian, I really enjoy reading the beginning of the Gospel of John and reading the beautiful poetry that describes Jesus Christ as the Light of the World.  “Through Him (Jesus) all things were made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:3-5 NIV).

This is an explanation of the world in which we live today.  It is not difficult to find darkness in the various cultures, words and politics that are part of our world today.  But Jesus said “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NIV).

This is the Good News! Put your troubles and faith in Jesus, and His Light will shine!

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.