There was much talk on Facebook those days, about the boots that the police officer gave to a guy who was sitting shoeless on the streets of NYC. The officer saw him and reacted out of compassion and bought him warm socks and boots.
And someone took a picture as it happened and posted it on Facebook and we love the fact that he did this and so we all, millions of us, me included, we shared that picture of compassion.
And someone thought it would be great to follow up and find the guy-who-got-the-boots, and they found him and he wasn't homeless and he was barefoot again. He didn't have the boots. It turns out, also, another women came forward and she had given the guy-who-got-the-boots shoes, too, a few weeks earlier.
And so we started blaming poor people and homeless people and alcoholics and people with mental illness, we, those of us who have enough, we were hurt by this story. I'm not poking fun here, honestly, I personally was hurt to imagine that the guy didn't appreciate the gift. It felt like a scam. It made my heart hurt.
How on earth can we change the world if it goes like this: we see a problem and we figure a solution, and we pour out our compassion, and then it turns out that that solution wasn't the right one?
All this happens and I come home from being on the streets, and I'm upset that Sam got sick and had his hours reduced, and so now he is homeless. Every time I talk to him he wants to talk about how to get his brother to let him see his grandmother. I want to talk to him about how to get housing, but what bothers him, in 24 degree weather, what bothers him is that his brother won't listen. “How can I get him to understand” Sam asks me. And I listen to him.
And I'm upset about Jack who sleeps in the woods near Institute Park. Jack waits until after 2am, so the police won't wake him, and he is not worried about finding housing. He is worried about his next appointment with the pain specialist. Because two years ago he had leg surgery and they did something wrong and now it hurts all the time, and he's been clean from drugs for five years, but as an addict he can't take most drugs for pain so they are going to give him a cortisone shot but they can't do that for two more weeks. I want to talk to him about moving inside while he waits, but he won't talk about that, he will only talk about whether cortisone will work, and why can't he get an earlier appointment.
And so I'm hurt by the fact that Sam won't let me help him to get housing, and I'm hurt that Jack won't go inside, and I'm hurt by this damn not-homeless-guy in New York and I come into my house and I sit down on my lovely couch, where there is this quilt.
This quilt was made by Mary Jane Eaton, one of the founders of Worcester Fellowship. When I asked her about the colors, because really, not everyone puts purple and orange together in a quilt, and she said simply, well, “Liz, God is orange”.
And yet it’s true, the quilt exudes God. It exudes God not because of its calming, homogenous, single color charm. It exudes God because it emphasizes difference. The purple and the orange, so different from each other, trying to hang out together, expressing God together.
I think the trick to expressing God is the differences. It is the way we notice that we aren't all the same. The way we trust that our differences are a good thing. You've got to love the fact that we, human beings, are completely different from each other.
So different, that we can't know what another person needs without talking to them. Without asking them. Without spending time finding out what is happening in their life, and in their week, and in their day, and in this very minute. We can't just declare "people need this" and have that turn out to be the right answer. We can’t see a guy with bare feet and know that what he needs is shoes.
I know that I am uncomfortable with recognizing difference in that way. For me, when it’s cold and you have bare feet, boots sure seem like the answer, and naked hands and heads need gloves and hats. The solution to hot days is water and juice boxes. I want to stick with what I know, what I feel, what I would want.
To find out what someone else wants I have to stop and listen before I provide boots, hats, water, juice. Yes, in fact, I have to listen before I know if a person without a house is looking to get one. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes closing my mouth and listening.
Shared Ministry starts with listening. Trusting people to know their own needs. Trusting God that if we help people in the ways they say they want help, perhaps later they’ll help us by wanting shoes, or hats, or houses.
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For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.