I learnt their stories, their struggles, their courage, triumphs and resiliency, their addictions, their sense of humour, their fears and dreams. I received the honour of their friendship. I saw many of them every day, week after week, sometimes year after year. It was in that place that I learnt what it is like to walk with others very different walk, and that the 'homeless' are often not so different from the averaged 'homed' person. Most importantly, I experienced that God was with the poor. And often shines brightest in dark places.
During this time I was also part of a middle class Spirit-filled Anglican Church in the down-town core. Like most big cities, many people end up being pushed away from the inner-city to the where they can afford homes. So our church had many commuting families from the suburbs, and young college aged renters in the city. Often I'd bring the young people from Evergreen to Church, often where they would feel like fish out of water. I was grateful for parishioners who made efforts in talking to them. But unfortunately 'inclusion' is rare, and they would feel like the 'other', the ones who are 'needy' or who need to be 'fixed', who do not belong.
I could sense attitudes of 'otherness' in church meetings when they were discussing putting up affordable housing in one of our Church properties. Many had pained faces thinking about the money that would be involved, and types of dynamics that would have to be faced. I would be the first person to say that working with the poor is messy. There are some incredible theologians, inner-city community workers, and those involved with justice issues who have expert experiential advice to give; on what it means to empower, give ownership, make and be community, think about sustainability, dignity, business and education opportunities in how one help the poor or facilitate 'community services'.
I wanted to scream
But I could not help but want to scream out in the midst of these church discussions, "The Poor are a Blessing not a Curse!". I wanted to share the gold I learnt while accepting my invitation from God to love the poor.
God is not afraid of weakness, and vulnerability and its often in these places that we find Him. Where He extravagantly displays His heart and His Glory. It is what David spoke of when he expressed "A broken and a contrite heart you, God, will not despise" (Psalm 51 verse 17), its the reason Jesus took children into his arms explaining to the others, "Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10 verses 13-16), and why Paul would declare that God's "Power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12 verse 9).
There is a gift in vulnerability. It is the playing field for relationship with the Divine. He is the giver, we are the receivers.
The poor do not need to be reminded of their vulnerability, because they are. The needy do not have to be reminded that they are in need, because they are desperate. The addicted do not need reminded that they need help, it is obvious. It is the rich, just like the Laodecians we find in Revelations, who need reminding that they are in fact "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked" (Revelations 3 verse 17). And that the Living Lord desperately wants to, "Counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see" (Revelations 3 verse 18).
I expect that Jesus said the 'poor will always be with you' because the Church is for the desperate, the sick and those who know they need a doctor. He declares a promise in what we know as the beatitudes, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5 verse 3). Heidi Baker emphasises that 'Love' looks like something, its a verb, it is made to be experienced, to be given, to join into, to be made manifest, "I don't know what love is unless it looks like something." That promise was made manifest in Jesus Christ. What a mystery vulnerability and God's involvement is in all our lives, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him, shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3 verse 16). Eternal life giving love that is meant to be known now, partaken through you and I.
I think this was one of my greatest gifts when working with the poor. As I entered into messy, self-sacrificing love, I met God as we cried out together for help. Or when I became a vessel for His love to be made manifest in someone else's life. More than I could ever express in this little article, I saw God do daily beautiful, detailed and personal miracles all around me. His Love shines bright in the darkness. And often I was surprised of the faith I would find on the streets of those who were not thriving in 'society'. Many had greater faith than me.
I remember one day in Toronto asking God to encourage me in faith. I was really struggling and had learnt that if I asked God, He would often graciously send specific help my way. Later in the day, I was on the door at Evergreen, being the bouncer for the hour when a very drunken Irishman came up to me asking, "you guys are Christians right?". I said "Yes". And he went on to say, "Then you can pray for me" (while grinning ear to ear). He took my left hand and put it on his shoulder, and then took my right hand and put it in the air. "Pray for me!", he said. So I did as he asked, right there, spontaneously in front of everyone. As soon as I was finished, he exclaimed, "Now I will pray for you".
Surprisingly, the day I asked for encouragement, this drunken Irishman, prayed over me the verse I was given at my Baptism and had adopted for my life, Proverbs 3 verses 5-6, "Trust the Lord with all of your heart, and lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight". He then started praying exactly into the area that I was asking God about. Straight and to the point, afterwards I said thank you, and before I could blink he was off down the street. I was left with my gift. God meets those who come to Him like children.
I could include so many other stories like this. Some entirely more outrageous and specific. But I have to finish up this article now. I want to share with all those who fear all the complications involved with loving 'the poor'; 'fixing them', and all the monetary investments, that these are not the only point. There is a blessing any time we enter each others vulnerabilities and ask God for help.
Often He invades our stories with the most brilliant and special overtones. He loves to re-write His Story of extravagant love over and over again in all of our lives. I know I cannot ever get bored of hearing, and knowing, and seeing, and experiencing these. It overwhelms me, and makes me feel like Paul who can boast in weaknesses knowing God if faithful to come in His special ways. Often beyond our expectation or imagination.
I dare to say that "the poor' are our gift in a Western age of individualism, and wealth that can rob us of the value of vulnerability, and becoming like children who receive from our good Father. As those who are wealthy, we get to share out of our blessings,
and experience partaking His love made manifest. We get to hear stories that will encourage our faith. We will learn to be ok with our weaknesses, and learn to lean on God's strength. The poor are our blessing, not a curse, because we get to see together God tell His story in our lives all over again.
FYI: here are some good introductory material on working with the poor.
For Theirs is the Kingdom (Robert D. Lupton).
Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor (Robert D. Lupton).
Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Shane Claiborn).
God in the Alley: Being and Seeing Jesus in a Broken World (Greg Paul).
The Twenty Piece Shuffle: Why the Poor and Rich Need Each Other (Greg Paul).
Bent Hope: A Street Journal (Michael Frost, Tim Huff and Steve Bell).
The Cardboard Shack Beneath the Bridge (Tim Huff).
Andrea Earl is a Canadian resident of NZ. Her first Diploma was through NZ's Capernwray Bible School, followed by a BA at Providence College whilst working with Winnipeg's marginalized poor. After she moved to Toronto to work with Street Youth (featuring the arts), she furthered her education through St Stephen's Master's of Min. After working in Mozambique with Iris Ministries, she returned to NZ and enjoys surf, food, community, and discovering God.
Andrea Earl's previous articles may be viewed www.pressserviceinternational.org/andrea-earl.html