Pursuing a Life That Matters
by Dave Donaldson and Terry Glaspey
Most of what you are about to read I have learned from growing up poor and then learning from the poorest of the poor. Millions of adults and children alike are without adequate food, clean water, housing and shelter, and without much of a future. The needs are vast, and they are urgent. There has never been a time in history where it is so easy for the church to help so many. Are we determined to take advantage of this moment in time to make a difference?
AMERICA’S HIDDEN OUTCASTS
“Do you know my name?” he asked as he stood before me with a weather-beaten face, matted hair, a toothless grin, and a smell that attacked all my senses.
Moments earlier I had challenged others through a sermon to look for opportunities to reach out to the untouchables. A light chorus of “Amen” followed my challenge from the pulpit. After passing the microphone to the host pastor, I stationed myself at the doors of the foyer to greet people as they left. In my haste, I rushed right past a little cluster of homeless men who had come in off the street to get a preservice meal.
The restroom door suddenly opened behind me, and a homeless man shuffled out into the foyer. He looked ragged and dirty. His body odor cast an unwelcome cloud. I glanced in his direction and then back toward the front of the church hoping to escape his approach.
“Do you know my name?”
I turned again, wondering to whom he was speaking. When our eyes met, I saw that he was talking to me. He approached me and repeated his question. With searching eyes I replied, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name.”
“My name is Joe,” he said.
“Hi, Joe, my name is Dave. Nice to meet you.” I hoped that would end our exchange and aid my retreat.
“You probably think I only come here to get food, don’t you?” Before I could respond he continued, “Dave, I am grateful for the food, but I come here for only one reason.” His eyes now filling with tears, he said, “I want someone to remember my name.”
Are we willing to admit that people like Joe are less than fully human figures we avoid as we go to the office, school, or church? Jesus never made that mistake. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus spoke of helping those without food, water, clothing, and shelter. He said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
To Jesus, poverty was personal and relational. Perhaps that is why we feel closest to Jesus when we are with the poor. To Jesus, poverty always had a name and a face.
The Expendable Elderly
The way we quarantine some of the poor in America is tragic. Today, the most populous but hidden outcasts are the elderly and homeless.
The elderly are most often neglected, abandoned, and left to die alone. Currently, 3.5 million Americans age 65 and older live below the poverty line.1 They once served and waited on us, but now many are shut-ins, stowed away in nursing homes and seldom visited by their loved ones. Often unforeseen expense quickly erases their life savings.
Our society sometimes seems to operate on the proposition that if you are not of value to me, then you are expendable. Until we begin to appreciate the legacy a previous generation has left to us and accept responsibility to make sure its members receive good care and are treated with dignity, we have failed. The good news for the elderly is that there are effective models of hope for them in both church-based and for-profit sectors.
The Forgotten Families
When you hear the word homeless, what picture comes into your mind? If you are like most people, you probably imagine someone like Joe, a scruffy bearded man who smells bad and stands on the street corner with a sign. Or maybe you think of a young drug addict who sleeps curled up on a park bench and shoplifts to feed his habit. Or perhaps it is a middle-aged woman with a wild and frightening look in her eyes that mutters nonsense and occasionally yells obscenities at passers-by.
We think of the homeless in this way because this is the segment of the homeless population that is most visible and most unavoidable as we go about our daily activities. But the largely hidden segment of the homeless population is made up of families. The shocking truth is that families with young children account for 41 percent of the nation’s homeless.2 This is a 23 percent increase from 2007.
“A majority of the homeless counted were in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs, but nearly four in 10 were unsheltered, living on the streets, or in cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not intended for human habitation. The unsheltered population increased by 2 percent from 239,759 in 2009 to 243,701 in 2011, the only subpopulation to increase.”3
The “doubled up” population (people who live with friends, family, or other nonrelatives for economic reasons) increased by 13 percent from 6 million in 2009 to 6.8 million in 2010. The doubled up population increased by more than 50 percent from 2005 to 2010.4
These families are largely hidden out of sight. They don’t draw much attention to themselves, and they often try to retain their dignity and some small sense of normalcy for their children. They scrape, save, and sacrifice, but they can’t seem to get ahead. They float from location to location, looking for work of any sort, and their nomadic lifestyle disrupts their children’s educational development.
Those who may suffer most in the wake of this vagabond existence are the children, emotionally bruised from the trauma of roving from place to place and the embarrassment of not having someplace to come home to. They grow up with little security; and, in spite of their resilience, these kids tend to show visible signs of their stressful lifestyle, such as depression, deep-seated fears, anxiety, and even high blood pressure. If they are able to attend school, they usually perform below average.
Many situations can render a family homeless. The global economic crisis and the resulting foreclosures and high unemployment dropped many from the middle class into a desperate fight for survival. A record number of families now living on food stamps belie the usual stereotypes of the impoverished and homeless.5 They would be quick to tell you that with one missed paycheck or a major medical emergency, the mounting bills would push them over the edge and onto the streets. Dispirited government officials and church leaders who never dreamed this would become the plight of their American neighbors are accepting this as the “new normal.”
The Homeless Youth
As you widen the aperture for hidden outcasts, you uncover the high number of young people ages 16 to 24 who are on the run. They may comprise as much as 12 percent of the homeless population. Many of these runaways are kids who have fled from home or have been thrown out by their parents. Fueling the upward trend of homeless youth is the disturbing number of high school dropouts. One teen drops out of school every 26 seconds which is 7,200 kids every day.6 There is no people group in America more hidden and at risk than homeless youth.
PROBLEMS OR OPPORTUNITIES
Sitting on the church platform, I patiently waited for the pastor to introduce me to speak. He awkwardly leaned over the podium and then nervously cleared his throat before dropping a bombshell on the church. The pastor said, “I had not planned to announce this today but my wife and I believe our time as your pastor has come to an end. This morning we submitted our resignation to the church board.”
Then without any delay he introduced me to speak. Adding to the drama my sermon topic was, “Never Quit!” After the service the pastor confided in me that the reason he was leaving was because he believed there are too many problems in his community.
What a blinded view. What this pastor saw as problems God sees as opportunity for the church to bring hope and healing. I said to this pastor, “God has placed in this church and community more than enough assets to meet every spiritual, emotional, and physical need.”
To bring hope and healing and to meet people’s spiritual, emotional, and physical need, you must be with them. I learned this principle through personal tragedy.
On a hot, August evening in 1969, a pastor huddled with my brothers and me on a sidewalk outside the hotel where my family was living. I could tell something was seriously wrong by the look in his eyes. He glanced nervously back and forth between the three of us. He cleared his throat and then spoke the words that would change our lives forever.
“Your parents have been in an automobile accident that has killed your father.” He searched our faces and found only shock and disbelief. “Your mother is in serious condition, but the doctors believe she will live.”
At 9 years old, I didn’t know how to process this news. People die in movies, but not in real life. I laid awake on many nights following that tragic day, wondering what would happen to us, where we would live, and who would watch over us. I worried I would be separated from my brothers and sisters.
My grandmother assured us, “God is a Father to the fatherless, and He is watching over you.”
“How can God be our Father when He’s in heaven?” I asked.
“Just watch,” she said, “He will fulfill His promise through His people.” That night I heard the words that would begin the healing process in my family’s life.
We followed a stone path to a trailer owned by the Davis family. The Davises were faithful members of my dad’s congregation. The Davises didn’t have a lot of money and lived in a trailer with their two children.
As I walked up the path to the trailer, I clutched my suitcase in one hand and my pillow in the other while trying to chase away the fears that the Davises would come to their senses and send us away. But when I nervously reached up to knock on the door, it swung open. Mr. Davis was there, standing in the threshold with a warm, inviting smile. As we shuffled inside, Mr. Davis embraced each of us and spoke life-changing words: “Welcome! You are with family and this is now your home.” That little word with meant that the Davis family was sharing more than their home with us; they were sharing their love. They were willing to share in our loss and in our pain.
The word compassion means “to suffer with.” Several times the Gospels reveal that Jesus was moved by compassion (Matthew 9:36). The Greek word used in the original text, splagchnizomai, speaks of something happening deep inside us — in our intestines, our guts. It is a word of inner upheaval and violence. When Jesus saw needs, He did not simply feel a distant pity. He felt an internal churning of deepest sympathy and compassion. He became grief-stricken with the grieving; He hurt for the hurting. He did not turn away from the poor in disgust; He lived among them.
For Jesus, being with the needy involved a radical sacrifice for others. He taught us in His Word and by His life how to demonstrate compassion.
1. To have compassion for people we must be with people.
Many people today work at avoiding unexpected or impromptu encounters with others. Their busy schedules and preoccupied lifestyles drive them to practice being with people without the “with.”
My family and I live in a quaint cul-de-sac where we get an obligatory wave from our neighbors when they enter or exit their garages. And through social networking, we can gain thousands of “withs” without “withs” through texting, Facebook, and Twitter. Social networking can be one of the best tools for personal encounters because of the personal and instantaneous messaging. However, it can never substitute for being with a person, especially when that person is in need.
If Jesus had access to social media, He would have used it to fulfill His mission. Because He knew people needed personal touch and warmth, He would have used social media in addition to, not instead of, being with people.
God wanted to know what it is like to walk in our shoes. He was willing to do that so we could have a personal relationship with Him that is absent of fear, guilt, and awkwardness. As we experience a relationship with Him, we will want to relentlessly pursue relationships with others, especially those in need.
In 1979, Mother Teresa was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize. During the Who’s Who banquet to honor her lifetime of achievement, she challenged the guests to “find the poor here, right in your own home, first, and then begin to love there, and find out about your next-door neighbor.” She then paused and asked the audience, “Do you even know who they are?”
The “with” to which God is calling us may not always require a major geographical change, but it will require a radical commitment to be with the lonely and forgotten of society.
2. Being with people means showing respect for all people.
I was running late for a church service in downtown Washington, D.C., dedicated to rallying Christians to help end poverty in America. As I ran up the front steps to the church, two young ladies were waiting outside in the cold. I asked, “Why aren’t you going in?”
One responded, “You see, we are lesbians, and the usher told us we were not welcome.”
We weaken the power of truly being with others when we hide in our circle of our friends and refuse to venture into a world of lonely and forgotten people. It is a blessing to have friends and spend time together doing the things that you enjoy. But Jesus did not limit His relationships to close friends. His purpose was to “go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in” (Luke 14:23, NKJV7).
To Jesus, truly being with people was not an act of bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position; it was not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who had failed to make it on their own. Jesus had the widest peripheral vision possible when it came to being with people.
Can we show an attitude of “with” to a single mom who is milking the programs to garner more public funds? Are we moved when we see homeless people who have been hollowed out by drug addiction? Is there any compassion for the prisoner who has committed a heinous crime and now wastes away behind bars? Is there any compassion for the person who has wronged you or a member of your family?
In the ultimate demonstration of compassion, Jesus looked down from the cross and saw the very people who put Him there and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Aren’t you glad that Jesus is relentless about showing compassion to us regardless of what we have done?
3. The compassionate attitude of “with” is a lifestyle.
“Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5). When Peter said, “clothe yourselves,” he was encouraging his readers to make humility an intrinsic part of their lives. When being with people becomes a lifestyle, each day becomes an adventure of divine appointments.
When we see poverty and misfortune, we are tempted to pretend we don’t notice. We may justify our inaction and think that by writing a check to an organization we have fulfilled our duty. But God expects more from us. He wants us to enter into the spirit of with, to personally identify with the needs of our friends and of those we don’t even know. To embrace the spirit of with as a lifestyle can be challenging because — like the Davis family — it shares in people’s pain and sorrow.
The willingness to identify with others by its very nature is contagious and multiplies the love of God like nothing else. The greatest way to bless the Lord is to share compassion with others.
SHOWING COMPASSION BY SHARING
Sharing Is Strategic
Sharing is the only solution to bridging the gap between the rich and the poor. By sharing we can rescue our brothers and sisters from injustice, teach them to fish, and show them where to find the pond of opportunity. By sharing our time, expertise, and resources, we can save and improve lives.
Sharing is God’s plan for church growth. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. … Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14–16).
Paul started a relief program to help the Jerusalem church alleviate poverty in the city. To fund the initiative, Paul traveled throughout Asia Minor asking Christians to donate funds to feed the hungry (Romans 15:26). As a result of Paul’s journeys to help the suffering, he planted churches in Asia Minor, and the gospel spread throughout the world.
The only way most people in the world will discover Jesus’ love is when they see it demonstrated by the offer of a cup of water to the thirsty or a piece of bread for the hungry. Mother Teresa said: “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.”
Paul declared there would be eternal results from sharing: “Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God” (2 Corinthians 9:13). But sowing is a verb and requires obedience: “Others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ” (2 Corinthians 9:13).
Sharing Is Obedience
- It is the mark of a true follower of Christ. The apostle John wondered if people who failed to be generous had experienced God’s love in their hearts (1 John 3:17).
- It should be guilt free. “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6–8).
- It requires responsibility for the giver and receiver. Sharing, if not offered wisely, can become counterproductive to the long-term good of the receiver. Irresponsible compassion can have a negative effect on how the poor estimate their personal value and place in society. Irresponsible sharing — whether by the government or the church — will breed a welfare mentality that erodes the self-worth of those we are helping.
There is also a place for no-strings-attached sharing where you bless someone even if the help is unappreciated or wrongly used. At times I have given money to a person pleading for bus fare who squandered it on smokes, a six-pack, or a lottery ticket. I have loaded free groceries into cars nicer than mine. Yes, these things are hard to understand, but each response was an opportunity to help someone see the love of Jesus.
- It is one way to give thanks. “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God” (2 Corinthians 9:12).
God wants us to share with others out of a heart of thanksgiving. We give not out of guilt or manipulation but as an offering of praise to the Lord for providing us with food, clean water, clothing, shelter, and opportunity to improve our standard of living.
Are we satisfied with living ordinary lives — holding tightly to everything we have, keeping it all, playing it safe? Or, do we yearn for extraordinary lives? Are we eager to experience the adventure of giving it all away to Jesus and watching Him multiply our lives to touch the multitudes with compassion?
Will you and your church leave the world a better place than when you entered it? Will you have lived for yourself, or will you have given yourself for others? Mother Teresa reminds us, “At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, or how many great things we have done. We will be judged by, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food to eat, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you took me in.’ ”8
This article is abridged from Relentless (Springfield, Missouri: Influence Resources, 2013).
1. Administration on Aging U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “A Profile of Older Americans: 2011.” [http://www.aoa.gov/aoaroot/aging_statistics/Profile/2011/docs/2011profile.pdf].
2. National Coalition for the Homeless, “Homeless Families with Children” July2009. [http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/families.html].
3. National Association to End Homelessness, “The State of Homelessness in America 2012."
5. The National Alliance to End Homelessness “Family Homelessness in Our Nation and Community: A Problem With a Solution.”
6. “Mark Wahlberg on Being a Father: ‘The Most Important Role That I’ll Ever Play.’ ” Piers Morgan Tonight, CNN, Interview with Mark Wahlberg, January 13, 2012.
7. Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
8. Mother Teresa, “Catholic Community Foundation of Mid-Michigan Stewardship Quotes.”