Welcoming the Poor

It is almost impossbile for a minority culture group to express their opinion so that it might be heard.

As the racially and sexually segregated can attest, it is an uphill battle. Sometimes a minority cultural group has to insist upon expressing themselves, at which point they might be called “uppity” or a witch with a captial B. But they persevere, because they recognize that their opinion counts and that they are an important participant in the process of communication and decison-making.

However, just as most women and blacks a half a century ago had learned that it is a more peaceful life to just keep quiet and stay in one’s place, so most of the lower class has realized this as well. And there is more at stake for the lower class than the racially and sexually oppressed, because almost without exception they are physically and mentally weakened by their poverty, which makes expressing a differing opinion almost impossible. If they do express an opinion, half the time they are ignored, assuming they are having a “mental breakdown”. Of course, sometimes they are having a mental breakdown, and sometimes they are just being socially inappropriate (as determined by the ruling class) but it is still humiliating to be ignored. It is stressful to share a rejected point of view. It pushes ones buttons to speak what you think to be clearly true and to be treated as if your point of view just doesn’t matter.

So the lower classes just don’t say anything.

This is where the ruling class must step in to welcome the lower classes to express themselves.

Who is the ruling class? Well, in North America, it is the middle class, the ones who have mortgages on their homes and make payments on their cars. To themselves they are simply the “normal”, the average folks.

Let me tell you a secret, folks– If anyone consider themselves “normal” or “average” then they are a part of the ruling class. Because only the ruling class gets to determine what is “normal.” This is why the lower classes– the working poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the immigrants– don’t speak up. They DON’T consider themselves “normal”. They consider themselves less than “normal”. And because they still have to “work” at being “normal” they feel that they don’t have a full opinion, that, really, they just don’t count.  

So what can the ruling class do?
1. If you consider yourself “normal” then seek out those who don’t and ask them their opinion. And treat their opinion as if it matters.
2. In congregations, the lower classes need to be invited into membership. They need to be asked to express their opinions on certain matters and they need to be carefully listened to. And they should be sought out in matters that really apply to them– for instance in matters of benevolance, or in helping those they consider to be like them.
3. Also, those who consider themselves to be “less than normal” should be given space to allow themselves to feel normal. This may mean allowing them to be “socially unacceptable”. It may mean that some folks in the congregation will dress down to the level they can afford (homeless fashion IS in fashion!). It may mean that someone will create a space where a lower class group can be with their own. It may be that some lower class who have leadership gifts would be invited to take places “up front” in worship.

Whatever. Be creative. But let’s welcome the lower classes to be a part of us.

Or, if failing that, let’s have some of us give up our “normalcy” to be a part of them.

Steve K

 Note: SteveK posted this a couple days ago. For some reason, there were two copies of it. I saw this and as a helpful person with some editing privileges thought I would clean it up. To my chagrin, I accidentally deleted both in my attempt to delete one. I thought all was lost unless Steve kept a copy. Then today, to my delight, I found a copy of the post in my RSS reader. So, I’m reposting it and I apologize to anyone who has been inconvenienced (mainly Steve) – Katie  

Comments (4)

  1. jdaniel

    Baltimore City is good at welcoming the poor, as evidenced by this report.

    Reply
  2. Ron

    I am interested in Steve’s approach to having homeless people form their own small groups. In my church, the minister had an outreach to homeless people and would visit with them and some attended church, but it never really worked out. I would chat with them, but I am used to working with people like that and I’m not sure what other people in the congregation thought or if someone even said something to the minister about it. I supported the minister in it. However, it seems that they start to realize that they don’t have much in common with the others in church and don’t really fit in, so they stop attending.
    On the other hand, having homeless people in separate groups sounds like segregation. However, it isn’t really- because it’s their choice. I guess it is just an option for them, and some might attend the regular services and some might not, or some might switch at some point.
    Anyhow, I am interested in hearing about how this works in your church, Steve. I know that this post wasn’t specifically about homeless people.
    Here is some of what I think on this issue. To the early Christians, poverty was a virtue. Jesus stated how hard it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. You should store up your treasures in heaven, not on earth.
    However, this has now been reversed. Now, poverty is associated with laziness, criminal activity, etc. and is seen as less Christian by many churchgoers. Respectable people have good jobs, good families and obey the rules of society. Conformity to the rules of society is seen to be more Christian than non-conformity.
    While many here would disagree with these views, such attitudes have permeated our society and have probably even been internalized by many lower-income people who feel lesser than others because of their lack of wealth, education, etc.
    Even among those who have compassion for poor people, we tend to think more of trying to help them become more like us “normal” people than just accepting them as fellow children of God.

    Reply
  3. SteveK

    Thanks Ron for your thoughtful reply.

    I actually think that one of the biggest problems of the middle class’ approach to the homeless and the poor in general is the idea that “we will go in and fix them”. It isn’t that the homeless don’t want homes (most of the time they do) or that the mentally ill don’t want medication (although it’s true sometimes they don’t). Rather, its the basic arrogance of the approach of, “I know what you need and I can take care of it.” This is a superior to inferior relationship, one in which the middle class is used to, but is the wrong way to build trust.

    When my wife and I began working with the homeless twelve years ago, we spent two years listening to their needs and their stories before we thought we “knew” any needs or issues that we could possibly address. We developed trust before offering any “fix”.

    It is humiliating for anyone to be seen as so pathetic to need another person’s help. So we offered folks things they said they needed, and we lowered ourselve to be at their level. We became homeless ourselves and lived day to day, welcoming whatever help the homeless could give us, so that we were a community, not a benevolence agency.

    It is true that mercy trumps judgement. But relationship trumps a sense of pity every time. As soon as we think “poor people, what can I do to help them” we become paternal. But if we think about ways to join them and to make them better able to help themselves, or to receive help from God, then we are on the right track.

    Now I need to say, I love my middle class brothers and sisters. I think many of them have a good heart. But havng the homeless have their own congregation isn’t segregation, or it doesn’t have to be. Every church is culture, as well as spirit. And if we told all Africans they had to worship in a Western way, wouldn’t we agree that is wrong and offensive? So why should we insist the homeless become “one of us” when they aren’t? If they want to be, great– there’s lots of programs to make them middle class. But what if they want to keep their cultural values that aren’t opposed to Scripture? What if dumpster diving and recycling and living in tents is actually more scripturally sound than being middle class? Shouldn’t we find ways to allow them to live that way?

    Steve K

    Reply
  4. SteveK

    What happened in Baltimore happens daily in Multnomah County, Oregon. If you are in Eugene, OR, you will be arrested and fined if you try to sleep on the street. In Las Vegas, if you try to feed the homeless,you will be ticketed. Most cities don’t want to help the homeless, even with positive programs– they want to get them out of sight. Gresham OR denies that they have any homeless at all (so I wonder who I have been with the past twelve years?), and they ticket and harass and sometimes attack the homeless without provocation.

    Homeless is the nigger of the world. (Sorry, misquoting John Lennon, if you know the song)

    Steve K

    Reply

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