When I took over management of a homeless shelter, I had never stayed in a homeless shelter. I had never slept on the street. As a young man I had experienced homelessness, sleeping in my car and surfing couches, but my life was not impacted by addiction, mental illness, or the myriad other contributing factors that lead to not having a place to live. Furthermore, I had family I could fall back on if I chose to, which is rarely the case for the person sleeping rough.
In order to understand how to help the men in my care, I had to understand their situation and know their stories. Whatever I thought about homelessness or those who experience it, I had to set that aside to be open to new knowledge and the possibility and probability that my opinions and views needed to change. It was the same when it came to understanding addiction, mental illness, abuse, or trauma. And regarding racism in our country, I have to assume that as a middle-aged white man I might not understand what it’s like to be impacted by it as a person of color in America.
So, how do we move beyond ignorance and complacency to effecting change for the hurting and suffering? I think there are four essential steps:
- Listen to the hurting: The first step is the most important one because it requires openness and humility. We tend to listen to the voices that reinforce what we already think and believe. We’re most comfortable in our echo chambers where we aren’t forced to reconcile conflicting information or form new opinions from new data. So, listen to the experiences and stories of people who may not look like you, think like you, talk like you, worship/pray like you, or vote like you. Listen without casting judgment. Listen without interrupting or interjecting. Listen without getting defensive or argumentative. Their story is theirs, just as your story is yours.
- Learn from the hurting: Don’t hold your opinions to be so perfectly formed that they cannot or should not be changed. If you have made a sincere effort to listen, you will have learned something. What will you do with that new knowledge? Will you tuck it away and compartmentalize it? Or will you do the hard work of modifying your existing worldview, even if it means admitting ignorance or simply being wrong? It takes humility to honestly assess oneself.
- Lift up the hurting: While the first two steps are more passive, the last two are active. In the Christian world, we generally equate “lifting up” as a reference to prayer. And it is. But it’s also more than that. When the Samaritan found the man beaten in the ditch, he didn’t stop at listening to the man and learning about the dangers of the road. He could have taken the new information for himself, thanked the man and left him in the ditch. Instead, the Samaritan lifted up the man from his position and situation. He took it upon himself to see that the injured man was safe and cared for.
- Lay down yourself for the hurting: If we continue in the story of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan takes a vested interest in the man’s well-being. He places him on his donkey while he himself walks. He takes the man to an inn and uses his own resources to see that he is cared for. The Samaritan even goes so far as to leave a blank check with the innkeeper. This is money he could have used for a vacation, a bigger TV, a fancy dinner with his wife, or any number of other things. But his concern for the “other” was greater than any concern for himself. This is where the rubber meets the road. How much are you willing to sacrifice on behalf of someone else? During this pandemic, we’ve stayed home when we wanted to go out. We wear masks in public places even when it’s uncomfortable. We do it because we don’t want to get sick or make others sick. But what if you knew you’d never get sick even without a mask, but by wearing a mask you could keep others safe? Would you continue to wear a mask? Would you continue to stay home?
The value of lifting up the hurting is directly related to how much you’re willing to lay down your own rights, privilege, and pride so that the hurting can be healed. Jesus emptied Himself so that He could walk in the frailty of humanness, eventually laying it all down for the sake of a broken world in desperate need of healing. This is the example set for us.
When it comes to understanding racism and my place in it, I’m listening and learning as much as I can. I’m looking for ways to lift up my sisters and brothers of color beyond praying for them and praying against the sources of their hurt. And I’m willing to lay down myself for their sake, however God leads.