By: Bec Cranford-Smith
Many good-hearted mission students and outreach church groups hop onto the streets of Atlanta every week looking to serve others and feel good about their service. Yet in reality, many of our service trips are essentially poverty tourism–efforts to shock ourselves awake from our materialism-induced slumber. We say we want to serve others, but sometimes we get mixed up and do more damage than good. It’s like colonialism, or any other myopic worldview being forced on a people from a different culture. We think that we – the outsiders, the church, the outreach team – are bringing the good news to a people who may actually have more faith than us. God is already under the bridge, inside the tent, and on the park bench.
So here are seven quick thoughts on how we can unknowingly miss the mark when serving those experiencing homelessness:
1) We blame the victim.
We often assume that prosperity and health mean that someone is righteous. We think that when someone is suffering, down on their luck, or facing difficult places in life, it’s somehow their fault. We don’t know everyone’s back story. Not everyone who is experiencing homelessness is addicted to a substance. While many struggle with addiction, we must ask ourselves: what circumstances in life forced them to search for a chemical escape?
2) We forget to listen.
Because we assume that we are here to help “the other,” we often assume that our outreach group knows what’s best for those in need. But when we tell people what they need, rather than listening to what they have to say, we take away their agency and ability to articulate what they want for themselves. This is a concept explained in Toxic Charity, by Robert D. Lupton (well worth the read). If we truly want to help others, we must truly hear them first.
3) We want something in exchange.
Preaching in exchange for a bowl of chili: Really? Why do we make people experiencing homelessness listen to preaching, so afterwards they can eat a hot bowl of chili? Instead of forcing our own version of the truth on a captive audience, why don’t we build friendships? Or better yet, why don’t we serve the chili first, then offer a chapel or bible study for those who would like to stay? (Also on a side note, there are only three public restrooms in Atlanta, so chili might not be the best option for an evening meal.
4) We “drive-by sandwich toss.”
This does not form friendships nor foster community. It’s more about us feeling like saints than walking with people experiencing homelessness. And honestly, peanut butter and jelly on white bread is not the most nutritious thing to serve. Atlanta may be the only place where most of our homeless have diabetes.
5) We don’t take time to build relationships.
We must build relationships with those we serve. It’s not the great evangelist who does the deep, heavy work, but the faithful disciple who stays on to see people grow. Rather than handing out sack lunches one day out of the year, why don’t we start an adult literacy workshop? We all want to be the person who changes a life in one day, but sometimes healing and redemption take weeks, months–even years.
6) Donations ≠ trash.
Shelters and those they serve do not need your broken lamp or your prom dress from 1998. And the food pantry cannot serve your expired food. When we donate, we need to make sure that the service agency can use the items we send. If you have items that would better suit a local charity thrift store then, by all means, send them there. When you give to a service agency think about what you are giving and ask yourself who needs it most.
7) We further marginalize those who are already on the outside.
Society deems so many folks “the least.” And sometimes unknowingly, so does the church. Who is marginalized come Sunday morning? Instead of looking at people as projects to fix or souls to win, we should focus on serving each person as an individual with a unique story: from the Trans-women in Midtown, to the schizophrenics around the Capitol. From the sex workers in Pittsburgh, to those struggling with addiction near Turner Field. Every one of these persons should be brothers and sisters to us.