Homeless Ahead: How Will You Respond?

By Felicia Rose

The homeless – what a conundrum. We see the commercials, pass by the shelters, and see them holding up signs, “Will work for food”; but how much do we really know about them? How should we respond to them, interact with them, and treat them? If you are anything like me, it can be uncomfortable to think about. I don’t want to venture outside of my own little world and think about what it might be like to be in their shoes. It’s easier to let some shallow conclusion like, “If they really didn’t like living that way, they would change,” frame our response, or lack thereof, to the homeless. But as Christians, can we dismiss the homeless so easily?
Developing a basic compassion is a good place to start when it comes to the homeless – and anyone with major problems, for that matter. Paul reminds us in Colossians 3:12-17 to “Put on as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bearing with one another… and above all these, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” In order to have compassion, you must first be aware of the distress of others, and that actually seems to be lacking for most people – a basic awareness of the distress that is living without a home.
Have you ever put on a blindfold for a few minutes to get some small insight into what it would be like to be blind? A lot of people have done this, and in part, this may be why we have a lot of compassion for the blind. Maybe we should try experiencing homelessness too. A simple exercise to stir up some compassion really quickly would be to spend 24 hours away from your home. Sleep in your car, or if you don’t have one, or are not that brave, how about a friend’s sofa – but you have to arrive no earlier than 8 p.m. and you have to hit the street again by 8 a.m. – shelter rules! No changing clothes, no showering, oh, and give yourself about $2 to live on for the day. Don’t have that kind of time to devote? Here’s a real quick one that you can try just about anywhere in public: Ask people for money. Tell them you’re hungry and haven’t eaten all day and ask if they would spare you a dollar or even a quarter. You only need to spend about 10 minutes in this exercise to develop some compassion – pronto!
Once you actually become aware of the distress this set of circumstances causes, a desire to alleviate it should start to gnaw on you. If it doesn’t, check your pulse; better yet, check your faith.
Putting compassion into action does not have to be complicated. It might be as simple as giving a dollar or two to a hungry person, but it might also be as in-depth as opening your home to someone who needs a place to stay.
When you meet a homeless person, you are meeting someone during one of the most difficult times of her life. Everybody has difficult times! How do you think you would like someone to interact with you during your most difficult times? One of the fruits of the Spirit is gentleness, and it is similar to two other character traits mentioned in Colossians 3: kindness and meekness. When the rest of the world just passes the homeless by, the disciple of Christ is called to bring light to someone who cannot see a way out of her current circumstances, and this isn’t going to happen with a pep talk on how to “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”!
In my experience in the field of social services, I have found that a gentle approach can lay a foundation on which a respectful relationship is formed. I have learned that people want to be heard; they want to be told the truth; and they want help out of their situation. I have had much more success when I approached others as equals, realizing that we all go through rough times, and that it is only God’s grace that saves us all. Life is filled with uncertainty. The Bible says the race does not go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Further, Jesus says that our Heavenly Father causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. No amount of righteousness is sufficient to prevent me, at any minute, from finding myself in someone else’s well-worn shoes. Approaching someone who is “down and out” with that kind of realization will have a profound impact on the interaction.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Yes, everyone has tough times, but not everyone’s tough times last thirty years! Some of these guys are just milking the system.”
And thus the conundrum: We want to have compassion on them, but how do we know they are really in need? There actually are people who hold a sign that says “homeless,” and then, after a day of standing behind that sign, go home! How do you differentiate between those who really need the help and those who are playing the system, or posing as homeless? It’s simple; give to everyone regardless and let God be the judge. Only God knows the situation of each man and knows who is telling the truth. Ultimately, “it is God who executes judgment” (Psalm 75:7). Mathew 7:1-2 says, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measures you use it will be measured to you.” Player? Poser? Going to buy alcohol with my dollar? It’s not for me to decide. Give as though each person genuinely needs help so you don’t pass up the opportunity to help someone genuinely in need. Let God take care of the rest. Besides, did you ever stop to think that being a homeless poser might actually be a fate worse than being homeless?
When we give to the poor, we are living in accordance with scripture – in fact, the second-most important point in the whole book! “You should love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27-28). Jesus then immediately defines who our neighbor is in the story of the good Samaritan: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead… a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.”
When you see that man, woman, boy, or girl struggling with hunger, health, shelter, or clothes, think twice before passing them by. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” When we do unto the least of these, we do unto Him.
Whatever else he or she might be, that homeless person is a ministry opportunity. And as you contemplate how to respond, remember to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” Colossians 3:17d .

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