It was a sunny day, the kind that is perfect unless you are running around in heels, setting up for an event.
Which is exactly what I was doing, regretting the heels and starting to sweat–just a little bit. That evening, I was trying to make sure my three kids weren’t bothering the actors who were also trying to get ready for their performance. It was an event like any other event; if I’ve done one, I’ve done a million. But this time, as I watched my kids fold programs and chat with the actors, I knew this was different and I was especially grateful for the experience. The actors, who were eating pizza and getting their mics fitted, were members of the homeless community, here to share their experience of what it means to be unseen and unknown in Tacoma.
Our family has tried to serve people who are in the midst of poverty and homelessness for quite a while now. We’ll donate turkeys, even assemble a meal. We have served at Tacoma Rescue Mission, bought socks for clothing drives. We often will purchase a water bottle for someone outside of Target, say a prayer for people as we drive by in our car, and carry extra gloves and blankets to hand out if we see a need.
But to be honest, anyone can do those simple actions. My heart was not affected – these actions cost me little. But about a year ago, I committed to do something simple, but much more costly. I committed to stop what I was doing, look into the eyes of the person, and acknowledge their presence. It made a world of difference and it brought me to the performance on that hot sunny day.
After their performance, the actors were answering questions from the audience and one statement in particular has stayed with me for months now.
“I didn’t stop being a musician when I became homeless.”
When we allow walls to come between us and the people around us, it prevents us from encountering their humanity. Whether we are interacting with a person struggling with homelessness, or a person in the line at WinCo, or even a family member, we live in the lie that they are “other” and ignore the beautiful truth that they, too, are created in very image of God, our Savior.
We should definitely donate turkeys and socks, write checks to Tacoma Rescue Mission, and say silent prayers for people in need as we see them all around us. But if we stop there, if we let this Christmas season pass without looking into the eyes of people who are unseen, we will miss the face of God.
When we see someone by the side of the road, living in a tent, asking for help, it makes us feel uncomfortable. Homelessness is a complicated problem with layers of racism, access to healthcare, affordable housing, mental health, poor choices, no safety net, and a broken criminal justice system. It’s overwhelming and discouraging to think about wading into that reality. It’s much more convenient to reassure ourselves that the person outside of Target is “less than” – a slacker, someone who will use the money for drugs or alcohol – and that it’s okay for us to make fun of him, be disgusted by her, or really just not even see them at all.
God stripped Himself of dignity and was humbled to become a baby, born in a dirty, poop-smelling barn. His family was forced to flee violence in their homeland and live as refugees in Egypt. When they were able to return to Israel, Joseph trained Jesus as a carpenter, set Him on a path of good choices. But when he was 30 years old, he began living as a homeless, itinerant preacher – no income, no prospects, and a questionable set of friends wandering around with him. He was accused by “good people” of being a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” He started saying crazy-sounding things and ran into trouble with the law. He was beaten, forsaken, left on the road to death.
Abandoned by even His close friends. No one would look at Him. But that was not His whole story.
Jesus’ sacrifice of love promises a renewal of dignity for us all. Especially for the young woman caught in a vicious cycle of pain and addiction. Jesus knows her name, and He knows there is infinitely more to her story. He was there when her mama sang to her as a baby. He sees the joy that is still buried deep in her heart. He knows the man just released from prison, with no place to go. The teenager, on the streets because the abuse there is safer than the abuse at home. Each person lost in a place of despair. Even if we try, we are unable to see them, they are shrouded in darkness. But Jesus sees.
The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. ~ John 1:5
Often during the Christmas season, we hear that Christ’s light brings hope into the world, lifting us up out of depression and chaos. And it does. But light, in its essence, gives us the ability to see. It pierces the darkness and reveals God’s work around us. In His people. If we are in the light, as He is in the light, then we can see through the barriers that restrict us to imagining people as less deserving of God’s grace than we are, less worthy of our compassion, less than us.
But with His light reflecting through each of us, we build His kingdom.
Developing relationships with people experiencing homelessness has brought me to my knees. Humbled by the depth of their pain, silenced by the strength of their vulnerability, confident that I am in the presence of God, I cannot turn away. Even if I have nothing to offer, no solutions, no quick fixes, I will look each person in the eye, share a moment, lay myself down at the feet of their worth.
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” ~ C.S. Lewis
“Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!” ~ Hebrews
This Christmas, stop, look people in the eye, maybe even ask their story. Each person we meet is bought at a tremendous price.