Often it is hard to know how to live our Christian values. One woman suggests that we begin by truly seeing others, including those who are different from ourselves.
I recently retired from a nonprofit job that put me in daily contact with low-income people in our community. People called my agency because they were in some kind of housing crisis, often about to lose their housing and frightened because they had nowhere to go. Sometimes we were able to help and sometimes there was nothing we could do. I still can feel the overwhelming fear and desperation of mothers trying to find a safe place for themselves and their children to stay. I would refer them to the family homeless shelters, only to be told they’d been calling daily, but the shelters were all full. After one ten-minute conversation, all I could say was, “I’m sorry. There is nothing I can do.” The woman thanked me profusely. When I said, “But I didn’t do anything,” she responded, “You listened to me; it helped.”
The job was stressful, but I felt I was doing something worthwhile, doing God’s work and serving God’s people. Now I’m retired and doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be Christian and the Church’s role in a world with extreme income inequality.
Yes, we are called to serve the poor. Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, like many churches, has active ministries providing food and help with housing needs. These works of charity have great value; just ask someone who hasn’t eaten for a day or the families able to keep their home because of emergency rental assistance from the church. But I have come to understand that doing works of charity is not enough. God is asking us to see all people as brothers and sisters in Christ; to be in communion (community) with others who dress differently, smell differently, act differently, and generally make us uncomfortable.
Four weeks a year I coordinate a homeless shelter at the cathedral that provides food and shelter for families as part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati. During the week when four or five families are staying in the church undercroft, I am busy arranging volunteers, making sure there is enough food, and cleaning up. I have to remind myself to enjoy our guests. I have learned over the years that what they hunger for more than anything is to be treated respectfully, to be listened to, and a chance to talk joyfully about their children.
The cathedral arranges mission trips to far off places so our youth experience and understand God’s call to serve others. Yet too often we isolate our children in neighborhoods and schools that are “safe” because there are no poor people. We worry about “security” when we see people who are obviously poor walking the halls of our church building. Low-income housing and homeless shelters when located on property coveted by developers have been removed from the cathedral’s downtown neighborhood. This ensures that higher income residents and visitors don’t have to see poor people on the streets.
The Church teaches that we should see all people as brothers and sisters in Christ. But first we have to see them. Sometimes the smallest changes in routine can bring us closer to Christ’s model. A woman whose name I can no longer remember once shared a story in Bible study that reflected this important truth. She said she had arranged her daily commute to avoid a bad neighborhood, but one Sunday after hearing the Gospel in church she began to intentionally drive through that neighborhood on her way to and from work. She said her attitude and perspective gradually changed, as she became comfortable and began to see the families and children as neighbors instead of threats, and she felt blessed.