The other day, we were taking soup to the homeless when a man approached us. He told us, “Come with me. There is a family that is very poor. Many people visit them and give them clothes. You can even take pictures of them.” That really bothered me. Take pictures of them… like they’re monkeys in a zoo and not people, like all I cared to do was get my “feed the homeless” badge and then be on my way, like their value was about as much as the time it would take for a couple photos…
When we arrived, we found a house in shambles but all the kids decently-dressed and looking mostly well-fed. They gladly received hot soup and prayer, but the whole time I felt like they saw me as nothing more than a visitor taking pictures at the zoo. (We didn’t take any photos, just so you know. None of us remembered our cameras.)
Before moving to Bucharest, I lived in Spring Green, a fairly well-off small town and tourist location in south-west Wisconsin. Sure, the median income is lower here than in a big city, but so are the expenses. A few people had difficulty paying bills each month, and some families were ruined by alcohol, but most people had a place to live and a car even if they didn’t have a job. And there’s the town food pantry that helps out once every month for anyone in the area or outlying towns that might need it. (Of course, more than a few times I remember seeing a young, healthy family drive up in their recently-washed sports car to come get some “assistance.”)
A couple miles down the main highway, you come to Lone Rock. Lone Rock is a smaller and poorer town with many issues from drugs and alcohol. The trailer to house ratio is a little higher here, and incomes are definitely lower. But still there’s a school to which every kid from 6 to about 11 is attending, the roads are mostly paved, and just about everyone has food to eat and a car to drive, even if they did just get their electricity turned off again. I worked here for years at a youth center, and I got to help some of the “at risk” kids to find hope in Jesus and in life. It was a real privilege.
While living in Spring Green, I always had a heart for the poor. At least a few times a year, I’d organize trips to Chicago for ministry. We’d spend a weekend feeding the poor, praying with them, sharing the gospel, and loving those the world doesn’t love. It was powerful, for those to whom we ministered (I’m sure) but especially for the students I brought along. It’s suddenly a lot harder to whine about not getting to have a TV in your room when you just talked with a woman living in a home composed of cardboard boxes and discarded sheets (who also does not have a TV in her room, by the way).
But then I moved to Bucharest. Bucharest is a city of contradictions. It’s by no means an impoverished city, but poverty is everywhere here. While the city is home to Afi Palace (one of Europe’s biggest malls), just a few blocks away are a couple families we’ve been working with who are squatting on land abandoned after various construction attempts fell through. These are families dealing with kids and/or parents addicted to heroin, families whose children don’t go to school but instead beg “professionally,” families to whom the idea of spending an afternoon wandering the malls is a foreign concept.
Living with wealth in the midst of such poverty leaves me with a lot of questions…
How do I help when I can barely speak the language and a sandwich or a hot bowl of soup does little for a man’s underlying issues?
How do I keep my heart from growing calloused when I see the same man with no legs on the same corner taking the same drugs every day?
Whom do I help and how much when there are so many desperate cases and yet so few who are willing to make the radical adjustments needed to see permanent change in their lives?
When should I help and when should I simply leave things be, respecting that man or woman’s choice?
How do I use my money wisely when I am fully capable of living a comfortable, cozy, cushioned existence while right outside my door is a family living by begging and wearing cast-off clothing?
How do you help a man who’s addicted to drugs and sells the food you bought him so he can buy paint and get high?
How do you help a kid who’s been surviving his whole life by stealing and then selling the items just so he can scrap together money for a pair of shoes or a sandwich?
And there are more. There are always more questions.
I don’t have answers to most of these questions, but I do know that Jesus said we will always have the poor with us and so devotion to him is the first priority (Matthew 26:11, etc.). But he also said we will be blessed by God if we care for the naked, the hungry, the poor because it’s as if we’re caring for Jesus himself (Matthew 25:34-36).
I know that I want to love like Jesus loves. His love led him from the comforts of heaven to take on flesh and live the lifestyle of those whom he loved; his love led him to suffer alongside them. His love led him to stay up late, to pray, to strive. His love led him to shed tears and to bleed. His love was not quiet but bold and loud; his love was not selfish but sacrificial; his love was not momentary but persistent and continual. I want to love like that.