Oftentimes we have questions of how to interact with “the homeless” who we see on the street corner. We are unsure what we can do for them, or if we are safe. They seem so different at face value. Yet something in us also seeks a more genuine interaction with them, saddened by the barriers that crop up between us and hinder the loving response we desire deep within to offer.
At the church I go to in Houston, St. Paul’s United Methodist, each Sunday about 70 individuals come to get sack lunches from the Emergency Aid Coalition. On weekdays about 300-400 come by on a given day for lunch. They pass through our parking lot and receive a lunch passed through a window on the back of the building in our parking lot. The gift of food is wonderful but the lack of interaction we had with those who came by saddened me.
Out of a sense of the importance of extending hospitality to others, particularly those who are often isolated or forgotten in our society, we started to make simple gestures to move beyond the barriers that prevent us from being together. About two years ago, we began setting out tables and chairs and bringing coffee outside to those who come by for lunches. We simply go out there and visit, just taking the time to be present. At first unsure what to talk about, aware of the differences between us on the surface, we simply seek to be there and to get to know one another beyond what’s on the surface. We talk about where we’re from, the weather, politics, sports, local events, treasured memories, difficulties over the week. When we tend to assume that we are so different from those who are homeless and would have nothing to talk about, we instead find a common ground. We discover a beauty we often miss when barriers of practicality and fear get in the way of getting to know one another.
Our conversations are nothing dramatic, but the time can be eye-opening as we begin to know “the homeless” as individuals, by their names, by their stories, their sense of humor, their emotions, and our shared humanity and vulnerabilities. Time after time, one can be pleasantly and beautifully surprised that while we often may think that what is important is what WE have to offer, we come to see that we are the ones who stand to receive something, who are in need of something. I remember what Sam Wells, the former dean of the Duke Chapel once said, “To say to someone ‘I want to be with you’ is to say ‘When I’m with you I feel in touch with myself, in touch with what it means to be a human being among others, in touch with creation, in touch with God.’” We discover a common ground, and it doesn’t take much for strangers to become your friends.