This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Three bad habits toward the poor

New Voices: By and about young adults

Recently, a young Mennonite told me she wasn’t interested in the institutional Mennonite church. She was inspired instead, she said, by the radical work for the poor that she saw described by Shane Claiborne.

As a Mennonite who loves the Mennonite church, that usually makes me defensive. But I’m starting to get over it. Sure, I believe the Mennonite church desperately needs its young people, but I also believe that the church desperately needs more Shane Claibornes. Here’s part of why I feel that way:

Four years ago, my wife started working in homelessness. I told myself I was too busy to help, but a month later I found myself volunteering at a shelter. Soon I was helping lead a monthly meal.

At one of those meals, I met Joe. Joe clearly had little. He was my age, passionately faithful, and he asked my permission to play his guitar and sing praise songs. I don’t know why he asked for my permission, but he did. And I don’t know why I hesitated to say yes, but I did.

Joe was a fantastic singer. He was also an easy person to talk to. We hit it off. I know this isn’t an OK way to describe it, but on some level I was feeling pretty proud of myself for making a “homeless friend.”

Then, just when I was feeling good about my friendship with Joe, he showed up for a meal in a lot of pain. He didn’t sing. He talked just enough to explain that he had a painful infection in his mouth. He never asked me to help, but he talked to me about it like a friend would—and he told me he could not afford to fix it. The infection was clearly not going away; it was just going to get worse.

I told Josh I would pray for him. And I did. But I also told myself it was unreasonable to pay for any dental help. Because you just don’t do that, right? Because what would he ask for next? And how much would I be obligated to give over the long haul? The slope was just too slippery, right?

I prayed, sure. But I didn’t give Joe a penny of actual help. And so I realized: I was interested in getting to know him well enough to look and feel good, but I wasn’t treating him like a real friend.

As I wrestled with this, I realized I have at least three bad habits I haven’t overcome. I think most of us do.

Bad habit #1: I dehumanize. Those of us with money and influence create rules that treat people with money as normal and people without as nuisances. We do this with laws. We make tents and makeshift shelters illegal. We make laws against panhandling or sitting or lying down in public. We basically make being poor illegal.

Bad habit #2: I give up on people. Even if we start to build relationships, things will probably get hard. I befriend someone, but then I realize he needs serious dental help. Or I notice he has his own bad habits. And so I quit.

But often—and this is bad habit #3: I fail to even see my bad habits. Since bad habit #1 is to believe that my affluent ways of doing things are normal, I insulate myself in friends, beliefs and situations that tell me the same thing. Does someone need more than I want to give? None of my friends is giving that much—so that must be what normal people do.

The problem is, this is not what God’s normal is. Virtually every time a prophet shows up in the Old Testament, he tells the Israelites that their avoidance of the poor is ugly. Really ugly. Rotting-crops and wasted-landscapes ugly. What we think is normal is not what God thinks is normal.

So, if God is telling me to give more, but I haven’t been able to do it yet, I’m in no place to judge when someone else feels called to do it. Yes, I often wish it came with more denominational commitment. But I also know that if enough of us respond supportively, maybe the next young adult to feel this call won’t feel it coming from beyond our church. They’ll feel it coming from within. And soon, maybe so will we.

Peter Epp teaches Mennonite studies in Gretna, Manitoba, a land overflowing with the bounty of farmer sausage.

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