Mother, huddled with her children, under a crude tarp with not much to eat.
For generations we have seen this picture and connected with it because it is real. The worn, hungry look is evident. I suppose we even read despair into the eyes of the child and mom.
It strikes me as curious that they are not looking into the camera. Just like today. When we see someone like her, next to the street holding a sign, asking for help, we look away just as they begin to make eye contact. In a talk with someone who works with homeless people regularly, I am told that one of the interactions they miss most is eye contact. There once was a time when the person asking would not look you in the eye. Now, it's the person who could offer help that won't make contact.
As if making that human connection would touch us too much. It might make us take an action that we had not planned.
IF we connected, then . . . what?
We might be able to lift her burden?
We might be committed to finding out about HOW someone like her got to where she is?
We might find that, instead of her being very unlike me, I am very, very close to being like her?
I was recently in Elk City, Oklahoma, visiting at a non-profit that was hosting our MobileSmiles Oklahoma program. The Western Oklahoma Family Care Center (www.westokfcc.come) is working intently and intentionally to address the needs of so many in less populated parts of the state. WOFCC is a faith-based program which puts together resources so that a family can come to just one location and be offered the help they need.
Tim Ball, the Executive Director of WOFCC and I had a great discussion about what they do and it is so much more than just providing a hand-out to someone in need. Their work is about creating a community which finds those who are in need and helps connect them with churches and other groups to build skills, if skills are needed, educate, when this provides an answer, connect to jobs, housing and the resources necessary to get back on their feet - with a chance to stay there.
Even better, they connect them to a church that works to find more permanent solutions for the problems the person or family is experiencing.
Tim and I talked about what he called the "desperation of the desperate" and explained that every one of us is touched by it.
We see it when we pass through an intersection and people are asking for handouts.
We see it when we go into "those" areas of town and see people laying under bridges, against buildings, in parks.
We smell it when we walk past those who are "homeless" as we have come to define it.
A few Saturdays ago, I was going into the downtown Oklahoma City Library at opening time (9:00 a.m.). The homeless heading into the library looked like a line of ants heading from all over the downtown area to the one door at the entry. Their faces reminded me of the woman in the picture above. Limited expression. Determined to get by one more day. For them, it seemed, just getting in was the drive that propelled them onward.
The biggest issue that we discussed about all of this, however, is that we can offer help and hope IF we can create community. Community which reaches out to lift up those around us from the despair of poverty and being alone.
Tim raised an interesting point:
"Darkness is driving people - all of us - into isolation; away from community. Segments of our societies have become desperate - their fault, my fault, nobody's fault. They are resorting to desperate means to resolve their desperation, and our society is responding with isolation rather than community. Isolation increases darkness - while community drives it away. We can build taller, more secure fences around ourselves and install generators for our homes , but we still have to drive through the desperation to get to work and the grocery store. What if we focused on restoring community instead of promoting isolation? What if we no longer felt the need to isolate ourselves from the desperation of others?"Can churches and non-profits work together to become community builders? If we have the light within us, can we reach out and help someone else - light their candle? Help them to recognize their natural worth as a human being. Not someone to be shunned. To be avoided. To be looked away from.
If we can help restore the idea of community around us, then each of us can extend our hand to help a person who has stumbled along the way. And offer them the light that Jesus calls to shine through in each of our lives.