I will admit I have not always been concerned about the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized in our community. I use to be judgmental and look at some people on the lower end of the socio-economical scale as lazy and uneducated. I saw them as people who made bad choices and who were personally responsible for their circumstances. I thought if they had been as responsible, and as hard a worker as myself, then they could get out of their pitiful situation. Under no circumstance would I give a homeless person money because “they will just by beer with it”; and if I ever did give a person money to pay a utility bill, if I found out they did something else with it, something “unwise,” then they would never get help from me again.
But I’m not like that anymore. I am more compassionate and more understanding. I see the system behind the person that keeps them trapped. I see the obstacles they face that I did not face. I understand the privileged condition in which I grew up. I see the injustice and I see the discrimination given to people of different classes and ethnicities than myself.
First, I became friends with people different from me. I got to know them. They invited me into their lives. I saw their struggles from the inside. I listened to their stories. I saw the person behind the poverty. I saw the human being behind the addiction. I saw the soul behind the marginalized. And by seeing them, I saw myself.
Second, I went on a mission trip to a third-world country. What I experienced on that first trip shook me to my knees. I saw poverty and sickness and wealth and privilege in a new light. Every summer I return to that same third-world country, and I take people with me. I tell everyone one of them, after their trip, “After seeing absolute poverty up close, if you return to the comfort of your own home and don’t see the poor and marginalized in your own community, then you wasted your money and time going on a mission trip.”
Third, I started reading the Bible through the lens of justice. Guess what? The Bible says more about social justice issues than it does about most other issues. Simply put, if the gospel is not good news for the poor then it is not good news for anyone.
Fourth, I educated myself by reading and talking and, in my case, teaching sociology. The impact teaching sociology at a community college where most of the students come from difficult backgrounds cannot be overemphasized.
I try not to live with regrets. But one of my main regrets is that I wasted so many years of my ministry concerned about things that really are not the concern of God. In the words of Mother Teresa, “If you want to know where Jesus is, go to the poor. You will always find Him there.”