Thursday, April 19, 2012

Outside the bubble of imaginary safety

Tonight I was parking my car at home after a mostly unnecessary trip to Target. As I unloaded my new personal blender and some baby pants, I saw a guy hunched over the dumpster behind my house, rifling through it.

The very sad thing about my neighborhood is that this isn't an unusual sight. I see people dumpster-diving in various dumpsters along the alley around once a week. Sometimes, they're just looking for scrap metal. There's a guy who collects perfectly good junk people throw away. One lady told me she was looking for a check she had dropped. One time, I threw away a bunch of old burned CDs and DVD cases only to find the bag ripped open and strewn around the alley the next morning.

It's just one of those things that makes me wonder. Plenty of people throw away things that are valuable, but to abandon all dignity and jump into a bin of trash must take a pretty powerful desperation, I would think.

It's these kinds of things that press on my heart. I've always had a heart to help the poor, but I hardly ever know where to start. The causes and effects of poverty are deep and pervasive and necessitate such drastic change throughout society that I get overwhelmed even thinking about what I can do.

But then, there are times when opportunities are shoved in your face.

To be honest, though, these are usually the opportunities I cower away from. I want so much to help the poor, but when a chance to even do something small approaches, I run away.

I get scared, mostly.

There's a lot to be scared of, I guess, when you see a stranger going through a dumpster in an alley. No one I know would advise someone who is nine months pregnant and virtually defenseless to start up a conversation with him. Especially not in a city like Greeley, where we've had six armed robberies in the last week. He ignored me as I parked and walked into my house, and I could have easily gone on with my night without giving him a second glance.

It's what I usually do, to be honest. I avert my eyes from the panhandlers along the street and I try not to think about the drunk people staggering around. I make up excuses, like, I'm alone and they could be dangerous, or, I have no food on me and you aren't supposed to give out cash because they're just going to spend it on drugs or booze, or, they're on the the wrong side of the road and it would be inconvenient to pull over. It's easy to come up with excuses not to help people. If you don't want to help someone, the excuse will be there, and most likely, everyone around you will accept it.

It's hard for me to accept it, though, as much as I try to excuse myself. I knew that if I ignored this guy and went inside my cozy little apartment to play with my frivolous new blender, I would be kicking myself all night for not offering to help. I had cash, a house full of food, and it was light enough outside that I wasn't worried.

So after dropping my stuff off in the house and grabbing the dog, I walked back outside and said hello to the guy and asked if he needed anything.

He said no, and asked if he was offending me. (How sad that someone would be offended by the sight of someone in their dumpster!)

I told him that he was fine, and I just wanted to see if he needed any food or help or anything.

He laughed and said no, he was just bored. He insisted that he had a job and was just fine.

So here's another thing I think we worry about when the opportunity to help arises: what if they don't actually NEED help, and we offend people by misjudging them? This guy didn't ASK for my help, I just made a foolish assumption. I totally judged him on his appearance. But is risking someone's pride enough reason to justify not offering to help?

 I told him that I'd rather offer help and have it turned down than ignore someone completely. He was actually completely gracious about the whole thing, and it sounded like it had happened before. And actually, he told me not to change. He told me the world needed more people who are willing to step out and offer help, because circumstances may have been different and he actually may have needed it. I may have wounded his pride a little bit, but I think pride is an acceptable sacrifice for love.

It turned out to be a pretty good situation. We chatted for a little while. He asked about the baby and told me about his daughters and then he went on his way. I managed to have a great conversation with a sketchy-looking guy in an alley with only a 12-pound dog as my defense. I wasn't raped or murdered. I went away from the whole thing feeling better about myself and the world, and I hope I brightened up his day a little bit just by being a nice person.

I'm not saying that I'm this amazing person or that I really did anything of significance for the world tonight. I just wanted to be a nice person and reach out to a stranger rather than ignore him. Maybe assuage my consumeristic guilt for buying things I don't really need. I did more for myself than anyone else. Since the burglary and the shooting, my fear of people has really increased, and I hate that. There's no reason to fear people unless they give you an actual, concrete reason to fear them (like sticking a gun in your face or something). But as a culture, we tend to fear people based on appearance. If they are disheveled or dirty or looking POOR in any way, I think we automatically assume they are crazy and dangerous. We don't talk to strangers, especially ones that look like that. We don't usually assume the clean-cut white man with the nice smile is crazy or dangerous, do we? I'm making broad generalizations here, but I've seen the same patterns a lot.

But fearing people for no reason is the same as hating them. Fear causes us to ignore people or avoid them. We are called to think the best of others. Sure, it takes a risk to love people. Tonight's encounter could have easily gone badly. But I think God wants us to take risks and rely on his grace to see us through. I'm beginning to see that life is just one big huge risk anyway, and there's no way to fully protect ourselves. I don't think it's wise to go around being completely reckless, but I also don't think that having a conversation and offering help is reckless.

Last December, I went to a conference with my church, and one of the sessions I went to was all about loving people who we generally see as unlovable. One of the conclusions I got from it is that people generally turn out to be unlovable because they go their entire lives without being loved. So to cast off those people who have spent their entire lives being cast off just makes things worse. Another conclusion I drew is that God has given us resources and we're to use them to love people, not ourselves. And sometimes this takes risking those resources, like our money, homes, or safety. But God's grace is powerful, and he uses the risks we take for his glory.

This is what I want. To take crazy risks and love people and watch how God works through all of it. I don't want to shelter myself behind some bubble of imaginary safety. Probably this is crazy, but it's also kind of exciting. Who knew that just TALKING to people could be so thrilling?

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