So many things I knew a year or two ago I no longer know. I am far less sure of almost all areas of life but I am most assuredly sure of Life itself. I have seen and heard and experienced things I cannot unsee, unhear or unexperience. They are now forever a part of who I am, having molded me into the woman God created, and continues to create, me to be.
There’s a lot of talk among friends and coworkers about the words we use to describe those we work with. We all agree labels for people are not the way to go, but words are the currency humans use to communicate, so how do we do that in a way that is dignifying, not dehumanizing?
The danger of some words is they imply our goal is to change that particular attribute about a person.
For example, we work with “the poor”.
It has only recently struck me that in saying we work with “the poor”, we could possibly, albeit unintentionally, be communicating there is something wrong with “the poor” that needs fixing. We could be communicating we are working to change the fact that they are “poor,” and because of our cultural context and American idealism, I fear this communication gap may be taking place.
Wordsmithing, maybe, but hang with me.
I think this is important because it stems from and feeds into our “we can fix you” white middle-class culture. (If you aren’t part of that culture, you’ve surely seen it in action. If you need to see it again in parody form, White Savior Barbie is there for you.)
Last weekend I spoke at a fundraiser for one of my coworkers and afterwards was approached by a man who wanted to “brainstorm” solutions for some of the needs mentioned during our presentation. A year or two ago I would have welcomed his thoughts. Now I know the slow work of God is not mine to control. And I know men like this know very little to nothing about my neighbor’s actual lives and it takes a Holy Spirit size dose of humility to enter into these brainstorm session as an outsider.
Ideas started flying, all in the vein of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” ideology. I tried my best to explain the challenges my neighbors face when, applying for a job for example. Each time this man suggested something else, equally as unattainable as his last suggestion.
The problem with this kind of “improve your situation by your own efforts” thinking is, it’s not a universal truth. Contrary to what my personal upbringing taught me, all opportunities are not created equal.
The opportunities afforded me as a 15-year-old – a stable home and family life, parents with business connections, transportation and expendable time to transport their teenage daughter to and from work – landed me my first job, which led to a solid string of employment, until I chose to become a stay-at-home mom. The opportunities afforded my neighbors at 15 years of age – a traumatic home and family life, impoverished living conditions, neglectful and abusive parents which often leads to self medicating, promiscuity and teenage pregnancy – are incomparable. Expecting teenagers from these drastically different backgrounds to end up in the same place, without longstanding and intentional prayer and relationship, is insane.
Most of us think the goal of introducing the poor, whether overseas or in America, to Jesus is synonymous with climbing the economic ladder.
Friends, that is not the goal.
Knowing Jesus is not correspondent to having wealth, or even to not being poor. I think most of the world gets this, but as Americans, particularly my brand of American, we tend to forget.
The goal, with any human being made in the image of God (NEWS FLASH: That’s all of them.) is to empower and encourage our neighbors to be the men and women God created them to be.
The goal is to call forth the imago Dei in them. To invite them to look into the face of Jesus and ask, What do you think about me? The goal, is to walk alongside them, until the wheels fall off, reminding them every day, that He who began a good work in them is going to bring it to completion, one glorious day.
Our goal is to remind them God delighted in them all along.
They may or may not move into a higher economic bracket.
And the rest of us need to be ok with that.