Thursday, July 30, 2009
Saving Other People
Someone said to me a while back that they’d ‘saved’ a person who was homeless by giving them a job. I was surprised by this assertion and said so. Do we really save other people? In a war zone at the point of a gun, perhaps yes. But when a person is given an opportunity, it is the person herself or himself who shows up every day and turns the opportunity into success. “It seems to me that, depending on one’s perspective, either God saves people, they save themselves, or both,” I said at the time.
The person with whom I was speaking dismissed my objection, telling me it was just a manner of speaking, and that I had missed the statement’s greater intent. But I think the distinction is important, because if we claim to ‘save’ someone else, either we are fairly arrogant in believing our own line of chat, or we are disingenuous and condescending in thinking others will or should buy into this concept.
Those who have tried and succeeded or tried and failed to help people get off the street know only too well: there are many factors that play into the outcome of such attempts, one of the most significant being the person’s readiness to make the gargantuan shift away from street life and into housing and employment. Timing is a critical element.
Not long ago I had a conversation with a man who had been living on the street for many years and battling homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and cancer all at once. He had been placed in housing by a nonprofit agency, but partly because there were not adequate support services attached to the housing, and partly because — by his own report — of his own state of mind, he ended up giving up the apartment and going back into a shelter. It was too much responsibility and too little structure battling all his challenges at the same time, and, he said, he was lonely, missing the street community of which he had so long been a part. He then succeeded, within the shelter he had chosen to reenter, in getting his mental illness and addiction under control, got treatment for his cancer and went into remission, and was then ready to once more move into a permanent supportive housing situation.
Recently I asked a good friend, Pastor Karen Dudley of the Dallas International Street Church, how her program had gone about facilitating the rehabilitation of those people within her discipleship, many of whom I know to have tried many other approaches before coming to the DISC. I was expecting a lengthy exposition on philosophy and practice and was quite surprised by the simplicity of Pastor Karen’s response, which is probably why I remember it. She spoke first of the primary importance of the constant and ongoing spiritual and religious aspects of life at the DISC, and then said:
“but the reconstruction of themselves is up to them.”
That simple phrase has continued to ring truer to me than almost anything I’ve heard about helping people get off the street.
I know that I am prickly on this subject of ‘saving’ people, especially friends who are homeless, because I find this sort of rhetoric to be exploitive and demeaning, as though the person being offered assistance were a project or a specimen rather than a capable human being, full of dignity. Granted, those experiencing homelessness often have extraordinary challenges to overcome, as would anyone in their place. But I think we have to be oh-so-very careful where we draw the line in our attempts to communicate with one another about their struggles and the ways that we hope to partcipate in the solutions to their dilemmas. In reality, how we couch our efforts in our language, as well as in our own minds, says a great deal about us. The metaphor of reaching out to someone is a lot different from the image of reaching down to them.
Dallas International Street Church: http://www.kdministries.org/