Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”Matthew 25:34-40 (NRSV)
This past weekend, I spent 25 hours in downtown Raleigh with a group of other divinity school students participating in a poverty simulation. It gave me a small taste of what it feels like to be helpless in a city without a dollar to my name. We slept outside, rummaged through thrift store handouts and trash cans and somehow made our way through the weekend.
We also made a few new friends along the way. I met Willard, a 59-year-old retired mail carrier (probably 60 years old now, Happy Birthday Willard!) who wanted to go back to college just for fun, but needed a little help on his entrance exam. We talked about writing for a while before he had to hurry into the soup kitchen to be sure he had a bit of warmth to get him through the rainy night outdoors. “I’ve got a pretty nice sleeping bag,” Willard said. I remembered him later that night as I scoured for a spot to set up my synthetic-fiber, 15º backcountry fortress from REI. I wonder just how nice Willard’s sleeping bag really is.
I met Raheem, a guy about my age who moved to Raleigh from Philadelphia to be closer to some of his family, just to find out they didn’t really want to be closer to him. He’s spent months searching the newspapers and internet for job listings, but hasn’t found anybody willing to take a chance on him yet, despite his incredible gift for rhetoric — “I can sell you anything!” Raheem told me as he gave his only sweatshirt away to another friend who felt chilled at the thought of spending one more night alone in the park.
I met Steve, a New York native who spent decades building a good life with his wife in North Carolina. Then she died unexpectedly in 2003. Steve got by alright until 2008 when he lost his job. He didn’t have anybody else to turn to, but that wasn’t a big deal. He could make it through. But the months passed on and he still couldn’t find any work in Raleigh; he couldn’t sell the home he had spent the last half of his life working to pay off. A year later, this hardworking, well-spoken, clean-cut, “normal” guy found himself without a place to stay when the banker came to collect his due. Now he hangs around City Market.
I learned a lot this weekend, but the thing that has stuck with me most is something I’ve known for a very long time, I just tend to forget it when the situation makes it convenient for me:
Early in my undergraduate work, I wrote an in-depth essay on stereotypes. The primary thought that drove that paper was my determination that stereotypes are a necessary evil. Without them, we would simply be overwhelmed by the abundance of information, of power and detail in the natural world that we try to make our way through. We would be unable to function if we tried to truly understand every individual that comes our way, beginning with a blank palette; so we use stereotypes to help us cope.
Unfortunately, though, our stereotypes also blind us to the beauty of the real world God has made for us. We go through our lives like we’re sitting in on an original performance of Beethoven’s 5th, choosing instead to slouch down in the back row and listen to Spongebob Squarepants singing on our iPods.
We have stereotypes. Often times we’re aware of them. We may even try to put them aside occasionally and get to know someone for who they really are. But I would venture to say that of all the stereotypes we hold, those that protect us from the homeless are the last ones we are willing to give up.