Band-aids from Slacktivists
The subject of band-aids came up in my class today. It’s easy to look at a big social problem, examine from all ends, and then implement a one dimensional, simplistic program to ‘solve’ the social problem. We treat the issue like it’s a small scrape, instead of the gaping would that it is. We then put the band-aid of our program or our legislation over the wound and then act surprised when the problem doesn’t go away. We do this through our programs and even with the things we give away. I see it all the time on social media- in fact, I saw a post about a new initiative from suburbia tonight to give the homeless something they ‘needed’….. when I doubt there was a needs assessment done to determine that the target recipients actually needed the product that will be given away. We think we know what’s best for people, when we usually don’t know them at all.
I’ve been researching and discussing the issue of American Poverty in depth this year and even teach a university course on the subject, so I’ve certainly been formulating my thoughts and have quite the opinion about our initiatives to help the poor. And really, I feel that we do a horrible job in our outreach. I’m not pointing fingers, I’m including myself in this discussion. Here are a few reasons that I think many of our initiatives are misguided in helping the poor.
1. Gifts should be relational- I am a strong believer that you meet immediate needs, no questions asked. If someone is hungry, you feed them (before the Bible Study or the special program). If someone needs clothes, you give them clothes. But if you have an idea about something that someone needs, and you’ve never met that person, then you don’t probably don’t really know what they want or need. A gift becomes meaningful when you know the person you are giving that gift to. And it begins with a conversation. We need to be careful to pass out random things to people in need because we THINK they need it.
2. We don’t know what it is like– If you are a middle class person in America and have never lived below the poverty line, then you have no clue what it is like to be poor. And guess what, I’m right there with you. I have no clue what it feels like either. But don’t feel guilty that you have never lived in that situation. Instead, listen. Go down to a ministry that serves the poor and spend time with them. Grab a hotdog and sit down next to a guy and ask him about his life. Look at the person in the eyes, ask them what their name is. Listen to them. You would not believe how invisible the impoverished in our country feel. They feel invisible and forgotten. Or they feel judged and condemned by everyone around them. And in many cases, they are correct. We cast judgement on the homeless man and the single mother on welfare everyday. And most of us have never bothered to sit down and just say ‘How are you?’ or ‘Tell me your story.’
3. Give dignity – My friend Dan of Polis Institute shared a story with me a few weeks ago about this very subject. There was a program in Atlanta aimed at providing Christmas gifts to families. Great idea right? But the gifts, the handouts, brought so much shame to the fathers in these families that it caused discord and mistrust. The givers didn’t think that their gifts would cause shame, but they also didn’t sit down and ask the families what would be best for them. The solution was pretty simple- allow the parents to come and purchase the gifts they would give to their children for a nominal price. They would then restore dignity to these parents, as they then were able to play a role in providing Christmas for their families. For many of us in the suburban church, we would never imagine that a gift could strip someone of their dignity and pride. But if we stop and listen, then we may learn that many of our ideas can hurt more than they help.
4. The solution isn’t simple…or is it? – Welfare reform isn’t simple. Poverty isn’t simple. Homelessness isn’t simple. These are complicated issues that require complicated solutions. If you are an aspiring wold changer, you may think you can fix things pretty easily. You can’t. Believe me, I know. But you can change the world for one person at a time, while advocating for large scale change in the system. We need both. We need to learn the faces of the people who are struggling in our world, we need to know who they are. And then, we need to advocate for change from the top down. If every Christian, or every compassionate person, were to commit to pour their life into another….. we would see big change. So maybe the solution is simple after all. But I think it may be complicated to get people away from the Facebook political rants and out on the streets eating lunch with someone who is homeless. What do you think?
5. We must leave our comfort zones- Guess what? I can be a major slacktivist. I talk about poverty a lot, and I advocate for change a lot, but I don’t know many people who are poor by name. I speak on behalf of the enslaved, I educate people as much as possible, and I seek to influence and serve as much as I can. I have friends all over the world who have very different lives and are desperately poor, but I’ve been really bad about making friends here, in Atlanta. It’s a comfort zone thing. It’s stretching to enter into community with someone, especially when they are different from you. It’s also time consuming. But I have several friends who have demonstrated to me what that community looks like, and I’ve realized that it’s time for a change. I am really good at projects, at one time events, but I need to discover an ongoing relationship. My commitment is to find a place to serve regularly where I can enter into community with people who are poor. In between the public speaking, the educating, the researching, the emailing legislators, and the blogging, I plan to make some new friends. As I’m working to change the world in big ways, I need to change the world for one person at a time.
Hold me to it, you few people who occasionally scan my blog posts, cause it needs to happen. It’s time to rip the band-aid off of my poverty slacktivism.
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