Monday, October 17, 2011

Poverty Summit Ponderings

Last week there was a Poverty Summit held in Camp Hill, PA that was hosted by UM Advocacy.  There were many wonderful panel discussions, worship services, and a key note address by author and humanitarian, Shane Claiborne.  During one of the panels it was mentioned that relationships are more important than money.  The speaker had voluntarily lived on the streets in order to experience the life of homeless people and he explained how mainstream society totally ignores street people.  Even those who provide help often keep them at arm’s length and don’t want to relate to them as humans.  The point was clear: we need to offer genuine hospitality and respect to people who are poor.  That means taking the time to talk and listen and not just hand people a bag of food or decide for a person what it is that they want.
My mind goes back to an experience my husband and I had when we were pastoring in Baltimore.  We became friends with a homeless man who was mentally challenged.  Herb spoke with a halting, sing-song voice and his imposing body, strong odor and long fingernails scared most people he would meet.  My husband, Mike took the time to get to know this gentleman.  They would talk in his office for hours and Mike would drive him to get a shower at the food bank, help him get to the doctor, and at the end of every month Herb would be asking for money

Mike and I worked with Herb faithfully for 10 years and we longed for him to get into an apartment.  He had diabetes and his legs were swollen and he did not have any feeling in his feet.  Because he was disabled he received a monthly Social Security check from the government.  By a true miracle of God we were able to get him into a Section 8 apartment building that would only charge him 1/3 of his monthly check for his rent.  Normally there was a 7 year waiting list but he got in after only waiting 6 months.  It was a warm, comfortable efficiency apartment and the food bank found him some nice, used furniture.  The apartment became available at Christmas time and our church people were especially generous.  The little kitchen was packed with his favorite foods and he even had a free telephone.  The first night he was in the apartment it snowed and I was so happy that Herb was finally indoors with his feet resting on a clean bed.  And he could have a shower any time he wanted one. 

A few days passed and we got a call from the apartment building manager.  It seems he paid someone to pack up all of his furniture and he was moving out.  He did not like the cramped courters and the noise in the hall.  My husband rushed to the apartment building just as the truck was loaded up and convinced Herb to give it one more try.  The furniture went back upstairs. Two more times he loaded up the furniture and headed back on the street and two more times my husband begged him to reconsider.  Herb could stand it no longer.  The fourth time he succeeded in leaving the comforts of his own apartment in exchange for a life back on the streets that he preferred. 

We did not listen to what he really wanted.  We imposed our values on him.  He was simply unable to live in “captivity” in an apartment and this makes Herb a very unique person. What Herb valued and still values to this day (he still calls us) is that relationship with my husband.  He just wants to talk.  Mike is the only human he really knows. Last week we were visiting my parents in Baltimore and we stopped by the hospital to see Herb.  He has a bad infection in his legs.   Mike’s name is in the hospital charts as “next of kin.”  I guess he really is and I think we could all be a “next of kin” to someone like Herb.  The world would be a better place.  Knowing Herb is really the same as knowing Jesus.  

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