Empathy is defined as the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another. When it comes to the homeless in our communities, many of us try to empathize with them. We try to imagine what they’re feeling. We consider what it must feel like to experience their lives. We try to put ourselves in their shoes.
Tonight, I think I’ve gotten closer than I’ve ever been. When I met my friend, “Joe” (see his story, “It’s A Long Walk From The Street”) I thought I saw the picture clearly. But tonight took things to an even more intimate level. I volunteered through my church to support the Norfolk Emergency Shelter Team (N.E.S.T.) Program. I got to spend the night with homeless men and women at one of our community churches that is providing them with shelter.
Perhaps if I hadn’t shared so personally in the story of Joe I wouldn’t be so affected. Perhaps if I were currently working with my new friend “Rudy” in Virginia Beach I wouldn’t be so touched. But knowing intimate details of the story of these two homeless men has sensitized my heart to the people I see sleeping on this floor tonight.
Looking around this room tonight I see grandfathers who damaged relationships with their children because of vices they couldn’t conquer. I see fathers who gave all they could to their children but didn’t leave themselves with enough to care for themselves. I see dads who couldn’t maintain their child-support payments, had to spend some time behind bars as a result, and now find themselves jobless and even less capable of providing for their kids. I see sons who are now realizing that what momma tried to teach them was actually right. I see grandmothers who made just a few too many poor choices. I see moms whose mental health was just too much for their kids to handle but have no one who can afford their medical care. I see employees who gave decades of excellent to a company that went under and after missing 2-3 paychecks they found themselves in a whole they couldn’t dig themselves out of.
But I also saw men getting up at 3:30 and 4:00 in the morning to walk for miles to their jobs so that this night wouldn’t be perpetual. I see loving couples who are fighting through the helplessness together and trying to find a way out. I see friends looking out for each other’s medical conditions and helping each other survive.
And I met an 86 year old gentleman who is passionate about serving these homeless men & women, who takes pride in making sure they have a hearty breakfast in the morning before they hit the streets, who sings “Good Morning” to them as he turns on the lights, who treats them as peers – not a scourge. And he spends each night with them for the whole week his church hosts them, watching over them like they’re his family members, learning their names.
Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you”. I’m convinced that as long as there are rich people in the world there will also be poor and homeless people. I don’t think it’s a matter of right and wrong as much as it is a matter of cause and effect. Think about it.
What have you done this this past winter to help those without homes? What will you do next winter? What about this summer? It’s not too late to help. Get busy.