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The Identity of the Homeless

When you see a person holding a cardboard sign on the street corner or huddled under a blanket on a bench, it’s easy to slip into making assumptions. Oftentimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it, but we might find ourselves immediately feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps we avert our eyes or avoid crossing the street just yet. We might assume they have mental health issues or a drug problem. We might even assume their homelessness is a result of their own poor choices.

If you’ve ever spent time serving in a shelter or working with people experiencing homelesseness, you know these stereotypes are often untrue. And even if they are true about a specific person, their story is often much more complex than these narratives would suggest. At Nashville Rescue Mission, we have built relationships with enough people who are homeless or hurting to know that everyone’s story is different. 

Even if you know this, it can be difficult to consistently have compassion for our homeless friends. We’re naturally predisposed to focus on our own lives, our own convenience and our own to-do lists. Sometimes compassion is inconvenient. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. 

How can we avoid exhibiting this prejudice? How can we cultivate more empathy and compassion for our fellow image-bearers?

Homelessness is Personal

Recently, I invited some of our leadership team from the mission onto the Real Hope podcast, and our former Chief of Staff Norman Humber said something that stood out to me.

“No matter what the reason that person has walked through the doors of the mission or they’re navigating their way on the street, they are someone’s son, daughter, mother, cousin, friend,” he said. “And they all need the respect and dignity one would provide if it was a close friend going through that situation.”

Remembering this foundational truth about every person we come into contact with, particularly people experiencing the hardship of homelessness, is crucial to maintaining empathy and compassion. It’s key to seeing them as human beings with thoughts, feelings and individual needs. Even if we cannot always buy a meal or share a few dollars, remembering their humanity gives us the ability to truly look them in the eye and say hello and ask their name. I’ve found that sometimes, that can be even more valuable than a few bucks.

During our conversation, Norman also remembers a time when he met a man experiencing homelessness, and through the mission he saw his life transform. The man was struggling with some mental and physical health issues, but through the programs at the mission he was able to get help. Not long after he was able to be reunited with his family — many of whom assumed he had died. He was able to attend his granddaughter’s graduation and a family reunion. This kind of story is only possible if we see the humanity in someone’s eyes. 

If we see homelessness as a faceless problem, we aren’t able to help foster the deep kind of life-change needed for long-term transformation. Without investing in individual people, we’re just serving meals and providing beds without actually helping people heal and move forward.

Seeing someone as a fellow bearer of the image of God — a person with unique thoughts, desires and experiences — also helps remind the person of their humanity. It’s easy to lose your sense of self when you’ve had to become so focused on survival. Looking someone in the eye and asking their name could be one of the most transformative things you do for them. Reminding them of their worth and providing them with the dignity and respect they deserve can give them the hope and courage to keep moving forward.

Jesus, the Unpredictable

One of the things I love most about Jesus is that he was constantly defying what was expected of him. And the religious elite couldn’t stand it. He did things that no religious leader in his day would’ve been caught dead doing: hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes. Healing on the Sabbath. Encouraging them to “turn the other cheek” and love their enemies. Even washing his own disciples’ feet! People were consistently confused by him. 

Though the culture in which he lived was so intent on hierarchy, Jesus loved everyone equally. It was jarring for people. Jesus saw the reflection of the Trinity in every person he encountered, especially those who suffered. As Paul writes on more than one occasion, with God, there is no partiality (Rom. 2, Gal. 2, Eph. 6). 

When confronted by the Pharisees, who asked “Why does your teacher eat with the tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus himself explained:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn iwhat this means: j‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For kI came not to call the righteous, lbut sinners.”

Matt. 9:12-13, ESV

Jesus spent time with people who were despised in his culture: Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors. He saw them for who they were at their core: image-bearers. Sinful, yes. But made in the image of God. As Christians, we are called to see this “imago dei” in everyone as well. Like us, people experiencing homelessness are also created in the image of God. 

We also would be wise to remember that just as we are all image-bearers, we are also all on equal footing before the Lord. None is righteous, Paul writes. No, not one (Rom. 3:11). When it comes down to it, we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). Some may experience more hardship than others in this life. Some may make more visible mistakes or hurt more people. But none of us are immune to sin. We are all in need of a Savior.

And remember, Jesus said, whatever you do for the least of these, you do for him (Matt. 25:40).

Remind People of their Humanity

Today, I hope you’ll choose to remind one another of your humanity. We are image-bearers of the Creator of the Universe — each and every one of us. If you have the opportunity, I hope you’ll ask a person in need their name. I hope you’ll look them in the eye when you do. Let’s remember that every person we meet is someone’s child, friend, father, mother, sister or brother. Remember each person has a unique identity and a unique story. And maybe, if you ask, you’ll get to hear it.

You can hear more from Norman and my other incredible colleagues from the NRM team on the Real Hope podcast. Don’t forget to subscribe so you won’t miss out on any of the other inspiring and powerful episodes we have coming up!

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