“What are these people’s stories? How did they end up here?”, I wondered, when I first met some of the residents at a homeless shelter a group of us volunteered at last week. Some of them fit the stereotype—“grungy”, downtrodden-looking, anything one would expect someone to look and act like if they’d been living on the streets and then in a shelter due to addiction, mental-illness, joblessness, etc. But many of them didn’t. They looked and acted like anyone you’d meet anywhere else.
As one young girl on our team expressed later, “Wow, going there was so different from what I expected! I thought they’d be dangerous, or not want us around, especially ‘cause we’re kids! But they talked to us and played games with us and… they’re people—just like us! I mean, they were so nice!”
Not to say that homeless people are perfect saints who never do or did wrong. None of us are. But like us, each of them had, and has, a story. I felt both blessed and saddened, and even a bit angry at the devil, when some of them shared their stories with me. Since these folks have had their pride-props knocked out from under them, they’ll share their stories and issues with anyone who asks and listens with genuine interest. Such as “H”, the well-dressed, well-groomed, artist who ended up homeless after running away from an abusive husband, and her abusive parents kicked her out. Or “C”, who went from riches to rags paying hospital bills for his wife and getting cancer and disabled himself. Or “M”, the young musician/singer who gave up on life and the Lord after so much rejection and his brother (the only one he felt close to) dying. So he turned to alcohol and the shelter is helping him stay sober.
None of us has the exact same story. We’re all unique. I’ve never struggled with addiction or gone from riches to rags, or gotten kicked out by my parents who took my son away from me. Most of you reading this haven’t either. And I hope none of us will ever experience homelessness! But—how many of us have been hurt by others’ abusive words or deeds toward us? How many of us have lost something unjustly? How many of us have ever been or felt rejected? Likely most, if not all, of us.
So we can identify with “those people” on the street and in homeless shelters. We can also perhaps identify with those who, due to their success in this world, look like they “have it all together”, but really have their own struggles they’re hiding.
The extreme case of this becomes hypocrisy. Jesus reserved his harshest judgment against hypocrites, calling them “whitewashed tombs” – in other words, clean and nice-looking death-containers.
No one likes or wants to be called a hypocrite. Yet all of us try hard in our own way to appear great at whatever we think will make us popular—beauty, intelligence, athletic ability, competence, kindness… whatever seems valuable to those that matter to us. Why? Because we all know that “People look at the outward appearance” – that’s even in the Bible! (1 Sam. 16:7). But should we? Note what else this verse says—“…The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
In other words, “don’t judge a book by its cover”. In fact, booksellers on Amazon and other websites now issue bold invitations to “LOOK INSIDE”. They get it!
What about us? What does our listening, caring, respect, and empathy do? After a week, “H” decided she was lovable. “C” felt worthy of respect again. “M” let me pray for him and told me he’s giving God another chance. All of them want to get closer to the Lord we represented by relating to them the way Jesus would.
Next time we meet anyone, anywhere, anyhow, take a look inside— where the treasure and truth lie hidden.