When we meet with others who live on the margins of our society – people who are living in poverty, experiencing homelessness, or those with a mental or physical illness – our initial reaction is to focus solely on their problems and on how they are ‘different’ from us.
As I discovered in the years I spent working with homeless people, who were living with multiple challenges, there was often the temptation to only respond in one of two ways: ‘fix or distance’. Either we attempt to ‘fix’ another’s problems: “This is a problem that needs sorting. I can do these things and provide this solution for the person.” Or we strive to distance ourselves: “This is too much. This is something I’ve never encountered before. Run away!”
This might be a natural response when we feel challenged, but one we are all called to engage with and question if we are to be part of creating communities where everybody is welcome.
Jesus’ life consisted of drawing in voices from the margins to the centre. The gospels are peppered by encounters with those who experience exclusion from their community. There’s a long list, but the following come to mind: the woman caught in adultery and held up as an example to those around her; the man healed at the pool of Bethesda, dependent on others to access the healing waters; and the woman whose illness forced her to live in isolation and despair.
In all these encounters, we see Jesus modelling a better way: He goes beyond the need to ‘fix or distance’ to seeing and responding to the whole person. In so many examples, Jesus provides an alternative: seeing beyond the initial presenting issue and offering the person an opportunity to participate in their community. Needs were met, but not at the expense of seeing others as members of community, and reminding everybody present of this.
As we encounter people in Livability’s projects and our churches and communities, how do we move beyond that initial response of ‘fix or distance’? A first important step towards this is approaching a conversation in a way that might help us see each one of us as whole people, as Jesus demonstrated.
Let’s start by agreeing that all of us are much more than our presenting needs and are a curious mix of gifts, blessings and challenges waiting to be discovered. So, as we talk and listen, let’s do what we can to think beyond our first response. If we can embrace the process as one of discovery, we’ll go a long way to creating places where everybody feels included.
Corin Pilling is Assistant Director of Community Engagement. Prior to supporting churches connect with their communities at Livability, he worked on projects to help homeless people progress into employment. He lives in King’s Cross where he attends a small church on a large estate.