Though there were many issues I had with this quote, I was struck by the word "opportunity." I realized how much of the Christian faith that I grew up with saw people as opportunities. Sure, they were human beings, made in the image of God. But at the end of the day, there always had to be a string attached, a way of making sure that we didn’t miss out on the opportunity to share Jesus. Now this is nothing new nor surprising for those who grew up in, or have a decent knowledge of, American Evangelicalism.
But what struck me today in thinking about this was how much this idea kept me from really having to encounter the other. Really encountering someone different from me. The church I grew up in was, like most churches in the United States, full of people that looked just like me, and had similar levels of wealth and privilege to me. This meant that when I met someone outside of that context, even when I really liked them and just wanted to know them, there was always that underlying question of how to bring up Jesus. Even as I began to shift in my faith, and began to see salvation as far bigger than a decision for Jesus, that feeling lingered.
My friend Ken, who began HOMEpdx, the community I worked with in Portland for three years, would often come and share with churches and other groups that were volunteering. He was wonderful at facilitating those times of reflection about how we be friends to those living outside. In one of these conversations, the idea came up about seeing Jesus in “the least of these,” referring to those living outside. Ken thought for a moment, and then replied, “You know, I don’t see Jesus in my friends who live outside. I just see my friends.”
The point he was making was not about whether or not Jesus is present with those our culture has pushed to the margins. He was pointing out how often we don’t see people for who they are. We see an opportunity. We see an example of injustice. We see a need we can fix. But all of us, first and foremost, need to see them as people. As human beings like us.
And by seeing the humanity in those who live outside, we were seeing Jesus.
This was one of the most powerful things I learned at HOMEpdx. That seeing the humanity in those who live outside was not a step in living out the Gospel. It was the Gospel. I begin to see people, not as needs or opportunities. Not as objects in a story about the cool Christian things I am doing. But as people. People who became my friends. I still fail at this sometimes. I still sometimes see a need before I see a person. But I want to be a person that sees people, as they are, as worth of knowing simply because they exist.
You will often here me say, as many have said before me, that the biggest hinderance to the church helping the poor is that the church doesn’t know the poor. And it’s hard to know the poor if we can't begin with seeing them as people.
For many years, a sign hung at HOMEpdx. It was a quote from Ken, that read: “You deserve to be loved simply because you exist." How can we, as followers of Jesus, live out this quote today?