When I was thirteen years old I used to bake really large chocolate cakes every Monday evening. Our church hosted a meal for those who were homeless in the area and I got to make dessert for them! I’d head out every week and sit and eat my dinner alongside our guests and others from the church, chatting, laughing, story-telling and—at times—singing along with the songs blaring from their ghetto-blasters…dancing occasionally. Some weeks felt tough as I watched the hurts and frustrations of these guests come to the surface in various ways, but mostly it was a lot of fun and I enjoyed listening to the stories of their fascinating lives. They gave me a new window into life.
I remember getting to know a man named Henry, he always arrived on his bicycle with shopping bags containing most of his belongings hanging off the handlebars. He wore a tweed jacket and a farmer-style hat, his toothy grin smiled through his slightly over-grown beard and his posh-London-accent felt at odds with his rough image. He’d talk about the war and politics. I knew little of either.
One evening my dad came to pick me up and I introduced the two of them. As they chatted about life we discovered that Henry knew my Grandad. He’d worked closely with him and they’d shared a keen appreciation for fine art and Italian food. They’d lost touch many years back as life’s circumstances changed, but he’d considered him a good friend. Dad and Henry chatted about life in Kew, growing up in The Old Church and the quirky character traits of my unique and obscure Grandad.
It was a strange point of connection, where two separate world’s I lived in came together.
It wasn’t exactly a profound conversation and it didn’t seem all that meaningful in the moment, but as I went home that evening a thought was planted in my heart that changed things for me: these men and women we served on a Monday night, these slightly different and often untidy, broken people who we’d categorised as “the homeless” were connected to me. We shared a reality.
We weren’t that far apart from one another.
I had often looked at our guests differently, as other in some way. I’d viewed what we were doing in the context of “us” helping “them”.
There was an unspoken barrier between us that I’d been content to leave alone, or perhaps too naive to understand.
Breaking down that barrier and finding that we stood on common ground was important. For both of us.
It still is.
In my role at work I do a lot of talking about poverty, social justice and community development. One of the most fundamental things I’ve learnt from these conversations is this:
There is no them.
There is only us.
If we want to bring about holistic transformation in people’s lives we need to be connected. It’s not charity from a distance, it’s compassion for those we’ve come to love. And love demands that we move in closer.
We need to start removing the barriers that separate us, break down the walls that have been built up through culture, fear and lack of understanding, and be willing to look at things in a new way – acknowledging that these barriers have distorted our view.
Separation is not the posture of God’s kingdom, togetherness is.
The kind of togetherness that creates life-giving space for one another and moves us towards wholeness, towards Jesus.
And so we seek to draw nearer, to cross boundaries, share meals, build friendships and truly connect. This is the example I see in the life of Jesus—the friend of sinners—whose intimate love heals our brokenness and restores our hope.
Poverty is a very complex topic, but seeking to come together and daring to draw a little closer feels like a very good place to start.