An abandoned stained wicker love seat rests near an oak tree on an urban corner in Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District. Across the street, the paint continues to peel on a milk manufacturer’s towers, with its complex network of ladders, pipes, and support buildings. To the north, the traffic roars on the Fremont Bridge overhead, as I slowly drive underneath on trash-strewn homeless-populated streets. Nearby a gathering of 40-50 teens and young adults practice their skateboarding skills and hang out. Mowhawk haircuts, black leather, chains, and tattoos denote their cultural sensibilities. I decide not to stop and chat. Wisdom breathes a sigh of relief. Curiosity mourns the lost opportunity.
These are scenes you will not see in marketing websites and brochures lauding Portland’s livability. Polite society ignores the marginalized and the gritty realities of urban living. We ignore in our marketing and in our actions, until our hands are forced. The result is a system which perpetuates dependency, rather than a system which provides for short-term needs in a way that leads to long-term self-reliance. Indeed, self-reliance has become a dirty word, it appears, both in religious and political circles. Two extremes polarize the debate: either let them solve their own problems, or let them be completely reliant on public assistance with no strategy to encourage freedom from addictions and the motivation and means to provide for themselves through legal employment. Instead, we in Christendom largely appear to be satisfied to allow government to take responsibility, in effect missing our opportunity to nurture a potent witness to the culture. I am not speaking of the church institutionally, but Christians personally.
But all is not lost. There are pockets of believers who are taking matters into their own hands. That is, they are being Christ’s hands extended to the marginalized. I think of Scott Espedal of Project Hope in Portland, or Ken Lloyd who meets with his friends without a home under the Burnside Bridge, and a group of caring folks from my church who go every Saturday to feed and care for homeless people on Portland’s eastside. And there are others, as well.
A movement toward caring for the marginalized is growing within evangelicalism, and in the culture at large. People want to be part of something larger than themselves. People want to make a difference. For another hurting person. For God. For humanity. Yes, even for themselves.
My readers live in all kinds of communities. I know that. Some in suburban housing tracts. Others in urban apartment communities like me. Still others in rural housing, far from the nearest neighbor and town. Yet even away from the urban context which is part of my daily experience, there are opportunities to make a difference in the lives of hurting people. You know the people I am talking about. Their marriages are failing. They just received a bad report from the doctor. They are about to lose their homes to foreclosure. They lost their jobs. You are Christ’s hands extended to them. Yes? Yes, of course. You are. You are in their lives for a reason. I cannot help them. I don’t even know who they are. But you do. So, what will you do now? Make a plan? Act on it? If you do, be careful to watch Jesus melt barriers and build bridges of hope in the lives of hurting people. He may even do something special in your heart. Maybe he already is. Don’t wait for the church leaders to suggest it; just do it. And watch God work. Come back and let us know what happened. I will do the same.