Written by Randy Evans of Walking Tall Wilmington
Sometimes I become complacent with how I perceive my friends experiencing poverty. Because we spend so much time with them, it is easy to become comfortable and perceive they will always be there to need us, or worse, perceive their worth by their socioeconomic status. I thought about this as I helped my poverty-entrenched friend relocate to Asheville.
I knew this gentleman for about a year and a half – upon meeting him my perceptions of him would prove to be both true and false. He came to the Riverfront needing the most basic necessitates (food, shelter, and healthcare). Over time, we built the trust needed for him to ask about obtaining clean syringes. We were glad to have such a rapport with him that he was comfortable enough to reveal his addiction, which is not an easy thing to do. As time went on, we became complacent in regard to our friendship and started to view this gentleman as nothing more than someone who showed up for weekly meals and clean syringes. We had become comfortable falling into our simple roles, not doing anything more, not doing anything less.
All of this changed when we helped him relocate.
The night before he moved to Asheville, he stayed at our house. He told us he hadn’t showered in weeks and couldn’t remember the last time he sat on a couch. He felt good that he had clothes that finally fit well. I drove him to Asheville long before the sun was up – the trip took a little over five hours – yet he slept the entire way. Later he told me that he hadn’t slept in days because he didn’t feel safe enough to do so. We arrived in Asheville at Haywood Street Congregation, which is a church that creates safe and sacred places for people experiencing poverty to be everything they want to be. They offer amazing meals, a community garden, a medical respite, space for artistic expression, a clothes closet, a syringe exchange, and various other spaces for healing. It felt great to connect him to this body of believers. We took a picture with him by the Haywood Street sign and he remarked, “That’s the first time I think I ever smiled in a picture.” At that exact moment, our entire perception of this gentleman had changed, and we realized our perception was clouded by the lack of a deeper relationship.
I tell you this story to consider how your perception of individuals experiencing poverty effects your attitude towards them. In other words, if you are only witnessing panhandling, that may be your default on how you define all people in poverty. Shifting the perception of poverty takes constant work, an extreme level of energy, and commitment. It’s much easier to infer what we think to be true of those in need. But is that really helpful? Aren’t these potential relationships worth embracing the unknown, the fear, and the anxiety that comes with it? Does the unpredictable nature of poverty scare you off? These questions are okay to ask, but they shouldn’t be asked forever – a change has to be made. So how can someone change their perspectives on individuals experiencing poverty? Relationship! You all have heard me say this a hundred times, but I will say it again: Relationship! Once you know someone on a deeper level, it changes everything. Our ability to create community through relationships rides on the idea that we will never meet another stranger. We strive for a deep friendship, the kind that goes the extra mile and reaches out – not just surface level acquaintances.
We have been thinking a lot about how we can become more invested in our community. One of the ways we decided to invest deeper in the Port City is to shift our perception of the current systems in place – good and bad – that keep our friends in a perpetual cycle of poverty. We have decided to spend time within those systems to gain a better knowledge and understanding of them, so we can assist and be part of the solution. Walking Tall Wilmington is intentional about partnering with local advocacy groups and our representatives in government. We challenge you to invest in your community and create a shift in perception through relationships – the deep and meaningful kind, not merely business transactions. There are many opportunities to do this through Walking Tall Wilmington – relationships run through our veins. A wonderful artist sums all this up through a popular mural he recently painted on the side of a building at Princess and 2nd Street. It shows the North Carolina state flag with the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge superimposed on it with the words, I BELIEVE IN WILMINGTON, across the top.
Wilmington, we believe in you!