Written by Randy Evans of Walking Tall Wilmington
Proximity can be a funny thing. It can be good, like proximity to friends and family; it can be bad, like swimming with sharks. The dictionary says proximity is “nearness in space, time, or relationship.” The definition made me smile: “nearness in relationship.” As I have written for almost a year, I believe that all of our shifts in thinking with regard to poverty will come from relationships – not housing, not jobs, not disability checks. Many times proximity is not a bad thing, but to those who are the most vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed, it is what creates those barriers and furthers the divide.
I question why proximity to the poor is viewed as a negative outside of the lens of charity. I’ve noticed closeness isn’t a problem for people when there’s a steam table, construction site, or clothes closet dividing us – we interact with the poverty-stricken as a business transaction. We provide the service, fulfill a need – it’s widely acceptable to only treat what is needed in that moment: a warm place to sleep, a meal, or a bus ticket.
It’s an entirely different ballgame to listen to their personal history while looking into their eyes and walking with them, day after day, month after month through good days and bad days. It’s suddenly personal and many people get skittish with this. I can understand that. It’s much easier to treat them as a client than a friend. Client relationships end once the service is complete and business hours are over. Friendships don’t come with an expiration date and can often involve inconveniences, but as I’m sure you can attest in your own circles, friendships are worth having and maintaining. If you are suddenly admitted to the Emergency Room, who would you want to show up: a stranger with an agency or a friend? The same applies to those experiencing poverty, just as they would to you. The rules don’t change because your home happens to be a tent in the middle of the woods.
Because of the close relationships I have with my friends who live on the streets, I often open my home to them. When the temperatures dip below freezing, I bring them to my house. If someone needs a shower or to wash clothes, I am happy to help them out. Of course, this comes with a cost too: I need space to unplug and reset from time to time. Having these spaces are important because it helps me better relate to others and avoid burnout. In this case, proximity sometimes becomes an intense situation. Everyone needs time away to recharge.
I understand this avant-garde way of life is not for everyone and I don’t expect everyone to engage like I do. Nonetheless, it is important to treat those experiencing poverty as people and open yourself to the possibility of friendship. I offer these tips on how to bridge that gap:
* Ask the person their name
* Briefly introduce yourself
* Ask how their day is going
* Listen to their response
* If you see them often, greet them by name and chat
* If you feel comfortable enough, invite them to share a meal with you at a near-by restaurant
Engaging those in poverty is more than just handing a panhandler cash when you’re at a stoplight; it goes further than just passing out blessing bags or bottles of water. While those are great gestures, I encourage you to get to know the person. Their experience of poverty will dramatically change the way you think about displaced people. I know it did for me! My biggest takeaway when I started friendships with those in poverty was they didn’t need what I thought they would need. I would never have found this without having conversations, relationships, and sharing close proximity to those affected.
Remember, the goal here is to engage a friendship, you’re not expected to fix everything that’s gone wrong. Think of your own friends who struggle and wrestle with issues – you journey with them and help with what you can – the same concept is applied here.
Poverty, especially in Wilmington, is all around us. It’s closer to your world than you may think it is. The proximity to those less fortunate than ourselves diminishes by building relationships. By removing the barriers, we treat those experiencing poverty as friends rather than projects.