Makin’ it real

by Kristin on November 14, 2011

in Love, family & community

Photo by IndyDina

Yesterday, our church had a special mercy and justice service focusing on hunger and predatory lending in our community. It was very informational and interactive, so I was eager to hear what our middle school-aged kids thought about it all.

When I asked 13-year-old Q, she completely grasped the hunger issue. About one in four kids at her school qualifies for free lunches and is considered “food insecure,” and an average of 200 people come to our church each day to get a hot meal and a sack meal to go. Hunger is real, and involves real people in our community. She gets that.

The predatory lending issue, however, was more difficult for her to grasp—not on a conceptual level, but on a human level. With a 402 percent interest cap in the state of Illinois for these short-term, cash loans, the math is easy to demonstrate and staggering to imagine paying.

But what Q couldn’t imagine was a real person facing a situation that desperate—maybe being 50 dollars away from getting your heat turned off—with no where else to turn. Even though she was told (and believes) the problem is very real (apparently there are more payday loan shops in our community than fast food restaurants) it was too abstract for her to grasp with both her head and her heart.

Opening our lives and ears to real people who aren’t like us

As I tried to put a face on it for Q, I was struck (not for the first time) by how important real people and real stories are when it comes to cultivating real compassion and, ultimately, action and change.

But ignorance is bliss, right? Just look at the bliss of a 13-year-old who doesn’t get the desperation of living paycheck to paycheck. Well sure, it’s bliss if your definition of bliss is simplifying the world down to a viewpoint that only encompasses first world problems. And I’ll admit, that sort of tunnel vision is tempting. I was considering it on Veterans’ Day, as I struggled to know how to respond to complex global issues of war and unrest. When I’m not confronted by a story—a real face, a real family—it’s easier to avoid the issue all together.

But when we distance ourselves from issues we don’t understand, we not only live in a moment of denial, we create a potential snowball of denial. When I don’t understand something like military combat in a first-hand way, my tendency is to avoid it even more, because it’s foreign and I’m embarrassed by my lack of knowledge. The issue is compounded. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken.

When I do go out on a limb and open the door to hearing the stories of people who actually live in the issue, it’s a vulnerable place to be. But it’s an incredibly important one. The variety of comments on my Veterans’ Day post enlightened and moved me. I’m not saying they changed the world, but they definitely broke the ice and moved me closer to a place of understanding.

It’s possible that my ignorance also hurt some feelings or caused some anger in the process, which is not at all what I intended. In the end, though, I think it’s worth the risk. When we open doors to stories and deeper compassion and understanding, there will always be the potential for hurt, but an even greater potential for something good.

Has a real encounter or story helped you better understand a real problem?

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  • Julia Rademacher

    I think this one of the main reasons Jesus told his disciples to ‘come follow me.’ He didn’t say, ‘Hey, go and tell people about me.’ He said ‘follow’ which meant that they had to actually see for themselves the hurt, the injustice, the disease, the greed, the joy of new life as they followed Jesus into the trenches of a broken world. They witnessed first-hand the stories of God’s people and were intimately and intricately woven in to those stories, and in return, they were continually being changed. I think this is why service projects, mission trips, truly getting to know people for who they are, doing God’s work with our hands, is how we truly understand one another and find what it means to truly serve the other.

  • Roxanne

    I totally get the predatory lending thing, now. I didn’t always, though. It’s hard to imagine being so desperate that you would actually take out a short term loan with someone who charges 50 % interest. Until you’ve been there. Now that my life has changed dramatically … I look back and—

    One thing’s for sure, my mind is much more understanding about those types of situations.

  • The Modern Gal

    It’s definitely important to step outside of your comfort zone to find those stories that make us uncomfortable. A good friend of mine, who shares many feelings about war and peace that I have, works for the government and was sent to Iraq recently to do some writing about what’s going on there. His reaction to being there was remarkable — anytime he would start to feel certain about how horrible war was, he’d find something extremely wonderful that existed only because of the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and then he would be torn about his feelings. That happened over and over.

    I’ve been torn over seemingly the opposite reaction. I used to work on a truck that served food to homeless folks on Friday nights, and I was conflicted when we would serve someone who might curse us a minute later. Deep down I’d know he or she probably was facing a mental illness or some horror I can’t imagine, but those times would challenge me.

    And maybe all of that is part of God’s education for us: He wants us to continue our good works and keep our faith in spite of not having perfect examples.

  • Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

    Julia, yes! This image of following Jesus “into the trenches of a broken world” is right on. Determining what that looks like for his disciples today is a little trickier than following a real man through the streets, but I think we know it when we see it, when we are doing that work, and as we are being changed.

    Roxanne, that compassion and first-hand understanding are two of the gifts that can come out of experiencing hardships. Thanks for making it a bit more real for others.

    The Modern Gal, I like how you put it: “the stories that make us uncomfortable.” It’s exactly this experience of feeling torn, like your friend in Iraq, that leaves us most uncomfortable. This grey world is an education of imperfect examples, indeed!

  • Meredith

    I’ve spent my entire career (such as it is) in the nonprofit world and one of the things I keep coming back to again and again are the organizations whose programs are designed to help people gain the skills or the resources they need to help themselves. Over and over, I’ve met people – homeless men and women, single mothers living in urban cities, teen moms trying to finish their degrees – and the one thing most of them have in common is the desire to create their own solutions and become self-sufficient. And in most cases, they often just need a bit of help or a hand up to the next step. And yet all too often the stereotypes want us to believe that people who need help are simply too lazy or are looking for a hand-out. I feel fortunate that I’ve had multiple opportunities to know that that isn’t true. I just wish I could figure out a way to show other people as well.