I only recently found Liz McEwan here on the Internet, but I absolutely love her insightful, beautiful writing. I’m so glad to have her writing here today!
After ten years of city living, there are many things that come easy to me. Walking instead of driving, for example, has become second-nature. And parking a block or two from my front door? I’ve gotten used to it, even with groceries in the car. Sharing sidewalks and noisy neighbors? Those things are now just a small part of the colorful life we live in the city.
This community provides a rich life for me and my family, but the more time we spend on the street and on the playground, rubbing shoulders with our neighbors, the more obvious it is that the experience is not so rich for everyone. The struggles of people living elsewhere can remain behind closed doors and privacy fences but, in the city, there is no hiding. Open your eyes in any diverse, urban community and the struggles around you are obvious. Absentee parents, substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty, hunger, homelessness–they’re all here, walking the same sidewalks as me and my well-kept and well-loved children.
The complexity of the urban landscape is overwhelming and, as a Christian, it’s very hard to know how to engage. For every offensive behavior I see and wish to shield my children from, there is another that breaks my heart and begs for my help. The sin is obvious here, but so is the injustice. And that is one part of city living that I’ll never get used to.
There are two sides of the justice equation—first is overturning injustice and the second requires setting things right. In the Kingdom of God, we are called to both sides of the equation. My responsibility is to weigh the needs I see in front of me and the gifts and resources I have to offer, then find my part in the picture. But, my time, our finances, my emotional energy—it’s all maxed-out on most days. So, what I have to offer doesn’t seem like much.
As in many other cities, there are “regulars” we see on the street every day as we go about our lives. Some of them are legitimately homeless; some are not. Some receive financial assistance; some do not. Some could get a job if they tried; some could not. They all have stories to tell about why they are where they are and some of the stories are true, but it’s impossible to know who to believe.
There is one particular man who hangs out in our neighborhood, selling newspapers and asking for pocket change. Unlike some of the people we see wandering the street, he is pretty harmless. He’s not prone to violence and only occasionally shows up with alcohol on his breath.
Like the rest, he has a lot of stories to tell.
He tells us his mother is in the hospital and he has to go visit her.
He tells us that he knows who stole my husband’s tools and he can get them back for us—for a small fee.
He tells us all of his clothes and bedding have been destroyed by bed bugs.
He tells us that he absolutely did not steal the pair of sandals he is trying to sell us.
He tells us that he has cancer and has only 100 days to live.
Some of these stories are true, I’m sure, and some of them are definitely not.
But, we listen anyway.
This man is, essentially, a stranger but we treat him as a friend. He sings songs to my children and brings them toys he finds waiting on the sidewalk on trash day. He helps me with my groceries and offers to work with my husband, building our fence in the backyard. When I have $1.50, I buy his paper. And when I have extra change, I give him that, too. My husband lets him in to use our bathroom and drives him home late at night when he’s missed the bus or doesn’t have enough change for the fare.
Our relationship with this man is very simple and, to be honest, it doesn’t require very much from us at all: a few bucks, a couple extra minutes, a smile and a warm welcome. We could never offer the same time and energy to every man or women we see in our neighborhood, but we have learned that we have plenty to offer this man. And, so, we give it freely.
Justice is an essential part of God’s economy and the work of every Christian. I am not capable of, nor responsible for, fulfilling every part of the equation myself, but there is always something I can offer.
The other day, my husband and a friend were moving furniture into our house when our neighborhood “regular” appeared and offered to help. After the work was done, this man told our friend another one of his stories. We’ve heard a lot of these stories before–stories about his mother, his bed bugs, his cancer.
This time he said that, thanks to my husband, he decided not to kill himself.
And maybe this story is true.
Maybe my $1.50 and the warm smiles of my children and the three mile car ride from our house to his really is saving this man’s life.
Or maybe it’s not.
It’s not my job to determine what “results” God brings from my labor. And, like the man who plants the seeds of a fruit tree, I may never even see the harvest. My job is to be faithful with what I’ve been given and be willing to offer it generously for the work of the Kingdom.
This is what God has commanded of us: to act justly, love mercy, and show compassion. There is always more to be done but, if we have done this, we have done enough. And if we would all do enough, together we could do it all.
Liz McEwan is a wife and mother of three living in Cincinnati, Ohio. Find her at thewalkinggreen, a “personal commentary on marriage & motherhood, urbanism & sustainability, theology & culture.”