One of our team, who’s spent the last six years reaching out to marginalised people, shares how God helps her to overcome barriers.
Ever found it daunting to reach out to someone who is homeless or marginalised? Do you feel disturbed when you see people begging in the street? But if giving money isn’t the best thing, how can you help?
Even after six years of ministry to marginalised people, I still feel apprehensive speaking to people who’re marginalised... until I get to know them. Rather than dismissing my fears, I’m learning to ask: What is it exactly that I’m afraid of? Is it a well-founded fear or am I just concerned about feeling uncomfortable? Is it right to just dive in?
What follows is some of my own personal responses to these questions.
We often feel afraid when we’re unsure how a person will respond to us. Marginalised people may be less predictable than most due to fear, exhaustion, stress, illness, poor mental health or feeling overwhelmed by their situations. They’re likely to have been badly treated and may be nervous of you! But possible unpredictability isn’t a reason to avoid building relationships with anyone. In fact, I’m convinced Jesus is dissatisfied when those of us able to do more just sign a Direct Debit form for our favourite homeless charity (though that’s a great thing to do). When Jesus describes how he will separate the sheep (those who will enter the kingdom with him and the Father) from the goats, he asks how we related to those less well off.
‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Matthew 25:33,34.
He calls for personal engagement with those in need. How do you like people to treat you when you’re feeling nervous, exhausted, sick, a victim of injustice, etc...? That will be a helpful guide in how to relate to people who are homeless or marginalised.
There Are Too Many!
How do I respond to such overwhelming need? Aside from my ministry, I’ve decided to focus on getting to know just a couple of people I meet on my way to work. I buy The Big Issue from one particular seller and buy a coffee for a girl who begs outside my local tube station. I chat to them both about how things are going for them. I’ve prayed with the girl a few times, and tell The Big Issue seller that I pray for him.
These relationships aren’t without complexity. For a while, the girl asked me for a coffee every time she saw me. I started to dread seeing her because I didn’t want to say no, nor did I think it was good to get her a coffee every time. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to explain that I won’t always buy her a coffee. Guess what? She accepted it! Although it was a little unpleasant to do, my relationship with her is teaching me how to say no thoughtfully and respectfully.
How Do I Set Good Boundaries?
What if they ask too much? When I started my ministry, someone advised me to think through what I was and wasn’t willing to offer. I actually wrote it out, which you might find helpful. Being clear to yourself will help you feel more confident and people will instinctively feel safer around you. Some of my personal boundaries include not giving out my personal mobile number or address, and not giving money since I can’t be sure it’s going to be helpful. But I know other people who do. There are good general guidelines like this in the LCM booklet on sharing the gospel with marginalised people (p18-19).
I do give regularly to my favourite homeless charities which help people improve their lives long-term. As Christians, we should be giving materially as well as relationally. James is critical of those who just pray for people to stay warm and well fed but don’t do anything (James 2:15-16). But we want to give wisely.
Perhaps you don’t feel ready to make friends with someone on the street. As it’s a fairly isolated way of reaching out, it might be wiser to begin by volunteering at a homeless project with an experienced team.
Blessed To Be A Blessing
I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve been deeply blessed by people I’m trying to serve in ministry! It’s a privilege to be let into someone’s life, especially when they’re different to you. Even those with very little have shown me extraordinary kindness or amazing insights. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a woman involved in some deeply damaging things. She’d embarked on a beautiful relationship with Jesus and said that she always talked to him: walking down the road, getting ready to go out. When I told her that I’d love for my relationship with Jesus to be like that, she said, ‘Well, you must have really strong faith then!’ I was blown away. What an encouragement!
Start With A Caring Heart
We all make mistakes and will often need to apologise or ask for forgiveness. But genuine care about people shines through. The most important thing I’ve heard from people who’ve begged is the desire to be treated with dignity.
‘If my sinfulness appears to me in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognising my sinfulness at all.’ – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This quote deeply challenged me. Do I really believe that my own sinfulness is smaller or less serious than a girl selling her body on the street? Or the guy with an addiction begging by the station? Really believing that before God I’ve also sinned and fallen short of his glory totally transforms how I relate to people society may regard as ‘less than’.
This article first appeared in Changing London.