Earlier this year I attended a summit on poverty. A special attraction was a photography exhibit entitled “Fighting for the Forgotten”. These pictures depicted real homelessness in America, unedited and raw. From the rural roads to busy city streets, countless images of what it looks like to be poor and homeless were on display. These are human beings, men and women who have unsurpassable worth in the eyes of Jesus, and yet they live in a manner unfathomable to most of us. One of the more sobering and haunting images was of a family walking along the street, pushing a shopping cart of presumably everything they owned. The family consisted of a father, mother, and three children. My best guess would place the ages of the children at two, five and eight. What must it be like to live their life? We are somewhat accustomed to seeing the homeless man on the steps of a building or on a street corner. When I see pictures of homeless women it seems a bit more disturbing to me because of the increased vulnerability factor. Seeing the children, however, was something that I had not encountered or contemplated before. It would be easy to quickly move on, to go to the next picture and pretend that homelessness is for runaway teenagers and out of work adults. The startling truth is that families exist on the street, much as they do in your neighborhoods. Regardless of how they got there, these families are just like ours. The parents have dreams for their children and they desperately want to provide for them, to give them a better life. While it may be easy to ignore when it is not happening to us, take a moment to pause and ask yourself, “What if that were my child?”
Children on the street often are not able to go to school. The ones that are show up in dirty clothes, the same clothes they wore yesterday and the day before. You remember what it was like to be in school, right? Children that age (and let’s be honest, children of our age as well) are absolutely merciless. The teasing and bullying such a child endures will wreak untold damage on their self worth and self esteem, thus pushing them ever further down their spiral of despair. In order to have a meal, homeless children in school often subsist on special lunch programs provided by the government. These programs also lead to ridicule from other students. “Your daddy’s a bum”, “Your parents are poor and smelly”, and “Can’t your parents even afford to buy food for their own kid?” It goes on and on; tears well up and pain drives ever deeper into the heart of the ridiculed child. It’s unfortunate and sad when this happens to someone else’s kid; but what if this was your child?
Christmas and birthdays are joyous occasions for most children. I’m sure you have a favorite holiday memory from your childhood. What if all you got for your birthday was something your dad had scavenged from a dumpster? What if your only toy was falling apart at the seams, dirty, and smelled like a sewer? What if Christmas meant simply that your family would need to huddle closer together to beat back the biting wind that was ripping through your threadbare coat? For homeless children, Christmas is often a time of despondency as they watch happy shoppers with an armload of bags briskly pass them by. It is the season of giving, but for the homeless it is yet another reminder of their plight. For parents of homeless children, it is an unstoppable ache that burns deep within. For the child it is a reminder of a life they will never know. Seeing such a child on the street at Christmas is “heart-breaking” to us and we might even spare some extra change at this time of the year; but I ask you again, what if this was your child?
It has become far too easy to isolate ourselves in the suburbs. No longer is it necessary to expose ourselves to the reality of homelessness on the streets. Making the assumption that street people are tough and can take care of themselves misses the point entirely. The poor are not necessarily tough, and they don’t have some magic ability to survive. They need our compassion and our help. They need us to recognize that they are worth every bit as much in the sight of God as we are. These are our brothers and sisters; these are the ones whom Jesus called us to serve. The next time you see someone in need, remember they may also be a parent. Hidden in the shadows somewhere may be a child. This isn’t just tragic, this is a crisis. What can you do today to help a child in need? What will you do? What would you do if this was your child?