As many medical students can confirm, type A people—you know who you are—like to compartmentalize. We like to organize: work, time, people. But in the three weeks that I’ve spent here, I’ve found God skewing my lines and boxes for people.
Merriam-Webster defines the “poor” as having little money or few possessions. I defined “poor” as a group of people that God wanted us to serve. But God defines the “poor” differently.
In the past three weeks, I saw houses with broken windows. I saw children with bed bug bites sleeping on dirty mattresses. I saw bug-infested living rooms with no air conditioning. I met drug dealers who had no other way to provide for their families. I met depressed women who couldn’t afford treatment. I met young teen mothers with no support.
However, despite their underprivileged situations, these people were rich in love for each other. I was taken aback at the display of love I had previously associated exclusively with family. These people openly poured out their compassion for one another. They were generous in their affection, even to complete strangers as us. They cared indiscriminately. I finally realized who the poor are.
It is us.
Protected by our manicured lawns and white picket fences, we keep our doors tightly locked against strangers. Our fear of stranger danger prevents us from opening our doors and inviting people in. However, on the row house streets of Philadelphia, a woman saw us caught in the torrential downpour and immediately ushered us in without questioning who we were. Dripping in her small living room, we explained our mission, and she welcomed us warmly. I was struck by her generosity in sharing her house with complete strangers, and was reminded of Matthew 25:35, “I was a stranger, and you invited Me in.” This stark contrast between the two populations humbles me. While we may be richer in material possessions, the people of this neighborhood seemed to be richer in spirit. Many of them did not know Christ, yet they followed His teachings unwittingly. On the other hand, we willingly support missions; yet refuse to open our doors to the hungry when they arrive on our doorsteps.
It’s a sobering realization. John S. Leonard illustrates it like this: if I had to get someone out of a slimy pit, I would shout at him to get out. If that didn’t work, I would throw him a rope. And if that didn’t work, I would look for the cleanest part of him and grab hold of it, while keeping the rest of his dirty stinking body as far away as me as possible.
But Jesus gets into that slimy pit for us. And as I worked through the neighborhood of North Philadelphia, I saw neighbors climbing into slimy pits for one another. In one instance, an unconcerned man with urgent high blood sugar shrugged off my insistent plea for him to go to the ER. His friend stood beside him and asked me to explain the dangers of high blood sugar. After I did so, his friend berated the man rapidly in Spanish and turned to me, “I will make sure he goes. Even if I call an ambulance, I will make sure he goes.”
I think back to my own neighborhood sadly. How many times have my parents sighed and shook their heads in pity? How many times have people peeked from behind their curtains but never bothered to step out? How many times have I seen homeless men carted away by the police because they “devalue the properties”? When I juxtapose what I grew up knowing to what I’ve experienced in the last thee weeks, I finally understand what Jesus meant by, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). With so much material wealth in our lives, we leave no room for Jesus, but the lack of material wealth in North Philadelphia allows Him to be so pervasive that even those who don’t know Him obey his teachings.
As we leave SMI, I hope that we all have our preconceived definitions of people, wealth, and compassion changed, redefined, and thrown out. Proverbs 10:22 remind us, “The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, without painful toil for it.” To be blessed by God, to have our identities in Christ, and in turn, to bless others. Truly, that is what it means to be rich.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Jessica Siak. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org