On Wednesday, the third day in the Tenderloin, I took my first shower of the week and discovered a place to get some coffee just around the corner. Emo’s, it’s called. A fantastic little coffee joint owned by a Persian man who decorated his store with hookah machines and bright green paint comparable to freshly cut grass. Inside, at 7:45am, the tables are crowded with people reading newspapers, novels, and Bibles.
My teammate and I both ordered one of the few things on the menu: black coffee with steamed milk… and man, was it good. Compared to the previous day’s coffee we bought from City Impact, I felt like I was living the high life.
But it dawned on me as I sipped my cup of joe, walking the grungy streets back to home base: I am so privileged. I live so comfortably that being unable to shower for one day or not getting one cup of coffee actually makes me uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the people around me sometimes go days without food and shelter, certainly go longer than days without showers, and probably don’t have a nice cup of coffee everyday either.
I’ve been convicted of this before, but something struck me in a sweet spot this time and it really sunk in. It’s true that God does not judge us by our wealth. There is nothing inherently wrong about being poor. There is nothing inherently wrong about being rich. But we have different callings as believers in these differing socioeconomic categories.
In that position I found myself in, coffee in hand and conviction in heart, I did not feel guilt as I once would have. Instead, I realized the error in my action and how to change. The coffee itself wasn’t bad. It says no where in the Bible, “Thou shalt not go to Starbucks.” I don’t think God cares about our coffee drinking habits too much… unless of course they are hindering us from loving on and providing for those who need it more. When I sip a latte in the face of someone who hasn’t eaten all day and refuse to help them in order to fuel my own desires, I’d say that’s when God has some issues with my actions and I’ve entered in the realm of sin. Instead of spending $2.50 on the regular for a senseless caffeine kick, I could be taking care of a brother or sister.
But it’s really more than just giving away money. In fact, I think that giving without having the heart for it or doing it simply out of white man’s guilt is worse than not giving at all. It’s like being spanked as a child but never actually changing your behavior. You end up complacent and resentful.
Like I was saying, it’s more than just giving away money… in fact, a lot of the time, money makes our relationships with our a brothers and sisters an us vs. them sort of situation: poor vs. rich, giving vs. taking, entitled vs. lowly. I witnessed this on my third day in the TL:
July 9– Today I made an interesting, unintentional mistake that managed to offend one man quite badly. As I waited to cross the street from one City Impact building to another, making a school supply run for a teacher at City Academy, I pulled out my phone to check the time. Hardly raising my phone past my waste, I glanced down at the time and switched the phone from my back to front pocket. I don’t know why I did it, it was just a natural and unconscious action. But then an African American man, who appeared to be homeless, passed behind and started yelling at me,”That’s offensive! Did you think I was going to steal your phone?! I’m offended!” Shocked, I looked at the man in confusion and gathered that he thought I had moved my phone from one pocket to the other to hide it or keep it farther away from him… so he couldn’t snatch it out of my pocket. But that thought had never even crossed my mind until he was yelling at me.
This event reminded me a lot of the first day in the thrift shop when one woman told me how offended she was that she was asked to check her purse at the store counter while shopping. City Impact has been having a shoplifting issue at the store and has been implementing this policy recently. She just couldn’t stop telling me that she’d chop off her hand before she’d steal. It’s crazy how sensitive the people of the TL are to anything that even vaguely hints at an accusation of theft.
Reflecting on these events, I realize that the reason the people of the TL react so negatively to such a situation is because we, as a society, have pitted us against them. We’ve made them feel as if, because they’re less materially wealthy than others, we suspect they are going to steal from us.
I just don’t think this is what God intended for us as believers. He never wished for our relationships to be strained by our worldly possessions or socioeconomic classes. When Jesus hung out with the poor and the lowly, he broke these societal strains and modeled for us how rich, poor, black, white, brown, old, young are united in him. It’s possible for the poor man and the rich man to be equals as believers, but only in God’s love.
And so what was my lesson on day three? My lesson was that when Jesus commanded us to aid “the least of these,” he was not telling rich people to give poor people money. No, he was wasn’t telling rich people to sell all their things or feel guilty that they have things, either. He was telling all of us to help one another. Because in one way or another (emotionally, spiritually, mentally, physically, materially), all of us are in some way of “the least of these.”
I think that although I can afford a coffee and I do live a very comfortable life, I must not allow the Devil to root guilt in my heart and make this guilt keep me from serving the body… A body that must be united in Christ, regardless of wealth. Instead, I must have a giving and selfless heart, denying myself to help others within the body.