I think the key difference in working downtown versus the suburbs is proximity. Buildings and structures are closer together; human beings physically share space. As I make the cold, wintry walk to my office, I walk alongside other commuters. I also pass by the homeless and marginalized on the street.
One day, one man in particular has a haunting sign: “This is what it feels like to be invisible.”
The man lays scrunched up on the ground, his arms covering his face. From his hands, I can make out he is dark-skinned. I want to stop, but like the other passers-by, I keep walking. I have to get to work. I never see the man and his sign again, but his words continue to haunt me.
In downtown Seattle, poverty is very visible. It’s more visible than in Redmond – the suburbs where I used to work. Poverty encamps next to wealth. Seattle’s homeless crisis has reached a state of emergency, deaths continue to rise every year, and city officials struggle to agree on, and find, viable solutions to the crisis.
Poverty is visible, and yet this man feels he is invisible. I feel sad for the truth he shared. But I also feel stuck, not knowing what to do and how to respond.
These issues involve complex economic, political and social systems and structures. And if those most familiar with these systems and structures can’t “fix” the problem, what makes me think I can do anything?
I cannot know what it feels like to be homeless, but I know what it’s like to feel invisible, to not feel seen. It’s something I have experienced for years at work and in the church. It’s feeling excluded from what’s valued and valuable. It’s feeling cut-off from human connection.
Lazarus, Invisible at the Gate
In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of an unnamed rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. Every day, Lazarus sits at the rich man’s gate, hoping for some compassion. Every day, the rich man offers none, going about his own way. The story doesn’t specify how wealthy this man is, whether he’s a HENRY (High Earner Not Rich Yet), a millionaire/billionaire, or a 1 percenter. We do know he has more than Lazarus – way more. The story doesn’t say what caused Lazarus to be poor, but we do know Lazarus is not just depraved of resources, he also has no human connection.
In his book, The Great Chasm: How to Stop our Wealth from Separating Us from the Poor and God1, Derek W. Engdahl talks about the chasm between the rich man and Lazarus, between the wealthy and the poor. The chasm can be crossed but the wealthy will need to cross it. It’s not up to the poor to do this. “It was the rich man’s responsibility to go out and welcome Lazarus into his home. What this teaches us is that if we have the power to cross a particular chasm, we are obligated to do so since those on the other side likely do not have the same ability. We cannot wait for the poor to come to us.”
He warns against inaction. If the chasm isn’t crossed in this life, then it becomes permanent, for in the story, the rich man’s wealth has caused a chasm not just between him and Lazarus, but also between him and God for eternity.
Engdahl presents forming relationships with the poor as the way to cross the chasm. While I don’t disagree with relationships being key, I also think that the rich man should have seen Lazarus, not just as a beggar, but as a valuable part of his community – part of himself. And if he sees only a beggar needing charity and ends there, then the relationship becomes a paternalistic one.
There’s a saying in Chinese: 自己 人 (our own people). It’s not a term used flippantly. It’s reserved for those we see as our own. Some cultures might refer to this as “family,” but family has a sacred connotation in Chinese culture, reserved primarily for those biologically related to us. However, the closest to this is calling someone who’s not family “our own people.” It means we trust them. We connect with them. We see them as a part of ourselves.
What if Lazarus is the rich man’s “own people”? How will that change their relationship?
What if I see the poor and the marginalized as my “own people”? How will that change how I relate to them? How will it affect how I use my gifts, talent and resources? Who I fight for and the systems I try to transform?
The opposite of the man’s words is feeling seen, feeling visible. Seeing the homeless and marginalized as “my own people” is quite radical for me. And I will continue to grapple with what it means in the days, months and years to come.
1 Engdahl, D.W. (2015), The Great Chasm: How to Stop our Wealth from Separating Us from the Poor and God, Pomona, CA: Servant Partners Press