On Leaving Our Comfort Zones

During my first pastoral assignment at a rural church in Eastern Washington State we lived near a stop for freight trains.   Transients riding the rails would occasionally hop off trains, walk across the road to our house, knock on our door and ask for water and something to eat.   We would invite them to sit near the door and bring them a meal.   Our 4 year-old daughter delighted in eating and talking with them until they left to hop on another train.

I think of that often as I wonder about solutions to hunger and food scarcity in the midst of abundance.   Most people I know are generous and compassionate and would always feed a hungry person at their door.   But we don’t respond with the same urgency when human suffering is distant.

I recently drove through a busy intersection, past a dad, mom and three children huddled at the curb holding a sign asking for food.   I still don’t feel good about continuing on my way.   It was the children.   Should I have turned around and stopped to inquire and offer to help?   I don’t know.

That’s about as near many as of us come to any contact with destitute people. Most of us who care are comfortably distant from people in need.   We know about hunger and poverty yet we are not close long enough to get involved.

In his recent lament over Donald Trump’s popularity, New York Times columnist David Brooks confessed that he has been too distant from working class and poor people to understand and feel the pain and fury welling up in American society fueling the politics of resentment.

I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own.

 However difficult, he intends to change that.

 It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years.

 He invites us to join with him.

 We all have some responsibility to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.

Years ago when I was teaching urban studies the students were required to leave the classroom and spend 24 hours in the city with no money and then submit an essay about the experience.

One of those former students, now in mid-career, told me recently how that one activity changed his life for the better.   It gave him fresh eyes to see and to respond to a world of poverty and disadvantage he had not known before.




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4 Responses to On Leaving Our Comfort Zones

  1. Russ Long says:

    Tom, your blog has touched on an issue that has created tension for me for many years. I was in Honduras with my friend Bob Shea who gave a few lempiras to a person asking for a handout. I asked him why he gave, and he responded by saying, “I don’t know, but there is no safety net here.” Perhaps we respond by driving by those in need because we simply assume that there is a safety net available for them so we are not personally responsible. Our systems to provide assistance also allow for distance. For me, things change dramatically when I am face to face with someone who I know by name, and I know or listen to their story. But to make a commitment to them personally is time consuming, sometimes frustrating, and complex. It’s easier to just write a check to the homeless shelter and let the system take care of it. I have never been comfortable with thinking that it is enough.

  2. Oliver says:

    “Most people I know are generous and compassionate and would always feed a hungry person at their door. But we don’t respond with the same urgency when human suffering is distant.” Tom, in an institutional sense, I have found that the challenge for the church is on the reverse. Most organizations/churches are willing and ready to expend resources to “distant” lands to address poverty, but are blind to the needs in their immediate community. The safety net Russ mentioned is cited by many to excuse involvement in our neighborhoods here at home.
    When we moved into our new location on Lee Road we inherited “Teresa”, a homeless Caucasian lady who was sleeping on the premises. Talk about “comfort zone!” The urine stench stretches us to new horizons. But in order to help, we must endure the discomforts. Teresa is not a cover picture on a magazine, she is real.
    Thanks for reminding us of incarnational ministry!

  3. Randy Newcomb says:

    Thank you, Tom. Really thoughtful piece. We’ll all be following Brooks in the weeks and months ahead.

  4. Wesley Campbell says:

    When I served on the General Board of the Church the “necessity” of relocating the General Headquarters came up; safety for employees and unsuitability of the area among other issues were cited in the rational for relocation. Several Board members drew attention to the fact that as a church, we had been called to the city and to the poor but now , to symbolically withdraw to the suburbs, would send exactly the wrong message to the community and the wider church.
    We can so easily succumb to the negative aspect of what Wesley called “redemption and lift” and in our “being lifted” forget were we came from and those who are still there!

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