After college, some friends and I moved into a house in Ridgedale, a poor neighborhood in East Chattanooga. The rent was cheap, and as a recent college graduate who didn’t know much about gentrification, that was pretty much the deciding factor. I’m continually learning what it means for humans to be made in the image of God, and my time in Ridgedale was an instrumental step on that journey. Through our relationship with a homeless lady in the neighborhood, I gained a better understanding of how the poor aren’t just problems to be solved but people to be understood–people with dreams and talents, purpose and worth.
That fall, when most of the leaves had fallen and the air was starting to chill, a small African American woman hobbled up on our porch and rang the doorbell. It was later in the evening, but she asked for twenty dollars to rake our yard. If you live in Ridgedale long enough, you will surely encounter a situation like this. You will have to make a split-second decision to help, not help, or offer an alternative solution. It is much easier to say no when someone asks for a handout, but when they ask to be paid to work, to be paid for fulfilling part of the creation mandate, to be paid for expressing the image of God in themselves, it becomes more difficult to turn them down.
After agreeing to let her work, Cynthia (we had found out her name by this point) was creating little leaf piles all over the yard with her bare hands. A while later, she asked if we would pay her even though she was not finished, promising to come back in the morning to finish the job. This threw another wrench in the scenario: trust. Trust is foundational for all relationships, and part of a first impression usually includes implicitly deciding if you will trust someone or not.
In this scenario, trusting would have been hard for me, a middle-class white guy with a college degree and not many interactions with homeless people. Why is it that my natural inclination is to initially trust people who run in my regular social circles but not people that come to my door asking for work? We seem to be biased toward not trusting homeless people. Stereotypes don’t appear out of thin air, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be conscious of our biases.
At the same time, someone needs to take the first step if a relationship is to ever be formed. Trust must be built over time, so you need to start small and see what happens. The initial step was allowing Cynthia to work in the first place. Now for the second step. Not knowing whether or not she would keep her word, we gave her the money. The next evening, Cynthia came back to finish the job. We offered her dinner, as all of us were home that night, and so began our adventurous relationship with a woman who would both stretch our patience to its limits and care for us and people in our neighborhood in remarkable ways.
Over the next few weeks, Cynthia would come by the house most evenings, and some of us (whoever was home) would usually share a meal with her and chat for a few minutes. Each time she came, she would ask for more things, sometimes even giving us a grocery list. This definitely tested my patience at times, but as we continued to feed her and piece together her story, I think she gradually started to trust us. As we started realizing, trust goes both ways. Yes, we may be biased against trusting homeless people, but on the other hand, homeless people may be biased against trusting us, too. After being burned so many times in life, it is no surprise that trust can be hard to come by in the homeless community.
Early on in our relationship with Cynthia, we found out she had a criminal record. She had been mentioned multiple times on our neighborhood’s email chain where people reduced her to a petty thief who would befriend people just to rob them. That was tough news for us to process. Were we naive and being used? Was this her modus operandi? We had a tough decision to make. What should we do? Should we cut off our growing relationship with Cynthia out of fear or give her the benefit of the doubt? We decided not to trust everything we read on the internet.
One afternoon Cynthia told us that we were the first white people to ever let her into their home. Regrettably, she was also the first black homeless lady I had ever let into my home. Despite all our fears of being robbed, Cynthia also told us that she knew what our cars looked like and kept an eye on the house during the day when we weren’t home to make sure nothing happened. At first, my mind went back to her criminal record. She is watching the house. She knows when we are not home. She has been inside the house. But then I realized there is an equally plausible explanation: Cynthia was being a good neighbor. We were a group of white guys living in a rough part of town, and Cynthia had our backs because we had hers. I’m not saying everyone in our neighborhood is dangerous (far from it); I’m saying that neighborliness should transcend socio-economic status and race. From that point on, I started seeing Cynthia as more than a homeless person with a record. As it turns out, amidst the buried pain and hardship, I would come to find out she was a woman with hopes and dreams, a quick sense of humor, and a vision for the neighborhood.
There is a turf soccer complex in the neighborhood that a local foundation built a while back. It has been a hub for many community events and is home to a few different non-profit organizations. One day, Cynthia started ranting about the fields. And when I say ranting, I mean she was going OFF. Sometimes it’s hard to understand exactly what she is saying, but I am not sure that she hated soccer fields themselves as much as the choice to use the land in that way. Instead, Cynthia wanted a grocery store. That was striking. With no formal community development training and presumably no formal conception of what a “food desert” is, Cynthia was still able to pinpoint what her community needed. Outsiders come in with training and big plans, but Cynthia was an insider. She had big plans too, but her plans stemmed from years, 49 years to be exact, of immersion in the community. This reminded me of an aspect of the image of God: it’s creative. Cynthia, a vital member of the community, saw a need and identified a way to fill it. If voices like hers had been heard when the powers-that-be decided what to do with that land, I wonder if things would have turned out differently. Maybe the soccer complex was the right way to go; maybe a grocery store would have been a better option. We may never know.
Cynthia also loves Christmas. I am not exactly sure why, but then again, I am pretty sure you only need a reason not to. We love Christmas too, but it added complexity to our relationship. We were all in the Christmas spirit and probably willing to give a bit more than we were during other times of the year. Simultaneously, Cynthia usually demanded a lot more around Christmas time. Not all her requests were for herself, however. One year she asked me to take her to Family Dollar to get presents for the kids she was staying with. Everyone wants to give gifts at Christmas, and this also continued to fit with what I was learning about the image of God: it’s generous. And, this was a way we could help Cynthia express that part of her, rather than just receiving the generosity of others. To be honest, my other thought was she is just going to re-sell everything for cash. Given that whole trust thing, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I am not sure if that was the right decision or not, but I do know that is what I would have wanted someone to do for me. We went to the store, got some toys, wrapping paper, and tape, and I dropped her off somewhere in the neighborhood on my way home. I hope some deserving kids got a nice surprise.
That same Christmas, Cynthia showed up to the house with presents for us. It was an incredible gesture. She definitely did not have to do that, but it seemed like she just wanted to. Up until this point, our roles in the relationship had been us as the givers and Cynthia as the receiver. This situation turned that dynamic on its head; we became the humble receivers and Cynthia the generous giver. When community development is done right, it challenges societal norms and flips relationship roles. The materially rich do not always have to be the givers of the material goods. There is dignity in giving, so when the materially poor are able to actively participate in a relationship as agents of generosity instead of passive consumers, they are more fully able to express their humanity.
Trust is a decision. I never imagined that such an uncanny friendship would form between five middle-class white guys who just graduated college and a forty-nine-year-old black homeless lady who had maybe spent more time in prison than we had in a classroom.
This is not an incredible story of how a community came together and eliminated poverty from the neighborhood, because the story ends here for now. In all honesty, I have not seen Cynthia in over a year. My friends and I have since moved from that house, and I have not even seen Cynthia walking around in the neighborhood, either. Community development efforts seem to be built on lasting relationships with people in a neighborhood, but sometimes those relationships do not pan out into something earth-shattering. However, even fleeting relationships can have meaning and significance. Cynthia has reflected the image of God in a new way in my life, and I am grateful for that. I just hope that it was mutual.
People say the homeless do not serve a purpose in society. They merely exist to be served–rejected by those who have donned societal blinders. People write stories about how we should fear homeless people. They will rob you, harass your kids, or just annoy you. And, to be fair, some homeless people probably do those things. We, homeless and non-homeless, are all broken. But, even though we are all broken, we are not all utterly broken. There are some good, common grace aspects to us too, so amidst the fearful stories, this is a hopeful story. Each time I encounter a homeless person, I try and remember the stories of hope alongside the stories of fear. I don’t always respond perfectly, and in some cases I’ve probably done more harm than good, but starting with seeing all people as made in the image of God can go a long way toward shaping how you view each situation.