Saturday, March 6, 2010

Lessons in Compassion

Hello friends! My intention has been to keep this blog updated weekly, but as you can see, I'm slipping already :)

You'll be happy to know that my second week in New Orleans was a bit more relaxing than my first, but still, time seems to fly by at an alarming rate in this house! For my second week I had the pleasure of feeding two returning teams - a team of college students from Vancouver,Canada, and one of my favorites from last year, a lovely bunch from Plainview, Minnesota. In addition to returning teams, I also had the help of one of the staff members from our Galveston team, Emily (another Minnesotan) who I worked with for a week last year, so it was great to reconnect and work alongside her.

Last Saturday I finally got to visit the famous French Market (I could never seem to get there last year) and I enjoyed browsing all the stands like a good tourist. For lunch we ate at one of my favorite restaurants in the French Quarter called Cafe Maspero, and I enjoyed a gigantic muffaletta :) (if you don't know what that is, look it up :)) On Sunday, Katie (my ex-roomie/hosting sidekick) ran her first Marathon here in the city so her mom Beverly and I spent most of the day tracking her down, and I had my first visit to City Park where the marathon ended. City Park is kind of like the Central Park of New Orleans (on a much smaller scale) but it is absolutely beautiful!

Sunday afternoon brought a brand new gang of volunteers from Pennsylvania (Duncannon, yeah!!), New Jersey (probably my VERY favorite team from last year) and Minnesota. Sidenote: The Minnesota guys spent the week repainting the yellow house which went from a creamish yellow to a full-on French's mustard inspired hue. I'll have to update my homepage picture so it properly reflects the new makeover!

Looking back over the week I have to tell you that Thursday sticks out in my mind because I think that I actually had a sign on my head that said "sucker", like my Dad always accuses me of :) When I got home from the block party a man walking down the street came up to me and introduced himself as Isaac. Isaac said that his mother had just died in a car accident and that he needed some prayer. (I could smell alcohol on his breath but he was crying, so it seemed legitimate) The Minnesota guys happened to walk up just at that time, so together we prepared to pray with him. However, instead of letting us pray Isaac used the situation as more of a platform to tell us that he was a Christian, and that he believed in God, and that he was so thankful for us (white brothers and sisters), but that he just needed ten dollars to get into the shelter for the night. Some of his story seemed believable, so after his "prayer",the guys and I decided we would drive him to the Salvation Army and pay the money to get him a bed.

When we told him our plan to take him to the shelter instead of just handing him the money, his whole demeanor started to change, and suddenly it was too late for him to get in (which we knew wasn't true). I told him that we would take him anyway just in case we could still make it and continued to get angry, and finally he stormed away. After he left I didn't know what to feel. I felt angry at the fact that I had fallen for it, and betrayed because my honest desire to help someone in need had been abused, but at the same time I knew that he couldn't help it. The story that he had clearly rehearsed and used a thousand times was simply a tool that he uses to get to a drug that he believes will help him cope with his life.

Later that night downtown I ran into two more men with stories who were asking for money (let me assure you by the third guy I caught on after his first plea and walked away) but each time I had that same feeling of anger at being used, mixed with compassion because I know that they are prisoners in their own stories and addictions.

Earlier in the day, I had had a much different experience. I was returning a key to a facility that we use a few blocks away when a man in a wheelchair approached me and asked me if there was any way I could help him get something to eat. He said he understood if I didn't trust him enough to give him money, but that he was a diabetic and really needed some food. Interestingly enough I had noticed him a few days earlier in the neighborhood and had been saddened at the sight of him struggling to use a wheelchair that was much too small for him (it didn't have a foot rest and he was too tall for it which meant he had to struggle to hold his feet up so that they wouldn't hit the ground) -- needless to say I was excited to have the opportunity to help him.

I told him I would go get him something to eat and bring it back, but he said he knew where the Yellow House was and would meet me there. When I got back to the house some of the Duncannon team was there too, so they turned their truck's tailgate into a table and our new friend Mr. Thomas dined on penne primavera right there on the street :) Before he left we were able to pray for him and I packed him up a little goodie bag just so he would have something on hand the next time his blood sugar got low. He didn't ask for anything more from us, and he went on his way a little while later thanking us for our kindness.

In retrospect it's interesting, and certainly not coincidental, that I had these two very different experiences in the same day. In this city, for every Mr. Thomas who humbly asks for help, there are at least three Isaacs who are hoping to scam some trusting individual out of ten bucks. In my experience, the most difficult thing about living in a place like this is finding that balance in your own heart between having the compassion of Christ and the boundaries needed to effectively minister to broken, untrustworthy people. For me personally, I think I somehow expect that people will recognize my good intentions and then not have the nerve to use me. . . but that unfortunately is just not true.

So then, it's up to me to go to the Lord and pray for enough grace and compassion to love the Isaacs of the world, regardless of what they want from me. When you think about it, I don't really have any reason to be angry. If I do my job, which is simply to love people, then what people do with that act of love is not my responsibility. The compassion in my heart when I gave Mr. Thomas a meal was the same compassion I had in my heart when I offered to help Isaac get a bed for the night - the fact that Mr. Thomas appreciated the help and Isaac was scamming us cannot affect that. The bottom line is this, Jesus didn't command us to love people who were easy to love, he simply said love people. I'll be the first to admit, that in this place especially, it can be very very hard. Getting up at the crack of dawn, prepping food all day, and shopping for groceries is the easy part of this gig - seeing people the way Jesus sees them, and loving them no matter what the circumstances. . . that's the real work here :)

"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of Goad and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." 1 John 4:7-8