Walking in a bad neighborhood can be intimidating, especially as a woman. It is often difficult to find the balance between street smarts and compassion. Does the man who reeks of alcohol really need five more bucks? If a man approaches me should I keep walking, just in case he means me harm?
In most cases the homeless are not a threat, and money for a cup of coffee and a hamburger buys so much more than just a snack. It buys the right to a warm place to sit or an hour of air conditioning. It buys the privilege of a restroom and a chance to rest. If I have no money or think it could make things worse, a kind word or just a smile means that person matters. They are not invisible.
Avoiding pain, looking away from that which reminds us of our own wounds, that is a way of life for most of us. Jesus says when we are kind to the least of these, we are kind to Him.
Sometimes people ask me if I am afraid of raising my sons in a bad neighborhood. Yes, and no. My sons see firsthand the effects of drugs and alcohol on a person. They see that life is not a funny beer commercial or a fashionable ad for flavored vodka.
They learn to judge a person not by their clothing or car, but by how they conduct themselves and by the respect they show to those around them. My boys learn to be street smart and kind. The two are not mutually exclusive.
It is easy to categorize people and marginalize them by denying their humanity. When I remember that the swearing kids in their white t-shirts and saggy pants and the guy with beer-breath on the El have mothers and fathers and who God loves and delights over, it changes the way I respond and how I live my life. Living in Uptown has taught me that Christ is everywhere, especially where I don’t expect to see Him.