Posted by: Philip Rushton | February 23, 2015

Intentional Proximity: Lessons in cultivating contentment and compassion

A few weeks after moving into a poor neighborhood in East Atlanta, author and activist Jeff Shinabarger received a knock on his front door. When he opened the door he found his friend Clarence standing in the pouring rain. Clarence is a homeless man who would often do odd jobs for people in the neighborhood in order to make ends meet. On this particular night Clarence asked if Jeff had a spare coat, or some dry socks that he could borrow. As Jeff went back into his room to find some clothes for Clarence, he was struck by the contrast between his life and Clarence’s life. Jeff had about 10 different coats, 10 pairs of shoes and 20 pairs of socks, while Clarence only had the clothes on his back.

In his talk, “The Endless Cycle of Want,” Jeff explains how his relationship with Clarence has profoundly shaped his perspective. By living in proximity to Clarence, Jeff has been forced to redefine what it means to have enough.   Prior to moving into this neighborhood Jeff lived next to people who shared his socio-economic status. This type of homogeneity allowed him to normalize excess. If everyone has 2 cars, an iPhone and a 2000 square foot house, it is easy to justify this as the bare minimum for “normal“ existence.

As I have been studying the gospel of Luke this winter, I have noticed that Jesus often leads his disciples into proximity with people who are different than them. Jesus is always spending time with prostitutes, impoverished people, tax collectors, and the despised Samaritans. I think Jesus is doing this intentionally. As he leads his disciples into contact with “others,” they are forced to confront their biases, assumptions and perspectives. This proximity has a way of breaking down barriers and cultivating empathy and compassion.

One of the most spiritually formative experiences I have had recently has been taking on a short volunteer shift once a week at the new homeless drop in center in Kelso. This has been reshaping my perspective in a lot of ways.  After talking with someone who is chronically homeless for a half hour, the stresses at work suddenly don’t seem very big.  After seeing a family with young children waking up in a tiny room that is just down the hall from a group of crack addicts, my house seems excessively large.

I have also been learning how complex poverty is. It is not as easy to hold on to stereotypes when you get to know peoples stories. I met a couple this week that has faced as string of tragic situations over the past couple of months that has lead them into temporarily homelessness. The wife has a B.A. in Political Science and used to make over 50,000 dollars a year. A number of other people I have developed relationships with have severe mental health issues such as schizophrenia. Suddenly this “issue” of economic inequality or homelessness has a human face. Simple explanations about the causes of poverty do not stand up to the reality on the ground.

This same dynamic can play itself out with other people groups. When I was on study leave last year I met the director of an organization called “Peace Catalyst International.” The mission of this ministry is to bring Christians and Muslims together through shared fellowship. The director, Rick, shared numerous stories of how the simple act of having shared meals together has helped cultivate understanding and compassion between two different religious groups.

If Jesus discipled his followers by leading them into proximity with “others,” perhaps we should consider making this a priority in our spiritual lives as well.   I believe that one of the best things we can do for our character development is to start developing relationships with people who we consider “others.”  Perhaps part of our journey through Lent this year might involve some holy detours into the company of people we do not know very well.

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Responses

  1. Thank you Phil for your blogs. This one really strikes home and reinforces what I have been thinking about this passed few weeks. Jesus interacted with the oppressed, weak, sick, downtrodden those looked down upon by society and freed them of their burdens as they learned to follow Him. Christ loves everyone not just “our group”, denomination, culture, nation. It’s easy for me to forget that. All we have to do is follow Him. Thank you for the reminder.


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