I heard once that poverty isn’t created by God or governments but by us and by our inability to love our neighbor as ourselves. This haunting philosophy indicates that what was once a seemingly indirect mandate, now has vast social and economic implications.
Imagine if “loving your neighbor as yourself” caused us to invite those sleeping in the gutters into our guest bedrooms or to mourn the death of Iraqi soldiers as we do our own. What if a cooperative interdependence took the place of our misguided sense of independence in America and then the world? Picture an economy of greed and self-interest being exchanged for a distributive economy that maintained that if we share what we have among us, there would be no one in need.
The late Dorothy Day, a former American journalist, social activist and faithful follower of Jesus, was quoted saying, “If you have two coats, one belongs to the poor.” This got me thinking about loving our neighbors and how it could play a part in conscious consumerism. I decided to start Clothe Your Neighbor As Yourself, a nonprofit organization founded on the simple premise that for every shirt purchased, I would distribute clothing to someone in need.
In order to get closer to those in need, I decided to quit my job, sell everything I owned and live out of a van among the poorest of the poor in America. I now spend my days on the streets praying over folks, sharing with them as they do with me and encouraging others to follow Jesus instead of admiring Him. Some of my best friends are prostitutes, drug dealers or homeless. Jesus once said, it’s the sick that need a doctor, not the healthy. So, naturally, I try to get as close to the sick as I can; I may not be a doctor, but I know a Great One.
Since the beginning of my journey, I’ve encountered some beautiful people in the most unlikely of places. In particular, there has been one woman I’ll never forget.
It was a perfect 75 degrees outside and the picnic tables were strewn with plates of chocolate cake, cheesy poofs, and homemade sweets. Bubbles and laughter danced through the air while pulling off a textbook tango and scoring all 10s. We were having a celebration, a party, a banquet, and the guest of honor was poor.
A few days before that, I met Laurie. Like a disheveled beanpole, she carried herself in a way that could make a tall person look short. I found her buried under a mismatched mountain of shoddy rags with her head at the summit. After she petitioned for a drag on my cigar, she informed me a gift was in order as her 49th birthday was right around the corner
The following day, I was reading Luke chapter 14:13-14. “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” Probably just another of Jesus’ nonsensical dogmas that will surely cause us discomfort. Or perhaps this was God offering us an omniscient looking glass. I wonder if it’s not both.
I immediately went downtown and started getting the word out that there would be a party in the plaza. I invited my homeless friends and others in the community to come and share their possessions.
The day of the party, numerous others and I found ourselves in good company. We sang songs, ate cake and made new friends. We showered Laurie with love, a new pair of shoes, and applauded her for being 49 years young. Nearing the end of the party, she leaned over to me and in my embrace said, “Jim, I’ve never seen anything like this.” She then put her hands on my shoulders and looked deeply into my eyes as if she was about to say something. But while nothing was spoken, much was said.
I have the pleasure of meeting people like this every day. I get to read bedtime stories to children off the street. I pray over the sick in hospital waiting rooms and share my food with people with groaning bellies. Most of all, I enjoy providing clothing for my new friends. I can do that because of people like you. And because of people like you, there isn’t a day that goes by where I can’t see that the least truly are the greatest.
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