LoCal Warming

How can I act globally to meet the world’s needs without stepping over the guy in front of me?

I’ve never worn bifocals. But when it comes to world hunger, they serve as an accurate metaphor, revealing a dualistic approach to seeing things afar without excluding objects up close. We live in a global village—no one is denying that—but what does that mean in a local context? My Internet homepage opens to BBC, but I rarely check the local Long Beach news. My fingers are programmed to first select channel 61 (CNN), as I rarely scroll through the local channels I get for free. I’m even aware of the inflation rate of Zimbabwe, but I can’t tell you the extent of my home state’s budget crisis, which is negatively affecting the entire public-school system. I am all for far-sighted views, but have recently been asking many questions about near-sighted vision.

Southern California is a haven for the hungry and the homeless. And being from the cold city of Detroit, Mich., I can’t say that I blame them. From Long Beach to Pasadena, Santa Monica Pier to Skid Row, Los Angeles County is a Mecca for the under-resourced, as the contrast of rich and poor collide in every direction.

Here is my tension: How can I act globally to meet the world’s needs without stepping over the guy in front of me? Furthermore, are there reasonable excuses to be hungry in America? The three-second conversations in my head are fascinating; no, maybe embarrassing is a better word for it. Imagine you are walking down the street and encounter someone in need. He’s middle-aged and under-shaved, wearing worn clothes and shredded shoes. Instantly, your mind begins to draw up several scenarios, and the one you choose to believe will dictate your course of action.

Maybe he’s a vet, and while serving the country he was infected with Agent Orange. Perhaps he had no father figure while growing up, and alcohol has been the closest family he’s ever had. Those are the optimistic options—at least as far as we are concerned. And these conjured conclusions typically lead to pity, which can elicit a favorable response, as far as he is concerned.

But perhaps he’s just lazy, you think. He’s lived in the same country with the same opportunity as you, and yet he chooses to bottom-feed off the sweat of your brow. Why should you contribute to society while keeping him hostage to his outdoor prison? These are some of the conversations I make up in the three seconds I have before walking past. He extends his hand and mumbles an unintelligible phrase, but intuitively, you know what he’s saying.

Based on your scenario of choice, you respond (or perhaps you don’t). And it’s ironic, because he is not offering you anything more than the knowledge of his need, which you have made up—it is a selfish way to engage someone relationally. And yet, it is precisely because you are not really interested in any relational connection with him that you are not aware of whether his need is legitimate or created. So maybe you choose to give. But maybe your giving was merely a way of getting rid of him.

A few weeks ago, while walking the streets of posh Pasadena, my wife and I stumbled upon a 22-year-old male, wearing designer jeans with manicured hair, asking for handouts. I fictitiously assumed he was either lazy or doing some self-imposed project, attempting to better empathize with the hungry. It was all the justification I needed to walk past, feeling better about my choice not to contribute to his current plight.
So it leads me to a local crisis. What is our responsibility when we spontaneously encounter local needs in the eyes of individuals? Some say we follow Jesus’ pattern, according to Matthew in chapter 25, and always give, while others use Paul’s third chapter of the second letter to the Church in Thessalonica to justify never giving to the idle man. I think both are often misinterpreted. I cannot ignore that nearly every New Testament epistle ends with the author pleading with the Church to live full of the Spirit and full of God’s grace. It is as if in this pattern we overflow and are given insight into every situation.

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Sensitivity to the Spirit at all times allows me to engage humanity without fear and provides the direction I need in every context. Quite honestly, there are times when I feel I should not give. Conversely, there are times when I sense in my soul that to dodge a man would be circumventing Jesus. Whatever the outcome, Spirit-filled living is the course of action needed most. After all, Jesus did only what He saw the Father doing.

We can’t deny that Zimbabwe’s inflation is over 1 million percent, forcing many of its citizens to neighboring countries. Nor can we deny that the 13.6 million inhabitants of Malawi earn an average income of $160 per year. But we also can’t become exclusively far-sighted to the point of disregarding the man we just stepped over in an effort to reach the nations. I urge you to allow the subject of hunger to hit closer to home. How can I do justice in the world if I disregard my neighbor? What if thinking globally involved living locally?

AJ Sherrill is the Teaching Pastor of Origins Church, in Long Beach, Calif. In addition, he coaches churches leaning into the emerging generations. Check out AJSherrill.com for info on existing projects.

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