Stereotypes


A few weekends ago, June and I hosted a smallgroup.  One of the guys who came was in his early 40’s, a bit quiet, college-educated, lived in Boston, clean-shaven, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans and wire-rimmed glasses, an immigrant with accented English.  With the exception of being an immigrant, that could describe me.  Except our visitor was homeless.

It’s easy to stereotype the homeless with negative connotations, maybe from the media or maybe from contact with panhandlers.  In the same way, it’s easy to stereotype the rich and the poor.  Interestingly, most people in the U.S. think of themselves as middle-class — the “poor” are people who are worse-off, and the “rich” are people who live in mansions.  The danger of such thinking is that it fosters a territorial mentality.  It brings about such thoughts as “tax the rich” or “I don’t want to raise my kids in a poor school district.”

Another danger is that stereotypes erase individuality.  They prevent one from seeing people as unique children of God, with their own gifts and callings and personal histories.  It can be offensive to assume people are a certain way because of a stereotype.  “Hey Mr. Asian, can you help me with my math homework?”  The PC movement has helped raise awareness of such issues in racial stereotypes.  But money and class stereotypes are still strongly entrenched.  And buying into those stereotypes can blind us from seeing individual needs.  Maybe that trust fund kid has money struggles, while that poor retiree does not.  Not every homeless person is looking for a handout, or even a job.

I’m curious to hear about your experiences of being surprised by a “poor” person.  Did it change your way of thinking?

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4 thoughts on “Stereotypes

  1. I have the exact story, actually, where a homeless person I met surprised me, and it may be one of the most defining moments of my life.

    About a month ago, I passed by an elderly man going the opposite direction in the subway station, staggering with the weight of several tattered tote bags; from a distance, the condition of the bags and the way he dressed suggested that he was homeless.

    I went up to him and asked him if I could help him carry his bags to wherever he was going. As I was asking him this, I noticed that he smelled like urine, and I will admit that had I noticed this earlier, I am not so sure I would have so readily offered.

    At any rate, he politely declined my help on the bags, but he said, “What you can help me with is to find a place to stay. I have some savings but not enough to pay for an entire apartment; I just need a room to stay.”

    I gave him some information on shelters in the area and offered to pray for his housing situation as well as some other issues that were happening with his family. To my delight, he agreed, and I remember very distinctly that I put my hand on his shoulder–very much in the posture one takes when one is praying _for_ as opposed to _with_ someone.

    After I finished my prayer, I took my hand down and started to say good-bye, but he said, “How can I pray for you?”

    In that moment, I experienced both shame and, strangely, this overwhelming joy. I was ashamed that I just assumed that because of his socioeconomic state, because of how he looked, because of his housing situation, because of what society thinks of him, that he could offer me nothing–that we were in an inherently asymmetrical relationship in which I had everything to give and nothing to gain. But I was so wrong! The awesome truth is, he had everything to offer me. Before God, we were equal and loved, and his intercession for me didn’t mean any less to God simply because of his stature in this world. If anything, it means more, for blessed are the poor in spirit.

    He ended up being a great listener as I shared my request, and when he prayed for me, we held hands–as people do when they pray _with_ each other, not just _for_ each other.

    In retrospect, it was one of the most humbling, yet joyous moments of my life.

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