His head and arms are covered in tattoos. He speaks with an air of superiority and won’t do what he’s told. He can’t hold a job – he can’t even show up on time. He disappears for weeks on end, only for us to discover that he has been using again.
She doesn’t know how to be a mother. She struggles to hold a job doing very basic office work and often has emotional breakdowns, returning to drugs when times get hard.
Over the past two years that I have worked at Sox Place, I have come to learn many things our youth. When I first moved to Denver, I had a very basic – and admittedly – naïve understanding of those who struggle with homelessness. (You can read about my first time working with the homeless here.) Since then, every single misconception that I have had concerning the homeless has been utterly obliterated.
As a detached observer, it can be all too easy to simply label the kids that walk through our doors: hopeless, irresponsible, drug addict, unlovable, dirty, unwanted. But upon closer examination of each of these youth, one can begin to unravel the stories that lay underneath, the stories so desperately straining to find their way into the ears of those who would listen, those who would care, for just a few moments, to acknowledge the struggles they face.
I have learned that it can be easy to judge someone you don’t know, but it is impossible to judge someone whose story you have heard, whose struggles you have come to understand, and whose life has become entwined with yours. It is far too easy to stand at a distance and place labels on those you refuse to relate to, and those whom society has deemed worthless and unlovable. When you stand at a distance, it is impossible to know what stories lie underneath.
As the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,
“When we judge other people we confront them in a spirit of detachment, observing and reflecting as it were from the outside. But love has neither time nor opportunity for this. If we love, we can never observe the other person with detachment…
Judgement is the forbidden objectivization of the other person which destroys single-minded love. I am not forbidden to have my own thoughts about the other person, to realize his shortcomings, but only to the extent that it offers to me an occasion for forgiveness and unconditional love… ”
If you were to ask, you would learn that he grew up in a ‘family’ that was so deeply rooted in the dangerous and lucrative business of drug dealing that he had no other choice but to follow in their footsteps. He would tell you that he was imprisoned by the time he was twelve, and that over the course of his life, he served a total of twenty-two years in prison. He has never held a job, and he would rather serve time or deal drugs than be constantly told what to do in exchange for what to him is very little money. He does not respect authority because he has been so used to being able to tell anyone what to do and get whatever he wanted. He was the one of the biggest drug dealers in Denver and has been banned from ever entering his home state of California due to the number of felonies on his record. You would learn that he doesn’t know what it means to be loved, and that he feels that he doesn’t deserve love.
If you were to ask, you would learn that her alcoholic, mentally ill and drug-addicted mother kicked her out of her home at the young age of eleven. That at such a young age, she had to deal with the news of her fourteen-year-old sister being gang-raped and murdered. You would hear her tell you that she was placed in 24 different foster homes in two and a half years, forced to provide for herself, and soon became addicted to the drugs that began to sell in order to stay alive. She ended up serving five and a half years in prison. But to her, all of this seems normal. “It’s not that bad,” she would say.
Perhaps now you might understand.
Maybe now you know why he doesn’t know how to hold a job. You know that the only things familiar to him are jail cells, gangs, and drugs. He’s had it all – the money, the possessions, the power – and he doesn’t see why he needs to change, to forgo a familiar life for one that is confusing and hard and that asks so much of him. You would understand why he feels like everything in life has to be earned, including love. He has to make his own way, and nobody can help him.
Maybe now you know why she doesn’t know how to be a mother to her newborn. She never had a mother to look up to, or even one to provide for her or love her. You know that she never really chose to be a drug addict, but that she had to deal just to stay alive. Maybe now you know why things can be so hard for her. She was continually rejected, abused, and thrown away. She has been told that she wasn’t worth anything, and that love was only a thing of fairytales.
Perhaps you might ask them a question before judging, labeling, and neatly packing them into a box. Maybe you might ask, “What’s your story?” By engaging with the broken, the beat down, and the bedraggled, you might actually learn something. Maybe you will understand that life is not as easy for others as it can be for ourselves. You would see that behind those weary eyes, a story is begging to be told. A story that yearns to say, “If you only knew…”
Maybe you will understand that we should “stand in awe at what [they] have to carry rather than stand in judgement at how they carry it.” You are only continuing the build a dividing wall between ourselves and the poor by placing judgement on them. You are only serving to hurt and separate yourselves from others when you refuse to acknowledge the pain that they have experienced. You undermine their worth when you judge them, and you blind yourselves to the real issues that plague our world on a regular basis.
It is time to start being a part of the solution, rather than being a part of the problem. It is time to choose love over judgement, and understanding over ignorance.
“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves… to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
Judgement is blinding.
Love is illuminating.