My life’s calling has led me to seek out those who are on the fringes or what we may call “the bottom.” I have spent time on the bottom in my own life and have even developed a “theology of the bottom.” My theology of the bottom is founded on the core idea that God has a preference for those who dwell there, without a stark judgmental division of “good” and “bad.” I’m not saying that evil doesn’t exist, but that evil is something done by people. People are not bad, though they sometimes just do bad things and make bad decisions. I believe bad things emerge from a source.
The soil from which so much bad emerges is the loam of fear and pain. But, at the same time, fear and pain can also be the soil from which great compassion springs forth. How we experience things is a result of the soil from which we and the experience emerge. Knowledge of other people’s soil allows us to see that, if they are doing wrong, they are doing so for a reason.
I have the radical notion of believing in the potential for redemption for all. A person who steals things or deals in drugs, or who lives on the streets is not a bad person. Maybe it was life circumstances, mental health, fear, a lack of options, a lack of education that led them to this point in their lives. Hopelessness, desperation and the feeling of being dehumanized can take an individual to depths that they did not know they possessed.
The humility and strength of character that one must feel in order to bring themselves to pan handle or beg for money or for food is something deeply foreign to most of us. If it were not hard enough to have to extend one’s hand and beg for scraps, the experience of being ignored by people who have the means to change your life is heartbreaking. And those who stop often give you only a few coins, never touching your hand, never looking you in the eyes, never asking your name. Over time for some this is just too much. One’s voice gets louder. They throw away politeness and no longer care about how they look. And the hurt of dehumanization and the fear of starving, soon bears a bitter fruit.
And then you discover, a person is sleeping on Main Street right in front of Clubb’s or City Market. Or, they create elaborate or bizarre campsites where everyone can see them. They become loud or aggressive until we at last, see him or her – only long enough to call someone to remove them.
A theology of the bottom can help us understand what the bottom can do to a person. Not in a patronizing sense, but in a humanizing one, recognizing that all of us are in process. All of us are in some way homeless, all of us are wounded with hands extended, though we may reach for different things. Before we criticize, let us meditate on the soil from which the experience emerges.
Last February I held a memorial service for two men who I considered my friends. Both died after being homeless for years. Ray and Matt were human beings worthy of God’s love and that service, which was attended almost entirely by those who live their lives on the fringe, was the final act of human kindness I could show these men. It is the kindness that every person, including you and I deserve.
Perhaps you would like to engage in returning kindness to those who seldom see it. Perhaps you would like to learn the name of someone who has been “a person on the street” to you in the past. Please consider volunteering, just one night a month at The Abraham Connection. Call us: 970-773-8290.
Pastor Tom Hazelwood is a board member at The Abraham Connection and pastor at Delta United Methodist Church.