I saw these words on a wall of a centre for homeless people I visited this week. I think they display a realism and wisdom which is helpful for everyone seeking to help people in need.
The centre helps people with some of the most complex issues imaginable. But I was struck by the perseverance and lack of cynicism in the staff I met.
The need for challenge
Change is hard and does not come easily. This is true in everyone’s life. Often we need challenge from people we respect and trust to help get us out of a rut, or face up to a reality that we are ignoring or dismissing. This is often what the best forms of people management involve.
Genuine change rarely comes from a one-way exchange, a ‘benefactor’ giving help to a passive recipient. The best forms of help are mutual, relational and empower the strengths in others. It involves people being challenged about what they can do, fostering their sense of agency and helping them face truth.
Facing the truth
This is especially true for people affected by homelessness who have so often experienced trauma and whose lives can be scarred by addiction or serious mental health issues. The work of recovery always involves facing the truth: about what has been done to us, what we have done to others and what we have done to ourselves.
Of course, this is a sensitive business. It calls for respect, experience and wisdom. It can easily be done badly. But truth and challenge will always be an essential ingredient of change.
Support and challenge
I use this diagram in workshops and discussions to illustrate these issues:
If our work is high in kindness and support but low in challenge and truthfulness, then it will be in danger of being naive. This is a tendency within some faith and community responses to poverty and homelessness when the emphasis is too much on giving things away, such as food or clothing.
Its understandable that when people see a need they want to respond. As with the issues of people begging, the trouble is when this help is detached from the truth about someone’s situation and the real impact of the help we are giving. (for more, see When helping homeless people doesn’t help)
But at the other end of the spectrum, when some are too focused on challenge and truthfulness, the approach can become too harsh. Homeless people are often treated badly and some simply want homeless people to disappear out of sight. Often it is this harshness that motivates faith and community groups to go to other end of the spectrum.
Thus a polarisation can easily break out in conflict, often now super-charged by social media, between those who view each other as either ‘naive do-gooders’ on one hand or ‘harsh enforcers’ on the other.
Rather than polarise, we need to work hard to keep these factors together. This means different groups – local authorities, faith groups and charities – working together. We need to focus on the homeless people themselves, not just the perspective of our position.
Efforts to help people are most effective when they bring together support and kindness and challenge and truthfulness. This is where transformation happens.
Of course, all of this is easy to write in a blog post or draw a neat diagram about. But combining kindness and truthfulness is hard. Its a tension I grapple with everyday in the encounters I have in my job and my local community. Its also very relevant to the challenge of parenting.
Actions in truth
Its a tension captured neatly in my favourite verse in the Bible in 1 John 3:18:
‘Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth’
Authentic faith cannot just exist in words. A constant theme throughout the Bible is that beliefs must be expressed in action. The Bible is clear and unequivocal – we must act to help those in need.
But these actions must be rooted in truth. This is both the truth of each particular situation and the wider truth of the gospel of God’s love.
Divine grace and acceptance provides the resources for us to be honest and truthful, both with ourselves and with others. We can know with confidence that this is the path to transformation and wholeness. It really is the truth that sets people free.