Years ago, when returning home from college for the winter break, I decided to take a different route, a route that took me through the housing projects of Houston. Now, I note that I had led a privileged life, and while I had seen poverty, it was always in the context of a youth group or college group ministry. Whether we were working in soup kitchens, painting houses, or building access ramps for the elderly, I was always under the sheltered protection of a group seeking to help others. And while we may have been trying to help, there was always an element of distance and isolation. Somehow, I had convinced myself that I had earned special privileges by doing good to others in my naiveness.
However, I had no group to hide behind on this particular trip. I was alone and suddenly aware I was out of my element. Trapped in my blue Chevy S-10 pickup truck, the poverty felt dangerously close. I could hear what might have been catcalls or people calling out as I drove through what was undeniably their neighborhood. I could sense people as they eyed the suspicious stranger traveling uninvited through their space.
For me, this was a wake-up call, a recognition of the boundaries that exist and persist no matter our good intentions. While, at the time, I may have believed that helping others would undo those boundaries, helping without an intentional relationship only serves to isolate us and them. Ultimately, this makes those we seek to help forever dependent on that power dynamic. I know that I too often fall back into this pattern of toxic charity, seeking means to help others that reinforce us-and-them and only serve to build up those boundaries.
If we are to go, if we are to cross boundaries, perhaps when we go, we should intentionally foster relationships with those we consider “other,” those who reside on the other side of the boundary. We should partner and work with them for the common good, ensuring that there is no longer us and them, but only us.