A couple of days ago, I got spend some time with one of my favorite people on the planet: my brother from another mother, Hugh Hollowell. Most of it was spent at Cafe Helios over coffee. I know that sounds stereotypical, a couple of Christian hipsters talking about Jesus stuff at a hipster haven, sipping the ultimate hipster lubricant. But, the thing is, neither of us could really be called a hipster. Oh, I tease Hugh about being one, but the truth is both of us are still too in touch with our redneck roots to ever be a real hipster, Christian or otherwise.
As usual, the conversation roamed all over the place. We don’t get to see each other as much as we’d like, so there was the requisite catching up. And, of course, a little gossip. Which further proves my point about the lack of our hipster credentials; we sound more like a couple of southern church ladies than anything else. But, somewhere in there, I asked a question that has plagued me of late, namely how do I refer to people who are at risk. I believe the way I put it was “When I’m writing, what do I call your “people?”
Before I go on, I should explain that last sentence to readers who may not be familiar with Hugh and the ministry he heads, Love Wins. Started in the early 2000’s, Love Wins is “a ministry of presence and pastoral care for the homeless and at-risk population of Raleigh, NC.” So, when I referred to his “people”, I meant poor people, homeless people, pretty much anyone on the margins of society. The problem I was having was that calling them “poor people” or “homeless people” sounded rather patronizing and condescending to me. And, it was (okay, is; don’t pick nits).
While I’ve never lived outside or under the poverty line, I’m not what you’d call unfamiliar with people in these situations. I spent 23 years as a firefighter and interacted with them on quite a few occasions. I may not have always had the nicest opinion of some of them (3 responses in 6 hours for the same bullshit can do that), I always saw them as people just like anyone else. People who could be a tremendous pain in the ass, sure; but the same can be said of me, too.
Hugh’s answer stressed the theme of that last paragraph: people. What he said was “You can’t go wrong leading with people.” As in “people who are economically challenged” or “people who are homeless”. Placing the word people first made their humanity the defining characteristic, not the situation they found themselves in at that particular time.
I firmly believe seeing someone as a human being just like me is essential to following Christ. It keeps me from doing ministry to people who are economically challenged or live outdoors or any of the other things that places them on the outside of “proper” society and allows me to do things with them. Seeing people as “other” isn’t really conducive to that.
Is saying “people who _____” instead of “_____ people” going to be easy? Probably not, for two reasons. One, I’ve spoken in a specific manner for about 50 years now and changing a habit I’ve held that long will be tough. Two, I’m a writer and the pleasing arrangement of words is a big deal to me. The way words flow is almost as important as the message they convey. That’s because clunky writing is tough to read. If it’s too hard, people won’t read it and, if they don’t read it, it’s kind of hard to get your message across. But, not being a jerk is also important, so finding some balance is key. It’s also a hell of lot easier than people in the situations I’m talking about have it; which puts things into perspective rather nicely. Somehow, I think I’ll survive the change.