Among my recent ponderings, is the question of what it means to be “proximate” in the lives of unhoused neighbors.
In traditional Christian Community Development, proximity is essential for those doing the work to locate themselves among the poor. Community developers often move into the neighborhoods where they are doing ministry in order to do life with those who live there and share one another’s burdens.
By technical definition, proximity refers to a nearness in space, time and relationship. Practically, it speaks of presence, listening and relating to those in our purview. And biblically, it is modeled after God’s love for us, exemplified through Jesus and described in John 1:14 (MSG), “The word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
As you can imagine, it is a complex problem for someone called to care for the unhoused to achieve proximity in most contexts. There isn’t actually a “neighborhood” to move into. Some other time, I’ll share my thoughts on a homeless response that could change that. But my point today is to invite you into an internal monologue about proximity in my own life and work.
In a book called “The Power of Proximity,” Michelle Warren describes proximity as more than a literal relocation to the neighborhood. Becoming a neighbor vs. an outsider who happens to live in the neighborhood, she says, is like leaving the comforts of a beautiful English garden and journeying into the unfamiliar jungle outside the gates.
“It was like someone handed me a big machete and told me to go make a life for myself beyond the hedge,” she says. For a while, you hack away at the vines and still look back toward the garden in which you’ve come. But the farther you go, the brush becomes familiar, the home you thought you knew becomes foreign. Eventually the path back to that well-manicured garden disappears, and that which was once unfamiliar achieves a new state of comfort and belonging.
Admittedly, after 16 years in the Micah community, the jungle is more my safe space than the English garden from which I came.
I think about the garden sometimes, but I no longer remember what it was like to live there. That means that I forget sometimes that the rest of the world can still walk by human beings on the street and think it’s OK. I assume far too much in dialogue with funders, politicians and other community people about what others understand about the dynamics of homelessness. Talking with them was a lot easier when I was still working out the narrative myself. I’ve spent so much time sharing the hard parts of street life that “normal” everyday activities—camping, celebrations, social events—feel like privileged experiences than enjoyable events.
Warren is not shy about acknowledging the things we must confront within ourselves, as we hack away and discover new things in the jungle. The hardest, perhaps, is a realization of our own brokenness. “I tell people that you cannot journey alongside broken people if you don’t recognize your own brokenness,” she says. “We have to stay with the poor long enough to walk alongside the road with them. As we remain proximate, we get a front-row seat into our own brokenness.”
I find, the things I don’t like about myself don’t just sneak up in this work. They don’t just emerge from the vines. They pounce, often knocking me clear off my feet.
One of my hardest lessons, for instance, was realizing that I spent most of my life not knowing how to grieve. It came to a head for me a few years ago after a long string of deaths in our Micah community. Several of the people I worked with, in the very early days of Micah, died within months of each other and in some cases very tragically. I found, not only could I not cry I had become disturbingly numb to their passing. I’d be withholding critical information if I did not admit this as a season of painful, mental spiral.
In the process, however, I confronted some critical parts of my own story.
As insignificant as it sounds, I traced my grieving pattern back to a hamster that died quite tragically when I was 5 years old. My mom would often put my white Syrian, “Fluffy,” in bed with me to wake me up before school. One morning, however, Fluffy was getting away from me; and I grabbed him too forcefully, breaking his neck. The hamster died, but the clock was ticking. I had to go to school. My mom had to get to work. We had a funeral and buried Fluffy in the back yard later that night, but somehow the message that stuck with me: “when bad things happen, keep moving.”
I cannot say this has not served me well in some difficult scenarios all these years. I don’t, historically, spend a lot of time wallowing in tragedy. But it has also worked as a detriment when there are times I should slow down, I should lament, I should own my brokenness.
Proximity to the tragedy in our neighbors’ lives, forced me to ask why I went back to work when my aunt committed suicide. It made me reflect on why my firstborn’s behavior problems led me to blame myself vs. engage in problem solving that might have revealed his autism that much sooner. It made me reckon with shame as state of existence vs. a feeling I could control.
I would be lying if I told you I now know how to grieve. I still have to work hard at it. But I do believe that the process of proximity has not only helped me reckon with my own brokenness, it has raised my standards for the life I think we can create for our neighbors. When you stay in the struggle long enough to encounter your own brokenness, you realize how short the distance between your own flourishing and that of our neighbors.
By Meghann Cotter