A Prejudice I Didn't Know I Had

July 16th, 2011

I have prejudices. We all do. Unlike Stephen Colbert, we see things like race, gender, clothing, body size/type, etc, and we automatically make assumptions about people based on our previous experiences of people with similar characteristics. Sometimes these snap judgments are correct, sometimes they're not, but we all make them. I've come to believe the key to not letting these things control us is to acknowledge they're there so we can get to know a person, and perhaps have those snap judgments proven wrong. Prejudices are only dangerous when we don't realize that they're there.

So I was surprised recently to discover that I had a prejudice I didn't even know was there. One of the things that I love about Arlington is that we have a food pantry that is open every weekday. When I'm in the office, I try very hard to go out and talk with the folks that are coming for food assistance, and I've found myself being very surprised at who is coming.

Some of the folks coming to the food pantry have the "homeless look" (a very bad stereotype we need to purge from our culture): shabby clothes, haven't showered in a while, etc. But a surprising number of folks coming for assistance don't look like they're homeless or even poor. They're not someone that you'd pass on the street and think that they didn't have enough to eat.

Thankfully, I've been smart/lucky enough to keep my mouth shut and not say something stupid about them not looking like they need help or question the sincerity of their needs. I've seen the statistics about how many people in our country don't have enough to eat, but I think I understand them now in a different way. We pass people every day who don't have the basic necessities of life, and most of the time we don't bother to notice that someone is suffering right before our eyes.

I was reminded of this again not long after when I was driving home and saw a vendor selling The Contributor at an intersection. (The Contributor is a newspaper sold by homeless people in Nashville who are trained and assigned a "zone" where they can sell the paper as a way to make money other than begging.)

I have friends who are very involved with The Contributor and other homeless ministries here, and I've heard them complain when people won't buy a paper from a vendor because they don't "look homeless." The reason they don't have the "look" is because selling the paper has enabled them to have enough money to get a place to stay and begin to build a life off the streets. The reason many of the vendors don't "look homeless" is because The Contributor is succeeding at getting people off the streets!

All of this reminded me that we don't know what is going on with somebody by their outward appearance. Someone who doesn't appear poor or homeless might still be in need of assistance. Someone who looks like they have their whole life figured out might falling apart inside, just waiting for you or I to ask how it is with their soul. Poverty, be it economic, emotional, or spiritual, is all around us, even if we don't see it on the surface.

I'm grateful to my new church and my city for helping me see a prejudice I didn't even know I had.

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