People-Oriented vs. Issue-Oriented
By Scott Dermer
I am continually reminded of the human tendency to focus more on issues and less on people.Henri Nouwen (Catholic priest, spiritual writer, and peace activist) taught a profound truth aboutthe difference between being people-oriented and issue-oriented. "We cannot love issues,"Nouwen said, "but we can love people, and the love of people reveals to us the way to deal withissues" (The Road to Peace, 1998). Behind every abstract and complex issue like poverty,hunger, homelessness, and war is a real person experiencing real pain.
I am arriving at this difficult realization by spending time with the poor and homeless of Oklahoma City on Thursday nights at Wiley Post Park. Over the past year and a half I have made some wonderful friendships with people who daily face the brunt of poverty. One friend, a 40- year-old man named Jerry, has become especially dear to me. Jerry's life contests the many false assumptions that people have about the homeless. Jerry is brilliant. He is well-versed in science, history, religion, literature, and politics. Jerry knows six languages (he is working on Aramaic as his seventh) and can write poetry in all six! Intertwined with his vast intelligence is a candor and sincerity which is quite pleasant. Jerry has been homeless for over ten years. Twice this year he has sought governmental housing only to be disappointed. His realism results in a deep awareness of his circumstance, yet he remains equally hopeful that things will one day get better. Through shared meals and long conversations about religion and politics, Jerry has become a
friend. In this friendship I have come to know the suffering of the poor in a very personal way.
Friendship with the poor causes us to become people-oriented, not issue-oriented. I can no longer think about issues like hunger and homelessness without thinking about Jerry. The abstract issue has become permanently imprinted with the faces of hungry and thirsty friends who come to the park. The issue of poverty has become personal, concrete, and specific.
It is imperative that we think, talk, study, and pray about issues. It is essential that Christians be attentive and committed to the issues which face our world, particularly issues of injustice. Yet our commitment to the issue should never exceed our commitment to people. Our responsibility to work against issues of injustice and exploitation should always be coupled with solidarity with the poor and oppressed.
Issues have an overwhelming quality to them which more often than not drives people to cynicism, division, and despair. Yet loving people, rooted in the love of God, causes us to persevere in the work for justice and peace. For when we enter into loving relationships with the poor we are not merely working on behalf of an issue like poverty, we are working on behalf of our friends.
Scott Dermer is the Pastor of Compassion and Care at Lake Overholser Church of the Nazarene. Every Thursday night at 7:00 pm his church serves a meal to the poor and homeless at Wiley Post Park. The ministry is called Bread of Life.
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