There is a woman who cycles through the Mission regularly because she just can’t seem to figure out how to change the way she is living. She is small in stature and sometimes seems as though she is going to break if someone looks at her the wrong way, but she is a fighter. The problem is, she doesn’t yet know it. Instead, she has let her mental illness and her alcoholism consume her. She wanders into our office every few months to let us know she’s still alive. She always has some new story about her abusive boyfriend(s) and how this time is going to be the time that she turns her life around. There is always a raw desperation in her voice when she tells us to be proud of her, to accept her for who she is because she’s really trying this time.
Another woman was brought to us by a guy who found her passed out in an alley. She stayed with us for about a week and then disappeared. Two days later she was back telling me that, after 6 years of being clean and sober, she found herself in a motel room with two strange men and a drug that she couldn’t find the strength to say no to anymore. My heart broke as she described the men’s attempts to get something in return for what they had given her.
And then there is the woman who called periodically over the course of a couple weeks to see if we had openings. When she called the first time, she told me that she would be bringing her two oldest children. Her youngest two had been taken away from her by the state. She showed up, days later, alone. Her caseworker had stepped in and advised temporary removal of her older children. This woman came in shell-shocked, not knowing how she had let it happen.
On a regular basis, I have conversations with women who are addicts, domestic violence victims, single mothers, or mentally ill. Often, as with the women I wrote about above, they fall into more than one of those categories.
What I want them (and you) to know, what I’m still trying to figure out how to convey, is that despite what they have been told–through words, actions, or even sideways glances–those categories don’t define them.
These women spend their lives struggling for one reason or another. It is as though no one has ever told them that they are allowed to ask for help, that they don’t have to be chained to their past. Many of them were born into families already struggling financially or emotionally or mentally, and so that life is the only one that they know.
I think that it is sometimes a little too easy for us to label people–we look at them and think that, because of the situation they’re in, they must lack willpower, or that they’re weak or lazy or a host of other things.
But by assuming that about others without taking the time to find out what the underlying issue is, we open the door for other people to assume those same things about us.
If we continue to allow this cycle to dictate our lives, and theirs, what are we gaining? Not addressing the issue at hand means that we let ourselves stay broken and hurt and ashamed.
Psalm 146:7 says that the LORD sets prisoners free…and lifts up those who are bowed down.
We are invited to be set free from all of the guilt, shame, and condemnation that we have been living with for far too long. That invitation is for everyone. Every single person that you come into contact with is loved by Jesus. He longs for the chance to show them that they don’t need to be bowed down anymore, that they can lift their heads high, knowing that he loves and accepts them.
And we have a choice. We can keep categorizing people, looking at them with contempt and wondering why they never seem to change. Or we can give them another chance; we can attempt to love them with that same love even if it’s the hardest thing in the world, knowing that Jesus does that for us. He scoops us up, brushes us off, and points us in the right direction. Over and over and over.
My challenge for you is to let yourself be redefined. And then pray that Jesus would show you how to redefine the way you look at and love the people around you.