It’s not hard to imagine Jesus volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. After all, he was a carpenter.
He would have been right at home in the Uptown neighborhood of Memphis this week, working alongside everyday people to provide affordable homes for the poor. I could easily imagine him passing a hammer to country music stars Garth Brooks or Trisha Yearwood, who were also on the work site in Memphis.
Or perhaps he’d have been sharing a cup of coffee with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. The former First Couple have been cornerstones of Habitat for Humanity for more than 30 years — and beyond lending a famous name or simply donating money to the cause, when they come, they come to work.
“Before we worked with Habitat, we were good Christians. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, we would go to the welfare office to find the family of someone who needed a turkey or something we could take to them,” Rosalynn said during a Monday press conference at the Memphis work site. “But we weren’t doing what we should have been doing until we got involved with Habitat for Humanity.”
And what exactly “should” they have been doing, you might ask? President Carter, now 91 years old and battling cancer, probably should be somewhere resting, right? But beyond sheltering the homeless, he sees this work as bridging the gap between the wealthy and the poor.
“Just think about how many poor and extremely poor people your family knows,” Carter asked the assembled media. “I don’t know you personally, but I would guess that’s very few. Those are the kinds of people we talk about in church and in synagogue and in mosques but we very seldom know them.
“Habitat opens up a way for wealthy people like you, me and Rosalynn to join in and work side by side with a poor family, and get to know them personally,” Carter continued. “One thing we’ve noticed since leaving The White House, and especially with Habitat, is that those poor people are just as smart as I am. Their family values are just as good as mine, they’re just as ambitious, just as hardworking.
“They just need a chance, a glimpse of hope that things can be better for them.”
In other words, like Jesus, President Jimmy Carter is challenging us to see beyond a person’s circumstances to see the person.
On this day in Memphis, the person is Arlicia Gilliams, a 25-year-old surgery scheduling coordinator with a 3-year-old daughter. Gilliams currently lives in a one-bedroom apartment, but will be moving into the house that the Carters, Brooks and Yearwood are working on. She’s worked on Habitat sites before, but this one was “surreal.”
“It didn’t affect me until I saw the president strolling across my yard,” Gilliams said. “That’s when it hit me. That’s when the tears started flowing and the emotion started coming out because I work with volunteers, but not to this magnitude. It’s wonderful and it’s overwhelming. I am blessed and highly favored.”
As I thought about President Carter’s challenge to the media that day, I also asked myself: How much do we know about the plight of the poor in modern society? Think about it: As debilitating as poverty is, we don’t see much coverage of it in the news. The plight of the poor isn’t talked about the way people talk about Obamacare, Syria or what Cookie said on the latest episode of Empire.
And to be clear, I’m not talking about the wealthy here, I’m talking about all of us. Often, when we do talk about the poor, it is to complain. We talk about how “Pookie” needs to get a job, or how you shouldn’t drive through “that” neighborhood.
But when was the last time you talked to “Pookie?” Did you know that he put in six applications last week, but it’s hard for him to find work because he has a record? Did you know that the neighborhood you shouldn’t drive through actually has more law-abiding citizens than criminals? Do you know that they want the same things you want — good food, clean water, a safe neighborhood and good schools?
And what President Carter is saying to us is: How would you know any of this if you never get to know the poor people in your community?
“Most people who have a religion, one of the things we are taught by God is that we should break down the barriers between the wealthy people who have everything they need — like Rosalynn and me — and the poorest people who have never had a decent place to live,” Carter said. “That’s very hard to do. To break down that barrier, to cross that chasm that exists between us.”
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us: “As you do for the least of these, you do also unto me.”
Imagine that. If you knew that “Pookie” was Jesus, would you help him find work? Would you buy him a meal? Would you even say “Hello?” Or would you pass him by, while checking to see how much juice your phone has left?
By all means, give to charity. Write a check to Habitat for Humanity, or to your local food pantry. Get some help to your local Salvation Army and others who are helping “the least of these.” But while you’re there, do like President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter and pick up a hammer.
You might make a new friend.
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