Why the Reality of Those in Need Should Stop You Cold

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

With the arrival of the polar vortex, everyone is talking about the cold. Everywhere I went today, at least one person mentioned the weather - how winter came early; how they aren't prepared for below-freezing temperatures in mid-November; how they wanted to be under a warm blanket or have a hot cup of soup. None of the conversations I had were about not knowing where they were going to sleep tonight or facing having their heat shut off due to an inability to pay the bills. But that is a reality for many in our communities. Just yesterday, a report revealed that 1 in 30 children in America experienced homelessness last year.

Last Sunday, I watched American Winter at CinĂ© as part of launching Taste of Athens and helping attendees to understand what Community Connection, Taste of Athens' beneficiary, does in the community. The film follows eight families in the Portland, Ore., area who called into 211 - the same information and referral service run by Community Connection here in Athens. I urge you at the very least to watch the film's trailer. (UPDATE: American Winter is now available on Amazon Instant video.)

American Winter will hollow you out with the stark reality these families face - unexpected and mounting medical bills; lost jobs and lost homes; sudden widowhood. They face hunger and cold and homelessness. They lose power and water and dignity. They are families of two and four and five; they are parents and children. They are your neighbors. 

At one point, a woman faces her first trip to a food bank, where a compassionate volunteer attempts to soothe her sobs of shame and hopelessness. Another woman realizes her son will go hungry when she can't afford dinner. A man faces unemployment at 50-something; over-age and overqualified, his unemployment stretches out for months while he tries to care for his son with Downs Syndrome.

Even though I have served on the board for Community Connection for four years and know we take 20,000 calls a year like these people made - for food, shelter, rent assistance, utility payments - I was gobsmacked by the heart-wrenching dilemmas unfolding before me. How the unceasing uncertainty of these families weighed in the pit of my stomach. How their children's burdens haunted me.

The film includes a number of staggering statistics about the precariousness of the middle class and the inability for many families to make ends meet. And there's a political discussion to be had about the social and economic policies that make that true.

But that's not the discussion I want to have. I want to appeal not to your politics, but to your humanity. If you're reading this from the comfort of home or at your desk where you go to work every day, I ask you to think about those for whom those things are a distant luxury. If you are a Christian, I ask you to see those in need as "the least of these" that Christ spoke of - spoke of in regards to how we should meet their needs; not judge their circumstances. If you are a parent, I ask you to empathize with the terrifying prospect these parents face of not being able to provide basic needs for their children. If you are a person with heart, I ask you to look inside it and consider what you have to give.

If you are inspired to make a financial contribution, I urge you to look into the organizations that help connect people to social services (like Community Connection) or organizations that meet the most common needs - financial assistance with utility bills (in Georgia, you can donate to H.E.A.T.), rent/housing assistance and meal assistance (in Athens, that's the Northeast Georgia Food Bank, ACTS (and yes, that is me stocking shelves during Jackson Spalding's annual Thanksgiving outreach - we'll be there this Friday), Our Daily Bread at First Baptist Church in Athens or a myriad of local churches that maintain food pantries). There's also Action Ministries, which has a range of poverty-assistance programs. For some, I recognize that monetary contributions aren't viable, but please consider giving of your time to help these organizations better serve those in need.

If you're warm tonight - and I hope you are - I pray that you won't leave your fellow man out in the cold. That during this American winter, this season of thankfulness and giving, you will consider what you can do to warm someone else's life.