Those People Don't Change
I hear it a lot. Someone finds out about our flock—motel folks, the homeless, the poorest of the poor, the other 1%—and will say: “Those people don’t change!” I understand why someone would say that; frankly, I’ve said it myself.Some of us say this with no real experience with the poor. We’ve seen (and maybe avoided) a homeless person or two. We’ve heard a few stories and then, secure in ourselves, we say—“Those people don’t change!”— shrug, and go back to our life.Others of us have a face-to-face experience with a deeply broken person. We got close, lovingly invested ourselves, only to find that lasting change seems difficult, almost impossible, for the other 1%.
Worn out, we walk away muttering—“Those people don’t change!” — Our mood varies; angry, sad, resigned, but the words are the same. I have been chewing on that phrase since coming here, sitting in my unique perch, watching the other 1%, living with them, befriending them, seeing their brokenness. While we see signs of change, honesty compels me to say that many of our friends seem perpetually stuck in brokenness. But I have this persistent thought:Saying “those people don’t change”starts the discussion at the wrong place. Here is what I mean: I need to start with me. Rather than observing and passing judgment on others, in this case the poor and broken, I must ask myself this question: “Do I change?”Ouch!
The truth is, I don’t change easily. While less obvious than I see among the other 1%, there are changes I should make that would make me holier, healthier, more like Jesus. I try, I get motivated and take a run at it. I may make progress, may even brag a bit. But too often, I run into a crisis, have a bad day, make a bad choice, and my progress unravels. There I sit in my mess and ask, maybe for the thousandth time, “Will I ever change?”Bluntly, if anyone should be able to change, it’s me. I have enormous advantages over my Colfax friends—upbringing, family, health, education, support, and capacity. Change should be easy for me; but it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I do and have changed. I expect you have as well. Some of you may even be pushing back, wanting to point to your changes, wanting to say, “I’m not like those people.” Push past that; be honest with yourself. Stand before God’s mirror and find the places where you fail at change, places less noticeable and colorful than the most broken, but still real. Feel your own frustration at being stuck, the disappointment you feel with yourself, the pain of that spot. Then say, humbly, “Change is hard for me.”Something beautiful happens in that moment. All of a sudden the differences between me and the people I’m called to love fall away and I realize that like them, I too struggle with life. I see myself revealed in them.
In their addictions, I see my addictions; in their fear, mine; in their dysfunction, mine. In their long and often fruitless struggle with change, I see my own. We are not different, we are the same.These days, when someone says – “Those people don’t change” – I have a standard response, one I delivery quietly but firmly: “You know, I’m 60 and have been walking with Jesus for most of my life. I still struggle to change, so I have sympathy for my friends’ struggles.”Usually the person I am talking to will nervously laugh and say, “Yeah, me too.” Barriers fall away in these moments, barriers between us and them, me and you, and we stand united, all broken, all humbled, all needing Jesus.
I am, I hope, becoming a bit more humble as I walk these streets with my friends. I have stopped saying “those people” and instead talk of “my friends.” I now say, “we all struggle with change.” Living out of that space helps me to offer one of the greatest gifts I can offer, the gift of kindness. I offer it to my friends and also to myself. Somewhere in all that I find the incredible gift of friendship with my fellow strugglers on the road. And, as a bonus, I meet Jesus in a deeper, sweeter way.Jesus, humorously, said this: “Before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye, take the beam out of your own.” Good words here among the other 1%. And, now that I think about it, good words for every relationship we have.