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I’ve seen slums in South Africa, rural villages in post-soviet Ukraine, places where I expected to find poverty.
Seeing poverty there, at times I have been strangely unmoved. There is injustice, but it’s expected injustice. It’s another country, an oppressive government, or a terrible past. That’s where injustice is supposed to be.
Coming to work with Shepherd Community Center on the near-east side of Indianapolis, I expected a certain amount of poverty. Anyone who’s been to the city knows there are a few homeless people, a few panhandlers. Perhaps some families struggling with disability or addiction or language barriers.
But what I found here was nothing like what I expected. And I find my heart breaking in a way it never has before.
My first shock came when I was invited to visit a homeless camp. A miniature tent city right in the heart of Indianapolis.
This blew my mind. Tent city? TENT CITY? Tent cities happened in Haiti and Kenya and warzones and disasters. What were they doing here?
It’s true, the camps in Indy don’t stretch for miles, they’re multiple and dispersed. A dozen under a bridge, a handful in the woods behind a parking lot, a gathering by the railroad.
But they are tents, nonetheless. With winter coming, snow falling and breath freezing, there are people who live in tents.
I thought to myself, “okay, now I’ve seen poverty in Indianapolis. Now I understand the injustice”
But I hadn’t seen the homes yet.
Many of the houses here are older, maybe some peeling pain on the outside, but nothing terrible. They look just a little run down.
But once I stepped inside I saw it was a very different story.
There are houses with decaying walls, molding ceiling, insect infestations, and woefully outdated heating systems. Some have broken plumbing and may periodically fill with the smell of stale sewage. Others are simply depressing, with peeling wallpaper, cracked windows and water that smells of rotten eggs.
None of them seem to have enough room.
I’d figured if someone wasn’t homeless, they had escaped poverty. Maybe they hadn’t made it up that ladder to wealthy suburbanite, but I wouldn’t consider them mired in injustice.
That was before I met mothers who were turning off their electricity to pay for food.
By the Bootstraps
I knew this wasn’t the story for every family. There were families who worked hard, who saved up, who renovated their house. These families were dedicated, responsible, and the very model of ingenuity. Surely they had escaped injustice?
I was able to speak to the daughter of one such family. When she was a young child, her family crossed the border from Mexico. When they moved to Indianapolis the house they lived in was in deep disrepair.
While balancing multiple, minimum-wage jobs her parents not only managed to repair the house, but to buy it. They are now proud homeowners of a house worth being proud of.
This daughter, following the hardworking example of her parents, worked tirelessly in school. Despite difficult, even dangerous conditions there, despite having to learn a foreign language on her own, despite everything this world could throw at her, she graduated. She finished high school a member of the National Honors Society, and graduated and the top of her class.
I was floored. The National Honors Society has not only academic requirements, but acts of service, leadership, and character as well as a demonstration of civic duty. I was never able to make the stringent requirements myself, but I could recall the kids who did. They went on to get scholarships, awards, practically their pick of university.
But she gets nothing.
Top of her class or not, her immigration status disqualifies her for most scholarships.
This passionate, dedicated, hardworking girl finds herself trapped and frustrated, pursuing a two-year degree in a community college. Sacrificing to pay without financial aid or the scholarships she had worked so hard to earn.
The Last Straw
This was the last straw. I wanted to shout,
“It’s just NOT FAIR!”
At every level, there was injustice. Homeless or housed, graduated or not, there seemed to be no escape. Coming from the suburbs, growing up in America, I had heard over and over again that if you work hard, if you fight and try and are smart and creative and dedicated, you could do anything.
I’d met homeless people educated in law, homeowners working two jobs and trying to fix their house, students creative, intelligent and dedicated and STILL they were suffering. Because of where they were born, or where they lived, or who their parents were.
More than any other tragedy I’ve seen, this made me mad. This broke my heart.
But for the same reasons it broke my heart, it also gives me hope.
Fountain by the Desert
I think the reason this makes me so upset, is that only miles away an entirely different world exists.
The scale of the poverty at Shepherd can only be matched by the scale of the wealth in suburbia. When I describe where I come from, I say things like
“Almost everyone has college degrees” or
“Health insurance is the norm, not the exception”
This second statement has actually inspired a gasp, followed by “really?”
But it is in this very thing, this unbelievable concentration of wealth and education only miles away, that I find my hope.
I imagine that one day, these two worlds will come together. That the people from the suburbs will start visiting. Monthly, then weekly, then daily.
I imagine that first they will come because they are curious. Then they’ll come because they want to help. As they get to know people, they’ll come because they care.
Slowly, unstoppably, the opportunity and freedom of the suburbs will find its way down to the east side.
Slowly, unstoppably, the hard work, the love, the community, and the deep knowledge of God that I have found ever-present on the east sidewill filter up to the suburbs.
And just like that, in a mysterious, amazing, God-orchestrated kind of way, two communities will become one. And the very injustice that breaks my heart will be used to heal many.
Where Dreams Come True
If this dream is to come true, it will happen at places like Shepherd.
In fact, it already is.
Shepherd Community Center is making this happen. At every level of society, they are bringing hope and love.
Providing relief and advocacy for the homeless, while offering Bible studies and a church community for them as well.
Providing healthy meals for families, fighting the epidemic of heart disease while also lightening the workload of chronically overworked parents.
Providing education for children, a top-rate Academy that offers not only a disciplined and safe learning environment, but a spiritual foundation as the children learn about God and His love for them.
There is so much more as well. At every level and in every crisis Shepherd is bringing hope. And it is their posture that makes them so effective.
They come as servants, not imposing solutions but offering them. They ask questions before they give answers and want to empower others before they use their own power. For THIS reason, Shepherd could be the bridge, IS the bridge between communities.
Just as my heart has never been broken this way, I’ve never seen such ready and overflowing hope. Never envisioned such possibility. Never witnessed an organization that is bringing such healing to both the served and the servants.
Shepherd Community Center: bringing materials to some, meaning to others, and Christ to all.
Imagine what’s possible…
- Come find out for yourself how Shepherd can not only change near-eastside Indy, but can change you as well. Sign up to volunteer here.
- Shepherd’s vision is to do more than just give stuff, they’re working to change the way we interact with Shepherd is hosting a seminar with Robert D. Lupton, author of “Toxic Charity”. Click here for more info and to sign up!
- Organizations like Shepherd are facing the systems of this world head-on. They need prayer for protection and success. Commit to pray daily for a set period of time. Or commit as a small group to pray when you get together.
About the Author: Brad Miller is a year-long fellow with WND. A student of Psychology, Biology, and Theatre, he's worked as an actor, teacher, balloon artist and last-minute fill-in guy for any number of projects. He loves camping and tinkering with broken and discarded things. Brad's passion in life is to unleash the potential in others.