When Relationships Kills Confidence

One Sunday night, Emily approached me as people were making their way out of our home after worshiping with us and sharing a piece of cake with a sister in celebration of one month of sobriety. As people trickled out to their cars with hugs and a few more jokes and encouraging words to our recently clean sister, Emily hung back with a look of frustration on her face. As I placed our community’s Christ candle back on its shelf, I noticed that Emily was waiting for me.

“Hey Em,” I said, “it’s been nice having you to eat and pray with us these last couple of weeks.” She had only been showing up for a couple of weeks, but she seemed to be interested in what we were doing and our own particular way of living in God’s Kingdom. I continued, “What’s on your mind? Something you wanna talk about?” I figured it had something to do with Alan, who she had connected with strongly at one of her first meals with us—after a great conversation with Emily, Alan approached us about being ready to seek treatment and find better shelter, but he had recently relapsed after about 9 days clean. We were all disappointed, but this was the first time Emily had dealt with something like this and most of our leaders had seen something like it at least a few times, and while that doesn’t make it hurt any less, it does prepare you for it.

Abruptly, as if she had stored the question away for a few days to ferment before letting it pop in our living-room-turned-chapel, she asked, “It’s not as easy as I thought it was. Is it?”

I won’t dare say that I knew what she was feeling or thinking in that moment, because it’s beyond presumptuous to assume I could wrap my head around her own experience. But, in that moment as that honest and heartbroken question sprang forth, my mind flashed back to the first time something like that had happened to me at Grace and Main. With a slow shake of my head, I sighed and answered her, “No. It hardly ever is.”
You see, so many new folks are so very confident when they first show up to our meals, prayers, studies, worship, or get-togethers. They’ve learned from a combination of articles, books, pundits, sermons, Facebook posts, television shows, and teachers that poverty, homelessness, addiction, and hunger are simple things with simple solutions. These folks come with confidence and good intentions, believing that they have something to offer to brothers and sisters in desperate places and situations. Inevitably, they come to the same conclusion that all of us arrive at eventually, when our heart is broken and our confidence is shaken by the complicated nature of the work we do in our neighborhoods—the same place Emily arrived with her hands on the other end of our altar cloth as we folded it together.

“It’s different—” Emily began before cutting off in a thoughtful pause, “it’s different when you know somebody—when it’s not just something to talk about.” With frustration showing at the edges of her eyes, she added, “I wish it was easier. I wish I knew exactly what to do and when to do it to really help.”

Every time I get to have this important conversation with someone (which is about once a month on average), I find that this is the hardest moment. I know in that moment that they’ve come to me because they want me to replace their scratched and busted confidence with a promise that it gets easier—a promise that they can do the work we do and retain the confidence that they brought with them. I know that most of them want me to say something like, “Well, the secret to working among the marginalized is…” or “When you’ve prayed for somebody to get clean and to leave behind the substances that makes them a slave, all you have to do to make it happen is…” But, all I can say in that moment when they’ve placed their ailing confidence on the table and said they wished it was easier or that they always knew what to do is, “We all do, sister. We all do.”

In Emily’s case, and in nearly all of the versions of this conversation that I get to have, we talked about just how complicated it is. We talked about how homelessness and poverty are, at their most essential, not problems of material resources, but instead are relationship problems. We talked about why we say that relationships and consistent presence are foundational in what we do. We talked about the blistering chains of addiction and brothers and sisters still in bondage even after many attempts at liberation. I made Emily a promise that I try to make to all folks who make it to that hard moment of withering confidence: “I promise you that if you keep serving alongside us, your heart is going to be broken time and again, because a relationship isn’t real until you hurt when they hurt and celebrate when they celebrate. But, I promise you that in each of those moments of frustration and heartbreak, we’ll stand next to you and hold you up—because our relationship with you isn’t real until we hurt when you hurt, and celebrate when you celebrate. I promise that our Lord will stand next to you as well, once again proclaiming like he did with the cross that a relationship isn’t real until you hurt when they hurt and celebrate when they celebrate.”

You see, nearly all of us come to that hard place with confidence—knowing exactly how to fix poverty, homelessness, addiction, hunger, and other injustices and evils—but we find that we have to lay our confidence at the foot of the cross and commit ourselves to loving first and understanding only later. The answers aren’t easy, but our calling is simple: to love our neighbor and to love God. The beautiful thing is that when God sends us back to our community, God sends us with something to replace the confidence laying shattered at the cross. God replaces our confidence with hope, and we know that “hope does not disappoint us.