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Remember the Poor?

Aaron White

April 21, 2020

“Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” (Gal 2:10)

Today there was a man yelling outside my house. This is fairly normal in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, so at first I ignored it and carried on with my important zoom call. 

But after thirty minutes of a constant stream of yelling it became impossible to block out. The noise was driving me crazy, and I resolved to go outside and tell him to shut up. Didn’t he understand that people were trying to work, and that there was this crazy pandemic going on? Didn’t he know that we are all a little on edge right now? I felt quite justified in this: he didn’t sound like he was in pain, just angry, or maybe locked in some delusion. I went outside to sort him out.

As I approached him I saw that he was standing near the corner of a building, yelling into the low-hanging branches of a tree. The positioning, posture and perceived audience of his ranting threw me off. In a neighbourhood filled with things that “aren’t normal”, this was somehow noticeably unusual.

Thankfully, (and I believe divinely), my heart quickly softened.


“Hey man, are you ok?”


He stopped his soliloquy and looked at me. And smiled, but sadly.

“I am not doing well. I was assaulted over at Main and Hastings. That’s why I’m yelling.”

There was no obvious blood or bruising, but he was clearly in distress.

“I’m so sorry you were assaulted,” I replied. “Are you hurt? Do you need help?”

“I don’t need a doctor or anything. But I need to tell people what happened. That’s what I’m doing here. I’m letting everyone know.”

He was standing in a hidden corner on a street in the DTES, freshly wounded, without an audience except a friendly tree and the hope that others might overhear his lament. He had no other options. No media outlet would be interested. Police probably wouldn’t even come down for such a garden-variety assault (though I hear lots of sirens these days, I am told the VPD do not want to come into the neighbourhood unless it is absolutely necessary). He could only shout his sorrow into the leaves and sky.

“Well,” I said, all my ill-nurtured anger and frustration dissipated, “I just want you to know that I hear you. I hear your pain. You are not alone. And I’m so sorry you were hurt.”

“Thank you,” he responded, and smiled sadly again, but with the salt of recognition seasoning his suffering. I promise you I felt the presence of Jesus in this man, and he ministered gently to me.

I share this because I had forgotten something essential, something I taught to my children as they grew up in this neighbourhood. Whenever they would hear someone screaming or swearing I would ask, “What are they really saying?” 

And my children learned to respond, “They are saying, ‘I’m scared,’ or ‘I’m hurt,’ or ‘Please listen!’” 

It was a way of removing the fear from such encounters and highlighting the humanity of our dear neighbours. But I had forgotten this, at least today, and probably all too often. 

And I worry that we have all forgotten this, all too often, and especially today. We are in a crisis that seemingly affects everyone around the world, and we have been told it affects us all equally. But it doesn’t. Those who are hungry (an estimated 9 million in our world are at risk of starvation annually) are still hungry, but they are also dealing with Coronavirus and the broken supply chains for food around the world. Those who are displaced from their homes are still displaced, but with the threat of pandemic hanging heavily over them and their ill-provisioned refugee settlements or inner-city neighbourhoods. Those who are at risk of domestic abuse are now even more at risk due to quarantine conditions (around the world domestic abuse calls have risen anywhere from 24-36%). Those who struggle with mental illness have now lost all in-person supports. Those who are homeless or on welfare generally do not qualify for stimulus cheques.

So our experience of this crisis is different, depending on where we started from. For those of us who have been living in relative privilege, it has been suggested that the world-wide lock down is a time where we can learn to quiet ourselves and turn to prayer. Certainly the number of online prayer meetings has massively increased. But I’m not convinced we are quieting ourselves. We are still consumed by zoom calls, news updates, political posturing, economic fears. Many of us still have work, entertainment, and resources to keep us busy. If we were really quieting ourselves I suspect we might have become better at hearing the voice of God. And one way to gauge how well we are listening to God is to determine how open our ears are to the sound of the poor.

The Church is where the people pray, the gospel is proclaimed, the bread is broken, and the poor are remembered. I am tempted to ask how we are remembering the poor in our digital worship gatherings, but maybe that is not the point. In times of crisis our priorities are simply highlighted. Many have worked hard to deliver our best content online, in an attempt to reproduce the experience of Church gatherings in a no-gather season. We have become more or less successful and expert at doing this, (myself no less than anyone). And God can and has used these efforts. But should this be our priority? Should this make us ask some difficult questions of ourselves? It is noticeably hard to make a place for the poor in zoom calls, but then, maybe we have always found it hard to make a place for the poor? Maybe we have always arranged our lives to keep the shouts and the pain of the vulnerable at a safe, manageable distance?

The main issue, I suggest, should not be: “How do we keep doing Church online?” or even “When do we get to gather again?” It is, rather: “How do we continue worshipping the Lord by considering others ahead of ourselves and remembering the widow and the orphan in their distress?” This is, Scripture tells us, the mark of true religion, and widows and orphans are in greater distress right now than they were a month ago. Are we listening? 

So a posture of listening to the cry of the poor is not just one of “help moving downward”. It is a posture of receiving “wisdom coming up”, of being taught by the broken voice, of following those who have survived displacement and endured isolation and scarcity. Refugees, the homeless, prisoners, the chronically ill can all be our teachers now, if we will listen.

If I know anything, it is that God is a God of interruption. The Coronavirus has interrupted us. But can we tune our ears to the deeper frequency and even more desperate interruption of the poor in our midst? Would we dare change the whole way we live in response to that interruption? I think God might be speaking to us there, and we don’t want to miss the voice of Jesus. 

Please hear me on this: I am not saying this hasn’t been hard on everyone, nor am I for a second downplaying anyone’s grief and loss. Pain, sickness and death are real for every demographic. For many of us this is brand new territory, a shaking up of things that we thought couldn’t be shaken, a sharp entry into the frightening world of mourning and displacement. Your pain is real, and God hears it, and wants to comfort you.

For the poor and the vulnerable though, they have been in that place for a long time. In one sense this pandemic has added an extra load onto their already heavy burden. In another sense, they already know how to navigate a fearful crisis, and we have much to learn from them. So a posture of listening to the cry of the poor is not just one of “help moving downward”. It is a posture of receiving “wisdom coming up”, of being taught by the broken voice, of following those who have survived displacement and endured isolation and scarcity. Refugees, the homeless, prisoners, the chronically ill can all be our teachers now, if we will listen. It is why it is so important for us to be in community with our neighbours, and especially with the poor, not just now but moving forward. We are meant to be a gift to one another to help us all overcome the darkness together.

So, I repent today of my initial reaction to the cry of a hurting, sorrowful man outside my window. It reveals a tragic lack of charity and compassion in my heart; a prioritising of my own comfort and presumed importance; an arrogant assumption that my neighbour held no blessing for me. My hope and prayer is that we as the Church might likewise see the need to repent and to respond to the pain and the wisdom of our neighbours. Let us become eager to remember the poor, and genuine when we say, “We hear you. You are not alone.”

About the Author:

Aaron White serves as the Resident Theologian at Jacob’s Well. He is the National Director of 24-7 Prayer Canada. He has been a pastor, missioner, justice worker and prayer instigator in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver for the past 16 years, where he lives with his wife and four children in a community home. He is the co-author of “Revolution and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Kingdom of God”; co-creator of The Creative Way Down discipleship resource; and author of the upcoming book “Recovering: From Brokenness and Addiction to Blessedness and Community.”

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