By now, most of us have heard of Ted Williams. The Homeless man with the Golden Voice, who was discovered by a Good Samaritan with a video camera and the foresight to introduce Ted to the world via YouTube. You’ve probably heard about Ted’s rise to fame over the past few weeks. He voiced a Kraft Mac & Cheese commercial. He was offered the announcer job by the Cleveland Cavs (who know what it’s like to fall on hard times). Maybe you even saw him on Dr. Phil as he was confronted by his family to stop drinking.
Suddenly he is a household name and his fifteen minutes are ticking. But his story has gotten me thinking.
One of my heroes is a guy named Larry James. Larry was a preacher for many years, he has spent his life telling the Jesus story. But these days Larry doesn’t do it from a pulpit. Several years ago, he started a ministry some of you might be familiar with. It’s called Central Dallas Ministries,(Recently re-named City Square) and it exists to do something about human suffering in Dallas…specifically about homelessness and poverty.
But what is interesting to me about Larry, is that he is adamant about his approach to ministry. He refuses to do ministry for people. He wants to do it with them.
I like that. Because we have a real propensity to work out of an us/them mentality. And this is where Larry James has helped me out so much. Most of the time we think about helping other people, we tend to think in terms of charity, or tax breaks, or hand-outs. But there is a better way.
I read Jay-Z’s book DeCoded last week, and in there he quoted a Jewish Rabbi about this particular issue. (I’ll let you fill in your own joke about a rapper quoting a Rabbi). This Rabbi pointed out that in Orthodox Judaism, there are 8 different levels to giving. The 7th is to give anonymously, which is a way to give without forcing dehumanizing the other person. But the 8th, and top form of generosity, is to give in a way that makes the recipient not feel like they are dependent on another’s hand-out, but somehow self-sufficient. This way, Rabbi Jay-Z argues, does not take away a person’s dignity.
Several years ago, Larry James was in Abilene, visiting with the Highland Church’s leadership about how to help our church reach out. He was in our neighborhood food pantry fielding questions like, “How can we help them?” and “What do they need?” When, legend had it, suddenly Mr. James did something novel. He got up and brought in some of the people that we were trying to help. He asked them the exact same questions. From this moment, the Highland Christmas Store was born. One of the best, in my opinion, models of what it looks like to partner with a neighborhood in fighting for justice.
And Larry James did it by asking the people we were trying to serve.
And he did that first by seeing them.
Right now at Highland, one of the things that we are trying to figure out is what is God calling us to do in our neck of the city? Who is God calling us to be? A little over a decade ago, Highland made a decision to not move to another safer, more homogeneous part of town, but to stay in the center of Abilene. And one of the implications of that decision is that everyday a dozen people who are homeless walk by my office. And everyday I wonder about how we can help them. This haunts me. I write sermons everyday a few feet away from people who could really be blessed by seeing one.
Because when Jesus says that we should love our neighbor, if that means anything, it most certainly means we should love our literal neighbor.
But Larry James has taught me this is not just a one way street. In his words, every person brings something to the table. They bring “Human Capital” they have talents and gifts that only they can do. And chances are we could use some of what they have to offer. I see a day in the future, where Abilene is blessed by the untapped resources of these men and women who might just have a lot to offer their community, but they just need a chance to find their place.
Which brings me back to Ted Williams. Because his story is not just a pipe dream. It is a reminder about the way we should approach people. Doral Chenoweth was driving along that day, and saw a guy who had a talent, and he just happened to get discovered. But there are hundreds of thousands of other people out there. Each with God-given gifts and talents who need more than a handout. They need a chance to be needed. To plug into a society that is willing to make a space for them. Not just because we need to help them. But because we need them.
And that can change more than just them, it can change the world.
Just ask Ted Williams.
If you’d like to follow Larry James on Twitter. (Which I highly recommend) You can find him here.