Earlier this week, a junior high youth group visited Nashville on their summer mission trip. Samuel and I led them around the city that morning, teaching and discussing with them the issues surrounding homelessness and poverty in Nashville. In the afternoon, we split the group in two; half learned about resource shelters and assembled hygiene kits, while the other half learned about our housing campaign and assembled Welcome Home kits.
One of our goals as an organization is to educate our community about the issues and solutions we are passionate about. Change does not happen without first understanding the context and complexities of the problem at hand.
The central theme of this education is finding the roots of the issues in front of us. We talk about people sleeping outside, the shortage of shelter beds, arrests and citations, addiction, lack of affordable housing, and so on. However, the groups are challenged to ask, why? Why are there so many people without housing? Why isn’t there enough space in the shelters? Why is addiction so common among the unhoused and impoverished? Why?
I think it’s especially important to engage our teenage groups in these questions. As young people begin to look around and observe the world (especially those visiting a large urban area for the first time), it is often easy to accept problems as they appear, developing an “it is what it is, oh well” mentality. By encouraging these students to ask ‘why?’ they are challenged to examine the complexities behind poverty and not to be comfortable with a society of unjust systems.
To better explain this concept, we like to tell this story to our groups:
“Going to the River”
There was once a village in the middle of a forest. They existed peacefully in their own community and never wandered far from their homes. One day, two people from the village decided to explore the surrounding woods. After walking for a while, they came upon a river. While taking in this new discovery, they heard the sound of a baby crying. The two looked up to see a baby floating down the river, terrified and helpless. They quickly jumped in to rescue the child and took her back to the village to be cared for.
The next day, the two people from the village went back to the river, still alarmed and curious about the day before. Sure enough, as they approached the river they immediately saw a baby floating down the river crying, and then three babies, then five. They rescued them, brought them to the village to be cared for, and then returned to the river, this time with more people to help. This cycle continued for days, each with more and more infants to be saved. Soon the village did not have enough people to properly raise all of the children being rescued.
The problem consumed and overwhelmed the community, and at some point, someone had to ask the question- “where are all of these babies coming from, and why have they been abandoned in this river?” Rescuing the babies was the right thing to do, but the problem would continue to worsen unless the community began to look upstream and ask the question, why?
In other words,
“We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised.” –Martin Luther King Jr.