I Don’t Feel Good

Darkness

The last two weeks have been, well, busy.

I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of having something you wrote end up on half a million computer screens in dozens of countries, but it isn’t something I would wish on you.

The worst part of it is that the overwhelming majority of the people who read what you wrote have no context to process what you wrote. They don’t know anything about you or the incident, other than what you wrote on that page.

And the media takes the story and rewrites it, often with no input from you. And even more millions see that version.

So, for example, instead of being professionals who have engaged the food insecure and those experiencing homelessness full time for six years, we became “church volunteers.”

And the comments? Dear God, the comments. Just a note – no one has ever, ever said, “I am glad I read the comments.”

Ever.

One thing I have discovered is that apparently, homelessness is much like politics and religion, in that someone with no experience and no training has no problem believing they are fully qualified to speak authoritatively on the subject.

Like this anonymous comment:

Everyone wants their feel-good fix for handing out food in the park to the “needy,” but when it comes to the long-term negative side effects of their actions, they all want to bury their heads in the sand. If you knew that your actions were only making the problem worse, would you still do it just because it made you feel good?

Sigh.

There is so much I want to say about this comment, but I want to focus on just one line – on just two words, actually – because I have heard this over and over since the Saturday we were not permitted to share food with our friends.

Feel-good fix.

To be sure, there are ways to bring food out and it be a feel-good experience. Here’s how:

You should make it a point to not make eye contact. Don’t worry about the quality of the food. After all, “they” should be happy for whatever “they” get. Make sure everyone in your group wears matching t-shirts, so the folks you are giving food to know that they do not belong to your group. Be sure to stand behind the table that separates you and them, so they don’t try to think you want to have a relationship.

And whatever you do, don’t come back next week. Wait a few months so they forget what you look like, or that you acted like you cared about them as anything other than a project you check off between Sunday School and soccer practice. All of that combines to be a Feel-Good Fix.

But the truth is this: if you are serious about this work and the real lives of the people you will meet, you cannot feel good. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you do this work and it makes you feel good for pretty much any extended period of time, you are doing it wrong.

Because if you can come out week after week and watch George wither away from meth addiction or see that Sheli has a new black eye from the (current) abusive partner or hear how the police arrested Frankie for sleeping under an awning to get out of the rain or know that the sandwich you just handed Pablo is the last thing he will get to eat until the soup kitchen opens tomorrow at 11 a.m. and that makes you feel GOOD?

Then you are a monster.

Of course, there is a third path. Don’t come out once a year for a feel-good experience, and don’t devote your life to walking in the dark places on the slimmest of hopes that you can shine a weak light into the darkness. Instead, you can comment, anonymously, on the Internet about people you do not know and cannot be bothered to get to know.

If that is the path you choose, I wonder if it gives you a feel-good fix.

Hugh Hollowell

About Hugh Hollowell

Hugh Hollowell is a minister in the Mennonite Church USA and based in Raleigh, N.C. He is the founder and director of Love Wins Ministries, which tackles the problems of homelessness by focusing on relationships, not outcomes. He likes peanut M&Ms.
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18 Responses to I Don’t Feel Good

  1. Rev Shelton D. Whitman says:

    AMEN BROTHER!

  2. Human Beans Together says:

    Spot on!

  3. Edna says:

    Hugh, I feel your pain on this issue of “feel-good” do-gooders! Every single week, we deal with our homeless friends (and yes, I did say “FRIENDS” because that’s what many of them have become to us) and we see the hopelessness and brokenness over and over again.

    We go out, pick them up or welcome them at the door, allow them to have a hot shower with the appropriate and needed toiletries, assist them in picking out clothing, if they need it, and try to supply whatever they need, within our capability. Then we give them a hot, home-cooked FULL meal and plenty of time to just sit around relaxing and visiting with each other and the volunteers. We get to know them just a little better each week and each week…………at least with some of them…………those protective walls start crumbling ever so slightly and we are allowed to peek at what exists behind them.

    Over weeks and months, if we care to inquire, we’ll hear bits and pieces of their stories…..what happened to get them into their current situation and where they would like to be. If we’re REALLY blessed, they begin to trust us and open up to us and we get to know the REAL Ronnie or Mike or Chris or whoever, behind the facade that is presented to the rest of the world.

    Our homeless friends keep telling us how blessed they are that they have somewhere like our place to come, but I can tell you, from nearly seven years’ experience………….the homeless are not the ones getting the greatest blessing! Not by a long shot! Being with these folks, getting to know them and developing relationships with them………….getting their tight hugs and kisses on the cheek…….having them come looking for us when they first arrive, just so they can get a hug and a smooch……….hearing them bidding us farewell as they board the bus at the end of the day, calling out “love ya, Ma!” and knowing they mean it from the bottom of their hearts……………how bigger a blessing could one want?

    But then the weather turns cold and miserable…….then a huge storm rolls in………….then the night-time temps never drop below 80 and the mosquitoes are swarming like bees to honey………..then our hearts cry out, “Oh Lord, how long……?” How long will ____________ have to continue to fight for survival in the woods? How long until _____________ will be able to see his kids/parents/siblings? How long????

    Feel-good? Sure. Heart breaking? You’d better believe it! Frustrating? Don’t even get me started!!!!!!!! Why can’t our government…………local, county, state, federal……..see the plight of these people and take steps to help make things better for them? WHY?

  4. Laura Thompson says:

    Thank the Heavens that your light in not weak,,,keep it shining to show that there IS hope !

  5. Patricia Joy says:

    Having done this sort of thing for people living in the street, it doesn’t make you feel good, it makes you feel bad that you can’t do more.

  6. Bob Harvey says:

    My heart goes out to you NOT for the fact that you give away Breakfast Baps at weekends, but for the spirit of love that motivates the way that you approach both the issue and the solution.
    Thank you for your shining witness; it is inspirational.
    Bob

  7. Sandra Miller says:

    I feel these comments were written by people who have never made contact with the homeless and hungry, have never made eye contact with and feel superior to them. May I remind them that someday they may find themselves needing a hand up. Our Lord calls us to care for “the least of these” and that is what Love Wins Ministries and all the others who are out on the streets, in the woods, rundown trailer parks and everywhere! They are called to love and care for fellow human beings! Unconditionally!

  8. David Johnson says:

    Hugh – I know how you feel. I am involved in a prison ministry that is unlike any other I have every heard of but when I try to tell “church folk” about the men I meet with I am rebuffed. It’s just jailhouse conversions they say. To be honest to most Godly men I meet each week are murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and drug dealers who have experienced the radical love of our God. I love you Hugh and your passion for what you do and how you do it. It’s when God is allowed to really work through us that the enemy tries to discourage us. I pray that one day make it to Raleigh and I pray that one day you could come with me to prison.

  9. Charles Stearns says:

    hang in there

  10. abbie says:

    Our ministry, Community Table Project, does very similar things as yours. We serve meals, friendship, fellowship, discipleship, hope, clothing and other comfort to those on the streets all year long. We form relationships and serve. We love and respect our street folks. They are people too. They are not disposable or worthless. If they were the only people ever born, Christ would have gladly died on the cross for them. Just like He did for those of us in homes. We serve in San Antonio and have watched the police and the health department harass both the homeless and the organizations helping out. This has got to stop. If we can show these people they are valued and give them something to do, they will become more productive members of the community. We have several homeless people that serve meals with us throughout the week. They are alcoholics and can’t hold a job but they love to serve. They add so much to our ministry. God help us and others to continue to minister to these Sheep.

  11. Matthew Hoh says:

    If the service you provide is easy, if the path you walk is unobstructed or absent of adversary, and if attending to those most in need and most forgotten in our society was a “feel good fix”, everyone would be doing your work. But it is none of those things and that is why you and your ministry are a life saving necessity to those on the street and those who hunger. Bless you, your staff and your volunteers, and thank you for bringing some peace and compassion to this part of the world.

  12. Jim Cmolik says:

    Hugh, I was prepared to share a long note of encouragement with you, but the recent comments on your message should reveal that a great many folks can resonate with your situation and approach to your mission.

    It’s been ten years since my wife and I left Chicago and began working with the poorer folks living in the hills and hollers of McCreary County, Kentucky. The very issues you’ve related are the ones which we battle with every day. We’ve hosted hundreds of “mission minded people” over the past decade and they have been a source of great joy… as well as a source of great frustration at times. The joy is found whenever these folks discover the need for true “relationship” in their mission experience; not a social encounter but a movement within their spirit. The frustration usually accompanies the way many try to work out their mission, by planning an event, publicizing their presence, snapping scores of pictures for Facebook, and retreating to their cozy church homes for another year (without any thought of sustaining support of any type). I share in your personal frustration. The only thing that I preach, teach, and try to exemplify is the vital need for true relationships in everything we do. SOMEONE I know once told me that the sum of life was to “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself”. I simply wake up each day following His lead!

    Thanks for what you’re doing, and the way in which you’re going about it. It is MOST refreshing to me!

  13. tim says:

    Hugh my name is tim davis i would like to thank you and the many others who go out and do the things yall do me and a group of friends go to the homeless camps on sat we bring some food and coffee but the real reason we are there is to show jesus christ through us we dont go out and preach hell fire and damnation matter of fact we dont do hardly any preaching at all we just enjoy visiting with our friends and good fellowship alot of them have been coming to church with us now and you are right its not about feeling good for me its about showing not preaching the love of jesus christ i learned this because the church used to come to my camp when i was homeless and for me when they would show jesus christ through themsevles and then let me come to an understanding of what jesus and gods love meant for me that was the best food i could have received food to strengthen the christian who i have become

  14. HOORAH! YOU SAID IT WITH SUCH GRACE! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! I hope that my shring of your original posts MIGHT have had a tiny impact [positive I hope!] in your issues with what I felt were illegal police harrassment protecting those exact same “feel good fixer” hypocrites!

    Please accept my apologies for the “monsters” who feel righteous and smug in their unworthy of human consumption comments. “They know not what they do!” [Right?]

    I live far away from you all but I “feel” right next door to you all! There are many more of us that “they” will EVER care to admit. and THATS a good encouraging thing, even when the “media” cant admit whats more important or get the facts right.

    ANYONE who doesnt understand the profound needs of SO MANY are a truly pitiful small and bitter bunch and they can inflict A LOT of uneeded and unwanted and ignorant pain on undeserving folks. Do NOT Allow them to toss THEIR ” toxic soul garbage” ON TO YOU! Always remember that “hurt people HURT people. and above KNOW THAT I AND MANY OTHERS ARE GRATEFUL SO GRATEFUL AND GLAD THAT YOU ALL ARE THERE!
    Namaste with an open mind, open heart, open source and an open carry! [for the safetly and protection of all!]

  15. Debbie says:

    Doing something, week after week, building relationships, is tremendously important.

    However, I caution against dismissing people who come less frequently as seeking a “feel good” experience. People have different abilities to connect, and different circumstances constraining their time, but can be utterly genuine in wanting to help and do not necessarily walk away in self-congratulation. They may show up on a particularly cold day or hot day with something to give away, and the rest of the year perhaps they give their money, advocate, educate or do something else that matters. Infrequent contact with people who need help can stir their souls to work for justice and vote for change. Even the people who clumsily show up in matching t-shirts.

  16. Kevin LeCount says:

    I am grateful that Hugh Hollowell is challenging us in a bold and compelling way to live out Christ’s example in the real world.

    Hugh, please don’t stop challenging everyone in this way.

  17. I heard the news report of you getting shut down and saw easily through the smoke screen of Government intervention, even though I had never heard of you before then.
    I did like your heart-felt reply letter above, though it was not necessary for those who have sight and won’t change the minds of those who are blind.

    Who would have ever thought that anyone would have to smuggle food in America to the needy like we smuggled bibles into Russia? The effects of Obama’s declaration; “Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation,” sure didn’t take long to manifest. But I greatly fear that this is just the beginning.
    May God bless your continued, but now complicated, work of God.

  18. christine says:

    My heart is breaking for what you, your staff, and all those you serve have been
    going through because of the ignorance in this world. You have handled everything with grace and humility and this speaks volumes!

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